European Football

The Year’s Potential Breakout Stars: Part 3

The most anticipated trilogy since Star Wars…

Here we are, part three. More young stars to keep an eye on for the next year. They might be the ones making headlines or potentially joining your team by the end of the year.

Antony, Ajax/Brazil

Everyone loves an exciting and tricky Brazilian, right?

Especially among those of my generation, who grew up with the vibrance and skill of the likes of “O Fenômeno” Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, we all look forward to the next big talent that comes from Brazil to the European stage. Neymar is obviously the most successful Brazilian export in recent time, but we have had a few exciting prospects come over in the last few years. But here, we have the biggest potential star.

Antony Matheus dos Santos, or Antony for short, is the most recent exciting graduate of the youth academy at São Paulo FC, the same academy that gave us Kaká and many other decorated players. Antony came through as a forward, able to play on the right and through the middle as a striker, and the hype immediately followed. There was so much attention around the player that he only spent two years in Brazil, being a first team regular for basically one season, before he was ready to leave São Paulo and make the move to Europe. Despite significant interest from across the continent, Ajax Amsterdam would win the race, signing the Brazilian for €15.75 million, potentially rising up to €21.75 million should certain bonuses be achieved. Having sold Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea for €40 million, Ajax were in need of a replacement. With their incredible eye for young talent and familiarity with the São Paulo system, having signed David Neres from the Brazilian giants back in 2016, they made their move for Antony.

The Brazilian has taken well to life in Amsterdam. He has slotted in perfectly on the right wing in Ajax’s 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, and with nine goals and nine assists in all competitions, he has definitely succeeded in his first season in Europe, being a major reason why Ajax find themselves beginning to pull away with yet another Eredivisie title. And yeah, he is a very fun player, and he does not turn 21 until later this month. Ajax, once again, have a real star on their hands.

While Antony came through as more of a multi-position forward, he has settled in on the right wing, operating and thriving as a sort of inside forward for Ajax. In this role, he takes up a more narrow position, usually attacking the half space between the left back and left center back. This position not only allows the team to have the right back make overlapping runs, which Ajax right back Noussair Mazraoui often does, but it gives Antony the freedom to drift inside and float into the attacking third to play the ball on his stronger left foot. It also gives him a more advantageous one-on-one battle to win, either attacking an overwhelmed left back or a less mobile center back, and this is where his dribbling ability shines. With a background in futsal and street football, Antony has a very strong ability to dribble against pressure and control the ball close to his body, as well as an added flair in his game. It also gives him a great understanding of space, able to manipulate his body and the ball to get around defenders and dribble into space. This often revolves around a move to get onto his stronger left foot in order to pass or shoot, which runs the risk of becoming predictable, but is very difficult to stop when Antony is at his best. Even without the ball, Antony moves very well for a young forward, able to find the right pocket of space to be threatening in when the ball is on the other wing, which leads to him scoring many of his goals.

While he is exciting and dynamic in attack, he could improve his passing ability, especially with his right foot. It is definitely a part of his game that has improved since his arrival in Amsterdam, as shown by his nine assists in all competitions, but it is still a part of his game that can be improved. He is not a player tasked with doing much crossing for Ajax, but when he is in a position to play a pass that cuts the ball back to the penalty area or the edge of the box, those passes can be slightly off or overhit at times, ruining a goal-scoring chance. The power he generates in his shots also needs to be improved. He is a pretty good finisher when he has chances inside of the penalty area, but when he is outside and shooting from a longer distance, many of his shots do not generate the power and accuracy needed to threaten the goalkeeper.

Both of those points do tie together. While Antony is a very dynamic player on his day, he can also be fairly predictable due to his strong desire to use his left foot. This desire, combined with his lack of ability to succeed in more physical duels, can make it easier for opponents to deal with the threat he provides. Arjen Robben is a famous example of a player who obviously felt using his right foot was optional, but what made Robben so dangerous was that after the inevitable cut back move, which was often very difficult to stop by himself, he was immediately a threat. Once he got the ball onto his left foot, Robben could score from close range, score from distance, cross, play a killer through ball, or do practically anything that could lead to a goal. While the move onto the left foot was predictable, it became hard for defenders to predict what Robben would do the moment the ball got to his left foot, and that is what made him such a terrifying attacking threat. This is where Antony still needs to develop. If he becomes an even better passer or adds some more power to his shot, then he can have the ability to cause similar panic in defenders when he cuts inside. This, combined with his already incredible dribbling ability and lightning-quick pace, would make him a world-class right winger. And he definitely has the potential to become world class.

