50 Talents to Follow in 2021
New year, new list of exciting talents to follow. Don’t miss our annual list of young prospects from the beautiful game. Brought to you by L’Ultimo Uomo.
Never have we had a start like this, the beginning of 2021, where we’ve wanted to throw away the past and look to the future. And few things tell us more about the future than young sporting talents. As per tradition, in the very first days of the year, L’Ultimo Uomo draws up a list of the most interesting young players to follow this season. Human beings and stories to be passionate about straight away so you can enjoy them better throughout the season. The nerdiest of you will know most of them, others just a few. The age limit this year is set at those born in 2001, so very strong young 20-year-olds like Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, Alphonso Davies and Phil Foden have been left out. You can however look at previous editions of this article here: 2020 and 2019.
Youssoufa Moukoko, 2004, Borussia Dortmund (Germany/Cameroon)
First of all, credit must be given to Youssoufa Moukoko for bringing back a bit of mystery to contemporary football. We have been talking about him since he was twelve years old in Borussia Dortmund’s Under-17 team, with the usual suspicions about the age of a player born in Africa, in Cameroon, and the mystery of statistics that seem to be made up. Even if in reality the goals he’s scored are indisputable; these are numbers from other eras, which evoke the legends of the strikers with a thousand and more career goals, even if they haven’t all been recorded on video. Moukoko scored 90 goals in 50 games when he was 13, playing against 17-year-olds, and scored 47 in 25 at the age of 15, against opponents who were 19. He had scored 10 in the first 3 games of last season before it was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The mystery about numbers or age shouldn’t exist (the latter denied by his father, who said he registered his birth at the German Embassy the day after he was born), but doubting such a precocious and devastating talent serves to prolong the amazement: did this Moukoko really come to Europe to rewrite all the records in football history?
In September he was called up by the German youth team and even Joachim Löw is reportedly keeping an eye on him for the future. The Bundesliga lowered the age he could be contracted, from 16 and a half to 16, and last December he started against Werder Bremen, becoming the youngest player to make his debut in the German league. Three days later, he became the youngest scorer ever, scoring with a left-footed missile against Union Berlin, in a similar fashion to Haaland’s violent shots. Arriving in Germany at the age of 10, Moukoku was obviously very ambitious: he talked about winning the Champions League with Dortmund. With similar numbers and crazy hype around him (he already has a multi-million contract with Nike), it’s hard to take into account the fact that we’re talking about a 16-year-old boy.
When Moukoko plays, age is both seen and not seen at the same time. We are talking about a striker with a low center of gravity – he’s about 179 cm – who can protect the ball well, run very fast with the ball, and has phenomenal control with his left foot (and he also uses his right one, both for dribbling and to shoot). He doesn’t have the awareness like Messi, Neymar or Ousmane Dembélé, but it’s how his technique combines with speed that makes him devastating when he starts with the ball. He also has an excellent vision of the game, moves well without the ball like a true center-forward (his Union goal came from cutting in behind the defender while being on the verge of offside), and a level of creativity that makes him useful as a finisher. In the box, however, he is above all a goal machine; his shots are always dangerous, angled and strong, even when they do not come out as strong as hand grenades.
Of course, he has to take measures if he wants to play at an even higher level of football, against tougher opponents, and needs to build himself up physically – it would be strange if he didn’t do so. If in the youth academies he could almost do everything he wanted – stretch out in the large spaces, dribble past opponents who are still not very explosive, shoot from every position. In the game and a half he has played so far, it was understood that he’ll need time as an apprentice, even if he is a phenomenon. However, we have seen little to help understand what kind of impact talents like his can have in the Bundesliga (he scored one goal in nine games and created other chances, which is already no small thing) and next year he could surprise us again.
Youssoufa Moukoko is the young man with the eyes of world football on him and even if he doesn’t become a revelation in 2021, well, in 12 months time he will still only be 17 (he turns 17 in November).
Rayan Ait Nouri, 2001, Wolverhampton (France/Algeria)
Nouri was one of the wonders in last season’s revelations in Ligue 1, Angers. He plays left-back but only thinks about bombing forwards; he’s technical, left-footed and lightweight – he’s so slender that he doesn’t seem nearly six feet tall. Wolves took him on loan with the option to make the move permanent, and on his second appearance, he scored a beautiful goal with a clever run into the box and a shot at the far post that looked like a volley. Wolves’ three-man defense should help him integrate into the team as it enhances his offensive instincts while providing him with some defensive protection.
