26 / BELGIUM / INTERNAZIONALE
BY KARAN TEJWANI
If there ever was a gap year for a professional footballer, it would be fair to say that Romelu Lukaku had one of those. The Belgian forward has been firing a huge number of goals each season from a very young age, but the past year has seen him come at a crossroads in his relatively young career.
After a successful World Cup at a personal and team level, Lukaku made a fast start to the season, but that form quickly fizzled away as his goals and time on the pitch dried up.
Manchester United’s inconsistent form, as well as José Mourinho’s uncertain future, made the first half of the season a bit of a rollercoaster and even after ex-legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær took over and enjoyed a mini-revival, Lukaku was unable to break into and nail down a starting place. A small patch of good form between February and March was all he could conjure, but now, his future is in Italy.
Antonio Conte, a massive admirer of the forward finally got the player he most wanted to Inter Milan. After reportedly chasing him whilst at Juventus and later Chelsea, Lukaku made the move to Italy after drawn-out negotiations between Manchester United and the San Siro outfit.
His attacking talents have been evident over the years. He knows how to score goals, is good with most aspects in front of goal, good with both feet and is a hard-worker. Over the last year, however, it has been evident, even by self-admittance, that he bulked up. He needs to trim down a little and regain his confidence or else risk spiraling into a long-term loss of morale.
We’ve seen great forwards in a similar situation to him lose control over their careers several times – Fernando Torres being a prime example – so it’s vital Lukaku picks up and reminds the world who he is in the 2019/20 season. He is someone who enjoys challenges, loves winning and never backs down, so the next season will a test he needs to take in his stride and overcome in order to enhance his status as one of the world’s best.
KARAN IS THE CO-FOUNDER AND EDITOR OF FOOTBALL CHRONICLE. HE HAS ALSO FEATURED ON VARIOUS OTHER PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS THESE FOOTBALL TIMES, THE GUARDIAN AND THE FOOTBALL PINK.
23 / NETHERLANDS / ARSENAL
BY JEANNE LOLLICHON
The 23-year-old forward, Vivianne Miedema, might have caught your eye during this summer’s Women’s World Cup where she became her country’s all-time top scorer with 60 goals in 79 appearances. She also broke a record in England while wearing the Arsenal colours last season as she scored 21 goals in the FA Women’s Super League, beating England’s Ellen White’s 14-goal record for a single season.
Miedema already won two league titles previously with Bayern Munich and more recently one league title and one cup with her current side, Arsenal. Furthermore, she also won some gold on the international stage with the Oranje – the U19 Euros in 2014 and the European Championships in 2017.
Adding to her prestigious cabinet, she was also voted as the PFA Women’s Player of the Year award, completing a Dutch double in the senior men’s and women’s category alongside Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk.
Last season’s FAWSL top-scorer helped the Gunners’ claim their 15th league title. The Dutch player was a masterpiece in Arsenal’s impressive run. Well known for her heading ability, using her five-foot nine-inch height, and her good use of both feet, she was helped as a centre-forward and was the focal point of the attack by Arsenal boss, Joe Montemurro.
It is true that it is difficult to find some weaknesses in Miedema’s attacking game, but perhaps her lack of capacity to track back and defend as well as her average link-up play are negative points that often go hinder Arsenal’s traditional style of play.
She is definitely an enjoyable player to watch. After having been considered as a golden talent for several years, she has confirmed that moniker in recent years. It will be interesting to see how she fares next season, especially as Arsenal will take part in the Women’s Champions League.
JEANNE IS A FRENCH WOMEN’S FOOTBALL EXPERT AND HAS HER OWN YOUTUBE CHANNEL: FOOTBALLHER. SHE ALSO WRITES FOR GET FRENCH FOOTBALL NEWS. AFTER GRADUATING WITH A FOOTBALL BUSINESS MEDIA DEGREE, SHE’S LOOKING TO WORK IN THE INDUSTRY AS A SPORTS JOURNALIST AND HOPES TO GIVE THE BEST COVERAGE OF THE WOMEN IN THE GAME.
