Every top club has exciting young talent ready to make the step up and get on the transfer radar of Europe’s elite sides.
As the 2022-23 campaign kicks off around the continent, our resident scout looks at the next group of players who could follow the path of Aurelien Tchouameni, who went from Monaco’s midfield to being at the centre of Manchester City, Real Madrid and Liverpool’s €80 million tussle for his signature this summer (eventually won by Madrid).
Who could the next breakout star be from Europe’s top leagues?
Club: Borussia Dortmund
From his preferred position as a floating central striker, Moukoko tends to want passes played behind the defensive line, or into his feet in front of the centre-backs; partly because he’s hard to catch with space to exploit, but also because his turn of pace and balance often put markers on the defensive.
His precise left foot, fine awareness in the penalty area and exceptional finishing set the Germany under-21 international apart at youth level, but he has struggled at first-team level. However, he has exhibited flashes of technical finesse, trickery and a burst of pace as a reminder that he can become a world-class talent. And with better decision-making and a bit more incisiveness in the last third, the teen will surely be attracting attention again as his contract expires in 2023.
Position: Forward / Striker
Club: AC Milan
The 23-year-old had already caught the eye of plenty of scouts over the years, but his superb season in AC Milan’s Scudetto-winning campaign — 14 goals and 12 assists in 42 games — suggests he’s on the brink of something big. Having previously shown flashes of physical and technical ability, Leao last season added finesse, tactical awareness and end product.
From his preferred role on the left wing — and the occasional cameo as a centre-forward — the Portugal international proved a threat with his incisive and direct runs causing opposing defenders plenty of trouble. His ability to take on a defence on his own saw Milan benefit from some crucial goals and fine attacking combinations, and his three assists in the title-deciding 3-0 win at Sassuolo in late May all came from exploiting space in wide areas. If Leao can build on his recent improvement, Milan could face a real struggle to keep hold of their game-changing forward.
Club: FC Salzburg
Salzburg have an outstanding record in nurturing young attacking talent — Erling Haaland, Sadio Mane and Karim Adeyemi to name a few — so there’s every reason to get excited about the 6-foot-4 Sesko, who bagged 10 goals and seven assists in 36 games last season for the Austrian champions.
Though the early (inevitable) comparisons to Haaland are wide of the mark — the Man City star offers more directness, mobility and aggression in his play — Sesko is also quick for a tall centre-forward and has repeatedly shown an impressive, effortless technique when finishing chances on the ground. The Slovenia international also enjoys roaming in attacking areas, has good acceleration and often picks up smart positions in wide areas to start his runs into the box. When in more central areas, he has the movement and mental sharpness to get away from his marker and pick the right spaces to get on the end of crosses.
Despite his sturdy frame, Sesko has yet to take full advantage of his physical attributes — at times appearing somewhat easy to nudge off balance or dispossess — and he has room for aerial improvement, as well as better close control. However, he’s quickly becoming a target for big European clubs, with RB Leipzig announcing an agreement to sign him on a five-year contract as of July 1, 2023.
Replacing Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens is a tall order for any forward player, but Napoli’s €12m arrival shares some attributes with the two recently departed club legends and is part winger, part playmaker.
Hailed as Georgia’s biggest talent in at least a decade, Kvaratskhelia will hope he can build on the work of Man City’s Georgi Kinkladze and Milan’s Kakha Kaladze to raise the profile of football in his homeland. The 21-year-old predominantly played his football in Russia before a cameo for Dinamo Batumi in Georgia earlier this year, but he has developed a lot over the past 18 months.
During his country’s impressive UEFA Nations League campaign (topping Group C4), the right-footed winger has stood out as a difference-maker, a leader and a source of relentless energy. At his best when cutting in from the left, Kvaratskhelia is in his element in the final third, either taking aim with an early shot or setting up rapid combinations or one-twos, and is always looking to progress the ball.
While he has averaged more than 12 dribbles per game for his national side this year, Kvaratskhelia is also hardworking and determined; he tracks back and takes care of his defensive duties, which is not always the case for players with such natural flair.
Club: FC Porto
Yet to show sustained consistency at the first-team level, Veron joined FC Porto from Palmeiras for €10.5m earlier in this transfer window. The winger has been considered one of Brazil’s top prospects for several years and ran away with the Golden Ball at the under-17 World Cup in 2019 to begin down the road to stardom, but a lot is now expected of him at Porto given their stunning record in developing South American talent.
In addition to being a fountain of unpredictable creativity in the final third, Veron’s direct running, electric pace and willingness to break through the defensive line make him a tough opponent to face. He usually operates with some freedom to roam inward to the central areas, then uses his instinctive problem-solving ability and mesmerising ball control at speed to get into the box. Veron requires few touches to provide key passes or finishes and has wonderful technique, which should see him impress immediately in Portugal before potentially moving on to a bigger club.