Today Nouri is a ‘two-faced’ left-back: offensively very strong, especially with the speed he attacks the wing with and without the ball, plus his great crossing ability. But he still has to work on his defensive game – plus he absolutely needs to work on his physical shape.
Rodrygo, 2001, Real Madrid (Brazil)
We invited you to follow him in 2020, the year he became the second-youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Champions League (behind Raúl), the third youngest overall scorer in Real Madrid history. Rodrygo seems to have concentrated his energy into his entry onto the football scene. Apart from that, he didn’t do much, but he did reshape a bit of the perception we had of him last year.
He looked like a twig, a wren unprepared for European football, with his game all about technique and agility. Instead, he turned out to be more ready and practical than we could have imagined. Not as in love as Vinicius Jr. is with the ball, perhaps even less talented, but he does move better without the ball. Because of this, he mainly played on Real Madrid’s weaker side. He seemed comfortable in the penalty area, despite having scored his 7 goals in just a few games.
Of course, electricity in tight spaces, ball control and creativity while dribbling remain his best qualities. But in a team that can boast elite dribblers like Hazard and Vinicius Jr., or players who love to touch the ball a lot like Benzema and Modric, Rodrygo will have to continue to demonstrate his ability to move on the periphery of the game.
Bukayo Saka, 2001, Arsenal (England)
Born in London and raised at Arsenal, Saka has always been recognized as one of the spearheads of the new generation in English football. After impressing at youth level, he was promoted to the first team by Unai Emery while still a youngster. He made his debut in the 2018/19 season and since then, he has already become a regular, despite his young age. The confidence that he already has from an athletic point of view, plus his mental attributes in terms of tactics and determination, then led Arteta to make him the joker of the team. He started left-back in the absence of Tierney, then was used as a left-winger in a 3-4-3, and before returning to his role on the left-wing, he was sometimes used as a left midfielder or attacking midfielder. In his last games of 2020, he finished as right-winger.
What reassures Arteta is that at the base of Saka’s versatility are technical but also mental skills – a player who seems immune to external pressure. At the age of 19, he signed a bumper contract and took the number 7 shirt, exceeded 60 appearances with Arsenal, scored a beautiful goal in the derby with Chelsea, and has already made his debut and played as a starter in the national team. He is a very fast player, good at always maintaining balance even after physical contact and has very quick movement. The talent is evident, a winger with great direction with pure dribbling skills, where he can exploit play with his two-footedness. His technical execution is where he can improve: he is a creative player but still not flawless with his first touch or with his passing. But neither is Sancho nor Foden. In the game, however, he reaches great levels, especially thanks to his talent and his unpredictability.
His explosiveness represents one of the joys a supporter of Arsenal has, a team that lives in the terror of mediocrity. If 2021 is going to the beginning of a rebirth for the North London team then the rebirth will surely pass through Saka’s feet.
Takefusa Kubo, 2001, Getafe/Real Madrid (Japan)
Once a Barcelona youth player but now on the books of Real Madrid, with a loan spell last season at Mallorca and Villareal and, since January, at Getafe, Takefusa Kubo is one of those prodigies we write about every year where we hope the difficult adaptation into professional football is just a step before great things. Will next year be a good year for Kubo? The one in which without any doubt we will be able to say that he is a player at the highest level and maybe Real Madrid will decide to give him a chance?
Impossible to know. Kubo’s talent remains exceptional, his basic technique is on par with the best and everything he does with his left foot is done well: control, direction, through balls and crosses. He looks mature but remains difficult to understand. Emery, at Villareal, made him play almost every game, but none in full, and after more than one season he didn’t even seem to have decided definitively whether he preferred to have him play on the right (where, running back inside, he can play through balls to the top or change the play) or left (where instead he can drive for many meters). Even in the Japanese national team, where he’s in and out of the side, it is not clear where he expresses himself best.
He seems to be missing something, and it could be his age or the teams he plays for. Kubo could also be this player right here, considering the fact that physically there is not much room for improvement (we are talking about a player who is about 173 cm), or it could be just a matter of time and, perhaps, the right coach.
