With the proverbial winter curtain being pulled down on European football almost everywhere, it may be as good time as any to review who has been grabbing the headlines.
Regular column-space takers such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Arjen Robben and Edinson Cavani continue to light up their respective club’s fortunes, but there has been a glut of players that have begun to look like they could be next in line to follow in those footsteps.
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With the January transfer window imminent, it is likely that some transfer activity will take place, with a significant proportion of it in the Barclays Premier League, and it very well could, or at least should, include some of the these players. We have produced this season’s “Breakthrough XI” across the continent’s major leagues (excluding the Premier League), namely La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, the Eredivisie and Bundesliga.
Only players aged 24 and under who have never played in the Champions League have been considered for selection. Honourable mentions include Leverkusen duo Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Calhanoglu, Schalke’s Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Palermo’s Franco Vasquez and PSV’s Memphis Depay who all miss out due to the selection criteria. All five should find themselves at the top of major clubs’ transfer wish-lists either in January or, more likely, next summer.
And, without any further ado, here is the 2014/15 season’s Breakthrough XI (selected in a 4-3-3 formation)
A product of the Genoa academy, Mattia Perin has contended with being labelled “the next Gianluigi Buffon” even before he made his Serie A debut at the age of 18. He first began to fulfill his early promise, as Pescara’s first-choice keeper, during the 2012/13 season, at the end of which he returned to Genoa, where he has been first choice since.
Perin has represented Italy throughout all age categories and was named in Cesare Prandelli’s World Cup squad as third choice keeper. Last month, he made his Azzurri debut under Antonio Conte in a friendly against Albania.
This season his performances have been integral in propelling Genoa into the top five in Serie A, conceding only 13 goals in 15 matches. No goalkeeper, anywhere in Europe’s top six leagues has made more saves inside the penalty box than the 22-year old. Perin currently makes 3.5 saves per game, including 2.5 per game from inside the 18-yard box. For comparison, Manchester United’s David De Gea has made 2.9 saves per game with 1.9 of them from inside the penalty box. Perin has kept five clean sheets as well including during man of the match performances against Juventus, Lazio, Fiorentina and Milan.
Without doubt one of the most impressive newcomers this season has been Nice’s 20-year-old French left back, Jordan Amavi. At 5’9, he may not be the tallest player in the side’s back line, but you would not know it considering how he fares in the air, somewhat in the mould of Patrice Evra. Needless to say, he is in the top 10 of headers won (2.7 per game) by all left backs in Europe’s major leagues. He is third in terms of most tackles completed (3.9 per game) as well, and third for interceptions (4.3 per game).
On the attacking front, Amavi, who has Togolese heritage, has completed 2.1 dribbles per game, placing him in the top five in the category in Europe. On the flip side, due to the style of his game he does give up the ball at least once a game. He also needs to cut out needless fouls. Amavi is neck and neck with Monaco’s Layvin Kurzawa as two of the most exciting young left backs anywhere in world football today. With Nice languishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1, it is likely that the Toulon-born player will be plying his trade on a bigger stage sooner rather than later.
Villareal’s Mario Gaspar may not grab the headlines as much as La Liga counterparts Dani Carvajal or Dani Alves but he has been one of his side’s key performers in leading them to the brink of Champions League spots this season. The youngster who just turned 24 last month came through the youth ranks at El Submarino Amarillo. He is solid in defence and provides a goal threat in attack. He has already scored three goals this season.
His 3.4 tackles per game is sixth highest in European football for right backs, in a category, surprisingly (or not), led by Barcelona’s Alves. Where Mario excels is his ability to prevent opponents from getting past him. Only 0.6 opponents per game have dribbled past him. He also adds 2.6 interceptions per game placing him in the top 10 for his position. Add to that another 2.6 clearances and it becomes clear why he’s considered one of Europe’s top up and coming full backs.
Lorenzo Tonelli is not yet a household name in Italy. But the 24-year old Empoli center back has been performing admirably for the only club he’s ever played for. He looks like a veteran, as he mentors his even younger center back partner, Daniel Rugani, even though it’s his first season in Serie A. Critics have argued that the art of Italian defending has become a dying breed but Tonelli reads the game well, is strong in the air, can tackle and isn’t afraid to put his body on the line.
