FC99 FEATURES

FC99 PART ELEVEN: LAYING DOWN A MARKER

The final installment of FC99 features a set of players looking to put a foot down and establish their roles in their teams.

ISMAËL BENNACER

21 / ALGERIA / AC MILAN
BY MATTHEW SANTANGELO

When Arsenal announced the loan of Ismaël Bennacer to Ligue 2 side Tours in January 2017, few, if any amongst the restless, yet passionate, Gunners fan base, bat an eye. Though with some promise and potential to play in England’s top flight in the near future, the general consensus was the young midfielder would not sniff the first team nor provide the necessary quality to move the needle at the Emirates.

Bennacer

Yet, in just a matter of two impressive seasons underneath the Tuscan sun with Empoli, Bennacer finds himself in the crosshairs of one of football’s biggest clubs, AC Milan.

Born in French town Arles, the 21-year old played a pivotal role in the Azzurri’s promotional campaign to Serie A for 2018-19. Operating from a defensive midfield role as the ‘regista’, Bennacer’s dynamism, vision and penchant for winning possession high up the pitch in the final third (174 times, the most in Serie A last season) loomed large in Empoli’s salvation race to avoid relegation. A slick dribbling, technical midfielder who can move and spray the ball, the Algerian international is equally adept at contributing in the offensive phase as he is in covering defensively.

Despite failing to stay afloat in the Italian top flight, Bennacer’s sweeping left foot, unflappable midfield play and punctuating performances to win the African Cup of Nations’ 2019 Player of the Tournament for winners Algeria holds weight. From optics, his ascent over the last year lends credence to a young professional who is ready for the heightened expectations and increased responsibility that comes with the territory of throwing on a heavy shirt such as the famous red and black of the Rossoneri.

MATTHEW IS THE CO-HOST OF THE STATE OF PLAY PODCAST AS WELL AS THE CO-FOUNDER OF MILAN BROTHERS. HE HAS FEATURED ON VARIOUS PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS THE GUARDIAN, FOOTBALL ITALIA AND THESE FOOTBALL TIMES, MAINLY FOCUSING ON ITALIAN FOOTBALL. 

ALEX GREENWOOD

25 / ENGLAND / LYON
BY KARAN TEJWANI

It’s fair to say that Alex Greenwood has enjoyed a successful 12 months in her young career. First, in the summer of 2018, she was appointed as the captain of the reborn Manchester United Women and sealed promotion to the Women’s Super League at the first time of asking with record-shattering numbers. Then, she added international glory by winning the SheBelieves Cup in the United States with England, before joining the rest of the team on the plane to France for the Women’s World Cup earlier in the summer.

Greenwood

Women’s football is on the rise around England, and Greenwood has been one of its most prominent figures. The 25-year-old left-back is highly regarded in her role, proving to be a vital component in both Casey Stoney and Phil Neville’s set-up and she has proven that time and again. At the World Cup, she was often bombarding down the left-flank, creating chances aplenty for her forwards, and at club level, she was active as United won the league, scoring 98 goals over the 20-game season.

In the 2019-20 campaign, her role will change drastically. After United’s promotion to the Women’s Super League, it was widely expected that Greenwood would have a vital role to play. But, her excellent form earned her a transfer to Lyon, the best club side in the women’s game, where she will be joined by many international team-mates such as Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris. Playing in the top-flight would’ve been great, but the prospect of pairing with other great names as well as the likelihood of winning the Champions League was perhaps too alluring.

One area she can improve in at Lyon is her defensive side. Being a great offensive player, she is often caught out at the back, with lapses of concentration often putting her side in danger. She’s an excellent, young footballer, and at Lyon, it’s clear that they have recognised her potential. This is an important season as she looks to establish herself as the best in the role and secure a spot as her country’s undisputed first-choice left-back.

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.

YAN VALERY

20 / FRANCE / SOUTHAMPTON
BY LUKE OSMAN

Southampton’s conveyor belt of bright young talent appeared to have stopped after the likes of Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana had risen to prominence before securing big-money moves elsewhere.

ValeryThe Saints, renowned for their ability to nurture and integrate academy graduates, were struggling to produce players of sufficient quality to improve their first team. However, in the past year, 20-year-old Yan Valery has proven to be the latest Southampton youngster to catch the eye and take to the Premier League effortlessly.

Having been plucked from the academy of Stade Rennais, the Frenchman has finally secured his breakthrough in senior football and will be a big part of the future under Ralph Hasenhüttl. While Mark Hughes handed him his professional debut last season, it was the Austrian who placed his unwavering trust in the youngster.

