The last time Spain won the UEFA Under-21 European Championships, in 2013, subsequent star names including David de Gea, Dani Carvajal, Thiago Alcantara, Alvaro Morata and Isco were among their most influential figures. Six years on, Dani Ceballos (below), Fabián Ruiz, Pablo Fornals and Dani Olmo were all pivotal to their success at the 2019 competition, furthering their burgeoning reputations. All are similarly expected to excel, but what makes them such exciting prospects? Here, we take a closer look at each.
Dani Ceballos, Fabián Ruiz, Pablo Fornals, Dani Olmo
Spain Under-21s, 2019
Ceballos’ professional debut came in April 2014 at Real Betis, where having overcome chronic bronchitis he made 73 appearances before moving to Real Madrid in 2017. He is a central midfielder capable of playing in both deep and advanced roles, where he has a number of strengths: the spatial awareness that allows him to play with speed; his range of passing; an ability to protect possession under pressure; and the constant movement that makes him a consistent option for the ball-carrier.
The 22-year-old, who has drawn comparisons with the great Andrés Iniesta, started every game for Spain Under-21s during the European Championships, scoring twice and making the competition’s second highest number of completed passes, with a total of 332. He may not be a regular goalscorer, but when he does score they tend to be spectacular – and he is also a significant threat from free-kicks.
Ceballos demonstrates excellent close control while dribbling, favouring the outside of his right foot to protect possession when he is. He will often take touches away from the direction of his next pass before executing it, to increase the angle by tempting defenders towards him (above).
Midfielder Fabián Ruiz (above) is another who made his professional debut at Real Betis, in December 2014. He moved to Napoli in 2018 and made 39 appearances for them throughout the 2018/19 season. His greatest strengths are his composure and technique, both of which are particularly influential in Spain Under-21s’ possession build-up. After being an unused substitute in their second group game against Belgium, he featured in every other fixture, contributing two goals on his way to being named the Player of the Tournament.
The 23-year-old regularly drops towards possession to provide simple passing options (above), and he will occasionally move into false full-back positions to receive the ball while facing forwards – which in turn helps him to dictate play. His forward runs off the ball get him into goalscoring positions, which often involve him arriving late into the penalty area and becoming the target for cutbacks and second balls. Fabian is also a threat shooting from distance, his preference being to shift the ball on to his left foot before curling beyond the goalkeeper.
Fornals (above) made his first senior appearance for Malaga’s first team in La Liga in September 2015, in a 0-0 draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. The attacking midfielder scored seven times in 52 appearances for them before a 2017 move to Villarreal, where he made a further 76 appearances and scored a further nine goals. In the summer of 2019, Fornals moved to West Ham for a fee of £24m. His greatest strengths are his penetrative passes and creativity as a right-footed player who prefers playing on the left.
The 23-year-old often drifts inside, looking to receive in half-spaces to turn and advance play, and combining effectively with attack-minded left-backs. When he plays on the outside of the opposition full-back, he cuts inside and looks to deliver inswinging crosses with his right foot (above).
Dani Olmo (above) is a right-sided attacking midfielder who began his career with Barcelona at La Masia before a shock move to Dinamo Zagreb in 2014. He made his first-team debut the following February, and only last season was named Player and Young Player of the Season for the Croatian top division, scoring 12 goals and assisting another nine in 44 appearances. He is a very attack-minded, creative player who can dribble to great effect, play with speed and finish well.
Olmo scored three goals in Spain’s victorious run in Italy, where he was the team’s top scorer. He also hit the net in their biggest matches: in the semi-final victory over France, and what became the decisive second in the 2-1 win against Germany in the final.
He starts wide and looks to create one-on-one situations, from which he is comfortable going inside or outside the defender (above). He is also comfortable drifting inside, and is adept at evading pressure from all angles through his close control and dribbling abilities.