Euro 2020: Each Major Contender's Most Crucial Player
As the famous saying goes “pressure makes diamonds”, and indeed the pressure and expectations are massive as we approach one of the world’s biggest football tournaments.
This year’s European Championships are overflowing with questions: Will France get revenge for their 2016 loss to Portugal? Will England finally bring home the chocolates? Will Germany avenge their horror display from 3 years ago?
And like their teams, the players themselves have some massive questions too, with the bigger nations often housing the biggest talents. It’s in fact these such players who possess the most standout individual talent, but who also need to be incorporated into a different system at international level.
And it’s this balancing act which could prove the difference between wining it all in London come July 12th, or going home in tears.
Let’s take a look at the players who are most integral to their teams, and whom might have a massive say over the next few weeks.
France - Kylian Mbappe
Mbappe was only 18 years old when he put France 4-1 up in the World Cup Final three years ago, effectively sealing the nation’s second World Cup triumph. He was already a crucial cog in that machine back then, yet his importance to 'Les Blues' has since increased 10-fold.
This season for PSG, Mbappe won Ligue 1’s Golden Boot for a third time, netting no less than 27 times, while his 1.02 goals per-90 minute number places him #3 overall throughout Europe’s top-5 leagues. Once again, his blistering speed coupled with his incredible dribbling ability will be crucial for French success at this year’s Euros.
While the reigning world champs continue to be a relatively conservative side under the stewardship of Didier Deschamps, they rely heavily on runs in behind, and few men in the world can run faster than Kylian Mbappe.
With the inclusion of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema in the squad, Mbappe will likely be deployed on the left-wing, which is where he's proven to be just as lethal.
England - Harry Kane
England’s priceless gem. At the 2018 World Cup, Harry Kane secured the first English Golden Boot at a major tournament since Allen Shearer at Euro ’96.
Scarily, he's only improved since then.
Kane topped both the goals and assists in the Premier League this season with 23 and 14 respectively, adding layer upon layer to his already brilliant game. With Gareth Southgate not deploying a traditional number 10, they'll be plenty of space for Kane to drop in between the lines to do damage. 3.21 progressive passes per 90 minutes and 2.50 passes into the final third per 90 this season is indicative of how incredibly dangerous he can be all over the pitch.
He is the definition of a complete striker. Wherever he is receiving the ball he can make something happen. Whether it's in the air, on the ground. In behind or to feet, he has the physicality and the technical ability to make something happen out of relatively nothing. Last World Cup he had the second most expected goals with 4.3, and if England are going to break their famous drought, he’ll be a big part of it.
Belgium - Kevin De Bruyne
Whilst players like Youri Tielemans and Romelu Lukaku could be mentioned here, it's hard to go past arguably the best creative midfielder in the world.
De Bruyne is the talisman at Manchester City and it's no different for Belgium. Playing on the right-hand side of a narrow 3-man front line, he loves sitting in the half-space and getting balls into the box for Lukaku and Mertens to pounce on.
Putting up unbelievable stats this season, he exhibits both the ability to retain possession, as well as finding that trademark killer ball, threading the lines to ongoing runners. The 4th most key passes in the Premier League this season with 79, leading the league at both goals & shot-creating actions per-90 racking up 0.86 and 6.40 numbers respectively. His innate talent to find a man with a picture-perfect pass is irreplaceable at the Euro's. With Mertens providing the dribbling ability and Lukaku the know-how, power, brains and raw athleticism, both players allow for De Bruyne magnificence to be fully executed.
Spain - Ferran Torres
As typical with a Spanish side, all players are interchangeable and there isn't one key man. However, Manchester City’s Ferran Torres offers something no other Spanish winger does.
Blessed with blistering speed and great technique, Torres is the consummate winger and he possesses the potential to provide Spain with their best chance for a major title since 2012.
This season for City, Torres’ dribbling proved a massive asset with his 0.46 shot-creating actions in the Premier League placing him in the top 15% of all winners throughout Europes’ top 5 leagues.
As Well as this, his 4.82 progressive carries this season puts him again in the top 15% of all forwards throughout Europe. As a right-footer playing on the right-hand side, you’d want him to be adept at crossing the ball, and his 2.18 crosses per game reflect this and which can hopefully be relied upon tp provide silver service for the likes of Alvaro Morata and Mikel Oyarzabal up front throughout the tournament.
