Who are the players to watch in 2023-24? Let the Analyst 50 be your guide.
On the eve of the 2023-24 season around Europe, it’s time to once again ask: who are we excited about watching this season? As has become customary at this time of year, we’ve got together 50 of the finest brains in Opta’s ranks to select one player from across Europe that they think you should keep an eye on in the upcoming campaign.
These aren’t the best 50 players in Europe, nor are they 50 you’ve never heard of. Although there are lots of young players in this list, the criteria for each writer was to pick someone they are excited about in 2023-24. As you’ll see, there is quite the mix of players.
Read on to see who we’ve selected… oh, and if you want to see how we got on with our predictions a year ago, here’s our 50 to watch ahead of the 2022-23 season.
Click below to skip to the player:
Folarin Balogun ••• António Silva
Bradley Barcola ••• Cole Palmer
Evan Ferguson ••• Facundo Medina
Rasmus Højlund ••• Oihan Sancet
Moussa Diaby ••• Jude Bellingham
Edoardo Bove ••• Ilkay Gündogan
Milos Kerkez ••• Fabiano Parisi
Christian Pulisic ••• Elye Wahi
Ramiz Zerrouki ••• Ludovic Blas
Curtis Jones ••• Lazar Samardzic
Levi Colwill ••• Alejandro Garnacho
James Trafford ••• Álex Baena
Gabri Veiga ••• Andy Diouf
Armand Laurienté ••• Nico Williams
Loïs Openda ••• Václav Cerny
Samuel Iling-Junior ••• Santiago Giménez
Julio Enciso ••• Lee Kang-In
Chiedozie Ogbene ••• Ricardo Pepi
Iliman Ndiaye ••• Jarrad Branthwaite
Jurrien Timber ••• Bart Verbruggen
Tyler Adams ••• Zeki Amdouni
Benjamin Sesko ••• Giovanni Reyna
Dominik Szoboszlai ••• Naby Keïta
Bilal Boutobba ••• Paulo Dybala
Malo Gusto ••• Vitor Carvalho
In what is the most exciting pre-season for Arsenal in a long time, there are still a few questions to be answered in their squad. The conundrum Mikel Arteta faces up front presents what is arguably the biggest of those issues, and the returning Folarin Balogun gives the Arsenal manager a decision to make.
Balogun spent last season on loan in France at Reims. It’s fair to say that when he made that move, few would have expected him to come back ready to challenge for a first-team berth at Arsenal, particularly given Gabriel Jesus had just joined the club. But with 21 Ligue 1 goals – the fourth-most in the division – and a full season of consistent performances for Will Still’s impressive side (3,013 minutes played of a possible 3,420 – 88.1% of the season), he has returned to London a different beast. He certainly now deserves a chance in the Premier League, though it remains to be seen whether that will come in north London or if he has to move on for first-team football in England.
Only Kylian Mbappé (0.84) registered more expected goals per 90 in Ligue 1 last season than Balogun (0.79), who proved a menace both in creating opportunities for transitions and taking advantage of space in his debut season of top-flight football. Only five players had more shots from counter-attacks than him (8), while he ranked in the top 20 for possession wins in the final third despite playing for a mid-table team and ranked fourth for shot-ending carries (32).
The main question around Balogun’s Arsenal future is how much his game suits Arteta’s style of play. He ranked second only to Mbappé (118) for the number of times his involvement in a shot-ending sequence was only taking the shot (108), whereas Jesus is much more of a build-up striker. His tendency to pull out to the left, though, would work well in tandem with the direct running of Arsenal’s left winger, Gabriel Martinell.
It’s highly unlikely that Arteta will keep both Balogun and Eddie Nketiah for next season, and even if he was willing to, Balogun will presumably, after the season he has just had, want to play regular football. Wherever he is in 2023-24, Balogun will be one to keep an eye on.
With all the advanced metrics available in modern football, it’s easy to overlook the basics. And there is arguably no metric more powerful than minutes played. Data is more accessible than ever but there is still priceless information that only a coach or manager can understand from watching them every day in training.
A manager who trusts a player and rewards them with minutes in the starting XI is one of the most telling signs of a player’s quality, and even more so for young players.
So, it would be fair to say that a 19-year-old centre-back playing 30 games in their debut Portuguese Primeira Liga season for Benfica (2695 minutes) should deserve some attention, right?
Over the last five years in the top seven European leagues, the only other players to have started the season aged 18 or younger and played more minutes than António Silva in 2022-23 were Jude Bellingham at Borussia Dortmund in 2021-22 and Matthijs de Ligt at Ajax in 2018-19. Shortly after, those two made big-money moves to Real Madrid and Juventus, respectively. Are any clubs looking for a new young centre-back?
Following an injury crisis for Benfica at the start of 2022-23, Silva made his first-team debut in their third league game of the season. He seized his opportunity and quickly established himself as a starter at right centre-back, playing 94% of Benfica’s minutes for the rest of the season on the way to their first Portuguese league title in four years.
This recognition extended to appearances in the Champions League and Silva also made his senior international debut for Portugal, including a record-breaking appearance in the World Cup, where he became the youngest player to feature for the nation at the tournament.
The 6-foot-2 defender fits the modern needs of a centre-back, combining his physical stature with composure playing out with both feet. In the Portuguese Primeira Liga last season, only five players attempted more passes than him (1924) and only three players to attempt at least 1,000 passes maintained a higher pass completion rate than him (91.5%). Keep your eyes on António Silva’s career.
No side across the top five European Leagues handed more minutes to players aged under 21 years old in 2022-23 than Lyon (11,153). You can see why, when they are stacked with young talent like Castello Lukeba, Rayan Cherki and Bradley Barcola.
Of that trio, Barcola had the greatest impact towards Lyon’s production of goals. Despite only playing 1,436 minutes – the equivalent of 16 full matches – the Frenchman had a hand in 13 of Lyon’s league goals, thanks to his five goals and eight assists. Those 13 goal involvements were surpassed by just two players while aged under 21 across the top five European leagues in 2022-23; Bayern wonderkid Jamal Musiala and fellow Ligue 1 prodigy Elye Wahi of Montpellier.
With a goal involvement in league competition every 110 minutes on average in 2022-23, his rate surpassed players such as the immensely talented Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (one every 115 minutes) and Bukayo Saka (128 mins), although he did play fewer minutes overall than both of those players.
Three of his assists came in a single game, with a hat-trick of goals created in Lyon’s crazy 5-4 victory over Montpellier in May. With that achievement, he became the youngest player on record in Ligue 1 (since 2006-07) to assist as many as three goals in a single match, at just 20 years and 247 days old. The only other player to get as many as three assists in a single Ligue 1 game in 2022-23 was Neymar, who did it twice in the opening month of the season for PSG.
Across all Ligue 1 players to play at least 1,000 minutes last season, only seven had a higher expected assists per 90 average than the 20 year old (0.27), which is another reason French champions Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly keen on securing his signature ahead of the new campaign. Wherever he is playing, he will be one to watch next season and beyond.
The greatest testament to Cole Palmer’s ability is that Manchester City have no interest in letting him leave the club permanently. It’s still unclear where he’ll be playing next season, whether that be on loan at a Premier League club like Brighton or Burnley, a top club in the Bundesliga, or maybe in Manchester again. Wherever it is, he should finally be afforded the opportunity to showcase why City have treated him more as a Phil Foden than a Romeó Lavia. Even though they can afford to buy almost anyone, they see a future for him at the club.
Palmer is a versatile player who sits perfectly within the grey area of forward and midfielder, comfortable in a multitude of roles but most dangerous from the right. His first start in the Premier League came as a false-nine against Everton during the 2021-22 campaign, where he looked completely at home in a team full of stars, barely misplacing a pass despite playing with a creative outlook.
For the academy side he was used either as a right-sided midfielder or a winger in a 4-3-3; he scored 16 goals and provided 8 assists in his final 16 appearances in PL2 before becoming a full-time member of City’s senior squad, and it’s for that reason that it was surprising to see him used predominantly as a left-winger in 2022-23, a role that seemed to limit his strengths (cutting inside, shooting across goal from distance, playing reverse passes for wingers or full-backs) and highlight his weaknesses (one-footedness and a lack of athleticism).
Though despite playing in a role that didn’t suit him, he still led City for dribbles completed per 90 minutes last season, at a rate of 2.4. Palmer plays with natural confidence and is always willing to take on his full-back.
This summer he starred for England’s victorious under-21 side, providing one goal and three assists across the semi-final and final against Israel and Spain. But it was in England’s final group game against Germany that his technical ability and guile were most evident, with Lee Carsley opting to use him in a deeper midfield role alongside Oliver Skipp.
Palmer displayed a willingness to receive the ball from the central defenders while under pressure from Germany’s energetic midfielders, ultimately misplacing only three of his 47 passes, while injecting impetus into England’s possession with 22 ball carries, trailing only centre-back Charlie Cresswell (27).
With only 12 starts in senior football at the age of 21, Palmer has had to be patient. It’s time for that patience to be rewarded.
Last season was a breakout one for Evan Ferguson.
Aged just 17, he scored and assisted in his first senior start for Brighton against Forest Green in the League Cup, and he never looked back.
That match against Forest Green was his only start under Graham Potter, but he would go on to appear 24 times (14 starts) from December onwards under the management of Roberto De Zerbi.
His next start wouldn’t come until January against Everton, but this time it was in the Premier League. Again, Ferguson scored and assisted. It was a start he had earned after a goalscoring substitute appearance against Arsenal, who were at the time Premier League leaders.
All told, Ferguson scored 10 times in 25 Brighton appearances in 2022-23 at a rate of 135 minutes per goal. Among players to score 10+ non-penalty goals for Premier League clubs in all competitions last season, only Erling Haaland and Roberto Firmino could better that rate. A reminder Ferguson started the campaign as a 17-year-old.
In his 15 starts for Brighton last term, he scored eight goals and assisted three more – including five goals in his most recent six starts. He managed that sort of record despite only completing 90 minutes twice all season – in that aforementioned Forest Green game in August and against Aston Villa on the final day of the Premier League season in May.
Six of his goals came in the league – the most ever by a non-English player while aged 18 or below in a single Premier League campaign.
That goalscoring rate was no fluke, either. Ferguson averaged 0.51 non-penalty xG per 90 in the Premier League last season. That’s level with Mo Salah and more than Marcus Rashford, and shows he had a knack for getting into good goalscoring positions.
But on top of this, Ferguson has also shown himself to be a selfless forward. Among strikers with 500+ minutes played in the 2022-23 Premier League, Ferguson ranked 16th for how many off-the-ball runs he made per 90 (30.7), sixth for how many of those runs he made into the attacking third (14.8 per 90), but was bottom for how often he was actually targeted after making his runs (19.4% targeted). This suggests the Irishman is a player happy to do lots of running for his team, to help move opposition defenders around and create space for his teammates.
Couple that with his efficient goal rate, here is a player who, despite only being 18, is already showing signs of being a well-rounded attacker, adept at multiple aspects of the game. How he builds on this under De Zerbi in 2023-24 will be very intriguing.
