UEFA Nations League next gen: Sancho, Barella, Ndombele, Suso, Bergwijn
The switch from international friendlies to the new UEFA Nations League has prompted concerns that managers will be less inclined to blood untested youngsters. With points on offer, promotion to be gained and relegation to avoid, it makes sense for coaches to prioritise results over development.
There are, however, some extremely talented young players amongst Europe's major nations at the moment. Here are five who might make their competitive debut in this round of Nations League fixtures.
Jadon Sancho, England
While other talented young Englishmen kick their heels on the fringes at major Premier League clubs, Jadon Sancho did something unusual -- at least by the standards of English footballers -- by venturing abroad last summer at the age of 17, leaving Manchester City's youth set-up and joining Dortmund.
Within two months Sancho had made his Bundesliga debut, and his first Bundesliga start came in January. His breakthrough performance came in Dortmund's 4-0 thrashing of Leverkusen in April, when he opened the scoring with a measured sidefoot into the bottom corner, and assisted two more goals from the left, one after a remarkable piece of control -- bringing down a crossfield ball on the run by throwing his right foot out behind him.
This season, Dortmund coach Lucien Favre has mainly used Sancho from the bench, and he's developed a remarkable pedigree as a supersub for the Bundesliga leaders, collecting six assists, the most in the division, despite playing just 215 minutes. He's picked up another assist in the cup, and another in the Champions League.
Comfortable on either flank, Sancho appears capable of almost anything in the final third. He can beat opponents through speed, cut inside or outside, and play unfussy balls in to the centre-forwards. His goal scoring statistics for England's youth sides, meanwhile -- 23 in 34 games -- suggest that he could become prolific, too.
Sancho is unlikely to start for Gareth Southgate's England this week, and with good reason -- right now, he's the hottest supersub in Europe.
Nicolo Barella, Italy
Italy have problems at both ends of the pitch: they haven't kept a clean sheet in their last eight matches, the Azzurri's worst defensive run since the 1950s, and during that period they've only scored more than once on one occasion: against lowly Saudi Arabia. Roberto Mancini's side are at their lowest point for decades.
In the centre of the pitch, however, there's reason to be optimistic. In Wednesday night's 1-1 friendly draw with Ukraine, Mancini fielded an ultra-technical midfield trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and debutant Nicolo Barella. Italy have often depended upon workmanlike footsoldiers in midfield, but now they're attempting to deploy multiple playmakers.
Barella's international debut was a natural step for the hugely talented midfielder who has represented Italy at every level from under-15s upwards. He's excelled on the left of a midfield diamond for his hometown club Cagliari, an heir to the outstanding Andrea Cossu, who long excelled for the Sardinian side and deserved more than his two Italy caps.
Barella plays deeper than that, and his switch into the deep-lying midfield position in a recent draw with Milan has furthered comparisons to Andrea Pirlo. There's a sense that he, Jorginho and Verratti are actually too similar, but then Spain have not suffered with so many small, technically adept midfielders. Italy might be pivoting towards a more technical, positive approach.
Tanguy Ndombele, France
Lyon's 2-1 victory over Manchester City last month was one of the most surprising results of the European season so far, and amongst the most impressive performers was young midfielder Tanguy Ndombele. Shielding the defence while playing positive passes into attack, it was a top-class performance against quality opposition.
Ndombele is defined by his ability to contribute in both phases of the play. While France have a fine history of developing defensive midfielders who screen the opposition effectively, with Claude Makelele, N'Golo Kante and national team coach Didier Deschamps amongst the most obvious examples, Ndombele isn't merely a defensive midfielder.
He's already assisted four league goals this season, usually sidefooted balls after bursts into the inside-right channel, and there was also a wonderful crossfield pass for Bertrand Traore in the 4-2 victory over Marseille.
It remains to be seen whether Deschamps hands Ndombele his international debut this week, for the friendly against Iceland or the Nations League contest against Germany, but with Corentin Tolisso out injured, Blaise Matuidi now 31, and Steven N'Zonzi turning 30 later this year, it would make sense to ease the 21-year-old into action sooner rather than later.
It feels like Suso has been around forever, after being thrown into the deep end during Brendan Rodgers' first season at Liverpool. The talent was there, but physical power and tactical knowledge was lacking and the forward was transferred to Milan where he was forced to learn another type of football.
His development has been slower than expected, and was loaned out to Genoa in 2015-16 before returning for a couple of decent seasons at the San Siro, punctuated by sporadic moments of magic amidst neat, tidy but slightly unproductive performances overall.
This season, though, Suso has been in tremendous form. He created both goals in a draw at Atalanta, scored twice in a 4-1 victory as Sassuolo and then recorded a rare hat trick of assists in the 3-1 victory over Chievo at the weekend.
Spain aren't exactly understaffed in terms of wide forwards, and Suso is competing against the likes of Rodrigo, Dani Ceballos and Marco Asensio -- the Real Madrid pairing are both younger than the 24-year-old Suso. But with Isco, who has started wide-left for Spain under Luis Enrique so far, out injured, Suso seems a good option. He now offers end product and perfectly understands how to play wide in a 4-3-3, the system Luis Enrique has always favoured.
Steven Bergwijn, Netherlands
The number of talented youngsters emerging from the Eredivisie has slowed over the last decade, reflected in Netherlands' significant drop in performance at international level -- but now there's a new generation emerging. Justin Kluivert has the most eye-catching name, Frenkie de Jong is the most unique talent, but the emergence of Steven Bergwijn feels particularly important.
The Dutch have long produced great wingers and Bergwijn is a hugely exciting, talented dribbler who loves running at opponents, teasing them with his close footwork before bursting past. After the retirement of Arjen Robben, Ronald Koeman's national side needed an exciting youngster in his mould.
Bergwijn's history is interesting -- after rising through the ranks at Ajax, a disagreement with a youth coach meant he quit and headed for rivals PSV. Last season was his first as a regular, but this season his attacking output has increased significantly, with four goals and four assists in eight appearances. His starring performance came in PSV's 6-1 destruction of Willem II, when he first scored after cutting inside onto his right foot (the type of goal that could become his trademark) and then scored with a header, suggesting a determination to get himself into close-range scoring positions more regularly.
There's still plenty of room for improvement, as you'd expect from a winger who only turned 21 this week, particularly in terms of developing his weaker left foot. Then again, being one-footed never harmed Robben.