We often view football through the prism of the ‘Big Five’ leagues but peer away from the shine of its riches and there are masses of young talent to be found.
The likes of Erling Haaland and Joao Felix were developed outside Europe’s elite and there are many more gifted young players emerging from the outer reaches.
In the second of this two-part series, we examine some of the best U21 players from leagues outside the top five, using WyScout and whoscored.com to deliver our reports.
Jupiler Pro League (Belgium)
Jonathan David | Gent | 20 | Canadian
Jonathan David is the best young player outside of Europe’s Big Five. A bold opinion but one with plenty of merit, although, it’s unlikely he’ll remain on the outside for much longer. Amid the recent growth spurt of North American talents – Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies currently lead the way – David is perhaps the most impressive.
Granted his exploits have been achieved in Belgium, but all the building blocks are there to form a brilliant forward, one widely tipped to become the Jupiler Pro League’s most expensive export.
Considering the calibre of players nurtured in Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne, Kalidou Koulibaly, Thibaut Courtois, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and many more enjoyed careers there – that is some statement. Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham head up a long, long list of drooling suitors and like his Canada team-mate Davies, the 20-year-old has really exploded in 2019/20.
First to the statistics and records, of which there are many already. In 40 games across all competitions, David has scored 23 times adding another nine assists for second-placed Gent.
His composed intelligence has been the thread throughout each of those contributions because the attacker’s sense of space and timing is exceptional.
He’ll move in between centre-backs just as crosses are delivered, has the predatory instinct to be first to loose balls in the box and will ghost in over the shoulder of defenders to meet passes. Many of his goals are first-time finishes which points to his smart movement and anticipation of where the ball will be and then where it should go next. But then the Brooklyn-born forward is super smooth with the ball at his feet as well and can explode from deep, taking on players with ease before coolly sliding finishes home.
He’s a proponent of perfect execution and precision, which is why he can provide, too. Depending on where he starts – he’s been deployed in dual roles either in behind two strikers in a 4-3-1-2 or in the front pairing – David will either drop in between the lines and release well-timed through balls, drive from the heart of midfield or pull out into the space between full-back and centre-back to produce clever cut-backs.
The kid just runs and runs, constantly searching for space to exploit but he works hard defensively as well which is why he routinely touches the 12km mark over 90 minutes.
These traits are why at the age of 19 he won the golden boot at the Gold Cup with a national record of six goals and was later named Canadian Player of the Year. Despite making only 12 international appearances, he’s already his country’s fourth-highest goalscorer with 11 strikes. His composure is outstanding and twinned with his searing pace and intelligent play, a long-held dream of featuring in one of the top leagues will be a reality very soon.
Worthy Mentions: Jeremy Doku (Anderlecht), Marco Kana (Anderlecht), Yari Verschaeren (Anderlecht), Krepin Diatta (Club Brugge), Zinho Vanheusden (Standard Liege), Albert Sambi Lokonga (Anderlecht), Charles De Ketelaere (Club Brugge), Jhon Lucumi (Genk), Giorgi Chakvetadze (Gent), Aster Vranckx (KV Mechelen), Ikoma Lois Openda (Club Brugge), Robbe Quirynen (Royal Antwerp)
Mohammed Daramy | FC Copenhagen | 18 | Danish
Mohammed Daramy is a bit like a good soup. It’s hard to go wrong with soup, the core ingredients are hearty and packed full of flavour, but to get it just right the dish requires constant seasoning, care and attention in order to refine it. That is Daramy at the moment, we know he’s going to be good because the core ingredients are there, but he needs refinement to emerge as a sweet success.
The teenage striker is slowly establishing himself at FC Copenhagen with three goals and three assists in all competitions this season, which is a fairly tidy return for a player with just eight starts in 2019/20. The development program has been clear as Daramy has been gradually eased into senior football having become Copenhagen’s youngest ever goalscorer at just 16 back in 2018. And it’s been a big year already for the youngster as he turned 18 in January after receiving his Danish passport shortly before his birthday (Daramy has lived in Denmark his entire life though his parents are from Sierra Leone). It won’t be long until he’s wearing the red and white of Denmark.
