Think back to the beginning of 2020. Fans were in stadiums, Erling Haaland hadn’t yet played a game at Dortmund, Bruno Fernandes was still in Portugal, Liverpool were completely running away with the Premier League, and you had no idea Tariq Lamptey was THIS good. A lot can change in a year, especially in football.
A new year also means a new batch of football stars. A number of others followed in Lamptey’s footsteps in 2020, with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Bukayo Saka, Eduardo Camavinga, and Mason Greenwood announcing themselves to the world. So as 2021 just begins, we present to you eight players we believe you’ll know a lot, lot more about by this time next year.
1. Mohammed Kudus, Attacking Midfielder, Ajax, 20
Ajax have quite the reputation for spotting and developing young stars, so when they make a move, it’s worth taking notice. After a hugely impressive season at Danish side Nordsjælland (scoring 11 goals from midfield), Ajax signed Kudus for around £8m last summer.
His 2020/21 season has been disrupted by a knee injury suffered in November, but the Ghanaian looks set to return very soon. Kudus is comfortable in a number of positions, but most suited to a central attacking midfield role. Always looking to receive between the lines, he’s got an impressive passing range, smart and explosive movement, and excellent dribbling ability.
2. Emile Smith Rowe, Midfielder, Arsenal, 20
After a topsy-turvy start to Arsenal’s season, Mikel Arteta has decided to trust the youth in recent weeks, and 20-year-old Smith Rowe has been at the center of the revival. A successful loan spell at Championship side Huddersfield in 2019/20 earned his manager’s trust this season, and while he’s had to bide his time, he’s taken his opportunity with both hands (and feet).
The young Englishman has already created 11 chances in just 374 minutes this season. Best in the #10 role, he excels in picking up pockets of space in the final third, makes intricate combinations with his forwards, locates space smartly, and is clever in picking his pass.
3. Nuno Mendes, Left Back, Sporting CP, 18
Sporting CP, sitting atop Liga NOS, have a wave of young talent currently making their mark, but it’s 18-year-old left back Nuno Mendes that has impressed the most. At a time where the full-back market is relatively lacking, yet a position becoming increasingly more important in the modern game, Mendes will be highly sought after very, very soon.
Previously a more attacking player in his youth, it’s an understatement to say Mendes is unbelievably technical. Skillful, inventive, and nonchalant in possession, he loves bombing forward, and interestingly prefers making runs inside the opposition fullback, making him very difficult to mark. Just check out the goal in this clip…
4. Karim Adeyemi, Forward, RB Salzburg, 18
RB Salzburg might have the best recruitment team in Europe (they’ve developed a reputation for unearthing impressive young talents) and Karim Adeyemi is a prime example of that.
The 18-year-old became the youngest German to ever score in the Champions League in December, netting in Salzburg’s 3-1 win over Lokomotiv Moscow. He still often lacks the final ball, but he’s blessed with blistering pace, impressive dribbling ability, and an eye for goal. The next to shine from Salzburg’s talent factory.
5. Noni Madueke, Winger, PSV, 18
When Jadon Sancho left Man City for Dortmund, it was viewed as an immensely brave move; a leap of faith not generally made by English youngsters. Since then, however, a flurry of players have done the same. Noni Madueke left Tottenham in the summer of 2018, seeking a more attainable route to first-team football. He found that at Dutch side PSV, and hasn’t looked back since.
Although he predominantly starts on the right wing, Madueke loves to drift throughout the final third and uses his stronger left-foot to create mayhem for opposition defenders. A mazy, elegant dribbler with a real burst of pace and a serious eye for goal, he’s formed an exciting partnership with other members of PSV’s young side. Don’t be surprised if he’s back in the Premier League soon.
6. Marc Guehi, Center Back, Chelsea (on loan at Swansea), 20
It’s never been easy for Chelsea’s youth players to break into their first-team, but under Frank Lampard, a number of academy graduates have made their mark, and we expect Marc Guehi to be the next to do so.
The 20-year-old center back is spending the season on loan at Swansea, and has been one of the standout defenders in the league thus far. An integral member of the Championship’s best defence, he’s showcased his passing range, aerial dominance, 1v1 ability, and progressive nature in possession. With 36-year-old Thiago Silva not getting any younger, the door may be open sooner than you think.
7. Rafael Leão, Forward, AC Milan, 21
Perhaps you’re wondering why we’ve selected a player who earned a move to a top European side in 2019, so let us explain our decision. We believe Leão will prove himself to be one of Europe’s best forwards in the next 12 months, thus taking his game to a completely new level.
With 4 goals and 3 assists in 11 Serie A games this season, he’s only just beginning to showcase what he’s truly capable of. A marauding and physical presence, neat and intricate dribbler, and powerful finisher, he’s dangerous both on the left and through the middle, and always a threat in behind. He now holds the record for the fastest goal in Serie A history. It won’t be the only record he breaks.
8. Tanguy Coulibaly, Winger, Stuttgart, 19
With Sven Mislintat pulling the transfer strings, Stuttgart have put together quite the youthful side, and are the surprise package of the Bundesliga thus far this season. We’ve expressed our admiration for Stuttgart’s wing-back/forward Silas Wamangituka in the past, but ex-PSG academy product Tanguy Coulibaly looks primed for a breakout year as well.
He’ll be hoping to kick on in the coming months after a fine solo goal vs. Dortmund in November, in which he also showcased his dribbling ability (6.93 dribbles p/90 this season), creative threat (1.07 key passes), driving force on the counter, and wand of a left foot (check out the video below).