Euro 2020 is a showcase for the some of the most exciting players in world football, but imagine attempting to pick 11 of them to form a European team of all talents? As ESPN senior writer Mark Ogden discovered while selecting his pre-tournament best XI, the most difficult element of that particular challenge is deciding who to leave out, rather than which players to select.
So without spending limits or international quotas, what is the best XI from all 24 of the 26-man squads? Mark has played fantasy football to pick his team of the tournament before a ball has even been kicked. (And stay tuned for his tournament-ending XI to see how much things change over the coming month.)
Euro 2020 is blessed with an array of outstanding goalkeepers, including Thibaut Courtois (Belgium), Rui Patricio (Portugal) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark), as well as rising stars such as Unai Simon (Spain) and Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy). But even after more than a decade at the highest level, Germany’s Neuer remains the best around.
With his consistency, physical skills and presence between the posts, the Bayern Munich No. 1 continues to keep Marc-Andre ter Stegen on the sidelines. Neuer has overcome injury issues to regain his status as the best in Europe, if not the world, and he will be a crucial factor for Germany if coach Joachim Low is to end his reign in charge with the country’s first European title since 1996.
Neuer took goalkeeping to a new level during the past decade; and the likes of Alisson and Ederson, his two rivals as the world’s best, both modelled their game on the 35-year-old’s “sweeper keeper” mindset, which means he is starting attacks as much as he is stopping them. Germany are in a tough group alongside world champions France and European champions Portugal, but Neuer is a good reason to not write them off.
Right-back: Joao Cancelo (Portugal)
England, in particular, have an embarrassment of riches in this position, with manager Gareth Southgate able to choose from Kyle Walker, Reece James and Kieran Trippier. Trent Alexander-Arnold was a fourth right-back in the England squad, until the Liverpool defender was forced to withdraw with a thigh injury.
France right-back Benjamin Pavard is another strong contender for this position, with Bayern Munich teammate Joshua Kimmich also in the frame due to Low considering using the defensive midfielder in a right wing-back role.
But Portugal’s Cancelo sneaks into this team because of his ability to be as effective going forward as he defensively. The Manchester City defender also can play on the left, and technically, he is the best right-back in the tournament.
Central defenders provide the foundation of every successful team — it’s a cliché, but an earned one, that defending wins trophies — and there are several world-class centre-halves at Euro 2020. But with such a cast list of top defenders, the only way to pick out the two to form a partnership is by going on the form they displayed in the final months of the club season.
On this basis, Rudiger and Dias edge out the likes of France’s Raphael Varane and Presnel Kimpembe and the Netherlands‘ Matthijs de Ligt. Spain centre-half Pau Torres was perhaps the biggest threat to the Rudiger-Dias pairing due to his performances for Europa League winners Villarreal. Virgil van Dijk would almost certainly have been one element of a Euro 2020 best XI, but the Dutch defender continues to recover from a cruciate ligament injury at Liverpool.
France defender Lucas Hernandez and Portugal’s Raphael Guerreiro have the international pedigree to claim the left-back position, while England have Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell battling it out to start. But even though he is representing Scotland, a country set for their first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup, Robertson is the outstanding left-back at Euro 2020.
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A Premier League and Champions League winner, Robertson’s defensive ability has been a mainstay for Liverpool, but his delivery from the left also has become a crucial component of the club’s success in recent seasons. His ability at both ends of the pitch gives him the edge over his rivals, and his form and fitness could be pivotal in whether Scotland make it to the knockout stages.
Defensive midfield: N’Golo Kante (France)
There is only one possible selection for the central defensive midfield role, and that is Kante. The Chelsea midfielder was outstanding in the Champions League final last month, and his all-energy game and command of the central third of the pitch make him one of the first selections for France coach Didier Deschamps.
Kante is more than a destroyer, though. While his defensive game enables Paul Pogba to thrive for France, Kante also has shown he has creativity to his game and the ability to burst forward. Every top team in the tournament would be better with Kante in it.
England’s Jude Bellingham, at just 17, has the potential to dominate the position in the years to come. But right now, Kante is the undisputed number one.
With Kante providing the shield in front of the defence, the attacking midfielders in the team would have licence to play to get forward and pick holes in the opposition. But attacking midfield is an area of true depth at Euro 2020, with players such as Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Toni Kroos, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan all capable of making a match-winning contribution. England also are strong in this department, with Southgate likely to have to choose from two of Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Mason Mount.
But there are two players who simply can’t be overlooked in this area of the pitch: De Bruyne and Modric.
De Bruyne, who might miss the opening game against Russia on Saturday with the facial injury sustained in the Champions League final, offers so much as a box-to-box midfielder powerhouse. He scores goals, provides a threat from set pieces and possesses an incredible ability to create chances, either with crosses whipped in from the right or neat passes from the edge of the penalty area.
Alongside him would be Modric, who despite his age at 35 remains the most effective No. 10 in Europe. The Real Madrid player can control the tempo of a game like few others, and his age and lack of pace make little difference due to his ability to force an opponent deeper and deeper with his use of the ball in the attacking third.
This is an area of the pitch where you could pick several permutations and still end up with a world-beating forward line. Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku, two of the most consistent goal scorers in Europe, fail to make the cut, while talent such as Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Muller, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz, Joao Felix and Karim Benzema also are unable to break up the triumvirate of Ronaldo, Lewandowski and Mbappe.
Ronaldo (103) and Lewandowski (66) are the top two in the all-time list of Europe’s leading goal scorers, and despite both being in their 30s, they continue to dominate in front of goal for club and country. Lewandowski is arguably the best centre-forward in the world and has been for the past five years, with many believing that the Poland striker was only denied the Ballon d’Or last year because the prize was cancelled due to the pandemic. As for Ronaldo, his incredible record speaks for itself. He remains the focal point of Portugal’s team and is five goals short of equalling the record, held by former Iran striker Ali Daei, as the top scorer in the history of international men’s football.
And then there is Mbappe, the 22-year-old France forward who already has a World Cup winners’ medal in his collection following Les Bleus‘ triumph in 2018. Mbappe’s blistering pace is a threat to every defence, and he, alongside Erling Haaland, is likely to dominate the world stage for the next decade.
There are some sensational forwards at Euro 2020, but none is better than Ronaldo, Lewandowski and Mbappe.