Leaving the comforting surroundings of a big club in search of first-team football can be daunting for young players, particularly if even your closest representatives advise against it. But such a decision was the making of Facundo Medina.
The defender departed River Plate for Club Atlético Talleres in early 2018. The then-18-year-old was adamant he was good enough to play first-team football somewhere but recognised his chances were unlikely to arrive at the Monumental.
Life wasn’t always plain sailing at Talleres; he was widely jeered by supporters at Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes early on, and struggled to convince at left-back. The arrival of Alexander Medina – no relation – as head coach for the 2019-20 season coincided with the young defender finally getting opportunities at centre-back, however, and he hasn’t looked back.
Since joining Lens in 2020, Medina has established himself as one of Europe’s most progressive centre-backs and is every inch the modern defender. He registered more ball carries (1,029) than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues last season and was the only player to surpass 10 kilometres while carrying possession (10,288 metres).
That was coupled with a forward-thinking mentality, as demonstrated by the fact that just two players in the top five leagues progressed the ball up the pitch further over the course of 2022-23 than Medina (5,722m), suggesting his brief past at left-back has helped him.
Medina has also caught the eye with his impressive passing range and general confidence in possession. His 2,231 successful passes last term was bettered by just seven centre-backs from the big European leagues, though only two could improve on his 989 forward pass attempts, which gave another example of his positive mindset at the back.
He’s thrived on the left of a back three under Franck Haise, who’s taken Lens from Ligue 2 to the Champions League in a little over three years. Medina is one of several gems he’s polished since taking over in February 2020 and is likely to earn Lens a big payday very soon.
Whether Medina stays at Lens next season or moves on, he’s worth watching closely.
After his early-career spells at FC Kobenhavn and at SK Puntigamer Graz, last season Rasmus Højlund joined Atalanta, getting a chance to compete in one of the top five European leagues.
The 20-year-old Danish striker started the 2022-23 season still in Austria, and was involved in five goals in just five appearances in the Austrian top flight (three goals, two assists).
His impact in the Italian Serie A was also marked: he scored his first goal in his first start – his second appearance overall – on 5 September against Monza. He ultimately finished his first Serie A season with a total of 32 appearances (20 starts) and nine goals. That tally made him the second youngest player to score at least nine goals in the top five European leagues in 2022-23, behind only Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala (22 days younger than Højlund). And now, Højlund is on the verge of joining Manchester United.
It’s easy to see why the Manchester club are excited about securing his signature.
A 6-foot-2 striker who likes to stay close to the opposition’s goal, Højlund ranked third for touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes (6.9) among players with at least 1000+ minutes in Serie A last season, behind only Victor Osimhen (8.5) and Cyriel Dessers (7.3). Furthermore, only four of his 54 shots in Serie A were from outside the box, though just one of these was converted into a goal.
Despite his height he still needs to improve in the air. Thirteen of his 54 league shots last season were headed (seven of them from set-pieces), but none brought a goal. He also won just 33 of his 90 aerial duels (36.6%).
Højlund has already had a big impact on his national team. After making his debut for Denmark in September 2022 in the UEFA Nations League (two appearances as a substitute, against Croatia and France), he has started in each of his next four caps. These came in important European Championship qualifiers, and he scored six goals, including a hat-trick in the first of these – Denmark’s 3-1 win last March against Finland.
At the moment, he’s the joint-top scorer in the Euro 2024 qualifiers alongside Romelu Lukaku (six goals each) and he has attempted the most shots on target in the competition (11), recording the highest shooting accuracy (84.6%) among players to have attempted at least 10 shots.
In some ways, Oihan Sancet has already has his breakout season, it just wasn’t talked about very much. While Gabri Veiga has been courting attention from the world’s biggest clubs this summer, Sancet has largely flown under the radar.
Sancet kept Veiga out of Santi Denia’s team at the Under-21 European Championship this summer, and the assumption was that there must be something wrong with the Celta Vigo attacking midfielder.
There’s nothing wrong with him. There’s just a lot right about Sancet’s game right now and at 23, there is actually still room for growth.
He is the embodiment of the new breed of more vertical Spanish midfielders who can drop deeper and play like a traditional number 8 but are also hungry for goals. He plays in a central attacking midfield role, and from there he does it all.
Sancet led Athletic Club last season for chances created (44) from open play. On a cross-heavy team — only Valencia (700) crossed the ball during open play more than them (677) in La Liga — Sancet is the key for Ernesto Valverde’s side to unlocking opponents centrally and bringing out the best in the Williams brothers.
Athletic have often been downplayed as a team with no nuance in the attacking third; old school kick and rush. Sancet bucks that trend and offers technique and late runs into the box. He also offers goals.
Another, mostly fair, criticism levelled at them in recent years is that they are profligate in front of goal. Not Sancet.
The 23-year-old finished second behind Iñaki Williams (11) with 10 goals last season. Sancet converted with 15.4% of his shots (65 shots, 10 goals) , which was the highest on the team for players with more than 10 shots.
But Sancet also provided the elder of the Williams brothers with most of his chances, too. That specific pass combination, Sancet to Iñaki Williams, led to more chances created (14) than any other combination for Athletic Club last season.
Sancet played 2,532 minutes last term and started 32 La Liga games, doubling his number of starts from the season before when he scored six goals and provided four assists.
The true breakout might not have happened yet but expect Oihan Sancet’s name to hit the mainstream soon. And don’t say you weren’t warned when it does.
Aston Villa are looking to build on their seventh-place finish last season, and have set about strengthening in attack. They were the lowest scorers in the top half of the Premier League in 2022-23, with their 51 goals the same number as relegated Leicester, and the addition of Moussa Diaby should help them improve at the sharp end of the pitch.
Over his four years at Bayer Leverkusen, Diaby established himself as one of the Bundesliga’s most exciting attacking talents. In each of his four seasons there, he reached double figures for non-penalty goal involvements, peaking at 25 (13 non-penalty goals, 12 assists) in the 2021-22 campaign. Only three players managed more shots than Diaby that season, and he also ranked top for chances created in open play (53).
In 2022-23, his combined xG and xA of 17.3 was the fourth highest in the Bundesliga. Both a goal threat and a creative presence, Diaby brings a wealth of attacking talent to Villa Park.
Naturally, his qualities will make him a real threat on the counter-attack as he will lead the way with his pace on and off the ball. His ability to carry the ball forward at speed, take players on, make key contributions in front of goal and offer an outlet with his movement will make him a key figure in Unai Emery’s Villa side.
Across the top five leagues last season, just five wingers/wide midfielders recorded more carries ending in a shot or a chance created (55). Eight of those led to a goal or assist for Diaby, with Vinícius Júnior (12) and Rafael Leão (10) the only two from the same group to better the Frenchman’s tally.
While he’ll have to deal with the additional pressure that will comes with a big-money move, he has the talent to take his game to the next level under Emery’s guidance, making him an exciting addition to Villa’s attack.
With his arrival at Real Madrid in June, Jude Bellingham made a step up in his career that felt totally natural. The most remarkable thing about Bellingham is not only the ability that has led to him being able to make this move, but the fact that he has done it at just 19 years of age.
Since starting his Bundesliga adventure in 2020, Bellingham gradually grew into a mainstay of the Borussia Dortmund side that came close to winning the league last season.
Now, an even more mature and experienced player, he will become the sixth Englishman to wear the Real Madrid shirt, after Laurence Cunningham, Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, Jonathan Woodgate and David Beckham.
Last season in the Bundesliga, Bellingham created a total of 34 chances and registered four assists in addition to the eight goals he scored. However, one detail to bear in mind is that 33 of those 34 chances were created in open play. If we add up his numbers in all competitions in 2022-23, Bellingham managed 14 goals, six assists and a total of 44 chances created.
In the middle of last season, the young Englishman also played a key role at the World Cup in Qatar, where he became the second youngest player in history to score for England in a World Cup (19 years and 145 days vs. IR Iran), after Michael Owen (18 years and 190 days in 1998).
With his signing, Real Madrid are not just getting a technically gifted midfielder, but a versatile player who can perform in any midfield role. He can score and set up goals, play accurate and ambitious passes, and can dribble. He led the Bundesliga last season for completed dribbles, with 88. Furthermore, his 76 tackles and 35 interceptions also meant he made a telling contribution without the ball. His touchmap from last season shows how he affected games all over the pitch.
Bellingham is a real gem of European football, one of those players that are difficult to categorise. He dominates so many aspects of the game that it is impossible to label him. At just 20 years of age, he is not a 6, nor an 8, nor a 20. He is an all-rounder, and there is good reason for Real Madrid fans to be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of seeing him in that white shirt.
Aldo La Marca
May 11, 2023. A Europa League semi-final between Roma and Bayer Leverkusen. The Italians are at home for the first leg; the Olimpico is completely sold out.
At the end of the first half, the game is still goalless. Paulo Dybala, the main reason Roma have made it to the semis, is not fit. The two strikers, Andrea Belotti and Tammy Abraham, are not finding any space close to goal, and Leverkusen are looking dangerous on the break. Not much happens until the 63rd minute, when a young Edoardo Bove, who will celebrate his 21st birthday two days before the return leg in Germany, intercepts a ball and charges forward.
His pass finds Abraham, but the forward’s shot is saved. The quickest to react to the rebound is Bove, who manages nip in and score his first European goal to give Roma a slender lead to take to Leverkusen. They hold out for a goalless draw at the BayArena and make it through to the final in Budapest thanks to Bove’s strike.
In scoring, the Italian became the third-youngest player to score in a European competition for Roma, and the club’s youngest in a European semi-final. In last season’s Europa League, he was the youngest player to appear in at least 10 games.
“Il Bambino”, the kid, as he is referred to by his manager José Mourinho, made his debut almost exactly two years before, in the closing minutes of the league game against Crotone when he was still a Primavera, or youth team, player. Injuries to other players and some unconvincing signings led to him getting a chance with the senior squad, and Mourinho came to rely on him more and more as time went on. The manager also publicly took Bove’s side when some impatient fans taunted him after a misplaced pass.
During 2022-23, Roma were the only side in Serie A to have three players born after 2002 end up on their score sheet (Bove, Cristian Volpato, Nicola Zalewski).
Bove’s biggest flaw is his over enthusiasm. Born in Rome and with the club since he was 10, his tackles, energy and will to win remind the fans of Daniele De Rossi – who Bove has admitted is a big inspiration of his.
If he could have even half of the career DDR had, all the Romanisti would be more than satisfied.
Ilkay Gündogan was the first signing officially confirmed by Barcelona during the summer window. The Catalan side suffered an important loss with Sergio Busquets’ departure, but while they may be looking for a long time for someone to directly replace the legendary midfielder (particularly given their Financial Fair Play struggles), Gündogan will play an interesting role in the Barcelona midfield.
In the last two seasons, Barcelona have had lots of issues when Pedri has been absent. He is the key piece in Xavi’s machine, providing the most secondary assists – the pass before the assist – in La Liga in 2022-23 (10) despite only making 26 appearances, as well as adding much-needed fluency to the team. Nobody took on his role when he was missing.
