Unlike the monotony of meaningless friendlies, there is definitely something more exciting to look forward to in the fledgling UEFA Nations League, says Matt Jones
There are always groans when the domestic football action is disturbed just weeks into the new season with the introduction of an international break.
But whereas the monotony of meaningless friendlies can rightly irk club managers and supporters alike, there is definitely something a little more exciting to look forward to in the fledgling UEFA Nations League.
It feels very much like a Champions League-style competition for international sides, with group games kicking off this week and the knockout stages to follow and be completed by the summer of 2019.
European behemoths Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Croatia, the Netherlands, as well as Iceland, are the elite 12 nations competing in the top tier of the tournament.
Here we look at five young players to look out for as the tournament action in League A kicks off on Thursday.
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Position: Attacking midfielder
Senior caps: 0
Considering the buzz surrounding all-action Leverkusen midfielder Havertz, it’s surprising to discover it’s been a rather rapid one – he was not part of the Germany squad that won the European Under-21 Championship in Poland last year for example.
In fact, he has never represented his nation at a higher level than his current age. Yet the man who only turned 19 in June became the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 50 appearances last season and won the coveted Fritz Walter Medal at U19 level.
He was awarded the silver U-17 Fritz Walter Medal in 2016 before breaking into Leverkusen’s senior side the following year.
The Aachen-born prodigy has a game which has been likened to Leverkusen legend and former Germany midfielder Michael Ballack – not afraid to go in where it hurts at either end of the pitch.
His club boss Heiko Herrlich has labelled him “the biggest talent I have seen since Toni Kroos”.
A bold statement, but his stats back up the praise – his 96 per cent pass success rate in the early throes of 2018/19 lead the Bundesliga and he has grabbed seven goals and 15 assists in just 39 league starts.
Donny van de Beek
Position: Central/defensive midfield
Senior caps: 4
Dutch giants Ajax were ravaged by Roma this summer – Hakim Ziyech and Justin Kluivert deciding the time was right to make the next step in their careers.
Another prodigious talent the Giallorossi were also keen on prying from the clutches of the Amsterdam outfit was tenacious defensive midfielder Van de Beek – but the 21-year-old rejected the overtures of the Serie A side, claiming that Ajax is the right place for his development.
It’s not hard to see why clubs would be interested in a player who has four Oranje senior caps. Despite his role as a central midfielder, Van de Beek is afforded much more licence to roam forward for Ajax – as evidenced by his 13 goals in 39 total appearances last season.
That included 11 goals and six assists in the Eredevisie – he trailed only David Neres (14) and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (13) in the goalscoring stakes for Ajax and, in November, scored a hat-trick in an 8-0 league victory against NAC Breda.
Roma are not the only big side to have taken notice, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich believed to be interested.
Position: Right-back/right wing
Senior caps: 0
The 6ft 1in Belgian is a modern-day right-back in the truest sense, affecting the game at both ends of the pitch. He impressed on his Serie A bow last term – making 26 appearances for the Goddess and scoring one goal. The hope is the Belgian U-21 international will build on that and he is going the right away about it as he has already matched his goalscoring exploits in just two league outings this term – scoring an equaliser in the 3-3 draw against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.
Atalanta signed Castagne from Genk last summer as a replacement for AC Milan-bound Andrea Conti. He scored two goals in 10 Europa League games during 2016/17 as Genk impressively reached the quarter-finals.
He was second only to Robin Gosens in tackles per game last season (2.7) while his 1.5 blocks per game leads the way for the Bergamo-based club this term.
Senior caps: 0
A terrier-like talent who has been likened to Marek Hamsik and Radja Nainggolan, Barella is an energetic midfielder with plenty of substance, equally adept at forcing turnovers and flipping defence into attack as he is spraying balls out to the flanks.
The marauding midfielder has made steady progress through the Rossoblu’s ranks ever since debuting in Serie A just after his 18th birthday at the end of the 2014/15 season.
He’s gone on to make over 60 appearances for the Sardinians and enjoyed a breakout 2017/18 campaign in which he scored six league goals.
Barella has long been pegged as a future regular at international level for Italy, having represented the Azzurri with aplomb at every level from Under-15 all the way up to the U-21s. And now could be the time for him to make the step up to the elite, with national team boss Roberto Mancini looking to breathe life back into the Azzurri after a disastrous failed bid to make the 2018 World Cup finals – the first time in 60 years the four-time champions had not appeared.
Barella has a slew of admirers, including Inter and Roma in Italy, as well as Lyon, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid further afield.
Club: Atletico Madrid
Position: Central/defensive midfield
Senior caps: 1
Los Rojiblancos realised the error of their ways this summer when they re-signed academy graduate Rodrigo Hernandez – commonly known as Rodri – from Villarreal for the princely sum of €20 million, plus €5m in variables.
For someone Atleti discarded in 2013 due to a “lack of physical strength”, the 22-year-old enjoyed a dominant 2017/18 campaign for the Yellow Submarine.
The busy central midfielder led Villarreal in a plethora of categories including average passes per game (66.8), pass accuracy (90.1 per cent), as well as aerials won (2.7), while his 2.8 tackles per game was second only to Mario Gaspar – evidence of his supreme all-round game and making a mockery of Madrid’s earlier folly in letting him go.
After playing for Spain at U-16, U-19 and U-21 levels, Rodri was first called up to the senior side in March this year for the friendlies with Germany and Argentina. He made his debut in the 1-1 draw against Die Mannschaft in Dusseldorf, replacing Thiago Alcantara.
There may be a lot of talent ahead of him in La Roja’s ranks but with the retirement of Andres Iniesta and the need to lighten the load on Barcelona pivot Sergio Busquets, Rodri could well have arrived at just the right time.