In case you missed it, the 2019 U-20 World Cup started a couple of days ago and we already had the chance to see some pretty interesting talent on the pitch. In order not to miss the most exciting ones, we asked L’Ultimo Uomo to profile the seven best of them. Enjoy!

Luca Pellegrini, Italy (AS Roma)

The first time I saw Luca Pellegrini playing, I had no idea who he was. More than three years ago, I was watching a training of Alberto De Rossi’s Primavera (the U-19 team in Italy) to write an article about a player that would’ve remained unnoticed, to tell the story of a young player that was starting to become a professional, not being one yet. At some point during the pick-up game, the ball got to the left full-back on the other side of the pitch. Edoardo Soleri (’97), that in those days had just played his first Champions League game, pressed him. The full-back got rid of him, leaping the ball over with a soft touch – the kind of touch that in Rome we call “cucchiaio”, honouring Francesco Totti – and turning around him, then getting the ball back to his feet. And Edoardo Soleri is 1.90m tall. I remember that I had a gasp on the bench, asking somebody who that full-back was. He was Luca Pellegrini, of course.

All Roma Primavera players really looked anxious to become pros and very focused on trying to understand which place the football world would’ve had for them. Pellegrini, that was two years younger than his teammates (he’s born on March 1999), wandered through the cafeteria with lightness, sometimes, somebody told me, carrying Mike Tyson’s autobiography with him. I don’t know if Tyson’s story has been an inspiration for this self-confident – almost cocky – young man, nor did I understood why that detail meant so much to the person that told me that in the first place, but three years later, Luca Pellegrini has already made it through two severe left knee injuries (ACL and patella), continuing his path.

The injuries forced him to miss almost the whole 2017/18 season and this year, Pellegrini played his first complete Serie A season (with just a few little stops, like an ankle sprain). First as a reserve in Di Francesco’s Roma, then as a starter in Rolando Maran’s Cagliari. To take hit like those you surely need technical and physical skills, but also a massive mental strength.

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An example of Pellegrini’s control and intelligence: after avoiding the opponents’ pressure with quick footwork and forcefully attacking the wing thanks to a triangle pass with his teammate, he stops and lifts his head. He could cross in the box, where his teammates are outnumbered, but he rather chooses to favour his teammate’s input from the back. To do that, he has to wait for his opponent to stop his run, leaving the passing line open. How many full-backs have this understanding of the game and management of the plays’ tempo?

Right now, Luca Pellegrini is playing in the U-20 World Cup, in the midfield, as a Mezzala (inside forward) and maybe, but just maybe, someone who doesn’t know him well could say that it’s not his position. Mostly thanks to his left foot. Pellegrini’s technique is superb, his ball control in every moment and the ductility with which he uses both the inside and the outside of his foot allows him to play in the narrow spaces, even with first-touches with the opponent behind him. If only his shooting was as good as his passing, he could really have a future as an inside forward.

Surely, Pellegrini performs best when he has open space in front of him, combining his technique with an exceptional athleticism (that, apparently, hasn’t been damaged by injuries). Pellegrini can run quickly, just following the ball in the open spaces, or with a creative dribble, both in the inside and the flank of the pitch (often using his heel, a skill that we admire in pure Trequartisi, like Cristiano Ronaldo). His crosses are always very accurate and, most of all, he always lifts his head before crossing, looking at his teammates and picking up the right one to receive the ball.

Di Francesco excluded him from the squad’s rotations after that his defensive inexperience caused a penalty during the game against SPAL. Even if it’s true that a little lack of experience is only right for a kid that has just turned 20 and has missed an entire season, it’s also true that Pellegrini’s skills are way more useful in the offensive phase, rather than in the defensive one. But he’s working hard on this and his athleticism can help him improve his usefulness around his own box. For example, once again against SPAL but this time with Cagliari shirt, he saved an opponent goal occasion with a nice interception in the box.

