The young future talents to keep an eye on in the new year…
As we tick over from 2021 to 2022, we all wonder as football fans what this new year will bring for the teams and players we love. Who will win the major trophies? What will the world’s biggest stars do? How will the World Cup go next year?
And, more pertinent for this discussion, who will be the big young stars that we might not know now but will know by the end of the year?
If you were around last year, I wrote an article talking about some of the breakout stars of 2021. It went down so well that I wrote three more along a similar theme. As a noted footballing hipster who watches entirely too much of the sport and had way too much free time over the last year, it was an interesting exercise for me to explore different nooks and crannies of the football world to see who might be the next big things. And while I missed on a few so far, I feel I did a good job pointing out some ones that were not getting a lot of widespread love at the time (Yeremi Pino, Justin Bijlow, Cody Gakpo, Luis Díaz, just to name a few to brag a bit).
So now we are entering a new year and entering a similar conversation: who is going to thrust themselves into the spotlight in 2022? Especially in a World Cup year, who could be the next James Rodríguez-type player to make a splash on the world stage at the biggest time? There are a few interesting candidates…
Jurriën Timber, Ajax Amsterdam/Netherlands
The Ajax Academy, in case you forgot, might still be the best talent factory in world football. While the grouping of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, and Donny van de Beek are gone, they have filled the void with even more incredibly talented young players. Chief among them are Ryan Gravenberch, who we have already talked about, and Jurriën Timber, the diminutive center back who is playing like a giant this season.
Timber is the modern center back’s modern center back, very closely resembling the likes of Jules Koundé when it comes to the “undersized center back” mold. He is quite athletic, able to be competent enough in the air despite his 5’10” frame. He makes up for the aerial issues by being very strong in the tackle and very intelligent, using very good positional awareness and timing to win duels. He is also very comfortable on the ball, and naturally so, as he was raised in the Ajax “Total Football” mold. He is the main anchor in an Ajax defense that has conceded only four (yes, four) league goals this season and only conceded five goals during the Champions League Group Stage. In a roundabout way, Ajax replaced de Ligt, and Timber is certainly set to become one of the world’s brightest young stars as Ajax continue to shoot for a European Cup in 2022.
Julián Álvarez, River Plate/Argentina
Julián Álvarez was the man of the moment in the South American leagues in 2021. Fresh off of a 20+ goal and 10+ assist season where he helped his beloved River Plate to a league title, Álvarez has seemingly every big club in European football seeking his signature. With rumors that Manchester United will be the eventual winners of this Argentinian wonderkid sweepstakes, I think it is safe to say that his breakout moment is coming very soon.
Pacy and dynamic, confident on the ball, lethal finisher, Álvarez seemingly already has the complete skillset of a modern forward. He is also solid enough with both feet, which allows him to play on both wings to various levels of competency as well as being a striker. While his size might hinder him from being a lone striker for many teams in Europe, he would do well in a two-up-top system, being a player who uses that pace and dynamism to play off of a more traditional striker. His likely position in Europe (and for Argentina) is going to be as a left winger, where he is able to use his dynamic pace and dribbling to attack defenses directly. His talent is abundantly obvious, however, and if managed correctly, he could become the next big star to make the move from South America to Europe.
Vitinha, FC Porto/Portugal
Portugal and midfielders is starting to become as synonymous as France and center backs, as the production line of the three main Portuguese giants (Benfica, Porto, and Sporting) are beginning to churn out a boatload of quality young center midfielders in various shapes and sizes. Potentially the biggest star of the lot, however, is FC Porto’s Vítor Machado Ferreira, or Vitinha for short. After a largely meh loan deal at Wolves in 2020/2021, Vitinha starred in the Portugal team that reached the final of the U-21 Euros and has since returned to Porto, where he was handed his opportunity in the senior team that he is certainly grasping with both hands. He has entered the halfway point of the season as potentially the Primeira Liga’s best midfielder and the main reason why Porto were so willing to let veteran midfielder Sérgio Oliveira leave the club in the January window.
