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.

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Ilaix Moriba, 2003, RB Leipzig (Guinea)

After a relatively quiet period, Barcelona’s academy seems back at it. Aided by the peculiar moment in Barcelona’s history, Ilaix Moriba managed to progress very quickly and get a lot of time on the field with the first team before turning 18. Alongside Ansu Fati, Pedri and many more youngsters waiting for their time on the field to shine, it looked like he could play a part in the bright future ahead of one of the more important clubs the world over. During the Clasico in the second half of last season, he even hit the crossbar right at the death with a stop-and-shot that deserved more.

However, he then proceeded to turn down all the renewal offers Barcelona put on the table over the summer, managed to get himself on the fringe of the roster, and was eventually sold last-minute to RB Leipzig. This new adventure has not proven fruitful as of yet — Moriba is playing less, barely clocking in 100 minutes. He’s still young, so spending time on the bench isn’t all that drama, and we should also remember that Leipzig is having a difficult season and is a peculiar team in itself: the perfect stage for young players, provided they’re able to adapt to a truly unique style of play.

From the little we’ve seen so far of him, we can tell he’s a well-rounded midfielder with physical prowess, reactivity and a solid technique. He’s not your typically Barcelona-bred midfielder that can move the play thanks to a perfect reading of the field, but he’s inevitably been conditioned by the precepts of the Masia. He’s got a good pace and long legs that help him both push the ball upfield and be a solid defensive midfielder. The skills and qualities are all there, but there is still too much confusion. In the few chances, he’s had so far this season, his insecurity defending pressing forward - a key part of the team’s style - clearly emerged. Possibly he’s not suited to Leipzig’s frantic and all-out style of play, but time is on his side. Moving from the Catalan Cantera to Red Bull’s universe can be a shock, but it could also help him become a well-rounded player.

Luka Romero, 2004, S.S. Lazio (Argentina)

When Sarri had him debuting on gameday 2 after Lazio had already buried Spezia 5-1, we thought Romero was going to be a semi-regular feature of the Biancocelesti season. When it comes to wingers, in fact, the hierarchy is quite fluid in Formello, and a player who had been called (more so than others) ‘the new Messi’ could potentially carve some space out for himself. From then on, however, we’ve only seen Romero playing a handful of time with the youth squad, while he spent the rest of his time on Lazio’s bench. This doesn’t mean Sarri doesn’t like him: he’s not yet 18 and it would be absurd to expect him to be at the same level as players like Pedro, Zaccagni or Felipe Anderson.

The Argentine can still boast some interesting records, like being the youngest player to ever debut for both Mallorca, Lazio and in LaLiga. Plus, Sarri has already lauded him saying he’s “never seen a 16-year-old with his quality,” that he’s very determined and “he trains ferociously.” The next step is to build up some muscles, given that he’s still young and inevitably still needs to develop. There is indeed something ferocious in his way of playing, with a low center of gravity and a high step frequency. When he sets off, the ball stuck to his feet and head looking down, he’s almost impossible to stop, although the form gap with the opponents is still quite evident. His dribbling technique and his ability to coordinate and shoot targeting the goal even in the tightest of spaces create great expectations for a successful career.

Go have a look at his first (and for the time being only) goal he scored whilst playing professionally in the Spanish Segunda Liga, after which he couldn’t help but burst into tears. He still needs to learn that each play can’t be the decisive one and how to play with the rest of the team, starting by looking up after he’s received a ball. Lucky for him, there are few managers better than Sarri when it comes to this — for as much as we won’t be seeing a lot of him on the field, working with Lazio’s first team might be the best thing that has happened to him.

Isak Bergman Johannesson, 2003, Copenhagen (Iceland)

Ísak Bergmann Jóhannesson has got all it takes to be the obscure high-risk name you proudly throw around: a nationality seldom related to soccer (Iceland), he’s the son of an ex-pro player (Jóhannes Karl Guðjónsson playing in Premier League, which is why he was born in England, as another young prodigy — rings any bell?), the right physique and a left-foot that was made to send teammates straight into the net.

He trained at IFK Norrkoping, where he then played two full seasons with the pros before he turned 18 (44 appearances, 5 goals and 13 assists in the Swedish Allsvenskan). This past summer he transferred to Copenhagen with a price tag of 4.5 million Euros, and many think this won’t be his last important upgrade. Back in Sweden he mostly played as a winger: on the left, he could leverage his best foot to dish out quality crosses, whilst on the right, he could cut deep towards the central corridor and link up with teammates or power-shoot towards the goal, but he is already transitioning to a different role. Given he lacks in speed, a move towards the middle of the field is only natural in more competitive environments.

