Top 10 Revelations of 2020 by Zach Lowy
By Zach Lowy
It has been a year like no other because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we’ve seen a lot of football and many have excelled in what has been breakthrough year for certain footballing talents around the world.
Here are Bet Central’s top 10 revelations of 2020.
Sven Botman – Lille
Three years after surviving relegation on the final day of the season, Lille currently find themselves atop the Ligue 1 table with 32 points from their first 15 matches. Les Dogues have been forced to cope with top clubs scavenging off their best players each year, with Nicolas Pépé, Victor Osimhen and Rafael Leão all earning blockbuster transfers in recent years. Nevertheless, they have not only survived, but thrived thanks to a man who always stays one step ahead of the competition.
Since being hired as Sporting Director in 2017, Luis Campos has replaced and rebuilt Lille’s spine with an efficiency rivalled by few in Europe. When a host of clubs came knocking for star defender Gabriel Magalhães last summer, Campos sold the Brazilian centre back to Arsenal for a fee of £27 million and bought Sven Botman for €8 million. And while Gabriel has been one of the few shining lights of Arsenal’s torrid campaign, Botman has been even better.
Born in Badhoevedorp, Netherlands, Botman joined Ajax’s academy in 2009 and quickly ascended the ranks for club and country, before making his Eerste Divisie debut for Jong Ajax on August 17, 2018. However, with playing time hard to come by, Botman left Amsterdam and joined Heerenveen on a season-long loan. He became one of the first names on manager Johnny Jansen’s team sheet, impressing with his aerial ability, physical power, and technique, as The Super Frisians finished 10th upon the Eredivisie’s suspension.
His stellar performances in Friesland earned Botman a contract extension until 2023, but with Daley Blind, Perr Schuurs, Lisandro Martínez and Edson Álvarez ahead of him in manager Erik Ten Hag’s pecking order, Botman sought an exit and joined Lille on a 5-year contract. At 20 years of age, Botman has been one of the revelations of the Ligue 1 campaign, forming a rock-solid pairing with veteran defender José Fonte and earning a maiden call-up to the Netherlands senior team in November. On February 25, he will return to Amsterdam and face off against his boyhood club — the club that developed him into the player he is today, the club that never gave him the chance to demonstrate his potential in the senior team — as Lille look to advance to the Europa League Round of 16.
Matheus Cunha – Hertha Berlin
In the summer of 2019, I paid a visit to the south of France to watch the annual Toulon Tournament. Brazil came into the Tournoi Maurice Revello as overwhelming favourites, thrashing Guatemala in the opening group stage match with a star-studded cast featuring the likes of Antony, Douglas Luiz and Lyanco, and they would go onto win the Final after beating Japan on penalties. Despite coming off the bench in his first few appearances, Matheus Cunha became one of the Seleção’s breakout stars, finishing the tournament as top scorer with 4 goals.
After arriving from Coritiba in 2017, the then 18-year-old Cunha made an instant impact in Europe, scoring 10 goals and 8 assists in 29 league appearances for FC Sion. His performances in Switzerland piqued the attention of RB Leipzig, who splurged €15 million on the Brazilian forward. Cunha fared relatively well in his first season in Germany with 9 goals and 2 assists in 25 league appearances, but he soon found himself on the periphery of manager Julian Nagelsmann, who took over from Ralf Rangnick in the summer of 2019. Desperate for playing time, Cunha joined Hertha Berlin on January 31, signing a five-year deal with the club.
Cunha endured a chaotic start to life in the capital city; two weeks after joining Hertha, manager Jürgen Klinsmann abruptly resigned after coming to blows with sporting director Michael Preetz in a power struggle over the club’s recruitment. He was replaced by Alexander Nouri, who lasted just a few weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak halted German football.
Since the restart of Bundesliga, Cunha has been a talisman in attack under manager Bruno Labbadia, providing 12 goals and 6 assists in 23 appearances for Hertha, who currently sit 10th in the league. As Die Alte Dame look to assert their status as a perennial challenger for European football under controversial new owner Lars Windhorst, Cunha will be vital as ever to their efforts to break into an increasingly crowded battle for supremacy in the Bundesliga.
Wesley Fofana – Leicester City
Leicester City entered the COVID-19 break with a seemingly unshakeable grip on top four, with Brendan Rodgers’s side maintaining a 14-point lead over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United in the hunt for Champions League football. However, the Foxes would win just one match in their final seven, suffering one of the most embarrassing collapses in recent history and going from a surefire Champions League side to a meagre Europa League participant.
As Rodgers was forced to manoeuvre an injury crisis at the back during the opening weeks of the 2020/21 season, sporting director Jon Rudkin worked tirelessly to bring in a centre back. His plans came to fruition on October 5 when Leicester completed the purchase of Wesley Fofana.
Born in Marseille to Malian parents, Fofana bounced around a variety of local clubs before joining Saint-Étienne’s academy in 2015. After leading them to victory in the Coupe Gambardella, the premier u-19 competition in French football, Fofana made his professional debut on May 18, 2019, as an early substitute against Nice, before starting in defence alongside captain Loïc Perrin against Angers.
