This is the first in a series of articles for this magazine that will look ahead to the 2021/22 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.
Jesper Tolinsson, 18-years-old, IFK Goteborg, Sweden
IFK Goteborg are traditionally one of the giants of Swedish and Scandinavian football. In recent years, however, the club has suffered from a run of poor results and questionable strategies surrounding player recruitment and squad building. They have gone from a defined policy of signing young players and integrating players from their own academy to signing players who are big names but are well past their peak.
Over the last 18 months though the emergence of the homegrown central defender Jesper Tolinsson has been a positive for the club. He is still only 18-years-old but with a contract that is set to expire in 2023 he is likely to become a target for clubs around Europe towards the end of the 2022/21 season.
So far, his data profile is not fully impressive but we have to accept a small sample size as due to the Swedish football calendar he has only played 738 minutes at the time of writing. He is currently averaging 49.88 passes per 90 with 8.54 progressive passes per 90 and 5.73 passes to the final third per 90. This is combined with 7.44 defensive duels per 90 and a success rate of 77.05% in those duels.
Tolinsson is listed at 190cm| 6’3” and he is predominantly right-footed. So far this season we have seen IFK Goteborg playing primarily in a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 system and the young defender is most comfortable on the outside of the back three where his mobility and ability to read the game can come to the fore.
Here, we see a situation where Tolinsson reads the threat and is able to move across to prevent a threat before it fully develops. The man in possession plays a simple pass to the forward player with his back to goal. This leads to an immediate one-two as the original player in possession outplays his direct opponent and then looks to attack into space in the wide areas.
Tolinsson, however, is not immediately attracted to the first man who receives and instead he retains a deeper position. As the one-two is executed Tolinsson is still balanced and able to move across to cleanly challenge and win the ball.
This time we see Tolinsson defending on the other side of the back three and in a more established and deep defensive structure. Tolinsson is pulled wide by the movement of his direct attacker and this opens a passing lane for the man in possession to play towards the edge of the area.
Once again Tolinsson is able to defend the threat of the pass thanks to his balanced defensive position and his ability to quickly change direction. As the pass is played through to the edge of the area Tolinsson shifts and opens his hips before cleanly challenging and winning the ball.
As well as being able to read the game and challenge effectively for the ball, Tolinsson is a player who has an excellent range of passing that allows him to break the lines of the opposition or access all areas of the field.
We see this here as he initially receives the ball on the first line before taking a positive first-touch and pushing the ball past the only opposition player who has pressed into an advanced position. From here we then see Tolinsson have the composure to pause and assess the options before showing the vision to access the run on the furthest line as an attacking teammate breaks the defensive line with a forward run. His pass leads the run of the attacker and is well weighted.
As well as being able to access the furthest line through his direct passing Tolinsson is also a progressive passer who can effectively break the lines of opposition pressure.
We see an example of this here as he initially receives a difficult pass across the face of his own goal from one of the other central defenders. This pass immediately sees Tolinsson put under pressure as the opposition are pressing high. There is a pass on to the left-sided player although there is an opposition player moving quickly to engage and close him down.
Instead, we see Tolinsson play progressively through the lines with a vertical pass that accesses one of the central midfielders in space.
Going forward I would expect to see Tolinsson become a target for clubs in Belgium or the Netherlands in the first instance as both nations have a history of effective recruitment from the region. From there do not be surprised to see clubs in the top-5 leagues begin to develop significant interest in the young Swede.
Piero Hincapie, 19-years-old, Talleres, Ecuador
The problem with writing articles like this for a monthly magazine is that the picture around the players you choose can change dramatically. This is the case for the 19-year-old Ecuadorian defender Piero Hincapie who finds himself surrounded by transfer speculation with links to clubs like Bayern Munich, Lazio, Milan and Celtic. The 19-year-old was initially developed at the academy of the prolific Independiente del Valle in his native Ecuador but he made the move to join Talleres in Argentina for a reported £750k in 2020. Now, Talleres stands to make a significant profit on the impressive young defender.
At the time of writing Hincapie has played 1267 minutes this season and his metrics are extremely impressive. He is averaging 57.11 passes per 90 with 10.87 progressive passes per 90 and 6.32 passes to the final third per 90. He is also averaging 8.31 defensive duels, with a 68.38% success rate, and 3.98 aerial duels per 90 with a 62.50% success rate.
Hincapie is arguably slightly undersized for a central defender and he is listed at 184cm | 6’1” as well as being predominantly left-footed.
This season has seen Talleres line up for the most part in a 4-2-3-1 system and Hincapie has tended to play as the left-sided central defender in this system.
When defending in either a high or a low defensive block it is impressive that Hincapie always appears to be composed and in control of the game. For a defender who is still relatively inexperienced he plays with the poise of a much older and more experienced player.
