European Football

Breakout Stars to Watch for 2021/22

The rising stars to keep an eye on for this upcoming season…

So about halfway through last season, I wrote an article discussing the biggest breakout stars for 2021. These were going to be the young players you would hear more and more from as the year progressed, the next young stars of world football. And it seems you all loved it, which led to me doing two more of those and even checking up on a few of them a while ago.

Now we are doing the same concept, just for this upcoming season. I set myself the challenge of adding a bit more variety to this, however. I wanted to leave no stone unturned and provide you with some names that you may not have heard of now but will very soon. As I am a football-obsessed nerd with a lot of time on my hands, it only seemed fitting that I looked for more obscure entries. It was probably going to be multiple parts, but I wanted to be sure I got some variety.

The transfer window changed some things, though. For instance, all three of Teun Koopmeiners, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Albert Sambi-Lokonga were included in the original list for this, but their big moves during the summer transfer window made me reconsider whether it was still worth highlighting them as “breakout stars” when they very clearly already broke out. So I tinkered with the list and came back with these. Here are eight young future stars to keep an eye on for the 2021/22 season…

Owen Wijndal, AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands

In the 2019/20 Eredivisie season, AZ Alkmaar put together an incredible team of bright, exciting talent that was able to challenge the Ajax hegemony for the league title. AZ are a prominent Dutch club, but they very clearly exist outside of the high rollers room in the Netherlands, occupied by the aforementioned Ajax as well as PSV and Feyenoord. But in 2019/20, they were one of the most exciting teams on the continent. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the 2019/20 Eredivisie season was not concluded and no title was awarded, with a dominant 2-0 win away to Ajax being the second to last game that AZ team would play that season. Had the season concluded, it is very possible that AZ would have been champions.

That title window has now closed. Many of the young, promising players that made up the core of that team, including AZ academy products Teun Koopmeiners, Myron Boadu, and Calvin Stengs, are now gone. Their manager, Arne Slot, left the club and took the open vacancy at Feyenoord. The last one remaining from that golden academy generation, the last big star from that title-contending team, is Owen Wijndal, the club’s budding superstar left back.

Wijndal is the typical modern-day attacking left back, being incredibly comfortable on the ball, athletic enough to cover one whole side of the pitch, and quick enough to make darting runs forward to join the attack. He is a strong crosser of the ball, and his passing range in general is very impressive. He also plays with an aggression and energy that give him the high motor needed to attack and defend. He is very similar to Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson in multiple ways, but the same almost bulldog-esque fight and fire that is present in Robertson is also present in Wijndal. In a world where fullbacks are becoming more important, and more desired, by teams fighting for the biggest honors, the 21-year-old Wijndal certainly stands as one of the best young players in his position on the continent at the moment, and the attention is certainly growing. With Ajax making an unsuccessful attempt to snap him up this past summer window, I would be very surprised if he remains in Alkmaar this time next year. With multiple top-class seasons at AZ and nearly a dozen Netherlands caps to his name already, Owen Wijndal is certainly one to keep an eye on over the next 12 months.

Pape Matar Sarr, FC Metz/Tottenham/Senegal

Yes, Pape Matar Sarr was one of the first names to cross my mind when I considered making this article. Yes, I know he did seal a move to Spurs, even though they did loan him back to Metz. No, I do not really care about that. I still think Sarr makes an applicable entry in this list, as I do not think his move to Spurs, especially for the measly €15 million fee that has been reported, has gotten the attention it deserves. And that is because I am 99% sure that only truly serious football nerds and people in France or Senegal know who this kid is.

Well, let me be the one to enlighten you. Pape Matar Sarr is a prodigal talent. The 18 year old Senegalese midfielder has grown by leaps and bounds in the mere year he has been with the first team at FC Metz, and his indomitable performance against Renato Sanches and Benjamin André, two of the best midfielders in Ligue 1 last season, during Metz’s 3-3 draw with Lille on Match Day 1 this season shows just how special this kid is. He has everything, a player equally adept attacking and defending. He can dominate the middle of the park almost by himself when he is at his best. He has everything it takes to reach the top of the sport.

