One of the biggest success stories of 2020 in soccer was the emergence of Erling Haaland, who’d shown his talent for FC Salzburg in last season’s Champions League. Yet it was after he moved to Borussia Dortmund last January that we got to realize he was no prematurely hyped kid or flash in the pan from a smaller league. He was the perfect example of a young talent taking an opportunity and running with it, never looking back.
With that idea in mind, we asked ESPN’s experts to identify the players most likely to have a similar impact on 2021. It could be the teenager hurriedly promoted to the first team due to injuries or COVID-19 issues, only to prove that they’re ready. It could be the youngster everyone expected to shine, or a new arrival in a new league who has shown no fear of the challenge.
Why: The latest star forged by Pep Guardiola
You already know about Phil Foden. After all, the 20-year-old Manchester City midfielder has been billed as the next big thing for so long that it could be argued he has already gone beyond the stage of being a player on the verge of his breakout year. But until now, Foden has been bubbling under the surface at the Etihad, used sparingly by manager Pep Guardiola, despite a desire by City’s supporters to see the home-grown youngster given a central role in the team.
Too often, it seems, Foden has been given cameo roles from the substitutes’ bench rather than opportunities to make a difference from the start of games, but he has amassed a decent collection of medals nonetheless, with six major trophies already in his cabinet. Yet 2021 could be, and should be, Foden’s big year, and the signs are there that Guardiola is now ready to make him the first-team regular many believe he should have been at least a year ago.
Foden has still made only 49 starts in all competitions since making his City debut as a 17-year-old in 2017, but 17 of those starts have come this season. With David Silva having left City for Real Sociedad last summer, Foden is now seizing the opportunity to replace the Spaniard as the team’s left-footed creative force in midfield. He has also broken into the England squad this season, making his senior debut against Iceland in September, and the pandemic-enforced postponement of Euro 2020 last summer means Foden can look forward to playing in this summer’s rescheduled tournament, having had little chance of making it the first time around.
Euro 2020 is precisely why this could be Foden’s big year. He is quietly making his mark at City, operating as a versatile attacking midfielder under Guardiola, and becoming a key cog among great players at the Etihad. But with England, he now has the opportunity to shine on the international stage and help Gareth Southgate’s team chase glory this summer.
Having won the Golden Ball as the star of the tournament when England lifted the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, Foden has already shone at the international level, but if he showcases his talents at Euro 2020, he will elevate himself to a whole new level. — Mark Ogden
Why: A Premier League veteran at 19
The 19-year-old is part of a generation of young English kids who benefited from the upgraded and overhauled Academy system, allowing him to grow and develop technically and tactically to a higher standard than previous generations. Saka is quick, strong and skillful, but what makes him stand out is his brain. That takes many forms and helps illustrate why he’s standing out beyond his years.
There’s his standard football intelligence, which enables him to play unflustered, read the game and make correct decisions more often than most players his age. There’s his tactical understanding that has translated into extreme versatility: He has played left-back, left wing-back, left-wing, attacking midfield and right-wing since becoming part of Arsenal’s first-team squad. (The latter position is where he’ll eventually end up.)
Then there’s his drive, confidence and grit that have allowed him to become an automatic choice in Mikel Arteta’s team sheet, even ahead of more ballyhooed (and much better paid) teammates such as Willian and Nicolas Pepe. In fact, only Bernd Leno, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Kieran Tierney have played more minutes than Saka has this season. He has already started 35 Premier League games and doesn’t even turn 20 until September. And he earned every start. — Gab Marcotti
Why: Backs himself to do better than Ronaldo
Many young players shy away from premature comparisons with the game’s greats, but Pedro Neto embraced it even as a teenager. “If I work to be the best in the world, I can be one of the best, I don’t know,” he said in September 2019, a month after joining Wolves from Braga.
“If I think that I can be the best in the world, I work more than if I think that I can be the best here.”
Neto cited Cristiano Ronaldo as the benchmark and was quick to remind everyone he broke his fellow countryman’s record as the youngest scorer in the history of Portugal’s top-flight. He scored on his debut for Braga aged 17 years and 67 days, taking just nine minutes to find the net and shatter a record that had stood for well over a decade.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Neto (who turns 21 in March) will go on to enjoy anything like the career Ronaldo is managing, but he appears to possess the mindset to maximise his talents, which is always a prerequisite to succeed.
Neto arrived at Wolves in a double deal with Bruno Jordao worth £20 million and almost immediately exceeded expectations, scoring in his debut and making a series of telling contributions when injuries allowed. He installed a gym in his Wolverhampton home to help pile on the muscle like Ronaldo, too, and ended his first season with 29 Premier League appearances, albeit just nine of those starts.
Wolves rewarded the young attacker with a new five-year deal in November as he slowly becomes a more integral part of Nuno Espirito Santo’s team, making 11 League starts already this term with four goals and two assists to his name. In the same month, he made his senior Portugal debut and scored — there’s clearly a theme here — needing just seven minutes to volley his country in front against minnows Andorra.
