As much as Europe’s top five leagues – English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and Ligue 1, as defined by UEFA – provide plenty of entertainment and room for a relative unknown to have a breakout season, there are some many hidden gems to be found outside of those leagues. While some, such as Erling Haaland when he represented the red and white of RB Salzburg, have still been able to make waves in European competitions, not every player gets that luxury or opportunity. For some, it takes a whole while longer to get the widespread recognition that they deserve.
It should come as no surprise that some of the best players currently plying their trade in Europe’s top five leagues come from outside of it. The aforementioned Haaland came from Salzburg to Dortmund, Virgil van Dijk – widely recognised as the best centre-back on the planet – was playing for Celtic as recently as 2015, Luis Suárez was at Ajax before his move to Liverpool in 2011, and of course, Cristiano Ronaldo came through the Sporting CP academy (now aptly named Academia Cristiano). This scout report is going to look at three players at the age of 23 or under who could make that same step across to the highest level of European club football.
Odilon Kossonou, Club Brugge, 20-years-old, 6’2”, market value: £11.7m
*Disclaimer* this piece was written before Kossonou’s move to Bayer Leverkusen was confirmed.
For this piece, I wanted to choose three players, one defender, one midfielder, and one attacker, but let it be known, the defender was the hardest choice to make. There are a plethora of young, progressive, and ball-playing centre-backs playing for some top clubs outside of Europe’s top five leagues, especially within Liga NOS, as David Carmo and Gonçalo Inácio were the two men closest to making the list here. It was hard to separate the three in terms of quality, and if anything Carmo would come out on top in this regard, but his recent injury record makes him hard to recommend for a move. Instead, Odilon Kossounou, who accumulated nearly 3000 minutes of gametime last term, is up the bat.
Standing at 6’3” / 191cm, Kossounou is a slight but towering presence in Club Brugge’s rock-solid, title-winning defence. Complimenting his stronger foot, he plays as the right centre-back next to Brandon Mechele, the leader of the backline as an Brugge academy graduate with 280 appearances for the Belgian giants. In their 4-1-4-1, with Mats Rits sitting in the base of midfield screening the back four and allowing the forward unit to play with a necessary freedom to open up defences, Kossounou has mainly been used as a centre-back, but also a couple of times as that defensive-midfielder, as well as being used as right-back cover for Clinton Mata. His pace, athleticism, and ball-playing abilities allow him to operate in different positions and have the team not be impacted too adversely.
First and foremost, Kossounou is an excellent defender. He combines his physical and technical attributes wisely to cut off opponent attacks before they are even allowed to begin. He has played a huge role as to how Brugge have only conceded 26 goals in standard league play last season – not just a small piece in a large puzzle. He reads attacking scenarios really well, and seems to have a general defensive awareness of all players around him, and as such, knows where he is best placed to position himself when the defence is trotting backwards. His pace also helps in these scenarios – opposition through balls are Kossounou’s bread and butter, with the near-perfect positioning and speed to get to the ball ahead of his opponent almost every time.
He wins a very solid 71.3% of his 7.01 defensive duels per 90, a testament to his defensive acumen. Although he is not the most active defender when compared to the rest of the division, that is largely because of Rits sitting ahead of him, doing a fantastic job at preventing many attacking opportunities. When the ball does breach Rits, Kossounou is most often the defender to come out and press his opponent, especially if they are facing away from goal. In these scenarios, he can, in a sense, push his opponents away from goal and force them to pass backwards and restart their attack. One of his only issues defensively is that he can be too rash in these moments and cause a foul, but largely that is part and parcel of defending aggressively.
In the air, he is not as strong at this stage of his career as you would perhaps want him to be. He has been outmuscled by more physical forwards in the Belgian League, equally struggling with his positioning and timing of his jumps in these moments. If a forward can jump ahead of him, Kossounou can be tossed off-balance, and therefore lose out on the aerial duel. A 57.43% aerial duel success rate for someone of his height and defensive solidity represents an area where Kossounou can improve upon. If gets towards the 70% range of success rate in this side of his game, we are beginning to look at a very complete defender.
With the ball at his feet, Kossounou is a competent passer with a solid understanding of how incisive to be in different game states. He receives the ball well, opening his body up to the different passing lanes when the ball is around him, and when he does have the ball at his feet, he remains upright, using his vision to spot players roaming into space in midfield, and finds them with good short-medium passing. For a possession-heavy side, his 7.6 progressive passes per 90 is fairly low, but his passes are forwards or at least somewhat progressive most of the time. His long-range passes pretty much entirely consist of diagonal lofted balls out to Brugge’s wide players. He lacks the incision of fellow African Edmond Tapsoba at Bayer Leverkusen, or Teun Koopmeiners at AZ Alkmaar, but Kossounou is a capable ball-playing centre-back, at least.
