Teenage Kicks: Six EFL Stars of the Future
Our EFL expert Gab Sutton has picked out six young stars from across the Football League to keep an eye on in 2022-23. All six seem destined for a bright future, but who will make it to the top?
Preston North End
Fernández has been praised for his decision-making on the field at Preston North End so far this season, but he’s had to make big calls off it in his career so far too.
Initially part of Real Madrid’s famed academy, the teenager left Los Blancos in 2020 for Manchester United and he’s made huge strides since swapping white for red.
Fernández caught fire for United’s U18s and was almost immediately promoted to the U23s at just 17, so while he’s still a youngster, two years on, he’s more than ready for a shot at men’s football. He was a regular for the Red Devils in the Premier League 2, making 20 appearances and registering five assists and a goal in 2020-21 from left-back, before enjoying a similarly impressive 2021-22 campaign.
In different circumstances, Fernández may have been a contender to be part of Erik ten Hag’s first team squad as competition for Luke Shaw, but Tyrell Malacia signed from Feyenoord and has proved an instant hit. As such, there hasn’t been the space for Fernandez to make his mark at Old Trafford, hence a loan move being best for his development.
Surprisingly, Fernández has only managed one league start at Deepdale due to the form of Robbie Brady. Nonetheless it’s expected that the Spaniard will have his moment.
In brief, the former Real Sociedad youngster has shown the kind of Premier League class required to break through at United, looking a strong runner with the ball and an excellent creator. The sample size of his minutes is small, but it’s revealing the impact he has on his team’s creativity.
For the 235 minutes in which Fernández has been on the pitch, in all competitions, Ryan Lowe’s side have scored four goals: a goal every 59 minutes or 1.53 goals per game. In 755 minutes in which he hasn’t been on the field, they have scored just twice: a goal every 378 minutes, or 0.24 GPG. In other words, North End’s attacking output improves by 537.5% when he is on the field – it would be flippant to suggest that was all down to Fernandez, but the data is what it is.
There may be alternative factors at play – for instance, three of the goals came in the first half of the EFL Cup victory at beleaguered Huddersfield, which may have had a lot to do with the issues for their opponents at that time, but Fernandez laid on two assists in that game for Ali McCann.
He could easily have created far more goals, too, if the Lilywhites had a top Championship centre-forward: Troy Parrott, Emil Riis and Ched Evans have all had chances, but been unable to make them count with none of them finding the net in the league.
Of Preston players to have played at least 180 minutes of Championship action this season (two complete matches), Fernandez is in the top four for both dribbles attempted per 90 (1.9) and take-ons per 90 (2.4), both double the average of his positional rival, Robbie Brady (0.9 dribbles and 1.2 take-ons per 90).
The 19-year-old also averages 2.8 chances created from open play per 90, also the second-most for PNE behind Ben Woodburn (3.5/90). The obvious caveat here is his lack of playing time and limited minutes to make any meaningful analysis on the data, but the signs are positive.
Unlike Brady, who is more likely to swing in a quality ball from deep, Fernández’s physical attributes allow him to hit dangerous areas, and as such the standard of his deliveries don’t have to be as precise because it’s often just a case of cutting the ball back across goal.
While the Man Utd loanee has stiff competition, he should come to prominence as the season progresses, and might just catch ten Hag’s eye in the process.
After concluding 2021-22 with 14 wins from 22 league games, Bolton Wanderers didn’t need wholesale changes this summer.
The Trotters released just 10 players, many from their B Team or those who had a fringe role in the squad, so incoming business was all about quality over quantity.
The central question was whether Ian Evatt could hold onto Fulham loanee Marlon Fossey, who’s January arrival had proved pivotal to the turnaround.
Fossey’s pace, agility and quality had facilitated Evatt’s wing-back system in a way nobody else had for much of his tenure up to that point, bearing in mind that the best form in the 2020-21 League Two promotion season had come with 4-2-3-1.
Wanderers hoped for another loan for the budding USMNT star, but it didn’t come to fruition: there were concerns, too, around whether Conor Bradley – four years’ Fossey’s junior – could fill such big shoes.
Bradley has proved a more than capable replacement for Fossey. Some might argue, even an upgrade. Showing the level of energy that had earned him eight caps for Northern Ireland by 18, the youngster has been an instant hit in Lancashire – and regularly stood out to opposing fans.
Bradley averages 1.8 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per game, making him a huge component of statistically the strongest pressing side in League One, with Bolton averaging 9.1 PPDA.
In the first three games, Bradley’s remit had been to protect the right-sided centre-back, Gethin Jones, while midfielders like Kieran Lee, Kyle Dempsey and/or Aaron Morley took on more creative licence.
Since then – in his six league appearances – Bradley has the freedom to use his energy and tenacity not just in one-on-one scenarios and defensive duels, but also contributing to the press that has been such a central facet of Wanderers’ play.