Neto’s direct running style, fearlessness in possession and willingness to commit players has drawn admirers from across Europe with Juventus and Atletico Madrid among the sides monitoring his progress. Wolves are struggling to cope with the long-term absence of striker Raul Jimenez after he his fractured skull, but it is a sign of Neto’s ability that he is still continuing his individual development at pace. It remains to be seen where his talent takes him, but there’s no doubt Neto himself is aiming high. — James Olley
Why: The next player Leipzig will sell for a fortune
Acquired from Salzburg in January and already his country’s (Hungary) best player, Szoboszlai is basically three players in one.
1. He’s an aggressive and progressive midfielder. Though he comes from Erling Haaland’s former club, FC Salzburg, and was likely their best player following Haaland’s departure, think more Paul Pogba than Haaland. He occasionally played further up the pitch but was primarily a central or left midfielder. From deeper positions, he still recorded 17 assists in 39 league matches over the past two seasons, and in 16 career Champions League and Europa League matches, he has created 34 chances (2.3 per 90 minutes) with a far-higher-than-average completion rate on both long passes and crosses. He has also logged more than seven ball recoveries per 90, which is obviously a huge draw for a pressing manager such as Julian Nagelsmann.
(He’s posting similar numbers for the national team in a brief career, by the way: 12 matches, three goals, 19 chances created (1.9 per 90).)
2. He’s a whiz from set-pieces. He has been prolific on direct free kicks for both Salzburg and Hungary, and he’s accurate when taking corners. RBL is eighth in the Bundesliga in set piece goals this season, so one could see the draw in raising your game in this regard.
3. He’s a star in the making. He’s confident, he’s battle-tested, his aggression is an antidote for stale possession, and if you back off of him, he’s capable of absolute nonsense like this.
You don’t ever want to go too far down the “clutch” road, but he has met the moment in his national team appearances: His first goal was a curving free kick that tied Slovakia in the second half. His second was an absurdly long, 80th-minute winner against Turkey last September. His third was a one-man, game-winning counter attack in the 92nd minute against Iceland. He wants to be a star; actually, he already is one. — Bill Connelly
Why: Leicester’s next defensive rock
France have an embarrassment of riches at centre-back these days, but Fofana has the talent and frightening potential to rival them all.
Fofana has been one of the best buys in the Premier League this season. Leicester signed him from Saint-Etienne in October for £31.5m, and though the transfer fee was a little eye-watering, Leicester very rarely get their recruitment wrong. He’s enjoying a superb debut season in the English top flight and thanks to a beautiful cocktail of astute judgement, his pace, his speedy recoveries and confidence, which led to ex-United legend Paul Scholes telling ESPN that Fofana should be at the top of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s shopping list.
Fofana will attract transfer interest this summer, but until then he remains a key cog in the Leicester team. He has made the second-most interceptions (37) for a central defender in the Premier League behind Harry Maguire, following on from last season in Ligue 1, where he won the second most air duels (72.9%) and had a pass completion rate of 86.8%. He has benefited from Jonny Evans’ steady hand alongside him at centre back, and Jamie Redknapp predicts he will eventually take Virgil van Dijk’s crown as the best defender in the league. But right now, Rodgers is loving having Fofana at Leicester.
“When we saw him you could tell within the first minute of watching him you could tell the talent,” Rodgers said after Leicester’s win over Chelsea on Jan. 19. “You could see his talent and what he needed was a platform. He’s come to us and he’s been immense. He’s just turned 20. He has everything. He’s still learning about the intensity of the Premier League, but you want a defender to be aggressive, be strong, be dominant in the air, be quick.
“He’s your ideal footballer.” — Tom Hamilton
Why: Dominant midfielder at 18
The more I watch him play, the more I see him grow and the more I’m lost for words. Gravenberch is still so young and still has so much more to learn, and yet, he’s already so impressive. The 18-year-old is a prodigy, an absolute wunderkind.
Ajax Amsterdam are known for producing great players, but even they admit that they’ve rarely seen such a talent. The Dutch midfielder simply has everything: technical skills, pace, body strength, intelligence in his decision-making and in his positioning, passing range. He can play as an attacking midfielder, like in his time with the Jong Ajax, but also deeper in midfield as he has been this season with the first team. He could surely also play as a No. 10.
After seeing glimpses of his talent last season during his first few appearances with the first team, it is all there to see now week in and week out. He bossed recent games against PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord in the Eredivisie in the past couple of weeks. Earlier in the season, he shone in the Champions League group stage — his first experience with the competition — against Liverpool and Atalanta despite getting sent off against the Italians.
