Football Features

The top 10 breakthrough acts across Europe’s top five leagues this season

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:01, 11 May 2021

One of the best things about football is watching a young talent have a breakthrough season, coming from nowhere to make a name for themselves, or simply taking their game to the next level.

As we come to a close on 2020/21, we can reflect and find many such breakthrough acts across Europe’s top five leagues. Most were in attack, obviously, but there were midfielders, defenders and even a goalkeeper worthy of consideration.

We looked at these breakthrough acts and compiled a top 10, with a limit of one player per club as a couple of sides at least have had more than one breakthrough!

Who’s on our list? In no particular order:

Phil Foden

Age: 20
Team: Manchester City
Position: Attacking midfielder/Forward
Minutes played: 1,467

When it comes to breakthrough acts in 2020/21 there can be no greater example than Phil Foden. Now, Foden was certainly a known quantity and a well-regarded talent but no one realised how good he already was. They hoped, sure, but when Pep Guardiola unleashed him on both the Premier League and the Champions League in 2021, Foden utterly exceeded expectations with a string of superb displays (especially in Europe) as one of the most dynamic members of the Man City attack. With 14 goals this season, Foden has been so good that he’s now expected to start for both Man City and England for the foreseeable future.

Pedri

Age: 18
Team: Barcelona
Position: Midfielder
Minutes played: 2,309

When Barcelona signed Pedri from Las Palmas there was hope he’d be great some day but, given he had only played in the Segunda, that some day was thought to be a while away. Well, no one told Pedri because he’s played lights out from the first minute of this season and has, at 18 years of age, already become an essential member of the Barcelona starting XI. He retains possession, he dribbles superbly, he runs his heart out, covers defensively and even has a telepathic understanding with Leo Messi. Literally the only string missing from his bow is goalscoring, he is that frighteningly complete at just 18.

Honourable mentions: Oscar Mingueza and Ronald Araujo

We’ve seen other youngsters break through this season at Camp Nou. Ronald Araujo, previously thought to be a middling prospect, has emerged as a rock solid defender and the kind of physical presence at the back the Blaugrana have spent years trying to find.

Meanwhile, Oscar Mingueza was barely regarded even as a B-team player, but when an injury crisis gave him his chance he took it. Smooth in possession, absolutely relentless out of it and possessing the kind of pace Barcelona need in defence, he’s been a sensation!

Wesley Fofana

Age: 20
Team: Leicester
Position: Centre-back
Minutes played: 2,063

Leicester spent a lot of money to acquire Wesley Fofana but few could have predicted that he would more than justify his transfer fee in just his first season. “He’s a special talent and a big player for us,” said Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers, and the metrics bear that out as Fofana has the second-most clearances (88) and the most interceptions (56) for Leicester this season. His ability to dominate in the air while still controlling passing lanes is hugely impressive at such a young age and it won’t be long before he’s in the French national team.

Jude Bellingham

Age: 17
Team: Borussia Dortmund
Position: Midfielder
Minutes played: 1,569

When Jude Bellingham left Birmingham for Borussia Dortmund, Birmingham retired his no. 22 for some reason. That generated an awful lot of hype for the 17-year-old but Bellingham has lived up to it. By the end of his debut season in Germany, he was already an established member of the Dortmund midfield and people are seriously talking about him for England’s Euro 2020 squad. In fact, so impressive has Bellingham been that he’s already priced at 9/1 to join Manchester City this summer by Sky Bet, while Chelsea and Man Utd are 10/1 bets to sign him. But remember, he’s still 17! Remaining at Dortmund would be smart for the time being.

Emile Smith Rowe

Age: 20
Team: Arsenal
Position: Attacking midfielder
Minutes played: 1,194

Arsenal were hoping that Emile Smith Rowe would follow in Bukayo Saka’s footsteps and breakout this season but what they didn’t expect to happen, what no one expected to happen, was for Smith Rowe to become fundamental to Arsenal’s hopes. Now, part of that is because Arsenal as a team have just been miserable, but Smith Rowe’s mental strength to keep driving his team forward even as more illustrious names haven’t managed to move the needle, has proven he could go all the way to the top of the game.

Sven Botman

Age: 21
Team: Lille
Position: Centre-back
Minutes played: 3,131

Lille are closing in on an incredible Ligue 1 title win, success built on their formidable defensive record. And while Jose Fonte has been the defensive leader for LOSC, it’s young Sven Botman in his first season in France that has surprised everyone. Botman has played all but one of Lille’s games this season and has excelled repeatedly with his size, speed, power and passing ability. He is a rock.

Honourable mentions: Jonathan David and Boubakary Soumaré

Lille have had breakthroughs in every line of the team. In midfield, Boubakary Soumaré has shown the kind of composure on the ball rarely seen outside La Masia, Valdebebas and La Liga’s other famed academies. His ability to dribble out of pressure has been so eye-catching that Leicester are closing in on signing the youngster.

Even though Lille are defence-first, someone has to score the goals and that someone is Canadian forward Jonathan David. He dovetails superbly with Burak Yilmaz atop the Lille side and his pace and intelligent movement coupled with impressive finishing ability off either foot have taken Ligue 1 by storm in just his first season in France.

Dusan Vlahovic

Age: 21
Team: Fiorentina
Position: Striker
Minutes played: 2,663

In his first 16 games of the season, Dusan Vlahovic scored just once for Fiorentina where he was in his third season. However, three goals in three games at the end of 2020 sparked him to life and he hasn’t been able to stop scoring in 2021! In fact, only Messi and Robert Lewandowski have scored more than his 17 strikes this year. He has 21 for the season and, given his sheer size and scoring output, don’t be surprised if he gets a big move this summer.

Rafa Mir

Age: 23
Team: Huesca
Position: Striker
Minutes played: 2,609

As we enter the final games of La Liga, Huesca are in the relegation places. They do have a slim chance of survival, however, and that slim chance is called Rafa Mir. The gigantic Spaniard who managed only nine goals in the Segunda last season has somehow been more prolific and has 12 goals so far in La Liga. A powerful presence in attack; if Huesca go down he will surely be snapped up.

Romain Faivre

Age: 22
Team: Brest
Position: Attacking midfielder
Minutes played: 2,731

Brest are in a fairly drooping position down in 14th but the perkiest thing about them has been the irrepressibly saucy performances of young Romain Faivre. Despite being surrounded by little to no help in a team he only joined in June, Faivre has been absolutely sensational to watch with his flicks and tricks. Only two players have completed more take-ons than his 87 in Ligue 1 this season and honestly, more than the metrics is the sheer joy of watching him take teams on. He’s a real street footballer, a true maverick.

Illan Meslier

Age: 21
Team: Leeds
Position: Goalkeeper
Minutes played: 3,060

It’s difficult for goalkeepers to have breakout seasons, really. The way the role works you usually just kind of play your way into it. But Illan Meslier is having one hell of a breakout season for Leeds. He joined last season on loan and was back-up to Kiko Casilla, but when the Spaniard was injured at the start of this season Meslier was thrust into the role and has been absolutely sensational since.

Sure, there’s the odd mistake here or there but given his precocious age and inexperience, he has handled the rigours of Marcelo Bielsa’s system with ease, playing out from the back well and making several saves too. He is, in fact, the youngest-ever goalkeeper to register 10 clean sheets in a Premier League season. Watch out Hugo, Illan’s coming for you!

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