• Lun. Mar 4th, 2024

Patada indie . com

-> Noticias de futbol internacional

The Radar – The Athletic’s 2022 World Cup scouting guide


Welcome to The Radar — the World Cup edition.

Last year, for Euro 2020, we profiled 60 players that people were talking about — or would be by the end of the competition. Thirty-four of those players have since moved club.

More teams means more players, so for the World Cup we’ve upped that to 100. The result is below, a carefully crafted guide to some of the best footballers on show in Qatar listed alphabetically by country — the heavyweight names, the rising stars and the under-the-radar players who could be coming to an elite club near you.

Twenty-two writers have contributed to a project that has been months in the making, and there is at least one player from every nation at the World Cup. From Garang Kuol to Kylian Mbappe, there’s something for everyone.

Players are colour coded by position — yellow for goalkeepers, green for defenders, blue for midfielders and red for forwards. Each player card is then split into three sections: profile, data and future. We’ve created bespoke data visualisations for every profile and in the data section used smarterscout to look at how they play compared to other players in their position. All our data is correct at the time of the squads being announced. The future section looks at each player’s contract situation and whether a transfer may be on the cards.

Just click to expand and collapse each individual card, and you’ll find filters to separate players by nation, position or club.

And if you’re coming to this fresh and want to understand a bit more about the content and the metrics involved, check out our explainer here.


The Radar is edited by Charlie Scott and Mark Carey.
Product engineering and design: Marc Mazzoni, Megan McMillan and Sam Richardson.





Try changing or resetting your filters to see more.

It seems a little unfair to talk about Erling Haaland when discussing Alvarez, and the Argentinian could be forgiven for being a little bit tired of it, but it does help to explain his start to life in European football with Manchester City.

Haaland has taken to Premier League football like a duck to water, which is no surprise given he has moved clubs fairly often, speaks the language, knows the country et cetera, et cetera.

Alvarez does not have that experience and is understandably taking a little longer to show off his full potential, but he really has created a buzz of his own despite much less game time than Haaland.

His traits quickly became obvious, he just hasn’t had lots of opportunities to show them yet as he adjusts to a new continent, language and Guardiola’s game plan. He is, though, arguably better suited to Pep Guardiola’s style of play than Haaland, stylistically speaking.

He is incredibly aggressive, with and without the ball. When pressing, he doesn’t give defenders a moment’s peace and will chase down goalkeepers all day. With the ball, if there is an opportunity to take a man on, or space to burst into, he will not hesitate.

Technically, he is excellent and can finish emphatically with either foot. Guardiola constantly says that he has the sense to arrive at exactly the right place at the right time inside the area, like Haaland, although his goal tally does not yet reflect the ability to hit the back of the net that he showed at River Plate.

That will surely come with time in Manchester and may well be in evidence with his country in Qatar. 

In terms of his style being perfect for City, his ability to drop off the front line as a false nine and link up the play is very impressive. As this graphic shows, he progresses the ball in a variety of ways, not least showing for a pass from team-mates. While this is something Haaland has to improve in his game, Alvarez has been doing it for years. 

The fact that he is equally capable of moving the ball up the pitch with passes and dribbles shows just how many facets there are to his game, and it won’t be long before he is the one making headlines.

Sam Lee

Alvarez has done brilliantly in the limited minutes he has played in a Manchester City shirt, but it is more appropriate to look at Alvarez’s smarterscout profile from his time at River Plate.

That tendency to drop deep and look for others ahead of him is shown in his passing profile, where he looked to play the ball upfield for others ahead of him (progressive passing, 77 out of 99). That ability to get the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 79 out of 99) is diverse across his skill set, whether that be his own passing, receiving the ball, or carrying it forward himself.

His relentlessness out of possession is reflected in the volume of loose balls that he picks up to start a new wave of attack (ball recoveries and interceptions, 97 out of 99), with his defensive actions looking decent for a striker when adjusted for the quality of the Premier League (defending impact, 50 out of 99).

Having only just made the move to City at 22, Alvarez has plenty of time — and the tools — to become a star in European football.

Mark Carey

Alvarez signed a five-year deal at City in January, and given how happy Guardiola and his coaches have been with him, there is very little chance he will go anywhere else in the immediate future.

City received several loan offers for Alvarez during the summer but he was always earmarked for a role this season, and his fast adaptation and impressive performances in training and pre-season meant he was then in line to be used even more than initially hoped. 

Haaland has understandably hogged the headlines but there is a huge buzz around Alvarez and once he fully settles into the team, he could be a vital weapon for Guardiola’s side.

Sam Lee


Enzo Fernandez could well be one of the next big central midfielders in world football. Having moved to Europe from River Plate in the summer, the 21-year-old has been showing what he can do for Benfica. 

The data shows just how adept he is at breaking up the play and, basically, getting stuck in. His smarterscout duel ratings for tackling might not show him as the winner every time, but coupled with his heading ability, he is the man you’d want in your midfield.

But there is more. Watching him play you will see a more elegant touch than expected from the above description — there are shades of Liverpool midfielder Thiago in his body positioning and how he manoeuvres the ball.

He can dictate the tempo of a match by setting the pace with short, quick passes under pressure. Those players are vital to top teams — think Xavi, Luka Modric, Ilkay Gundogan — in terms of how the game flows but not all of them have, or at least started out with, that ability to win the ball back.

Fernandez does. It’s not a case of talking him up to the levels of those players in terms of trophies won and acclaim but those abilities do highlight how Fernandez is a rare blend of talents.

With everyone fit he is not one of Argentina’s starters — Leandro Paredes is the more senior version of the tempo-setting, ball-winning midfielder — but with Giovani Lo Celso ruled out of the tournament it could open the door for him, possibly in a more box-to-box role.

Sam Lee

If Fernandez gets minutes in this World Cup, it will show just how far he has come in 12 months.

Looking at his on-ball actions for Benfica this season, you can see that he will often keep those passes simple — short and sharp to a nearby team-mate (link-up play volume, 96 out of 99). Though he is less concerned about playing more searching balls upfield (progressive passing, 28 out of 99), he does still enjoy a long diagonal ball that switches the play even if it doesn’t advance it forward.

As a defensive midfielder, Fernandez doesn’t lunge into challenges and throw himself around, but prefers to read the play in blocking passes (ball recoveries and interceptions, 71 out of 99) and engage in defensive actions (disrupting opposition moves, 72 out of 99) that are well-timed to nick the ball away at the opportune moment.

The biggest compliment to pay to him is that he is a pest to play against, rarely letting his opponent advance further forward (defending impact, 90 out of 99). At just 21 and with more development to make, Fernandez’s ceiling is as high as he wants it to be.

Mark Carey

Fernandez only joined Benfica in the summer, signing a five-year deal. Both Manchester clubs and Wolves were among those interested before he left River Plate, although the transfer, worth €10m (£8.7m) plus €8m in add-ons, has done barely anything to ward off transfer interest.

Since arriving in Portugal, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Liverpool have all been linked with a move for Fernandez next summer, with Jurgen Klopp’s side supposedly trying to sign him before this summer’s transfer deadline. 

Benfica boss Roger Schmidt had even responded to those links, saying, “He will be here for a long time.” What seems certain, though, is that the Argentinian won’t be far from the headlines in the months and years to come.

Sam Lee


It’s funny how things work out. Lautaro Martinez was inducted into life at Inter Milan by the club’s then-captain Mauro Icardi. 

At 29, Icardi should be in his prime. Twice top scorer in Serie A, the youngest since Paolo Rossi, one of Inter’s all-time top scorers, his career trajectory pointed to starting for Argentina at a World Cup. But the disruptive drama of his private life meant Icardi, already a problematic call-up for Argentina, lost the armband and was sold by Inter to Paris Saint-Germain, where he subsided into the background before Galatasaray, a midlife-crisis club par excellence, signed him this summer. 

Lautaro hasn’t won the individual accolades that came Icardi’s way during his time at San Siro. He perhaps won’t get near his place in the club’s scoring annals. But Inter started winning as a team with Lautaro leading the line and so have Argentina. 

In both cases, a bigger star tends to eclipse his own. At club level, it was Romelu Lukaku. For Argentina, it is Lionel Messi. It means Lautaro is perhaps underrated. He has now won everything in Italy and in the same summer as Inter’s first scudetto in a decade, he helped Argentina clinch their first trophy since 1993 with goals in their Copa America quarter-final and semi-final, as well as the last penalty in a tense shootout against Colombia. 

The 25-year-old scored 30 goals for club and country in all competitions last season and became part of a precocious and select group to hit more than 20 for Inter over a single Serie A campaign before the age of 25 (the others being Giuseppe Meazza, Istvan Nyers, Antonio Angelillo, Ronaldo and Icardi). 

A fiercely hard-running strike partner who is deceptively good in the air for a player his size (5ft 9in, 175cm), Lautaro regularly makes his mark in big games, scoring away at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Liverpool in the Champions League. Sergio Aguero’s enforced retirement and Gonzalo Higuain’s Miami twilight have opened the door to the national team. Lautaro burst through it but his time had come already.  

James Horncastle

After setting such high goalscoring standards last season, Lautaro has not matched that output to the same degree in 2022-23 — with his non-penalty goals and expected goals returning to levels closer to the rest of his Inter career. That doesn’t mean he is any less of a threat, as he continues to test the goalkeeper as early as possible when given the opportunity (shot volume, 92 out of 99).

On the ball, Lautaro is less likely to dwell on the ball for the sake of it (link-up play volume, 21 out of 99), but instead looks to drop in and drive forward when he has it (carry and dribble volume, 51 out of 99), providing an infectious, purposeful energy that transcends across the whole team.

Out of possession, he can certainly handle himself, making defensive actions like blocks and tackles on a regular basis (disrupting opposition moves, 92 out of 99), and picking up loose balls to start a new wave of attack (ball recoveries and interceptions, 72 out of 99).

Lautaro has led the line well in Argentina’s most recent friendlies, and with an international record of close to one goal in two games, you would expect him to be on the scoresheet often in Qatar.

Mark Carey

There was an agreement in place to sell Lautaro to Tottenham in 2021 only for Inter to take him off the market following the sale of Lukaku to Chelsea that same summer. Inter then changed tack and sat down with the striker to negotiate a contract extension. 

The new deal signed this time last year made Lautaro one of Inter’s highest earners, reflecting his status within the team as a major difference-maker. Crucially for Inter, the €111million buy-out clause included in his first contract was removed.

James Horncastle


How can a guy who’s always walking be everywhere at once? 

That’s the mystery of Lionel Messi with Argentina. In tournaments past, he’s often seemed to be the first man on the ball in the build-up, the creator between the lines, and the finisher on the end of his own final pass. You got the feeling that if the manager dipped out for a mid-game fernet and Coke, Messi might swing by the technical area to shout some instructions before appearing in the box to score the goal he’d just drawn up, and he would somehow do it all at a light jog.

It worked — up to a point. Argentina came heartbreakingly close to winning the 2014 World Cup and lost a thriller to eventual champions France in 2018, but as team-mates aged out of the game and Messi got older with them, it looked like his time was running out.

When Messi slowed down, however, the players around him sped up. 

First at PSG, where he plays behind Kylian Mbappe, then with Argentina, where Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero gave way to Lautaro Martinez and Julian Alvarez, Messi has learned to hang back between the lines like an old-school ”enganche” and let the kids run on ahead to have fun with his through balls. This new arrangement won Argentina last year’s Copa America title and will see them into the World Cup on a 34-game unbeaten streak.

“If he plays as a No 9, a No 8 or a No 6, he’s the best in the world,” Messi’s former coach Luis Enrique said years ago. “He can judge the perfect pass from 40 yards and put the ball wherever he wants.”

With talented midfielders behind him and speed on the wings and up front, Messi doesn’t have to be all of those things at once anymore. He can just be Argentina’s inimitable, indomitable No 10.

John Muller

Is it really worth going through his stylistic profile? It’s Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players to have ever graced the field.

Yes, we’re less likely to see the mazy runs from Messi nowadays (carry and dribble volume, 51 out of 99), but the danger he offers towards his team’s chance creation is still among the best around (xG from shot creation, 99 out of 99).

Messi still registered 14 assists in Ligue 1 despite a tricky first season at PSG in 2021-22, and his ability to find a team-mate in dangerous areas has not relented (xG from ball progression, 97 out of 99). His penetrating, eye-of-the-needle passes are still one of his greatest strengths at 35 years old (progressive passing, 66 out of 99). 

Per StatsBomb data via FBref, 18 per cent of the passes he makes are progressive — those passes that move the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the previous six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area. For context, that rate is the second highest across Europe’s top five leagues since 2021-22.

You’re not likely to get Messi hounding his opponent out of possession, but play the ball near him and he will switch on very quickly (ball recoveries and interceptions, 69 out of 99) — most likely to quickly start another wave of attack.

Despite his age, Messi remains Argentina’s star player, their attacking catalyst, the man for the big occasion. Every fan across the world will be hoping to see him add to his 90 international goals in what will surely be his final World Cup.

Mark Carey

Messi’s contract at PSG expires in the summer. Messi’s first season in Paris was below-par in comparison to the extraordinarily high standards set during his career, but this time around, he appears far more settled and content in the French capital.

Messi’s PSG contract does contain an option to extend by a further year until 2024 but it has not yet been triggered by the two parties. Indeed, if reports in Spain and Argentina are to be believed, a stunning return to Barcelona could yet materialise in 2023.

PSG, for their part, are sceptical of Barcelona’s ability to afford the return of a player they let go in 2021 after finally realising they could no longer afford his salary. In Paris, he earns a €25million (£22m) annual net salary and though the French club do not expect to negotiate an entirely new contract for the 35-year-old, they do remain hopeful that he may agree to trigger the one-year option. PSG are not putting pressure on Messi and expect him to make up his mind after the World Cup.

In the event he stays an extra year at PSG — which the French club believe is more likely due to the strong South American spine to the squad — then they then expect him to depart for the MLS to finish up his career, with Inter Miami previously reported to be a possible destination.

Adam Crafton


Exequiel Palacios’ move to Europe from River Plate was a topic of conversation for a couple of years before he actually took the leap and it might ultimately be to his advantage that nobody sought to rush him out of Argentina ahead of time.

Countless players have trodden that path from South America but to cope with European football, a good grounding back home is wise.

Palacios had that and more at River Plate, breaking through at one of Argentina’s most demanding clubs and helping deliver trophies — none bigger than the 2018 Copa Libertadores, won in a two-legged final against bitter Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors. Whatever Palacios achieves in his career, he is unlikely to experience a more frenzied occasion than that or a contest in which nerves are more liable to crumble. It really is necessary to read about that final to appreciate the chaos around it. He debuted at 17 for River Plate and his qualities as a combative defensive midfielder meant it was simple to build a line-up around him. 

He is not flash or extraordinarily creative but Bayer Leverkusen, who he joined in 2020, did not ask him to be either. Palacious provides a very solid platform in the middle of the pitch, forever there with tackles and interceptions. His stamina allows for constant and effective pressing.

At the same time, he gets himself on the ball regularly and has a tendency to look for forward passes instead of lateral or easy balls. Leverkusen often sit in a 4-2-3-1, with Palacios often paired with Charles Aranguiz, another South American, although the Argentinian’s involvement this season has been restricted by a hamstring injury he suffered in September. That, among other things, contributed to a fairly dismal start for Leverkusen but at full tilt, Palacios will help to dig them out of trouble.

Phil Hay

Looking at Palacios’ defensive output from last season, you can see just how much he reads the game to hoover up loose balls and block opponent passes (ball recoveries and interceptions, 97 out of 99). When adjusted for the opportunity to defend, his volume of tackles, blocks and clearances are also well above average for a defensive midfielder (disrupting opposition moves, 69 out of 99). He might not always be effective in those actions (defending impact, 37 out of 99) but he certainly puts himself about.

Palacios is comfortable on the ball, able to play it simple (link-up play volume, 63 out of 99) or look forward for a pass upfield of 10m or more (progressive passing, 57 out of 99) — all while keeping possession at an above average rate (ball retention, 68 out of 99).

Palacios was part of the Copa America-winning squad in 2021, and will be hoping his country can level up one further and bring the World Cup back to Argentina for the first time since 1986.

Mark Carey

It is understandable that Palacios, without being disrespectful, saw Leverkusen as a step to a more high-profile club. Real Madrid were strongly linked with him while he was at River Plate and there were discussions between his agent and Inter too, before the deal being agreed with Leverkusen.

“I know Bayer give me the basis of taking the next step and that the big clubs keep an eye on players at Bayer,” he said when he first arrived in Europe in 2020. There and then, he had signed a contract to 2025 and the terms of that deal have not changed.

Talk of a move to a bigger team has died down since then but Argentina are keeping faith with Palacios.

Phil Hay


If Xavi Hernandez describes you as a “talent” then you must have something about you.

Newcastle United evidently share that opinion — Garang Kuol will move from Central Coast, New South Wales, to Tyneside in January. This journey becomes more wholesome when you discover that he was born in Egypt after his Sudanese parents had to flee their homeland and eventually emigrated to Australia.

A forward with immense speed, agility and dribbling ability, he can light up a game and create a chance from nothing — Newcastle fans would be forgiven for picturing Allan Saint-Maximin but that is how Kuol profiles stylistically.

He has only made 11 A-League appearances, all from the bench, and turned 18 in September. The natural conclusion is a lack of experience but Kuol, whose older brother Alou signed for Stuttgart in 2021, made an instant impact, scoring four times to help the Mariners secure a play-off spot.

On his debut against Wellington Phoenix, he timed his run beyond the defence to latch onto a through ball and nutmeg the goalkeeper, becoming the sixth-youngest scorer in A-League history. There is impressive variety in his goals — Kuol played a one-two with the right-back before drilling a low finish on the angle at Brisbane Roar. He netted the winner against eventual grand final winners Western United with a curling shot from distance, notably with his non-dominant left foot.

It was no different on his first time donning the green and gold. Against New Zealand in September, he became the youngest Socceroos debutant since Harry Kewell in 1996. 

And with this being Kuol, he had to make an impact off the bench. He picked up a clearance from the New Zealand corner and — reminiscent of the famous Gareth Bale Copa del Rey goal — beat the defender for pace down the right flank, off the pitch at one stage, as he dribbled to the penalty area, squaring the ball to a team-mate who won a penalty. 

Came off the bench & ”razzed ’em up” 💥

⚡ Garang Kuol’s run to spark our second goal v New Zealand is our @CUPRA Electric Moment of the Match ⚡

🎥: @10FootballAU
#AUSvNZL #GiveIt100 pic.twitter.com/kiXNAtGoOD

— Socceroos (@Socceroos) September 26, 2022

Liam Tharme

“An attacking player, can play wide or in the middle, able to start an attack and take the ball forward from many different positions.”

Those were the words from Kuol himself when asked to describe his own game during his first interview with Newcastle United. Looking at the few minutes he did play for the Mariners last season, that certainly looks to be the case as he pops up all over the pitch — often picking up the ball near the halfway line and driving forward from there.

His obvious key attribute is his raw pace and fearlessness to run with the ball to advance the play but there have been glimpses of composure. Scoring four goals from just 10 shots is likely to represent a mini purple patch of form, but Kuol’s performances have clearly stood out with the small sample of minutes he has played in senior football.

It has been enough to get him his move to the Premier League, and a place in the Socceroos’ World Cup squad.

Mark Carey

Kuol is joining Newcastle in January on a long-term deal for a fee of around £500,000, but that does include sell-on clauses that should benefit Central Coast Mariners in the future. It is understood that Newcastle beat some top European sides to his signature.

As things stand, Kuol would not automatically receive a UK work permit and Newcastle are thought to be exploring the possibility of loaning him out to a European club, potentially to Portugal. If he were to play for Australia in Qatar, then he may gain a visa sooner.

Liam Tharme


Leaving Australia at 18 to go to Denmark, then Portugal, back to Denmark, out to Turkey and finally to Spain is surely one of the most unique career paths in football.

Then factor in that Awer Mabil was born in a Kenyan refugee camp to South Sudanese parents and came to Australia aged 10 through a humanitarian programme. Add to that the shock death of his sister and it is unsurprising that he considers himself “unbreakable”.

His game is built around moments of magic rather than a consistent output — a scorer of great goals rather than a great goalscorer. Mabil only has eight goals in 29 Australia caps but notably scored the decisive penalty against Peru to send them to Qatar. He has a knack for having the final say in games, with 14 of his 39 career goals scored in the 80th minute or later.

As a right-footed left-winger, he is regularly looking to dribble inside and shoot from distance. He scored the match-winner against New Zealand doing exactly that. ”I need to adapt to my club side and then get more game time — that I would like,” Mabil told Australian media post-game.

The 27-year-old is now in the first of a four-year contract at Cadiz, having spent seven years on the books of Midtjylland. He scored eight goals and registered six assists in their 2019-20 title-winning season, which also secured Champions League football for the first time in their history.

In Denmark, he played off the right and also in the No 10 role, which is evidence of his attacking versatility, but his preferred spot is left wing. Playing inverted offers him the angles to provide inswinging crosses and defence-splitting passes, which make up most of his assists.

He can threaten opponents in the box too. Mabil is regularly positioned at the back post when there is a cross from the opposite side and favours one-touch finishes, either off his head or via a quick strike.

Liam Tharme

Limited minutes last season means we must return to 2020-21 for a more reliable look at Mabil’s statistical profile. He spent the majority of that season as a left-winger, playing 74 per cent of his total minutes there — but also featured fairly regularly down the right (21 per cent of minutes).

He is incredibly capable of receiving the ball in deeper areas and playing forward passes (progressive passing, 61 out of 99) or particularly playing in advanced locations and creating chances for others (xG from ball progression, 91 out of 99).

That said, his tendency to be a moments player rather than consistently producing an attacking output is reflected statistically — Mabil does not carry the ball at exceedingly high rates (carry & dribble volume, 49 out of 99) nor does he fire off shots at any opportunity (shot volume, 12 out of 99).

His knack for finding quality goalscoring positions, particularly to score from crosses delivered from the opposite flank, is underlined by an above-average rating for receptions in the opposition box (61 out of 99).

Keep an eye out — Mabil does have a goal in him.

Liam Tharme

Mabil joined Cadiz on a four-year deal in the summer after his contract expired in Denmark but he has not had much of a look in for the La Liga side in 2022-23.

He described it as “a dream come true” to get a chance to show his talent in Spain’s top flight but has played just four times for a team that look set to be battling relegation this term.

A regular at international level for the past three years, a strong tournament in Qatar may tempt a club in need of a versatile forward to make a permanent or temporary move for Mabil and give him more playing time. 

Liam Tharme


What more can be said about Kevin De Bruyne really? Everybody knows that he is an arch chance-creator and prolific assister and in fact one of the best players in Premier League history.

What should be made clear about the 31-year-old is his ability to adapt to the task at hand. Around 2019 and 2020, for example, he made those wicked, corridor-of-uncertainty crosses from the right-hand side a trademark, laying on an almost endless supply of goals for Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling. 

As City went through their false 9 phase he adapted, knowing he could not play so many killer balls, and in fact, he himself was the false 9 for much of their run to the Champions League final in 2021. Despite that, he was still City’s biggest creator, something that gave him great satisfaction.

Since last season, as the graphic shows, most of his chances created came from the middle of the pitch. This was at a time, remember, when he started scoring more goals himself, scoring 10 of his 15 league strikes in the second half of the season.

Still, he gave an interview earlier this year saying he still prefers giving assists than scoring goals, and with Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez to aim for in the box, don’t be surprised to see his chances-created shoot right back up, especially those from the right-hand side.

And if the goals and assists aren’t enough, keep an eye out for his lung-busting, machine-like dribbles from deep inside his own half that manage to take out several opposition players, no matter how hard they try to pull him back. De Bruyne is a force of nature and there’s no better stage to show that than the World Cup.

Sam Lee

Profiling De Bruyne using data barely scratches the surface of his world-class technique on the ball. If you were to look at his data profile in possession, you’d maybe think he was wasteful (ball retention ability, 42 out of 99), perhaps even unadventurous (carry and dribble volume, 50 out of 99) compared with the average central midfielder.

But that would be overlooking De Bruyne’s best quality — he sees things on a football pitch that other players do not. He consistently looks to advance the play upfield with penetrating passes (progressive passing, 90 out of 99), with the quality to get the ball into dangerous areas being one of the best around for a central midfielder (xG from ball progression, 95 out of 99). 

Coming off a career-high 15 league goals last season, there’s no doubting the quality of De Bruyne’s contribution to his team’s attack (xG from shot creation, 97 out of 99).

His work rate off the ball also shows how very few opponents are able to advance further when he does engage in a defensive action (defending impact, 93 out of 99). De Bruyne is quite simply one of the best midfielders on the planet.

Mark Carey

De Bruyne famously negotiated his own Manchester City contract extension in 2021 after commissioning data companies to highlight his own strengths and how his presence in the City team, and others, would affect their chances of winning the Champions League.

The Belgian is somebody who knows his value but also somebody who, ultimately, wanted to stay at Manchester City. He signed that new contract keeping him at the Etihad Stadium until 2025, by which point he will be 35 years old.

It’s hard to imagine any club coming up with an offer big enough to tempt City to sell, and while the post-Guardiola years are difficult to envisage in almost all respects, it does seem like De Bruyne will finish his top-level career in Manchester.

Sam Lee


The present that AC Milan wished to give to themselves upon winning the Serie A title for the first time since 2011 was unanimously agreed upon by the club’s executive team. 

The majority of the transfer budget was designated to the signing of Charles De Ketelaere from Club Bruges. Leeds outbid the Italian champions but they would not give up, such was their determination to bring Belgium’s Young Player of the Year to San Siro. 

De Ketelaere keeps up appearances for Belgium by emerging at a time when the golden generation is becoming a bunch of golden oldies. Milan fell for more than the 21-year-old’s elegant running gait and the resemblance it bears to the club’s last Ballon d’Or winner, Kaka. 

His versatility in the final third has led to intense discussion about where his best position lies, but De Ketelaere has the size and strength to hold his own anywhere in the rush hour traffic between the lines and, while he finished last season as Bruges’ top scorer, Milan liked the idea of having a composed creative thinker like him operating across their attack. 

To some, it has been a slow start to life in Serie A. To other data-minded observers, he went into the last international break before the World Cup fifth in the top five leagues for open-play expected assists per 90 (0.37). Only Neymar, Thomas Muller, compatriot Kevin De Bruyne and Rodrygo ranked higher.

Interestingly, rather than play De Ketelaere with De Bruyne off a centre-forward, Roberto Martinez appears to consider one the alternative for the other. Aside from a run of three consecutive starts between the winter of 2021 and spring of this year, De Ketelaere has been limited to cameos late in Nations League games and friendlies despite Belgium utilising the same 3-4-2-1 system he thrived in with Bruges. 

The decision not to play De Ketelaere with De Bruyne, partnering the Man City playmaker with Eden Hazard or Dries Mertens instead, seems indicative of a hierarchy based on past performance rather than current form. 

It is slightly baffling that a starter for AC Milan is behind guys in the pecking order who are now playing in Turkey. Michy Batshuayi is back there with Fenerbahce and as much as his career has drifted over the past couple of years, he has taken his chances in Romelu Lukaku’s recent absence, with Martinez preferring a recognised striker over any experiment with De Ketelaere in the same position.  

King Charles’ time will come. 

James Horncastle

It is difficult to truly scrutinise De Ketelaere’s playing profile for AC Milan so far this season. 

While he has had his fair share of starts, the Belgian is yet to play a full 90 minutes all season, so any appraisal of his performances must be taken within the context that he is unlikely to have built up any consistency in Italy.

Nevertheless, you can see in the minutes he has played that his on-ball actions have largely been centred around ball carrying at Milan (carry and dribble volume, 67 out of 99), looking to wriggle away from his opponent before offloading with a simple pass (link-up play volume, 66 out of 99) — currently a move away from the penetrative passes he used to make at Club Bruges (progressive passing, 16 out of 99).

In attack, he isn’t quite having the same contribution to Milan’s goalscoring output (xG from shot creation, 28 out of 99), but that is not through a lack of trying. De Ketelaere is regularly getting himself into advanced positions to create or score (receptions in the opposition box, 98 out of 99), but the bounce of the balls has not quite gone in his favour thus far.

The fact the World Cup is sandwiched in the middle of the season makes it tricky to assess players who have recently signed for new clubs in the summer. De Ketelaere looks to have adapted to his new surroundings and you would strongly suspect him to kick on in part two of the campaign. A strong World Cup would certainly catalyse that trajectory.

Mark Carey

Milan are patient with players. It has taken three years for Rafael Leao to show his true potential at San Siro and while De Ketelaere arrived from Bruges with more experience, Milan are in no rush with him. 

He signed a contract until 2027 and paid more than they usually would for a player — Milan tend not to go over €30million — in the belief De Ketelaere will succeed De Bruyne as the most technically gifted Belgian footballer of the new generation. 

Leeds were also prepared to break the bank for De Ketelaere on the basis he could lift the team into the European places and deliver, at some point in the future, the same kind of profit yielded by Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips.

James Horncastle


Doku has always been a player in a hurry and not just because of his pace. Aged 20, he has racked up more than 100 games in club football and won 10 Belgium caps.

Liverpool rolled out the big hitters, from Jurgen Klopp to Mohamed Salah, to try to get Doku to sign for them when he visited the club with his parents in 2018. In the end, Doku stayed with Anderlecht after a video message from Romelu Lukaku proved persuasive.

Landmark moments came thick and fast thereafter – a senior debut for Anderlecht at 16, a first cap for Belgium at 18 and a €27million move to the French club Rennes at the same age.

Doku even marked his full debut for Belgium with a goal. He was not at his exhilarating best that night, but his goal against Iceland provided a snapshot of his ability: quick feet, a sharp change of direction, and a shoulder drop that created the room for a terrific shot.

Explosive is the best word to describe Doku’s speed. It enables him to find space where there seems to be none and when that acceleration is combined with a little feint, as is often the case, it is hard to stop him – legally, at least.

Doku was the most fouled player when Belgium lost to Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals last year. He also won the penalty Lukaku converted that night and completed eight dribbles – Opta declared that a record for a teenager “since we have full data for the World Cup (1966+) and the Euros (1980+)”. 

The only surprise is Doku’s numbers are a little underwhelming in other areas. At club level, he averages a goal every 10 games. “The ones I score are goals that finish my own actions,” he said. “It’s up to me to make sure I’m in that kind of ‘easy’ goal situation.”

Stuart James

Injuries have been a huge frustration for Doku for well over a year, meaning we’d have to go all the way back to his first season at Rennes to get a clear reflection of his playing profile.

The raw materials he possesses are clear to see from his debut season in France — a prolific carrier of the ball (carry and dribble volume, 92 out of 99), with an ability to look after possession well (ball retention ability, 94 out of 99) with simple passes released after his mazy runs (link-up play volume, 85 out of 99).

It is understandable when assessing a teenager’s season at a new club, but given the danger posed by his relentless running, you would have expected a greater attacking output from Doku in the 2020-21 season. Instead, his actions did not contribute hugely to his team’s overall creation of chances (xG from shot creation, 15 out of 99) — settling for two goals and three assists by the end of the Ligue 1 season.

Nearly 18 months on, Doku’s career trajectory was supposed to be steeper than it has been. A bit of luck without injuries and you can be confident that the Belgian can get back on track. He is too dangerous not to.

Mark Carey

Doku is less than halfway through the five-year contract that he signed at Rennes when he joined from Anderlecht. There has been interest in him since moving to France, in particular on the back of that performance against Italy in the European Championships, with Liverpool linked again.

Although Doku turned Liverpool down all those years ago – and, in many ways, is entitled to feel vindicated given the way that his career has panned out – there is no doubt that he would love that sort of opportunity to come up again.

“I want to do everything to become one of the best players in the world, at one of the biggest clubs in the world, in the English Premier League if possible. And I am working hard for that,” he said last December.

Stuart James


Bruno Guimaraes made his way onto a lot of shopping lists during his breakout season with Athletico Paranaense in Brazil. Arsenal, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Benfica were all credited with interest in the youngster, but one phone call was to define his future.

It came from Juninho Pernambucano, the former Lyon free-kick whizz. He had taken the job of sporting director at the Ligue 1 side and wanted Guimaraes in his squad. The pitch was simple but compelling: Juninho told Guimaraes that he wanted to help make him the best central midfielder in the world. 

Almost three years have passed since that call and perhaps the most telling thing, when it comes to Guimaraes’ ability and potential, is that Juninho’s vision does not seem completely ludicrous.

Now entering his prime, Guimaraes has no obvious weaknesses. He reads the game well and has the engine to cover the entire pitch. He is good at stealing possession. He has a crackerjack shot from range and does a mean sideline in nutmegs.

Mainly, though, he is just a natural passer of the ball — the kind of player who is equally comfortable kickstarting moves from deep, pinging diagonals to the wings and threading the needle in crowded penalty boxes. The ball obeys his right boot to the extent that it’s tempting to wonder whether it’s being blackmailed. 

Little wonder that he is already a firm favourite at Newcastle. His signing was a statement of intent and he wasted no time in becoming the fulcrum of Eddie Howe’s side.

For Brazil, too, he has shown flashes of excellence; patience may be required in the short term, but it would be no great surprise were he to become a key man for the Selecao in two or three years’ time.

Jack Lang

It is still early days at Newcastle but Guimaraes has been central to his side’s form in the opening months of his first full season. He does not keep possession every time (ball retention ability, 40 out of 99) but he can mix up his actions between a simple, neat pass (link-up play volume, 36 out of 99) or a more searching ball upfield (progressive passing, 51 out of 99). 

He wants to get his side playing, with good energy off the ball to get tight to his opponent (defending intensity, 71 out of 99), driving forward when he has regained possession (carry and dribble volume, 94 out of 99). He also has a goal in him, scoring eight goals for Newcastle since he arrived at the start of the year (xG from shot creation, 79 out of 99).

Guimaraes’s first call-up to the Brazil squad came in September 2020, but eight caps later, he has shown his quality on the international stage too. 

Mark Carey

Guimaraes is under contract until the summer of 2026. He is believed to be one of Newcastle’s highest earners and is a foundational part of the team being built by Eddie Howe.

The only possible issue in the seasons ahead will be the call of the Champions League — Guimaraes would be forgiven for feeling that that is an appropriate platform for his talent. The question is, can he drag Newcastle there himself?

Jack Lang


“Dribble, dance and always keep being you,” Brazil manager Tite said in a recent public message to Vinicius Junior. “That’s his essence: the happiness, the vibes, the celebration.”

It would be embarrassing to talk about a Brazilian player that way if it weren’t also, in Vinicius’ case, indisputably true. He’s a vibes guy. He does dribble (no one in Spain has beaten more defenders). He does celebrate (he’s Real Madrid’s leading scorer this season, though he’s only scored once so far for the Selecao in 16 appearances). And yes, he dances. 

Brazil already had a left winger who fit that profile in Neymar, their superstar, who may well pass Pele at this World Cup to become his country’s all-time leading scorer. But as 22-year-old Vinicius has scorched his name in lightning on Tite’s teamsheet, an older, wiser Neymar has slid into a midfield playmaker role, and their combination play up Brazil’s left side has been electric.

Not all of Vinicius’ tricks come off. He ranks third in Europe’s top five leagues for completed dribbles but also third for balls lost via miscontrols and dispossessions. In a recent friendly with Brazil, he nutmegged an opponent while dribbling back toward his own goal, just because he could. But that same chaotic genius frees him to try things like ”trivela” crosses and scooped through balls, and the defensive double-teams Vinicius demands on the wing make room for Neymar to run the show through the middle. 

Only a few months removed from winning the Champions League with Real Madrid, Vinicius enters his first World Cup with Brazil — who haven’t yet lost a game he’s started — as the tournament favourites. Whether or not he can dribble his way to glory, the vibes are guaranteed to be immaculate.

John Muller

There is often only one thing in Vinicius’s mind when he has the ball — run.

There are few players in world football who are willing to take on their man more than Vinicius (carry and dribble volume, 99 out of 99). Per FBref, his 6.9 dribbles attempted per 90 puts him in the top percentile for attacking midfielders or wingers in La Liga this season.

Naturally, those runs he makes advance the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression 87 out of 99), but Vinicus has added end product to his game since the start of last season. A tally of 17 goals and 10 assists last season has been followed up by a similar goal contribution rate per 90 so far this season.

It helps that the Brazilian is shooting more often than last season, when given the opportunity (shot volume, 85 out of 99). His figure of 2.8 shots per 90 minutes is the highest rate across the past three seasons, and it feels like the perfect time to see the him showcasing his talent on the biggest international stage for Brazil.

Mark Carey

The Brazilian has left behind his reputation as a talented but wasteful winger to become a recognised world superstar. And that is expected to have implications for his contract situation.

As of now, his contract expires in the summer of 2024. This is just an anecdote, though. Vinicius himself has stated his wish is to remain in Real Madrid, and the club is well advanced in talks over a new contract.

According to reports in Spain, it’s just a matter of time until his extension is announced. The duration of the new deal seems to be the focal point of discussion.

While Madrid wanted to tie their star down until 2030, the footballer seems to prefer a shorter contract, up to 2027 at most. Vinicius is expected to treble his salary, and the release clause could rise up to €1bn (£880m), which is the amount Spanish clubs seem to impose on their stars to keep them away from world football’s richest owners.

Pol Ballus


In this age of YouTube compilations and feverish excitement about every potential transfer target, it is vanishingly rare for a footballer to go from obscurity to stardom in a matter of weeks. That, though, is what happened to Gabriel Martinelli in 2019.

