Looking to 2021 Part 1: The Year’s Potential Breakout Stars

In our first preview of the year, we look at some of the young players that could enjoy break out years and enter the mainstream football discussion…

Welcome to 2021! As a follow up to our 2020 Year In Review, I will be writing a few posts to give you some topics, stories, players, and teams to keep an eye on as we get into the new year.

In part 1, we will look at every football hipster fan’s favorite topic: the next big names you need to know for the year. Especially with the Euros in the summer, there will be plenty of opportunity for young, up-and-coming players to show off their talents to the world, potentially earning them transfers to bigger clubs, maybe even the club you support. These are a few of the young talents that could enjoy breakout years this year, a few to keep your eye on as we progress through 2021.

Florian Wirtz, Bayer Leverkusen/Germany

Leverkusen youngsters have been a common theme of discussion in recent years. Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz both shot to stardom and earned their big money moves away after reaching star levels with die Werkself. Go back a little further, and you will remember a young Heung-Min Son lighting up the league in Leverkusen. Well, we now have the next in line.

Florian Wirtz moved to Leverkusen from FC Köln in January 2020 and moved quickly from the youth team to the first team, making his league debut in May and becoming Leverkusen’s youngest ever Bundesliga debutant (breaking the record previously held by Kai Havertz). He would also score his first goal against Bayern in June, becoming the youngest ever Bundesliga goalscorer at the time (a record since broken by someone we will talk about later). While Leverkusen are a team full of exciting young talent, Wirtz is considered THE guy, the next young German prodigy from this team. With Havertz gone, Wirtz has been thrown into the number ten role that Havertz vacated, and he is having a great first season, with five goals and six assists in 19 games in all competitions and has Leverkusen sitting second in the Bundesliga and in the knockout stages of the Europa League.

While more diminutive compared to Brandt and Havertz, Wirtz makes up for his lack of size and strength with an incredible skill on the ball and ability to read the game. He is such a composed player for his age, very exciting and fun on the ball, and has the passing ability and IQ to orchestrate a high-power and potent Leverkusen attack. He is, in my opinion, the most likely and biggest breakout star coming in 2021. While a spot in the Euros team with Germany might be one step too far, expect Wirtz to make headlines in 2021 and announce himself to the world as an up-and-coming talent. If Leverkusen have success this year, Wirtz will likely be one of the main reasons why.

Ryan Gravenberch, Ajax/Netherlands

Ajax, as you all know, are very good at growing youngsters into serious talents. We all saw the midfield pairing of Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek grow from young academy graduates to incredibly talented and highly coveted future stars. Now that both players have left the club, many wondered how they would be able to replace two influential players. Well, this is Ajax, there is always someone next in line.

Enter Ryan Gravenberch, the towering 6’3″ midfielder who is the next prodigal talent to come through in Amsterdam. He has actually been around the first team for a few years now and made his senior team debut back in 2018, when he became the youngest Ajax player to play in the Eredivisie, breaking Clarence Seedorf’s record. He remained a bit part player until last season, when the departure of Frenkie de Jong and Lasse Schøne opened up more opportunities. When van de Beek left the club last summer, Gravenberch was trusted to step in as a major player, and he has impressed. Combining a strong physical frame with an incredible ability on the ball and cracking long shot, he has grown into possibly the most promising young center midfielder in Europe at the moment. While he does not have van de Beek’s engine, his incredible technical ability has made him the ideal number eight midfielder, able to use a strong passing range to set up play from deeper positions but also move forward with the attack and get the occasional goal and assist. His skillset reminds me of a young Paul Pogba, and he definitely has the potential to live up to that comparison.

While he may not be leaving Ajax for another few years, he is a player to get to know now, and Ajax’s potential to make a run in the Europa League could give Gravenberch the spotlight to show off his skill to a wider audience. As we get later in the year, when he has a full season of being a crucial player under his belt, I expect that his performance level will rise even further. He will be a fun player to keep an eye on this year.

Sven Botman, LOSC Lille/Netherlands

Liverpool fans, pay attention. He could be playing for your team very soon.

Sven Botman, the towering and rather intimidating looking center back, is another one of the latest talents to come through the football factory that is Ajax Amsterdam. However, despite being rated highly in the youth teams, Ajax let him leave the club last summer following a loan spell with Heerenveen in the 2019-2020 season. Lille, with their incredible eye for finding young talent for relatively cheap, immediately snapped him up for a paltry €9 million, seeing him as the ideal replacement for Arsenal-bound Gabriel Magalhães. He has so far fit the billing, with his aerial ability and comfort in winning defensive duels replacing the key traits that made Gabriel so good for Les Dogues. He has been one of the most impressive center backs in Ligue 1 this season despite being only 20 years old and playing his second season of top flight professional football. His talent and ability to form a solid partnership with club captain José Fonte is a large reason why Lille find themselves second in the league at the end of 2020 with the second best defense in the league in terms of goals conceded.

