Looking at the big names that could take up the headlines this year…
Welcome back to Part 2 of our 2021 preview series! Today, we are looking at the players who will likely be the center of attention this year for a variety of reasons. Most, if not all, of these players will be more mainstream names, as compared to Part 1’s emerging talents. These are all players that are must-watches in 2021 because of their scintillating form, budding superstardom, transfer interest, or any other reason. These already established stars are poised to have big years.
João Félix, Atlético Madrid/Portugal
After a rather mediocre first season, it looks like we are finally seeing the João Félix we were all promised when he made his mega-money move to the Spanish capital. The Portuguese wunderkind can have a genuine claim at being the best player in La Liga for the first half of the season, amassing eight goals and four assists in 20 games in all competitions, as well as adding a league player of the month award to his list of accolades, as he helped Atlético Madrid end 2020 top of the league.
As the best attacking player in the team, Félix usually plays up front in the traditional Simeone 4-4-2, but his positioning can vary, usually allowed to roam around in the attack as more of a center forward rather than an out-and-out number nine. In this role, he can use his incredible ability on the ball to beat opponents on the dribble and combine with his teammates. He has likely benefitted the most with Atléti’s signing of Luis Suárez, and the two have combined well to be a deadly duo for Simeone’s team. It is his dynamic ability on the ball that has allowed Atléti’s attack to be much more potent than in years past, and it is part of the reason why they are serious contenders for silverware this season. If Félix continues this form, Atléti could very well be champions of Spain at the end of the season, and Portugal will be getting a very in-form attacking player for their run at defending their Euros crown. Félix’s continued growth makes him one of the main players to watch this year, as he grows into a superstar right in front of our eyes.
Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad/Spain
The other main superstar of La Liga outside of the El Clásico teams, Mikel Oyarzabal has been one of the best attacking players for arguably the most entertaining team in Spain at the moment. The Basque winger and captain of the club was receiving serious attention from Manchester City last summer, being identified as a potential replacement for Leroy Sané, and will likely be one of the next big stars on the move.
Oyarzabal has the ability to play on either wing or as a number ten behind a striker, but has primarily played on the left wing for La Real. He is not the typical inverted winger, as he is a primarily left footed player playing on the left. He is a very good dribbler, able to beat defensive players with simplicity rather than serious amounts of flair. His positioning is still similar to an inverted winger, though, as he often comes inside and operates between the defense and midfielders to combine with the rest of the Sociedad attack and primary creative midfielder, last season being Martin Ødegaard and this season being David Silva. It is here where that dribbling ability comes into play, as he is able to move inside and beat defenders, creating opportunities for key passes or shots. He has managed seven goals and four assists through 18 games in all competitions, helping guide La Real to third in the league and the Round of 32 in the Europa League. He has also become a constant in the Spain team, especially due to his flexibility in Luis Enrique’s system. He will likely feature at the Euros, and if he follows up a strong season with La Real with a strong performance at the Euros, I imagine there will be a list of big teams wanting to sign him.
Olivier Giroud, Chelsea/France
2021 could be the year that Olivier Giroud becomes France’s all-time leading goalscorer. Bit mad, right?
Giroud has always been a fairly underrated player throughout his career, but even while he is no longer a consistent starter for Chelsea, he retains the admiration of France manager Didier Deschamps. The towering striker was a constant in the World Cup-winning team in 2018 despite not scoring in the competition, and he appears to remain the top choice for starting striker going into the Euros this summer. Deschamps has expressed his displeasure in how little Giroud plays for Chelsea, however, and has said he wants the player to leave the club in January in order to be ready for the Euros. A few teams throughout the continent have registered interest, including the likes of Inter and Juventus, and it will be interesting to see if Giroud can find a club where he can play regularly and remind us all of how good he can be. Should he make the move that allows him to retain his spot with Les Bleus, Giroud only needs eight goals to surpass Thierry Henry’s 51 goal record to be France’s all-time leading scorer. It would be a remarkable achievement for a player that has been the target of criticism throughout his career, who often did the thankless work needed to make attacks work for club and country, and who has often been the unintended target of animosity when discussions around Karim Benzema’s absence from the national team surface. I hope he breaks the record; it is an accolade he deserves. Keep an eye on him this year to potentially see history.
Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig/France
The French brick wall, who starred last season in Leipzig’s run to the Champions League semifinal, Dayot Upamecano will be a name that gets mentioned quite a bit this season for two main reasons: the Euros and his release clause.
Upamecano was always known as a strong and rapid center back, able to use his recovery pace and sheer force to defend well and win tackles. The reason he really catapulted as high as he did last year, however, is how much he has grown as a positional defender and with the ball, no longer being reliant on his physicality to defend. His football IQ has grown by leaps and bounds, and his ability to read the game and be in the right positions, skills that top tier center backs need, is what has turned him into a budding world-class talent. This was best shown during Leipzig’s 0-0 draw against Bayern last season, where he helped to nullify the incendiary Bavarian attack. Having grown this much as only a 22-year-old, he has become one of the best young talents, let alone young center backs, in the world. He has continued at a high level this season as part of a Leipzig defense that is the best in the Bundesliga in terms of goals conceded. If Leipzig are to overcome Bayern and win the league, it will be because of Upamecano and their defense, rather than their attack.
