U21 Euros scouting report, part 2: A Dutch stroller, Croatia’s No 10 and a Liverpool keeper
Welcome to part two of The Athletic’s Under-21 European Championship scouting articles, in which we’re keeping track of interesting players and compelling performances during this summer’s tournament in Georgia and Romania.
As before, an important caveat. The aim here isn’t to re-celebrate famous players. Instead, and without trying to be contrary, there will be a bias towards those who aren’t already stars and who didn’t feature in the Ones To Watch lists published before the competition began (here’s ours).
We’ll do an update after each round of games, so it’s likely the names will become more familiar as the series develops. But — initially at least — we’re looking for players either from the smaller nations, or those operating in the shadows of higher-profile team-mates.
Part one looked at the likes of midfielders Oleksiy Kashchuk, Anzor Mekvabishvili and goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen. Here is your second instalment.
Goalkeeper (Vitoria/Portugal), 22
Biai was left exposed by his defenders in Portugal’s loss to Georgia; neither of the goals conceded were his fault and he hardly had an opportunity to do very much else.
So the context for the game with the Netherlands was that Portugal could not afford a defeat. Lose and they were out, so this was high pressure — and the match swung on Biai’s biggest moment, when he made an outstanding plunging save to his left, before Portugal countered and scored down the other end.
His reflexes are certainly sharp, but he’s also proactive and happy to leave his line. His lack of experience means that the decisions he makes are not always the best. He had one of those moments against the Dutch when he rushed from his line to meet a long ball that his defenders had easily covered. It was rash, creating a flutter of anxiety that his defenders did not need.
But don’t be put off. The willingness to sweep is what matters and better execution will come with time. Biai has only started five senior league games for Vitoria and the flaws within his game can probably be attributed to that inexperience.
He is still a project goalkeeper. Late in the second half, he made a critical intervention to defuse a long ball, coming to the edge of his box to punch. Unfortunately, his contact was not pure and the ball skewed off for a corner from which the Netherlands ultimately equalised. It was harsh and — again — his defenders really should have done better from the set piece, but it emphasised there is room for improvement.
He still played well. Shortly before the goal, he made a really brave, smothering save from Brian Brobbey to protect the lead and, while not the tallest, he has a good, solid build that will serve him well as he improves.
So, there is something there, even if he does need a bit of work.
Midfielder (Royal Antwerp/Netherlands), 23
Some of these matches are not well attended. Even so, when Ekkelenkamp dragged a high ball out of the sky in the first half against Portugal, those who were in the stadium could be heard murmuring their appreciation for his first touch.
This might be a gratuitous inclusion because, truthfully, Ekkelenkamp was not that influential against the Portuguese. But he was intriguing. Aesthetically, if that makes sense.
He started on the right side of the attack, but drifted back, forward, infield and occasionally into the penalty box, too. The way he receives passes is delightful; he has that soft technique that makes his touches look so smooth and has you wondering whether they even make a sound.
Stylistically, he’s one of those tall, upright playmakers. A rangy stroller, really. He’s not the quickest and his game seems based around vision and positioning, and there was enough of that on Saturday night to pique the interest.
A good player — and statistically he was very important to Antwerp’s title-winning season. Five goals and seven assists from 22 league starts in Belgium this year makes him worth remembering. Keep an eye on him if the Dutch get through.
Defender (Wolfsburg/Netherlands), 22
Supposedly, if Josko Gvardiol leaves RB Leipzig this summer, Van de Ven would be on the shortlist to replace him. Whether that is accurate or not, on this evidence it would not be the worst idea.
He captained the Dutch team for part of the Portugal game and he certainly seems to have a presence. One of the advantages of the stadiums not being full is that you can hear most of what the players are saying — and Van de Ven is loud and vocal and everything you’d expect from a leader in that sense. More interesting, though, is the blend of size, speed and technical passing ability with which he plays.
Everyone knows about his pace; most people have seen that video of him defending a Union Berlin breakaway in the Bundesliga last season, blocking Jerome Roussillon’s shot on the goal line.
But his switches of play are impressively accurate and, against Portugal, he showed that he can either cut the ball into midfield, taking out lines of pressing players in the process, or just carry possession up the pitch himself. Think of him as a broad-shouldered Jan Vertonghen. That’s not who he is currently, but it shouldn’t be a ridiculous comparison in three or four years’ time.
This tournament can create false comparisons in the way that it pits players against each other who are at different stages of their physical development. So, the value of Van de Ven’s strength is difficult to measure within this particular context. But it is worth mentioning that he made Wolves’ Fabio Silva look helpless up front — he was too big, too quick, and too smart for him.
Silva is hardly a star of the game, but he has played well over 100 senior matches in England, Belgium and the Netherlands, so that dominance is a measure of something.
Maxim De Cuyper
Full-back/wing-back (Westerlo/Belgium), 22
De Cuyper scored the opening goal against Georgia and that drew the focus. It was a good goal, coming from a late run into the box and a planted header at the back post.