The main problem with his passing is that he has a tendency to avoid using his weaker foot if possible. It simply does not provide the requisite power to find targets longer than a short distance away from him, and as a result, Kossounou tends to dial on a spot and vocally asks for a teammate to give him a passing option off of his strong right boot. This could be a serious problem in a league such as the Premier League or Bundesliga, where there are intense pressing units across the divisions, and one would suggest that Serie A, where the game is played a little bit slower, would hide his deficiencies a bit better.
Olimpiu Moruțan, FCSB, 22-years-old, 5’8”, market value: £2.52m
Olimpiu Moruțan is the lowest valued player of the three selected, but he arguably has the most natural talent of the bunch. At 22-years-old, it remains a surprise he has not left FCSB yet, but if rumours are to be believed, he might be following in the footsteps of former teammate Dennis Man by moving to a team within Serie A – with links to Inter Milan and a couple other Italian clubs prevalent. Galatasaray, Porto, Bayer Leverkusen, and Hoffenheim can also be added to the list of suitors interested in his services. That, despite playing in a league that ranks 25th in the UEFA coefficient rankings. He has been FCSB’s best player in the 2020/21 season, and by quite some distance too. A big move is calling.
Moruțan is a 5’7” attacking midfielder/winger, operating either as one of the dual 8s in FCSB’s 4-3-3 system, or he features off the right-wing. Thankfully for Anton Petrea and his team, the 22-year-old is equally effective in both roles for different reasons. As an #8, Moruțan is the link man between defence and attack, with capable pressing and ball progression aiding FCSB to both build out from the back and win the ball high up the pitch. As a right-winger, but left-footed, he can get involved exclusively in attacking play, roaming inside and running at defences with his nimble and mobile frame. In either role, he is mainly combining with lethal centre-forward and FCSB’s centrepiece, Florin Tănase, who drops to collect the ball and interplay with the young midfielder.
Primarily, Moruțan is an active and supremely effective dribbler of the ball, it is his first port of call in attacking situations, and it creates danger for opposition defences. He ranks in the near 99th percentile for both attempted dribbles and successful dribbles per 90 with 9.08 and 5.03 respectively. This skill is useful in several phases of play, but most notably he aids ball progression a significant amount from midfield, but his dribbling attempt-rate does not slow down the further up the field he goes – if anything it increases. When approaching the opposition left-back, he leaves them backpedalling and unsure of which space he might dive into next, he has a preference for neither. He is equally as capable running towards the byline to provide a clipped ball into the six-yard box as he is drifting inside and pulling off a disguised through ball in behind.
This leads us nicely onto his creative abilities, which are just as rife and efficient. His 0.35 assists per 90 is above the expected rate of 0.27 per 90, but both are again a hair-clipping away from being in the 99th percentile within the division. He is the creative pivot of this side, and based on current evidence, there is little to suggest he would not thrive in either a possession-heavy or counterattack focused side. He is the one who dictates the tempo of the game, recycling possession laterally to open space, before usually being the first player to pass it forwards once he notices an attacker in space, or a teammate making a run in behind. He lures in opponents with his ball-carrying abilities, and then exploits the space they have vacated in the process either with his dribbling or by finding a teammate with an accurate pass. He has no significant limits as a creative passer.
When it comes to goalscoring, Moruțan can produce the goods in this aspect as well. He scores at exactly the expected rate of 0.26 per 90, which is very high for a midfielder, where he largely plays for FCSB, and still a good rate for a winger too. Combine his goals and assists he is producing a goal contribution nearly once a game at 0.71 (okay, he is still some way off, but that’s good going!). A fair portion of his goals come from set-piece situations – he is a backup penalty taker to Tănase, converting both of the penalties he’s been awarded – but he is the first-choice free-kick taker for a reason. From wide he can whip in sailing deliveries into dangerous areas, but on the edge of the area, Moruțan regularly threatens the net. In regular play, he is also a threat from the same areas, with plenty of his goals for FCSB coming from this range, curling in an effort into the upper left from his left foot.
On the defensive end of his game, Moruțan is a fairly active defender considering the amount of possession his side tends to keep, with 7.33 defensive duels per 90. He has the energy and aggressiveness to fit in at a more intensive pressing unit, but he has not been forced to display this side of his game on a regular basis thus far. At 5’7” and 71kg, his physique is not the strongest, and never will be, so this will limit his effectiveness defensively. Outside of that, he does have good tactical awareness, which helps him curb these deficiencies. Another weakness worth noting is that he has a weak right foot, one that he tries not to use where possible, which might make him easier to mark in a tougher league. At the moment, off all places he is linked to, he would suit Bayer Leverkusen the best, rotating with the inevitably outgoing Florian Wirtz (at some point in the near future), but if he were to get an offer from a Ligue 1 club, this would perhaps be a more comfortable transition.