According to reports, almost half of the Premier League have been monitoring his progress – Liverpool chief among them – while Leipzig apparently already had a bid rejected in January with Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund interested and also Scottish champions Celtic.
There’s a lot to like. Primarily a centre-forward, Daramy likes to drop deep and link-up play. He’s very neat in beating his man to open up passing opportunities and he has the awareness to know when to turn and dart and when to drop the ball off and recycle possession. Now, he’s not the cleanest striker of the ball so he can be very wayward with his shots and does tend to overhit passes as well, but that’s to be expected from a young forward. The pleasing thing, though, is his confidence to ask for the ball and to take shots on. Tightening his technique will come with time.
He’s so far proven to be pretty comfortable on both wings as well, which is pretty much a requirement for all modern forwards, so it’s easy to see why so many clubs are checking him out. There’s a long way to go and many steps on the road, but Daramy certainly has a bright future ahead of him.
Worthy Mentions: Victor Nelsson (FC Copenhagen), Mikkel Damsgaard (FC Nordsjaelland), Evander (FC Midtjylland), Mohammed Kudus (FC Nordsjaelland), Magnus Kofoed Andersen (FC Nordsjaelland), Jonas Wind (FC Copenhagen), Jacob Christensen (FC Nordsjaelland), Isaac Atanga (FC Nordsjaelland), Mikkel Kaufmann (FC Copenhagen)
Sead Haksabanovic | IFK Norrkoping | 21 | Montenegrin
Sweden isn’t exactly blessed with a glut of talented players right now so when Sead Haksabanovic switched allegiances to Montenegro – he qualified through his father – there was understandable disappointment. Haksabanovic has since garnished salt in their wounds with the sass of a certain social media star, returning to the Allsvenskan on loan at Norrkoping from West Ham.
He’s barely been given a chance at the Hammers since moving from Halmstads as a teenager with a loan spell at Malaga bringing him a miserable 53 minutes of football. However, the attacking midfielder has exploded back in Sweden where he ended the 2019 campaign – the Allsvenskan runs from April-November – scoring nine times and assisting another eight in 36 games.
Like most teams, West Ham’s transfer budget will be seriously restricted by the effects of COVID-19 and so the 21-year-old could finally be handed an opportunity in the Premier League. He deserves his chance.
Confidence is a huge determining factor in success and failure and now Haksabanovic has managed to build himself back up to play with freedom after two punctured years. Featuring on the left side of a 3-4-3, Haksabanovic has been very effective when cutting inside and unleashing rasping strikes. He’s super dynamic and his tight control allows him to take a touch inside, shift the ball out of his feet before hammering at goal.
Yet he’s not one dimensional. He often times his runs as the full-back is not watching to dart into the box and meet crosses, scoring a header and several first-time finishes with this ploy. He’s also applied his sharp dribbling skills to score when running at defences from deep.
The variety of his goals is what gives hope that he can transition into the English top-flight. Naturally, the level he is playing at is significantly lower, but the fact he has such a swagger means that if he can bring that mentality to England, he can make an impact. There will be a familiar face Haksabanovic would love to test himself against because he trained alongside Marcus Rashford during a trial at Manchester United as a 15 year old back in 2015.
Worthy Mentions: Marko Johansson (GAIS), Tim Prica (Malmo), Daleho Irandust (BK Hacken), Jack Lahne (Orebro SK), Alhassan Yusuf (IFK Goteborg), Max Svensson (Helsingborgs IF)
Dominik Szoboszlai | Red Bull Salzburg | 19 | Hungarian
Having brought Erling Haaland into the mainstream consciousness and then also Takumi Minamino into the arms of Liverpool this season, Red Bull Salzburg naturally dominates Austrian football when it comes to player production. The entire Red Bull project is predicated on spotting the best young talent early, nurturing them with first-team opportunities before selling on at a premium. Dominik Szoboszlai is their next such star. He seems destined for a move to Serie A with his agent talking up a move to Milan, a transfer which makes sense given Ralf Rangnick is the head of sport and development at Red Bull and will shortly take charge at the AC. If he’s cherry picking Szoboszlai for the Rossoneri, then that gives some indication of how good the teenager is.
