European Football

2022/23’s Breakout Young Stars: Part 1

Who are the youngsters to watch out for this season?

And we are back. New season, new breakout stars to keep an eye on. These are the kids who will be lighting up the world and your Career Mode saves on FIFA and Football Manager very soon. You know the drill, so let’s get rolling.

Enzo Fernández (Benfica/Argentina)

Video from Brazil Scout on YouTube. You can find their full channel HERE.

It seemed like that, for several years at least, we were not hearing about young talent coming through in South America. Normal football hotbeds Brazil and Argentina seemed to not have the high-level talents hitting the front pages that we were seeing in Europe, but now that has most definitely changed for both nations. Julián Álvarez was the first young Argentine in this generation to launch himself into the spotlight and earn a move to Europe, and next on the list is a plucky but energetic and technically brilliant midfielder named Enzo.

Like Álvarez, Enzo Fernández launched his career with Argentine giants River Plate, quickly growing into a key cog in midfield for a successful and competitive River Plate side. The beginning of his 2022 season was sensational, being considered by most to be the best player in the Argentine league and being scouted by several major clubs in Europe. He would eventually make a move to Portuguese giants Benfica this past summer for an incredibly reasonable €10 million fee plus €8 million in add-ons. He was immediately thrown into the starting team by new manager Roger Schmidt, and he quickly became the architect of basically everything good that Benfica did. As a deeper-lying playmaker in the team, Enzo’s passing ability at any range, speed, or style has quickly become his trademark. His reading and understanding of the game is incredibly advanced for a 21 year old, and he has immediately become Benfica’s most indispensable player and the one who makes everything happen when the team moves forward. Even without the ball, he has shown a very solid defensive ability and a motor that allows him to be a pressing pest in midfield. Enzo is an incredibly well-rounded midfielder at such a young age, a player who has every tool needed to be a world class player.

Benfiquistas are already counting their blessings while they can, knowing this could be the only season they see Enzo Fernández lining up with As Águias but also knowing that whenever he makes his inevitable move to one of Europe’s big money clubs, a massive transfer fee will likely follow. Enzo is a player that you will likely see on the biggest stages that football has to offer very soon, possibly as early as this winter in Qatar.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (Napoli/Georgia)

Video from CBS Sports Golazo on YouTube. You can find their full channel HERE.

This is for you, Football Manager fans.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has been one of those players for a few years that you knew about if you really knew ball. The Georgian winger has not quite been in the spotlight while playing for Rubin Kazan in Russia, but he is there if you are looking for him, slowly but surely growing in attention. This attention accelerated last November, when two goals from Kvaratskhelia in a 2-0 win for Georgia over Sweden ended the Swedes’ hopes of making it to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. When FIFA allowed Russian-based players to suspend their contracts with RPL sides after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Kvaratshkelia returned to Georgia, but I think him and everyone else knew that his move to Western Europe would come very soon. It came in the interesting form of Napoli, who signed the Georgian wonderkid for a fee rumored to be between €10-12 million, again very reasonable. And, well, it has gone fairly well, hasn’t it?

Kvaratskhelia has hit the ground running in Italy, amassing five goals and three assists in only ten league appearances in Naples, earning Serie A Player of the Month for the opening month of the season and being one of the main figures for a Partenopei attack that is among the best on the continent at the moment. Added on to this are two goals and three assists in the Champions League in Napoli’s dominant wins over Liverpool and Ajax. He has quickly gained the love and admiration of the Neapolitan people, even being given the nickname “Kvaradona” by Napoli supporters. He is a player who is a very skillful and daring dribbler of the ball while also knowing when to use his athleticism and when to be terrifyingly direct in his movements. He can use both feet in passing and shooting to a near-ambidextrous degree. He also has a lethal shot on him, combining this power with a strong attacking intelligence and composure that has made him among Serie A’s leading scorers at this early stage of the season. Like with Enzo, Kvaratskhelia is a player who, simply put, has all of the tools needed to be a top player and to reach the highest peaks of the sport.

It is not easy to replace a club legend with the stature of Lorenzo Insigne, but Napoli have done that and more here. Kvaratskhelia will certainly be a top player for Napoli and will go for a massive fee when he eventually leaves, but more importantly he has a massive opportunity to make history in that light blue shirt. Napoli have not won the Scudetto in 23 years, since the days of Diego Maradona, and this season is as good a chance as they have ever had to change that. If the league title is going to return to Naples, then “Kvaradona” is going to have a substantial say in the matter.