Gündogan doesn’t have exactly the same profile as a player, but he does produce goals and assists, and an element of inspiration for his teammates. Throughballs, for instance, is a good measure to compare these players. Pedri led Barça with 24 in La Liga in 2022-23, followed by Frenkie de Jong (19). The 18 throughballs attempted by Gündogan should help his new team create more chances.
He scored 11 times in all competitions last season, including two goals in the FA Cup final win over Manchester United. There’s only one player in the Barcelona squad who scored more than him (Robert Lewandowski, with 33), with Raphinha and Ansu Fati scoring 10 apiece.
Gündogan could be an upgrade in a team with too few goals from midfield. Over the last three seasons, he’s scored 29 Premier League goals, with only Bruno Fernandes (36), Bukayo Saka (30), and James Maddison (30) scoring more of all midfielders in the competition.
Another area in which he brings value is in his availability. With the exception of his first season at City, when he suffered a serious injury, Gündogan has made at least 43 appearances per campaign in each of the last six seasons under Pep Guardiola, with 51 in 2022-23 – his highest at City. The Barcelona midfielders were largely overused last season (Gavi – 49 appearances, De Jong – 43, Kessié – 43, Busquets – 42), especially when Xavi started to put four midfielders in starting lineup, so Gündogan should be a great addition to the squad.
Several clubs from Europe’s biggest leagues have shown an interest in AZ’s 19-year-old left-back Milos Kerkez this summer. Both Benfica and Lazio were said to be eager to sign the teenager, but it was Bournemouth who won the race to sign him. It’s hardly surprising considering the influential role the left-back had for his team last season; the Hungarian played a significant part in AZ reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa Conference League. He could be the perfect player for new Bournemouth coach Andoni Iraola, who likes his teams to play attacking football.
In 2022-23, Kerkez played an impressive 52 matches in all competitions, starting in 51 of them. He scored five goals and provided seven assists, with a significant portion coming in the Conference League. Among defenders in the UECL, only Italian international Cristiano Biraghi – of beaten finalists Fiorentina – had more goal involvements (seven) than Kerkez (two goals, three assists). In the Eredivisie, Kerkez provided just one assist, but that wasn’t necessarily all his fault; his expected assist value was 4.4, suggesting poor finishing let him and the team down.
Kerkez’s main strength lies in delivering low crosses. He frequently joins attacks has become known for how he creates scoring opportunities with his crosses and cut-backs, with most of the chances he created arriving in the area between the penalty spot and the six-yard box – hence the high expected assists total. He created 51 chances in all competitions in 2022-23 – an average of roughly one per game – but he also stands out for his defensive work as well. In the Eredivisie last season, only eight defenders won more duels against opponents than Kerkez (157).
Kerkez has already demonstrated his abilities on a variety of big stages. At the age of 18, he made his debut for the Hungarian national team and he already has eight caps to his name. Probably the most memorable moment of his career so far was his winning goal against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico in the Conference League. Picking the ball up in the Lazio half, he exchanged passes with Jesper Karlsson before calmly finishing from an angle. Bournemouth fans should be pleased with the acquisition, as he’s an exciting addition to the Premier League.
In 2022-23, a young left-back by the name of Fabiano Parisi showcased his talents playing for Empoli in Serie A. With exceptional technical skills and athleticism, Parisi proved his potential; whether in attack or defence. He displayed remarkable abilities that caught the eye of Fiorentina, who came calling and signed him this summer.
At the tender age of 22, Parisi was one of the youngest defenders to make over 30 appearances in Serie A. Despite his youth, the defender demonstrated maturity and composure on the field, establishing himself as a dependable presence in Empoli’s backline.
Parisi’s versatility is one of his standout qualities. He seamlessly adapts to attacking jobs that are asked of him when he gets into the final third, with particular success delivering left-footed balls into the box. This adaptability adds an extra dimension to his game, and he contributes in a big way to his team’s attacking moves.
However, it is Parisi’s dribbling ability that truly distinguishes him. He was the most effective dribbler among defenders in Serie A last season, impressively completing 65 dribbles. Including midfielders and attackers, Parisi was fourth behind some incredibly talented players, which proves just how good his close control is.
Furthermore, Parisi’s impact on the game is evident in his forward movements on the ball. With an impressive total progressive carry distance of 3,976 metres – the most in Serie A – he drove his team upfield consistently. Additionally, his execution of 162 forward ball carries of a distance of 10+ metres placed him in the top five players in Serie A for this metric.
These statistics paint a comprehensive picture of Parisi as a complete left-back. Alongside his refined technique, impressive speed, and exceptional dribbling ability, he poses a constant threat to opposing teams, but his defensive contribution cannot be overlooked either. He led Empoli in tackles (65) and topped the team’s charts in terms of ball recoveries, amassing an impressive 233.
With his ability to create goalscoring opportunities through crosses, combined with his solid defensive skills and impressive tackle and ball-recovery statistics, Parisi has emerged as an influential player for his team, and he certainly has the ability to make his move to Fiorentina a success.
Ever since the acquisition of AC Milan last summer by American group Redbird, 2023 was always going to be a busy transfer window. Following the sale of Sandro Tonali to Newcastle, the Milan hierarchy remained in England and, passing through London, ended up buying two players from Chelsea: Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic. The latter of those could prove to be a particularly influential signing.
Gifted with great technique, he has always stood out for his speed, agility, final ball and tactical intelligence. He has a broad range of skills, and is extremely versatile, able play on the right side of attack, on the left or through the middle. That flexibility will be very useful for Milan next season.
Pulisic brings with him a wealth of experience, too. He is the highest-scoring American in the Champions League with seven goals, and at the World Cup in Qatar last year, he became the second USMNT player to have been involved in at least three goals (one goal, two assists) in a single edition of the tournament over the last 50 years, after Landon Donovan in 2010.
Milan’s manager, Stefano Pioli, may want to take inspiration from Thomas Tuchel and try to make Pulisic feel like he is the main man, at the centre of the project. Under Tuchel, Pulisic has been directly involved in 36 goals, which makes up 44% of his total in club football. In addition, his nine goals in 2019-20 were the most by a player aged 21 or under in a single Premier League campaign for Chelsea.
In the USA, his nickname is Captain America. It is still too early to label him a superhero, but Pulisic wants to make up for lost time after playing so little last season. At 24 years of age, he has decided now is the time for a change, and he is ready to pay back the faith Milan have shown in him.
An under-21 player who can score 15 goals over a season in the top five European leagues is always going to be hard to find, but Montpellier have one in Elye Wahi. The French striker, 20, reached a new level last season with 19 goals in Ligue 1, including the UNFP Goal of the Year. Another of his achievements – though one he will have had mixed feelings about – was the day he scored four goals in 16 minutes against Lyon, but still ended up on the losing side.
Wahi has made steady progress since his debut in December 2020, scoring more and more consistently and, at just 20 years and 125 days old, he became the fifth youngest player to reach 30 goals in the French top flight in the last 75 years. The four players younger than him all eventually played with the French national team, including one Kylian Mbappé.
He has 32 Ligue 1 goals to his name, which is at least nine more than any other born in 2003 or later has managed across Europe’s top five leagues. However, the other six players who are that young and scored more than five goals across those competitions last season have each already earned their first cap with their national team (Jamal Musiala, Florian Wirtz and Youssoufa Moukoko with Germany, Jude Bellingham with England, Rasmus Højlund with Denmark and Evan Ferguson with Republic of Ireland). Wahi is still waiting for his first call-up to the France senior side.
Wahi has a huge appetite for goals. He doesn’t do a great deal of work during build-up play, but he is exceptional in front of goal. Across Europe’s top five leagues in 2022-23, Wahi had the third best positive difference between his non-penalty goals and his non-penalty expected goals (6.6), behind Harry Kane (8.3) and Boulaye Dia (7.0).
Montpellier play with a low block, meaning Wahi was able use his pace to run at and beat opposing defenders. On the radar of many clubs around Europe thanks to his goalscoring exploits, he may have to develop new skills to reach another level or adapt to a new way of playing if he is to continue in the footsteps of someone like Mbappé.
Last May, Feyenoord were crowned champions of the Eredivisie for just the second time this century. It was a huge achievement for the Rotterdam side, who spent no time sitting back and enjoying their success. There were serious worries about manager Arne Slot leaving for Tottenham and, at the same time, captain Orkun Kökcü was expected to move on.
Slot eventually stayed, which is arguably Feyenoord’s greatest success this summer. However, Kökcü departed, leaving a gaping hole in midfield that needed to be filled, and quick. Feyenoord acted swiftly, with his successor soon announced: FC Twente’s Ramiz Zerrouki.
Looking at the numbers, it’s clear why Feyenoord had been trying to sign Zerrouki for a year and have now paid a reported €7 million for the Algerian international. He’s been one of the Eredivisie’s most dominant holding midfielders for the past two seasons, excelling in particular when it comes to duels and recoveries.
Zerrouki ranked second in the Eredivisie last season for tackles made (95) and fifth for interceptions (53). It followed that he also ranked fifth in the division when it came to winning possession (263). His distribution after winning the ball is also a strength, with Zerrouki leading the Eredivisie in 2022-23 for the number of times any player made the first action in a sequence that ended in a shot, doing so an impressive 56 times. He also led the way for making the first action in goal-ending sequences, showing that when he won the ball and played it to a teammate, he often did so in dangerous areas, or at least found a teammate who could threaten goal.
Defensively, Zerrouki will be a great addition to Feyenoord’s midfield, but could he replace Kökcü in an attacking sense as well? The underlying numbers seem to suggest so. He recorded 194 involvements in open play shot-ending sequences in the Eredivisie last season, which was the eighth-best tally in a list that was topped by Kökcü himself. Interestingly, Zerrouki matched Kökcü for the number of times that their only involvement in a shot-ending sequence was in the build-up, with 124 each. Kökcü fared far better for shots and created chances, though.
Perhaps that will be Zerrouki’s biggest challenge at Feyenoord: increasing his offensive output. In 95 Eredivisie games so far, he has registered only three goals and six assists. Then again, Zerrouki is not a set-piece taker, and his real expertise lies in recovering possession for his team.
As reigning champions and a Champions League participant, Feyenoord will be playing some tough and heated games in 2023-24. Maybe Zerrouki’s qualities and tenacity are exactly what they need to make next season a good one.
“I know the region well, but this is a step up for me. I’m moving up to a higher level with a club that have a lot of ambition.”
Ludovic Blas took the most important step forward in his career so far when he made his move to Stade Rennais official this summer. At 25 years old, the French midfielder, who can also play as a second striker, finally has his chance with a Ligue 1 club who will be aiming for top four. Coveted by many teams he, somewhat controversially, chose to leave Nantes for their biggest rival.
Even thought he represent an exciting addition to an ambitious team, Blas already seems to be an old hand in Ligue 1. With 235 games played in the French top flight for EA Guingamp then Nantes, he is the youngest outfield player to have as many appearances in the league since Bruno N’Gotty – famous in France for giving PSG their sole European title in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996. He also played in the UEFA Europa League with Nantes in 2022-23, where they were eliminated in the round of 32 by Juventus, but not before Blas had racked up three goals and three assists in eight games.
