5 wonderkids to follow in the European tournaments
After the first two gamedays of this season’s UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League, there have already been discussions about who can become “the next big thing” of European football. So, we asked our friends at L’Ultimo Uomo to pick their 5 most exciting talents to follow during international tournaments.
Eduardo Camavinga – Stade Rennais, 2002
Last April, in a match against Angers, Eduardo Camavinga became the youngest player to make his debut for Stade Rennais. He was aged just 16 years, four months and 27 days. The first player born in 2002 to play in one of the five main European championships appeared in Ligue 1 younger even than Kylian Mbappé. He played the final games of last season and the first of the new one, supplying an assist for the winning goal against PSG and also winning the Ligue 1 Player of the Month award for August.
Obviously, when talking about such a young player, we need to be a little cautious, aware that any of a thousand possible accidents can hamper the career of a professional sportsman. Sometimes an injury, the wrong transfer decision, or a late-night on a video game is all it takes. However, there is no denying the excitement of seeing a 16-year-old playing with Camavinga’s confidence and maturity, imagining all the wonderful things he could encounter on his way.
— DAZN Italia (@DAZN_IT) August 19, 2019
The PSG match was when he announced himself on the international stage.
If you saw a Stade Rennais game without knowing anything about the midfielder in the no. 18 shirt, you would never guess he was a teenager. Camavinga rarely plays a poor ball, or makes a technical mistake. He almost always takes just a few touches and keeps his head up as he scans the pitch. He has a rather subtle left foot that allows him to play both short and long. His passes are quick and easy to control, even if he is not one of those midfielders with a surgical touch. Perhaps he needs to work more on the stiffness of his ankle, which tends to open too much when he side-foots the ball.
Camavinga is about 185cm tall and is nimble, agile, always lively and ready to react. He is dynamic but not hyperactive. On the ball, he is always in control, thanks to his excellent balance. In extreme cases, he can dribble his way out of a press, and start driving up the pitch when he has space in front of him. Although the ball never moves too far from his left foot, he doesn’t have the control at full pelt of Ousmane Dembelé, with whom he is inevitably compared as they are both products of the Rennes training centre.
His coach from eleven to thirteen said that he was so much more talented than his teammates that he played him “in defence when we didn’t want to concede, and in attack when we wanted to win”. Today, he can play in a midfield pair or as a second striker, but he remains above all a defensive midfielder. He doesn’t take too many touches, about 40 per game, but with great accuracy. Against PSG, for example, he made 41 passes, missing only one. However, if circumstances aren’t right to play the ball forward with a killer pass or a throw, he is happy to martial his team and directs the attack. He puts keeping possession before creating danger.
He has recorded the most attempted tackles over 90 minutes at the Stade Rennais (5.7, of which 3.5 were successful). Despite still struggling a little to cover the entire pitch, he is very technically adept, always going for a clean tackle. His left foot gets the ball even when his opponent looks to have already passed him.
— Stade Rennais F.C. (@staderennais) August 1, 2018
Apparently, Eduardo Camavinga as a child, meaning a few years ago, preferred judo, and perhaps his defensive interventions display a bit of the timing needed for martial arts. However, physically, he still needs to grow, to add muscles to his light boyish frame and explosiveness to his acceleration as he sets off. However, he is always careful not to lose the ball. When his body can complement his defensive technique, he will compete with the best in his position.
Camavinga seems to have already attracted the interest of Real Madrid. He represents a low-risk investment, but the club does not necessarily have the patience or desire to invest in talent like his. Camavinga doesn’t always catch the eye and isn’t yet able to make the difference in attack, at least not in every game. There is no need to rush things. However, given an instinct worth more than the experience of many players in their thirties, it would be a shame if he ended up warming the bench.
He was born in Angola, but his parents fled when he was one year old. Naturally, the French Federation is trying to naturalise him as quickly as possible. His family has also been plagued by bad luck in France, losing their home in a fire. You can read on the Internet that one day his father told him: “Eduardo, you are the family’s hope. You’re the one who’s going help us up”. Luckily, Camavinga bestrides the pitch with the calm of someone with nothing to prove to anyone. He has the calm of someone who is solely focussed on doing his job well.
Sergiño Dest – Ajax, 2000
Daniele V. Morrone
In little over a month, Sergiño Dest made his debut with the Ajax first team, was picked for the US national team and renewed his contract. Born in Almere to a Dutch mother and an American father of Surinamese origin, he chose to play for the US at youth level. Indeed, he put in a good performance for the country at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Having grown up at Almere City, Ajax courted him for months before signing him at the age of 11. Now that he has turned 18 years old, he can be considered a true product of the Ajax Academy. He is perhaps the most talented full-back to come out of Ajax’s youth teams for decades. That’s why they have given him a chance in the first team, even though he’s not yet 19 years old.