So, Luca Pellegrini lacks nothing and, other his legs and a remarkable left foot, he also seems to have an above-average mind. The U-20 World Cup, in a team full of players with a possible future in Serie A (like Scamacca, another Roma academy player that is now owned by Sassuolo, that already shined with 2 assists in 2 games), could be the perfect showcase for the 2019/20 season in which, theoretically, he should be part of the revolution of Roma. Much is depending on the new Giallorossi coach, that was Ranieri until a few days ago. Luca Pellegrini’s skills and ductility make him useful in almost any tactic, but it’s his intelligence that could really allow him to become one of Italy’s best full-backs in no time.

 

Lee Kang-in (called Kangin in Spain), South Korea (Valencia)
by Emiliano Battazzi

Kangin’s story is almost everything that a kid shouldn’t be allowed to do and, at the same time, everything that a kid, and a family, can do to realize a dream. Kangin was almost six when he took part in a popular South Korean reality show; his team won, and he went to Manchester to record a tv commercial with Park Ji-Sung. At 10, he arrived halfway around the world, in Spain, for a tryout with Valencia. A city that only has a massive consume of rice in common with South Korea. Due to linguistic problems – nobody understood anything – young Kangin had his tryout with kids born in 2000, a year before him: in that group, there were Ferrán Torres and Abel Ruiz. Kangin proved all his skills: Valencia wanted to sign him but, of course, it had a big problem: you can’t sign a 10-years old kid. The only chance was for the entire family to move to Valencia, for business purposes. Of course, nobody in the club actually believed that the transfer could’ve become a reality.

And yet, 7 years later, Kangin debuted with Valencia shirt in a friendly match, then scoring a goal during the Naranja Trophy, after playing for a while with the second team. Being a quick player, able to dribble his opponents on the wings, Marcelino immediately liked him a lot and Kangin debuted in the Copa del Rey in October, in LaLiga in January, and in Europa League in February. Now he’s playing the U-20 World Cup.

Only a few players in Europe, especially at his age, have Kangin’s speed and technique in the narrow spaces: sometimes, his opponents doubling on him only seems to encourage him to invent new tricks. Even if he played a lot as trequartista in the academy, right now the position that Marcelino chose for him seems the right one for his first steps in professional football. Kangin still needs to improve his physique, even if a strong underside allows him to always keep the ball control, even when he’s pressed; most of all, he still has to develop his understanding of the game, that is still too rough and self-centred. In the meantime, Kangin is developing quickly: in the crazy (and then decisive) comeback in the Copa del Rey against Getafe, the two winning goals in the injury time arrived thanks to his two amazing hockey passes (second assists). Kangin had a dream that is now realizing: with an attitude that in Valencia people call military but that actually is Korean education.

 

Mickaël Cuisance, France (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
by Daniele V. Morrone

In recent years, the French football school has probably been the best one in developing players with a top-class technique and an outstanding dynamism. Mickaël Cuisance, who is playing the U-20 World Cup with France, is the last one of a long series of this kind of players. The first thing that impresses about Cuisance it’s the clean technique in every ball fundamentals (from oriented control to pure shooting) and his remarkable creativity. Thanks to his ball control technique, Cuisance is perfectly comfortable even in the narrowest spaces around the box. There, his speciality is the last pass: he has an understanding of the game that goes way beyond the easiest solution, and his sensitivity in the left foot allows him to find the perfect touch for every kind of pass he wants to make, also being able to keep his coldness and precision. A few years ago, he confessed that Zidane has always been his inspiration: “I’m a huge Zinedine Zidane fan, he’s my role model when I play football.”

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Cuisance receives the ball at the edge of the box, drawing the attention of the whole defence, so as to be able to serve his teammate with an inside pass.

Thanks to a well-structured body and a good balance, though, he has no problems in playing in open spaces. His peripheral vision and ability to find himself in the right space at the right time makes him perfectly capable of playing in a more rearward position, to help with the build-up of the play. In this case, Cuisance continuously moves to help the progress of the play on the pitch: ideally, he creates first-touch triangles, but he can also shoot a long ball or, if necessary, free himself with a skill move. That’s why in the U-20 French team he’s played as an inside forward with the license of moving around the pitch, then being able to take advantage of his technique from box to box. Also in Bundesliga, with ‘Gladbach’, he plays in the midfield, where he’s usually flanked by a more static player.