Pedri, 2002, Barcelona (Spain)
Comparisons are always misleading (no player is equal to another), even more so if comparisons are being made to legends like Andrés Iniesta. But it is difficult not to compare him to Pedri – the Canarian bought in September 2019 by Barcelona immediately following his debut in the first team with Las Palmas – who has some traits similar to those of “Don Andrés”.
Like Iniesta, Pedri is small and technical, prefers to move to the left-hand side between the attacking midfielders and the midfield, has exceptional control, and already has a very high level of timing and ability to make space. Taking the ball off him is really difficult, especially when he gets wide and when he moves more in the middle between the lines. Not only is he already involved in the close and quick exchanges that characterize Barcelona’s style at the edge of the box (his first assist in La Liga was a short pass to Messi, just outside the box), but he’s also compared to Iniesta for his ability further down the pitch, for his ability to control the ball and not lose it even when surrounded by opponents, as well as being able to give continuity to the play.
Obviously, his influence on the Barcelona game is not comparable to that of Iniesta, and Pedri still has to grow a lot to get closer to those levels, but the signs are encouraging. Not even 18 years old, he dominated proceedings in an important match in Turin in the Champions League against Juventus. He gave Cuadrado a bad night and masterfully managed possession on the left side of the pitch, doing almost nothing wrong – 40 successful passes out of 42 and 8 completed dribbles out of 10.
For now, it has remained an extraordinary performance within a non-phenomenal start to the season, although it has still been positive (between November and December he frequently started). Pedri, however, seems to have the skills that will help transform his game, and as he accumulates minutes and experience, his gameplay will become normal.
Eduardo Camavinga, 2002, Rennes (France)
A little over a year ago we wrote: “If you watched a Rennes game without knowing anything about the number 18 in midfield, you would never guess that he is a teenager.” He had recently become the first player born in 2002 to make his debut in what we typically define as one of the top five European leagues. He is only 18 years old, a fact his coach Julien Stéphan (also very young, just turned 40) has probably forgotten, who in the meantime has put the number 10 shirt on his back and, above all, has given him more and more responsibility.
Camavinga has gone from organizing the play with surprising maturity (as one of two defensive midfielders or as the central midfielder in a trio) to having to drive his team’s offensive play by acting as a creative midfielder, sometimes dropping deep himself to take the ball from the defense or the playmaker, even in his team’s own half, with a man pressing him or a low line of defenders waiting for his attacking ball or waiting to close the spaces in case of a through ball. And so Camavinga is facing his first difficulties since turning pro.
Nothing to worry about, considering the fact that he recently turned 18 and his “season of confirmation” (as they call it in France) in 2020/21 is an exaggeration. In any case, even recently he has shown exceptional things. In September, in the second round of the league against Montpellier, he scored a fantastic goal, running through midfield with a triangle on the left side of the pitch and then ran directly towards the defense, ran into the area, began to fake, and then made space for himself for a strong and accurate left diagonal shot, aiming at the far post from a tight angle.
A month later, just eight minutes into his second match for the national team, against Ukraine, he scored his first goal with an absurd overhead kick in the penalty area. After a header from Giroud was saved by the goalkeeper, he found the bouncing ball a few steps from the near post, and in a fraction of a second, he turned his back, kicked it over his head over two defenders and under the crossbar. That goal made him go down in history as the second-youngest player ever to score for France, the youngest ever since World War I (more than a century ago).
A few days later, however, against Croatia, Deschamps reprimanded him harshly for having slightly delayed his run on Vlasic, who collected a low cross from the right and scored the equalizer to make it 1-1 (France then won 2-1). It must be said that Camavinga, moments before in that same play, had gone to close an opponent on the opposite side (and Nzonzi was just as close to Vlasic), but the fact is that after that game he wasn’t called up again to the national team.
A few weeks ago Deschamps recalled that “a first call-up is nothing definitive, it is only the first step”, and that Camavinga now has to respond to the expectations that are on him, now his level is rising. There is talk of interest from Real Madrid and PSG, but the situation Camavinga is currently experiencing shows us how even a player who seems destined for great things can face difficulties. Step by step and day by day, the sooner you get to a high level, the sooner those difficulties begin.
