Euro 2020 is officially in the books, with Roberto Mancini’s Italy edging Gareth Southgate’s England on penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium, making it the latest final defeat for the host country after Brazil’s loss to Argentina in the 2021 Copa América Final and France’s loss to Portugal in the 2016 Euro Final. Plenty of players have delivered impressive performances for their nations this tournament — let’s take a look at the best eleven of an unforgettable European Championships.
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Donnarumma
Out of all the positions to choose from, this was the hardest. Lukáš Hrádecký, Danny Ward, and Robin Olsen impressed in the group stages, whilst Tomáš Vaclík, Kasper Schmeichel and Yann Sommer all delivered heroic performances between the sticks to lead their teams into the latter rounds of the tournament. Jordan Pickford shook off an error-prone season at Everton and excelled once again for the Three Lions, whilst Unai Simón bounced back from a calamitous error against Croatia and came up clutch in the penalty shootout vs. Switzerland.
However, this one goes to the first goalkeeper to be recognized as the best player in a European tournament and the first goalkeeper to lead his team past back-to-back penalty shootouts in the Euros. Only 0.06% of Italians are named Gianluigi, but as fate would have it, the man who would finally step into Gianluigi Buffon’s lofty shoes and replace him for the Azzurri would be named Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Donnarumma entered the tournament after the culmination of an eight-year spell and an ugly contract saga with boyhood club AC Milan, with the Rossoneri signing Mike Maignan from Lille as his replacement after failing to secure a renewal. Such sagas can threaten to derail a player’s tournament, and in the case of Kylian Mbappé, one could argue that his mentality was weighed down by his uncertain future. Donnarumma, on the other hand, rose to the occasion.
Whilst he had little to do during the group stages, the 22-year-old came up massive in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals with world-class saves against Louis Schaub and Kevin de Bruyne, and his save on Álvaro Morata’s penalty saw Italy enact revenge on Spain for 2008 and 2012 and book their place in the Final. Once again, his spot-kick heroics saw Italy defeat England at Wembley Stadium in a heated Final, saving his teammates’ blushes and keeping out penalties from Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho.
As an entire nation cheered out in ecstasy, Donnarumma calmly walked away from the goal, later revealing: “I didn’t celebrate on the penalty because I didn’t realise we had won. I was already down after Jorginho’s missed penalty and I thought we had lost, but instead I had to continue. Now, with VAR, they always look at your feet because you can’t be in front of the line, so I turned to the referee to see if everything was okay. Then I saw my teammates coming towards me and everything started from there. I didn’t understand anything!”
Donnarumma will now head to Paris Saint-Germain, where he is set to earn a reported £200,000 a week and compete with Keylor Navas for the starting spot, becoming the latest Mino Raiola client to land at the Parc de Princes. He will leave his home country in the knowledge that he will continue to be the Azzurri’s undisputed #1 and a hero for leading them to their first European Championship since 1968.
Honorable mentions: Jordan Pickford, Unai Simón, Kasper Schmeichel, Yann Sommer, Tomáš Vaclík.
Right Back: Kyle Walker
This is another position that I had toiled with for quite some time. Joakim Mæhle has delivered a phenomenal campaign for Denmark, providing a trivela assist in the quarterfinal against Czech Republic, scoring two sensational goals against Russia and Wales, and proving to be one of the breakthrough stars of the tournament.
There are only two problems: Mæhle played as a left-sided wingback for Denmark this tournament, although his performances across this past month are arguably good enough for him to be snuck in out of position. Secondly, when Mæhle faced off against England on July 7, Kyle Walker ate him for breakfast. While Harry Kane grabbed the decisive goal to send the Three Lions through to the Final, it was his ex-Spurs teammate who stole the show with his disciplined performance in defense.
Having played on the right side of a back three in England’s run to the World Cup semifinals in Russia, Walker found himself gradually frozen out of the team as Gareth Southgate shifted towards a back four and preferred the likes of Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold, whilst a scandal that saw him allegedly invite two sex workers to his house threatened to derail his chances of making a return to the team ever again.
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old was included in the England squad for the Euros, making him the oldest member of their 26-man team, and while he was dropped from the side in their second group stage match against Scotland, he benched Reece James in the following match as England took a 1-0 win over Czech Republic. The Round of 16 fixture against Germany saw Walker reprise his 2018 role and start on the right side of a back three, and the Manchester City fullback seamlessly slotted back into a back four in the following match against Ukraine.
The Denmark match perhaps encapsulated why, despite not being the most technically gifted or aesthetically pleasing player to watch, Walker seemingly never misses a match for either Southgate or Pep Guardiola. More than just his sheer pace and power, he has the steady composure, intelligent decision-making and reliability to compensate for other players’ mistakes and mop up danger on the counter. Even at 31, you get the sensation that he’ll win every single footrace he takes part in.