Dest plays as an attacking fullback, who can use speed or dribbling technique to beat a man directly. He is a very creative fullback. He dribbles beautifully in tight space, even at speed, but from a standstill he still always comes up with something, making him an unpredictable opponent. When he sets off, he looks like a street football player: controlling the ball with the inside and outside of his foot, also using the sole if necessary.
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) September 27, 2019
We shouldn’t think of him as a selfish player. Dest is very much a team man, who fits well into Ajax’s style of play with its constant search for triangles. He can pass a man at will but always thinks in terms of the team. He has this in common with the great contemporary Brazilian fullbacks such as Dani Alves and Marcelo. These players have excellent technique, which they put to the service of the team. They have the decision-making maturity of real deep-lying playmakers.
It is no coincidence that Dest was also tried in midfield in the youth teams and, although a right back at Ajax, receives the ball in the half-space and not only on the side-line. Ten Hag wants to use his technique in tight spaces to hurt opponents in the areas where they are most vulnerable, where his speed is almost impossible to defend against. Dest could still improve his crossing accuracy, which is crucial and makes all the difference for a fullback. For now, he concentrates more on getting the ball into the area than on giving it to the right player.
When the team has lost possession, he pays for his short build (just over 170cm). In terms of defensive positioning, he is almost impossible to judge. Ajax puts him so far forward that they use him practically only for cover at the back – which he gives to the entire line once the ball is lost. His speed helps with this, but he is also developing the ability to read play superbly for defensive diagonals.
The Dutch federation noted his sudden explosion onto the scene and is now busily using his coach Ronald Koeman and his club to persuade him to defect to Holland. It sees him as a future right-back for next year’s European Championships when he will be 19 years old. Dest hasn’t yet decided. However, in the meantime, he made his debut in a friendly for the USA. He played paradoxically as a left-back, which gave him scope to drive up the pitch, sowing panic after passing his first marker. In a position with a dearth of real talents, Dest has everything he needs to do very well at Ajax and then secure a transfer to a European giant.
Mohamed Ihattaren – PSV, 2002
Mohamed Ihattaren is yet to turn 18 but only needed a few games to show that he is one of Europe’s most exciting talents. No one else born in 2002 plays so regularly in the major leagues, or already has such a strong influence on the way his team plays.
Ihattaren was so off the scale among his peers that he played just three games with the Jong PSV and in January, when not yet 17, made his first-team debut. Ihattaren adds to PSV Eindhoven’s tradition of North African attacking midfielders: a dynasty that includes bright and unfortunate talents such as Aissati and Afellay. Indeed, he found himself playing with the latter in the team this year.
Like them, Ihattaren is Moroccan in origin, wears his socks down and shepherds ball with his left foot as if he were making love to it. Ihattaren is one of those players who has a special relationship with the ball, and that’s why he always wants it at his feet. His talent is best used by placing him in the centre of the action as much as possible. At PSV Van Bommel positions him between the two midfielders or behind the striker – or outside on the right, where he can move in the centre and receive in the half-space.
Ihattaren bends forwards agilely and takes the ball on the outside of his left foot or his sole. He attempts a lot of dribbles (five every 90 minutes in league games, and has a success rate of over three). However, although letting his creativity flow, he also likes to link-up with his teammates. With focussed control, he is already thinking about the next move.
He seeks to play quickly, with one or two touches, but his youth and lack of experience make him a bit slow at reading the game. He will improve. Meanwhile, it is almost impossible to take the ball off him. The average quality of his plays – both dribbling in narrow spaces and passing, often into space, up the pitch – is also something special.
Yet to turn 18, Ihattaren already has a powerful influence on the style of Van Bommel’s PSV, a team being rebuilt around some highly talented youngsters. These include Timo Baumgartl in defence, Sadilek and Ihattaren in midfield and Donyell Malen in the attack. The latter has caught everyone’s eye especially after scoring seven goals in seven official appearances – five of which in the same match, in mid-September against Vitesse.
Among them, however, Ihattaren seems to be the talent with the most potential for improvement. He is a midfielder with great vision, a technique in tight areas and brilliant ideas. His mental toughness is certainly being put to the test in these first games of his professional career. His father is suffering from cancer and the newspapers are only interested in whether he will decide to play for Holland or Morocco.
Ihattaren does not seem particularly upset by the debate and continues to do his talking with his left foot, one of the most exciting to watch in this season’s Eredivisie and Europa League.
Ansu Fati – Barcelona, 2002
Ansu Fati is not yet 17 but seems to have gone through all the stages in the career of a mature professional footballer. He grew up in Seville’s youth teams and has been considered a different, special talent since he was seven. This made him a target for Real Madrid and Barcelona, who tried to sign him when he was about 10 years old.
When looking over his career, we can easily forget that we are actually talking about a child and not a professional footballer: Seville’s decision to exclude him, irritated by his interest in Barcelona; a fractured tibia and fibula, which according to some could have finished his career; the legendary anecdotes that marked his growth at La Masia (such as that of Victor Valdes who, as coach of the Blaugrana Under 19s, bought him some new boots).
