Last month in this magazine I wrote articles looking at five defenders and five midfielders to watch in the 2021/22 season. This time I will turn my attention towards forwards with five players that I think will have a significant impact over the course of the upcoming season.
Once again I have selected a variety of players from different nations and regions around the world and who play in slightly different positions to one another. I have not limited myself to just players who will play centrally and act as the attacking focal point for their teams. Indeed, at least one of our selections may develop into a player who is better suited to playing wide in the attack.
I do believe, however, that all of the players that have been selected are exceptionally talented.
Nikolai Baden Frederiksen, 21-years-old, Vitesse Arnhem, Denmark
This summer has seen a lot of hype surrounding the move of Kamaldeen Sulemena from FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark to the French club Rennes. Whilst Sulemana is likely to have a significant impact in France, and I am on record in stating my admiration for the player, there is another former Nordsjaelland player who I think could prove to be one of the signings of the summer.
Nikolai Baden Frederiksen left the Danish club in 2018 to join Juventus and although he never made a first-team appearance in Serie A, he did enjoy strong loan spells in Holland with Fortuna Sittard and Austria with WSG Tirol. Now, the Danish striker has left the Italian side permanently to join the ambitious project currently underway at Vitesse Arnhem.
He is a flexible attacking player who is comfortable playing on the highest line as a ‘9’ or when dropping off to receive the ball and bring others into play. In the Austrian Bundesliga last season he averaged 0.69 goals per 90 although his xG per 90 was only 0.40. He is an excellent finisher with the ability to score a wide variety of goals.
Baden Frederiksen displays excellent awareness and movement in and around the penalty area. This allows him to create separation from defenders and to find little pockets of space in the area. As a result of this, we often see him picking up the ball with a couple of seconds of time to control it and set himself before he shoots.
We see this here as the ball is played deep into the area. A teammate goes to challenge for the ball and as he does so he drags two defensive players deep with him. Baden Frederiksen has the awareness not to follow the ball but to sit deeper and take up a position behind the aerial challenge. As the ball then breaks to him he is able to control the dropping ball and finish comfortably past the goalkeeper.
Here, again we see great awareness from the Danish striker as he first receives the ball and then progresses into the final third for his side. He has the ability to play either with his back to goal or when spinning and attacking space behind the opposition defensive line with vertical runs in behind.
This time as the ball is clipped forward we see Frederiksen control the ball on his chest before feeling pressure from behind and manipulating the ball away and into space. As he spins into space he identifies the weak point in the opposition structure and drives that way with possession.
Frederiksen is a genuine threat when picking the ball up in deeper areas and then progressing it through vertical runs. He is a powerful runner but one who does not rely on strength and leverage to outplay opponents. His technique is good and he keeps the ball on the safe side as he moves in possession. This sees him win a number of fouls in dangerous positions as he moves with the ball. In this example, he picks the ball up deep and then quickly identifies the gap and drives through the defensive line. In a single movement, he progresses the ball up to the edge of the opposition area and forces the opposition to have to quickly readjust their defensive block.
I expect Frederiksen to make a significant impact in the Eredivisie this coming season for Vitesse. He profiles as a modern and flexible attacking player and his eye for goal and tactical awareness are obvious qualities.
Dembo Darboe, 22-years-old, Shakhtjor Soligorsk, The Gambia
Dembo Darboe is perhaps the most left-field name on the list, especially when you consider the fact that he is currently contracted to Shaktjor Soligorsk in the Belarussian top-flight. He is something of a late bloomer but has made significant progress since moving to Europe from the Senegalese side ASAC Ndiambour. His first step was the Northern Macedonian League with FC Shkupi and at the end of the first half of the 2020/21 season, only Robert Lewandowski had scored more goals than the Gambian forward.
That led to the move to Belarus as he joined the reigning champions Shaktjor Soligorsk. His goal scoring has continued from there and having been moved permanently to play as a striker and not an attacking midfielder his current club are reaping the rewards.
Darboe is powerfully built with a muscular frame but this belies his ability to shift the ball quickly in tight areas to give himself space and separation from defenders and he couples this with an extremely accurate shot.
Darboe is a very capable ball carrier with speed and power combined with close control and good technique when it comes to ball manipulation. He is capable of changing the tempo of his movements suddenly and this allows the forward to attract players towards the ball before he then quickly changes speed and outplays them.
In this example, we see Darboe in possession on the left-hand side of the area. He is initially isolated with a defender moving across to engage the ball. As the defender closes him down, Darboe shifts inside and beats the first man. This then pulls across a second defender to engage the ball and again Darboe beats him before finishing the chance.
This time we see an example of Darboe’s ability to progress the ball effectively having received possession in a deeper position. He initially takes the ball in while facing his own goal at the edge of the centre circle. The opposition try to put him under pressure and engage the ball but Darboe is extremely difficult to stop when he is in possession. He is able to turn and drive the ball centrally into the opposition half.
As he does so he spots the advanced run of a teammate and is able to find an accurate through ball with the outside of his boot to release the runner.
Once again in this example, we see just how dangerous Darboe can be when picking up possession in the final third. He is, again, isolated against a single defensive player as he drives inside and into a central position. He carries the ball across the face of the opposition defensive line before striking a curling shot into the far corner of the net.
Darboe is a striker in a hurry. In my opinion, he has already outgrown the Belarussian top-flight and a move to a higher level of competition makes a lot of sense. The Russian side Krasnodar have been credited with significant interest and this move would make a lot of sense for the Gambian forward.