Botman, as a player, is very similar to Gabriel in many ways. Both are tall, good in the air offensively and defensively, are fairly decent on the ball, and both won a high percentage of their defensive duels. While Botman is not the quickest player off the mark, he is more than comfortable playing in a defense that regularly allows its fullbacks to attack up the pitch, and he is able to make up for a lack of pace with a strong positional sense and a desire and aggression that permeates through his game. He reminds me of Nemanja Vidić in that sense, right down to the fact that they both kind of scare me. He definitely is not the perfect center back prospect, as is the case with most 20 year olds, and he does need to improve his passing ability, especially at longer distances, and his one-on-one defending, where his aggression can lead to him putting in a rash challenge that allows his man to get by him or draw a foul. Despite this, he still has plenty of time to grow as a player, and his consistency and reliability for both Heerenveen and Lille make him both an experienced player for his age and a desirable prospect.

However, due to the poor financial situation facing Ligue 1 clubs following the collapse of the Téléfoot TV deal, as well as a growing debt problem at Lille, it is very possible that Botman leaves the club even as soon as January, with Liverpool reportedly among the favorites to land his signature. A move to Liverpool, while a massive step up in a very short time, would be good for Botman. Klopp has a reputation of helping guide young players from inexperience into the first team, and the lack of fit defensive players gives Botman chances to play immediately without having the pressure of needing to be the main option in defense for years to come. He would be one for the future for Liverpool, a potential ideal partner for Virgil Van Dijk and/or Joe Gomez down the road. It would be a shame for Lille to lose such an important player, and his departure might dampen their title hopes, but it would give Botman the chance to show his talents to a wider audience.

Noni Madueke, PSV Eindhoven/England

Ok, let us talk about one of the other Dutch clubs now.

Noni Madueke is another of the “Jadon Sancho School of Development”. The London-born former Tottenham youth team prodigy was one of the most coveted young players in England a few years ago, having starred in the youth ranks in North London and becoming a U-18s regular at just 15 years old. His incredible youth team career for Spurs made him wanted by teams across the country, with Manchester United in particular working hard to bring in the talented youngster. Despite this interest, Madueke chose to leave England. Being inspired by Jadon Sancho’s move to Dortmund, Madueke sought out opportunities on the continent, eventually choosing to move to PSV in 2018. As a 16 year old, he starred in PSV’s U-19 team, becoming a favorite of coach and PSV legend Ruud van Nistelrooy, before making his professional debut with Jong PSV in 2019. His rapid ascent continued, making his senior team debut in March 2020 in what would be PSV’s final match of the 2019-2020 season before the COVID Pandemic forced the league to halt. As the 2020-2021 season began, Madueke found himself as a permanent fixture in the first team, playing on the right or as a center forward in a 4-2-2-2 utilized by new manager Roger Schmidt. While he may be behind Mario Götze, Mohamed Ihattaren, and Donyell Malen in the pecking order, he has still had plenty of chances to play, tallying six goals and seven assists in 20 appearances in all competitions as a kid who just turned 18. He said when he moved to PSV that he wanted to get into the first team as quick as possible, feeling that it was incredibly difficult for younger players to get first team time while playing for big clubs in England. It seems that gamble has paid off.

Madueke started his career as a tricky and skillful winger, proficient at cutting inside on his preferred left foot to score and assist. Since arriving in Eindhoven, though, you can see how his game has adapted and matured. With the U-19s, van Nistelrooy took a particular liking to him, helping him work on his finishing and goalscoring ability. Since Schmidt’s arrival, Madueke has had to adapt and learn how to play in a 4-2-2-2 as well, learning how to play as a wider winger and as a center forward. You can see the results, especially in his much improved movement and attacking intelligence. While he is still probably best used as a winger, he is able to play as a center forward and play off the shoulder of the center backs, giving Schmidt plenty of attacking options. It will not be long before Madueke becomes a regularly discussed name among fans of English football, much in the way Sancho did once he starred for Dortmund. This is a very talented PSV team, once that is firmly entrenched in a title scrap against Ajax and Feyenoord. If they do end up as champions, Madueke will be one of the influential players in the team, as he stars alongside…

Cody Gakpo, PSV Eindhoven/Netherlands

There seems to be a very unique tradition tied to PSV and developing left wingers. Dries Mertens, Memphis Depay, and Steven Bergwijn have all come through PSV as left wingers in recent years, starring in the team and making big moves to the “top five” leagues. Now we have the next in that line of development.

