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Transfer window special: Five unheralded young midfielders

The January transfer window is a peculiar time for fans and clubs alike. It can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and seldom meets the heights nor magnitude of its cousin in the warm climbs of Summer.

Throw in the uncertainty of an international pandemic, and this January’s window becomes even harder to predict. Across Europe, the biggest powers are lacking whilst their challengers are pushing for their own shot at glory.

No area better matches the needs of the best and the strugglers as central midfield. Countless teams across the game are lacking in the middle, either creatively, defensively or even just a controlling presence.

Here are five impressive proponents of any (or all) of these attributes, aged twenty three and younger. Will they move in January? Difficult to say. Should they be looked at either with a view to a Summer transfer, or a more immediate move? Definitely.

(All stats used via FBRef and Wyscout)

1. Alhassan Yusuf

Age: 20

Club: IFK Göteborg

Role: Central midfielder

Market value via Transfermarkt: £900k

As with many players on this list, it will be easy to strike comparisons with former great midfielders. Yet IFK Göteborg’s Alhassan Yusuf seems to amalgamate so many great qualities of various proponents.

The club are Sweden’s second most successful domestic club having won eighteen league titles. Two European Cup wins in the 1980s arguably push them as the country’s most influential side. The 2020 season however was very different.

A twelfth placed finish, including a managerial change in September, was their lowest finish for eighteen years. Only three teams won fewer games, two of which were relegated.

In a disappointing season however, twenty year old Alhassan Yusuf proved himself as an exciting prospect. The Nigerian’s weight in gold comes in his passing. Only three players in the Allsvenskan made more than his 1828 passes, made at 89.6% completion. It is rare for a players so young to command the ball as readily as this, and he is integral the side’s ball progression. For all this composure and control on the ball, Yusuf is fascinating to watch when carrying.

He nips the ball off unsuspecting opponents, and busies forward through outstretched legs. His arms whirl, his feet shuffle, there are shades of N’Golo Kante in this manner. That he stands at only five foot seven bares further resemblance.

Yusuf’s late bursts into the box, and beautiful wedged passing nature, take his attacking capabilities even beyond Kante’s. Further distance is drawn in his tackling, which at times is wild and haphazard. This is shown in a defensive duel success rate of 56%.

These are shortcomings to be expected of a young midfielder. His selling point of metronomic passer, mixed with instinctive line breaker, more than make up for this at this stage. There were whispers of potential Premier League interest last year, so people are becoming familiar with this waspish, dynamic operator. For clubs needing to add running as well as ball control to their midfield, Yusuf would represent a fantastic investment.

2. Matthäus Taferner

Age: 19

Club: Wolfsberger AC

Role: Central midfielder/defensive midfielder

Market value via Transfermarkt: £1.35 million

Watching Matthäus Taferener roam around the midfield, it is impossible not to see Matteo Guendouzi. The hair blows around him, the energy is relentless, the captivation is immediate.

His tenacious spirit matches that of his team. Two Europa League experiences in the past two years see a side with just a seven thousand seat capacity show a side operating way above their limit. Their reward for finishing above Feyenoord and CSKA Moskow in their is a round of 32 tie against Tottenham Hotspur. Arguably the underdog of the competition this year.

In nineteen year old Taferner, the Austrians boast an exuberant midfield presence. Like his hair’s sake Guendouzi, Taferner flies around the pitch with boundless energy. Tactically disciplined? No. There is time for that element to develop however.

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His 144 pressures are far and away the highest in the Europa League this campaign. Played on the outskirts of a midfield diamond, he is afforded the right to fly into tackles and harass the opposition. Over five tackles and interceptions per ninety minutes are the metrics of a frenetic defensive force.

Add nearly five attempted dribbles per ninety in the league, and Taferener’s potential rockets again. Winning the ball frequently in counter pressing scenarios, he is able to skip past those trying to win the ball back. Drawing over two fouls per ninety, the teenager’s importance is in his ability to break play up, and move the team upfield.

He is a delight to watch. Although slight in stature, Taferner slips through challenges expertly. A darting run, jinking back before curling an effort on goal set the tone for an impressive display in a 2-3 win over RB Salzburg in December. There is talent there to thrive in every demand of the modern box-to-box midfielder.

Taferner has shown himself to be an athletic, ball winning competitor at only nineteen. These types of player do not come around often, especially ones operating to this level in the Europa League. Now is the time to strike, and mould him into a top midfielder.

3. Charles de Ketelaere

Age: 19

Club: Club Brugge

Role: Attacking midfielder

Market value via Transfermarkt: £14.40 million

The baby faced son of Bruges, Charles de Ketelaere has perhaps shone on a stage bigger than any on this list. His performances in the Champions League nearly saw Club Brugges qualify for the latter stages, just two points adrift of Lazio.

The club are nine points clear at the summit of the First Division A. Whilst De Ketelaere has featured in all but one of twenty two league fixtures, his one goal and two assists don’t exactly scream for higher honours. Four goals and assists in six Champions League games however demand much greater attention, especially a late winner away to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Whilst this important milestone in his career will inevitably stand out, his underlying domestic numbers go some way to show an altogether promising talent. De Ketelaere has played everywhere from attacking midfield to centre forward, to left midfield to left wing back. This versatility has tested his development and allowed him to prosper in unique areas.

Only ten players have attempted more crosses than the teenager’s 4.87 per ninety. Of these ten, only two boast a higher completion on these crosses. Quality deliveries from left or right enable De Ketelaere to function as a wide option. He is very shot shy, perhaps explaining his lack of goals domestically. Under two shots per ninety minutes, when some of his time has been spent as a centre forward, will need improving on.