Viktor Tsyhankov, Dynamo Kyiv, 23-years-old, 5’9”, market value: £22.5m
Moving onto the most recognisable name on the list, Viktor Tsyhankov. 188 matches, 74 goals, and 54 assists for Dynamo Kyiv – all by the age of 23. Those are seriously impressive numbers for a young forward, regardless of the quality of the league – and for those wondering, the Ukranian league is not that far off the likes of the Eredivisie or Liga NOS, evidenced by the likes of Douglas Costa, Willian, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan moving from Ukraine to a successful career in one of Europe’s top five leagues. Again, it’s a surprise that he hasn’t left his home country yet in search of challenging himself at a higher level, but that time – according to reports – is near.
Kyiv, at times in recent years (although not this one), have been pretty poor, not good to watch, but Tsyhankov has been there to produce a bit of magic whenever they needed it. From a very young age he has displayed leadership-type qualities, and has been Kyiv captain on numerous occasions – he is vocal and abrasive, and just the leader Kyiv needs from the frontline. He’s also scored in big games for Ukraine, notching goals against France and Spain in 2021. He steps up when needed the most. At Kyiv in the 2020/21 season, he played largely as a right-winger in their dominant 4-2-3-1 system, cutting inside and creating utter havoc.
Tsyhankov can be described as a no-frills inside-forward who is currently performing at a good Premier League level, easily. However, it’s hard to talk about Tsyhankov’s style of play without first mentioning his super set-piece delivery. He makes free-kicks on the edge of the area seem like penalties – such is his efficiency in converting those chances. Outside of that, he can also place them and loft dangerous deliveries into the path of a bursting teammate into the area from wide areas. Plus, in what seems to be a dying tactic these days in mainland Europe, Tsyhankov’s typical corner routine includes him whipping a fizzed delivery towards the near post, heading towards the dreaded corridor of uncertainty where anything can happen. If defenders however attempt to counterattack this by throwing bodies towards the near post, Tsyhankov can just as easily lob balls over to the edge of the area. They both help generate his 0.79 xG+xA per 90 (0.59 & 0.20 respectively).
In regular play though, Tsyhankov is just as effective. He is predominantly a goal scoring winger, and these can come in all shapes and sizes. As a left-footed right-winger, yes, it is true that a lot of his goals come from cutting inside and letting loose with his stronger boot, but he also possesses very clever movement going forward, which allows him to get on the end of a lot of attacks. He loves to make late runs in the penalty area, darting from the by-line and into the box. He has good acceleration, but lacks straight-line top speed, so he definitely relies on his keen positioning more than anything. His goals in the Champions League and Europa League are shining examples of that.
Creatively in open play, Tsyhankov is still an effective winger in this sense. He definitely possesses a solid cross on him, crossing 2.86 per 90, but that is not his only creative tool. He is a smart attacker beyond anything, and his teammates ahead of him this season have improved tremendously from the previous year, meaning we have been able to see how good Tsyhankov can be creatively in open play. If a runner necessitates it, Tsyhankov is able to play disguised through passes in behind an opposition defence to let his teammate run through on goal or just generally stretch the play. He often gets the second or third assist in these scenarios, but is still heavily involved in the attack. In fact, he is often the nucleus of all of Kyiv’s attacks, and they will miss him sorely when he’s gone.
As a dribbler, he is not as active or effective as the aforementioned Moruțan, but he does still have very good close control and technique which means he is no slouch in this department. 3.96 dribbles per 90 at a 60% success rate (2.38 successful per 90) is above average, but what it really shows is that he does not rely solely on dribbles to generate shots on goal or chance creation. Regardless, when he does engage 1v1, he does not rely on flair skill moves to get past his opponents, rather a clever body feint into space or the occasional stepover. He is more likely to engage in a dribble when Kyiv are a goal down or when the game is locked at a draw late on.
Overall, he is a decent presser of the ball too, as he demonstrated for Ukraine at EURO 2020. He could easily fit in at a club who press depending on the context of the match and team they’re up against. He’s been linked to a whole host of clubs, but of all them, a club at a similar level to Everton would suit nicely. They need a new right-winger with a bit of pace about them, and Tsyhankov fits the bill. It would also be a good step up for him, not joining a club with immense pressure to immediately succeed like Bayern Munich or Manchester United, but still putting himself in a position to perform against the bigger clubs in the division. He certainly has the ability to perform right away for a club competing in European competition, be it the Champions League or Europa League.