40 prospects to follow in 2020
2020 is the start of a new decade, 12 months to discover new talents and choose which ones are our favorites, those to fall in love with and watch for the next 10 years. In this article, we gathered 40 wonderkids that we’re going to watch closely this year, maybe because we expect them to have their breakthrough season, because they represent an interesting interpretation of a specific position or maybe just because we like them. We only chose players born in 1999 or after. There are no accomplished players like Joao Félix, Matthijs de Ligt, Jadon Sancho, or Gianluigi Donnarumma. As always, our choices are based on objective criteria. Enjoy the reading!
1. Nicolò Zaniolo – 1999 – AS Roma
It’s sad to write about Zaniolo immediately after the tremendous injury (torn ACL) that ended his season, slowed down his rise in the moment of maximum brightness and that will likely keep him out of the European Championship. It’s meaningful and sad how Zaniolo’s injury came at the end of a breathtaking play. One of the highest expressions of his physical and technical talent. A play in which he started in his own half, ran for 40 meters with the ball at his feet – wiggling, accelerating, changing rhythm, and leaving all his opponents behind him. Even watching the replay again and again, it’s difficult to see the exact moment he unnaturally twisted his knee. And this only fuels fatalism, and the idea that his knee collapsed because he was pushing the physical limits on a football pitch.
Zaniolo’s talent already emerged at the end of 2018, but it has fully shown itself in 2019. In January, he played a wonderful game at home against Torino; in February he scored a brace against Porto – the youngest Italian player to ever do so in Champions League. he won the Young Player of the Year award at the end of the season.
After a slight drop in performance at the end of last campaign, this season, with Fonseca, Zaniolo is affirming himself as a winger in a 4-2-3-1 formation, clarifying his limits and possibilities. So, let’s dig into Zaniolo’s ‘good resolutions’ in last year’s article about the 40 talents to follow. These are the things that we wanted to better understand about Zaniolo during last year:
- If, as he says, he can affirm himself as a mezzala, partially repressing his offensive instincts; or if he will still play as trequartista, that at the moment seems to be the only open spot for him in Roma’s 4-2-3-1.
- If he’s able to play as a starter in a Champions League team like Roma.
- If Roberto Mancini will consider him useful for the National Team.
- If he’ll be able to manage the pressure that seems to surround him.
The first point was proved wrong, as Zaniolo indeed found a fixed position, but neither as a mezzala or trequartista, but as an inverted winger. He also found continuity, even if Roma is not playing Champions League football anymore.
In 2019, Zaniolo debuted for the National Team and also scored his first goal. There are no doubts at all on the last point. In 2020, Zaniolo will have to recover from a serious injury, that could likely compromise his physical explosiveness. He was Italian football’s most beautiful thing and – being 20 – it would be stupid to think he won’t still be in the future.
2. Gabriel Martinelli – 2001 – Arsenal
To someone who grew in Corinthians futsal team until he was 13 years old and used to play in Ituano – Brazilian fourth tier – during the summer of 2019, the second half of last year must have looked like some sort of FIFA career mode: first, he signed for Arsenal and then got in favour with manager Unai Emery during the pre-season, then: he scored during his Premier League debut, Europa League debut and League Cup debut. Finally got the call for the U23 Brazilian National Team ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Martinelli already scored 10 goals in his first 20 games with Arsenal (9 of them in which he played 60+ minutes), and he also had 3 assists in the Europa League. After a brace during a League Cup game against Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp called him “the talent of the century, an incredible striker”.
Playing as a centre-forward or left-winger, Arsenal are grooming him as Aubameyang’s successor. At the moment, he only plays vertically, always attracted by the box, and watching his opponent first and his teammate next, immediately attacking the box when he receives the ball with space in front of him. Martinelli showed his ability to always find a way to be dangerous when he receives next to the box, especially thanks to his ability to control the ball and act fast, as he only needs half a second to shoot. In his few months of professional football, he has already proven to be a player that only needs half an occasion to score a goal.
3. Eduardo Camavinga – 2002 – Rennes
Camavinga just turned 17 and this season, he missed only one game with Rennes due to an injury, also starting only one game from the bench. When we wrote about him at the beginning of the season, we said that “if you watched a Rennes game without knowing nothing about its number 18, you’d never guess he’s just a teenager”; and the last months have confirmed his extraordinary maturity for a player of his age.