27 / SERBIA / BEŞIKTAŞ
BY KAAN BAYAZIT
Serbian international Adem Ljajić has had the reputation of being a bit of an enfant terrible ever since getting into a fight with coach Delio Rossi at Fiorentina back in 2012 and later getting kicked out of the Serbian national team by Siniša Mihajlović following his refusal to sing the Serbian national anthem.
Now 27, Ljajić has played more than 200 Serie A matches for four different Italian clubs: the aforementioned Fiorentina, AS Roma, Inter Milan and most recently Torino.
He is often described as a talented but difficult player who has been largely inconsistent throughout his career. Last summer, Ljajić made the move to Turkey, joining Beşiktaş on loan. This was a move that had proven to be fruitful as Ljajić grew into a leader in the team, scoring nine goals and providing 14 assists in 32 official appearances in both the Turkish league as well as the Europa League. His form also carried over to the Serbian national team, having made seven appearances and scoring three goals for them.
But more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that there have been zero controversies surrounding Ljajić during his season at Besiktas, a sign that the player has perhaps matured and is finally making good on the talents that once caught the eye of the great Sir Alex Ferguson.
Under Senol Günes at Beşiktaş, Ljajić has slowly but surely grown into a leadership role in his team which caused the club to trigger their buyout clause at the start of June to keep him in Istanbul on a permanent basis. Now Ljajić must continue to perform to shake that reputation of inconsistency, as his new coach Abdullah Avcı is tasked to build a new team, in which he will undoubtedly play a key role.
KAAN IS A FOOTBALL JOURNALIST SPECIALISING IN TURKISH FOOTBALL. HE IS ALSO THE CO-HOST OF FOOTBALL Á LA TURCA, A PODCAST FOCUSING ON TURKISH FOOTBALL.
24 / CAMEROON / TRANMERE ROVERS
BY TOM SCHOLES
There are often stereotypes about big, burly center-backs in the modern game. You’re either labelled a no-nonsense hardman who makes up for his lack of athletic ability with being one step ahead of the opposition mentally and being smarter than everyone else or you’re either labelled as a lumbering fool who looks like they’ve got a mistake in them every time they take a touch.
Every once in a while there comes a player who breaks that stereotype and stands out as a top-class defender, even if it doesn’t appear it on the surface. In this particular case, however, we have to go down to the lower echelons of the Football League to find the perfect combination of a Rolls Royce defender and a no-nonsense battler.
At 24-years-old, Manny Monthe has seen more or less everything in lower league football. He had played for nine different clubs before he turned 21. He started his career with Queens Park Rangers but never played a game for them, before bouncing around non-league football and finally settling with Forest Green Rovers in 2016, gaining promotion to the Football League in 2018, defeating Tranmere Rovers on a hot May day.
Monthe would then move to Tranmere later in 2018 to help them gain promotion to the Football League after playing as a right-back for the majority of the game. That wet and damp day at Wembley meant the world to Tranmere, and Monthe was ready to show his worth, finally, at the EFL level.
But while those who watched Monthe knew he was a brilliant defender and was almost unplayable, no one could’ve quite predicted just how good the Cameroonian was going to be. After forming a formidable partnership with Steve McNulty – another burly yet elegant defender – Monthe managed to form an even better one with Mark Ellis and eventually Sid Nelson when Ellis went down with a season-ending injury but Monthe’s sheer power in the tackle, his intelligence at reading the game and being one step ahead of the attacker and just having the might and presence to literally stop attackers even trying to get past him.
His story of hard work and determination has helped him become one of the best defenders in the EFL and there is a very, very good reason why the Tranmere fans hold up a banner that simply reads: “You won’t beat Manny in a Monthe of Sundays.”
TOM IS AN EXPERIENCED WRITER OF US SOCCER AS WELL AS MAINLAND EUROPEAN FOOTBALL, BEING ABLE TO PICK OUT INTERESTING STORIES AND TELL THEM IN VIVID DETAIL. HE HAS PREVIOUSLY FEATURED ON PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS GET FRENCH FOOTBALL NEWS AND THESE FOOTBALL TIMES, WHILE HIS BOOK, ‘STATESIDE SOCCER’, IS OUT NOW IN THE UK.
