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U21 Players To Watch: Premier League

 

Who are the brightest young talents making a name for themselves across Europe? Starting with the Premier League, we crunched the numbers to find out. 

By: Daniel Edwards

Illan Meslier Banner

He often gets compared to Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois, no doubt because of his long, lithe frame, but Illan Meslier has much more in common with the likes of Ederson and Marc-André ter Stegen.

Such is Leeds United’s mixture of fast-paced possession play, Meslier is required to be just as adept with his feet as he is with his hands. He needs to be able to start attacks at pace before opposition sides have reset into their defensive positions, and to absorb pressure and play through the press when Leeds are being pushed themselves – and he does.

Amongst goalkeepers only Bernd Leno (227) has made more successful passes starting and ending within his team’s defensive third this season than Meslier (168). These passes aren’t for nothing – Meslier has been involved in the build-up for three sequences that have ended with a Leeds goal this season, the joint-most of any goalkeeper in the Premier League.

Helder Costa goal vs. Fulham Sequence map

Meslier to Koch, Koch to Meslier, Meslier to Harrison, Harrison to Bamford, Bamford to Costa – goal.

Meslier was thrown in at the deep end last season. After starting goalkeeper Kiko Casilla was handed an eight-game ban, Meslier made his first league start of the season in February with Leeds still trailing West Brom. Not only did he stake his claim for the number one spot, but he made it his own, keeping seven clean sheets in Leeds’ final 10 games of the season with the club ultimately finishing first by a 10-point margin.

It’s worth mentioning just how rare it is for a goalkeeper to be starting regularly at Meslier’s age. Should the Frenchman avoid injury or suspension he will become the youngest goalkeeper in Premier League history to start every game in a campaign, overtaking Wojciech Szczęsny who did so aged 21 with Arsenal in 2011/12.

Wesley Fofana Banner

Back in March, Saint-Étienne hosted Bordeaux in a Ligue 1 clash. Despite going into the game in 17th place in the table, Saint-Étienne manager Claude Puel named two teenagers as his starting centre-backs – William Saliba and Wesley Fofana. No doubt there will have been an unusually high number of Arsenal fans watching this game, given Saliba had signed for the club the previous summer and had been loaned back to Saint-Étienne to continue his growth. If those fans had been asked to guess which of the two players would be putting in a man-of-the-match-worthy defensive performance at the Emirates Stadium seven months later it would have been a safe bet to go with Saliba. Lo and behold, it was Fofana.

With early-season injuries to starting pair Jonny Evans and Çağlar Söyüncü, and then to make-shift defender Wilfred Ndidi, Leicester have had to fast-track Fofana’s regular inclusion in the heart of the defence. Now he appears to be undroppable.

Since Fofana came into the side in mid-October, Leicester have won six of seven matches in all competitions, scoring 15 goals while only conceding three themselves.

In four Premier League appearances, Fofana has already displayed a reading of the game well beyond his years, with his three interceptions per 90 minutes the best rate of any centre-back in the division this season.

He wasn’t cheap, coming in for over £30milliion according to Transfermarkt, but once again Leicester’s recruitment appears to be spot-on. They’ve signed well from France before, namely with Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté, and it’s easy to imagine Fofana’s career following a similar trajectory.

Mason Mount Banner

Managers adore Mason Mount. Fans appear not to. You only need to check the comments under Chelsea’s Twitter line-up posts to see the widespread desire for Mount to be dropped in favour of someone a little shinier. Likewise, after Aston Villa beat Arsenal on Sunday night one of the trending topics in the UK was ‘Mason Mount’, no doubt as part of a comparison with Jack Grealish.

Perhaps Mount does play a little too often – stretching back to his Derby days, he’s featured in 77 of the last 80 matches that Frank Lampard has taken charge of. Since the start of last season he’s played 65 games for Chelsea in all competitions, six more than any other player. Even when looking at his record with the national team, the only player to feature in as many England games since his debut is Harry Kane (10).

So why do Frank Lampard and Gareth Southgate pick him for near enough every game? What is it he’s so good at? Especially at the expense of some high-level alternatives? The boring answer is a bit of everything.

