Football Features

The best debuts in Europe’s top five leagues from matchday one

By Ben Green

Published: 13:00, 20 August 2021

After a summer bonanza of international tournaments, club football is back!

After the month of May which included the conclusion of Europe’s top five leagues, the Champions League and Europa League finals and Lionel Messi’s last-ever Barcelona goal — if only we knew at the time— June and July rolled round with a feast.

Euro 2020 and Copa America quenched our thirst for drama; then the Olympic Final happened with Dani Alves winning his 4,000th trophy. And all with the backdrop of transfer stories running rife, Harry Kane enjoying some rays while his team-mates trained, and club friendlies taking place… oh and the qualifiers for this season’s European football also happening, apparently.

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So yeah, when top-flight football returned this weekend — or the weekend prior for Ligue 1 — it didn’t really feel like football was gone for too long, and yet it kind of did. That aside, it was another barnstorming opener across Europe, with Serie A still to come, and some memorable debuts. Here are nine such instances.

Frank Onyeka (Brentford)

The moniker-generating midfielder — “Frank The Tank” to some, “Free-kick Frank” to others — had a debut to remember. Brentford marked their fairytale promotion to the Premier League with a historic win over one of the traditional heavyweights: Arsenal. Onyeka, signed from the Danish Superliga — a well-trodden path under Brentford’s current recruitment policy — bossed the midfield battle in west London as Thomas Frank’s men began Premier League life in style.

At just 23, the one-capped Nigeria international could have been forgiven for displaying signs of nerve and wilting under the seismic pressure of playing against a club of the Gunners historical standing, but Onyeka defied his tender years to produce a display of composure, maturity and discipline in the rough and tumble of English football on a Friday night. The raucous Brentford crowd played their part, and Onyeka gave them something to go home and smile about.

Trevoh Chalobah (Chelsea)

As far as league debuts go, Trevoh Chalobah is up there with Federico Macheda for Manchester United. A clean sheet and a goal in front of a Stamford Bridge audience packed to the rafters; the 22-year-old could hardly have dreamt up a better scenario the night before. Having taken the typical Chelsea youth path of honing his craft away from the club, Chalobah — brother of Nathaniel — started his first-ever Chelsea match in the Super Cup win over Villarreal, before being entrusted with a starting berth in the 3-0 win over Crystal Palace three days later. He returned the faith shown in him by Thomas Tuchel with a thumping long-ranged strike.

Emmanuel Dennis (Watford)

Aston Villa, having purchased a fleet of attackers to the tune of £85m, were expected to begin life post-Jack Grealish with a statement performance at the weekend, but it was Watford cruising after an hour, 3-0 up largely thanks to Emmanuel Dennis. When Villa were pillaging Club Brugge — chiefly the signings of Marvelous Nakamba and Wesley — they somehow looked over Dennis. Signed for a paltry £3.5m this summer, Xisco may just have pulled off a transfer masterstroke.

The thrice-capped Nigerian was impossible to stop at Vicarage Road as he rampaged forward, first breaking the deadlock with a low drive after his initial effort was blocked, and then teeing up a marauding Ismaila Sarr on the counter, whose deflected strike looped over Emiliano Martinez. The Villans nearly restored parity in the end, but this was the newly-promoted club’s day. ‘Dennis the Menace’ was a handful, and could prove the bargain of the summer.

David Alaba (Real Madrid)

No Ramos? No problem! The Austrian master-of-all-trades may have taken a usual starting berth at left-back, but his presence was felt across the backline, remedying the voids of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. He marked his Los Blancos debut with an assist and a typically emphatic showing as Carlo Ancelotti began his second Bernabeu stint with a 4-1 win over Alaves. Expected to shine, football’s ultimate factotum offered a glimpse of his magic.

Julen Lobete (Real Sociedad)

Imagine making your club debut as a 20-year-old at the Camp Nou against Barcelona. Now imagine scoring in said debut. Julen Lobete fulfilled that fantasy by bagging on the hallowed Camp Nou turf less than 20 minutes into his introduction. The game had already passed the Basque club by that point, with Barça already 3-0 up, but you cannot downplay the significance of Lobete’s goal to the youngster. And it nearly sparked a recovery, a remontada for the ages, as Mikel Oyarzabal fired home a free-kick minutes later, before Sergi Roberto dulled the carnage that would have followed with that Leo-less narrative looming large.

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Erik Lamela (Sevilla)

The ‘Spurs Seven’ is finally over. Erik Lamela outlasted every player Tottenham signed that summer following Gareth Bale’s move to Real Madrid, so hats off to him for the longevity, but he often split opinion on the terraces; for every outrageous rabona, there was a performance so unbelievably underwhelming it bordered on the frustrating for even neutrals. There was a world-class player in there somewhere, but problems with consistency hampered that potential.

Still, Sevilla have a penchant for recruiting wisely. Andalusia has become a metropolis for stagnating careers to blossom — think Fernando, Ever Banega and Jesus Navas — with transfer guru Monchi ever the talent-spotter. And they are already reaping the fruits of another savvy buy, with Lamela marking his debut by notching a brace against newly-promoted Rayo Vallecano. Tottenham need not take notice, though, as they produced their own show-stopping result at the weekend.

Achraf Hakimi (Paris Saint-Germain)

The touchline-hugging full-back has been breaking attacking records since that breakthrough season[s] on loan at Borussia Dortmund, so it was no surprise to see him open his Parisian account 19 minutes into his debut against Troyes. The £51.3m fee they couriered to Milan for his signature is a lot of money, but at just 22 and with so much talent, that price may look like a snip in just a few year’s time.

Kamaldeen Sulemana (Rennes)

Kamaldeen Sulemana. Remember the name. The 19-year-old made the Danish Superliga his playground last season, attracting the attention of Europe’s covetous elite, and he has already translated that form to life in the big leagues. In the Danish Superliga last season, Sulemana not only notched 10 goals and provided a further three assists, but he also completed 114 take-ons, over double his closest challenger in the division (Louka Prip Andreassen on 54). And in Rennes’ 1-1 draw with Lens, he got off the mark, as well as completing the second-most take-ons (four), behind only Kylian Mbappe. Messi may have some competition this term.

Hannes Wolf (Borussia Monchengladbach)

It was a frustrating debut in the dugout for Julian Nagelsmann as Bayern Munich manager, but that was largely because Hannes Wolf simply didn’t allow the Bavarians to play with the kind of fluidity that steamrollered teams last term. He was the only player in the entirety of the Bundesliga opening weekend to register double digits for tackles (11), a tremendous effort of grit and determination which culminated in Adi Hutter collecting his first point as boss of Gladbach. This may be a cheeky inclusion as Wolf was on loan at Borussia-Park last season, but this was his official debut as a permanent Gladbach player, and what a debut!