Gonzalo Montiel, River Plate/Argentina

Let us stay on the South American theme for this one, but we will instead talk about a player who is on the verge of making his move across the Atlantic, instead of one who just made his move to Europe.

Gonzalo Montiel is a 24-year-old right back playing for Argentinian giants River Plate. He came through River Plate’s youth system, making his debut in the first team all the way back in 2016, and he has been a fixture in the first team ever since. Manager Marcelo Gallardo took an immediate liking to him, specifically seeing his pace, ability on the ball, and work rate as being crucial for his high-energy Millonarios team. He became a crucial player a year after breaking into the first team, slotting into the right back/right wingback slot in Gallardo’s varying 4-3-1-2/3-5-2 systems.

Montiel found success in that position as an attacking fullback, bombing up and down the pitch to be involved in the attack and the defense. Gallardo’s 3-5-2/4-3-1-2 system also gives freedom for the center midfielders to drift onto the wings, which allowed Montiel to show the ability to invert and fill the space vacated. In general, and even as an inverted fullback, he is a strong defensive player, largely due to his seemingly never-ending energy and desire but also due to a strong tackling ability and ability to anticipate the attackers’ moves. He also aggressively presses from his wingback position, which may not come into play should he move to a team playing four at the back, but it shows his endless motor and desire defensively. He is also a very good attacking player despite a lack of eye-catching goal and assist numbers throughout his career. He makes a notable amount of progressive runs and crosses, even if they all do not lead to goals, and he even has the ability to come closer to the center of the pitch and participate in the build up during an attack. He is not a large or physical player, but he is comfortable on the ball and has a strong ability to control the ball close to his body, which means he is able to keep the ball under pressure when overlapping. He may not have the ridiculous stats that some attacking fullbacks are able to boast, but he has all of the technical and physical characteristics needed to be a successful attacking fullback at the highest level.

He was especially crucial in continental competitions, as he was an important player in River Plate’s run to winning the Copa Libertadores in 2018 and reaching the final in 2019. Despite their disappointing semifinal exit in the competition this season, it was possibly Montiel’s best individual run in the competition, tallying one goal and six assists in 11 games and making the inaugural Libertadores x EA Sports Team of the Tournament. He has long been a favorite in that famous red-striped shirt, and his performances the last few seasons have garnered him serious attention from teams in Europe.

And this is why he is a major player to watch. His contract at River Plate expires in the summer, allowing him to move to the club of his choice in the summer window. A team has the potential to get a very good right back for no transfer fee. With a lack of big name right backs on the market, as well as many clubs still suffering from the financial impact of the COVID Pandemic, the prospect of signing a player as good as Montiel on a free transfer will be incredibly enticing to many clubs across Europe. The attention reportedly started in January, with Roma, Lyon, and West Ham all enquiring about the possibility of signing the Argentine at a cut price before his contract expires. While none of them were successful, I anticipate that this is only the start of serious interest that will follow the player this summer.

If you support a top flight European team and they are in need of a right back, then they will likely be linked with Montiel. He may not be the biggest transfer story of the summer, and he obviously will not have the biggest price tag attached to him, but he could be the most influential and impactful mover in this summer window. Keep an eye on him next season.

Ivan Toney, Brentford/England

Brentford. Moneyball. Things of that nature.

Brentford FC are a club that are very much punching above their weight class, having nearly been promoted to the Premier League last season and looking very likely to go up this season. They have done this through an incredible scouting network that has been able to find great talent at very cheap prices, often called a “Moneyball” system due to the similarities to the data-driven system used for player recruitment by the Oakland Athletics in American baseball. I will not waste time talking about something that has likely been discussed at length and will be discussed even further should Brentford secure promotion, but I will focus specifically on the newest gem they have uncovered.