That said, he is a very dangerous ball carrier from central areas and wide. Over six attempted dribbles per ninety is an impressive figure, and demonstrate a bravery and line breaking desire.

His physicality for such a tender age is also eye catching. At a shade under six foot three he is an imposing figure. This aids his ability to win the ball in opposition areas, such as in that game at Zenit where he recovered the ball eight times in the attacking half. That he matched this with three shots on target and two completed through balls is testimony to the Belgian’s multi faceted strengths.

It might not be apparent what player De Ketelaere will develop into. It could range anywhere from central midfielder right up to centre forward. However his skillset is tantalising for a teenager, and match the demands of the modern creator. The club are shrewd negotiators and may demand a fee heftier than his value, but to catch him now before he reaches his final form could be a shrewd decision.

4. Nicolás De La Cruz

Age: 23

Club: River Plate

Role: Attacking midfielder

Market value via Transfermarkt: £10.80 million

Uruguayan midfielder Nicolás De La Cruz is arguably the best known of these prospects. Playing for Argentina’s most successful domestic side brings this as a side effect. Nevertheless, De La Cruz is a player of a high enough calibre to be more renowned in Europe.

At twenty three he is also the oldest player in this list. Although that brings a heightened expectation to adapt quickly, he is also more technically developed. De La Cruz operates primarily as a creative midfielder, able to play as a roaming ten but equally be fielded as a wider threat. Marcelo Gallardo’s team flick between various formations, from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3 to a 4-1-3-2. In each of these De La Cruz has played as a shuttling eight, progressing the ball upfield, as a creative ten, or as a wide left in a midfield three.

What enables him to play these roles is his excellent carrying, but also an expressive range of passing. In River’s semi final run in the Copa Libertadores, De La Cruz was in the top five for the following metrics:

  • Passes (third with 634)
  • Through passes (third with 30)
  • Smart passes (first with 26)
  • Passes to the final third (first with 131)
  • Progressive passes (Third with 136)
  • Deep completions (fourth with 20)

This is in addition to five goals and assists, from an xG/A of 6.31. The Uruguayan ran the show, picking up pockets of space either side of the halfway line to set attacks free, or play the final pass.

De La Cruz is an electric presence. Forever buzzing between lines and weaving into space, he makes himself a passing option for the ball player. He is incredibly fast too, which may tempt European sides to see him as more winger than midfielder. This will be added to by his slight build at only five foot six inches.

He is also a brilliant link player, much in the demands of the modern ten. Rather than waiting in the middle or final thirds to receive and defelct the ball, De La Cruz hunts for it, pulling markers with him. Whilst his quick feet make him an eye catching dribbler, his most effective trait is in his quick release passing. Moving the ball around quickly and with purpose refrains the team from becoming static. Add to this a delightful eye for a threaded through pass, and you have a great aesthetic treat on your hands.

More on that dribbling. He is a wriggly, twitchy runner, sliding through challenges. Yet another trait is to release the ball almost midstride, without the need to set himself. This again contributes to the speed of play, making it thoroughly difficult for goalkeepers to anticipate a shot.

De La Cruz’s small stature might deter the bigger clubs from taking interest, particularly in a midfield capacity. However he has shown a terrific nous for playing this creative, linking role. So much so that it would be a shame to se him used elsewhere. At twenty three, he is developed enough to make a quick impact, and young enough to grow even further.

5. Mike Trésor

Age: 21

Club: Willem II

Role: Attacking midfielder

Market value via Transfermarkt: £3.15 million

Willem II are struggling. After finishing fifth in the truncated 19/20 campaign, they find themselves sixteenth in the Eredivisie this season. They are only above ADO Den Haag by virtue of goal difference.

Mike Trésor however has been a shining light. The young Belgian initially arrived on loan at the start of last campaign, from second tier NEC Nijmegen. In Willem II’s fifth placed finish, that granted them qualification to the Europa League second round, Trésor scored five times and assisted three.

Despite the desperate downturn that has characterised their current campaign, Trésor continues to bring creative spark and flair. He has mostly featured as an attacking midfielder, occasionally playing as a wider attacker. Fleet footed and elegant on the ball, Trésor is key to any of the side’s upfield movement and progression.

Throughout the league only five teams take fewer than Willem II’s 4.53 shots on target per ninety. Throughout the squad, Trésor ranks second (for players with over 1,000 league minutes) via this metric with 0.53. It makes for grim reading.

Yet despite this clearly dysfunctional, buckling unit, Trésor has still racked up six assists and two goals. Only five players across the league have attempted more crosses. This is a young player carrying his team to any sense of survival. The idea of him being a young talisman was reaffirmed by scoring a penalty in a 2-0 away win at Ajax in 2019. Still only twenty, and a loanee at the time, this is remarkable courage and self belief.

By no means tall, Trésor has a diminutive presence. Yet upon receiving the ball he seems to slow time, feet whirring and side stepping in motion. He has an excellent long range strike, with either foot too, which in reality he should utilise more often.

With Willem II playing so much of their football camped within their half, it is on Trésor to breakaway when given the chance. His lively dribbling carries him into enemy grounds, and he easily can match the run of his forward with deft poked touched. This is vital for a team relying on vertical transition. Equally the quality of the vision and technique are essential for breaking down low block defences.

It is unlikely he would remain at the club next season, regardless of achieving survival. He would have to adapt to a team that did not channel the majority of their moves through him, Yet for a player so young, this might not be a bad thing. As he grows and matures physically, one could imagine one of the bigger Dutch powers swooping for him in the Summer.

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