Other than two sub-par performances this season, he has been one of the best players on the pitch, helping the newly promoted side settle in mid-table. His 2.5 tackles a game may not be the highest among his peers but his success ratio of 83% means he times his tackles to perfection. Tonelli adds 1.5 interceptions per game, 1.5 blocks per game, 7.9 clearances and wins 3.9 aerial duels a game (over 87% of all headers). At the same time at the other end of the pitch, no defender has scored more goals than Tonelli’s four (from only 14 games) in Serie A this season.
Wolfsburg are currently second in the Bundesliga and, surprisingly, it has nothing to do with their signing of Niklas Bendtner. Whilst most of the headlines have been grabbed by Kevin de Bruyne and Ricardo Rodriguez, it’s been the center back pairing of Naldo and young German defender Robin Knoche that has been instrumental.
Knoche is an elegant 6’3 center back that has been starting regularly over the past two years. Only 24, he is extremely strong in the air, winning over 4.3 headers a game, placing him in the top five in Europe between all center backs 24 years old or younger. As one could imagine, Knoche’s game is built on strength and reading the game well and is not one that is based on burning pace or last-ditch tackling, as illustrated by his lowly 1.6 tackles a game. However, he rarely gets dribbled past either due to his positioning and strength. He also cuts out the ball 2.5 times a game and adds 4.8 clearances to go with that.
His misleadingly tall figure hides the fact that Knoche is somewhat of a ball-playing center back. He is in the top 10 between all center backs in Europe when it comes to picking out an accurate long ball (6.2 accurate long balls per game) and is among the top 25 when it comes to short passes per game. Needless to say Knoche also forms a formidable goal threat. He has already scored twice in his opening 15 games of the Bundesliga season.
Vitesse Arnhem are languishing in the bottom half of the Dutch Eredivisie. But that hasn’t stopped Marko Vejinovic from having an excellent start to the season. The tall 24-year old, former Dutch U-21 international, is a central midfielder of Serbian descent who graduated from Ajax’s youth academy before moving to AZ and Heracles. It was not until the summer of 2013 when he joined Vitesse that people began taking notice.
With eight goals and five assists to his name during the first 17 games of the current season, Vejinovic has contributed to Vitesse having the third most lethal attack in the league. He has turned out to be one of the surprises of the campaign and his all-round game has been a sight to behold.
What makes his contribution even more impressive is the fact that he has added 3.2 tackles per game; a figure conventional defensive midfielders would be more than proud of. He also adds a further 1.5 interceptions per game, making him a truly all-round midfielder. Vejinovic is also a decent dribbler, getting past 1.2 opponents per game and picks out the final pass quite often, as illustrated with his 2.2 key passes per game (seventh highest in Eredivisie and seventh overall in Europe between all central midfielders). His ratio of key passes to loss of possession is the best in the league as well, signifying the accuracy of his passing. He is also able to mix up his passing as well and has an eye for a long ball too, placing himself in the top 15 in Europe when it comes to successful long balls by central midfielders.
The Bundesliga is seen to offer some of the highest quality football anywhere. It is no surprise that another player that plies his trade there makes our XI. Johannes Geis, 21, plays as a defensive midfielder for Mainz, where he captains the side on occasions. The young German established himself as a regular last season and has picked up where he left off.
He is currently in the top five in the Bundesliga for tackles per game by defensive midfielders with 2.8 successful tackles per game. He is in the top 15 when it comes to interceptions with 2.3 per game. However, being defensively solid is just one aspect of Geis’ game. He is able to effortlessly pick out the long pass as exemplified with his 9.3 successful long passes per game. Only Xabi Alonso tops that mark in the Bundesliga between outfield players. Geis picks out 2.5 key passes per game, placing him fourth in the whole Bundesliga.
He performed admirably in the unfortunate last minute loss to Bayern Munich, in the last game before the Bundesliga winter break. He was probably his side’s best player in a game during which he completed nine accurate long passes, broke up play more than anyone else on his side, won more aerial duels than anyone else in the match and touched the ball more than any of his team-mates.
