Who are the breakout U21 players to watch?

Published on: 12 June 2024

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Euro 2024 is almost upon us and the 24 teams involved have a host of talented players, many of whom have their whole careers ahead of them.

With so many highly rated youngsters sharing the same stage, it's tough to know who to look out for. So, ESPN's resident scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen picked out some of the top players aged 21 or younger who could make their mark at the tournament.

Johan Bakayoko, 21, FW, Belgium

The PSV Eindhoven winger has emerged as one of the most sought-after talents after his 14 goals and 14 assists in 48 games reportedly attracted the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal. While breaking into a Belgium side that features Jérémy Doku, Leandro Trossard and Yannick Carrasco is no mean feat, Bakayoko's turn of pace, amazing dribbling skills and powerful left-footed shot from distance make him a great option for coach Domenico Tedesco.

Bradley Barcola, 21, FW, FranceEditor's Picks

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Having moved from Lyon to join Paris Saint-Germain for €45 million in 2023, Barcola was limited to life as an impact substitute before he gained more playing time as the season progressed. With great pace, a desire to take on opponents and an edge of unpredictability, it's little wonder that France coach Didier Deschamps handed the forward his international debut in June. Barcola could be a gamechanger off the bench toward the latter stages of matches at Euro 2024.

Maximilian Beier, 21, ST, Germany

Beier is a relatively late bloomer who initially made his mark playing for Hannover 96 on loan in the 2. Bundesliga between 2021 and 2023 and has little experience of top-flight football. Capped by Germany for the first time in June's pre-tournament friendly vs. Ukraine, he was a late inclusion in the Euros squad following a productive campaign back at parent club TSG Hoffenheim where he was the top scorer with 16 goals. He is unlikely to start up front for coach Julian Nagelsmann, but his pace, movement and general vivacity make the in-form striker an ideal impact substitute to liven up the attack.

Francisco Conceição, 21, FW, Portugal

Something of a surprise inclusion in the final squad, the son of ex-Portugal winger Sergio Conceicao made a significant impact for FC Porto during the second part of the season with five goals and four assists from 27 league matches. Indeed, he completed a staggering 63% of his one-vs.-one duels (11 per 90 minutes) and won more than half of his attacking duels. While he faces competition from Wolves' Pedro Neto as a left-footed option on the wing for Portugal, he should see some game time.

Arda Güler, 19, AM, TurkeyTurkey's Arda Güler has a lot to prove after a season of injury. Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Following his €25m move to Real Madrid from Fenerbahce last summer, Güler missed most of LaLiga's season due to injury. However, upon returning to full fitness he showed off his talent by scoring five goals in as many games to help Madrid seal the title. Güler has only a couple of years of football behind him but made a huge impact at Fenerbahce due his wonderful touch on the ball, unpredictable dribbling skills and exquisite left foot. Madrid are certain they have a star of the future and he will start for Turkey at the Euros, playing behind the striker or on the right wing.

Milos Kerkez, 20, LB, Hungary

Arriving at the Euros off the back of a fine Premier League campaign for AFC Bournemouth, the left-back has reportedly attracted interest from several big English clubs, including Chelsea and Manchester United. Kerkez balances his alert defending (9.5 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes) with being a constant option going forward for his teammates.

Semih Kiliçsoy, 18, FW, TurkeyEuro 2024 Pick 'Em

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The breakout star of the Turkish league this season (11 league goals from 20 starts for Besiktas), Kilicsoy is a speedy winger blessed with wonderful dribbling abilities, using either foot, and ability to beat markers from a standing position. He was handed his first Turkey cap ahead of the tournament, so he won't be first choice, but can be a great option off the bench.

Fermín López, 21, CM, Spain

Relatively unknown before the start of the season, Lopez got his chance in the first XI amid Barcelona's injury crisis in midfield and took it. In fact, he did so well that he was arguably one of the most impactful players in LaLiga after the turn of the year, scoring eight goals. Brilliant on the ball, Lopez picks clever positions, pushes into the attacking box and has a powerful shot as well. Spain's midfield is stacked with the likes of Rodri, Pedri and Fabián Ruiz, but Lopez will gain a host of experience by being part of the setup.