Another product of Metz’s partnership with the Génération Foot academy in Senegal, the same development track that also produced former FC Metz stars Sadio Mané and Ismaïla Sarr, Pape Matar Sarr arrived in France when he was only 17. He was originally sent to Metz’s B Team, but the canceled 2019/20 season due to COVID meant he would only make one appearance for FC Metz B. The next season, he was brought into the senior team by returning manager Frédéric Antonetti, and he most definitely stuck. He became a key cog in a team that helped FC Metz, a traditional relegation-fighter/yo-yo club, finish comfortably mid-table. Not bad for a kid who is not old enough to buy a beer in America yet.

Sarr is an all-encompassing, well-rounded, multi-talented midfielder. He is athletic, tall, intelligent, and comfortable with the ball at his feet. He has the ability to read the game well defensively and offensively, and he has the technical ability needed to receive the ball, drive forward, and pick out a pass. It is this combination of abilities that allows him to be able to play in basically any midfield role. It is not too dissimilar to the type of player that former Rennes and newly signed Real Madrid midfielder Eduardo Camavinga is, and Sarr has certainly demonstrated enough to warrant being in the same theoretical ballpark as Camavinga when it comes to Ligue 1’s promising young talents. While Sarr is still unrefined as a player (he has been in France for quite literally a little over a year), the potential is clearly there. €15 million for a player with his potential is a steal, maybe the best pound-for-pound bit of business by an English team in this window (at least looking at longer-term moves, I know Man United signed Ronaldo). You have a real gem on your hands, Spurs fans.

Adam Hložek, Sparta Prague/Czech Republic

And now we go for a more obscure name, but one that any avid Football Manager fans likely recognize.

Adam Hložek is the Bohemian boy wonder at this point, hailing from the phenomenal youth development system at Sparta Prague, the same team whose academy gave us Tomáš Rosicky and was the last stop for a young Pavel Nedved and Petr Cech before they departed the Czech Republic for Western Europe. Unlike those other three, however, Hložek is a goal-scoring forward, and boy, can he score some goals. This was most demonstrated last season when, despite missing four months due to injury and only playing 19 of 34 league matches, he finished as the Czech First Division’s joint-top scorer with 15 goals. Just because he could, he also added seven assists to that tally, making him involved in 22 of Sparta’s 82 league goals despite only playing a little over half of the season. This was enough to earn him a spot in the Czech Republic team that went to Euro 2020, and while he ultimately did not feature all that much, it is still a remarkable recovery from an injury that could have been a career-altering moment. It was also enough to earn him a spot on Goal.com‘s 2021 NXGN Rankings, coming in at spot 21. Not bad at all.

At first glance, Hložek looks like a center forward, and for the most part, he is. He is tall, though not all that strong (he’s 19 so that is to be expected), and he moves very well with and without the ball. He is quite quick and covers ground very well. He is technically pretty good though not outstanding, and while he is not a lightning dribbler or a passing maestro, he can do both fairly well. What sets him apart is his intelligence and the overall mental aspect of his game, which is far beyond most players his age. His positioning in attack is immaculate, and this allows him to be in the perfect positions to receive a pass and/or take a shot. This results in him taking a whole lot of shots, and while his finishing can be iffy at times, he still has a whole lot of goals to show for it. It is this intelligence that also makes him a versatile player, able to play as a striker, play behind a lone striker, or play off the left as a winger. It is a trait that not many footballers his age possess, and it is what will make Hložek continue to stand out as a player as he goes through his career and the rest of his game develops.

Adam Hložek is, as he is on Football Manager, a very promising young player on the verge of making his big break. As he gets more entrenched in the national team set up and gets his first true taste of European football with Sparta this season, there will certainly be more eyes watching his every move and more clubs looking for him to sign on the dotted line.

Justin Bijlow, Feyenoord/Netherlands

And back to the Netherlands we go. I feel like I highlight an overwhelming number of Dutch players in these posts, but they keep giving me reasons to do so.