This past summer window, Brentford signed Ivan Toney from League One side Peterborough United for about £5 million. Toney was sought after by several clubs after scoring 26 goals and adding seven assists in 39 games in all competitions for Peterborough in 2019-20, with Championship side Derby County and Scottish giants Glasgow Celtic also vying for the Englishman’s signature. Since signing for Brentford, Toney has tallied 23 goals and nine assists in just 29 league games, which is clearly quite impressive but especially so when you consider the man he replaced, now Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins, scored 26 goals in 46 league games last season. Toney’s incredible goal scoring pace leaves him five goals clear of the next closest player on the Championship top scorer charts, and he is a major reason why Brentford currently sit in second and look to be on pace to secure promotion to the English top flight for the first time in 74 years.

While he played in a strike partnership for Peterborough, Toney has been tasked with being the lone striker in Brentford’s 4-3-3, usually being flanked by Tariqe Fosu and Bryan Mbeumo. Despite this tactical change, he has clearly not skipped a beat since moving to West London, as his ridiculous goal tally would indicate. The reason why Toney has been able to fit in without a hitch is simply because of how well-rounded of a striker he is. He is dangerous in so many different ways. While he is not lightning fast, he is quick enough to play off the shoulder of the center backs and get on the end of through balls. His lack of searing pace is definitely more than made up for by just how direct and intelligent his attacking runs are. Even as a lone striker, he is able to pick out the space he needs to attack and make runs that can either put him in incredible goal-scoring positions or occupy multiple defensive players and open up space for others. He is very dangerous inside the penalty area, able to finish with both feet and find the exact position where he can be found by any of the dynamic attacking players in this Brentford team. He is also very good in the air, despite being under six feet tall, because of that positional sense and his athleticism allowing him to challenge taller center backs in the air. He has also improved with the ball at his feet, especially since moving to Brentford, which has allowed him to drop into open space and be a part of the build up play, turning him into a true target man striker. He is also clearly a bit of an underrated creator, with an ever-improving passing ability which has allowed him to rack up nine assists as a striker this season.

Is there anything he can’t do? Obviously very few, if any, players in the world are without fault, but it is very hard to find any major issues with Toney’s game. The main thing is he needs to ensure this season is not an outlier season, especially as he moves to higher levels. He failed to impress in the Premier League with Newcastle much earlier in his career, and while there is blame to be shared on both sides in that case, Toney needs to make sure he is ready for the step up when he inevitably returns to the Premier League. England’s top flight is obviously a more physical league than the Championship, and Toney may find his pace becomes relatively slower or center backs are much more able to deal with him physically and positionally. He will need to continue to adapt and raise his game as he faces tougher competition, and, if he does, then he has all of the tools needed to succeed at the Premier League level. Should Brentford finally secure promotion, he will likely stay with them for their first Premier League season, but should the Bees fail at the final hurdle once again, then Toney will most definitely be on the move to a Premier League team in the summer window. There is a good history of players moving from the Championship to the Premier League and succeeding, with Leicester and former Norwich City midfielder James Maddison being the most recent example, and I do not doubt that Toney will be added to that list if Brentford are unable to gain promotion themselves.

Amine Gouiri, OGC Nice/France/Algeria

We stay at the striker position and discuss a player that is personally near and dear to my heart while objectively being an incredibly bright young player.

Amine Gouiri was born in Bourgoin-Jallieu, a town about 20 miles outside of Lyon. A boyhood fan of Olympique Lyonnais, he joined the club’s famous youth system at the age of 13 and began to be involved with the first team by the time he turned 17. He was a prodigal talent in the youth set up, scoring plenty of goals at every level for both club and country, even being very successful at the continental level in the UEFA Youth League for Lyon and at the Under-21 European Championships for France. He was one of the main “young hopes” among Lyon fans, who fell in love with not only his technical skill, but his fighting spirit and desire to win at Lyon. His career seemed to be thrown off the rails with an ACL rupture in 2018, but he showed that same incredible fight to come back from the injury and continue at a high level.

