European Football

Checking in on My Breakout Stars of 2021

Just seeing what they have been up to…

For those who have been longer-time readers of the blog, you will remember that I opened 2021 by listing some players to watch and some breakout stars for this year. Due to how well-received that article was, I then wrote two more articles about young players who could be breakout stars this year. You can read those here, here, and here.

But how have those players gotten on over the last six months? Who have been the best performers? Did I get all of my predictions right? Am I a football genius? Well no, but I will use this to go over some of the best and brightest who were in those three articles.

Ryan Gravenberch

Ajax’s next wunderkind has certainly lived up to the billing this season. Three goals and five assists from a deeper midfield position is quite a solid return from the 19 year old Dutchman, and his influence in midfield was definitely felt when watching Ajax play. He did not look out of place in his first full season of senior team professional football, and it is quite abundantly clear to everyone watching that this kid has the potential to be special.

Despite Ajax’s European disappointment this season, I doubt Gravenberch would be upset with rounding out his first full senior season with a league and cup double, with Ajax comfortably cruising to yet another Eredivisie title despite challenges earlier in the season. He also became the fourth consecutive Ajax player to win the Johan Cruyff Trophy, awarded to Dutch football’s best under-21 player, joining Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, and Kasper Dolberg. Cap that off with a senior international debut with the Netherlands at the European Championships, and it has been quite a season for the young prodigal midfielder. Does he leave Ajax this summer? Maybe, but probably not. Will his big move come very soon, though? Definitely. This kid is destined for the top.

Sven Botman

Going from one league champion to another, Sven Botman has finished out his breakout season by helping guide Lille to their first league title in a decade, outlasting the challenge from PSG on the final day of the season. This bit of history came in only Botman’s second full professional season, but when watching him play, he clearly does not look out of his depth. In fact, it was a heroic performance from Botman and central defensive parter José Fonte in a 0-0 draw against Saint-Étienne in the penultimate match that might have been the crucial performance to win Les Dogues the league title.

Him seeing out the rest of the season in the north of France was even a surprise in itself, with Lille’s financial issues leading to increased speculation around him leaving France during the January window. While his high level of performance in the first half of the season would have warranted a move to a bigger club, his decision to stay at LOSC allowed him to take part in European football’s biggest “Cinderella story” of the season. While he did not win the individual accolades that his countryman Ryan Gravenberch did, and while he did not make the Netherlands’ Euros squad, it was still undoubtedly a strong breakout season for Botman. With Lille’s financial issues not going away, it is very likely that we will see the Dutchman make his move out of France this summer.

Cody Gakpo

We stick with the Dutch theme to talk about another of the Eredivisie’s rising stars. PSV had a disappointing season, finishing 2nd behind Ajax but left wondering what could have been. Given how well they started the season, finishing as far behind the eventual champions as they did (16 points, to be precise) has to be a bitter feeling.

The same sense of disappointment could be used to describe Cody Gakpo’s season. While seven goals in 23 league games is not terrible for the Dutch winger, his form was also derailed by injuries, missing nearly half of the season. It was not the domestic season that Gakpo envisioned, and he will likely be disappointed missing out on a chance to win silverware with his boyhood club.

Despite the disappointment for PSV, Gakpo has made up for that with performances for his national team. He was one of the best performers in a Netherlands team that reached the semifinals of the Under-21 European Championships, shining individually with two goals and an assist in a 6-1 demolition of Hungary in their final group stage game. His strong performances for the U21s earned him a spot on the senior Netherlands team for the Euros, where he has since made his international debut. Despite the setbacks this season, there is still plenty of promise in Gakpo. Does he move out of Eindhoven this summer? I have no idea, but he will certainly be a name to keep in mind as we move forward, especially as we get closer to the World Cup next year.

Maxence Lacroix

France’s four biggest exports at the moment are wine, cheese, aircraft parts, and center backs.

Maxence Lacroix appears to be the next in the rapid-moving production line of athletic and skilled French center backs. Capable with the ball at his feet, dominant in the air, and precise and strong in the tackle, Lacroix seemingly has everything needed to be elite in this position. He walked into the Wolfsburg team seemingly from the beginning, and he played a crucial role in helping Wolfsburg finish the season in the Champions League places and with the league’s second-best defense (at least when it comes to goals conceded). Individually, he made the Bundesliga’s Team of the Season for this year, and you could make a very compelling argument that he was maybe the best center back in the league this season. He will now get the opportunity to show his talent to the world for Wolfsburg in the Champions League…or will he?

With Ibrahima Konaté’s move to Liverpool, RB Leipzig are in the market for a replacement. And what better way to replace a tall, athletic, ball-playing French center back than with another tall, athletic, ball-playing French center back? Leipzig seem to agree, and they have identified Lacroix as their main transfer target to replace the now-departed Konaté. They are reportedly far away from Wolfsburg’s €30 million valuation, but should they find a way to iron out a deal, it is possible that we will see Lacroix making the jump to the big time, so to speak, next season.

Pedro Gonçalves

Calling him “Bruno Fernandes 2.0” might be a little unfair on him now. We can call him by his name.

