Weekend Previews

The Year’s Potential Breakout Stars: Part 2

Because who does not like an exciting future…

We all love looking out for the next big thing in football. I love it because I am a nerd who is just fascinated by things like this. And it appears you all loved it as much as I did.

I wrote a piece as part of my 2021 Preview series talking about ten potential breakout stars for the year. It went very well, and it appears I may have left a few off of the list that deserve their own recognition. So, I will give you a few more to keep your eye on or add to your transfer lists in FIFA Career Mode or Football Manager. With a seemingly very important summer transfer window coming up, several of these players might be on the move to your favorite clubs, so it could be worth getting to know them now.

Pedro Gonçalves, Sporting CP/Portugal

So, we all know Bruno Fernandes, right?

The Portuguese midfielder has been phenomenal since moving to Manchester United from Sporting Club a year ago, becoming one of the best attacking midfielders in the world in such a short amount of time. We all know that side of the story. But how did Sporting manage? Fernandes was the club captain and their best player, so losing such an important player is likely massive for them, right?

Well, no. They sold Fernandes to United for €55 million in January. In the summer, they bought an attacking midfielder from a newly promoted team with the vision of him being the Fernandes replacement. That player is Pedro “Pote” Gonçalves, signed from Famalicão for €6.5 million. He was a star in the 2019/20 season, amassing seven goals and eight assists in all competitions to help newly-promoted Famalicão finish sixth. In 21 appearances this season in all competitions, he has 14 goals and three assists, with all 14 of those goals coming in just 16 league games. He has become the leader of a team that came out of a crisis few seasons to currently sit top of Liga NOS as an unbeaten team, eight points clear of rivals FC Porto. Pretty good replacement plan, huh?

The tag of “Bruno Fernandes replacement” is not an exact characterization of Gonçalves’ game, but when watching him play, you can see similarities between the two. While Fernandes and Gonçalves both can play as a number ten, Fernandes is purely a central player. Gonçalves has thrived this season playing on the right in Sporting’s 3-4-3 system. Despite this wide starting position, he has the freedom and ability to roam around the attack, meaning he becomes the focal point for seemingly every Sporting attack, much in the way Fernandes has become a focal point for every United attack. While he has not been as creative as Bruno, he has been a more lethal goalscorer, amassing a goal nearly every game in a green and white jersey. He is Sporting’s leading scorer, just as Bruno was last season. His ability in the ball and attacking intelligence make him such a dangerous player to defend against, with him seemingly knowing the exact run to make, the exact pass to play, the exact position to be in that will hurt the defense the most. It is this trait that makes him so unique; it is difficult to teach this high-level attacking IQ to young players, and he is only 22 years old.

The inevitable Fernandes comparisons are a pretty good way to characterize his game, but it is clear Gonçalves is a special player capable of standing in his own right among the most talented young players in the world. He is having a phenomenal season, one that could have him lead Sporting to their first league title in 20 years. It will take a colossal amount of money to get him out of Lisbon, but if his star continues to shine, it will come soon enough.

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund/United States

An American? That is not Pulisic? Being a young star?

Let me introduce you to Giovanni Reyna. He is the son of former American great Claudio Reyna, who did enjoy a spell with Glasgow Rangers, Sunderland, and Manchester City in the early-to-mid 2000s that you might remember. He was also in the All-Star Team in the 2002 World Cup, so he is no slouch of a player. Gio was born in England but raised in New York City, joining New York City FC’s academy in 2015 as a 13 year old. He was only there for four years before Europe called, with his English birthplace and access to a passport allowing him to leave and join Borussia Dortmund at only 17, when normal rules restrict American players going abroad before they turn 18. He shot through the youth set up at Dortmund, making his first team debut in January 2020, breaking Christian Pulisic’s record as the youngest American to ever appear in the Bundesliga. His maiden first-team season was promising, with one goal and two assists in 17 games understating the potential that was on display. This season has been stronger, with four goals and six assists in 29 games again slightly understating the potential on display. He has been one of the brighter sparks of a dismal Borussia Dortmund season, and, despite several key players aging or likely leaving in the summer, he remains a good reminder that the future is always seemingly bright in Dortmund.

