Players to Watch in 2021-22: The Analyst 50 (Part II)
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. 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. Here’s part two of The Analyst 50, with the second batch of 25 players.
The Players: Part II
Jadon Sancho • Dušan Vlahović • Aurélien Tchouaméni • Romain Faivre • Emile Smith-Rowe
Jon Moncayola • Jack Grealish • Laurent Abergel • Mike Maignan • Jerdy Schouten
Ridle Baku • Bryan Gil • Gregor Kobel • Youssef En-Nesyri • Wataru Endo
Theo Hernández • Luke Shaw • Lucas Paquetá • Tyrick Mitchell • Mikkel Damsgaard
Hakan Çalhanoğlu • Ashley Young • Diogo Jota • Steven Zuber • Mikel Oyarzabal
Jadon Sancho finally moved back to Manchester from Borussia Dortmund this summer, ending one of the most protracted transfer sagas of recent years. He left United’s rivals City in August 2017 as a teenage prospect and has returned to England four years later as one of the best young talents in world football.
Since making his first Bundesliga start in January 2018, Sancho has been involved in 83 goals in 102 league appearances. Only Robert Lewandowski (131) and Thomas Müller (87) were involved in more in the German top-flight, while only Kylian Mbappé could match this tally of those aged 21 or under within the top five European leagues in this period.
33 of his Bundesliga goal involvements across the last three seasons have come following a ball carry, with only Lionel Messi (39) having more and Mbappé (33) the only player to match Sancho’s feat within the top five European leagues. This total was 13 more than the best player at Manchester United over this three-season spell (Marcus Rashford – 20).
22 of these 33 goal involvements came through an assist for a teammate – eight more than any other player in the top five European leagues since 2018-19.
With 267 successful take-ons across the last three seasons in the Bundesliga (3.5 per 90), Sancho was the most prolific in the competition. United have had their fair share of players that enjoying running at opposition defenders and causing havoc in recent history, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Rashford proving popular figures at Old Trafford. There seems little doubt that Sancho will be joining that list soon.
Across the last 70 years, Fiorentina have only ever had 9 players that have scored over 20 Serie A league goals. There have been many greats that graced the pitch at Stadio Artemi Franchi including Gabriel Batistuta, Enrico Chiesa and Luca Toni, but now there is a new man on the scene – enter Dušan Vlahović.
Arriving in Florence in 2018 from Serbian side Partizan, the centre forward stands at 190cm tall. The 21-year-old finished the last Serie A season as the league’s fourth highest scorer with 21 goals (15 non-penalty), falling just behind Luis Muriel (22), Romelu Lukaku (24) and Cristiano Ronaldo (29). Across the top five European leagues last season, only Erling Haaland (27) scored more goals than Vlahović while aged under 22 years old.
Besides his goalscoring record, what makes Dušan Vlahović a special talent? His left foot, movement and the ability to bring teammates into the game even on the days when he doesn’t have his shooting boots on.
He ended the 2020-21 season in form, with 12 goals in his final 13 Serie A appearances, while only Simy (13) scored more Italian top-flight goals than he did from March onwards. The Serbian is a huge threat in the air, with no forward being involved in more aerial duels than he was in 2020-21 across Serie A (260), but he’ll need to improve his heading in front of goal – of his 19 shots with headers, only four found the target, although two were scored.
Despite having things to work on and not being the finished product quite yet, the 21-year-old is going to be in high demand and Fiorentina will be working hard to keep their talisman at the club for at least another season. Although this isn’t a guarantee for the club from Florence, it won’t be long until Vlahovic’s name is being mentioned amongst the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland & Lautaro Martinez.
Two seasons of turmoil plunged Monaco into relative obscurity, during a spell where Thierry Henry experienced a first taste of management and Leonardo Jardim was sacked twice in what became a circus in the Côte d’Azur. However, after narrowly avoiding relegation in a disastrous 2018-19 and finishing ninth in a pandemic-stricken 2019-20, Monaco’s 2020-21 exploits will once again see them playing European football and it’s impossible not to credit the role Aurélien Tchouaméni has played in the Monégasque revival.
The latest player from the Ligue 1 talent hive creating a buzz, Tchouaméni made 21 league starts for Bordeaux before Monaco snapped him up two days after his 20th birthday in January 2020. He made three substitute cameos for Monaco before the 2019-20 season was curtailed, though hints of naïvety crept into those, with Tchouaméni booked in all three.
Fast-forward 18 months and any elements of doubt are long forgotten, with Tchouaméni named in Ligue 1’s Team of the Season for 2020-21 after starting more matches than any of his teammates (36). In fact, he was the youngest player to start that many games in Europe’s top five leagues last season, whilst only five others born in 2000 or later started more than 30. With four of those six players French, it’s another reminder of France’s seemingly endless talent pool, although it would be no surprise if Tchouaméni muscles his way into the squad for Qatar 2022. That Monaco finished just five points behind champions Lille after two seasons of destitution is testament to Tchouaméni’s growing influence in dictating how Monaco play in and out of possession under Niko Kovač.
It’s without the ball that Tchouaméni is most impressive, with the Frenchman demonstrably adept at winning possession through a series of astutely timed tackles. He ranked second in Europe’s top five leagues for tackles (127) in 2020-21, whilst Lille talisman Benjamin André was the only Ligue 1 player to recover possession more often than Tchouaméni. Meanwhile, the much-coveted Eduardo Camavinga was the only other player born in 2000 or beyond to surpass 90 tackles in Europe’s top five leagues.