At the start of that year, he was just another starry-eyed kid, honing his craft on the bumpy pitches of Brazil’s fourth division. A few months and some fantastic scouting later, he was lighting up the Premier League with his alluring blend of pace, directness and technique. Life, as another whip-smart teenager once said, moves pretty fast.

Progress after that initial explosion has perhaps been a little slower than Martinelli and Arsenal might have hoped. Injuries limited him to seven league appearances in 2020 and the rise of Emile Smith Rowe meant that he had to bide his time to properly nail down a starting spot under Mikel Arteta. Now, though, the Brazilian appears to be entering his imperial phase. 

You would struggle to design a more perfect modern winger. Martinelli is bullet quick. He makes clever, darting runs and pops up in goalscoring positions. Pressing comes naturally to him. Above all, he simply loves to run at his man — his electric forays down the left have been a feature of Arsenal’s play this season. 

Brazilians have a word for players like Martinelli. He is ’objective’, all about the end product. Show him inside and he will drop a shoulder and whip a shot into the far corner. Block that route and he’s liable to turn on the boosters and get to the byline – something he does with alarming ease. Either way, there is no dallying, no showmanship. His game is stripped back and relentlessly direct. 

It makes him bloody hard to stop, as well as an exhilarating footballer to watch. All else being equal, it should also make Martinelli — only 21 — a global superstar in the years to come.

Jack Lang

Much in the same way that his club side have done, Martinelli has gone up another gear in 2022-23. His rate of 0.38 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes is a career-high for Arsenal, and he is on to comfortably smash his goalscoring best in a Premier League campaign.

His love of dribbling is borne out in the numbers, not only running frequently with the ball (carry and dribble volume, 68 out of 99) but advancing the ball into dangerous areas of the pitch with such actions (xG from ball progression, 82 out of 99) — seemingly performing such actions with a strong tendency to look after possession (ball retention ability, 90 out of 99).

Out of possession, he is quick to put in a challenge and make a defensive action (disrupting opposition moves, 66 out of 99), and looks to be highly effective in those actions to prevent his opponent from progressing further (defending impact 70 out of 99).

Yes, he is still a little raw in places, but there is no doubt that his skillset — and career — is on a steep upward trajectory.

Mark Carey

Martinelli’s contract runs until the summer of 2024 and Arsenal have the option to extend it by another two years.

There is no great rush over an extension, then, but Martinelli’s recent form has reportedly kickstarted conversations about a deal that would keep the winger in north London until 2028.

That would suit Martinelli, who seems settled and happy in north London. Earlier this month he said he is “very happy” at Arsenal — and “just needs a pen” to sign a new deal.

Jack Lang


Neymar will be 34 by the time of the next World Cup, but he’s not banking on still being around. “I am facing (Qatar 2022) like the last World Cup because I don’t know whether I will be able to mentally endure more football,” he said. It feels strange that the player who was once considered likely to dominate the post-Messi and Ronaldo era will probably bow out from the World Cup in the same edition.

Like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar hasn’t won the World Cup. Like Messi and Ronaldo, he has won a major international tournament – at least if you ask Brazilians, who treated the 2016 Olympics as a huge deal. And Neymar has a greater chance than those two of triumphing this year. Brazil are a fine side, boasting more top-class attackers than in 2010, 2014 or 2018.

Neymar was outstanding in a No 10 role in 2014 before being kicked out of the competition by Colombia. That perhaps caused Brazil’s subsequent meltdown in the semi-final without him, and there has always been a sense that they are too Neymar-dependent. He was broadly good at World Cup 2018, in a Brazil side unlucky to be eliminated by Belgium at the quarter-final stage.

He’s likely to begin this tournament in a classic No 10 role, with the side based around him. At previous tournaments, he’s flitted between the left and the middle, with Oscar or Philippe Coutinho playing the balancing role and filling in as he drifted around. The presence of Vinicius Junior down the left, though, means Neymar will more permanently be central, coming short to play quick one-twos. 

Two more international goals will mean he equals Pele’s record of 77 Brazil goals, but Neymar would dearly love to have just one-third as many World Cup winners’ medals.

Michael Cox

Neymar has played in more central positions this season alongside Lionel Messi in an attacking midfield role behind Kylian Mbappe, and it has suited the Brazilian’s skill set.

The Brazilian is posting a non-penalty goalscoring rate of 0.75 per 90 minutes — his best since he moved to Barcelona in 2013. With 11 goals scored in Ligue 1 this season, his attacking output is as strong as it has been for years (xG from shot creation, 92 out of 99)

Neymar’s style hasn’t changed hugely this season. He is still likely to keep those passes short and sharp with quick interplay (link-up volume, 78 out of 99), and will look for a more searching ball upfield when necessary (progressive passing, 59 out of 99).

Sure, those passes might not always come off (ball retention ability 48 out of 99), but Neymar is among the best at getting — or indeed, receiving — the ball into dangerous areas with his skillset (xG from ball progression, 85 out of 99) with nine assists bagged already — his highest since 2017-18.

This year, Neymar is getting through more defensive work than people might give him credit for, but what we all want to see in this tournament is his attacking flair. It feels like this World Cup has come at the perfect time for Neymar, as the numbers he is posting for his club are as strong as they have been for some time.

Mark Carey

Neymar scored only three goals for PSG before February last season but he has returned to his best on the eve of the World Cup. 

He has already reached 15 goals in all competitions and his brilliance has put the younger forward Mbappe in the shade at PSG. 

Neymar’s own future was a matter of discussion last summer, with PSG starting to wonder whether it may be time to cash in on a player they signed for €222m (£200m) in 2017 from Barcelona. 

Chelsea were one of the clubs sounded out but a deal did not make sense financially for the 30-year-old Brazilian. He signed a new four-year contract at PSG in the summer of 2021, before an extension was triggered this summer that theoretically ties him at the club until 2027.

On huge wages and with that length of contract, it is difficult to see Neymar leaving PSG anytime soon.

Adam Crafton


For a time, as he tore up the Premier League with Leeds United, it was tempting to wonder whether Raphinha was one of those players destined to be a talisman for a team just a rung or two below the real elite. 

There is no judgment attached here. From Matt Le Tissier and Juninho to Michu and Dimitri Payet, this is a rich tradition. Under Marcelo Bielsa, Raphinha ticked a lot of the boxes. The ball seemed to end up at his feet as though bound by some gravitational pull. Corners and free kicks were his fiefdoms. He scored spectacular goals and had a special hold over the Elland Road crowd. Most importantly, there was the feeling of inevitability — if Leeds played well and won, you could be sure that Raphinha was at the heart of it.

Raphinha’s back story played into the narrative. He was not the product of some famous youth system. His first club in Europe was Vitoria Guimaraes and though he did well at Sporting Lisbon, his reward was a sideways move to Rennes. Until he moved to England, he was all but unknown in Brazil. 

His exploits for Leeds put him on the radar. And we now know that this wasn’t just a big fish, small pond situation. These days, Raphinha is a regular starter for Brazil and increasingly influential: he is averaging a goal or assist every 79 minutes since his international debut last year, and looks set to play a major role in Qatar.

He is thriving in more rarified surroundings at club level, too. Barcelona bent over backwards to sign him from Leeds during the summer and though Robert Lewandowski has hogged much of the attention in the early months of the season, it seems inevitable that Raphinha’s technique, intensity and dynamism will make him a fan favourite at Camp Nou.

Jack Lang

It’s still early days for Raphinha at Barcelona, but his skill set has barely changed from his time at Leeds. With the blistering pace he has to get away from his opponent, Raphinha can advance into dangerous areas himself (xG from ball progression, 99 out of 99) or be direct in his own passes forward (progressive passing, 76 out of 99). 

Though he may not have hit the same heights in La Liga that he did in the Premier League yet, the underlying numbers look strong from Raphinha, particularly in his contribution to Barcelona’s chances created (xG from shot creation, 97 out of 99). 

No team-mate got more league assists than the 12 he registered for Leeds during his two seasons at Elland Road. With the attacking talent alongside him at Camp Nou, you would expect a similar return by the end of this season. To achieve it, he needs an extended run in the side to showcase the same talent that got him his move to Camp Nou in the summer.

Mark Carey

Raphinha signed a five-year contract in the summer and considering Barcelona went to great lengths — and pulled some pretty significant levers — to sign him, there is unlikely to be any change in his status for the foreseeable future.

Jack Lang


Gianluigi Buffon decided to become a goalkeeper after watching Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono thwart the World Cup holders Argentina at San Siro in the opening game of Italia ’90. These days, arguably the best No 1 Cameroon has produced since N’Kono plays in the same stadium for Inter Milan.

Andre Onana joined as a free agent in the summer in one of those moves that passed many people by. One reason for that is the nine-month doping ban Onana served at Ajax after accidentally taking a banned substance prescribed to his wife when all he had been looking for was a headache tablet. The other is Inter’s decision to alternate him with creaking captain Samir Handanovic. 

It has meant less exposure to the outstanding reflexes and finely judged distribution he showed in Ajax’s run to the 2019 Champions League semi-finals. ”I’m the kind of keeper that likes to take risks,” Onana said. 

At Ajax, the club’s head of sports science Vosse de Boode noticed Onana assumed a wider-than-recommended stance when facing shots from close range. Instead of correcting him, Ajax ran tests. 

”What if he’s right?” De Boode asked. 

Her research learned that Onana’s stance was more efficient, allowing him to cover more space and jump better. Onana’s reaction time was 20 per cent faster than in the orthodox positioning and the results led Ajax to amend how the club coaches its goalkeepers at academy level. 

”With everyone’s help, I can show the keeper I am,” Onana said. ”I consider myself one of the best goalkeepers in the world.” The 26-year-old’s career trajectory — Barcelona, Ajax, Inter — underlines his ability. 

He will no doubt have a lot to do when Cameroon face Brazil in Lusail on December 2. It’s Onana’s chance to be as inspiring as N’Kono all those years ago. 

James Horncastle

Shot-stopping is still the primary responsibility for any goalkeeper and fortunately for Inter and Cameroon, Onana is good at it.

Across the last two and a bit seasons on the European stage, Onana has prevented between seven and eight goals more than the average goalkeeper, when considering the quality of the shots he has faced (expected goals on target – xGOT).

The red dots on the graphic below reflect goals, and the absence of these down low to Onana’s right (bottom left of the goal as we view it) is particularly impressive and reflective of his athleticism and reaction time to push off and reach those tougher shots in the corner of the goalframe.

Of course, there is room for his game to evolve more in line with the modern goalkeeper — FBref data shows that Onana ranked in the bottom 15 per cent of goalkeepers for the rate at which he stopped crosses (five per cent) and the bottom one per cent for ”sweeper-keeper” actions outside his box.

Overall, Onana has shown himself to be an above-average shot-stopper for many seasons now — the numbers simply back that up.

Liam Tharme

Inter’s CEO Giuseppe Marotta has tried to replicate some of the success he had at Juventus in the free transfer market. The eminence grise persuaded Onana to choose Inter last winter and does more than bring competition for places between the sticks. 

Inter lost the scudetto last season in part because of a goalkeeping error from stand-in shot-stopper Ionut Radu. Handanovic is 38 and beginning to wobble. Onana signed a five-year deal at San Siro and, after initially alternating with Handanovic, looks set to take over as Inter’s No 1. 

The stability in the goalkeeping market in Italy means that as long as Onana stays injury free, avoids another ban and performs to his potential, he’ll be at Inter for years. Handanovic, for instance, has spent a decade in the role and the only high-profile Serie A goalkeeper to be poached by an elite club outside of Italy in recent memory was Alisson.

James Horncastle


It boggles the mind to think Anguissa was playing against Millwall, Huddersfield Town and Hull City at the beginning of last season. How on earth did it get to the end of August before one of Europe’s elite rescued him from the Championship? 

Anguissa is Fulham’s club-record signing and perhaps their valuation was too high for clubs on the continent when the pandemic still cast a dark financial shadow. That’s why Villarreal didn’t make his deal permanent after a fine loan spell in Spain.

Napoli offered Anguissa a way out and their midfield is arguably now the best in Italy. It must be dumbfounding for Fulham fans but in a better-coached and better-assembled team, Frank, as Luciano Spalletti calls him, is fulfilling the potential he showed on Marseille’s run to the 2018 Europa League final. 

Spalletti appreciated the confidence with which he walked into the Napoli dressing room and his character didn’t take long to show on the pitch. Unlike Tanguy Ndombele, whose loan from Tottenham has yet to really add value to Napoli, Anguissa is something of a leader. He became instantly essential and his new team missed him when he departed for the Africa Cup of Nations last winter. 

But miss what exactly? 

Anguissa doesn’t score goals and rarely lays on assists for his team-mates but he balances Napoli’s midfield with his crisp passing and elusive dribbling, and the ballast he provides.

”I’m not a player who gets hung up on stats,” Anguissa said. ”There are a lot of players here at Napoli, I don’t feel the need to go and score goals because we have lots of forwards who can score so I say to myself: ’Frank, make sure the team keeps its shape and doesn’t concede. Get the other guys playing, that’s what the club expects of you’.”

James Horncastle

He might not be hung up on stats but if he saw his smarterscout profile then Anguissa may be a little more interested.

Rarely do you get players profiling so far above average in so many different metrics, across the attacking, defensive and possession sections — this is reflective of such a rounded player.

There is an exciting degree of attack to Anguissa’s game, who typically operates as a No 8 in a three-man midfield for Napoli. 

His above-average ratings for defending intensity (63 out of 99) and disrupting opposition moves (54 out of 99) are indicative of a front-foot, active player who looks to press the ball and duel against opponents, rather than defend spaces.

Similarly, when he gets the ball, Anguissa can combine with opponents incredibly well (link-up play volume, 96 out of 99) but more through shorter, neat passing combinations rather than over long distances (progressive passing, seven out of 99).

He is something of a triple-threat midfielder, above average in his tendency to shoot (shot volume, 67 out of 99) and contribute to his side’s attack within build-up (xG from shot creation 65 out of 99). He can dribble on occasion (carry & dribble volume, 35 out of 99), though this tends to be in deeper locations rather than the top end of the field.

Anguissa is having a sterling season so far, and is a key cog in Napoli’s well-oiled machine.

Liam Tharme

Getting players out of Napoli is always hard. Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis drives a hard bargain and it won’t come as a surprise to learn that the only repeat buyer is state-wealth club par excellence Paris Saint-Germain, who signed Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani and, more recently, Fabian Ruiz. 

Napoli have been better able to retain their players than, say, Roma over the years. You only have to look at how long Kalidou Koulibaly, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne stayed.

Anguissa signed from Fulham in the summer and the €15million (£13m) Napoli paid feels like a bargain. The club clearly feel the same too as they gave Anguissa a new contract earlier this month that will expire in June 2025 and that includes an additional two-year option for Napoli.

Some believe the swashbuckling midfielder is now worth three times what Fulham got for him and Napoli’s valuation is likely to scare anyone off.  

James Horncastle


In a relatively short time, Tajon Buchanan has emerged as one of the most exciting players in Canada’s history. At his best, with stepovers and high-end pace, Buchanan can scale the length of the pitch as an attack-minded right wing-back.

More and more, though, he’s being used as a true right-winger for Canada and could end up starting there in Qatar.

Having only debuted for the senior team in June 2021, when Canada’s qualification process was already underway, Buchanan’s rise is emblematic of the national team as well.

In 2018, Buchanan was playing for Syracuse University in the NCAA. Two and a half years later, he’d steamrolled through MLS with his electric play on the ball and flair for the dramatics when attacking the goal and landed a transfer to Belgium’s Club Bruges.

Buchanan’s nine goals and five assists in his final season with MLS’ New England Revolution were just further proof of how bright his future could be. 

Buchanan scored three goals and added three assists through the final round of World Cup qualifying, often by dragging multiple defenders along for the ride. How he ends up being used at the World Cup remains to be seen: as a true winger in a front three? In a wing-back in a 3-4-3? Or, perhaps as a mid-game substitute who can turn a game on its head?

His recent history would suggest he doesn’t need a lot of lead-up time to make an impact. His instincts and pace can make him difficult to prepare for, and that’s why he might end up turning a few heads in Qatar.

Joshua Kloke

Whether Buchanan plays on the left or right of midfield, his profile shows how much he looks to use his blistering pace when on the ball. Looking at his profile for Club Bruges last season, his carry and dribble volume (90 out of 99) highlights his intention to get at his man, and though his smarterscout-defined success rate in a one-v-one duel is not the highest (dribbling five out of 99), Buchanan is undeterred in his intention.

Buchanan’s energy and enthusiasm mean that he is quick to shoot at goal when considering the attacking touches he has (shot volume, 82 out of 99). He uses his speed to make good off-ball runs to receive the ball in dangerous areas (receptions in the opposition box, 59 out of 99).

His contribution to the attack could improve (xG from shot creation, 33 out of 99) but he has all of the raw materials to be a huge danger for his national side this winter.

Mark Carey

As he didn’t join Club Bruges until the conclusion of the 2021 MLS season in December, Buchanan’s three-and-a-half-year contract runs until June 30, 2025.

There’s no shortage of Canadian players who could be candidates for moves after the World Cup, and though it would be tempting to include Buchanan on that list should he consistently attack Belgium or Croatia’s defence in the group stage, it still feels a little early for another move up the food chain.

It will undoubtedly come, but regular playing time in the Champions League, which Buchanan has been getting with Bruges, will only increase his value and the likelihood of a move to an even more competitive league.

Joshua Kloke


We know strikers are streaky creatures. The upside then is that when these players are riding high, the squad around them can capitalize on their form.

Enter Jonathan David, one of Europe’s most in-demand young strikers, and one who found form at just the right time for the World Cup.

David’s story is one of a player betting on himself and taking a different route from his peers. Though he was courted by MLS academies, he was wary of the lack of playing time MLS teams often give to domestic forwards. As recently as late 2017, he was playing for an amateur minor soccer association outside of Ottawa, Canada.

David’s gaze was fixed firmly on Europe, and after impressing in trials for various sides, he landed with Gent in Belgium and looked clinical in front of goal as an 18-year-old. There is a perpetual coolness about the way he operates. The soft-spoken David never appears fazed when he struggles on the pitch, leading Canada head coach John Herdman to dub David “The Iceman”. 

After a high-profile transfer to Lille that broke the record for a Canada player, David struggled to find the back of the net for the first half of his first season in Lille. His finishing through the middle chunk of the 2021-22 season, his second in Ligue 1, spoke to the potential of the player, with 11 goals in 13 appearances at one point.

This season, David has shown positional versatility, occupying different spots in the starting line-up, but has done so with a confidence and smoothness in his play that is backed up by his results: the nine goals he scored in his first 13 Ligue 1 games were bettered only by Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. Not bad company, and at the very least, it’s indicative of the confidence David will bring to the national team in Qatar. 

David might not be deployed as a typical No 9 for Canada, with that spot likely being occupied by Club Bruges’ Cyle Larin. Instead, David will likely drift into space from the right side of the pitch, or begin his runs from midfield.

He can do so because his finishing translates for Canada, too. In 34 national team appearances, David is already their second-highest men’s scorer of all time with 22 goals. David scored five goals through the final round of qualifying, added two more in his last two appearances for Canada and will inevitably become the top all-time goalscorer for the men’s team soon enough.

Joshua Kloke

Before this season, Davies averaged a non-penalty goal rate of nearly one goal in two games since joining Lille. This campaign, that rate has gone up further, with the Canadian running very hot as he comes into the World Cup.

Looking at his smarterscout profile, you would be forgiven for thinking that it looks somewhat unremarkable, with his actions largely kept simple on the ball (link-up play volume, 83 out of 99), even if he keeps possession brilliantly (ball retention ability, 89 out of 99).

But his game is evolving as he still looks to reach his peak as a striker. One thing notable about this season is how much more he is looking to receive the ball in dangerous areas (receptions in the opposition box, 60 out of 99). Where last season he was averaging 4.4 touches in the penalty area per 90, this season that is up to 6.5 per 90.

He is smelling opportunities better than ever this season, and contributing strongly to his team’s attack (xG from shot creation 91 out of 99). If he can carry his club form into his national performances, head coach John Herdman will be very happy.

Mark Carey

David is under contract until 2025, but a move away from Lille has been around the corner as soon as he started proving he could score in a top five European league.

There were multiple teams interested in David’s services in the summer transfer window, but David preferred to be selective and, just as he was as a teenager, is focused on finding a club to his liking.

He wants to prove himself at one of the top clubs in the world, and the World Cup should serve as a platform for him to take a step in that direction. Expect interest in him to ramp up in the winter window once again and a transfer is far more likely then than it was in the summer window.

Joshua Kloke


Canada were able to finish top of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying despite Alphonso Davies missing half of the final round with injuries and a bout with myocarditis, but the World Cup is a different beast.

If Canada are to have any chance of pulling off an upset and getting out of the group stage, they will rely heavily on Davies’ pace, dribbling, agility and playmaking. He is undoubtedly the best player in the Canada side, a game-breaker who can change the tempo of a game in the blink of an eye.

Davies celebrated his 22nd birthday a couple of weeks ago and in many ways, he embodies everything this rapidly ascending team is all about: he plays with fearlessness on the ball, often in wide areas, but more recently in the centre of the park for Canada.

He has outlandish pace and Canada will rely on that in their transition game, which is a focal part of their overall approach.

Davies’ story is a remarkable one: he is a refugee to Canada, originally born in a refugee camp in Ghana after his parents fled from Liberia due to civil war. The diversity and multiculturalism that have become hallmarks of Canadian society can be seen in this young, relatively upstart squad.

A product of the Vancouver Whitecaps academy in MLS, Davies made his professional debut at 15. Though multiple European sides bid for him in the summer of 2018, his move to Bayern, an MLS record at the time, was the result of the club’s well-thought-out development plan for him. Still, Davies ascended far quicker than many would have anticipated. In 2019, injuries allowed him to grab a surprising place at left-back for Bayern. 

He didn’t relinquish the spot and was an integral part of Bayern’s Champions League win months later. Davies has since transitioned into more of an attacking role at times with Bayern.

He plays further forward, often in a front three, more consistently for Canada. And with good reason: he is Canada’s true star, a good bet to score the country’s first men’s World Cup goal and will soon call himself the best player in the history of the sport in Canada.

Joshua Kloke

Looking at Davies’s smarterscout profile this season, you can see why Bayern team-mate Thomas Muller nicknamed him the “Roadrunner”. No left-back runs as often with the ball than Davies (carry and dribble volume 99 out of 99), with his blistering pace allowing him to burn past people — with or without the ball.

On the ball, he keeps it very simple with his passes (link-up play volume, 92 out of 99), but his relentless running means that he can offer so much to Bayern in attack (xG from shot creation, 88 out of 99). Though he might not always be the one to get the assist himself, his contribution is notable. According to FBref, Davies’s 3.7 shot-creating actions — the two offensive actions (such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls) directly leading to a shot — per 90 minutes are among the highest for a full-back in the Bundesliga this season.

Off the ball, Davies’s athleticism allows him to hoover up loose balls and block passes (ball recoveries and interceptions, 91 out of 99), and while he is not likely to throw himself into tackles (disrupting opposition moves, 15 out of 99), he is effective in preventing the opposition from progressing further upfield when he does engage (defending impact, 90 out of 99).

Quite simply, he is the main star of his national team with the quality he offers in and out of possession.

Mark Carey

When he first transferred to Bayern in 2018, Davies originally signed a contract until 2023.

But after his breakout performance against Chelsea in the 2020 Champions League round of 16, Bayern’s bosses ripped up his old contract and re-upped him on a more financially lucrative and longer deal until 2025.

Given how vital Davies remains in Julian Nagelsmann’s system, and how much more he will undoubtedly develop as a player, he’s very much on Bayern’s “Do not sell” list right now.

Joshua Kloke


While Alphonso Davies will be Canada’s best player at the World Cup and the one who garners most of the attention from curious onlookers, you could make a strong case that their most important player will be Stephen Eustaquio.

The midfield lynchpin should be one of the few Canadian players to log every available minute in Qatar, setting up in front of the defenders and showing off his elite soccer IQ to begin Canada’s transition game.

John Herdman believes that high-tempo approach will be pivotal to any success in Qatar. The Canada head coach can think this way because he knows he’s got Eustaquio playing the best football of his life.

After years of false starts and injuries with various Portuguese and Mexican clubs, the 25-year-old has seized the opportunity this season with Porto, winning a starting role in Porto’s midfield in the Champions League and contributing offensively, too. The club believed in his intelligence and willingness to break up plays with defensive actions enough to make his loan deal permanent before this season.

Canada don’t usually deploy a pure playmaking central midfielder, but Herdman can also rest assured because as of late, Eustaquio has shown more confidence moving forward in attack.

Eustaquio’s game is a gutsy one, and though he might lack pace and be susceptible to counter-attacks at times, that aforementioned IQ means he relies more on his positional play when defending.

His ability to organize a team that will rely heavily on keeping their shape against strong opponents is highly valued by Herdman, and perhaps will be by more and more clubs and fans after the World Cup.

Joshua Kloke

It is still early days for Eustaquio in his first full season with Porto but it’s clear what attributes he offers from the minutes he has played. Eustaquio has the versatility to play anywhere in midfield, and even after combining his minutes across those multiple positions, you can see how active he is in his defensive contribution.

Eustaquio is a hard worker, quick to nip in and make defensive actions, such as tackles, blocks or clearances (disrupting opposition moves, 77 out of 99), and will regularly break up the play by picking up loose balls and cutting out passes (ball recoveries and interceptions, 86 out of 99).

Eustaquio is as effective on the ball as he is out of possession. He can keep his passing neat and tidy without advancing the play (link-up play volume, 62 out of 99), but can also thread passes forward with similar frequency (progressive passing, 58 out of 99). His decision-making is one of his key strengths, and he maintains a good level of discipline in whichever role he is asked to play.

Eustaquio is the sort of player that might not always get the plaudits from the fans, but he is every manager’s and team-mate’s dream to have him in the side. If they are able to dominate the midfield in their tough group games, then Eustaquio will be key to their chances.

Mark Carey

Eustaquio has a long-term deal with Porto until 2027.

Porto inevitably won’t be Eutaquio’s final stop as he approaches his prime and has shown that he can raise his level of play when needed. But a transfer this upcoming window so soon after not just arriving at the biggest club of his career but also winning a full-time spot in the midfield feels unlikely.

His profile, and transfer value, should increase at the World Cup, and that will suit Porto just fine.

Joshua Kloke


Within a couple of months, the Championship had been given the lowdown on Jewison Bennette’s party piece: slow up and draw the nearest defender close, jink quickly to the left and then explode with pace to beat the same defender one-versus-one and surge into space down the wing.

Bennette tries to do that again and again and although the entire league knows what’s coming, pinning him down and stopping him from mugging you is not so simple. Signing him has given Sunderland a go-to player on the left flank, someone they can feed with the expectation of Bennette turning possession into a cross or a cut-back, something that creates a chance. 

Operating on the flanks brings out another weapon in his armoury too, the art of loitering quietly before popping up to strike as the ball comes in from the other side of the field. It has taken time for English football to get to know Bennette because in August, when he joined Sunderland, he came with the classic moniker of ‘Jewison Who?’

To that point, he had played all of his football in his home country of Costa Rica, at Herediano just outside San Jose. The picture painted of him in Central America was similar to what has been seen of him in the Championship: rapid, dynamic and inclined to pepper the box with regular deliveries.

He had international pedigree — a few caps for Costa Rica — and in Sunderland’s eyes, he was well worth a gamble. Other clubs in Europe had dipped into that same market, including Nottingham Forest who signed midfielder Brandon Aguilera (no relation) from Alajuelense a month before Bennette landed.

Bennette tickled people in Sunderland recently when, after a game against Preston North End, he took the bus home with Sunderland’s supporters. In Costa Rica, they see him as part of an emerging crop that could help drive the national side forward for years to come.

He was assured of a call-up for the World Cup even before he scored his first international goals in a 2-2 draw with South Korea in September. Right-backs in Qatar should be ready for his signature move.

Phil Hay

Last year, the then-17-year-old became the youngest player to represent Costa Rica, and for good reason. Bennette is one of the shiniest young jewels with the opportunity to make an impact on the international scene for Costa Rica. 

The left-footed winger can play on either flank, most effectively in a 4-3-3. What makes him especially pleasing to the eye is how he challenges opponents one-v-one, gliding past defenders with the ball glued to his feet. 

How he carries and dribbles the ball with an impressive turn of pace is his outstanding feature (carry and dribble volume, 92 out of 99). His productivity isn’t limited to moving the ball — he interrupts the opposition’s build-up (disrupting opposition moves, 82 out of 99) and contributes to closing down players (defending intensity, 80 out of 99). 

And though his contribution to the attack (xG from shot creation, five out of 99) and shot volume (36 out of 99) were below average last season, there’s so much more to come. Bennette’s last-minute equaliser against Watford this season was particularly impressive — shrewdly positioned in the box, he gave himself the time and space to control the ball before smashing it into the bottom corner. 

He may be a relative unknown now, but he won’t be for long. 

Maram AlBaharna

Sunderland devoted time to courting Bennette, sending their head of recruitment to Costa Rica to watch a couple of games and negotiate with him, and he is part of a very specific model of scouting at the Stadium of Light, based on sweeping up untapped talent before it creeps onto the radar of bigger clubs.

Bennette has a four-year contract and Sunderland hold an option in their favour to extend that by another 12 months so in theory, Bennette could be theirs until 2027.

Naturally, they are no different to any team outside of England’s top flight. If Bennette is as hot a prospect as they think then other sides are going to pay attention to him — other sides with more money and bigger profiles.

But Sunderland were in the Premier League for many years and the only real hurdle to them returning there is their own competence. There is no reason Bennette’s arrival cannot be productive for both parties.

Phil Hay


Keylor Navas has grappled with doubters throughout his club career but he is, by far, his country’s most important player.

Navas was 27 and still at modest La Liga club Levante when he broke out with a spectacular 2014 World Cup. He saved a phenomenal 21 of 23 shots on target as Los Ticos reached the quarter-finals, eliminating England and Italy in the group stages, and also saved a penalty in the shootout to beat Greece in the last 16. He won man of the match in that game. 

His performances led to a €10million (£8m in 2014) move to Real Madrid, where he won three consecutive Champions Leagues. But his unorthodox style — Navas is small for a keeper but has spectacular reflexes — never convinced everyone at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. 

Rivalries with the higher-profile Iker Casillas and Thibaut Courtois did not help. Madrid repeatedly tried to sign David de Gea to replace him, too. The sensitive character and very devout Catholic clearly did not enjoy knowing that some figures at the club wanted him out.

The situation has been similar since he joined Paris Saint Germain in 2019 — he has won seven trophies including two Ligue 1 titles, and helped them reach a Champions League final. But the club hierarchy still decided to sign Italy No 1 Gianluigi Donnarumma last year and make him their first choice instead.

There have been no such issues at international level. Since making his senior debut aged 21 in 2008, Navas has won 107 caps, keeping 41 clean sheets and becoming a much-loved figure with plenty of power within the national federation. 

Dermot Corrigan

Goalkeepers are ultimately judged on their shot-stopping performance, and Navas has rarely let his country down. The security Navas brings to the team was crucial as Costa Rica conceded eight goals in 14 games during CONCACAF qualifying for the World Cup. He followed that up with another clean sheet as New Zealand were beaten 1-0 in the play-off to secure a World Cup place.

Using post-shot expected goals statistics, the data shows that no goalkeeper prevented more goals than Navas’ 5.2 across the course of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Put simply, Navas was expected to concede double the volume of goals based on the quality of shots faced but used all his experience and reflexes to ensure that his country made it to their third World Cup in a row.

Look out for Navas’s saves in Qatar — he’ll certainly be kept busy in a group containing Spain, Germany and Japan.

Mark Carey

Navas was an option for Serie A leaders Napoli in the summer but they stuck with Alex Meret as their No 1 and the French goalkeeper has since signed a renewal.

PSG would likely consider any approaches for Navas in January but the player’s salary at the Paris club would be difficult for most clubs to match.

Adam Crafton


Dinamo Zagreb’s youth system has enjoyed more than the odd bit of success over the years. Luka Modric emerged from their academy, the start of his climb to the very top of European football, as did Mateo Kovacic.

Further back, the club can lay claim to Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban and the output at Dinamo has a common theme, breeding intelligent and cultured footballers who are in tune with football’s tactical trends.

Josko Gvardiol is cut from the same cloth, a ball-playing centre-back who was drawing scouts in his direction and attracting multi-million-pound bids having hardly kicked a ball for Dinamo’s first team. Granted, by the summer of 2020, he had made his senior debut but he was one of those hidden gems in Europe — someone recruitment teams worth their salt had eyes on but who the general public outside of Croatia knew little about. 

The 2020 transfer window, though, catapulted him into the headlines. Leeds United bid for him and, at one stage, thought they would get him. RB Leipzig beat Leeds to the punch and gave Gvardiol what he wanted by agreeing that he could stay in Zagreb for one more season, allowing him to develop a little more fully.

He went to Germany and into Leipzig’s line-up last season and it was plain to see that they had a superbly modern defender on their hands, a left-footer who loved the feel of possession and challenged himself to manipulate the ball. His progressive passing is superb, among the best within the Bundesliga’s centre-back ranks, and he is programmed to bring the ball out, forever minded to dictate the game from deep.

He prefers to read attacks and step in with interceptions rather than dive into tackles and at 20, his career has so much more to offer.

Everybody wants a central defender like Gvardiol. If his trajectory continues to climb as it has, everybody will want Gvardiol. Leipzig paid around £15million ($17.6m) for him — which two years on, cannot be described as anything other than a snip.

Phil Hay

It seems odd to start an analysis of a centre-back without discussing their defensive attributes, but Gvardiol’s comfort on the ball makes it an exception to the rule.

Looking at his profile from last season, you can see that he is not only confident carrying the ball out of defence (carry and dribble volume, 67 out of 99), but also has a strong tendency to play longer, progressive passes upfield to build the attack for his team (progressive passing, 64 out of 99).

Defensively, Gvardiol is proactive (defending intensity, 99 out of 99), regularly reading the play to hoover up loose balls and stepping in to block passes (ball recoveries and interceptions, 72 out of 99). Crucially, those actions are hugely effective in preventing the opponent from progressing closer to his side’s danger area (defending impact, 88 out of 99).

At 20 years old, the scary thing is that Gvardiol is nowhere near the typical peak age of a central defender. With his confidence on the ball and his dominance off it, he could have at least a decade ahead of him at the top of European football.

Mark Carey

Leipzig are not stupid. They can see that Gvardiol’s profile is on the ascent and the last day of the transfer window brought an agreement over an improved and extended deal.

Chelsea encouraged them to act by courting Gvardiol, with discussions about a price believed to have climbed as high as £78m. In the current market, he is plainly worth a fee on that scale but Leipzig were in no way desperate to flog him and in the end, they staved off Chelsea by inviting Gvardiol into contract negotiations.

He was already committed to 2025 but new terms pushed that date on to 2027, a reflection of how well he has played in Germany and how his reputation has grown.

Leipzig are unlikely to be his forever club, that much is clear, but the next team who come calling for him will have to be talking very big numbers. 

Raphael Honigstein


Be sure to make the most of Luka Modric in Qatar.

He is timeless and almost ageless but this, surely, will be his last appearance at the game’s biggest tournament. Even the prototype of 21st century Croatian football cannot expect to make the 2026 World Cup at the age of 40, although there is little you would put past him.

Modric has done it all: domestic glory, international acclaim, a Euro 2020 finalist, Ballon D’Or winner and Golden Ball recipient at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. They make very few players like him and there is hardly an international coach in history who would not have looked at Modric and wanted to build a team around him.

The beauty of his game, and the nightmare in playing against him, is that Modric has everything. He is a midfielder who excels in shaping a game in an attacking sense. He is a midfielder who can marry that understanding with brilliant defensive impact and the phrase which comes to mind every time he plays is ‘footballing intelligence’.

His range and choice of passes, his extraordinary patience — see the 2018 semi-final against England as a great example — and his inner confidence complete the full package. In an era where control of the ball is more valuable than ever, it is no surprise that he has been at Real Madrid for a decade.

One day Croatia will have to move on from him, which is sad for them and sad for the sport. International tournaments are enhanced by the presence of greatness and Modric falls into that category.

His numbers are worth repeating: 154 caps over 16 years, back to 2006 and the days when he was building a reputation at Dinamo Zagreb; a fourth World Cup awaiting him after appearances at four different European Championships.

This will all be over soon — and it is very hard to imagine elite football without Modric at the heart of it, a true star of his generation.

Phil Hay

Modric may be 37 years old, but watching the midfield magician will never get stale to watch as he pings passes all over the pitch. An excellent spatial awareness combined with incredible close control makes him both a secure option in possession (ball retention ability, 87 out of 99) and able to make quick passes to dictate the tempo of the game (link-up play volume, 87 out of 99). 

Truly, Modric plays the role of three midfielders all at once as he carries the ball strongly into the heart of an opponent’s midfield (carry and dribble volume, 51 out of 99). Modric makes everyone around him better, able to contribute towards his team’s attack (xG from shot creation, 83 out of 99), making late runs into the box (receptions in the opposition box, 45 out of 99) and not afraid to get a shot away himself (shot volume, 49 out of 99).  

It is hard to imagine Croatia without Modric, but for one last World Cup, we won’t have to. 

Maram AlBaharna

Modric is at that age where footballers on the books of the biggest clubs start thinking and operating year to year. He won a fifth Champions League with Real Madrid last season and that success was followed by him signing a one-year extension to his contract, taking him to next summer.

