This is the first of a series of articles for this magazine that will look ahead to the 2022/23 season with a view to highlighting some interesting players to watch out for. In this piece, we will concentrate on the defensive positions, with five players selected. Whilst these players are mainly considered central defenders, some of them have the positional versatility to also cover in the fullback positions. This, however, is part of modern football with the rise of three-at-the-back systems leading to versatile players who are comfortable centrally or when asked to defend out in wide areas.
All of the data used in putting together this article comes from Wyscout with the visualisations being custom built by myself using Tableau.
This article is not intended as a definitive list of ‘the next big thing’ at the position and instead will show five players who I believe are interesting enough to merit watching going into next season and beyond.
#1 Kamil Piątkowski, 21 years old, Central Defender, RB Salzburg and Poland
The first player on my list is the 21-year-old Polish central defender Kamil Piątkowski. He is a powerfully built right-footed central defender who is listed at 191cm | 6’3”. He moved to RB Salzburg at the start of this season for a reported £4.5M from Raków in his native Poland. Interestingly, he was not actually a youth product at Raków, and they actually signed him from Zagłębie Lubin on a free transfer just two years before.
When we look at the data profile for Piątkowski, we start to see just how important team factors are when assessing a player’s metrics and outputs using data. Since RB Salzburg are so dominant domestically, they expect to have the majority of possession game in and game out, and as such, their central defenders start to show impressive outputs in the passing and ball progression categories, this leads to Piątkowski, at the time of writing, averaging 11.93 progressive passes per 90 and 14.96 passes into the final third per 90. Interestingly, Piątkowski also averages 5.64 progressive runs per 90. It is not unusual to see him carrying the ball forward and out of the defensive block in order to break lines and move his side into the opposition half and towards the final third.
Defensively, there are also some stand out aspects of the Polish defenders game. While he is only averaging 3.69 defensive duels per 90, again likely due to RB Salzburg being so possession dominant, he has a success rate that sits at a staggering 94.12%. He is averaging 6.72 aerial duels per 90 with a success rate of 41.94%.
The next steps are difficult for a player like Piątkowski, as he has signed a long-term contract with the Austrian club which limits his ability to get a move elsewhere. It would not, however, be a surprise to see him moving to Germany before the end of his contract and his skill set is likely to translate extremely well to the German Bundesliga.
#2 Leonidas Stergiou, 19 years old, Central Defender, St. Gallen and Switzerland
The next player on our list does not make it because of his data profile, which is perhaps the weakest on our list, but because of the promise and potential that he has shown as a commanding central defender. Leonidas Stergiou is a 19-year-old Swiss U21 international central defender who has become a regular this season for St. Gallen in the Swiss Super League.
He is a product of the St. Gallen youth academy and he is a right-sided central defender with the ability to play in a back four or back three. He is listed at 181cm | 6’ and he has an athletic frame onto which he should be able to build muscle over the next year or two. Stergiou is a modern central defender who has shown the ability to read the game and position himself extremely well in order to negate the opposition attack.
Defensively, he is averaging 6.62 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 64.91% and 1.39 aerial duels with a success rate of 58.33%. This is combined with 7.73 possession adjusted interceptions as we start to see how effectively the Swiss central defender reads the game.
In possession, he is less likely to be involved in the St. Gallen build-up phase as they are direct in nature. He is averaging 35.63 passes per 90 with 14.63 per 90 of those being classed as forward passes. He is also averaging 7.55 progressive passes per 90 and 6.27 passes to the final third per 90.
The next steps are likely to mean a move away from the Swiss Super League with the French and German leagues feeling like the most sensible move to a top-5 league, although the Dutch league may provide an alternative option.