Across Europe’s top five leagues, only three players won possession in the middle third more than Tchouaméni (156) in 2020-21, who visibly demonstrates commendable maturity in the role, although he’s more than a pure destroyer – his ability to turn over possession serves as a platform to initiate attacks, with long-range balls out to either flank a particular hallmark of his. Subsequently, Tchouaméni ranked second in Ligue 1 last season for open-play sequences started (434) and third amongst midfielders for sequence involvement (1,537).
In Monaco terms, only top scorer Wissam Ben Yedder (131) played more involvement than Tchouaméni (122) in open-play sequences ending in a shot while he ranked second for involvement in build-up attacks leading to goals (13) and only two players provided more secondary assists (6).
If Monaco do secure Champions League qualification, it’s unlikely their conductor will continue to go under the radar for much longer. For any team in need of a commanding #6, look no further than Tchouaméni.
Brest swooped to sign Romain Faivre from Monaco for just €650,000 last summer and it wasn’t the first time they’d raided the Principality club for relatively cheap talent. Faivre’s arrival came after the success of grabbing both Ibrahima Diallo and Irvin Cardona from Monaco – the former having been sold to Southampton for a huge profit only a year after signing permanently. If transfer rumours are to be believed, then they could be replicating that with Faivre very soon.
In 2020-21, the 23-year-old wide midfielder was involved in 11 goals for his first full top-flight season (six goals, five assists). He was one of only five players in Ligue 1 last season to both attempt 60+ shots and create 60+ chances for teammates, alongside Memphis Depay, Farid Boulaya, Jonathan Bamba and Angel Di Maria.
The jump from the fourth tier of French league football with Monaco’s B squad and Ligue 1 was made to look easy by Faivre, who also made his U21 national team debut with France last season. Beyond direct goal involvements, he established himself as one of the best midfielders are carrying the ball in Ligue 1. His 323 progressive carries in 2020-21 were the most by a wide midfielder in the French top-flight, while also progressing a league-high 3.96km with these carries among all midfielders and forwards. There is room for improvement for Faivre, however – none of these carries ended with either a goal for himself or an assist for a teammate.
Faivre’s ability to run with the ball is also highlighted with his brilliant success rate from take ons. The Brest winger attempted the sixth-most take ons in Ligue 1 last season (147) but of the 31 players to attempt 85 or more in the competition, he had the best success ratio (61%). The style of play ultimately leads to teams finding other ways of stopping the Brest winger, as Faivre was the fourth-most fouled player in Ligue 1 in 2020-21 (72).
Not only is Faivre a threat going forward, but he works hard defensively for his team. No Brest player regained possession from opponents more often than he did last season (230), with 30 of these in the final third of the pitch – the second-most in Ligue 1 behind only Amine Gouiri. This ability to press high made him start 35 shot ending sequences, with only Boubacar Kamara (39) and Memphis Depay (37) having more. If he can pair his threatening pace while being a little more efficient with end product then there is high probability that he’ll be one of the next Ligue 1 stars being followed closely by some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Emile Smith Rowe
Emile Smith Rowe’s breakthrough at Arsenal finally came last season following two seasons of frustrating loan spells at RB Leipzig and Huddersfield Town. This will likely be his first full season as a Premier League player having become a trusted creative force in Mikel Arteta’s plans. So far, the Spanish coach has been right to rely on his English prodigy because the Gunners’ results are much better in the presence of the young English playmaker.
Since his first Premier League appearance of 2020-21 in December 2020, he played 20 of Arsenal’s final 26 games with 18 starts. Across that period, Smith Rowe assisted the most goals for the Gunners (4) while only fellow young star Bukayo Saka (28 chances created, 3.5 expected assists) was more of a creative force than he was for his team (27 chances created, 2.6 expected assists). With Smith Rowe in the side, Arsenal averaged two points a game – well above their 1.2 per game average in 18 matches that he played no part.
Despite 14 different Arsenal outfielders playing more minutes than Smith Rowe in the Premier League last season, the talented attacking midfielder created 17 goalscoring chances following a ball carry – five more than any other Gunner. His ability to run at opposition defences at pace and then find teammates with a pass to create a goalscoring opportunity makes the young Englishman such an exciting prospect.
Above all, he is indispensable in fast attacks. Across all Arsenal players to play 1000+ minutes in the Premier League last season, only Dani Ceballos (11.9km/90 and 7.4km/hr) covered more distance per 90 minutes an had a higher average speed than Smith Rowe (11.5km/90 and 7.3km/hr).
Aston Villa expressed a very public interest in Smith Rowe this summer, but Arteta has been adamant that he’s very much part of his plans at Arsenal in 2021-22. At only 21 years old and with the 2022 World Cup just over a year away, there is every chance that the attacking midfielder could force his way into England’s plans for glory in Qatar.
Just four years ago, Jon Moncayola’s career projection was limited. At an age when many stars are already established in the First Division, he had been sent to C.D. Iruña, which functioned as Osasuna’s second team, and everything was uncertain.
However, solid performances in the Third Division took him to Osasuna Promesas (Osasuna B) where he gained the confidence he needed and achieved promotion to Segunda B in 2018-19. The following season he made his first team debut and by 2020-21 he established himself as one of Osasuna’s more important players.
Moncayola is a midfielder with great vision and a clever ability to make decisions that allow him to resolve actions in a simple and effective way. At Osasuna he provides balance on both sides of the pitch: he is the most accurate player in circulating the ball (38.2 passes per game with 81.7% accuracy) and is also one of the leading players in ball recoveries (6.93), as the second highest of those with 15+ appearances.
Whilst not posting great top-level numbers going forward – scoring two goals without making an assist, his importance in their build-up play cannot be underestimated. He was involved in a team-high 40 passing sequences leading to an open play shot in La Liga last season, while no player had more secondary chances created – a key pass before the chance created for a shot – than Moncayola (14).
