Every year, our contributor L’Ultimo Uomo outlines the most exciting young footballers to watch in the following 12 months. Here’s the list of the best wonderkids to follow this year.

Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4

Jeremy Doku, 2002, Rennes (Belgium)

His appearance against those who would go on to be crowned European champions made him the youngest Belgian to start a knock-out phase match in this tournament. Doku was fielded wide on the left against the Azzurri to give Hazard some rest after the all-out fight against Austria in the round of 16. Three Italy players were needed to dispossess him of the first ball he touched: Jorginho tried to stop him with a sliding tackle that he got out of with a quick jump, Di Lorenzo nearly got there putting the ball out on the sidelines with his heel but the Belgian somehow managed to go past the Italian full-back moving the ball deep behind him, and eventually, Bonucci was able to get to him and taking the ball off his feet. These three attempted dribbles were the prelude of a match he won’t forget any time soon, despite the unlucky outcome for his national team. His performance showcased his technical and athletic capabilities, summed up by this statistic: 8 successful dribbles, the highest ever accomplished since the 1980 Euros and the 1966 World Cup.

After the game, he found himself under the spotlight, and a lot was said about his decision to stay at Anderlecht when he was 15 rather than transferring to Liverpool, where Klopp was awaiting him as Sadio Mané’s heir. It does look like Rennes (that signed him in 2020), after Camavinga - and let’s not forget about Kameldeen Sulemana, could be dealing with another profitable youngster. Something else that was widely discussed was his speed, that formidable first acceleration, and the brilliant form he uses to slide past opponents and get on balls it looked he had lost control of. This overwhelming physical prowess is probably the reason why his technical skills were overlooked, but they actually enable him to try difficult moves: everyone can move the ball deep and try to outrun an opponent in open field, but not everyone can accelerate with the ball between their feet in the middle of two players, outmaneuver one protecting the ball with his body and fly past the second one as well without losing control of the play. He can play both on the left and right, accelerate closer to the outer flank or go deep in the middle: defenses can hardly contain him regardless.

After a brilliant first Euro, Doku was forced on the sidelines by a hamstring muscle injury and an issue with the knee ligament (no surgery was needed) and hasn’t been back for long, so it would be great to see him returning to optimal form during this second part of the season and mature tactically, with the chance to fully come into his own, maybe, starting from the next season. During an interview, he was asked about his favorite player: “Messi, he can dribble, he serves assists, he scores...” The journalist tried to joke: “A bit like you?” but Doku didn’t take the bait: “Messi is a great player, there is no comparison.” According to Statsbomb, only 2% of players in Europe currently dribble as he does, and 3% carries the ball as much in terms of time and distance. He’s still lacking two of the skills he so admires in Messi: consistently feeding balls for teammates and shooting. Doku has all the skills he needs to improve in these two areas — if he can, it won’t take long for us to speak about him as a great player. How great, you ask? Waiting to find out is the beauty of this sport.

Karim Adeyemi, 2002, RB Salzburg (Germany)

One of the most obvious and exceptional skills Haaland can boast is the ability to cut through the defensive line like butter with quick and deep movements, receiving the ball on the go and sometimes having already gone past the defenders. These quick-and-deep bursts are the first thing you’ll notice watching Adeyemi’s goal from the past year — it’s not a surprise he is regarded by many as the ‘chosen one’ to replace Haaland at Borussia Dortmund when the Norwegian will move on from North Rhine-Westphalia. The same thing happened when it had been RB Salzburg’s turn to replace Haaland, and it most likely will be Salzburg to once again supply Dortmund for a €40 million fee.

After joining the Austrians from the Bavarian club of Uterhaching for a record sum of 3 million Euros, the young German has been featuring in the starting XI for a solid season and a half. Karim was born and raised in Munich from Nigerian and Romanian parents and attended Bayern’s academy after having been spotted as one of the best talents of the area from the get-go. He was subsequently pushed aside for never-clarified discipline issues and moved over to Uterhaching. RB was quick in recognizing the opportunity that had presented and Adeyemi debuted with the first team within a year of signing with Salzburg.

