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The Kids Are Alright: The Different Leagues Around Europe Giving Youth a Chance to Shine

 

With uncertainty in the transfer window likely to have a dampening effect on spending, we cast an eye over the young talent in Europe, identifying a handful of hidden gems that could prove extremely shrewd business this summer. 

By: Peter McKeever

When the European transfer window opens up after the completion of the domestic season, it will likely be the most peculiar window we’ve seen, with many predicting clubs will proceed with more caution due to the uncertainty created by the coronavirus. Indeed, The CIES Football Observatory has said transfer values could drop by 28% across the big five leagues in Europe because of the pandemic.

Many scouts will be casting their eyes over the pool of young talent in Europe, in the hope of securing a hidden gem at an affordable price. But where should they be looking, and who are the players that have already impressed this term?

Our analysts took a look at player age profiles across various European leagues to see which leagues were focusing more heavily players who are yet to reach their peak performance years.

League Age Profiles Across Europe

The analysis showed a high usage of peak-age players (aged between 24 – 29) in the top five European leagues, with a strong tradition of giving game time to younger players in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. France, to a certain degree, looks like it is becoming an incubator of youth: over the past four seasons more game time has been given to pre-peak players (up to aged 24) than those in their prime in French Ligue 1.

Today we take a closer look at some of these leagues and the young players making a name for themselves.

Of course, squad age does not equate directly to level of skill, but as a short aside; this season’s league leaders in Switzerland, FC St. Gallen, have somewhat impressively held on to top spot for the chance to win their first Super League title –  and their first league title since the season of 1999/2000 – with the second-youngest squad in Europe.

St Gallen Squad Age and Minutes matrix

The team boasts a median age of 21.8 (at the start of the season), and currently has three players in the top five goal scorers – Cedric Itten, Ermedin Demirovic, and Jordi Quintillà.

The youngest squad in our European coverage are Danish outfit, FC Nordsjælland. The club puts a huge focus on development and through links with organisation Right to Dream, has become the first port of call for many players looking to break into European football.

Two players worth mentioning in Nordsjælland’s squad are Mohammed Kudus and Mikkel Damsgaard – both aged 19.

Danish Superligaen Team Minutes

Kudus, a product of the Right to Dream academy, has had a stellar season and his efforts have seen him shortlisted for the Golden Boy award.

Mohammed Kudus Shot Map

He is currently returning 0.39 expected goals per 90, which isn’t bad considering he has spent just 46% of his minutes playing as a striker, and the rest playing as a central midfielder, winger, or attacking midfielder. In those roles he has also shown his ability to play the ball forward, starting 17 sequences that ended in a shot, and creating 18 chances for his teammates.

As with Kudus, Damsgaard has played in several positions this season, but has mainly been situated on the left wing. While his shot maps are also impressive, he is currently ranked second in the number of chances created in the Superligaen this season. Interestingly here, almost all of these have come from open play passes, with 60% of all his through ball attempts (10) being successful.

Danish Superligaen Chance Creation

In September 2020, Damsgaard will complete a move to Sampdoria for a reported 6.5 million euros which is a fine piece of business for one of the most effective playmakers in the Danish Superligaen.

Ranked fourth in our squad age table, FC Red Bull Salzburg currently sit in first place of the Austrian Bundesliga. Having been long established as one of the best selling clubs in Europe, many leading players had cut their teeth at the Austrian club, including Kevin Kampl, Sadio Mané, Naby Keïta, Takumi Minamino, and of course Erling Haaland – who, at 19-years-old, has taken the German Bundesliga by storm, scoring 13 goals in 14 Bundesliga matches, or 1.29 goals per 90 minutes played. He is currently converting 38% of his chances into goals at Dortmund.

Erling Haaland Shot Map

The loss of Haaland does not seem to have had much of an effect on the output at Salzburg, however. The squad has an average age of just under 22. Thirteen of their players with at least 500 minutes played are aged under 24, the highest number of pre-peak players in the Austrian Bundesliga.

Austrian Bundesliga Team Minutes

Patson Daka – aged 21 – has racked up 23 goals so far this season, averaging just over one expected goal per 90 and converting his chances at a rate of almost one goal for every three shots he takes.

Daka Shot Map

 

We would of course be remiss not to look at the Dutch Eredivisie given its reputation as championing youth football and giving game time to younger players.

Dutch Eredivisie Team Minutes

In the Netherlands, 49% of game time is given to players under the age of 24, the highest figure in Europe. There are a few standout players among those that look poised to move on to bigger things in the years to come. Two amongst them are Myron Boadu and Mitchell van Bergen. Van Bergen – aged 20 – has been a force on the wings this season, with a sharp ability to run with the ball and to convert carries into chances for his team, sc Heerenveen, who are currently the sixth youngest team in Europe.

Mitchell van Bergen Chance Creating Carries

Van Bergen has created 29 chances and 38 shots following progressive carries this season, with 179 carries gaining more than 10 metres.

Further down the youngest squad table in eighteenth is AZ, and Myron Boadu.Youngest Squads in Europe (2)

Boadu leads the league in non-penalty expected goals this season with just under 16. What stands out about Boadu is his ability to use both feet to create high value chances in the box.

Myron Boadu shot map

Last up is a name on everyone’s lips this season, 20-year-old Canadian, Jonathan David. David is currently ranked fourth in the Jupiler Pro League for non-penalty expected goals with 9.2 compared with the 15 he has scored. He has recently been linked with Marco Rose’s Borussia Mönchengladbach for an estimated 25 million euros and this move should allow Gladbach’s other attackers to move out wider while he sits in behind as an attacking midfielder.

Jonathan David Shot Map

While the Netherlands have long been championing the philosophy of giving younger players game time, many peripheral leagues across the continent have also followed suit. Realising the challenges of competing at the elite level, clubs have turned to a seller’s model to gain traction in Europe. This has helped in the explosion of young talent now playing at the top levels of European football including Haaland, David, Boadu, and Kudus. These players have shown that there can be a massive return on investment by putting time into cultivating young talent and giving them the match experience needed to go on to bigger things while not breaking the bank for clubs in the top five leagues who might be looking for long-term options in the European shopping window.