Weeks ago now I published the first in what will be a three part series looking at, in total, fifteen young players to keep an eye on in 2018. Initially all three pieces were scheduled to run in the space of five days but as so often happens I am afraid that life got in the way. So with some delay I can finally write and release part two, this time looking at young midfielders that have really caught my eye so far this season.
As with my first piece in this series however there needs to be a disclaimer of sorts before we get started. These five players are simply five that have stood out to me when I’ve been watching matches or checking statistics over the course of this season. The five are not ranked in any particular order and all have particular sets of attributes and skills that have attracted my eye, unlike the defenders list there is no particular thread that runs throughout the five players. The list contains a defensive midfielder, a box to box powerhouse, a quick wide player, the most exciting English talent for years and a young Hungarian who may well go on to become one of the best players in the world.
Have I got your attention? Then read on.
Dennis Geiger is a beneficiary of the tendency of German clubs to give to trust in young players. In the summer of 2017 Hoffenheim watched star players Niklas Sule and Sebastien Rudy leave to join Bayern Munich. In one fell swoop the provincial side which had done so well the previous season to qualify for the Champions League was left with a huge hole in the centre of the park.
Young coach Julian Naglesmann however did not panic. Instead he took stock and immediately decided that the time was right to promote a young midfielder who had been impressing in the youth setup, enter Dennis Geiger.
Initially there was scepticism that this slightly built 19 year old would be able to function effectively at the base of the Hoffenheim midfield. That scepticism was however soon proven unfounded. He quickly settled in to the side and displayed an innate ability to be correctly positioned to break up the opposition attacks before the reached the penalty area, when in possession Geiger is equally as impressive, displaying the ability to pass accurately whether short or long but perhaps more importantly he showed a willingness to play the ball forwards towards the final third of the field as opposed to purely choosing the safe passing option.
Geiger dominates the centre of the field in such a manner that it allows Naglesmann to field two more forward thinking players in the central midfield strata ahead of him. Even when Geiger is caught behind the ball by a quick transition by the opposition he displays the ability to read the game and get back in to a strong defensive position.
As you can see in the above example Geiger is initially caught out of position when the man in possession looks to play the diagonal pass which would access the centre of the field and allow the attacking team to open out the entire pitch. Instead, we see Geiger immediately read the danger and move quickly across the passing lane to intercept the ball. Instantly on taking possession of the ball we then see Geiger immediately look to move the ball in to more advanced areas.
Geiger is also one of the key players in the defensive system for Hoffenheim, often leading the pressing movement when the opposition have possession of the ball. Here the opponent is looking to launch a quick counter attack and he is immediately engaged by a Hoffenheim midfield player, while distracted by the direct opponent Geiger is able to read the situation and steal in to take possession of the ball, again this leads to the young midfielder launching a quick counter attack.
Dennis Geiger is not a defensive midfielder in the mould of a Julian Weigl or even a Xabi Alonso, he is not primarily a passer, although he has the potential to develop in to one, instead his skill-set and game can best be compared to the likes of Sami Khedira and although he lacks the physical stature of the German international he makes up for that with work rate and tenacity. We have to remember that this is Geiger’s first season as a first team player and while he will still make mistakes as he gets used to the role he should go on to become a key player for Hoffenheim going forwards.
Club: Lyon (on loan from Amiens)
Next up we will look at one of the revelations of the French league so far this season in Tanguy NDombele. At 21 years of age the midfielder truly came of age in the 2016/17 season playing for parent club Amiens and dominating midfielders with his aggressive, attacking style of play. NDombele is a tall, angular midfielder with seemingly telescopic legs that remind me of Patrick Viera when at Arsenal. Even when the opponent thinks that he has dispossessed Ndombele he has a tendency to still come out with the ball at his feet. Similarly when the opposition are in the attacking phase and an opponent thinks he is in space Ndombele is able to recover position and possession with relative ease.
When in possession NDombele is a force of nature, when running with the ball he covers ground easily and is intelligent in his identification and use of space in the final third. He also possesses the creativity to pass in tight spaces in the final third, a trait which is unusual for a player of his stature. At 21 NDombele is perhaps not as polished as some of his peers at the same age, saying that however the potential for growth and development is there for all to see, if he reaches his potential then he could well become one of the best midfielders in football.
Here we see NDombele taking possession of the ball at the edge of the final third. Lyon are attacking in transition in this example and the opposition defensive block is stretched. Instead of taking possession and driving in to the space ahead he instead identifies the space in the left half space. As well as taking in to account that there is a qualitative advantage for the advancing wide player in the left half space over the static opposition defender who is isolated deeper.
NDombele plays the pass first time with the outside of his foot with the perfect weight and trajectory to release the wide player in behind the defensive line for an easy goal.
Again here we see the quality of passing that NDombele is capable of. Picking up possession of the ball in the midfield area and with the opposition sitting in a relatively passive block he has time to assess his options. The two central defenders are occupied by the single Lyon striker and the opposition right back is poorly positioned. The space in the final third exists between the right back and the blind side of the right sided centre back. This is exactly where NDombele chooses to put the ball. He does so however by splitting two lines of defenders taking an entire block of midfielders out of the game and playing the wide player in on goal.
Although NDombele is only on loan at the moment it is expected that Lyon will move to make the deal permanent with an apparent clause in the loan agreement allowing NDombele to move to Lyon for under 10 Million euros at any point in the loan. From that point it is down to the player himself to show that he is capable of living up to and indeed meeting his vast potential.
Club: Portimonense (On loan from FC Tokyo)
Shoya Nakajima is the only wide player on my list and at 23 years of age he is one of the oldest. That said he is still relatively inexperienced in European football. He has taken an interesting path to Europe in joining Portimonense of Portugal’s Liga Nos, a side that are hardly well known or successful, the presence of the Japanese winger however has made them an interesting side to watch.