Gabriel Veron, 2002, Palmeiras (Brazil)
Gabriel Veron is said to be able to run at 38 km/h. We can’t measure him with the naked eye, but we can see that when he gets going, the defenders just seem to be left standing. They don’t go slower, they just stop. He has short and stocky legs that seem to give him different gravity with his passing but also with his small movements in confined spaces. He plays for Palmeiras and is considered by some to be the world’s best player born in 2002, mainly because he definitely ticks the box for offensive talent. He makes things happen, he’s a constant danger to teams and he makes them wonder every time he has the ball at his feet. For the simple fact that he travels at a completely different speed, Veron is definitely special. He can play either wing, left or right.
In the historical pantheon of Brazilian talents, he does not belong to the Robinho and Neymar family: lightweight and extremely skillful, but rather he resembles Lucas Moura: a crazy metal ball thrown against the opponent’s defense. In the last few meters, he still has to refine his precision, both in reading the game and on a technical level. His passes often arrive too early or they’re over hit by a few centimeters. We will need to see how much his extraordinary speed and meticulous control in tight spaces continues to make a difference, even at the highest levels. His YouTube compilations, meanwhile, are one of the most hallucinating experiences.
It has a strange effect on our imagination that this Veron exists, so completely different to his illustrious predecessors: small, Brazilian, very fast, inelegant. A Football Manager game has gone on for too long. However, the hype around him is so intense that 2021 could already be the year he moves to Europe.
Riccardo Calafiori, 2002, Rome (Italy)
The first time that the name Riccardo Calafiori came to everyone was after a very bad injury suffered in October 2018 with the Roma youth team. Calafiori had broken all the ligaments in his knee, all the menisci, and the joint cartilage – one of those injuries that put an end to a career prematurely. In the days after, Dzeko held up one of his shirts after a goal and Daniele De Rossi visited him in the hospital (and after).
Fortunately, Calafiori was back on the pitch after a long time out from the game and at the end of last season, he made his debut with the first team, scoring a beautiful goal against Juventus, which was then taken away through no fault of his own. From that point onwards he has not left Fonseca’s squad and, in a role in which the Giallorossi team is short, he seemed to be able to play regularly, but was stopped at the beginning of the season by the coronavirus, losing his place to others.
Calafiori is not a typical full-back: tall and big, not fast with his short runs but very intense with long runs. At the moment he seems to offer more guarantees as a wide winger in Roma’s 3-4-2-1 than in a 4-man defense as a left-back. He is not particularly creative. Indeed, with the ball he takes as little risk as possible, but he moves well without it and has a really powerful left foot, as demonstrated by his goal against Young Boys, a shot from outside the area that the goalkeeper didn’t even see. After that goal, Fonseca brought him back down to earth: “For me, Calafiori has yet to grow, he is young and talented. For you he is the best in the world, that doesn’t help him”. In 2021 he will have to win the trust of his coach to put minutes in his legs, but at 18 already being part of a team at the top of Italian football is certainly a guarantee of talent.
William Saliba, 2001, Nizza/Arsenal (France)
William Saliba was signed by Arsenal on 25th July 2019 for 30 million euros, at the end of his first season as a professional with Saint Etienne. He stayed in France for another year, preparing to take leadership of a defense that needed to rebuild itself on new foundations.
A year later, Saliba moved to Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, and even in one of the most disastrous teams in European football, and in a defense that struggles to find performers up to par, he has not yet made his debut. He played in the reserve team on pitches where you can see the roads in the background. Arsenal had three places in defense this year, but instead, they preferred to play the precarious David Luiz, the adapted full-back Tierney, the adapted full-back Kolasinac, the very rigid Rob Holding, the adapted midfielder Elneny or the worn-out Shkodran Mustafi. It’s hard to tell if Arteta doesn’t trust Saliba, or if he just doesn’t think he is up to it.
It’s ironic that Saliba at Saint Etienne played on the right of a three-man defense: precisely the role in which Arsenal seem to be exposed. It was said that he had great performances in training and that he could return to Saint Etienne. Certainly, in 2021 we will finally have to expect something from one of the most talented young defenders in the world. In the January transfer market, he ended up on loan to Nice, where he will perhaps be able to show his qualities again.