Talentspotter

9 stars who enhanced their reputations at the European U21 Championship

Demarai Gray England U21
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7. Saul Niguez (Spain)

One of the issues Spain boss Albert Celades had to overcome at this tournament was how to fit all of his attacking pieces into the same side. Ironically, that was a problem which allowed Saul to develop his reputation. While Atletico Madrid fans are more often used to seeing him play from wide, he was typically deployed centrally in Poland - and, to his credit, adapted seamlessly, looking every inch the complete midfielder.

The 22-year-old played with real authority, striding through the midfield, rationing his game between the two halves and also managing to finish as top scorer – doing so with four of the tournament's best goals.

Defeat against Germany meant that Poland 2017 didn’t end as it was supposed to for Saul and his impressive team-mates. What it did, however, was demonstrate the range of his ability. Watching his further evolution under Diego Simeone will be fascinating. How does a nine-year contract sound? 

8. Jeremy Toljan (Germany)

The final year of Toljan’s Hoffenheim contract has just begun and the next 12 months will bring a flurry of interest. The full-back, who can play on either side of the pitch, enjoyed a strong group stage in Poland, but left an even bigger impression on the knockout rounds.

Slightly removed from the modern full-back default of having blinding pace and a lackadaisical attitude towards defending, Toljan is more of a position-based player. Although he bears little stylistic comparison, the 22-year-old is reminiscent of a young Pablo Zabaleta: always in the right place at the right time, whether that’s in his half or his opponent’s.

His real value in Poland was as an extra man. Stefan Kuntz’s midfield three naturally drew a lot of defensive attention, with teams congesting the middle of the field to restrict the impact of Meyer and Arnold. The result of that was space in wide positions and, game after game, Toljan found himself as the spare man. As his cross for Mitchell Weiser in the final proved, he knows what to do with that space.

A fine tournament from a player who will likely become a Champions League regular over the next decade – perhaps even with Hoffenheim next season. 

9. Demarai Gray (England)

Two brief substitute appearance aside, Gray’s tournament didn’t really begin until the final group game. Part of Aidy Boothroyd’s creative solution to a lack of penetration, the Leicester winger was repurposed against Poland as part of a fluid three-player forward line which gutted the hosts' defence in a 3-0 win.

He isn’t quite a Leicester regular yet, but when he has appeared for them it has typically been in a wide role. His time with England, however, showed his value in central positions – not just his abilities as a finisher, but also the range of issues he creates for centre-halves who don’t have the pace to cope with him when he surges forward, but also struggle to subdue him when he drops back.

Gray is tricky, quick, and enjoyable to watch, but Poland 2017 exposed his more cerebral qualities. He clearly absorbs tactical instruction well, and has that kind of adaptability which will endear him to any manager.

His contribution to England’s performance (two goals, one assist) was clearly important, but he returned home having shown that he doesn’t only belong in that 'winger' pigeonhole. The 21-year-old can play all sorts of attacking positions, each to a high standard.

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