And while he did not technically contribute to England’s opening goal, which saw Luke Shaw slot in a cross from Kieran Trippier, his lung-busting run forced Emerson Palmieri and Giorgio Chiellini to retreat and allowed Trippier to whip in a cross with ample space. It’s the little details like that which reinforce Southgate and Guardiola’s trust in one of the least flashy, yet most effective defenders in world football.
Honorable mentions: Denzel Dumfries, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Stefan Lainer, Vladimír Coufal, César Azpilicueta.
Center Back: Leonardo Bonucci
For one reason or another, Leonardo Bonucci has never quite gotten the appreciation that a player of his talent and longevity otherwise deserves. Perhaps it’s the fact that, unlike other Italian defenders such as Andrea Barzagli or Paolo Maldini, he has not stayed loyal to one major Serie A club — he forced a transfer to Milan in 2017 before heading back to Juventus the following year. Or perhaps it’s the insensitive and downright disgraceful comments he made after his Juventus teammate Moise Kean was racially abused by Cagliari fans in 2019.
Whatever you may think of him as a person, there can be zero debate that Bonucci is one of the finest defenders of his generation. Whether playing as a libero in a back three or in a back four, the Viterbo native has showcased a unique ability to break the lines with his world-class passing, whilst also sweeping up danger with composure and anticipation. When Giorgio Chiellini suffered a muscle injury in his left leg early on against Switzerland, causing him to miss the next two matches against Wales and Austria, Bonucci stepped up to the task and led the defense without his legendary partner.
Chiellini returned in the quarterfinals fixture against Belgium, but whether playing against an out-and-out center forward in Romelu Lukaku or a deft false nine in Dani Olmo against Spain, the two defenders, despite sharing a combined age of 70, delivered brilliant performances that can only make Italia fans cherish the two while they still have them available — and make opposing fans yearn for the days that they’re no longer around to prevent attacks.
And when the Azzurri found themselves in need of a goal at Wembley following Luke Shaw’s opening goal, it was not Federico Chiesa, or Lorenzo Insigne, or Ciro Immobile, but Bonucci who stepped up and provided that vital equalizer, capitalizing on a loose ball scramble and slotting it into the back of the net. After Italy prevailed on penalties, Bonucci grabbed a TV camera and shouted, “It’s coming to Rome, it’s coming to Rome.”
“We heard it day in day out ever since Wednesday night, since the Denmark game, that the cup would be coming home to London,” stated Bonucci. “Sorry for them, but actually the cup will be taking a nice flight to Rome and that way Italians all over the world can savour this competition. It is for everyone, we said from day one it was for them and for us.
“They whistled the anthem. They thought they had brought it home. This, to me and the old man there [Chiellini] did nothing but increase our motivation. It was a personal satisfaction for me and Giorgio, who have not always been getting the praise we deserved.”
This is a man who beat up and chased down an assailant who tried robbing him at gunpoint while he was Ferrari shopping with his wife and baby son, a man who has played a vital role in securing Juventus’ unprecedented modern dynasty, and who has led Italy to their first European Championship in a lifetime. You may not like him, but you have to respect him.
Honorable mentions: John Stones, Victor Lindelöf, Andreas Christensen, Manuel Akanji, Aymeric Laporte.
Center Back: Giorgio Chiellini
Picking a partner for Bonucci in defense was easier said than done. Harry Maguire rushed himself back from an ankle ligament injury and delivered an immense performance for England — who did not concede a single goal from open play this tournament — whilst Simon Kjær’s leadership and discipline saw Denmark advance all the way to the semifinals. However, if you’re going to have your salt, you best have your pepper as well.
That’s why, despite missing out on the matches against Wales and Austria as well as the majority of the match against Switzerland, Giorgio Chiellini gets into my team of the tournament. UEFA preferred Maguire in their official Team of the Tournament, and looking at the quality and consistency of his performances, it’s hard to argue with that. But what Chiellini has done is simply unforgettable for a player who is set to turn 37 in a month.
Would you have picked anyone different? 🤔⬇️
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) July 13, 2021
This is a player who, less than two years ago, ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, and whose constant muscle injuries have limited his appearances with the national team under Roberto Mancini, with the likes of Francesco Acerbi, Alessio Romagnoli and Alessandro Romagnoli taking his place at times. Chiellini kept fellow 36-year-old Burak Yılmaz under wraps in the tournament opener in Rome, but he lasted just 24 minutes in the following match before being forced to come off with a flexor injury.
