Compared to 20 years ago the footballing world feels much smaller. Gone are the days when major international tournaments would be the first exposure that you would have to any promising young players with each squad seemingly containing exciting new talents. Now, in the era of social media saturation and with platforms such as Wyscout readily available there are no genuine surprises left. The buzz around the likes of Naci Unuvar at Ajax and Rayan Cherki at Lyon has been growing for some time, but they are only 16-years-old.
This surplus of knowledge around the game is great for the supporters who like to follow the narratives of the next great young players but in terms of recruitment, it has made things much harder. Previously smart clubs were able to identify markets that were development hotspots and ensure that they scouted and recruited from that area. Now, competition is fierce and players from these markets are being heavily recruited from clubs all over the world.
This sense of competition for players makes smart recruitment strategies all the more important for clubs, The purpose of this tactical analysis is to identify players in the second tier of each of Europe’s top 5 leagues that are ready for the step-up in quality. To clarify this the top 5 leagues are widely accepted to be England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. Having spent time looking at data and watching footage of players I have narrowed my search down to one player from each of these second tiers. These players play in different positions and have different skill sets but they all have the same ability to have their performances translate to a higher level. We will look at a left-back from the English Championship, a central defender from the 2.Bundesliga, an attacking midfielder from Ligue 2, a winger from Serie B and a striker from the Segunda.
Antonee Robinson, 22-years-old, left-back, Wigan Athletic and USA
Antonee Robinson is a fascinating player. Originally developed through the productive Everton youth system injuries stalled his progress at the club. A loan spell at Bolton Wanderers offered crucial exposure to first-team football but at the end of that spell Robinson left Everton to join Wigan Athletic on a permanent deal. Although he was born in England Robinson qualifies to play for the United States through his father. At the time of writing, Robinson has 7 full caps for the men’s national team.
What kind of player, though, is Robinson? He is a left-back who very much fits the modern mould for the position. He is exceptionally quick and uses this speed effectively both in the attacking and defensive phases of the game. So far this season Robinson has played 2791 minutes with 4.84 dribbles per 90 and 3.55 progressive runs per 90. Combine these numbers with 3.35 passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes and 9.48 progressive passes per 90 and we begin to build a picture of a left-back who carries the ball well and looks to progress up the field towards the opposition penalty area. Robinson is no slouch on the defensive side of the game either and at the time of writing, he is making 8.09 defensive duels per 90 minutes.
Standing at just over 6ft tall Robinson has the physical stature needed to defend the far post when his side are defending deep. He looks comfortable when cycling across to cover that side of the field when the opposition are attacking down the other side.
In the attacking phase, Robinson stretches the width of the field well and is a constant outlet for his side as they look to penetrate in behind the defensive line. You see an example of this above as the ball is switched out to the left-hand side as Robinson has moved to a higher position. As the left-back takes possession of the ball we see his acceleration as he moves quickly beyond the defensive block before playing the ball into the penalty area.
When he does get the ball in wide areas in the attacking phase Robinson is a dangerous dribbler of the ball who is capable of going inside or out to beat an opponent. His balance and ability to accelerate quickly from a standing start make him a difficult opponent for any defensive player when facing him in a 1v1 situation.
This ability to accelerate quickly and cover ground is also important in the defensive phase, especially against teams that transition quickly from defence to attack. As an attacking full-back Robinson can be caught out of position when the ball is turned over. His ability to cover ground quickly, however, means that he can recover his position effectively. We see this here as the opposition play a direct ball to the front-line. Robinson is quick to regain his position and challenge for the ball as the opposition striker tries to move down the outside of the central defender.
It is all but certain that Robinson’s future lies away from Wigan. At the time of writing a move to Milan has fallen through over a reported issue with the medical. A move to the Premier League would make a lot of sense this coming summer with his former club Everton listed as a potential destination.
Amine Bassi, 22-years-old, attacking midfield, Nancy and Morocco
Last season there were significant reports that the Spanish side Valencia were in advanced talks to sign Amine Bassi from Nancy. That deal failed to come through but it still feels like only a matter of time before Bassi makes the move to a much higher level. Capable of playing either as a ten in the attacking midfielder or as a second striker higher up Bassi is a player who is full of creative intent whenever he is on the field. He was born in France but qualifies to play for Morocco through family links. Although Bassi is yet to make his debut for the full Moroccan side it is likely to be just a matter of time before he does so. Although Bassi is perhaps most comfortable as a 10 his game is based around making intelligent runs beyond the defensive line and into the penalty area.
At the time of writing Bassi has played 1353 minutes. He is averaging 2.2 dribbles per 90 and 1.33 progressive runs per 90. This, however, does not tell the full story of his game as many of his more dangerous runs are made without the ball either to occupy pockets of space or to break the defensive lines of the opposition.