By the time you read this, Feyenoord goalkeeper Justin Bijlow will have made his international debut with the Netherlands. It is a truly wonderful moment for the 23 year old shot-stopper, as it seemed his career was on the verge of taking a horrendous turn. Having missed 23 games due to serious injury in the 2018/19 season and another 25 games, including missing his first international call-up, during the 2020/21 season, it seemed that Bijlow was going to become another case of an incredibly talented young player who just could not stay healthy. But now it is 2021/22, Feyenoord have started the season well in the league and in the Europa Conference League, and Bijlow is not only playing a central role for his boyhood club, but it sure looks like he will be the undisputed Dutch number one very soon.

Bijlow is a shot-stopping goalkeeper first and foremost. He is certainly capable of filling the needs of the “modern” goalkeeping position, though his distribution is not eye-catching but it gets the job done, but his greatest skills and abilities revolve around stopping the ball from going into the goal. He has cat-like reflexes paired with a footballing intelligence that allows him to be well-positioned in all situations. He is not a Thibaut Courtois/Gigio Donnarumma build of goalkeeper, but he is able to make the most of his 6’2″ frame to cover his goal. His greatest traits, however, are the incredible composure and decision-making ability that allow him to be a great goalkeeper in one vs. one situations. His ability to judge, react, dive, and stop even in the most crucial situations shows a level of composure and maturity beyond his years, and he has often been there to bail his teammates out when they need him the most. It is no wonder that he has been given this much responsibility for both Feyenoord and the Netherlands this early.

Bijlow currently plays a position where there is not, for whatever reason, a whole lot of fixated transfer attention at the moment. This lack of international spotlight has hopefully allowed the Rotterdam native to overcome his injury issues and grow into a mature and confident player outside of the lurking eyes of the continent’s richest clubs. There is no doubt, however, that he is one of the best young prospects in Europe in his position, and at only 23 years old, the sky is the limit. His first appearance for the Oranje during this international break will very likely be the first of many.

Manor Solomon, Shakhtar Donetsk/Israel

And now for a player who has been catching eyes at least for the people who know where to look.

Shakhtar and Israel midfielder Manor Solomon has, very quietly, been growing into a star player in Eastern Europe. Quick, direct, and aggressive with an added bit of flair and an eye for goal, Solomon has been electric for both club and country recently. As he has been put into more high-exposure situations, it seems that he has only shone brighter. He scored a notable goal that earned his side a hard-fought 1-1 UCL draw away to Man City in 2019, and he scored in both of Shakhtar’s Champions League victories over Real Madrid in 2020. Even most recently, I am writing this shortly after he scored and ran the show in midfield in Israel’s 5-2 dominating win over Austria in World Cup Qualifying. He has always been talented, but he is slowly but surely getting more and more exposure to a wider audience within the world of European football.

Solomon mainly operates as a left winger, though his comfort on the ball and ability to use both feet allows him to function as a right winger and a more traditional number ten. The 22 year old Israeli is not that big, only standing at around 5’7″, but he is quick and athletic, with a turn of pace that allows him to beat defenders off the mark. His technical ability is obviously very good, and he has the skills and confidence needed to be successful against defenders in one-on-one scenarios. Confidence is definitely the theme here, as this kid has confidence in bunches. It is not just his ability to succeed in one-on-ones, its his confidence and desire to actively seek out those match ups and take advantage of his technical ability to create mismatches for his team to take advantage of. That confidence also shows in his attacking, which is very well exemplified by his belter of a goal against Austria. He is very much a Pedro Neto-type winger, someone who wants to invert, take a player on, and get a shot off all in rapid time.

Solomon is a player who you very likely have not heard of, but you will very slowly begin to hear his name more and more. Having been linked to Arsenal this past transfer window, and also having come fairly close to signing for Atalanta near the end of the window, Solomon’s name is clearly circulating. He is a player whose stock is on the rise.

Yeremi Pino, Villarreal/Spain

We all know Takefusa Kubo. We love Takefusa Kubo here. Vikram and I even recorded a podcast talking about Kubo that you may or may not have heard by the time this blog post comes out. Kubo’s development path, like many young players to be fair, has not been a straight line, and his loan to Villarreal last season was not as promising as many hoped due to his inability to get time on the pitch. And the reason why he could not do so was a kid named Yeremi Pino.