We see an example of this poise here as Talleres have been caught in transition with a poor defensive organisation. As the ball carrier advances forward the first thing to note is the defensive posture of Hincapie as he is showing the opponent towards the outside but he is also positioning to cut off the passing lane that is open on the far side of the field.
Hincapie drops deeper and deeper until the ball carrier takes a slightly heavier touch and then he immediately moves to engage and win the ball cleanly.
Hincapie is also comfortable when being asked to defend in space. We see an example of this here where he is defending when isolated 1v1 against the opposition attacker. Talleres are, again, in a poor defensive structure and he has no cover.
He still, however, remains composed and as the attacker attempts to outplay him he cleanly wins the ball and starts an immediate attacking transition.
In possession one of the things that stands out the most when watching Hincapie play is his ability to carry the ball before timing the release to a teammate well in order to outplay the opposition press. He is comfortable in possession and can move forward on the ball in order to force the opposition to break their defensive structure as they have to engage and press.
We see this here as Hincapie carries the ball towards the opposition half. He always carries the ball with his head up while looking for shifting passing lanes. As he eventually is engaged by two opposition midfielders he finds a line breaking pass that accesses the edge of the final third.
We see another example here of how comfortable Hincapie is in possession as he dribbles wide and then checks back inside in the opposition half before then finding the through ball that accesses a run from an attacking player who is looking to break the opposition defensive line.
With all of the interest currently in Hincapie it is unlikely that he will remain in Argentina for long. His skill set appears ready made for a possession orientated side who like to dominate the ball and find line breaking passes that progress the ball. A move to Serie A to either Lazio or Milan would make sense for me.
Odilon Kossounou, 20-years-old, Club Brugge, Ivory Coast
Over the course of the 2020/21 season Kossounou played 2864 minutes. He averaged 46.82 passes per 90 with 7.6 progressive passes per 90 and 6.1 passes to the final third per 90. His defensive metrics are also impressive with 7.01 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 71.3% and 3.17 aerial duels per 90 with a success rate of 57.43%.
There is a growing body of players from Africa who have started their journey in European football with a move to Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, before quickly making a move to the Belgian or Dutch leagues. The 20-year-old Ivorian central defender Odilon Kossounou is the latest example of a player executing this pathway effectively having originally left the prolific ASEC Mimosas in his native country to move to Hammarby in Sweden at the start of 2019. By July of the same year Kossounou was moving again to Club Brugge for a reported £3.5M.
Kossounou has so far been used either as a right-sided central defender or as a right-back although his long term future is likely going to be as a central defender.
He is listed at 191cm | 6’3” and he is predominantly right-footed. Last season we saw Club Brugge play in a 4-1-4-1 structure and Kossounou is most likely to play as the right-sided central defender.
Kossounou is an excellent defender, especially for one so young, and he combines his physical traits, pace, power and agility, with the ability to read the game and identify danger quickly. He is an intelligent player who rarely seems to be poorly positioned.
We see his calm and composed positioning here as he has been isolated at the edge of the area against an opposition attacking player. The pass has been played diagonally from the right to access the attacker in this position and as such both attacker and defender have been moving across with momentum taking them towards the near side.
As the attacker looks to use this momentum to cut back inside we see Kossounou reading the threat and calmly winning the duel without going to ground before striding forward with the ball at his feet.
Here, again, we see the ability of the young defender to read the danger before using his physical profile to engage and win the ball back. The opposition ball carrier looks to have made the right decision as he comes under pressure and then looks for a forward pass that accesses space for the attacking player.
Kossounou, however, has read the intention and he is already well positioned so there is no need to spring to win the ball as he instead slides over and wins the ball cleanly from the opposing striker.
As befits a player who can play at right-back or as a more conventional central defender Kossounou is a player who can be comfortable when moving in possession of the ball and breaking the lines through a dribble.
We see an example of this here as two opposition players look to engage and close him down as he takes possession on the edge of the penalty area. He simply accelerated through the gap between the two pressing players and started an attacking movement for his team with ease.
So, if he is pressed we have seen that Kossounou has the quality to outplay through a dribble but if the opposition sit off the Ivorian central defender then he has the passing range to access all areas of the field and break the opposition down.
We see this here as the Genk forwards are in a medium block with a line of engagement that allows Kossounou to have possession. This allows him to get his head up and recognise that there is space on the far side of the field. This space is then accessed through a diagonal pass that releases the attacking player into space.
At the moment it feels like staying in Belgium makes the most sense for a player like Odilon Kossounou as he can continue to develop for a club who can be dominant domestically while playing regular European football. Do not be surprised, however, if clubs in Germany and England in particular are heavily following and scouting the Ivorian central defender.