Real cannot commit to longer terms because there is no knowing exactly when Modric will go over the hill but as it stands, he continues to play regularly in a side who are close behind leaders Barcelona in La Liga and into the knockout stages of the Champions League.

His club are a little like his country — at some stage they will have to move on but why would you rush to part ways when Modric is still mixing it in his indomitable style at the top?

It would hardly be a shock if Real find themselves offering him another extension in 2023.

Phil Hay


The term ’assist king’ may be bandied around far too often but it’s used liberally in Borna Sosa’s case with good reason.

Since the left-back’s breakthrough season in 2020-21 at Stuttgart, when the team flirted with the European places in the Bundesliga having won promotion the year before, he has regularly created chances and laid on goals, mostly via his deadly accurate crossing ability.

Playing wing-back for his club, Sosa provided 10 assists in just 26 games that season, followed by eight in 28 appearances in 2021-22. We’re already at five in 12 games this season. Those whipped crosses have seen him handed another rather lazy moniker, the ”left-footed David Beckham”, which may also have something to do with his blondish locks and an occasional Alice band, although he doesn’t own a club in MLS and isn’t married to a Spice Girl.

Injuries have been an issue — he’s had nine separate small injuries since 2020, only one of which has kept him out for longer than three matches — but when he plays, Sosa quite literally delivers and is one of the best left-backs in Europe for expected assists (which measures the likelihood a successful pass leads to goal assist).

At his previous club Dinamo Zagreb, he was an even more attack-minded player, so Sosa has had to make marked improvements to his defensive game. He’s done that, but his major strengths remain his attacking game; his left foot, his crossing and his speed. He’s dynamic, confident and has great acceleration.

”As far as I can remember, my strengths have always been my speed and a good left foot,” he said. ”Not just crosses but in general. Passing, shooting, free kicks, corners. Regardless of which team I played in, I was the fastest in testing. This is also the case here in Stuttgart. So I would single out these things as my strengths.”

After the retirement of Ivan Strinic following the 2018 World Cup, Croatia have two new left-backs for 2022 and Sosa will compete with his more experienced compatriot Borna Barisic of Rangers for the left-back spot.

Tim Spiers

Sosa looks to advance the play forward when he takes possession. 

Whether that is by running with the ball himself (carry and dribble volume, 43 out of 99) or playing it forward with his passing (progressive passing, 90 out of 99), Sosa’s actions are typical of a Stuttgart side that look to work it from back to front quicker than most Bundesliga sides.

Sosa’s main strength lies in his crossing ability. In the Bundesliga, no full-back ranks higher than Sosa’s 2.6 passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes this season. Such wicked deliveries are reflected in his smarterscout profile in his contribution to getting the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 88 out of 99) — with 23 Bundesliga assists for Stuttgart since 2020-21.

Sosa faces stiff competition from Barisic to make it into Croatia’s starting XI, but the numbers he is posting for his club put him in as strong a position as he can be in going into the tournament.

Mark Carey

Stuttgart braced themselves for Sosa’s exit all summer but, surprisingly, it never materialised, despite being reportedly courted by West Ham United, as well as being on the radar of Manchester City and Chelsea as alternatives to Marc Cucurella.

He still has a while left on his Stuttgart deal, which is up in 2025, but expect that move to come sooner rather than later.

Former Stuttgart boss Pellegrino Matarazzo praised Sosa for how he handled not getting a move in the summer. ”He is showing outstanding character,” he said. ”Clarity is good for him — he is liberated, communicative and ready to take responsibility.”

Tim Spiers


The first thing to say is that comparisons to Luka Modric are no help to anybody. Even being on the same pitch as Modric is a dream for Sucic, who grew up idolising the Real Madrid midfielder.

Born in Linz to Bosnian-Croat parents, Sucic qualified to play for three countries: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia. Although his football development is rooted in Austria, Sucic’s heart and mind have always been with Croatia.

An elegant left-footed midfielder, he has thrived at Red Bull Salzburg under the management of Matthias Jaissle. In Sucic’s words, Jaissle encourages him to “play freely” — so freely that Sucic ended up with 11 goals and five assists for the Austrian champions last season, including the opener in the 1-1 draw against Sevilla in the Champions League. Set pieces are his forte and he has scored spectacular goals from distance in open play too.

Sucic’s composure on the ball means that he is comfortable playing in any of the central midfield positions or wide. As a deep-lying playmaker, he is capable of dictating games with his range of passing (nearly always his left foot; at times it feels as though the ball is glued to that boot), but the No 10 position plays to his strengths too.

His dexterous footwork enables him to receive in tight situations and navigate his way out of them just as easily. Passing for the sake of passing is not Sucic’s style. He has quick feet, likes to use the Cruyff turn to change direction in the centre of the pitch, and rarely looks flustered in possession.

Breaking into the national team as central midfielder will not be easy — “In that position, the competition is the biggest in Croatia,” Ivica Olic, Croatia’s assistant manager, said last year — but Sucic’s performances for their under-21s, on the back of impressing for Salzburg in Europe, earned him a first cap in October last year.

Stuart James

It might be a slight generalisation but you can be fairly confident that any player coming out of the Red Bull system is going to be an exciting watch.

Sucic is no exception. He plays with a confidence that does not seem befitting of a player so young, but having just turned 20 years old, there is so much to admire about his skill set. He is able to play longer, threaded passes on occasion (progressive passing 37, out of 99), but his game is based more around intricate, neat passes when building the attack (link-up play volume, 82 out of 99).

Given his roles predominantly as a central attacking midfielder or wide midfielder, Sucic could improve further in his forward play. Eight goals in the Austrian Bundesliga was a decent return for a teenager last season, but his contribution towards his team’s attack could go up by a level this season (xG from shot creation, 39 out of 99).

Training and playing with the calibre of midfielders in Croatia’s national team will do him no harm at all. 

Mark Carey

Salzburg rarely get it wrong with contracts. Their stellar talents are signed up on long-term deals and Sucic is no different — he has the best part of three years to run. Sucic will move on at some point soon, that is the Red Bull model. It is a question of when and where, rather than if.

Asked about his future in April, Sucic said that he was settled in Salzburg. ”I’m not thinking about a change at all at the moment. I feel good here in Salzburg, I have everything I need for my development and my mind is just focused on my task here. Everything else will come.”

Interestingly, it was La Liga, rather than the Premier League, that he identified as the best fit for him. ”In terms of my playing style, the Spanish league is tailor-made for me. I can imagine playing (there) at some point in the future.”

Stuart James


There’s a sense that many of Atalanta’s star performers in recent seasons have been made to look better than they are thanks to the complexity and cohesion of the system devised by Gian Piero Gasperini. But Joakim Maehle has demonstrated his quality on the international stage, as well as at club level, impressing in Euro 2020 as Denmark became the neutrals’ favourite en route to the semi-final.

Maehle is relatively unusual as a right-footed left wing-back, perhaps playing a role comparable to that of Joao Cancelo at Manchester City. He’s sporadically deployed on the right at club level but has generally become accustomed to the left. And while his 2022 at club level has been a little underwhelming — he’s had various stints on the bench — he remains a surefire starter for his national side.

In a side not short of creative options, Maehle has been his side’s most prolific assister this year, managing three in Denmark’s six-game Nations League campaign. Granted, that figure was boosted by Christian Eriksen thumping in a 30-yard drive against Croatia, but his assist for Jonas Wind against Austria was typical — collecting a long ball at the far post and knocking it inside for a simple finish. 

He also found the net against Serbia in March, and boasts a hugely impressive tally for a wing-back — nine goals in 33 caps (working out at a goal every 270 minutes). At times, Maehle can seem slightly naive defensively, but Denmark attempt to play the game in the opposition half, so he’s rarely pinned back and targeted by opposition wingers. 

Besides, Denmark appear to have few defensive shortcomings overall, collecting clean sheets in each of their first eight qualifiers for this tournament. That security frees up Maehle to attack.

Michael Cox

Although Maehle is naturally right-foooted, he has the versatility to play as either a right or left wing-back — as he did during his run of games for Denmark in Euro 2020. 

Across multiple positions this season, his smarterscout profile demonstrates his tendency to advance forward, often as an inverted winger, with the off-ball movement to receive the ball high up (receptions in the opposition box, 59 out of 99). He is a full-back that excels at taking the responsibility of chance creation via his team’s expected goals, whether that comes from shot creation (84 out of 99) or ball progression (66 out of 99). 

While Maehle is not the most active defender in his actions (disrupting opposition moves, 14 out of 99), his ability to read the game and anticipate opposition passes through pressing (defending intensity, 64 out of 99) allows him to be effective in the actions that he does make (defending impact, 58 out of 99). 

Maram AlBaharna

Maehle is one of those strange cases — he has tended to perform better for his country than his club. Atalanta regularly recycle wing-backs and Gasperini has made the club good money by extracting the maximum out of Andrea Conti, Timothy Castagne, Leonardo Spinazzola and Robin Gosens. 

The expectation was Maehle would be next. 

But the Dane hasn’t scored the goals that Gosens guaranteed and has been overtaken in the pecking order in Bergamo by France Under-21 international Brandon Soppy.

Under contract until 2025, Maehle should still bring in a profit after his €15m (£13m) move from Genk, particularly if he plays as well at the World Cup as the last European Championship.

Genk are believed to have a sell-on clause worth around 12.5 per cent. 

James Horncastle


The genes were strong with Wind, whose father Per won two caps for Denmark and made more than 500 appearances for Boldklubben Frem. Per, however, was a goalkeeper. Jonas, in contrast, is a forward and takes great pleasure in embarrassing goalkeepers.

The “Panenka Prince” was one of the names given to Wind at Copenhagen, his former club where he showed nerves of steel from the penalty spot. The Panenka that he converted against Red Star Belgrade in 2019 was particularly audacious — it was in the 84th minute, in a Champions League play-off and in the stadium where the Panenka was born. 

Aged 20 at the time, Wind had already developed a reputation as a prolific goalscorer for Copenhagen, where he scored freely for the club’s youth teams after joining from Rosenhoj Boldklub (Daniel Agger’s first club) at the age of 13. 

At 6ft 3in, Wind’s height is an obvious asset but he is much more than a target man. He is an intelligent player, comfortable operating in a more withdrawn role behind a central striker, or even out wide, and a good finisher with both feet, as demonstrated by his excellent goal for Wolfsburg in their 2-2 draw against Bayern Munich last season.

“He has great technique and is capable of finding solutions in the tightest of spaces,” Marcel Schafer, Wolfsburg’s sporting director, said after Wolfsburg agreed a €12million (£10.6m) deal with Copenhagen in January.

A hamstring injury at the start of this season was badly timed for club and country, especially as Wind had scored Denmark’s first and set up their second in a 2-0 win over Austria in June, when Christian Eriksen and Mikkel Damsgaard started on the bench. Kasper Hjulmand, Denmark’s coach, has not ruled out playing that trio together at some stage.  

Stuart James

The data reinforces the notion that Wind offers more than just aerial prowess but he frequently engages in these duels (aerial duels quantity, 96 out of 99) and smarterscout duel ratings show him as an outstanding header of the ball (open-play headers, 98 out of 99 and set-play headers, 97 out of 99).

FBref data profile him most similarly to Ivan Toney last season, as an indicator of playing style.

An average tendency to shoot with the attacking touches he has (shot volume, 47 out of 99) indicates a No 9 who carefully picks moments to take aim rather than pop shots from any angle — which his shot map reflects.

Wind is capable of supporting build-up play by dropping deep to receive and play forward passes (progressive passes, 73 out of 99) or receiving back to goal in advanced areas, either spinning defenders or playing on the half-turn to engage an opponent and then break the defensive line (xG from ball progression, 35 out of 99).

Injuries have curtailed Wind’s minutes this season, but we have enough evidence to understand the threat he offers.

Liam Tharme

Wind only joined Wolfsburg in January and his deal with the Bundesliga club runs until 2026, so it is a bit soon to be talking about another transfer. Or is it? 

Asked at the start of the season whether he had received any interest from other clubs, or if he had a particular team or league in mind in the future, Wind gave a surprisingly candid response. 

“I’ve only been here for a bit more than a half year, and I’ve been happy with my time at the club, so I’m not thinking about a move away at all,” he said. “But If we look into the future, Arsenal would be a dream destination for me, as it has always been my favourite club. 

“In general, the Premier League is the best league in the world, and it would be exciting to play there. But as I said, that’s not what I’m focusing on at the moment.”

Stuart James


Notice was served of Caicedo’s potential in October 2020, three months before Brighton swooped while Manchester United dithered to sign the box-to-box midfielder for about £4.5million ($5.3m) from Independiente del Valle in his homeland.

On his international debut, Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro gave the then-19-year-old the job of man-marking Lionel Messi in a 1-0 defeat in Argentina. Messi scored the only goal from the penalty spot, but Caicedo’s development into an outstanding young talent has justified Alfaro’s faith.

Caicedo has the generosity of a teacher in his home city of Santa Domingo to thank for his early steps. The teacher, a neighbour, would wake him up every morning and give him money for the bus fare to go to training.

Caicedo attended Independiente’s academy from the age of 13. He stood out, rising through the age groups to make his first team debut in October 2019 when he was only 17.

Brighton patiently nurtured him on his arrival to Europe. He regularly featured in the matchday squad in his first five months at the club, getting a feel for the Premier League environment without making an appearance.

The education process continued in the first half of last season with a loan spell in Belgium’s top flight for Beerschot, where he scored once in 12 games.

Fourteen months after he was signed, former head coach Graham Potter finally brought Caicedo into his Premier League side.

The impact was immediate. In his first 22 league appearances for Brighton at the end of last season and at the beginning of this season, Caicedo has scored twice, provided an assist and produced consistently high-quality performances in contributing to 11 wins, including twice against Manchester United and West Ham, as well as Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea.

His attributes in and out of possession are eye-catching. He is athletic, mobile and combative, intercepts and recovers the ball, and attacks with purpose when the opportunity arises. 

Caicedo has pretty much everything going for him, apart from proof of sustained levels over a long period.

Andy Naylor

Comfortable playing as either a No 6 or No 8, one of Caicedo’s biggest strengths is that he is good — perhaps not exceptional — at lots of things.

Consider that this is a 21-year-old with only a handful of Premier League appearances, but Caicedo has a strong ability to keep possession (ball retention ability, 59 out of 99) that is central to Brighton’s play style, particularly under Brighton head coach Roberto De Zerbi and his heavily organised build-up. 

Caicedo is tasked with popping neat passes between the centre-backs and his double-pivot partner Alexis Mac Allister. Hence his passes are often short and not particularly incisive (link-up play volume, 80 out of 99) which is largely a reflection of a system more so than his own ability.

He does not profile as an outstanding defender but Caicedo is decent at hoovering up loose balls (ball recoveries and interceptions, 36 out of 99) and making a pretty good amount of defensive actions when he is the designated defender (disrupting opposition moves, 50 out of 99) — being effective in doing so (defending impact, 61 out of 99).

The evolving Ecuadorian does his best work between both boxes and is a constant attack-starter for his club and country.

Liam Tharme

Caicedo could be the next Brighton player to attract a big bid following the sales of Mali midfielder Yves Bissouma to Tottenham for £25million and Spanish left-sided defender Marc Cucurella to Chelsea for £60million during the summer transfer window.

Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, where Caicedo would be reunited with former Brighton head coach Graham Potter, have all been linked with Ecuador’s hottest talent.

Caicedo is under contract at the Amex Stadium until June 2025. 

It remains to be seen whether an offer attractive to Brighton is made in January.
Owner-chairman Tony Bloom drives a hard bargain and De Zerbi wouldn’t want to lose Caicedo only four months into his tenure.

The club has a policy of not standing in the way of players with an opportunity to take the next step up in their careers, but only as long as the price and the circumstances are suitable for them.

Andy Naylor


Bayer Leverkusen have helped several future stars on their way to successful global careers. Michael Ballack, Son Heung-min and Arturo Vidal, who joined the club aged between 20 and 22, are names that spring to mind and Piero Hincapie has the potential to join that illustrious list.

Hincapie made the move from South America last year and made impressive progress in his first season in the Bundesliga, playing 27 times. He’s already played for his country on 21 occasions despite his tender years, with 16 of those caps coming in competitive matches in World Cup qualifiers or the Copa America.

And he’s been a key part of an Ecuador defence that has kept five successive clean sheets since reaching Qatar, in friendlies that have included opponents such as Mexico, Japan and Nigeria.

Hincapie surprised coaches at Leverkusen with how quickly he adapted to the Bundesliga, having moved from Argentine top-flight side Talleres.

There were only one or two occasions in his opening season when he didn’t set high standards, otherwise, he was a model of consistency in defence, splitting his time between centre-back and left-back.

A defender who relishes defending and is strong in the air, Hincapie combines full-blooded ruggedness with composure and a soft touch in possession. He has the ability to whip over a come-and-get-me cross, or a delicate through ball when pushing forward from left-back. For Ecuador, however, he’s almost certain to start in the heart of the defence, as he has done as a fixture in the side for the past year while his centre-back partner has often been rotated.

”He’s just a defender by nature — he likes to defend and make sure the others defend as well,” his former boss at Leverkusen, Gerardo Seoane, said earlier this year. He doesn’t speak English or German, which is difficult – but on the pitch, he already communicates in the language of football.

”With him, you always have the feeling: the hurdle is so high, then he jumps over it. Then it’s a little higher and he jumps over it again. He adapts very quickly.”

Tim Spiers

Seoane’s claims about Hincapie being a “defender by nature” are more than borne out in the data. He is quick to get tight to his man and apply pressure, as opposed to stepping off and marking the space (defending intensity, 90 out of 99).

His tendency to aerially duel more than anyone else (99 out of 99) benefits Leverkusen and Ecuador in both boxes — he provides a significant attacking set-piece threat but can also clear crosses into his own box. But he is quality and quantity in the air, with smarterscout’s duel data rating his open-play heading as 87 out of 99.

To overlook his ability on the ball would be remiss. For club and country, Hincapie shows his abilities to step out and break lines with the ball (carry and dribble volume, 96 out of 99) but could improve his tendency to play vertical passes through opponents (progressive passing, just 20 out of 99) rather than always having to play riskier, aerial long passes or shorter, safer ones to central midfielders.

He offers the versatility of playing on the left of a back four or in central defence, which makes him a valuable asset for his team.

Liam Tharme

Hincapie’s performances in his first year in European football, especially for his age and as a defender, have unsurprisingly attracted attention.

Arsenal and Tottenham are reportedly tracking the 20-year-old’s progress but if sold on Hincapie they’ll probably want to move sooner rather than later with his value expected to rise. There are suggestions he’ll already cost north of €40million (£35m) to buy.

Leverkusen are thought to be keen to reward Hincapie’s form with an improved contract. His current deal runs until 2026 but given his rising status expect to see Hincapie join one of the bigger European clubs before long, especially if he impresses in Qatar.

Tim Spiers


“I like to play, to be able to dribble, to give assists, to score goals,” said Ecuador winger Gonzalo Plata back in August, after he completed a permanent move to La Liga club Real Valladolid.

Plata had joined Valladolid for a bargain €3million (£2.5m) from Sporting Lisbon, after spending the previous season on loan helping them to get promotion back to Primera with six goals and five assists in 30 games. 

Such step-by-step progress is all part of the plan for Guayaquil-born Plata, who was identified early as a future star as he came through at home city club Independiente del Valle. After joining Sporting in January 2019, soon after turning 18, he showed his potential with three goals and three assists in his first 13 senior games in Europe.

The strongly-built left-footed right winger has always loved to dribble — and the graphic above shows how often he looks to carry the ball forward and take on his man. He also loves a nutmeg, as he memorably showed to Colombia’s James Rodriguez when playing for Ecuador in November 2020. That game also saw Plata score a superb curling shot from 20 yards, then get a second yellow card for removing his jersey during the celebration.

Also in the debit column is a traffic incident in Valladolid in December 2021 that led to him being fined and having his driving licence revoked for two years. Those who know Plata say he has knuckled down and matured, focusing especially on being ready both physically and mentally for the World Cup. He knows he will have a leadership role for his country and wants to be ready to show the world what he can do. 

Dermot Corrigan

Plata is adept at playing on either flank but the majority of the 22-year-old’s minutes last season were on the right wing, with Valladolid playing mainly a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3.

As a left-footer, being deployed on the right naturally makes him a direct attacker and it suits his desire to attack players one-versus-one. The best indication of this is the seriously stark difference between his ratings for carry and dribble volume (94 out of 99) compared to progressive passing (nine out of 99).

When he gets the opportunity to face up a defender he moves at an impressive pace, able to quickly shift the ball outside of his body to create an angle to cross or shoot (xG from shot creation, 91 out of 99).

Naturally, opponents often double up on him to try and contain his threat. When you couple this with his dribbling technique, which is not the most refined, and his tendency to try and use skills to embarrass a defender in a duel, this limits the rate at which he keeps possession to a standard that is only marginally above average (ball retention ability, 53 out of 99).

Plata is very prepared to take aim from distance, often after dribbling inside from the right (shot volume, 77 out of 99). Rarely do wingers score so highly across the board defensively, with Plata able to use his pace and tenacity to hassle opponents and regain possession (ball recoveries and interceptions, 87 out of 99) to increase his opportunities to attack disjointed defences in attacking transition.

Liam Tharme

Plata had offers from other bigger clubs last summer, in Spain and outside, but the player and the people around him were sure that Valladolid was the ideal place to learn and develop in Spain’s top flight, and to play regularly before the World Cup. 

His Valladolid contract runs until June 2027, and the club owned by Ronaldo Nazario is ambitious and aiming to establish themselves in Spain’s top flight.

A stand-out tournament would boost Plata’s profile within Ecuador and globally, and Valladolid would struggle to hold on to him over the longer term. If the 22-year-old continues to develop as he has, he will likely be playing in the Champions League sooner rather than later. 

Dermot Corrigan


One of the criticisms made of British players, a criticism that goes back many years, is that too few are willing to spread their wings and head out into football’s wide world.

Too few are willing to do what Bellingham did in 2020 and head for somewhere like the German Bundesliga, a competition beyond their comfort zone. Borussia Dortmund were a huge draw for Bellingham, a teenager who had been playing in the English Championship with Birmingham City, but it was not as if the odds of him securing a transfer to the Premier League were low.

If staying in England was the easier option, Bellingham could easily have taken it. Did he make the right call? The best way of answering that is to say that at 19, he has every chance of starting under Gareth Southgate at the World Cup. Kalvin Phillips was ahead of him for a while internationally as half of England’s midfield pair with Declan Rice, but Phillips needed shoulder surgery earlier this season. It feels very much as if Bellingham could be edging ahead in the pecking order.

No wonder, really, when Bellingham’s game is considered. 

He is a midfielder without a single defined strength. He can operate in different positions, he can positively influence matches from different positions and he is an attacking threat in every sense of the phrase, a true all-rounder. That is not to say Bellingham offers nothing defensively but Dortmund have sensibly maximised his impact by allowing him to do what he does best.

His quick feet and craft in congested areas make him particularly good against a low block. His bursts into the opposition penalty box give other players a target to aim for and yield the occasional goal. He is comfortable carrying the ball and likes progressing it upfield.

It was not even as if Dortmund tried to blood him gently after signing him from Birmingham. He has been front and centre for a while now and in terms of the next England generation, he is one of the likely stars of it. His younger brother Jobe is breaking through at Birmingham too and in time, there might be more to the Bellingham story than Jude alone.

Phil Hay

When you play as many minutes as a teenager as Bellingham has for Dortmund, you know you are a special talent.

In many ways, Bellingham is a generalist, a versatile young player who can operate anywhere in midfield. Whether he’s in a defensive midfield or central midfield role, Bellingham plays much in the same way — drive forward with the ball at his feet (carry and dribble volume, 94 out of 99), look after possession (ball retention ability, 80 out of 99) and support the attack.

Though not his primary remit, Bellingham’s goalscoring exploits have been a pleasant surprise this season, especially in the Champions League. He scored in the opening four group games in succession, equalling a record held by Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland as just the third teenager in the history of the competition to do so.

Defensively, Bellingham is largely effective in his off-ball actions when preventing the opponent from progressing further (defending impact, 70 out of 99), but he is far from a defensive destroyer who is likely to go flying into challenges across the pitch (disrupting opposition moves 43 out of 99).

At international level, he will have to maintain a disciplined role in England’s midfield but he already looks to have the maturity to do so.

Mark Carey

There is no great drama here with Bellingham on a deal to 2025 but although Dortmund are a big fish in Germany and a high-level European club, they are also a club who struggle to keep their most elite players. It was true in the days of Mario Goetze and it was true in the summer when Erling Haaland left for Manchester City, an exit which was always coming at some point.

Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke says the club will have talks with Bellingham over his future after the World Cup and Bellingham’s age, talent and nationality make him a very obvious target for Premier League sides.

Dortmund will be smart enough to anticipate that themselves. Bellingham is not believed to have a release clause in his deal but Dortmund, according to reports, are keen to add a very hefty one into a new contract if they can persuade Bellingham to recommit.

Doing so would make sense on the basis that Bellingham is primed for substantial exposure in Qatar.

Phil Hay


Harry Kane won the golden boot at the last World Cup, although it was actually something of a strange tournament for the Tottenham striker. Three of his six goals were penalties and another was a fortunate deflection. He didn’t register in the quarter-final win over Sweden or the semi-final loss to Croatia — when he failed to convert a golden chance at 1-0 up.

But even that doesn’t quite tell the story, because while Kane’s goalscoring tally was a little inflated, his all-round game was excellent. While he’s received much more praise in recent years for coming short and linking play at club level, he’d already excelled in that respect at international level. Gareth Southgate’s attacking system at that point was largely based around getting Raheem Sterling, his strike partner in a 3-5-2, plus Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli to make runs past Kane and through on goal. 

Kane will lead the line again, now as captain, and now in a 3-4-3. England’s midfield doesn’t look particularly solid in that system, and Kane might have more license — and more responsibility — to move deep and become a third central midfielder, looking to play balls in behind for runners from wide. England struggle to score goals from sources other than Kane and Sterling, however, with the exception of set pieces.

He remains a prolific goalscorer, of course — and could become England’s all-time record goalscorer at this tournament. 


Relatively few of the major contenders for this tournament boast a prolific No 9, and in a group stage where England face sides likely to sit deep and attempt to frustrate them, Kane’s penalty-box prowess will be crucial.

If England make the latter stages, it might become more about his playmaking.

Michael Cox

Kane’s smarterscout profile is, unsurprisingly, a carbon copy of last season — such is the consistency that England’s captain offers.

We know by now that Kane is not an out-and-out No 9 who is always playing on the shoulder of the defensive line, but is an expert at dropping into pockets of space to receive the ball and play in runners ahead of him (progressive passing, 99 out of 99). 

This is largely influenced by the style he plays for his club, but Kane is a striker who is less interested in playing neat, intricate passes (link up play volume 2 out of 99) and instead aims to get the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 93 out of 99).

That is not forgetting his goalscoring ability. Kane remains an elite finisher and is central in his contribution towards his team’s chances (xG from shot creation, 66 out of 99), regularly shooting with the attacking touches he has (shot volume 78 out of 99).

With England’s strong wide options, Kane could certainly pick out runners in behind to stretch defences. Give him an opportunity to finish himself, and he’ll most likely take it. A double threat in attack means that a lot of the attacking responsibility will fall to Kane during this tournament.

Mark Carey

Kane signed a six-year deal at Tottenham in the summer of 2018, tying him to the club until 2024. This made him Spurs’ best-paid player but it also meant that when Manchester City asked after him in 2020, and then bid £100m to sign him in 2021, that Daniel Levy could simply say no and point to the time left on his contract. Kane was offered a big new deal in August 2021 during the Manchester City saga but he turned it down.

Now that City have Erling Haaland, there is no chance of him moving there, although Manchester United have admired him for years, as do Bayern Munich. While Kane now has less than two years left on his deal, there is more optimism than there has been for some time at Spurs that they may be able to secure him to a new contract.

Kane is loving working with Antonio Conte, but equally he is in no rush to sign anything. 

Jack Pitt-Brooke


It already feels like a century ago — that tends to happen at Chelsea Football Club, where monumental events unfold faster than just about anywhere else — that Mason Mount’s rise was still being ascribed by a vocal section of supporters to Frank Lampard favouritism.

Thomas Tuchel and, most recently, Graham Potter have shattered that myth by picking Mount in their teams with the same remarkable level of regularity. Mount has become a fundamental player for England manager Gareth Southgate too, often ahead of other attacking midfielders with plenty of passionate advocates like Jack Grealish and James Maddison.

The most impressive thing about Mount might be his ability to make himself indispensable, regardless of who is picking the team or the level of competition for starting minutes. He is a player that coaches implicitly trust due to the rare combination of technical quality, tactical intelligence, physical application and personality that he consistently brings to the pitch.

Mount is capable of scoring spectacular goals and producing brilliant moments of skill, but these flourishes don’t define his game — and many of his most valuable contributions are more difficult for casual observers to identify. He is a master at finding pockets of space between the opposition lines, receiving the ball on the half-turn and getting his team on the front foot.

His appreciation of position, with and without the ball, makes it easy for any coach to deploy him from the left or the right, as a No 8, a No 10 or even as a false nine. In possession he can create for others or threaten the goal himself and while he doesn’t quite have the burst to dribble beyond multiple opponents, his quick recognition of space makes him a particularly dangerous off-ball runner. 

Out of possession he is a huge asset to any pressing system, setting the tone with selfless running and paying attention to the details to generate valuable turnovers.

Mount, in short, does all the little things that help teams win at the top level, and while he may not be as explosive or eye-catching as some, he doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses.

Liam Twomey

Mount is not a player who necessarily stands out from a data perspective. He isn’t the one to consistently play Hollywood passes into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 47 out of 99), or go on a scoring streak from midfield (xG from shot creation, 27 out of 99). 

However, Mount’s skillset is a joy for a manager, and there are many of his attributes that cannot be quantified in the numbers — including his tactical versatility, his off-ball movement, and his appreciation of space.

On the ball, Mount is able to mix up his passing profile between neat, short interplay (link-up play volume, 63 out of 99) and longer, forward passes upfield (progressive passing, 55 out of 99), but that off-ball running is valuable too. Compared with other midfielders, Mount will often drift into lucrative areas to receive the ball (receptions in the opposition box, 67 out of 99) and contribute to Chelsea’s attack.

His reading of the game out of possession is highlighted by the volume of loose balls and blocked passes he makes (ball recoveries and interceptions, 73 out of 99). He is not one to dive in when pressing, but that game intelligence is one of his greatest strengths.

Since the start of last season, no Chelsea player has made more league appearances than Mount. For his country, only John Stones scooped more caps than Mount in World Cup qualifying. 

He makes his team tick, even if you don’t always see it. 

Mark Carey

There has been a bit of doom and gloom over a stalemate in contract negotiations lately with Mount’s current deal expiring in June 2024, but The Athletic put the story straight by revealing a positive meeting was held in the last few weeks.

While nothing has been finalised just yet, there is now genuine hope on both sides for the first time that the 23-year-old is close to signing a new deal.

Mount has been concentrating on trying to help Chelsea get through a very busy schedule since the start of the season and his full focus is now on representing England at his first World Cup.

But the plan is for further discussions to take place in January, where it is hoped some of the remaining details are worked out.

Talks got under way in July and there have been several chats since then. There are a number of reasons for the delay so far, including disparity over the length of contract and salary, but they are nearing a compromise.

Simon Johnson


In many ways the England team in Qatar will look a lot like the England team from the last World Cup in Russia, except from their personnel in the middle of the pitch. Driving England forward will be Declan Rice. He did not make his England debut until almost one year after that World Cup but it is now difficult to imagine the England team without him.

So much of West Ham United’s improvement over the last few years owes to Rice. He has grown from being a gangly centre-back into one of the best driving midfielders in the country. He is a masterful reader of the game, always able to spot where the danger is and snuff it out, which was one of the traits that most stood out to coaches when he was a teenager in the West Ham academy. But Rice has added to that real athletic prowess, and a capacity to shrug off opponents and carry the ball forward through the middle of the pitch. 

He has not added goals to his game yet, although that is arguably the one thing still lacking from what he offers.

When Rice first came into the England side he was competing with Harry Winks for the No 6 position in a 4-3-3 system. At Euro 2020 he played alongside Kalvin Phillips in a high-energy pair, and was one of the few England players to take the game to Italy in the final.

Now, in what is likely to be a 3-4-3, it will be Rice and one other in the centre. Still just 23, he has replaced Mark Noble as West Ham captain and is the likeliest to step into Harry Kane’s role when he eventually gives up the armband.

Jack Pitt-Brooke

You know what performance you are going to get when Rice steps onto the field, making his smarterscout profile a highly unsurprising read. 

On the ball, he will look after possession (ball retention ability, 90 out of 99) and largely keep his passing simple to a nearby team-mate to help build up the play in West Ham’s midfield (link-up play volume, 81 out of 99). However, when he needs to drive his side forward, those long strides kick into gear as he looks to run with the ball at his feet (carry and dribble volume, 83 out of 99). 

His success in those dribbles are reflected strongly in his duel ratings, regularly beating his opponent when approaching him in a one-v-one situation (dribbling, 92 out of 99).

Given his role at West Ham, you can see that Rice doesn’t go flying into challenges a great deal (disrupting opposition moves, 8 out of 99) but he is disciplined in his defensive work — a trait that he showcased brilliantly for England during their Euro 2020 push last summer.

When he does engage in a tackle, you rarely get the better of him (tackling, 91 out of 99). Rice is a crucial cog within Gareth Southgate’s machine — on and off the ball.

Mark Carey

If Rice does leave West Ham, he will be one of the hottest properties in English football. He signed a long-term contract with the club in 2018 which expires at the end of the 2023-24 season, although there is an option for West Ham to extend it for one more year after that.

Chelsea, who released Rice before he joined West Ham, were strongly interested in trying to buy him back in 2020, although it came to nothing. Since then West Ham have tried to get Rice to sign a new deal, something that he has been reluctant to do, but West Ham have no interest in selling him either. Before this summer’s window David Moyes insisted that Rice was not for sale and that his price tag would be at least £150million. 

If Rice continues to say no to a new West Ham contract then interest in him will continue from England’s biggest clubs, but even in the summer of 2023 West Ham will still not need to sell him, unless they get a huge offer.

Jack Pitt-Brooke


For one of the biggest stars in the game — and the current holder of the Ballon d’Or — Karim Benzema is surprisingly good at being overlooked.

He was underappreciated by Real Madrid fans for the better part of a decade because he played with Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a way of hogging the headlines. He was ignored for France’s squad for six years after making headlines of his own by participating in a plot to blackmail a team-mate over a sex tape.

When he’s on the pitch, though, Benzema’s ability to disappear in plain sight is his superpower.

Like a lot of great strikers, he rarely stays in one place, drifting out to the left wing and sometimes popping up in places that are just plain odd. 

But unlike a Lionel Messi or even a latter-day Harry Kane, his roaming isn’t about finding ways to be his team’s central hub. Benzema is gifted on the ball and ranks near the top in his position for most passing stats, but he’s more of an associative player than a playmaker in his own right. 

More than anything, his movement is about camouflage — disappearing into the cracks and crevices of the defence, only to pop back up unexpectedly where he can be most dangerous.

The way that Benzema moves (a centre-forward who drops deep and left) is a natural complement to the way his France team-mate Kylian Mbappe does (a left winger who makes striker runs over the top). Their push and pull will be key for Didier Deschamps’ team in stretching back lines apart.

And if Mbappe gets all the attention? Well, Benzema’s used to that. It’s what makes him dangerous.

John Muller

Little has changed from Benzema’s profile since last season, which saw him score a career-high 27 La Liga goals — with 12 assists. His non-penalty goal output per 90 might not be as prolific this season — and injuries have curtailed his minutes somewhat — but his underlying numbers remain strong in his contribution towards Real Madrid’s creation of chances (xG from shot creation, 92 out of 99). 

Benzema is not a No 9 who will stay on the shoulder of the defender and wait to be played through (receptions in the opposition box, 53 out of 99). Instead, he is a master at dropping into pockets of space, holding up the ball with neat passes (link-up play volume, 99 out of 99) and looking after possession to allow Madrid to move upfield (ball retention ability, 89 out of 99) is what Benzema is all about — simple but very effective.

Naturally, his propensity to drop off and bring others into play means that he does not rate the highest in pulling the trigger per attacking touch (shot volume, 55 out of 99). But Benzema has developed a completeness to his game, where he looks to be playing some of the best football of his career at 34 years old.

Mark Carey

Although there has been interest along the way from clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal during his 14 seasons at Madrid, there has never been any serious sign of Benzema moving to any other club, and he and his young family are well settled in the Spanish capital.

His most recent contract was signed in the summer of 2021 and expires in June 2023. By that stage Benzema will be 35, but having picked up the Ballon d’Or this year the Madrid president Florentino Perez will be even more keen to hold onto him. 

So although Madrid will almost certainly sign another centre-forward next summer, it will be to play alongside Benzema, rather than to replace him.

Dermot Corrigan


Few players cause as much confusion and debate — among both opposition defences and their own teams — as the Barcelona and France forward Ousmane Dembele.

Dembele’s natural talent and technical ability saw him tipped for superstardom when he broke through at Rennes. After 12 goals and five assists in his first senior season with the Ligue 1 side at the age of 18, Borussia Dortmund paid €35million to sign him in July 2016. Twelve months later Barcelona agreed to pay a whopping €140million for him to replace Neymar at Camp Nou.