Both a goalscorer (Nantes’ highest scorer in Ligue 1 over the four seasons he played there, with 32 goals) and an assister (15 assists, the second most for the club over the same period), he was the most dangerous player on the pitch during his time at La Beaujoire. His Opta Player Radar graphic from 2022-23 shows the extent of his ability.
He attempted 99 shots in Ligue 1 in 2022-23, the most of all midfielders in the top five European leagues, including 60 from outside the box, which was the joint-highest total.
In addition to his capacity to score and assist, he is also very adept at beating players with the ball. In Ligue 1 last season, he completed 81 dribbles, which was the third highest tally behind Lionel Messi (103) and Jérémy Doku (96), who he now joins at Rennes.
All these numbers suggest that Blas is ready to make the step up a higher level next season with a team that can match his ambition and ability. And with the Euros coming up next summer, perhaps he will set his sights on making the France squad?
With all the talk about Liverpool’s midfield rebuild, it would be easy to forget the options already at the club. Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai have arrived this summer, but Curtis Jones has every reason to think he should remain a big part of Jürgen Klopp’s plans in the middle of the park.
The Liverpool-born 22-year-old missed a large portion of the 2022-23 season through injury, but did start the final 11 Premier League games, which was undoubtedly Liverpool’s best run of the campaign, as they went undefeated during that period (W7 D4). Jones finished with 18 league appearances (12 starts), recording three goals – the most of any Liverpool midfielder in the Premier League – and one assist.
He also recently played a key role in England Under-21s winning the UEFA European U21 Championship. Jones may not have known much about his winning goal in the 1-0 final victory against Spain – deflecting Cole Palmer’s free-kick in off his back – but he was awarded the man of the match trophy, having also been considered the best player in the semi-final win over Israel. He completed 94% of his passes at the tournament, the highest percentage of any midfielder (min. 300 minutes played).
And that is one of Jones’ biggest strengths, ball retention. He also boasted the highest passing accuracy of Liverpool midfielders in the Premier League last season (91.2%), while he also gets stuck in defensively. Only Thiago Alcântara (3.1) made more tackles per 90 of Liverpool midfielders in the Premier League than Jones (3.0).
He looked comfortable in the midfield setup Klopp ended the season with, which was often a four-man box with Trent Alexander-Arnold drifting in from right-back to partner Fabinho while Jones and Jordan Henderson played left and right respectively in the more advanced roles. He may face more competition for that role from Mac Allister, but given the World Cup winner’s versatility, you would still expect Jones to continue to get plenty of minutes. Especially if he keeps developing on what seems to be an increasingly upward trajectory.
Samardzic arrived at Udinese in the summer of 2021 as something of an unknown. The German had played just 10 games total in the previous two top-flight seasons combined (three games for Hertha Berlin in 2019-20; seven for RB Leipzig in 2020-21), but he had already built the reputation of a noteworthy midfield talent. Samardzic wasn’t given much time to show his potential on his Serie A bow, replacing Gerard Deulofeu in the 81st minute, but he still scored the winning goal for Udinese against Spezia with a minute of the game to spare.
Samardzic used his first season in Serie A to adapt to what was a new competition, registering two goals and two assists in 22 appearances. It was then thanks to his performances in the 2022-23 campaign that he became a target for many bigger clubs, and he was involved in nine league goals (five goals, four assists). The Udinese man was the youngest midfielder (born in 2002) to score five or more goals in the Serie A last term, and the third youngest overall.
He is particularly dangerous shooting from distance, scoring four goals from outside the box last season, a joint-high in Europe’s top five leagues. He loves to shoot from range, and he is brilliant at working himself shooting opportunities, with his ball-carrying another of his strengths. Samardzic also scored three goals following a carry last season, with only Aleksey Miranchuk (four) to have scored more such goals among Serie A midfielders. Lazar Samardzic played a key role for Udinese in 2022-23, with only goalkeeper Marco Silvestri playing more Serie A games than Samardzic (37). He also ranked second for shots on target (18) and chances created (48).
As well as having a propensity to carry the ball, the Serb was also a useful asset at set-pieces, creating 19 chances from dead-ball situations, which was at least six more than any other Udinese player in Serie A last term.
Samardzic’s impressive 2022-23 campaign has attracted the interest of Serie A giants Internazionale, who look set to secure his signature later this week following a successful transfer bid.
When Brighton are prepared to break their transfer record to sign someone, you know they must be pretty good. That’s exactly what they want to do with Levi Colwill, the elegant left-sided centre-back who spent last season with them on loan from parent club Chelsea. Colwill impressed in his 17 Premier League appearances, and Roberto De Zerbi was keen to make his move to the south coast permanent.
So far, though, Chelsea have held firm on their young star. And it’s easy to see why.
Colwill profiles beautifully as a modern-day centre-half. He’s tall, athletic and covers ground with long, rangy strides. He’s just turned 20. Oh, and he’s left-footed and supremely comfortable on the ball.
Playing in a possession-dominant Brighton team – only Manchester City (65.2%) and Liverpool (60.6%) averaged more possession than Brighton’s 60.5% last season – Colwill saw a ton of the ball. He averaged 94.7 touches and 84.7 passes per 90, figures which saw him rank in the 92nd and 94th percentiles among Premier League centre-backs.
As the left-sided central defender in a back four, De Zerbi tasked Colwill with heavy ball progression, both through his passing range and adventurous ball carrying.
Colwill completed 4.8 progressive passes per 90 last season, which was far more than any other Premier League central defender, way ahead of the next highest player (Joe Gomez – 4.1). That showed just how forward-focused and aggressive he looked to be with the ball.
If a pass isn’t available, or if there’s space in front of him to move into, Colwill is not afraid to gallop forwards to eat up the space, attract opposition players, and open up space elsewhere for his teammates. He made more progressive carries – travelling with the ball at least five metres upfield – per 90 (13.9) than any other Brighton player last season. And of players to play at least 1,000 minutes in the Premier League in 2022-23, Colwill ranked behind only Rúben Dias and Joël Matip in this category.
Combining both ball progression via passes and ball progression via carries shows us just how well Colwill ranked among his peers last campaign:
He’s also already been busy this summer, starring for England on their way to European Under-21 Championship glory. He was part of a defence that did not conceded a single goal all tournament.
Mauricio Pochettino is reportedly set to have talks with Colwill over his long-term role in squad, but with an ageing Thiago Silva, an injury-hit Wesley Fofana and doubts over Trevoh Chalobah’s ability as a centre-back in a back four, Colwill might even be trusted to start at the heart of Chelsea’s defence.
Alejandro Garnacho already feels like an established part of Manchester United’s squad, but it is easy to forget he has only just turned 19, and only has five Premier League starts under his belt.
It was not until November that Garnacho became a consistent part of United’s first team, impressing with two assists against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup before a memorable late winner against Fulham in the Premier League a few days later.
He set up a goal in a derby win over eventual treble-winners Manchester City and scored against Leeds, West Ham and Wolves as the season progressed. In the FA Cup final defeat to City, he immediately looked like United’s most menacing player after coming off the bench, with his performance then prompting questions over whether he should have started the game.
He played some part in half of United’s Premier League games, and United fared significantly better in the 19 games he appeared. Erik ten Hag’s men scored 34 goals in matches with Garnacho, compared to 24 in games without him.
He offers a more direct style of play to the alternatives in Erik ten Hag’s squad, immediately looking to advance at pace down the left, take defenders on and generate shooting or crossing opportunities in the final third.
He averaged 3.9 shots per 90 minutes last season, the second-best rate after the departed Cristiano Ronaldo (4.3). And these were not just shots taken for the sake of it – Garnacho took them from threatening positions, and he was accurate.
He took 2.9 shots per 90 from inside the box and had 1.6 shots on target per 90, which were both the highest in United’s squad. His impact in attacking areas is highlighted by other metrics, too.
Garnacho was fouled in the final third 1.0 times per 90 minutes played, putting him well clear of anyone else in United’s squad when it came to earning his team favourable positions for set-pieces. Fernandes and Antony (both 0.3) were a distant second.
The winger was also crucial in having 0.5 shots per 90 from counter-attacks, which was again the best in United’s squad, while he was the only player to average more than two successful take-ons per game (2.1), topping Sancho (1.9) and Rashford (1.8).
With an excellent base to build from, now looks like the time to unleash Garnacho as a regular starter. If he can maintain his production over increased minutes, this could be a season to remember.
England U21 side enjoyed a memorable summer, winning the UEFA European Championships for the first time since 1984. James Trafford was one of the stars of the tournament for Lee Carsley’s side.
Trafford did not concede a single goal for the entire duration of the tournament, setting a new record for clean sheets in a single edition of the competition (six). With notable saves throughout, his crowing moment was his double stop in injury-time in the final against Spain, firstly keeping out Abel Ruiz’s penalty, before blocking Aimar Oroz’s follow-up to secure the win.
Unsurprisingly, Trafford’s performances saw him near to top for goals prevented (expected goals on target conceded – goals conceded excluding own goals) over the course of the tournament (4.0). His total was only bettered by Romania’s Stefan Târnovanu (4.9), while he also came off his line to cut off an opposition pass by sweeping up behind his defence the joint most times of all goalkeepers at the tournament (four), showcasing his ability both inside and outside the penalty area.
Trafford’s heroics in Romania and Georgia capped what was a fine individual domestic season with Bolton. Their joint young player of the year for 2022-23 alongside Liverpool loanee Conor Bradley, Trafford helped Bolton to fifth place in League One, setting a club record with 22 clean sheets, as well as lifting silverware in the EFL Trophy.
His shot-stopping ability was on display throughout the campaign, as he had the highest save percentage among goalkeepers with more than 90 minutes played (78.9%) and ranked fourth for goals prevented (6.4). But he also caught the eye for his proficiency with the ball at his feet.
Among goalkeepers in League One last season – excluding playoff games – he was top for open-play sequence starts (570), shot-ending sequence starts (14) and open-play build-up involvements (1570), and third for goal-ending sequence involvements (five), excelling as a ball-playing goalkeeper.
The 20-year-old is reportedly close to completing a £19m move from Manchester City to Burnley, who play a style of football under Vincent Kompany that would suit Trafford. He will certainly be one to watch when he makes the inevitable step up to the Premier League.
The conveyor belt of Spanish midfielders bursting onto the scene never really stops, but it does mutate from time to time. In the tier below Pedri – the poster boy of the current generation, and recurring master of space and time – a new wave of dynamic midfielders who are more direct in approach has started to assert itself.
Villarreal’s Álex Baena is one of the stars of that class. Along with Gabri Veiga and Oihan Sancet, he was one of three young Spanish midfielders to make it to double digits for goals at club level in 2022-23 – and they all did it from different central midfield roles. At the end of the campaign, all three would go on to play at the U21 European Championships in what was a noticeably vertical variant of a Spanish youth side.
They still want the ball – and plenty of it – but they aim to move it, create, and score quicker than the stereotypical Spanish midfielder.
Baena, in particular, stands out for his ability to do a bit of everything. He was directly involved in 15 goals for Villarreal last term, and scored 12 times. In La Liga, only Pedri (24) played more through balls than him (21). And at the U21 Euros, he led the tournament for per-90 involvement in open-play attacking sequences (of players to play at least 270 minutes).