It’s not usual for a player this young to influence a game with their balance and the ability to keep the ball. For those who don’t know him: Camavinga is an agile midfielder, with an excellent technique that allows him to control the ball – even under pressure – and an instinctive tactical awareness that other players have to develop during years of training. He’s the Ligue 1 player with the most successful tackles (4.1, just like Monaco’s Gil Dias), and the Rennes player with the best numbers if you sum up the offensive and defensive stats. He used to practice the martial art of Judo until recently, and thanks to this, he’s extremely clean in his tackles. Basically, he’s a high-level central midfielder.
These are his qualities today, useful enough to help Rennes fight for third place in Ligue 1 (enough to play the Champions League playoff) behind PSG and OM. But if we talk about his potential, we have to consider his offensive game. And that’s why with his technique and vision he must improve the creativity of his passes and offer more assists to his teammates.
With his dribbling skills, he will have to attack more, with and without the ball. Against OL, when he scored his first league goal, he beat Andersen with a quick turn and then shot with the right foot to beat the keeper. And with his body, he will also have to improve physically, to impose himself in the midfield. Camavinga should move next June and the hope is that he’ll continue to play with continuity.
4. Shapi Suleymanov – 1999 – Krasnodar
Among all the talents in this list, Suleymanov may be the best-hidden one, the most difficult to watch. He plays as a right-wing for a Krasnodar side eliminated from the Europa League a few weeks ago, but he may be the target of a bigger club next summer. In Russia, they talk about him as the best talent in the country, even if he hasn’t played a game with the senior National Team yet. His defining feature is his left foot. According to his coach, ‘Shapi’ “has a sensational left foot, just like Messi, maybe even better”, a quality that allows him to be dangerous, even from long range (he scores just about a goal every two games with Krasnodar).
Suleymanov has a low center of gravity and a deadly first step that allows him to be dangerous in tight spaces, creating chances out of nothing. He also has a good sensitivity when it comes to passing, even if he has to improve his vision because he’s often too selfish. This year he must take the final step that would allow him to be a more decisive player.
5. José Juan Macías – 1999 – Club León
A few days ago, regardless of the interest of some Spanish clubs such as Sevilla and Real Sociedad, JJ Macías returned to Chivas de Guadalajara after a whole year spent on loan at Club León. There are at least three interesting perspectives in JJ’s 2019: first, he accepted a ‘downgrade’ in leaving an important club like Chivas to a less-competitive team to play more minutes. Second, those minutes were critical for him to earn a call for the U20 World Cup and therefore attention from international scouts (actually, JJ appears in an episode of the “Inside Borussia Dortmund” Amazon tv show, where a scout says that “there aren’t unknown players anymore. Everybody knows everybody”). Third and most important, is that Macías scored 23 goals throughout 2019: 19 in the Apertura and Clausura and 4 with the national team in only three games.
Macías in a nutshell: he presses the ball carrier, he wins the ball back, and makes two big-time and quick plays before scoring.
Macías, just like many other ‘products’ of the Mexican school, has an extraordinary speed that comes with such a pleasing touch of the ball. He also has a stunning shooting range and can find the goal from any corner with incredible power.
The love for the Tri shirt led him to prefer playing the U20 World Cup rather than the Liguilla de Apertura final with León. He surely isn’t lacking any ambition and, even if it’s true that there aren’t unknown players anymore, you can bet that JJ will likely be even more famous soon enough. Rumours have it that he is strongly pursued by MLS teams, where they want to offer him a clause that would allow him to leave immediately if an offer from Europe should come. It would be a smart and maverick move: just like all the others made by Macías during last year.
6. Joshua Zirkzee – 2001 – Bayern Munich
Until early December, Zirkzee was the starting forward for Bayern Munich II and then he started to be thrown into the first team mixer. We rarely watched Zirkzee playing at the highest levels but his score in Bundesliga is out of this world: 8 minutes played, 2 goals. Every time he was subbed in, it only took 2 minutes for him to score. Zirkzee also has an immaculate stat line: 2 shots taken, 2 goals.
Zirkzee spends the rest of his time playing for Bayern Munich II, where he’s played as the starter forward and express himself through a minimal style, contradicting with his eye-catching look. Zirkzee is over 1.90m tall and his brushy hair makes him look even more imposing than he is; but his game is mostly made by short passes for his teammates, through a sober and essential technique.