Bastoni started in his place in a dead-rubber against Wales, whilst Acerbi slotted into defense next to Bonucci in a nervy extra time clash against Austria. However, when it came to facing off against the three-headed snake of Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Jérémy Doku in the quarterfinals in Munich, there was little doubt that Chiellini would be needed in order for the Azzurri to survive the Belgian onslaught.
As fate would have it, it was the teenage Doku who had the biggest impact on the night, whilst Lukaku, whose monstrous performances had seen Inter end Juventus’ domestic dynasty this past spring, found himself in Chiellini’s pocket apart from a penalty goal at the edge of halftime. The same forward that terrorized Group B was rendered anonymous via a player nearly a decade his senior, whose composure, anticipation, and old-man strength saw Italy hold onto their lead and prevail to the semifinals.
Against Spain, Chiellini faced a vastly different type of attack. For the first time in the tournament, Luis Enrique benched his oft-criticized striker Álvaro Morata, Chiellini and Bonucci’s teammate at club level, in favor of Dani Olmo, who operated in a false 9 role. “I saw Chiellini and Bonucci deal with Lukaku and thought maybe it’s better to take away a reference point, add another body in midfield. It was a good plan, we overcame the Italy press and played really well,” revealed Enrique after the match.
Whilst Spain enjoyed the majority of possession and goalscoring chances, Italy were able to hold on and edge La Roja on penalties thanks to a disciplined performance from Chiellini. It could be argued that Chiellini’s ‘mind games’ helped turn the tide in their favor; prior to the penalty shootout, his playful and boisterous nature contrasted sharply to Jordi Alba’s reserved and nervous approach.
In the Final, Chiellini reigned supreme against Harry Kane, who, after a dismal start to the tournament, had picked up form during the knockout stages and looked set to steal the show in Wembley, but despite a strong start to the match, the Italian eventually nullified him and the rest of England’s attack too, his last-ditch clearance in extra time to prevent Raheem Sterling from having a clear shot on goal the crowning achievement of his performance.
13 years after filling in for an injured Fabio Cannavaro (who he himself injured in a training collision) and losing to eventual champions Spain in the quarterfinals, Chiellini has pulled off the crowning achievement of a glorious career. He is the last bastion of a dying art of defending — whether Italy will be able to find suitable replacements for Chiellini and Bonucci or not, they must cherish their two legends while they still can enjoy them.
Honorable mentions: Harry Maguire, Simon Kjær, Nico Elvedi, Tomáš Kalas, Jannik Vestergaard.
Left Back: Luke Shaw
Truth be told, this position would almost certainly be occupied by Leonardo Spinazzola if he didn’t rupture his left Achilles tendon midway through Italy’s quarterfinals match against Belgium. But he did, and whilst Italy managed to survive the catastrophic blow to their chances with Emerson Palmieri deputizing on the left side of defense, Roma are now in the market for a new left back with the likes of Matías Viña and Alex Telles linked.
Instead of Spinazzola or Mæhle, both of whom excelled on the left side of defense, this place goes to Luke Shaw. Seven years after becoming the most expensive teenager in world football, and six years after suffering a horrific double leg fracture, Shaw has emerged as one of the most productive left backs in football under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, and his performances have carried over to the international level.
Despite being an unused substitute in England’s opening match against Croatia, Shaw made his way into the line-up for the following game against Scotland at the expense of Kieran Trippier and remained a starter as Gareth Southgate utilized his attacking abilities both as a left back and as a left wingback in the Three Lions’ run to the Final. After playing in a back four against Scotland and Czech Republic, Shaw was utilized in a more advanced role against Germany with the intent of nullifying their wide overloads.
It worked like a charm – – Shaw prevented Joshua Kimmich the time and space to pick out deadly crosses, and his perfectly timed ball to Raheem Sterling allowed England to take the lead at a crucial juncture. After Thomas Müller saved Sterling’s blushes with a costly miss, Shaw picked Gnabry’s pocket and charged forward before teeing up Jack Grealish, whose cross met the head of Harry Kane to seal the victory.
Two assists followed against Ukraine as England delivered a storming display in Rome, and while he failed to add on to his assist tally against Denmark, he was arguably the finest player on the pitch, constantly linking up with Sterling and causing trouble for Jens Stryger Larsen and enabling England to maneuver the pressure in the first phase of build-up. His stat sheet backed up his performance: 3 tackles, 1 clearance, 1 interception, 1 key pass, 4/5 aerial duels won, 5/10 ground duels won, 84% passing success rate.
Southgate shifted back to a wingback system in the Final against Italy, and he was rewarded early on as Shaw calmly slotted in a cross from Trippier to give England the earliest lead in the history of European Championship Finals. While his performances weren’t enough to land England their first major trophy since 1966, they did earn him praise from one of the greatest footballers to ever play in his position.