He would have to wait another five months to make his next appearance for Saint-Étienne, but after starting in a 1-0 win against Bordeaux, Fofana quickly nailed down a spot on the right side of defence in manager Claude Puel’s 3-4-1-2. Les Verts narrowly avoided relegation in the truncated Ligue 1 season, and when they returned to action, they faced off against Paris Saint-Germain in the Coupe de France Final. Whilst Perrin was sent off in the opening minutes after a ghoulish tackle on Kylian Mbappé, Fofana held his own and delivered a world-class performance against the likes of Neymar and Mauro Icardi as Saint-Étienne mustered a respectable 0-1 defeat at the Stade de France.
The 19-year-old led Saint-Étienne to first place in Ligue 1 with three victories and three clean sheets in their opening three fixtures, but after learning of Leicester’s reported interest, Fofana forced a transfer, with the West Midlands club paying €35 million + €5 million in add-ons. Fofana has become a vital performer for the Foxes, who sit fourth in the Premier League; on the other hand, Saint-Étienne are just five points clear of the drop after picking up seven points in their last 12 matches.
Tariq Lamptey – Brighton
Despite boasting one of the most prolific youth facilities in the world, Chelsea have struggled to produce a long-term starter from their famed Cobham academy since John Terry broke into Claudio Ranieri’s starting eleven in the 2000/01 season. That may be set to change under manager Frank Lampard, with Reece James and Mason Mount ascending from the academy to become key performers in the senior team, but as of now, Chelsea fans have grown less accustomed to homegrown heroes like Terry and Mount and more used to ‘the ones that got away’ like Jérémie Boga, Declan Rice, and Jamal Musiala.
One player who joined that dreaded list this year is Tariq Lamptey. Born in London to Ghanaian parents, Lamptey ascended the Cobham ranks before making his professional debut on December 29, 2019, where he would deliver a lively performance at right-back as the Blues turned around a 1-0 deficit and defeated Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. Lamptey would make two more appearances under Lampard, but with James and César Azpilicueta ahead of him in the pecking order, he forced a transfer to Brighton & Hove Albion on the winter transfer deadline day, joining the Seagulls on a three-and-a-half-year deal.
Playing as a right wing-back in Graham Potter’s 3-4-3, Lamptey has established a reputation for himself as one of the most unique, talented, and elusive players in the Premier League. Blessed with brutal pace and a world-class close control, the diminutive fullback has the ability to win fouls in dangerous areas, brush past three onrushing players at a moment’s notice, and strike fear into the heart of any left-back. He missed out on a transfer to Bayern Munich in September, but at 20 years of age, there’s still plenty of time for Lamptey to secure the Champions League-caliber transfer that his distinctive skill-set and potential has merited.
Alphonso Davies – Bayern Munich
“My parents are from Liberia and fled the civil war. I was born in Ghana in a refugee camp. It was a hard life. But when I was five years old, a country called Canada welcomed us in, and the boys on the football team made me feel at home…my dream is to someday compete in the World Cup, maybe even in my hometown of Edmonton.”
Those were the words of Alphonso Davies on June 13, 2018, to the FIFA Congress in Moscow, when FIFA announced that the United States, Canada and Mexico were successful in their “United As One” joint bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. At that moment, Davies was an 18-year-old winger on the Vancouver Whitecaps who had already gained plenty of plaudits; the youngest active player in MLS, Golden Boot winner in the 2017 Gold Cup and the youngest ever player to play for the Canadian national team. However, his life would change in just six weeks when he earned an MLS record $22 million transfer move to Bayern Munich.
Davies was deprived of game time during his first few months in Bavaria, but his fortunes turned around after the sacking of manager Niko Kovač on November 3. He was thrust into the starting line-up by manager Hans-Dieter Flick following long-term injuries to defenders Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez and quickly cemented a starting spot at the left-back position. With Davies forming a dynamic duo with Serge Gnabry on the left flank, Bayern went from 7th place in December to winning the Bundesliga title in June with a 13-point cushioning. Bayern won 33 of 36 games under Flick, blowing past Chelsea, Barcelona, Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain to win their first Champions League since 2013, and defeating Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB-Pokal Final.
Canada couldn’t have asked for a better young talisman as they approach their first World Cup since 1986.
Bukayo Saka – Arsenal
It has been nothing short of a nightmare season for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, who sit 15th in the Premier League table after 13 matchdays, but one player who has managed to become a continuous ray of light for the Gunners is Bukayo Saka.
Born and raised in London to Nigerian parents, Saka began his career in Arsenal’s Hale End academy and made his debut for the senior side on November 29, 2018, in a Europa League match against Vorskla Poltava. Saka was limited to just three more appearances that season, but he eventually ingratiated manager Unai Emery, who after a 2-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt was replaced by Freddie Ljungberg and later, Mikel Arteta.
Saka took advantage of injuries to Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolašinac to nail down a starting spot at the unnatural position of left-back, and despite Arsenal’s collective woes this season, he has done remarkably well at a variety of positions from central midfielder to right-winger to left wing-back. The 19-year-old blends sheer pace with a speed of mind and close control that allows him to dance past defenders and find teammates in goal scoring positions. It remains to be seen where Saka’s best position in the long-term is, but one thing’s for certain: Arsenal will reap the rewards no matter where he plays.