Born in the Canary Islands, Pino, known as Yeremy for short, ignited his love for the sport by playing football in the streets, and his talent and joy for the game led him to joining the youth set up of local side Las Palmas. His career trajectory looked set to follow another Canarian-born starlet, current Barcelona midfielder Pedri, who left Las Palmas for Barcelona around the same time. But while Barça were heavily pursuing Yeremy, he instead opted to sign for Villarreal, joining them in 2019.

What can be considered an odd choice on paper has worked out phenomenally well for Yeremy, who shot through the Villarreal youth teams and made his senior team debut in October 2020 under new manager Unai Emery. Emery immediately became a fan of the 18 year old winger, and his incredible talent and tireless work rate allowed him to stick in the team despite his age and relative inexperience. His meteoric rise directly led to Real Madrid recalling Take Kubo from his loan halfway through the season, as it was simply impossible to unseat Yeremy from the first team. And that is no sign of disrespect toward Kubo, that is just how good this kid is. That meteoric rise culminated in a historic season for Villarreal, where he helped the Yellow Submarine win the Europa League, their first ever major trophy. Yeremy also became the youngest Spaniard to start in a major European final and the youngest player to win the Europa League/UEFA Cup, breaking records previously held by Iker Casillas and Robin van Persie, respectively. Not bad company to be in.

Yeremy is a very athletic, skillful, and confident winger. His 5’8″ frame means he is not necessarily all that strong or powerful, but he operates with lighting reflexes and agility and makes the most of his low center of gravity. While he prefers to invert onto his favored right foot, he is technically and tactically flexible enough to play on either wing, and that technical ability combined with an intense work rate and desire on both ends of the pitch makes him an ideal winger in Unai Emery’s team. Emery’s set up also plays directly into Yeremy’s strengths, as the system’s ability to have wingers isolated against one defender allows Yeremy’s dribbling ability and boundless confidence to show. You can see the street footballer identity in him, and he is certainly put in positions to take advantage of those skills. While Villarreal do not look for their wingers to be aggressive goalscorers, Yeremy has the ability and calmness to get a few goals when needed. He does not take a whole lot of shots, but the ones he does take tend to be on target and threatening. With seven goals to his name nearly through his first calendar year of senior team professional football, he is certainly not prolific, but he does exactly what Emery needs him to do. His ability to make every shot count, however, could translate into some more substantial goal numbers should he leave Villarreal for a team that asks for more goalscoring from their wingers.

Even at 18, this kid has already made history. He has the skills and mentality needed to go to the top of the sport, and I have no doubt you will be hearing more from him very soon.

Nathan Patterson, Rangers/Scotland

The Rangers academy has definitely gotten its moment in the sun of late, with current on-loan Chelsea midfielder and Scotland international Billy Gilmour having called Rangers home for eight years. They have given us another gem, who, like Bijlow, has recently made his full international debut in a position that he will likely make his own very soon.

19 year old right back Nathan Patterson has been a star in the Rangers youth teams for quite some time. Strong, athletic, daring, and comfortable on the ball, Patterson is seemingly perfectly suited to be a modern day attacking fullback. Despite his clear talent, and despite how highly the Rangers hierarchy thinks of him, he has not become a first team regular due to the unfortunate circumstance of occupying the same position as club captain James Tavernier. He did get a few chances to shine at the end of the 2020/21 season, however, as injury to Tavernier allowed the young Glaswegian to deputize in his stead. And he did very well, well enough to stay in and around the first team picture going into this season, where he featured and looked very good in Rangers’ 5-0 drubbing of Dunfermline in the Scottish League Cup and also put in a solid defensive performance in a 0-0 draw against Alashkert that got Rangers into the Europa League. This has still been enough to attract some interest from abroad, namely from Premier League side Everton, whose £5 million bid for the teenager was deemed by Rangers manager Steven Gerrard to be, and I quote, “a joke”. This added interest has seemingly not gotten to Patterson, but it did allow him to make his maiden start for Scotland, where he put out a phenomenal performance and even set up the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Moldova this past weekend. A truly meteoric rise.