This is also an interesting year, as Upamecano recently made his debut with the French national team. While he looked visibly nervous, he was alright, and it is not crazy to think that he has a shot of making the Euros team for Les Bleus, which would make his transfer situation even more interesting than it already is. With a relatively cheap release clause in his new contract, it looks like this will be his last season in Leipzig. It was fairly assumed he would be moving to Bayern, with a rumored move falling through last summer, but should he perform well this season and in the Euros, there could be some more competition for his signature. He is one to keep an eye on. He is a promising talent that will likely be a part of one of the biggest transfer tug of wars this summer.
Jules Koundé, Sevilla/France
Yes, another French center back.
Jules Koundé burst onto the scene last season, following his move to Sevilla from Bordeaux. The diminutive afro’d Frenchman was a rock at the back for Julen Lopetegui’s team, forming arguably the best center back partnership in La Liga last season alongside Diego Carlos and being a large reason why Sevilla ended the season with a Europa League title. While Carlos was impressive for his own reasons, Koundé was the true gem of the team. Despite being only 5’10”, he is a very fearless player, and he makes up for lack of strength with very strong positional awareness and ability to win the ball back. He is also great on the ball, being the more composed passer between him and Carlos. Apart from his height, he demonstrated all the tools needed to succeed as a modern center back.
His success with Sevilla last season attracted plenty of attention, with the club reportedly having turned down a large money offer from Manchester City. He is currently continuing his strong run of form, playing very well for a Sevilla team in the hunt for European places in La Liga and in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Despite likely not being in the running to go to the Euros with France, he will still attract plenty of interest in the transfer window. Center backs, especially young ones that possess world-class potential, are a rare commodity in this market, so a player of Koundé’s caliber and potential will be coveted by clubs across the continent. Sevilla are renowned as a club that has a good eye for talent while also not being afraid to sell important players, knowing they have the infrastructure needed to replace them. I imagine that, should Koundé’s form continue, there will be clubs wanting to sign him this summer. He may not be the first name brought up in the center back transfer discussion, as that should be Upamecano, but I would not be surprised if he played well enough to earn a move.
Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal/England
So, he is a big name at the moment. Sure, he is technically a breakout star, worthy of inclusion in yesterday’s article, but I did sort of forget to put him in. His recent performances have still made him worthy of discussion and definitely one to watch this season.
Emile Smith Rowe is one of the new crop of youth team graduates from Arsenal’s Hale End Academy. He struggled for consistent first team chances, only really featuring in cup matches and Europa League games before going out on loan to Huddersfield last year. This season, Mikel Arteta had been looking for solutions to solve the Gunners’ run of woeful form, so he made the move to bring in some of the younger players, including Smith Rowe, starting for their match against Chelsea. And well, it worked like a charm. Smith Rowe has starred in Arsenal’s last three matches, racking up two assists and arguably being the best player on the pitch in all three. He offers Arteta something that no other creative player had previously: a desire and confidence to take on players and play risky forward passes. His passing and movement actually helps to create genuine goal scoring chances, something that no other Arsenal player had been able to offer this season. With most of Arsenal’s previous goals coming from dead ball situations, and with lengthy scoreless runs in the league under their belt, Smith Rowe appears to be a heaven-sent gift for Gunners fans. With all the rumors surrounding a loan move for Isco or a pricey permanent deal for Julian Brandt, it appears Arsenal have no real reason to search the market for a creative midfielder. Smith Rowe is exactly who they need, and he will likely be a fixture in the team for the rest of the season. Despite how poor Arsenal have been over the last few months, they are only six points off of fourth place. Smith Rowe could be the key to Arteta and Arsenal turning things around. Trust the kid, Mikel. You have nothing to lose.
Renato Sanches, LOSC Lille/Portugal
We could be on the verge of seeing Renato Sanches’ redemption arc be completed, as the Portuguese midfielder has overcome some early career struggles to become one of the more coveted talents in Europe.
After failing at Bayern Munich and Swansea, he found his confidence and form playing for Lille the last season and a half, showing his ability to dictate the tempo of a match and be a strong presence defensively. In that short time, he has become one of the best central midfielders in Ligue 1, showing off all of the traits that made him such a coveted talent when he was at Benfica. He is still only 23, after all, he still has so much more room to improve and grow, and finding a good situation to get his career back on track means he is still able to fulfill his sky-high potential. Young players can often get unfair treatment in the “what have you done for me lately?” world of football, so it is good to see that the naysayers calling Sanches a flop a few years ago might be proven wrong very soon.