Last season Mount ranked second for chances created and shots amongst his Chelsea teammates, and this campaign it’s more of the same. His influence is widespread.

Mason Mount Chelsea Performances

Yet another string to Mount’s bow is his positional adaptability. With Christian Pulisic and Timo Werner favourites for the left-wing spot, and Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi best placed to continue on the right, it looked more likely than ever that Mount would finally lose his place in the starting XI. Instead, Lampard has altered Chelsea’s structure to a 4-3-3, placing Mount on the left of a midfield three. Mount’s two highest figures in the Premier League for passes and touches have come in his last two matches, recording over 100 touches against both Burnley and Sheffield United.

Mount’s role was expected to shrink this season, but he’s only become more central.

Pedro Neto Banner

Pedro Neto has had quite the few weeks. On November 3rd it was announced Neto had signed a bumper five-year deal with Wolves, and only a few days later he received his first call-up for Portugal’s senior team.

Neto was in and out of the Wolves team last season, taking the necessary time to acclimate to a new country. Prior to his Wolves move, he’d never started a top-flight league match, with his league career totalling only 147 minutes worth of substitute appearances for Braga and Lazio.

Neto is ‘breaking out’ this season, with the youngster forcing his way into a side whose preference is to keep things as they are. Indeed, he’s started all eight of Wolves’ league games in 2020/21.

With Adama Traoré becoming strangely peripheral for a man of his size, Neto has stepped up and offered much of what Adama brings to the table but with less of a one-dimensional approach. Wolves play very deep, starting their open play possessions around 38 metres from their own goal on average, the second-lowest figure in the Premier League this season, just ahead of fellow five-at-the-backers West Ham. Neto is tasked with getting his side up the pitch as quickly as possible while finding the likes of Raúl Jiménez before the opposition defence know what’s hit them – and this approach is borne out in his stats.

Neto leads all teammates for total carries (when a player travels five or more metres with the ball), total upfield carry progression and total sprints. But he doesn’t stop there – he’s created the most chances of any Wolves player this campaign as well as playing the most passes or crosses into the box.

Pedro Neto's Chance Creating Carries

Talk of Wolves’ most important players will always centre around Raúl Jiménez and Conor Coady but aged only 20 Pedro Neto is already barging his way into that debate.

Ferran Torres Banner

The signing of Ferran Torres went largely under the radar over the summer, perhaps because he was part of a greater story – a complete exodus of talent at Valencia. Even for Manchester City fans, he wasn’t really seen as someone who would play a large part in the club’s efforts to regain the title from Liverpool, but more of a project who would perhaps fill the void left by Leroy Sané further down the line.

City, and Pep Guardiola in particular, have shown a clear ability to slowly educate young wide-men on the complications and demands of the manager’s system before an explosive campaign follows.

It’s for this reason that Ferran’s quick adaptation into City’s ways feels like it’s way ahead of schedule. With injuries to Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus, many were surprised to see Pep elect to play Ferran rather than Raheem Sterling as City’s central forward in their Champions League tie against Marseille. Within 20 minutes it no longer felt surprising, with the Spaniard finishing calmly in the box to give City the lead. His next two appearances against Sheffield United and Olympiakos saw him play in the same position, finding the net again against the Greek side after an impressive showing away to the Blades.

Ferran Torres’ City Appearances As a Striker:

OpponentMarseilleSheffield UnitedOlympiakos
Shots155
Goals101
Expected Goals0.51.00.7
Touches in the Opp Box677

His goal against Olympiakos saw him score for the fourth consecutive Champions League match – the only players to do so at a younger age in the competition’s history are Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland.

Ferran’s six goal involvements in all competitions this season rank third for the club behind only big-hitters Sterling and De Bruyne (both eight), with the Spaniard scoring or setting up a goal once every 102 minutes on average.

Ferran Torres' Goals and Assists for City 2020/21

He chose to fill some big boots when he took over David Silva’s #21 shirt, naming the City legend as a personal inspiration as he mirrored Silva’s switch from Valencia to Manchester; City fans will be praying that the similarities don’t stop there.


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