22 / SCOTLAND / ARSENAL
BY PAUL MURPHY
Following a summer of speculation over his future and then a long-awaited transfer to Arsenal, much of the football world is asking just how good is Kieran Tierney?
When Arsenal reportedly made a £25 million bid for the dynamic left-back, eyebrows were raised at such a hefty fee for a 22-year-old who has ‘only’ been playing in the Scottish Premiership. This, of course, is the same Scottish Premiership where Virgil Van Dijk played for Celtic before Southampton bought him for a steal at a reported £13 million.
No one is suggesting that Tierney is at the same level as Van Dijk but Celtic’s reluctance to let a prized asset leave for almost twice that price shows belief in his ability to keep improving. Arsenal eventually got their man, paying the asking price and strengthening their squad in the process.
Tierney made his first-team debut for Celtic a few months shy of his 18th birthday and earned his first Scotland cap just a year later. Since then, he has captained club and country and earned trophy after trophy as his club won an unprecedented three consecutive domestic trebles.
He has also played in two Champions League campaigns and, unlike some of his teammates, has not looked out of place against some of Europe’s top sides, demonstrating his skill, stamina and fierce competitiveness.
But 2018-19 was a difficult, injury-plagued season for Tierney as perhaps the intensity of so much football, so young, caught up with him. For the first time in three years, he was not named as Scotland’s Young Player of the Year.
In 170 first-team appearances, Tierney can boast 37 assists, eight goals, and 73 clean sheets. These are extremely impressive statistics for a full-back at such an early stage in his career. The 2019-20 season will be an important season for him as he tries to show the world he’s worth the fee the North Londoners paid for him and that he has fully recovered from the injuries that disrupted the previous campaign.
PAUL IS A WRITER WITH A KEEN EYE ON THAI FOOTBALL. HE HAS FEATURED ON PUBLCIATIONS SUCH AS ESPN FC, TIFO FOOTBALL AND NUTMEG MAGAZINE.
28 / COLOMBIA / ATALANTA
BY SOMNATH SENGUPTA
It took him six years, but Duvan Zapata finally found the kind of form that Napoli had hoped from him when they signed him from Estudiantes back in 2013. The Colombian had two average seasons in Naples before loan spells in Udinese and Sampdoria. Sampdoria had an obligation to buy Zapata after his loan spell, but they immediately shipped him off to Atalanta for yet another loan stint.
At the age of 27, Zapata had yet to have had a breakthrough season when he joined La Dea at the start of the 2018/19 season. And then, he finally struck gold. Using his strength and speed, Zapata acted as a fulcrum to two technically gifted players in Josip Iličić and Papu Gomez, turning Atalanta in Serie A’s most attractive side.
The Colombian became one of the league’s best marksmen, competing with Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Quagliarella for the award of top scorer. He eventually had to settle for the second spot behind the ageless Quagliarella, but still found the net 23 times in 38 Serie A matches. He also scored thrice in Coppa Italia, helping Atalanta to reach their first Coppa final since 1963.
Zapata and his goals were a major factor behind Atalanta edging out AC Milan, Lazio and AS Roma for the fourth Champions League spot. He carried his form to Copa América, scoring twice against Argentina and Qatar.
Zapata has entered his peak years as a professional and it is likely that he may not feature in the Champions League with the club that he helped clinch a place in it – or have a small role to play at best. Atalanta too, seem prepared for life after Zapata and have snapped up his compatriot Luis Muriel from Sevilla. A recent report from Gazzetta dello Sport suggests that he may sign for Atalanta till 2023 with a hike in salary.
Given his form last season, persistent rumours suggest link him with West Ham United and Napoli. Antonio Conte has an affinity for big, powerful strikers who can hold possession and Zapata fits that bill, meaning Internazionale is another club that can show an interest in him. Football romance may suggest that Atalanta take up the option to buy they had on him when the loan agreement was signed but economics is likely to have a greater say. It will be interesting to see if he can carry his fine form into the next season, whether it is at Atalanta or elsewhere.