Jackson Muleka, 21-years-old, Standard Liege. DR Congo
Jackson Muleka is a 21-year-old forward who only made the move to European football when he joined Standard Liege from TP Mazembe in September 2020 for a fee reported to be in the £1.8M range. Muleka settled quickly into life in Belgium and across the 2020/21 season he played 1362 minutes domestically with an average of 0.49 goals per 90 from an xG per 90 of 0.59. His other attacking metrics were also very impressive with 3.24 shots per 90 and 5.22 touches in the opposition area per 90.
Muleka is an explosive attacking player who uses his ability to anticipate the next pass to attack space and to do so from a slightly deeper line. This allows him to run across the face of opposition defenders to attack the ball as it is played forward from deeper areas or into the centre from wide spaces.
We see an example of this movement here as Standard are initially in possession of the ball wide on the right-hand side. Muleka starts his movement behind the defender but anticipates that the ball will be played into the space at the near post.
He is quick enough to outpace the defender from this position with an angled run across the front of the defensive player. He is then in position to meet the cross at the near post with a powerful finish beyond the goalkeeper.
Here, again, we see the ball positioned wide on the right as Standard are attacking and threatening the opposition area. This time the starting position for Muleka is much deeper but he again shows his anticipation to understand which space to attack.
Again, he moves at speed past the defender to attack the space at the near post and his finish is powerful and beyond the goalkeeper.
Here we see Muleka anticipating a clipped ball into the penalty area from a more central position before finishing past the goalkeeper.
He understands how to position himself on the blind side of defenders and as the defender concentrates on the ball, he will make decisive movements past them. This is the case here as the young forward sees that the player in possession is set to play the pass. He makes a movement off the back of the defender and is in position to head the ball past the goalkeeper.
This season I fully expect Muleka to play a far more significant role domestically and there is no doubt that clubs in the top 5 leagues will be shadowing his progress closely. He looks ready-made for a league like the Premier League with his finishing ability and explosive movement.
Ibrahima Niane, 22-years-old, Metz, Senegal
The 2020/21 season saw Ibrahima Niane start in scintillating form. He scored six goals in the first six matches as the rest of Europe began to sit up and take notice. Then, in mid-October, his season changed as he was diagnosed with a ruptured cruciate ligament. This injury saw him out for months and even when he returned towards the end of the season his form was not quite the same.
I fully expect, however, after a full pre-season, that the Senegalese forward will be back to top form for this upcoming season.
Niane is a perfect modern forward. He is capable of coming deep or moving wide to receive the ball but he also possesses intelligent movement in and around the area with the ability to create separation from opposition defensive players.
Here, we see the movement profile of Niane in question. With the ball in the wide area the striker has initially positioned himself on the back of the nearest defender. As that defender turns to concentrate on the potential delivery of the ball into the area, we see Niane drift off the defender to occupy the space between the two defensive players that are closest to him.
As the cross then comes into this area Niane is perfectly positioned and he finishes with a powerful header into the corner.
Niane is a creative dribbler who has a variety of tricks and flicks that he can use to outplay the opposition defenders. Crucially these tricks are always designed to create the quickest path to goal that is possible.
Here we see Niane playing on the highest line with a defender in close proximity. The ball is initially played into the midfield before it is shifted to the striker and instead of looking to take the ball in to hold it up he instead finds a way to immediately outplay the defender.
He flicks the ball over the head of the defender with his heel before moving past him comfortably.
Niane is an impressive ball striker with excellent technique and the capacity to finish in a variety of ways. This also extends to his ability in the air where he gets good height and reads the flight of the ball well.
This example, however, shows the more spectacular side of Niane as he scores a driven finish from outside the area after receiving a cross from a creative corner routine. The cross is played into Niane in space outside the area and he hits a first-time volley that flashes past the goalkeeper and into the goal.
The injury that Niane suffered last season is likely the only reason that the Senegalese forward is still at the club. There would likely have been significant interest in the forward this summer. I fully expect him to impress again this season and for his big money move to come next summer.
Marko Divković, 22-years-old, DAC, Croatia
I have perhaps saved my favourite for last in a player who does not profile fully as an out and out central striker. Marko Divković is a powerful and creative wide forward who displays a genuine talent for finishing when cutting inside on his left foot from his normal position wide on the right of the attack.
He played 2482 minutes domestically last season and averaged 0.44 goals per 90 from an xG per 90 of 0.26. For a wide forward it was also impressive that he averaged 3.12 shots per 90 and 4.40 touches in the opposition area per 90.
Divković is a direct attacking threat who already displays the talent to succeed at a higher level than the Slovakian top-flight.
Here, we see Divkovic picking up possession wide on the right-hand side before cutting inside as he tends to do. He has excellent balance when moving with the ball and his technical skills in terms of control and ball manipulation are excellent.
Below, we see him driving across the face of the opposition defensive line before finishing powerfully and from range.
Divković can also help his team through his creative and progressive passing as he understands when to drive in possession and when to release the ball into dangerous positions.
In the next image, Divković is in possession inside his own half with the opposition in a disorganised defensive block. Instead of trying to drive the ball forwards himself we see the Croatian identify the angled run of a teammate in an advanced position.
He plays a well-weighted through ball and the run breaks the defensive line comfortably.
Again, here we see how creative and capable a passer of the ball Divković is. He receives the ball wide on the right-hand side and is able to find a pass that breaks two lines of the opposition defensive block and finds a teammate in a dangerous space from where he can turn and access the opposition penalty area.
I had, in all honesty, expected Divkovicćto receive a move to a bigger club already. His performances have certainly merited one. Instead, he is likely to continue to dominate in the Slovakian top-flight before clubs become more interested in securing his signature for next term.