“[Shaw is] really improving, his performance against Ukraine was very good. He’s been an important part of this English team, along with all the others,” stated Roberto Carlos. “You can see he’s very motivated, he’s been improving each game and I think he’s got everything to get to the top. He’s the left-back for England, that in itself says a lot.”
Honorable mentions: Leonardo Spinazzola, Steven Zuber, David Alaba, Joakim Mæhle, Jordi Alba.
Defensive Midfielder: Jorginho
Prior to July 11, only nine players in football history had won the European Cup and the European Championship in the same year. That number changed to 10 when Jorge Luiz Frello Filho, a man born in Imbituba, Brazil and who didn’t move to Italy until he was 15 years old, capped off a sensational campaign by winning the Euros. (Emerson, a Brazilian-Italian who also started in the Final for Italy, was an unused substitute in the Champions League Final in Porto).
Credit must be given to his midfield partners such as Nicolò Barella and Manuel Locatelli, the latter of whom began the tournament with two sensational matches against Turkey and Switzerland. After Locatelli’s MOTM performance against the Swiss, I questioned whether or not Marco Verratti would waltz back into the team on the back of a knee ligament injury suffered the previous month; not only did he walk back into the side in the third match vs. Wales, he delivered a world-class campaign for the Azzurri and bossed proceedings in the Final against Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.
As superb as Barella, Verratti and Locatelli were, Jorginho was arguably the most important of the bunch, with his composed passing and ‘metronomic’ style of play proving crucial to an Italy team that dominated possession in every match apart from the semifinal against Spain. While many of his passes were either horizontal or backwards, Jorginho also showed a penchant for breaking the lines with vertical, diagonal balls to put pressure on the opposition and keep them guessing every time.
Often criticized for a lack of ‘steel’ in defense, the Chelsea midfielder proved vital in sweeping up danger and allowing the likes of Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne to burst forward and combine in the final third. This was apparent in the match against Spain where, despite struggling for accuracy in his passes, he completed eight interceptions, launching counter-attacks and cutting out passes with impressive positioning. To cap it off, he held his cool and scored the decisive penalty to seal Italy’s place in the Final.
He is the product of a diverse background that has seen him develop in three footballing powerhouse nations and learn under the likes of Thomas Tuchel, Roberto Mancini, Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard and Rafael Benítez, and another reason why diversity is a plus rather than a burden for teams. Mancini himself had stated six years ago, “I think an Italian player deserves to play for the national team. Those who were not born in Italy, even if they have relatives, do not deserve it, I think.” His tune has surely changed now.
Honorable mentions: Marco Verratti, Tomáš Holeš, Sergio Busquets, Kalvin Phillips, Granit Xhaka.
Central Midfielder: Pierre-Emile Højbjerg
Despite failing to repeat their heroics from 1992, Denmark have pulled off one of the unlikeliest of runs in the modern era of the European Championship. The Danes lost their talisman Christian Eriksen to a traumatizing cardiac arrest in an opening match loss against Finland, and after an impressive start to their match against Belgium, they capitulated amidst an attacking onslaught from Romelu Lukaku and supersubs Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
A cathartic display against Russia saw them narrowly progress into the knockout round, where they would humiliate 2016 semifinalists Wales thanks to a brace from Kasper Dolberg, and they followed it up with an impressive victory over Czech Republic in Baku. While they were the inferior side in their semifinal match against England, they held on into extra time and only lost via a penalty rebound from Harry Kane, which was triggered by, at the best, a soft penalty, and at the worst, a shameless dive from Raheem Sterling.
Throughout their incredible run, arguably no player was more important or more consistent than Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. It has been a whirlwind season for the Aarhus native, who made the move from Southampton to Tottenham the previous summer. His relentless pressing and disciplined nature saw him become a fan favorite in North London, although a lack of rotation combined with fixture congestion meant that his performance levels dropped in the second half of the season.
If there was any fatigue or pain in his European Championship, it certainly didn’t show. Three years after missing out on a roster spot in the World Cup in Russia, the 25-year-old has become the glue in midfield under Kasper Hjulmand, stepping into an Eriksen-sized hole and providing three assists during the group stage, proving that he is far more than the tireless Energizer bunny that he has looked like in the Premier League.
Operating alongside Thomas Delaney in the center of the pitch, Højbjerg’s complex role raises the chances of him committing costly errors, but his intelligence, composure, precision and decision-making means that he can seamlessly combine his relentless pressing, his importance in carrying out the second of the build-up, and protecting the defense. There is a reason why, after being just one of two midfielders to play every single minute of Premier League action last season, Højbjerg started every single match for Denmark and was never subbed off either.