With the Téléfoot deal in France failing, Lille have been thrusted into a position where they need to sell players to alleviate their serious debt issues, despite their strong season and serious potential of getting back into the Champions League and, potentially, winning the Ligue 1 title. Sanches will be one of the most coveted players in this team, with some rumors saying Liverpool are interested in bringing him in to replace Georginio Wijnaldum in January. Should he leave in January, expect him to be a serious contributor immediately at whatever club makes a move for him. Should he stay past January, I would expect this to be his last season for Les Dogues, but he could be important in Lille winning their first league title since 2011. Keep an eye on him, this is not the same Renato Sanches many of you may have seen with Bayern and Swansea.
Memphis Depay, Olympique Lyonnais/Netherlands
Speaking of redemption arcs, quite a bit has happened since Memphis Depay’s failed stint with Manchester United.
The petulant child has grown into a mature and confident player, captaining Olympique Lyonnais to the Champions League semifinals last season and to being top of Ligue 1 this season while coming off a major cruciate ligament injury. Eight goals and four assists through 17 games this season playing as the “false nine” in Lyon’s attack puts Depay on pace for one of the best statistical seasons he has had in France, and his performance and role in the team will be crucial for Lyon’s title chances. Only problem? His contract is up at the end of the season, and it does not seem like he wants to sign an extension to stay in the Rhône. He almost left this past summer, having a deal already agreed with Barcelona falling through due to their inability to sell a player and open up room for the Dutchman’s arrival. Lyon sporting director Juninho has said they have no intention of selling key players in January, but press speculation has indicated they could be willing to sell Depay at an incredibly cut rate fee to get something of value for him instead of him leaving on a free transfer in the summer. January will likely be a stressful window for Les Gones, but if they make it through without selling Depay, he should continue his strong form in what could be a “Player of the Season” level campaign, potentially being the reason Lyon win the league. Should he leave, then he would be an incredibly shrewd signing for a club desperate for a creative, dangerous, and tactically flexible forward. Like Renato Sanches, look for him to potentially be a big mover in January, and even if he does not leave in January, this is most likely his final season in Lyon. He will be on the move in the summer at the latest, whether it to be Barcelona or somewhere else.
Manuel Locatelli, Sassuolo/Italy
Manuel Locatelli might be a name you recognize but have not seen in a few years. Locatelli shot into the spotlight in 2016 when he scored a thunderbolt of a winning goal for Milan against Juventus. Only 18 at the time, Locatelli was viewed as the bright young prodigy that could help rescue Milan from their growing issues. He then seemingly fell off the face of the Earth, falling victim to the madness and failure that plagued Milan in the mid-2010s. His lack of trust in club leadership led to him demanding a transfer, eventually going to Sassuolo in 2019.
Well, I am here to tell you that he is still only 22 and he is definitely still a promising young star. He is arguably the brightest young gem in a Sassuolo team that unbelievably found themselves fourth in the league at the end of 2020. Playing as the regista, or deep-lying playmaker role (think Andrea Pirlo), he is able to dictate the game and keep possession ticking over in midfield, setting a platform for a team to attack from. He is also a good enough defensive player to be the deepest lying midfielder. He is an incredibly polished player, growing by leaps and bounds in the short time since he left Milan. He has been so impressive that Sassuolo have valued the player at between €40-50 million, a skyrocket in valuation for a player that moved to the Neroverdi for a quarter of that value. He will be a name that you hear quite a bit this summer, with Juventus especially being one of the teams that will go after his signature. Expect some Premier League teams to join that hunt, however, especially if he plays well for Italy at the Euros. He could be one of the players that benefits the most from the spotlight that the Euros will give him, and given that players like Jorginho and Sandro Tonali are having poor seasons, Locatelli might be given his chance to shine on the biggest stage for his country.
Alejandro Gómez, Atalanta/Argentina
Papu Gómez could be on the move this month. The star of everyone’s favorite underdog team last season, Atalanta’s Alejandro Gómez has been one of the best attacking players in Italy over the last few seasons, being the most important player for La Dea in a team that has truly punched above its weight class. However, he has had a disagreement with manager Gian Piero Gasperini that has only gotten worse, forming a serious rift between the two. Because of this, Gómez has expressed his desire to leave the Bergamasque club in the January window, with no shortage of suitors lining up for his signature. He reportedly wants to stay fairly close, which means the two Milan clubs are likely the favorites, being geographically very close and two teams that could very much use a player of Papu’s talents. There has also been some rumors about him leaving Italy altogether and going to MLS, which would be very interesting, but I imagine the two favorites to sign him are the Milan clubs.
It is a potential move that has generated discussion. While AC Milan and Inter are both very good teams and could use a player like Gómez, it is very possible that moving away from Atalanta would be the worst thing for the player to do. Gómez is a very good player, but he is a star in part because he fits the Atalanta system perfectly, and leaving that system might expose his weaknesses as a player. It is definitely a massive risk, especially if he stays in Italy. He could be a massive piece for a Scudetto-winning Milan or Inter team, but it could also be a massive failure that hurts his legacy within Serie A. Either way, he is for sure a player to keep an eye on this year.
There you have it, the ten stars you poised for big years or big moves that you should keep an eye on. In the next part, we will look at the teams you should be watching in 2021.
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