This huge price looked a massive mistake for most of Dembele’s first four and a half seasons at Barca, due to regular injuries and inconsistent performances. But the current Blaugrana coach Xavi really likes pacy, direct wide players who can take people on and stretch rival defences, and has overseen a big improvement in Dembele’s performances over the last 12 months. Thirteen La Liga assists during 2021-22 were the best in the division, despite him playing just 21 games.

Not everyone at Barca wanted him to stay last summer though — and the 25-year-old continues to divide opinion. His outstanding pace and tricks, and ability to cross or shoot equally well with either foot, can have a devastating impact at times. But his unpredictability can also frustrate fans and team-mates.

Xavi remains a huge fan. “Maybe we are a bit more disordered with him in the team, but I tell him to keep taking people on, he’s a unique player,” the coach said after Dembele’s three assists and a goal in a 4-0 La Liga win over Athletic Bilbao in October 2022.

France coach Didier Deschamps is also a believer. He gave Dembele a senior debut aged just 19, and took him to the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020. Injuries mean he has just 28 caps (and four goals) but his anarchic qualities could be very useful off the bench in tournament play.

Dermot Corrigan

No matter how divisive Dembele can be in his actions, there’s no doubt that he is posting some great attacking numbers this season. His rate of 0.4 expected assists per 90 is among the best return in a Barcelona shirt, as he looks on track to beat his career-high 13 assists within a single league campaign.

We know what Dembele can bring with his relentless running (carry and dribble volume 63 out of 99), we know he can get the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression 80 out of 99). But while he contributes well to his team’s overall attack (xG from shot creation 81 out of 99), there is still a feeling that Dembele has more than enough quality to be more prolific himself in front of goal. While injuries have plagued him, Dembele’s goal tally has not reached double figures since his breakout season at Rennes in 2015-16.

That goalscoring rate does look to be stronger this season compared with years gone by, as he currently averages 0.37 non-penalty goals per 90 — his best for five years. With the start he is having to 2022-23, you wouldn’t bet against Dembele reaching double figures in both goals and assists for the first time in his career.  

Mark Carey

Dembele’s off-the-field situation has been just as unpredictable as his play.

In January 2022, the Barcelona sporting director Mateu Alemany said Dembele “must leave immediately” after contract talks broke down.

Xavi disagreed, reintegrating Dembele into his squad, then pushed hard for the club to offer him a new deal when his old contract expired last summer. A two-year extension was eventually agreed despite Barca’s stretched finances, with the player and his camp agreeing a lower wage but gaining more flexibility for the future.

The Athletic understands that Dembele’s current deal includes a release clause of €50million, with the money paid by a new club being split between Barcelona and the player. Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain were among those monitoring his situation last summer, and they and others might look again if he impresses in Qatar.

Dermot Corrigan


When Didier Deschamps called up Randal Kolo Muani for the Nations League in September, it didn’t come as a huge surprise to those who had followed the 23-year-old’s explosive start to the season at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Since making his first start in the 1-1 draw against Hertha BSC in August, the French forward has made every XI in the Bundesliga and Champions League.

Eight goals in all competitions have been an impressive return in his first campaign at this level, but his ability to find others has stood out most: he leads the way for assists in the Bundesliga with nine in 15 games.

Kolo Muani was born in Bondy, the same Parisian suburb that Kylian Mbappe hails from but he grew up a little further out in Villepinte, just to the south of Charles De Gaulle Airport. After playing for local clubs Tremblay-en-France and Torcy, Nantes snapped him up at the age of 16.

Growing pains slowed down his development at Les Canaries but he finally made his debut at senior level under Vahid Halilhodzic in 2018. After a reasonably successful stint on loan at third-division Boulogne, Kolo Muani returned to Nantes and had a breakthrough in the 2020-21 season, scoring nine goals (and making as many assists) in 37 matches.

Tall, fast and elegant, he’s often been compared to Thierry Henry but has mostly played through the middle for Frankfurt. Kolo Muani is a very modern centre-forward, equally happy to hold up the ball or run into channels.

His Frankfurt coach Oliver Glasner would like him to be a bit more selfish in front of goal but as a relatively late bloomer, he will surely keep progressing and learning.

Raphael Honigstein

As a striker, Kolo Muani is a prolific goalscorer and an effortless creative link in his side’s attack. He can play anywhere across the front line, is gifted with both feet, and is key in his contribution towards his team’s attacking output (xG from shot creation, 85 out of 99).

His dynamism is highlighted by his pace with the ball to beat his opponent in a one-v-one (carry and dribble volume, 98 out of 99), helping him be hugely effective in progressing the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 96 out of 99). He also has the intelligence to find others running into space, having already surpassed his previous career-high four assists this season, with nine in his 14 Bundesliga appearances.

Operating as a striker for Frankfurt often means being able to press with coordination and intensity, regularly getting tight to his man to make a defensive action (defending intensity, 72 out of 99). He is also able to stick a foot frequently and make his fair share of defensive actions (disrupting opposition moves, 73 out of 99) to steal the ball back.

The Frenchman joins an incredible conveyor belt of gifted attacking talents, but his versatility in creating chances means that if he does feature, he will surely look to make a difference. 

Maram AlBaharna

Kolo Muani moved to Frankfurt on a free transfer from Nantes before the start of the season. Securing his signature despite strong interest from Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and other Bundesliga sides was a triumph of early scouting and strategy for the Europa League winners.

Chief scout Ben Manga, now Frankfurt’s director for professional football, first approached the player in 2020, during his first season at top-flight level. Kolo Muani and his agents were impressed that Manga presented them with a detailed analysis of the forward’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as Frankfurt’s plans for using his parents.

By spring 2021, a verbal agreement was in place, and Kolo Muani stuck to it even though other options became available. His deal runs until 2027 and doesn’t contain a release clause.

Raphael Honigstein


It’s routine for the most celebrated players — Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar — to go into major tournaments with everyone asking whether they can add the World Cup to their club honours. Kylian Mbappe is the opposite. 

Mbappe won World Cup 2018 at 19, scoring in the final and producing the most memorable moment of the tournament with that storming dribble through Argentina. The question for Mbappe’s career is whether he can win the Champions League, and whether his Ligue 1 performances translate to a more respected league.

Yet Mbappe still has unfinished business at international level. He endured a disappointing Euro 2020, failing to score and missing the crucial penalty in France’s second round elimination against Switzerland. He partly compensated by scoring the winner in the Nations League final against Spain.

But it’s arguable that Mbappe’s reputation hasn’t improved since his breakout tournament four years ago. He finished fourth in the Ballon d’Or that year, but has slipped to sixth, ninth and sixth since. In 2018, we expected him to come into this tournament as the world’s greatest player. He hasn’t yet earned that status.

With Didier Deschamps likely to use a 3-4-1-2 formation, Mbappe is starting higher up the pitch than four years ago, when he played wide in a 4-4-1-1. We’ll see fewer bursts from deep, and more runs in behind. He’s developed a fine partnership with Karim Benzema, in international exile four years ago, assisting Benzema more than vice-versa. 

The last teenager to score in a World Cup final was Pele in 1958 — and he won the next World Cup too. Another standout World Cup will make Mbappe one of the competition’s all-time legends, and something of a throwback to Pele’s time, as a player celebrated more for his international achievements than his club displays.

Michael Cox

There is an element of inevitability with Mbappe. 

After picking up a career-high 17 assists last season, Mbappe has been a little less creative for his team-mates this campaign — but no less potent in front of goal (xG from shot creation, 89 out of 99). His current rate of 0.9 non-penalty goals per 90 is ludicrous by anyone’s standards, albeit not even the higher rate of his career so far.

Beyond his goalscoring, his obvious strength is his ability to run with the ball (carry and dribble volume, 96 out of 99) to drive forward. Per FBref, his 6.3 dribbles attempted per 90 puts him in the top percentile for forwards in Ligue 1 this season.

When the ball isn’t at his feet, Mbappe is quick to make runs off the ball to receive it in advanced areas (xG from ball progression, 89 out of 99) in order to stretch the play and quickly get a shot away (shot volume, 82 out of 99).

Much like his fellow PSG forwards, you aren’t likely to get much activity from Mbappe defensively, but when you are as good as he is going forward, you afford him that luxury.

It’s scary that the 23-year-old is not even in his prime yet.

Mark Carey

Kylian Mbappe’s future has been the matter of fervent speculation for many years now and you should not expect that to change any time soon.

Mbappe made the decision to remain at PSG last summer, becoming the highest paid footballer in the world in the process, with sources close to the club conceding that he earns more than €40m per year.

His contract, signed in the summer of 2022, is a two-year extension with the option of a third year and the short length of the deal meant that there was never likely to be a long window of calmness before the noise revved up once again.

Even those close to the club admit Mbappe is not completely settled at PSG — there have been reports he is disgruntled by the team’s tactics under new coach Christophe Galtier, as well as speculation about the healthiness of his relationship with Brazilian team-mate Neymar, who has started this season brightly. Mbappe’s problem is that PSG now hold the cards (unless there is a secret release clause we do not yet know about). Whether they get bored of the endless drama and decide to cash in at some point is another question.

As for destinations, Real Madrid remain interested, but the Spanish club were furious to be spurned by Mbappe and may instead turn their longer term attentions to Manchester City’s Erling Haaland.

Liverpool have been linked but are unlikely to pay the salary, which may leave only extremely wealthy clubs such as PSG, Man City and Newcastle as possible long-term destinations for Mbappe, but much of that may depend on how strictly financial fair play regulations are enforced both in the Premier League and by UEFA.

Adam Crafton


The France and Real Madrid midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni has made such an impact for club and country over the last 12 months that the main issue around the 22-year-old is which role he should be used in.

Born in Rouen, north France, in January 2000, Tchouameni grew up in the youth system at Girondins Bordeaux, and by the age of 18 was established in the Ligue 1 club’s first team. In the summer of 2020 he made an €18million move to Monaco, where his progress continued and he made his senior France debut in September 2021, still aged just 21. 

In the 2021-22 season Tchouameni was widely acknowledged as one of Europe’s most promising young midfielders. The main debate was over his best position — at Bordeaux he often played in a deep two accompanied by Otavio. From there he could help out with regaining possession, while also using his ball-playing skills to get forward and contribute to the attack. 

Last year under Philippe Clement at Monaco he was more often on his own screening the defence — although he still managed to get forward to score five goals over the campaign.

Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti sees him as the holder in his preferred 4-3-3 shape — to the point that the club were happy to sell their former midfield ‘pivot’ Casemiro to Manchester United as soon as Tchouameni arrived in Spain.

The full mix of talents was on show in his third La Liga game — a 3-1 win at Espanyol in August 2022. A man-of-the-match display included Casemiro-esque nous in making six tactical fouls without being shown a yellow card, but also a sublime no-look assist for Vinicius Junior’s opening goal. 

The only question now for France manager Didier Deschamps is how to best use him at the World Cup.

Dermot Corrigan

If anyone had any doubts about Tchouameni’s ability to step up to a bigger stage at Real Madrid this summer, they have been well and truly quashed.

The France midfielder has fit in seamlessly to Madrid’s midfield, playing with a maturity beyond his tender age. Tchouameni’s reading of the game was one of his biggest strengths at Monaco, and he has carried his form on in the Spanish capital. The early signs show how regularly he looks to get tight to his opponent (defending intensity, 96 out of 99), and looks to hoover up loose balls and block passes (ball recoveries and interceptions, 57 out of 99).

With the greatest respect to his former Monaco team-mates, Tchouameni is now also playing with a higher calibre of players at Madrid, and is able to keep possession at a very high level (ball retention ability, 57 out of 99) with simple, neat passes (link-up play volume, 92 out of 99). It is also underestimated just how much he is able to drive through midfield with the ball at his feet (carry and dribble volume, 91 out of 99), drawing players towards him which opens up space for his team-mates.

Just like at Madrid, Tchouameni looks to be the future of France’s midfield. Given his age, you can see him holding his place for the next decade at least.

Mark Carey

Tchouameni drew interest from Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain among other top clubs before agreeing his €80million move to Madrid last summer. 

The player himself was very clear that Madrid were his first option, and committed to a long-term contract until 2028. He is part of the club’s carefully-planned future midfield trio alongside fellow Frenchman Eduardo Camavinga, 20, and Uruguayan Fede Valverde, 24. 

Given how well he has started in Spain, it seems unlikely that Madrid will be thinking of letting him go anytime soon, no matter how much money was offered their way.

Dermot Corrigan


Karim Adeyemi has had a surprisingly limited impact at Borussia Dortmund in his first season but his numbers have been skewed by a persistent foot injury that has disrupted his acclimatisation at Signal Iduna Park.

“He didn’t have an easy start,” his Dortmund coach Edin Terzic said. There’s also been a tactical adjustment. Whereas RB Salzburg are so superior to the competition in the Austrian Bundesliga that they can easily field two if not three out-and-out strikers, Dortmund’s setup under Terzic is more pragmatic. He’s mostly used the former Bayern Munich youth team player as a right-sided winger, a position that carries much more defensive responsibility than his largely care-free role in Salzburg.

The 20-year-old is still getting to grips with that transition. “We would rather see him in a few different spaces during the game,” Terzic admitted. “That’s what we’re working on. But he’s a difference-maker, you can see that he can always create a stir.”

Fast and tricky, Adeyemi is best when he can attack half-spaces on either side of the pitch or drop between the lines in more central areas outside the box. As his ball progression data shows, the Munich-born son of a Romanian mother and Nigerian father is equally excellent at receiving the ball in forward positions and carrying it towards the opposition goal, providing a reliable way to make up attacking ground.

Hansi Flick has resisted the urge to give Adeyemi a starting berth in the national team but he will be an excellent option to bring on at later stages of the game when Germany are leading and looking to take advantage on the break. 

Raphael Honigstein

With his injury struggles this campaign, it is perhaps unfair to profile Adeyemi’s performances in a Borussia Dortmund shirt. Instead, we can look at his 2021-22 performances that got him his move back to Germany.

Predominantly playing as a striker in Austria, Adeyemi’s style is clear to see. He frequently looks to run at his man (carry and dribble volume, 96 out of 99), with the ball so often glued to his feet as he slaloms forward into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 68 out of 99).

Even accounting for the strength of the Austrian Bundesliga, Adeyemi showed himself to be clinical in front of goal, scoring 15 non-penalty goals at a rate of 0.7 per 90 minutes. His contribution to his team’s attack was very impressive (xG from shot creation, 65 out of 99), not least for a teenager.

Adeyemi will be hoping to put his injury issues behind him at Dortmund, as he is such a double threat in attack — from a creative and goalscoring perspective.

Mark Carey

Adeyemi was earmarked as Christopher Nkunku’s successor at Leipzig in the summer of 2022 in one of those classic intra-Red Bull football group transfers, but when the Frenchman decided to stay for one more year, the door opened for the forward to move somewhere else from Salzburg.

Bayern Munich were briefly interested and the player’s agent was photographed outside the Bavarian’s club HQ but, in the end, Borussia Dortmund won the race for a fee of €30m plus add-ons.

Adeyemi is on a five-year deal worth around €5m a season at Signal Iduna Park and there’s no release clause.

Raphael Honigstein


Borussia Dortmund’s plan was for Sebastien Haller to make up for the loss of goals after Erling Haaland’s departure, but in the absence of the Frenchman during the first half of the season — he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the summer — Youssoufa Moukoko has really shone.

The Cameroon-born forward, who turns 18 on the day the World Cup starts, became the first teenager to score 10 league goals when he bagged a spectacular double against Bochum on November 5. He’s also the youngest-ever goalscorer in the Bundesliga having found the net in his senior debut season (2020-2021) at the age of 16 years and 28 days against Union Berlin.

Moukoko first started playing organised football at the age of 11 at Hamburg-based St. Pauli after moving to Germany to live with his father. He was soon scoring for fun in the under-16s and quickly moved on to Dortmund.

A fast and tricky player who loves taking on defenders, Moukoko has found more consistency this season. Dortmund officials have credited his great work ethic and willingness to learn for his progression.

“Youssoufa is a very good finisher with both feet and stays calm in front of goal, taking an extra touch if necessary,” assistant coach Otto Addo told The Athletic. “His deep runs are also very good. He’s got great timing and he’s very switched on. He has a sense of how things happen on the pitch and where a high ball might land.”

What really separates him from many strikers, let alone forwards who are as young as him, is his shot volume. Moukoko is a shooting machine, unafraid to have a go with either foot.

A slightly more discerning choice of shooting position will aid him going forward, but if results are occasionally as exciting as his two strikes from distance against Bochum earlier this month, which helped seal his call-up for Qatar, neither Dortmund nor Germany will be complaining too much.

Raphael Honigstein

To put Moukoko’s exciting talent into perspective, he was granted Dortmund’s No 18 jersey, associated with club legend Lars Ricken, and registered in their squad for the 2020-21 season. That happened even though he was ineligible for the majority of the year and he was quickly enrolled in first-team training in January. He isn’t just any wunderkind. 

In 88 youth games for Dortmund, the striker has scored 141 goals. The goalscoring didn’t stop as he got promoted, consistently testing the goalkeeper (shot volume, 98 of 99) and providing threat for himself and others (xG from shot creation, 71 out of 99). Throughout his career thus far, the bulk of defenders Moukoko has lined up against have been far taller than him.

Instead, Moukoko takes risks by using his low centre of gravity, precise handling and outstanding sense of the game (carry and dribble volume, 79 out of 99) and is able to retain the ball well (60 out of 99) despite his creative nature (progressive passing, 53 out of 99). Additionally, he is excellent with his preferred left foot.

He has everything to succeed, and he’s only 17. 

Maram AlBaharna

Moukoko’s contractual situation is intriguing. His current deal only runs until summer 2023 and Dortmund’s attempts to renew for reported annual wages of €5million have so far been unsuccessful.

Amid plenty of interest from clubs all over Europe and the Premier League, Moukoko is reportedly close to switching agents on his 18th birthday, which coincides with the beginning of the World Cup.

Dortmund will continue to push for an extension but a starring role in Qatar will further strengthen his hand.

Raphael Honigstein


The most-used adjective to describe Jamal Musiala in Germany is “magical” and not just for the alliterative impact.

It’s spell-binding to see the 19-year-old pick up the ball and fizz past opponents in the tightest of spaces, changing direction — once, twice, and he’s gone! —  with his gangly legs while his upper body seems to somehow stay in the same place.

His game feels of a different age, or perhaps two: while his dribbling skills invoke old-school heroics from the black-and-white era, his versatility and game intelligence point to super-stardom in the immediate future.

Since breaking into the Bayern Munich team in June 2020 and becoming the club’s youngest-ever scorer at the age of 17, the Stuttgart-born Musiala has quickly evolved from impact sub to virtually undroppable regular.

Used by Julian Nagelsmann on the flanks, in the No 10 position, and as one of his double midfield pivots, there’s little the former England youth international doesn’t do exceedingly well in the opponent’s half, and his childlike appearance  — he’s endearingly nicknamed “Bambi” in Munich — hides a fierce propensity for tracking back and tackling, too.

His most valuable skill for both club and country, however, is his unerring ability to find pathways past deep, massed defences, either by slaloming through with the ball or finding the one pass that makes entire lines disappear, like the perfect Tetris piece. He sees gaps opening up and things falling into place before anyone else on the pitch.

An extensive neuroscience training program in his spare time has helped him with vision and balance but it all feels so effortless that it’s difficult to believe there’s hard work at the root of his wizardry.

What was it that Arthur C Clarke (almost) wrote, “any sufficiently advanced technique is indistinguishable from magic”?

That’s the Musiala effect. 

Raphael Honigstein

Musiala has become indispensable to Bayern Munich’s forward play this season, leading their attacking statistics with eight Bundesliga goals and four assists in the post-Lewandowski era. 

Such is the quality that he possesses, Musiala has been used across Bayern’s midfield, in wide areas, and briefly as a striker since the start of last season — providing flexibility and versatility to Julian Nagelsmann’s set-up.

Looking at his smarterscout profile across multiple positions this season, you can see how strong his attacking contribution has been so far (xG from shot creation, 92 out of 99), popping up in lucrative areas to either create or score himself.

His goalscoring is running a little hot this season, with those eight goals scored from 4.5 expected goals, but the underlying numbers do suggest the process is good as he continues to get the ball in lucrative areas (receptions in the opposition box, 79 out of 99).

On the ball, Musiala plays with a maturity beyond his years, with an ability to keep possession at a very high rate (ball retention ability, 88 out of 99). His close control and wirey frame allow him to twist and turn away from opponents with ease (carry and dribble volume, 69 out of 99).

Having represented England at youth international level, Musiala’s decision to represent Germany has certainly been validated with 17 international caps awarded already — including appearances at Euro 2020 last summer. However, there’s no doubt that this tournament will be the biggest stage for the 19-year-old to showcase his skills.

Mark Carey

A week after turning 18 in March 2021, Musiala signed a five-year-deal that will keep him at Bayern Munich until 2026. There is no release clause.

A basic salary of €5million per year puts him at the lower end of the Bayern squad, but his performances have been so good that the German champions will soon come under pressure to extend his deal for improved wages, reflecting his importance for club and country.

He’s also rapidly becoming one of the most marketable players in Munich, with his shirts outselling most team-mates.

Bayern will go out of their way to tie him down for as long as possible. 

Raphael Honigstein


Three years ago, David Raum was a middlingly successful forward at second-division Greuther Furth and thought about dropping down a level for more game time. But then Furth’s assistant coach Andre Mijatovic had an idea — he painstakingly re-educated Raum to play as a marauding left-back.

The 24-year-old’s first season in the new role was superb in both performance and timing: his 15 assists helped his club win promotion to Bundesliga in 2020-21 and allowed him to pick from a range of suitors in the top division since his deal with Furth elapsed that summer.

Another superlative season at Hoffenheim brought him to the attention of Germany manager Hansi Flick as well as his current club RB Leipzig, and the assists have kept on coming. No other left-back in Europe’s top five leagues has created as many goals as crossing machine Raum, a yoga nut who cites Liverpool’s Andy Robertson as his role model.

Raum’s pin-point balls from relatively deep positions should help Germany get into the box against defensive sides, even if their forward line prefers the ball to feet. More importantly, however, he’s a natural at playing in the opposition half, unlike so many of the players Germany have tried out for the national team’s most problematic position since Philipp Lahm switched over to the right in 2010.

Hard-working and constantly improving, Raum offers genuine width and dynamism with his high volume, high risk, high reward distribution. About two-thirds of his passes don’t find their intended target, but that doesn’t really matter considering the amount of shot opportunities his crosses generate.

Watch him deliver — quite literally — for Germany this winter.

Raphael Honigstein

Since joining RB Leipzig in the summer, Raum has rotated his position between his familiar left wing-back role and a conventional left-back role as his side has switched between a back four and a back five.

With 11 assists last season for Hoffenheim, one of Raum’s greatest strengths was getting the ball into dangerous areas. Looking across both of the positions he’s played this season, that output has been blunted a little (xG from ball progression, 50 out of 99), with his expected assists rate notably lower than last season as things stand.

Raum’s 1.8 crosses into the penalty area per 90 was the highest of any full-back in the Bundesliga last campaign, making it clear why RB Leipzig came in for him in the summer. 

He isn’t a player who is likely to run with the ball (carry and dribble volume, 29 out of 99), but he does have the ability to play more threatening passes that ask questions of opposition defences (progressive passing, 38 out of 99). 

Off the ball, Raum is fairly unremarkable in his volume of defensive actions, although it’s clear he is not shy of sticking a foot in with the energy he has (disrupting opposition moves, 88 out of 99). As is the case with the modern day full-back, it is what he offers on the ball that is most dangerous.

Mark Carey

Raum was one of the hottest properties in the 2022 summer transfer window.

There was plenty of interest in his services from the Premier League and Borussia Dortmund were very keen to strengthen their left defensive flank, but the late departure of Manuel Akanji to Manchester City from Signal Iduna Park made it impossible for BVB to commit the €26million needed to get Raum from Hoffenheim.

RB Leipzig came in instead, signing him to a five-year deal until 2027. There have been no reports of a release clause in his current contract.

Raphael Honigstein


One-word springs immediately to mind in mentioning Tariq Lamptey — pace.

Teachers at Queensmead in Ruislip, west London, and those at neighbouring schools couldn’t believe his blistering speed.

Lamptey was clocked at a top velocity of 22.8mph for Brighton during a match at Newcastle at the start of his second season at the club in September 2020 after signing from Chelsea. That was quicker than any player in the 2020 list, including Kylian Mbappe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The right-back is at the World Cup representing Ghana after switching nationalities from England. Lamptey played for England from under-18s through to the under-21s. His parents are from Ghana and, with so much competition in his position for England, the 22-year-old traded his national allegiance in July.

Lamptey isn’t pigeon-holed as a right-back though. The former Brighton head coach Graham Potter occasionally used him further forward on the right and Potter’s Brighton predecessor Chris Hughton, now Ghana’s technical adviser, thinks the 22-year-old has a future as a right-winger.

Lamptey had just broken into Chelsea’s first team as a 19-year-old during the reign of Frank Lampard, having joined their academy from the age of eight, when he signed for Brighton in the January 2020 transfer window.

His early performances, causing havoc to opposing defences with his adventurous runs into advanced areas, earned rave reviews.

Lamptey, only 5ft 4in, was gaining a big reputation until a hamstring injury suffered at Fulham in December 2020 slowed his progress. Surgery sidelined him for nine months and Lamptey has found it difficult to command a regular place for Brighton since. When he has played, he hasn’t quite rediscovered the same verve.

That has as much to do with a greater awareness from the opposition of the danger he poses since he first burst onto the Premier League scene as any dramatic reduction in pace arising from the injury.

There’s no better stage than a World Cup for Lamptey to put his name back on the map.

Andy Naylor

With a healthier number of minutes played last season, it is worth reminding ourselves of Lamptey’s playing profile from 2021-22, most commonly as a right wing-back under Potter.

Lamptey is a player willing to run with the ball at his feet and utilise his blistering speed (carry and dribble volume, 94 out of 99). He rarely plays his passes upfield by more than 10 metres (progressive passing, 21 out of 99), but instead looks to keep it simple to a nearby team-mate (link-up play volume, 78 out of 99), keeping possession at a very high rate (ball retention ability, 77 out of 99).

Given his skillset, you would perhaps expect more attacking output from Lamptey in forward areas, as his actions do not contribute highly to his team’s chances of scoring (xG from shot creation, 27 out of 99) — registering just two assists across the whole Premier League campaign. While he might not have quite the same on-ball quality as someone like Reece James, Lamptey could use his former Chelsea team-mate as inspiration for what could be achieved from a right wing-back role.

Off the ball, Lamptey has the sufficient recovery pace to be able to make a high volume of defensive actions (disrupting opposition moves, 63 out of 99), seemingly being very effective in those actions for his team (defending impact, 71 out of 99).

He has all the tools but simply needs a sustained period on the pitch to build confidence and be injury-free to return to the levels he has shown in previous years.

Mark Carey

Brighton weren’t lacking in competition to sign Lamptey when they landed him from Chelsea for a bargain deal that could rise to around £3million with add-ons. Paris Saint-Germain, Nice and Lille in France, Wolves and Crystal Palace in England were all credited with interest.

Lamptey’s initial impact at the Amex Stadium saw him linked with Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United, the club he grew up supporting.

He signed originally on a contract until June 2023 and then penned a new deal with Brighton in January 2021 through to 2025. Speculation over his future has faded with the downturn in regular game time since his hamstring injury at the end of 2020.

Brighton have made a long-term investment in Lamptey, who still has rich potential for new head coach Roberto De Zerbi to exploit.

Andy Naylor


It was quite a start for Kamaldeen Sulemana in Ligue 1. The game against Lens was 14 minutes old when Rennes counter-attacked through Sulemana’s pace on the left – naturally right-footed, the Ghanaian likes to operate on the opposite side of the pitch.

Sulemana carried the ball 40 yards before cutting inside and curling an exquisite shot that kissed the inside of the far upright on its way into the back of the net. The somersaults that followed – far too many to count – were every bit as good as the finish.  

Born in the city of Techiman, Sulemana is a product of the Right to Dream academy in Ghana, which was founded by Tom Vernon, a former Manchester United scout who owns the Danish club FC Nordsjaelland. 

Sulemana joined FC Nordsjaelland in 2020 and, after a number of eye-catching performances in Denmark, where he was directly involved in 18 goals in his first full season, signed for Rennes in the summer of 2021 for a fee rising to €20million (£17.5m; $20.8m).

Ajax and Manchester United had also shown interest in a wide attacker who is quick, direct, skilful (picture a blur of stepovers) and tenacious, too. In full flight, Sulemana feels close to unstoppable. But he also likes to stop-start opponents because of his explosiveness. 

His first season in French football delivered five goals and three assists – numbers that would have been significantly higher but for a back injury that meant he was restricted to 20 minutes of club football after the turn of the year. 

Sulemana’s involvement at the start of this campaign was largely from the substitutes’ bench as he eases himself back. At some point soon, he’s going to be making up for lost time.

Stuart James

It sounds like a cliche, but Sulemana really does have pace to burn.

Even a quick look at his highlights reel will show you just how much he likes to square up his opponent and fly past them — a trait very much backed up by his numbers from last season (carry and dribble volume, 99 out of 99).

His skilful running makes you feel like you are watching him at 1.5 speed, as he is able to advance the ball into dangerous areas before the opponent can get back into shape (xG from ball progression, 80 out of 99). As further evidence, his 8.7 dribbles attempted per 90 across the past year places him among the highest-ranked dribblers across Europe’s top five leagues.

He is direct, quick to get a shot away (shot volume, 79 out of 99) and a menace to defenders. Give him space on the ball and he will hurt you. Take your eye off him when he doesn’t have the ball and he will exploit the space with his pace and clever movement. 

A player to watch closely this tournament.

Mark Carey

Sulemana has the best part of four years remaining on the five-year contract he signed last summer, when Rennes won the race for a player who had been followed by a number of Premier League clubs. “He has enormous quality,” Florian Maurice, Rennes’ technical director, said at the time.

In a perfect world, Rennes will sell Sulemana on to one of the world’s top clubs for a significant profit – Liverpool have been linked as well as Newcastle – although the Ghanaian needs to get back to scoring and assisting on a regular basis for that to happen.

The World Cup feels like the perfect stage for him.

Stuart James


Inaki Williams’ incredible fitness record has made him a permanent fixture at Athletic Bilbao, while his potential for goals on the big occasion has led to a Ghana call-up for the World Cup in Qatar. 

Born in Bilbao to Ghanaian parents, Williams lived in Pamplona as a teenager but regularly travelled to train at Athletic’s Lezama academy. 

Ernesto Valverde gave Williams his La Liga debut aged 18, and he has barely missed a match since. He is currently on a remarkable run of appearing in 247 consecutive La Liga games — which dates all the way back to April 2016. 

The 28-year-old’s durability is even more impressive given his playing style — he is an athletic forward at his most dangerous when played into open spaces behind a defence. 

Williams has scored some crackers along the way, including an acrobatic volley against Espanyol in October 2015 and impressive strikes against Barcelona in the 2015 Copa del Rey final, and to knock the Catalans out of the Copa in January 2020. 

Often deployed out wide by previous coaches, since returning last summer Valverde has fixed him at No 9 and has been rewarded with opportunist goals against Cadiz and Almeria in the early weeks of the season.

Williams’ younger brother Nico has followed him through the ranks and both scored in the September win over Rayo Vallecano. In doing so, they became the first siblings to score for Athletic in La Liga since 1957. Inaki, 28, played his first game for Ghana the following weekend, and just 24 hours later Nico, 20, was given a Spain senior debut. 

Dermot Corrigan

As a striker, Williams has never been prolific in the typical sense. His career-high tally of 12 La Liga goals came during the 2018-19 season — the only time that he has hit double figures in a league campaign in Spain.

However, Williams offers so much more than goals. Given his appearance record, reliability has to be his strongest trait, but on the pitch he helps to stitch Athletic Bilbao’s attack together, regularly playing neat, sharp passes to a nearby team-mate (link-up play volume, 93 out of 99) rather than dropping in to play searching long balls upfield (progressive passing, 23 out of 99).

He might not always be the one to score the goals himself, but he is quick to get a shot away when given the chance (shot volume, 92 out of 99). Not only that, his sharp, quick movements can stretch opponent lines and occupy defenders well in dangerous areas (receptions in the box, 81 out of 99), opening up space for others to do their damage.

Having recently committed his allegiance to Ghana, Williams will be hoping that the chance to represent his national team at a major international tournament has been worth the wait.

Mark Carey

Williams is currently tied to Athletic until June 2028, on a long-term deal signed in 2019. That was agreed after Liverpool and Manchester United were among clubs who thought about meeting his then €60million (£52.5m; $62.5m) release clause. 

Although the 28-year-old switched his international allegiance from Spain to Ghana ahead of this year’s World Cup, there is little sign of him making any serious effort to leave San Mames.

Or of clubs realistically contemplating triggering his clause, which is now at €135m.

Dermot Corrigan


Mehdi Taremi is no stranger to Qatar. The striker had a season with Al-Gharafa and won the cup before Rio Ave offered him the chance to play in Europe. Taremi was already 27 and would have earned five times the salary Rio Ave paid him had he stayed.

But he’s convinced he made the right decision.

Taremi proved an instant hit in Portugal, becoming the Primeira Liga’s top scorer in his first season. A “constant headache” for centre-backs, one of Taremi’s first games was emblematic of his mosquito style as he won three penalties against Sporting Lisbon’s Sebastian Coates.

The 18 goals he scored inevitably attracted the attention of the Portuguese giants and a year after backing himself to make an impact in Europe, Taremi was playing Champions League football with Porto.

He has become a cult hero at the Dragao. Before playing Juventus in the 2020 knockout stages he dreamed of scoring an early goal and recalls laughing in his sleep. Taremi scored after 63 seconds, pouncing on a reckless Rodrigo Bentancur backpass that caught Wojciech Szczesny out.

The goal showcased Taremi’s cunning, accenting his nuisance factor. His reputation now precedes him in Portugal and Porto’s coach Sergio Conceicao believes referees don’t give Taremi the benefit of the doubt as he regularly goes down in the penalty area.

But Taremi is so much more than an opportunist. He set up 15 goals for club and country last season and is an underrated playmaker. It’s been a remarkable career up until now. Taremi came close to quitting football twice. He didn’t play in Iran’s top flight until the age of 23 and only moved to Europe aged 27.

Qatar will be Taremi’s second World Cup. It’s a chance to exorcise the ghosts of his 94th-minute miss against Portugal in Saransk four years ago, the chance to win the game and qualify Iran for the knockout stages.

If a similar opportunity comes this winter, Taremi must take it.

James Horncastle

The standards Taremi has set since arriving at Porto have been outstanding, with a return of 36 goals and 23 assists in his first two seasons at the Estadio do Dragao. His non-penalty goals scored so far this season put him at a similar rate of goalscoring, sitting at 0.45 per 90 — nearly one in two.

Looking at his smarterscout profile, you can see that Taremi is not a typical, out-and-out No 9 who plays on the shoulder of the defender (receptions in the opposition, box 25 out of 99) and looks to get a shot away quickly (shot volume, 39 out of 99). 

Instead, he is also adept at dropping in to collect the ball and find runners ahead of him to advance the play (progressive passing, 97 out of 99), getting the ball into dangerous areas when doing so (xG from ball progression, 65 out of 99).

Taremi is somewhere between a No 9 and a No 10 — able to create for others but also get on the end of his team’s attack (xG from shot creation, 68 out of 99). With 28 goals scored in his 60 international appearances for his country, he is one of the key players that head coach Carlos Queiroz will turn to for Iran’s attacking output. 

Mark Carey

Taremi goes into the final year of his contract at the end of this season. He’ll be 31 in the summer and his age probably counts against him in appealing to clubs in the upper echelons of the Premier League.

If the opportunity to come to England were to arise, it’d pose an interesting question: is a switch to a mid-table team really worth it when Porto can guarantee Champions League football and silverware?

Porto have been able to retain their best veterans in recent years, even tying a player as talented as Otavio down to a lucrative new deal. The club has made money from Luis Diaz and selling kids like Fabio Vieira and Vitinha instead. Fans at the Dragao need not say goodbye to Taremi just yet.

James Horncastle


After some unexpected twists and turns, Japan playmaker Takefuso Kubo’s club career has clicked just at the right time for him to star at World Cup 2022.

Kubo started early on the fast track to stardom, joining Barcelona’s La Masia academy aged just 10. At 15 he was back in Japan, becoming both the youngest debutant and scorer ever in the top flight J1 League. By 17, he was representing Japan’s senior side when they played South America’s Copa America as guests. The following year, he was snapped up by Real Madrid. 

Then came those curves, during loan spells at Mallorca, Villarreal, Getafe and Mallorca again. There have been some super moments — he scored one and assisted two on his first Villarreal start and a superb long-range goal saved Getafe from relegation. 

But coaches from Unai Emery to Javier Aguirre could not fit his individual skills into their team setups. Kubo had excellent touch and vision and could make big plays in important moments, but his slight figure was not so much use when his team was defending and he could sometimes drift out of games.

Last summer brought a permanent move to Real Sociedad, where the environment suits him better. La Real tend to have more possession and he can link with like-minded ball-players David Silva and Brais Mendez. He scored on his debut against Cadiz and also starred in September’s 1-0 Europa League win at Manchester United.

The graph shows how his ball-carrying and progressive passing have become outstanding and also how Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil is getting him to work hard off the ball, too.

Still only 21, this will already be his third international tournament with Japan.