He played as a left-back in a 4-2-3-1. The current fashion, or the most desirable quality in full-backs or wing-backs, is their ability to invert and be flexible. De Cuyper does that — and well. Although he often received passes close to the touchline, his off-the-ball runs saw him push infield and high up the pitch. That is where his goal came from and it was characteristic of a performance which, through that dynamic, also allowed the left winger, Michel-Ange Balikwisha, to drop into the deeper space that De Cuyper would vacate.
His set pieces look good and his open-play delivery wasn’t bad, either. He created the second Belgian goal with a smart turn and cross that was headed home at the near post.
He is not smooth; he’s not one of those hyper-conditioned full-backs. Is that relevant, though? De Cuyper has the stature and style of someone like Marcos Alonso, for whom a lack of searing pace and the absence of trickery was hardly an obstacle.
The Belgians were careless with their 2-0 lead and lost it late on. That puts their qualification in serious doubt, but it will be worth watching how De Cuyper fares this week against Portugal. He will likely face Francisco Conceicao down his side — that really will provide a better indication of how good he actually is.
Midfielder (Dinamo Zagreb/Croatia), 20
Spain deserved their 1-0 win over Croatia on Saturday night. They continue to look very strong. Unfortunately, the loss eliminated the Croatians, serving as confirmation that this is not their strongest squad.
Baturina had a fine game, though. He is wearing the No 10 at this tournament and he might well end up as one, but his role on Saturday night was deeper. There were occasions when he received passes straight from his goalkeeper or centre-backs, and did so deep within his own half. Out of necessity perhaps, because his team did not enjoy a lot of attacking possession.
But he was still a treat to watch.
Everything he does, he seems to do at the same speed — and that is meant as a compliment. His touches, turns and the way he controls the ball and moves it; he doesn’t get jolted by the game around him.
Primarily, he’s a distributing player, an elegant one too, and it is fun to watch him stroke the ball around and push it into smart positions. Occasionally, he’ll even glide past an opponent before laying the ball off — again, with few gear changes that affect the rhythm around him, but leaves him very easy on the eye.
A stronger supporting cast would have helped. Too often he was the root of moves that ended up dying at the edge of the Spanish box. For instance, while he seems to really like to deliver from that Kevin De Bruyne area — the narrow corridor ahead of the right side of the penalty box — too often his well-aimed passes were not attacked. Croatia have been toothless. That is probably why Baturina has not stood out as much as he might have done.
But remember the name, because he is absolutely the kind of playmaker who will one day earn a move to Germany or France, and then unstitch a complacent Premier League team in the Europa League.
Midfielder (Hoffenheim/Germany), 22
The Germany FA (DFB) are having a rough summer and, with their under-21s on the verge of elimination at the group stage, the skies are growing darker. Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic was blunt and, in the end, careless. It is difficult to be enthused by much of what Germany have produced at this tournament.
Angelo Stiller was good, though. Relentless, in fact.
He scored his side’s only goal with a wicked feint and a smart, clipped finish, but his pursuit of the ball was very impressive, as was the ground he managed to cover. Running statistics are not readily available for this competition, but his coverage of the pitch must have been near total. He didn’t face much competition, but he was comfortably Germany’s best player and, at times, was occupying all three midfield roles at the same time.
He tackled, he passed, he even took set pieces; most of all, he generated all the momentum among a strangely flat group of players. In a sense, Germany’s shortcomings actually helped showcase his range of abilities. He is a deeper midfielder by trade and yet was forced forward by coach Antonio Di Salvo’s lack of creative options.
Stiller is at Hoffenheim currently and they endured a difficult Bundesliga season, over which he was largely peripheral. That won’t be the case next year though — they should be better and he’ll get many more than 700 minutes. He looks every inch a future senior international, albeit with a better-defined role.
Goalkeeper (Liverpool/Czech Republic), 21
Terrific. Actually, there’s an argument that Jaros produced the goalkeeping performance of the tournament against Germany. He did everything well; good feet, good hands, good decisions.
He spent last season on loan at Stockport County, so facing a side of Bundesliga players was a step up. Additionally, the two centre-backs in front of him were erratic and, while they each had dramatic clearances to their name, neither was particularly secure or looked reliable with his positioning. But Jaros was and that helped his side to win a game in which they only enjoyed 36 per cent of possession.
His highlight was a fantastic scrambling save to keep out a Stiller free kick — nimble footwork, stretching reach — but he also made an outstanding stop from a header that was sneaking into the far corner. Two really impressive moments. One to the left, one to the right.
This game didn’t show his range of passing from feet because the Czechs were happy enough to play long most of the time and then defend in numbers. In trying to break them down, the Germans did not have many ideas, often choosing to launch the ball into the penalty box. Jaros also did really under those high balls and perhaps his most important contribution was the strong claim he made deep into stoppage time, when he came way off his line to catch a final searching ball.
A fine bookend to a really strong performance.
(Top photos, from left: Ekkelenkamp, Baturina, Jaros. Getty Images)