So far this season he’s been fielded in-between the two defensive midfielders, and although he’s not a regular in the starting XI, the team is battling for the title and can do well in the newly established Conference League. From this new position, he can leverage the precision of his left foot on long-range killer passes, although he might have to sacrifice one of his best skills — quality crosses in the attacking third (nevertheless he’s already added three to his seasonal tally).

He must improve physically, but he will probably never be one of those tank-like players dragging and pushing the ball through the field. Copenhagen has been betting on young players for the past few years and appears like the best environment for him to grow, learn new things and gain confidence whilst we wait to see what kind of player he can blossom into.

Pape Sarr, 2002, Metz (Senegal)

Pape Sarr certainly was one of the best revelations of last year’s Ligue 1. Born in 2002 a few miles outside Dakar, he’s the latest talent emerging from Genérátion Foot, the Senegalese club affiliated with Metz that spun the likes of Sadio Mané and Ismaïla Sarr. He moved to France in 2020 and in the space of a year he earned his transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, who decided to keep him in France for another season. Metz is going through a rough patch: 18th in the league, they can’t count on Sarr who’s playing at the African Cup (yet another reason to follow the journey of a talented national team such is Senegal).

The youngster is still at the early stages of his career and the qualities he’s showcasing suggest the many players he could go on to become. He could easily play in an anchor-man duo or as an inside-forward in a midfield with three players, and given his skills, he could impact different game phases. The first thing you’ll notice about him is the slender figure: just shy of 1.84m by 70kg, his legs look almost out of proportions. His body influences everything he does on the field: defensively, he can leverage his long legs to cover a lot of ground and successfully fall back on the flanks with long sprints, aiding the full-backs in giving more protection to the defense. Despite his height, he’s comfortable with sliding tackles, where he shows the right amount of aggressiveness and clean technique.

His long legs are an advantage even when he’s in possession: once he’s found space to push the ball up, he sets off and quickly joins the midfield to the attack. At the moment, he can be described mainly as a vertical midfielder, also when it comes to his passing style: his priority is serving the strikers and his on-the-go killer passes, both high and low, are remarkable. He’s not bothered by the distance the ball has to travel, and he goes for it even when he’s closer to the defense, but sometimes he overdoes it and jumps the gun on the pass. His instinct to find the crucial pass could see him moved forward on the field, as his middle-range power and trick shots are also great. Back in Senegal, in fact, he was the designated shooter on free kicks and had earned himself the nickname of ‘Roberto Carlos’, although he uses the inside of his foot. Conte has always been fond of inside-forwards able to occupy space and the Italian might just be the right manager to fully exploit Sarr’s distance shots. For the time being, however, Pape will have to focus on helping Metz salvage this season, although we’re all keen to see how Conte will make use of him next year.

Nuno Mendes, 2002, PSG (Portugal)

Is there a younger talent than Nuno Mendes’ on the European scene? After one phenomenal year with Sporting Club (literally phenomenal, as in something that appears, shows itself), the Portuguese full-back was kidnapped last-minute by PSG during the summer transfer window in what appeared as a mere talent-accumulation operation. However, Mendes was able to carve out space for himself in a team that looks straight out of a Marvel movie and has already put almost 1000 minutes of play under his belt between league and Champions League, where he’s always featured in the starting XI (with the exception of the first game against Brugge) — a testament of just how blatant his talent is.

The most incredible thing isn’t, however, that he proved his skills in a much more competitive environment compared to the one he emerged from last year, but that it seems like there is still more room for improvement. A quick and perfectly balanced runner over long distances (especially whilst carrying the ball), he is also a skilled defender on 1-vs-1 challenges despite still being a teenager. The speed he burns through the left flank and the seasoned experience he defends with on heads-to-heads, which turns him into an impenetrable barrier, are just mind-blowing. His best performance yet this season was perhaps the second leg against Manchester City, although PSG came up short against the Citizens. Despite having to entrench himself on the left flank for most of the game, defending against one of the best attacks of European soccer, he never allowed neither Mahrez nor Bernardo Silva past him, winning four challenges out of four. 2021 also saw him debut with Portugal’s national team, where he promptly became a regular on the lower-left flank.