#3 Gastón Ávila, 20 years old, Central Defender, Rosario Central (on loan from Boca Juniors) and Argentina
For the next player on the list, we are off to South America where the 20-year-old central defender Gastón Ávila has been impressing for Rosario Central, although he is only on loan from Boca Juniors. Ávila has also been capped at U20 level by the national team and it feels like just a matter of time before he makes his senior international debut. He is a left-footed central defender who is capable of playing in a back four or as part of a back three. He is listed at 182cm | 6’1” and has a strong build. Ávila was born in Rosario and spent time in the youth system at Rosario Central but he left at an early age to join Boca Juniors. In February of this year, he returned to his hometown club on loan and he has gone from strength to strength since.
He is a very modern central defender who is extremely comfortable in possession of the ball. He is averaging 10.78 progressive passes per 90 and 8.89 passes to the final third per 90 along with 1.48 passes to the penalty area per 90 and even 1.14 dribbles per 90. In short, he has quickly become an important part of the ball progression and build-up for his side with his ability to break lines and find diagonal passes that change the angle of the attack effectively. Defensively, he also impresses with an aggressive and proactive approach and he is averaging 8.35 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 66.36% and 7.11 possession adjusted interceptions.
Ávila will return to Boca Juniors from his loan prior to the start of the 2022 season but there is likely to be interest from Europe in securing the signature of the central defender. Italy and Spain would make the most sensible destinations from a cultural perspective but he also qualifies for a work permit to play in England.
#4 Sadio Sow, 19 years old, Central Defender, Saint-Étienne and Guinea
The fourth player on the list is the 19-year-old Guinean international defender Sadio Sow of Saint-Étienne. Sow was born in Conakry in Guinea, but he was also eligible to represent France at international level. He has, however, chosen to represent the country of his birth and already has 7 full international caps at only 19 years old. He is a product of the youth system at Saint-Étienne and despite the relegation struggles the club are facing this season, he has been one of the bright spots for the side in their Ligue 1 campaign. He is a right-footed central defender who profiles as someone who is best placed to play in a back four system. Listed at 185cm | 6’2” he has an athletic build with long limbs that he uses to break up opposition attacks effectively.
Defensively he is at his strongest when defending and engaging in defensive duels on the ground with 7.98 defensive duels per 90 and a staggering success rate of 77.22%. He is also capable aerially with an average of 5.86 aerial duels per 90 and a success rate of 50%. This is combined with 5.86 possession adjusted interceptions. Sow is perhaps less effective in the build-up phase but he is still capable and confident in possession with 47.47 passes per 90 and 7.37 per 90 of those being listed as progressive.
If the worst happens and Saint-Étienne do get relegated, then expect Sow to be a player that a number of sides across France and the other top-5 leagues register an interest in signing.
#5 Sebastian Walukiewicz, 21 years old, Central Defender, Cagliari and Poland
The final player that I will discuss is actually the second Polish player to have made the list in the 21-year-old Cagliari defender Sebastian Walukiewicz. He was initially on the books at Legia Warsaw before moving in 2017 to join Pogoń Szczecin for a reported fee of £14K. Just 18 months later, Cagliari were reported to have paid £3.6M for his signature, a remarkable profit. At the time of writing, he has been capped three times at full international level by the Polish national side.
He is predominantly right-footed and capable of playing as part of a back three or a back four. Listed at 188cm | 6’4” he is a commanding and physically imposing central defender. This translates to his defensive output, as Walukiewicz is averaging 9.59 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 70.97% and 1.24 aerial duels per 90 (curiously low!) with a success rate of 75%, He positions himself well to cut passing lanes and fill space and he has 5.93 possession adjusted interceptions so far this season. In possession, he actually provides volume as a passer with 49.79 passes per 90, although the majority of those are relatively ‘safe’ with 8.04 progressive passes per 90 and even 1.9 dribbles per 90 with most of these coming when he is playing on the right of a back three.
Italy is one of the leagues that has the most ‘inter league’ transfers in Europe and it would not be a surprise to see the young Polish defender making a move to a European contender within Serie A as soon as the end of this season.