A player who has previously played as a winger and in more offensive roles, Baena is now well on his way to becoming a dependable out-of-possession contributor, too. It’s an aspect of his game that has seen him make the bridge from number 10 to eight with relative ease – a transition that often provides problems for many, given the decline of the former.
Baena will return in 2023-24 as a key player for Villarreal, but his status isn’t just the product of his footballing qualities. The 22-year-old is a fierce competitor; someone who helps to set the standard for Quique Setién and lift the intensity of those around him. With European football again on the menu for Villarreal, Baena’s presence will be pivotal at every turn this season.
The 2022-23 season was the making of Gabri Veiga; so much so that he is now on the radar of many of the biggest clubs in Europe. The young Spaniard talent stood out last season for the versatility and completeness to his game. As the campaign went on, he grew into the attacking side of the game, increasing his contribution in front of goal and helping to counteract Celta Vigo’s overdependence on Iago Aspas.
Veiga scored 11 goals last season in La Liga, the most among midfielders in the competition. He also added four assists, and was the first player born after 2002 to make it to 10 direct goal involvements in the five major European Leagues.
Veiga also, rather unexpectedly for a midfielder, also had the best differential between goals scored (11) and expected goals (6.0) of all players in La Liga. His positive differential of 5.0 is a whole goal higher than the next player in this list (Villarreal’s Nicolas Jackson – who has since joined Chelsea – with 4.0).
Veiga’s direct involvement in 15 goals last season matched the figures of Aspas (12 goals and three assists). Veiga also became the first central midfielder to score at least 10 goals for Celta Vigo in a season in La Liga in the 21st century, and the first player other than Aspas reach double figures for goals since Santi Mina did so in 2020-21.
He has emerged as a player with an exceptional shot from distance. In fact, he scored four goals from outside the box last season, which was not only the joint-most in La Liga alongside Real Madrid’s Fede Valverde and Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, but also the joint-most in Europe’s top five leagues.
A technical wizard with a lethal shot, Veiga is an exceptional player who will be one to watch in 2023-24, wherever he is playing his football.
How do RC Lens go about building upon their second-place finish in Ligue 1 last season, while contending with the challenge of a first UEFA Champions League run since the 2002-03 season? Signing one of the country’s hottest prospects from under the noses of FC Basel isn’t a bad start.
Andy Diouf’s performances for the Swiss side – where he spent the season on loan from Stade Rennes – saw him named the UEFA Europa Conference League young player of the season, but shortly after Basel made his stay permanent, Lens swooped. Their €15 million bid proved too hard to turn down just a month after they had signed him for a reported €5.5m.
A true box-to-box midfielder, Diouf makes his influence (and 6-foot-2 frame) felt across the pitch. One minute, he will be battling for possession, ranking 10th in terms of possession won in the Swiss Super League last season (207). The next, he’s taking the game to his opponents, registering the second highest progressive carries in the Swiss Super League last season (297) and leading the way when it came to carries ending in a chance created (18).
Basel surprised many with their run to the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League, with Diouf responsible for a couple of memorable moments along the way. Two of his three goals were named in the competition’s top 10 best goals, including claiming third place with a sweet left-footed strike from outside the box against Zalgiris.
So, strong defensively and game-changing moving forwards, Lens appear to have picked up yet another star who should shine brightly. Whether he will be able to step into the footsteps of Seko Fofana immediately is a bit of an unknown, but Diouf certainly has the credentials to make an impact at the heart of what Lens will hope will be another sensational season of proving the doubters wrong.
Sassuolo are one of the best Italian clubs when it comes to finding and developing talent. In recent years, they have been a springboard for great players such as Sime Vrsaljko (who started for Croatia in the 2018 World Cup final), Francesco Acerbi (who started for Inter in last season’s Champions League final), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma’s captain, and a finalist in the Europa League and Europa Conference League in the last two seasons), Matteo Politano (a Serie A champion with Napoli), Manuel Locatelli, Gianluca Scamacca, Domenico Berardi and many others.
The latest jewel identified by Sassuolo’s talent scouts is Armand Laurienté, the roommate of Kylian Mbappé at Clairefontaine back in 2012-13.
Sassuolo acquired the Frenchman from Lorient last summer, and he was an instant hit in Italy. During his first Serie A season, Laurienté established himself as one of the most exciting prospects in the competition.
Among players to make at least 10 Serie A appearances, Laurienté completed the most dribbles per game (2.4), just ahead of Rafael Leão (2.3) and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (2.2).
Moreover, the French winger ranked second in the league for chances created in open play, with 54 in 28 games. His total was fewer than only Nikola Vlasic, but the Croatian played six more games than Laurienté.
He is more than just a creator, though, and actually scored more goals (7) than he assisted (6); his direct involvement in 13 Serie A goals was the second most for Sassuolo behind Berardi (19).
Laurienté is also a direct free-kick specialist: across the last three seasons in Europe’s top five leagues, only James Ward-Prowse (11) has scored more goals than him (five) from direct free-kicks.
As his coach Alessio Dionisi has underlined several times, Laurienté still has improving to do and his main flaw is a lack of consistency. If he can improve in this regard, next season could be massive for him.
Nico Williams, who only recently turned 21, has already played 85 games for Athletic Club in all competitions, scoring 12 goals and providing five assists. He made his debut for Spain in September 2022 against Switzerland and already has eight caps to his name, in which he has managed one goal and one assist.
In 2022-23, he was one of only three players under the age of 21 at the end of the season to score at least five goals in La Liga. He scored six goals in 36 games, with the other two players on the list Barcelona stars in Ansu Fati (seven goals in 36 games) and Pedri (six goals in 26 games).
His greatest strengths are his speed and dribbling. His directness, confidence and ability are highlighted in the fact that only Vinícius Júnior attempted (307) and completed (112) more dribbles than Williams (190 and 90) in La Liga last season. Across the top five European leagues, Williams ranked fourth for dribbles completed, behind only Vinícius, Lionel Messi (103) and Jérémy Doku (96).
There is also a goal threat directly after his dribbles, with only Vinícius (41) having recorded more shot-ending carries in La Liga last season than Williams (31). He is a versatile attacker, and these carries occurred on both the right wing and the left wing for Athletic last season. He also ended the season with the third most goal-ending carries (five goals), tied with Gabri Veiga and his brother Iñaki, and only bettered by Nicolas Jackson (seven) and Vinícius (six).
He could, however, do with improving his finishing close to goal. Since his debut in La Liga in April 2021, he ranks third-worst for shot conversion rate among all players who have scored five or more goals in the competition. Do that, and Williams could have an explosive 2023-24 campaign.
In the recent past, RB Leipzig have become known as a club who sell their players for huge amounts of money. With Dominik Szoboszlai moving to Liverpool and Christopher Nkunku going to Chelsea, once again they have lost their best performers from the most recent campaign. They sought to address the loss of firepower in attack by signing Loïs Openda from French side Lens for around €40 million, a record fee for the club.
Openda was, much like Lens as a team, one of the biggest surprises in France last season. The Belgium international scored 21 goals, ending joint-fourth in the top scorers list with Folarin Balogun. It was also the highest ever goal tally for a Belgian player in a single Ligue 1 campaign, surpassing Eden Hazard’s 20 goals for Lille in 2011-12.
But what made his goals special was their variety. Openda scored seven right-footed goals, eight with his ‘weaker’ left foot and six headers. The only other player to score 6+ goals with his each of his right foot, left foot and head in the top 10 European leagues in 2022-23 was – obviously – Erling Haaland (6 right, 23 left, 7 headers).
However, despite not being the most prolific goalscorer in Ligue 1 – understandable with Kylian Mbappé in your league – Openda still scored the most goals following a carry (7), where a carry is defined as the player moving the ball five metres or more. Openda can trust his pace and causes a lot of problems for opponents if he gets a bit of space.
RB Leipzig seems a suitable destination for him, with the Red Bull clubs all about high pressing and fast transitions.
Although the Belgian is comfortable when running with the ball, he is also a highly effective fox in the box, with all of his 21 Ligue 1 goals coming from inside the penalty area. Seven players had more touches in the opposition’s box than Openda, but he recorded the highest percentage of his total touches in the opposition’s box among players with 200+ touches last season (22% – 174/791).
Václav Cerny has suffered so badly with injuries in the early part of his career that he started only 28 league matches over the course of seven seasons between 2015 and 2022. However, the 25-year-old now appears to be free from his injury woes, and played 32 Eredivisie games in 2022-23, 29 of which he started.
Cerny has long been known as a big talent, but after signing for Ajax at 15 years of age, the Czech winger never really made the impact many expected of him. Now, 10 years later he has finally had his ‘breakout’ season at FC Twente. Only Dusan Tadic (29) and Xavi Simons (27) were involved in more goals than Cerny over the 2022-23 Eredivisie campaign, Cerny scoring 13 and assisting 11.
He became the fourth Twente player to reach double figures for both goals and assists in a single Eredivisie season this century, after Hakim Ziyech, Tadic and Luuk de Jong, ultimately earning himself a transfer to Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg this summer.
Cerny proved himself as a versatile player from the right wing this season. He had the most shots in the Eredivisie last season (97), while only five players created more chances than him (78), with only Tadic doing so more often from open play (103) than Cerny (63).
Only Orkun Kokcü (8.3) had more involvements in open play-shot ending sequences per 90 minutes than Cerny (8.1 – 3.4 shots, 2.6 chances created and 2.1 build up to shot).
His shots and created chances often came after a carry with the ball, and he operated most effectively in the right half-space. Only Vinícius Júnior (79) and Kylian Mbappé (70) recorded more carries with a shot involvement in the top seven European leagues than Cerny last season (66 – along with Rafael Leão).
Wolfsburg boss Niko Kovac will also be happy with the defensive work Cerny is prepared to do: only four players in Europe’s top seven leagues won possession in the final third more often than the Czech last season (38). His total was also the most in the whole Eredivisie.
Cerny will be full of confidence when arriving at his new club after scoring seven and assisting 10 goals in his final 15 games for Twente, before scoring two more in the 152 minutes he played for his national team in the summer.
There is no question that last season was a massive disappointment for Juventus. Rocked by a 10-point deduction in the league, they also crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage and flattered to deceive with their performances on the pitch. However, one positive was the plethora of young talent afforded an opportunity by manager Massimiliano Allegri; an opportunity grasped with both hands by 19-year-old Samuel Iling-Junior.
The English winger moved to Turin from Chelsea in 2020 and soon began pulling up trees for Juventus Next Gen – the club’s reserve side. After two impressive campaigns for the Next Gen, Iling-Junior was promoted to the first team and rewarded with his debut against Empoli in October 2022.
Four days later, Iling-Junior made his mark. It took just five minutes of the young Englishman’s Champions League debut in Benfica for him to burst down the line and provide a delightful assist for Arkadiusz Milik. But he was not done there. Minutes later, the winger once again ran at the Benfica full-back before floating in another cross that led to Weston McKennie pulling back another goal for his side.