What can we expect from a 19-year-old player who looks like he’s at the peak of his career? The truth is that this is where it’ll get tough for him, or rather, tougher, as nothing in his career so far has been easy. Now that the depth of his talent is a given, his consistency and the improvement in concerning areas will be put under the microscope first and foremost by PSG, who have until the end of the season to decide whether he’s worth the 40 million Euros (on top of the 7 already spent) price tag. We’re talking about creativity in the last third, as now his decision-making is still quite didactic, and his attacking proactiveness, where he appears too shy in pushing the ball.

Regardless, he’s shown he’s got what it takes to make it.

Although he’s far from being a well-rounded modern full-back, given his age and the limited experience he’s gained it would be absurd to expect he would be. This is precisely why it will be exciting to watch him throughout 2022: if this is the starting line, then the sky is truly the limit.

Joe Gelhardt, 2002, Leeds (England)

Gelhardt plays as a forward with that untamed roughness of English football talents like young Rooney and Milner. Like the latter, he plays for Leeds, but he’s been compared with the first — in all fairness, he was born in Liverpool and supports Everton. Like Wazza, he’s got a low center of gravity and a stocky, yet unexpectedly explosive, body. He displays the same intense, brutal way of charging past defenders, as well as the clear and clean shots on target — a trademark of England’s football training.

Left-footed, once he’s close to the box, he’s got a bee in his bonnet; you can tell by the way he frantically looks for the space to shoot: the way he sets himself up for the shot, the clarity of mind with which he always finds a space to go through — these are his best qualities. His preference is for violent shots that leverage the infamous trajectories of modern footballs, able to rise and then dip right before going over the crossbar. He’s good with spin shots as well, where he’s direct and pragmatically.

He’s a product of Wigan Athletic’s academy, where he also collected around 20 appearances when he was barely of age, and after a fierce and competitive battle, Leeds United managed to get their hands on him. He scored his first pro goal back in mid-December against Chelsea, closing in on the near post and netting a low cross. He was so bewildered he needed to be told how to celebrate with the overjoyed away fan sector just in front of him.

Enes Sali, 2006, Farul (Romania)

None of the other names on this list will remind you of a child more than Enes Sali’s, who’s in fact barely more than one at 15 years of age. Despite that, and in spite of a body that has barely hit puberty, he’s already had his professional debut and scored his first goal.

Sali’s story is unusual, to say the least. Born in Ontario from a Romanian father, he attended a few Canadian academies before being scouted by Barcelona during a tournament. After spending two years in Catalonia, he moved to Romania when Gheorghe Hagi convinced his father to have him play for Vitorul Costanza. Last September he became the youngest player ever to score in the Romanian’s league.

He still plays like one of those gifted kids able to bend to their will a ball that almost looks bigger than them. As he roams the field, it looks like the football follows him around like a small satellite moon, never far from his feet as he races down the central corridor from the left flank. He’s way too fast for the league’s defenders and he’s too good at managing the space around him to allow them to successfully complete a tackle, but even when they can he’s not easily knocked down — especially when he’s accelerating pushing the ball up. The play that resulted in his first goal might as well have been orchestrated by Messi himself: faster than everybody else on the pitch, he swerved past helpless opponents in spaces he carved out of thin air.

Attempting to offer a prediction on the future of a 15-year-old is simply impossible. There are too many variables at play, as his physical growth: we will have to see how the changes in his body will impact his technical development as a player. At the moment, he’s still effectively a child footballer.

Gianluca Busio, 2002, Venezia (U.S.A)

On September 7th, when no one knew anything about him, Emanuele Atturo wrote: “One of those trequartistas who try to tip the football scale in favor of technique rather than physical prowess. He’s got a sublime final pass and over-the-barrier free-kick. Through the distorted lens of YouTube videos, he reminds you of Marcelo: the resemblance is there, as is the unbothered nonchalance with which he plays.” Now that he’s played half of the season as a regular in Venezia’s starting XI, we’ve understood there is much more substance to him than his ephebic style suggests.

After starting off as a playmaker, he constantly improved once he was fielded more to the side as an inside-forward supported by Ampadu, who managed to take off his back the more burdensome defensive tasks and allowed him to play facing the goal more. Now that the barycenter of his game, both during possession and defense, is higher, Busio has become less ordinary and always essential: even if his contribution is often reduced to just one touch, it’s always significant. He’s one of those players you notice more when they’re not on the field: when he’s not there, Venezia’s quality immediately seems to drop.