Reyna is a dynamo of an attacking player, able to play on either wing or as a CAM behind a striker due to his ability on the ball and intelligence. He looks the most comfortable in a central role, having played there for Dortmund’s youth teams before breaking into the first team. Despite this preference, he played well on the wing in Lucien Favre’s 3-4-3, which gave him the opportunity to attack the half spaces or drift fully toward the middle of the pitch. He is a strong passer with both feet, very able to combine with his teammates and be a key provider in an attack. Since Favre’s departure and interim manager Edin Terzić’s return to a 4-2-3-1, he is able to act as a substitute for any of the three attackers playing behind the striker, but he still seems to be most comfortable in that central role. Despite early success and clear promise, he still has things to work on. He is not the most lethal player in the final third, while prone to the occasional wonder goal, and he needs to improve his composure in his finishing. If he is able to replicate the level of composure found in his passing game to his finishing, then he has the potential to become a superstar midfielder, the most ideal candidate to replace the aging Dortmund icon Marco Reus.

Reyna is likely the most promising young American player not named Christian Pulisic. He is one of the brightest gems of an American generation that is slowly trickling into the strongest teams and major leagues in Europe. Should Dortmund lose the likes of Jadon Sancho or Erling Håland in the summer, Reyna will be one of the players called on to be the next generation of Dortmund star. And come 2026, he might be a reason why the United States make some noise at the World Cup they are hosting.

Romain Faivre, Stade Brestois/France/Algeria

Ok, now for a real hidden gem name. World, let me introduce you to Romain Faivre.

Born in Asnières-sur-Seine, one of the northwestern suburbs of Paris, Romain Faivre came through the youth system at Tours and, eventually, AS Monaco, where he entered the professional ranks. He moved to Brest in 2020 for a measly €650,000, unable to find any time at Monaco under several different managers. Brest had been promoted back to Ligue 1 in the prior season, and Les Pirates manager Olivier Dall’Oglio identified Faivre as a key player to fit into his team’s more expansive and attacking style. Brest have had a solid, albeit inconsistent, season, but one that will be appreciated for keeping the club in Ligue 1 once again. Faivre has been a crucial part of their success, with his five goals and three assists this season perhaps understating the talent on display. He has been among the leaders in the league in chances created, key passes, and successful dribble percentage, stats which indicate a brave and confident creative player who is at the heart of everything his team does. When it comes to breakout stars in Ligue 1 this season, it is hard to find one whose star has shone brighter than Brest’s Franco-Algerian midfielder.

Faivre has played a variety of roles in his short career. He has featured in seemingly every midfield role, operating as a box-to-box and a creative number ten as well as playing off the left and right. This season, he has primarily played on the left and right of midfield in Dall’Oglio’s 4-4-2. In this role, he has thrived in attacking the half-spaces between the center back and fullback, using deceptive pace and dribbling ability to find pockets of space to play passes or fire in shots on his stronger left foot. He also runs quite a bit. Like a lot. He is a very hard-working player, taking responsibility for his share of the defensive duties and seemingly always tracking back to help his teammates. He reminds me quite a bit of Juan Mata, a player who is able to play in those half spaces as a creative outlet while also being known for his work rate and defensive support. If anyone remembers Juan Mata’s 35 assist season in 2012/13, you know this comparison is not something to be taken lightly. Faivre has all of the talent and work rate needed to become a star, and he has a clear future for France, having already made his debut with the France U-21 team. He obviously has a choice to make, since he is also eligible to represent Algeria, the country of his ancestry, but there is no doubt that he will be a star at the international level for whichever nation he chooses to represent.

Romain Faivre is Ligue 1’s biggest breakout star of the season, a player who has the individual skill needed to become a world-class creative midfielder with the work rate needed to become a cult hero among the fans. He has exploded onto the scene in French football, and this will likely be his last season in Brittany should things continue in this manner. With both PSG and Olympique Lyon heavily scouting the youngster, as well as rumored interest from Manchester United lingering in the press, do not expect this to be the last you hear of Romain Faivre any time soon.

Aurélien Tchouaméni, AS Monaco/France/Cameroon

We stay in France to talk about another midfielder with significant transfer interest surrounding him.

Aurélien Tchouaméni is, like Faivre, one of the brightest breakout stars in Ligue 1 this season. Coming through the youth set up at Bordeaux, he made his first-team debut when he was only 18, becoming a constant in the team for Les Girondins almost immediately. He began his career as an out-and-out defensive midfielder, being tasked with doing the gritty work and shielding the back line, making sure the ball advances from defense to midfield so Bordeaux can attack. It is clearly a thankless job, but his ability and composure at such a young age earned Tchouaméni significant transfer interest and an eventual move to Monaco in January 2020. He was not a consistent player in the team early on, as he struggled to earn the full trust of then-manager Robert Moreno. When the Spaniard left the club in the summer, his replacement, former Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern Munich boss Niko Kovač, took a liking to the young midfielder and gave him his chance in the team. He has not looked back, appearing in every Monaco game this season bar one and shining in a Monégasque midfield that is among the best in the league and a major reason that Kovač’s team find themselves firmly in the French top flight’s frenetic title race. France is seemingly becoming known for being a breeding ground for talented midfielders, and Tchouaméni seems to be the next name in that line of succession.

