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 1 - Part 2 - Part 4

Yéremi Pino, 2002, Villarreal (Spain)

Yéremi Pino had never played a match in La Liga before the 2020/2021 season. There had already been talks of him for some time, of course. Firstly, when he refused an offer from Barcelona and joined Villarreal instead in June 2017. Then, in his first season with professionals, he scored 20 goals with the Yellow Submarine’s C team in the Tercera Division.

But for those who don't delve into the depths of football and certainly don't scout, his appearance was like an epiphany: in 2021, out of nowhere, he appeared in some of the most important matches in European football. First the Europa League final against Manchester United (becoming the youngest Spanish player to participate in a European final and then the youngest ever to win the competition), then the Nations League semi-final against Italy, where he was one of the players who best exposed how fragile the Italian team can be, following victory at Euro 2020. Coming on in the 49th minute, Yéremi Pino made his senior national team debut with a great sense of what was going on around him: first by literally bringing Emerson Palmieri to his knees with a side-step move and then crossing for Oyarzabal from the edge of the box; then leaving Bastoni in his wake, running half the pitch with the ball before finding Marcos Alonso alone in the middle of the box with a brilliant pass. Although neither of those two moments turned into a goal, Yéremi Pino had already done enough to make his entry into our dreams.

The match against Italy was a window into what his talent is like when the game is suiting his best qualities, but in reality, it wasn’t very faithful to his development today. Yéremi Pino is neither an extravagant dribbler nor an individualist, but he fits perfectly into the great technical tradition of the Canary Islands (where he was born and raised) - the one that formed players such as David Silva. The Villarreal winger flourishes with ball control and manages to manipulate opponents better in small spaces - all the more so because he doesn’t have exceptional athletic qualities and when he runs with the ball, he can’t always make space between himself and the opponents. His success in a reactive team like Emery’s, in this sense, is rather surprising but in part, it also explains why his goal-scoring numbers don’t stand out.

Last year he scored 7 goals and provided an assist in all competitions, and this year he’s on 3 goals and 3 assists despite featuring in about 1500 minutes of play. 2022 could be the year he makes a move to a great team, but we hope that would be in a team that makes us rub our eyes again like on that October evening at the San Siro.

Josko Gvardiol, RB Leipzig, 2002 (Croatia)

It doesn’t make sense that Josko Gvardiol is only 19 years old (nearly 20, to tell the truth). Watching him play - and looking him in the face - seems counterintuitive. Too composed, too confident in difficult situations, too versatile. We are talking about a one-meter eighty-five left-footed defender who can play either in the center or as a full-back and who in his current club, RB Leipzig (who paid just over €18 million for him), plays on the left in a three-man defense.

Gvardiol is strong with his head, strong in recovery by running back, strong in running forwards, strong with the ball between his feet. Let's start with the last point: Gvardiol, despite his tank-like physique and the fact that, although he is technical, is not one of those full-backs who wanted to be Neymar as a child, is good with a pass and has an extraordinary technique with his diagonal balls. Below is an example from the game with Borussia Dortmund recently, in which he sends Nkunku towards the goal with ease, whereas a normal defender would’ve passed the ball horizontally to a teammate.

Gvardiol plays difficult balls forward a lot. His stats, when compared to those of other central defenders, are simply ludicrous. He excels in practically all offensive and defensive aspects, as shown when he played as a full back with Croatia in the last European Championship, and Dinamo Zagreb, where he started, which just highlighted how much he can do. Although it’s been a difficult year with a change of manager, he seems to have found his ideal position in Leipzig’s back line, on the left of three-man defense, that highlights his high-level passing ability, but also his important defensive talent. For example, after three minutes in the Champions League match against Manchester City, Phil Foden ran behind the German defense, where Gvardiol was alone between Foden and Grealish, and while he closed the gap to the ball he also pointed to Grealish with one hand, asking his teammates to give him cover behind. However, there was no need because his timing was perfect and he ended up intercepting the pass and getting out of a potentially terrible situation with the ball.