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Cuisance passes over his opponent with a dribble, carrying the ball forward and then assisting with an accurate ball his teammate running wide.

Born and raised in Strasbourg in 1999, when he was 13 the RC Strasbourg Alsace went bankrupt and was forced to close its academy. Cuisance had then to find another minor team in the city to keep playing. In no time, though, he signed for Nancy, one of the best academies in the region, famous for developing, among others, Le Roi Michel Platini. He’s regularly selected for the French youth teams since the U-16. Even before playing with the first team, he’s signed by Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer of 2017 for €250k. And surprisingly, in Germany, he debuts in professional football at just 18.

Last season, when he only expected to debut in the first team, Cuisance played much more games for Gladbach, becoming a key player in the starting 11. In the 2018/19 season, however, Gladbach surprised him once again by sending him with the second team: Cuisance has started only one Bundesliga game, playing a total of 312 minutes, almost 1000 minutes less than last season. The very U-20 World Cup he’s playing as one of France best players could be the perfect showcase to convince his team that he’s ready to be treated a first-string or at least to find the right offer that will let his enormous talent be appreciated elsewhere.

 

Leonardo Campana, Ecuador (Barcelona de Guayaquil)
by Fabrizio Gabrielli

The breakthrough of Leonardo Campana, centre forward for U-20 Equador national team and Barcelona de Guayaquil, rather than a process of meticulous planning of talent capitalization, seems to respond to those – rarer and rarer – dynamics that starts with an epiphany. In fact, during the Sudamericano Sub20 played last January in Chile, Campana wasn’t a starter. A series of contingencies, though, overturned the team’s hierarchies (Stiven Plaza, that had just been bought by Valladolid, was prohibited to participate at the tournament and Djorkaeff Reasco had a serious injury): Campana scored 6 goals – as many as the whole Brazil squad – and became top goal scorer of the tournament that Ecuador, a bit surprisingly, won for its first time in history.

Campana perfectly fits into the identikit of the modern striker: he has an imposing body structure, even if his muscle mass hasn’t fully developed yet. He’s nicknamed “La Torre” (The Tower), even if his game doesn’t recall the typical cliché of the towering striker (at the Sudamericano, none of his goals was a header) and he prefers to use his body for covering the ball in order to advance the play. Thanks to his flexibility, Campana has his best skills in reactivity and explosiveness. Another defining ability is the aggressiveness: he wins back an average of 2.3 balls per game in the opponent midfield, and his main zone of influence is that ‘no man’s land’ between the midfield and the area, that is usually covered by the centre forward and that he often uses to win the ball, anticipate the ball-carrier and restart the play.

Campana hadn’t the typical player development: he’s not from a context where having success in football could become a tool for social emancipation. In many ways, he’s a privileged, as his father, Pablo Campana Sáenz, a former tennis player with participation at the Olympics and the Davis Cup, is now Ecuador Minister for Foreign Trade. At the same time, he inherited the commitment and perseverance to improving his physical condition from his father. And he’s one of the very few who had the chance to score his first professional goal (one month ago, with Ecuadorian Barcelona) in a stadium named after his maternal grandfather.

His scoring ability on the Sudamericano (and also in the youth teams, which he scored 35 goals in 35 games with the Sub-16 and Sub-18; in the first team, he scored 2 goals in just about 200 minutes played) gives us the picture of a very efficient capitalizer (he shots an average of 1.80 times per game with a 60% conversion rate) that is true but now complete: Campana is, most of all, a very technical player, with an impressive dribbling ability in narrow spaces, and a superb creativity. He enjoys unpredictable solutions like dribbling with the heel or controlling the ball with complicated first-touches. Sometimes he’s a little bit self-centred, he likes to show his technical skills, even becoming arrogant at times: his plays, though, are always aesthetically pleasant and somehow iconic, like his bicycle kick against Venezuela or the play against Perù above.

