Whenever the World Cup or Euros come around, a familiar phenomenon usually occurs: Some player, obscured by youth or employment by a less prestigious club, has a breakout tournament, instantly propelling them to stardom and candidacy for a world-record transfer fee. The next James Rodríguez or Kylian Mbappé could well emerge when Euro 2020 kicks off Friday in Rome. But this is not a story about those players; it’s about the inverse.
Throughout a grueling, pandemic-affected season, players across the continent fought for a chance to represent their countries at the tournament. Fortunes can rapidly change during a nine-month campaign; apparent shoo-ins fall out of favor, new internationals materialize out of nothing, and even players who seemed likely to get called up to the national team—mostly to ride the bench in case of injury—become undroppable starters.
Ahead of Matchday 1 at the Euros, we’re taking a look at the unexpected key men—internationals who, for varying reasons, played themselves into increased prominence on their national team. This is the X Factor XI (and yes, we know this formation features three strikers—just roll with it):
Goalkeeper: Peter Gulacsi, Hungary (RB Leipzig)
Gulacsi has come a long way since his six-year spell on Merseyside in which he never made a first-team appearance for Liverpool. The Hungarian finally broke through in 2013 after he was signed on a free transfer by RB Salzburg in the Austrian league; by 2016 he became one of the first names on the team sheet for Salzburg’s sister club, Leipzig, then playing in its first season in the Bundesliga following promotion from Germany’s second division. Gulacsi made 34 appearances that 2016-17 season, in which Leipzig impressively finished second, earning Champions League qualification.
Gulacsi didn’t have a breakout season this past year; in fact, he’s been well established as Leipzig’s no. 1 and an important component of a team that reached the Champions League semifinals in the 2019-20 season. But it’s that consistency as one of the Bundesliga’s best goalkeepers that elevates the Budapest native to a higher stature at Euro 2020. Hungary was drawn into the so-called Group of Death, which features defending World Cup champions France, Germany, and defending Euro champions Portugal. It’s safe to bet the Hungarian defense will leak a large number of shots to the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Thomas Müller and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’ll be up to Gulacsi to stop them if Hungary can have any chance of pulling off a shock advancement to the knockout rounds.
Right Back: Zeki Celik, Turkey (Lille)
Since joining Lille in 2018, Celik has been more than capable, impressing with a fine mix of defensive stability and attacking flair. The 24-year-old further raised his game this past season, along with the rest of the LOSC squad, as Lille stunned PSG to claim its first Ligue 1 title in a decade. Celik bagged three goals and two assists in 29 games. Even as fullbacks have become increasingly attack-minded, that’s a significant return.
Turkey enters Euro 2020 in a favorable, arguably winnable, group that includes Italy, Wales, and Switzerland. The Azzurri will be tipped by most as the favorite, but some are backing the Crescent Stars as a dark horse to go deep into the tournament. Leicester City’s Caglar Soyuncu might be the face of the team, leading from the back, but Celik will be right there alongside him. His title-winning experience in France this season could be valuable in maintaining composure among Turkey’s back line if they face progressively challenging opposition.
Center Back: Rúben Dias, Portugal (Manchester City)
Dias made a big jump transitioning from Portugal’s Primeira Liga to the Premier League, but boy, did he slot in seamlessly. The Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year completely transformed Manchester City’s back line after an uncharacteristically shaky start and also somehow made John Stones look excellent again. Dias helped City notch 15 clean sheets in 32 Premier League appearances and led his title-winning team in blocked shots, clearances completed, headed clearances, and aerial duels won. In the six games without Dias, City conceded an average of 1.8 goals per game; with him, just 0.7.
The former Benfica man obviously had promise before joining Pep Guardiola’s side—even its wealthy benefactors must (surely?) think twice before dropping 64 million pounds on a defender—but not many predicted his meteoric rise. After just one season in England, the 24-year-old has legitimate claim as one of the best center backs in the world. He’ll be a crucial cog in Portugal’s machine as it looks to repeat as European champions.