Gvardiol seems born to play football in this era in which defenders must also be midfielders, but at the same time, he appears to be growing a lot from a purely defensive point of view. If muscle elasticity remains the same, combined with strength, timing and technique on the ball, we could shortly be talking about him as one of the best European defenders ever.

Arsen Zakharyan, Dynamo Moscow, 2003 (Russia)

Born in Samara to Armenian parents who emigrated to Russia, at the age of 14 Arsen Zakharyan moved to Moscow to play for Dynamo and has since gone through the ranks of the Russian national youth teams. If his name is well known amongst scouts, then it’s only because he has been on an upward trajectory in the past year. In fact, until 2020 he played in the second team before coach Sandro Schwartz decided to promote him. In the spring he was called up by Russia for the U21 European Championship, where he scored a goal on his debut. Meanwhile, he signed his first professional contract with Dynamo. To understand his impact: despite having only played 13 games, at the end of the season he was voted by fans as Dynamo’s best player of the 2020-21 season.

From this season he became the first name on the team sheet, ending the first half of the season with 4 goals and 6 assists (currently the player with the most assists in the league). Only tonsillitis at the last minute stopped him from being called up by Russia for the last European Championship. In the subsequent World Cup qualifiers, however, he started as a forward on the left of a front three in the first match against Croatia. In December he was chosen as the Russian league’s best young player of 2021.

Zakharyan is a unique talent but is wasted in Russia; he has something that makes him look like the son of another football school, so much so that he has been associated with many different talents, from Mkhitaryan to Griezmann. But perhaps the style of play that most resembles him is that of Kakà. Hair always manicured, face like a good boy, long-limbed body but with broad shoulders, natural technical movements that make everything seem easy and perfect timing whenever he gets into the box. Good ball control, even in tight spaces, is what triggers memories of the Brazilian. As his youth coach Vladimir Korolyov described him: “He has an interesting style because he gives you the impression that the ball is too far from him when he runs. In reality, he is in full control thanks to his long stride”.

Zakharyan can play anywhere in midfield, from winger to attacking midfielder, and has also been seen further up the pitch. His quick technical ability and his ability to read the game offensively mean he can play wherever he’s needed, and he will always find a way to get noticed. Even within the same game, he can change positions whenever required. Obviously, he adapts accordingly: in the center, he’s more present in the game, but from the wing, he’s just as effective and manages to be present in the penalty area quite often. Another sign of his already evident footballing maturity. Whatever it is that makes a player appear with a special aura, that always makes him seem in the right place at the right time - that thing beyond technical talent is very much present in Zakharyan. Sought first by Barcelona and then by Real Madrid, his destiny seems to be with one of the great European sides, without the need to join ‘smaller’ teams first. With Dynamo fighting for a place in Europe and the World Cup on the way, 2022 should be the year the public takes notice of him, even outside Russia.

Devyne Rensch, Ajax, 2003 (Netherlands)

Ajax's talents, as we know, are clay models that are still fresh and malleable, ready to take the shape their coaches want when the transition from youth to professional football is completed. Devyne Rensch is a right-back who can play on the left with the same quality, which he also did as a central defender and even a midfielder with the first team. In 2020 he was named the best youth player and a year earlier, with the Dutch U17s, he won the U17 Euros. He plays occasionally with the first team and still alternates with the second, but he has already made his debut with van Gaal's senior national team, in the Netherlands’ 6-1 win over Turkey. In short, Rensch's road seems paved with good intentions and it is not impossible that he may return to the first team (if, for example, Ajax sell Mazraoui) or feature in other teams’ transfer plans.