SOMNATH HAS FEATURED ON PUBLICATIONS LIKE THESE FOOTBALL TIMES, IN BED WITH MARADONA, FOOTBALL PARADISE, THE GENTLEMAN ULTRA AND MORE. ALL HIS PUBLISHED WORK CAN BE FOUND HERE.
21 / BRAZIL / REAL MADRID
BY RAJ CHOHAN
At just 21 years of age, Éder Militão’s rise during the last few years has been meteoric. Just two years ago, Militão was plying his trade in São Paulo’s academy, yet to make a single professional appearance and a £45 million move to Real Madrid was just a pipe-dream.
After being handed his pro-debut in May 2017, things initially did not go well for the Brazilian as his first seven starts for São Paulo (mainly at centre-back) left him with a record of one win, one draw, five defeats and nine goals conceded. As a result, his manager (ex-Brazil goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni), gave him some time out of the team so he could work on some of the defensive fundamentals that were still raw in his game.
New manager, Dorival Júnior, restored him to the starting eleven in September and Militão never looked back. He showed he was a rapid learner as he now combined his phenomenal athleticism with a more mature approach to defending. This was also helped by Dorival easing him in at right-back, which slightly lessened his defensive responsibilities as well as giving him the freedom to express his natural flair on-the-ball.
After just 37 appearances, FC Porto decided there was sufficient evidence to invest £7 million to buy Militão.
Militão adapted to the step up to the Portuguese league seamlessly, as Sérgio Conceição rewarded him with a place in his starting eleven from September onwards. Having lost the services of experienced centre-backs Diego Reyes and the experienced Iván Marcano on free transfers, Militão was required to fill the void.
Learning from his experiences, he conquered his previous demons playing for São Paulo at centre-half, showing that the positional side of his game had matured considerably. In his first 14 starts, Militão led the Porto defence to a record of just seven goals conceded. He then showed his versatility again by playing various games at right-back to help accommodate returning legend Pepe at centre-back.
Militão was also a stand-out in his team’s Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool. Whilst many Porto players wilted, the Brazilian displayed his intelligent anticipation of danger and recovery pace to help limit Liverpool to two goals at Anfield, often covering for his centre-back partner Felipe. At right-back in the second leg, he proved to be one of very few Porto players who could escape the Klopp gegenpress, with his ability to dribble and pass out from the back enabling him to stand-out during a poor team performance.
In March 2019, Real Madrid showed their intent to make Militão a key part of Zidane’s rebuild as they sealed a £45 million deal before any of the other circling European giants could jump in. With Sergio Ramos declining and Varane slightly stalling in his development, Militão has a chance to stamp his authority on the side.
His athleticism and increasing defensive maturity make him a natural fit as a Real Madrid centre-back with Los Blancos often pushing their full backs high and wide, leaving their centre-backs exposed. His immense ability on-the-ball will also win him many favours with the demanding Bernabéu crowd, as it did with Sergio Ramos.
He will also provide Zidane with the option of adopting a more conservative approach by playing him at right-back in tough away games, which have been Real’s achilles heel during the last few years. Zizou has also experimented with a three at the back in pre-season and a right-sided centre-back role could be ideal for him to combine all of these strengths. If he can add an aggressive streak to his defending, Militão could become a pillar of Real Madrid’s defence for the next decade.
RAJ IS THE FOUNDER OF PREMIER LEAGUE PANEL – A POPULAR TWITTER FEED COVERING THE BIGGEST HAPPENINGS OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE, FOCUSING ON ALL THE TEAMS IN THE ENGLISH TOP FLIGHT.
16 / NETHERLANDS / AJAX
BY JELMER JAGER
At Ajax, talents are always knocking on the door. It will never stop. Currently, there is a fantastic generation of talents slowly growing towards the first team. One player to watch is Naci Ünüvar. Followers of youth football will surely recognize his name and he can look back on an amazing season both personally and with Ajax the U17s and U19s.