This player sets himself apart thanks to his ability to attack the area from afar with a great variety of options and tactical intelligence, aided by some unique dribbling skills with which he combines technique, speed and pure imagination. This is exactly why he can play any role in the attacking front. Despite being far off Haaland’s wunderkind scoring numbers, Adeyemi is playing his best season in the Austrian League with 18 goals scored in 30 games. He shines on the international stage too: he netted three in the Champions League group, bringing his team to victory against Lille with a brace and he was the talk of the town after he won three penalties in 35 minutes for Salzburg against Seville in the first game of the group, one receiving the pass in the middle of the box, one on the left and one on the right. This game was a teaser trailer for his offensive qualities, who allowed him to put to the test the entire Sevillian defense — we hope his feature movie gets released by the end of the season.

Rayan Cherki, 2003, Lyon (France)

Cherki featured in last year’s overview during his first pro season when we wondered if he would have been able to contribute to games in a more consistent way and not just with flashy but sterile plays. Unfortunately, that time has not come yet, but he’s still only 18 and Bosz’s Lyon doesn’t look like the right environment for him to progress. The team currently sits thirteen in Ligue1 and Cherki has clocked in less than 300 minutes on the field. The manager’s style seems too restrictive for the Franco-Algerine, a player born and raised playing soccer in the streets. Last November, after the team won 3-1 against Brondby in Europa League and Cherki bagged a brace, the Dutch didn’t hold back on the youngster’s performance: “Like the rest of the team, he didn’t behave well in the first half. I was hoping for something else, especially whilst pressing. Am I expecting too much? Maybe as the manager, I see something different. He wants the ball between his feet too much, but sometimes he needs to ask it deep. He’s got great potential, but this is not what I expected before the break”.

He’s not all wrong — Cherki is gifted with rare dribbling skills and he can find space where there isn’t any. He has to capitalize on that, but Lyon isn’t helping him as they can’t get balls to the strikers even when they have the numerical advantage. Coming in as a sub, he mostly played as a right-winger and he gathered the balls he could whilst isolated and without pace — he’s not slow but neither a track-star and he needs space to get to the middle of the pitch if he’s got the ball from the flank. On top of this, his only starting XI appearance came as a false nine, as all other strikers were unavailable. Lyon struggled to create space in his area, he offered some interesting one-twos but he was constantly facing away from the goal and pressed by the two center-backs, which impacted his precision.

To put it simply, the start of the season wasn’t a great one, but he can look to 2022 with some optimism. First of all, away from the French league, he’s clocking in more and more minutes, he’s dishing assists and scoring goals both in EL and with France’s U21. Against Brondby and Sparta Prague, the spotlight was on him: on top of fully tapping into his trick skills portfolio, he scored against the Danish with a ‘Ronaldo Chop’ and served a magnificent killer pass to Slimani against the Czechs. Right before the break, he played the entire second half against Metz and he was the best on the pitch for Lyon, a real threat every time he dictated the play. Maybe that has been enough to convince Bosz to give him more space without having to call for deep shots.

Charlie Patino, 2003, Arsenal (England)

Instead of wondering whether a player called Charlie Patino really exists and plays for Arsenal, we ought to watch one of his videos, or even better, watch one of his games if we’re lucky enough to put our hands on some Arsenal U23 footage. You might have heard of him because of his goal against United’s U23: he runs after United’s player coming out of their defensive third, dispossesses him, recovers the ball and, with the energy that blesses the youth, starts to dribble the whole defensive line, putting the ball past the keeper with a lob to his side with nerves of steel.

2022 could easily be the year we get to see him play with the big boys. A few weeks ago, during the Carabao Cup, he scored his first pro goal, easily netting an equally easy assist from Nicolas Pepé with the inside of his left foot — this made him the youngest debutant to score for Arsenal since 1963. Once again, Sunderland found themselves on the wrong side of history.