However, it would have to be a team that likes to get the full-backs into the opponent’s penalty area, and a team that likes to control the ball, rather than a team that defends at the edge of their own area and then repeat. A team like Ajax, that is. You take for granted his excellent ball control, tactical intelligence, positional intelligence and technique in controlling and passing. Added to this is the fact that he is practically ambidextrous and, even if physically he’s still growing and therefore isn’t as explosive with his first steps, or isn’t as strong with his legs when tackling, he still has a very technical defensive style. When he’s not helped by his muscles, he is able to slide or stretch at the right time. In short, he’s not the finished article but he has great potential that is still to be developed.

Youssoufa Moukoko, Dortmund, 2004 (Germany-Cameroon)

The first words written about Moukoko by L’Ultimo Uomo date back to 2017 - 5 years ago. It was just a paragraph about this 12-year-old destroying the German U17 championship with Borussia Dortmund, something never seen at that level before, and it continued until it was clear that Moukoko was ready to play football with the big boys. Borussia had to wait until he turned 16 to make his Bundesliga debut, as per the rules, otherwise, he could’ve broken all kinds of youth records. Once he had made his debut, it didn’t take him long to score his first professional goal. Last season, at 16, he scored 3 goals in 410 minutes of play, and that would’ve been more had he not been injured in early April.

Moukoko is one of those strong, quick, stubborn and precise attackers. The ability he has to build a scoring opportunity at this age is amazing. Against Hertha Berlin, he picked up a loose ball on the edge of the penalty area, turned to the right, dummied, skipped past an opponent, accelerated to avoid the second and then with a very narrow-angle he shot hard with his left under the legs of the goalkeeper. It is difficult to find such a young striker with all this attacking talent. He’s so advanced in his growth that it’s difficult even to predict where he will end up.

This season he was supposed to be Haaland's backup - not an easy task - but the constant injuries are limiting him a lot. According to Bild, he should be available for Borussia Dortmund in mid-January. Meanwhile, Cameroon tried to convince him to participate in the African Cup of Nations without success (Moukoko has so far played for the German youth national teams, but has dual citizenship). The hope is that in 2022 he’ll be able to have a full season, without physical problems, which would help convince Borussia Dortmund that he can be key post-Haaland.

Felix Afena-Gyan, Roma, 2003 (Ghana)

The first footballer born in 2003 to score in Serie A did so by scoring a brace. We still have those exceptional moments in our eyes: Mourinho threw him on in the second half of a difficult game still deadlocked at 0-0, at Marassi against Genoa, with Felix scoring his first with a right-footed shot cut diagonally across from inside the area (not as easy as it seems), with his second a sudden, beautiful shot, far from the box, which flew precisely and violently into the back of the net.

Mourinho seems to have a soft spot for Felix and throws him on in the second halves of difficult games as if he were some kind of good luck charm, and Felix, in turn, seems to have found a reference figure in Portuguese, to the point where the two have spent New Year together. It is difficult to say how the striker, who until recently had only played in the Primavera and was miles ahead of everyone with his athletic and technical ability - will adapt to the top flight in the long term.

His technical and tactical skills, speed, precision in the final phase (his goals in the Primavera often came from difficult angles, which required composure in front of the goalkeeper and precision) together with the enthusiasm that looks as if he’s having to convince Mourinho every time that deserve a place on the pitch, make Afena-Gyan one of the most interesting and entertaining youngsters in the league. There’s no rush, but Felix seems to want to waste as little time as possible.

Ricardo Pepi, Augsburg, 2003 (United States/Mexico)

Hype trains in the United States have departed quite often lately. Ricardo Pepi's, however, seems to have something different, unique, which transcends the narrative of the wonderkid. Pepi is, first of all, a beautiful story to tell, an uplifting personification of the American Dream, of the frictions but also of the connections between Mexico and the States: born in El Paso, in the deep south of Texas, from Mexican parents of Ciudad Juárez, Ricardo has affection literally across the Rio Grande.

Raised in the Dallas FC youth academy, which in the past two years has seen other promising youngsters such as Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds, Pepi made his MLS debut at just sixteen years old. In the meantime, he has featured in both American and Mexican youth setups, in a sort of ‘limbo’ in which his final decision was constantly postponed, stuck between affections and real prospects.

