Players to Watch in 2021-22: The Analyst 50 (Part I)
Soccer

Players to Watch in 2021-22: The Analyst 50 (Part I)

After a summer of frantic international football tournaments across the globe, the new domestic league season is now on the horizon. Ninety-eight teams will battle it out across the top five European leagues, with titles to be won, European football to be secured and relegation to be avoided and we wanted to give you a guide on some of the players to watch in 2021-22.

We recruited the very best of Stats Perform’s data editors to give us a list of 50 players. These players aren’t who they think are the greatest – you’ve all read that. This is a selection of 50 players that we think will make an impact in 2021-22. Some are obvious, some less so. Let’s dive in to The Analyst 50, with the first 25 players.


The Players: Part I

Rodrigo De PaulPaulo DybalaRaphinhaAchraf Hakimi Christopher Trimmel
André SilvaSven BotmanJamal MusialaMemphis DepayGeorginio Wijnaldum
David Alaba Yann SommerRobin GosensPatrik SchickPedri
Youri TielemansMichael OliseGersonLorenzo InsigneBukayo Saka
Diego LainezMason MountGiacomo Raspadori Federico ChiesaKamaldeen Sulemana


Rodrigo De Paul
Atlético Madrid

After spending the summer as Lionel Messi’s right-hand man in Argentina’s Copa America victory, Rodrigo De Paul will soon return to club duty where he will find himself locked in a battle with his much-admired compatriot.  

As they go in search of what would be an historic title defence, Atlético Madrid beat a number of teams to the punch to recruit De Paul from Udinese – the place where he had cemented himself as one of Europe’s most coveted midfielders during recent seasons.

De Paul initially moved to Spain in 2014, linking up with Valencia as a 20-year-old. It took a number of years for the Argentinean to find his feet in Europe, however, and he would eventually do so after a change of scenery to Udine and a change of position: switching from the wing to a central role.

Despite playing in a team who finished 14th in Serie A last season, De Paul led all players in Serie A for expected assists from open play (7.2). Operating from this central midfield role, his importance to his team in a creative sense was almost unrivalled across the league – indeed, Udinese’s second-highest player total for open play expected assists was just 2.9.

De Paul was the sole driver of Udinese’s craft in possession, with Manuel Locatelli (3,304) the only midfielder to record more touches than him (2,871) in Serie A last term. Rather than being a pure distributor though, the 27-year-old combines his crafty passing with a unique ability to carry the ball in central areas.

Atlético’s new recruit was the most active ball carrier in Serie A last season, leading all players with 778 in his 36 appearances. De Paul also channelled his creativity through these forays, producing 22 carries that resulted in chances created – a tally only bettered among midfielders and forwards by Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne (24).

In linking up with Diego Simeone on his return to Spain – a fellow Argentinean and former midfielder himself – De Paul will be looking to take another step towards his final growth as a player, but Atlético will be just as excited to welcome the current version to their ranks.

Jamie Kemp

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Paulo Dybala
Juventus

2020-21 was not a season to remember for Paulo Dybala. Injuries and other medical issues meant that he played fewer league matches (20) than ever before in a single campaign, while his return on the pitch of four goals and three assists were also lows during his Serie A career. But 2021-22 could – and should – be different for the Argentine. One major reason for this is the return of coach Massimiliano Allegri to Juventus.

Dybala’s first four seasons in Serie A at Juventus came under Allegri following his move from Palermo in June 2015. Across these four campaigns, the Argentine was involved in 82 goals in 128 appearances – a tally that only seven players bettered, with his best campaign in 2017-18 thanks to 22 goals in 33 games.

Players to Watch in 2021-22 - Dybala under Allegri

2020-21 was disastrous for Juve. After nine successive Serie A title wins, they could only finish fourth and their season was only saved by Champions League qualification thanks to a run of four wins in their last five games, including the final three of the campaign.

Juventus were heavily reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo for goals, with his total of 29 in Serie A contributing towards 38% of their 77 goals in the competition. Despite having obvious goal threats in Álvaro Morata and Federico Chiesa, getting Dybala back to his best and fit again will be key to any Juventus success in 2021-22.

Dybala – who became the first non-European player to ever score 100 competitive goals for Juventus, back in May – was unable to repeat a fantastic 2019-20 season, in which he was named in the OptaPaolo Serie A team of the season based on his statistical output. However, without a summer of international football after being excluded from Argentina’s Copa America success, 2021-22 could be a fresh start. We’ll certainly be keeping a close eye.

Antonio Bini

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Raphinha
Leeds United

Leeds United enjoyed a brilliant return to the Premier League in 2020-21, with their 59 points the second-most by a promoted team in a 38-game season. Playmaker Raphinha was a huge part of this success.

Having only signed in early October, he didn’t make his Premier League start until Leeds’ ninth game of the season yet still ended the campaign with six goals and nine assists – the third-most goal involvements for the club behind Patrick Bamford (24) and Jack Harrison (16). He created more chances for Leeds than any other player (64), while his expected assists per 90 minutes figure of 0.26 was only bettered across the competition by Bruno Fernandes, Kevin De Bruyne (both 0.28) & Jack Grealish (0.27) amongst those to play 900+ minutes last season.

Players to Watch in 2021-22 - Raphina Chances Created for Leeds in 2020-21

Leeds’ top dribbler last season, three of Raphinha’s assists came following a ball carry whilst three also came from set-pieces – Grealish was the only other Premier League player to record 3+ via both methods in 2020-21, highlighting the couple of different strings the winger has to his bow.

As demanded by manager Marcelo Bielsa, Raphinha did not shy away from the hard yards in his first season experiencing the infamous Murderball sessions. He led the league for sprints per game (24) and recorded the most or joint-most sprints in 18 different games amongst the Leeds squad last season, who can confidently claim to be the fittest team in the league – only Andrew Robertson (24) Ollie Watkins (23) and Son Heung-min (20) ended more games as their team’s top or joint-top sprinter.

Raphinha could have made a case to be one of the most underrated signings of the 2020-21 Premier League season with only Ollie Watkins (19), Matheus Pereira (17) and teammate Jack Harrison (16) directly involved in more goals than him (15) amongst those making their debut in the campaign. He’ll hoping to follow that success up in his second Premier League season.