Valery is not the finished product, but he embodies the modern-day right-back. He is physically gifted and pushes down the flank with long strides. His decision-making is generally good, and he favours quick combination play with his surrounding players, notably James Ward-Prowse.

Sometimes lackadaisical in defensive situations, he could improve his aerial ability and positional awareness. However, his propensity to execute well-timed recovery challenges and composure when on the back-foot make him a difficult full-back to outmanoeuvre.

In the final third, Valery could improve his crossing. He makes intelligent movements to pull away from the opposition’s defensive players, but when he is afforded time on the ball to pick out a Southampton player in the box, his delivery is occasionally wayward.

Valery matches Hasenhüttl’s philosophy for a new-look Southampton side. With the bravery to maraud forward and find advanced positions despite his tender years, the manager is an admirer of the player, who will undoubtedly be pushing to break into the picture for the France Under-20 or Under-21 side in the near future.

The youngster will relish the chance to enjoy a full season as a mainstay in the Saints’ first team, and if his introduction to senior football is anything to go by, he will not let anyone down.

LUKE IS THE FOOTBALL CONTENT EXECUTIVE FOR FRESH PRESS UK. HE HAS ALSO FEATURED ON VARIOUS PUBLICATIONS SUCH AS THESE FOOTBALL TIMES AND BREAKING THE LINES. 

SAÚL ÑÍGUEZ

24 / SPAIN / ATLÉTICO MADRID
BY BRENDAN BOYLE

At 24, a player should be considered a relatively young member of any squad, still learning his trade, still making mistakes, still not following the orders of the elder statesmen of the team. Not at Atlético Madrid. Whether he likes it or not, Saúl Ñíguez is now expected to step up alongside Koke and lead the new era at the Wanda Metropolitano, where we have witnessed a mass summer overhaul.

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It is a giddy, exciting time for Atletico fans but there is also the nagging uncertainty of how Diego Simeone’s new squad will cope in the absence of past heroes like Gabi, Fernando Torres, and Diego Godín. This is a new Atlético Madrid, a team which has to forge its own identity and create new memories. The expectancy is huge.

It has been a frustrating few seasons for Saúl; last season, he was asked to fill in at left-back and was unable to find his rhythm when back in the central midfield position. If we look back over the last four seasons, we see that the ilicitano has yet to contribute more than four league goals or four assists. Now that Antoine Griezmann has left for Barcelona, a huge void in terms of goals and assists needs to be filled and, quite simply, Atletico need more from Saúl. If Cholo’s men are to challenge for a top two position again, then they need the prowling, energetic, arriving-late-into-the-box, rifle-footed Saúl.

We only have to look back at his goals versus Bayern Munich and Barcelona to see how technically-gifted a player he is. Has he looked a little turned out recently? Was his head turned by the Manchester City links? Was he pissed off at being asked to fill a gap in defence time after time? The answer could be yes or no to both. Only he knows. However, this feels like a career-defining year at Atletico.

The arrival of Renan Lodi at left-back with Mario Hermoso as back-up, as well as Marcos Llorente at the base of the engine room should mean that Saúl is given the platform to be Saúl again. It is set up for him to have a career-defining season. Whether he takes the chance is left to see.

BRENDY IS AN IRISH JOURNALIST LIVING AND WORKING IN MADRID. A SEASON TICKET HOLDER AT ATLÉTICO MADRID AND RAYO MAJADAHONDA, HE COVERS ALL THINGS FOOTBALL IN THE SPANISH CAPITAL, FROM ESTADIO BUTARQUE TO THE WANDA METROPOLITANO.

RICCARDO ORSOLINI

22 / ITALY / BOLOGNA
BY SOMNATH SENGUPTA

Riccardo Orsolini burst onto the scene in 2017 for Gli Azzurrini in the U20 World Cup. He had already attracted scouts from top clubs thanks to his performance for Ascoli in Serie B but his showing in South Korea established him as one of the brightest starlets in the peninsula. Orsolini won the Golden Boot with five goals, leading the lines as Italy finished third.

Orsolini

He was snapped up by Juventus & soon sent on loan to Atalanta. At that point, it seemed like the 20-year-old was ticking all the right boxes – contracted to Italy’s most successful club & looking to get groomed by one of Italy’s best talent incubators. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go according to plan. Orsolini suffered a frustrating six months at Bergamo and was soon on his way to Bologna.

Come January 2019 and Orsolini was looking like yet another talent who would never fulfill his potential. His club was in serious danger of relegation and losing 2-0 at home to fellow basement boys Frosinone – Orsolini was off at half time. Both the player & club had hit rock bottom, a coaching change was imminent as Siniša Mihajlović took over the reins. What followed was a mini-miracle.

