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SCOUTED XI: Our U-21 EURO Team of the Tournament
From Baena to Barcola, here's our best eleven from Georgia and Romania.
After 39 long years of excruciating hurt and bitter disappointment, the Young Lions are back on top. England are UEFA Under-21 European champions.
We’ve over egged that. But this is a pretty big achievement for a good group of, in the main, Premier League regulars, and they deserved it. Keeping six clean sheets in six games is remarkable, and they played with a style that few (if any) English teams have at any level.
On a broader note, this tournament provided a great platform for an emerging crop of senior footballers. It’s less an opportunity to unearth unknown gems, more a chance to witness the end of some storied underage international careers. From that perspective, it was fitting that England met Spain in the final, a re-run of U-17 EURO and U-17 World Cup final from 2017.
Missed our previous matchday round-ups? If so, click below…
Ultimately, for our Team of the Tournament, we had to settle on eleven players. As always, that was a difficult task. We’ve strayed quite far from the all-knowing UEFA Technical Observer panel, who packed their TOTT with only English and Spanish players. They also picked Anthony Gordon as their Player of the Tournament, another decision that we couldn’t make much sense of.
Instead, we’ve gone for more of a broad blend, recognising some of the nations that dropped out earlier in the tournament. That includes losing semi-finalists Ukraine and Israel, who had some deserving players that warranted selection, as well as Switzerland, France, and even co-hosts Georgia.
Anyway, enough filler and onto the beefy main course – here’s the Scouted Football Under-21 2023 European Championship Team of the Tournament:
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🏴 GK: James Trafford (2002, Manchester City)
This was an easy one. Six clean sheets in six games – does anything more need to be said? Yes, a bit. Clean sheets are more representative of a team’s quality than an individual’s, a metric at the mercy of significant variance. There was plenty of that at play here. For all the very solid saves James Trafford made, England protected him pretty well and there were some close calls, not least in the final, that could’ve killed this statistic before it even became a thing.
But forget that, who cares, did you see his amazing 99th-minute double-save off an Abel Ruiz penalty to clinch England the tournament?! Watch this and tell us Trafford isn’t the goalkeeper of the tournament. We already had him penned in for this slot, but that moment put his name in permanent marker and underlined it multiple times.
He also helped England play in the style they stuck to. His Manchester City education meant he was more than confident enough to execute a fairly intricate build-up style, reeling in players before quickly playing past them in the increasingly prevalent Brighton-like methods.
After a breakthrough season on loan with Bolton Wanderers in League One and a memorable showing at this tournament, it looks like Vincent Kompany’s Burnley is the next step for James Trafford. What a year it’s been for him.
🇮🇱 RB: Stav Lemkin (2003, Hapoel Tel-Aviv)
Israeli football has had an unprecedented year on the youth international scene over the past year. Losing finalists at last year’s U-19 EURO, third-place finisher at the U-20 World Cup in Argentina, now losing semi-finalists at this tournament. And Stav Lemkin has been an ever-present in all three of their high-achieving teams.
He’s a right-sided centre-back, but we’ve sneaked him at right-back in this team, owing to the lack of obvious alternative options – but the 20-year-old deserves his place in the side.
It was much more of the same from him: aggressive but adaptable, committed and disciplined. He uses his athletic stature to good effect, he knows how to tread the line between bullish and measured; he’s just a good defender. His ability on the ball is neither particularly good nor bad, but it gets him by.
Want to know just how important he’s been for Israel? Of the 17 games they’ve played across three tournaments since last summer, Lemkin has started and completed all but one of them, including the three that went to extra time. The only one he missed was the third-place play-off at the World Cup. A key player, and a constant.
🏴 CB: Levi Colwill (2003, Chelsea)
Levi Colwill is the talk of the tournament; he had a legitimate case for being our player of the tournament; he is in our team of the tournament.
He’s one of those players that anyone can immediately tell is good from a glance. Height, physicality, athleticism, dominance, pose, composure, confidence – Colwill folds those qualities together into an overwhelmingly impressive presence at the heart of defence.
We saw all of them at this tournament. He stood on the ball (absolutely still and bolt upright quite often, completely static, see above) to draw in and play past pressure; there were the usual punched passes through midfield lines and curved balls into the channels; and he controlled his defensive zone like few others can. Strong in contact, assertive in the air, sleek over space; it was difficult to get past him.
In contrast to much of the tournament, his performance in the final was more defender than ball-player. He covered and cleared his quarter of the pitch to good effect. Even though he gave away the last-minute penalty, a very harsh but slightly clumsy one, Spain would likely have made telling inroads down his side with any other alternative in his place.
