Who are the EFL Players to Watch in 2022-23? We’ve got our Football League expert Gab Sutton to give his eight players to keep an eye on this season across the Championship, League One and League Two.
Of the 25 players called up to Gareth Southgate’s most recent England squad for the UEFA Nations League games against Hungary, Germany and Italy, 20 have at some point played in the EFL.
The three leagues below the Premier League are the perfect breeding ground for this country’s top talent, and most of tomorrows top stars will be doing battle in the Championship, League One or League Two when we kick-off on 29 July.
It’s not just English players thriving, though, we pick out potential future stars of Brazil, Finland and Wales as we look at who could go to the next level this season.
After an impressive breakthrough season in 2021-22, Alex Scott is hoping for even bigger things this year as he looks to further establish himself among the country’s top talent.
After starring for Nigel Pearson’s Bristol City side last season, Scott launched himself onto the international stage by helping England win the Under-19s European Championship this summer.
The 18-year-old has played 12 games for that age group, coming off the bench to equalize in the semi-final victory over Italy before impressing in the final triumph over Israel.
Pearson saw Scott’s potential long before that success, starting him 35 times last season, with the youngster scoring four goals. In fact, only Man City’s Callum Doyle (3,109) – on loan at League One play-off winners Sunderland – played more league minutes across the top four tiers in England than Scott (2,762) while aged 18 or younger.
Across his 2,762 minutes on pitch in the Championship last season, Scott had to make do with a utility man role – moving between right full-back (37% of minutes) and various roles in central midfield. But that versatility is one reason for his high number of minutes on pitch last season, despite his young age.
Although Scott has admitted himself that learning new positions was very difficult initially, the staff and players helped him adjust and the experience has helped him adapt to different situations in-game.
While the teenager has played as sitting midfielder at times for Bristol City, and as a number 10 for England, he sees himself at his best as a box-to-box number eight.
In fact, Scott has compared his ball-carrying ability, stylistically speaking, to Jack Grealish. There’s still some way to go to live up to that, however. Last season in the Championship, Scott averaged a progressive carry distance of 31.2m per 90 – that was well below leading Championship full-backs in that metric, Antonee Robinson (144m/90), Djed Spence (144m/90) and Festy Ebosele (137m/90). Much of that could be down to his constantly changing role in the Bristol City side.
When Grealish operated centrally, he was not considered a number 10 even when he played an attacking midfield role, because that didn’t give him the licence to drop deep and get on the ball, nor the space to dribble.
Similarly, Scott wants to be high enough up the pitch to affect the game in dangerous areas, but also where he can still contribute to other aspects of the game with his energy, creativity and dribbling ability.
Plus, while other players of his age are stockpiled at English football’s elite clubs, Scott committed himself to a four-year contract at Bristol City, highlighting both what the club think of the player and his own desire to prove himself in the Championship.
It’ll take a mammoth offer to take Scott from Ashton Gate, but it may not be too long before Premier League clubs come calling.
Arguably one thing that held Middlesbrough back from an even firmer push for promotion last season, in a seventh-placed finish, was the dearth of attacking threat on the left.
While Isaiah Jones had an unexpectedly stellar campaign at right wing-back, options on the left were often limited to Neil Taylor and Marc Bola. Bola offered a touch more athleticism than Taylor, but neither offered an ounce of explosivity, which was limiting for Chris Wilder’s side.
If it’s obvious which side of the pitch provides the bigger threat, it becomes easier for opponents to nullify the team as a collective by giving more attention to the danger area and attempting to funnel the ball towards the weaker spots.
That, though, is not an option for Middlesbrough’s opponents this time around, now Ryan Giles has signed.
The Wolverhampton Wanderers academy graduate might only be 22, but he’s already played 115 senior career games over three seasons across numerous loan spells.
Giles’ EFL career started with a bang, too – he hit a stunning strike to help Shrewsbury beat Portsmouth 1-0 on the opening day of 2019-20. Despite some lively showings for the Shrews, he was playing under a conservative manager in Sam Ricketts, who felt Giles to be too cavalier for the wing-back role.
After a 3-0 defeat to Fleetwood in October that season, in which Salop got exposed on the flanks, Ricketts moved toward Scott Golbourne for greater defensive security. That meant Giles either wasn’t playing or operating as part of a front-three, which didn’t suit his game: staying wide, taking people on, putting pin-point deliveries into the box and unleashing the odd effort at goal from range.