In fact, Evatt started three midfielders in each of these six games, and in 12 cases out of 18, Bradley’s average touch position was higher, as opposed to three in nine in the previous league encounters.
The fact Bradley has flourished in this advanced, high-pressing wing-back role bodes well for his time at Liverpool.
Although the Reds have never deployed wing-backs under Jurgen Klopp, they do allow their full-backs to attack at will and be aggressive and instinctive when it comes to winning the ball back, while the three midfielders are prepared to cover behind. In fact, Klopp’s side have a PPDA of 8.9, very similar to Bolton, so stylistically, Bradley could slot in nicely, despite the formational adjustment to 4-3-3 from 3-4-1-2.
Whether Bradley has the quality to be the understudy to Trent Alexander-Arnold long-term, or even replace the Champions League winner at some stage, is a huge question. Liverpool signed another 19-year-old, Calvin Ramsey, from Aberdeen in the summer, which suggests they want to keep their options open in that department.
However, Bradley did train with the first team in pre-season, so Klopp is still open to the possibility of integrating him into the squad and if the youngster can keep up this form in League One, then have another convincing loan in the Championship, then there is that outside chance he can come into contention.
Due to logistical issues with the European market in recent years, some clubs are starting to tap into South America. Norwich City, for instance, have a recruitment office in Brazil, making audacious summer signings in Marcelino Nunez and Gabriel Sara.
Watford, meanwhile, agreed a deal for Yaser Asprilla in 2021 with Columbian side Envigado, before completing the move in January 2022 then loaning the attacking midfielder back out to his former employers.
Having already been capped by the full Colombian national team, Asprilla has come into Rob Edwards’ plans this season and, in a Hornets side that has various issues when it comes to progressing the ball into the final third, the 18-year-old has managed to stand out.
The Bajo Baudó-born creator has shown the ability to receive the ball with his back to goal, swivel an opponent and play an inch-perfect through ball that splits a defence wide open. To emphasize how busy Asprilla is on the pitch and how much ground he can cover for Watford, his seasonal pass map shows how he has covered nearly every area on the pitch so far in 2022-23:
Most players would need to take a lot of time to find the accuracy Asprilla is capable of, but the teenager consistently combines speed and efficiency with his decision making, so rear guards have no let-up.
It’s perhaps puzzling, therefore, that Asprilla is yet to register an assist and ranks low in the Championship’s creative data. Had Hornets’ striker Rey Manaj scored following this pass, or even this exceptional pass, then the story would have been a lot different.
The explanation for this is that the above metrics judge the final pass in an attacking move, which leads to a goalscoring opportunity. In Asprilla’s case, he receives the ball in awkward scenarios and conjures up something out of nothing, so the player receiving his through ball is often still in a less favourable shooting position as opposed to having a clear-cut chance.
The teenager played a key role in Watford’s goal away at Birmingham City last month, while his exceptional pass to Hassane Kamara led to Keinan Davis’ first goal in a Watford shirt in their last match against Sunderland.
Add incisive final third play to Asprilla’s committed work against the ball and Watford have a huge asset on their hands: somebody who could soon become a specialist in the pre-assist.
Jesurun Rak-Sakyi can go right to the very top.
The 19-year-old bagged an astonishing 18 goals for Crystal Palace U23s last season, making him the top scorer in the Premier League 2 – despite not being a centre-forward.
Rak-Sakyi’s prodigious talents are now on show in League One, where he already has two goals and two assists: four goal contributions in 485 minutes – an involvement every 121 minutes.
A small sample size? Of course, but with a continuation of that rate, he’d register 17 goals and 17 assists if he played every minute of each league game, which would have made him the eighth-top goalscorer and joint-top assister in League One in 2021-22.
In addition to this, the England U20s star is currently underperforming his xG: he averages 0.44 non-penalty xG per 90, but has actually scored 0.37 per 90.
The diminutive winger’s game is not just about the big numbers, either, because he’s so dangerous in general play, possessing several tools in his arsenal. Rak-Sakyi has enough natural pace to beat an opponent one-on-one, to which Wycombe’s Joe Jacobson and other fallen full-backs may grimly testify. Unlike other star wide men, however, who’s threat can be massively reduced if they come up against a strong, quick full-back, JRS has the tools to adapt to the needs of different game states.
Being a left-footer who operates predominantly on the right, the Palace loanee is more than happy to drift infield when the outside option isn’t on, with his quick feet, agility, and unpredictability.
Rak-Sakyi has been Charlton’s star attacking outlet in all departments: he completes on average 16 ball-carries per 90 minutes.
JRS has an eye for a through ball, something the Addicks haven’t yet seen the full effect of, largely because when he has drifted into the hole, he’s been operating behind a target man such as Jayden Stockley or Miles Leaburn, as opposed to a quick, nippy type.