Born and raised in Eindhoven, Cody Gakpo came through the club’s youth system, making his professional debut with Jong PSV in 2016 and his senior team debut in 2018. While clearly incredibly talented, he played in a position where PSV had quite a bit of talent already at the club, meaning he had to wait his turn. With the departures of Bergwijn and Hirving Lozano in 2019, opportunities arose for the young Eindhovenaar. He featured 39 times for PSV last season as a starter and substitute, bringing in a respectable tally of eight goals and nine assists in all competitions. In 2020, under new manager Roger Schmidt, Gakpo has been deployed on the left as a hybrid wide CAM/winger in Schmidt’s 4-2-2-2, a slightly different role from his winger role in previous 4-3-3s, but one that he has adapted to well.

As a player, Gakpo is very different from the Bergwijn/Depay mold of winger that came before him, and he is even very different from his aforementioned teammate Noni Madueke. While players like Bergwijn and Madueke are smaller and more technical dribbling wingers, Gakpo is very powerful and direct, able to use his 6’2″ frame and mobility to play more as a wide striker. Do not get me wrong, he is still very good on the ball, with the vision and passing ability to play as a CAM or winger and provide for his teammates, but he is not the skillful winger that the likes of Bergwijn and Madueke are. That almost makes him a more attractive prospect, as his technical and physical traits make him able to play in that wide role as well as a center forward role in place of, or sometimes alongside, fellow Dutch future star Donyell Malen. He is also capable with both feet, allowing him to play on both wings. He has played almost an equal number of games for PSV this season as a left winger, center forward, and right winger. It is that flexibility that has made him such a key player for PSV, being able to utilize him in multiple positions and allowing Roger Schmidt to fit in the plethora of attacking talent he has at his disposal. With nine goals and three assists through 18 games in all competitions, Gakpo is on pace for what could be his best season as a professional, which has piqued the attention of Netherlands manager Frank de Boer. Should Gakpo maintain this form through the second half of the season, not only could he guide his boyhood club to their 25th league title, but he could also find his way into the Netherlands squad for the Euros. Should he go to the Euros, he could be one of the players that benefits from the enhanced audience watching him, possibly being one of the players making a move to a “top five” league following the competition.

Viktor Tsygankov, Dynamo Kyiv/Ukraine

Now for one completely out of left field, but here me out here.

Viktor Tsygankov is a name that is likely unfamiliar to most apart from serious fans of Ukrainian football or serious fans of FIFA Career Mode and Football Manager. The Ukrainian winger has been considered a prodigy for a few years now, being the next big thing in Ukrainian football. He had incredibly impressive seasons for Dynamo Kyiv in 2017-18 and 2018-19, and after a less successful 2019-20 due to injuries, he is back at his best this season. A very strong technical winger, he is a deadly goalscorer cutting in from the right wing, and he is able to combine with his teammates and register a few assists as well. With 10 goals and three assists in 19 matches in all competitions this season, he is putting together another fantastic domestic campaign, but he will unfortunately not get the attention he deserves with just domestic performances. Dynamo Kyiv have reached the round of 32 in the Europa League, so I anticipate he could have some great performances in the knockout stages if they are able to go far. He will also be crucial for Ukraine this summer. He is an already established fixture within the national team, even having scored goals against France and Spain last year, and if Ukraine do well in the Euros, Tsygankov could be one of the players who benefits most from the added attention.

The concern is he becomes like Andriy Yarmolenko. Yarmolenko was also a star winger for Dynamo Kyiv who impressed with performances in the Europa League. He was rumored to leave Ukraine for several years but never did so until it was too late, hurting his progression as a player. If Tsygankov performs well this season and in the Euros, I imagine he will not follow that mistake and make his way to Western Europe. He is a name that may not reach the highs of the two players I mentioned previously, but he could be one of the stars of the Euros and a name you hear a lot more very soon.

Unai Simón, Athletic Bilbao/Spain

Spain was said to have a serious goalkeeping question ahead of this Euros. With David De Gea and Kepa Arrizabalaga struggling at times for form and confidence, people were actively questioning who would wear the gloves for La Roja this summer. Well, Luis Enrique’s decision was actually quite easy. While Kepa and De Gea floundered, Unai Simón was shining in La Liga and earned himself a chance with the national team.