Gareth Boyes

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Achraf Hakimi
Paris Saint-Germain

After winning a Serie A title with Internazionale in 2020-21, the clamour for the signing of right-back Achraf Hakimi meant that he was one of the most chased players this summer. PSG won that race in July with a reported €60 million paid to the Italian champions for the 22-year-old. For a player so young to have already played league football for Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Internazionale ahead of his move to Paris, there must be something special about Hakimi.

He is one of the most dangerous attacking players from a defensive starting position across Europe. Indeed, since the beginning of 2019-20, he’s been involved in 30 goals (12 goals and 18 assists) – only Atalanta’s Robin Gosens (34) has more across all defenders within the top five European leagues in this period. Over these two seasons, he has averaged a goal involvement every 180 minutes – the equivalent to every two games – which is above players like Jack Grealish (181), Rodrigo de Paul (195) and Raphael Guerreiro (182).

Players to Watch in 2021-22 - Achraf Hakimi Goal Involvements

Across the top five European leagues in 2020-21, no defensive player contributed more goals following a ball carry than Hakimi managed at Internazionale, with four goals and nine assists. PSG saw just two goal involvements from all defensive players from a ball carry last season in Ligue 1, so this his move to the French capital is almost certainly going to give them a new dimension to their attack.

Overall, the Moroccan assisted eight goals in Serie A last season, with each of them coming from open play – only Juan Cuadrado (10) made more among defenders. In addition to this, he posted a league-high five secondary assists, while his expected assists total from open play (6.9) was only bettered by Udinese’s Rodrigo de Paul (7.2).

His skillset will definitely be a welcome addition to Mauricio Pochettino’s side in 2021-22 as they look to reclaim the Ligue 1 title that they lost out on to Lille last campaign.

Alexandre de Moussac

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Christopher Trimmel
Union Berlin

In what was only their second Bundesliga season, Union Berlin have already established themselves as a mainstay in the Germany top-flight, a seventh-placed finish and opportunity to play European football this year a just reward for their efforts.

Their main recipe for success has been their ingenuity from set pieces. Since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, 44% of Union Berlin’s league goals have come from set pieces, the highest mark in Germany’s top-flight over that period. Only Eintracht Frankfurt have scored more goals from set pieces (41) than the side from Germany’s capital (40).

At the helm of Union Berlin’s set-piece artistry is Austrian international Christopher Trimmel. Since his side’s promotion to the Bundesliga, their captain has established himself as arguably the best creator from set pieces in the Bundesliga. His quality is the main reason Union Berlin insist he takes basically every corner – 216 in total across their two seasons. That’s a figure only surpassed by Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich (270).

Oddly enough, when you think of a set-piece specialist, you usually think of someone who scores beautiful direct free kick goals. The likes of Lionel Messi and James Ward-Prowse spring to mind. Trimmel, however, has not taken a single direct free kick shot over the previous two Bundesliga seasons, making him a unique set-piece savant. His main focus lies in creating for others.

Since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, Trimmel has created 127 chances for teammates, 17 of which ended in assists (a club record). For both categories he ranks in the top 10 among all Bundesliga players. What sets him apart though, is his incredible chance generation from set pieces. Trimmel’s created 81 chances from set plays and provided 13 assists from dead balls since 2019-20, both of which lead all Bundesliga players over the past two seasons.

Cristopher Trimmel Set Piece Threat

There are many proficient set-piece takers in today’s game, but Trimmel is clearly at the elite end of the scale. He gives his side an edge every game with his delivery and Union Berlin clearly know how to make the most of it.

Michael Prasthofer

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André Silva
RB Leipzig

After playing two years at Eintracht Frankfurt, André Silva has taken the next step in his career and signed at RB Leipzig’s to spearhead their attack for 2021-22. This transfer will also mark his return to the Champions League after a five-year absence – his last season in the competition coming with FC Porto in 2016-17, where he provided four goals and two assists in eight games as a 20-year-old leading them to the last 16.

His career came to a halt following his campaign, however. An unsuccessful transfer to Milan in 2017 was followed by a season on loan at Sevilla in 2018-19, before a loan spell at Eintracht Frankfurt changed his fortunes around. After a season on loan in 2019-20, he was signed permanently in 2020-21 and across two seasons he scored 40 goals and assisted eight more in 57 Bundesliga matches, with his goal tally only bettered by Robert Lewandowski across those two seasons (75).

Players to Watch in 2021-22 - Andre Silva Bundesliga Shots

In 2020-21, Silva broke Bernd Hölzenbein‘s record from 1976-77 (26 goals) as the all-time top scorer for Eintracht Frankfurt in a single Bundesliga season, with 28 goals in 32 games. Again, it was only Lewandowski that was able to score more (41) than Silva in the German top-flight last season, while Silva’s expected goals total of 26.4 was also only below that of his Polish contemporary (32.2).

At RB Leipzig, Silva comes as a late replacement for Timo Werner, whose 28 goals for Leipzig in 2019-20 – before joining Chelsea in the summer – were greatly missed in 2020-21. Leipzig were 21 goals short of the previous season’s performance (81) with their 60 goals ranking them sixth in the Bundesliga. Luckily for them, their defence conceded a league low 32 goals, helping them secure second position in the table with a single point gap above Borussia Dortmund.

Indeed, Silva might be just the centre forward the doctor ordered for Leipzig’s new manager Jesse Marsch. He’s scored all 40 Bundesliga goals from inside the box – a feat similar to Timo Werner, who had scored 74 of 78 German top-flight goals from in the opponent’s goal area.

For the first time since joining the Bundesliga in 2016-17, RB Leipzig failed to produce a scorer with 10+ goals, last season – they’ll be hoping the acquisition of Silva will change that for 2021-22.

Philipp Ilsemann

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Sven Botman
Lille

Sven Botman’s journey to one of the best young defensive prospects in European football today hasn’t been the easiest. As an Ajax academy player, he was long expected to progress to the first team. However, a very successful partnership between Daley Blind and Matthijs De Ligt kept him out of the senior side, forcing Botman to make a loan move to fellow Eredivisie side sc Heerenveen for game time. Lille then picked up the Dutchman a year ago without him ever making a senior appearance for Ajax.