If Chelsea don’t give him a prominent first-team role this coming season, heads will fall off, ours included.
🇪🇸 CB: Jon Pacheco (2001, Real Sociedad)
This was our first time properly watching Jon Pacheco, another product of the prolific Zubieta academy that feeds Real Sociedad, and we liked the look of him. He was definitely the better of the two Spanish centre-backs and comfortably one of the best at the entire tournament.
He fits the physical brief of a centre-back – he just looks and moves like one. His defensive work is predicated on good fundamentals and great reading of the game. He shifts his feet nicely and picks his moments even more so, combining the two to nip in from behind or close out from the side. One thing to note: we didn’t really see him in any proper physical battles, bruising body-to-body contact or long-range races, but that was partly because of his own defensive nous.
He’s good on the ball, too, unsurprisingly. Pacheco is a typical product of the Spanish system with his poise in possession. He takes the ball cleanly, touching out to set up positive actions, and manipulates it skilfully to open up different angles to slip progressive passes through gaps with relative ease, using both feet to do so. Calmness underpinned his work on both sides of the ball as well.
Robin Le Normand could be on the way out of La Real this summer. We’d like to see Pacheco take his place off the back of this promising tournament.
🇪🇸 LB: Juan Miranda (2000, Real Betis)
The Under-21 Euros did not deliver the silverware Juan Miranda would’ve liked to complete the triple crown as a European champion at Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 level, but the tournament was a positive reaffirmation of his development over the past six years.
Once a left-back flyer that primarily damaged as a crosser from deep, he has added levels to his game, now driving into the penalty box to create opportunities to score goals and engaging in more central zones to differently influence games in possession.
Juan Miranda started for Spain in the U-17 EURO final in 2017, beating England on penalties. He is one of six from that team that are in the squad for this tournament.
Throughout this tournament, Miranda showed that he is a consistent performer. The difference between his worst and his best is very minimal and he brings security to teams with his ability to retain possession and awareness of his defensive duties.
He is a calm and steady presence that has added weapons to his game. He doesn’t dictate games with explosiveness or physicality but with control, incisiveness and intelligence.
If he continues along this trajectory, he will have a very strong career as a senior footballer, with a solid claim on Jordi Alba’s left-back spot for Spain as the veteran journeys toward the twilight of his career.
🏴 CM: Curtis Jones (2001, Liverpool)
Curtis Jones was one of the better players in the Premier League from April, when he broke into a starting role at Liverpool, onwards. He carried that form into this tournament, playing a key role in a two-man base midfield that also included little Angel Gomes.
The 22-year-old did a bit of everything, from first-phase build-up to assertive ball-winning to fast-reaction pressing. According to Opta, Jones completed 94% of his passes across 448 minutes at this tournament, the highest accuracy rate of any midfielder, which is remarkable given he still had genuine impacts in progressing the ball with incisive passing from deep. He wasn’t some safe short-range passer, he was a legit ball-mover from the base - slipping play into one of England’s trio, even quartet, of between-lines attackers.
His elusiveness also stood out. He had the composure to find solutions under pressure, shifting and sliding and shimmying away from opponents, breaking open the game and developing play. England used that ability to the advantage of their distinctive style: Jones was often the one to take the ball off the centre-backs and play out, his mix of athletic and technical traits enabling him to do so.
All things considered, Jones was our player of the tournament for his overall impact. He epitomised the talent and quality of this England side. There were a couple of other worthy candidates, but Curtis takes the biscuit.
🇪🇸 CM: Álex Baena (2001, Villarreal)
Álex Baena has caught fire, and it’s hard to see him looking back from here. While he has not quite won our player of the tournament prize, he certainly had a claim on it with his extremely impactful performances in midfield for Spain.
To call Baena’s performances industrious would be understating his impact on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he played tough, on the edge football, constantly engaging all across the field, whether that be pressing high to win in his attacking third, or sprinting back in transition to disrupt an opposition player bursting into space.
He is exceptionally athletic, covering the ground tirelessly and engaging strongly in duels, before bursting into life as a driving runner in midfield and forcing his opposing marker to be accountable or risk allowing him to dictate terms offensively.
While this all sounds intense, he maintains that technical standard we expect from every Spanish midfielder at this level, both in his ability to maintain possession and find nice passing angles.
He only scored one goal in this tournament - Spain’s opener - but his willingness to commit to attacking the penalty spot will be a fruitful asset as he continues his career at Villarreal after already scoring six times in La Liga last season.
🇺🇦 AM: Heorhii Sudakov (2002, Shakhtar Donetsk)
While Ukraine’s tournament came to a screeching halt in the second half of their 5-1 loss to Spain in the semi-finals, Heorhii Sudakov never lowered his colours in a fantastic individual tournament.