After picking just two wins in 21 matches, Bologna started a remarkable turnaround, eventually saving their top-flight status before final matchday. Their bid to stay up received a further boost from Orsolini, who hit the form of his life, bagging a tally of six invaluable goals and two assists in the last eleven games. His technical acumen coupled with crossing ability made him a potent attacking force along with Nicola Sansone.

Now 22, Riccardo Orsolini is at crossroads of his career. A return to Juventus was never really on the cards so it was not surprising when it was officially confirmed that Bologna had signed Orsolini for a fee of €15 million. With Italy boss Roberto Mancini betting on an increasingly youthful national side, another solid season with Bologna may even see him break into the national squad and re-establish his reputation as one of the country’s brightest talents.

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.

ROMÁRIO BARÓ

19 / PORTUGAL / FC PORTO
BY ALEX GONCALVES

A name that will largely be unheard of for those that aren’t fans of the Portuguese game, Romario Baró is one to keep a very close eye on for the upcoming season. Undeniably a huge prospect, the 19-year old is expected to form part of Porto’s senior team next season.

Baro

There are high hopes for Baró, who has now represented the Portugal U19s 10 times, and he showed exactly why during the UEFA Youth League last campaign, where he bagged six goals and four assists in 10 games as he led FC Porto to the European title. A tremendous achievement for both him and the club, and a clear indication that Porto’s academy, in general, is going very strong.

The free-kick he scored against Hoffenheim in the semi-final of the Youth League last season is one memorable moment from that tournament, while his quick feet and ability both on and off the ball meant that he was a constant threat to the opposition throughout the campaign. He also offers great versatility to his side, able to play both as an attacking midfield or in a deeper role in central midfield, while he has also been utilised on the wing too.

It makes him a very useful player and shows that he provides a wide array of different attributes, be it in terms of his passing range and shooting capacity, or his athleticism, technique, and dribbling. He also shows very good work rate and defensive effort out on the pitch, while his ability with the ball at his feet allows him to combine with his teammates in an intricate manner to carve open defences and create attacking opportunities.

Having yet to even see him represent the club at senior level competitively, Porto fans are understandably very excited to see him make his competitive debut next campaign, and he has already featured for Porto this pre-season, generally impressing.

ALEX GONCALVES IS A FOOTBALL WRITER SPECIALISING IN THE PORTUGUESE GAME AND IS THE CREATOR OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE SITE, TUGASCOUT.COM, WHICH IS DEDICATED TO BRINGING THE LATEST NEWS AND VIEWS REGARDING PORTUGUESE FOOTBALL FROM ACROSS EUROPE.

SEBASTIAN VASILIADIS

21 / GERMANY / SC PADERBORN 07
BY ABEL MESZAROS

You would be forgiven if you have never heard of Paderborn’s 21-year-old central midfielder, Sebastian Vasiliadis, who was born in Germany and came up through VfR Aalen’s youth system after moving there from his village team of Backnang (near Stuttgart).

Vasiliadis

Although he had some nice numbers in the third division and teams like Ingolstadt were interested, Paderborn’s then sporting director Markus Krösche was able to seal his signature in March of last year. The attacking-minded central midfielder fit in flawlessly into Steffen Baumgart’s wildly entertaining 4-2-4 high pressing system and put up six goals with 10 assists.

As Matthew Karagich, a keen observer of the German 2. Bundesliga points out, Baumgart eased Vasiliadis into the lineup and things began to take off in the wild 5-3 win over the favorite 1.FC Köln where he assisted the last goal. There are a couple of things that make the high-energy midfielder one to watch in the upcoming season:

1. Versatility: Because he is an excellent tackler, succeeding 67% of the time on 3 attempts per match, he is able to play in the double pivot as a double six, which he did about 55% of the time. However, due to his speed and dynamism he has enough to get past the pressing lines via dribbling. Playing 1v1 is a skill that comes naturally to the youngster, as he is very hard to knock off the ball.

2. Pressing: Baumgart’s hyper-aggressive system often used him as a second striker\number ten behind centre-forward Sven Michel in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-4 out of possession. Hamburg and Leo Lacroix found out the hard way how effective this can be, as he scored his second goal in a crucial 4-1 win.

3. Instinctiveness in front of goal: The first goal he scored vs HSV was more indicative of another skill that Vasiliadis possesses: arriving in front of goal in counters. Another way Vasiliadis has of scoring is via distance shots, but here it’s his ability to create a decent shot for himself, via winning the ball, turning and spinning off or dribbling past a defender that is more notable than the end product itself.