Position: Attacking midfielder / Forward
After last season was compromised by a serious ankle injury, Elliott appears set for his proper Premier League breakthrough. On early evidence, he looked fresh as he came on for Liverpool in their 2-2 draw at former club Fulham, feeding Mohamed Salah with a clever pass that could have ended in a goal and generally participating well defensively via his relentless pressing game.
Though the teenager was originally an inverted winger, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp seems to prefer him in a more central position, which is understandable given Elliott’s skill set. Whether deployed wide or centrally — and despite not having electric pace — the Fulham academy graduate is an excellent ball carrier, often dropping deep to create a passing option before progressing forward. When he sets off he’s hard to dispossess and at times his runs culminate in a key pass or a delivery into the box.
While his ability to create havoc cutting in from the right onto his favoured left foot might be the most recognised aspect of his game, he’s also equipped with patience (not common for teenagers) and doesn’t always select the most immediate decision or release the ball to the most obvious teammate around him. One of the most promising talents of his generation, Elliott is rapidly becoming an exciting, complete attacking midfielder who could go on to big things.
Club: Nottingham Forest
He may have only had one impactful season in the Championship — 16 goals and nine assists in 46 games last season; plus two goals in three games during the playoffs on the way to promotion — but there’s plenty to the Wales international that suggests that he could build on his recent form.
Mostly deployed on the right side of attack, Johnson’s versatility means he can play anywhere across the frontline, and he found great success in the transitional phase last season. Often lurking around the halfway line, Johnson was able to use his speed over a longer distance to outrun full-backs and free himself from markers with clever turns while closely controlling the ball.
Courtesy of smart off-the-ball movement, Johnson is skilled at reading the development of the play and, using his direct running, can time his runs to perfection to get on the end of a pass. The 21-year-old’s opportunity to make a mark for Forest this season will come on the break, but he may need to learn how to become more effective against a settled defence too if he moves to a bigger club.
In such a magnificent generation of France centre-backs, few would have backed Saliba to be the one to muscle his way into the starting XI for Les Bleus and stay there. However, judging by his excellent loan season at Marseille and highly promising senior debut for Arsenal against Crystal Palace, it looks likely that the 21-year-old will continue to impress.
Three years on from his €30m move to the Emirates and without a competitive game for the club to his name, he was very nearly written off. However, he returns from Marseille as a polished central defender with a well-balanced skill set. Saliba’s pass completion rate of 94% last season — of which 4.5 per game were progressive (forward) — places him among the top “ball-playing centre-backs” in European football and it speaks volumes about a defender who was often on the receiving end of criticism for being timid and short of confidence on the pitch.
While he is also a resolute, assertive tackler, there are improvements needed in Saliba’s aerial game. That said, having undergone such exceptional development over the past year, it seems his proper breakthrough is imminent and he may soon be considered an elite Premier League centre-back.
Position: Central midfield
The deep-lying playmaker arrived at Benfica with a high reputation after two fine seasons with River Plate. Though new to European football, Fernandez should face few issues in adapting quickly to a new football culture. Playing with tenacity and determination, the young midfielder already possesses some of the crucial mental attributes he will need to impress. Last week he stood out in his competitive debut for Benfica, capping a fine performance with a breathtaking volley from a corner, lashed into the net from outside the box. Indeed, the goal provided a snapshot of one of his key skills: hitting the ball well from distance with first-class coordination and power.
Normally positioned as one of two deep midfielders, Fernandez enjoys licence to venture forward — which can see him succeed in something akin to a No. 8 role — and takes up positions able to capitalise on a loose ball at the edge of the area. Earlier in his team’s build-up, the Argentine is capable of dictating the flow of the game, picking up the right positions, and excels with smooth, well-paced passes. Perhaps even more impressive for a player of his age, Fernandez is positive in his passing — always looking to feed his teammates with a ball through the defensive line and spotting runs out wide.
Benfica managed to bring him to the club for around €12m this summer and are one of the top European teams in terms of moving players on for a profit; Fernandez could be next on the agenda if he has a good year.
Club: PSV Eindhoven
One of the outstanding attackers in Europe last season — with 21 goals, 15 assists in 46 games for PSV across all competitions — Gakpo has shown his quality at Eredivisie and international level, and now finds himself firmly on the radar of some of the biggest clubs in the world.
The dynamic winger averages six dribbles per game, has a rapid turn of pace, impressive ball progression and can make sharp diagonal runs from wide into dangerous areas. He is also more than active in the defensive side of the game and works to regain the ball when out of possession (1.9 ball recoveries and 17 challenges on average last season).