His quarter-final performance against France was one of the best of the Under-21 Euros, as he set Ukraine on the path to victory with a nice penalty, and then a glorious second not long after: a driving run in behind, a neat first touch to bring the ball down, another to round the goalkeeper and then a pass into an empty net.
He is not a flashy player, but he lacks for nothing technically as a ball carrier. He plays with purpose, symbolic of the industrious nature of the Ukrainian team that relied on him and Mykhailo Mudryk to push them into the final third. While Mudryk provided the flashy moments, it was Sudakov who did the grunt work, the player they looked for most often to take possession and push the game forward as a carrier and progressive passer.
While he had to come deep more often than he would have liked, he showed the same willingness to drive at the penalty box as Baena, and it is a quality that should hold him in good stead playing in more advanced midfield roles in the future.
🇪🇸 RW: Rodri Sánchez (2000, Real Madrid)
While he cooled off in the final, Rodri Sánchez had a brilliant tournament on the right side of Spain’s attack. His first game against Romania set the tone for Spain, as he dictated terms as a dribbler and creator and gave his marker at left-back a night to forget.
At his best, Rodri was a pass-and-move player, receiving the ball, laying it off, and bursting into a position to receive again. He was versatile in the way he could attack defences too, providing a threat cutting inside to either shoot or pass, while providing a number of excellent chipped crosses when he attacked the byline.
Our good friends at La Pausa have some great work covering Rodri, and the rest of Spain’s U-21 tournament, over on their podcast. They also have a Substack too. Check it out below.
With the ball, the Real Betis winger is incredibly slippery. He evades pressure into his back with confidence, whether that be in his attacking or defensive third, while his sweet first touch affords him the time to lift his vision and assess options.
As a small winger, the diligence of his defensive work was also quite impressive. His alertness to poor touches and good pressing from his team-mates often allowed him to arrive on the scene as a second man to aid them in winning the ball back.
🇨🇭 CF: Zeki Amdouni (2000, FC Basel)
He’s done it for Basel, he’s done it for the senior Swiss national team, so there should be no surprise that Zeki Amdouni was the best striker at the Under-21 Euros.
He did not start the first game after returning from senior duty, where he scored three goals in two games, but he made an instant impact as soon as he was brought into the team, scoring against Italy and Spain in Switzerland’s run to the quarter finals.
His performance against Italy was particularly notable for its quality, scoring Switzerland’s second goal with one of the moves of the tournament in combination with Fabian Rieder. His calm, subtle movements in that move underlined his quality as an all-round attacking player that can be impactful in different scenarios, rather than just being a penalty box and defensive line occupier.
But he can play the more traditional role too, scoring a nice late equaliser in Switzerland’s quarter-final against Spain with a sharp run into space between Spain’s defensive line before finishing neatly into the far corner.
Now 22, Amdouni seems on the brink of a massive break into high-level football in one of Europe’s top five leagues, and we’ll wait with intrigue to see what club that ends up being with. He’s a gem.
🇫🇷 LW: Bradley Barcola (2002, Olympique Lyonnais)
Olympique Lyonnais had a big footprint in France’s U-21 EURO squad. Six were graduates of the prestigious OL academy, four being regular starters at the club in the past couple of seasons. Everyone knew the Caquerets and Gouiris and Cherkis, and they should know who Bradley Barcola is after this tournament.
The 20-year-old was a great secondary attacker. He can play off both wings, as he did here, and do different things. Off-ball movement, leggy dribbling, the ability to get good touches in the box, and an impactful defending from the front – Barcola did it all for France, providing a flexible presence on the forward line that could morph to suit the situation in hand.
His off-ball runs were good and unselfish, a willing runner into space to drag defenders away and offer an outlet pass for team-mates; he could skip past players in wide areas with his spindly frame; and at the end of it all, he’d arrive into dangerous areas in the penalty area to find one of his trademark cut-backs or take a shot of his own.
And in the pressing age of football, Barcola scored two goals by winning the ball back in high areas. The first was against Italy, jumping on a loose Destiny Udogie touch to pinch the ball and finish. The second was against Switzerland, leaping into the passing channel to intercept a pass, before quickly combining with Gouiri and following up on a lucky break of the ball to finish again.
Barcola was one of our favourites at this tournament. We owe him a bit of an apology too, because we overlooked his 13 goal-and-assist season in Ligue 1 just gone. We won’t do the same again.
