Best U21 players from outside Europe's 'Big Five': A Spurs reject and the son of a Romanian icon feature

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  • Rangers attacker Ianis Hagi

    We often view football through the prism of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues but peer away from the shine of their riches and there are masses of young talent to be found elsewhere on the continent.

    The likes of Erling Haaland and Joao Felix were developed outside of the elite leagues and there are many more gifted young players emerging from the outer reaches.

    In the first of this two-part series, we examine some of the best U21 players from leagues situated outside the ‘Big Five’, using WyScout and to deliver our reports.

    Liga NOS (Portugal)

    Marcus Edwards | Vitoria Guimaraes | 21 | English

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    Serge Gnabry sits in the stomach of Arsenal fans and rots away as a constant reminder of the club’s enormous mistake. Well, their north-London rivals Tottenham will soon share a similar bitter taste. Marcus Edwards left Spurs last summer to join Vitoria Guimaraes in Portugal for a nominal fee and a 50 per cent sell-on clause and is developing into one of Europe’s most promising young attackers.

    There are many talented footballers in the world, but the diverging factor from potential to promise or failure is mentality and there were fears Edwards didn’t have it when a loan spell at Norwich was cut short because of training late shows. But a 2018/19 stay at Dutch club Excelsior righted a train which is gathering speed in Portugal.

    Likened to Lionel Messi by Mauricio Pochettino in 2016, the comparison, while extremely dangerous, does carry a degree of merit. Indeed, the diminutive 21-year-old shares similar traits with the Argentine in that he effortlessly slaloms through crowds of players and embarrasses defenders with perfectly executed drag backs and tight pirouettes. The skill has always been obvious, but now Edwards is adding the finishing touches to his artistic flair with his feints and flicks paired with penetration in the final third.

    In Portugal, his accurate crosses, clever passes and confident finishing has seen him contribute to eight goals (four scored himself plus four assists) in 17 Liga Nos games. In transition, Edwards has become Vitoria’s main attacking outlet as he’s superb at taking the ball on the half turn and exploding into space. When he’s in attacking scenarios, he’ll either cut in from his right-wing post and shoot off his left foot, or shift direction down the line and cross off his right foot.

    He’s a bit like Jadon Sancho in the way he utilises both feet to unnerve defenders and that’s perhaps a better comparison. The two are close friends and Sancho’s mesmeric rise has inspired Edwards to knuckle down, which explains why an Englishman is one of the best young players in a Portuguese league which has no problems producing talent of their own.

    Worthy Mentions: Florentino Luis (Benfica), Trincao (Braga), Romario Baro (Porto), Pedro Goncalves (Famalicao), Tomas Tavares (Benfica), Fabio Silva (Porto), Tomas Esteves (Porto)

    Premier Liga (Russia)

    Magomed-Shapi Suleymanov | Krasnodar | 20 | Russian

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    Russia hasn’t exactly been a great export to the rest of Europe with Denis Cheryshev (Valencia) and Aleksandr Golovin (Monaco) the only Russian players owned by sides from the ‘Big Five’. Shapi Suleymanov will soon join them though if he continues his current trajectory. The 20-year-old is the outstanding young player from Russia’s top flight, emerging from Krasnodar’s talent factory and making a name for himself this season with a string of impressive displays.

    Think of the charged-up Duracell Bunny and that’s kind of what Shapi is like. The left-footed attacker is a ball of frenetic energy, a player who loves to hunt down opposition attackers almost as much as he does terrorising full-backs. He’s a modern pressing forward and given Krasnodar operate in a similar fashion to Liverpool in that they use inverted wingers with their full-backs pushed high and wide up the pitch, Shapi’s vibrant style and tight technique has meshed well. He spots smart passes, uses his low centre of gravity to manipulate space for himself and has a cracking left footed strike when he cuts in.

    No player 21 and under has scored (four) or assisted (four) more than Shapi in the league this season, and considering almost half of his 20 appearances have been from the bench that’s an impressive return. Naturally, there are areas for refinement, his dribbling isn’t always so slick for example, but if he can fully establish himself at Krasnodar, then no doubt Europe’s elite will come knocking very soon.

    Worthy Mentions: Arnor Sigurdsson (CSKA Moscow), Zuriko Davitashvili (Rubin Kazan), Vadim Karpov (CSKA Moscow), Ivan Oblyakov (CSKA Moscow), Matvey Safonov (Krasnodar), Ivan Ignatyev (Rubin Kazan)

    Eredivisie (Netherlands)

    Myron Boadu | AZ Alkmaar | 19 | Dutch

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    The Netherlands is flush with some of the best young players in the world and so attempting to pick one player from the Eredivisie is a tough task. In fact, choosing just one candidate from AZ Alkmaar is tricky enough given they are emerging as perhaps the best academy in Europe. There are several students for consideration but Myron Boadu is the Valedictorian.

    Boadu has been with AZ since the age of 12 and is now developing a gleaning reputation having helped fire his side into a title challenge with Ajax. The early conclusion of the Eredivisie means this vibrant young team won’t be adding a third league title in the club’s history, a sad ending considering there is a real danger this dynasty could be broken up. Those fears are legitimate given Boadu’s integral role, top scoring with 14 strikes and adding another six assists.

    Still only 19 years old, Boadu’s ability and temperament at his age is outrageous. His movement in particular stands out. He’s naturally very quick, but how he applies his burst of speed is what helps create space for himself and his team-mates. He’ll use body feints to disguise his direction and dart towards his own goal before sprinting the opposite way to gain separation. He resembles an NFL wide receiver in the way he looks to create space for himself and then when through on goal, his finishing is cold and precise. He can dribble cleanly at speed and looks after possession under pressure as well, bouncing the ball quickly to link-up with team-mates.

