With the 2020-21 season coming to a close, the international transfer window will once again open, and many clubs will be looking to invest in young talent from other leagues. In our transfer target series, we identify players who could well be on the radar of top European clubs this summer. Jamie Kemp selects five players who’ve impressed in La Liga this season.
In the era of intricate build-up play, the left-footed centre back has become one of football’s most prized commodities. Managers go starry-eyed at the thought of completing their defensive duo with a natural left footer, one equipped to carve the all-important passing angles that will steer their team towards distribution mastery.
While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was caught on camera telling Nathan Aké that Manchester United “needed a left-footed centre back” after a Premier League game in 2020, the man across town in charge of Manchester City – who would later be the one to sign Aké – is equally enamoured by such types.
“He has something we don’t have in the squad because of his left foot,” Pep Guardiola once said of Aymeric Laporte. “Many actions in the build-up, we don’t have it. Not because the others are not good, but because of the left foot.”
In the arms race for well-rounded centre backs, the figure of Pau Torres now looms large. Since returning to parent club Villarreal after a second division loan in the summer of 2019, Torres has become one of La Liga’s most competent defenders and a fixture in the back line of a team with European aspirations. National team appearances for Spain have followed. And as you may have figured by now, he’s blessed with a preference for his left foot too.
At 6-foot-4, Torres has the look of what would traditionally be thought of as a commanding centre back. Tall, strong and agile enough to cope with the rapid movements of today’s game, the Villarreal native ticks a considerable number of boxes for the prying eyes around Europe. If there’s one area of his game that sets him apart, however, it’s his productivity with the ball at his feet.
Using our carries metric, which captures all instances of a player travelling five or more metres with the ball, Torres stands tall in many ways among his peers.
The 24-year-old is averaging 13.5 progressives carries per 90 in La Liga this season. Compared against all central defenders with at least 1,000 minutes played, only Barcelona’s Clement Lenglet has averaged more (14.2). Torres also ranks in the top three eligible centre backs for passes made following ball carries (16.8), behind only the Barcelona duo of Lenglet and Gerard Piqué.
This proficiency on the ball also has profound effects on his team in a collective sense. Torres has been a key contributor to Villarreal’s possession play this season, recording eight involvements in build-up sequences that ended in goals. Only three centre backs have been involved in more in La Liga this season, while all three belong to the top three teams in the title race.
In other words, Torres is a player bigger clubs with more of the ball may feel comfortable bringing into a possession-based system. He’s clearly used to having the ball at his feet – the left one in particular.
For those who can only dream of joining the Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappé sweepstakes – which, in truth, accounts for all but a handful of European clubs – Real Sociedad’s Alexander Isak has ensured his name belongs firmly among the next-best things when it comes to promising young forwards.
Interestingly, the 21-year-old was signed by Borussia Dortmund on a five-year deal back in 2017. If things had gone differently, Isak could have been the reason Haaland never crossed paths with the Bundesliga side. But despite the golden reputation which prized him from Swedish club AIK, and included the youngster turning down Real Madrid at the same time, Isak’s time at Dortmund never got off the ground. By 2019 a contract of similar length had been agreed with Real Sociedad, where he would, later than planned, find what he had originally been looking for.
Although there have been reports of Dortmund retaining a keen eye on Isak given talk of a buy-back clause, the striker has already insisted that the German side are part of his past. He might be tempted elsewhere, though. Given the context of his age and current output, Isak is a unique candidate for those who are committed in the market.
With 14 goals in La Liga this season, Isak is the highest scoring player outside of the top four teams in the division. Despite only becoming a fully-fledged starting option this term, the Swede is one of only seven players with 20+ non-penalty goals in the competition since the start of last season. Although bettered by the usual suspects like Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema and Luis Suárez, Isak owns the caveat of being comfortably the youngest of the group.
The 21-year-old is a long, rangy striker who is capable of tearing behind defensive lines with his turn of speed. But what’s most impressive is his variety of tools for finding scoring opportunities, whether it be in considered build-up play or on stinging counter attacks. The sum of his threat this season is highlighted by his 0.58 xG per 90, which compared to all strikers 21 or under across the top five European leagues (min. 1,000 minutes played), ranks second only to the untouchable figure of Haaland.
Isak still has plenty of growth ahead in terms of becoming a complete striker, but such is the nature of the market. Potential suitors will be vigilant of securing him before his price has further grounds to be increased.
Sevilla only signed Jules Koundé in the summer of 2019, but they have already come close to losing him. When Manchester City were in hot pursuit of a centre back to settle their nerves last year – a quest which would eventually lead them to Rúben Dias – City made contact with the Frenchman. As the player himself later revealed, Koundé spoke directly with Pep Guardiola about what a move to Manchester would entail.
Of course, that switch never came to fruition. Sevilla were unwilling to deal early on what they believe to be a future star, and with Champions League football available to Koundé in Spain, leaving for the Premier League after just one season at the club did appear a little hasty. Without saying it directly, there’s a sense that all involved know it’s only a matter of time before Koundé finds his way to the top of the game.
In a competition where the hierarchy of defenders is held up by Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué – two larger than life figures within Spanish football – Koundé’s profile has little to compete with the two, but his performances have been as good as any defender in La Liga over the last two seasons. At just 22 years old, the Frenchman is already one of Europe’s most qualified centre backs within an aggressive, high defensive line approach.