The substitutes’ bench:
You might think we’re finished… but we’re not! We haven’t quite gone to the lengths of picking an Alternative XI, as we did with the U-20 World Cup, this tournament just isn’t big enough to do it, but we have picked out seven players for the SCOUTED subs bench.
Before we get into them, susbcribe to SCOUTED Notebook. You won’t regret it. We’d very much appreciate it you did.
It features prospects from competitive co-hosts Georgia, the SL Benfica academy, plus a left-back that we picked out in MD3. Let’s get into them…
🇬🇪 CB: Saba Sazonov (2002, Dynamo Moscow)
What a tournament this was for Georgian football. Co-hosts with Romania, they put on a show, powered by packed-out stadiums and fervent atmospheres. They managed to top a group that included Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands, winning once and drawing twice, before being edged out by Israel on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Their game plan was simple: bunker in hard and break out fast. Saba Sazonov was a big part of it on the right side of a back three. The 21-year-old was imposing in appearance as much as performance – he’s over 6’4” tall, long-limbed and broad-shouldered, plus the cultured pinned-back hair, goatee beard and alice band all added to his mystique.
He used that size to good effect in physical duels or stretching to cut out crosses. Only a handful of players made more clearances than Sazonov across the tournament, while France’s Castello Lukeba and Italy’s Nicolò Rovella were the only two to make interceptions. Georgia’s defence bent but didn’t break, with the likes of Sazonov holding it together at the seams.
We got to see much more of Sabonov’s in possession in the quarter-final against Israel, and he showcased some skills that are scalable to higher levels. Above all, he has the basic ability to kick the ball really far, be it a loopy switch to the opposite wing or a direct launch down the channel.
🇬🇪 LB: Irakli Azarovi (2001, FK Crvena zvezda)
Like nine of his team-mates at this tournament, Irakli Azarovi is already a senior international for Georgia, a regular starter at that. Indeed, he was on the bench in a EURO 2024 qualifier against Scotland at Hampden the day before Georgia beat Portugal in their opening game.
He played the last half hour of that game before stepping into a starting role. His demonstrative energy and exuberance immediately impresses. He buzzes up and down the left wing to press and harry, drive and overlap, and that was charged up to another notch by the intense atmospheres the home crowds created.
He flitted in and out of Crvena zvzeda’s team in his first season in Serbia, but now it looks like he may return eastward to perennial Champions League team Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. That could be a launch pad to one of Europe’s top-five leagues in a couple of years.
🇮🇹 LB: Fabiano Parisi (2000, Empoli)
Italy were a big disappointment in this tournament, but after a strong season with Empoli, it might finally have marked the arrival of Fabiano Parisi.
While he was overlooked for the opener against France for Spurs’ Destiny Udogie, he rightfully earned his starting position in the next two group games and was one of Italy’s best performers in both.
Key to his performances was his efficiency in retaining possession and dribbling past players, often using good body positioning to draw fouls and relieve pressure. We saw some good things in the final third too, including a nice goal against Switzerland as he pushed forward and applied pressure, won the ball back and finished off his work.
With a move away from Empoli now looking increasingly likely after the tournament, Parisi will look to take the next step in his career.
Much to Stevie’s despair, who wanted him at Juve, it looks as if Parisi will join Fiorentina in the coming weeks. That would be some buy for them.
🏴 DM: Angel Gomes (2000, LOSC Lille)
Angel Gomes was one of three in England’s squad that beat Spain to win the U-17 World Cup six years ago. A much-anticipated talent at Manchester United back then, he had to drop off the radar to ping back onto it this summer.
He left for Luis Campos’ LOSC Lille in 2020 and was immediately placed on loan at Portuguese side Boavista, where he started every week. A bit-part season back in France was the precursor for a big-role season last time out, settling into a deep midfield role under Paulo Fonseca.
Anyone that’s watched Fonseca’s Lille over the last year will be well-adjusted to Gomes’ midfield role. There’s not a whole lot of overlap between that group and England supporters, so the dramatic reaction to his performances at the base of midfield (for a footballing nation that is famously averse to developing the mini-sized metronomes) is understandable.
Gomes’ responsibility was to provide continuity in possession for this England team, and that’s exactly what he did. His ability to quickly receive the ball in any situation and at any angle allowed England to play the way they did, as was his speed and accuracy of release. Gomes had the neat feet to slip pressure in his own half and the quick-thinking to sustain pressure around the box.
His weaknesses were masked by England’s control in most games. While he showed the ability to squeeze players in tight spaces, he struggled to defend big spaces and dynamic athletes – which is no surprise given his diminutive size, nor was it a game-breaking flaw at this tournament.
The bottom line? Gomes was good. Not as good as some have been saying, but good all the same. And it was fun to see a player of his profile in such a role for an England team.