He was bound to be a future star, but unfortunately, it would not be for Lyon. After a few years around the first team with little to no playing time, Gouiri lost faith in the club’s development strategy for him and demanded a move away in order to play. The result was a move to OGC Nice in the summer of 2020 for a meager €7 million, a move that left many fans, including myself, and, allegedly, club sporting director Juninho, very frustrated. Gouiri has gone on to play well in his first season on the south coast, tallying 12 goals and five assists in 30 matches, being one of the few bright spots for a struggling Nice team. With the financial struggles facing many Ligue 1 teams, it is very possible that this will be Gouiri’s only season with Nice, and he is certainly giving many clubs enough reasons to consider signing him.

While Gouiri has often played on the left wing for Nice this season, he is at his best playing through the middle as a striker/center forward. He is not the quickest or the strongest player, but he is incredibly calm and silky on the ball, with great technical and dribbling ability that allows him to be a danger to center backs. He is able to play off the shoulder of the center back and play more of a target man role, but he is also more adept at dropping even deeper and acting as more of a center forward, becoming much more involved in the build up play and using a solid passing ability to also provide for his teammates. He has an incredibly dangerous positional sense, able to find the right run and end up in the right place at the right time to score a goal. It is the combination of these traits that earned him many comparisons to another one of Lyon’s prodigal sons, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema. While he is definitely not as good as Benzema was at this age, the styles are fairly similar. It is these traits, however, that do make me say he is less effective as a winger. He lacks the outright pace and athleticism that is needed to succeed as a winger in the modern game, and he is able to fill this role for Nice because their system gives him quite a bit of freedom to move inside and operate more as an inside forward than as a traditional winger.

It is this lack of athleticism that more or less leads into his weaknesses. Sticking with the Benzema comparison, Benzema has been able to succeed as a less-than-athletic striker because of an incredible ability on the ball, able to pass and score with both feet and be skillful enough to skill cause defenders issues in close quarters. Gouiri can succeed in that mold, but he needs to continue to improve as a passer and with using both feet, as well as improve his strength and ability to act as a more traditional target man when needed. If he continues in that Benzema/Firmino/Kane mold of center forward, he will need to add more assists to his stat line, likely being expected to at least be in the 15+ goal 7-10+ assist region when he is at the highest level. If not acting as a traditional target man, he needs to be enough of an immediate threat that his movement can drag center backs out of position, much in the way Benzema and Firmino are able to use their movement to open up space for their teammates. Gouiri can definitely reach that level, but he does have improvements to make to his game, and it is kind of clear why he was not fully ready to contend for a starting place at Lyon against then-established striker Moussa Dembélé.

As stated before, this will likely be Gouiri’s only season with Nice. With the financial uncertainty facing Ligue 1 teams, as well as the risk of Nice being dragged into the relegation places, Les Aiglons will more than likely be forced to sell the youngster in the summer. With a potential Lyon return or a move out of France likely being on the table, Gouiri will have a serious decision to make, and that might not be the only decision. Like many talents in France, Gouiri has the option to represent the nation of his birth, France, or the nation of his ancestry, Algeria. With serious questions surrounding many of the striker options for Les Bleus ahead of the Euros this summer, there are rumors that manager Didier Deschamps wants to call up the youngster during the next international window in March, which would cap tie Gouiri to France. It is safe to say that it will be a very interesting and important next few months for a potential future superstar.

Sékou Koïta, Red Bull Salzburg/Mali

One last striker. You can’t blame me, strikers are exciting.

In 2015, Mali surprised many people by reaching the final of the Under-17 World Cup. Two years later, that same pool of players carried Mali to the quarterfinals of the Under-20 World Cup. One player stood out above all others in that competition specifically, an 18-year-old diminutive but incredibly lethal Malian striker named Sékou Koïta.

On the back of that incredible run at the Under-20 World Cup, Koïta was a wanted man among many European teams, but the Red Bull scouting network eventually signed the player up. He joined FC Liefering, the feeder club for Austrian giants Red Bull Salzburg, in 2018. Despite injury issues, he was still impressive enough to go out on loan to Wolfsberger AC, where he scored five goals and assisted four in just half of a season. After that strong run for Wolfsberger, he got his chance in the first team with Salzburg, albeit as a rotational player, still amassing a very commendable eight goals and three assists in 16 league games. He has been on fire this season, however, tallying 14 goals and five assists in only 16 league games as a starting striker, playing alongside fellow promising young African forward Patson Daka. Having just turned 21, he is really showing that incredible promise that was on display at the Under-20 World Cup, and he truly looks like the next star unearthed by the Red Bull scouting network.