Kobbie Mainoo, 19, CM, England

In the absence of a clear option to partner Declan Rice as a starter in the England midfield, the Manchester United teenager might get the nod even though he has played only 25 times in the Premier League. Always on the move, Mainoo is a wonderful passer, covers a lot of ground and often pushes into the final third, while he has showcased his goal-scoring ability on more than one occasion for United.

João Neves, 19, CM, PortugalJoão Neves is one of the top young midfielders in the world already. Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

One of the most coveted teenagers in world football, the Benfica midfielder -- part No. 6, part No. 8 -- is highly rated for his multidimensional, committed interpretation of the role. Manchester United are rumoured to be interested in signing him this summer, but his €120m release clause is a sticking point for any transfer. That said, Neves was given his first full 90 minutes for Portugal in a friendly against Finland in early June and some impressive performances in Germany could persuade interested clubs to make a move.

Cole Palmer, 21, AM, EnglandSTREAM ESPN FC DAILY ON ESPN+

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Though there's no doubting Palmer's Premier League credentials -- an astounding 22 league goals and 11 assists this season -- the Chelsea midfielder is still awaiting his England breakthrough. With Arsenal's Bukayo Saka and Manchester City's Phil Foden his most obvious rivals for a starting spot, Palmer faces a massive challenge to get into the side. England boss Gareth Southgate will be pleased to call upon his versatility, as he can slot in as a No. 10 or wide on the right, and despite not being a starter Palmer is certain to play a key role. He is also a composed penalty taker, which could come in handy.

Leopold Querfeld, 20, CB, Austria

The Rapid Vienna defender only recently gained his second senior cap, but an injury-hit Austria side might rely upon him earlier than expected. Querfeld has been in outstanding form for his club over the past year and combines a calm playing style with excellent one-vs.-one defending and athleticism. He is surely primed for a summer move to a bigger league.

Petar Ratkov, 20, ST, Serbia

Yet another to emerge from the FC Salzburg youth ranks, Ratkov might find it hard to make his mark at Euro 2024 as he fights for a spot in a Serbia squad that already includes Aleksandar Mitrovic, Dusan Vlahovic and Luka Jovic -- especially as it's a side that usually features only one striker. Yet with the 6-foot-4 frontman having more pace and penetrative power than his rivals, he could be thrown on as an impact sub.

Benjamin Sesko, 21, ST, SloveniaBenjamin Sesko has scored 18 goals in 42 games this season. Damjan Zibert/Soccrates/Getty Images

Speaking of players who came through the Salzburg ranks, Sesko has shown the pathway and his recent form for RB Leipzig this season -- seven goals in as many matches -- has placed him firmly on the radar of Europe's top clubs, including Arsenal and Manchester United. A No. 9. striker with a complete skill set, Sesko stands 6-5, is powerfully built and deceptively quick, while he rarely needs more than two touches to finish.

Heorhiy Sudakov, 21, AM, Ukraine

The technically brilliant 21-year-old is expected to start for Ukraine this summer and could seal a €70m move to the Premier League if he impresses. The Shakhtar Donetsk star possesses all the qualities of the modern attacking midfielder -- high level one-vs.-one skills, fine passing and tactical understanding -- and generally prospers in a central No. 10 role. Creative and agile, Sudakov can spot gaps between the lines and will be a key source of Ukraine's goals and assists.

Kenan Yildiz, 19, FW, Turkey

Having moved from Bayern Munich in 2022, the German-born prodigy was promoted from the Juventus academy last season and made an immediate mark on the first team. Catching the eye for his outstanding flair, ball-carrying abilities and creativity, he doesn't shun defensive responsibilities either. Yildiz scored on his first start for Turkey in a 3-2 friendly win against Germany in November and is likely to be fielded as an inverted left winger or even as a "false No. 9" striker by Turkey coach Vincenzo Montella.

Arthur Vermeeren, 19, DM, Belgium

While his club career hasn't yet got going after his €18m move to Atlético Madrid in January, the midfield strategist is still not far off a starting role for Belgium and is a viable option to replace Amadou Onana deep in midfield should Tedesco want more playmaking from deep. Vermeeren is a fluid, imaginative passer of the ball, but also possesses precocious leadership skills and is never shy of taking charge on the pitch.

Source: espn.co.uk

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