While Tchouaméni entered professional football as a purely defensive midfielder, his maturation in the game has allowed him to become a much more gifted technical player, this season setting personal milestones for pass completion and shot-creating actions. Even in watching him play, you can see that the player is now literally covering more ground and getting involved in more ways for Monaco than he did for Bordeaux. He has become an incredible blend of physical strength and tenacity alongside technical skill and composure. This has allowed him to play in multiple different roles in midfield, either in a double pivot alongside fellow France youth international Youssouf Fofana or as the most defensive midfielder in a midfield three, usually with two of Sofiane Diop, Cesc Fàbregas, or Aleksandr Golovin ahead of him. This has greatly aided Kovač’s team selection as he went from his original 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 to some form of 3-2-4-1 that they have tended to employ recently. Tchouaméni has found his greatest form while playing in a double pivot with Fofana, as it allows him the most freedom to move further up the pitch and display his technical ability while still being able to cover the defense and win the ball back when needed. He exemplified this in Monaco’s 3-2 win over PSG back in November, arguably his best display of his professional career, where he was able to win an incredible number of tackles and break up PSG attacks while playing incisive progressive passing that gave Monaco a platform to attack. His ability to fill multiple roles in midfield makes him an asset in whatever team he plays for.

Having been a key transfer target for Frank Lampard prior to his sacking at Chelsea, it is clear that Tchouaméni’s performances this season have put him on the map. Just as Bordeaux were unable to hold onto their young star, we are likely reaching the point where Monaco will be unable to hold onto him. Should Monaco not make the Champions League next season, he will more than likely move to another club in the summer window, and whichever club signs him will be getting a true blossoming talent.

Joško Gvardiol, Dinamo Zagreb/RB Leipzig/Croatia

The perfect example of scouting on display.

Joško Gvardiol is likely a name that you have not heard of. That is ok, I doubt the vast majority of football fans have even heard his name before this year. The Croatian wunderkind is the next in line of great players to emerge from the youth academy at Dinamo Zagreb, beginning his career as a midfielder and left back before being moved into the center back role. He was a superstar in the youth team, being a significant part of the Dinamo team that reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Youth League in the 2018/19 season, knocking out Liverpool in the Round of 16 before losing to Chelsea on penalties. In the 2019/20 edition of the competition, Gvardiol once again was one of the main stars of the team, helping to guide Dinamo to the quarterfinals. He then began to be fully integrated into the first team, with his performances in the youth ranks making him a surefire future star as a center back.

Now, this is where the scouting comes into play. When teams do their homework, they are able to identify future stars before their competition. Leeds United were one of those clubs, who fought hard to sign Gvardiol during the summer window in 2020. Bielsa specifically took an interest in the player, and despite Dinamo accepting a €22 million bid, the player rejected the move. RB Leipzig then came calling, and it was one offer that could not be turned down. Dinamo accepted a €16 million plus add ons deal, with Leipzig opting to loan Gvardiol back to the Croatian club for the remainder of the season. This is why both Dinamo Zagreb and RB Leipzig are in the title, he will be playing for both this year.

In the senior team this year, Gvardiol has been fantastic. Dinamo are top of the league at present moment, but the real impressive performances have come in the Europa League. Gvardiol was a centerpiece of the team in a major European competition at only 19 years old, and he did not look out of place. Dinamo won their group, only conceding one goal in six games and being given a very winnable Round of 32 match against Krasnodar. We could be seeing Gvardiol against top talent in Europe even before he finally moves to Leipzig.