His high level of participation both in the games themselves – making 7.4% of his team’s touches in La Liga, the third highest at Osasuna – and over the season – he played 94.7% of the Osasuna´s matches in La Liga – have dispelled doubts there were about him in the early stages of his career. At the end of 2020-21, Osasuna extended his contract for 10 more years (no, that’s not a typo) showing that they have faith in their midfielder’s talents to carry them forward as a club.
When he’s on the pitch Jack Grealish is always centre of attention, and his latest step on the ladder of football stardom has seen him become the main attraction when he’s off the field too. Such has been his level of performance over the last two years, Grealish’s lack of playing time during Euro 2020 was one of the biggest talking points of the summer, and with strong links to Manchester City the noise is only going to get louder.
Grealish has been fouled 277 times in 62 league matches since Aston Villa returned to the Premier League in 2019. That tally is 39 more times than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues, despite 167 players having more minutes under their belt over the same period. And he’s fouled for a reason.
The level to which he can create and disrupt against opposition defences leaves him in fine company. The last 10 players in Europe’s top five leagues to both create over 2.5 chances in open play and complete over 2.5 dribbles per 90 minutes are as follows: Luis Suárez, Franck Ribéry, Eden Hazard, Eden Hazard, Neymar, Eden Hazard, Eden Hazard, Eden Hazard, Lionel Messi, and most recently… Jack Grealish. Grealish always plays the game at his own pace, with an understanding of time and space to rival Carl Sagan. That’s why he gets fouled four times per game.
These aren’t separate elements of his game either – he combines them to great effect, creating 1.5 chances per 90 minutes following carries in 2020-21, the most of any player across Europe’s most prominent divisions. He has a combined 30 goals and assists in the Premier League over the last two seasons, with exactly half of those coming directly after a ball carry.
A sparkling campaign was cut short in 2020-21 with a persistent shinbone injury, no doubt related to all those kicks he takes, but Grealish’s skill level has been trending upwards year on year and with no sign of slowing down. This coming season offers a chance to reaffirm his status as one of the league’s star players, it’s just not quite clear yet whether that’ll be for Dean Smith or Pep Guardiola.
At the start of July, Lorient fans received some fantastic news ahead of 2021-22 – defensive midfielder Lauren Abergel extended his contract until 2025, putting an end to any speculation that he could leave for free next summer. It might not have been major news in French football, but it mattered for Les Merlus.
This season follows a 2020-21 campaign in which Lorient avoided relegation back to the second tier, and club captain Abergel is a key force in any hopes of replicating that feat again.
Excluding a single two-minute appearance for Marseille in January 2014, 2020-21 was Abergel’s first foray in top-flight league football. He played in all 38 of Lorient’s matches in Ligue 1 – one of only nine outfielders to complete the full set across the campaign – and played 87% of possible minutes.
Abergel’s most important role in Lorient’s quest to avoid relegation is his ability to win back possession from opponents. Last season, he made 145 tackles with 84 of those successfully dispossessing opposition players – both tallies were more than any other player across the top five European leagues. He also initiated the first open play sequence in a possession on 205 occasions in Ligue 1 last season, regaining control of the ball from the opposition the second-most often in the French top-flight behind only Lille’s Benjamin André (208).
Possibly the most memorable performance both by Lorient and Abergel himself, came in their shock 3-2 home win over Paris Saint-Germain in February, with the captain scoring the opening goal and then assisting Terem Moffi’s injury-time winner with a threaded ball from inside his own half.
Lorient will need more performances in the ilk of those seen from Abergel across 2020-21 yet again this season if they are to secure survival for a second consecutive Ligue 1 campaign.
He may have won the Ligue 1 title with Lille, but Mike Maignan decided that his future lies elsewhere following a move to Serie A giants Milan only days after the crowning. While playing in the Champions League would have been no different had he stayed in France, Maignan will be looking to help Milan to improve on their second-place league finish to rivals Internazionale in 2020-21.
For Milan, the signature of Maignan seems to be one of the smartest transfer deals in Italy this summer. They lost European Championship winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnnarumma to PSG, but for a fee of ‘only’ €13million the French international is a decent enough replacement. He kept the most clean sheets within the top five European leagues in 2020-21 (21), while only Keylor Navas (80.4%) and Jan Oblak (80%) had a better save percentage than he did (78.9%) among keepers with at least five league games played the last season – Donnarumma being at 70.1%.
His tally of 21 clean sheets was the second highest by a goalkeeper over a Ligue 1 season, with only Jean-Luc Ettori having more (22) in 1989-90 with Monaco. Maignan also had the second-highest differential between goals conceded and expected goals on target conceded in the French top-flight last season, with nearly eight goals prevented (7.9) – a record that only Keylor Navas (8.1) bettered, while Milan’s previous ‘keeper Donnarumma conceded the expected rate (37 xGOT).
It may not be long until Maignan overtakes Hugo Lloris as French international number one, and solid performances in Serie A in 2021-22 will assist this quest. He’s likely to become just the fourth French goalkeeper to play in Serie A after Sebastien Frey (446 apps), Alban Lafont (34) and Anthony Basso (1), but if he can repeat his feats with Lille in Milan this season then he’ll do something that none of those have managed – win a Serie A title.
His teammates call him Frenkie Bolognese for a reason: Jerdy Schouten has got the sauce. Of course, there is some resemblance with Frenkie de Jong in appearance – but it is mainly the way Schouten has controlled Bologna’s midfield that reflects his Barcelona counterpart. It was only two years ago that Schouten moved from the Eredivisie to the Serie A side but after making such an impression in Italy since his arrival, there’s every chance he could be on the move again soon.
