From Lewandowski to Modric, Eastern European talent are currently thriving on the world-stage, these seven players will be hoping to follow suit.
Eastern European football is enjoying a renaissance.
From Croatia’s spirited march to the World Cup final in 2018. To Luka Modric winning the Ballon D’or and Robert Lewandowski dominating every individual award in 2020. Some of the region’s biggest clubs are also back on the big European stage like Slavia Prague, Dinamo Kyiv, Dinamo Zagreb, FK Crvena Zvezda and Ferencvaros.
The last few years have been reminiscent of the period between 2003 an 2005 when Eastern European stars such Pavel Nedved and Andriy Shevchenko were some of the biggest names in the world and consecutive Ballon D’or winners. The Czechs marched to the Euro 2004 semi-finals and CSKA Moscow won the 2005 UEFA Cup.
The below mentioned Eastern European players are worlds away from achieving such feats, but they have grown up on the legacy of their compatriots and they are all showing potential to go onto bigger and better things.
These are FTF‘s recommendation for eight players to watch from the former Eastern Bloc.
Position: Centre Back
Club: Slavia Prague
Over the course of two ties, Leicester City and Brendan Rodgers threw everything at Slavia Prague. The third highest goal-scorers in the Premier League tried time and time again to penetrate Slavia’s goal, but it was to no avail. The Eastern European side stood firm.
Much of that was thanks to Slavia’s talented 20 year old centre-back David Zima. The Czech U21 international had the task of keeping Jamie Vardy out of the game and Zima performed amicably.
In the two matches Zima made a total of 13 interceptions, won 5/7 loose balls, made 18 recoveries and 7 clearances.
Zima was impervious at the back and his performance has been indicative of his entire season so far for Slavia.
Having developed in the ranks of SK Sigma Olomouc Zima caught the eye of Slavia Prague in a series of outings for the Czech U19 team.
Just as Tomas Soucek was leaving on loan for the Premier League, Slavia brought in Zima on loan for Olomouc in January of 2020.
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Initially it was in Soucek’s position that Zima was deployed in for the Czech giants.
The young man who has always been a centre-back by trade prepared for the role by watching clips of the West Ham star in order to make sure he was ready for the challenge.
Zima stood up to the task and he put in a few solid performances in the role.
However, as last season progressed Zima eventually slotted into his more comfortable centre-back position and has thrived.
For defenders who average at least 6.83 defensive duels per 90 Zima has the 5th best defensive duel win percentage with 72.73%.
Zima also ranks in 2nd best for aerial duels won in Slavia Prague’s team with a 60.98% record.
His best trait is his reading of the game, Zima has 9.5 PAdj interceptions in the Czech Fortuna Liga this season.
But there is a reason why he has also been deployed as a defensive midfielder by Slavia coach Jindřich Trpišovský, Zima is fairly comfortable on the ball.
In the Europa League this season, he has averaged 1.5 progressive runs per 90.
And for centre-backs who average at least 42 passes per 90, Zima has the 5th best accuracy in the Czech league with 87.69%.
People will be mislead by his ungainly running style and tall stature but the Czech defender can be fairly composed and comfortable on the ball.
Added to that he also has a relatively decent amount of pace too which is why he was able to keep up with Jamie Vardy.
The only weakness in his game is probably on the physical side. In order to be capable of playing at the highest level, Zima would probably need to bulk up as he would struggle against more physically imposing forwards.
Other than that though, Zima looks like yet another gem from the Slavia production line. There have already been interest from Bundesliga outfits and that could be the perfect next step for the 20 year old.
Club: Pogon Szczecin
When Poland’s new manager Paulo Sousa announced his preliminary squad ahead of the Poles’ opening World Cup 2022 qualifying matches against Hungary and England, there were a few surprising names on the list, but perhaps none more so than 17 year old Kacper Kozlowski.
Despite what it may seem like it has not always been a smooth journey for Kozlowski so far.
The Polish midfielder made his Ekstraklasa debut at the age of 15 becoming the third youngest debutant in the league’s history.
At that point many regarded him as one of Poland’s brightest talents. However a few months and a few more appearances later, Kozlowski was involved in a serious car crash which ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Kacper had to wear a corset to protect his spine having suffered a lumbar vertebra fracture.