His numbers are very encouraging with 1.5 key passes per game and 1.8 dribbles per 90 minutes in the Dutch league. He can play long or short passes, his progressive runs with the ball are great, and the quality of his shot is amazing as we saw with his wonder goal against Midtjylland in the Champions League. There is no greatest talent in Europe at his age right now. He is already a complete midfielder, and there will be no limits to his immense ability. — Julien Laurens
Pedro “Pedri” González López, FW, Barcelona
Why: Bringing joy back to Messi, Barca
Small, skinny and wearing his socks halfway down his shins, Pedri is like something from another era. No stripped-down super athlete, shirt riding the contours of his muscles; there’s something about him that means he doesn’t look much like a man for this footballing age. Not a man at all, in fact: He’s a kid, only just turned eighteen, and he looks it too. He probably couldn’t get served in a bar, and he hasn’t got a driving licence yet. But there’s something about him. And even if he doesn’t always seem to fit this era, he might help define the next.
That’s quite a claim, and not a particularly helpful one: Why load pressure on a kid? Why go off so early? Only Pedri doesn’t seem to feel any pressure at all. “I play football like I’m in the garden with my brother,” he says, and it shows. The back-heels, the willingness to hold the ball and invite pressure, the smoothness in the movements, the vision. An Andrés Iniesta in the making, some say.
A creative midfielder with touch and vision, understanding and startling awareness — a No. 10 or No. 8 or number wherever you want to put him — he boasts an odd combination of a total lack of pretension, not the slightest hint of arrogance, and not the slightest hint of doubt either. “A millionaire who doesn’t know it,” as his former coach at Las Palmas neatly put it. There’s a lightness to how he plays, but a seriousness too. An assuredness in every touch. He knows. And he can. And now everyone is seeing it too.
At the start of the season, manager Ronald Koeman suggested he go away and get minutes on loan elsewhere, but he stayed in Barcelona. And he played, all over the pitch and entirely on merit. He has been superb, a player who, while it is early in his career, seems genuinely special. Asked to describe him in a word, former Barcelona midfielder Guillermo Amor replied: “There will be many. I’d go for generous, because of everything he does for the team … splendid … superb … and surprising at his age.”
True, that. But don’t ask him, ask Lionel Messi. He won’t tell you, but he will show you in every game. There’s something building there, a connection, an awareness in Messi that there is a player here — someone who is not just good, but is different, an enjoyment in that discovery. And that’s not so easy.
Pedri has done many remarkable things this season, and helping make Messi happy again is just one of them. — Sid Lowe
Why: Germany’s next superstar
Over the past few years, the German Bundesliga has become one of the best finishing schools for the soccer world. But while most of the international focus has been on Borussia Dortmund, less than 100 kilometres to the west of the Westfalenstadion, young German players have been given the chance to develop in a competitive environment. For every Jadon Sancho there is a Kai Havertz at Leverkusen, and for every Giovanni Reyna there is a Florian Wirtz.
The past year has catapulted the 17-year-old from the FC Cologne academy into a key player for Bayer Leverkusen and a serious contender for Germany’s European Championship squad this summer. Dreaming of playing for Barcelona one day, he’s always looking for ways to break the defensive lines with his passes. This term, he has averaged over 2 key passes per match, unfazed by the risk of not finding a teammate with the ball. He is cool in front of the goal, and already has seven goals and six assists in 29 appearances for his team.
“I want to become an even better player than Kai [Havertz],” he told Sport Bild earlier this year, adding that he learned “how to play between the lines” from the Chelsea player in training last season. Wirtz does not hide, he asks for the ball, he knows how to free himself and open up spaces for his teammates. And he will only get better. He says: “I always want to be the best and I hate to lose.”
It’s a mentality Germany could need at the European Championships this summer, and his club coach at Bayer Leverkusen, Peter Bosz, believes he also “has the quality” to help Joachim Low this summer. It’s much needed for a German side that has lacked imagination as well as the fearlessness and confidence of a youngster who has not seen it all and is hungry to take the world by storm. — Stephan Uersfeld
Why: Can be Barca’s next dominant defender
There was no fanfare when Barcelona announced the signing of a 19-year-old defender named Ronald Araujo for their B-team in the summer of 2018. The Uruguayan, from the town of Rivera on the Brazilian border, arrived in a deal worth an initial €1.75 million, potentially rising to €5m with add-ons. Fast forward two-and-a-half years and there’s a strong argument to be made that Araujo has been Barca’s best centre-back this season — for the first team. Fortune played its part for him to be handed his chance, with Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti both suffering from injuries, but he has grasped it with both hands.
At 6-foot-3, he’s dominant in the air like few Barca defenders have been in recent years. He’s also quick across the ground, as he has shown in battles with Athletic Bilbao’s Inaki Williams. Coach Ronald Koeman says Araujo still needs to improve on the ball, but he has come a long way. At Barca, he has shown ability in both boxes, scoring six times for the reserves before being promoted to the first team permanently this season. However, his mental strength has impressed staff at the Catalan club and enabled him to tread the path to the starting lineup, something few B-team players have managed in recent years.
Barca had been starting to worry about replacing Pique — who turns 34 in February — and were scouring the market for a successor. The emergence of Araujo, who made his Uruguay debut at the end of 2020, could save them a lot of hassle. — Sam Marsden