The main ingredients for Schouten’s playing style are a high tally of recoveries and some steady dribbling together with an above average passing accuracy in the final third. In 2020-21 he averaged 8.9 recoveries per 90 minutes (249 in total) which was the sixth-best among players to have played 2,000+ minutes across the top five European leagues.
If we take the same parameter and zoom in at the 2020-21 Serie A campaign, Schouten is among the top players for dribbles and passes ending in the final third. A dribble success rate of 59.7% is within the top 10 for players with 60+ dribbles and just behind Cristiano Ronaldo (60.4%) while his passing accuracy in the final third (82.1%) was only behind Franck Ribery (85.1%), Lucas Leiva (83.6%) and Remo Freuler (82.4%).
When combining Schouten’s strength in recovering possession (200+ recoveries), successfully taking on his opponents (59%+ dribble success rate) and accurate passing in the busiest part of the pitch (82%+ accuracy) and compare this with other players in the top five European leagues, there are just a few that have ticked all the boxes in past season. Of course, Frenkie de Jong is one of them, while Dani Parejo, Rodri, Freuler, Fred and Alphonso Davies are the others. Schouten has made it clear that he’s got the ability to play at a higher level so far during his time at Bologna and 2021-22 could be the season that the 24-year-old is elevated even further.
VfL Wolfsburg secured their third-best ever finish in a Bundesliga season in 2020-21, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 2014-15. One of the reasons behind this was 23-year-old Ridle Baku, who – although playing half of the season as right-back – contributed towards 12 goals with six himself and six assists for others.
With an eye for goal from distance, Baku scored three times from outside the box – a figure that only Union Berlin’s Robert Andrich (4) bettered. His creative output was also impressive in 2020-21, with 44 chances created making him the second-most prolific creator at Wolfsburg behind only Maximilian Arnold (49).
Since his Bundesliga debut for Mainz in April 2018, Baku has made a “Kimmichesque” transformation – the young German started as a central midfielder and then found his spot on the right side in a back-four formation, before a further transition to right-midfield in 2020-21. In that position, not only did he prove to be a creative force, but he won possession 30 times in the final third of the pitch – a tally only bettered by Dani Olmo (41), Robert Lewandowski (33) and Joshua Kimmich (31) in the German top-flight. Much of this is down to his stamina and pace, only one player made over 1,000 sprints in the Bundesliga last season, and that was Baku (1,061). Since the start of his breakthrough season in 2019-20, Baku has played 64 Bundesliga games –the only player aged under 24 years old to have as many appearances in the competition over this period.
Additionally, Baku is heavily involved in Wolfsburg’s offensive tactics and build up play. In 2020-21, Baku gave six secondary assists – only Bayern’s Serge Gnabry had more (seven). He was also involved in 23 open play sequences resulting in a goal and started six of these, placing him in the top 10 in both rankings. He ranked ninth in goal build up involvements with 11, more than any other Wolfsburg player, demonstrating his value beyond goals and assists last season.
2021-22 will be an interesting season for Baku, with an opportunity to play Champions League football for the first time and a chance to show what he can do on an even bigger stage.
After La Liga loan spells in each of the last two seasons, Bryan Gil has made another transfer ahead of 2021-22 – this time a permanent one to Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur.
Raised through the Sevilla academy, he played just 14 league games for the club with all but one of his 29 La Liga appearances last season at Eibar. While there, he established himself as one of the most exciting young prospects in Spain and this was enough to entice Spurs to make him part of the transfer deal that saw Erik Lamela head in the opposite direction.
No player created as many chances (49) or was involved in as many goals while aged under 21 in La Liga last season then Gil. His 0.18 expected assists per 90 minutes was bettered by only five wingers/wide midfielders (minimum 1,500 minutes played) last term, while it was a fair bit higher than his 0.12 actual assists per 90. Similarly, among the same group of players, Bryan ranked fourth for the most open-play key passes per 90 minutes (1.4), which again makes him something of an outlier considering Eibar’s relegation.
Only three players made more dribbles than Gill (132) in La Liga last season: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (261), Huesca’s Javi Galan (164) and Atlético’s Yannick Carrasco (133). Those 132 dribbles attempted were also the fifth-most for an Eibar player in a single La Liga season.
Gil is above all quite an old-fashioned winger. Though he is adept at coming inside even from the left – and a future as a number 10 certainly isn’t outside the realms of possibility given his technical ability – a lot of his game is about running at his man, beating him and getting a cross into the box.
The youngster becomes the first Sevilla winger to head to the Premier League since Jesús Navas in 2013-14 – not bad company to keep. If he can go on to enjoy a career like him, then we should see a player that can add something to Spurs’ hopes of Champions League qualification in 2021-22.
Swiss goalkeepers in the Bundesliga have become a common sight, but they often head to Germany after they have made a name for themselves in a smaller league, usually at home in the Swiss Super League. But Gregor Kobel chose a different approach for himself and left his boyhood team Grasshopper Club Zürich at the age of 16 to join TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.
Kobel failed to make his breakthrough at Hoffenheim, but his plan worked out nonetheless because of his loan-spell at Augsburg in 2018-19. His 16 Bundesliga appearances that season helped to catch the attention of VfB Stuttgart, where he was given the number 1 spot in their 2019-20 season within the second tier following relegation from the top-flight. The Zürich native was an integral part of the team that sealed the instant return to the Bundesliga while he’s also impressed back in the top-flight. He missed only one game in 2020-21 due to injury while at 23 years of age, he was the youngest goalkeeper to play five or more games in the competition.