More importantly, Bassi is a creative threat when passing the ball. He is averaging 8.05 progressive passes per 90 minutes and 1.13 key passes per 90. His expected assists are 0.31 per 90 meaning that you would expect him to create, at minimum, one goal every three games.
Bassi is slight and moves in a style similar to that of Hakim Ziyech of Ajax but this slight frame hides the fact that he is explosive in and around the final third.
The first thing that strikes you when you watch Bassi play is that he has an innate understanding of space. He constantly appears to be in pockets between opposition players but this is a deliberate effort and when watching Bassi you will note how often he scans the pitch and checks his shoulder to ensure that the opposition are not close. We see this above as Bassi receives a pass from a teammate in space between three opposition players. As soon as he takes possession Bassi spins and attacks the area of the field that has the most space.
We see a similar situation here with Bassi dropping towards the ball to receive possession. As he does so there is an easy angle to bounce the ball to a teammate but instead of taking this option we see the midfielder spin the opposite way to attack the space.
He comes alive around the penalty area with his vision and awareness coming to the fore. We see this here with Bassi lurking outside the penalty area. As the ball is set back to him he takes possession and shapes to shoot before lifting the ball to the far side of the penalty area where a teammate is bursting forward into space.
We see another example here of Bassi’s quick thinking when he receives the ball. He drops deep to offer depth to the attack and receives the ball in space. The penalty area is crowded but has he accepts possession he immediately clips the ball behind the defensive line to the space between them and the goalkeeper. The accuracy of this pass creates a goalscoring opportunity for his teammate.
I expect Bassi to finally move in the summer. He has previously been linked to moves either to Serie A or to the English Premier League but I expect that a move to the French top tier would perhaps make more sense.
Armel Bella-Kotchap, 18-years-old, central defender, Bochum and Germany
Vfl Bochum have always been a side that are known for producing talented young players and now scouts from across Europe are flocking to the Vonovia-Ruhrstadion with Arnel Bella-Kotchap the focus of their attention. The 18-year-old is built like a boxer and despite being only 6ft2 his long limbs make him appear taller. Born, as so many other talented young players are, in Paris, France the young defender appears set on appearing for Germany at international level. Bella-Kotchap has had something of a circuitous route to the professional game having spent time with both Borussia Monchengladbach and MSV Duisburg before moving to Bochum in 2017. Now, at just 18-years-old, he is thriving at first-team level in a competitive league. The first thing that stands out when watching the young defender play is the fact that he is so proactive in the defensive phase. He displays a clear preference for defending tight to the opposition attacker and will often use his long legs to try to get a touch of the ball when it is played in towards the feet of the striker. He is quick and comfortable when defending in wide areas isolated against an opposing attacker.
So far this season Bella-Kotchap is averaging 4.87 defensive duels and 4.06 aerial duels per 90. His success rate stands at 80.56% and 63.33% respectively. To be clear, that success percentage for defensive duels is elite. He also uses the ball with 8.53 progressive passes per 90 and 6.63 passes to the final third per 90. A modern defender that would fit a progressive side that likes to play on the front foot.
Bella-Kotchap is an extremely proactive defensive player and he prefers to play either tight behind or even side on to the opposition attacker. This willingness to take up difficult positions combined with his ability to read the game lead to the defender being extremely effective in defensive duels. We see this above as the opposition look to play forward to the edge of the Bochum penalty area. As the ball is played Bella-Kotchap is positioned side on and he is able to get in front of the attacker to win the duel and pass the ball away.
This time Bella-Kotchap is behind the receiving player but his athleticism and ability to read the game sees him move in front of the striker to win the duel cleanly before breaking forward in transition.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that Bella-Kotchap is a purely destructive player and he progresses the ball well to help his team move the ball forward. Here we see him receive the ball in the left-sided central defender slot and his first thought is to find a penetrative pass. With the advanced player taking up space between four opposition player we see the pass drilled forward quickly and efficiently.
This time we see a situation where Bella-Kotchap with the ball when there is no immediate vertical passing option. He originally has the ball with two defensive players, highlighted, ahead of the ball. The ball then is played out wide to move higher and Bella-Kotchap moves wider to offer support. The ball is then played back again and the defender makes a second vertical pass to access the space behind the defensive line.
We have already seen Bella-Kotchap linked to a move to the Premier League with Arsenal reported to be interested. At this stage in his career, however, a move to the Bundesliga may be more sensible. RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim are also reported to be interested.
Emanuel Vignato, 19-years-old, attacking midfielder, Chievo and Italy
For anyone who grew up in the 1990s, as I did, there is something special about a number 10 playing in Italy. Those were the days of Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane, Francesco Totti and Rui Costa, to name but a few. There are few combinations of position and country that evoke such vivid memories of creativity and joy. The game has, of course, moved on from then and Serie A is no longer seen as the pinnacle of European football.