Patino is a left-footed inside-forward able to push up with the ball and play out of tight spaces, who looks up to Iniesta as his idol. He’s one of those midfielders born to survive the pressing and make it out on the other side when ganged upon by two, three, four opponents. Almost exclusively left-footed, he shows good control whilst pushing up and that fascinating ability to trick the tacklers only great dribblers can boast. On the grapevine you can already hear stories, partly unbelievable and partly ridiculous, about him: whilst he was playing for Luton Town, a scout described him as “the greatest talent I’ve ever seen,” adding “[Patino] boasts a never-seen-before cleverness and ability to read the spaces.” His dad is Spanish (in case you were wondering about the origins of his surname) and maybe his DNA partly explains his skills: a playmaking inside-forward able to create chances in the attacking third coming from much further up the field. He’s been compared to Wilshere and Foden, two other English left-footed midfielders who look out of place in the British football tradition. Patino could give more options to Arteta and sub for Odegaard in the Spaniard’s 4-2-3-1.

Arsenal manager already commented on Patino’s debut: "We have to cook Patino slowly.” A funny and yet oddly self-explanatory statement.

Eduardo Camavinga, 2002, Real Madrid (France)

Here we are again with our yearly update on Eduardo Camavinga’s career. We left him at Rennes with the #10 shirt on his shoulders, along with all the creative pressure of the team, and Eduardo, unfortunately, did not shine in France. Deschamps fielded him with the national team but promptly demoted him back to the U21, with which he played a terrible European Championship: he featured in the starting XI only for the first game and France ended up eliminated in the R16 despite a ridiculously strong roster (Tchouameni, Gouiri, Caqueret, Ikoné, Koundé, Konaté). He then skipped Tokyo 2020 as Rennes refused to let him go due to the team’s commitments in the Europa League qualifiers and Ligue1’s early summer start. A few games in, he transferred to Real Madrid.

Many considered this move dictated by spite for PSG, who didn’t let Mbappé join the Blancos and had their eyes on Camavinga for a while. Eduardo didn’t let this affect him and in his first two appearances, he scored and served the assist that helped Ancelotti’s men break the deadlock against Inter at San Siro, with a fabulous run without the ball topped off by a one-touch volley with the inside of the left foot in the direction of an unmarked Rodrygo in the middle of the box. Ancelotti uses him almost exclusively as the first substitution in the midfield and more recently he’s fielding him as a defensive midfielder in the role that belongs to Casemiro, who he substituted for in the starting XI when the Brazilian was disqualified just before Christmas against Athletic Club. That’s where Camavinga can capitalize on his best skills: a clean distribution of the ball thanks to his magical left foot, both at close and long-range (he completes almost 90% of his passes), and superb defensive readings, both in terms of forward pressing and recoveries further up the field.

It looks like Camavinga is finally in a context where he has the time he needs to mature but that offers enough pressure for him not to rest on his laurels: competition is fierce in Madrid and Eduardo must be on high alert to be the first choice when the club will have to find a replacement for Modric, Kroos or Casemiro.

Andreas Schjelderup, 2004, Nordsjaelland (Norway)

Despite turning seventeen last June, Andreas Schjelderup is already playing his second pro season, almost always as a starting XI player. From Norway, he was born in 2004 and was raised in Bodø Glimt’s academy, where he did not, however, move to the first team. In July 2020 he transferred to Nordsjaelland, where he debuted in the Danish Super League in February 2021, after a few months playing with the U19. The Danish club is the youngest competing in the top 30 European leagues and belongs to the ‘Right to Dream Group’, an academy network founded in Ghana by Tom Vernon, an ex-Manchester United scout (which explains the purchase of Ghanian talents Kudus and Sulemana). The Danish club managed to beat Ajax, PSV, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Tottenham, Liverpool and Atalanta, with which the Norwegian had sat down to talk, by offering him an immediate promotion to their first team.

The youngster from Bodø impressed everyone from day one: his transition to the first team was seamless, so much so he’s one of the designated penalty takers — his style resembles Jorginho’s, with a small jump and impact with the inside of his foot. Back home in Norway, amidst the Haaland-induced frenzy, reports are asking the national team’s manager Solbakken, who previously coached Copenhagen and is an expert on Danish football, if Schjelderup has what it takes to become the next 100-million-Euros player. It’s way too early for any such speculation, but Nordsjaelland is known for letting their best talents go without much delay, so it is plausible we’ll see him somewhere in the top European leagues starting next year.