Lining up on the left of midfield, the Hungary international is a pure thoroughbred and the way he manoeuvres around the pitch with such poise and grace, it would be easy to mistake his performance for an Equestrian Dressage routine. There’s nothing forced in his game. He plays as if permanently on tip-toes, just gliding across and through players.
Everything is measured and precise, passes are timed to perfection and weighted so graciously. When he crosses, there’s no thump on the ball with the on expectation his forwards to make the best of it, he’ll caress and dink deliveries into their path.
Yet while the game comes so effortlessly to him while in possession, without it he is all effort. In such a press-heavy system, Szoboszlai boasts tremendous graft and his recoveries are just as impressive as anything he does with the ball. In the Champions League group stage game at Liverpool, in the second-half in particular, he hounded and wrestled possession from the defending champions.
His technical ability, creativity and IQ allied with his energy and work ethic means he can play centrally in midfield or in both wide-spots.
Of course, there is room for development. He’s not a natural finisher and his technique isn’t as clean in front of goal as it is when passing through the lines, which is why he has eight assists in all competitions and just five goals.
But Szoboszlai is not a traditional winger either, because he lingers in between both boxes rather than dart into the area. He’s the point man in attack, applying delicate flicks and incisive passes between the lines, which explains why he’s second in the Austrian Bundesliga for third assists.
There is so much talent to work with and his next move will surely see him become much more refined. He’s been likened to pre-Pep Guardiola Kevin De Bruyne and a similar transformation could see him emerge into a truly elite midfielder in the years to come.
Worthy Mentions: Patson Daka (Red Bull Salzburg), Noah Okafor (Red Bull Salzburg), Karim Adeyemi (Red Bull Salzburg), Antoine Bernede (Red Bull Salzburg), Sekou Koita (Red Bull Salzburg), Romano Schmid (Wolfsberger), Marko Raguz (LASK), Emanuel Aiwu (Admira Wacker), Ousmane Diakite (Rheindorf Altach)
Super League (Greece)
Dimitris Limnios | PAOK | 21 | Greek
Cristiano Ronaldo might just be the world’s most inspirational player and we’re now beginning to see the first wave of players who have grown up watching the Portuguese icon. Dimitris Limnios feels like one such player. Greece isn’t exactly the first country that springs to mind when it comes to technical, flair talents. Think Greece, think Euro 2004 and the way that side bludgeoned teams to death. However, Limnios is an entertainer, a winger who will attempt and pull off daring first-touch flicks and dizzying dribbles ala Ronaldo, rather than ala Angelos Charisteas.
Borussia Monchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt and Monaco are among the big-name clubs casting their eye over PAOK star this season and no doubt they will have liked what they saw.
A valuable squad member during POAK’s historic unbeaten 2018/19 league season which saw them double up with a Greek Cup triumph, Limnios has since become a regular starter this term. He’s already surpassed his goal tally from last season, scoring six times in all competitions and is making an impact for the national team, too, with a European Championship qualification winner against Armenia late last year.
His rise is no surprise. Limnios made his debut for Atromitos aged just 16 to become the Super League’s third youngest player ever and the hype has followed him every step of the way. He’s been entrusted with a regular spot in the defending champion’s XI, flitting between both wings but being used primarily on the right in his 23 starts.
So what type of player is he? Limnios is powerfully quick and daringly direct. His immediate intention when the ball is at his feet is to run at defenders and although he doesn’t possess a box of flamboyant tricks, he does routinely drop his shoulder and shift the ball effectively to free himself of attention. He wants the responsibility of creating chances and he has the confidence to pull it off.
Perhaps the flair is in his genes considering his mother is Brazilian, but while his game does excite, there does need to be more bang to his flash. Consistent goals and assists are needed and that will require him to add more dimensions to his game that isn’t just beating his man in one v ones.
Worthy Mentions: Leo Jaba (POAK), Maximiliano Lovera (Olympiacos), Svetozar Markovic (AEL), Enea Mihaj (PAOK), Ronaldo Shani (Atromitos), Tasos Douvikas (Asteras Tripolis), Juan Perea (Panathinaikos), Fabian Ehmann (Aris)