Pedro “Pote” Gonçalves may not be from Sporting Club’s now-famous academy, but he is certainly the latest in the line of stars to don the green-and-white striped shirt. Fresh off of a season where he helped guide Sporting to their first league title since 2002, Gonçalves’ stock as a player has likely not been higher. The comparisons to former Sporting midfielder Bruno Fernandes will always be there, but Gonçalves has certainly done enough to warrant existing outside of Bruno’s shadow. They are not even entirely similar players, with Gonçalves resembling more of a Portuguese Thomas Müller than anything else.

Regardless, it has been a very good season for Pote. He made the Primeira Liga’s Team of the Year while also becoming the first native-born Portuguese player to be the outright winner of the Bola de Prata, awarded to the league’s top scorer, since the 1995-96 season. He even earned a call up to the Portuguese national team, where he has since made his debut and earned a spot in Portugal’s team for the Euros. With reports that Manchester United and Liverpool are both monitoring the player, one would think that it is unlikely that he plays for Sporting next season. It might be time for his next step.

Aurélien Tchouaméni

It has truly been a fantastic breakout season for Aurélien Tchouaméni. He was always a tireless and effective defensive player, but we are finally seeing a promising player mature and transform his game, turning himself into a well-rounded, multi-dimensional midfield dynamo.

Tchouaméni did not get much playing time last season following his move to Monaco from Bordeaux, but new Monaco manager Niko Kovač saw promise in the 21-year-old Frenchman, slotting him directly into the Monegasque midfield and showing patience with him, even after a few shaky early performances. Tchouaméni has repaid that faith tenfold, especially in the second half of this past season. From January onward, Monaco were arguably the most in-form team in Ligue 1, and much of that form came from dominant midfield displays centered around the blossoming star that is Tchouaméni. His tireless work rate combined with an improved ball-playing ability and growing confidence turned him into one of the best midfielders in Ligue 1, and while he could not guide Monaco fully into the title picture, his performances helped his side do just enough to qualify for the Champions League for next season.

And his performances did more than enough to earn him some well-deserved individual honors. Tchouaméni was named in the UNFP’s Ligue 1 Team of the Season, as well as earning the league’s Young Player of the Year honor, becoming the first player not named Kylian Mbappé to win the award since Ousmane Dembélé won it in 2016. While he did not do enough to break into the France squad for the Euros (much to my objection), he certainly did enough to make it into France’s team for the U21 Euros, where he was a bright spot in what was a disappointing tournament performance for Les Bleus. Regardless of whether he leaves the Principality club this summer or not, Tchouaméni is destined for great things, and he has demonstrated this season just how talented and promising he is as a player. His big move will come soon enough.

Manuel Locatelli

Ok, yeah, technically he was not in the Breakout Stars articles. He featured in a different article (which you can read here), but the idea was fairly similar, and since he is technically a breakout star, we are throwing him in here.

Manuel Locatelli has quietly turned around his career, pivoting away from struggles he had at Milan to become a star in the making at Sassuolo. The Italian has filled in very well in the Sassuolo midfield, partnering Pedro Obiang (remember him, West Ham fans?) in a midfield double pivot that allows him to show he is not a useless player defensively while also showing his main calling card – his ability on the ball. Filling that classic Italian “regista” role, Locatelli is the one laying the foundation for attacks and helping his team advance the ball from the defense and through the midfield into the attack. He’s also very solid going forward, as he showed for Italy with his two goals against Switzerland at the Euros, and that allows him to be flexible in the team, playing in that defensive role as well as a more free roaming number eight role.

Point is, he’s really good. His very strong season for Sassuolo allowed him to get into the Italy team for the Euros, where he is playing an important role for the team that just might be the favorites to win the whole competition. It has also allowed him to garner significant transfer interest, with Juventus in particular pushing to sign him. While he could end up in the Premier League as well, it looks like that long-rumored Juventus move might be what happens. We will definitely see Locatelli make the next big move in his career this summer, and regardless of where he ends up, I do not doubt that his career will continue at this trajectory.

Ivan Toney

And we finish the article with one more entry, probably the oldest player entry in this series and a player who will be playing in the Premier League next season.

Brentford’s fairy tale rise up the Football League Pyramid has been nothing short of amazing, and it is a credit to the geniuses who are behind the sporting direction of this club. You have likely heard of Brentford’s “Moneyball” approach to transfers, and Toney is the result of that high level of scouting and player recruitment. Brought in for between £5-10 million to replace Ollie Watkins, who left the Bees in a £30 million move to Aston Villa last summer, Toney one-upped the man he replaced by smashing his goal tally, finishing the season with 33 goals and 10 assists in the league compared to Watkins’ total of 26 goals and three assists from the previous season. The 33 goal tally also allowed Toney to write his name in the history books, breaking the single-season Championship scoring record set by Glenn Murray in 2012-13. While it was not enough to earn Championship Player of the Season, it was enough to guide Brentford to the Premier League, where they will be competing for the first time in their history (their first time in the English top flight since 1992-93 and only the second time since the 1940s).

This settles quite a bit of the transfer speculation around Toney. Had Brentford failed to achieve promotion, he would have likely left the club in the summer window. With the Bees playing Premier League football next season, I have no doubts that Toney will stay at the club at least for their maiden voyage in the top flight. If he continues to impress in the Premier League, then he will likely earn himself a big money move away. You all will be seeing a lot of Toney on your televisions this upcoming season, so you have plenty of opportunities to be introduced to this budding star.

And there is a quick refresher on some of the players to watch this year. Are there more players to add to this list? Well, I might be working on something…stay tuned to find out.

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