Few would have expected that the 21-year-old would be an instrumental part of a title-winning team in his very first season at Lille – but they pipped PSG to the title on the final day. Much of this success came down to their solid defence, with Botman and José Fonte starting 35 of the 38 league matches together and Lille conceding just 23 goals throughout the entire 2020-21 campaign; a league-low and a new top-flight seasonal record for the club.

Of all 512 players across Europe’s top five leagues to have engaged in at least 250 duels in 2020-21, Botman’s 67.8% success rate is the fifth best, and that competitiveness is also reflected in his aerial prowess. Only nine of the 97 players across the top five European leagues in 2020-21 to have been involved in 150+ aerial duels had a better success rate than the Dutch youngster (68.2%).

Sven Botman Duels Won

While his impressive physical attributes might lend to certain assumptions about his style of play, Botman is more than a brutish centre-back, as proven by the fact his 559 ball carries – defined as a player moving five metres or more with the ball – is the fourth highest among Ligue 1 central defenders.

However, interest from giants like Liverpool and Manchester United has not been sparked merely because of Botman’s physical traits – his passing ability make Botman an attractive transfer target. Across Ligue 1 central defenders in 2020-21, nobody progressed the ball more upfield with their passes than Botman, overall (17,147m) with only teammate José Fonte (1661) and Rennes’ Nayef Aguerd (1873) completing more forward passes than he did (1641).

With only two top-flight seasons under his belt and having yet to make his debut for the Netherlands’ senior team despite a call up in November 2020, 2021-22 could be an exciting season for Botman to further increase his reputation as one of the hottest prospects in European football.

Thomas Markhorst

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Jamal Musiala
Bayern Munich

Jamal Musiala’s Bundesliga debut on Matchday 33 of the 2019-20 season made him the youngest player ever to appear in the German Bundesliga for Bayern Munich. He was just 17 years and 115 days old.

Last season saw him enjoy a breakout campaign. The German is no longer just a young talent that’s seeing some first team minutes. Instead, he’s already made a big impact on Bayern’s football.

While he’s only just turned 18, Musiala is already blessed with a natural ability to beat a man with the ball at his feet. Last season no other player (min. of 300 minutes) completed as many successful take-ons per 90 minutes as Musiala’s 4.6.

Crucially, Musiala attempts these take-ons in dangerous areas of the pitch. Again with our 300 minute threshold,  Musiala made the most take-ons per 90 minutes in the opponent’s half (6.2) and in the opponent’s box (1.9) of all players in German Bundesliga last season. Feed him the ball and watch him go.

Let’s put Musiala’s quality into perspective. Only three players in the Bundesliga completed more take-ons in the opponent’s box last season: Erling Haaland (22), Leon Bailey (20) and Marco Reus (19) – and all three of those played more than 2,000 minutes. Musiala managed 18 take-ons in the opposition’s penalty area from just 871 minutes. Only Frank Ribery has made more take-ons in the opponent’s box per 90 minutes in a single Bundesliga season (1.93 in season 2018-19) than Musiala last year (1.86).

Stretching out this comparison to the top five European leagues, shows that figure of 1.86 take-ons in the box per 90 is more than anyone else. He even outshines PSG’s elite duo Kylian Mbappe (1.6) and Neymar (1.5).

Jamal Musiala 2020-21 for Bayern

Defenders need to be on full alert when Musiala drives into their box, not least because he has the quality to finish from these areas.  He’s the youngest Bayern player to score in the Bundesliga (17y 205d) and the youngest Bayern player and youngest German to score in the Champions league (17y 363d). The teenager found the net every 145 minutes in the league last season, that figure only bettered by Robert Lewandowski’s recording-breaking season (a goal every 60 minutes). Musiala has a bright future ahead of him.

Linus Braun

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Memphis Depay
Barcelona

After four and a half years of impressing Ligue 1 fans with his obvious talents, Memphis Depay sealed a transfer to one of the biggest football clubs in the world in joining FC Barcelona from Lyon. He’ll once again play under coach Ronald Koeman, with the two having had a successful partnership for the Dutch national team.

Following an unsuccessful 18-month spell at Manchester United, Memphis will be keen to convince the footballing world that he’s good enough to warrant a transfer top European club transfer. He’s answered many critics with his performances at Lyon across the four and a half years since signing in January 2017. Since his debut in Ligue 1, only wonderkid Kylian Mbappé (133) has been involved in more top-flight French goals than the Dutchman (107), with Memphis being the player with the most assists in Ligue 1 over this period (44).

2020-21 was Memphis’ most productive in Ligue 1 for goal involvements. In scoring 20 goals and assisting 12 more for Lyon, he had a hand in the second-most top-flight goals in France behind only Mbappé (34). The 27-year-old forward became the first Lyon player to score 20+ goals and reach double figures for assists in Ligue 1 since Opta first recorded this data in 2006-07 – enough to convince Barcelona that he was worth taking the risk on.

It wasn’t just goal involvements that Memphis excelled in last season. He attempted the most shots in Ligue 1 (110) and created the most goalscoring chances for teammates in the competition, with his total of 64 way out in front of the next best by PSG’s Ángel Di María (50). Across the top five leagues, only Thomas Müller (88), Bruno Fernandes (77) and Jack Grealish (70) created more from open play than the Dutchman last season.   

“Only Mbappé” seems to be common phrase when listing Ligue 1 stats, but it was that PSG star (185) again that was the only player to attempt more opposition half take ons in 2020-21 than Memphis (150) and Mbappé again who was the only player involved in more shot-ending carries in 2020-21 (49) than the former Lyon star (48).

At least Memphis won’t have to worry about Mbappé stealing his limelight in La Liga next season, he’s just got to nudge Lionel Messi from the podium instead.

Joost Berger

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Georginio Wijnaldum
Paris Saint-Germain

Georginio Wijnaldum will work under Mauricio Pochettino at Paris Saint-Germain in 2021-22 after winning nearly every trophy possible during his time at Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp.