Despite his young age, Kobel was one of only three goalkeepers with 30+ appearances who finished the Bundesliga season without a single error leading to an opposition goal, alongside Peter Gulacsi (RB Leipzig) and Oliver Baumann (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim). Kobel had 106 saves – tied for the 4th most in the league and conceded goals at the expected rate based on shots faced by opposition players in 2020-21. These performances were enough to convince Borussia Dortmund to sign the Swiss shot stopper and hand him a five-year deal at the club.
Kobel was one of four Swiss goalkeepers to feature in the German Bundesliga last season, with Roman Bürki and Marwin Hitz at Dortmund and Yann Sommer at Borussia Mönchengladbach under new BVB head coach Marco Rose. Of those four, he is the only one still awaiting a full national team debut, but if his career continues to progress on the trajectory that it’s currently on, then it shouldn’t be long until he becomes the leading contender to take over Sommer’s reign as Switzerland’s number one.
Sevilla has been something of a haven for strikers in the modern era. Sure, the likes of Ciro Immobile, Iago Aspas and Luis Muriel may not have enjoyed great success there, but many more have.
Júlio Baptista, Luís Fabiano, Frédéric Kanouté, Álvaro Negredo, Carlos Bacca, Kevin Gameiro and Wissam Ben Yedder are perhaps the more recognisable names to have enjoyed excellent spells at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in the past 20 years, and Youssef En-Nesyri appears well on track in his quest to carve out a similar legacy.
Not that it’s been a simple task for him. The Moroccan took a little while to win supporters – and coach Julen Lopetegui – over after his January 2020 arrival from Leganes, only starting more than two successive league games for the first time in November. But he would prove to be a very dependable frontman, his La Liga 18 goals in 2020-21 an impressive haul given he only started 23 times.
Prior to joining Sevilla, En-Nesyri arguably wasn’t renowned as much of a finisher. Rather it was his work rate, spring and Bambi-esque running style that characterised him. But he finished 2020-21 with the best non-penalty xG per 90 minutes (0.62) in La Liga among players with at least five goals, while only Jorge Molina (0.23) could better the 24-year-old’s 0.21 xG per shot. Both figures are considerably better than En-Nesyri had ever managed previously, so it would seem that after an initial settling-in period he learned to harness the better quality of the players around him, and Lopetegui’s system has accentuated his strengths.
Of course, a key component of Lopetegui’s setup revolves around crosses from the flanks. Only Levante (four) had more players attempt at least 70 open-play crosses than Sevilla (three), while Jesus Navas’ 171 from right-back was the most in the division. Such an approach is clearly a viable tactic for Sevilla given only Ante Budimir (seven) and Karim Benzema (six) could better En-Nesyri’s five headed goals, and his aerial success of 54.3% was the third highest among La Liga strikers.
If En-Nesyri can continue developing, maintain his clinical finishing from 2020-21 (23.1% shot conversion) and remain a menace aerially, then he will become the complete package.
Wataru Endo began his VfB Stuttgart career in the summer of 2019 with the club in the second tier of German football, but after playing a part in their promotion back to the Bundesliga in his debut season he was purchased permanently – a decision that’s proved wise, since.
28-year-old Endo is a very intelligent defensive midfielder who closes the spaces and is a vital cog in retaining possession for his side. In the Bundesliga last season, he regained possession in the middle third of the pitch more than any other player in the competition (159). Endo also won possession on a league-high 12 occasions to initiate an open-play sequence leading to a shot in 2020-21.
He started in all but one of Stuttgart’s 34 Bundesliga matches in 2020-21, missing only the last matchday due to suspension. In fact, no other midfielder in the Bundesliga played as many minutes as Endo did last season (2,956). Among all midfielders, only Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich had more touches (2,482) and played more passes (1,917) in the Bundesliga during 2020-21 than Endo (2,372 touches, 1,817 passes), while only Augsburg’s Daniel Caligiuri won more duels (223) than Endo (222).
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Endo is only strong in defensive metrics and build-up play. He was directly involved in six Bundesliga goals last season (three goals, three assists) with four of these coming in one game against Schalke 04 on MD23, as he scored twice and assisted two more. Endo thus became the first Japanese player since detailed data collection (2004-05) to be directly involved in four goals in a Bundesliga match.
Endo will likely miss the start of the Bundesliga season due to his inclusion in Japan’s Olympic football squad, but he will still undoubtedly be key for Stuttgart, as they look to improve on their ninth-place league finish in 2020-21.
Since moving to Milan from Real Madrid in July 2019, Theo Hernández has enjoyed exponential growth in his on-pitch performances.
After serving his footballing apprenticeship at Atlético Madrid, he spent some time on loan at Deportivo Alavés in 2016 for whom he scored his first goal in the Spanish top-flight. After two seasons in La Liga at Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, he totalled two goals and five assists in 69 league appearances. Then came the move to the Serie A giants.
Since making his first Serie A start in September 2019, he’s been involved in 21 goals in 66 league appearances (13 goals, eight assists), at a rate of one every three matches – only Robin Gosens (33) has been involved in more among defenders in the Italian top-flight over that period. His offensive potential is further outlined by the fact that he’s the defender with the most successful dribbles across the last two Serie A seasons (130 – 43 more than any other defensive player).
Hernández’s typical threat begins by carrying the ball at full speed on the wing, generating a numerical superiority in the opposite half and unbalancing the opponent’s defence. Sometimes his surge forward ends with a pass to a teammate (682 pass ending carries – three assists), but more often he concludes the action by himself. In fact, since his debut in 2019, no defender has attempted more shots after carrying the ball in the Italian top-flight (24), and he’s tallied the third-most across the top five European Leagues behind only Christian Günter (25) and Achraf Hakimi (31). Four of his 13 goals across the last two seasons followed a ball carry, another Serie A high for a defensive player.