Physically speaking, he looks the part: 1.76m by 73kg, during his first year in Denmark he put on almost six kilograms and, given his age, could still grow a few inches. What really sets him apart, however, is the cleanliness of his technique: naturally right-footed, he likes to play on the left both in a two-striker set-up and as a winger. He boasts a great oriented ball control, which is why he receives both open wide but often places himself between the defense and midfield to attack the half-spaces. He can then turn around with just one touch and he’s on to the defense, which he dribbles with good reactivity. In the attacking third, Schjelderup stands out thanks to the quality of his passes both past the defensive line and for retreating teammates. A highly distinctive feature is the way he uses the right instep to move past the defenders thanks to lobs — a joy to watch. The Norwegian isn’t limited to individual plays and tries to influence the outcome of the game as much as he can by showing up consistently in the attacking third and offering quality passes — it doesn’t surprise that, despite roaming the final third of the pitch, his idol is Iniesta, “because of his skills in tight spaces” in Schjelderup’s own words. The race to compare him to Damsgaard, another product of Nordsjaelland’s academy, has already begun — maybe given his fellow countryman’s past we could soon see him in Serie A.

Mattia Viti, 2002, Empoli (Italy)

Up until a few months ago, we had no idea who Mattia Vitti was — now his presence is a given in Serie A’s midtable battles. This should be sufficient to explain how our expectations for a boy who only played 92 minutes in Serie B last year (and the one before wasn’t even playing professionally) changed through time: wonder, hype, let down, pragmatism. He’s not even 20 and he’s found himself a regular in a team able to beat Juventus, Sassuolo and Napoli. If we’re being completely honest, he hasn’t featured constantly throughout the ongoing season, and his performance wasn’t always top-notch: he’s technically gifted as a playmaker and can push the ball upfield, but he’s shown some uncertainties on 1-vs-1s and when it comes to rougher plays. This is why we’ve seen great things but also blatant mistakes. But, had he not played in Italy, this would have been considered more than normal and all part of his path to maturity. Despite it being much easier to go unnoticed in Serie A if you’ve not played much with pros, many will not forget him after the own goal he unfortunately scored against Atalanta: he netted the ball in a desperate attempt to save Zapata’s shot with a sliding tackle after losing the mark on the Colombian.

True, Zapata is one of the best strikers in the league, whilst Mattia Viti is a talented defender who still has to put a lot more experience under his belt to become a complete player (and up until then, he had played a remarkable game against a team against which is tough to defend). How much will he be able to mature before the season ends? Youngsters don’t usually take the continent by storm with flashy performances — their path is a steady accumulation of knowledge, skills and craftiness. Knowing how to defend is first and foremost a mental skill: you have to anticipate the opponent and you need to be smart about it — Viti will have to show just how smart he can get to establish himself in Serie A. From the few glimpses we’ve seen, he’s one of those technical players who defend the ball leveraging good positioning, timing and body posture. Without an outstanding athletic prowess, he’ll have to bring his skills to a whole new level. Times move fast in the world of soccer, and sometimes it’s difficult to remind ourselves we’re only at the beginning.

Kamaldeen Sulemana, 2002, Rennes (Ghana)

The quality and talent of Ghana’s national team won it the nickname ‘Africa’s Brazil’. Although the nation can no longer call upon Essien, and André Ayew didn’t live up to the expectations, one player above all is defending the proud name of the Ghanian soccer — Kamaldeen Sulemana. To understand his approach to the game, look no further than his IG’s handle: Kamaldeenho — he’s fully embraced his nation’s nickname. If, understandably, this is not enough for you, here are another couple of quality assurance markers: Rennes bought him over the summer from Nordsjaelland. Nobody in Europe knows better than Rennes when it comes to dribbling-inclined wingers with an inbuilt carbon-fiber frame: do the names Ousmane Dembele, Ismaila Sarr and Jeremie Doku ring any bell for you? If you still don’t trust Rennes’ scout, ask yourselves: do you know any player who can humiliate Achraf Hakimi when it comes to sprinting? Kamaldeen Sulemana can indeed: the Moroccan could not contain him a few months ago when PSG and Rennes came head-to-head.