Gvardiol has the entire physical skillset needed as a center back. He is strong, fairly tall, good in the air, and is incredibly quick. He combines these physical skills with a very good eye for a pass and composure on the ball, able to play a wide range of accurate passes with his left foot. Dinamo play out of the back almost religiously, and Gvardiol’s confidence and desire to take responsibility by moving toward the goalkeeper and accepting the first pass out of pressure is a trait that not many teenagers possess. He has a calmness about him that is rare in players his age, willing to accept the pressure of playing out of the back while still being able to pick out a pinpoint pass or being confident enough to dribble past a pressing attacker into space. He is incredibly unique; he has “future star” written all over him. He is not perfect, however, as he is prone to the occasional mistake. His defensive positioning is not always great, and while he has the pace to make up for bad positioning or a failed challenge, he is going to have to learn to become less reliant on his physical skills as he moves into bigger leagues and plays against better attackers. He is able to get away with mistakes while playing for Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia that he will not be able to get away with while playing for RB Leipzig in Germany.

Gvardiol is not only one of the brightest young stars in Europe at the moment, he is the example of perfect scouting, and demonstrates why the Red Bull scouting system is among the best in football at the moment. Knowing there would be significant transfer buzz around their players this summer, Leipzig acted proactively to find a promising young player that can come in and replace outgoing players. They also found one more…

Mohamed Simakan, RC Strasbourg Alsace/RB Leipzig/France

Another bit of brilliant scouting from Leipzig. Mohamed Simakan has emerged as a sought-after center back talent after a few seasons shining in Ligue 1.

Born and raised in Marseille, Simakan began his career playing as a striker before being fully converted to a central defender in the youth set up at his home city’s premier football club, Olympique de Marseille. He was a fixture in the youth teams at OM, starring alongside eventual Marseille stalwart Boubacar Kamara. Despite being clearly talented, Simakan was not offered a professional deal at Marseille, leading to a few years adrift before settling in at Strasbourg, where he quickly rose from the youth team to the first team. He was trusted with great responsibility early on by Strasbourg manager Thierry Laurey, being thrown into the heart of defense initially as a right back, then later as a right-sided center back. Despite Strasbourg being fairly average in the 2019/20 season and struggling this season, Simakan has caught the eye of many bigger clubs around Europe. AC Milan tried and failed to sign him in the summer window and January window this season before Leipzig concluded a €15 million deal to bring the Frenchman into the Saxony-based club at the end of this season. Despite a recent knee injury ruling out Simakan for two months, the German club still wanted to push through the deal, knowing the profile of the player could help them in the years to come.

Simakan is an athletic and versatile defender, able to combine great physical pace and recovery speed with a toughness and strength in the tackle needed to be a menace to attackers. He wins a high percentage of his tackles and defensive duels, and he has shown an advanced defensive intelligence for his age, with a good sense of anticipation and timing in his tackles and his defensive positioning. He does have areas where clear improvement is needed, however. He is not the best on-the-ball center back prospect in the world. While he clearly has the talent on the ball to be much better than he is, he often panics in crucial moments when playing out of the back, leading to mistakes or bad passes. A lack of seriously impressive progressive passing statistics can also be pinned on his team, as Strasbourg are not an adventurous team when it comes to playing out from the back, and they do not often pin responsibility on their center backs when it comes to progressive passing. When those moments arise, however, Simakan is often quite inconsistent in end product. He has the talent on the ball to be a confident ball-playing center back, but he just needs to add that sense of calmness and composure when the ball is at his feet. He is young, it is natural to be nervous, and I do not doubt that this is a skill that can come with age and experience, especially going into a team as talented as Leipzig and working with a coach as talented as Julian Nagelsmann.

Like Gvardiol, Simakan’s immediate future is already decided. Both will be joining RB Leipzig next season, and they will likely have quite a bit of responsibility in the first team put on them from minute one. It was no secret that Leipzig’s star center back Dayot Upamecano will be leaving the club in the summer, and now with a deal sending the Frenchman to Bayern reportedly agreed, there is an open position currently in the team for next season. It is also now a possibility that Ibrahima Konaté could leave the club, as Manchester United are among the clubs monitoring Upamecano’s also very talented teammate. While Konaté’s departure is not decided, Upamecano’s is certain. While Simakan and Gvardiol may not start immediately, they will likely be in the first team picture the moment they arrive, with Nagelsmann knowing he needs to replace an outgoing star in the heart of defense. This is the epitome of the Leipzig model. Upamecano will leave Leipzig for €42.5 million in the summer, and Leipzig proactively found two incredibly talented young players to replace him and signed them for a combined €31 million, not including any potential fees. That is perfect scouting and perfect business. Take note, rest of the world.

Well there are six more rising stars for you to keep an eye out for this year. There will be a part three, because everyone loves trilogies, where I will cover six more players. Until then, feel free to catch up on part one here.

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