Zirkzee is Dutch, he grew up in Feyenoord before moving to Bayern, disappointing Marco van Basten: “It’s a shame that such players leave the Netherlands. If Zirkzee would’ve stayed, he’d play for Feyenoord first team by now. Why depriving yourself with this opportunity? It looks nonsense to me”. We’ll see in 2020 if the choice to move to Germany will prove the right one for him.
7. Aurélien Tchouaméni – 2000 – Bordeaux
This list is not filled with midfielders, so it’s nice to mention Aurélien Tchouaméni, the 19-years old player that is finding his space in front of Bordeaux defence. Tchouaméni initially played as inside-forward but this season he’s playing in a two-man midfield in Bordeaux’s very ambitious 3-4-2-1. In that position, he became a more cerebral player than he used to be: he still has a certain reactivity in tight spaces and 1v1’s, but he now uses his skills both for going vertical and for reading the game defensively.
In ball distribution, Tchouaméni is rarely conservative and he often takes risks when he tries to cut the lines with ground passes. His technique is clean, but not exceptional. Tchouaméni has all the chances to become one of the most complete midfielders in Ligue 1 but he still has to improve his readings that at 19 years-old are understandably developing.
8. Emanuel Vignato – 2000 – ChievoVerona
The day Vignato debuted with the first team at 16 years-old, Francesco Totti, in the penultimate game, asked him if he wanted to take 10 of his years. Two and a half years later, that episode – that at the time only looked like a nice story to tel – has become some sort of mystic prediction, as Vignato turned out to be one of the most interesting talents in Italian football.
Truth to be told, Vignato’s technique was already clear to everyone in the academy and scouts from Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Bayern Munich had already come to Veneto to watch him. Vignato’s debut with the pros has been gradual and yet successful. Just think about his goal at the Olimpico against Lazio, at the end of last season: he used the right foot to drop the defender, then shooting in off the far post with stunning ease.
Vignato’s technical naturalness in all fundamentals is very rare for Italian football. Lately, the most talented players of our school distinguish themselves for the high intensity with which they are capable of making complex plays; but Vignato is a control player. He can play as central offensive midfielder or winger, but the quality of his ball control wouldn’t affect a future development as an inside-forward. He can dribble in tight spaces, play with his teammates and shoot in several different situations.
Given the attention mentioned before, it’s surprising how Vignato ended up at Bologna for just €3M. He will likely be an option when Sansone doesn’t play. It looks like the right context for him to show his very talented right foot.
9. Luca Pellegrini – 1999 – Cagliari
Luca Pellegrini started the new season just like he ended the last one, becoming more and more important in Maran’s Cagliari, with his value further increased by the transfer market thanks to the swap between him and Spinazzola, Roma and Juventus. The Bianconeri valued him €22M, a lot for a 20-year-old player with just two half seasons as a starter and that’s the reason why the expectations on this young Roman full-back are so high.
Now Pellegrini is an untouchable starter in a team that gives huge importance to its full-backs’ creativity, as they always have to be an option for the midfielders, being able to move the ball forward quickly and clean, with plenty of physical responsibilities over them. In this regard, Pellegrini already looks like a very modern full-back, with a physical and yet refined game – sometimes, it becomes a little bit too mechanical. He has a great shooting sensitivity but he’s not a shadow playmaker like some other elite full-backs, and in the coming years we will find out if that’s more a limit of his or a chance for further development. His most surprising trait, especially given his young age, is his reliability: if he can keep this performance continuity, maybe 2020 will become his first year with a top team.
10. Dominik Szoboszlai – 2000 – Red Bull Salzburg
In Red Bull Salzburg’s stunning season, Szoboszlai has been out shadowed by Hwan, Minamino and Haaland. And yet, he was the most discussed of the lot only a year ago, especially after he was found in the infamous shortlist that Fabio Paratici would have liked to sign at Juventus, alongside with more renowned talents like Chiesa, Zaniolo, Demiral, and Romero.
Szoboszlai doesn’t completely reflect Red Bull standard players’ traits: he’s not an hyper-dynamical and vertical midfielder. His strengths are the oriented control and technical sensitivity, both in passing and resistance to pressing. In January, RB Salzburg already started to lose some pieces, but he stayed. At least until the summer.