Against all the odds, Sevilla found themselves firmly in the title race down the home stretch of the season. And for a team who have scored 49 goals in La Liga this season, over 30 fewer than Barcelona, the root of their success has come from their defensive strength.
With Koundé at the heart of Sevilla’s defence, Julen Lopetegui’s side have averaged just 0.92 xG against per game this term – the best of any team in La Liga. After last season in which he and defensive partner Diego Carlos received similar plaudits, Koundé is now clearly the dominant force within a high-achieving defensive unit.
In the modern game where centre back responsibilities seem to be ever increasing in their range, the Sevilla man is more than willing to meet the future. Koundé is comfortable playing far from goal, quick enough to run with forwards, competitive in the air and productive in possession. So much so, he can often be seen flying into the final third to join attacks and cause further disruption, as highlighted by his 50 touches in the opposition box in La Liga this term – the most of any centre back.
Sevilla are noted around Europe for their success in recruiting players and selling them on for many times their initial fee. In the form of Jules Koundé, it looks like their sporting director Monchi might have signed a player who is simply too good for them to hold on to.
While Samuel Chukwueze’s goals and assists don’t leap off the page in his short career to date, full-backs certainly don’t welcome facing up to the Nigerian. The 21-year-old is an electric wide player, who thrives on tearing holes in the defensive shape of the opposition through his combination of speed and ball-carrying ability. At best, the experience of defending him can be described as uncomfortable.
Chukwueze first appeared in Villarreal’s first team back in 2018-19 and has remained a constant presence ever since, featuring 91 times for the club in La Liga. Although his runs in the starting XI have tended to be quite sporadic over this period – which is perhaps to be expected of a player who is still only 21 – Chukwueze has become more integral in Unai Emery’s plans the further Villarreal have gone towards the business end of the season. The former Arsenal boss knows that his talent can be determining when they need it most.
“Samu was very good and he’s taken another step,” Emery said after his performance against Arsenal in the Europa League semi-final first leg. “When we perform to this level in terms of concentration as a team, the individual contributions have more shine, and Samu has shined a lot.”
In addition to starring in the Europa League, where no midfielder has more assists than his four this season, Chukwueze has offered constant reminders of his domestic potential. He remains one of the premium dribblers in Spain’s top flight, recording 24 carries leading to either a shot or chance created for a teammate. On a per-90 basis, this ranks him in the top five players to have logged more than 1,000 minutes this term.
Chukwueze is also noted for his long, driving runs with the ball. He has averaged 5.6 progressive carries over 10 metres per 90 in La Liga this season, which also ranks him within the top five among wingers and forwards in the competition (min. 1,000 minutes played).
Although the young winger is still early in his career and with further progression still naturally on the menu, his attributes will provide enough intrigue from around Europe in what he could eventually become. Chukwueze has been a part of one of Spain’s most competent teams in recent seasons, including playing deep into the Europa League this season. However, they aren’t an overly offensive outfit, particularly under the pragmatic Unai Emery. The mystery of what Chukwueze could be in an aggressive attacking team might be enough to tempt such clubs into more than just interest.
Jorge de Frutos
Outside of the electrifying title race in Spain, Jorge de Frutos has been the subject of one of La Liga’s most interesting developments this season. His is the story of an unlikely rise even just to reach the top flight of Spanish football, never mind thrive in such a way for Levante upon reaching it.
The 24-year-old hails from Navares de Enmedio, a town of fewer than 100 people north of Madrid. As recounted in an interview with El País, when the time came for De Frutos to leave home and undergo various trials with teams in the capital as an 18-year-old, he was relying entirely on the skills he had developed in the street. “I ran and ran, but I lacked basic concepts,” he said. “I had never had any technical or tactical formation.”
In some ways, his natural football up-bringing is what makes him the player he is today. Inventive and unshackled, De Frutos found refuge in the lower leagues of Spanish football with Rayo Majadahonda and finally began to put the pieces together. Real Madrid took notice and recruited him to their B team, before an eventual loan spell in the second tier at Rayo Vallecano in January 2020 signalled his eruption.
Since Levante beat a number of teams to the punch, signing him for a reported €5 million last summer, De Frutos has gone about making up for lost time in his later entry to football’s elite.
With four non-penalty goals and seven assists in his debut season in La Liga, De Frutos leads all Levante players on a per-90 basis for direct goal involvement (0.54). The summer signing has provided a real thrust for his side as a right winger, which has translated as a much-needed source of creation given the injury troubles of star man José Campaña.
De Frutos’ seven league assists is more than twice as many as any other Levante player this season, while they’re also unique in how he’s achieved them. Six of the winger’s seven assists have been produced following ball carries, which is the joint-most of any player in La Liga this season, along with Iago Aspas.
This is typical of De Frutos’ unorthodox football education, where he learned the game in its purest form as a player outside of disciplined training. The 24-year-old is naturally inventive and regularly finds a variety of ways to get the best of his defender. And having shown that he can translate his creativity into goals and assists in his debut top-flight season, the Levante man will surely have piqued some interest even beyond his country.