A number of substitute cameos followed in the coming months, yet it wasn’t until the closing weeks of the season that the attacker really caught the headlines. He provided an assist in a 1-1 draw against Bologna, before scoring on his first competitive start in Juventus’ 2-0 win over fellow European challengers Atalanta in May. Iling-Junior became just the third English player to score a league goal for Juventus, and the first since David Platt over 30 years ago.
He is a throwback to wingers of old in how he attacks around the outside and looks to get to the byline and deliver inviting crosses into the penalty area – though he’s certainly not predictable. Iling-Junior attempted 4.2 take-ons per 90 minutes across all competitions last season, while he averaged 8.8 progressive carries per game.
The winger has been linked with a return to England over the last few weeks, and it remains to be seen whether Allegri will trust the teenager as a starter next season. However, on the small sample size of evidence, Iling-Junior may just be the new lease of life the Old Lady needs.
In the summer of 2022, Feyenoord announced the signing of the 21-year-old Mexican striker Santiago Giménez. Departing Cruz Azul, the forward became the 12th Mexican to play in the Eredivisie.
He quickly adapted to his new team and made his debut in Feyenoord’s second game of the 2022-23 Eredivisie campaign against SC Heerenveen. Then, in just his third appearance in the competition, with fewer than 45 minutes played across those three games, he scored his first goal for a European club.
The next challenge for the youngster was in the Europa League, but he took to that even better. On his debut in the competition against Lazio, he scored a brace in his 26 minutes on the pitch. He ended up Feyenoord’s top scorer in the Europa League last season, with five goals in nine games, and the third-highest scorer overall, just behind Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Union Saint-Gilloise’s Victor Boniface (six goals each), and tied with Roma’s Paulo Dybala. However, Giménez scored more regularly than any of those three players, scoring on average every 86 minutes, while Rashford scored every 93, Boniface every 129 and Dybala every 133.
In domestic competition, Giménez was also the top scorer for Feyenoord in the Eredivisie with a total of 15 goals in 32 games, a crucial cog for the team that would win their first title since 2016-2017. With a total of 25 goals involvements in all competitions (23 goals, 2 assists) – more than any other player in the team – he was awarded the “Legioen Speler van het Seizoen 2022-2023”, Feyenoord’s player of the season.
Giménez now holds the record for most goals scored (23) by a Mexican player in their European debut season, overtaking Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández (20) and Luis García (20). There is also good reason to predict a positive future with the Mexican national team, after he scored the winning goal in the final of Mexico’s victorious CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign this summer.
Enciso really started to make a name for himself in the Premier League at the end of last season. Signed last summer after being involved in 14 goals in 14 Paraguayan top-flight games for Libertad between February and May 2022, he had to wait until April this year for his first league start for Brighton.
However, at that point, he already had two goals to his name, including a stunning winner at Chelsea for Brighton’s first ever victory at Stamford Bridge. He finished the season with four Premier League goals, and became only the second player in the competition’s history to score winners away at both Chelsea and Arsenal in the same season (after Kevin Gallacher in 1997-98), also scoring another long-range cracker against newly-crowned champions Manchester City. Not bad for a 19-year-old.
His age clearly brings an exuberance to his play, and as such he had the third-highest average for shots per 90 minutes in the whole Premier League last season, and the highest for shots on target (among players with at least 600 minutes played).
He’s also not afraid to have a go from distance – as his goals against Chelsea and City prove – with Enciso also having had the most shots from outside the box per 90 in the Premier League.
On top of his shooting, his confidence with the ball at his feet is striking for a player of his age. Again among players with at least 600 minutes played, he had the third-most successful dribbles per 90, the second-most carries ending in a shot or a chance created per 90, and the most carries ending in a goal or assist per 90.
Yet again, Brighton have found another very special player.
Although Lee Kang-In will become the first player from any country in the Asian confederation to don the Paris Saint-Germain shirt, there is nothing symbolic about the signing of the South Korean.
A player who has spent his entire professional career until this point in Spain (first with Valencia, where he arrived at the age of 10, then with Mallorca) Lee boasts a rare technical ability. He came to the attention of fans at the 2019 Under-20 World Cup, where he was awarded best player despite South Korea’s 3-1 defeat to Ukraine in the final.
The 22-year-old was the only midfielder to get more than five goals and five assists in La Liga in 2022-23 (he got six and six), while he also ranked first of midfielders for successful dribbles (90) and second for big chances created (14).
His dribbling is one of his biggest strengths. Last season, he recorded a 69.8% dribble success rate in La Liga games, which was the best rate of players who attempted at least 50.
Last season, he demonstrated how much potential he has, though he has still yet to shine at the highest level despite expectations suggesting he one day would. After improving across the board, he will hope to continue to progress at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
PSG have made a strategic choice in signing the South Korean, who is capable of playing as a wing-back, wide midfielder or as a second striker.
Combined with the speed of Kylian Mbappé – assuming he doesn’t head to Saudi Arabia – the passing of Marco Verratti and the skill of Neymar, this 2023-24 version of PSG could make sparks fly if Luis Enrique can also exploit the full potential of a player who is leaving Spain after 11 years of loyal service.
Alexandre de Moussac
Born in Lagos and brought up in Cork, Chiedozie Ogbene has travelled a long road to get to the Premier League.
The new Luton Town signing forged his skills in the League of Ireland with Cork City and Limerick, making a name for himself as a tricky winger. Like many of the country’s footballing talents, his performances on home soil caught the attention of the bigger boys across the Irish Sea, with then Championship side Brentford snapping him up in January 2018.
Ogbene failed to establish himself there, though, and after a loan spell with Exeter, he moved to League One Rotherham United ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, and there he flourished.
In his first season, Ogbene made 25 appearances in the league and helped his side win promotion to the second tier. He continued to impress in the following seasons, finding the back of the net in Rotherham’s 4-2 EFL Trophy final victory over Sutton United at Wembley in April 2022.
Ogbene’s impressive club form carried over into his international career, with the winger racking up five goal involvements for the Republic of Ireland since his senior debut in June 2021, the second-best haul of any player in that time.
2022-23 was a tough season for Rotherham, as they finished 19th in the Championship, just six points clear of the drop zone. Ogbene still shone, though, and ended the campaign as the club’s top scorer with eight goals, plus four assists.
He is most comfortable playing off the right, happy either to drift infield or stay out wide. He is dangerous with the ball and also effective without it. Only three players won back possession in the final third more times than the 26-year-old in the Championship last season.
Courtesy of his summer move to Luton, Ogbene now has the chance to showcase his compelling blend of end product and hard graft and finally make a name for himself at the very highest level.
In a season that can only be described as a dumpster fire for FC Groningen – in which they finished bottom of the Eredivisie and so face a first season in the second tier this century – there were very few positives. But amid all the smoke at a club that in the past has developed players such as Arjen Robben, Ronald Koeman and Virgil van Dijk, there were two bright lights to be spotted: the headlights of Ricardo ‘El Tren’ Pepi.
Pepi joined Groningen on loan from Augsburg on transfer deadline day last summer, having failed to assert himself in Germany after a promising start at FC Dallas. Tasked with succeeding La Liga-bound striker Jörgen Strand Larsen, it is safe to say in hindsight that it was one of the few things that did go right for the club. He impressed with his work rate, movement, attitude and, most of all, his goals.
Since Pepi’s Eredivisie debut in September 2022, he was directly involved in 15 goals (12 goals, 3 assists), with only seven players more productive than the American in that time. Unsurprisingly, all of those players turned out for a team from the top that finished in the league’s top seven. No other team was as reliant on one player in terms of goals and assists as Groningen were on Pepi.
In the top 10 European leagues, there were only four players with 15 goal involvements who were younger than Pepi (20 years old) and it’s safe to say that Benjamin Sesko (Red Bull Salzburg), Xavi Simons (PSV), Jamal Musiala (FC Bayern) and Rasmus Højlund (Atalanta) all turned out for better sides than the American.
In fact, Pepi became the youngest player to reach 15 goals or assists in an Eredivisie season for Groningen since a 19-year-old Luis Suárez in 2006-07. But where the Uruguayan could rely on a solid team around him, Pepi had to feed off scraps, and his lethal finishing was key. He scored his 12 goals from just 7.2 expected goals (xG). The only Eredivisie player with a bigger positive margin than Pepi (+4.8) was Twente’s Václav Cerny (+5.6).
Pepi’s knack for a goal had manifested itself earlier in his career in Dallas, where he scored 13 goals from just 9.5 xG. Clearly, his numbers were no fluke, which is why PSV Eindhoven made the move to sign him in early July.
There is more to his game, too. In his time in the Eredivisie last season, he ranked ninth for touches in the opposition’s box (136), was in the top 20 for possession wins in the final third (21) and was one of the top 32 players in terms of created chances from open play (29). In a better team and a different environment, those numbers can only soar.
His finishing is already elite, now it’s time to see how he fares surrounded by better players at PSV.
One of only two players to appear in all 46 of Sheffield United’s league games in the 2022-23 campaign, Iliman Ndiaye registered 14 goals and 10 assists in the Championship. Runners-up to Burnley, the Senegal international played an integral role in the return of top-flight football to South Yorkshire. Ndiaye has, however, since completed a transfer to Ligue 1 side Marseille – a club he represented in youth football.
It’s not difficult to understand why last year’s third-best Ligue 1 side wanted Ndiaye. Only three players in Viktor Gyökeres, Chuba Akpom and Carlton Morris were directly involved in more Championship goals than Ndiaye last season, while only Gyökeres joined him in hitting double figures for both goals and assists during the regular season.
His 10 assists were bettered by only Jack Clarke and Ryan Giles, who both got 11, with the last Sheffield United player to be involved in as many league goals (24) in a season being Billy Sharp in 2018-19. He also never ended on the losing side in a league game he scored in in 2022-23, with United winning 12 of those 13 games. A good luck charm of sorts.
Undoubtedly one of the most exceptional aspects of Ndiaye’s play is his ability on the ball, with only João Pedro (116) completing more dribbles in the Championship last season than he did (111). What’s more, of the 24 players to attempt 100+ dribbles, Ndiaye’s success rate of 57% was 5% higher than any other player, while four of his 10 assists came following a take-on; no other player registered more than two assists following a take-on. He also scored three of his 14 goals following a take-on, with only Cameron Archer doing so more often (four).
Ndiaye’s only previous top-flight appearance was in March 2021, appearing as a late substitute in a 5-0 away defeat to Leicester City.
Signed as a 17-year-old in January 2020, Jarrad Branthwaite did not have the happiest of debuts for Everton later that year. He came on as a half-time substitute in a dismal 3-0 defeat at Wolves that marked a nadir of Carlo Ancelotti’s first half-season at the club.
Matters got better under Ancelotti the following campaign, before they got much, much worse under Rafa Benítez and, subsequently, Frank Lampard. That upheaval was not conducive to nurturing young players.
Branthwaite needed game time, and so a loan made sense for all parties last season. He joined PSV, whose president Marcel Brands had brought the centre-back to Everton in the first place.