Today all this is just the starting point in the career of Ansu Fati. He made his first-team debut against Betis on 25 August before scoring two goals and one assist in the next five games in LaLiga and Champions League. He is the youngest player to pull on a Barcelona shirt and the third youngest ever to score in La Liga.
Within a few weeks, he suddenly became the next big thing in European football. However, although it’s hard, we need to stop for a moment to peer through the cloud of hype that has thickened around him to ask what we can reasonably expect. How can we forget Ansu Fati’s goal against Valencia, or his assist for Frenkie de Jong’s second, after dribbling past Garay with seeming ease? In these first appearances, Ansu Fati appeared to bring a different kind of energy on the ball to a Barcelona that appeared to be in great difficulty against intense and forward-thrusting teams.
We have seen his most outstanding qualities in La Liga. His ability to threaten deep with both feet and his speed over distance stand out in the dozens of overblown laudatory YouTube videos about him. But in reality, Ansu Fati’s best quality is not yet an ability to dribble in tight spaces. He still has a clumsy first touch and above all isn’t good at controlling the ball with his back to goal, struggling to protect it with his body.
This explosive debut, in short, should not lead us to misunderstand him, because the best part of his game is currently the least visible. Ansu Fati already looks like a seasoned player off the ball. For example, before his successful dribble past Garay, the assist for de Jong’s goal came from some splendid movement to escape Wass’s marking.
Ansu Fati has shown subtle intelligence off the ball in games where he seemed to be finding the going tougher, or when he didn’t actually have the ball. In the action below against Borussia Dortmund, in the Champions League, for example, he drew half of the opponent’s defence by cutting through deep, freeing up the outer corridor for Semedo to attack.
In short, Ansu Fati‘s development could be less predictable than apparent in his first outings. This is one of the reasons that makes him so interesting to follow this year. In the end, we are still talking about a player who is not even 17 years old. However, his carefree play and the incredible precociousness of his career make that difficult to keep in mind.
Magomed-Shapi Suleymanov – Krasnodar, 1999
In the 34th minute of the Porto-Krasnodar match, Magomed-Shapi Suleymanov received a long throw on the right side of the pitch, in the opponent’s half. After a tricky bit of control, Saravia went left, applied a touch to the ball to avoid a sliding tackle and then – almost in a single movement – let rip with a powerful angled left-foot shot into the net.
The Porto home game brought Suleymanov to the attention of Sporting Directors throughout Europe. His two goals helped Krasnodar to a 2-3 victory at a ground where only Liverpool and Benfica had won this year. The young Russian winger created so many problems for the Portuguese that Conceicao had to replace the left full-back Saravia after just 38 minutes to try to contain him better.
The Russians were knocked out in the next Champions League qualifying round, against Olympiacos, ending up back in the Europa League. Suleymanov is a known face here having scored three lovely goals last season. It is somewhere he can establish himself as one of the best Russian talents born at the turn of the two millennia.
His first coach, Murza Murzaev, said that Shapi has “a crazy left, like Messi’s. Maybe better”. When watching him move like a mad thing across the pitch, the comparison with the Barcelona no. 10 again comes to mind, obviously not at the technical level, but in terms of body language and build. Suleymanov has a low centre of gravity and a compact body. This allows him to defend the ball well and be very agile, especially in tight spaces. He combines this with a decent left foot (this season he has played 2.6 key passes).
⚽ В голосовании за лучший гол "Краснодара" в сезоне 2018/19 за явным преимуществом побеждает мяч, забитый Магомедом-Шапи Сулеймановым в ворота испанской "Валенсии" 🎉💪🏻
А вы помните этот эмоциональный момент 🤔 pic.twitter.com/2JiXc3vglH
— FCKrasnodar (@FCKrasnodar) June 13, 2019
A taste of what Suleymanov can do with his left foot.
Suleymanov has only recently become Krasnodar’s regular right-winger. He appeared as a substitute all last season, a role seemed to fit him like a glove. In the Europa League, for example, he scored his three goals as a sub, always in the final minutes. This included the perfect free-kick that helped Krasnodar knock out Bayer Leverkusen in the Round of 16. He was able to use his turn of pace against tired defences and above all focus his efforts over a short period.
Indeed, Suleymanov still lacks a bit of continuity over the 90 minutes, where he tends to absent himself on the right-wing waiting for the right ball to attack. Every time he has the ball at his feet, Shapi tries something decisive, either by skipping past his direct opponent or looking for a shot or forward pass. This also leads him to disregard defensive duties a little when he’s not involved in the game.
These are defects that the Russian player will smooth out over time, improving his decision making in the various stages of a game. His left foot, however, is not something that can be learned. A player with such footballing ability can become a deadly offensive weapon (in his career he has scored 14 goals in 1245 minutes played, practically one per game) either starting from the right and moving in left, or attacking the area with his speed.
Russian football is looking for a star around whom to build its future. If Suleymanov confirms the potential shown in these first professional matches, he can really become an important player even in higher-level leagues and competitions.