Kamil Piatkowski, 21-years-old, Rakow Czestochowa, Poland
There is a regular issue with scouting young talent around the world. I have lost count of the amount of times that I have come across a young player who leaps out, either in terms of data or video, to the extent that I believe I am witnessing something that not many others will have seen yet, only to discover that the player in question has already agreed a move to one of the Red Bull clubs.
That is the case for the 21-year-old Polish central defender Kamil Piatkowski who will shortly be moving to Red Bull Salzburg for a reported £4.5M from Rakow in the Polish top-flight. The development of Piatkowski has been sudden as he only moved to Rakow in 2019 from Zaglebie Lubin on a free transfer.
Now, the young defender is moving to one of the most progressive clubs in Europe having made his debut for the Polish national team.
Piatkowski is listed at 191cm | 6’3” and he is predominantly right footed. Last season saw Rakow playing predominantly in a 3-4-3 system with Piatkowski playing on the right-side of that defensive structure.
Looking at Piatkowski’s data profile there are clear indicators that show the young defender as a target for the Red Bull network. For a central defender to be averaging 1.95 dribbles per 90 in particular is extremely interesting. This is combined with 7.13 progressive passes per 90 and 5.91 passes to the final third per 90.
Piatkowski is an intelligent defender who positions himself well and reads the intentions of the opposition players to be able to cut out danger early. We see an example of this here as the opposition ball carrier has been able to break through the defensive press on the near side and he is carrying the ball forward and into space.
Piatkowski has taken up a good covering position and as the ball carrier bursts into space he accelerates calmly across and cleanly wins possession of the ball.
Here we again see that the positioning and reading of the game from Piatkowski is able to get his teammates out of trouble in the defensive phase. The opposition ball carrier has played a through ball to access the diagonal run of the striker.
Piatkowski looks to be a clear second favourite to get back and win possession of the ball but his pace allows him to get across and challenge cleanly for the ball.
Piatkowski has a superb passing range and the ability to access all areas of the field from the first line but he also has the vision to spot a runner moving from deep or to identify where the best space to attack in the opposition defensive structure is.
We see here that he has possession on the first line and when under no pressure he has the time to look for a passing option. That option comes centrally with an attacker breaking the last line and Piatkowski finds the run with a pass that outplays the entire opposition defensive structure.
Piatkowski is also comfortable when moving forward to join in attacking movements deep in the opposition half. This is extremely effective against teams that are trying to sit deep and defend in a low block.
We see this here with Piatkowksi moving into the final third to join the attack. As he receives the ball the passing lane to the wide player, who is in space, is initially blocked. He has the confidence though to step inside and towards pressure before playing the pass around the corner to access this passing lane.
It will be intriguing to see how Piatkowski develops in Austria but he has every chance to go on and become a star.
Giannis Michailidis, 21-years-old, PAOK, Greece
Giannis Michailidis is a 21-year-old Greek defender who has been capped twice, at the time of writing, by the senior national team. He is a product of the PAOK academy and has been a regular in their first-team for the last two seasons. He has the capacity to play as a left-sided central defender or as a left-back.
He is listed at 188cm | 6’2” and he is predominantly left-footed.
This past season saw him play 1584 minutes for PAOK as he averaged 56.36 passes per 90 with 11.7 progressive passes per 90 and 8.52 passes to the final third per 90. He also averaged 5.91 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 64.42% and 4.83 aerial duels per 90 with a success rate of 62.35%.
Michailidis is an aggressive defender who likes to be proactive in looking to come and meet threats before they can fully develop. He is comfortable defending in space when isolated in the wide areas and he has the pace and strength to be able to deal with quick attacking players.
Here, we see an example of this as the opposition are looking to attack into the PAOK half. As the ball is played out we see Michailidis moving extremely quickly in order to engage with and win the ball back with a strong challenge.
He also shows defensive awareness when defending space is in the penalty area. We see in this example that the opposition have worked the ball forward in the wide area and as the ball comes across Michailidis is positioned to defend the near post.
There is a forward positioned behind him and as the ball accesses this player it initially looks as though Michailidis is in a poor defensive position. Instead, he is able to adjust and win the ball back comfortably by sliding his hips and moving across.
Michailidis is a capable passer of the ball who is dangerous when given time and space. Here we see him in possession before accessing space on the far side of the pitch through a diagonal pass that drops over the head of the opposition defender.
He is also capable of playing dangerous vertical passes that access space in the opposition defensive structure. We see an example of this here as Michailidis steps forward in possession into the opposition half. As he does so the winger on his side of the pitch makes a double movement to create separation and Michailidis has the quality to play the pass to break the final like.
It is likely that we will see Michailidis leave PAOK sooner rather than later. There have already been links to clubs in the Bundesliga and Serie A and both leagues represent an interesting option for the player.