Similarly, his ten assists ranked him third in the 2. Bundesliga last season, but it was on the back of just 1.4 key passes, which had him 46th on a per-match basis. The good news is that almost all of those are from open play and that 1.3 per 90 ranks him sixth in the league behind his teammate and midfield partner Philipp Klement and the centre-forward Sven Michel.

From watching some film on him, he tends to successfully create key passes more in transition and in space and has trouble unlocking crowded defenses and will sometimes overhit his intended key passes. He also needs to work on his finishing and shooting but given how quickly he has risen from the 3. Liga and became one of the standout players of the Bundesliga II, it’s reasonable to think his energetic game will translate well to the top division.

Approached by Borussia Mönchengladbach over the summer, Vasiliadis was deemed “not for sale” by management he will be perhaps the most important player for Paderbron after the departure of top scorer Philipp Klement. So, make sure you remember the name of this 21-year-old of Greek origin because Vasiliadis could tear up the Bundesliga next season.

ABEL IS A BUNDESLIGA EXPERT AND CONTENT CREATOR FOR VARIOUS OUTLETS, INCLUDING SPORT TV OF HUNGARY, WHERE, BESIDES PROVIDING STUDIO ANALYSIS, HE IS ALSO A REGULAR ON A WEEKLY MAGAZINE SHOW. HIS LATEST PROJECT IS THE BUNDESLIGA BULLETIN, A SUBSCRIPTION-BASED NEWSLETTER COVERING GERMAN FOOTBALL.

RABBI MATONDO

18 / WALES / SCHALKE 04
BY RONAN MURPHY

Last November, teenage winger Rabbi Matondo made his international debut for Wales but did not make his senior professional debut at club level until three months later. The Liverpool-born 18-year-old is part of Ryan Giggs’ new generation for Wales but found it difficult to break through in the same way for Manchester City.

MatondoAs a result, Matondo decided to follow Jadon Sancho’s lead and leave City for the Bundesliga. Matondo also traded Manchester for the Ruhr region, moving to Borussia Dortmund’s fierce rivals, Schalke.

An £11 million signing despite playing no senior games, a lot is expected from Matondo, but with Schalke in crisis and survival mode in 2018-19, he only was able to show glimpses of his talent. Now, however, the Royal Blues have a new head coach and new optimism.

Former Huddersfield boss David Wagner will bring a fresh impetus to the team, and that should involve utilising Matondo’s blistering pace out wide. Quicker than former City team-mate Leroy Sane, Matondo’s speed will cause nightmares for Bundesliga defenders – much like Sancho has before him.

RONAN IS A JOURNALIST AND SOCIAL PRODUCER FOR GOAL AND HAS A KEEN EYE ON GERMAN AND IRISH FOOTBALL.

MARCELO

31 / BRAZIL / REAL MADRID
BY HAS KARIM

Despite being considered one of the best in his position for the best part of the last decade, Marcelo finds himself in a precarious position. With the winds of change blustering through Real Madrid this season, the Brazilian could very well find himself cast aside before he realises.

Marcelo

At clubs as big as Real Madrid, sentiment is an emotion not often given, just ask club legends such as Iker Casillas. When the desire to remain atop the mountain is as intense as it is at the Santiago Bernabéu, there is little room for error. The past two seasons have not been easy rides for Madrid. Despite lifting the UEFA Champions League again in 2017/18, they had a campaign to forget. Finishing a more than comfortable distance behind Barcelona, Real saw the exits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane ahead of last season’s campaign, which was arguably worse for all involved.

As one of the most senior players in the squad, Marcelo did not enjoy much success as a player last season. The Brazilian committed multiple errors, looked to be past his prime and was eventually replaced by Sergio Reguilón. As the disaster season dragged, Marcelo was left to watch from the side-lines as his side crashed out of every competition. Few can forget the images of the Brazilian sat on the stairs by the bench as he watched Ajax dance around his colleagues when the Amsterdammers ran riot in Spain.

With the return of Zinedine Zidane and a new season looming, Marcelo perhaps has a chance to remind fans of what he is capable of. At his sparkling best, he is a marauding force down the flank, however, he is not without competition. Real recently bought in highly sought-after prospect Ferland Mendy, who seemingly has all the tools to succeed the Brazilian.

Having been in the Spanish capital for over a decade now, Marcelo faces possibly his toughest challenge yet. As he begins to enter the final years of his peak, the Brazilian faces a battle that he has so far not faced in all his time in Spain. With questions surrounding his hunger for the game and ability to perform, he must now win over the audience that has adored him since he emerged as a youngster in 2007.

HAS IS AN AVID EUROPEAN FOOTBALL FAN. HE IS ALSO AN EDITOR AND CONTENT CREATOR FOR THE REAL CHAMPS ON FANSIDE AND PROST INTERNATIONAL.