His first goal came just a year after his debut and in MLS 2021, which began in April, he finally exploded. During the season he scored 13 times, showing off his entire range of classic center forward plays in the penalty area.

In July he also became the youngest hat-trick scorer in MLS history.

The fact is that if the States have been lacking excellent players lately, then they certainly have a phenomenon now. A classic number 9, so archetypal, hasn't been seen since the days of Eric Wynalda, maybe McBride, or Jozy Altidore, perhaps, but without the lethal killer instinct that Pepi has instead. Ricardo Pepi has a nose for goals but his game is more than just that. He’s a complete center forward and has a range of skills. He moves well without the ball and often plays with his back to the goal. He protects the ball in a slightly unorthodox way, with his feet sometimes looking a bit awkward. His long uncoordinated levers give the impression of an awkwardly elegant but dominant crowned-crane bird. His body hasn’t yet reached the maturity that his brain seems to have.

In September he scored on his debut for the national team in Honduras. By a strange coincidence, another 18-year-old had also made his debut by scoring against Honduras, and his name was Landon Donovan. A week later, in Austin (almost a home game for him), he scored a brace against Jamaica. They were two goals that were more illustrative of his style of play, although one was perhaps better than the other. Like Donovan, Ricardo Pepi chose to move to the Bundesliga when he was 18. There was frequent talk of interest from Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United. Or Bayern Munich, which is linked to Dallas FC by a very strong partnership, thanks to which Chris Richards arrived in Bavaria.

Pepi, instead, chose Augsburg - perhaps enticed by a better financial offer, with the team's new very wealthy minority investor, David Blitzer, who owns 45% of the club, said to have financed the deal. In any case, Augsburg remains a modest team, most likely fighting against relegation. All in all, it could be the right situation for him: a humble and intelligent choice, like his game, like his attitude.

Yan Couto, Braga, 2002 (Brazil)

In a list of players to follow, the hyper-technical Brazilian full-back can’t be missing. Like basil on a pizza Margherita, it isn’t mandatory that he should be there, but when he is there, everything really seems to be in its place. We are now used to the role of full-back as being really flexible, the piece of the chessboard that coaches move the most to make ends meet on the pitch. When you have a full-back with great technique, attacking becomes easier and Brazil has always been the place to find this kind of player. Among the young Brazilians, Yan Couto is the one who seems to have a more predictable high-level future, especially as before making his debut as a professional he was followed by Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City. In 2019 he stood out as one of the best players in Brazil’s U17 World Cup win.

In Brazil he was immediately assigned the role of heir to Dani Alves after his technical and creative style of play was seen at the World Cup, with Pep Guardiola winning the battle for his signature, buying him for €6 million (plus another 6 in bonuses) even though he had only played 2 games with Coritiba. City, however, didn’t let him grow in Brazil: as soon as he turned 18, the minimum age for transfers, he was immediately brought to Europe. Perhaps aware that Couto is actually a characteristically Spanish full-back, City first sent him on loan to Girona (their branch in Spain) in the Segunda division and then, this season, moved him one step higher to Braga in Portugal, where he can begin to familiarize himself with European cup football. In the Europa League, where he played 4 games as a starter in the group stages, we saw how his technical quality and speed of execution are already at a high level.

The decision not to play him immediately in England, given that he’s still immature physically, with a defensive side of his game also to be built, currently looks like a shrewd move. Couto is one of those full-backs who joins the attack as soon as possible and there he practically acts as a dribbling winger, running towards the player, looking for the last pass and staying on the wing so he can get the ball into the area with a crossing technique that already looks spotless. In Braga, he plays as a right-back in a 4-man defense and a fully-fledged winger in a 3-man defense. That is another element that is helping a possible future at Manchester City, given that with Guardiola he will have to get used to running up and down the wing depending on the formation chosen. But at the moment, City do not need a right-back, so they can be patient and follow his development, but if in the long run there can be a possible heir to Cancelo for technical quality and style of play then that is Couto.