Patterson, as I mentioned before, is basically the ideal modern attacking fullback. He fits the mold that his countrymen Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney have helped define to a t. He is comfortable and confident on the ball, willing to beat his man, make overlapping runs, or pass and cross to combine with his teammates and create chances in attack. He can even chip in with a goal, having scored a very well-taken goal against Royal Antwerp in the Europa League last season. Given the competition level he has faced, it is hard to say he is exceedingly promising defensively, but he certainly has the work rate and endurance to cover the full right side, bombing forward in attack and working hard in defense. He already has the platform needed to turn into a world class attacking fullback, and all he needs to do is continue his technical development as he moves into professional, senior team football.

The real question is whether that immediate future growth will happen at Rangers. The jump from academy to senior team at Rangers is a quite difficult one, and Allan McGregor is the only player that comes to mind for me when thinking about players who have come from the Rangers youth set up and had any sort of success or longevity at the club in recent years. Even then, McGregor is quite an old example, having made his Rangers debut in 2001. Patterson is definitely a bright talent, but it will be interesting to see how Gerrard handles managing him and Tavernier, especially as interest from English sides will only increase moving forward. Billy Gilmour is a very recent example of the grass sometimes being greener south of the border, and it will be interesting to see how Patterson develops and whether that development will happen in Scotland.

Luis Díaz, FC Porto/Colombia

Sorry, Everton fans, but we have to talk about another player that our club came desperately close to signing this past window.

Luis Díaz is a very exciting and talented young winger hailing from Colombia. He was a bright talent as a child, allowing him to be noticed by Colombian football icon Carlos Valderrama. He would eventually find his way to Atlético Junior, where he would begin his professional career. After impressing in the Colombian top flight, he was courted by several European teams, most notably FC Porto, who he joined in 2019 after some convincing by two other Colombian stars and former Porto players Radamel Falcao and James Rodríguez. He would score 14 times in all competitions, adding seven assists on top of that, in his first season at the club to help Porto to a league and cup double. Fully entrenched as a key player for Porto, he tallied another 11 goals and six assists this past season as Porto failed to defend their league title but made it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

We then get to this past summer, where Díaz joined up with a Colombia team that was looking to upset the odds and win the Copa América. While Colombia ultimately failed at that goal and would lose in heartbreaking fashion in the semifinals, they still ended up finishing third. Díaz was the central figure in that team and finished the competition as the joint-top scorer alongside Lionel Messi, having scored some absolute belters as well. And whenever you share an individual honor at an international tournament with Messi, you know you are doing very well for yourself.

Díaz is another aggressive, athletic, and skilled winger. Utilized best on the left, the Colombian is able to use his technical skill and searing pace to cause loads of problems for opposition defenses. And when I say searing pace, I mean it. This guy is absolutely rapid. Similar to Yeremy, Díaz lines up for Porto as one of the wingers in a 4-4-2, which gives him ample room and opportunity to hunt for one-on-ones against opposition fullbacks or hunt for space that opens up from opposition center backs having to deal with two strikers. The system, combined with his technical ability and pace, gives him plenty of opportunities to make things happen, which leads to very impressive goal and assist numbers like the ones he put up during his two seasons in Portugal. His confidence in his physical abilities also extends to his technical abilities. He is a lethal finisher, especially for a winger, and the sheer spectacular nature and audacity of his goals for Colombia in the Copa América against Brazil, Argentina, and his winner against Peru is enough to make you sit up and take notice. He is definitely a special player. If he limits his aggression, which has sometimes led to him getting a few very deserved red cards for rash and sometimes dangerous challenges, then he will elevate his game even further.

And there you have it. Eight breakout stars to keep an eye on as we head further into the 2021/22 season. They are also names to keep in mind as we head into the new year of FIFA and Football Manager, as these will definitely be some of the young stars to sign for your team in career mode. I do not know how many more parts of this I will do, but I know I will be making at least one more, so keep an eye out for that in the near future.

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