9 stars who enhanced their reputations at the European U21 Championship

Demarai Gray England U21
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4. Alfie Mawson (England)

Alfie Mawson

The iron in England’s defence, Mawson’s partnership with Calum Chambers was key to the team’s survival in Poland. And it was a survival, too: England played much of their best football on the counter-attack and their defence took heavy shelling in all four games.

Mawson is already an established Premier League player at Swansea, but this tournament accentuated his value as a leader. Booming out the national anthem pre-game and delivering media-friendly platitudes only counts for so much, though, so it was heartening to see his character also carry weight on the field.

Probably the most aerially dominant defender at these championships, the 23-year-old strived to put his head on every incoming cross and was in position for - and prepared to make - every tackle.

All typically English qualities, right? All to be sneered at and dismissed? Not so fast. Mawson may not be the most modern defender, but that literal interpretation of his job description was of great value to his side and, more importantly, comprises a set of fundamental attributes which will never become irrelevant.

5. Dani Ceballos (Spain)

The official player of the tournament, and not without good reason. Spain may have been upended by Germany in the final, but Ceballos's body of work across the tournament merited the award.

Whether he can consistently influence a game as a senior is another matter, but it was telling that even in that final – during which the German midfield and defence managed to smother Spain up until that point – Ceballos still looked lethal. The 20-year-old came closest to equalising, surging past three defenders before arrowing a shot just past Julian Pollersbeck’s far post.

His sharp trajectory and a €15m release clause tends to suggest only one outcome for his immediate future – Real Madrid, apparently – but for as long as he remains at Real Betis, they have a player of immense ability. 

6. Max Meyer (Germany)

This summer marks the next stage of the 21-year-old Mayer’s career: he’s determined to leave Schalke and will surely land at a prominent European club. To that end, his strong showing in Poland has occurred at the ideal moment, providing a timely showcase of all the strongest parts of his game.

The Germans were highly functional, which is to the credit of manager Stefan Kuntz, but Meyer has played his role at the tip of a midfield three particular well. A diminutive player who skips out of tackles, his greatest strength is his timing and ability to keep a defence off balance. Germany won the tournament not just because of overwhelming individual talent, but rather that their system extracted the most from what they had. Meyer enabled that too, finding the vulnerabilities in an opponent’s structure and manufacturing opportunities for his team-mates.

He’s not the best finisher (his blood temperature appears to rise when he's in the box), but that’s a curable defect which doesn’t detract from what is already an accomplished attacking midfielder. Both Tottenham and Liverpool appear to have taken notice.