Last season was a struggle after such an impressive 2019-20 campaign, but with Wijnaldum’s help they managed to secure Champions League football with a late burst of form. The Dutch midfielder played every single game of the Reds’ Premier League season and will be a big miss for their squad as one of the most assured passers in the English top-flight.

Whilst he might not have been the most creative midfielder at Liverpool – the 13th highest player at the club for both chances created per 90 and expected assists per 90 in the 2020-21 Premier League – he had become a vital part of a winning culture on Merseyside. In 161 league starts for Liverpool, he was on the winning side in 68% of matches (109 wins), higher than Liverpool’s win ratio in 29 matches without him in the starting XI (55%). In fact, in July 2020, he became the player to reach 100 Premier League wins for Liverpool in the fewest games (141).

The most important task Wijnaldum has is to maintain possession. He delivered top tier stats in this category with having the highest passing accuracy in the half of the opponent in the Premier League, completing 92.4% of his passes ending in the opposition half. Out of all midfielders in the top five European leagues only Juventus’ Arthur (93.6%) and Sassuolo’s Maxime Lopez (93.0%) are slightly better in this stat.

Players to Watch in 2021-22 - Wijnaldum passing skill

If we look at his passing accuracy in the final third, Wijnaldum still hardly fails in this area with 89.2% accuracy. Among all Premier League midfielders last season, only his former teammate Curtis Jones (91.0%) and Man City’s Bernardo Silva (89.4%) were more precise in the final third.

Whilst his passing accuracy stats are undoubtedly impressive, it’s also true that many of Wijnaldum’s passes could be considered safe to opponents. His net progressive distance per pass in the Premier League in 2020-21 was just 0.6m, which is much lower than teammates Fabinho (3.5m), Jordan Henderson (3.3m) and Thiago (2.8m). 

PSG will be hoping that they can do what they failed to do last season and win the Ligue 1 title and the addition of Wijnaldum will put them in a stronger position to do just that. After winning the Eredivisie in 2014-15 with PSV and the Premier League in 2019-20 with Liverpool, the Dutch midfielder knows what it takes.

Tom van Stam

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David Alaba
Real Madrid

Versatility. Power. Personality. There are many qualities that define David Alaba, who after more than 400 official matches at Bayern Munich and winning 27 honours has signed for Real Madrid on a free transfer for 2021-22.

With Real losing experience in Sergio Ramos’ departure to PSG, Alaba will not only increase the quality within their ranks, but they’ve gained a player who knows how to be a winner. On paper, the Austrian would be a main candidate to replace Ramos in central defence and form a partnership with Raphaël Varane or Éder Militão. However, there’s every possibility that he could move to left-back as he did in his early years at Bayern, or even more to midfield to replace or accompany Casemiro, such is his versatility.

David Alaba Positions

Strong in both physical and technical attributes, he’s able to adapt to several positional changes. In 2019-20 during Bayern’s treble-winning season, he was a fundamental part of their success. In the Bundesliga that season, Alaba averaged the most passes per game (87) and the fifth-most ball recoveries (7.6).

Because Alaba is a physical and technical prodigy, which allows him to adapt to several different positions. In 2019/20, the season in which Bayern won the treble, he positioned as a fundamental player for the team’s success, finishing the Bundesliga as the player with the most passes per game (87) and the outfield player with the fifth-best ratio of recoveries (7.6). In addition, the Austrian was the second player with the most touches per match in the championship (97.2) only behind his teammate Joshua Kimmich (98.3).

One statistic that is sure to prove crucial to his role at Real Madrid is his involvement in playmaking. In this respect, Alaba has adapted his midfield skills perfectly to his new role in the centre of defence, as evidenced by the fact that in Bundesliga 2020-21, he became the player who initiated the most sequences with the ball from open play for Bayern (128).

It is not only defensive and passing skills that characterise Alaba, but he also has an exceptional long-range shot with his left foot. He scored 24 goals across his Bundesliga career, with 13 of them coming from outside the box (54%). In addition to this, the Austrian scored seven of those 13 goals from outside the area from direct free-kicks, another skill that Real Madrid should be able to call upon from the 29-year-old.  

Luis Ledesma

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Yann Sommer
Borussia Mönchengladbach

Following a poor 2020-21 campaign in which they finished eighth and outside of the European qualification spots, Borussia Mönchengladbach are looking to bounce back under new manager Adi Hütter. Key to any possible success will be the performances of their talismanic goalkeeper Yann Sommer.

Just like his team, Sommer is looking back on a disappointing 2020-21 Bundesliga campaign, conceding 9.4 more goals than expected by the xGOT model – the worst performance of all goalkeepers in 2020-21. If the Foals want to recreate their successful 2018-19 and 2019-20 campaigns in which they finished fifth and fourth respectively, they need Sommer to rediscover his old form. The Swiss shot stopper prevented a league-best 7.6 goals in 2019-20 and a second-best 6.9 goals in the season before.

Despite not being up to his usual high standards in 2020-21, Sommer remains one of the best goalkeepers in the German top-flight. Since joining Mönchengladbach at the beginning of 2014-15, Sommer has prevented 15.9 goals in the Bundesliga according to the xGOT model – a value only bettered by Manuel Neuer (20.0) over that period.

Yann Sommer Shots Faced in Bundesliga

Sommer’s performances with Switzerland at Euro 2020 will also make Borussia’s supporters optimistic about their keeper’s return to form, as he made more saves than any other player during the tournament (21).

On top of this, he saved Kylian Mbappe’s decisive penalty in the last 16 shootout between Switzerland and France, guaranteeing the Swiss their first quarter final place at a major tournament since 1954.

More than most goalkeepers Sommer has to rely on his extraordinary reflexes and ability to anticipate, as at just 1.83m he is significantly smaller than most of his peers.

The ever-reliable Sommer has appeared in 229 Bundesliga matches since his transfer from Basel to Gladbach in the summer of 2014 – the most over that period. Barring an injury, the Swiss ‘keeper is set to overtake Oscar Wendt (244) in 2021-22 as the foreign player with the most Bundesliga appearances for Mönchengladbach, further cementing his status as a club icon.