Center Back: Simon Kjaer, Denmark (A.C. Milan)
Much like the stadium locations of the upcoming tournament, the Danish journeyman has been all over Europe. Kjaer has had short-lived stints at Palermo, Sevilla, Roma, Lille, Fenerbahce, and Atalanta. But now, with the 32-year-old entering what some would consider the twilight of his career, Kjaer appears to have found a suitable home in Milan. He’s been a mainstay in the back line when fit this season and put up his best return in tackles and interceptions per game (3.4) since leaving France for Fenerbahce in 2015. His 5.07 clearances per game are second only to Fikayo Tomori in the squad.
Internationally, Kjaer has fared well, reaching 100 caps for Denmark in October and holding status as designated captain. The team’s central spine is solid: Kjaer partners with Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen, who played the majority of the Champions League final, ahead of one the best keepers in the tournament, Kasper Schmeichel. Ahead of them sits a robust midfield of Dortmund’s Thomas Delaney, Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and star man Christian Eriksen of Inter. Denmark’s one glaring weakness is a lack of clinical goal scorers, so if they’re to make a run they’ll need to rely on Kjaer and Co.’s defensive stability to squeak by.
Left Back: Luke Shaw, England (Manchester United)
Ah, Luke Shaw. From promising Southhamton starlet to Manchester United “flop” constantly battling injury and criticism of his fitness to now … one of the best left backs in the world? Shaw was tremendous in 2020-21, a season in which United’s newly purchased crossing master Alex Telles was expected to give Shaw a real go at first-choice left-back. Whether it was luck by finally managing to stay healthy or motivation from new competition, Shaw swatted away the challenge from Telles with ease, starting 30 of the 32 matches he played in and being named in the Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year.
Perhaps even more encouraging for England was Shaw’s return to attacking form, which saw him notch an impressive five assists after failing to record a single one the season prior. Shaw is a proven defender—likely the primary reason he got into United’s team ahead of Telles—but the bonus of his offensive contributions could also keep Three Lions teammate Ben Chilwell on the sideline when the Euros kick off.
Midfielder: Ilkay Gundogan, Germany (Manchester City)
Another stunning transformation in Manchester, this time on the blue side. Since his Dortmund days, Gundogan has been a solid box-to-box midfielder, effectively recycling possession and occasionally putting in a tackle. Under Pep Guardiola, the peak definition of a possession-oriented manager, that style of play continued more than ever in recent years. But something bizarre happened last season: Gundogan became a ruthless goal scorer, often making late runs into the box to get on the end of City’s classic byline crosses. The result? Seventeen goals in all competitions, including 13 in the Premier League. That topped City’s scoring chart, and that team includes Sergio Agüero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and Riyad Mahrez.
Gundogan seems like one of those players who would definitely be going to the Euros regardless, but might’ve been relegated to the bench in favor of someone like Bayern’s Leon Goretzka. After the season Gundogan’s had, though, he feels undroppable. The question is how Germany manager Joachim Löw sees it, especially with a plethora of attacking options, including Thomas Müller, who seems likely to slot into the No. 10 role behind the striker. One of Gundogan, Goretzka, and Toni Kroos might have to be dropped, and right now I wouldn’t bet on that happening to the former.
Midfielder: Phil Foden, England (Manchester City)
Another Manchester player, another Englishman—but Phil Foden simply cannot be ignored. The 21-year-old might be one of the Three Lions’ most dynamic attacking threats in the tournament, and for years to come. At this stage last year, we couldn’t say for sure whether Foden would be headed to the Euros; England had established stars in the pecking order still ahead of him (better luck next time, Dele Alli). But even with Foden becoming a City starter this season after David Silva’s departure, it was unclear whether he would live up to the promise as the Spaniard’s “heir.”
Of course, Foden did just that, with a solid nine goals and five assists in 28 Premier League games last season. The numbers become even more impressive when taking all competitions—16 goals and 10 assists in 50 games. That’s a goal contribution every other match. Foden showed glimpses of his talent under Silva’s tutelage, but with the City legend gone, Foden finally had room to express himself. He slots into a young and exciting attacking band for Gareth Southgate’s men.