Milan will return to the Champions League in 2021-22 after a seven-year absence, with Hernández ready to test himself on the most important international club stage, pursuing his target of becoming the best left-back in the world.
Luke Shaw’s upward trajectory throughout the 2020-21 season was a joy to behold for many Manchester United and England fans, who finally saw a player finally hit the heights many thought had passed him.
Shaw began last season poorly, and with past injury concerns Ole Gunnar Solskjaer acquired the services of Alex Telles for left-back competition. But rather than go into his shell, Shaw embraced the challenge thrown down to him by his manager.
Shaw played 47 times for United in all competitions across the campaign, making 41 starts for the club – both career-high figures. He was given license to get down the left flank to drive United’s attacks, with this new-found freedom unleashing Shaw as a creative outlet.
He recorded five assists in 32 Premier League games last season. Considering he had seven in his eight previous seasons in his career across spells at Southampton and Manchester United, that is some change in career path. Four of these assists came in February 2021 and were eventually a factor in an England recall the following month.
More impressive still was the fact that Shaw ranked seventh overall in the Premier League for chances created (72) and the second-most by a defender behind the established creative talent of Trent Alexander Arnold (77). These chances helped offset an over-reliance United had seen from Bruno Fernandes in the closing of the 2019-20 season, though his teammate still led the league for chances created (95) throughout the last campaign.
Shaw also had the fifth most chances created from set-plays in the Premier League last season also (29), but this yielded only one assist – though arguably that was more on United’s set-piece finishing than him.
Past problems for Shaw seem long gone. Eight of his 12 Premier League assists have come under Solskjaer and more than half of his career top-flight chances created have been under him (113/207, 55%). This comes after posting just two assists and 31 chances created under José Mourinho in 34 league games.
Shaw has also proven adept as acting as a third centre-back for United, showing the new versatility in his game. Despite his efforts ultimately not leading to team honours, with both United and England falling at the last in their respective finals, Shaw’s first international goal was the quickest ever goal in a European Championships Final (1:57), a fine way to show how far he’d come in his redemptive story arc. Can he offer the same level of consistency in 2021-22?
As hero of the Seleção this summer after scoring the goal to reach the semi-finals and then the final of Copa América, Lucas Paquetá will start his second season at Lyon with another status.
Upon his arrival in France back in October 2020, he was attempting to bounce back following a disappointing first spell in Europe at Milan (44 games across two seasons, scoring just one goal). But now he’s become one of the most promising players both for his national team and at Lyon ahead of 2021-22.
In the months leading up to the 2021 Copa América, Paquetá earned hero status at club level. Lyon ended the first half of 2020-21 at the top of Ligue 1, but began to slip behind Lille and Paris Saint-Germain. Their front three of Depay, Toko Ekambi and Kadewere were not as efficient and Lyon had to rely on goals scored by the Brazilian midfielder to bring in crucial points in games against Dijon (1-0 on MD23), Brest (3-2 on MD26) and Lens (1-1 on MD31).
He was involved in 14 Ligue 1 goals last season (nine goals and five assists), 13 of them coming in 2021 when only Memphis Depay (12 goals, eight assists) provided more. With the departure of the Dutchman to Barcelona and no signing to replace him so far, Paquetá will have more responsibility in making sure his team secure another top-four finish in 2021-22.
Across Ligue 1 last season, he was the midfielder involved in the most goal-ending sequences (21). He also had a high defensive impact, competing in the most duals (408 – 210 won) and the second-most tackles (70) for his side. He’s not afraid to disrupt opposition possession with a foul, either – he gave away more than any other Lyon player in 2020-21 (65) but was also the most fouled at the club (68).
Despite Paquetá’s best efforts, Lyon failed to secure Champions League qualification with their fourth-place finish. Both he and his new manager Peter Bosz will be looking for improvement in the new season.
Summer 2021 has been a significant one for Crystal Palace, with a swathe of veteran players filing out the door of Selhurst Park, contracts ended and new pastures awaiting.
Roy Hodgson has also left his beloved Eagles, leaving new boss Patrick Vieira and a pared-down squad to prepare for a new and challenging season in England’s top-flight. Eager to inject some much-needed youth into the Palace squad, Vieira has already added teenage attacker Michael Olise from Reading. However, in 21-year-old defender Tyrick Mitchell, the French boss already has a talented player at his disposal, forged in London and with Premier League experience under his belt.
2021-22 will be just the third season of top-flight action for the Brentford and Palace academy product, but with Patrick van Aanholt joining the Selhurst Park exodus, left-back Mitchell will no doubt be hoping for a regular starting berth in the months ahead.
Joining Palace from Brentford in 2016, Mitchell made his debut for the south Londoners in the 2019-20 campaign, going on to rack up four appearances, all in the top-flight. Last season, however, the Brent-born starlet really started to make his mark at Selhurst Park, registering 19 appearances in the Premier League as he shared left-back duties with van Aanholt.
A player who revels in the physical side of the game, Mitchell averaged 3.4 tackles per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season, the best rate of any defender in the top-flight to play 15 or more games.
Indeed, that was also the best rate of any defender aged 21 or younger in Europe’s big five leagues in 2020-21.
Mitchell ticked all the requisite defensive boxes last season, also blocking 16 crosses in the top-flight, a figure bettered only by Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka (23) and Leeds United’s Luke Ayling (19), with Mitchell’s per 90 average for this (0.84) the outright best in the division.
