There’s still the small matter of a final to go but with all bar one match of Euro 2020 in the bag we’ve set ourselves the enviable task of picking the very best players from what has been an outstanding tournament. You can see our choices in detail below.
You might remember from our Champions League team of the tournament the great existential funk I was thrown into over whether to go with the goalkeeper who conceded the fewest goals or the one who made the most saves. One of them does a lot of work, some of which is not really his fault, while the other can at times simply sit back and enjoy the excitement at the other end of the field.
Unfortunately we find ourselves in that quagmire once again at Euro 2020. Imagine not picking Jordan Pickford, the man who began the tournament with five straight clean sheets and still has not let one in from open play. Well, ladies and gentlemen, not only can I imagine it, I can do it. The Everton No. 1 has been behind defenders who have been simply outstanding at stopping opponents from getting shots away from open play and they shall certainly get the credit that is due them in this team.
In six games Pickford has faced efforts on goal which, per FBref, have a post shot expected goal (xG, a metric that assesses the probability of any shot ending in a goal) of just 1.5. Russian back up Anton Shunin faced more pressure on his goal than that in just one game.
Once more we’re looking for the goalkeepers who have done a lot of work well. Lukas Hradecky’s of Finland should be in the mix there; he saved his only penalty of the tournament and outperformed the xG he faced on his goal by the highest margin. He also ranks exceptionally highly for save percentage, beaten only by Pickford, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Thibaut Courtois. Ultimately the relatively limited sample size of three games might just count against Hradecky, particularly when Group B proved to be such a curious affair.
Donnarumma might be a leading contender but a nervy semifinal rather blotted his copy book though it is hard to find a goalkeeper at this tournament who has not gone rogue on occasion. Perhaps in this tournament performing in clutch moments is the most important facet and no-one could suggest that Kasper Schmeichel did not.
The Dane ranks high without storming any category: conceding 1.1 fewer goals than the xG he faced would suggest he might including that penalty save against England, setting a new record for most saves in a Euros game (beating his father in the process) and registering the second-highest save percentage of any goalkeeper to face more than 20 shots on target. Before the semifinal Yann Sommer was the leading contender for his shootout heroics but the exceptional obduracy of Schemichel at Wembley sees him steal the spot.
PICK: Kasper Schmeichel, Denmark
Shall we get the hard part out of the way first? You could conceivably name an entire team of left backs who deserve to be in the team of the tournament. In fact that sounds like a great idea…
Left back XI: Davies; Boril, Tierney, Shaw; Spinazzola, Alaba, Jose Gaya, Gosens; Maehle, Van Aanholt, Jordi Alba — in goal Ben Davies’ aerial strength means he can be trusted under the high ball, Spinazzola and Maehle get the chance to show what they can do with the right foots on the right flanks whilst that Gosens, Jordi Alba left flank will cut teams to shreds.
Anyway, back in the room now. There are at least four players with extremely convincing cases for a team of the tournament spot. Luke Shaw made more Euros assists in four minutes against Ukraine than Zinedine Zidane did in his entire career at the Championships. Jordi Alba was as effective an attacking force for Spain as he is in Barcelona colors.
But ultimately it comes down to two of the best players at the tournament: Joakim Maehle of Denmark and Leonardo Spinazzola of Italy. Both have offered similar challenges for opposing defenders, natural right footers who will look to drive toward the penalty area rather than cut infield. One has two goals and an assist, the other two assists. Spinazzola was involved in just over four shot creating actions per 90 minutes, Maehle 2.37 but he played significantly more minutes.
In the end it is largely a matter of personal preference who goes in the starting XI. Maelhe’s superior tackle numbers and ability to carry the ball into the penalty area (no one has done so more frequently in the tournament) mean he shades it.
The options at center back are far clearer. There have been those who have defended impressively in a backs to the wall fashion, particularly Sweden’s Marcus Danielson and Tomas Kalas of the Czech Republic. But in terms of building play from the back Aymeric Laporte is the overwhelming leader. He has carried the ball 2,386 progressive yards towards goal — no one else at the tournament has advanced it more than 1,500. The same is true for progressive passing, where he is at 4,293 yards and second place Schmeichel is second at just over 3,000. The center back has the second most passes into the final third; he has been as good a deep playmaker as any at the tournament.
Then there is John Stones, who serves as a rather helpful reminder that statistics and analytics cannot tell you everything. He does not particularly shine in those categories that Laporte, Danielson or Kalas excel in. If you judged him based on metrics you would assume he had a decent tournament. What the numbers cannot tell you is the composure and ease that emanates from the Manchester City center back, the sense that there is no genuine danger to the England goal when he is defending or has the ball at his feet. Considering that he was once viewed as a disaster waiting to happen that is no mean feat.