And for future reference, HERE is a guide on how to properly say his name.

Roméo Lavia (Southampton/Belgium)

Video from Brazil Scout on YouTube. You can find their full channel HERE.

We have usually strayed away from England in articles like this. I feel the need to talk about players not currently inside the media machine of the Premier League, and usually by the time a young talent makes a move to a Premier League team, they would have already “broken out”. This season, however, is giving us a few mini-exceptions to this rule, and two of them somehow ended up at Southampton.

Roméo Lavia is yet another youth product from Belgian giants Anderlecht, but he was spotted by Pep Guardiola (ironically at a youth tournament organized by Kevin De Bruyne) and poached away by Manchester City before he became fully professional in Belgium. In the youth set up at City, Lavia stood out immediately, quickly rising through the ranks before getting his first-team debut for City as a 17 year old. But despite his talent and the respect he held from basically everyone at City, it was really impossible for Lavia to get a serious chance in the first team. Such was the life when you are competing against some of the world’s best players in your position.

Enter Southampton, who succeeded in a £12 million bid to bring the Belgian wonderkid to the South Coast. This has allowed Lavia the opportunity to regularly play Premier League football as an 18 year old, an opportunity not many get, and it is one that he is certainly taking. While Southampton are not having the best season, and while a hamstring problem from early September has ruled Lavia out for a significant amount of time, he has certainly had enough opportunities to show that there is talent there. Lavia has the potential to be a game-changing defensive midfielder, one who is able to tackle and recover the ball at a restless rate while being composed enough on the ball to retain possession, resist the press, and start moves going forward. Lavia’s intelligence, composure, and general understanding of the game is mind-boggling given his age, and it is these traits that lay the groundwork for his technical skill and overall level and what makes him such a highly-rated talent. He is a player that has the potential to run midfields by himself, someone who fills that “Sergio Busquets” role of being able to keep everything ticking over smoothly and maintain overall control in a game. It seems fairly notable that Southampton have not won since Lavia’s injury (admittedly a small sample size), so it is very possible that his presence is already influential.

Man City have maintained a buyback clause as a part of Lavia’s move to Southampton, so if the young Belgian maintains this level and grows into the top midfielder he can be, then City likely have their eventual Rodri replacement already lined up.

António Silva (Benfica/Portugal)

Video from Scofield FC on YouTube. You can find their full channel HERE.

Teams with world-class academies and youth development ideologies always have a funny relationship with the transfer market. You always know that these top young talents are going to be pried away by a rich team, but you know that whenever they leave, there will usually be someone who is able to replace them. Manchester City signed Benfica academy product Rúben Dias in the summer of 2020 for €71.6 million, and while the loss of a fan-favorite and influential player like Dias would be significant in the short term, he would not be the last big player to come from Benfica’s academy. Two years later, Roger Schmidt gave a first team debut to 18 year old academy product center back António Silva, who is essentially Rúben Dias but, well, again.

The similarities between the two are genuinely quite interesting. Both are strong right-footed center backs who are capable on the ball and known for their intelligence and composure. Both are between 6’1″ and 6’2″ in height. Both even made their first team debuts against the same team, Boavista, at the same stadium, the Estádio do Bessa in Porto, wearing the same number 66 shirt. Both were even star players on Benfica youth teams that made the final of the UEFA Youth League, though Silva notably won the competition and Dias did not. It is genuinely funny how academies like Benfica can continuously produce similar profiles of world class talents.

But it would be very unfair on António Silva to frame everything about him through the lens of comparison to Dias. At only 18 years of age, Silva is a phenomenal young talent in his own right. His incredible rise from youth team star but fringe first teamer to basically undroppable first team player and one of Benfica’s best performers this season in only two months has been whiplash-inducing in a way that shows just how good this kid actually is, and it shows that sometimes all talented players need is an opportunity handed to them. Every single test he has faced, whether in the league or Champions League, he has passed with flying colors. He possesses an intelligence, composure, and understanding of the game well beyond his years, playing like a veteran defender with absolutely no fear of anyone rather than someone who has only played a little more than half a dozen professional matches. He is capable as a ball-playing defender and his fundamentals when it comes to his tackling, passing, and dribbling are all incredibly sound. He has an incredibly grounded and mature personality, one that certainly has not bought into his own hype and is only concerned with, as he wonderfully put in an interview, defending his beloved Benfica and passing his school tests. He is the complete package in pretty much every way.