Honorable mentions: Paul Pogba, Nicolò Barella, Frenkie de Jong, Thomas Delaney, Renato Sanches.
Central Midfielder: Pedri
Euro 2020 saw a collection of veterans such as Giorgio Chiellini, Karim Benzema and Sergio Busquets lead the charge for their countries and prove that they’re still amongst the best in world football, but it also saw a host of young prospects showcase their skills on the world stage. Joakim Mæhle and Mikkel Damsgaard proved a tricky duo to deal with on Denmark’s left flank, whilst the likes of Attila Szalai and Ilya Zabarnyi boosted their value on the transfer market. However, the Young Player of the Tournament award was deservedly given to Pedri, who became the second recipient of the individual trophy after Renato Sanches in 2016.
This is my U-24 / Breakthrough Team of Euro 2020.
Honorable mentions: Frenkie de Jong, Mykola Shaparenko, Attila Szalai, Manuel Locatelli, Renato Sanches, Alexander Isak, Unai Simon, Ferran Torres, Josko Gvardiol, Konrad Laimer, Xaver Schlager, Roland Sallai, Dani Olmo. pic.twitter.com/Msq7AGNPsU
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) July 12, 2021
There is a strong argument to be made that no player has benefitted more from the postponement of Euro 2020 than Pedro Gonález López, or Pedri. It was merely a year ago that he was playing for Las Palmas in the second tier, albeit on loan from Barcelona. 13 months after playing in the FIFA U-17 World Cup for La Rojita, Pedri made his debut for Spain’s U-21 side, grabbing an assist in a 2-0 victory over the Faroe Islands.
It didn’t take long for Luis Enrique to take notice of the teenager’s brilliant performances for Barcelona, and in March’s World Cup qualifiers, he seized the opportunity to give him his maiden call-up to the Spanish senior team. But neither Enrique nor Pedri’s biggest admirers could have predicted his incredible campaign on the back of a season that saw Ronald Koeman use the 18-year-old like a bar of soap.
Pedri became the first European player in the history of the World Cup and Euros to start six matches at the age of 18 or below, shining in an advanced midfield role next to Sergio Busquets and Koke. His effortless ability to maneuver the press and pick out a teammate in an advanced position, his stubborn refusal to commit adolescent errors in possession and his positional awareness have been a shot in the arm for a Spain side that has too often looked stale and horizontal in the years after their 2012 Euros triumph.
What’s more, his tireless energy off the ball and his composure on the ball made life a living hell for Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Nicolò Barella in the Euros semifinal, with the teenager completing 65 out of 66 passes, including 2 out of 2 long balls and another 2 key passes, and winning two fouls as well. In the agony of their penalty shootout defeat in London, Enrique could not resist the opportunity to heap praise on his star prospect:
“I think no 18-year-old has done what Pedri has done in any major competition, whether it’s the Euros, the World Cup or the Olympics. His performances, the way he reads the game, the way he finds space, his quality, his personality, I’ve never seen anything like that, not even Andrés Iniesta at 18.”
Barcelona will be sore to see their midfield gem fly to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics, but there is no turning back now; Spain and Barça need to take disciplined measures to ensure they don’t overcook their prized possession and keep him fresh and fit as he continues his development. If they can do so, they will reap the rewards of a player capable of bringing back the golden years to La Roja.
Honorable mentions: Oleksandr Zinchenko, Georginio Wijnaldum, Luka Modrić, Xaver Schlager, Kevin de Bruyne.
Right Winger: Federico Chiesa
As the famous Alice Walker quote goes, time moves slowly but passes quickly. It seems like just yesterday that Italy and Turkey were kicking off Euro 2020 in Rome, a 3-0 victory for the Azzurri that set the tone for the eventual champions and arguably the biggest disappointment of the entire campaign. And yet, it equally seems like a bygone era with black-and-white footage and kerosene lamps when thinking back to when Federico Chiesa was not a starter for the Italian national team.
Despite a sensational campaign for Juventus, Chiesa was used as a substitute against Turkey, Switzerland, and Austria, but with Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne struggling to produce against a disciplined Austria side, Roberto Mancini hauled the former off for Chiesa in the 84th minute. As fate would have it, it would take an extra-time goal from Chiesa to break the deadlock, with the 23-year-old receiving a pass from Leonardo Spinazzola whilst wide open on the right flank, evading the onrushing Konrad Laimer, and volleying it past Daniel Bachmann in goal.
It proved enough for Mancini to insert him in the starting line-up against Belgium at the expense of Berardi, and although Chiesa was overshadowed by Insigne on the other flank, he did put Thibaut Courtois under pressure on several occasions and retained his place in the team against Spain. Whilst La Roja ended up having the majority of chances and possession, Chiesa grabbed the opening goal against the run of play, capitalizing on a loose ball at the edge of the box and firing a shot past Unai Simón to cap off an excellent counter.