Mitchell is very much in the mould of fellow Palace product Wan-Bissaka, now excelling with Manchester United, but there is still work to be done on the attacking side of his game. When running with the ball, Mitchell did average 11.2 yards with his carries, the second-best figure for a Palace defender in the top-flight last season. However, while van Aanholt (1,775 league minutes) created 12 goal-scoring chances in the Premier League in 2020-21, Mitchell (1,710 league minutes) managed only three despite playing just 65 minutes fewer. They both did manage just the one assist each though, with Mitchell bagging one goal, one more than his Dutch counterpart.
In pre-season, Mitchell has been urged by new boss Vieira to provide more of an attacking threat and once he adds that to his game, he could well prove to be a pivotal part of this exciting new era in south London.
Mikkel Damsgaard landed in Italy in February 2020 as a relatively unknown prospect to Sampdoria fans. Granted, he’d spent three seasons in the Danish top-flight at Nordsjælland and had a hand in 26 goals (12 goals, 14 assists) as an under-21 talent, but Serie A was a different level. However, the young Dane quickly showed his qualities to his new Italian audience.
2020-21 was Damsgaard’s first Serie A season and while his top-level numbers are hardly ground-breaking (two goals, four assists), he appeared in 35 of Sampdoria’s 38 league games. The only player younger than Damsgaard to play in 30+ games last season in Serie A was 20-year-old Emanuel Vignato.
His first Serie A season was enough to convince Denmark to include him in their Euro 2020 squad and it was at this tournament he began to really make a name for himself. Not only did he become the first-ever player born in the 2000s to score a European Championships goal, but he also became the youngest Danish player to score in a major international tournament with his strike against Russia in the group stage. The exciting youngster scored again in the semi-final against England, with the only direct free-kick goal of the entire tournament.
Another strong attribute he possesses is his ability to run with the ball at his feet. Damsgaard attempted 16 dribbles during Euro 2020, with only Frenkie de Jong (21) and Eden Hazard (17) having more amongst midfielders at the tournament. This will be a familiar trait to Sampdoria fans, who saw him complete 51 dribbles in Serie A last season, more than any other teammate.
Despite only playing 52% of possible minutes in the Serie A for his side last season, he still managed to both create more chances (12) and assist more goals (three) following ball carries than any other player at Sampdoria. With more playing time in the top-flight this season expected, it’s likely that those numbers will be much higher in 2021-22.
Earlier this summer, Hakan Çalhanoğlu joined Inter as a free agent after four seasons with great city rivals AC Milan.
Since making his Serie A debut with Milan in the 2017-18 season, Çalhanoğlu has as been involved in 53 goals in 135 league appearances. It’s an achievement that has seemed to fly under the radar, but since his debut not a single Milan player has contributed to more goals, outpacing the likes of Franck Kessié (39), Suso (33) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (32).
31 of those 53 goal involvements have come through assists – only Papu Gómez (39), Luis Alberto (36) and Dries Mertens (32) have provided more assists in Serie A since the 2017-18.
But it’s Çalhanoğlu’s all-round attacking game that is most impressive. Since his debut in the Italian top flight, he’s contributed to 695 of Milan’s team shots. Either through shooting himself (372 shots at 3.2 per 90) or creating chances for teammates (323, at 2.8 per 80. No other midfielder in the competition has contributed more team shots for their side over this time frame, and if we look at all players in the league, only Lorenzo Insigne (878) and Ciro Immobile (701) have contributed more.
At the start of 2020, his creativity has hit a new level. No player has provided more Serie A assist than him since then (17) and in last season’s campaign only Rodrigo de Paul (10.3) accumulated more expected assists than Çalhanoğlu’s 8.5.
We can keep going. Last season, Çalhanoğlu’s created a whopping 98 chances for his teammates. No-one in Europe’s top five leagues created more.
Inter and Simone Inzaghi will be delighted to add the Turkish midfielder’s talent to their ranks as they begin the task of defending the Scudetto.
Please do not adjust your smartphone settings or punch your laptop’s screen out of its moorings. This isn’t an article delayed from 2011 or even 2006, this is 2021 content and it is saying you should keep an eye on Ashley Young in 2021-22. Yes, a man who made his debut before Facebook launched can still play a key role this season. Young has returned to Aston Villa after 10 years away from the club, largely at Manchester United, but most recently at Internazionale, where he added the Serie A title to the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League he won in his time at United.
If he left Villa Park in 2011 to accumulate silverware then it’s job done. The only Englishman to win both the Premier League and Serie A, Young is less a surname and more a description of the player’s permanent state of mind. A winger turned full-back turned wing-back, Young adapts to the evolution of the modern game like an algorithm three moves ahead of so-called reality. Should a man born before nearly a year before Diego Maradona embarrassed England at the 1986 World Cup still be performing at this level? I don’t know, but he is.
In Serie A last season Young provided four assists, just as he did in his first campaign with Inter and that total of eight is as many in the same period as Cristiano Ronaldo, also born in 1985 but generally more celebrated. The map below shows Young’s age-old ability to run with the ball on the left flank, cut in on that vintage right foot and create contemporary goalscoring chances. You never lose it. Well, some people do, but not Ashley Young.
We wait to see how many times Young appears for Dean Smith’s team in 2021-22, but there shouldn’t be much doubt that when he does, the (hopefully) restored capacity crowds of the Premier League should be on their feet applauding a creative legend. 4,360 players have featured in the Premier League since it was founded in 1992, yet just 13 of them have provided more assists than Young has. If he can keep up the four-per-season rate he recorded at Inter, Young will go level with Andy Cole this season, add one more to that and he matches Thierry Henry. Those two are legends of the sport, forever young. More importantly, we have Young, forever.