With that said, however, there is one player in Serie B who makes me think back to those glory days. That player is Emanuel Vignato of Chievo Verona. As befits the modern game Vignato is comfortable whether played out on the left or centrally and he possesses an abundance of creativity as well as a significant goal threat.
Born to an Italian father and a Brazilian mother Vignato was actually originally a part of the Brazilian youth setup although he never played a game. The fact that he was born in Italy made it easy for him to decide to switch and so far Vignato has represented Italy at U-17 through to U-20 level.
The 19-year-old is an output monster who posts impressive numbers across the board in an attacking sense. He is currently registering 2.44 shots per 90 and 5.35 dribbles and 3.46 progressive runs per 90. As well as that Vignato has 5.67 passes into the penalty area and 9.92 progressive passes per 90. In short, Vignato seems fully prepared to run his teams attacking game model for years to come. The question is what team will that be.
Vignato is an instinctive player who identifies and uses space extremely well. He is fluid when moving with the ball and difficult to stop in tight spaces. Above we see an example with Vignato receiving a simple lateral pass in the centre of the pitch. The pass is quite slow and a defender is encouraged to step out and press the ball. The young attacker simply opens up his body and lets the ball run across him thus wrong-footing the defender and opening more space that can be attacked. He then shoots low and hard from the edge of the area and into the bottom corner.
We see another example of the calm nature of Vignato in possession here. He receives the ball from a throw-in and has to control a high ball. This encourages the defender to press the ball and Vignato simply lifts the ball over the head of the advancing defender before bursting past him and attacking the edge of the penalty area.
As well as being a dangerous dribbler Vignato is also an excellent passer of the ball as he threatens the edge of the penalty area. We see this here with the attacker in possession midway into the opposition half. The players in the penalty area are expecting a cross and there is a bank of opposition players preventing him from moving higher. Instead, Vignato shapes to cross but sees an attacker making a run on the near side instead. He is then able to drill a through ball into the penalty area and create a chance for his teammates.
We see a similar example here. Vignato is positioned wide and the advanced player makes a run outside to create space. A midfielder then makes a run from a deeper position and Vignato curls the ball into the midfielder’s path allowing him to take possession before shooting at goal.
Now a quick amendment. Writing an article of this type during a transfer window is always a risk. Vignato has agreed a transfer to Bologna in Serie A although he will be loaned back to Chievo for the rest of the season. Bologna are developing a reputation as excellent recruiters.
Darwin Nunez, 20-years-old, striker, Almeria and Uruguay
Almeria appear to have pulled off something of a coup when they signed the 20-year-old Uruguayan striker Darwin Nunez from Penarol at the end of the summer transfer window. Reports vary on the cost to the Spanish club but it appears likely that the goals of Nunez will be a key factor should his side gain promotion to La Liga. At the time of writing, they are in 2nd place.
Nunez is a born goalscorer and already a full Uruguay international with one senior cap to his name. He did, of course, come off the bench in that game and score just minutes later. It feels like a lazy comparison but there are similarities between Nunez and his more illustrious compatriot Luis Suarez. They both have the same distinctive running style and willingness to press aggressively when out of possession. Nunez is a strong runner with the ball who has a tendency to head straight for goal when in possession. He is not the most creative or the most effective at linking the play but those are elements of his game that he can add as he gains experience and as his career develops.
In terms of pure attacking output though Nunez shines. He is currently averaging 3.06 shots per 90 with and xG of 0.67 and a goal output of 0.71 per 90. His shot accuracy also impresses with 48.72% of shots hitting the target.
Nunez is direct, combative and quick and this makes him a difficult proposition for opposition defenders. He likes to play on the shoulder of the defender and make runs behind the defensive line to stretch the pitch vertically. We see this above with a direct pass over the top of the opposition defence and Nunez is initially positioned behind the defender. He makes contact with the defender to push him off balance and then burst pass before picking up the ball and going round the goalkeeper.
Nunez is extremely effective when breaking from deep as well and operates well as part of a two with one moving high and one moving deep. We see this above with the second striker moving towards the ball and pulling a defender out of position. The ball is then played forward into this space and Nunez is able to break forward to receive in behind the defensive line.
Having only joined Almeria this season it is unclear whether Nunez will be available in the summer. In terms of his playing profile and style of play though the Uruguayan strikes me as a perfect signing for a team coached by Diego Simeone. Perhaps Atletico Madrid will look to make the deal and then loan Nunez back to continue his development.
There is still an abundance of value in the lower leagues. Clubs just need to be patient and be willing to look past current ability to see the potential. Even today in the age of social media and the saturation of football there players who can take us by surprise.