He impressed in the Netherlands, making 36 appearances in total, with 21 starts coming in the Eredivisie. Only two PSV defenders played more games, with Branthwaite scoring four goals – just six fewer than Everton’s defenders managed between them in 2022-23.
Branthwaite is now back and, after helping England to Under-21 Euros glory this summer, will hope to challenge for a place in Sean Dyche’s team. On paper, the left-footed 21-year-old looks well suited to partnering James Tarkowski, yet the question is: is he ready to play at the top level week in, week out?
Perhaps not, but with Yerry Mina – who was the Toffees’ best defender – having left the club along with Conor Coady, Everton cannot keep calling on the failing formula of one of Michael Keane, Mason Holgate or Ben Godfrey partnering Tarkowski, which means Branthwaite should at least get a chance.
At PSV, he also showcased his ability to regain the ball, winning possession back 190 times, which was 11 more than anyone managed for Everton, while his 122 clearances would have put him second in the Toffees’ squad behind Tarkowski (198). The youngster was only dribbled past by an opponent on 10 occasions, while also making 41 successful interceptions. When it came to aerial duels, Branthwaite won 87 of 141 (62%).
As ever with younger players, there will be mistakes. He made two errors leading to shots and one of those led to a goal, but there is some reason to believe he is ready for the step up. PSV wanted him back, and even Liverpool have been linked with him, though Everton are unlikely to consider selling to their rivals, regardless of their perilous financial situation.
Branthwaite will need time and patience, but Dyche should give him a chance this season.
Arsenal will look back at 2022-23 as both a missed opportunity and a sign of significant progress under Mikel Arteta. There were a combination of different factors that led to the downfall of their title challenge, with the absence of William Saliba from Arsenal’s final 11 games and their inability to adequately replace him for the run-in proving the most significant.
If Arsenal are to go one better in 2023-24, they have to learn from their mistakes of last year.
Enter Jurriën Timber, who has been pulling up trees for some time in the Eredivisie (sorry, had to be done).
Young (22 years old), capped internationally (15 times by Netherlands), has top-flight experience (121 appearances for Ajax), versatile and technically adept, Timber ticks all the boxes for Arsenal and won’t just be coming in to play back-up.
A ball-playing centre back by trade, Timber has also spent time at right-back. He is comfortable on the ball in central areas, which adds another string to Arsenal’s bow, giving them the option to mirror what Oleksandr Zinchenko does on the other side by inverting into central midfield.
The Dutchman is the latest addition to Arsenal’s backline made up of hybrid, versatile defenders such as Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Jakub Kiwior, who have all spent time at both centre-back and full-back throughout their careers.
With Arsenal welcoming Champions League football back to the Emirates for the first time since 2016-17, they will need to lean into their squad, something Arteta was widely criticised for last term having made the fewest starting XI changes of any Premier League side.
So, Timber can expect plenty of minutes next season, but what will he bring to Arsenal?
Well, the numbers speak for themselves. The Dutchman ranked top for successful passes, successful forward passes, passing accuracy, progressive carries and carry progress in the Eredivisie in 2022-23, while he was also involved in more open-play sequences that led to a goal than any other defender (23).
Arsenal have addressed their lack of quality depth on the right side of their defence and Timber joins a young team on the up with big ambitions.
Whether it be from right-back or centre-back, Timber’s calmness on the ball and progressive approach will fit seamlessly into Arsenal’s style as they aim to fight on all fronts in 2023-24 and re-establish themselves among Europe’s elite.
Goalkeepers are a special breed. Many don’t get an opportunity to play regularly until later in their career compared to outfielders, while they also keep on playing longer (Ciao, Gigi Buffon). The Premier League this summer welcomes an exception to the rule in 20-year-old Bart Verbruggen, who joins Brighton from Belgian side RSC Anderlecht. It is another chapter in the Dutchman’s incredible rise in recent years.
Verbruggen was born and raised in Breda but never got a first-team shot between the sticks at local side NAC. In the summer of 2020, Verbruggen left for Belgium, where he would become Anderlecht’s third-choice keeper. But halfway through the 2022-23 campaign, he took veteran Hendrik Van Crombrugge’s starting spot, and ever since, his career has taken off.
Since becoming first choice between the sticks in December 2022, Verbruggen played 17 league games, maintaining the league’s highest save percentage (75.3%) and the second-highest clean sheet rate (47.1%). The Dutchman prevented 3.4 goals based on Opta’s expected goals on target model, which gave him the second-best such record in the competition. In April, Verbruggen became the first Anderlecht goalkeeper to keep six consecutive clean sheets since Silvio Proto in 2010-11.
Those season-wide numbers are impressive, but Verbruggen showed his qualities in a couple of specific matches in 2022-23. Against Ludogorets in February, he became the first goalkeeper not to concede a single goal in a penalty shootout in any major European competition in the last 35 years. Against Villarreal in March, he became the first goalkeeper to prevent 2+ goals while keeping a clean sheet in any UEFA Europa Conference League game. For the Netherlands Under-21s against Belgium in June, he went top of the list for goalkeepers with the most prevented goals (2.6) in the European Under-21 Championship as far back as xGOT data is available (2019).
Brighton were already one of the Premier League’s most interesting sides, and the arrival of Verbruggen will only make Roberto De Zerbi’s side stronger. Young goalkeepers are an even more special breed.
The 2023-24 season could be a massive one in determining the career trajectory of Tyler Adams, and shaping the prominence or modesty in the role he will have in English football in his prime. Unlike many of his American contemporaries, he has certainly made strides toward proving himself as a lasting Premier League player, but the club he’s at no longer competes there.
At 24, those strides have reached a point of flux, both in terms of which shirt he will wear in which division and when his body will allow him to make use of it. His World Cup was a largely impressive one as part of a promising midfield three, but it ended with an un-Tyler Adams-like marking mistake leading to a Netherlands goal that helped send the United States home at their typical tournament crescendo.
His World Cup became a microcosm of his season as he then laboured through the winter with Leeds and didn’t play after March due to injury. It’s now clear he won’t be ready to return before September. Is that why a move to Newcastle, West Ham, Aston Villa or back to Germany hasn’t happened?
Wherever he plays, when healthy, he brings a mix of versatility and reliability. That versatility to move from the base of the midfield to the backline could come in handy for Newcastle given they’ve already invested heavily in Sandro Tonali.
Should he find a Premier League club that’ll trust him with serious minutes in defensive midfield as Leeds did, they’ll be getting a player who covers serious ground in the middle of the park, wins the ball and is generally responsible with it from there. Last season, Adams’ 8.3 possession regains per 90 ranked eighth in the division, and he won possession in the middle third (4.7 per 90) more frequently than all Premier League players not named Rodri, Thiago Alcântara or Declan Rice (min. 900 minutes).
Once on the ball, he was one of 20 Premier League midfielders with at least 1,500 touches last season to not make a single error leading to an opposition shot. That lapse in concentration at the World Cup was far from what we’ve come to expect of a player who should be playing top-tier football next season.
Still just 22 years of age, Amdouni proved himself as a Swiss up-and-comer to watch in 2022-23. He entered the Swiss Super League a season earlier with FC Lausanne-Sport (12 goals in 34 apps) and though the team were relegated, he did enough to be picked up by FC Basel last summer. He needed a bit of time to fully settle at his new club, but then really got into gear after the winter break. His form last season has now earned him a move to the Premier League with Burnley.
In 2023, Amdouni was directly involved in 13 goals (10 goals, 3 assists) in Swiss Super League games, which was only topped by two players, both for eventual champions Young Boys. He also found the net in six of his side’s eight knockout games in the UEFA Europa Conference League, and those goals were nearly enough to take Basel all the way to the final. Ultimately they were eliminated by Fiorentina after a gruelling semi-final tie that went to extra time, and Basel only lost in the 120th minute. Amdouni was joint-top scorer in the competition with seven goals, along with Arthur Cabral of Fiorentina.
He has also been making waves on the international stage, scoring in all four European Championship qualifiers he has played in for the Swiss national team (five goals); in doing so he became the first player to score in four consecutive appearances for Switzerland since Blaise Nkufo way back in 2008.
And he even prolonged his season by putting himself up for Under-21 action at this summer’s Euros, where he contributed another two goals. Amdouni played a huge amount of football last season – 62 games in total for club and country – scoring an impressive 30 goals.
He was Basel’s top-scorer in 2022-23 with 22 goals, plus he added four assists. One of his biggest strengths is the variety of goals he can score: he netted 11 with his right foot, six with his left and five with his head; 14 were scored in open play, six were at set-pieces (three free-kick, three corner) and two were penalties. His offensive toolkit raised interest from many clubs, but it was Burnley who won the race for his signature as they prepare to return to the Premier League.
It has long been common to see transfers between Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig. Players who have proven themselves in Salzburg make their way to Leipzig every year to take the next step in their careers. In the summer of 2023, this was once again the case with two promising talents: Nicolas Seiwald and Benjamin Sesko. The latter looks a particularly exciting prospect.
Tall and technical, Sesko could transform Leipzig’s attacking game, having lacked a player like him in attack last season. Timo Werner played in various positions and thus struggled for consistency, only scoring nine
Bundesliga goals. André Silva failed to find the net in the entire second half of the season, so it is time for Leipzig to sign a dangerous box player once again.
Sesko fulfils this profile. He is only 20 years old, 195cm tall, and is considered a (excuse the pun) huge talent in his position. The Slovenian was the top scorer for the Austrian champions in 2022-23, scoring 16 goals, and his tally was only surpassed by three players in the league. Sesko also had the third-highest xG value across the league (15.3), only ‘beaten’ by Haris Tabakovic (17.3) and Guido Burgstaller (15.9). Sesko seeks out good finishing positions and also takes his chances well, according to the model.
Sesko is always lurking close to goal, looking for space and opportunities to score. He had 15% of his touches (128 out of 847) in the opposition’s penalty area, where he patiently waits for chances. In the Austrian Bundesliga in 2022-23, only one player with a minimum of 500 touches had a higher proportion of his touches in the opponent’s box: the experienced Burgstaller (17%). Sesko, a true penalty-box striker, scored 15 of his 16 goals in 2022-23 from inside the box.
In Werner, Sesko has competition for the lone striker spot, but his size, ability to hold the ball up, and link play could be a real help to how they construct attacks. Although he is still without a goal in 12 Champions League appearances, he now has another chance to showcase himself on Europe’s biggest stage with Leipzig, who once again qualified for the competition.
Reyna has suffered rotten luck with injuries recently, featuring for just 611 Bundesliga minutes in 2022-23, with just four of his 22 appearances coming as a starter. However, injuries were the only thing that could hold the 20-year-old back. Whenever he was able to step onto the pitch, only Europe’s elite was able to keep up with his productivity.
Despite his limited playing time, Reyna managed nine goal involvements last season, scoring seven and assisting two. On average the American directly contributed to a goal every 68 minutes, a ratio bettered only by Neymar (65) and Reyna’s former teammate Erling Haaland (63) among players to feature for 500+ minutes in Europe’s top five leagues in 2022-23.
Haaland (1.17) and Reyna (1.03) were the only two of these players to average more than one goal per 90 minutes. Those numbers weren’t a fluke either, with only Bundesliga top scorer Christopher Nkunku (0.69) averaging more xG per 90 minutes in 2022-23 than Reyna (0.64).