Chiesa was once again Italy’s most dangerous attacking threat in the Final, with his diagonal runs and excellent dribbling causing England’s wing-back system plenty of trouble. The Three Lions opened the scoring early on via Luke Shaw and generally held the momentum throughout the first 45 minutes, but Chiesa constantly gave Italy oxygen and put pressure on the English defense until he was forced to come off for Federico Bernadeschi after sustaining an ankle injury.
We saw an example of this when, after receiving a pass by the halfway line, Chiesa smoothly evaded Shaw and stayed on his feet despite Declan Rice’s desperate attempts to foul him and charged forward, but his shot sailed just wide of the post. Or you could point to one moment in the second half where he danced past Kalvin Phillips and Kyle Walker, hesitating and calmly shifting to the middle of the box before forcing a save from Jordan Pickford.
Whether wriggling his way past a sea of white shirts or attacking space in behind Shaw, or putting in a tempting cross or forcing a foul from an England player, Chiesa ran the show at Wembley Stadium and made it so the hosts could never quite feel comfortable with their 1-0 lead. As he trudged off in the 86th minute, England defenders would have surely breathed a sigh of relief in the knowledge that Chiesa, a player who has emerged from his father’s lofty shadow and established himself as one of football’s brightest prospects, was no longer their problem to deal with.
Honorable mentions: Emil Forsberg, Andriy Yarmolenko, Xherdan Shaqiri, Roman Yaremchuk, Memphis Depay.
Center Forward: Patrik Schick
As Czech Republic were wrapping up an unsuccessful UEFA Euro 2016 that saw them crash out of Group D with just one point, a 20-year-old striker by the name of Patrik Schick left his boyhood club of Sparta Prague and joined Sampdoria for a fee of €4 million. The Czech striker excelled under Marco Giampaolo, scoring 11 goals with an average of a goal every 137 minutes and earning interest from Juventus, who triggered his €30 million release clause. However, after failing two separate medicals due to a heart condition, La Vecchia Signora backed out of the deal.
Juventus and @sampdoria_en confirm that they have agreed not to finalise the transfer of Patrik Schick.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) July 18, 2017
Instead, Roma pounced on the chance to sign him on loan with a conditional obligation to buy, prompting new sporting director Monchi to boast, “I have been a sporting director for 17 years and perhaps the operation for [Patrik Schick] is the one I feel most proud and satisfied about. Schick is one of the young players with the most potential in international football. We are happy because he chose Roma.”
Nevertheless, Schick struggled to live up to his club-record transfer fee that totaled €42 million with potential bonuses, often being played out of position on the wing due to Edin Džeko’s central role and scoring just eight goals in 58 matches. A loan move to RB Leipzig in 2019/20 helped to rekindle his form, but the German club rejected the opportunity to sign him on a permanent deal and instead purchased Alexander Sørloth and Hwang-hee Chan to replace the outgoing Timo Werner.
Schick remained in Germany, however, and joined Bayer Leverkusen for a fee of €26.5 million. He grabbed 9 goals across 29 Bundesliga matches, a decent figure, but one that would not have swayed new manager Gerardo Seoane to put his entire trust in Schick at the expense of Lucas Alario or a new striker signing. Seoane, however, will have surely been left drooling after the Czech’s display in Euro 2020.
Going up against Scotland at Hampden Park, Schick opened the scoring prior to the break by connecting on a cross from Vladimír Coufal, rising above Grant Hanley and Liam Cooper and beating David Marshall with a glancing header into the left corner. It was a superb goal that would be promptly turned into a footnote by what happened ten minutes later.
Jack Hendry took a speculative shot from 25 yards out that was blocked by Tomáš Souček and rebounded into the path of Schick. Rather than dribble down the pitch or play a quick one-two with Jakub Jankto, Schick chose to attempt a shot from the halfway line and catch Marshall off his line, like a hunter taking aim at a retreating caribou. The result? Czech Republic went on to win 2-0, with Schick scoring one of the greatest goals of this century.
It would be unfair to put Schick solely on the basis of that one game; he opened the scoring in a 1-1 draw against Croatia with a penalty goal, and while he failed to add to his tally against England, he made himself a constant nuisance and showed glimpses of his quality on the rare attacking occasions that they managed. Despite the 1-0 loss, Czech Republic progressed to the next round, where they would face the Netherlands — who won every single game in their group.