Koïta does not have the height and strength that former Red Bull Salzburg striker Erling Håland had, but he more than makes up for his lack of height by being absolutely rapid. In the Red Bull 4-2-2-2, he is able to use this pace to play off of the shoulder of the center backs, as well as moving into wider spaces to stretch a defense. He has a good positional sense and makes smart runs, which allows him to get into very dangerous positions and where he is able to score with both feet at a very reliable rate. Despite his short height, he is still fairly strong, with the ability to use his body to ride challenges from center backs and stay on his feet. He seems to be the ideal player to fit into the Red Bull high-energy and aggressive system, and it is well-established that he works very well in a two striker system.

The question about him, especially as teams look to take him away from Salzburg, is how effective he can be outside of a two striker system. While he definitely is not weak, I am unsure how well he can function as a lone striker. He is seemingly not big enough to function as a target man, and I have some questions about how effectively he can function as a winger. He might run into similar adaptation issues that Timo Werner is currently facing at Chelsea, where a pace-centered striker is tasked with playing wide in a one striker system instead of playing as a second striker. Should he end up being the next Salzburg player to go to Leipzig, he will likely not run into this problem, and he makes sense as the best option for die Roten Bullen to replace Timo Werner. If he moves elsewhere, then I have some questions, not really concerns, but questions. I think he could succeed eventually as a wide player, as he does take up wide positions for Salzburg at times, but he will have to improve as a passer and crosser of the ball should he be put into situations where he must play as an out-and-out winger.

Sékou Koïta looks like the next in a long line of talent to emerge from the Red Bull system and the next on the ever-growing list of African stars in football. The hype that followed him following the Under-20 World Cup in 2017 seems to be warranted, and Koïta will definitely be a player to follow over the next year as he continues to score at a ridiculous rate in Austria and garner attention across the continent.

Loïc Badé, RC Lens/France

Everyone in the world loves a French center back. Center back seems to be the position of specialty in France at the moment, churning out young star players in that position like it is no big deal, and here we have another star.

Loïc Badé was born in Sèvres, a southwestern suburb of Paris. His youth career started with local teams before moving to the academy of Paris FC in 2015. He then moved to Le Havre’s youth set up in 2017, where he would become a professional. For those outside of France who may be unaware, Le Havre has one of the more highly respected track records when it comes to youth development and youth scouting in France, with the likes of Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez, Dimitri Payet, Benjamin Mendy, and Ferland Mendy at least spending some time in the youth system of the Normandy-based club over the last decade or so. Badé was next on that list, making his debut with the first team in 2019. He only played in seven matches, but he was already a wanted man. Unfortunately for Le Havre, Badé was still on his youth contract, which was set to expire. Some lucky club was going to get a very talented player for free, and that club would be newly promoted RC Lens, who signed the player on a free transfer in the summer of 2020. So far for Lens, in what is essentially his first professional season, Badé has made 20 appearances, playing the full 90 minutes in 17 of those 20 games, and only missing five total games, two due to card suspension and three due to injury. He has been one of the key players for a Lens team that has been the surprise package of the Ligue 1 season, currently sitting sixth in their first season back in the top flight. Those performances have not gone unnoticed, with rumblings of interest from the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, and AC Milan, as well as attention from both PSG and Olympique Lyon. It appears that Badé is next in line when it comes to talented young center backs leaving France for other clubs.

Badé is of the same mold of center back as many that came before him. He is not too dissimilar from, for example, Wesley Fofana, who left Saint-Étienne for Leicester City last summer. He is not as good as Fofana was, but they are a similar archetype. Both are tall players who are known well for their composure and comfort on the ball, as well as a very impressive passing ability for a central defender. In comparison to Fofana, Badé lacks a bit of the defensive solidity that Fofana provides. Badé is prone to the occasional lapse in concentration, which can lead to him being caught in possession with the ball or caught in a bad defending position. He is obviously a very young player, this is more or less his first true professional season, so things like that are not the end of the world and can be worked out of a young player as he matures. The most incredible thing is probably how good he has been at his peak performance, given that this is basically his first professional season. The goals conceded statistic may not support this, but it still feels like Lens’ defense, in which Badé is the central center back in a back three, is a large reason why they are doing so well this season. His level of comfort on the ball and composure in his passing and his tackling is remarkable for a player that is still only 20 years old. Teams have begun to recognize this, with Badé being linked with moves to Milan or Liverpool in January, while Lyon and Chelsea have also expressed some interest in signing the player this summer. He is slowly but surely becoming a wanted man.