As a bit of a programming note, he was initially not supposed to be here. This was originally going to be Morato, his teammate, and the Brazilian was supposed to feature in a later part of this series. Morato’s injury made me reconsider his inclusion, and Silva’s performances in deputizing for Morato caught my attention. It was his performance against PSG, though, helping to silence one of the world’s best attacking trios, that really impressed. This kid has everything it takes to be special, and if he keeps developing at this rate and if luck is on his side when it comes to injuries, he will become one of the best center backs in the world.

Nico Williams (Athletic Club/Spain)

Video from Brazil Scout Premium on YouTube. You can find their full channel HERE.

We have talked about Nico Williams (through the lens of his relationship with his older brother) on this blog before. His name is not new really to any of us, but after an introduction to top flight football last season, the younger Williams brother is ready to vault into the spotlight this season.

Nico is exciting. Nico is dynamic. Nico is confident. Daring, lethal, skilled. There are plenty of adjectives to describe the Basque prodigy. Every single one of them is on full display when he plays for Athletic Club. Slotting in perfectly on the right in Ernesto Valverde’s 4-2-3-1 system, Nico Williams has been one of the standout performers for Athletic in their strong start to the season. Athletic have been more dynamic in their positioning in attack this season, and Nico on the right wing is an interesting foil to Álex Berenguer on the left and Iker Muniain through the middle. His ability to take players on has created plenty of opportunities, even one where he got to assist his older brother Iñaki earlier this season and this absolute gem of a goal he scored against Elche.

That was on his weak foot, by the way. He is right footed.

Nico Williams, at 20 years old, has the world at his feet. Already with a debut and an assist for the Spanish National Team, it would not be a surprise to me to see the young Basque winger feature for La Roja in Qatar this winter. He is not the only young rising star featuring for Athletic this season, but his star might be shining the brightest.

Yunus Musah (Valencia/United States)

Video from JM Productions HD on YouTube. You can find their full channel HERE.

I would like to apologize in advance to the world, because there are more good young Americans. And Yunus Musah very well might be the best pound-for-pound player in the US National Team pool at the moment.

The New York-born, English-raised midfielder of Ghanaian heritage, Musah’s game on the pitch mirrors that of his “melting pot” heritage and upbringing, combining different traits from different cultures into something completely and totally his own. He is a central midfielder who plays with a great mix of power, aggression, and technical brilliance. He is reminiscent of the older US National Teams’ “blue collar” work ethic while also clearly being a product of Arsenal’s Hale End academy and Valencia’s also fairly famous youth development system. He is smart and aggressive to be successful in ball recoveries and tackles while being technically skilled as a passer and able to run a game from the center of the park.

While the Valencia of Marcelino or Bordalás did not have a natural home for him, Gattuso’s Valencia has seemingly found exactly what is needed to get the best out of him. In the Italian’s 4-3-3 system, the young American is one of the two more advanced central midfielders, usually partnering one of André Almeida or Ilaix Moriba as the other advanced midfielder. It is in this position where Musah is more natural, able to play up and down the pitch and use his technical ability to play decisive line-breaking passes to the attackers, which has allowed him to get two early assists this season and complete over 80% of his total passes.

It is also in this position in which Musah plays for the United States, quickly becoming one of the Americans’ most important players at only 19 years old. It has gotten to a level that it is clear when Musah is not in the team, the US is visibly much worse without him. Being that much of a difference-maker for a national team when you are still a teenager is rare, and you can say what you want about the United States National Team, but he will be, if fit, a starter and key player for a World Cup team at only 19. He should be at or near the top of the list of players to watch in Qatar this winter. While I have my doubts and skepticisms on how well the United States will actually do at the World Cup, Musah is still a player who should be a big performer under the bright lights. Every World Cup we have a few players who perform well enough to earn a big move, and I certainly believe Musah has the ability and talent to be one of those players.

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