The rumour mill is filled with transfer speculation linking household names and high-profile young talents with big-money moves to some of Europe’s top sides.
With the inflated prices being bandied about, clubs would do well to look past the names and identify potential superstars based on encouraging performances that may have been overlooked.
Promising talents often don’t get the attention they deserve because they’re featuring in lesser clubs away from the limelight of a title challenge or the recognition that comes with topping the charts for goals or assists.
A more extensive search though could unearth some hidden gems scattered across the European circuit and in this series, we put some of those players in the spotlight.
Hoffenheim’s criminally underrated midfielder Florian Grillitsch makes our first edition.
STYLE OF PLAY
A deep-lying playmaker more by nature than trade, Florian Grillitsch is tailor-made for the role. He’s comfortable receiving the ball from the defence, carrying it through the lines and can spray passes across the pitch with both feet.
His vision and passing ability are among his chief attributes as a midfield orchestrator while a modest 83.5 per cent pass success rate in the Bundesliga last season has as much to do with him still honing his skills as a 23-year-old as it does with Hoffenheim’s style of play.
Under the tactical astute and flexible Julian Nagelsmann, the Bundesliga club would press high and strike on the break with Grillitsch having to be fairly direct and penetrative with his passes. Indeed, only Fortuna Duesseldorf scored more goals (11) from counter-attacks last season than Hoffenheim (nine).
Grillitsch impressively brought an element of composure and control to the German side but he’s just as effective in winning possession. The Austrian has good height and wins his share of aerial duels but doesn’t boast a particularly imposing physique. However, he reads the game expertly, breaking up play with clever interceptions while also being a clean tackler.
Grillitsch isn’t a pacey player but owing to his long strides he’s quicker than he looks while his anticipation and positioning holds him in good stead.
The midfielder ranked sixth last season for tackles with 77 and third for interceptions with 72.
SIMILAR TO – Michael Carrick
With his physique, gait and passing range, several comparisons can be made between Grillitsch and Michael Carrick. The fact that his vital contributions largely go unnoticed only furthers the resemblance.
Like the former United star, Grillitsch won’t be racking up loads of assists and his goals will come at a premium but he pulls the strings deeper in midfield and is the kind of player his team-mates are grateful to line-up alongside.
After joining Hoffenheim from Werder Bremen, Grillitsch had a release clause in the region of €20 million. However, after two impressive seasons at the club, he signed a new deal this summer until 2022 which removed the clause.
He may be one of the most underrated players in the Bundesliga but if a big club comes knocking, expect the asking price to be closer to €35m now.
📃✍🏼 #GRILLO2️⃣0️⃣2️⃣2️⃣ ❗️ #TSG have secured the ongoing services of another key player: Florian #Grillitsch has prematurely extended his contract until June 30th 2022!— TSG Hoffenheim EN (@achtzehn99_en) June 5, 2019
"I am looking forward to now being an integral part of the new era under Alfred #Schreuder!” pic.twitter.com/J2hBVkTUnv
WHERE HE COULD THRIVE
Manchester United: The Red Devils are in the midst of a massive rebuilding project and Grillitsch could offer the perfect foundation. He would have the opportunity to establish himself at one of the biggest clubs in the world and develop along with what should be a new-look United side come the start of the season.
Arsenal: Grillitsch would also give Arsenal’s central midfield a big boost in quality and control. The Gunners have options in the final third but are often second best in the middle of the park.
Ajax: The Austrian even has the attributes to slot nicely into Ajax’s midfield. As an inexpensive replacement for Frenkie de Jong, he would have the opportunity to prove himself and perhaps even earn a dream move to major European outfit in the future.
Tottenham: Spurs were strongly linked with a move for the Hoffenheim player in January but their interest has waned following the removal of his release clause this summer. If their barren run in summer transfer windows persists though, they may be tempted to bite the bullet and snap up a player who would offer them the squad depth they lack while also providing healthy competition for Harry Winks.
The European Under-21 Championship stands as one of football’s great proving grounds.
A plethora of famous names will take to the fields in Italy and San Marino for the next fortnight. On Sunday’s opening night alone, Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos’ world-class 25-yard curled effort and Fiorentina winger Federico Chiesa’s brace lit up a 3-1 win for the co-hosts against Spain.
Talent in the competition, however, runs far deeper than just two of the continent’s most-recognisable youngsters. Sport360 has picked out a quartet of emerging starlets that are set to stamp their quality on the game, in the coming period.
Club: Real Sociedad
Interested club(s): Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao
‘Big Foot’ – so called because of his remarkable size 47 boots – has wasted no time in leaving a sizeable impression.
The Basque attacker boasts useful versatility, boundless energy and an improving eye for goal that witnessed a career-best 14 goals in 41 matches recorded in 2018/19. No wonder the likes of champions Barcelona have, reportedly, registered interest in landing a player who, joyously, does not fit the norms of Spanish football.