Michael Harringer

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Robin Gosens
Atalanta

After a fairly unremarkable club career that saw him spend time with some less fashionable clubs in the Dutch Eredivisie, Robin Gosens arrived at Atlanta in June 2017 without much of a fanfare.

In his first season at the Bergamo club, Gosens was used as more of a squad player, with 21 Serie A appearances, but in the three seasons since he’s become an integral part of their first team just as the club have manifested themselves as one of the best clubs in the Italian top-flight with three successive third place finishes.

In each of the last two Serie A season, Gosens has been involved in 17 goals for Atalanta, with last season’s 11 goals his best-ever tally in a single season at club level. In fact, only four midfielders were involved in more goals than he was in Serie A 2020-21: Rodrigo de Paul (18), Piotr Zielinski (18), Ruslan Malinovskiy (20) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (23).

Robin Gosens in Serie A

Gosens is renowned for his high-work rate and pressing abilities when out of possession. In 2020-21, his 76% tackle success rate (35/46) was the best of any Serie A player to attempt at least 40 tackles.

After his great performances in 2019-20, Gosens did enough to convince German coach Joachim Löw to give him his first call up to the full national team in August 2020, before making the squad for Euro 2020 under a year later. With Löw changing the system to a 3-4-3 formation in the build-up of the European Championships, Gosens became part of the starting XI on the left side of a system.

Gosens’ ability shone in Germany’s 4-2 Group Stage win over Portugal at the tournament, where he either attempted a shot or created a chance for his teammates on five occasions, with an assist for their third goal before scoring the fourth himself.

The 27-year-old will be a key player in 2021-22 as Atalanta look to improve on third place in Serie A and secure their best-ever finish in the Italian top-flight.

Michael Mitter

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Patrik Schick
Bayer 04 Leverkusen

Patrik Schick’s reputation has certainly grown over the summer. The Czech Republic international scored five goals at Euro 2020 to help his side reach the quarter finals, with Cristiano Ronaldo only edging him out of the top scorer award courtesy of a single assist to separate them.

No player has ever scored more goals for the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia at a major tournament, with Schick equaling Milan Baros’ tally of five at Euro 2004. The Bayer Leverkusen forward became a household name with his exceptional strike from near the halfway line in the opening group game against Scotland – this effort from 49.7 yards being the longest in European Championship history.

This goal was seemingly a wild outlier, as Schick has become one of the most dangerous players inside the opposition penalty area domestically, in the Bundesliga. 50 of his 56 shots in 2020-21 came from inside the penalty area (89%) – of all players with at least 50 shots, only Erling Haaland (91%) exceeded this percentage.

Patrik Schick shots

Another indication of the “fox-in-the-box” tag are his direct goal involvements – the number of unique goal-ending sequences in open play where the player’s only involvement was that they scored the goal. Schick was not involved in the build up to any of his nine Bundesliga goals in the 2020-21, only putting the finishing touch on the move.

Schick’s goal scoring form since his Bundesliga debut in October 2019 hasn’t been bad – 19 goals in 51 games means that only 10 players have scored more in the competition over this period, but of the 12 players with 19+ goals since then, Schick has the second-lowest shot conversion rate (17.4%).

Nine of his Bundesliga goals have come in 29 games for Leverkusen, which is the same tally that club record scorer Ulf Kirsten managed at this stage of his career for the ’Werkself’. 2021-22 will show whether Schick can follow in these big footsteps and eventually go on to replicate Kirsten’s 182 goals in 350 league appearances, but above all will be a test to see if his form at Euro 2020 this summer can be transferred to domestic club competition.

Alexander Nebel

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Pedri
Barcelona

Pedri was just 16 years old when he was named in Las Palmas’s starting XI on the opening day of 2019-20. In the Segunda División. Fast forward nearly two years and the precocious talent has just completed his first season at Barcelona and won the Young Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020.

To show how crucial coach Ronald Koeman considers Pedri to be, he played more matches than any other Barcelona player (52) in 2020-21 ahead of vitally important teammates like Antoine Griezmann (51), Frenkie de Jong (51) and Lionel Messi (47). He missed just one league game, making 37 appearances, becoming the youngest player to make this many La Liga appearances in the 21st century.

Across La Liga in 2020-21, only eight players were involved in more attacking sequences than Pedri (155), with the majority of his involvement in the build-up play for shots (60%).

After making his full Spain debut in March 2021, he became an integral part of their Euro 2020 side and started all six of their matches at the tournament. Against Italy in the semi-finals, Pedri’s performance belied his age – completing all 55 passes he attempted over the ninety minutes, and eventually walking off the pitch with a 97% passing accuracy following extra time. No mean feat against the eventual winners of the trophy. Two rounds earlier against Croatia, Pedri became the youngest-ever player to appear in a European Championship knockout match at 18 years, 215 days old – overtaking Wayne Rooney’s 17-year record.

One worry about Pedri in 2021-22 could be burnout. With so many club-level appearances last season, added to his six starts at Euro 2020, his inclusion in the Spanish Olympic squad means that there will be little time to recuperate before La Liga begins in August. So integral is Pedri to Barcelona’s potential success now, it’s unlikely they’ll want to rest him for too long before he’s unleashed again for another campaign.

Back in April, we featured Pedri and pondered if he was the man to finally replace the talents of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. So far, he’s doing a grand job.

Albert Valor

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Youri Tielemans
Leicester City

Last season couldn’t have ended any better for Youri Tielemans at Leicester City. The Belgian midfielder was named man of the match and scored the only goal of the game in the 2021 cup final at Wembley to seal their first ever FA Cup success.

Known for his calm presence on the ball, the deep-playing creator in Leicester’s midfield was described by his manager, Brendan Rodgers as his ‘manager on the field’. Although still young at 24 years old, Rodgers may need to rest Tielemans a little more this season to get the best out of him.

The instrumental midfielder was one of only 12 outfield players to play every single Premier League game in 2020-21, while he played 514 minutes – the equivalent to nearly six matches – more than any other Leicester player in the top-flight. Add this to a summer of European Championship action for Belgium and then a UEFA Europa League campaign in 2021-22, it could be a long spell without much of a break for Tielemans.

