Hidden Gems of Euro 2016

In the first of our Euro 2016 specials, we look at some of the players who can light up this year’s tournament in France.

International competitions are seen as the perfect shop window for potential new signings; where clubs around Europe are on the lookout for the elusive missing piece of the jigsaw that is their first team squad. A convincing underdog performance against world-class opposition, a one-man show that carries a country to the later stages of the tournament, or a tour-de-force against international minnows can all prick the ears of the opportunist scouts and managers that gamble with their instinct, statistics and even Youtube videos on a regular basis.  

Given the sophisticated scouting networks in operation across Europe, it can be hard to countenance signing a player on the back of a couple of strong international performances, but there is no doubting that the phenomenon exists. Andrei Arshavin came from relative obscurity to becoming Arsenal’s then-record signing partly owing to his dismantling of the Netherlands in the Euro 2008 quarter-final stage, and more recently the Real Madrid oligarchs insisted on signing James Rodriguez having excelled for Colombia in the 2014 World Cup.  

It is no coincidence we have chosen those two players as our examples; Arshavin was briefly successful in North London but failed to make a lasting impact, while the jury still remains out on how effective James Rodriguez is for Los Galacticos, still being seen as a vanity purchase by president Florentino Perez.  

It can be a fool’s errand judging a player on a couple of weeks of tournament football. A hospitable formation or strategy, a good relationship with the national coach, even civic pride can propel a player beyond their usual club capabilities. Conversely, strong performances can also indicate “clutch” or “big game” players, when the hopes of a nation elevate a footballer rather than weigh heavily on the shoulders.  

Among those ready to make an impact in the competition are a number of young players who are sure to catch the eye of potential suitors with strong performances for their respective countries.

Portugal’s William Carvalho has long had admirers in England, with Arsenal consistently linked to the Sporting Club defensive midfielder. After 18 full international caps, Carvalho is by no means a novice at this level, although he was denied the opportunity to shine at the last World Cup by a goal difference exit in the group stages. Last year he was named Player of the Tournament at the U21 European Championships, and a convincing display at this year’s senior tournament could well persuade Europe’s bigger clubs to pay a premium for a player who signed a new contract with Sporting in February.  

Portugal coach Fernando Santos will be confident of progressing past the group stages, contesting Group F alongside Austria, Iceland and Hungary. Alternating between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations since taking over in September 2014, Carvalho and Danilo Pereira will give Santos a selection headache for the holding midfielder berth. Although if Sporting captain Adrien is given the nod in midfield for the Seleção ahead of João Moutinho, Carvalho is his natural partner.  

Facing stronger opposition in the group stages is another shielding midfielder, even if Ireland and Derby’s Jeff Hendrick also carries a goal threat. Following strong performances by Harry Arter and Stephen Quinn in last Friday’s friendly international against the Netherlands, positions in the Irish midfield have never been so fiercely contested. Hendrick has been trusted throughout the qualifiers however, and has impressed Martin O’Neill with his discipline and tactical intelligence. Despite plying his trade in the Championship, Hendrick has both the mobility and tenacity that can often be missing in the Irish middle third.  

Such attributes bode well for games against higher quality opposition, where Hendrick has the ability to break up play and move the ball well further forward. Having played more minutes than all but a few first-team regulars - Jon Walters, John O’Shea and Robbie Brady - in the qualifiers, we are sure to see plenty of Hendrick in action in France this summer, where managers and scouts may also decide he has the necessary qualities for top-flight football.  

Switzerland’s Breel Embolo has already attracted attention for strong international performances to date, as well as impressing in the Basel first team since 2014.  At just 19 years of age, Embolo is the archetypal “precocious talent” who has been compared to Didier Drogba in the past, but could just as easily be next season’s Anthony Martial should the reported move to White Hart Lane go through.  

Embolo lists Mario Balotelli as a player he admires, but Swiss midfielder Fabian Frei has praised the young forward’s attitude in the past, saying that “I like him as a person as much as I do as a player. His feet will stay on the ground – he won't be shooting from 50 metres to score the goal of the season. You can give him good advice and he is ready to take it without getting angry.” Facing Albania, Romania and hosts France in Group A, the Swiss will be confident of reaching the round of 16 with a talented side, and Embolo can be expected to feature throughout their campaign.  

Another 19 year old hopeful of getting game time in France is Croatia’s Alen Halilovic, the country’s youngest ever full-international player. Impressing on loan at Sporting Gijon from Barcelona, Halilovic is another young player with question marks over his future. Declaring himself determined to fight for a place at the Camp Nou next season, the club hierarchy may decide another loan move (a proposed loan to Valencia is on the cards) or a permanent deal with a buy-back option would be more beneficial to both parties. Either way, Halilovic has good reason to impress this summer.

Struggling in the second half of the domestic season at the relegation-threatened outfit, it is thought that Halilovic would prosper with better players around him. Nominally an attacking midfielder, the youngster has been dubbed “the Croatian Messi” for his ability to drift around the pitch before making a sudden impact with the ball at his feet. Not yet guaranteed a spot on the plane the young playmaker has the ability to change games for the Croatians, although in a tough group featuring Spain, Turkey and the Czech Republic, we may have to wait to see the best of Alen Halilovic on the international stage.  

With 24 teams in the expanded competition, there are more opportunities than ever for young players to thrive at this year’s European Championship. There is little that can match a player making an impact on the greatest of stages, and the aforementioned quartet are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to footballers who are ready to impress at the highest level. That these players are ready to perform and seize the opportunity can only be good for football fans tuning in to the competition.