Ünüvar was eight-years-old when he joined Ajax’s academy in 2011. The well-known phrase at Ajax, “Good enough is old enough” fits him like a glove. He was often promoted to higher teams because of his amazing talent and ability to adapt. As a 14-year-old, he already made his Ajax U17 debut. One year later, he made his debut for the U19s. Naci is a true Ajacied, which makes him a massive fan favourite.
He was 15-years-old when he made his Ajax U19 and UEFA Youth League debut in September 2018. He scored and became the youngest Youth League goalscorer ever for a few minutes until Rayan Cherki – who is one month younger – scored in Lyon. The beautiful moments then accumulated: youngest goalscorer in the Euro U17 Final, EURO U17 Champion, U19 Cup Winner, U19 League Champion, Abdelhak Nouri Award Winner (Ajax’s prize for the best talent of the season) and last but not least, adding his signature to his first contract for Ajax in May.
Last season, he played 38 official matches for Ajax, 20 of which he played for Ajax U19. He scored 17 goals and assisted 15 times.
Naci, who turned 16 last June, is a player who fits Ajax perfectly. He is a very good dribbler, has a good shot, great technique and control, good vision and a fantastic pass. With his creativity, he can pass the ball and create a chance out of nowhere and put someone one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Because of his young age, he often plays against much older opponents.
His physical attributes and stamina are something to improve, but he made some big steps already this season. If Naci can continue his development to next season, it can go really fast with him. The chances of making his professional (Ajax U21) debut next season, are there. Ryan Gravenberch broke Clarence Seedorf’s record for youngest ever Ajax’s debutant after 22 years last season. If there is someone who could break this record already, it’s Ünüvar. It’s not a goal to aim for of course, but it could just happen.
JELMER MAINLY COVERS AJAX AMSTERDAM. HE IS PART OF THE TEAM THAT RUNS THE AJAX YOUTH ACADEMY ACCOUNT ON TWITTER AS WELL AS BEING A CONTRIBUTOR TO AJAX1.NL.
22 / SPAIN / REAL SOCIEDAD
BY KAUSTUBH PANDEY
It is high time the top Spanish clubs come calling for Mikel Oyarzabal. The Real Sociedad man has stood out for the Basque side over the last two seasons and has been one of the most active goalscorers for the club during all these times despite being only 22.
This past season, the Eibar-born forward scored 13 times in the league and assisted twice in 37 La Liga appearances. He reminds one of David Silva at first glance, but he is very different to the Manchester City man.
Instead of relying on slick passing and impeccable vision to thread open defenses, Oyarzabal relies on ruthless off the ball movement and the intelligence to drag them apart. He is someone who is tough to mark and sometimes impossible for defenders to keep a check on because of his intelligence.
Ever since Eusebio Sacristán arrived at the club, Oyarzabal acquired the freedom to move about in the final third instead of sticking to the left-wing all the time. That license to roam has brought the best out of a player who has played all across the pitch in the forward areas.
He did play as a striker for Spain’s Under-21s in the recently concluded Under-21s European Championships, but Oyarzabal had teammates around him who liked to make fluid movements in the final third like himself. Dani Olmo, Pablo Fornals and Dani Ceballos- all prefer that system and so does Oyarzabal.
Even at La Real, Sacristán has preferred the 4-2-3-1 shape like the Spain Under-21s did and that brings the best out players who like to roam about freely. Going forward, that will suit him Oyarzabal’s strengths the best. In a Spanish national team that boasts of technical players, this 22-year-old will soon bring something fresh to the plate.
KAUSTUBH IS A EUROPEAN FOOTBALL WRITER AND HAS FEATURED ON PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS, CALCIOMERCATOR, THE TIMES, MANCHESTER UNITED AND THESE FOOTBALL TIMES. HE IS ALSO A CONTRIBUTOR TO FOOTBALL CHRONICLE – YOU CAN FIND HIS WORK HERE.