The Oranje looked set to take the lead after Donyell Malen snuck in behind the Czech defense, but the PSV attacker took too long to attempt a shot and was robbed of possession by the enormous Tomáš Vaclík. Merely seconds later, Matthijs de Ligt failed to deal with a long ball and elected to palm it out of harm’s way so as to prevent Schick from receiving the ball in the box, causing the Juventus defender to receive his marching orders.
De Ligt was the last defender back and handled the ball to keep Patrik Schick from going through. Can't argue the call. Can #CZE take advantage?
— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) June 27, 2021
The momentum swung in the Czechs’ favor, and in the 68th minute, Tomáš Holeš headed home from close range to give them the lead in Budapest. Holeš sealed the victory after he beat Georginio Wijnaldum to a loose ball, sprinted into the box and teed up Schick, who calmly tucked the second goal past Maarten Stekelenburg to complete one of the biggest upsets of the tournament.
Their European adventure ended in Baku, with Jaroslav Šilhavý’s side unable to overcome an inspiring Danish team that booked their place in the semifinals via goals from Thomas Delaney and Kasper Dolberg. They did manage to halve the deficit after halftime via a sensational volley from Schick, but they never quite did enough to put the Danes under sustained pressure.
Schick ends his European Championship as the joint-top scorer alongside Cristiano Ronaldo — with three fewer penalty goals — as well as the winner of the Goal of the Tournament and one of the 10 nominees for the UEFA Goal of the Season. Crucially, he heads into the next season with a much-needed injection of confidence and poise to ensure that he enters his prime years as a lethal goalscorer for Czech Republic and Bayer Leverkusen.
Honorable mentions: Kasper Dolberg, Karim Benzema, Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku.
Left Winger: Raheem Sterling
England have once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory under Gareth Southgate, following up their 2018 run to the semifinals in Russia with their first trip to a major tournament final since 1966. It has been a team effort in every sense of the word — from Jordan Pickford’s heroics between the sticks, to Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw pushing their bodies to the limit, to Kalvin Phillips emerging as a vital cog in midfield after an impressive campaign under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United.
However, there can be little debate that England’s star player, at least in the final third, was Raheem Sterling. The 26-year-old has consistently stepped up and delivered for an England team that, despite their unparalleled attacking depth, never quite looked capable of thriving on a collective basis. He has answered the questions regarding his performances in big-game scenarios and proven just how vital he is to the Three Lions both on and off the pitch.
Sterling entered the European Championships on the back of a triumphant season for Manchester City but a relatively less glamorous campaign on an individual level. After averaging 26.3 goals and 15 assists across the previous three seasons, Sterling managed just 14 goals and 12 assists, a relatively decent tally for a player who had lost his starting spot in attack to Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez. If you were to ask a wide variety of England fans what their preferred forward line would be heading into the tournament, you’d likely hear various permutations that left out the Kingston, Jamaica native.
And yet, when England gained revenge on Croatia three years after their semifinal defeat to kick off the Euros, it was not Jack Grealish or Bukayo Saka or Jadon Sancho or Harry Kane who came to the rescue, but Sterling. In a prime example of his elite movement, Sterling burst into the box, picked up a through ball from Phillips, and tucked the finish past Dominik Livaković.
It was more of the same against the Czech Republic, when Sterling surreptitiously peeled away from Tomáš Kalas and Jan Bořil and headed Jack Grealish’s cross into the back of the net. He continued his incredible run in the Round of 16 match against Germany, wisely holding his run to stay onside and deflecting Luke Shaw’s low cross past Manuel Neuer. And while he was far from the star of the show in England’s 4-0 walloping of Ukraine, he engineered their early lead by brushing past Mykola Shaparenko and threading in an inch-perfect assist for Harry Kane.
Some will point to his dubious penalty against Denmark as evidence of a cynical player who is willing to cheat to lead his team to victory, others will point to the fact that he is merely taking advantage of a system that typically rewards diving instead of giving the defender the benefit of the doubt. What cannot be denied, however, is that Sterling has proven once again just how lethal he can be on the world’s biggest stage.
Honorable mentions: Lorenzo Insigne, Mikkel Damsgaard, Dani Olmo, Roland Sallai, Martin Braithwaite.
Manager: Roberto Mancini
Picking a manager to lead my Team of Euro 2020 was one of the toughest decisions I had to face when writing this article. Plenty of managers such as Luis Enrique, Gareth Southgate, Jaroslav Šilhavý and Vladimir Petković did honorable jobs with their selection, but this decision came down to two coaches: Kasper Hjulmand and Roberto Mancini.
To start things off, Hjulmand didn’t even think he’d be coaching Denmark at this tournament. The former FC Nordsjælland coach was announced as Denmark’s next manager in June 2019, and while he was slated to take over for Åge Hareide after Euro 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the Euros and prompted Hjulmand to take over after Hareide’s contract expired on June 30, 2020.
