Skilful players: U21 Euro 2020

Guide All Ages

After a year delay, international tournaments were back. And so was world-class talent. But who grabbed our attention most? In the first of three articles, we focus on key individuals from the U21 Euros – and examine how you can develop similar players.

Justin Kluivert, a product of the famous Ajax academy, can play on either wing. He’s confident on the ball, challenges defenders 1v1 and showcases excellent pace and ball mastery in possession.

These skills allow him to threaten defences – which was highlighted in his performances against Germany in the group stage, where he was named player of the match, and France in the quarter finals.

The stats back up his attacking threat too. Kluivert attempted 27 take-ons in the tournament, the fourth most out of 39 wide players. He completed 17 of these attacking 1v1s – the third-best return for players in his position.

Clearly, Kluivert is not afraid to take the ball and try to do something positive with it. And this is a trait we want our young players to develop as well.

Spreading our stay on the ball message is a great way to start. It gives players the time to develop their confidence. Once they’re comfortable in possession, they’ll be in a position to run with the ball at speed. Combine this with great physical literacy, and you could have a very creative player on your hands.

FABIO VIEIRA, 21, ATTACKING MIDFIELDER, PORTUGAL It may come as no surprise that Fabio Vieira is on this list. After being named the U21 Player of the Tournament, the future looks very bright for this young Portuguese attacking midfielder.

Overall, Vieira had:

  • the fourth most touches for a central attacking midfielder (averaged 78 a game)
  • the second-highest touches in the attacking third (32 per 90)
  • the fourth highest touches in the opposition box (three per game).

He’s a player who loves getting on the ball and getting into the right spaces.

To play like Vieira, your team need to be encouraged to be creative. That comes from the environment that you set. Players also need the opportunity to play in and around the box. Using small-sided games or focusing your practice designs on the final third can help.

Justin Kluivert pulls his right leg back as he prepares to strike the ball towards goal for the Netherlands during the 2021 UEFA European Under-21 Championship Semi-final against Germany.
Kluivert's ability on the ball allowed him to drive at defenders and be an attacking threat for the Netherlands. (Photo by Chris Ricco/UEFA via Getty Images). 


Scoring the winning goal in the U21 Euro Final is certainly a good way to make a name for yourself. In 20 Germany U21 appearances, Lukas Nmecha has netted 12 times. He also claimed the Alipay Top Scorer Award in the U21 competition.

Although predominately right-footed, Nmecha can shoot using both feet – and strike from distance. On loan for Anderlecht last season, he scored 21 goals in 41 appearances in league and cup competitions. Definitely a player with an eye for goal.

If you want your team to develop this skill, finishing practice is the way to go. Luckily, your players won’t need much persuasion – kids love to score goals. Sure, they can seem a bit chaotic with balls flying around, but it’s an essential part of the game.

When you set up your activity, challenge your players to try shooting with both feet – just like Nmecha. It may be difficult for some, but with time, they could find themselves being able to finish with either foot.

Here are three finishing sessions you could try, or take ideas from, to get you started:

SVEN BOTMAN, 21, DEFENDER, NETHERLANDS At 6ft 4in, Sven Botman already looks like a dominant player in the Dutch backline. He’s very strong in the air, as demonstrated by his headed goal from a corner against Hungary in a 6-1 win.

He also showed good technical skill when passing and building up from the back. Across the four games he played at the Euros, he attempted 324 passes and completed 294 (91%).

Botman is a modern defender. To help your players develop the skills required to become one, try working on positioning, decision-making and getting comfortable on the ball. Playing in midfield could also help. It gives players plenty of opportunities to get on the ball and to pass – experience they can transfer when they play in defence.

Germany's Lukas Nmecha rounds the keeper, who is at full stretch diving to his left, and shoots with his right foot to score during the 2021 UEFA European Under-21 Championship Final against Portugal.
Nmecha controlled the ball with his left foot then finished with his right, to score Germany's winning goal in the final. (Photo by Jurij Kodrun/Getty Images Sport via Getty Images).


In addition to the advice above, the following fundamentals will help you develop skilful players, like those in the U21 Euros.

1. Switch playing positions

Give players the opportunities to experience a range of different positions, roles and formations. They all pose different challenges.

2. Create the right environment

Build an environment where your team are excited to train and play. Psychological safety is a massive part of player development, and it will only support your players on their journey.

3. Offer praise and encouragement

Do not underestimate the power praise can bring your players when they’re trying new things. It will be tough for them, and they may get frustrated, but if you give them time and have a positive outlook, your encouragement can help them keep going.

Article image courtesy of Jurij Kodrun/Getty Images Sport via Getty Images.

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