When signing for Liverpool in September last year, Diogo Jota was tipped to slowly ease out Roberto Firmino and become the Reds’ new No. 9, leading their press from the front just as the Brazilian has done so well over the last few years, whilst providing a little extra dynamism and goals to their much-revered front three. He certainly did the latter, matching Firmino’s Premier League goal tally in 2020-21 (nine), despite playing in only half of Liverpool’s 38 games, 17 fewer appearances than that of his teammate (36).
The Portuguese international couldn’t have got his Liverpool career off to a better start before his long-term injury hit in December, netting seven times across his first 10 matches in all competitions, the best return by a player for the club since Robbie Fowler in 1993.
In his 10th game for the club, Jota sealed a 5-0 win over Atalanta in the Champions League with a hat trick, his third European treble following his two with Wolves in the Europa League. With that treble against Atalanta, Jota has more hat tricks across the two major European competitions than any other player since 2018-19 (three), whilst if you throw in his Premier League treble against Leicester in January 2019, no player for a top-flight English side has scored more hat tricks across all competitions than Jota since that campaign (four, alongside Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling).
Of all Premier League players to appear in 500+ minutes last season, only Harry Kane (4.0) and Aleksandar Mitrovic (3.82) had more shots per 90 than Diogo Jota (3.72), whilst he topped the list when it came to direct shot involvement – a metric that assesses each team’s sequences where a player’s sole involvement is the end shot – averaging 3.07 of these per 90 minutes played, just ahead of Mo Salah (3.01).
Jota’s willingness to shoot regularly, coupled with the fact he had a higher conversion rate (19.6%) than each of Sadio Mané (11.7), Salah (17.5) and Firmino (10.9) could have turned Liverpool’s mid-season slumber around, a period in which the Reds lost six straight home league games and went 132 shots (ex. pens) without scoring at Anfield in the Premier League, a record for any home side at a single ground in recorded history.
If Liverpool can keep him healthy, 2021-22 might be the campaign in which we see a little less Roberto Firmino and a little more Diogo Jota – a sentence which might upset the nostalgia on Merseyside – but the 24-year-old certainly has the ability, grit, and confidence to carry the weight of becoming Liverpool’s main frontman.
Steven Zuber enjoyed Euro 2020 this summer, as he showed fans the quality that he possesses. He didn’t start either of Switzerland’s opening two games to the tournament, and it came as no coincidence that their results improved when he came into their starting XI.
Across just 287 minutes of action at Euro 2020, Zuber assisted four goals for the Swiss – more than any other player at the tournament. Three of these came in an exceptional display against Turkey in the group stage, as Zuber became just the third player to assist this many in a single European Championships match. He impressed again in the Last 16 victory against France, with his blistering power and pace causing the French defence problems and winning a penalty with his direct running.
This summer came after a frustrating domestic season in 2020-21 at Eintracht Frankfurt. After signing in August 2020 from Hoffenheim, Zuber only managed 578 minutes of Bundesliga action for his new club. He was often kept out of the side by their top assist provider Filip Kostic and most of his minutes on the pitch came earlier in the season when Kostic was sidelined with an injury.
Zuber’s Euro 2020 displays, coupled with rumours of Kostic’s departure could end up seeing the Swiss wide man force his way into Eintracht’s side for 2021-22. He has a new manager to impress, with Oliver Glasner taking the reins this summer – at previous clubs, he’s favoured a three-man defence with wing-backs, which would suit Zuber and could see him deployed in his favoured left wing-back position.
Since arriving in the Bundesliga back in 2014-15, the highest proportion of minutes that Zuber has played in a single campaign came back in 2016-17 (66%). If he is to show off his talents this season, he’ll need to convince Glasner that he’s worthy of more playing time.
If they hadn’t already, fans outside of Spain put a face to the name Mikel Oyarzabal during Euro 2020 and the Olympics. In a club context, though, La Liga and Real Sociedad fans have had six seasons with him, culminating in the winning goal from the penalty spot in the delayed 2019-20 Copa del Rey final this past April.
Oyarzabal’s most memorable moment at the Euros also came from 12 yards, albeit in a shootout as he converted the winner to send Spain past Switzerland. He frequently played inverted on the right at the Euros rather than his traditional spot out left for Real Sociedad. At the tournament, he created seven chances in 164 minutes, which on a per-90 basis ranked second to Kevin De Bruyne among those with more than 150 minutes played (2.74), while his 2.2 shots on target per 90 led the tournament. Granted, those numbers came in limited minutes with a Spanish side that amassed tournament highs in plenty of attacking categories.
Sociedad isn’t quite that level of attacking force, but Oyarzabal is frequently involved. His 40 goal involvements in the last two seasons rank sixth in La Liga. Now 24, he’s scored at least 10 goals in the last four La Liga seasons, but those have been more penalty-dependent in the last two. Of his 21 goals in that span, 11 are from open play. But that’s been met with more creation. His 19 assists in that span rank second to Lionel Messi’s 30.
His 51 chances created in 2020-21 are the most of his career, but that was in part because of increased set-play responsibilities. Oyarzabal’s 24 from set plays were fifth most in the division, while his chances created from open play dipped from 1.32 to 1.0 per 90. That may be a matter of quality over quantity. His 0.23 xA per 90 last season was the highest of his career, and he found himself involved in more dangerous positions. In 2019-20, 8.7 of the sequences he was involved in per 90 started in the attacking third, and that was up to 13.1 this past season.
Sociedad have gone from ninth to sixth to fifth in the past three seasons, though they finished 15 points back of Sevilla for La Liga’s final Champions League spot. Reaching that next step may require Oyarzabal to take that next step of his own into his prime.