During the first half of the season, he also managed to score his first Serie A goal: a not-particularly threatening shot against Cagliari who found the back of the net thanks to Caceres’ deviation.

Although none of his statistics is out of scale, he’s one of Venezia’s better players and also one of the more quantitatively industrious on the field: 2.2 won challenges every 90’ and 0.9 key passes every 90’. To put it simply, Busio managed to become an integral part of Venezia’s backbone in a short span of time — which was never a given considering he’s still 19 years old and he’s used to a completely different type of football. The fact that Venezia is fighting for survival makes his accomplishment even more incredible. Will he be able to raise the bar further to tempt bigger clubs in Serie A? This is the question that 2022 holds for him. A few weeks ago, he commented that the toughest opponent he had to face was Barella, possibly the player he draws inspiration from and who he can be compared to with some cause. The road ahead is still very long, but Busio’s first steps were definitely more than convincing.

Aaron Hickey, 2002, Bologna (Scotland)

After a year in Serie A, Hickey started running and shooting without fear, and he’s quite good at it. One of the more experienced players on this list, he’s still only 19 and can boast over 50 pro appearances — he must be pretty special. It isn’t difficult to understand why Sinisa Mihajlovic likes him: in his own words, “he’s got balls.”

Born in Glasgow, Hickey first played for the city’s Hearts. It is yet unclear how a country with such a modest recent football tradition manages to spun one talented left full-back after the other: a few midfielders here and there, some defenders, no strikers, no right full-back, all the left full-backs you could ask for. Hickey said he looks up to those who came before him and have already made a name for themselves, like Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson. The young Scotsman boasts the same style: left-footed, intense, bold with the ball between his feet, a remarkable instinctive offensive proclivity and a threat when it comes to the final pass or the decisive shot.

2022 could well be his year: he’s already tallied four goals and claimed Bologna’s left flank for good. The team’s transition from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2 has given him more freedom during the attacking phase: he can now push deep without fearing the repercussions, knowing he can also count on Theate, one of the best Serie A’s defenders in the first half of the season, having his back. Towards the end of the year, he also scored with a quality shot with the inside of his right foot, technically his weaker one. He’s good with both feet, to be honest, and by his own admission, “it comes quite naturally” to him.

Distracted on defense at times, and not forceful enough on 1-vs-1s, his new role has put him in the best possible conditions to improve with enough peace of mind.

Brandon Soppy, 2002, Udinese (France)

Some players manage to stay hidden until the very last minute, but as soon as we set our eyes on them they look like the best we’ve ever seen. Where had Brandon Soppy been hiding before he appeared on the field wearing Udinese’s jersey against Roma?

That will be regarded as the game that revealed to the world his once-in-a-generation talent. Physically dominant, Soppy’s technique is remarkable and so is his exuberance, which frankly seemed wasted on a ‘mere’ right full-back. After the game, Udinese’s now ex-manager was bombarded with questions about the Frenchman. Gotti, usually a restrained type, took the chance to unleash the Soppy-mania: “His potential, both physically and technically, is tremendous: you got a taste of it today. It’s all up to him: he’s bold and instinctive, he must mature without losing these traits. He’s 19 and stepped out at the Olimpico without batting an eyelash.”

The truth is Soppy didn’t just appear out of nowhere, all the contrary. He had already played twice as a sub before joining the game against Roma, and in France, he collected nine appearances with the prestigious jersey of Rennes, one of the clubs that in the last few years launched the career of more youngsters than others.

There he was fielded as a center-back, the role he grew up playing, but was then moved to the flank to give him more freedom to run and dribble. His center-back training still shows in his defensive covers, a skill that will come in handy to gain more time on the field at the expense of Molina.

Don’t take our word for it — after his first showings in the Hexagone, France Football published a rather enthusiastic article where they listed his role models (the likes of Dani Carvajal and Aaron Wan-Bissaka), but his limits as well: “I still have to improve my focus throughout the game, I’m getting there.” However, it’s not uncommon for players to kill it during a game and look like the next chosen one only to end up being yet another one-hit-wonder. After those 30 minutes of pure bliss against Roma, Soppy came back to the field a few times, mostly as a sub to create some confusion, but he’s not shown he’s ready to be a regular in the starting XI. As the saying goes, one step at a time.

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