Portugal- Cristiano Ronaldo
Who else… right? Yes, I know, Bruno Fernandes had a good year, Diogo Jota will surprise a few and Joao Felix might have a breakout tournament, yet no one shines brighter on the biggest stage than Cristiano himself.
Whilst the debate with Messi will go on long after both retire, this campaign will display Ronaldo’s ability for perhaps one final time on the international stage. The fire is still in his belly, and whilst his Portugal side won it all 5 years ago, as always with Ronaldo, there'll be a sizeable chip on his shoulder, this time perhaps surrounding the relatively small role in played in the 2016 final.
Stats go out the window when you talk about Ronaldo, and especially where the big games and tournaments are concerned. Whilst this season was not his best, the fact that he's still putting up these numbers at 36 years of age is truly staggering. Ronaldo won the Serie A Golden Boot with 27 goals, while he also amassed the most amount of carries into the final third with 59, and drew the 2nd most amount of fouls leading to the shots with 12. He is still the threat he always was, both physically and technically. Unlike most players his age, he hasn't drastically transformed his game, while slight tweaks here and there have allowed him to still be as dominant as he always was.
Italy - Nicolò Barella
Italy could be considered a potential dark horse in the tournament. Falling at the Quarterfinals in 2016 and not making the World Cup 2 years later, things needed to change.
Enter Roberto Manchini who was bought in and has since completely changed the philosophy around the side.
By expelling the old guard and placing his faith in youth, Mancini has the Azzurri playing much differently than what they once did, and one man who’s integral to this system is Inter Milan’s Nicolo Barella.
The definition of a player who plays as a Mezzela, he is deployed on the right-hand side of a three for both club and country, and usually to perfection. His 7.03 progressive passes per-90 and 2.26 carries into the final third shows his ability to advance the ball up the pitch and to continually put this teams in dangerous positions. His 0.33 live passes leading to a goal ranks him in the top 3% of all Europe's top 5 leagues, and is further indicative of his creative talents. At only 24, Barella looms as a crucial player in this Italian side, and could prove the difference between a deep run, and perhaps even the nation’s first major trophy in 15 years.
Netherlands - Frenkie De Jong
The heartbeat of that blistering 2018-19 Ajax team which dismantled Real Madrid on enemy turf, Frenkie De Jong was always going to get poached and become a world star. Barcelona picked him up in the next transfer window and he hasn't looked back since.
Playing the most amount of full-90s in the Barcelona squad this season, he's been deployed predominantly in central midfield, however he’s also played some football at centre back this season. At this tournament however, expect De Jong to take up more of advanced midfield position, and where this fast-moving Dutch outfit can make the most of his exceptional passing and dribbling ability.
He is the focal point for every side he plays for, and that's no different for the National team. Playing on the left-hand side of a three, they use his incredible passing ability and press-proof nature to advance attacks through individual brilliance. In this realm, he had 9.70 passes per-90 minutes for Barcelona this season, while completing an extraordinary 92.1% of his passes, with just a minuscule 1.16 of his passes per-90 intercepted.
Germany - Joshua Kimmich
Starting his career as a right-back, Bayern Munich’s Champions League winning Swiss army knife mostly takes up a holding midfield position for the national team, providing a screen for the back-4, while also using his exceptional skills to create from deep.
In Germany's 4-3-3 formation, Kimmich will sit at the base of the midfield and dictate tempo either from his prolific passing or deadly tackling.
To give a sense of how prolific his passing is, his per-90 minutes numbers rank him in the top 1% of all midfielders throughout Europe’s top-5 leagues with his assists (0.47), shot-creating actions (4.85), progressive passes (9.00), passes into the Penalty Area (2.65) and Key Passes (2.91) all positioning him in truly elite territory. A pass-master at its finest, and perhaps an underrated one at that.
Whilst his defensive stats aren't as stellar, they still tower over many others in his position. His 1.65 interceptions per-90, 3.93 attacking third pressures per 90 and 6.06 successful pressures per-90 all rank in the 70th percentile or above throughout Europe.
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