Geis has been an important member of every German national side throughout the age groups but is yet to make his international debut. If he keeps up his form it won’t be too long before he gets a chance.
Over the past 18 months, Roberto Firmino has been a revelation in the Bundesliga. The 23-year-old Hoffenheim maestro has picked up where he left off last season, when he scored 16 goals and provided 11 assists. He has had four goals and six assists this season so far from his trequartista-like position behind the striker and leads the league in dribbles with 4.3 per game (joint with Arjen Robben).
Firmino takes three shots per game, of which more than half come from outside the penalty box. His 1.9 key passes per game put him in the top 20 in the league as well. The Brazilian, who recently made his international debut and has already scored for the Selecao, works hard for the side, a trait that is rare for a player of his flair and attacking acumen. His teamwork is illustrated through some of the defensive figures he puts in such as tackling (three per game) and interceptions (1.3 per game).
If Hoffenheim fails to qualify for European competition by the end of the season, it is not likely that the Brazilian will stay another season at his age.
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Manolo Gabbiadini is an emerging raw talent that came through Atalanta’s revered youth system. He is currently co-owned by Juventus and Sampdoria, playing for the latter for the second consecutive season. He is an excellent free-kick taker who isn’t afraid to take a pop from distance and is arguably most threatening when coming onto his left foot from the right side of the pitch.
He’s already scored seven goals in only 11 starts this season and has also provided two assists. He is quickly closing in on his career-high nine goals which he accumulated last season. No player attempts more shots in Serie A than Gabbiadini (3.8 shots per game) although most come from a distance (only shot shot per game from inside the box) but his conversion ratio remains impressive.
Gabbiadini is rumoured to have already agreed terms for a January move to Napoli.
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Russian-born winger Denis Cheryshev started his career at Sporting Gijon, where his father Dimitri was playing at the time. By the age of 12, the younger Cheryshev had caught the eye of Real Madrid scouts. Soon enough he would be signed and by the age of 18 playing in the club’s Castilla side (B-Team) in the lower leagues. Cheryshev played last season on loan at Sevilla but did not figure regularly. This season, though, he has established himself as a key player in Villareal’s surge up the table.
His delivery off set pieces can be very good if a little inconsistent at times. Most of Villareal’s clear cut chances emanate from Cheryshev’s passes. The young Russian international is not afraid to put a foot in either, and gets involved defensively although, tactically, there is room for development. He is more a winger in the mould of Morten Gamst Pedersen than Jesus Navas.
This season he has already scored two goals but more importantly laid off eight assists (tied top in La Liga along with Koke and Cristiano Ronaldo) from only 13 starts. He takes 2.9 shots per game (seventh highest in the league) and one would expect more clinical finishing, especially as over half of them are from inside the penalty box. The quality of his final ball is illustrated by the fact that he’s only delivered 1.4 key passes per game but they’ve resulted in eight goals (a 44% conversion rate).
If you follow football closely then chances are you’ve already heard of Palermo’s “wunderkind”, Paulo Dybala. Being Argentine and blessed with prodigious talent, it is not surprising that he’s already being labelled “the next Messi”. He made his Serie A debut in 2012 but followed his club into Serie B after relegation. It is this season, though, having helped the club back into the top flight, that Dybala has really exploded onto the scene.
With seven goals, including a run of five games in a row during which he scored, and six assists in Palermo’s opening 16 games of the campaign, Dybala is showing signs that he is beginning to produce the goods consistently. Along with his club-mate, Franco Vazquez, who leads Serie A, Dybala forms one half of best dribbling duo in the league (3.5 & 2.9 dribbles per game). The young Argentine takes 3.4 shots per game of which 1.8 are from inside the penalty area. Only Carlos Tevez takes more shots from inside the 18 yard box in the league. Dybala adds another 1.6 key passes per game (sixth highest in Serie A between all attackers).
Whilst he is already linked to clubs such as Arsenal and Liverpool among others, it is likely that Dybala needs to continue his football education in Palermo, at least till the end of the season, in order to build upon his excellent start to the campaign, where he’s been the catalyst behind their top half position. What is unquestionable, though, is that he is probably the most talked about prospect in European football.
Note: A special thanks to WhoScored for providing most of the data utilised in this piece
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