Nakajima is a very modern wide player, most comfortable playing from the left although he does tend to drift out to the left hand side, equally comfortable attacking an isolated defender down the outside or cutting back inside on to his right foot and moving to the centre of the field. So far this season Nakajima has played 925 minutes with six goals and two assists. In other words the wide player has been directly involved in a goal for his side every 115 minutes.
One thing that truly stands out when you watch Nakajima play is his appreciation and understanding of space and angles. he is excellent in ensuring that he is always receiving the ball in space. In this example we see Nakajima show a burst of pace to break the defensive line and move in on goal. The Arouca defensive line is poorly positioned with the lone striker for Portimonense positioned in a static zone pinning the closest defenders in place. Nakajima moves from the far side of the striker on a diagonal run which allows the man in possession to thread the pass through and get the Japanese wide player in on goal.
The timing or the run and the burst of speed to take him away from the defensive line and receive the pass from an onside position are key.
This example is taken from the match between Porto and Portimonense and even though they are already three nil down Nakajima is constantly probing for an opening and a way back in to the game. Here he is playing more centrally and as the man in possession is cutting in from the right the Japanese player is immediately demanding the ball moving in to the central area. As the ball is played in to space diagonally we again see the turn of pace from Nakajima as he reaches the ball ahead of the covering defender before beating him in a one on one battle and getting a chance through on goal.
It is highly unlikely that Nakajima will still be at Portimonense next season but it is equally unlikely that he will return to play in Japan. Seemingly ideally suited to the Portuguese league there is a chance that one of the bigger teams will look to take him on next season although a stint in the Bundesliga should not be completely ruled out.
Club: Manchester City
Most of you reading this piece will already be well aware of Phil Foden. The young English attacking midfielder was the stand out player for England in the U17 World Cup in 2017 as the English side blew away the opposition to win the tournament. That came after his club manager Pep Guardiola spoke about the young midfielder in glowing terms, ensuring that Foden would train with the first team and get occasional opportunities to play for them. There is no doubt that the future is bright for Foden but what exactly makes him stand out?
He has been described by some, tongue in cheek perhaps, as the Stockport Iniesta. Whilst any comparison between the two at this stage is impossible there are shades of the Spaniard in the way that Foden drifts in to pockets of space before receiving and manipulating the ball. For a young player Foden has superb balance which makes him exceptionally strong in one on one situations with the capability to use either foot to beat his direct opponent. Beyond that however it is the intangibles that really stand out with a player like Foden, his maturity and capability to control matches.
Foden is another player that prefers to occupy the half spaces in the attacking phase. From here his ability to drift either left or right make him difficult to mark effectively. Here he is faced by three Spanish opponents who are looking to deny him the space to attack the central areas in to the final third, although all three are in close quarters there is still no real desire to press the ball and with time and space Foden can be deadly. He simply drops a forty yard pass over the Spanish right back for the wide player to attack and burst in to the penalty area.
This time we see Foden in possession of the ball in a much higher area, once again he is faced by three opponents who are trying to protect the central area and deny Foden the space to attack. This time however we see the balance and speed of thought that characterises Foden’s play. He initially threatens to attack centrally, exactly where Brazil are keen to protect, as the three defenders shift to cover this movement Foden then changes direction in a heartbeat bursting past the Brazilian defensive line and creating a goalscoring opportunity.
The next step for Foden will be exceptionally important in his career, although Guardiola thinks highly of him and he has the potential and perhaps ability to fit in to this City first team. There is still a chance that next season however will see Foden move on loan to another club in order to gain regular first team football.
Club: FC Liefering (owned by Red Bull Salzburg)
In the first part of this season I profiled both Duje Caleta-Car and Dayot Upamercano of Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig respectively. For the purposes of this piece I could well have looked at Diadie Samassekou or Amadou Haidara of Red Bull Salzburg, either would have been worthy of a place on this list and it is a mark of how highly I regard the talent identification and development department at Red Bull. However there is an even greater talent in the Red Bull system that deserves our attention in 2018, the young Hungarian midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai.
The first thing that strikes you when you see Szoboszlai play is his stature in comparison to those around him. At only 17 the Hungarian stands 185cm tall and his erect playing style makes him stand out. For all his size and his preferred position in the centre of the midfield it is his grace on the ball and ability to manipulate space to suit him that is most impressive. A very modern midfielder in that he is comfortable when in the wide or central advanced areas of the field Szoboszlai has a range of passing that stands out above all others,
Here we see the danger of standing off Szoboszlai and allowing him space and time. The opposition have dropped off and immediately we see Szoboszlai is able to assess the defensive and attacking structure ahead of him before perfectly dropping the ball over the shoulder of the opposition left back in to space for his team mate to attack.
Even though he is only 17 years old Szobolszai is already being identified as the danger man whether playing at domestic or international level, as such he is coming under increased degrees of pressure as the opposition look to negate the threat that he poses. This increased pressure only makes the Hungarian more dangerous however with his vision and passing ability allowing him to draw pressure towards him before offloading the ball to a free player.
Here we see three Swedish players moving to close him down in the right half space. Instead of looking to turn the ball backwards or even to take the ball and try to dribble through the pressure Szobolszai instead draws them in before clipping the ball over their heads to a teammate in space in the centre of the field.
Although he is only 17 years of age there is no doubt that Szobolszai will be moving up the Red Bull chain at the end of this season, the most likely scenario will see him join Red Bull Salzburg for next season to continue his development before then being moved to RB Leipzig in the future, the most striking thing about the Red Bull revolution however is that when the 17 year old starts to move through the system there will be even more exceptionally talented young players ready to move in to his wake and join the player development pathway.