Dermot Corrigan

One challenge when analysing Kubo is the positional versatility that he offers. Last season, at Mallorca, 70 per cent of his minutes were as a right-winger or right midfielder, but he has played on either flank, as well as in the No 10 and No 9 roles.

It is in the latter role that he has started this season, so shall be rated against strikers, though naturally, this makes him stand out for his winger traits and shows him as a low-rating striker.

His ability to beat an opponent one-v-one (carry & dribble volume, 77 out of 99) but also pick moments to duel and play forward effectively (ball retention ability, 66 out of 99) are the standout features of his game.

Domestically, he operates as an inverted winger, but for Japan, he normally plays off the left in a 4-2-3-1 and is tasked with being part of their press. His ability to read the game, block passing lanes and spoil opposition build-up stood out, particularly in the friendly win against USMNT (disrupting opposition moves, 96 out of 99).

For Sociedad, he plays in a front two so is not primarily responsible for finishing attacking moves (receptions in opposition box, 11 out of 99; shot volume, 26 out of 99) but to elevate his game further, he does need to enhance his end product (xG from shot creation, 22 out of 99). 

Liam Tharme

Every club that has signed Kubo — from Barcelona through to Real Sociedad — have been well aware of the commercial potential should he fulfil his promise and become a superstar with Japan.

That thinking was also behind how Madrid structured his transfer last summer. The deal saw Sociedad pay a bargain €6.5million (£5.7m; $6.8m), but Madrid retained 50% of the profit on any future sale, so both sides could benefit significantly from a big move.

Should Kubo star at this World Cup and Japan go deep into the tournament, his release clause of €60m will start to look very tempting to other clubs, given the value he could bring both on and off the pitch.

Dermot Corrigan


Kaoru Mitoma was playing university football when a late goal against Belgium cost Japan a place in the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

It has been an eventful journey to Qatar for the 25-year-old left winger, who scored both late goals as a substitute to clinch Japan’s qualification with a 2-0 victory against Australia in Sydney in March.

Mitoma was just a baby when the family moved from Oita, on the island of Kyushu at the western end of Japan. His parents relocated 500 miles north to Kanagawa Prefecture, just south of the capital city of Tokyo, for work reasons.

It was there that Mitoma began playing football with his older brother, joining at the age of 10 the academy of local J1 League club Kawasaki Frontale.

As a teenager he went to the University of Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, to study physical education amid self-doubts about his ability to make a career as a professional footballer.

He needn’t have worried.

Mitoma starred in university football, representing the national team at under-23 level in both the 2018 Asian Cup and 2019 Toulon tournament. He returned to Frontale to sign his first professional contract and hasn’t looked back.

Mitoma’s numbers were sensational in his first season in the J1 League in 2020. Exploiting his pace and direct running, he scored 13 goals and provided 12 assists in 30 appearances.

In doing so he became the first player to reach double figures in goals in his debut campaign in Japan’s top flight since former Newcastle forward Yoshinori Muto for Tokyo FC in 2014.

Brighton saw off competition from other clubs in Europe to sign him for an undisclosed fee in August last year.

Mitoma was immediately loaned for the season to Belgian club Union Saint-Gilloise, who are co-owned by Brighton’s owner-chairman Tony Bloom, to aid the process of securing a work permit. He scored eight goals with four assists in 29 appearances, helping USG finish top of the table in the regular season and to reach the third qualifying round of the Champions League via the play-offs.

His directness has been a real asset for Brighton this season and he was particularly impressive in their 4-1 win against Chelsea in October.

Andy Naylor

Limited minutes in the current campaign means that last season — which Mitoma spent on loan in the top Belgian division —  is the most appropriate sample to assess his statistics.

Playing as an inverted wing-back, his standout statistics underline his biggest strengths: a fast runner and high-quality one-v-one attacker that looks to progress the ball by running with it (carry and dribble volume, 98 out of 99) rather than playing forward passes (progressive passing, just nine out of 99).

At times, Mitoma will play simple one-twos with team-mates to receive the ball behind the defence (link-up play volume, 83 out of 99) and will readily shoot on sight (shot volume, 76 out of 99).

It is notable that Mitoma profiles below average (50 out of 99) in all five defensive metrics, though this may be stylistic in the role he was asked to play last season — geared more towards his actions on the ball than those off it.

Arguably his pace would benefit a front-foot, high-pressing team that demands him to make tackles and regains (ball recoveries & interceptions, 30 out of 99), though this is undoubtedly an area that can be developed by De Zerbi at Brighton. 

Liam Tharme

Mitoma is under contract to Brighton until June 2025.

His career at the Amex Stadium is still in its infancy, having spent his first season in European football on loan at Union Saint-Gilloise.

He was introduced to the Premier League by Graham Potter as an impact substitute early this season before the former head coach’s move to Chelsea in September, but his influence has grown under Roberto De Zerbi.

Andy Naylor


The Ajax central midfielder has become one of the Dutch side’s most important players. Tactically, a lot of Ajax’s play goes through the 25-year-old Mexican. Alvarez is a disciplined holding midfielder and a high-IQ footballer, with a similar profile to Manchester City’s Spanish midfielder Rodri. 

Alvarez is clean on the ball and rarely gives away possession. He’s also a formidable aerial threat on set pieces. Mexico manager Tata Martino visited Alvarez in Amsterdam in August and came away impressed by the midfielder’s stature within the iconic club. 

“Edson is a part of that institution. He’s comfortable and feels important and that’s how he plays,” Martino said. “He talked to me about some offers (from other teams). There have been other offers in the past, too. That’s not only great for the player but also for Mexican football. News like this can be rare.”

Chelsea’s interest in Alvarez during the summer window solidified his rise in world football. He can play in a single or double midfield pivot and he routinely steps into the Ajax and Mexico back lines in between the centre-backs. He has struggled against quicker midfield opposition, but he is capable of covering chunks of space if the game calls for it.

His overall development has taken gigantic strides after playing in every one of Mexico’s World Cup matches four years ago as El Tri’s youngest player.

Now immovable in Ajax’s starting XI, Alvarez is a top player in his position in Europe. He will more than likely captain Mexico if veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s international career ends after Qatar.

Alvarez will have to be at his best in November for a Mexico team that prioritises back line build-up play and controlled possession to dictate tempo. Defensively, Mexico will employ a high press against certain opposition, which makes Alvarez’s positional discipline in midfield paramount to the team’s success. 

Felipe Cardenas

A safe player in possession, physical when defending and popping up with goals, too — Alvarez is everything a quintessential defensive midfielder offers.

It is notable that his proportion of league minutes played has risen steadily since joining Ajax in 2019, from a quarter in his first season (2019-20), to half the season after, then 76 per cent last campaign.

Often he is deployed in a double pivot or at the base of a midfield three. Given their attacking creativity in all positional departments, Alvarez does not need to take risks in possession (ball retention ability, 80 out of 99) and plays safer passes rather than always looking to progress forward (link-up play volume, 89 out of 99). He is a neat left-footed passer and can provide a set-piece threat, too (xG from shot creation, 68 out of 99).

At 6ft 1in he is not outlandishly tall but is often engaged in aerial duels (aerial duels quantity, 99 out of 99) and jumps well — smarterscout ratings quantify him at 78 out of 99 and 81 out of 99 in open-play and set-play aerial duels, respectively.

His five goals in the Eredivisie last season were more than his five seasons before that combined (four). Four of those finishes last season were headed, as was his match-winning goal against Rangers in the Champions League this season, underlining his aerial prowess.

Liam Tharme

Alvarez came close to joining Chelsea in the summer. Were it not for so many of his Ajax team-mates like Antony, Lisandro Martinez and Ryan Gravenberch having already left, he may have been allowed to go, but a deadline-day €50million (£43.8m; $52m) bid was rejected and they signed Denis Zakaria from Juventus on loan instead.

The player was certainly keen for the move, reportedly failing to turn up for training. Head coach Alfred Schreuder said at the time: ”For one day he was feeling very down but yesterday he told me; ’Coach, I am here and I will give 100 per cent again’.”

If he is still at Ajax next summer, Alvarez will have two years remaining on his current contract. Chelsea are likely to come calling again before long.

Tim Spiers


When Raul Jimenez moved from Benfica to Wolves in 2018 it could have been viewed as a downward step in his career, which up to that point hadn’t quite gone as planned when he swapped Mexico for Europe four years earlier to join Atletico Madrid.

Instead, Jimenez flourished at Wolves to such an extent that two years later he was being viewed as one of the most complete strikers in European football.

For two seasons, Jimenez was everything for Wolves and also for Mexico. A goalscorer, a creator, the team’s first defender, technically gifted, intelligent, hard-working, good in the air, excellent at linking play and both devastatingly clinical but also endearingly unselfish. He struck up prolific partnerships at Wolves with Diogo Jota and Adama Traore and was touted as an ideal potential frontman for Real Madrid, Manchester City and Manchester United.

Given his goalscoring prowess in a Wolves team which focused on earning clean sheets as a priority, those links weren’t outlandish. He scored 17 goals in 2018-19 and then, at the peak of his powers, 27 the following season. In 2019 he netted 34 goals for club and country from 65 appearances and was named best player at the 2019 Gold Cup, won by Mexico.

Since November 2020, however, when Jimenez suffered a horrific fractured skull while playing for Wolves against Arsenal, things haven’t quite been the same. Since returning to action at the start of 2021-22, he’s scored only seven times for Wolves in all competitions, plus three for Mexico (all penalties).

With his 3.6 million Twitter followers (more than three times that of the club he plays for) he remains a superstar in Mexico, but can he, aged 31, overcome issues with confidence and rhythm, plus more recent injuries, to make an impact on this World Cup?

His nous, his endeavour and his touch are all still there and as the graphic shows, he’s never been a wayward finisher, it’s just the sharpness that’s been in question since his comeback.

Jimenez’s desire to perform for his country has also never been in doubt.

Tim Spiers

The post-injury drop off that has been so clear to the eye is also borne out in the statistics.

Looking at his numbers from last season, Jimenez’s ability to contribute in non-goalscoring phases of the game still remains — he rated above average in multiple defensive metrics, most strongly in his defending intensity (79 out of 99), which is a reflection of the repeated nature of his pressing.

High ratings in link-up play volume (77 out of 99), particularly when compared to an average progressive passing rating (53 out of 99), shows that he tends to play shorter, neater passes, but this is also a reflection of Wolves’ counter-attacking style — Jimenez’s role would often be to receive forward passes and bring team-mates into play.

The biggest area to improve on is in front of goal. His non-penalty goal and assist rates were better than one every two games in 2018-19 (0.52 per 90) and 2019-20 (0.53 per 90) but dropped down to slightly below one in three last season (0.31 per 90). 

His trademark goal became a one-touch finish from an Adama Traore cross, with Traore assisting him seven times in the 2019-20 season — the most fruitful attacking combination in the league.

Across the 212 minutes played in this Premier League season, Jimenez has taken seven shots and is yet to find the back of the net.

Liam Tharme

Jimenez is contracted to Wolves until 2024, when he’ll be 33 years old. He recently suggested he’d be open to extending that deal – he’s made a life in Wolverhampton with his partner Daniela and their two children – but has also hinted one day he’d like to end his career in Mexico. His form over the next 18 months will dictate when that is.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Jimenez will play for another club in England or maybe even in Europe now, unless Wolves sign a striker to replace him.

Tim Spiers


There are players whose World Cup performances turn them into national team icons and globally recognisable footballers. They’re almost always goalscorers, too. Think Salvatore Schillaci’s unexpected rise for the Azzurri at Italia 90. Oleg Salenko’s six goals for Russia at USA 94 made him a World Cup star. Or James Rodriguez’s spectacular form and golden boot-winning exploits for Colombia in 2014. 

Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, 37, has become a World Cup star by keeping goals out of the net. He will attend his fifth World Cup this winter, and in doing so, will try to match his memorable performances in 2014 and 2018.

Ochoa excels as a close-range shot-stopper. He’s not an acrobatic goalkeeper. Rather, he uses his awareness and experience to position himself appropriately both during the run of play and on dead balls. 

In the second group match against hosts Brazil eight years ago, Ochoa faced 14 shots. He made six saves that day, many of them were pure reflex saves from point-blank range inside a rabid Arena Castelao in Fortaleza.

Ochoa batted Neymar’s header away in the first half, then thwarted the Brazil superstar again from inside the six-yard box later on. With the score tied 0-0 in the 86th minute, Ochoa came up with a massive reflex save from a Thiago Silva header from point-blank range. 

In the opening group match against Germany at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Ochoa again stood tall against a former world champion. He faced 26 shots, nine on target, and made a tremendous save on Toni Kroos’ well-struck free kick, denying the Germans the equaliser. 

When @yosoy8a kept Brazil at bay in 2014 🧤#TBT | @miseleccionmxEN pic.twitter.com/vZiVZ3vQbw

— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) January 2, 2020

Ochoa told reporters in September that he would like to play in a record sixth World Cup in 2026. Mexico will co-host the tournament with the United States and Canada, thus skipping an arduous qualifying cycle.

First, Ochoa will have to turn back the clock in Qatar and perform at a level that the world now expects from him.

Felipe Cardenas

Quantifying and visualising the saves made by one of the greatest World Cup goalkeepers in recent memory makes for compelling viewing.

In World Cup qualifying, expected goals data measures Ochoa’s shotstopping as preventing close to five additional goals more than the average goalkeeper would typically make.

They are by no means a perfect measure of goalkeeping ability — because it also requires a good defence — but he kept eight clean sheets in 13 qualifying appearances, only bettered by Canada’s Milan Borjan (nine).

He does not profile outstandingly as a goalkeeper beyond his six-yard box. FBref data have it that Ochoa stopped just under 10 per cent of crosses at the 2018 World Cup. While that is a small sample size, it is bettered by 12 other goalkeepers at the tournament — he prefers to save shots from crosses rather than deal with the initial delivery.

Liam Tharme

Ochoa’s contract with Club America will end in December with discussions ongoing between the player and team, according to reports in Mexico. Ochoa will certainly have suitors in MLS and he’d be a high-profile, marketable athlete in the States. Clarity on his future may not come until just before or immediately after the World Cup.

Club America suffered a shock defeat to Toluca in the Liga MX play-off semi-finals in October, spoiling Ochoa’s quest for a second league title.

At this point, Ochoa is more likely to renew for another season and remain part of the club’s CONCACAF Champions League campaign.

Felipe Cardenas


Youssef En-Nesyri is at his best when he can use his physical gifts to trouble opposition defences with his work both on and off the ball. Very tall at 6ft 4in and agile, En-Nesyri can play across the attack but has mostly featured at centre-forward for Sevilla and Morocco. 

Born in Fez in June 1997, En-Nesyri developed in Morocco in the Mohammed VI Academy and had a trial at Chelsea before joining the youth system of La Liga side Malaga aged 18. Given a senior debut by then Malaga coach Juande Ramos at the start of 2016-17, he established himself the following year with four goals in 28 games. 

When Malaga were relegated in 2018, he joined Leganes, where he often led the line for a team that sat deep and looked to counter, so 11 goals in 34 games was an excellent return. His reputation was enhanced the following November by a fine strike against Barcelona, racing beyond Gerard Pique and smashing past Marc-Andre ter Stegen. 

En-Nesyri was ready to move up a level, and in January 2020, Sevilla paid his €20million (£17.4m ;$20.7m) release clause. His first full season at the Sanchez Pizjuan brought another leap forward, as he rampaged his way to 24 goals in all competitions, providing a touch of the unexpected as the focal point of Julen Lopetegui’s very structured side. Over the past 12 months the goals have dried up and he has never been one to come deep to get involved in the build-up.

Since making his senior debut for Morocco in August 2016, En-Nesyri has been a regular starter up front. The most memorable of his 14 senior international goals was a towering header against Spain in a 2-2 draw at the 2018 World Cup. He also scored a similarly powerful close-range header as Morocco beat Malawi in the last 16 of the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations.

Dermot Corrigan

Looking at En-Nesyri’s smarterscout profile from last campaign, it is clear that the Moroccan is not high volume in his actions on the pitch, and is unlikely to get involved in his side’s build-up (link-up play volume, 42 out of 99). 

His 23.5 touches per 90 put him in the bottom one per cent for forwards in La Liga last season, which highlights where his role lies for his team — the finisher. En Nesyri will reserve his actions for the top end of the field, where he will stay in dangerous areas (receptions in the opposition box, 97 out of 99) and look to get a shot away quickly (shot volume, 98 out of 99). Think Olivier Giroud or a prime Jamie Vardy, in that regard.

A return of 18 La Liga goals in 2020-21 did dry up to five goals in the 2021-22 campaign (xG from shot creation, 37 out of 99) in what was an injury-plagued season. Where his expected goals per 90 was previously in the region of chances worthy of one goal in two games, the past 18 months have been closer to one in four games.

If he can put his injuries behind him, there’s no reason why En Nesyri cannot make a big impact for his country on the biggest stage.

Mark Carey

During his first 18 months at Sevilla, the €20m paid to Leganes for En-Nesyri’s signature looked like a typical coup by their sporting director Monchi and he was widely expected to be sold on at a big profit. 

Sevilla were expecting to double their money during the summer of 2021 and Premier League clubs Wolves and West Ham were willing to pay the €40m.

But En-Nesyri himself was not tempted by either option, which would have meant dropping down from the Champions League.

Then he got injured and is yet to recover his top form. Even as Premier League clubs were splashing cash everywhere last summer, there were no serious offers received. 

A good World Cup may turn the situation around again and Sevilla could be open to selling to reinvest elsewhere in their squad. 

Dermot Corrigan


It’s not known whether Bayern Munich scouted 804 right-backs before deciding on Noussair Mazraoui, as Manchester United did with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but their search certainly felt extensive and drawn out.

“It’s a difficult market, the whole of Europe is looking for a player of his type,” Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic said after signing the 25-year-old in the summer.

For years, the Germans had yearned for an attacking, technically gifted right-back who could pick up the mantle from Philipp Lahm. In Mazraoui, they might have just found one. 

The former Ajax player used to be a midfielder in his youth, which shows in his profile. He’s a good and frequent passer with a tendency to take up useful positions on the inside in the final third: few full-backs are better at receiving progressive passes at this level (he’s in the 99th percentile for that according to FBref). 

Interestingly, he’s been much more effective as a “target man” in advanced combinations than as a provider, let alone a goalscorer. His final ball, in particular, could be a lot better. Bayern will look for more tangible attacking output in the second half of the season from him. 

Out of possession, he really loves a tackle, just like Wan-Bissaka. A game average of 4.3 puts him top of the pile against his peers in the same position. But he’s not particularly good at blocking shots. Judging from his relatively late breakthrough at this level — he has only been a top-flight regular for four years  — there’s still plenty of room for progress.

Raphael Honigstein

Mazraoui has been limited to just six Bundesliga starts this season, so it feels more appropriate to look at exactly why Bayern Munich brought him to Germany in the summer.

At Ajax, Mazraoui’s numbers stand out in nearly all departments. Playing for such a dominant side, his passes were most often kept simple (link-up play volume, 93 out of 99), keeping the ball at a very high rate for a right-back (ball retention ability, 79 out of 99). 

The Moroccan has energy to drive forward with the ball (carry and dribble volume, 74 out of 99), with his sleight build helping him to get away from his opponent and advance the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 87 out of 99).

Coming from one dominant side in the Netherlands to another in Germany has meant little adjustment for Mazraoui, but having the ball so often does not mean that he does not know how to defend. 

As you can see by his profile, Mazraoui uses that same attacking energy to work back, pick up loose balls and block passing lanes (ball recover and interceptions, 95 out of 99), with a real propensity to make front-foot defensive actions (disrupting opposition moves, 72 out of 99) — a trait he is seemingly successful in when preventing the opponent from progressing further (defending impact, 82 out of 99).

Strong in defence, strong in attack. Mazraoui is the personification of a modern full-back.

Mark Carey

Bayern Munich brought in Mazraoui on a free transfer from Ajax last summer. The deal was concluded early in spring and saw the 25-year-old sign a four-year deal worth about €150,000 a week in the Bavarian capital.

Barcelona had also been keen on him but the Catalans lost out to Bayern in a reversal of the two clubs’ pursuit of USMNT right-back Sergino Dest a year earlier.

In line with Bayern’s long-standing club policy, there’s no release clause in the Moroccan’s contract. 

Raphael Honigstein


Ronald Koeman, who coached Frenkie de Jong for the Netherlands and Barcelona, once said that the 25-year-old midfielder’s best quality is patience: “In a lot of situations, he has the ability to postpone the decision when in possession, then to give a pass from which everyone thinks, ‘Hell yeah. Excellent thinking — that’s how simple it can be’.” 

De Jong has a few favourite ways of buying himself time on the ball. One is to drop deep, typically to the left of his centre-backs, where he has room to face play and start his team’s possessions. Another is using slippery turns and athleticism to escape pressure. But the most famous way that De Jong delays a pass is to take off dribbling full speed through midfield like a man on fire, turning defenders to ash as he goes.

His freewheeling style hasn’t always suited his club. De Jong turned down a high-profile courtship from Manchester United last summer to stay at Barcelona, only to find himself second choice behind 34-year-old Sergio Busquets and 18-year-old Gavi. Still, he’s never stopped being a star in the Netherlands, where he came up with Ajax, and he’ll be the beating heart of the Dutch midfield at the World Cup. 

In the 3-5-2 that Louis van Gaal has switched the Oranje to this year, De Jong has maximal freedom to swim around midfield like a shark, as his former Ajax manager Erik ten Hag once described him. Sometimes that means patiently dictating the passing game at the back and other times it means popping up in front of goal, where he’s got a knack for well-timed attacking runs.

If there’s a moment you’ll remember De Jong for, though, chances are it’ll be one of those marathon carries when defenders seem to bounce off him and the midfield unfurls like an open green meadow for a blond boy to run through. 

Hell yeah, you’ll think. That’s how simple it can be.

John Muller

To box De Jong into one position is to only tell half the story of the footballer he is. Therefore, it’s more useful to look at his smarterscout profile at the multiple positions he’s played for Barcelona. And while his minutes are understandably lower this season, his profile does still highlight his key traits as a midfielder. 

At his best, De Jong is a press-resistant, ball-carrying midfielder that can advance forward and attack the opposition goal (receptions in the opposition box, 48 out of 99), or work in deeper areas and influence play through bursts of pace or pinpoint lofted balls to find runners in space.

Whatever his position might be, his outstanding trait comes in his adventurous dribbling into the opposition half, attracting defenders and breaking lines as he strives forward, as seen by the volume in which he dribbles and carries (96 out of 99). In doing so, he doesn’t take the responsibility of retaining the ball lightly (ball retention ability, 90 out 99), instead he maintains the patience to postpone his decision to pick the correct pass. De Jong’s passing can also be utilised in quick passing triangles to play sharp, short passes to his team-mates to quicken up play (link-up play volume, 85 out of 99). 

He’s a menace in defence, able to recover and intercept the ball well (67 out of 99) and disrupt opposition moves in the process (59 out of 99). 

The confusion of what exactly his role is at Barcelona has somewhat stifled his numbers, but the excellence of the Dutch player is still there and will no doubt be an important component of their midfield.

Maram AlBaharna

This is a weird one.

Barcelona have not hidden their desire to offload the Dutch midfielder, whose contract is inflated by the salary deferrals signed by former president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

However, De Jong does not want to leave Spain. The midfielder and his family are enjoying life in Barcelona and he’s playing for the club he dreamt about as a child.

The last salary deferral De Jong signed, in 2020, included a one-year extension that sees his current deal end in summer 2026. It’s to be expected that Barcelona will try to renegotiate his terms again in the future but this prospect wasn’t entertained by the player’s camp last summer, which makes it increasingly likely the Catalans could still consider a sale.

His release clause is set at €400m but Barcelona were open for an €85m sale to Manchester United last summer.

“I remained calm last summer because I always wanted to stay at Barcelona,” De Jong said in the latest international break.

For now, nothing has dampened De Jong’s determination to succeed at Camp Nou.

Pol Ballus


Louis van Gaal wants the Netherlands full-backs to act like hands on a steering wheel. Gripping an invisible one on Dutch broadcaster NOS in September, Van Gaal drove home his point. ”If Denzel Dumfries goes forward,” he said, turning the ghost wheel, ”Tyrell Malacia stays back. If Malacia goes forward, Dumfries stays back.” 

Park that in your memory for when the Oranje play Senegal on November 21. Dumfries was one of the few silver linings under Van Gaal’s predecessor Frank de Boer at Euro 2020. He scored a dramatic late winner in a five-goal thriller against Ukraine and sealed victory a few days later against Austria, too. 

His performances captured the imagination of then-Italian champions Inter Milan, who cashed in big on Achraf Hakimi in order to balance the books. Dumfries represented a bargain at €13.7m from PSV Eindhoven and while he couldn’t match the Morocco international’s offensive production, he didn’t disappoint either. 

Only Milan’s Theo Hernandez, Lazio’s Manuel Lazzari and Dumfries’ understudy Raoul Bellanova were quicker in his position and Simone Inzaghi used the Dutchman’s height and leap to create mismatches at the far post, usually through wing-back to wing-back crosses. 

The 26-year-old has continued to pose a threat for the Netherlands under Van Gaal, scoring in the impressive 4-1 win over Belgium in the Nations League and knocking down a half-space cross from Frenkie de Jong at the back stick for Steven Bergwijn’s equaliser against Germany.

Considering Inter’s history of letting go top full-backs to make ends meet — it’s enough to think of Roberto Carlos and Joao Cancelo before we even get to Hakimi — it frankly wouldn’t come as surprise if Dumfries were next. 

James Horncastle

Van Gaal’s system switch to a 3-4-1-2 brings out the very best in Dumfries because it facilitates more attacking actions and gives him the license to utilise his straight-line speed — the exact role he plays on a weekly basis for Inter. Against North Macedonia at Euro 2020, he clocked a top speed of 32.8km per hour — among the top 20 fastest players at the tournament.

He provides a significant crossing threat from high up on the right flank, able to chip or curl the ball into team-mates for one-touch finishes (xG from shot creation, 91 out of 99). Dumfries locks off the back post well when crosses come from the opposite flank, netting five goals last season (shot volume, 84 out of 99 and receptions in opposition box, 97 out of 99).

For a player who plays so direct in attack, he keeps possession at a good rate (ball retention ability, 55 out of 99) but does most of his ball progression through passes (progressive passing, 76 out of 99) rather than carries (carry & dribble volume, 50 out of 99).

At 6ft 2in he offers a strong aerial presence in both boxes, with smarterscout duel data rating him highly in open-play headers (92 out of 99) and set-play headers (84 out of 99).  

Liam Tharme

Inter sold Achraf Hakimi to PSG for €66.5m in 2021 to help balance the books. Dumfries was identified as his successor prior to an impressive European Championship with the Netherlands and the €13.7m purchase price from PSV represented shrewd business for a club renowned for overspending. 

The contract Dumfries signed protects Inter until 2025, but the precarious state of the club’s finances and chance to sell high after buying low makes the 27-year-old relatively easy to make a profit on.  

James Horncastle


There is a certain category of footballer in Europe which major clubs love to pore over: players who are precocious, loaded with potential and some way short of their peak. They are ripe for development and, if all goes to plan, they can offer terrific resale value further down the line.

Gakpo fits that mould perfectly and the high expectations around him were responsible for the late scramble for his signature at the end of the transfer window in August. Leeds United flew their director of football, Victor Orta, to the Netherlands to try to land the winger on the day before the deadline and several other Premier League clubs took a close look at him, Manchester United and Southampton included.

PSV Eindhoven held firm, though, and refused to sell him, partly because they were unsatisfied with the offers they received but also because they could see that another strong domestic season in the Eredivisie combined with a good performance for the Netherlands at the World Cup would send Gakpo’s value rocketing.

Gakpo, 23, has kept up one-half of that bargain, piling up goals and assists this season and he is almost the perfect wide forward, blessed with pace but also benefiting from a tall and powerful physique that makes him difficult to defend against.

Crucially, his size does not impinge on either his acceleration or his agility and he is very good at seeing and using space — one might say quintessentially Dutch when it comes to showing footballing intelligence.

He creates consistently, he scores consistently and it was said that one of the reasons he was willing to remain at PSV in August was because the Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal warned him that irregular minutes elsewhere would seriously threaten his chances of a World Cup call-up.

In short, if he did not feature enough for his club, he would not be on the plane to Qatar. Gakpo’s subsequent form for PSV meant there was little or no chance of Van Gaal leaving him out.

He is genuinely one to follow in this tournament.

Phil Hay

After 12 goals and 12 assists in the Eredivisie last season, Gakpo has gone up another level in his attacking output — averaging 1.7 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 for PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie.

You can see from his smarterscout profile how highly Gakpo contributes to his team’s chances (xG from shot creation, 97 out of 99) compared with his left-wing peers. Give him the ball and he will advance the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 98 out of 99) — most commonly from his eye for a pass or using those long legs to drive upfield (carry and dribble volume, 47 out of 99).

While Gakpo isn’t used quite in the same way for his country as he is for his club, he will be going to Qatar full of confidence, knowing he can affect the game with his creativity and goalscoring ability. 

Give him space to exploit and he will punish you.

Mark Carey

Gakpo’s contract situation at PSV reflects the amount of interest in him.

Rumours about him moving on have been rife for a while and PSV tried to dampen them last season by agreeing new terms with him in January, lengthening the expiry date from 2025 to 2026.

That extension did very little to quell approaches for him and PSV were hopeful that having repelled bids from Leeds and others in the recent window, they would be able to negotiate improved terms with Gakpo again — potentially making him the highest-paid player in their history.

That has not happened to date and it seems apparent that Gakpo is in the final throes of his time in Eindhoven. His stock is rising and future approaches are inevitable.

It would be something of a surprise, to say the least, if he was not elsewhere by this time next year.

Phil Hay


Teun Koopmeiners used to have a Thierry Henry poster on his bedroom wall but, growing up in Castricum, he never made it as a striker. Only two years old when France won the Euros in Rotterdam, Koopmeiners became a midfielder and like so many kids of that generation, he channelled Zinedine Zidane on the playground. “Elegance personified,” he said. 

Koopmeiners came through at AZ Alkmaar, where he distinguished himself as a left-footed all-rounder. He was named Eredivisie Player of the Year in 2021 with AZ level on points with Ajax when the decision was taken to curtail the season because of the pandemic. 

Atalanta’s best-in-class recruitment network weren’t the only ones to identify Koopmeiner’s talent, which was already mainstream in scouting circles. Competition to sign him was fierce and they were quicker than other clubs to get a deal worth €14m agreed with AZ. Compatriots Hans Hateboer and Marten de Roon, who have been in Bergamo for years, advised him to make the move but Atalanta’s reputation as a Champions League club that develops players spoke for itself. 

Koopmeiners needed time to adapt and assert himself in a finely tuned team with an excellent midfield tandem in de Roon and Remo Freuler. It meant he often found himself further forward in the Mario Pasalic role as one of the players between the lines in Atalanta’s 3-4-2-1. 

The sale of Freuler to Nottingham Forest this summer cleared a pathway for Koopmeiners and he has relished the responsibility. Only Napoli winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia started the season better in Serie A. Koopmeiners was involved in five goals in Atalanta’s first six games, including a hat-trick against Torino. 

It was the first one scored by a Dutchman in Serie A since Marco van Basten in 1992. Admittedly two of the goals were from the penalty spot, but Koopmeiners is also finding the net from distance. Let’s see if he gets into double figures as he did in his final couple of seasons with AZ. 

Louis van Gaal has rarely played Koopmeiners and de Roon together for the Netherlands, alternating one with the other in a midfield featuring Frenkie de Jong. 

Raving about Koopmeiners, Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini, who modelled his own philosophy on van Gaal’s mid-90s Ajax, said: “Teun is definitely a central midfielder but you have to let him get forward. He’s got real shooting ability and gets into the box. He knows what you have to do in the middle, how to cover his backline and attack. He’s very powerful, a complete midfield player.”  

James Horncastle

One of Koopmeiners’s key qualities is his long-range passing. He frequently looks to play the ball forward (progressive passing, 99 out of 99) and has a delightful ability to dictate the tempo and pick out players making runs ahead of him. 

With such long passes attempted, his success rate is not always going to be on the money (ball retention ability, 8 out of 99), but his higher risk, higher reward actions certainly help progress his team into advanced areas (xG from ball progression, 88 out of 99). 

Koopmeiners does offer a lot from an attacking perspective and gets forward more than most defensive midfielders (receptions in the opposition box, 78 out of 99). For someone with such a sweet left foot, it is unsurprising that the 24-year-old is quick to shoot when he gets a sight of goal — with a healthy return of eight Serie A goals since the start of last season.

A progressive midfielder with an eye for goal — Koopmeiners is approaching his peak years in the colours of Atalanta.

Mark Carey

Koopmeiners has been in Bergamo a little over a year and signed a long-term deal with an option until 2026. 

Considering Atalanta have made their best-ever start to a season and are able to focus exclusively on the league in the absence of European football, they appear primed to return to the Champions League. Playing in the competition as a starter will appeal to the player and the revenue it brings will help Atalanta resist offers for Koopmeiners. 

The club has been able to keep its best players for longer in recent years and it’s hoped the takeover by Steve Pagliuca makes six seasons of overperformance under Gasperini the norm rather than the extraordinary.

Getting players out of Atalanta is never cheap and the same will be true of Koopmeiners. Expect the Bergamaschi to sell Ruslan Malinovskyi first.

James Horncastle


“I wasn’t nearly as far along as he is now (at the same age). I have nothing but praise for him. He is a great player and a true professional.”

That was Virgil van Dijk speaking about Timber during the last international break, back in September, when Timber won caps number nine and 10 for his country.  

Quick, strong, comfortable on the ball and particularly impressive in one-on-one duels, Timber has everything in place to become one of the world’s top defenders. His ascent has been rapid – he only made his debut for Ajax in March 2020 – and that progress is testament to his desire to learn as well as his innate ability.

Talk about his aggressive defending and athleticism to those on the inside at Ajax and they are quick to point out how hard Timber worked on his coordination and agility during his time in the youth team, but also how much he gleaned from playing alongside Lisandro Martinez, who signed for Manchester United this summer. The enjoyment and satisfaction that Martinez got from winning tackles was infectious. 

That’s reflected in his duel ratings from smarterscout — which account for the strength of the opponent faced. You can see just how often Timber comes out on top when engaging in a tackle.

Born in Utrecht, Timber initially came through the academy system at Feyenoord before moving to Ajax along with his twin brother, Quinten, who has since returned to his hometown club.

He can operate at right-back as well as centre-back, but the latter is seen as a more natural position for him. Excellent technically, there is a calmness about his play on the ball – he is confident stepping out and breaking lines as well as turning away from an opponent when pressed.

After featuring in three of the Netherlands’ four games at Euro 2020, Timber went on to enjoy a superb season at Ajax, where he won the club’s Talent of the Year award in 2021-22.

His potential is huge.

Stuart James

Timber is not the tallest centre-back and his aerial duels ratings in open-play (23 out of 99) and set-plays (17 out of 99) suggest he could be targeted in the air. However, what he may lack in height he makes up for in aggression and front-foot defending. 

He won’t go flying into challenges per se (disrupting opposition moves, 55 out of 99), but is likely to get tight to his man (defending intensity, 70 out of 99), read the play, and prevent his opponent from progressing further up the pitch (defending impact, 51 out of 99).

On the ball, Timber is happy to leave any progressive actions to his team-mates (progressive passing, 1 out of 99), instead preferring to keep his passes simple on the ball (link-up play volume, 99 out of 99), allowing him to keep possession at a highly impressive rate (ball retention ability, 93 out of 99).

He is high-volume, comfortable on the ball, and essential to his side’s build-up. At just 21 years old, you can expect his trajectory to only go one way.

Mark Carey

After months of speculation about his future, including, inevitably, interest from Manchester United, Timber signed a new three-year contract with Ajax in August.

“Feeling it made the difference. But there’s a plan, too,” Timber said. “Making a decision like that by yourself is not easy. That’s why I also needed the people around me. It’s been a hectic summer.”

Louis van Gaal had waded into the reports of United’s interest by suggesting it was “not so wise” to move to Old Trafford – the Netherlands coach seemed to imply that Timber would not be a guaranteed starter. Timber, however, dismissed any suggestion that Van Gaal advised him against signing. 

The suspicion lingers that Timber will get his move next summer and that Ajax, as part of the player’s decision to stay for another year, will not stand in his way. A strong showing at the World Cup finals would only add to the interest.

Stuart James


Whereas the other prolific goalscorers of this era — Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — have been dogged with the ”Will they win the World Cup?” question, Robert Lewandowski’s Poland has never been a serious contender.

The question for Lewandowski is somewhat simpler: can he score at the World Cup?

Seventy-six goals into his international career, Lewandowski hasn’t yet scored on the biggest stage. He’s scored at three European Championships, but in his only previous World Cup appearance, four years ago, he failed to register. 

No one seriously thinks the World Cup is too big for Lewandowski, of course, considering his astonishing goal return with Dortmund, Bayern and now Barcelona.

But there is unfinished business at this tournament, particularly considering Poland haven’t progressed from the group stage since 1986. In two of the three tournaments before that, they reached the semi-finals. In that light, their all-time greatest player’s inability to reach the knockout stage could be considered a little underwhelming.

Poland are perhaps less intimidating than in previous tournaments. They weren’t overwhelmingly impressive in qualification and were handed a slice of luck when Russia’s disqualification meant they progressed through to the ‘final’ of the qualifying tournament. Their Nations League performance was also underwhelming, including a 6-1 loss to Belgium. 