His sheer speed isn’t even his best feature: the showstopper is his reactivity, even when pressed and caged by three opponents. It’s difficult to count how many times he touches the ball when he’s storming down the field at full speed, and he’s able to steer in any condition. What makes Kamaldeenho a true ‘Brazilian’, at least on the field, is his love for double step-overs: he’s still learning and plays mostly in isolation, so every time he goes toe to toe with a full-back his legs start stepping over as many times as he can make them. Opponents are forced back, as he is ambidextrous and can get closer to the central corridor from both sides. His first instinct then is to shoot, most likely to the far post; he’s right-dominant but can use his left foot if needed.

It’s hard to take your hands out of your hair after watching this goal, where he looks like a prime Antonio Cassano

There is no shortage of dribblers in Ligue1 and Sulemana ranks fifth amongst the players with at least 10 appearances in the French League, with 2.9 completed dribbles every 90’ (2.1 failed). There aren’t many more exciting youngsters to keep an eye on than him.

Destiny Udogie, 2002, Udinese (Italy)

This year, Udogie came to Udine in pomp and circumstance. Pierpaolo Marino, sports director of the Italian team, went as far as saying: “He’ll have to change his name, Destiny is not enough for him”. So, is his talent bigger than destiny? Barely 20, he’s a full-back playing in a league where taking any risk is something you just don’t do, so seeing him as a regular was not a given.

Two factors helped him: the 3-5-2 module took some pressure off him, and former manager Gotti proved once again to be able to put young players at ease. Everything was quicker and easier than expected for Destiny, although it wasn’t all plain sailing. He’s made several mistakes from the beginning of the season: concentration throughout the match isn’t always a given, and he’s too superficial when defending or taking risks. These issues never took his place in the starting XI away from him, especially because they’re counterbalanced by the quality he provides when he’s got the ball. “I’m a left full-back. I’m used to playing at the back on the left, that’s where I feel in my own element. I know my best assets and I try to leverage them.” When he’s in possession, he’s a complete player: he can push the ball upfield, dribble, connect with teammates, create threats. His best skill is probably reading the field with the ball, which has won him the defensive midfielder role in the Italian U21 and makes him a modern full-back, able to take in and process a great deal of information.

His role model is Marcelo, and although he lacks the Brazilian’s technique and creativity, his willingness to impact the game with his approach clearly transpires — he’s never satisfied with a safe performance. Although his attacking numbers when it comes to progressive runs, dribbles and creativity aren’t out of this world, he shows there is room for great improvement. This is only his first season as a regular in Serie A and we’re eager to watch him evolve in the coming years.

Zidane Iqbal, 2003, Manchester United (Iraq/England)

Born in Manchester from Pakistani and Iraqi parents, Zidane plays midfield and you’re spoiled for choices of hype-articles about him. There’s one that goes “Manchester United video suggests Zidane Iqbal may be the next David Beckham in the making”. Another says “Man Utd literally have their own Zidane”.

The second is certainly funny, but the first one is more capturing: it reads as if someone found by chance a secret tape which reveals that something incredible is going on at United’s academy. Nevertheless, the video shows Iqbal scoring a free-kick bypassing the barrier with an effect that then buries the ball right into the top corner. He began playing soccer at Sale Manchester and one of his first coaches, Stewart Hamer, said he had to field him as a goalkeeper during friendly matches to avoid unpleasant situations, given he was miles ahead of the others.

His technical skills are still impressive to this day: a quality first touch, good with both feet, low center of gravity and looks like a Catalan or Argentinian player in tight spaces. He can play as an inside-forward, trequartista, and attacking winger. The one drawback is his mismatch between athleticism and skills, which might penalize him in Premier League. The last player coming out of Manchester with such a level of technique was Adnan Januzaj, and his story reminds us of the challenges behind being considered ‘the next big thing’. Iqbal signed his first pro deal at 17 and debuted with the first team against Young Boys in December. Rangnick’s arrival might help integrate him in a talent-waster machine like United, but even if he doesn’t make it, he has what it takes to become one of the next star midfielders of the coming years.

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