In the second in this series of articles looking at young players to watch we will turn our attention towards midfielders. This time we have selected a variety of players from different nations and regions around the world and who play in slightly different positions to one another. We have not limited ourselves to just players who will play centrally and act as metronomes 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.
All of our selections, however, are exceptionally talented.
Enzo Fernandez, 20-years-old, Defensa y Justicia (loan from River Plate), Argentina
Our first selection is perhaps the most traditional central midfielder in the group. Enzo Fernandez has been hugely impressive since moving on loan to Defensa y Justicia in August 2020 and by the time you are reading this it is entirely possible that he will already have been recalled by his parent club.
Capable of playing either as a ‘6’ or as an ‘8’ Fernandez is a creative passer who can help his team to play vertically through the opposition. In 846 minutes so far this season he has been averaging 55.11 passes per 90 with 17.23 forward passes per 90, 9.89 progressive passes and 9.68 passes to the final third per 90.
Fernandez is a calm and composed central midfielder who has the innate ability to understand when to slow the game down and when to speed it up. While his first instinct on receiving possession is to play forward and to look to break a line to move the ball closer to goal he also understands that the best option can be to switch the play and play around the block.
We see an example of this here as Fernandez receives the ball ahead of the midfield line of the opposition. With three compact opponents ahead of him he instead switches the ball out to the near side and forces the opposition to slide their block across.
With that said, however, the thing that first caught my eye when watching Fernandez was his aggressive intent to break the lines in order to progress the ball towards the opposition goal.
Here we see Fernandez in possession during the match against Lanus and with the opposition in a reasonably well structured defensive block. When Fernandez has the ball it is worth noting that attacking teammates will look to make forward runs as they know he has the ability to break through lines.
Here, Fernandez plays the vertical pass that breaks two lines and releases the attacker for a chance on goal.
A similar situation here as Fernandez again is the player who breaks the line to create a goalscoring opportunity for an attacking teammate, this time in the match against Arsenal. As Fernandez moves inside into the final third he receives a lateral pass and again his taking possession triggers a run by the player on the highest line.
This player makes a diagonal movement across goal and Fernandez breaks the line to release him into space.
The first step from here for Fernandez is to return to River Plate and gain a regular first-team role. From there do not be surprised to see teams from La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League all taking interest in this midfield player.
Mohamed Camara, 21-years-old, RB Salzburg, Mali
The pathway of young players from Africa and into the Red Bull system is now very well established and with the likes of Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu edging closer to big money moves from RB Salzburg it is Mohamed Camara, an all action Malian midfielder who looks set to take centre place at the club moving into next season.
Camara was originally a product of the academy at Real Bamako in Mali before moving to Austria in 2018. He initially joined FC Liefering, a feeder club to RB Salzburg, before enjoying a loan spell at TSV Hartberg. The 2019/20 season saw Camara start to create a name for himself in the first team at RB Salzburg.
Last season he played 925 minutes and had 55.75 passes per 90 with 20.34 forward passes per 90, 9.63 progressive passes per 90 and 10.51 passes to the final third per 90.
Camara profiles best as a deep-lying midfielder where his passing ability and defensive awareness really come to the fore. If teams press him then he is extremely press resistant with the ability to turn and twist away from pressure to create separation and space.
In this example we see that Camara has an excellent range of passing that can allow him to access all areas of the pitch. With the Austria Wien block sitting deep and trying to limit space centrally we see Camara instead look for an opportunity to play around them with a diagonal pass to the far side of the pitch.
While Camara does have a very impressive range of passing he is also a creative passer when having to find solutions in more advanced areas against a low block. We see an example of this here as Admira Wacker have dropped into an extremely deep structure.
They clear the ball from the first phase of the attack but Camara collects the ball to begin the second phase. As soon as he does so there is a runner in motion to attack the last line from a deeper position. This run allows Camara to loft the ball behind the defence to release the runner.
In the build-up phase in deeper areas Camara acts as a key ball progressor with the ability to receive the ball and then move through the thirds, either in possession or through vertical passing.
We see an example of this here as his teammate is happy to give Camara the ball despite him having three players in close proximity. As Camara receives there are two opposition players who move to engage and press but Camara calmly takes the ball before twisting and accelerating through the pressure.
It is likely that Camara will spend at least one more season in Austria but beyond that do not be surprised to see him make a move to the German Bundesliga where his skill set would be a perfect fit.
Kamal Sowah, 21-years-old, OH Leuven (on loan from Leicester City), Ghana
Multi-club ownership groups are becoming more and more common within football British clubs especially, in a post-brexit world, are recognising that club partnerships can be a decisive strategic option. This is the case at Leicester City with their relationship with OH Leuven in Belgium.
The ability to sign players and ‘park’ them in Belgium with a view to them qualifying for a British work permit over time can become a key factor in their recruitment process. We see this in the case of Kamal Sowah who moved to Leicester From the Right to Dream academy in 2018 before immediately moving on loan to OH Leuven.
Last season saw Sowah make significant strides in his development although his long term future could be in wide areas of the attack.
Last season Sowah played 3255 minutes as he averaged 38.86 passes per 90, 5.03 passes to the final third per 90 and 4.23 passes to the penalty area per 90.
Sowah is an intelligent player who has the capacity to make decisive runs in the final third in order to access space and allow his team to play the ball progressively. He tends to drift wide, even when played centrally, before then making quick diagonal movements to create separation from his markers with movements centrally.