Lewandowski has sometimes taken on a slightly deeper role for country than club, particularly when Poland have boasted others able to play high up against the opposition defence, but Czeslaw Michniewicz’s tendency to beef up his midfield means Lewandowski will probably be leading the line and be waiting for service.

With Ronaldo’s slight decline and Harry Kane increasingly playing a deeper role, Lewandowski is perhaps the best penalty-box player in the tournament.

One goal and progression to the knockout phase is a modest target for a player of his quality.

Michael Cox

Lewandowski is, without a doubt, one of the top goalscorers in the game, and that’s just as obvious when looking at his smarterscout profile. The metric that jumps out at first glance is his enormous attacking output, constantly testing the goalkeeper at the soonest opportunity (shot volume, 92 out of 99). 

By positioning himself advantageously in advanced areas (receptions in the opposition box, 83 out of 99) and running into gaps in the opposition backline, he is able to contribute strongly to his team’s attack, whether that is creating or taking the shots himself (xG from shot creation, 97 out of 99). 

Lewandowski won’t play searching balls upfield (progressive passing, 38 out of 99) or dribble too often (carry and dribble volume, 54 out of 99), but he is secure on the ball in the moments that he does receive it (ball retention ability, 84 out of 99) — often looking to keep the play ticking (link-up play volume, 69 out of 99). When he does so, he manages to create a decent amount of danger from moving the ball into advanced areas (xG from ball progression, 63 out of 99). 

He isn’t shy out of possession either, able to be proactive when it comes to tackling, blocking and clearing to win the ball back and counter (disrupting opposition moves, 84 out of 99). 

Quite simply one of the most deadly strikers in the world in recent years.

Maram AlBaharna

Barcelona signed him on a four-year contract last summer and by the time that ends he will be 38 years old.  

He has a release clause set at €500m but it’s fair to say it’s highly unlikely any club is going to trigger that for a player his age. 

Last September, Catalan media revealed Barcelona will have the option to end his contract after the third year but only if Lewandowski does not feature in more than 55 per cent of their games in the 2024-25 season.

Pol Ballus


In England there has long been a debate about whether a player as talented as Trent Alexander-Arnold should give up playing full-back and move into midfield. The same has been said of Nicola Zalewski, the revelation of last season’s Serie A, in part because he came through Roma’s academy as a No 10 only to get his big break in the first team as a left wing-back. 

Both examples encourage us to judge players on the roles they perform rather than the position they play. Zalewski, for instance, doesn’t have to occupy the same zone of the pitch Francesco Totti prowled for Roma in order to be a playmaker. 

The 20-year-old was born in Poli, a 45-minute drive from the Eternal City and has dual nationality. His parents are Polish and Zalewski cried upon making his debut for the national team against San Marino. His father passed away shortly afterwards. Jose Mourinho and Roma’s senior players Lorenzo Pellegrini and Gianluca Mancini attended the funeral. 

A difficult year off the pitch was unexpectedly outstanding on it. Mourinho turned to Zalewski when Roma were 2-0 down at home to Verona in February and watched as he helped turn a defeat into a spirited draw.

Zalewski has been in the team ever since and, in addition to Chris Smalling’s return from injury last spring, helped Mourinho balance Roma in such a way that they were able to win the club its first trophy in 14 years.

He set up goals in the quarter-final and semi-final of the Conference League, his bursts of acceleration, long carries and trequartista instincts a thorn in Bodo-Glimt’s and Leicester’s sides. 

After beating competition from Copa Libertadores winner Matias Vina for starts last season, many expected Zalewski to deputise for Leonardo Spinazzola now the Italy international is back from the ruptured Achilles he suffered at Euro 2020.

Think again.

Zalewski has been outstanding and the combination of him and Napoli’s No 10 Piotr Zielinski off Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik for Poland is tantalising. 

James Horncastle

A greater reflection of Zalewski’s playing profile can be seen more clearly last season. 

Predominantly from a left wing-back position, Zalewski’s key trait is his intention to run with the ball at his feet (carry and dribble volume, 76 out of 99) — channelling his skills honed as a left winger in Roma’s academy. Per FBref, his 3.4 dribbles attempted per 90 placed him in the top five per cent of full-backs in Serie A last season.

The attacking threat that got Zalewski to the first team will no doubt eventually shine through in his numbers, as his actions last season did not contribute hugely to Roma’s overall chances (xG from shot creation, 35 out of 99).

Nevertheless, the energy that Zalewski offers off the ball will have stood him in good stead with Jose Mourinho, showing a keen desire to get out to his man to close him down (defending intensity, 81 out of 99) — underpinned by his 20.3 pressures per 90 placing him in the top five per cent of full-backs in Serie A last season. 

That energy is channelled well, with Zalewski regularly picking up loose balls (ball recoveries and interception, 98 out of 99) and making defensive actions when he is the required defender (disrupting opposition moves, 97 out of 99).

With such little expectation placed on Zalewski after his breakout season in 2021-22, he now has a perfect foundation to build from this campaign. His versatility will be a key weapon for club and country.

Mark Carey

At the club since he was 10, Zalewski signed his first professional contract with Roma and penned a new deal until 2024 when he began training with the first team. The final year of that contract is nearing and it’s natural for Roma to start thinking about opening fresh negotiations. 

If it wasn’t a priority this time last season, it quickly became one on the strength of Zalewski’s performances and his burgeoning status as the revelation in Roma’s run to the Conference League final. 

His background as a No 10 and ability to play as a wing-back on either flank adds to his appeal. As with Nicolo Zaniolo, Roma would like to avoid a situation whereby an expiring contract diminishes the value of one of their best assets. 

James Horncastle


Diogo Costa is not yet a household name outside Portugal, but it is only a matter of time before that changes. The Porto youngster is, by common consensus, one of the most promising goalkeepers in Europe and may be an unexpected breakout star in Qatar this winter.

Costa made his senior debut in 2019 but really came to the fore in 2020-21, when he was called into the side to stand in for the injured Agustin Marchesin. He seized his opportunity with both hands, putting in a series of convincing displays as Porto romped to the league title. By the end of the campaign, he had kept 15 clean sheets and been elected the goalkeeper of the season.

It is not hard to see what the fuss is about. Costa is an excellent all-rounder but has two particularly notable strings to his bow. The first is his ability to play out from the back. Costa is comfortable with the ball at his feet and excels in his distribution, both at short range and over longer distances. Case in point: his stunning assist for Wenderson Galeno in Porto’s Champions League victory over Bayer Leverkusen in October. 

The second is his unflappable nature: he is focused, calm and always seems to make the right decision. Not all young goalkeepers exude an overwhelming sense of security, but Costa does.

In Portugal, the expectation is that the 23-year-old will start for the national team at the World Cup. There is also a growing feeling that Costa is a global star in the making, a true generational talent. 

”He’s the most impressive Portuguese goalkeeper since Vitor Baia,” says Pedro Cunha, the editor of the ZeroZero website and a long-time follower of Porto. ”He already plays like a goalkeeper who has 15 years of Champions League experience behind him.

”He is so complete. He will be one of the best goalkeepers in the world very soon.”

Jack Lang

Costa is everything that a modern-day goalkeeper should be — a strong shot-stopper who is also comfortable on the ball and can start attacks for his team.

When looking at Costa’s shot-stopping performance in European competitions since the start of last season, his overall performance is just about par for the quality of shots he has faced (xGOT) when considering his “goals prevented” output. Put simply, he has saved the shots he was expected to save and conceded the shots he was expected to concede, on average.

This may seem an unremarkable statement, but that level of consistency for a 23-year-old goalkeeper playing in Europe’s biggest competition is certainly something to be admired.

Playing in a position where consistency is especially key, Costa plays with a maturity that defies his tender age for a goalkeeper. Plenty of eyes will be on him if he does start for Portugal in the World Cup and he has the opportunity to elevate his status to another level this winter.

Mark Carey

Costa renewed his contract with Porto a year ago, committing himself to the club until 2026.

That new deal raised his buyout clause from €30million to €60million — big money, but perhaps not enough to deter potential buyers for long if he continues to impress.

When one of Europe’s biggest clubs is next in the market for a goalkeeper, Costa will almost certainly be near the top of their shopping list. 

Jack Lang


“I’m already in love with Joao Felix,” The Athletic overheard one Atletico Madrid supporter say in the stands only 15 minutes into the youngster’s debut following his €126million move from Benfica in 2019. 

Three years later the 23-year-old Portugal forward is widely acknowledged as one of Europe’s most talented young players, but has still to make the expected step up to superstar status either for his club or his country. 

People have always been falling in love with Joao Felix. In 2016-17 he led Benfica’s under-19s team to the UEFA Youth League final. The following season he became the Portuguese second tier’s youngest player, youngest goal scorer, then youngest hat-trick scorer.

By 2018-19 he was leading Benfica’s senior side to the Portuguese league title, scoring 20 goals in all competitions, including a stunning Europa League hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt. 

There have been fewer standout highlights at Atletico, but there have been regular moments of magic and he did contribute to their surprise 2020-21 La Liga title victory.

Speaking with The Athletic for our My Game in My Words series, he explained how he can use his range of talents to choose the best way to hurt a rival team — whether to turn and carry the ball to attack the last line of defence himself or quickly release perfectly timed and weighted passes for a team-mate to run onto in behind. 

Dermot Corrigan

For a player of Felix’s quality, you could perhaps expect a greater attacking output than he has produced since joining Atletico. A career-high of eight league goals is certainly room for improvement, with an average xG close to 0.3 per 90 during his time under Simeone.

In his limited minutes this season, he hasn’t offered too much in the way of contribution to his team’s attack (xG from shot creation, 24 out of 99) compared with other strikers. But Felix is not a “striker” in the typical sense. You are unlikely to see him pinning defenders in the penalty area (receptions in the opposition box, 12 out of 99).

He is a forward who attracts players towards him with his tendency to run with the ball (carry and dribble volume, 87 out of 99) and receive the ball in advanced areas to progress the play (progressive passing, 96 out of 99).

Consistency has probably been one of Felix’s biggest enemies in recent seasons, but at just 23 years old, he still has plenty of time to live up to the expectations placed on him when making the move to Atletico for €126 million in 2019.

Showcasing his skills on the biggest stage for his national team would certainly help.

Mark Carey

There was some surprise that Joao Felix joined Atletico in 2019, after Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid had considered a move. 

He signed a seven-year deal with the club — but the Atletico hierarchy and agent Jorge Mendes were always aware of the possibility that a few years developing at Atletico may see him move on for an even bigger fee.

That plan has not yet worked out — injuries have not helped and neither have the strict tactical and physical demands of the Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

Everyone who loves Joao Felix feels he could still thrive in a more suitable environment. But whether other clubs would pay a big enough fee so that all involved could profit from the deal is not so clear.

Dermot Corrigan


If Fernando Santos can find a place for Rafael Leao in his Portugal team, then it’s possible he could be one of the players of the World Cup. That the detective lookalike hasn’t up until now is indicative of Portugal’s strength in depth and how beholden the coach is to an all-time great like Cristiano Ronaldo. 

On form, there is little justification for leaving Leao out. He is the reigning Serie A MVP and the most exciting player in the league at the moment along with Napoli’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.

Milan’s first league title since 2011 was forged on the goalkeeping and defensive partnership of Mike Maignan, Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu, the big goals of Olivier Giroud and the rampant left-side. But in the run-in, Milan’s best tactic was ’palla a Rafa’ — get the ball to Leao. 

As the stakes became higher, he impressively rose to each occasion and finished the season on top of everything; Leao was Milan’s top scorer and assist provider. No one completed more dribbles or had more touches in the opposition penalty area. 

All while launching a credible rap album and clothing line. 

This season he has maintained the same unplayable standards that characterised the first half of 2022 and this winter he could be to Portugal what Kylian Mbappe is to France. He just has to translate his club form to his country and surf past players with the same ease he does in Italy. 

So far for Portugal, the 23-year-old has resembled the player he was for Milan two seasons ago; trying things that don’t come off and generally giving the impression of being disconnected from the rest of the team.

But fundamentally Leao has everything to be a star in Qatar and will probably make his €150m buy-out clause look cheap.

James Horncastle

The excitement surrounding Leao is shown perfectly in his smarterscout profile. He has little interest in dropping deep to play simple passes (link-up play volume, 7 out of 99) — no, he wants to run with the ball (carry and dribble volume, 87 out of 99).

The 23-year-old has pace to burn but he is powerful with the runs he makes, rarely giving up possession when he does get on the ball (ball retention ability, 85 out of 99). Leao certainly has end product (xG from shot creation, 89 out of 99) but is crucially a double threat, bagging 11 goals and 10 assists in Serie A last season for Milan. So far this season, his numbers have gone up another level when looking on a per-90-minute basis.

Leao is central to the way his team attack (xG from ball progression, 82 out of 99), and while he is nominally a left winger, he is quick to drive into the box and get a shot away at the soonest opportunity (shot volume, 99 out of 99). He is going into the World Cup with such strong form over the last 12 months, that you simply hope he gets the minutes he deserves to showcase his skills.

Mark Carey

Leao’s contract is up in 2024 and Milan have a delicate balancing act on their hands. Technical director Paolo Maldini has to reconcile the player’s desired uplift with the club’s disciplined wage structure. Leao also has the stress of splitting a €16.5m liability with Lille for breaking his contract with Sporting Lisbon in 2018 after the club’s training ground was attacked by ultras. 

Milan believe he wants to stay and continue his development at San Siro. After letting Gianluigi Donnarumma, Franck Kessie and Hakan Calhanoglu leave as free agents rather than give into their demands, Milan have managed to tie down young stars like Theo Hernandez and Fikayo Tomori to new deals.

They hope Leao will be next. 

James Horncastle


Right from the start, it was clear that Nuno Mendes was a special talent. 

He was just 17 when he made his debut for Sporting Lisbon in 2020. A few weeks later, Sporting sold left-back Marcos Acuna — an Argentina international who had hitherto been a stalwart of the side — to Sevilla. The message, from the admirably youth-first coach Ruben Amorim, was clear: the kid is ready.

Mendes repaid his manager’s faith handsomely. He was one of the best players in Portugal in 2020-21, capturing hearts and minds with a series of dynamic performances at left wing back. 

Amorim’s 3-4-3 formation suited him down to the ground. For one thing, Mendes has the energy and physical presence to cover the entire flank. And while he enjoys the defensive side of the game — he is a committed, brave tackler — he is particularly effective on the front foot, where his speed and quality on the ball come to the fore.

Mendes gets to the byline with ease, accelerating past opponents even when they think they have him covered. He whips in a mean cross and can dribble. Little wonder he is seen as a future fixture of the Portugal side; even the conservative Fernando Santos has been seduced by his attacking skillset.

Nor is Santos the only one. When Mendes joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2021, his new team-mates were taken aback by his quality. ”He’s extraordinary,” said Kylian Mbappe. ”I only knew him from Football Manager, but what he is doing here is magnificent.” 

This season, again unshackled in a 3-4-3 system under Christophe Galtier, he is hitting new heights. He set up two goals in the first three Ligue 1 games of the season and opened his own PSG account against Nantes, rifling home a volley after controlling a loose ball.

Oh, and he’s still only 20. The potential is scary.

Jack Lang

Nuno Mendes is a tireless engine as an advanced left-wing back, both in and out of possession. With the physical prowess and pace to beat opponents to the ball, he’s a strong presence defensively, through pressure (defending intensity, 86 out of 99) and through interceptions (disrupting opposition moves, 90 out of 99) to gain the ball higher up the pitch. 

His understanding of positioning at such a tender age allows him to receive the ball in valuable areas in the box to contribute towards goal-scoring opportunities compared with the average wing-back (receptions in the opposition box, 99 out of 99). At 20, he already possesses maturity and composure on the ball (ball retention ability, 96 out of 99) and an ability to accurately cross and find some of the world’s most deadly forwards in the penalty box.

Put simply, the Portugal full-back is a menace to the opposition in more ways than one and no doubt a talent that can only get better with time.

Maram AlBaharna

Mendes was initially at PSG on loan from Sporting, but the French club exercised an option to buy him outright last summer and tied Mendes down until 2026.

The extent to which he has made the left wing-back slot his own suggests he is a key part of Galtier’s plans.

PSG may have solved their left-side issue for a decade to come.

Jack Lang


He only started playing regular top-level football two years ago, but 24-year-old Matheus Nunes is making up for lost time.

Matheus cost Wolves north of £40million, a huge club-record fee, but it’s felt his value could dwarf that in years to come given the potential he has to increase and develop his already sizeable skillset.

”I would say that Matheus Nunes is one of the best players in the world today,” Pep Guardiola said earlier this year. While that’s not quite the case yet, he ticks most boxes when it comes to building the ideal modern midfielder.

He can run matches on his own via his high technical levels but also his spatial awareness and speed of thought, with and without the ball. He can also dribble. Oh yes, he can dribble.

A typical Matheus move would be winning possession in his own half, skipping upfield, riding a couple of challenges and then trying to pick a pass through the opposition defence. There are ample examples of him doing this for Sporting Lisbon and he’s starting to recreate it at Wolves as he adjusts to the intensity of the Premier League (witness a sumptuous 40-yard gallivant against Chelsea recently).

Matheus differs from your archetypal Portuguese central midfielder in that he’s all about the vertical, not the horizontal. He’s direct, physical and bursts forward. At 6ft he doesn’t lack height, but at Sporting he also averaged three dribbles per game and averaged 22 pressures, showing his work rate in defence.

He tends to complete his work pretty briskly, with a touch or two before moving the team upfield. It’s that positive mindset and exuberant attitude which saw him force his way into the Portugal squad – after a public tug-of-war with Brazil for the Rio-born midfielder who moved to Portugal when he was 13 – only a year after that breakthrough 2020-21 season. He was scoring against Turkey in the play-off win that saw Portugal reach Qatar despite not having started 50 league games in his career at that point.

A man who grew up idolising Ronaldinho may not have much in common with the Brazilian great, but his craft and dynamism belong on the world stage.

Tim Spiers

Given that Nunes has split his time in different roles across Wolves’ midfield this season, it is worth combining his overall profile across multiple positions. His style still pops out regardless, as you can see his tendency to run forward when given the opportunity (carry and dribble volume, 64 out of 99).

That is certainly Nunes’ action of choice when he has the ball, as he is less likely to ping passes upfield to advance the play (progressive passing, 13 out of 99). When he’s not the one to carry it forward himself, Nunes does pick up good pockets of space to receive the ball. Per FBref, his 5.4 progressive passes received per 90 places him in the top five per cent of midfielders in the Premier League. 

While Nunes’ defensive actions are not exactly high volume for a midfielder, he is seemingly effective in those actions he does make, rating above average in his ability to prevent his opponent progressing further upfield (defending impact, 59 out of 99).

It’s far more fun to focus on what Nunes does on the ball and as he adapts to the demands of a new league, there is still plenty more to come from the Portuguese midfielder at just 23 years old.

Mark Carey

As is almost always the case with Wolves’ Portuguese signings who are tied to Jorge Mendes’ Gestifute agency, Matheus signed a five-year contract when he moved to Molineux.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be at Wolves for the long haul of course. It’s believed Matheus took some convincing that Wolverhampton was his best next career move – he has sights on top level Champions League football and, talking of Guardiola, a team like Manchester City would undoubtedly suit him.

But for now he needs to become the star of Wolves’ team.

Tim Spiers


After selling Darwin Nunez to Liverpool for €80million in the summer, Benfica found his replacement from within.

Goncalo Ramos joined the club’s Seixal academy when he was 13. The son of a former Faraense player, Marco Ramos, he said: “Although I never got to see him play, I caught the football bug from him.”

Top scorer at the under-19 Euros in 2019, a tournament in which Portugal finished runners-up, it was only a matter of time before Ramos broke into the first team. In July 2020, he came on in the 85th minute against Desportivo Aves and wasted no time. The kid from Olhao scored twice, becoming the first Benfica player to bag a brace on his debut since former Wales international Mark Pembridge in 1998.

Likened to Thomas Muller for his positional intelligence, the imposing Ramos said: “I score goals but what I need to work on is my repertoire. I haven’t always played as a striker.” Ramos scored for four different Benfica teams in one season (the juniores, the under-23s, the B team and the first team) but the Muller parallels derive from his past playing off a centre-forward acting as O Raumdeuter.

His first call-up to Portugal’s senior team came in the last round of Nations League games in September. Ramos is yet to be capped, but his debut could come at the World Cup. Another Benfica academy graduate, the teenage centre-back Antonio Silva, is in the same boat after Fernando Santos preferred him at the last minute to Jose Fonte.

Santos could no longer ignore them. Benfica went into the World Cup break undefeated in 25 games. They qualified top of a Champions League group featuring Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus with Ramos and Silva playing key roles in Roger Schmidt’s side.

Ramos has already scored 14 goals in all competitions this season and is the top scorer in Portugal’s Primeira Liga. He has more than justified his inclusion in the squad at Goncalo Guedes’ expense.

James Horncastle

After a breakout 2021-22 season, Ramos has gone up another level this campaign — scoring nine Primeira Liga goals for Benfica from 11 starts, he currently tops the goalscoring charts in Portugal.

While he is able to get involved in his side’s build-up (link up play volume, 75 out of 99), Ramos is a finisher — a man who comes alive in the penalty area (receptions in the opposition box, 99 out of 99) and is dangerous in picking up dangerous areas to receive the ball (xG from ball progression, 81 out of 99).

His movement is smart, often finding himself with a clear sight of goal to finish quickly per attacking touch (shot volume, 98 out of 99). In fact, among players with 10 shots or more in the Primeira Liga this season, only team-mate Antonio Silva has a shorter average shot distance (7.7 yards) than Ramos’s 8.5 yards from goal.

Given his inexperience in the senior international set-up, it will be very unlikely that Ramos will start for Portugal in this World Cup. But if his country are in need of a goal from the bench, there are few players in greater form right now than the Portuguese poacher.

Mark Carey

Ramos’ record for Portugal’s under-21s had already caught the attention of teams all over Europe and frankly it would have come as no surprise if he’d moved last summer.

The Seixal academy is a guarantee of quality. Players like Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva were plucked from it without establishing themselves in the first team.

In the end, Ramos stayed, his pathway cleared by Nunez’s sale. He is under contract until 2025 and there’s a buy-out clause worth €120m included in the small print. However, Ramos’ value is closer to €40m.

Lisbon newspaper Record linked Brighton with a move for the player over the final weekend before the World Cup.

James Horncastle


Cristiano Ronaldo is the most prolific goalscorer in the history of international football and will be seeking to move ahead of Pele, Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose to become the first player to score at five World Cups. To put that into context, only three players have ever previously played at five World Cups. 

That’s a more realistic goal than actually winning the tournament. Since reaching the semi-finals back in 2006, Ronaldo hasn’t progressed past the second round, although his triumph at Euro 2016 with Portugal — and to a lesser extent the Nations League victory in 2019 — means his international career shouldn’t be considered anything other than a success.

The 2022-era Ronaldo is far from peak Ronaldo. For all his goalscoring, he’s caused Juventus and then Manchester United tactical problems in recent years, particularly with his lack of pressing. But that is less of a factor at international level, where the tactics are somewhat more rudimentary, and in a Portugal side that is still unashamedly based around him.

However, at times it feels like Portugal are slightly wasting the talents of Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes by using them as mere providers for Ronaldo, and more cohesive sides would have a centre-forward seeking to bring the best from onrushing attackers.

It is also a concern that Ronaldo hasn’t been a regular for Manchester United this season and looked rusty in the recent 1-0 Nations League defeat to Spain. But Ronaldo tends to defy form and fitness to produce on the big occasion, and his brilliant hat-trick against Spain at the last tournament was one of the best individual displays the competition has seen.

This will surely be Ronaldo’s final World Cup, and while he probably won’t bow out as a World Cup winner, he should be regarded as a World Cup great.

Michael Cox

What more can be said about Ronaldo from a data perspective? The man has broken so many club and international records that breaking his game down statistically feels trite.

At the very least, his smarterscout profile from last season does represent exactly what the eye test showed — a player who will contribute strongly to his team’s attack (xG from shot creation, 82 out of 99), look to advance the play into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 80 out of 99) and shoot quickly per attacking touch (shot volume, 87 out of 99).

Ronaldo rarely gives up possession cheaply (ball retention ability, 84 out of 99) and will often play short, sharp passes to his teammates (link-up play volume, 97 out of 99) as something of a necessary evil to allow him to get into a better position to score.

We know that Ronaldo is not going to actively press his opponent when out of possession (defending intensity, 21 out of 99), but when you can put the ball in the back of the net at such a prolific rate in your late thirties, you earn the right to focus your actions on what you do on the ball.

Mark Carey

The summer’s major saga ended without any suitable club making a bid for Ronaldo. Al Hilal did offer a transfer fee to United and astonishing wages to Ronaldo, but he was not ready to take that step into a less high-profile league. Chelsea appeared the only realistic destination, but Thomas Tuchel pushed back against Todd Boehly’s eagerness.

January may see a reprisal of activity around a United exit, especially after his infamous interview and with Ronaldo still wishing to play in the Champions League. But the likes of Sporting Lisbon, Napoli and Atletico Madrid, who were all sounded out, will either struggle to afford him or have difficulties fitting him into their teams. Ronaldo took a cut to his salary, believed to be 25 per cent, for United’s failure to reach the Champions League, but he is still on huge wages.

United are having internal discussions about a mutual termination of Ronaldo’s contract but they are reluctant to pay him to go.

His contract expires at the end of this season, although there is an option for another year to 2024. There is no way that clause will be triggered after the turmoil of summer 2022.

Laurie Whitwell


Portugal’s defence was entering old age.

Ruben Dias’ centre-back partner in the Nations League was often the adaptable midfielder Danilo, whose experiences dropping into defence for PSG made him a candidate to stand in for Jose Fonte and Pepe. One is 38. The other soon turns 40 and while experience matters, it raised questions about the future of the position. Antonio Silva answered them.

Benfica like to integrate two players from their famed Seixal academy every year but no one expected the teenage Silva to establish himself so soon. Jan Vertonghen’s sale to Anderlecht cleared a pathway, as did the injuries sustained by Morato and Lucas Verissimo.

Benfica’s new coach Roger Schmidt isn’t afraid to throw youngsters in at the deep end.

It’s a theme of his coaching career at Red Bull Salzburg, Bayer Leverkusen and PSV Eindhoven. Still, it was hard to imagine Silva stepping up this soon.

The 19-year-old has played a major role in Benfica’s undefeated season, winning a Champions League group that included PSG and Juventus. Silva shut down Kylian Mbappe and showed character in Turin. When Leonardo Bonucci kicked off at former Inter Milan midfielder Joao Mario for rubbing it in after his goal, Silva fearlessly confronted him, wagging a finger in his face.

Portugal have fast-tracked him into the squad for the World Cup. It’s Silva’s first-ever call-up. Rui Jorge, the under-21 coach, lamented: “He’s only played half a game for us. But if Fernando Santos called him up it’s a sign he’s already at another level.”

Silva’s selection comes at the expense of Fonte and considering Pepe hasn’t played 90 minutes for Porto in six weeks, expect him to make his debut for Portugal in Qatar alongside another Seixal graduate, Ruben Dias.

James Horncastle

At only 19, Antonio Silva is a defensive behemoth and has smoothly slotted into the centre of Benfica’s defence  — barely looking a day out of place. But that’s not all that’s special about the Portuguese. He is not just a defender. 

He possesses an impeccable playmaking ability on the ball, not only able to maintain possession well (ball retention ability, 82 out of 99) but also create chances from pinging it forwards (xG from ball progression, 83 out of 99). According to FBref, he finds himself in the top two per cent for progressive passing distance compared to other centre-backs in Europe and especially enjoys contributing higher up the pitch (xG from shot creation, 98) and through ball progression (xG from ball progression, 83 out of 99).

He is, in many ways, a no-nonsense defender, able to steal the ball away from opponents with good reading of the game (ball recoveries and interceptions, 94 out of 99) and able to nip in and make a high volume of defensive actions when given the opportunity (disrupting opposition moves, 93 out of 99). Notably, he has a significant impact in preventing the opponent from progressing the ball further up the pitch (defending impact, 63 out of 99). 

He may not feature much this World Cup, but when his time does come, he will be more than ready to stop forwards in their tracks.

Maram AlBaharna

If Dias cost Manchester City more than €70million then what might Silva be worth?

Last summer, Benfica tied him down to a new contract until 2027 and their sporting director Rui Costa wants the club to keep hold of its best players for longer.

“It makes no sense to us that everyone wants our players and we can’t take advantage of them,” he said.

Qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League in back-to-back years will help Benfica resist bids, as will the windfall from Darwin Nunez. Monitored closely by Europe’s super-rich, interested parties will be pointed in the direction of his buy-out clause, which is reportedly worth €100million.

James Horncastle


His first name derives from the Arabic word meaning generosity (Karam), which aptly describes Afif’s game.

A right-footed winger who plays off the left, Afif created 26 chances and assisted 10 goals in Qatar’s triumphant 2019 Asia Cup. Those numbers made him the most creative player in the tournament’s history, and he regularly provided crosses and through balls for Qatar’s No 9, Almoez Ali. Afif crossed for Ali to open the scoring in the final with a bicycle kick, before scoring the second and third goals in that 3-0 win over Japan. Afif is Qatar’s third-highest goalscorer of all time, with 21 goals.

These performances were not a fluke — Afif has performed on different continents. He won the bronze ball (third-best player) at the 2021 Arab Cup and made the team of the tournament at the Gold Cup in the same year. 

The 26-year-old was born in Doha and graduated from the Aspire Academy in 2015. As an exchange student, he had loan spells at Sevilla and Villarreal, joining the latter permanently in 2016. However, he only made one senior appearance there and had loans at Gijon and Eupen before returning to his native Al Sadd. 

On his return in 2019, he was named Asian footballer of the year, scoring 26 and assisting 13 for title-winning Al Sadd in the Qatari Stars League. Regularly he looks to receive passes in-behind opposition defences with out-to-in runs from the left, getting into shooting positions with only the goalkeeper to beat.

When receiving deeper, Afif uses a short burst of pace to beat a defender, typically in the left half-space. He often dribbles just into the penalty area and will use either foot to shoot or pass — he is selfless in these situations and regularly squares the ball for a team-mate to tap into an empty goal.

Another feather in Afif’s cap is his set-piece threat. He takes corners, free-kicks and penalties for the national team and has scored all but one of his 16 spot-kicks in his career.

Liam Tharme

A return of 14 goals and 17 assists across his 18 appearances shows just how much of a double threat Afif is in attack — and almost suggests the game is too easy for him in the Qatari Stars League.

Granted, looking at his shot map, those 14 goals far outperformed his expected goals of 7.8, which suggests there was some good finishing, perhaps some poor goalkeeping, and a slice of luck across the tally he racked up.

Interestingly, none of his 54 shots came within the six-yard box, as he developed a chosen zone from which to inflict pain on the opposition, just to the left of the penalty spot.

Being a set-piece taker is always going to inflate your creative numbers, but the variety of the chances that Afif creates is what is impressive. Neat through balls, deeper crosses, cheeky one-two’s — Afif has it all in the locker as well as having great delivery from free-kicks and corners.

He has been performing well for club and country for some time now and as his former club manager Xavi has claimed, “there are no limits for him”.

Mark Carey

Afif has a contract running until 2025, having been “delighted” to sign a new deal in October 2021. Naturally, this ties him down for longer and increases the value it would take to prize him away from Al Sadd, though the chances of him moving any time soon seem slim.

Born in Doha, where Al Sadd play, he spent time in their youth academy and has appeared 124 times for the club. Only two players have scored more times for Al Sadd and he has the most assists (63) in the team’s history.

Having achieved pretty much everything he could want individually in Asia, at 26 it would be expected that he has at least one more big career move in him, even if the previous spell in Europe did not reach the heights he would have hoped.

A set of good performances at the World Cup could catalyse the next stage of Afif’s career.

Liam Tharme


Stylistic parallels have been drawn between Salem Al-Dawsari and Neymar but perhaps more fittingly to Saeed Al Owairan, the Saudi Arabia player who scored one of the best World Cup goals of all time against Belgium in 1994.

Al-Dawsari is a left winger who operates inverted as a right-footer and offers an impressive balance of creativity and finishing. He can beat defenders one-v-one, either technically through impressive skills and ball manipulation, or physically with intuition and balance to spin the full-back when they pin him back to goal.

In the final third he is most dangerous in the left half-space. From here he has angles to shoot from, which he regularly does, or to create chances for others with angled passes across the face of the box.

He is more of a scorer of great goals than a great goalscorer. He has never scored 10 or more goals in a Saudi Pro League season and has 15 goals in 50 international caps. But he demonstrated his capacity for excellence on his debut in 2012 against Australia — receiving the ball deep and using stepovers to jink past the defender and fire into the bottom-left corner from outside the box.

Watch his highlights reel and you will see bicycle kick goals, too. The 31-year-old guarantees flashes of brilliance.

Not many players have scored at a World Cup (the match-winner vs Egypt in 2018), in an AFC Champions League final (the match-winner vs Urawa Reds in 2019) and in the club World Cup (the opening goal vs Flamengo in 2019).

Liam Tharme

While he might not be considered a prolific goalscorer, a rate of 0.33 non-penalty goals per 90 — one goal in three games — across his previous three seasons in the Saudi Pro League is still a strong return for a wide forward. 

Al-Dawsari is light on his feet, able to pull away from his opponent with a feint, a pirouette, or a simple drop of the shoulder. While he contributes in advanced areas, he does often drop deep to get on the ball and build up momentum to threaten in attack.

A simple look at his attacking carries in the past 18 months shows how he’ll look to drive into the left half-space to create a chance for others and drive into more central spaces before getting a shot away.

He is one of the most important attacking options in the Saudi squad and comes with a ton of international experience, with 70 caps to his name.

Mark Carey

Al-Dawsari has three years to run on the $3.5million a year deal he signed with Al-Hilal earlier this year and his age profile likely limits his attractiveness to European clubs. Two years ago the forward said he had received an offer from a Premier League club but a move did not materialise.

The 31-year-old had a loan spell at Villarreal in 2018 as part of a deal between La Liga and the Saudi Football Association, though he made just one appearance — although that was against Real Madrid. He came on as a substitute in a 2-2 draw against Zinedine Zidane’s side. 

Al-Dawsari is something of a club legend at Al-Hilal anyway — he has the third-most appearances in club history (299) and is fourth on their all-time scoring charts (71).

Liam Tharme


Rafa Benitez has his own version of The Radar. He claims Kalidou Koulibaly first bleeped across it more than a decade ago. “I had a good report on him in my own database from 2011 at the Toulon tournament in France,” he told The Athletic.

Benitez asked Napoli to sign him and they never regretted it. Koulibaly won everyone over. Italy is still the hardest place in football to earn respect as a defender. The TV pundits are almost all hall-of-fame centre-backs from the golden years of Serie A and they fell in love with Koulibaly particularly when Maurizio Sarri got hold of him.

Everything about Koulibaly was front foot. He’d step out from the back and go on marauding runs. Luciano Spalletti loved his proactive style.

“It’s like I’m losing a member of my coaching staff,” he said when Koulibaly left for Chelsea. “He was loud and imposing like a manager on the pitch. He always wanted to go on the attack and win the ball high. He always used to shout the same thing: ’Eat! Eat! Eat!’. What he meant by that was let’s go on the front foot, take our opponents on, fight.”

At Chelsea, it’s been the same.

Koulibaly has been one of the most active, front-foot defenders in the Premier League this season. Among centre-backs with at least 500 minutes played, only Tottenham’s Cristian Romero has attempted more “true” tackles (ie, tackles attempted plus fouls plus challenges lost) than Koulibaly’s 6.3 per 1,000 opponent touches. Put simply, Koulibaly is one of those most likely to “stick a foot in” or step out to engage with his opponent when the ball is on the ground.

He is a hero in Senegal. After losing the Africa Cup of Nations final in 2019, the player Spalletti calls Il Kommandante (That’s commander with a K) led his country back to the final this year and won it. He slept with the trophy and from then, could begin dreaming of this winter’s World Cup in Qatar.

James Horncastle

Koulibaly has acclimatised to the speed of the Premier League in a Chelsea shirt but it wasn’t as straightforward as he might have hoped.

You can see just how much of a proactive defender he is from his smarterscout profile, regularly pressing his opponent and getting tight to make a defensive action (defending intensity, 97 out of 99). After being dismissed following two yellow cards at Leeds United in just his third appearance, he was perhaps getting a little tighter than he should have, but that is Koulibaly’s game.

Especially given his role predominantly as a left centre-back in a back three, Koulibaly is given the licence to stick a foot in (disrupting opposition moves, 99 out of 99), and step out to cut out loose balls (ball recoveries and interceptions, 92 out of 99) with protection behind him.

He hasn’t shown quite as much adventure in his ball progression at Chelsea thus far — either in his carries (carry and dribble volume, 25 out of 99) or passing (progressive passing, 37 out of 99) — but Koulibaly is an able long-distance passer, and is often tasked with finding his team-mates with searching balls for Senegal in a 4-3-3 system.

You only need to look as recently as this year’s AFCON for evidence, where Koulibaly completed the most long passes of any outfield player (46).

As Senegal’s captain, expect Koulibaly to lead by example — on and off the ball — particularly in the absence of the injured Sadio Mane.

Mark Carey

Come on, let him settle in at Stamford Bridge. Koulibaly only left Napoli in the summer having been linked with a move away for years.