Last March, he played his first game with the Tri first team and Felipe Caicedo seems certain about who will inherit his shirt in the Ecuadorian attack in the next years after this participation at the U-20 World Cup.

 

Gedson Fernandes, Portugal (Benfica)
by Marco D’Ottavi

If you watch some videos of Gedson Fernandes outside the pitch, like this one where he challenges the other Benfica wonderkid Joao Felix to a quiz, you can realize he’s only 20. Because otherwise, he’s the typical “more mature of his age” kind of player. Arrived in Portugal when he was very young from the Sao Tome e Principe island, after a sudden rise in Benfica academy, Fernandes has become a regular in this season’s first team, collecting a total of 46 caps in his first year, with 16 games between Champions and Europa League. Rare regard for such a young player in an important club like Benfica, that already allowed him to debut with Portugal first team, rising up his figure of talented predestined.

Gedson is a midfielder that can do lots of things, 10 years ago we would have probably labelled him as a “box-to-box” midfielder, that today is the perfect outline of a dynamic inside forward in a 3-man midfield. Thanks to an imposing physique and very long legs, Fernandes is capable of being incisive in both phases of the game in an unconventional way: when he has to defend, he manages to win the ball back from the opponent even in difficult situations, using the legs like a long compass (he makes 3.4 tackles per 90/mins and wins 70% of them); on the other hand, in the offensive phase he uses his wide stride to generate plays thanks to a sometimes inaccurate, and yet potentially lethal, dibbling (he tries 2.5 dribbles per 90/mins, with a 50% success rate), that allows him to break the lines by carrying the ball with apparent ease, also thanks to an uncommon mobility for a 1.84m tall player.

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Posted by Sport Lisboa e Benfica on Saturday, December 29, 2018

Some examples of Gedson Fernandes’ dribbles, that sometimes aren’t so elegant but they’re always vertical.

He’s a very propositional player without the ball, showing a natural instinct for the offensive foray, probably for his past as a forward, that often brings him near the opponent box, so much that Bruno Lange played him as a trequartista as well. He has to improve his scoring ability: this season he has scored 3 goals (surprisingly, none in the domestic league but 2 in the Champions League) thanks 1.5 shots every 90 minutes. He seems more confident with the ball at his feet and open spaces in front of him, rather than when he has to play with his teammates, always preferring the easiest choice.

At just 20, Gedson Fernandes is one of the most fascinating players in this U-20 World Cup, playing in one of the favourite teams. This summer, then, he will have to choose his path: several Premier League clubs seem willing to sign him and he must choose whether he wants to try a more competitive league right away or consolidate his game at Benfica, one of the best places for a talented player to grow.

 

Boubacar Kamara, France (Olympique de Marseille)
by Dario Saltari

Age isn’t always the best parameter to judge the overall quality of a player, but it’s incredible how precocious Boubacar Kamara’s talent is. Marseille centre-back is basically born in 2000 (on November 23, 1999, to be precise) and he’s already at his third season as one of the first team’s regular, having had his debut almost two and a half years ago.

When he wasn’t even 19, Kamara became a starter in one of the most important clubs in France, and he did it in a very difficult season ended with the 5th place, Frank Passi’s dismissal and 52 conceded goals (only six Ligue 1 teams conceded more). The question is: was he remarkable in standing out regardless of the situation, or Marseille defensive flaws weighted on his limits as well? Being football a team sport, it’s impossible to give this question a proper answer. But certainly, Kamara has never played like a teenage defender.

First of all, Kamara has a very technical interpretation of his position: he prefers understanding the right moves to do, rather than using his body, and a precise tackle rather than physical dominance. His game, though, is not only a display of ripeness, but also a necessity: Kamara is neither quick or particularly strong from a physical standpoint, and his ability in anticipating the game becomes a way to reduce the gap the often separates him from opponent strikers.