Giles then had some success in the Championship, though, helping Coventry City stabilize at the level in 2020-21 before becoming an assist king at Cardiff City in 2021-22.
He was one of only 12 players to reach double figures for assists (10) last season in the second tier, while no player to play at least 1,000 minutes of Championship action in 2021-22 could surpass his expected assist per 90 average of 0.30.
He was also a major threat from ball carries, with involvement in 27 chances (12 shots himself, 15 chances created) from left wing-back – only three full-backs/wing-backs were involved in more, but each of those played at least 800 minutes more than Giles.
The 22-year-old hopes his stint at Middlesbrough will go in a similar fashion, after managing a hat-trick of assists in a 3-0 friendly win at Morecambe.
If Giles has a stand-out campaign, expect him to be playing in the Premier League next season – whether that’s for Middlesbrough or Wolves.
Norwich have taken a risk this summer. In contrast with 2020, when the Canaries had the capital to shake their squad up post-relegation with 10 new faces, their budget is more limited this time around after approximately £53M had been spent the previous summer.
Despite this, the Norfolk club have still smashed their transfer record to sign Gabriel Sara from São Paulo. Clearly, they desperately wanted the 23-year-old, so highly rated in Brazil.
With an eye for a cheeky backheel or a first-time through ball, Sara is supremely creative and could be among the Championship’s flair stars this year.
Billed as a workhorse and team player, Sara is up for a scrap: that aspect was part of what won Emi Buendia the hearts of natives and could do likewise for the next South American star to hitch up at Carrow Road.
Sara has been raised in a high-tempo football environment in which midfielders have to have big engines, and players don’t have much time to pause for thought: decision-making is rewarded.
The attacking midfielder, therefore, will have no hesitation in promptly releasing Teemu Pukki in behind, something the Fin may relish – he’s not got searing pace, but his movement is very sharp and there’s an opportunity for the two to build a connection. During his most successful two seasons in Brazil (2020 and 2021), he often cut in from the right wing to cause opponents problems.
Across the 2020 and 2021 Brazilian Serie A seasons, Sara scored nine goals and assisted five more in 4,333 minutes of action. His five assists were only bettered at the club by Reinaldo (9), while his 53 open play chances created were the third-most for São Paulo.
One thing to expect from Sara are shots from outside the box. He attempted 61 for São Paulo in those two seasons – 21 more than any team-mate, scoring three of them. Not an amazing return for the volume, but he’ll probably score at least one rocket in the Championship this season for the Canaries.
The big risk for Norwich, especially in context of the reported £11 million paid up front, is the ankle injury Sara picked up in May.
The 5’11” Brazilian did not have a record of injuries at youth level, but he has had a series of similar issues in more recent years and the Canaries have signed him without lots of evidence that he’ll rediscover fitness soon.
To boot, Sara has played just one competitive game since 10March 2022, and it could take him a while to find sharpness.
Sara could be the star of the Championship, but Norwich have hung their budgetary hat on a player who shouldn’t be relied upon to hit the ground running. This one really could go either way.
In 2020-21, Daniel Jebbison became the youngest player to score on their first Premier League start, bagging in April’s 1-0 win at Everton aged 17 years, 309 days.
Not only that, but the teenager also injected life and hope into what was an utterly grim season for the Blades, and his introduction coincided with an improvement in performance and results – they won two of the three games he started, having only won five other games that season.
Some were surprised, therefore, when Jebbison was loaned out to Burton that summer.
It was a decision taken by Slavisa Jokanovic, with the Serb set on constructing a squad at that time which he felt could immediately challenge for Championship promotion, as opposed perhaps to blooding younger assets.
Had Heckingbottom, then Under-23s boss, been manager at that stage, it’s possible the Yorkshireman might have come to a different conclusion.
Heckingbottom knows all about Jebbison, who found the net nine times in 20 appearances for United’s U18s and U23s sides in 2020-21, being a key part of the FA Youth Cup run to the quarter-finals and, in the process, earning games for England at U18s and U19s age groups.
The loan at the Pirelli Stadium has since made the 18-year-old well-equipped for the rigours of the Championship.
Jebbison has had a year to build his upper-body strength and while he can still fill out, as is to be expected at his age, he is arguably better prepared for the second-tier’s demands now than he was 12 months ago. Plus, Jebbison scored seven goals in 20 games for a Brewers side that doesn’t have a huge amount of creativity in open play.