He signed a four-year deal with Chelsea, an unusually long-term contract for a player who turned 31 over the summer.

A durable athlete and impeccable professional, expect him to compensate for the experience deficit once another veteran, Thiago Silva, moves on.

Koulibaly will always be welcome in Naples although his replacement Kim Min-jae has been a revelation at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. Watch out for him at the World Cup too.

James Horncastle


For so long there was a question about who genuinely believed in Iliman Ndiaye — other than him.

He is now a Senegal international and a regular in England’s Championship, but his route to this point is peculiar: via Marseille and then Boreham Wood, a non-league club of no immense repute.

When Sheffield United, his current team, sought to loan him out in 2020, the best option they could find was Hyde United, a mile down the English pyramid.

No one could quite see how professionally Ndiaye was supposed to fit. He had very obvious technical, two-footed talent but fashioning him into a top-level player took time and by the end of his second season at Sheffield United, he had played all of 11 minutes for their first team.

Yet now they talk about him as a complete attacking player, at least by the standards of the Championship, and there is no doubt at all that he has the right mix of attributes for a player of his type. Sheffield United have succeeded in tapping into his skill, making him thrive in a collective attacking unit as a secondary striker or advanced midfielder.

He has become a big goal threat, with a pleasing expected goals ratio and a tendency to shoot, and he has eye-catching finishes up his sleeve. 

His close control and dribbling let him get at defenders and one of Sheffield United’s other players, Oliver Norwood, joked a while back that the tactic in possession had become ”give it to Iliman”.

To that end, Ndiaye has displayed both the talent and personality to develop into something of a talisman. It makes him a wild card at the World Cup, a player with whom many watching will be unfamiliar.

Even in Senegal, his two caps have not allowed them to learn too much. But performances on a par with some of his best in England will have people looking to find out more.

Phil Hay

Looking at Ndiye’s profile as a striker this season, you can see that his actions on the ball are very impressive. He rarely gives up possession cheaply (ball retention ability, 88 out of 99) and largely keeps his passing simple to a nearby team-mate (link-up play volume, 84 out of 99), but is able to showcase his dribbling skills regularly to get away from his opponent (carry and dribble volume, 78 out of 99).

Ndiaye will rarely play as a poaching central striker who is looking to play off the shoulder of the defender (receptions in the opposition box, 8 out of 99), but instead drifts wide into pockets of space to receive the ball in dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 82 out of 99) and target the penalty area from there.

With nine league goals this season, Ndiaye is the joint top goalscorer in the Championship and has already beaten his career-best of seven goals in a Sheffield United shirt. 

Ndiaye is in the best form of his career at the moment — the perfect time to be heading into a World Cup.

Mark Carey

Championship clubs in England are forever at the mercy of bids from the division above them. The financial clout of the Premier League is huge and, assuming Ndiaye continues to make waves, Sheffield United’s best way of holding onto him is probably to win promotion this season.

Ndiaye signed a new contract at Bramall Lane last year but it only runs to 2024 and given that he will be down to his final year when this term ends, Sheffield United will have to try and act on that soon.

Premier League sides were sniffing around him in the last window and Sheffield United’s manager, Paul Heckingbottom, has already told the board at Bramall Lane that improving Ndiaye’s deal should be high on the agenda, a priority they cannot neglect.

Suddenly, and from an inauspicious position, he is someone Sheffield United do not want to lose, let alone lose on the cheap.

Phil Hay


Ciro Immobile is Lazio’s all-time top scorer. He has been crowned Capocannoniere on four occasions and needs one more to match Gunnar Nordahl. The 32-year-old recognises that if he’s scored almost 200 goals for Lazio it isn’t solely down to him. 

”Sergej and Luis Alberto know me as well as my wife,” Immobile said. 

It’s a mystery that Milinkovic-Savic is still at Lazio. His break-out season came in the last World Cup year and the expectation at the time was he would go for more than €100m. Lazio owner Claudio Lotito used Paul Pogba’s transfer from Juventus to Manchester United as a ballpark figure. 

Underwhelming at the World Cup in Russia, Milinkovic-Savic was not himself the following year and yet still won the Serie A Midfielder of the Year award. If his status as such was then in doubt and the source of some bewilderment, it is no longer. 

“To be honest when I first came I didn’t really know him,” Lucas Leiva told The Athletic, “but he has everything a top player needs to have. He’s physically very strong. In the air he’s unmarkable. But with the ball, he’s fantastic as well. He can assist and score goals. He has a very good shot and he’s a player who is improving every year. He has all the qualities to play at the highest level. For sure, he is one of the best players I’ve played with.”

Maurizio Sarri has contributed to Milinkovic-Savic hitting heights that are even higher than those touched under his predecessor Simone Inzaghi. The 27-year-old seems at the absolute peak of his powers. ”Milinkovic-Savic is on the same level as Kevin De Bruyne,” Immobile said, and with some justification. 

In 2022, De Bruyne is the only midfield player in Europe’s top five leagues to have scored and assisted more goals. Starved of service for his club, Juventus striker Dusan Vlahovic can barely wait to be reunited with Milinkovic-Savic at the World Cup.  

James Horncastle

Milinkovic-Savic’s creative numbers in recent years have already been impressive, with 19 assists accrued across the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. This season, he has already bagged a further seven assists and doubled his expected assists rate to 0.36 per 90 — meaning he is creating chances worthy of an assist better than a rate of once in three games.

This is reflected in his smarterscout contribution towards his team’s chances (xG from shot creation, 87 out of 99), as the midfielder’s creativity is backed up by his goal output — with 22 goals scored since the 2020-21 season.

On the ball, Milinkovic-Savic will be most likely to keep his passing simple (link-up play volume, 60 out of 99), and while he has shown an increased propensity to play the ball forward this season (progressive passing, 70 out of 99), one of his key strengths is receiving the ball in advanced areas to affect the play (xG from ball progression, 46 out of 99).

At 6ft 2in, it is unsurprising how much Milinkovic-Savic competes aerially (aerial duels quantity, 86 out of 99). That quantity is matched by his quality in the air, almost always coming out on top in an aerial battle, from open-play headers (95 out of 99) and set-plays (98 out of 99).

A creative, goalscoring midfielder who is a real threat from set pieces — underestimate Milinkovic-Savic at your peril.

Mark Carey

By benchmarking Milinkovic-Savic’s asking price with that of Pogba, Lazio owner Claudio Lotito wanted to capitalise on the pre-pandemic boom in player valuations. But the price tag scared even state wealth clubs off and Milinkovic-Savic has now been in the Eternal City for seven years.

In the meantime, Lazio agreed to pay Milinkovic-Savic’s former club Genk around €9m to remove a sell-on clause included in the original deal to bring the player to Italy. Only Immobile earns more than Milinkovic-Savic, whose contract is up in 2024.

Talks over an extension are expected to begin after the World Cup, but if Milinkovic-Savic performs well in Qatar, Lotito will no doubt field high-profile interest ahead of the summer transfer window. 

James Horncastle


The most expensive Serbian footballer of all-time arrives in Qatar with a burgeoning reputation. ”Among the players with less international experience, let’s say players of the younger generation, Dusan is one of the best along with Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. 

Haaland won’t be at the World Cup after Norway’s failure to qualify, which means Vlahovic will likely get more exposure and the chance to live up to the hype he has generated in Italy after back-to-back seasons in which he has scored more than 20 league goals. 

The 22-year-old found the net on his Serie A and Champions League debuts for Juventus and could write one of the early storylines of the World Cup if he helps upset favourites Brazil.

Better in the air than Haaland and Mbappe, Vlahovic nevertheless conforms with the template of the prototypical modern striker: tall, rapid, he has even evolved into an elite free-kick taker, curling in goals in back-to-back games against Roma and Salernitana at the beginning of this season. 

Dragan Stojkovic has made Vlahovic his first choice No 9 even though Aleksandar Mitrovic has continued to weigh in with big goals for Serbia, most notably home and away against Portugal. The two have played together and it will be fascinating to see what choice the legendary Stojkovic makes for the Brazil game on November 24. 

Vlahovic’s first World Cup also serves as an escape from Juventus, where the service into him has got progressively worse since his move from Fiorentina in January. He presumably can’t wait to have Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Dusan Tadic, Mitrovic and his new Juventus team-mate Filip Kostic buzzing around him in support.    

James Horncastle

Vlahovic is something of a throwback, a No 9 who is simply interested in scoring goals and very little else. While he is pretty low-action in his volume of touches for Juventus, he is keen on making the most of the touches he does have, regularly looking to receive the ball in lucrative areas (receptions in the opposition box, 57 out of 99) and frequently shooting at the soonest opportunity (shot volume, 84 out of 99).

His actual attacking output has not been too strong so far this season (xG from shot creation, 49 out of 99) as he has cut a forlorn figure at times, isolated at the top end of the field. 

The dizzying heights he set at Fiorentina — scoring 38 goals in 58 Serie A games from the 2020-21 season onwards — have not quite been matched to the same degree, but Vlahovic has still been scoring at a rate of one non-penalty goal in two games since he moved to Turin.

His heavy touches can see him give up possession quite easily at times (ball retention ability, 5 out of 99), but his remit is to be a focal point of the attack.

Give him the service and there is enough evidence to show that he can put the ball in the back of the net.

Mark Carey

The one-year anniversary of Vlahovic joining Juventus in the biggest January transfer in Serie A history is still a couple of months’ away. Life with the Old Lady is still new to him so don’t expect a break up anytime soon.

Juventus moved for Vlahovic when they did for a couple of reasons. The first was to get ahead of the competition. The second was to secure the goals needed to fire the team into the Champions League.

Premier League clubs, particularly Arsenal, expressed an interest. But four years in Italy gave Vlahovic a real appreciation of Juventus’ size and he made up his mind early.
The Old Lady wants to build her future around Vlahovic. That much was clear when she withdrew a contract offer to extend Paulo Dybala’s contract in order to sign Vlahovic.

The 22-year-old is tied to the club until 2026 and Turin has become home away from home for Serbs, with Filip Kostic, Milinkovic-Savic and Nemanja Radonjic also playing in the shadow of the Derby della Mole.

Long term, Juventus must match Vlahovic’s ambition otherwise risk a repeat of what happened with Matthijs de Ligt. The Netherlands international was considered a future captain of Juventus but criticised the club’s style upon departing for Bayern in the summer. Vlahovic has already cut a frustrated figure under the management of Massimiliano Allegri.

James Horncastle


There are not many sights in football quite like Son Heung-min racing onto a through ball, speeding away from the desperate centre-back, opening his body and whipping the ball into the far corner of the net. He has always been one of the most aesthetically-pleasing forwards to watch, a delightful mix of speed, grace and efficiency. He has been adored by the Tottenham Hotspur fans for years and only now has he started to get the wider praise and acclamation he deserves.

When Son arrived at Tottenham from Bayer Leverkusen in 2015 he had a difficult first season and he nearly went back to Germany in 2016. He was initially seen as a hard-working left-winger in Mauricio Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1, a great team player but maybe not a deadly goal-scorer himself.

But over time, Son has proved himself to be a ruthless finisher, just as good from those spaces on the edge of the box as Harry Kane. And as Kane’s game has changed, bringing him into deeper and wider areas, Son has evolved into more of a conventional striker. 

He is not necessarily someone to hold the ball up or win headers, but when it comes to running in behind to finish with either foot, there is no one better in the country. (Kane and Son dovetail perfectly, and have combined for more Premier League goals than any other pair in history.) Son shared the league’s Golden Boot in 2021-22, with 23 goals his best season yet.

Son is clearly an excellent player, but he is also a very popular one. He has won Spurs player of the season for three of the last four years, and he has an enthusiasm and emotional honesty that make him the heartbeat of the team.

And no matter how important he is to Spurs, he will be even more important to South Korea at the World Cup. 

Jack Pitt-Brooke

We all know Son is an excellent finisher, but the smarterscout profile below displays just how ruthless of an attacker he is. His high volume of shots does not limit the quality of chances he produces (shot volume, 77 out of 99) or his overall attacking contribution as he’s able to generate valuable shots for himself and others through assists, or making the pass before the chance (xG from shot creation, 87 out of 99).

As deadly as his finishing skills are, they are a result of his prowess in finding valuable goal-scoring positions, especially when making darting runs behind the opposition defence, stretching the play, and scoring from a pinpoint pass delivered from deep — underlined by his receptions in the opposition box (53 out of 99). 

Although he’s been experiencing a drought for Tottenham this season — by his high standards, at least — goals will surely come from him at the World Cup. 

Maram AlBaharna

One of the best things Tottenham have done in recent years was getting Son to sign a new long-term contract during the 2020-21 season, even when Spurs were struggling a bit on the pitch.

The contract was agreed while Jose Mourinho was still manager, but not announced until the end of that season, and it ensured that Tottenham kept hold of Son for his peak years.

There has been some curiosity in Son in the past from Manchester City, but that contract means that he is secure at the club, and there have never been any indications that he wanted to leave.

And with more than two and a half years left on the deal, Tottenham will continue to enjoy the best of a great player for a while longer yet.

Jack Pitt-Brooke


Kim Min-jae had big boots to fill at Napoli. He replaced Kalidou Koulibaly, a centre-back widely considered to be the best of the last decade in Serie A along with Giorgio Chiellini. The Senegal international distinguished himself for his leadership and was adopted by Neapolitans as one of them. He will go down in the annals as one of Napoli’s all-time defensive greats along with Ciro Ferrara and Giuseppe Bruscolotti. 

It could have burdened Kim but he instantly settled in. ”On his second day here, I caught him in the dressing room shouting: ’Sali (push up), scendi (drop off), fermo (hold your position)’,” marvelled his coach, Luciano Spalletti.

Far from being timid, his rendition of Gangnam Style at his Napoli initiation showcased his inner confidence and charisma. ”Everyone got up and danced,” Spalletti said. To Napoli’s coach, that ability to get everyone involved displayed leadership. 

The 26-year-old is a fast, proactive centre-back, he doesn’t hesitate in stepping out of defence to make an interception and he has been imperious in the air. His partnership with Amir Rrahmani has been Italy’s strongest this season. The league’s joint-best defence last year has not dropped off. Kim has proven a threat from attacking set-pieces too, scoring in wins over Lazio and Monza. 

James Horncastle

Kim’s smarterscout profile perfectly represents what he is all about on the pitch.

Defensively, you can see how proactive he is in his actions, regularly looking to block passes and pick up loose balls with good positioning (ball recoveries and interceptions 95 out of 99). Such is his front-foot style that you will regularly see him rushing to get tight to his man to nick the ball away (defending intensity 90 out of 99).

But Kim does not overcommit himself in the challenge. His height and strength give him a presence that opponents can struggle to overcome. He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, regularly fending off danger with a high volume of headers (aerial duels quantity 97 out of 99).

On the ball, Kim is able to mix it up with his actions. He will frequently keep his passing simple when playing out from the back (link-up play volume 66 out of 99), but also has the ability to play longer passes upfield (progressive passing 59 out of 99). Give him time on the ball, and he will also step out of defence to progress forward (carry and dribble volume 89 out of 99) — such is his confidence in possession.

Mark Carey

Kim almost moved to Ligue 1 in the summer. Rennes identified him to replace the West Ham-bound Nayef Aguerd and had to switch their sights to Bologna’s Arthur Theate once Napoli decided to reinvest the Koulibaly money in Kim.

Kim cost €20m (£17.5m) from Fenerbahce and signed a three-year deal with the option of another two.

A €50m buy-out clause was included in the terms of the contract but it can only be activated for a specified timeframe from the summer of 2023.

James Horncastle


Ansu Fati has always had a precocious gift for scoring goals, and the hope is that his long-running fitness issues do not stop him from showing it at this year’s World Cup. 

Born in Guinea-Bissau, he started finding the net at the Peleteros academy in the small Andalusian town of Herrera, leading Barcelona to scoop him up aged 10, ahead of local team Sevilla and rivals Real Madrid. 

After skipping through the age grades at the Catalan club’s La Masia academy, his debut in La Liga came in August 2019. Just a week later, he became Barca’s youngest senior goalscorer (16 years and 304 days) with a flashing header against Osasuna. 

The goals kept coming, often beautifully clinical strikes that surprised goalkeepers with their timing and placement. In October 2019, a 20-yarder pinged off the post against Inter Milan to make him the youngest scorer in Champions League history (17 years and 40 days). In June 2020, a perfectly placed curling effort against Ukraine made him the youngest scorer in Spanish international history (17 years and 311 days, a record since broken by Barcelona team-mate Gavi).

The only problem was that injuries kept recurring too and he missed more than a year after suffering a meniscus knee injury in November 2020. On his return early in the 2021-22 campaign, he inherited Lionel Messi’s No 10 jersey, but various knee and muscle problems mean he has yet to be back fully fit and firing.

He has just four senior caps and Luis Enrique left him out of the squad for October’s Nations League games. 

A superb burst of pace and cross to create a goal in October’s La Liga Clasico at Real Madrid suggested the sharpness was returning for one of Europe’s brightest young players. 

Dermot Corrigan

Due to his limited minutes this season — not to mention his previous two seasons — the sample size for Fati’s profile is understandably limited.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the time he has spent on the pitch that he offers a huge attacking threat. Fati’s contribution to Barcelona’s attack is as strong as anyone in the squad (xG from shot creation, 94 out of 99), with a contribution of a goal or assist per game when he’s been on the field — albeit largely entering from the bench.

He’s tidy in possession (ball retention ability, 68 out of 99), quick to get a shot away (shot volume, 96 out of 99), and has all the attributes to be one of the best players of his generation. 

The one thing he needs is to stay injury-free for an extended period, to showcase those skills on a consistent basis.

Mark Carey

The winger agreed a new contract with Barcelona last year, which marked the first extension since super agent Jorge Mendes started managing his career. His deal expires in June 2027.

“After the departure of Lionel Messi, he will probably be the franchise player of Barcelona,” Javier Garcia Pimienta, Fati’s former manager at La Masia, said last year.

A long list of injuries has prevented the heir of Messi’s No 10 shirt to mature at the pace some in Barcelona expected, but the talent and the hope as to what he might become remain.

The 20-year-old was the first Barcelona player to have a €1billion release clause inserted into their contract.

Pol Ballus


Gavi has been on the fast track to stardom for some time.

The Barcelona and Spain midfielder appearing at his first World Cup at the age of 18 fits neatly with his precocious talent and personality.

Born in the Andalusian town of Los Palacios y Villafranca in 2004, Barca plucked him from Real Betis’ youth ranks when he was only 11. The following year, two superb solo goals against Madrid in a La Liga Promises youth tournament alerted a wider audience to his ability.  

Fast forward to September 2020 and Ronald Koeman was giving a 16-year-old Gavi his La Liga debut. And Spain head coach Luis Enrique only needed to see 275 minutes of Gavi for Barcelona before the youngster was making his international debut in a Nations League semi-final. The kid was preternaturally good, bossing the midfield with technical and tactical maturity against an Italy side that had just won Euro 2020.

Gavi has the technical skills and tactical understanding you would expect having come through La Masia academy, but there’s also a razor-sharp competitive edge. He is not fazed by anything. As the youngest player to start a Clasico since 1941, he got involved in a bust-up with Real Madrid galactico Toni Kroos. In 47 club games last season, 36 of them as a starter, he racked up two goals, six assists and 16 yellow cards.

His coach at national level is also a feisty and competitive character. “Gavi’s conviction is priceless,” Luis Enrique says, and the midfielder has featured in all 12 Spain games since making his debut, becoming La Roja’s youngest-ever scorer (at 17 years and 304 days) with a neat finish against the Czech Republic last May. 

Even though Gavi’s 2022-23 club season has not gone exactly as planned, with Xavi’s team struggling for fluidity in midfield, he seems assured of a starting spot in Luis Enrique’s favoured 4-3-3 in Qatar.

Dermot Corrigan

At 18, the biggest compliment to pay to Gavi is that it is a disservice to call him a hugely talented young player — he is simply a hugely talented player.

True to form for a player brought through La Masia, Gavi is incredibly comfortable on the ball, regularly playing short, sharp passes in his side’s build-up (link-up play volume, 96 out of 99) — keeping possession at a very high level (ball retention ability, 88 out of 99).

An underrated trait of Gavi’s is to sense when to advance forward from his midfield role and get into the penalty area when the opportunity arises (receptions in the opposition box, 99 out of 99), opening up spaces for others or allowing him to play intricate passes in tight areas.

Out of possession, you can see how eager Gavi is to win the ball back for his side, regularly getting tight to his man (defending intensity, 84 out of 99) and nipping at the heels of his opponents to make a defensive action (disrupting opposition moves, 99 out of 99) — seemingly being highly effective in doing so (defending impact, 87 out of 99).

He can attack, he can defend, and he can dictate the play from midfield. Gavi is simply a joy to watch.

Mark Carey

As soon as Gavi turned 18 in August of this year, Barcelona made an agreement over a four-year contract official.

Negotiations had dragged on from the start of the 2021-22 season but there was a clear desire from Gavi to remain at Camp Nou and his agent, the former Barcelona player Ivan de la Pena, rejected any approach from other clubs.

Premier League teams are understood to have asked about Gavi’s availability before he committed his future to Barcelona.

Gavi is the latest young star to commit to the club, following Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo and Pedri. His contract will expire in the summer of 2026 and has a release clause set at €1billion.

Pol Ballus


Dani Olmo has taken an unorthodox route to the top but it has worked out pretty well.

His decision to leave Barcelona’s academy to join Dinamo Zagreb had many at La Masia scratching their heads. They had their answer when Olmo was playing first-team football at the age of 16 and Champions League football at 21. By 22, he had secured a €30m (£26m) transfer to RB Leipzig in 2020.

Two years on and he has evolved into a multi-functional well-rounded attacker who is highly appreciated by the Spain head coach Luis Enrique. Olmo can do it all. He is able to operate across the frontline, playing as a wide winger or a clever false nine. That versatility, and his commitment to defending from the front, is what most appeals to Luis Enrique. You can see in the passes received map below how he drifts into lots of different areas at club level too.

He had a brilliant 2020-2021 Bundesliga season for RB Leipzig, contributing seven goals and 12 assists, and he carried that form into the Euros and the Olympics with Spain. Olmo played an important role in Spain’s run to the semi-finals at Euro 2020, featuring in five games, starting four times and registering three assists.

In a team short of options in attack, Olmo’s game-reading ability made Luis Enrique believe he was ready to be an important part of their future. He has proven himself in clutch moments for his country with a goal on his debut, a last-minute winner in World Cup qualifying and a crucial role in the goal against Sweden that sealed their place in Qatar. 

But perhaps playing 62 times across that 2020-21 campaign took its toll and in the last two seasons, he has struggled at Leipzig because of injuries, particularly a knee problem he sustained in September. 

The good news for Spain fans is that he was back in the Leipzig starting XI in October and November, and was on the scoresheet in a 3-1 win at Hoffenheim on November 5.

He appears to be finding form and fitness at just the right time for the World Cup.

Pol Ballus

Not only is he well-rounded positionally but Olmo is also an incredibly balanced attacker. FBref data profiles Martin Odegaard and Emiliano Buendia as the two most similar players to Olmo over the past year.

The demand for him to operate in the false-nine role at his club is less prominent than for his country, as Olmo spent 91 per cent of his 2021-22 Bundesliga season in either a central midfield or No 10 role.

Looking at his minutes last season in a counter-pressing Leipzig team, Olmo’s defensive contributions are clear. He regularly regains the ball high upfield (ball recoveries & interceptions, 73 out of 99) and is often tasked with marking the opposition defensive midfielder.

There is a degree of intelligence to his moments of pressing, as he scores below average for defending intensity (36 out of 99), indicative of a player recording an overall low volume of defensive actions.

With the ball, he is particularly adept at receiving under pressure, staying composed and consistently making good decisions on when to play risky passes (ball retention ability, 52 out of 99) when in the final third (xG from shot creation, 71 out of 99). 

Olmo is such an intelligent player to watch. The hope is that he can now put his injury issues behind him.

Liam Tharme

Olmo has had plenty of interest from the Premier League and his native Spain since starting out at Leipzig in 2020 but negotiations with possible suitors have never reached an advanced stage, perhaps due to a few injuries along the way.

Leipzig insiders expect the player to extend his existing contract beyond 2024 in due course. It wouldn’t be uncommon for Red Bull if the new deal contained a release clause to facilitate a move in the future. 

Raphael Honigstein


There’s a certain way footballers are supposed to age. You start out fast, flashy, maybe a little reckless from being the best kid on every team you’ve ever played for. By the tail end of your career, you’re a different player. Maybe you can’t dribble through six guys anymore, but you also know you don’t need to. You drive a sensible sedan. You invest in index funds.

What makes Pedri extraordinary is that he was born old. Yes, he’s technical and hardworking, but his game isn’t about beating opponents with tricks or tackles — it’s about beating them with good decisions. 

Sometimes the choices he makes on the pitch are creative (no player in the top five leagues averages more than his 4.8 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes from open-play passes than Pedri at Barcelona). More often, they’re businesslike (his 90.3 per cent pass completion rate ranks near the top of all midfielders). The part that’s hard to quantify is how unerringly correct Pedri’s decisions are.

His coaches see it. “Has anyone noticed what an 18-year-old boy named Pedri has done in the Euros?” Luis Enrique marvelled last summer after the teenager led Spain to the semi-finals, hardly leaving the pitch for a minute. “Not even don Andres Iniesta has done it.”

Pedri always knows where to be in Spain’s well-drilled positional system — sometimes wide left to dictate play, sometimes working in tight spaces between the lines — and what to do there. He knows when to scan, which way to turn, which team-mate’s foot to play to and when. It’s small stuff, mostly, but it adds up.

What his game is not is cool. Pedri is the kind of player a committee of romantic actuaries might dream up. He’s an old soul. But after he won last year’s Kopa Trophy for the world’s best young player, everyone will notice what he does at the World Cup.

John Muller

Pedri’s exceptional ball control and composure under pressure mean he’s able to maintain possession of the ball, shown by his above-average rating in ball retention (87 out of 99). His calmness on the ball also allows him to play quick, precise passes (link-up play volume, 92 out of 99). His versatility as a passer also contributes to creating chances through shots for himself (80 out of 99) and ball progression to service others (53 out of 99). 

His value isn’t limited to the ball. Pedri’s energy out of possession allows him to be great defensively, especially through ball recoveries and interceptions (86 out of 99). His proactivity as a midfielder when defending also means he’s able to apply pressure with intensity well (78 out of 99). 

At 19, he’s already a jack of multiple trades. On the ball, he is a pleasure to watch — off it, he is just as remarkable.

Maram AlBaharna

Pedri signed for Barcelona from Las Palmas in 2019 but spent that 2019-20 season on loan with his childhood club. 

On his return to Camp Nou, it did not take long before he was an established part of their starting XI. Neither club nor player has looked back since. His performances in 2020-21 made it imperative for Barcelona that they secured him to a new contract and they did just that, Pedri signing a five-year deal that has a release clause of €1billion.

It is difficult to imagine him leaving the club any time soon. He is a generational talent and Barcelona are determined that he will lead the club into a much-needed new era.

Pol Ballus


Luis Enrique has never been afraid to trust young talent and Yeremy Pino is one of the latest examples of that.

The Spain manager called up Pino in September 2021 when the winger was only 18 and still registered as an academy player at Villarreal — although he had made a superb start to the season with one goal and three assists in the first four La Liga games.

Only one year later, he has already gone through a summer of being linked with a move to the Premier League. He really is a player to get excited about.

Pino is more than just a pacey winger and was outstanding against Manchester United at Old Trafford last season in the Champions League, winning seven out of 10 duels and completing six of his seven dribbles.

His preferred role is on the right side of the attack, but he can operate on either flank and there were occasions when the former Villarreal head coach Unai Emery even trusted him as a central striker in a front two.

Villarreal regard him as a wonderkid and it’s easy to understand why: he’s the club’s youngest player to play and score in the Champions League and Europa League. He’s already played in two finals for the club and became their youngest international,  too.

The 20-year-old has earned Luis Enrique’s trust in the national team after scoring one goal and assisting another in the six games he has played for Spain, and the graphic below shows how he was one of the teenagers who made the biggest impact in Europe’s top five leagues last season.  

Pino scored 11 goals for Villarreal last season and though he’s made a slower start to 2022-23, he still possesses the kind of spark that Luis Enrique — and plenty of Europe’s elite clubs — will not want to be without. 

Pol Ballus

Exploring Pino’s profile across multiple positions for Villarreal last season, you can get a clear sense of what he looks to do on the ball. With such a low centre of gravity, the teenager has a real enthusiasm to run with the ball at his feet (carry and dribble volume, 76 out of 99). Though they might not always come off, Pino does have the capacity to make a fool of his opponent with a drop of the shoulder or a quick burst of pace.

When releasing the ball, Pino is more likely to keep his passes neat and simple with sharp interplay (link-up play volume, 85 out of 99), rather than look for a raking pass upfield (progressive passing, 10 out of 99).

Understandably for his age, Pino could still develop his end product at the top end of the pitch, although his average non-penalty expected goals of 0.3 per 90 since the start of last season does suggest that he is getting chances worthy of one goal every three games. 

He might not be a guaranteed starter for Luis Enrique’s side, but Pino is a great asset to have when the game needs an injection of energy.

Mark Carey

Since August 2021, Pino has gone from being a surprise call-up to the Spain squad to becoming a key part of Luis Enrique’s arsenal.

Back when he made his debut he had a tempting €35million (£30m) release clause but Villarreal were quick to rectify that and tied the talented youngster down to a new six-year deal a year ago. His new contract expires in 2027 and includes an improved release clause of €80million.

Villarreal did a good job securing a player who has the potential to be sold for a huge sum in the future.

Pol Ballus


The main question about Pau Torres is clear: why is he still playing at Villarreal?

He’s 25 but has been one of the best centre-backs in La Liga for several seasons. He is a Europa League champion and played in the semi-finals of the last Champions League, having scored the winner to knock out Juventus earlier in the competition.

Torres made his league debut at 20 and has not stopped since, with more than 150 La Liga appearances under his belt and 21 international caps. There are not many left-footed defenders tidier on the ball in the Spanish league than him. But again, he’s still at Villarreal. Why?

He rejected a move to Tottenham in 2020 as he wanted to experience Champions League football with his hometown club. Last summer, in a window during which centre-backs were strongly coveted, he did not move. Manchester United and Chelsea seemed interested but no one was interested enough.

One might wonder if there are doubts about his physicality — he’s 6ft 3in (190cm) but has a thin and elegant presence — or if Villarreal’s asking price was too high. But in Torres, you’ll find one of the best-equipped defenders to start your build-up from the back.

He is not afraid of taking risks, can read where the spaces are and has a complete range of passing that has made him a fundamental part of all of Villarreal’s recent triumphs, including the Europa League final win against Manchester United.

He has been a Spain regular during Luis Enrique’s tenure in Spain, but his place in the starting line-up is not guaranteed. Aymeric Laporte is another left-footed centre-back in the team and is probably Enrique’s most trusted lieutenant in the defensive line. When Torres has been used on the right side, he has not performed at the same level.

Pol Ballus

In the simplest terms, Pau Torres is a modern centre-half that’s as good on the ball as he is off it. His smarterscout profile displays exactly that — not only is he able to secure possession well (ball retention ability, 61 out of 99), making him a reliable passing option in the backline, but he’s also able to deliver short and sharp passes connecting with his midfielders (link-up play volume, 51 out of 99). 

Besides being able to distribute the ball from deeper areas, Torres excels in his ability to carry the ball and drive forward, attracting the opposition towards him to create space (carry and dribble volume, 99 out of 99). His contribution in possession makes him a significant threat to generating chances through shots (xG from shot creation, 57 out of 99) and advancing the play into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 40 out of 99). 

He’s also able to influence the game through defending, excellent at stopping the opposition from progressing (defending impact, 74 out of 99). Where he does fall down is his aerial dominance, or rather his aerial volume, as he is not one to frequently compete for headers compared with the average defender (aerial duels quantity, 22 out of 99). 

Maram AlBaharna

This season could be a turning point in Torres’s career. Villarreal have offered to extend his deal, which expires in 2024, and the player himself admitted in the summer that “the only real offer I have on the table is to stay at Villarreal”.

Now it’s time for him to decide: stay in his hometown and become a club legend or try a new challenge elsewhere. His release clause is valued at €60m. Tottenham were willing to trigger it two years ago but the player chose to stay.

For a long time, he has looked ready to take the next step. Maybe the World Cup is the platform he needs to convince some big European clubs to make a move.

Pol Ballus


Noah Okafor’s Red Bull Salzburg career has been something of a slow burner considering the hype when he joined, yet progress is there for all to see. The minutes, assists and goals have all gone up season after season and there is little doubt that the current campaign will be his best yet. Perhaps it will be his last with Salzburg, too, as the elite clubs start to circle.

Signed from Basel for around £10million in January 2020, Okafor arrived for a club-record fee and with a big reputation. “One of the best talents in Switzerland” is how the Austrian champions described him at the time. 

Born to a Nigerian father and a Swiss mother, Okafor had played one game for Switzerland at the time of that move – seven minutes against England in the Nations League the previous summer. A combination of injuries and poor form meant that it was another two years before he won his second cap.

By that stage, Okafor had opened his account in the Champions League and was playing with more freedom and confidence in the Austrian Bundesliga. His pace is the attribute that stands out. He has long claimed to be the fastest player at Salzburg – a title that means something at a club that prioritises speed and power in their recruitment.

Naturally right-footed, Okafor can play in any of the attacking positions but is generally at his most dangerous on the left, where he drives inside. A big fan of the stepover, he likes a nutmeg, too, as he showed against Milan in the Champions League this season when he sat Pierre Kalulu on his backside and poked the ball through the legs of Mike Maignan. 

Eight days later, Okafor equalised against Chelsea to spoil Graham Potter’s first night in charge of Chelsea. Another goal followed against Dinamo Zagreb, from the penalty spot, to make it three in three in the Champions League.

The only other Salzburg player to do that? Erling Haaland.

Stuart James

The most important thing to know about Okafor is that he scores goals.

Not only that, he is able to score them either as a centre-forward or out on the wing. He’s a talent with bursting acceleration and the speed of thought to carry the ball and bypass defenders (carry and dribble volume, 90 out of 99), whether that is coming inside or on the outside as a result of his sneaky movement.

And although he hasn’t played enough minutes this season, his smarterscout profile from the previous season highlights all his abilities just as well. Having scored 14 goals across all competitions in the 2021-2022 season, and 10 goals in the next, he’s on track to reach new heights. 

He’s a passer with the ability to progress and break lines (progressive passing, 77 out of 99) and the creativity to initiate attacking moves (xG from ball progression, 83 out of 99), especially in counter-attacks. His tricky passing doesn’t compromise his ability to retain the ball well (84 out of 99). Most importantly, his ability to stretch the backline and hold width combined with beating the last man means he is able to generate shots at an exceptional rate (shot volume, 82 out of 99). 

He has all of the traits to be an influential player on a regular basis, especially when it comes to scoring goals.

Maram AlBaharna

According to Okafor’s agent, who gave an interview to Radio CRC in the wake of the Milan game in September, Salzburg will want somewhere between €25-30million for the forward.

“He is one of the most interesting Swiss players,” Gianluca di Domenico said. “Those who have seen the match against Milan have certainly noticed his characteristics. Do Napoli follow him? I haven’t talked to (sporting director Cristiano) Giuntoli yet. There are rumours that they are following him and that they also liked him in the summer transfer window.”

Leeds United have also been linked with Okafor, who signed a deal until 2024 when he joined Salzburg in January 2020, which means that the winter window, on the back of a strong World Cup, could be the optimum time for the Austrian club to sell.

Stuart James


There has been much focus on Hannibal Mejbri since he moved to Manchester United from Monaco for a fee of €5million (£4m) rising to €10million with attainable add-ons.

Hannibal, as he likes to be known, was only 16 at the time so United were making a significant financial commitment. Signs about that investment have been encouraging, with his technical skill clear in training and youth-team matches. He has shown leadership in demanding the ball in difficult situations and trying to create, while also getting better at dealing with the rough treatment dished out to him. He once played virtually a full game with a broken nose.

Taking that next step to senior football has proved challenging, though, with the 2021-22 season not providing the breakthrough that might have been anticipated. Rather than go out on loan, United and Hannibal decided he should stay so he could gain tournament experience playing for Tunisia, first at the Arab Cup last November and December, then at the Africa Cup of Nations in January and February.

He started every game on the way to Tunisia reaching the final in the first competition, earning two man-of-the-match awards, but he did not make the same impression in the latter, appearing only twice in five matches for a combined 67 minutes.

He did make an impact as a late substitute in United’s 4-0 defeat at Liverpool, earning a yellow card as he tore around the pitch, and he started the final game of the season at Crystal Palace but was substituted on the hour mark. Erik ten Hag took a look in pre-season and decided a loan was best, but Hannibal had to wait until October 8 to make his first start for Birmingham in the Championship.

He will want to demonstrate his ability to the world in Qatar. He has 18 caps for Tunisia after declaring for the nation in May 2021, having played for France, the country of his birth, at youth level. He has played most frequently in the No 10 position, but United have also tried him in a deeper, build-up role, and out wide. 

Laurie Whitwell

“He can play in a lot of positions: he can be a playmaker, he can be a regista (deep-lying playmaker), he can be a defensive midfielder, he can be a winger… but for me, his best position is central midfield,” the Tunisian Football Federation’s sporting director Mohamed Slim Ben Othman told The Athletic back in February. For Birmingham this season, Hannibal has most often played, and excelled, as a central midfielder. 