    The spectre of Vincent Janssen’s frighteningly poor form at Tottenham creeps in the background and so there is a need to temper the expectations because of that evidence. But good luck doing so, especially after he became the first Dutch player born in the 21st century to earn a cap for the Oranje back in November, scoring on debut against Estonia.

    Worthy Mentions: Mohamed Ihattaren (PSV), Donyell Malen (PSV), Sergino Dest (Ajax), Calvin Stengs (AZ Alkmaar), Ryan Gravenberch (Ajax), Luis Sinisterra (Feyenoord), Ritsu Doan (PSV), Owen Wijndal (AZ Alkmaar), Vangelis Pavlidis (Willem II), Joey Veerman (Heerenveen), Mauro Junior (PSV), Cody Gakpo (PSV)

    Super Lig (Turkey)

    Abdulkadir Omur | Trabzonspor | 20 | Turkish

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    Turkey is crazy for football so it must drive them mad there are so few homegrown success stories right now. Indeed, only Cengiz Under of Roma is prospering abroad, joining Arda Turan and Emre Belozoglu as the exception to the rule when it comes to Turkish exports. From a slim group, though, there is some promise from the Super Lig in Trabzonspor’s Abdulkadir Omur, a player reportedly linked to Liverpool in January. He’s been lazily referred to as the ‘Turkish Messi’, an obviously dangerous piece of hyperbole from fanatical fans desperate to breed a superstar, yet while the 20-year-old clearly doesn’t justify that sort of moniker, he is talented for sure.

    Nominally deployed on the right of a three in behind a red-hot Alexander Sorloth, Omur’s piercing pace immediately jumps out as he uses his low centre of gravity to weave through defenders, applying neat control to open up space in the channel or to cut inside. It’s that trait and his left-foot which draws comparisons to Messi because Omur does his best work when he’s surrounded by chomping feet, feinting one way and then the next to free himself of attention before bursting into clear space. He’s clever with his passing as well, using lobs and disguised through-balls to release team-mates in the area. All in all, he’s a technically tidy player but what is a glaring issue in terms of any potential step up is his frame. The moustached forward collapses easily in contact and there would be some question marks around him surviving against the physical beasts we see in Europe’s ‘Big Five’. Messi is deceptively strong and very difficult to knock off the ball, that’s one of his underrated qualities, but the same cannot be said of Omur.

    A torn meniscus kept him out of action from August to February and while eight league goals and 14 assists accrued over the last two seasons point to plenty of promise, more consistent creation is required to see him really push on. Omur has talked about his affection for Barcelona and the inspiration of Messi recently, while that sort of elite move is unlikely, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t enjoy relative success akin to his compatriot Under.

    Worthy Mentions: Guven Yalcin (Besiktas), Ferdi Kadioglu ( Fenerbahce), Yusuf Sari (Trabzonspor), Erdon Daci (Konyaspor), Berat Ozdemir (Genclerbirligi Ankara), Dogukan Sinik (Antalyaspor), Mustafa Kapi (Galatasaray), Muhammed Emin Sarikaya (Basaksehir)

    Scottish Premiership (Scotland)

    Ianis Hagi | Rangers | 21 | Romanian

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    For fans of a certain vintage, the new generation emerging will have them feeling all misty-eyed – either because of fond memories or how old they’ll feel. From Erling Haaland and Marcus Thuram to Giovanni Reyna and Justin Kluivert, European football is now peppered by the offspring of players from a bygone era. Ianis Hagi is right among them. Being the son of Romania’s greatest ever player, the 21-year-old could easily be swallowed up by the enormous pressure his name brings. Instead, he’s not only coping with the expectation but now beginning to embrace it as well. And dad Gheorghe has been watching every step of the way.

    Romania’s new golden generation is beginning to shimmer after their deeply impressive semi-final run to last year’s European U21 Championship. Hagi was one of his country’s star players and a move to Genk last summer was viewed as the perfect home for him to continue his development aware from the intense glare back in Romania. However, doubts about his work ethic and physicality meant the playmaker stagnated. He’s since come alive on loan at Rangers. Signed in January, Hagi is now edging towards a £4.5 million permanent switch to Ibrox which will make him one of the most expensive signings in the club’s history. Yet it’s no surprise given his explosion.

    Thought to be a classic No10 – a luxury role now becoming extinct in favour of more physical, complete midfielders – Hagi has adapted to the right side of Rangers front three superbly. It helps that he has the rare trait of being genuinely two-footed, able to drift inside and fizz crisp strikes on his left as he did with a late winner against Hibernian, while crossing with his right.

    Hagi’s technique is clean but what he needs is to be dirtied up by the physicality of Scottish football. His work ethic at Genk was lambasted but he does appear to have renewed vitality in pressing the ball under Steven Gerrard. Hagi is all brains rather than brawn, but bulking up and adding physical armour to his dynamism will see him make his own way in the game.

    Worthy Mentions: Jamie Hamilton (Hamilton), Patryk Klimala (Poland), David Turnbull (Motherwell), Allan Campbell (Motherwell), Daniel Arzani (Celtic), Ismaila Soro (Celtic), Jeremie Frimpong (Celtic), Lewis Ferguson (Aberdeen), Mikey Johnston (Celtic), Ryan Porteous (Hibernian), Aaron Hickey (Hearts)