Youri Tielemans Involvement in Leicester shots

Only James Ward-Prowse (523) started more open play sequences in the Premier League last season than Tielemans (483), showing his ability in regaining possession and recovering the ball for Leicester City. At 12.9 per 90 minutes, this was the second highest in the Leicester City side behind only Wilfred Ndidi (15), proving what a formidable duo they have in central midfield.

With 180 attacking sequence involvements – 95 of which came in the build-up, rather than taking the shot or creating the chance – Tielemans was influential for Leicester City last campaign.

With only four assists, fans might be forgiven for mistaking that Tielemans isn’t a creative force in this Leicester City side. But he led the entire league in 2020-21 for secondary chances created (the pass before the pass to created a goalscoring chance) with 45 and only Bruno Fernandes (9) had more secondary assists than the Belgian (7) in the English top-flight.

Another great season for Tielemans this time around and a move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs might be on the cards next summer.

Yoeri Goossens

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Michael Olise
Crystal Palace

For a second successive summer, the Eagles have swooped for a Championship star to bolster their squad.

Following the 2020 arrival of Eberechi Eze from QPR, Crystal Palace have added teenage midfielder Michael Olise from Reading. Under the management of Patrick Vieira, these are the type of signings that the south London club urgently needed.

In 2020-21, Palace had the oldest team in the Premier League, with the average age of their starting XIs a league-high 29 years and 213 days. The club released 12 players from the first team squad at the end of the campaign, as well as waving goodbye to erstwhile manager Roy Hodgson.

But following Eze, who has sadly suffered an achilles injury which will rule him out for much of the early months of 2021-22, is Olise, aged just 19.

Olise is not a signing made just to make the squad younger on paper, though. The France Under-18 international joins off the back of a stellar Championship campaign for Reading, in which he registered 19 goal involvements – the most of any teenager in any of England’s top four divisions in 2020-21.

Micheal Olise 2020-21

Of those 19 goal involvements, 12 were assists – again the most by any teenage player in the EFL – and seven were goals, a total only surpassed by Brennan Johnson (10 while on loan at Lincoln) and João Pedro (nine for Watford) among players under the age of 20 in those divisions.

Olise also stood out in last season’s Championship with his ability to carry the ball – in total he progressed the ball upfield by 3,475m from ball carries in his 44 league appearances last season. This was the most of any attacking midfielder, winger or forward player in the Championship in 2020-21.

Indeed, Olise crafted an impressive 84 chances for his Reading teammates in the Championship last season – only Emiliano Buendía (123) and Jed Wallace (85) provided more for any side in the division, while Olise’s expected assists figure of 6.3 was comfortably the highest of any Reading player.

Crystal Palace will be hoping that, under Vieira, Olise can somehow replicate that sort of output in the Premier League this season. It’s a pressured situation but a huge opportunity for him, as Palace look to kick off their new era in style.

Michael Reid

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Gerson
Marseille

Gerson has been given a second chance to shine in European club football after impressing greatly during a spell back in Brazil at Flamengo. During his time there, he helped them to two Brazilian league titles and ended a 38-year wait for a Copa Libertadores – now he’s made the move to Ligue 1 giants Marseille.

Despite three seasons in Serie A at Roma and Fiorentina – playing 36 of a possible 38 league games for the latter in 2018-19, Gerson had to head back to Brazil to rediscover the form that many knew he had the potential to achieve. At Flamengo he became the engine of the team that won practically everything. He was the player with most games played for the Carioca side in the Brazilian league and in the Libertadores combined (83 games), scoring three goals and making nine assists in those games.

Gerson’s fantastic versatility earned him the nickname of ‘Joker’, as a player that could be used in any position for his club and prior to leaving Flamengo he even pointed out that the only position he didn’t try was goalkeeping. A master of all trades on the pitch, he is creative – making the fifth-most chances for his teammates during his time at the club (65), behind only attacking players – and has great ball-winning qualities, with the second-most tackles by any Flamengo player in the Brazilian top-flight across his time there (108).

Gerson Passing

Another of his strengths is his passing range, rarely giving the ball away. Across his eight appearances in 2021 for Flamengo between the Libertadores and Brazilian league, he averaged 92.1% pass success. One of his best passing performances came in the Libertadores versus Vélez, where he completed all 45 passes that he attempted – this being the fourth-highest tally of passes with a 100% success rate in recorded history within the competition (since 2011).

His manager at Marseille will be Jorge Sampaoli, who will know the player well. While coaching Brazilian sides, the Argentinian faced Gerson three times in the Brazilian league and would have been impressed by the skills displayed against his teams. He’ll be hoping Gerson can find his feet quickly in Ligue 1 and help them improve on a 5th place finish in 2020-21.

Augusto Oazi

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Lorenzo Insigne
Napoli

Lorenzo Insigne will captain Napoli for the fourth consecutive season in 2021-22, with this being his 11th Italian top-flight campaign since debuting in January 2010. Since his first start in August 2012, the diminutive Italian international has played 304 Serie A matches, with 85 goals and 65 assists – with his appearance and assist tallies in this period being a league-high.

Since 2012-13, Insigne leads the way for chances created in Serie A both overall (592) and from open play scenarios (548). One attribute that he’s become well known for in his career is his prolific shooting from long range. Over this timeframe, he’s attempted the most shots from outside the box (522) and scored the most goals from long range (22) in Serie A, while in 2020-21 alone he also led the competition with 21 shots and seven goals from outside the box.

2020-21 was Insigne’s highest scoring season in Serie A, with 19 goals in 35 appearances, and with seven assists added, he was involved in 30% of Napoli’s top-flight goals last season.

Players to Watch in 2021-22 - Lorenzo Insigne Shots Serie A 2020-21

Insigne certainly likes to shoot, with 4.5 shots per 90 last season in Serie A and an average that only Cristiano Ronaldo (5.4) bettered among players to play at least 1,500 minutes. The issue with the Napoli forward’s shooting is that it’s often from unrealistic scoring positions in open play. Of the 15 players to attempt the most non-penalty shots in Serie A during 2020-21, Insigne had the lowest expected goals per shot average at 0.07, meaning on average you’d expect a player to score with 7% of those shots.