Kaiky, Santos, 2004 (Brasile)

Not to be confused with Kayky, Manchester City’s 18-year-old Brazilian winger, although it is difficult to do so as Kaiky plays as a central defender and is at least 10cm taller. And if Kayky is on the long list of Neymar's pretenders to the throne, for Kaiky, on the other hand, life is much simpler because in his role the competition, at least in Brazil, is less. There are few central defenders in Brazil that are as well-rounded as him at his age. Since last year, and not even eighteen years old, he has been in the center of the defense for Santos, his hometown club, directly promoted from the U17s with the task of inheriting the position of captain Lucas Veríssimo who left for Benfica.

He immediately amazed everyone with the maturity shown, in a role where experience still matters a lot. He grew up playing futsal, which helps to explain his calmness when the ball is at his feet. Already he is totally at ease when managing the ball and his ability to read the game with the ball at his feet is already a refined skill. Short passes, through balls and long throws, he knows where to position himself in relation to the opponents and he knows how to move his body when he receives the ball. He knows the right type of pass even when he’s under pressure and knows when it’s time to take advantage of the space ahead of him before getting rid of the ball.

Quick and decisive to interrupt play when facing the ball or without it while covering, it is believed that even with better players to mark in Europe he will be able to withstand a duel right away. But in the meantime, he is proving particularly skilled in aerial battles with his timing and technique. He’s been compared to Marquinhos for this reason, with the PSG player being referenced by Kaiky himself: “The player that inspires me on the pitch, and who has the same profile as me, is Marquinhos. Many people compare my style of play to him, and for this, I am very honored”. Although in the past he has also referenced other players, including the surprising name of Fabio Cannavaro: “I have seen many videos of Cannavaro. I haven't seen him play, but I really admire his football. And I'm currently looking to Sergio Ramos, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos for inspiration”.

Like Marquinhos he seems destined to leave Brazil soon. In terms of characteristics, he seems more suitable for a team that wants to play the ball from the back and it’s no coincidence that in recent months, Arteta's Arsenal is the main team he has been associated with. His release clause at Santos is €70 million but the contract is due to expire in 2023 so he would probably move for much less.

Alan Velasco, Independente, 2002 (Argentina)

In an interview he gave when he was 15 to a program with a beautiful name - De la Cuna al Infierno (From the Cradle to Hell), hell being inhabited by Los Diablos Rojos of Avellaneda - Alan Velasco had said he was inspired by Eden Hazard. That was in addition to Maximiliano Meza, Independiente’s young prodigy at the time.

Now that he has arrived in the first team - debut as a seventeen-year-old, explosion this season - the comparisons are all with "el Kun" Agüero: both launched by Julio César Falcioni, both short with their center of gravity on the ground, both with the number ten shirt on their backs. A combination of this kind, however, is especially dangerous for Velasco and is above all misleading.

Alan isn’t the marksman that Agüero was: he’s very technical, often acrobatic, loves playing in tight spaces and has a box of tricks that always seem functional and leaves opponents behind.

Like Kun, yes, he is explosive on the counterattack and in-play going forwards. He’s reactive and resistant to clashes with opponents, despite a body that’s still developing. He can play anywhere in the attack but prefers the left-wing, where he has the possibility to come in from the wing and go for the shot, a dry and powerful shot, even from distance.

Perhaps the most sensible comparison was made by Lucas Pusineri, who gave him his debut when he said that the player who most reminds him of Alan Velasco is Arjen Robben.

Independiente is unlikely to be able to hold him back for much longer. And it’s difficult to stop comparing him to Agüero, at least until he lands in Europe. He will dominate many pitches on this side of the Atlantic and maybe, in that morphing between Kun and Robben, Velasco will find his true identity.

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