Simón came through the Basque academy at Athletic Club, earning his chance in the first team when Kepa left for Chelsea. When injury to his competition gave him a starting chance in 2018, he took it. Despite impressing, he was relegated back to second choice later in the season. Ahead of the 2019-20 season, he was named the first choice, and man, did he impress. Simón was among the best goalkeepers in Spain that season, conceding only 29 goals in 33 matches and finishing third in the Zamora Trophy race, awarded to the goalkeeper with the best goals conceded-to-games ratio, finishing behind only Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois and Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak, widely considered two of the best goalkeepers on the planet. Considered by many in the Basque Country to be better than the Premier League-bound man he replaced, Simón has quietly become one of the best young shot-stoppers in Europe with an ever-improving ability on the ball in distribution. Having only just turned 23 years old, the world is seemingly at his feet.

Spain have done quite a bit of rotation of their goalkeepers in recent international matches, with Enrique not really giving away who his preferred number one and number two options are. While De Gea and Kepa could still be the two choices, do not be surprised to see Simón on the plane for the Euros this summer, and, despite somewhat of a rebound in form from De Gea recently, do not be surprised if you hear discussions around Simón being Spain’s number one for the Euros. He is a brilliant keeper, one of the most underrated in the world at the moment. If he gets a chance in the Euros, I imagine he will be one of the players that earns a move off of the spotlight that the Euros provides.

Silas Wamangituka, VfB Stuttgart/DR Congo

Look away, Arsenal fans. Your former head of scouting may have unearthed another gem.

Sven Mislintat, the famed former chief scout at Borussia Dortmund and brief technical director at Arsenal, was named sporting director at Stuttgart two years ago, truly beginning his sporting project following Die Schwaben‘s relegation to the second division at the end of the 2018-2019 season. He brought in several young attacking players that played a key role in getting Stuttgart back into the top flight, and they continue to play a key role in a team enjoying a fairly positive return to the Bundesliga. Chief among those signings was a tall and incredibly skillful winger named Silas Wamangituka.

The Congolese winger moved to France in 2017, spending a little over a year and a half with Olympique Alès before moving to Ligue 2 side Paris FC. He looked to be a star in the making in Paris, as his 11 goals and two assists nearly helped to carry the club to promotion. This caught the eye of Mislintat, who brought the talented winger to Stuttgart in 2019. He once again was one of the stars of the show, with his seven goals and eight assists helping Stuttgart achieve promotion back to the Bundesliga. He has continued to impress in the top flight, racking up eight goals and 3 assists in 14 games in all competitions, the most notable being the two goals and one assist in his Man of the Match display against Borussia Dortmund last month. His performances this season earned him the Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Month award for the month of November and potentially put him in discussions to win Player of the Month for December. Despite Stuttgart’s inconsistencies this season leaving them firmly mid table, they have built an exciting young team that could be dangerous in a few years, and the 21-year-old Wamangituka is at the heart of it all.

Silas is a very interesting combination of physical and technical traits. Not to harp on the fairly racist “pace and power” stereotypes that follow African players, but the Congolese dynamo is 6’2″, fairly strong, and quite quick, and that is something that makes him incredibly dangerous as an attacker. He is also an incredibly gifted technical player, with a dribbling ability and sense of confidence that allows him to attack defenders in one-on-one situations, navigate through tight and congested spaces, and makes him an absolute nightmare to defend against when he is on form. This combination of physical and technical traits allows him to play anywhere in an attacking front three, starting his career as a striker but later moving into wider positions that allow him the space to run at defenders and beat them off the dribble. In the top flight, he has been deployed on the wide left or right positions in Stuttgart’s sort of weird but also sort of unique 3-1-4-2 system, giving him the room to attack space on the counter, dribble at opposition fullbacks, and still cut inside and find a few goals. Silas is a very unique player and one that is a joy to watch when he is at his best. As this young Stuttgart team improve over time, I imagine he will become one of the Bundesliga’s biggest young stars. He is one to keep an eye on, especially as we get later into 2021.

Timothée Pembélé, Paris Saint-Germain/France

He may not be the most exciting young French player, but he certainly is the most interesting.