Thankfully by June he was able to recover and would begin training individually.
It was however, not until November that he would be back in action for his club side Pogoń Szczecin in the Ekstraklasa.
And Kozlowski has not looked back since. From December, he has started in 6 out of 10 matches for Pogon and has established himself as a key player for the side.
Kozlowski’s skills are so ample, it’s hard to pinpoint one in particular. The midfielder is blessed with the perfect all-round number eight traits that are typical of players who made the role their own like Steven Gerrard.
Kozlowski is physically imposing. He can shrug players off the ball and win challenges when needed. But in possession he is also bold and an astute dribbler. No U22 player in Poland has averaged more dribbles per 90 with 7.7 than the midfielder and he has been effective too, coming out victorious in 53.7% of them.
On top of that his distribution in the final third is excellent. He ranks in the top five for smart passes per 90 in the entire Polish league with 1.85.
What he is yet to show at senior level is his goal-scoring prowess. In the Polish Youth League Kozlowski netted 9 goals and registered 4 assists in 15 games. At youth level for Poland’s U15 side Kozlowski scored 5 goals in 8 games and 6 in 17 for the U17 national team.
But so far in 16 senior games in the Ekstraklasa the goals have eluded him despite a 1.41 xG and his 3.28 touches in the box per 90 which is an impressive figure for a midfield player.
As the stats above indicate, Kozlowski is getting in the right position. With time as the Pole gets more assured and confident at senior levels the goal will start pouring.
Having already bounced back from a serious injury, the sky is the limit for Kozlowski. Many of his compatriots have made moves to England recently from the Polish league and he could be another.
But perhaps a wiser move would be to favour the Bundesliga.
As Paulo Sousa’s call-up suggets, Kozlowski is the future of Polish football and one who could be tasked with the big challenge of taking on the torch from Robert Lewandowski.
Club: Red Star Belgrade
From Nemanja Vidic to Dejan Stankovic, Aleksandar Kolarov, Nemanja Matic and Luka Jovic, Red Star Belgrade have a rich history of developing elite Serbian talent.
It is amidst that culture of development that Milos Pantovic has broken through the ranks with the Belgrade giants.
The aforementioned Dejan Stankovic is currently in charge of Red Star and has done an outstanding job leading them through the Europa League group stages and only narrowly losing to AC Milan in the round of 32.
Red Star are also on course to lift yet another league title.
And through it all, Stankovic has stuck to the club’s key principles.
Which has been a major boost for Milos Pantovic’s development.
The 18 year old was sent out on loan to Red Star’s feeder club Vozdovac and has featured in 16 of 19 league matches possible. He has tried to alert Stankovic’s attention with 3 goals and 2 assists from 11 starts and a total of 966 minutes played.
A pacey and direct winger who likes to stick to the flanks, no teenager has made more progressive runs in the Serbian Super League then the 18 year old with 2.8 per 90.
Pantovic is also a work-horse. He has made 2.24 interceptions per 90 and has participated in 4.57 defensive duels winning 53% of them.
In January he was recalled back to Red Star highlighting Stankovic has seen his potential.
The next step of his development is to showcase his ability on the European stage too. Despite playing regularly in the league Stankovic did not put enough faith in him to involve the winger in the Europa League squads against AC Milan. It will be difficult to break into a strong Red Star team, but Pantovic has the quality to gradually showcase his talent.
But in order to dominate Pantovic needs to bulk up. In UEFA Youth games last season against Bayern Munich and Tottenham, the winger did struggle at times with the physical side of the game.
Of course he is still young and has plenty of time to work in the gym. If he does, Red Star could be looking at yet another young talent who could be making them a hefty profit.
Current Club: FCSB
Back in January when FCSB owner George Becali was asked about his side’s teenage prospect. The wealthy businessman replied with a hyperbolic answer.
“He is better than Mbappe and Neymar together. He’ll be worth 500m one day. When I’ll sell him, I’ll ask for a 20% sell on fee”George Becali
Of course, you have to take those comments with a pinch of salt, but it is an indication of the impression Octavian Popescu has made in Romania since he has burst onto the scene.
Hailing from a small village in Western Transylvania Octavian Popescu was first spotted by Regal Sport Club Bucuresti and moved to the Romanian capital from his small village as an 11 year old.
