Many of Europe’s best young footballers get overlooked early on in their careers because of the clubs they play for. If it weren’t for their performances on the European or international stages, they probably wouldn’t have much of a platform to promote themselves.
A certain special someone was practically unknown before his nine-goal performance in a U20 match against Honduras and a debut hat-trick against Genk in the Champions League. Formerly of Red Bull Salzburg, that player’s name is Erling Haaland, who is now a global superstar.
Although there will be few generational phenomenons like Haaland, there are plenty of up-and-coming prospects who have the potential to become the leaders of the next generation of top footballers. To give light to those outside of Europe’s top five leagues, here are some of the best young talents to watch under the age of 23.
Best Footballing Talents Outside the Top Five Leagues
The 22-year-old striker is having a tremendous season in the Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg, scoring 19 goals and providing three assists in 17 matches. Since Haaland left a few years ago, the Zambian’s made scoring goals look just as simple.
What’s benefitted Patson Daka the most is his positioning in the box and the way he interprets spaces; a poacher of the highest calibre. He gets on the end of passes very well and rounds off his chances with clinical and accurate finishes. His reactions and natural quickness also play into his benefit, whether it be on the ball or off. The striker likes to bring his teammates into the game as well, dropping back and delivering through-passes to create scoring chances. In defence, he presses aggressively and is constantly contributing to his team’s efforts to win back the ball.
Although there aren’t any real weaknesses to his game, his performances in UEFA competitions haven’t been the best. He’s struggled against the likes of Atlético Madrid and Villarreal this season, which ultimately comes down to a lack of exposure to such high levels of competition. A move elsewhere would allow Daka to adapt and prove himself as a top striker in Europe.
If you were already looking for the next Bruno Fernandes, this would definitely be your guy. Pedro Gonçalves is a spectacular player who is capable of reaching the same levels as his compatriot. The fact that he’s the top-scorer in Portugal as a midfielder is enough on its own to convince anyone of his talents.
The 22-year-old doesn’t quite have the range of pass or the shooting ability of Fernandes, but his own weapons are just as effective. He has excellent dribbling ability, a high work rate in defence, and a great awareness of space. He uses this spatial awareness to create scoring chances, entering zones where he can easily play passes into forward running teammates. He’s great at positioning himself as well, using his composure and clinical finishing to rack up the goals.
Although he hasn’t featured in European competitions for Sporting Lisbon, Gonçalves is catching eyes and leading a club who are ten points clear atop the table to their first title in 19 years. A move to a more prestigious club in the summer would surely be beneficial to enhance his game. If he reaches his potential, he’ll likely be the most successful player on this list.
After turning 23 in February, Ibrahim Sangaré has been a powerhouse in midfield for PSV Eindhoven. His overall contribution in both defence and attack would make him a critical component to any top side in Europe. With a move to a bigger club, he could easily become one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
If you were to blend the tall ball-winning frame of Wilfred Ndidi with the accurate long-passing ability of Paul Pogba, Sangaré would be the result. He’s athletically gifted, with a good combination of strength and stamina. He’s nimble on his feet but can also be very aggressive in his movements and tackling. In build-ups and transitions, the Ivorian seeks to spread the play quickly or push forward off the dribble. Although his physicality is a plus, he’s prone to conceding a lot of fouls.
Along with Pedro Gonçalves, Sangaré is one of the more likely to become a household name in world football. Apart from his discipline, there aren’t any real significant weaknesses to his game. It will be interesting to see which clubs will pursue him once the summer transfer window rolls along.
Since getting loaned out to Club Brugge because of a lack of minutes, Noa Lang has been on a mission to prove that his former club made a huge mistake in letting him go. The former Ajax academy graduate is the most in-form player in the Jupiler Pro League, notching 12 goals and six assists in 20 appearances. At just 21-years-old, the Dutchman has all the makings of an attacking star.