Perhaps he radiates that composure because he knows that Kyle Walker is there to clean up in behind. Throughout this tournament he has shown a burst of acceleration to bely his 31 years, most notably against Denmark when on more than one occasion he outpaced Mikkel Damsgaard at the back to quell the threat. Only the almost as excellent Vladimir Coufal (19) betters Walker’s interception tally of 16, what swings it to the England man is that for all the attacks that came down his flank he was not dribbled past once.
PICKS: Kyle Walker, England; John Stones, England; Aymeric Laporte, Spain; Joakim Maehle, Denmark
We should probably start with Pedri, shouldn’t we? As excellent a tournament as any teenager has had in a long time, the Barcelona playmaker had huge responsibility placed on his shoulders’ by Luis Enrique but he wore it with ease. No one at the tournament was involved in more shot- or goal-creating actions and no one brought the ball into the final third, either through a pass or carrying, more frequently. In his first major tournament he belongs firmly in the conversation for its best player.
If Spain got the best version of what they might have expected Pedri to be surely there were few in Denmark who expected the creative blossoming of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg into one of Euro 2020’s top playmakers. Admittedly any player who has worked under Pep Guardiola can probably be trusted to make shrewd decisions in possession but under Jose Mourinho at Tottenham the 25-year-old had come to be viewed as something of a midfield hatchet man. Not at these Euros.
Euro 2020’s top midfielders
Pierre Emile Hojberg
Kevin De Bruyne
We will never quite know for sure to what extent Hojbjerg had an additional creative responsibility thrust onto him due to the tragic events surrounding Christian Eriksen but he certainly offered all that could have been expected of him. In terms of shot-creating actions only Pedri and Lorenzo Insigne rank higher for the tournament. Six of those actions came from dead balls, a tally bettered by only four players. Hojbjerg was the hub of an excellent Danish side. Only five Spaniards, Stones and Jorginho received more passes than the Spurs midfielder.
Naturally he coupled that with his customary doggedness out of possession, one of just eight players at the tournament to apply pressure to the ball carrier on over 100 occasions whilst he had the fourth most combined tackles and interceptions.
With Hojbjerg and Pedri nailed on the final spot comes down to one of three with particular honorable mentions for Granit Xhaka and Paul Pogba. Kevin De Bruyne excelled in limited minutes but often in a more advanced role for Belgium. When Marco Verratti was on song for Italy he was arguably the best midfielder in the tournament — certainly he averaged the most shot-creating actions per 90 — but does it matter that when he played only four of those games he was effectively a non-entity against Spain? Equally if we are judging individual performance it is fair to say Italy were not all that worse off without him.
Instead — and he is something of a wild card considering how underwhelming their tournament was — the spot goes to Toni Kroos. If you might have thought he would have been the creator Hojbjerg is he instead proved to be a very effective shield to a gung ho German side that often attacked with three forwards, two wing backs and his midfield partner. No one won more tackles than Kroos whilst more predictably he leads the tournaments in progressive passes with 53 from four.
PICK: Toni Kroos, Germany; Pedri, Spain; Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Denmark
On this occasion we should deal with the contentious one first, shouldn’t we? Yes Cristiano Ronaldo is on course to win the Golden Boot and he certainly deserves consideration. But of his five goals three were scored from the penalty spot. There is an art to a well-taken penalty, they count for just as many goals as non penalties and it is not as if the Juventus striker was not getting chances from open play.
Still for the central striking role Patrik Schick just shades him. No player outperformed their xG by a greater margin than the Czech striker, an extremely unsurprising stat when you remember that remarkable goal he scored against Scotland what feels like a lifetime ago. In a side that never once had more possession than their opponents he took more shots per 90 minutes than any other player with four or more goals to their name at the tournament. None of that quintet can match his defensive work either with 1.36 tackles and 1.14 clearances per 90.
Out wide Raheem Sterling’s case is nailed on. He must surely be the frontrunner to win player of the tournament, the best player by far in one of the two finalists. No one has hit the target more frequently than the eight times he has managed to do so. The 18 opponents he has dribbled beyond — strings of them left looking exceedingly silly in the process — is three more than anyone else in the tournament. One could continue to wax lyrical over a player whose status as an all-time England great is already secure but you can already read that here.
Raheem Sterling celebrates after England’s 2-1 win over Denmark in the Euro 2020 semifinal
Ten spots secured and no one from the other finalist but Lorenzo Insigne deserves a spot as much as anyone. The diminutive Italian showed quite exceptional tactical acumen in the way he interwove attacks with Spinazzola and Verratti; particularly in those early wins for Italy his impudence set the tone for a remarkable tournament from Roberto Mancini’s side. The second most key passes, the second most shot creating actions, the second most passes into the penalty area: the Napoli forward was a revelation in so far as this was perhaps the moment when he stepped up from very good to exceptional. Few players if any typify this tournament’s capacity to surprise and delight quite like Insigne, the only footballer who might fit in that tiny car that delivers the ball.
PICKS: Raheem Sterling, England; Patrik Schick, Czech Republic; Lorenzo Insigne, Italy