Not only did the Napoli forward cause problems in front of goal last season, but he was one of the most creative players in Serie A. Of players to play at least 2,000 minutes in 2020-21, only Achraf Hakimi (0.23) had a higher expected assists per 90 average from open play than Insigne (0.20). With 54 chances created in open play, Insigne ranked third in Serie A last season – only Luis Alberto (59) and Ruslan Malinovskiy (57) created more.

As it stands, this is the final season on Insigne’s contract at Napoli. Only four players have played more games for the club overall than he has (391), while he’s just eight goals off Diego Maradona’s 115 for the club. 2021-22 should be the season he overtakes that.

Aldo La Marca

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Bukayo Saka
Arsenal

2020-21 was a season to forget for Arsenal fans, finishing eighth in the Premier League for a second consecutive campaign and failing to secure European qualification for the first time since 1994-95. However, one of the very few shining lights for the Gunners came in the unexpected form of teenager Bukayo Saka.

Since being handed his first team debut by Unai Emery in November 2018, the Englishman has provided 19 assists for Arsenal, more than any other player for the club during this period. Last season was a real break-out campaign for Saka, making 46 appearances for the Gunners in all competitions – the most by a teenager for the club since Jack Wilshere in 2010-11 (49), while he managed more minutes (2560) than any other player in their teenage years across the top five European leagues in 2020-21.

Saka created more goalscoring chances (50), completed more take ons (64) and won more duels (214) than any other Arsenal player last season in all competitions, while his goal against Benfica in February saw him become the youngest player to reach double figures for both goals and assists for the Gunners since Cesc Fàbregas in 2006.

The Hale End graduate’s performances last season saw him voted Arsenal’s Player of the Season, while he was also rewarded with a place in Gareth Southgate’s 26-man England squad for Euro 2020 – a surprise to many, but not to those who have followed Saka’s development closely over the past two seasons.

Despite failing to feature in England’s first two group games against Croatia and Scotland, Saka was still able to leave his mark at the tournament and made a significant contribution in England’s run to the final, putting in a man of the match performance against Czech Republic and starting knockout matches against Germany and Denmark. At 19 years & 309 days he became the fourth-youngest player to ever appear in a European Championship final, while glimpses of his talent on the biggest stage were there for all to see.

Not many people would have predicted before the tournament that Saka (272 minutes) would play more minutes than the likes of Grealish (173), Foden (159), Sancho (97) and Rashford (84), however it was no more than the teenager deserved with his performances justifying his selection.

Should Arsenal solve their recruitment issues this summer and bring in real quality alongside Saka as they look to rebuild their squad, we could see this reliable, versatile talent reach new heights.

Harvey Downes

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Diego Lainez
Real Betis

Diego Lainez will embark on his second full season in La Liga after he crossed the Atlantic to join Real Betis from Club América of Mexico in January 2019. Just 18 years of age when he signed, Lainez became the youngest Mexican player to migrate to European football by signing a five-year contract with Betis. It was a move that would see him play alongside his countryman Andrés Guardado.

Since then, his involvement in the first team has been gradual. He notched up 12 appearances in 2018-19, 15 in his first full season at Betis in 2019-20 before appearing in 21 matches last season.  

A diminutive, left-footed forward with a nice turn of pace, Lainez’ style of play draws some comparison from the great Lionel Messi – not least from himself. As he told Marca in 2017, “I look to take players on a lot, play a lot of one-twos, but I also like to shoot from distance.”

Diego Lainez Real Betis

He certainly enjoys running at players. Last season Lainez has the best dribbles completed per minute ratio of any players in the Betis squad, showing what he can do when the opportunity presents itself on the field. In fact, of all players to clock 800 minutes or more last season, Lainez ranks eight in that same metric, ahead of Real Madrid’s Isco and Atletico’s Thomas Lemar who both led their sides in that category.

FIFA listed nine players as serious talents to watch out for in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and it’s no surprise Lainez included in the list. He’s one to follow later this month, as well as one to monitor this season.

Victor Soto

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Mason Mount
Chelsea

Mason Mount has a lot to thank Frank Lampard for. The former Chelsea legend managed him for a season on loan at Derby County in the Championship in 2018-19, before making him a key part of his plans at the Blues when he took that management job in 2019-20. Since his debut for the club in August 2019, Mount has played 107 games for Chelsea in all competitions – 15 more than any other player.

He’s quickly become an integral part of Chelsea’s side, operating across different midfield roles under Lampard and his replacement Thomas Tuchel. His attacking output has steadily increased, with more goals (nine) and assists (eight) last season than in 2019-20 (eight goals, five assists). While those numbers aren’t ground-breaking, it’s his overall contribution to Chelsea’s build-up play that cements his importance to the club.

Since debuting, he’s created 177 chances for teammates with 100 of those from open play, while his expected assists tally is 15.4. He leads the club in all three of these categories and his 87 chances created in the Premier League in 2020-21 was only bettered by Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes (95).

Players to Watch in 2021-22 - Mason Mount Chelsea Involvement

In the 2020-21 Premier League season, Mount was involved in 209 unique shot-ending sequences in open play, a combination of his ability to get into shooting positions, create chances for team-mates and play a key role in the build-up that leads to attempts at goal. As well as being a clear stand-out for Chelsea in these attacking involvements, only Bruno Fernandes (239) and Mohamed Salah (222) ranked above him across the English top-flight last season.

While his importance to Chelsea’s attacking play is clear, his all-round ability and versatility in midfield can be somewhat over looked. He made 106 tackles for the Blues in all competitions last season, more than any of his team-mates including N’Golo Kante (98).

Going into just his third Premier League season, he is already a Champions League winner and European Championship finalist. Mount is one of only nine English players to play in a major international tournament final at national level (World Cup/European Championships) and in the European Cup or Champions League, while at just 22 years old, he’s the youngest of the nine to do so.

Gary Mabbutt

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Giacomo Raspadori
Sassuolo

He may have taken advantage of a series of injuries to Sassuolo’s forward options in the second half of last season, but one positive to come out of these negatives was the emergence of young star Giacomo Raspadori. Born in February 2000, he was the youngest player to score more than five goals in Serie A last season, having netted six times in 17 league appearances from the new year onwards.