Lang is an extremely technical player that is incredibly dangerous both on and off the ball. He’s agile and quick, has excellent close control, and has great finishing skills for a winger. His field vision and chance creation are also some key aspects that make him a valuable asset to his club.
However, what he provides offensively is what he lacks defensively. The desire to press and win back the ball can’t be taught, but rather the player must be willing to change. With a greater commitment on the defensive end, he would be more exciting to watch than he already is.
The Norwich City right-back has really been a hot prospect since the start of the 2020/21 campaign in the Championship. Max Aarons had been linked with Arsenal, Barcelona, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich in the previous transfer window and will likely be hounded in the summer. This is all for good reason, as he’s been an integral part of Norwich’s push for a Premier League return.
Aarons is a solid defender who’s adept at forcing errors out of attackers rather than stopping them with tackles. He contributes heavily in the attack as well, looking to get forward on the ball or feed good crosses into the box. He likes to progress the play vertically down the flanks, using his passes or his natural speed to his advantage. His biggest weakness would be in his aerial duels, an area in which he tends to be on the losing end.
Overall, Aarons is determined, consistent, and has a professional attitude. Once he perfects his weaknesses, he’ll mould into one of the most reliable full-backs in England. Unfortunately for Norwich, the best thing for Aarons is to move on to a bigger club. A more competitive environment is essential for him to fully realize his potential as a footballer.
Over in the Scottish Premiership, this 21-year-old attacking midfielder is truly an impressive player. With seven goals and five assists in 30 appearances for Celtic, David Turnbull has been able to display a wonderful variety of skills that really make him stand out. Many would refer to Odsonne Edouard as the spearhead of the club, but Turnbull is arguably the greater driving force.
When he’s on the ball, it always seems as if something significant is going to happen. He’s a very creative player, using his vision to pick out others with a clever through-pass or from deep. His off-the-ball movement is sharp, running into wide areas to create spaces or dropping back to combine with teammates in build-ups. His whipped crosses from open play and set-pieces are crucial aspects of his game as well. Although his finishing and shooting power are ridiculously good, his shot selection can sometimes be questionable.
In a few years, David Turnbull will be a name that rings around Europe. Whether or not he makes a move elsewhere, his excellent playmaking ability will draw the attention of football fans everywhere. However, if he does continue this run of form, other clubs will look to keep tabs on his transfer availability.
Probably the most unknown member of the lot, this Georgian international is playing some great football over in Russia with Rubin Kazan. The 20-year-old left-winger is on track to becoming the kind of lone star in the way that Henrikh Mkhitaryan is for Armenia. If he does become a national hero in Georgia, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise.
Khvicha Kvaratshkelia mostly utilizes his dominant dribbling ability to get the better of defences. He likes to take players on directly and can be dangerous when running with the ball at speed. He tends to cut in on his right foot, using his skill and technique to open up space to shoot. Although dribbling is his biggest strength, he can be clever with his passing as well. His decision-making and defensive contribution can be questionable at times though. While being a little wasteful with his take-on, he also fails to track back and press when he’s required.
Despite these weaknesses, the young winger has been improving over the course of the season. He’s becoming more mature and is realizing that fixing other parts of his game can be beneficial to his success. If he continues to make the proper adjustments, he could bring both value and entertainment to any team’s attack.
Named in UEFA’s Top 50 emerging talents list, the 19-year-old Greek will be another promising young winger to watch. Having come out of the academy at PAOK Thessaloniki, Christos Tzolis has broken out sporadically into the first team and earned his first caps for Greece earlier in the season.
If you were to compare Tzolis to any player, you could categorize him as a smaller and stockier version of Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli. He’s capable of creating off the dribble, is naturally athletic, and has good finishing ability. He doesn’t look very fast, but his movement on and off the ball makes him difficult to mark.
Tzolis needs to establish himself formidably in Greece before he can start catching people’s attention. He’s been somewhat sporadic in his Europa League appearances, but he’s been showing signs that he can influence the game. He has the talent, now all he needs is a good run of form.
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