Vitinha is the typical all-action, attacking-minded center midfielder. He is a player who is incredibly confident in his technical abilities, for a good reason, and someone who has the ability to change the game with a moment of brilliance. While predominantly right footed, his passing with both feet is already very good, and he is a very confident and dynamic dribbler from the center of the park. He is not a lethal goalscorer, but he does have the capability to score some belters, as he did against Benfica in the Taça de Portugal not long ago. He is not elite defensively, but he certainly works hard in that regard, and his technical skills and never-exhausting engine do make up for some defensive deficiencies and his height, standing at only 5’8″. Vitinha is an incredibly exciting young player with the world at his feet, and he will certainly be making waves in 2022 alongside his current teammate…
Fábio Vieira, FC Porto/Portugal
Another product of Porto’s youth development, Fábio Vieira is coming off of a very promising 2021, where he was named the Player of the Tournament at the U-21 Euros and made a more consistent entrance into the Porto first team. Now regularly in and around the first team, Vieira has continued to shine in the opportunities he has been given, even recently bagging his first goal of the season in a Man-of-the-Match performance against Benfica. With Jesús Corona likely leaving Porto at the end of the season if not earlier, now is certainly the time for Vieira to take the next step in what could be an exciting career.
Vieira is a more attacking-minded player than the aforementioned Vitinha. He is likely a natural number 10, but he has the capabilities to play as a right winger and a “false nine” striker. He is a creative-minded player with a wand of a left foot, a confident dribbler, and has a solid finishing ability and capability from set pieces. If this mold sounds fairly familiar, it should, as it is similar to a young creative midfielder that Porto signed from Banfield in 2010 named James Rodríguez. You’ve probably heard of him. Regardless of whatever comparisons you can make, Vieira is doing enough to stand on his own two feet instead of being the “next x or y” player. In a football world where the number 10 is beginning to make a comeback, Vieira is possibly the most exciting young player in that mold, and he will certainly make 2022 the year where the world learns his name.
Mohamed-Ali Cho, Angers/France/Morocco
Again, I am very sorry, Everton fans.
Mohamed-Ali Cho has shot into the conversation for French football fans after a dynamic and exciting start to the season with Angers. After joining Le SCO from Everton as a youth player, he signed his first professional contract in 2020, making him the second-youngest player in the history of French football to sign a professional contract (behind only Eduardo Camavinga). He has been inconsistent since fully being incorporated into the first team this season, but the potential is clearly there, so much so that teams from outside France are already lining up for the chance to sign him in January. Given Angers’ very precarious financial position, it could be a move that actually happens. Also interesting to note that there are apparently discussions about Morocco trying to give him a senior team call up à la Hannibal Mejbri and Tunisia, so it is clear that people are appreciating this kid’s talents.
Cho is a dynamic dribbler and exciting winger who is capable with both feet and, while his finishing is not where it needs to be just yet, he can impact the game through his dribbling and passing. For a kid who only turns 18 in a few weeks, not having it all just yet is not a big deal, but it is the sheer potential that makes people excited. His ability with the ball at his feet is tantalizing at times, able to combine that skill with an incredible confidence that allows him to take on defenders and make things happen. It is plenty to build on for the future, and it is clear that, whether Cho does end up leaving Angers in January or not, he has the capabilities to make 2022 the year he announces himself to the world.
Unai Vencedor, Athletic Club/Spain
Aside from Timber, this has largely been dominated by attacking players so far, so let us look at a defensive midfielder to balance this out. Athletic Club’s Basque-only policy has allowed them to produce some stars from their academy at Lezama, and Unai Vencedor is one of the next players to come from this great tradition. Vencedor has shined in Marcelino’s 4-4-2 system, being an adept defensive player in duels while also being a very underrated passer. Almost designed in many ways to be for Marcelino at Athletic what Dani Parejo was at Valencia, Vencedor now has certainly entrenched himself as an unmovable figure within that Athletic team.
Vencedor is another of the mold of midfielder that can seemingly fill multiple roles. He is smart enough in defensive duels and positioning to be a number six while being energetic enough and strong enough technically to be a number eight. He can succeed in a midfield three or a midfield two. The only thing maybe going against him is his height, standing at only around 5’9″, but he is certainly still deceptively strong and able to utilize a low center of gravity when dribbling. Is he going to be the next Sergio Busquets? Probably not. But you can see some similarities in traits and style, and if Spain are going to try and replace Busquets’ immeasurable impact in that La Roja midfield, Vencedor presents a player who can at least partially play that role. And as teams look to Athletic for more young talent, Vencedor will likely be one that they have their eyes on.
Keep an eye out for part 2, where we profile six more players who could have their breakout year in 2022.
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