Dortmund’s excellent form after the World Cup took them close to ending Bayern’s monopoly on the Bundesliga title. The story might have been very different, though: in their first match in 2023, BVB were on the verge of a 3-3 draw at home to Augsburg until Reyna scored his first of a joint-best five goals as a Bundesliga substitute in 2022-23 (alongside Lars Stindl). The 20-year-old repeated the trick three days later, firing Dortmund to a 2-1 away win at Mainz deep into added time, kickstarting BVB’s push for the league title.
Ultimately, Dortmund fell short, after drawing 2-2 with Mainz on the final day of the season. Both of Dortmund’s goals that day were assisted by Reyna, taking the American’s total to seven goal involvements as a substitute over the course of the season – the joint most among all players in the big five leagues alongside Lautaro Martínez.
After losing key players, Dortmund will find it hard to keep up with Bayern again, but having a fully fit Gio Reyna will help. Meanwhile, Reyna spent his summer winning the CONCACAF Nations League, assisting both USMNT goals in the final against Canada.
Szoboszlai did not have an easy start into the 2022-23 Bundesliga season. In the first five matches, he started only once and played just 121 of 450 minutes. But when Marco Rose was announced as the new head coach of RB Leipzig after the fifth game had passed, the situation for Szoboszlai changed drastically. He played 28 out of 29 remaining Bundesliga games since, with 27 as a starter, and staying on the pitch for 2,331 minutes of a possible 2,610.
Reunited with his former coach at Salzburg, Szoboszlai managed to perform at a consistently high level and was directly involved in 14 of Leipzig’s league goals (6 goals, 8 assists), with only Bundesliga top scorer Nkunku involved in more for the club (20). No other Leipzig player created as many chances as Szoboszlai (71) – and since Rose took over in September 2022, only Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Jonas Hofmann laid on more opportunities (88) and had a higher expected assists value (9.9) than Szoboszalai (70 chances created, 8.5 expected assists) in the whole Bundesliga.
But the 22-year-old did not only excite fans with his goals and creativity; he also displayed fine technical skills as he was the Leipzig player with the most dribbles attempted (94) and completed (54) in the 2022-23 campaign.
After two and a half years, Szobozslai said goodbye to Leipzig in the perfect way, winning the DFB-Pokal (for the second successive time), and making a telling contribution to the 2-0 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the final by scoring his side’s second goal.
Now, Szoboszlai will become the third Leipzig player to join Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool after Naby Keïta (2018-19) and Ibrahima Konaté (2021-22). The Hungary international has proven he is able to play across midfield – in 2022-23, Szoboszlai played five different positions in 46 competitive appearances for Leipzig: right winger (25 games), right midfield (8), left winger (7), central midfield (3) and central attacking midfield (3). With this flexibility, he might add an unpredictable element to Liverpool’s attacking play in the upcoming season.
With his free transfer from Liverpool to Werder Bremen this summer, Naby Keïta made his return to the Bundesliga. At the top of the 28-year-old midfielder’s list of priorities will be closing the injury-plagued chapter that was his time at Liverpool as quickly as possible, then looking to regain his best form from past Bundesliga times.
The transfer caused a lot of hype among SVW fans, which was hardly surprising given their team have only been back in the top tier for one season since promotion in 2022. It came as quite the shock then that a player for whom Liverpool once paid a transfer fee of €60 million and who is still in his prime footballing years has now joined Bremen.
In his five seasons at Liverpool, Keïta made only 84 appearances from a possible 190 Premier League games (44%) and was in the starting XI in only 49 league games (26%). In total, he made 129 competitive appearances, most of them in the 2021-22 season (40; 25 of which were from the start). That campaign was also his joint-best scoring season for Liverpool (four goals, same as 2019-20).
Last term, Keïta made only 13 competitive appearances and was not directly involved in a single goal. According to Transfermarkt, he missed 113 matches due to injury during his time at Liverpool.
Before joining Liverpool, Keïta played two seasons in the Bundesliga for RB Leipzig. In 2016-17 he won the ball more times than any other player (262) and completed the second-most dribbles (83) behind Ousmane Dembélé (102). The following season, Keïta ranked sixth for possession wins (190) and third for successful dribbles (67). Over the course of those two years, he was top in both columns. He also scored 14 league goals – twice as many as he managed in five seasons in the Premier League.
But Keïta was not only convincing as an enforcer in the Bundesliga, he also shone as a provider. Across those two years in Germany’s top division, he created 79 chances and provided 12 assists in 58 games, a feat surpassed only by Emil Forsberg (133 chances created, 21 assists) among Leipzig players in that period.
Werder pair Niclas Füllkrug (16 goals) and Marvin Ducksch (12) formed the most successful goalscoring duo in the Bundesliga (28 goals) last term; if they are not split up this summer, Keïta would have excellent recipients for his passes in the coming season, and he could thus become one of the top providers in the Bundesliga once again.
As soon as the 2023 summer transfer window opened, Clermont made Bilal Boutobba’s arrival official, with his contract at Niort coming to an end. A free transfer, the move is hardly a risk for the Ligue 1 side, and it could turn out to be a very good signing indeed.
Last season in Ligue 2, Chamois Niortais endured a hugely disappointing campaign that saw them relegated to the National, the French third tier. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t had the 24-year-old Boutobba. The attacking midfielder was directly involved in 46% of his team’s goals (11 goals and 5 assists).
For a third consecutive season, Boutobba reached the milestone of five assists in Ligue 2 (6 in 2020-21, 7 in 2021-22 and 5 in 2022-23). Over the last three Ligue 2 campaigns, only Branco van den Boomen (28) and Youssouf M’Changama (19) have provided more assists than him (18).
Clermont have signed up an exciting player, as shown by his 71 chances created last season (the third-best in the league) and his 17 big chances laid on for teammates – the joint-highest tally in the division alongside Bordeaux’s Vital N’Simba.
The Auvergne-based club will also benefit from Boutobba’s technique. He attempted 163 dribbles in 2022-23 (the second-highest tally in Ligue 2) and completed 74 of them (the third most). Opponents often have to choose to stop him by illegal means, with 30 of his dribbles resulting in a foul, which was at least three more than any other player.
Boutobba returns to Ligue 1 after playing just six games in the top flight across spells with Marseille (for whom he became their youngest ever player back in 2014) and Montpellier. With Clermont, who surprised everyone by finishing eighth in Ligue 1 last season, he has another opportunity to show what he can do at top-flight level. It should be a win-win for all concerned.
While it might not be the most unfamiliar name on this list, keeping an eye on Paulo Dybala is always worth it. He has consistently shown how exceptional a player he is over the years, and at Roma he’s proved he is happy to shoulder the burden of a team.
Let’s take a moment to consider the magnitude of the challenge. After a presentation in Colosseum Square in front of more than 10,000 fans who are looking for their saviour, it’s no easy task to live up to expectations. However, Dybala rose to the challenge. He led Roma to the final of the UEFA Europa League and kept them in a European spot in Serie A despite the fact he missed a chunk of the season due to injury.
His influence on the team became glaringly obvious in his absence. Without Dybala on the field, Roma had less possession, were less precise in attack, had fewer shots, scored fewer goals, and… won fewer matches.
On an individual level, Dybala had an outstanding season, scoring five goals and providing one assist in the Europa League, while also finishing in the top 10 for goals and chances created per game in Serie A. He ranked joint 12th for assists.
In the middle of the season, Dybala also became a world champion with Argentina. He didn’t play many minutes in Qatar, but he left a lasting impact, particularly in the final. Not only did he successfully convert one of Argentina’s penalties in the shootout, but he was also responsible for making a crucial clearance to stop Kylian Mbappé from potentially scoring a 120th-minute winner: a piece of defensive work that is still revered in Argentina.
In the upcoming campaign, if Dybala manages to assert himself as a leader on the field and Mourinho builds the team around him, we could witness an even better season for the Argentine. Back in his home country, fans are looking for a successor to Lionel Messi, and if he stays injury-free, Dybala could be that man.
While Chelsea have gone through huge structural and personnel changes both on and off the pitch in the past 12 months, and their massive outlay on new players has been well-documented, it must really feel like a fresh start for everyone at the club this pre-season. There are plenty of players who can make a real name for themselves going forward, with very few senior players around to block the path to the first team for younger players.
One player who could get lots of minutes and opportunities to be a potential star for Chelsea this season is Malo Gusto. Having made his debut for Lyon as a 17-year-old in January 2021, he’s already racked up over 60 appearances as a teenager, impressing many and becoming first-choice right-back for the French side ahead of the 2022-23 season. An injury in November did not dissuade Chelsea from buying the promising youngster in January, before loaning him back to Lyon.
Gusto is a powerful full-back, comfortable at both ends of the pitch. He’s already proved versatile enough to play as a conventional right-back and as a wing-back, while he was also used as a right winger in Lyon’s youth teams. He loves to cross the ball and appears to do so very well; he played more open-play crosses into the box (116) than any other defender in Ligue 1 last season despite only staring 19 games, averaging 6.5 per 90, which was also top among defenders to play at least 900 minutes.
He might not currently possess the goal threat of Reece James, but when it comes to providing chances for others, he certainly matches his new teammate. Only two defenders (min. 900 minutes) created more chances from open play than Gusto (1.4 per 90) in Ligue 1 last season, while only one defender had a higher expected assist tally (0.23).
In both cases Gusto’s numbers are also higher than James’ (1.2 and 0.2), showing just how effective the Frenchman could be under Mauricio Pochettino, whether filling in for James or potentially playing alongside him. Given that James only started 44% of Chelsea’s matches last season, its highly likely the young recruit will get his chance to impress either way.
Brazilian midfielder Vitor Carvalho was one of Gil Vicente’s most influential players in the Primeira Liga last season, and following his recent move to SC Braga, the Brazilian has a real chance to take his game to the next level at a team with lofty ambitions.
The 26-year-old ranked top at Gil Vicente for tackles won (45), interceptions (43), duels won (196) and aerial duels won (114). Despite operating primarily as a defensive midfielder, only four players at Gil Vicente created more chances than Carvalho’s 22 and he also chipped in with three league goals.
The ex-Coritiba man really started to shine in the 2021/22 season, helping Gil Vicente to fifth place in the league and into European competition for the first time in their history. Across the last two Primeira Liga seasons, only four players have won more duels than Carvalho’s 363 and he ranks 10th in that same period for aerial duels won (230).
It was only a matter of time before the Palmas-born man moved on to a team consistently fighting further up the table and after four seasons and 108 appearances across all competitions in Barcelos, Braga moved to acquire one of the most underrated and impressive players from outside of the big three (Porto, Benfica and Sporting CP).
He joins an incredibly ambitious Braga side who will enter the UEFA Champions League at the third qualifying round stage and who are looking to finish in the top three of the Primeira Liga in consecutive seasons for the first time in their history. He has signed a deal keeping him at the club until 2028, and if he can have a similar influence on Braga that he had on his former club, the €2 million they paid for him could well prove to be a snip.