Midfielder: Thomas Müller, Germany (Bayern Munich)
Müller is a legend, and still hasn’t come close to ending his run as a highly productive, world-class player in a title-winning side. Why is he included in a list of X-factor players? Simply because he wasn’t supposed to be here. Germany manager Joachim Löw dropped the Bayern man (along with teammates Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng) in 2019 for reasons that weren’t made entirely clear to … well, anyone, really. Germany’s World Cup disaster the year earlier may have been a factor, as well as the trio aging to 30. Regardless of the cause, Müller found himself banished from the national team for two years. It wasn’t until last month that Löw changed his tune and called him up for Euros.
That reasoning seems much more sound. Now 31, Müller scored 11 goals in the Bundesliga last season and recorded an incredible 18 assists. The German is still in his prime and eager to return Germany to its 2014 World Cup glory. Müller usually sits behind the No. 9 as a shadow striker of sorts, a unique hybrid of playmaker and goal scorer. But with the main man Timo Werner suffering from an extended case of the yips, squandering chance after chance for Chelsea last season, Müller is also capable of playing the center forward position. At the very least, he should lighten the goal-scoring burden for Werner. At his best, Müller could be one of the most influential players in the tournament and orchestrate a deep run for the Germans.
Forward: Gerard Moreno, Spain (Villarreal)
We knew Gerard Moreno was good, but not this good. In four of the past six seasons, the Spaniard scored at least 10 La Liga goals, but over the past two years especially he exploded. In 2019-20, Moreno scored 18 goals, then bagged 23 goals this past season—his first time hitting the 20-mark—as well as seven assists. His Villareal side achieved glory with an upset victory over Manchester United in the Europa League final, the team’s first ever major trophy.
In typical Spain fashion, the team boasts a strong core of midfielders, but concerns over goal scoring linger. Álvaro Morata is the bigger name, and might initially be trusted to lead the line. But Moreno has a strong claim to being the preferred option, and if he can deliver like he has in La Liga, Spain could be a threat deep into the knockouts.
Forward: Sasa Kalajdzic, Austria (VfB Stuttgart)
At 6-foot-7, Kalajdzic is easily recognizable on the pitch—he’s the Bundesliga’s tallest player—but most eye-catching is his skill in front of goal. In his debut season in the German league, Kalajdzic scored an impressive 16 goals, eight of which came from his head. A former midfielder, the 23-year-old is surprisingly technical for his height and reads the pitch better than the typical poacher. His contributions helped Stuttgart finish ninth, a solid showing after being relegated to the second division two seasons ago.
Kalajdzic will be the first-choice striker for the Austrians, who have a decent lineup, featuring the likes of David Alaba, Marko Arnautovic, Aleksandar Dragovic, and Marcel Sabitzer. Austria’s group is wide open; they’re likely competing with Ukraine and North Macedonia for the second-place spot behind the Netherlands. As the main man up front, Kalajdzic will be a big factor into whether his team can advance to its first-ever knockout phase.
Forward: Burak Yilmaz, Turkey (Lille)
Unless they’re Zlatan Ibrahimovic, players several years past 30 shouldn’t be scoring a large quantity of goals en route to a Ligue 1 title—and yet that’s exactly what the 35-year-old Yilmaz managed to do. The Turkish international netted 16 times during Lille’s title-winning campaign, a feat even more impressive when considering it was his first-ever season playing in one of Europe’s top five leagues. Within the French league, only Kylian Mbappé had a higher goal rate per 90 minutes among players who played regularly.
Yilmaz is going through a bit of a late blooming on the international stage, too. In March, he bagged his first international hat trick during an impressive 4-2 win over Holland in World Cup qualifying. Despite the presence and fame of center back Caglar Soyuncu, Yilmaz captains the national team and will play a big role in Turkey’s quest to upset the established European elite.