The 2023 UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Romania & Georgia has reached the knockout stage. England and France have impressed, while defending champions Germany crashed out in the group stage with no wins from their three games. Top nations Italy, Belgium and Netherlands have also departed unexpectedly early.
But which of the young stars on show could be next to move? Who should clubs have on their radar with the European transfer window set to open on July 1?
Curtis Jones, 22, CM, Liverpool / England
While England may have had a straightforward path to the knockout stage with back-to-back wins against Czech Republic, Israel and Germany, there’s no denying that the Liverpool midfielder has been one of the stars of the group stage.
With England already through, Jones was rested for the Germany game but was on song against Israel. Not only did he register in excess of 100 touches (with a 95% passing accuracy) but he distributed with intent, especially over long distances, organised the flow of the game and shrugged off opponents in crowded areas.
With just one out-and-out central midfielder alongside him, Jones has assumed an old-fashioned playmaker role, yet has proven dynamic enough to progress with the ball and feed his wingers without shunning defensive duties. Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is no doubt keeping a close eye on his form amid the club’s midfield rebuild.
One of the revelations of the German Bundesliga season, the left-footed centre-back has taken his club form to international level. Playing on the left of Netherlands’ back four, Van de Ven is a composed defender who hardly ever appears rushed and has also deputised at left-back for his club.
Even at 6-foot-4, he has a balanced style of defending and prefers to wait out opponents rather than going for interceptions on the front foot. He has exceptional speed for one so tall and his strength helps deal with opponents in one-vs.-one situations too. In possession, Van de Ven’s ability to step up and evade pressure with the ball has been on show, with Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool reportedly keen to sign him.
The right wing-back did not impress enough during his 22-game loan spell at Internazionale for the club to exercise the option to sign him permanently for around €7m, but Bellanova’s displays in Romania suggest he won’t be short of suitors this summer.
After a solid outing against France, in which the absence of VAR denied him what appeared a legitimate last-minute equaliser when Castello Lukeba handled his shot on the line, he came to the fore in the win against Switzerland and proved a constant source of high-energy runs and take-ons down the right flank.
Bellanova, who has also featured as a centre-back on the right of a back three, sports a rare blend of height (6-foot-2), impressive ball-carrying and one-vs.-one capabilities. Torino are reportedly close to agreeing a move to sign him.
Lukeba may have come to his country’s rescue through unorthodox means against Italy to save Bellanova’s shot, but a few days later against Norway, he put on a masterclass in defending and leadership.
In addition to his trademark high-accuracy distribution from the back, Lukeba intercepted, anticipated early, won 80% of his aerial duels and even saved a goal-bound effort off the line deep into added time (with his feet this time.)
Tottenham, Chelsea and Man United have been linked with the left-footed cenre-back before, but it has been reported that the 20-year-old is being lined up to replace Josko Gvardiol at RB Leipzig in the event of the latter moving to Manchester City for €100m.
In a Spain midfield crammed with talent (the fact that Celta Vigo starlet Gabri Veiga is yet to start a game tells its own story), the Athletic Club midfielder adds an extra dimension with his skillset.
In the 3-0 win against Romania, the co-hosts struggled to deal with the 23-year-old’s off the ball movement and were overwhelmed by his stamina and power. Though capable of featuring deeper in midfield, he poses a huge threat from his “No. 8½” role from which he links defence and attack. Indeed, his splendid ball control, rapid acceleration and clever interchanges often set up goal-scoring chances for his teammates.
Hosts Georgia topping the extremely competitive Group A ahead of Portugal, Netherlands and Belgium came as a huge surprise, but it was the result of a tremendous team effort perfectly encapsulated by 21-year-old centre-back Saba Sazonov, who has given everything to the cause.
Yet in a team generally happy to let their opponents keep the ball, Davitashvili has proved a constant thorn in the opponents’ side at the other end. The fast, intense attacking midfielder — who has just signed a new deal at Bordeaux until 2027 — has been a superb outlet for passes out of defence due to his roaming nature.
Despite being drafted into the U21 side just days after appearing for the senior national team (and playing five games in 10 days in the process), Davitashvili has taken on defenders, attracted fouls and driven forward at high-speed to give his defence a much-needed rest. To cap it all, he outmanoeuvred the entire Netherlands defence in the decisive group match to score a magnificent Khvicha Kvaratskhelia-esque solo effort.
One of the youngest players to feature in the tournament, the Benfica prodigy announced his entry in the U21 side with three starting appearances and a stunning volley against Belgium that helped see Portugal through to the quarterfinals.
As an academy product of Benfica he’s blessed with a delicate touch on the ball and is adept at clever interchanges, or leaving his marker behind him on the half turn. In a floating No. 8 role, he has linked up well with the impressive Tiago Dantas in midfield, finding pockets between the opposing lines and driving into space. In addition to his style, creativity and flair, Joao Neves is not shy of pressing and there’s bite to his tackling too. Picture a teenage Joao Moutinho and you won’t go far wrong in his style.
U21 Euros stars to impress: Jones, Van de Ven, Lukeba, more