🇺🇦 CM: Artem Bondarenko (2000, Shakhtar Donetsk)
When Artem Bondarenko charged forward to latch onto a pass from Mykhailo Mudryk and smash it home to put Ukraine 1-0 up in their semi-final against Spain, it looked like Ukraine might be on the brink of a miracle run, having already beaten France 3-1 in the Round of 16.
While they eventually ran out of gas, Bondarenko had an impressive tournament captaining a Ukraine side that are now on their way to the Paris Olympics in 2024. His performance against France was particularly impressive, setting the tempo of Ukraine’s attacks and then settling the game down and controlling the midfield play, and then scoring the third goal to confirm victory.
His calmness and reliability in possession relieved a lot of pressure in midfield and opened up space for others. He did encounter some problems in this area though under heavy duress from Spain’s midfield as they smothered him out of the game in the second half of the semi-final.
Overall though, it was the timing and the conviction of his runs forward in Ukraine’s counter-attacks that was the real highlight of his play. Number eights that bring a goal threat are always a valuable commodity in European football.
🇵🇹 CM: João Neves (2004, SL Benfica)
Hardly any of the major nations in this tournament even had a 2004-born player in their squads, let alone one playing as critical of a role as João Neves played in midfield for Portugal.
The Benfica prospect amassed over 600 senior minutes this season as he broke into Roger Schmidt’s first team, and continued his strong end of the season at club level with consistently strong performances in this tournament.
He’s outrageously confident in his own technical ability and stood firm matching it with much bigger players physically. His best qualities are his ability to combine short and retain possession under pressure, as well as the way he scans the pitch that allows him to play into many different angles first when receiving possession, and then when looking to move the ball on.
Still just 18, Neves will have two more opportunities to feature at this tournament – if he hasn’t already broken into the senior Portugal team by then, that is.
🇫🇷 AM: Rayan Cherki (2003, Olympique Lyonnais)
It’s been a good year for the often incredible Rayan Cherki. He finally broke into a starting role at Olympique Lyonnais, nurtured by a new-but-old coach in Laurent Blanc, and started to showcase his extraordinary skills on a consistent basis.
This tournament was a crowning moment – but he still had to fight his way into the starting eleven. His 30-minute cameo against Norway was the moment that forced Sylvain Ripoll into giving him the key role his ability deserves. He reached an almost ethereal level coming off the bench in that game, playing with supreme confidence and talent, quality oozing out of every touch.
It was more of the same in the last group game against Switzerland. His immense control and balance won an early penalty, then he manufactured a move to put France 3-1 up, finishing emphatically with his ‘weaker’ foot on the move. His two-footedness is one of his many outstanding traits. Beyond just taking the odd set-piece on his other side, he does everything using either foot: receiving, manipulating, passing, shooting, the lot.
He had his moments in the quarter-final too, scoring the first goal of the game with a deft feint and quick finish, but also stood by idly as Mykhailo Mudryk had far too much time to play in Heorhii Sudakov to put Ukraine 2-1 up. That’s the area of his game – the defensive intensity – that may cap Cherki’s career.
We couldn’t quite justify including Cherki in the starting eleven of our TOTT given he only started two games. Had he played that bit more, he would’ve been one of the first names in it. But still, this will be a tournament that sticks in the memory for some time.
And, finally, some honourable mentions:
As we said right at the top, it’s difficult to pick these teams. We had to make some difficult decisions and we definitely won’t please everyone, don’t worry about that.
Morgan Gibbs-White, Anthony Gordon and Noni Madueke all made telling impacts at this tournament, all in a fluid English attacking unit. UEFA’s pick of Gordon as Player of the Tournament was strange, but he did pretty well in a difficult centre-forwardy role.
Sergio Gómez had a good tournament, for instance, down Spain’s left side, rekindling the connection with Juan Miranda. Abel Ruiz was also pretty good leading the line, but we’d point to his misses as being crucial moments in the final.
We also feel particularly bad in leaving out Antonio Blanco, who had a bit of a coming-of-age tournament at the base of Spain’s midfield. We’re interested to see where he will be playing this coming season.
In the abscene of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Zuriko Davitashvili stepped into the livewire role for Georgia. We wrote about him in our MD3 round-up after he scored a brilliant straight-line solo goal against the Netherlands.
Llew saw something in Volodomyr Brazkho, Ukraine’s bullish defensive midfielder; Dan Ndoye was an effective outlet for Switzerland, supported by the likes of Fabian Rieder and Kastriot Imeri; and Martin Baturina showcased his creative talents in a dismal group stage for Croatia.