We see this here as Sowah makes a delayed run into the penalty area to collect the ball. Even then the opposition are in a fairly well structured defensive block but Sowah is creative enough to find the solution as he spins and then clips the ball back to the edge of the area to find the run of a teammate who then strikes at goal.
Sowah is a creative passer who occupies intelligent positions in and around the final third with the ability to break the last line of the opposition defence either through a pass or a dribble.
Here we see a Sowah receiving the ball deeper from a teammate and immediately attracting pressure from two defensive players. This movement from the defenders, however, creates a passing angle that Sowah is able to access to find the attacker who is making a run on the blind side of a static defender.
Sowah has the ability to slow the game down and rarely seems rushed when he is in possession of the ball. He pauses in possession and then allows play to develop around him before looking for the correct option.
Here we see Sowah having drifted into the wide area where he pauses and waits. A run develops centrally and as the runner looks to break the last line Sowah plays a perfectly weighted pass into his path.
While Sowah is developing rapidly there is still no guarantee that we will see him in a Leicester City shift. Without European football he may struggle to qualify for a GBE permit. As he continues to develop and perform, however, there will be no shortage of clubs interested from around Europe.
Kacper Kozlowski, 17-years-old, Pogon Szczecin, Poland
Some players are just born to play football and this feels like the case with Kacper Kozlowski. The 17-year-old has just returned from the European Championship having been brought off the bench in two of Poland’s group stage matches and thus he becomes the youngest ever player to feature in the competition. What is more impressive, however, is that one of these appearances came against Spain and Kozlowski looked completely at home amongst the talent in the Spanish midfield.
Kozlowski is a product of the youth system at his current club Pogon Szczecin and he made his first-team debut at just 15. It is this season, however, that we have seen him firmly establish himself as a first-team regular with 1121 minutes played. While the young midfielder is comfortable in deeper areas and can play as a ‘6’ I believe that his future lies as an attacking ‘8’.
Kozlowski is extremely creative in possession with the ability to receive the ball under pressure before then making movements to escape the press and then play progressively. He is aggressive in possession and displays clear tendencies to always look to attack when taking possession of the ball for his side.
Here, we see him receiving the ball under pressure from three opposition players. Instead of panicking or looking to quickly play the ball away to get away from pressure he instead receives the ball and then turns away and beats the deepest defender before carrying the ball into the opposition half.
For a player so young Kozlowski is extremely calm and composed in possession. Here we see a situation where he receives the ball and then plays a well weighted through ball that releases a teammate through on goal.
The key, however, is that when he first receives the ball, under pressure, that he has the presence of mind to receive and then create separation from the opposition players before then finding the through ball when he has more time and space.
Kozlowski is also capable of driving forward himself in possession of the ball although he still displays an understanding and knowledge of when to release the ball at the right time to a teammate.
We see that here as the young midfielder has driven into the final third from a deeper position. There are opposition players who are positioned to challenge for the ball but as they look to engage we see him roll the ball to the side and into the path of a supporting teammate.
Kacper Kozlowski is already much admired at the top level of European football. He has been mentioned in links already to the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United but he should choose his next move carefully. Ajax have already been credited with having an interest in the player and a move to the Netherlands to aid his development would make a lot of sense.
Ivan Ilic, 20-years-old, Hellas Verona (on loan from Manchester City), Serbia
Ivan Ilic is a player who has been on the books of Manchester City since 2017 but he has been on a series of loan deals to Red Star, FK Zemun, NAC Breda and now Hellas Verona. He is now in a position where he has impressed in Serie A but his contract at Manchester City is due to expire in 2022. It is looking increasingly likely that he will have to move from the club permanently in order to take the next steps in his career and Verona are thought to have an option to buy as part of the latest loan deal.
He has been capped twice already at senior international level and has not looked out of place when playing for the senior national team. Capable of playing as a ‘6’ or as an ‘8’ Ilic is an interesting midfield prospect.
Last season saw Ilic play 1944 minutes and he averaged 48.29 passes per 90 with 8.75 passes to the final third per 90.
Ilic is a creative passer with the ability to break lines and thread through balls past the lines of the opposition defensive block. He has excellent vision and can spot runners as they look to move from deeper areas to find space in behind the defence.
We see an example of this here as Ilic has possession deep in the opposition half. The opposition defensive line is compact but a runner in the wide area from deep is able to outplay the opposition thanks to a well weighted through ball from the Serbian midfielder.
Ilic can also progress the ball by carrying it through opposition players. He has excellent close control and displays the ability to manipulate the ball past players.
We see this here as his dribbling ability helps Verona to outplay the Napoli press. There is a player moving wide ahead of him while he is in possession but an opposition player is blocking that passing lane. Instead Ilic breaks the press with a dribble and then moves towards the halfway line in possession of the ball.
As well as being a creative passer Ilic can also pose a threat when looking to strike the ball from distance.
Here we see the scene from a goal that he scored in the match against Genoa. As Barak drives outside and accesses the penalty area we see Ilic move forward to support the attack from behind. As the ball is played across Ilic calmly strikes into the goal.
There is every chance that Verona will execute the buy clause in the loan deal with City although if they do not then do not be surprised to see another Serie A club coming in to sign the Serbian midfielder on a permanent deal.