USMNT’s Dest at Barca among young stars poised for breakout year
In April, I looked at the next generation of football stars; the top talents, aged 21 or under, who have shown the promise and ability to become the next household names.
While the 36 players on that list were already reasonably established at their clubs, there were also lesser-known names knocking on the door for inclusion. Since then, the performances of several have made them genuine candidates to push for top-10 status in next year’s list.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the players who could be the next breakout stars, compiled from clubs across Europe (Premier League excluded).
The Netherlands-born defender, who chose to represent the United States due to his American-Surinamese father, made a mini-breakthrough last season after impressing for Ajax in domestic as well as European competition.
As one would expect from a modern Ajax product, Dest takes up positions high up the pitch when the team is building from the back, and he certainly doesn’t deny himself the chance to find room and carry the ball forward when picking it up in deeper positions. He’s enthusiastic, full of energy and always prepared to take on opposing full-backs. He can still improve his final ball and, like most young full-backs, his one-on-one defending.
While arguably one of the best in his position in Ligue 1 last season, the 19-year-old’s consistency and high potential have flown somewhat under the radar. Although he still plays for a relatively unfancied side, there’s nothing understated about Ait Nouri’s all-action style. He is happy to charge up and down the flank all match, he’s aggressive and he often enters into challenges with the kind of physical impact that is only tolerated by a lenient referee.
He is still a bit rough around the edges, given his young age. His final product in the last third still leaves more be desired, and he’s prone to be impatient or lose focus when defending, but there’s no denying that the France U21 international is one of the most promising full-backs in European football.
The England U21 international is acquitting himself well at his new club, having started Dortmund’s first two games of the Bundesliga season. Against the existing backdrop of a genuine youth wave in European football, it’s remarkable that a 17-year-old, who just arrived from the Championship in English, is starting for one of the top sides in Germany.
Bellingham’s first season was supposed to be about finding his feet at a new level of the game, but he already impressed enough in the Bundesliga to be more than a bit-part player. If nurtured well, the talent of this athletic, intelligent, versatile and natural footballer and box-to-box midfielder has no real limit.
Despite scoring in his debut for the Netherlands, the 19-year-old striker is still relatively unknown outside his home country and is, surprisingly, set to spend another season with AZ. On the one hand, he’s quick off the mark and direct — he rarely participates in the buildup play but rather makes runs in behind the opponent’s defensive line — and on the other is an opportunistic poacher with excellent timing and movement.
Although he rarely scores from outside the box, he can convert chances with either foot or his head. It’s only a matter of time before he steps up a level from the Eredivisie.
Drawing comparisons to Lionel Messi for his deft skill and creativity, Kubo spent his formative years at Barcelona’s La Masia academy before he was ordered to leave by FIFA after the club broke rules about the recruitment of underage players. His footballing brain allows him to play quick-combination football, often by means of neat flicks and touches, while his quick, sensitive feet allow him to execute moves with precision and flair. He can play on either wing or as a supporting striker.
Creative and bright, Kubo spent last season on loan at Mallorca, and further progress during a season-long loan at Villarreal in 2020-21 could mean Zinedine Zidane won’t let him out of sight next summer.
Instead of returning to Ajax from a positive season on loan at Heerenveen, the 6-foot-4 centre-back joined Lille, replacing Gabriel after his move to Arsenal. Like the Brazilian, Botman is left-footed and has so far slotted well into the Lille back four, with the French side undefeated with just two goals conceded in five games.
The Dutch U21 defender plays with an air of authority well beyond his years; he’s particularly assertive in his marking game and has a dominating presence, winning nearly 75% of his aerial duels. In the mould of the departed Brazilian, Botman is safe rather than too adventurous in his passing game.
Giovanni Reyna | 17 | Midfielder | Borussia Dortmund
With exceptional footballing genes — his parents, Claudio Reyna and Danielle Egan, were both U.S. internationals — the 17-year-old American’s emergence is no real surprise. He has already started as many league matches this season (two) as he did in all of 2019-20, even registering a goal in the opening round against Borussia Monchengladbach (adding to the goal he scored in the DFB-Pokal the week before).
As a creative, technically gifted attacking midfielder — he prefers cutting in from the left or as a traditional No. 10 — it’s hard to find obvious weak points in his game. He makes forceful and smart off-the-ball movement to pick up possession in dangerous positions, passes the ball well and is always keen on taking on his opponents. As such, he suits Dortmund’s free-flowing, combination-based attacking football to perfection.
With expectations high, his proper international breakthrough is imminent.
Announcing himself with a second-half substitute appearance in the Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich, Cherki is, along with the brilliant Maxence Caqueret, the latest product to emerge from Lyon’s supply line of talent. Due to the club’s wealth of attacking options, the 17-year-old is being fielded in any position behind the striker.
Perhaps still a bit too keen on the flair side of football — he has exceptionally quick feet and loves a back-heeled flick — once he finds the right blend of consistency and maturity, the quick, technically gifted and creative Frenchman is likely to turn out to be one of the most exciting players in world football.
At 17 years and 34 days, Wirtz became the youngest-ever scorer in the Bundesliga in June, and if the Germany U17 international continues his development, soon all eyes will be on him.
Although they are different kinds of attacking midfielders, Wirtz has so far filled the vacancy left by Kai Havertz. Whereas the new left-footed Chelsea playmaker preferred playing higher up the pitch, right-footed Wirtz is not averse to picking up the ball from deeper areas and involving himself in the earlier phases of the buildup. What they both share is the same vision to pinpoint a key pass as well as a wonderful touch on the ball.
Jeremy Doku | 18 | Forward | Anderlecht
Already a standout player at youth level for club and country for the past couple of years, Doku is now starting to show his ability at senior level, using his change of pace, balance and trickery; he simply leaves them in the dust. After initially being eased into senior football as an impact sub, or being taken off early in the second half, he’s finally starting to complete 90 minutes for Anderlecht, and even celebrated his first full senior cap for Belgium with a goal against Iceland in September.
There’s still lots of work to be done on his defensive discipline, but with his winding runs, unpredictability and flair, he’s already an attraction.
Following a promising season with Verona, the Italy-born Albania international joined Roma on a loan deal that will eventually become permanent, and last weekend the 20-year-old was thrown in at the deep end against champions Juventus as the left centre-back of a three. Kumbulla looked as comfortable, often anticipating the opponents move high up the pitch, winning aerial duels and coming out on top in one-on-ones.
Taking into consideration that he’s calm and constructive with the ball under pressure, Kumbulla has the physical and mental attributes to succeed even in a demanding environment like Roma.