From the very start, Hjulmand has been forced to deal with adversity and accusations of being a mere football romantic, and yet, he has passed his test with flying colors so far. After an impressive start that saw them defeat Israel, Moldova and Austria in World Cup qualifying, scoring 14 and conceding none, Denmark looked primed to be one of the dark horses of the tournament, but Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest and an opening day loss to Finland saw their chances dimmed.
They responded strongly against Belgium, but they were unable to prevent an attacking onslaught from Romelu Lukaku and supersubs Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard leading Roberto Martinez’s side to a come-from-behind victory. However, Denmark stamped their place on a spot in the Round of 16 with a stellar 4-1 win over Russia, followed by victories over Wales and Czech Republic to continue their improbable run.
Hjulmand has demonstrated his ability to shift his tactics and adapt to the opposition on various occasions — switching to a four-man backline and positioning Andreas Christensen as a defensive midfielder proved vital in limiting Gareth Bale’s influence and allowing Denmark to take momentum against Wales — but he failed to rekindle the same magic against England. Whilst moving to a 3-5-2 worked in theory, taking off Kasper Dolberg and Mikkel Damsgaard in the 67th minute deprived the team of their two most dangerous attacking threats.
As inspirational as Hjulmand’s work has been, Italy would not be European champions without Roberto Mancini. The ex Manchester City and Inter manager took charge of the Italian national team after an underwhelming campaign in Russia that saw Zenit finish fifth in the league and crash out of the Russian Cup and Europa League early on. For a team that had failed to qualify to the World Cup for the first time in 60 years, the choice failed to inspire much optimism in Azzurri fans.
Mancini took over for Gian Piero Ventura, who, prior to a World Cup qualifying play-off match against Sweden, stated, “I am not thinking about whether we will play in the World Cup or not. I am already thinking about the group stage as well as the friendlies we have to play.” Despite the embarrassing defeat to the Swedes, Mancini remained confident and revealed his desire to “take Italy back where it deserves to be, on top of Europe and the world. We have not won a European Championship for many years, so that will be our first objective.””
Early defeats to France and Portugal and draws to Ukraine, Poland and the Netherlands did little to rile up confidence in Mancini, but somehow, someway, he began to find the right balance. They played with a fluidity, confidence, and attacking flair that had been rarely seen in the national team in recent years, and perhaps a testament to the improved quality of managers in Serie A such as Maurizio Sarri and Gian Piero Gasperini.
The Azzurri topped their Euro qualifying group with a perfect record, heading into the Euros with an incredible record of 21 wins and 3 draws in their last 24 games, including eight straight clean sheets. They were one of three teams to win every single group stage match, but unlike Belgium and the Netherlands, they were far less reliant on individual talent; more than any of the other 23 teams, they looked like a well-drilled, balanced club side that practiced every single day together.
Unlike Ventura, Mancini has found a way to fit in all of his most talented players in a balanced system, with the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Marco Verratti and Jorginho playing part and parcel of a team that has pressed like rabid dogs whilst kept possession with the composure and grace of a Pep Guardiola side. He has not shifted from his 4-3-3, but he has made the changes necessary to adapt to circumstances and give his team the upper hand.
Whilst they were initially flummoxed by Gareth Southgate’s savvy switch to a three-man backline, Mancini shrewdly introduced Domenico Berardi for the ineffective Ciro Immobile at the half-hour mark whilst also taking off Nicolò Barella for Bryan Cristante to prevent the former from picking up a second yellow. This, in turn, saw Insigne operate as a false 9 and allowed the Azzurri to stretch England’s defense and enjoy more success on the wings.
It has been anything but easy. Italy have had to deal with a devastating injury to Leonardo Spinazzola and the loss of Federico Chiesa in the Final as well as a more demanding itinerary than their English rivals, and yet, they have achieved history, meshing together their old-fashioned defensive resilience with the creative influences of Maurizio Sarri, Roberto De Zerbi, Vincenzo Italiano and many more who have added to the rich tapestry of Serie A in recent years.
It is hard to find a parallel in modern sports. The Boston Celtics going from a 24-58 record in 2006/07 to winning the title the following year is a good equivalent, but then again Mancini did not have two world-beaters in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett join forces and proceed to dominate the league. Instead, he has had to build a team that is stronger than the sum of its parts, and lead Italy back to their spot in the hierarchy of world football.
Honorable mentions: Kasper Hjulmand, Gareth Southgate, Luis Enrique, Vladimir Petković, Jaroslav Šilhavý.
By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Patrick Elmont – UEFA / Lukas Schulze – UEFA