This is an aspect of life at Charlton that Rak-Sakyi hasn’t had all his own way, likewise the absence of a strong understanding forged with his corresponding right-back. Charles Clayden and Charlie Kirk have in spells linked up nicely on the left flank, largely because the latter relies on combination play.
Clare has tended to stay back and simply trust Rak-Sakyi to work his magic individualistically, but the teenager’s game could go up another gear if he had another supporting option on the outside.
In the right systems, with the right coaching and in the right environment, Rak-Sakyi can fulfil his potential – which has no obvious ceiling: he can go on to play at the very top level.
If we are holding JRS to extremely high standards, he must improve on tracking the opposing full-back or reacting more promptly to losing possession.
The perceived absence of these instincts don’t undermine his ability in League One, because his ability massively outweighs that, but if he wants to make it to the very top as he can do, notching up the aggression at certain moments would help.
It’s perhaps the very fact that Rak-Sakyi still has other gears to go up, having already made waves in League One at 19, that is the most exciting thing about him.
The striker position was an area that concerned Portsmouth fans for much of the summer.
Two weeks before the opening day trip to Sheffield Wednesday, the only natural centre-forward Pompey possessed was 18-year-old Dan Gifford, who had no senior experience and would eventually be loaned out to National League South side Weymouth.
Danny Cowley came under criticism from one or two mainstream social media outlets for being so patient with his transfer business, as fans grew concerned over the dearth of options in key areas.
Cowley’s patience, however, has since been vindicated, because on early evidence he’s got his recruitment spot on: Joe Pigott and Colby Bishop have proved to be exactly what the Portsea Islanders needed, while Dane Scarlett has thrived on loan from Tottenham.
The unique nature of the Premier League season meant that, more than usual, clubs wanted to use pre-season to get a close examination of their top talents, because they want to know they can be called upon when senior players may be jaded after the World Cup.
As such, the best loan deals across the EFL have become available late in the window, and for many clubs it has been a balancing act of covering themselves sufficiently, whilst leaving enough room in the squad and wage bill to take advantage of deals that come up.
Scarlett may only have joined up three days before the trip to Hillsborough, but he’s been an inspired acquisition, as his role in England’s U19s European Championship success suggests.
The teenager possesses aspects of the strength of a target man, as well as an incredible leap that makes him effective in the air even at 5-foot-9, whilst not being intimidated by defenders.
As well as the physical aspect, Scarlett is intelligent, confident on either foot, he likes to run in behind and has been capable of some very clever finishes.
Technically, the youngster is outperforming his non-penalty xG of 0.28 per 90 significantly, by averaging 0.54 goals per 90.
This could be interpreted as Scarlett running hot, but given that he’s scored 12 goals in 14 appearances for England U19s, it’s likely that he simply has a natural gift for maximizing goalscoring opportunities.
When a centre-forward’s goalscoring output conflicts with his data, the best indication as to the sustainability of his form is previous records, and that suggests Scarlett is simply a highly clinical striker.
Having trained with the likes of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, Scarlett has a big future which may lie at Spurs, and if he can continue his exceptional League One form, then follow that up in the Championship, there could be a window for him to catch Antonio Conte’s eye.
The set of qualities Tyler Morton can offer are obvious. The best role for them to shine through? Less so.
Morton is a combative, all-action midfielder who loves a challenge, but is also capable of linking the play and is sufficiently technical to take set pieces.
Rovers boss Jon Dahl Tomasson has used the Liverpool loanee as a number six, because giving him a more advanced midfield role might compromise the contributions of Lewis Travis or John Buckley. Jurgen Klopp, however, reportedly sees Morton as a number eight, so his destructive capabilities can be deployed as part of a pressing system as opposed to breaking up opposition play.
The other factor is that Morton is a heavy risk-taker in possession: of players to have played at least 300 minutes in the Championship for Blackburn Rovers this season, he has averaged the second most successful passes per 90 (44) and has the third highest xA/90 (0.11) – but this high risk/high reward style means he has also lost possession an average of 18 times per 90 minutes, which is only lower than Callum Brittain (21 per 90) at the club in 2022-23.
There’s likely to be an appetite at Anfield for risk-taking in-possession from a number eight, for whom the creative rewards can be greater, than from a number six, who would likely waste possession too often by attempting longer passes. This is where Morton could eventually force his way into Klopp’s squad at Liverpool, should he enjoy a successful 2022-23 season at Ewood Park with Blackburn a league below.
Morton will need to find a touch more consistency if he is to become a serious proposition for the Reds, and an ascent to first team contention is unlikely to be as quick as it was for Harvey Elliott, who also enjoyed a loan spell at Rovers in 2020-21.
However, Morton’s awareness and ability to find space makes him a player to watch, and certain aspects of his game will improve with experience and time.
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