The winger was courted by several professional clubs in the summer of 2020 and opted for the move to FCSB.
It did not take him long to impress, he went straight into the club’s first team and has been a regular starter ever since.
A flamboyant, skilful player with a excellent vision, one can see why Romanians are so excited by the 18 year old.
His technique is excellent too. Exemplified by his first professional goal for the club where his first touch sent two player tumbling to the floor before he deftly finished the ball into the back of the net.
Popescu is an accomplished dribbler. When he is in full flow he can glide past his opponents with ease and bamboozle defenders with his quick feet and rapid acceleration.
In the Romanian league no teenager has made as many progressive runs per 90 as Popescu with 3.02. In fact it puts him in the top ten and it is a better average than Dennis Man who recently departed for the Serie A in January.
Popescu almost averages 7 dribbles per game, often times he can lose the ball with just a 49.56 success rate. However in those instances, the 18 year old has the tenacity and the fighting spirit to chase down the lose ball and recover possession averaging 4.19 recoveries per game and 6.17 defensive duels per 90 with a 53% success rate.
The 18 year old is still raw. It is only his first season in a professional environment and he is still adjusting to senior football.
Of course if he is to move onto a higher level, he would need to add upper body strength and more consistency to his game.
But so far there is a lot to like of the Romanian and there is no doubt there’s more to come. Maybe FCSB will not sell him for £500m but they could be making a hefty profit. In recent years, out of the likes of Hagi, Man, Morutan and Coman, Popescu could be the best pick of the bunch.
Current Club: Raków Częstochowa
A little less than two years ago Kamil Piatkowski was discarded and released by Zaglebie Lubin. The Ekstraklasa side did not see a future or potential in the 19 year old.
Looking back on it, the decision might be one the Lubin based side will regret in years to come
Raków Częstochowa another side playing in the Ekstraklasa who value youth development swooped in for the young centre-back and the rest is history.
After a rocky and early adjustment period, by the end of October Piatkowski broke into the Polish side’s first team. At first as a right back, occasionally as a right wing back and eventually shifting to his more comfortable centre-back position.
A towering defender, blessed with hefty upper body strength and an abundance of pace, Piatkowski possess all the archetypal traits of a potentially world-class centre-back.
The 20 year old is comfortable in possession. He can shrug players off the ball with ease and also has the pace to keep up with attackers as well as the height and the physicality to keep them quiet in the air too.
He might only have a 60% defensive duel success rate in the Ekstraklasa which comes with the tendency to sometimes commit too early. A luxury Piatkowski is able to afford due to his abundance of pace. Exemplified by his 10.7 recoveries made per 90.
But the young man is not as rash as he might seem. Piatkowski has committed the joint 5th least fouls per 90 out of centre-backs to have played at least 1000 minutes in Poland with 0.79.
He is composed enough to not commit to challenges and likes to stay on the ground. Once again his pace and strength is a huge advantage when it comes to that. Piatkowski is able to impose himself on his opponents.
The Pole is relatively strong in the air winning 65% of his aerial duels, though perhaps that’s an area he could improve on a little bit.
One of his biggest advantages is how Piatkowski can be effective in instigating attacks and more crucially for a modern day centre-back he is extremely accomplished on the ball.
Piatkowski makes 1.5 dribbles per 90 with a success rate 63.33%. He also averages 2.26 progressive runs per 90 which is the most out of any centre-backs in the league. Add to that he also makes the most through passes for centre-backs with 1.18 per 90.
With all that in mind, and when one watches him play it is no surprise the likes of AC Milan have been reportedly interested in the defender.
Or that, he has like the aforementioned Kozlowski, also been called up to Paulo Sousa’s first senior Polish squad.
Unlike the rest of the players on this list. Piatkowski’s future club is already decided. He will be joining Red Bull Salzburg in the summer which is a smart move for the young Pole.
Piatkowski suits Salzburg’s style of play and he could thrive in Austria under Jesse Marsch. Red Bull will provide the perfect stepping stone for the centre-back.
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Current Club: Legia Warsaw
In Poland eyebrows were raised when Legia Warsaw made a lucrative half a million pound transfer for Albanian U21 international Ernest Muci, but for those who have been keeping an eye on the exciting 19 year old, it would not have come as a surprise.