Timothée Pembélé is the most recent graduate of the PSG academy, a youth set up that is often overlooked in discussions about being among the best on the continent despite the litany of incredible young talents that have come through there over the years. Pembélé broke into the first team very recently, only making his professional debut and scoring his first goal this season. He may not be the first thing you think of when you ponder young French stars, but he is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Why? Because he is a right back. Despite the litany of young talents coming through in France at the moment, right back has remained a problem position for Les Bleus. When Bacary Sagna aged out after Euro 2016, there was no real ideal replacement. While Benjamin Pavard did a commendable job at the World Cup in 2018, he was a center back for most of his career before that competition, only selected for that role due to being the best of a list of mediocre candidates. Now, there are some more options. Leipzig’s Nordi Mukiele is an interesting option as a center back turned wingback. Saint-Étienne’s Yvann Maçon almost made this list, but his cruciate ligament injury has likely pushed back his true “break out year”. Even outside of just looking at the France team, there are not that many true budding star right backs in the world. There are very few star right backs in the world in general. It is a position that has not had many great players in the late 2010s, so Pembélé has the chance to become a very unique youth prospect. This distinction will likely get him more attention from around the continent very soon.

Pembélé remains the most impressive of the young French right backs, being a natural right back with the physical skills needed to also play center back. He combines impressive technical skill and ability to attack with a solid defensive IQ, which even allows him to play any role in a defense on top of his preferred right back position. He has been one of the main positives in a so far rocky season for PSG, showing that he is ready to be a consistent first team player right now. Should PSG actually choose to trust their youth academy, something they infamously tend to not do, Pembélé could be a fixture in their team for the next several years. Do not get me wrong, he is not ready to play for France, and he is most likely not going to be on the plane for the Euros. But despite this, if he carries his strong form with PSG into 2021, he will become one of the most talked about young players in Europe.

Youssoufa Moukoko, Borussia Dortmund/Germany/Cameroon

Remember that kid who I said broke Florian Wirtz’s “Youngest Bundesliga Goalscorer” record? Well, this is him.

Youssoufa Moukoko sprung into the mainstream football world after his absolutely absurd youth team goalscoring stats made their way to the internet. And yes, they are hilariously absurd. In the 2016-2017 season, playing for Dortmund’s U-15 team as an 11 year old, he scored 33 goals in 21 games to guide Dortmund to their regional title. In October 2017, when he was just 12 years old, he scored a brace for Dortmund’s U-17 team against Schalke to help them come from 4-1 down to draw 4-4. He scored 40 goals for the U-17 team in that 2017-2018 season, including decisive goals in their national title semifinal against Leverkusen and final against Bayern. Again, he was 12 years old at the time. He would score 50 goals for the U-17 team in 2018-2019, setting an all-time record for the competition and earning him a move up to the U-19 team, where he scored a record 34 goals in just 20 games. He was 15 at the time. That is insane.

Due to the DFB changing laws around the age at which a player can get their professional license, Moukoko is now eligible to feature for the senior team at 16 years of age. He has already done so, appearing as a substitute against Hertha Berlin in late November and becoming the youngest debutant in Bundesliga history. He has since become the youngest debutant in Champions League history and the youngest goalscorer in Bundesliga history. Again, this is all just bafflingly insane.

It is interesting to think about where he could play with the senior team. He was a number nine with the youth teams, but with Erling Håland playing that position and also scoring goals at insane rates, he is likely not going to play there in the short term. He is not small, but his 5’9″ frame does not really suit playing as a sole striker. He has an impressive ability on the ball, however, and that skill combined with his quickness and agility makes him suited to playing slightly wider or off of a striker. He has quite a bit of competition for places in the other attacking positions, but with Jadon Sancho presumably on his way out of the club and Marco Reus not getting any younger, the chances will definitely come. Allegedly-incoming manager Marco Rose and his high-energy Red Bull-disciple system will likely benefit a player like Moukoko, and it is possible he starts seeing not-insignificant amount of time next season, likely playing just off of Håland as a second striker or wide forward. Dortmund’s future attack looks terrifying, even if Håland does leave the club soon, as Moukoko joins Jude Bellingham and Giovanni Reyna as prominent attacking talents at the club under the age of 20.

I do not want to stack expectation on the kid. It is very possible he does not feature prominently for Dortmund this season. He might go out on loan next season. You never know. But I do think he will play senior level football somewhere, whether it be at Dortmund or elsewhere on loan. And when he plays, he is going to be a sight to see.

There we have it, just a few names for you to keep your eye on this year. I always found that watching young players grow into stars is one of the most satisfying parts of being a football fan, and these players look to be the ones on the cusp of becoming big names in the sport.

In part 2, I will discuss a few more established players to keep an eye on this year, either due to under-appreciated performances, a potential big transfer, or the chance to elevate their game to the next level in their domestic league or at the Euros.

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