We continue our assessment of some of the best players most likely to catch our eye with a look at arguably the most talented bunch of the lot - namely, attacking midfielders. Whether you call them flair players, playmakers, creative geniuses, or just quality players with an eye for goal, we’re sure the following list of players contain many who will be grabbing the headlines throughout the forthcoming feast of European football.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
We might as well start at the top with arguably the best midfielder in the world in the shape of Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne. An untimely facial injury means that the Manchester City playmaker might not make the opening game, but with Belgium likely to go deep into the tournament, there should be plenty of time for us to see this creative genius strut his stuff on the big stage. He possesses all the ingredients a manager could ask for in his main playmaker - his work-rate off the ball is as good as anyone’s, but is overshadowed by his ability in possession.
His vision gives him the ability to see passes that others can’t even imagine, and he has the skill and the passing ability to execute, often turning defence into attack with one slide-rule pass. Twenty assists in City’s title-winning campaign demonstrates just how his passing finesse can unlock defences, and his ability to pop up with important goals himself makes him the complete midfield package.
Bruno Fernandes (Portugal)
Not far behind De Bruyne in the claims for best midfielder is Portugal’s Bruno Fernandes, who has really caught the eye since his move to Manchester United eighteen months ago. United were in the doldrums before he joined, but have since enjoyed third and second-placed finishes in the Premier League, as well as making the 2021 Europa League final, albeit putting up a poor showing to lose to Villarreal.
The Portuguese playmaker’s involvement in goals is split about 50/50 between those he scores and those he assists, and although many of his United goals have come from the penalty spot, his ability to pop up with a moment of genius in the opposition box makes him a constant threat. He might have to contend with starting the Euros in Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow, but he has the class to emerge into a shining light in his own right before the end of the tournament.
Serge Gnabry (Germany)
One name that might just fly under the radar going into the tournament is Serge Gnabry, possibly because Germany have slipped a little from the international limelight recently. Of course, you underestimate Germany at a major tournament at your peril, and if Gnabry is on song, then they might yet rise to the level of former glories.
While never a shoe-in at Bayern Munich (he has been loaned out to Hoffenheim in recent seasons), Gnabry has been nothing short of sensational on the international stage, marking his 21 caps under Joachim Low with no less than 15 goals from his attacking midfield role. If Germany go deep into the tournament, and if Gnabry is given similar licence to push on, then he might just be a dark horse contender for the Golden Boot.
Federico Chiesa (Italy)
Despite a difficult season that saw Juventus concede the Serie A title after nine straight successes, Federico Chiesa still managed to be directly involved in 26 Juve goals in all competitions during his debut season since moving from Fiorentina. His 15 goals and 11 assists indicate just what a threat he is when he pushes on in the final third, and he is sure to play a role in Roberto Mancini’s plans, probably running the channels in behind striker Ciro Immobile. With the Italian boss happy to mix youth with his more experienced players, there is likely to be plenty of opportunities for 23-year-old Chiesa to make his mark.
Hakan Calhanoglu (Turkey)
Turkey reached the finals more through their defensive resilience (eight cleans sheets in ten qualifiers), than their attacking prowess. However, they might surprise a few teams if they can back that defensive resolve with attacking intent, and in Hakan Calhanoglu, they appear to have just the man for the task.
He is reported to be heading for the Premier League next season, after providing ten assists for Milan this year, as well as making more key passes than any player in any of the five big European leagues. Add his three goals and four assists in just eight international appearances into the mix, and Turkey might have that vital creative ingredient capable of unlocking a defence and turning a tight game into a narrow win.
Jack Grealish (England)
England are currently overflowing with slick attack-minder midfielders, and this list might just have easily included Mason Mount or Phil Foden as exciting emerging talents. The jury is still out as to whether Jack Grealish will become an international regular, or will follow in the frustrated footsteps of underused flair players in the ilk of Glenn Hoddle and Tony Currie of years gone by.
The fact that Gareth Southgate has given Grealish a fair amount of game time during the warm-up games suggests that the England boss thinks that the Aston Villa playmaker has the ability to unlock defences at international level. His skill and vision on the ball is as good as anyone’s, while his ability to ghost past opponents not only creates space when successful, but also draws fouls in dangerous areas which England would be happy to exploit.
Christian Eriksson (Denmark)
It’s not always easy to make a case for a quality player in an arguably ordinary team, but Christian Eriksson must get a mention in an improving Denmark side that might go further in this tournament than the bookies give them credit for. While struggling to make the hoped-for impact at Inter, he has nevertheless been part of a title-winning team, and when it comes to playing for his country, he remains Denmark’s talisman and is at the centre of everything in the opposition half.
Expect to see him behind most of Denmark’s better moments going forward, and with his ability from dead-ball set pieces, opposing defenders will be wise to avoid conceding free kicks anywhere near their own goal.
Gareth Bale (Wales)
Wales are unfancied for this tournament, but then again they were underdogs at Euro 2016 as well, and that didn’t stop them reaching the semi-finals in a memorable campaign. The vital cog in more potential success remains their only real stand-out player, Gareth Bale, and if he can rise to the occasion again, then the Welsh might once again cause a few upsets.
For various reasons Bale was given limited opportunities during his season on loan at Tottenham, but he still managed to bang in 11 league goals, despite not once completing 90 minutes in any of his twenty appearances. Wales will set up with a mindset of defensive resilience, but if they can get the ball to Bale in the attacking third, then he still has the pace and the quality to be a game changer.