Scouting Spotlight: Rodri, Alassane Plea, Thilo Kehrer
Scouting Spotlight profiles players across Europe who have caught the eye. This week a midfielder returning to Atletico, a Nice forward entering a key stage of his career and a versatile Schalke centre-back.
Rodri -- Villarreal
Released from Atletico Madrid's youth setup in 2013 because of his lack of physicality, a growth spurt saw Rodri shoot up to an imposing 6-foot-3 within 18 months of his departure. After establishing himself at Villarreal, he has been lined up for a €20 million return to Atletico in the summer.
Rodri has earned comparisons to Sergio Busquets in Spain, owing to his elegant playing style in midfield. He sets the tempo in the centre of the pitch with his careful distribution and starred for the country's under-19 side, alongside Marco Asensio, in the 2015 European Championship victory.
The 21-year-old usually operates at the base of Villarreal's midfield, receiving the ball from the defence and moving it quickly with short, sharp passes. He possesses an acute awareness of his options at all times, and has the strength and composure to hold off opponents deploying a high press.
Rodri also displays the same diligence as Busquets in his defensive duties. Using his tall frame to steal the ball, he helps to thwart opposition counter-attacks and slow down the game when necessary.
Rodri's performances have been praised throughout his first season as a regular starter at Villarreal. He takes responsibility with and without the ball, demonstrating a strong tactical understanding to help Javier Calleja's side challenge for a European place.
The Spain under-21 international impressed against Barcelona in December, despite a 2-0 defeat, and played a crucial role in his team's 1-0 win away to Real Madrid in January. Lining up opposite Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro in midfield, he misplaced just five passes during 90 minutes at the Bernabeu as Pablo Fornals snatched a late victory for Villarreal.
Where would he fit in?
While Barcelona were keeping a close eye on Rodri's development, Atletico Madrid sneaked in to arrange a €20m transfer for their former youth product at the end of the season. Rodri will be vital in Diego Simeone's side showing more judicious use of the ball, especially in crunch matches against their title rivals.
Alassane Plea -- Nice
Following a brilliant start to the 2016-17 campaign, the season-ending knee injury Plea suffered in February signalled the end of Nice's Ligue 1 title hopes last year. He has made a full recovery following a prolonged spell on the sidelines, and scored four goals in a 5-2 thrashing of Guingamp at the weekend.
A mobile forward who can play through the middle or on either flank, Plea's position has gradually switched from the wing into a typical centre-forward role. Although he occasionally still appears on the left of Nice's attack, cutting inside to deliver dangerous crosses on his favoured right foot, his greatest strengths are displayed around the box.
The 25-year-old is a composed finisher on either foot and exhibits a keen positioning sense, playing off the shoulder of the defender to race on to through-balls. He is a threat at set-pieces owing to his strength in the air, and can hold on to possession up the pitch, looking to link play and bring teammates into attacking moves.
Plea's four goals against Guingamp marked a return to form in what has been a challenging campaign.
The striker came storming back from his injury absence with seven goals in 11 appearances at the start of the season but managed only four goals, plus three assists, in 28 games before Sunday's haul. At 25, Plea is entering a key stage of his career as he looks to cement his status as one of Ligue 1's leading attackers.
Where would he fit in?
Despite signing a new contract in January with a reported release clause of €50m, Plea has expressed his desire to move abroad in the future.
West Ham and Southampton have both been linked in recent months, but Leicester could emerge as his most likely destination. Claude Puel brought Plea to Nice for just £450,000 from Lyon in 2014 and remains an admirer of the forward's technical qualities.
Thilo Kehrer -- Schalke
The latest young talent to make the grade at Schalke, Kehrer's performances during his second season in the first team have seen him earmarked as a future Germany international.
A versatile defender whose composure in possession has also seen him occasionally feature in midfield, Kehrer has all the traits of a modern centre-back. As well as his confidence on the ball, the 21-year-old has the speed to drive out of defence and recover his position when caught up the pitch.
A commanding presence at the back, Kehrer uses his powerful upper-body strength to force opponents away from the box. He displays excellent anticipation to make well-timed challenges when going to ground -- although his combative approach can see him concede free-kicks in dangerous areas.
With 21 starts in the Bundesliga this season, Kehrer has played an integral role in Schalke's rise to second place under 32-year-old coach Domenico Tedesco.
The Germany under-21 international scored his first goal of the campaign in a 2-1 win against Hoffenheim in February and continued to impress as Schalke recorded clean sheets in recent victories away to Bayer Leverkusen and Mainz.
Where would he fit in?
It was reported in 2015 that Kehrer went AWOL in a bid to force through a transfer to Internazionale, while West Ham also expressed an interest.
The centre-back will be aiming higher than the Hammers following his breakthrough in Germany, and would be a good fit to follow former teammate Sead Kolasinac to Arsenal.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger