With the top five leagues in full swing, we look at a handful of players who’ve perhaps gone under the radar in the past but are enjoying fine starts to the 2023-24 campaign.
Serhou Guirassy and Victor Boniface: Harry Kane’s Competition
The arrival of Harry Kane in the Bundesliga has probably led to there being more eyes on the league this season; even if you’re not a regular follower of Germany’s top flight, you’ve likely heard about the England captain’s start.
Eight goals in seven games across all competitions is ideal, and he got his first hat-trick for Bayern in last week’s 7-0 demolition of Bochum. But, astonishingly, he’s three goals behind the Bundesliga’s top scorer.
Serhou Guirassy is probably the most in-form player you’ve never heard of… Okay, he’s not exactly an unknown quantity, having played in Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga for every season since 2015, but at 27 years old he’s hardly a household name.
Nevertheless, the Stuttgart striker is the most lethal frontman in the top five leagues on current form; he’s scored 10 goals in five league games, which is already just one shy of his total for the whole of 2022-23 (22 matches), and none have been from the penalty spot; in fact, he’s scored from a wide variety of shots and the general standard of his goals has been exceptional. The next highest scorer (excluding penalties) in the top leagues is Erling Haaland with seven, which should be another marker of just how remarkable Guirassy’s form is.
Further to that, no player has ever scored more than 10 goals in the first five games of a Bundesliga season, with Guirassy matching a feat only Robert Lewandowski (10 in 2020-21) has accomplished before. This obviously means it’s a record for Stuttgart, who, thanks to Guirassy’s goals, have enjoyed their second-best start to a top-flight campaign (12 points, only bettered in 1996-97 with 13).
When someone seems to become a goalscoring phenomenon out of nowhere, though, it does beg the question of whether it’s sustainable form or not. His 10 goals come from 4.3 non-penalty expected goals (xG); unless something specific has clicked with Guirassy in the last year, this does suggest his form will level out eventually.
And yet, although he’s scored some spectacular goals like the 25-yard screamer and gorgeous lob he netted against Darmstadt on Friday, his 4.3 non-penalty xG only trails that of Haaland (6.3), Lewandowski (4.6) and one other Bundesliga striker; that’s Bayer Leverkusen’s Victor Boniface.
The 22-year-old Nigeria international might end up being just as much of a threat to Kane’s hopes of winning the ‘Kicker-Torjägerkanone’ as Guirassy, because Boniface is scoring at a more sustainable rate with six goals from 5.76 xG (or five from 4.97 if we remove penalties). His emergence has also been relatively sudden, having arrived from Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in pre-season.
The Africa Cup of Nations might ultimately put a spanner in the works for Boniface and Guinea star Guirassy, but at least for the time being, Kane has some serious competition.
Sávio Igniting Girona
Girona have been the story of the season to date in La Liga as they sit second in the table, only trailing Barcelona – who’ve played a game more – by a point. They’re playing attractive football and are unbeaten, with their haul of 16 points being double that of their previous best at this stage of a top-flight season.
Who knows how long it’ll last, but for now they’re just enjoying the ride and relishing the presence of several very talented footballers; the one who has arguably caught the eye the most is Sávio.
Manchester City fans might want to pay Sávio particular attention as the 19-year-old Brazilian winger is owned by the City Football Group, which is also the explanation as to how he technically found his way to Troyes – part of the CFG stable – when initially moving to Europe last year in a deal that could cost €12.5 million.
A month later he was loaned to PSV, where his impact was minimal as he made just six Eredivisie appearances, but Sávio was brought back under the CFG umbrella in pre-season and sent to Girona; so far, his spell in Catalonia couldn’t have gone much better.
Although preferring to play on the right and cut inside on to his left foot in youth football with Atlético Mineiro, where Jorge Sampaoli gave him his debut as a 16-year-old, ‘Savinho’ – as he’s also known – has operated on the other flank for Girona, his role closer to that of a classic winger.
He’s thrived. Sávio’s ability on the ball instantly makes him stand out, with only three players attempting more dribbles than him so far in La Liga (29). He’s completed 15 of them, giving him a 51.7% success rate, which is bettered by only six players among the 27 with at least 15 dribble attempts.
This feeds into his ball carrying as well; only four players have carried the ball further than Sávio (1,364 metres) and he combines that bravery with purpose, ranking 11th for progressive carries (53) and first for carries with an assist (3), which accounts for all of his decisive key passes this season.
The first led to a delicate chipped cross to the back post that Yangel Herrera headed in against Getafe on August 20; then, nearly a month later against Granada, Sávio received the ball just inside the opponents’ half wide on the left before squeezing between two defenders and embarking on a darting run that eventually finished with him finding Viktor Tsygankov on the edge of the box for a gorgeous curling strike. He got his third assist at the weekend, cleverly beating his man out wide, charging past another and finding Iván Martín with an inch-perfect cut-back.
He’s also added a couple of goals, the first being a stunning long-range strike and the second a cool finish following a clever give-and-go with Artem Dovbyk. As such, Sávio is averaging 0.98 goal involvements per 90 minutes, a record that puts him only marginally behind Jude Bellingham (1.02) as the seventh most productive player in La Liga this season (minimum 180 minutes played).
La Liga could be witnessing the emergence of a future superstar.
Pedro Neto, Wolves’ Glimmer of Hope
It’s never pleasant to see any player suffer a serious injury, but it’s always particularly gutting when a talented youngster is ruled out for a long time. Even a few months out can really set a young player back in their development, and some may end up never reaching their full potential as a result.
Wolves winger Pedro Neto has had an especially difficult time of it in recent seasons. Over the previous two campaigns, injuries restricted him to just 31 Premier League appearances; he managed 60 across the two prior to that.
But this term he’s played every minute of Wolves’ first six league games and been a thrill to watch with his aggressive, direct style of play from the (mostly) left side of the midfield. Neto’s already tallied four assists, level with Mohamed Salah and James Maddison for the most in the Premier League despite Wolves scoring only six times – Liverpool and Tottenham have 15 apiece.
Those assists have highlighted the variety of weapons in his arsenal as well. His first of the season came with a cross from deep on the right before a pair of precise deliveries from a similar range on the left against Crystal Palace, one being from open play and the other a free-kick. Then, in the 3-1 loss at home to Liverpool, he inspired Wolves’ opener with a brilliant solo run from his own half prior to a brilliant pass right across the face of goal for Hwang Hee-chan to turn in.
Bukayo Saka (19) is the only player in the Premier League with more chances created than Neto (18), and his expected assists (xA) of 2.1 sees him rank fourth, evidence that, although he may have been helped by some good finishing, the quality of the chances he’s laid on is high.
Wolves are struggling with only four points from six games, but in Neto they have a genuine wildcard with the ability to potentially dig them out of holes. Their chances of avoiding relegation will surely be much higher if he stays fit, which would also be a boost to anyone who enjoys exciting wingers.
Andrea Pinamonti Out to Prove a Point
Roberto Mancini bemoaned Italy’s perceived lack of promising young players coming through earlier this year, which was hardly the sort of vote of confidence most would have appreciated from the head coach of the Italian national team.
During his venting, Mancini specifically noted an apparent dearth in talented forwards, saying they were “really limited in the offensive department”. While he may not have been the first person of prominence to make that claim, it wasn’t a comment that went down well.
Mario Balotelli hit back, and given his name recognition, his response attracted more attention than most. But arguably more relevant was what Andrea Pinamonti – a more realistic future option for the Azzurri – came back with: “It certainly was a bit annoying, yes, especially for a player who aspires to be called up to the national team. At the same time, however, it becomes an incentive to do better,” he said at an awards ceremony a few days later.
Mancini may not be Italy coach anymore, but Pinamonti would appear to be forcing his way back into contention at Sassuolo after a bright start to the season.
With four goals in five Serie A games, the imposing striker is already just one shy of his total output for last season and heads into Wednesday’s clash with Inter – whose academy he came through – having netted in each of his past three league outings.
The instinctive headers he scored against Juventus and Hellas Verona showed he can perform the function of a ‘big man up top’ – and he is a big man. But the brace he recorded in the surprise 4-2 defeat to Frosinone evidenced how he can offer subtlety as well, slamming in a 20-yard volley and another tidy finish after running the inside-left channel.
Those efforts came from just 1.16 xG, which obviously suggests it’s probably a little early to be getting carried away. However, it also shows just how clinical he’s been, with the 24-year-old only recording six shots (excluding blocks); that’s a conversion rate of 66.7%, which is the joint best of all Serie A players with at least two attempts.
Of course, he’s shown promise before. Pinamonti scored 13 Serie A goals while on loan at Empoli in 2021-22, form that persuaded Sassuolo to spend €20 million on him. He then struggled to repeat that feat in his first season.
Sassuolo, and Italy, will hope this is just the beginning.
Teddy Teuma and Romain Del Castillo, Ligue 1’s Late Bloomers
If you ignore Paris Saint-Germain’s dominance, Ligue 1 routinely throws up surprises, with Lens’ second-place finish last season the latest such example. A cursory glance at the fledgling 2023-24 table shows the potential for more unlikely stories this season.
Strasbourg and Reims are just inside the European places, unbeaten Nice are second, and Brest remarkably lead the table with 13 points, two more than PSG in third.
Romain Del Castillo, 27, has been particularly prominent for Brest. The former France Under-21 midfielder may not be a newcomer to this level, but there’s a sense he might be finally maturing as a player, building on a promising 2022-23 with a fine start to the new campaign.
With three goals and two assists, Del Castillo has been decisive several times already this term. Granted, two of those goals were from the spot, but there’s still been much to enjoy from his displays.
No player has created more chances in Ligue 1 so far than his 23, and he ranks second (14) for those in open play. His two assists may have been bettered by a few players, but he sits top of the pile for expected assists (2.36), with no one else over 2.0 xA, which highlights the standard of the creativity he’s providing for teammates.
Del Castillo was especially lively in the weekend win over his former club Lyon, creating six chances over the course of the match, which is the most he’s tallied in a single Ligue 1 game since eight versus Caen in November 2018 – although, in the interest of balance, one of the six on Saturday was a shot that happened to invite a header from a teammate. Either way, he’s one of only two players to create five or more opportunities in a game on more than one occasion in 2023-24, the other being Téji Savanier.
Del Castillo is by no means the only late(ish) bloomer impressing in Ligue 1 this season, though. Reims’ Teddy Teuma has been one of the revelations of the opening weeks.
The France-born Malta international is getting his first crack at Ligue 1 at the age of 29 (he’s 30 on Saturday), having returned to his birth country in pre-season following five years in Belgium with Royale Union Saint-Gilloise. In fact, he’d only ever played in Ligue 2 as many as 13 times, and his first three years with Union SG were spent in the second tier.
Six games into his debut Ligue 1 campaign and he’s already accrued three goals and two assists. He truly announced himself on August 27 with two exquisite finishes against Montpellier, a stunning 30-yard half-volley – yes, that’s a proper half-volley – and a gorgeous free-kick. He also saw one of his corner deliveries headed in by Yunis Abdelhamid in that game; it was some debut.
He considers himself a “‘complete’ midfielder” who can “do a bit of everything but I’m not great at everything,” Teuma said in an interview with Ligue 1 earlier this month, with his time in Belgium helping his transformation from a more typical holding midfielder.
It wasn’t so long ago that Teuma was balancing his football career with working as a courier; he’s taken the long road to Ligue 1 but is certainly delivering the goods.