Although the striker will have learnt a thing or two about goalscoring from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, his manager’s tactics were surprisingly conservative with defenders often picked in midfield.
The attacking system, therefore, was essentially about making the most set pieces and long throws, as well as exploiting opposition mistakes.
In a team built to create chances proactively, there is every chance that Jebbison can score a lot more than seven goals, even in a higher division.
The striker only made one start after being recalled from the Brewers in January but came off the bench eight times and was trusted by Heckingbottom to feature in the Play-Off Semi-Final defeat to Nottingham Forest.
Having gained early experience of senior football, Jebbison could be ready to rock the Championship.
“Villa consider Sinisalo one of the best of his age, anywhere in Europe.”
The words of then-Ayr United boss Mark Kerr, after the goalkeeper enjoyed a successful loan spell with the Scottish Championship club in 2020-21, keeping seven clean sheets in 22 games.
The following season, the goalkeeper was nurtured internally, playing six games for the Under-23s in the Premier League 2 and impressing in those games, unlucky perhaps not to have first-team minutes in cup competitions.
He’s been a regular for Finland Under-21s, playing some 11 times for Juha Malinen’s Pikkuhuuhkajat (The Little Eagle-Owls), which hints at an international future.
Adam Henshall, Head of Emerging Talents & Loans at Villa Park, saw enough in Sinisalo’s progression to hand the 20-year-old a three-year contract.
Considering the scale of Villa’s ambition, which took them to signing Phillippe Coutinho from Barcelona this summer as well as a recent Europa League winning centre-back in Diego Carlos, that’s a huge statement of Sinisalo’s potential.
By the end of his deal, Jed Steer is likely to have departed while Robin Olsen will be 35 years old, so there is every chance the Espoo-born stopper can work towards at first being a reserve or cup goalkeeper for Villa, before challenging or replacing Emiliano Martinez.
Before then, though, Sinisalo needs regular game-time entrusted with a number one jersey, as opposed to sitting as a number three and playing more U23s, which at this stage can only do so much for his progress.
Now on loan at Burton Albion, he will be a busy man. Managed by former Chelsea playing legend Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the Brewers are widely tipped to struggle in League One this season after a 17th-place finish last year.
The East Staffordshire outfit will be under pressure in many games, facing clubs with far greater resources and more individual quality, so even if they have a successful campaign they’re likely to be on the back-foot a lot.
It’ll be up to Sinisalo, therefore, to show his strong shot-stopping and inspire some smash-and-grab victories which could be the difference between relegation and survival.
His distribution, in releasing teammates quickly to set up counter-attacks, could also prove crucial as he looks to prove to Villa he has what it takes.
After joining Ipswich Town on loan from Arsenal this summer, Tyreece John-Jules is hoping to build on the excellent reputation he developed at youth level.
The speedy striker has represented England at every age group bar Under-20s, scoring a remarkable nine goals in 11 games for the U18s, establishing himself as a potential star of the future.
John-Jules was described at Arsenal as their most complete academy centre-forward, despite not being as explosive as Folarin Balogun, with the ability to also operate as a shadow striker or on the left, prompting inevitable Thierry Henry comparisons.
A clinical finisher at academy level who was classy on the ball, TJJ broke into the North London club’s Under-23s setup at just 17, scoring 10 goals in 17 appearances under the guidance of Kwame Ampadu.
Since then, though, the path to stardom has not been as clear as hoped. It was difficult for the London-born forward to earn appearances up top in 2020 for Arsenal, even in cup competitions or from the bench, because at that point the Gunners had proven European strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette vying for places.
Mikel Arteta, therefore, loaned John-Jules to Lincoln City, where he earnt praise from then-manager Michael Appleton, who claimed he would one day play for his parent club. Alas, a March injury then curtailed his stint with the Imps, although that would have happened anyway due to lockdown in the same month.
What followed was a loan to Doncaster Rovers which was promising yet frustrating in equal measure. John-Jules was always lively for them, brought good link-up play and plenty of goalscoring opportunities came his way, but the finishing was hit-and-miss.
Three goals in the first six league games was a great start to his time in South Yorkshire, but it preceded another run of six with no goals prior to a January hamstring injury, which meant he couldn’t return until April, from which point he grabbed himself another couple.