Do not expect the deftness of Manchester City’s 125-cap veteran David Silva or searing top speed of Jesus Navas from Oyarzabal. Only two assists were notched in 37 La Liga run-outs last term, while averages of 0.5 accurate crosses per game and 1.3 inaccurate crosses shows he doesn’t hug the touchline.
Parallels are, instead, drawn to a young Antoine Griezmann and his steep rise at La Real nearly a decade ago.
Whether stationed on either flank, or through the middle, Oyarzabal uses laudable work-rate, movement and a hammer of a left boot to wrought devastation. Euro U-21 defences beware.
Interested club(s): AC Milan, Inter Milan
Fiorentina’s loss has been Atalanta’s gain.
August 2016’s narrow-sighted decision to, perplexingly, dump the composed Mancini at lower-league Perugia has aged terribly. The commanding 23-year-old has gone on to earn a regular spot in Roberto Mancini’s – no relation – senior squad, plus a shot at the Champions League next term after his influential role during the grandest campaign in Atalanta’s 111-year history.
The Pontedera-native is the epitome of a modern centre-back. Towering height at 6 ft 3 in is bolstered by a sprinter’s pace, while he holds no fears over being tasked with developing play from defence.
There are, simply, no obvious weaknesses to his game. Mancini has even flourished at the opposite end of the pitch, forcing five strikes in 25 appearances during his first season of regular Serie A action to become the joint-highest-scoring centre-back.
Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic’s flood of goals grabbed attention at Atalanta in 2018/19. Both, however, would acknowledge the startling brilliance exhibited by the blossoming Mancini.
Club: Hertha Berlin
Position: Defensive midfielder
Interested club(s): Arsenal, Manchester United
Reports about the demise of Germany’s production line after the World Cup 2018 humiliation have been rubbished by the swathe of starlets that have since broken through.
The pick of these talents – such as Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz and Manchester City’s Leroy Sane – were eschewed duty for this under-age tournament. It does not mean, however, that fine performers cannot be found, chief among them being metronomic Hertha midfielder Maier.
Comparisons to Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos have been made with regularity since his Bundesliga debut in 2017. Maier’s 49 passes per 2018/19 Bundesliga match was the highest at Hertha, while his accuracy of 86.7 per cent was the joint-third best.
These statistics point to the joyful simplicity in his game. Why over-complicate things?
Like his esteemed compatriot, mastery of the midfield is earned through positioning and anticipation. Last term’s average of 1.3 tackles per top-flight fixture was only the 10th best at Hertha, despite his pivotal position in front of the defence.
With Hertha conceding 11 more goals than 2017/18, this passivity does have its drawbacks.
Maier is also yet to net from nearly 50 senior appearances, while much of this spring was impacted by fitness issues. But he possesses an influence that can only continue to grow.
Club: FC Copenhagen
Interested club(s): Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur
Few other players in Europe experienced an ascension to match Skov’s during 2018/19.
Perennial Superliga champions Copenhagen’s choice to plunder the Silkeborg ranks last summer was rewarded with a campaign that reset the barometers of individual success in Denmark. A left peg imbued with the explosive force of an atomic bomb saw Skov net a record 29 times in the top flight.
Remarkably, this epic haul contained 14 goals from outside the penalty box and an exceptional eight free-kicks. No wonder parties from across the continent have registered interest in acquiring him.
Skov is an unalloyed wide forward, repeatedly cutting inside from the right flank and peppering shots. Intriguingly for watching scouts, he was still able to produce nine assists from 34 games with the Telia Parken-outfit.
There will be worries that Skov’s propensity for long-range goals points to a one-season wonder. But with a predicted transfer fee under £10m, surely someone will gamble if even flickers of ability follow at the Euro U-21s.
The Brazil superstar has endured a hugely frustrating season with PSG, culminating in injury and an allegation of sexual assault that he strenuously denies.
To make matters worse, the 27-year-old has been ruled out of the entirety of the Copa America after sustaining an ankle injury in a warm-up versus Qatar.
PSG president Nasser Al Khelaifi has recently criticised unnamed players for their ‘celebrity behaviour’ in the French capital, and the remarks were almost certainly aimed at Neymar.
Now ESPN FC claim the Ligue 1 juggernauts are ‘open’ to selling their maverick, with a return to Barca or moves to Madrid and Manchester all possibilities.
It is unclear whether Barcelona or Real have the required funds – given their expenditure and pursuits of other players so far this summer – while United are foundering with no Champions League football next season.
Lionel Messi, however, recently made it clear that he would welcome Neymar back to Camp Nou with open arms to rekindle the ‘MSN’ connection.
“He’s a phenomenon, we keep in touch and still talk, in fact we have a Whatsapp group, him, Luis Suarez and me, it’s called ‘The three South Americans’ or something like that,” Messi said ahead of the Copa America.