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In one of the last league games against Toulouse, Kamara stops in the midfield, waiting for his direct opponent to make the first move without losing sight of the ball.

For the same reasons, Kamara’s game is also very risky: the gap that divides a brilliant tackle from a failed one is very thin, especially at an age when experience can’t help you decide whether it’s preferable to attempt a tackle or wiser to wait and defend the zone. When he accomplishes things, though, Kamara is undoubtedly an exciting defender to watch, for the cleanness and timing of his tackles and the elegance that identifies his game without the ball.

The most impressive aspect of his game, though, is the build-up game from the behind. Kamara has a golden right foot, which he’s capable of finding his teammates with, both thanks to long passes and super-precise vertical balls that cut the opponent lines. OM centre-back isn’t afraid of carrying the ball when he’s the last man, and this can be some sort of modern antidote to the sophisticated pressing mechanisms that rule modern football. Essentially, Kamara wants to be a modern centre-back, that enjoys a proactive team the defends way ahead of its goal line.

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Kamara’s playmaking skills.

And in fact, Kamara is shining at the U-20 World Cup, where he’s played as right centre-back next to Zagadou, against teams that, with their technical inferiority, allow him to move forward until the midfield, basically acting as a playmaker (a position that, according to Rudi Garcia, he could actually play in). Unless he will repeat Varane’s career – a defender that he resembles – Kamara will have to work on his limits in order to be able to survive in the faster and more vertical football that is now ruling Europe.

According to the French press, some issues with Kamara’s new contract at OM could cause a transfer to a big club this summer after the World Cup, and the names are the like of Chelsea and AC Milan. As he’s used to rushing things, he hasn’t so much time to lose.

 

Erling Haaland, Norway (Red Bull Salzburg)
by Emanuele Atturo

If precocity can be a measure to establish the hype surrounding a wonderkid, consider that at 15 Erling Haaland has already played 16 games for Bryne, a small club one the Norwegian coast where he grew up. At 17, he signed for Molde, the club where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer grew, and he scored 14 goals in 39 games in just about a year. Haaland’s sudden rise in football continued with his transfer to Red Bull Salzburg in the summer of 2018, in a moment when he was also approached by Manchester United and Juventus. Haaland preferred an intermediate step to avoid the path of another Norwegian wonderkid, Odegaard, that is struggling to find his place in football after signing for Real Madrid.

Erling is Alf Inge’s son, the same Haaland that played in Manchester City, known for his famous tackle on Roy Keane. As every other enfant prodige, Haaland has been favoured by an imposing body. His coach at Molde said that he reminds him of Romelu Lukaku. For his style of running, touching the ball and seeking space to shot, Haaland fits in the prototype of the power forward, capable of physically dominating the opponent defences.

When he carries the ball with the left foot, he loves to kick it forward a few meters, losing control a bit, and then getting it back with an impossible speed for a striker that strong. Even without a gentle ball control, Haaland is quick with his feet and dangerous in narrow spaces, often finding creative solutions to pass opponents by only using his left foot.

Right now, the lacking usage of the right foot is the most obvious flaw in his technical repertory, especially for his position on the pitch. What’s more, even with his powerful physique, Haaland is not so good at playing with the goal behind him. He doesn’t like to play with his teammates, but he prefers to manipulate the defensive line to seek the deep run, often bolting on the left to attack deep the space between the full-back and the centre-back. These characteristics make him potentially fit to play both as a lone striker – in a team that uses it to move forward on the pitch – and in a two-man attack line.

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Haaland typically getting away from his man. He wins the space from the defender by bolting on the left and then attacking the goal with a central run.

The verticality of his movements, with and without the ball, his tendency at playing at the highest intensity possible, and the competition which he presses the opponent build-up with, probably are the reasons that convinced Red Bull Salzburg in investing on him. The Austrian club is one of the most interesting tactical realities in the last years, with a well-defined and clear gameplay identity. Haaland will find one of the most interesting systems to take advantage of the qualities that makes him one of the most original and interesting players of the future and, of course, of this 2019 World Cup.

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