Loïc Badé is yet another fantastic young French center back, seemingly a common commodity in football these days. Despite the “dime a dozen” rate that French teams are producing quality center backs, Badé still needs to be appreciated for the talent that is clearly there. Even with how much he has already accomplished, he is not the finished product, but by the end of the year, we may be talking about him in the same sentence as the likes of Fofana or William Saliba or Ibrahima Konaté. He has the potential to be special.

And one more as a bonus, just because…

Maxence Lacroix, VfL Wolfsburg/France

Yes, another French center back. But he is really good too, I promise.

It is hard to talk about Badé without talking about another player in his age group. Maxence Lacroix is another of the Fofana/Badé archetype of center back, also being the same age as the other two. The similarities with Badé are quite interesting as well. Both came through in a Ligue 2 team before earning a move away, though it feels like Lacroix is one step ahead of Badé in career moves. Regardless of the similarities, Lacroix has done enough to stand out in his own right and earn his own recognition.

Lacroix, like Badé, is also from a Paris suburb. He played for several youth teams before ending up at Sochaux, where he emerged from the youth system in 2018 and became a professional player in Ligue 2. He was a bit part player until last season, when he featured 20 times and was one of the few bright spots in a poor season for Sochaux. His strong performances attracted a few suitors, and German side VfL Wolfsburg eventually brought in the Frenchman for a measly €5 million. He has stepped straight into the team in Wolfsburg, forming a strong partnership with American center back John Brooks. While Wolfsburg right back Ridle Baku has, very deservingly, gotten the most attention and praise as a young Bundesliga star, Lacroix has quietly become one of the best young players in the league this season and a crucial player for a Wolfsburg team that is chasing the Champions League. Die Wölfe have conceded the second-fewest number of goals this season, only one more than RB Leipzig, and much of the solidity in their defense can be credited to the ever-consistent Lacroix. The 20 year old has taken to top flight football very well, and if this continues, he may be playing in the Champions League for Wolfsburg next season.

As I said before, Lacroix is a very similar player to both Wesley Fofana and Loïc Badé. All three players are 6’3″ in height, are right footed, and are very comfortable and composed on the ball and capable of playing passes out from the back to kick-start an attack. It is Lacroix’s composure on the ball and in defending that has earned him major praise, however, and it is a composure and maturity beyond his age. He is only 20, but you could be mistaken at times for thinking he was a veteran of the Bundesliga. While he is not faultless, no player is immune to mistakes, he never seems flustered when defending or playing out of the back. His incredible comfort on the ball, ability to play a pass or dribble into space, is quite remarkable for a young player, and his positioning and tackling in defense is spot on most of the time. He has won over 70 percent of his tackles this season, and he is equally competent in defensive duels and aerial duels. It almost makes you forget about how physically imposing he is as a player. Lacroix is 6’3″, making him comfortable in the air both defensively and offensively, despite not having a goal this season. He is also very quick, measuring the 17th fastest recorded top speed of any player in the Bundesliga, second only to Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano among center backs. While he is not physically strong, more lean and graceful than large and powerful, he has the strength and capability to use his physicality in smart ways in order to contend with different types of attackers. He is truly an incredible prospect.

German clubs have been very good at signing young French players, particularly young center backs, from Ligue 1 or Ligue 2 sides and turning them into stars. Dayot Upamecano is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this wave of transfers. Maxence Lacroix is next in line, and you will be hearing much more about him over the next year. Wolfsburg really got a bargain of a deal for him, and it will be interesting to see how he develops alongside the other French center backs of his age.

And there we have it. More young stars that you will be hearing more about very soon. I will not promise to not do another one of these in the future, but these should be the most likely names to keep an eye on this year. If you enjoyed this, please catch up with Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


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