We have now reached the crunch point in most competitive leagues around Europe as the picture at both the top and the bottom of the table is becoming clear. At this point we start to have a really significant sample size in terms of minutes played and as such we can now use data to scout leagues that are perhaps slightly under the radar.
In this article I will pick out five young players, with the stipulation that at the time of writing they are 23-years-old or under, that are currently playing in the second tiers of the big five European Leagues. This gives us a data set including the English Championship, probably the least under the radar of all of our leagues, Ligue 2 in France, the 2. Bundesliga in Germany, Italy’s Serie B and Spain’s Segunda Division.
I have tried to be selective in terms of the players that I have selected for this article as opposed to looking for the ‘obvious’ options. For example I have not included Fabio Carvalho of Fulham or Lorenzo Lucca of Pisa despite both having extremely strong seasons. Instead, I have looked to identify players who are performing solidly despite their young age.
#1 Malick Thiaw, 20-years-old, Central Defender, Schalke and Germany
The first player on our list is the 20-year-old German central defender Malick Thiaw of Schalke in the 2.Bundesliga. Thiaw is a German U21 international who would actually also qualify to play for Finland.
He has had a varied career at youth level having initially came through the youth system at Fortuna Dusseldorf. He then had spells at Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach before eventually moving to join Schalke in 2015. With the German side suffering relegation last term we have seen Thiaw take full advantage of the situation as he has firmly embedded himself in the first-team as an important player in their promotion push.
Thiaw profiles as a very balanced defensive player who can perform in the defensive phase of the game whilst also helping his team in the build-up phase with his ability in possession.
So far this season we have seen Thiaw play 2052 league minutes, a significant sample size, and he is averaging 7.32 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 71.26% as well as 5.22 aerial duels per 90 with a success rate of 54.62%. His ability to read the game and break up opposition attacks is also very clear and he has 8.47 possession adjusted interceptions per game.
In possession Thiaw is very capable and he has been a volume passer this season for Schalke with an average of 50.96 passes per 90 with 9.65 progressive passes per 90 and 5.09 passes into the final third per 90. Thiaw also has the composure and confidence to carry the ball out from the back and he will routinely look to step towards the half-way line in order to pull opposition players out of slot before passing into space for teammates.
At the time of writing this article Schalke sit fifth in the Bundesliga 2 table and promotion is by no means certain for them. If they fail to get promoted then do not be surprised to see significant interest in securing the services of the young defender. Otherwise, if they do get promoted, I would expect to see Thiaw continuing his development effectively in the Bundesliga.
#2 Felix Correira, 21-years-old, Wing-Back, Parma (on loan from Juventus) and Portugal
For the second player I have picked I have gone against myself slightly in selecting a player who has a smaller sample size than is strictly ideal. I have selected the Portuguese wing-back/winger Felix Correira because I think that he has the potential to reach the top of the game, whether that is for a team like Parma or back at his parent club Juventus though remains to be seen.
Correira is another who has had a somewhat varied career to this point. He started his career in the youth system at Sporting CP before joining Manchester City, whose talent ID at the younger age group is routinely excellent. He spent a season on loan at AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, another side with excellent youth recruitment, before leaving Manchester City permanently to join Juventus in a deal that is thought to have been worth £9.45M.
This season has seen Correira out on loan to Parma in Serie B. While his sample size is still low this season (412 minutes in Serie B) his output is staggering. In the attacking phase he is averaging 11.58 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 62.26%. This is combined with 7.65 crosses into the area and an expected assists per 90 of 0.26.
Correira has also been very effective for Parma in the build-up phase when he has been on the ball as he is averaging 11.8 progressive passes per 90 and 4.15 passes into the opposition area per 90.
The clear question surrounds whether Correira can get his usage up in terms of getting minutes on the field. If he starts to do so then we will get an insight into whether his output will also scale up. I believe that his output will remain if not completely stable then at least close to it. If that is the case then do not be surprised to see Correira as a regular starter in a Champions League level team.
#3 Lewis O’Brien, 23-years-old, Central Midfielder, Huddersfield and England
In the summer transfer window before the 2021/22 season there was a lot of hype surrounding Leeds United’s interest in the Huddersfield Town midfielder Lewis O’Brien and although the interest never came to anything the midfielder is still thought to feature on the list of targets at the Premier League club.
It is not hard to see why a club like Leeds would retain a significant interest in O’Brien and, although he does not perhaps stand out in any one group of metrics when compared against all other midfielders in the English Premier League, he is still very balanced.
In 3094 minutes in the English Championship so far this season, and in a Huddersfield team who are threatening to challenge for promotion, his performances have been very strong. In possession he is perhaps not a volume passer for his team with an average of 32.25 passes per 90 minutes but he is a player who tends to be very vertical and dangerous with his passing with an average of 11.52 forward passes per 90. Indeed, a large part of what makes O’Brien effective is his ability to find and occupy pockets of space to allow the ball to be progressed into dangerous areas of the field.
If Huddersfield do not go up this season then I would expect there to be significant interest in signing the young English midfielder from Premier League clubs this summer.
#4 Johann Lepanant, 19-years-old, Central Midfielder, Caen and France
Next up we have a 19-year-old French midfielder who has been getting significant playing time in the second-tier of French football. Johann Lepenant is a product of the youth system at Caen in the French second tier and this season has been his breakthrough one at first-team level. He has been a regular in the youth setup of the French national team and he has been capped up as far as U20 level at the time of writing.
Lepenant is a young midfielder who has the capability of playing either as a ‘6’ in deeper areas or as an ‘8’ from where he can take up more advanced positions. He is similar to O’Brien in that a lot of his value comes in the ability to find pockets of space in which he can receive the ball and then play forward into more dangerous spaces.
So far this season in 1973 minutes of first team football he is averaging 40.76 passes per 90 with 10.13 of those being forward passes and 5.84 per 90 being passes into the final third. He has also impressed with his defensive production with 10.72 defensive duels per 90 and a success rate of 63.83% as well as 5.16 possession adjusted interceptions per match.
At the time of writing Caen are actually sitting in 14th place in the French second tier and they are nowhere near to challenging at the top of the table. As such, it might be possible to get the likes of Lepenant out of the club for a relatively low price come this summer.
#5 Samu Costa, 21-years-old, Central Midfielder, Almeria and Portugal
The final player on my list for this article is the 21-year-old Portuguese midfield player Samu Costa who is currently contracted to Almeria in the Spanish second tier. Costa is actually a product of the youth system at Sporting Braga in Portugal but in 2020 he made the move across the border on a loan deal. The loan went so well that in 2021 Almeria signed him on a permanent deal for a reported £4.5M. He has been capped by the Portuguese national side at U20 level.
Samu Costa is a complete midfielder type with strong outputs across the board. In 2298 minutes in the Spanish second tier this season he is averaging 47.98 passes per 90 with 14.88 of those being forward passes, 7.6 per 90 being progressive passes and 7.87 per 90 being passes into the final third. He is also effective in the defensive phase with 7.28 defensive duels per 90 and a success range of 58.6% and 8.16 possession adjusted interceptions.
Almeira are currently second in the Spanish second tier and looking good for promotion back to the top-flight of Spanish football. I would fully expect Samu Costa to be an important player for them next season.