Yes, so far he has only showed his quality at club level in his native homeland for KF Tirana. However at U21 level, Muci has caught the attention of scouts with some dazzling displays.
In 4 games against Austria, Kosovo, Andorra and England, Muci netted twice and handed out one assist.
His best game came in a shock 5-1 win over Austria where he chipped in with two goals.
But Muci has looked sharp in every game. A voracious dribbler and a tenacious attacker. He’s hard to dispossess from the ball. He has averaged 7.12 dribbles per 90 in his four outings so far and has an impressive 77.3% success rate.
He has also averaged 2.56 progressive runs which is also an impressive statistic.
Albania’s U21 side have surprised many with their 3 wins out of their last 4 games, considering without Muci they picked up just 5 points in 6 matches before that.
There is a lot of things to like about Muci. For one he is pretty versatile. He can plays as a CF, LW or RW and has even been deployed as a number nine and a number ten at times.
At 1.8 metres he isn’t the most physically imposing forward but he is still good with his back to goal and his quick feet and perchance for dribbling enables him to hold the ball up well.
For KF Tirana he has mainly played as a second forward or as a winger and has already racked up 60 senior appearances for the club prior to his move to Legia Warsaw.
In that time, Muci made 23 goal contributions, 18 goals and 5 assists.
At 19 he is still raw but he is at a club which will enable him to grow. Legia like to play with two forwards and wingers so there will be plenty of opportunities for Muci to break into the side.
He showed flickers of his ability in a brief second half cameo in the Ekstraklasa completing 3 out of his 4 dribbles and looking generally lively in a 2-1 victory over Gomik Zabrze.
There is definitely more to come from the 19 year old Albanian and he is one to watch in 2021 to see how he progresses and settles into life in a league that is more challenging for him.
Based on the evidence so far, he should have no problems and Legia could be a stepping stone for him and an opportunity to catch the eye.
Current Club: MTK Budapest
He’s the youngest and probably least established name on the list. But in the coming years Zalan Vancsa will be one to watch.
The 16 year old winger has been training with MTK Budapest’s first team since he was 15.
And has been a regular at U17 level since the age of 14.
The son of former MTK midfielder Miklos Vancsa. Zalan was at his father’s current club Vasas until late last year when he made the move to MTK.
He is still settling into his new club. But in a stop start season due to the pandemic the 16 year old has netted 7 goals in 10 games at U19 and U17 level, including an incredible 4 goals in one game.
Vancsa’s four goals against MOL Fehervar:
MTK usually cruise through the U19 and U17 national leagues but this season, the Budapest base side’s academy has struggled somewhat, so Vancsa’s record is all the more impressive.
Vancsa is not the tallest, but he has frightening acceleration. He is usually deployed as a left winger, and likes to play high up the field running in behind defences. He’s also excellent at carrying the ball forward and dribbling in tight spaces.
In front of goal he has proven to be deadly so far.
Take a look at his debut appearance for Hungary’s U17 side against Serbia where Vancsa netted a brace and made another goal.
(1st goal from: 39:23, 2nd goal: 41:54, assists: 50:44)
MTK’s rich history with academy players is well documented. The likes of Peter Gulacsi, Krisztian Nemeth and Roland Juhasz all started out at the club. Meanwhile in recent years Andras Schafer, Botond Balogh and Barnabas Bese have made big moves abroad to Serie A and Ligue 2.
The current crop is particularly exciting. 20 year old Szabolcs Schon has been a real bright spark registering 10 goals and assists in 20 games (6 goals and 4 assists). Meanwhile 18 year old Mihaly Kata and 17 year old Barnabas Biben have both been regulars at the heart of midfield.
Vancsa has sat on the bench twice so far, and he will be encouraged by Michael Boris’ willingness to embrace the club’s philosophy by giving youth players a chance to prove themselves.
It will only be a matter of time until Vancsa gets his chance.
The 16 year old recently switched agencies and is now represented by the same agency who are behind Dominik Szoboszlai highlighting just how highly he is regarded by those who know him.
The next step will be making his first team debut, however based on recent U17 departures in Hungary, such as Milos Kerkez’s move to AC Milan in January, Vancsa might opt to move abroad.
Whatever his fate holds, the 16 year old is definitely one to watch in the coming years.
(All stats via Wyscout)
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