Following a loan spell at Blackpool, where he played 600 Championship minutes and attempted just five shots, there was to be more bad luck for TJJ at Sheffield Wednesday last season, though, where he only played one game before injury.
Ipswich, therefore, are hoping they will see the best of his elite talent, as opposed to the striker seeing the physio room.
If John-Jules can stay fit, however, there is reason to think he could fire the Tractor Boys into promotion contention and kick-start his senior career. He will be playing under an excellent coach in Kieran McKenna, with side created a lot of chances in the second half of last season, without always having the ruthless edge to put them away.
John-Jules has established his finishing prowess at youth level, but now needs to apply that to senior football: do that and he might just have lift-off.
Paris Maghoma had no shortage of people to talk to about the possibility of moving to Wimbledon on loan from Brentford.
Matthew Cox, Mads Bech Sorensen, Jaakko Oksanan, Marcus Forss and Aaron Pressley have all played for the B Team as well as the Dons in recent years.
After Pressley recommended the club, Maghoma made the local switch, which re-unites him with another former colleague.
George Marsh played alongside the midfielder for Tottenham at youth level and is now among the squad hoping to deliver Johnnie Jackson’s side an instant return.
If Marsh and Maghoma can rekindle that connection, there is hope that the latter can show the promise that won him international recognition with England.
Maghoma played for the Young Lions at every age group from the Under-15s up to Under-20 but hasn’t quite made the cut for the higher level with others having experienced senior football. If the midfielder can establish himself in the men’s game, there is every chance his career could go from strength to strength.
Experts believe Maghoma’s best position to be as a number six, where he can get on the ball as much as possible and control games: he’s expected to start the season there in the absence of Alex Woodyard.
The Bees loanee is versatile, too, though, and could challenge for a more advanced role once the skipper is back fit. This adaptability though should allow him to contribute in different phases of play, so even when he starts in a deeper role, he’ll still have that capacity to maraud forward and impact things higher up.
The challenge for Maghoma, however, is his lack of physicality in a midfield that does not exactly have loads of it as things are. If he can grow physically and get more used to the rigours of senior football, then an exciting future awaits because the talent is all there: expect big things in Paris.
When Zac Williams made his first home league start for Crewe, he won man-of-the-match in a 2-0 victory over Gillingham. Unfortunately, Williams was too young at 17 to be given alcohol, so one of the media team ran to the corner shop to present him with a packet of crips and a box of Jaffa Cakes.
In some ways, this unusual tale highlights how Williams is making huge strides incredibly quickly. The left-sided, ball-playing defender lit up League One last season with a series of cultured displays.
The Crewe ethos is to be brave on the ball and Williams epitomized this, showing the confidence to draw in the press, then turn his opponent and ping a beautiful diagonal to the other flank.
Williams tended to play at left-back in a back-four, which could be the plan for him under Alex Morris’ guidance this season, but when David Artell favoured the back-three, he operated on the left of the trio.
The latter role allowed the prodigy to make overlapping runs, giving his corresponding wing-back the space to either drift into midfield, or make brave runs into goalscoring areas knowing somebody else would be holding the width.
Of all players to play at least 1,000 league minutes for Crewe in 2021-22, Williams led the club rankings for average ball carry distance (12.9m per carry), average ball carry progress distance (9.3m) and average carry progress per 90 minutes (92m).
Despite Williams’ array of talents, which included a love for the fundamentals of defending, it was an awful season for the Alex collectively. They were relegated with a whimper, amassing a mere 29 points, the lowest tally in League One since Stockport – then in administration – got 25 in 2009-10.
Williams, individually, would have been more than good enough to go to a Premier League club and move into their Development Squad, akin to Jarrad Branthwaite going to Everton from Carlisle two years ago.
Perhaps the Welshman has slipped under the radar, because of how poorly his side have performed: the last golden generation at Crewe reportedly got overlooked in the summer before their 2019-20 promotion season, because the team had finished 12th the previous year.
Conversely, perhaps Williams has had offers but has chosen to sign a new two-year deal this summer because he wants to play regular football and work under a familiar figure in Morris, who coached him at Under-23s level.
Either way, a stellar season in League Two would see Williams attract lots of interest from higher up the pyramid, partly because of his international recognition, having played twice for Wales Under-19s. Future qualifying campaigns hold hope for Y Dreigiau if Williams can live up to his early promise.
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