Hannibal’s most prominent feature as a central midfielder is his close control and running directly at opponents, especially through the centre of the pitch. It is therefore no surprise that his most prominent feature is his carry and dribble volume (99 out of 99), routinely drawing fouls as he does so. He is also a decent passer when it comes to breaking lines and finding forwards in space (progressive passing, 43 out of 99) and comfortable making late runs into the box to create chances (receptions in the opposition box, 39 out of 99). 

Hannibal is a tireless runner. He excels in disrupting opposition moves (99 out of 99), stealing away the ball through tackles, interceptions and fouls, although sometimes rashly so. He has the energy to chase down players up and down the pitch in an attempt to win the ball back (defending intensity, 97 out of 99) and is quite effective in doing so (defending impact, 74 out of 99). 

Maram AlBaharna

Hannibal signed his new contract with United in March 2021, his first senior terms since joining the club 19 months earlier. At the time, United only announced the length of the deal as “long-term”, prompting some reports to suggest it expired in 2023. But it runs to 2024, with the option to extend to 2025.

Despite this security for United, talks were held over an improved contract before agreeing to the Birmingham loan. Ultimately, both parties decided to keep the status quo, but if Hannibal does well at St Andrew’s discussions will be expected to resume.

He has attracted interest from several clubs during his time at United, but no approaches have been made for a permanent deal. Galatasaray were the biggest club to look at a loan offer last summer.

Laurie Whitwell


Playing for eight different clubs in 12 years is not uncommon in football but it is slightly strange at youth level. This included two spells at Brondby, joining at 12 and then leaving after 18 months when his family relocated. Anis Slimane is Copenhagen-born and represented Denmark at under-19 level but has Tunisian parents.

He stayed for good the second time at Brondby, arriving in 2019 after having a 15cm growth spurt while playing for AB. Watch the central midfielder and instantly he stands out for his size. Slimane is 6ft 2in (188cm) and has a broad frame, which he uses to his advantage in physical battles. 

Often deployed as a No 8 in a 4-3-3 for club or country, he is at his best when receiving passes from the defence and feeding the forwards with through balls. The 21-year-old can receive possession under pressure too, using his body to shield the ball but also creatively spin away from players using a well-timed first touch to turn and play forward.

His physicality makes him a dominant defensive dueller, particularly when he gets close to opponents, regularly able to tackle in advanced areas and then start attacks.

Though he is predominantly right-footed, he can and does play off both feet, particularly in the opposition half. In advanced areas, he is creative and inventive. The Tunisian, who has 24 caps, can be seen using the outside of his boot or chipping passes over defences to find a team-mate — his five Superliga assists in 2021-22 were only bettered by six players. Slimane can deliver from dead balls too, shown when his free kick set up Montassar Talbi to score against Brazil in September.

His technique is good but his decision-making might be even better. He consistently picks good moments to play safer, shorter passes and then sees when the opportunity is on to dissect the defence.

Liam Tharme

Looking at Slimane’s minutes from last season, his immensely high rating for disrupting opposition moves (95 out of 99) indicates he is a front-foot defender that repeatedly looks to engage opponents rather than conservatively pick moments.

This is further reflected in his ability to regain possession (ball recoveries and interceptions, 87 out of 99) and often drive forward to launch counter-attacks (carry & dribble volume, 89 out of 99).

For his size, it is perhaps surprising that Slimane only ranks slightly above average for aerial duels quantity (66 out of 99) but smarterscout duel ratings, which adjust for the quality of opposition, rate him as one of the highest quality players in the air (open-play headers, 86 out of 99).

Liam Tharme

A good World Cup campaign for Slimane would elevate the chances of a move away for a midfielder who has been linked with Arsenal in the past. 

The Superliga has become a growing market for young players to be cultivated before joining Europe’s bigger leagues. One of the biggest moves last summer was the division’s young player of year, 21-year-old Nigeria midfielder Raphael Onyedika, leaving Midtjylland to join Club Bruges for around £9million ($10.7m). 

Slimane has two years to run on the four-year contract he signed in 2020 after returning to Brondby.

Liam Tharme


The deceptive aspect of Brenden Aaronson is that he looks like he should be an easy player to bully. He is small, he is slight and in his younger years, he used to ask his father when it was that he would bulk up in a way which gave him physical parity with the players around him.

But Aaronson’s slender frame disguises the powerful engine that underpinned his rise through MLS and the Austrian Bundesliga and took him into the Premier League this year. He has worked with Jesse Marsch twice now — and at Red Bull Salzburg and Leeds United, he has suited the system because he can press like a beast, capable of running all day and covering impressive distances.

There are very few like-for-like footballers in any of Europe’s top five leagues who apply more individual pressures than him. He regularly puts in 20 pressures per 90 minutes for Leeds, a trend that he began setting in his days with Philadelphia Union. It is one of the things they remember about him in the States.

Using that energy helps the team around him set and spring traps. Everything at Leeds is predicated on turnover ball: the quick switches of possession that allow Marsch’s team to counter rapidly.

By no means, though, is Aaronson all about running.

His interplay in the final third is good and he is making a trademark of surging carries over halfway, forcing defences to retreat and creating passing options on either side of him.

The bonus for Marsch is that Aaronson can cope centrally or as a wide forward, albeit in a fairly narrow and inverted 4-2-3-1 system, and Leeds feel that at £25million ($28m), Aaronson will prove good value for money.

Internationally, he is part of the furniture with the USA and, you would think, fundamental to their chances of making a splash in Qatar. And while this World Cup, from an American point of view, is being spoken about as Christian Pulisic’s tournament, it is entirely possible that they will say the same about Aaronson when 2026 comes around.

Phil Hay

Considering the multiple positions Aaronson has played across Leeds’ midfield this season, it is only natural to look at his smarterscout profile from a similar perspective. A perceived lack of physicality disguises his pace and technical ability to drive the ball forward, displaying an above-average rating when it comes to dribbling (59 out of 99). 

His energetic presence translates into movement into the box (40 out of 99) and good chance creation from both shots, the majority being servicing team-mates, (56 out of 99) and ball progression (57 out of 99). His defensive impact (78 out of 99) and disruption of the opposition’s build-up (60 out of 99) also see him recover the ball at valuable areas higher up the pitch. 

The USMNT international grabbed his first goal and assist in just his second game in a 6-0 dismantling of El Salvador and has since been involved in every World Cup qualifier, suggesting the important role his energy, both on and off the ball, will play in Qatar. 

Maram AlBaharna

Aaronson was so set on joining Leeds that when Salzburg knocked back a couple of bids for him last January, it was effectively agreed there and then that the transfer would happen in the summer instead.

He moved to England with the intention of staying for the long haul and he signed a five-year contract at Elland Road in July, running to 2027. Leeds rarely recruit players on short-term deals and they like to tie new signings to extended terms, partly to ensure consistency in their squad but also to make sure that if clubs try to get anyone out of Elland Road, they have little choice but to pay a high price.

Leeds are not naive about the possibility of quality footballers going on to bigger things, and it happened recently with Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha, but Aaronson is someone they want to build their future around.

Phil Hay


Sergino Dest is different. 

He is known for having a bit of an eccentric personality, and that different way of approaching life fits well with how he plays on the field. Dest can be electrifying when he pushes into the attack. He will take players on with flair and is capable of producing incredible brilliance — his left-footed strike past Keylor Navas in World Cup qualifying is a great example. But Dest can also lose focus defensively and become a liability, and that has caused him problems for both club and country.

Dest started 51 games for Barcelona over his first two seasons in La Liga. Then, under Xavi, he was deemed expendable and moved on loan to AC Milan, where he has played as both a right-back and right-winger this season. That Milan has already tried him further up the field is a nod to that attacking ability, but the U.S. will need Dest to be a lockdown starter at right-back in a back line that has struggled to find a consistent centre-back pairing since Miles Robinson ruptured his Achilles earlier this year. 

For the U.S., it’s worth tolerating some of Dest’s defensive problems for what he can provide on the attacking side of the ball. He can progress the ball through his passing or his dribbling, can serve a dangerous ball from the wing and his presence on the overlap or cutting in from the right-back spot should, theoretically, open space for the U.S.’s more dangerous attacking players. 

If Dest is focused, he has the potential to be a top international right-back. It’s simply a matter of keeping him locked in.

Paul Tenorio

With limited minutes on loan at AC Milan this season, it’s better to take a look at Dest’s smarterscout profile from his 2021-22 season with Barcelona.

Dest is an attack-minded full-back that excels when given license to bomb forward with the ball shown by the volume in which he carries the ball (99 out of 99). His good feet also make him great at retaining the ball (83 out of 99) and exchanging quick passes with his team-mates (link-up play volume 92 out of 99). 

His involvement as a full-back comes in affecting the game upfield, especially through shot creation (63 out of 99) and providing overlapping runs for his team-mates into the box (receptions in the box, 41 out of 99). 

His proactivity on the ball doesn’t translate as well defensively when it comes to ball recoveries and interceptions (16 out of 99) or aerial dominance (seven out of 99) due to his small stature and lack of physicality, but Dest still has something to offer. He does well when it comes to disrupting the opposition through tackling, fouling, blocking and clearing at an exceptional rate (80 out of 99) and contributes to his team’s defensive structure in doing so (79 out of 99). 

Maram AlBaharna

Dest is on a one-year loan to Milan with a €20million (£17.5m) option to buy, and the right-back expressed an interest in signing a long-term contract with the Italian side.

His contract with Barcelona expires in the summer of 2025 but Dest knows he’s unlikely to return to the Catalan side.

If Milan pick up the option, there is a deal agreed with Dest through 2027, according to reports.

Paul Tenorio


When you picture a USMNT striker, it’s likely you think of two archetypes. The first is the aerial threat, a towering athlete such as Brian McBride (and, at times when healthy, Jozy Altidore) who reads the game and exploits mismatches in the box. The other is a player who can create his shot off the dribble, a figure such as Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey who makes up for lesser size with an obsession for scoring.

Though there are strikers in the current pool who fit each mold, Jesus Ferreira looks likely to start up front with a different approach.

Another player from the U.S.’s deep stable of FC Dallas academy graduates, Ferreira blossomed a year or two later than Ricardo Pepi. While Pepi made a monkey’s paw of a move to Germany and has struggled to score in Europe, Ferreira has challenged for the golden boot in MLS thanks to his expert reading of space, a precocious ability off the ball and steadily improving finishing on either foot.

He’s getting recognition after operating in Pepi’s shadow last year, topping MLS’s annual 22 Under 22 list in 2022.

Ferreira is an Underlying Numbers All-Star, someone who consistently gets into dangerous areas to shoot and create for others. It’s increasingly showing on the scoresheet for his club, but has yet to truly translate at international level.

Six of his seven international goals came in two matches against smaller CONCACAF sides (two against Trinidad & Tobago, four against Grenada) with the other coming third in a 5-1 World Cup qualification onslaught against Panama.

Ferreira will need to carry that finishing touch into match-ups against better opposition, but his selfless center-forward approach jives well given the scoring ability possessed by Christian Pulisic, Timothy Weah and other wingers in the pool.

Jeff Rueter

With 18 goals and six assists to his name in 2022, Jesus Ferreira is hardly forgettable.

Looking at the determination and maturity in which he plays, you would not guess he’s only 21. When adjusted for Premier League standard, his attacking output looks a little less potent (xG from shot creation, 19 out of 99), but Ferreira is a centre-forward that can contribute beyond goals. In his own words: “I think my job is to facilitate other players to be able to score and to help the other players be in a position to score goals also.”

He can contribute in build-up, break lines and find team-mates in good positions to score (progressive passing, 95 out of 99) and initiate quick and short combinations when dropping deeper (link-up play volume, 52 out of 99) to break down the opposition. He also has the defensive work rate to recover the ball (ball recoveries and interceptions, 64 out of 99) in order to start a new wave of attack for his side.

Ferreira should be valuable for the United States, whether as a scorer or creator. 

Maram AlBaharna

After selling Ricardo Pepi to Augsburg, Dallas locked up their other promising striker last winter.

Ferreira signed an extension that runs until the end of the 2025 season and Dallas have the option to extend it by another year.

Despite that lengthy deal, his $1.5million (£1.3m) salary shouldn’t be entirely prohibitive if an interested team were to make an offer to Dallas.

Jeff Rueter


A forlorn United States fanbase focused on Christian Pulisic’s emergence with Borussia Dortmund during the doomed 2018 qualification cycle, but another future national team regular was breaking through some 32 kilometers away in Germany at Schalke.

While Pulisic balanced technical flair with a relatively demure persona, McKennie’s Texan roots manifested with an athletic frame and a large personality. That confidence and moxie haven’t always resulted in positive outcomes — both on the field with his passing and off of it as he was briefly exiled from the team at the start of qualifying for breaking COVID-19 quarantine rules — but it makes him a popular part of the U.S. player pool.

Juventus’ decision to sign McKennie came as a major surprise, catching out Italy’s famed transfer paparazzi. He became the first American to play for the Old Lady and followed in the footsteps of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Sami Khedira as a midfield goalscorer.

McKennie was briefly a revelation under Andrea Pirlo, making a mark in big games away to AC Milan and Barcelona. After the flops of Aaron Ramsey and Arthur Melo, the early impact McKennie made was welcome. But a breach of COVID-19 protocols, lack of tactical discipline and his diet tried the club’s patience. Gianluigi Buffon used to call him ‘Big Mac’.

Jeff Rueter

In his career, the U.S. international has played as a defensive midfielder, right-winger, and even right-back. Looking at his smarterscout profile across multiple positions, McKennie is equally able to storm forward with late runs into the box for goal-scoring opportunities (receptions in the opposition box, 89 out of 99) and sit deeper, comfortable retaining the ball (72 out of 99) and laying it off quickly and precisely (link-up play volume, 73 out of 99). 

Though secure on the ball, his impact on the final third isn’t primarily through progressive passing (38 out of 99), but also as an occasional goal threat (xG from shot creation, 63 out of 99).

McKennie is also able to provide aerial dominance in midfield (58 out of 99) and act as a decent defensive obstacle to the opposition by forcing turnovers and blocking their ball progression, as seen by his defensive impact (48 out of 99). His skill set makes him valuable across the board, able to influence the game both in and out of possession. 

Maram AlBaharna

Juventus initially signed McKennie on loan from Schalke before taking an option to seal a permanent deal for him. He is under contract until 2025 but the player-trading side of Juventus’ business means only a select few players are considered indispensable.

It remains to be seen how much game-time McKennie gets at Juventus once Paul Pogba returns from injury, particularly considering how highly Max Allegri regards Adrien Rabiot.

The emergence of Fabio Miretti and Nicolo Fagioli from Juventus’ academy adds more competition for places. The club wants to bring through a core of players with Juventus in their DNA and will be bringing Nicolo Rovella back from his loan at Monza in the summer.

McKennie has been linked with a host of clubs including Tottenham Hotspur, Roma, West Ham United and Atletico Madrid. A strong World Cup could generate further interest.

Jeff Rueter


The announcement came somewhat as a surprise. A teenager hardly known in the U.S. was being called into the USMNT camp. Yunus Musah was a part of the England youth set-up and made a surprising move away from Arsenal to Valencia, but few knew he might be a possibility for the American team. 

Months later, the always-smiling midfielder committed full-time to the program. And over the next year, Musah would become one of the most important players in the entire pool.

Musah spent much of last season playing on the right side of midfield for Valencia, yet was stationed exclusively in a central role for the U.S. It was where Musah had played most of his youth days both with England and in Arsenal’s youth setup, and the USMNT coach Greg Berhalter felt a central role allowed Musah to make the biggest impact on the team.

His defensive actions and ability to cover ground fit well with the dynamic of Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, but Musah brought something a bit different. He was very good on the ball, willing to take it under pressure and elite at dribbling through the press.

Musah became a player the U.S. could trust to get them out of tough moments, and by June, Berhalter adjusted the system to feature that even more by dropping Musah deeper in midfield to help the U.S. with its build-out. With Musah missing in September, the U.S. struggled to do much through the midfield.

The 19-year-old has moved into a central role with Valencia under Gennaro Gattuso and those abilities on the ball have become more prominent in La Liga. Musah ranks among the best in the division at progressive carries, dribbles completed, touches and progressive passes received.

The next step for Musah is to become more of a passer and more goal-dangerous, but there are already hints of that with Valencia — he has two assists this season and is shooting more often, if not to great effect yet. 

If there is one player set to break out for the U.S. in Qatar, most agree it’s Musah.

“Yunus to me, this kid is absolutely incredible,” U.S. right back DeAndre Yedlin said in a recent interview with The Athletic.

“People who don’t know what he can do, he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”

Paul Tenorio

Taking a look at Musah’s smarterscout profile, what immediately jumps out is the volume of his carries and dribbles (98 out of 99). Musah’s combination of speed, athleticism and dynamic movement allows him to drive forward and bypass opponents.

Musah as a midfielder is a livewire at both ends of the pitch, he has the off-the-ball movement to make late runs into the box (reception in the opposition box, 95 out of 99) and the energy and hard work to close down opponents through pressure (defending intensity, 72 out of 99) and defensive actions (disrupting opposition moves, 73 out of 99).

Musah’s counter-pressing ability goes hand in hand with the U.S.’s strategy of maximising the number of chances that they have to possess the ball and create goal-scoring opportunities.

He has the defensive mobility to press intensely off the ball and the ability to drive runs in possession, making him a double-threat central midfielder.

Maram AlBaharna

After breaking into the starting line-up with Valencia and then getting called in to the U.S. senior program, the Spanish side made sure to lock Musah up to a new long-term contract.

Musah signed a six-year extension in December 2020 that contains a €100million release clause. 

Paul Tenorio


Can you close your eyes and picture an image of the United States Men’s National Team from the last five years? If so, chances are it’s of Christian Pulisic.

Maybe you saw that photo of him crouching on a pitch in Trinidad and Tobago in 2017, his face buried in his shirt and hand, trying to hide the pain of failing to qualify for the last World Cup. He was barely 19 and already had the full weight of a nation’s expectations on him.

Or maybe you’re an optimist who closed your eyes and saw a very different picture from last summer’s Nations League final victory over Mexico. Pulisic had just scored the winning penalty and he was shushing the rival fans, shirtless, while a whole crew of young American stars celebrated around him. The new generation had arrived.

In between the low and high, there have been ups and downs. Pulisic’s dribbling and off-ball movement earned him a high-profile move to Chelsea a few years ago, but a change of system has denied him the chance to get on the pitch in the position he would like to be for his club.

He does play his preferred role — as an inverted left winger — for the United States, but he sometimes tries to do too much, dropping too deep to collect the ball and taking on too many defenders, desperate to avoid another disappointment. “I’m going into it thinking, ’I need to overperform and do something to save the team’,” Pulisic admitted after a World Cup qualifier, “but there’s no need for that because we have a very strong team.”

When he’s at his creative best, though — such as producing an assist plucked from mid-air, Bergkamp-esque, against Morocco this summer — you remember why he’s the guy all the cameras are trained on.

This World Cup is his chance to be the face of America’s footballing future.

John Muller

What makes Pulisic special is his dribbling ability (90 out of 99), which is depicted precisely in his smarterscout profile last season.

The U.S. international’s carrying of the ball can cause chaos to the opposition as an inverted full-back. Though not the most frequent of progressive passers (eight out 99), he also offers a threat through quick, intricate passes (link-up play, 84 out of 99) with a connecting forward to make late runs into the box (receptions in the opposition box, 77 out of 99). 

Pulisic flourishes when in a team that funnels possession to him, and this is what we are likely to see when he plays for USMNT in Qatar. 

Maram AlBaharna

Pulisic is out of contract in June 2024, which puts his future at Chelsea very much up in the air.

The USMNT star was looking for a loan move in the summer and was willing to sign a contract extension to make such a move more attractive for Chelsea, but nothing was agreed and there is serious speculation that Chelsea would be open to moving Pulisic on a permanent deal in the upcoming transfer windows.

The question is: what price will Pulisic fetch on the transfer market? It will surely be short of the €64million (£56m) that Chelsea paid to buy him from Borussia Dortmund in 2019, and recent reports indicate the Premier League club would be open to selling him for half that fee. 

Paul Tenorio


When Gio Reyna first broke into the Bundesliga at 17 years of age, his confidence on the ball, vision and productivity in the final third caused some to speculate whether the son of former U.S. star Claudio Reyna might be the best prospect of a fast-emerging group of young American players. His then-teammate Erling Haaland nicknamed him the “American Dream”.

Instead, Reyna’s young career has been defined more by his hamstrings than his playmaking ability. He suffered two long-term muscle injuries last season, managing just 441 minutes in the Bundesliga and missing 10 of the USMNT’s 14 World Cup qualifiers.

Despite that, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter knows Reyna brings something different in the final third to anyone else in the U.S. player pool. Reyna’s scintillating solo run at the Azteca in a key March qualifier, slaloming through Mexican defenders with no help in sight before eventually running out of fuel when he reached the box, was a reminder of his game-changing abilities. And despite his young age (Reyna turned 20 on Sunday), he is not afraid of the moment. He wants the ball — constantly — and is always looking forward. 

“The timing of his passing is very good, the weight of his passing is very good and he can receive the ball in any type of conditions,” Berhalter said. “He can get it with his back to the goal, he can get it on the run, he can get it under tight pressure. That’s not a problem for him because of his quality. And then when he gets faced up, he’s really good at making a final pass. Just really good quality.”

What Reyna’s role at the World Cup looks like is still to be determined. He was back in the U.S. team for a pair of friendlies in September, starting both, but had to leave in the first half of a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia due to another hamstring strain.

That means that, for all his talent, Reyna must be talked about with a huge caveat. He remains one of the top young prospects in both the Bundesliga and for the U.S. team, but it is difficult to trust that he’ll be able to stay on the field.

If his hamstrings stand up, Reyna’s potential is massive. 

Paul Tenorio

The 2020-21 season was the last considerable stretch of games when Reyna was untouched by injury.

During that season, he displayed versatility across the attacking midfield area of the pitch, whether it is at left-wing, central attacking midfield or right-wing.

As a passer, Reyna mainly excels in open play by dribbling into the midfield (66 out of 99) and moving the ball quickly from one side to the other (link-up play volume, 83 out of 99). His spatial awareness also features him attacking the space between the defence, hence his above-average score for reception in the opposition box (58 out of 99).

His physical attributes provide value out of possession both on the ground, applying pressure (defending impact, 68 out of 99) and in the air (aerial duels quality, 60 out of 99). 

If he manages to stay out of harm’s way, Reyna has plenty to offer.

Maram AlBaharna

Reyna signed a three-year contract when he joined Dortmund in 2018, but after a strong debut season that was extended just before his 18th birthday in November 2020. That bigger contract expires in June 2025. 

It will be a relief to both parties that the long-term deal is in place, as it eases the pressure to get Reyna back on the field and allows him to get healthy and continue to develop in the Bundesliga.

Paul Tenorio


Darwin Nunez may not have hit the ground running upon joining Liverpool in the way that he — and Jurgen Klopp — might have hoped. That brainless red card against Crystal Palace was an avoidable early setback, while stiff competition from Diogo Jota and a revitalised Roberto Firmino limited his playing time up front.

An injury to Jota has opened the door for more minutes though, and Nunez’s chaotic playing style has endeared him to the Liverpool supporters. He ended the first half of the domestic season well, scoring twice in the 3-1 win against Southampton.

Nunez certainly provides Liverpool with something a little bit different in the final third: his speed, physicality and intensity make him a handful for centre-backs, and his ability in the air opens up new possibilities.

It would be misguided, though, to peg Nunez as a fixed target man. Throughout his career — from Penarol in Uruguay to Almeria and then Benfica — he has tended to drift wide in search of space.

”When people talk about classic No 9s, I think about forwards who like to position themselves in that central corridor, close to the penalty area,” former Benfica coach Nelson Verissimo told The Athletic earlier this year. ”But Darwin is a player who also likes to run into the channels, particularly down the left. He scored quite a few great goals like that, drifting left, dribbling inside and finishing.”

That may create a dilemma for Klopp, and it is not yet entirely clear whether Uruguay coach Diego Alonso will find a space for Nunez in his starting XI in Qatar. Both men, though, will be encouraged by the youngster’s mentality: Nunez’s career to this point has been defined by resilience and grit — ”garra”, as they say in Uruguay — and he will not shy away from the challenge of proving his value. 

Jack Lang

For a whole host of reasons, Nunez has not played quite as many league minutes as he would have liked this season. However, it still feels appropriate to look at his smarterscout profile in a Liverpool shirt.

When he’s on the pitch, he is simply all-action — a whirlwind of energy that is geared more towards substance than style.

Such is the desperation to make an impact for his new club, Nunez has been getting into the danger area frequently (receptions in the opposition box, 96 out of 99) and shooting on sight with nearly every opportunity presented to him (shot volume, 99 out of 99). 

An unsustainable rate of 5.8 shots per 90 minutes in the Premier League is comfortably ahead of his nearest team-mate Mohamed Salah, and goes to show how willing Nunez is to endear himself to his new fanbase.

With five Premier League goals backed up by a further three in the Champions League, Nunez has been able to find the back of the net already. A longer run of games will allow him to truly showcase the skills that got him his move to Anfield in the summer.

It’s still a little early to truly appraise his profile from the data this season but there is enough to suggest Nunez is showing the right signs.

Mark Carey

Nunez penned a six-year deal upon signing with Liverpool last summer.

The Premier League club paid Benfica an initial €75million (£66.6m) for the forward, with up to €25million in add-ons.

That figure raised a few eyebrows in some quarters and it seems vanishingly unlikely that Liverpool would recoup that kind of fee were they to countenance any sale in the near future. 

Jack Lang


Recommended by Diego Forlan to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the summer of 2020, Facundo Pellistri was a surprise signing for Manchester United as the transfer deadline approached. Forlan, a former United team-mate of Solskjaer, was Pellistri’s manager at Penarol and believed the then-18-year-old could make the transition to the Premier League.

Scouts recognised there was work to do but felt his raw materials — speed and aggressive dribbling — were solid. His two-footedness also appealed and a €10million (£8.7m) deal was agreed.

Two years on he is yet to make his United debut, although he has experienced two loans to Alaves in Spain’s La Liga. Those periods — for the second half of the 2020-21 campaign and the entirety of last season — had mixed results. Pellistri made 11 starts and 24 substitute appearances in total, and the club were relegated in May.

Erik ten Hag gave Pellistri opportunities on United’s tour, and he scored a wonderful counter-attacking goal in the 4-0 win over Liverpool. It demonstrated the kind of composure Uruguay have seen more regularly.

Pellistri has seven caps for his country, having made his debut in January in the World Cup qualifier away to Paraguay. It was quite a selection by manager Diego Alonso, with Pellistri starting alongside vastly more experienced players in Luis Suarez and Darwin Nunez. But he did well in a 1-0 win. He started the next two qualifiers on his preferred right wing to suggest he will feature significantly in Qatar.

In June, he laid on a superb assist for Edinson Cavani in a friendly against Mexico. Pellistri rode two challenges as he ran down the line and squared once he had space. It showed that he has good strength and balance for his diminutive frame.

😯 ¡Ah caray!

🫣 Inicia el segundo tiempo, Jorge Pietrasanta toma el micrófono y Cavani ya metió el segundo

🇲🇽 0-2 🇺🇾

🔴 ¡EN VIVO! https://t.co/ga4QRF5bsg
📺 Canal 5 | TUDN#UltimoMundialDelPerro | #HechoDeLosMexicanos | #CaminoAQatar pic.twitter.com/XusIoRX3Ms

— TUDN MEX (@TUDNMEX) June 3, 2022

United looked at another loan this summer but Ten Hag wanted to keep Pellistri at Carrington and he appears to be getting closer to a debut. He was named on the bench for a Premier League game for the first time at Manchester City, and then a few more times before the domestic game stopped for the World Cup. His only club football this season has come at youth level, however.

Laurie Whitwell

It makes sense to look at Pellistri’s loan spell at Alaves last season as that was his longest recent run in a first team. 

The Uruguayan is a winger with impressive dribbling skills and ferocious pace, which is underlined by how frequently he carries the ball (99 out of 99) and the chances he creates from doing so (xG from ball progression, 31 out of 99).

Despite his small physique, he is capable of holding off challenges and is not afraid to put a shift in defensively. He competes in plenty of aerial duels (78 out of 99) and frequently engages with opposition players (defending intensity, 81 out of 99).

Maram AlBaharna

Pellistri signed a long-term contract when joining United, running to 2025 with the option of an extra year. There has been no need to evaluate those terms since but if he has a strong World Cup and breaks into United’s team then the club would inevitably look at an improvement. Still, that seems like several months off.

It might be that interest from other clubs in a permanent transfer comes first and United would likely explore offers given a profit on the purchase price seems assured due to his international progress.

Loan inquiries arrived mainly from Europe, and a move abroad may ultimately suit Pellistri’s style.

Laurie Whitwell


Nicknamed ‘El Pajarito’ (little bird or fledgeling) due to his long limbs and shy character, the Real Madrid and Uruguay midfielder Federico Valverde has well and truly taken flight over the last 12 months.

Born in Montevideo in July 1998, Valverde came through the youth system at Penarol and almost joined Arsenal before agreeing a €5million (£4.4m) move to Madrid after scoring seven times at the 2015 South American Under-17 championships.

Most observers expected Valverde to become a long-term fixture in Madrid’s midfield, but few thought it would take so long. The team’s established ‘magic midfield triangle’ of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric complemented each other perfectly and refused to budge. So even as he became a leader for Uruguay, at Madrid he was often the odd man out.

As recently as the first half of the 2021-22 season, Valverde did not have a place in Carlo Ancelotti’s preferred starting XI. Then, over the second half of the campaign, he made himself indispensable through his energy and athleticism — whether within the midfield three, or in adapting to a new position as a false right-winger. That culminated in last June’s Champions League final against Liverpool, when his run and pass set up Vinicius Junior’s winning goal.

Valverde’s special quality is how he can use his athleticism, energy and control to carry the ball huge distances, breaking opposition lines and leaving rival defenders in his wake. That was highlighted again versus Mallorca in La Liga in early September 2022, when he picked up a loose ball deep in his own half, carried and carried and carried it forward, before slamming a shot into the top corner from 20 yards out.

Now 24, the timing looks ideal for El Pajarito to soar even higher at this World Cup.

There is a quiet confidence that having established himself at club level, he can lead a Uruguay team that blends youth and experience far into the competition.

Dermot Corrigan

Valverde is a midfielder, but not in the way you’d expect, as he often advances forward to join the attacking line, which allows him to score goals for fun.

His six goals in La Liga this season have come off an expected goals of just 1.8, which perhaps highlights the quality of his finishing and also the unsustainability of that scoring rate.

Aside from the hot streak in front of goal, where he flourishes is his ability to play off his team-mates. He is secure with the ball (ball retention ability, 93 out of 99) and able to offload it with a simple pass (link-up play volume, 92 out of 100). 

When watching Valverde, it feels like he’s everywhere. He makes a big contribution out of possession, hunting the ball down and making plenty of recoveries and interceptions (69 out of 99). 

He is a well-rounded midfielder, impressive defensively and offensively. 

Maram AlBaharna

During Valverde’s time in Spain, other clubs might have wondered whether they could take advantage of any impatience or ambition on his part to be playing more regular football. Liverpool were thought to be interested in the summer but neither Madrid nor Valverde gave a move a moment’s thought. 

He is under contract at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu until June 2027, under the terms of the deal agreed in August 2021. His increased importance on the field over the last 12 months has not yet been accompanied by a similar jump up the squad’s salary scale. 

A new contract in line with his status as one of the world’s top midfielders looks likely next summer, when both Kroos and Modric’s deals end.

Dermot Corrigan


“If I need to play three 90 minutes, I’ll play three 90 minutes.”

For some context, Gareth Bale has played less than half an hour of competitive football since the end of September and only completed two games this year. Remarkably, he has still managed to score goals of huge significance for Wales and Los Angeles FC during that period, underlining his ability to deliver match-defining moments even when there are concerns about his fitness and lack of playing time.

In club football, Bale has been there and done it, winning the Champions League five times with Real Madrid and scoring in two finals. His record at international level is formidable, too – Bale is his country’s all-time leading goalscorer and, without question, the driving force behind what will be remembered in years to come as a golden era for Welsh football. 

When Wales reached the semi-finals at Euro 2016, Bale was arguably in his prime. Aged 33, he is a different player now. The days when he could be forced off a pitch by a defender, run back on and still beat them in a race – something that happened for club and country twice in the space of two months in 2014 – are gone. 

But his left foot is as good as ever, both from open play and dead-balls, and Bale’s heading ability should never be underestimated either – his equalising goal for Los Angeles FC in the MLS Cup earlier this month was a timely reminder of that. 

The other ingredient in all this – and it is difficult to measure but impossible to ignore – is the pride that Bale feels when he puts on a Wales shirt. That emotional pull will be even stronger in Qatar, given that he will be the first man to captain his country at a World Cup for 64 years. 

With that in mind, and the strong possibility that the World Cup will mark the end of his international career, it would be no surprise if Bale produces something special. 

Stuart James

Bale has racked up about as many minutes for his country as he has in club football since 2021, making the infamous “Wales, golf, Madrid” banner pretty accurate.

His move to the MLS has seen him play just shy of 400 minutes for Los Angeles FC, meaning the most recent profile with sufficient minutes was his short return to Tottenham Hotspur in 2020-21.

Look, there is still no doubting Bale’s attacking quality when he can get on the pitch, where he will continue to contribute towards his side’s chances (xG from shot creation, 94 out of 99). He will consistently look forward (progressive passing, 81 out of 99), advance the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 71 out of 99), and frequently shoot from distance (shot volume, 86 out of 99).

Granted, a lot of his minutes were off the bench against tired legs, but Bale showed he could still find the net in the Premier League with 11 goals in total at a rate of 1.1 goals per 90 — the highest rate of any player in 2020-21.

Give him the ball and he will still threaten. It’s simple.

Mark Carey

Even those close to Bale have no idea what the future looks like for him. The facts are that he agreed a one-year contract with Los Angeles FC in June and that there is an 18-month extension option within that deal. Bale, to be clear, is not looking that far ahead. 

The World Cup was his motivation to keep playing – reliable sources strongly believe that he would have retired if Wales had failed to qualify – raising the question of what happens once Qatar is over.

There is a school of thought that a strong showing at the World Cup would be the perfect way to bow out.

Either way, it is enjoyment rather than money – Bale has more than enough of the latter – that will determine what he does next.

Stuart James


A lot has happened in a short space of time for Johnson, who has gone from spending a season-long loan at Lincoln City to being described as “the future of Welsh football” by the national team manager Rob Page. In between, Johnson scored 18 goals in the Championship and registered 10 assists, helping Nottingham Forest win promotion to the Premier League.

By Johnson’s own admission, “getting into the Premier League was not a realistic goal” before the start of the 2021-22 season. Instead, he wondered if he might have to go on loan again to play regular first-team football. In that sense, his emergence as an elite player seems to have taken him by surprise. Those that knew him well saw it coming.

Born in Nottingham, Johnson played for England at youth level but qualified to play for Wales through his grandparents. He already has two international goals to his name, against Belgium and the Netherlands, and Page believes that he is good enough to play for a top-six Premier League club. 

That comment was made in the summer before both Johnson and Forest endured a difficult start to life in the Premier League. That said, Johnson’s ability is there for all to see. He is quick, two-footed, a good finisher and an excellent crosser of the ball on the run, as he showed against Belgium in September, when he set up the Wales goal from the right channel where he carries such a threat. The more you watch Johnson, the more you realise that he is an intelligent footballer, too – he knows, instinctively, where and when to arrive in the area.

With all of that in mind, it is no surprise that he is so versatile. Johnson can play on either flank, as a No 9, second striker or a No 10 (Michael Appleton used Johnson in six different positions during his loan at Lincoln).

Stuart James

When interpreting Johnson’s data it is important to remember how quickly his rise to England’s top tier has been — he was playing in League One for Lincoln City two years ago.

Forest have been enigmatic and particularly defensive this season, often looking to Johnson for creativity and a spark on the counter-attack.

When he does receive the ball, Johnson looks to quickly play into advanced areas (progressive passing, 68 out of 99), which naturally hamstrings the rate at which he keeps possession (ball retention ability, just 11 out of 99).

His super strength is his pace, which he often uses in quick transitions to gain yards, or when in one-v-one duels against a defender (carry and dribble volume, 52 out of 99). His 10 chance-creating carries (six ending in a shot, four ending in a key pass) were the most of any Forest player after the first 11 games of the season.

Johnson’s role as a hybrid winger-forward means that while the majority of his minutes have come as a striker, he doesn’t play like one. In 2021-22, 56 per cent of his minutes came as a No 9, but he does his best work in wide areas and his shots tend to be following dribbles or late crashing runs with one-touch finishes at low crosses (shot volume, 47 out of 99).

Liam Tharme

Answering this question in January would have been complicated to say the least. Brentford had four bids rejected for Johnson, who was into the final 18 months of his contract at the time. Leeds, Newcastle and Leicester also showed interest during the second half of the season.

Yet from the moment Forest won promotion, there was only ever going to be one outcome. Johnson signed a four-year contract at the start of July, describing his journey from the academy to the first team as “unbelievable”. He spoke of his desire to “take the next step up again” and expressed his happiness that it will be with Forest.

Clearly, there is an emotional pull at the club for obvious reasons – Johnson said that he never considered leaving in January. It is easy to imagine a fresh wave of interest in him next summer if Forest are relegated, although much also depends on Johnson’s form between now and then.

Stuart James


(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)