At 172cm tall, Raspadori is short for your standard central striker option, but Sassuolo’s former manager Roberto De Zerbi utilised him in a ‘False Nine’ position, taking advantage of his great skillset of creating chances for teammates and excellent dribbling qualities.

Giacomo Raspadori creative

Of players to have played 600+ minutes in Serie A last season while aged 21 or under, only Dejan Kulusevski (2.4) created a higher average of chances created per 90 minutes than Raspadori (2.0). This isn’t the only category that he impressed, either – with an 80% shooting accuracy, Raspadori had the second-best rate of all players with 10+ shots attempted in 2020-21. Much of this is down to his solid shot selection, with an average of 0.18 xG per non-penalty shot impressive for a player so young.

Five of his six goals in the Serie A last season earned points for Sassuolo, with the only exception for the goal scored in the 3-1 defeat against Juventus, and without his goals his side would have been eight points worse off.  Four of his goals came against teams to finish in the top seven positions in Serie A 2020-21, including a decisive brace in the 2-1 away victory at Milan. This double meant that he became the first player to score twice as a substitute in a Serie A game against Milan since 1994-95.

His talents were enough to convince Roberto Mancini to include him in Italy’s European Championship-winning squad this summer. Although only playing 15 minutes in the successful campaign, Raspadori could become a key part of the national team in time for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Giacomo Zanetello

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Federico Chiesa
Juventus

The Italian defence has been rightfully praised during their winning campaign at Euro 2020, but one of Italy’s offensive players, Federico Chiesa, also showcased his talents to the world during the tournament. Despite starting three of Italy’s first four games on the bench, Chiesa’s performances earned the trust of Roberto Mancini who started him for Italy’s final three and most important games of the competition. Chiesa ended the tournament with two goals and his threat while running with the ball was evident. He completed the most ball carries that ended in either a shot (nine) or chance created (three) during the tournament (12).

Chiesa’s stock was already high in Italy, having played 167 games in Serie A with Fiorentina and Juventus, making a name for himself as a player and not merely as the “son of Enrico Chiesa”. The 23-year-old winger has been involved in more goals in Serie A (59) than any player aged under 25, finding the back of the net 34 times and adding 25 assists since his debut with La Viola in 2016-17. Looking at players born in the same year as Chiesa, or younger, he’s registered the most shots (478) and the third most chances created (236 – Mikel Oyarzabal 243, Trent Alexander-Arnold 238) in Europe’s top five leagues.

In his first season at Juventus in 2020-21, Andrea Pirlo thrust Chiesa straight into the first team. The Italian started 36 games in all competitions, with only three other outfield players starting more, and was one of only two Juventus players to register 10+ goals and 10+ assists (14 goals, 10 assists), alongside Alvaro Morata (20 goals, 11 assists). Chiesa also outperformed his expected goals (xG) tally by almost four goals (14 goals, 10.1 xG), the most of any Juventus player in 2020-21.

Juventus recruited Chiesa to provide an attacking threat and he delivered instantly, becoming only the second player to register an assist in each of his first three starts with Juventus in Serie A in the last 15 seasons, after Kwadwo Asamoah did so in 2012. Chiesa combined well with the other Juventus forwards during the Serie A 2020-21, providing three assists to Morata and three to Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Spanish striker also providing two assists to Chiesa, making the Chiesa-Morata combination the most prolific for Juventus in Serie A 2020-21 (five goals). Chiesa is a talent, and his Euro 2020 performances surprised no one who watched the Bianconeri last year.

Fab Le Luyer

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Kamaldeen Sulemana
Rennes

Hang on, who? Okay, we admit Kamaldeen Sulemana is not exactly a household name yet. Even the most ardent of your football-supporting friends can’t claim to have heard much about the young Ghanian. But with his recent transfer from Danish side FC Nordsjælland to Rennes for a reported €20 million – a record for a player moving from a Danish club – that may be about to change.

Let’s start with the basics. Born in Ghana, Kamaldeen was part of the Right to Dream Academy, a Ghanaian residential school and football training centre. He ‘graduated’ on his 18th birthday, signing a professional contract with Danish club FC Nordsjælland, which Right to Dream own. FC Nordsjælland acts as the perfect outlet for youth from the academy to gain playing time in stronger leagues. In his first full season at the club, Kamaldeen was handed the number 10 shirt, after the departure of another Right to Dream alumni, Mohammed Kudus, to Ajax.

So, what have Rennes got for their €20 million? The answer is a lightning quick 19-year-old wide forward who is an absolutely electric dribbler. In last season’s Danish Superliga, Kamaldeen attempted 246 take-ons, almost double the number of Louka Prip, who attempted the second most (126). If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Only Lionel Messi attempted more (261) in the entire top five European Leagues last season.

Kamaldeen harnessed his pace and dribbling skills to also lead the Danish Superliga for take-ons in opposition half (199), nearly double that of Jesper Lindstrom in second (104), and take-ons in the opposition box (34).

And these are not just mazy dribbles down blind allies, there is a genuine end product to his play. In fact, his production following a take-on is elite. In the 2020-21 season, Kamaldeen contributed to 26 attempts on goal for his side (21 shots, five chances created) following successfully beating his man. That’s more than the likes of Adama Traoré, Memphis Depay, Kylian Mbappé and Wilfred Zaha. It’s more than everyone in Europe’s top five leagues … except Lionel Messi who created 34 team shots after a successful take-on (28 shots himself, six chances created for teammates).

In the Danish Superliga last season, the speedy winger beat his opposite number almost nine times per 90 minutes, and these lead to a team shot just shy of once per game. As you can see below, he is streets ahead of his league mates.

Players to Watch in 2021-22 - Kamaldeen Sulemana dribbling

A creative winger with exceptional ball-carrying skills, Kamaldeen will be a menace for any opposition full-back. While he’ll struggle to get the same level of playing time at Rennes in his first season, he’s got the tools to make a real impact off the bench. One thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull moment when he’s on the ball. 

Oliver Hopkins

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