When on the ball, Gakpo balances team orders with refreshing creativity and often shows off some lovely touches to deceive an opponent. He has a powerful shot — often by cutting in from the left on his right foot — and can strike a set piece, too. If he continues on this trajectory, he won’t be in the Eredivisie for much longer.
Position: Attacking midfield / Forward
Club: AC Milan
A €35m move to the Serie A champions this summer came after a title-winning breakthrough season with Club Brugge, but De Ketelaere’s ceiling suggests he isn’t finished improving yet.
In addition to his excellent close control and fine decision-making in the last third — he’s particularly smart at taking up advantageous positions in and around the penalty area — it’s his physical profile and versatility that sets him apart from others. At 6-foot-4, De Ketelaere is hardly the typical “floating” attacking player, his build more resembles a centre-forward, but with first-class command of his body, he excels in one-vs.-one situations and usually advances with the ball despite being marked or stuck in a tight spot.
Where Milan boss Stefano Pioli intends to use the Belgium international — who can drop deeper to take part in the build-up play and generally prefers to cut in from the left — is still an open question, but he offers a plethora of options. De Ketelaere’s work-rate and pressing game (he averaged nearly 23 pressures per game last season), along with his creativity and positive passing, means he should be a good fit for the competitive nature of Serie A.
Position: Centre-back, right-back
With an exodus of players leaving the Dutch champions this summer (Lisandro Martinez, Sebastien Haller, Ryan Gravenberch and Andre Onana among them), it’s surprising that their No. 1 defender has remained in the Eredivisie. Perfectly suited for the modern game, Timber’s main strengths are found in his ability to master a high defensive line. Courtesy of fine anticipation — not always a given for young centre-backs — Timber repeatedly wins the ball early (though his 66.9% duel success rate is impressive regardless of the area of the pitch), often in the opponents’ half, without giving away an excessive amount of fouls.
His mobility, pace and knack of reading what his opponent is going to do also ensures he can recover the ball in the event of a mistimed intervention or a poor pass. Perhaps less talked about is Timber’s versatility, which could also see him used as a right-back or as a ball-carrying right-sided centre-back in a back three.
On the flipside — as often pointed out among scouts — his aerial game still leaves something to be desired (especially on defensive set-pieces), but there are signs of improvement, and last season he won 5% more aerial duels than the year before. Though priced out of the market in this transfer window, expect elite European clubs to keep sniffing around him in the future.
Due to repeated injuries, the talented Belgium international hardly got going for Rennes last season. However, when 100% fit, there are few top-level players who can offer as much directness, pace and relentless dribbling as Doku. Whether deployed on his preferred right side, or the left of the midfield, the winger can take on his full-back by going either direction — either through quick body feints, changes of lane, or simply knocking the ball past his opponent and winning the race.
As with most players with a similar profile, Doku becomes more effective after his team have regained possession and his ball-carrying skills and eagerness to run in behind defenders can come into force. He is a gamechanger, and even when he’s been quiet, he can pop up to decide things. Having been identified early by a number of top European clubs while playing for Belgium’s youth sides, there’s little to suggest that he will drop off their radars any time soon.
Position: Central midfield
The standout performer in England’s European Under-19 Championship-winning side, becoming a hit among travelling scouts from across Europe during the finals in Slovakia this summer. They raved over the midfielder as his stamina, combined with wonderful ball-progression and high technical skills, make him almost the ideal midfield No. 8.
After making 11 Premier League appearances for Aston Villa last season, he moved to Chelsea for around £15m following a dispute over a new contract, and it’s easy to see why he has such a sky-high reputation. He operates with a decisiveness and authority which is rare for an 18-year-old; through his willingness to get into the box there’s end product too, plus he’s a fine finisher and a growing aerial presence.
As one senior European scout told me during the tournament: “If you were to design the perfect box-to-box midfielder, Chukwuemeka would be the prototype. He’s dynamic — a great athlete — effortless on the ball, breaks lines, he makes everything look easy. He plays with high self-esteem, takes responsibility, attacks and defends. What more can you ask for?”
Position: Centre-back, left-back
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
The young defender finished his first Bundesliga season well, following his move from Talleres in Argentina last summer, and was evidently not fazed by the immediate jump in level. Equipped with a good left foot and having fine pace, agility and alertness, the Ecuador international — who performed steadily for his country during their successful World Cup qualifying campaign — has already been singled out as one to watch by bigger clubs.
An ideal left-sided centre-back in a back three (though he has mainly appeared for Leverkusen on the left side of a central defensive duo, or as a left-back), he enjoys dealing with danger early and even ventures forward with the ball as an element of surprise when he claims it.
Hincapie is composed in possession and is generally a precise, calm passer of the ball, while he is also capable of taking charge with a last-ditch tackle or vital block in the box. Though still prone to the odd mistake, he certainly has the talent to become an elite defender in European football.