Dominik Szoboszlai – RB Salzburg
Trailing 1-0 to Iceland at the Puskás Aréna, Hungary needed two late goals to salvage their dying hopes of qualification to next summer’s European Championships. Substitute Loïc Négo pounced on a miscommunication between the Iceland defenders to equalize in the 88th minute, but the Magyars still needed to conjure up a bit of magic in Budapest to turn around their fortunes. Iceland nearly added a go-ahead goal from Albert Guðmundsson and then Jón Daði Böðvarsson, but after blocking both attempts, the home side regained possession and found Dominik Szoboszlai by the halfway line. The 20-year-old picked up the ball and broke towards goal, cutting inside, sizing up his shot from the edge of the box, before firing a rocket past Hannes Þór Halldórsson in goal to send Hungary through to the Euros.
It was a goal of the highest calibre, one that summed up Szoboszlai’s capabilities as an attacking midfielder. He left his homeland in 2016 and joined Red Bull Salzburg’s academy, quickly progressing up the ranks for club and country and captaining Hungary at the youth level, before making his debut for Salzburg on May 27, 2018. He would split time between FC Liefering (Salzburg’s feeder team) and the first team the following season, although he was gradually eased into the line-up during the final weeks of the campaign. The departure of Hannes Wolf to RB Leipzig provided him with an opportunity to nail down a starting spot under manager Jesse Marsch, and he didn’t disappoint. Playing on the left flank of Marsch’s 4-2-2-2, Szoboszlai provided 12 goals and 18 assists in all competitions, leading Salzburg to the domestic double and winning Austrian Bundesliga Player of the Season.
Szoboszlai came close to joining Milan in the summer, but the transfer broke down after the Rossoneri leadership decided against hiring former Red Bull Head of Sport Ralf Rangnick, who was keen on bringing the Hungarian prospect to the San Siro with him. He has picked up where he has left off this season, scoring 9 goals and 10 assists in 21 appearances and leading Salzburg to first place in the Austrian Bundesliga. And while Salzburg narrowly missed out on advancing to the Champions League Round of 16 after losing to Atlético Madrid on the final matchday, he will have a chance to impress in the knockout round against Liverpool after earning a €25 million move to RB Leipzig. In doing so, he became the latest Salzburg product to join Leipzig after Konrad Laimer, Amadou Haidara and Dayot Upamecano.
Giovanni Reyna – Borussia Dortmund
After leaving the United States for Germany at 16 years of age, he became the youngest American to ever play in a Bundesliga match. A month later, he became the youngest goalscorer in DFB-Pokal history. Two weeks after that, he became the youngest American to record a goal and an assist in a Champions League fixture, leading Borussia Dortmund to victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of the Round of 16.
That may sound like a profile of Christian Pulisic, but it actually describes the rapid, unstoppable rise of Giovanni Reyna. Born in Sunderland, England to former USMNT midfielder Claudio Reyna and ex USWNT midfielder Danielle Egan Reyna, Giovanni’s family left England in 2007 and headed for the Big Apple, where his father would close out his playing career at New York Red Bulls before accepting a position as Sporting Director of New York City FC. It was here in NYCFC where Reyna would progress up the youth ranks before earning a move to Dortmund in the summer of 2019, joining the club in the same window that Pulisic departed for Chelsea.
Reyna enjoyed a red-hot start to life in Germany under manager Lucien Favre and has continued his sensational form after the Bundesliga’s restart, having registered 4 goals and 6 assists in 20 appearances this season. At 18 years old, he has become a full-fledged starter at Dortmund, and after rejecting offers to play for Portugal, Argentina and England’s national teams, he will be playing alongside Pulisic for the United States as the Stars and Stripes prepare to bounce back from their humiliation in Couva and qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Jules Koundé – Sevilla
“Today, France are the reigning world champions, but even that title doesn’t quite give their talent production credit. Look at every heavyweight in Europe, and nearly everyone has a French youngster they splurged a record fee for.”
I wrote those words for Bet Central in October 2019, and they still ring true to this day. The likes of Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur have all smashed their transfer records to bring in French players, and Sevilla joined that list after paying a club record fee of €25 million for Jules Koundé.
Born in Paris to Beninese parents, Koundé joined Bordeaux’s academy in 2013, ascending the youth ranks before making his debut on January 7, 2018 in a Coupe de France loss to US Granville. He immediately nailed down a starting spot under manager Gus Poyet, impressing with his aerial prowess despite his relatively small frame, and earning a move to Sevilla on July 3, 2019.
Koundé struggled to convince in his first few months in Andalusia, committing high-profile errors against Eibar and Qarabağ, but he quickly turned things around alongside Brazilian center back Diego Carlos, who had arrived from Nantes in the summer. With Carlos and Koundé at the back, Sevilla sealed top four for the first time since 2017 whilst also brushing past Manchester United, Wolves and Inter to win a record sixth Europa League title in Cologne, Germany.
The Frenchman came close to joining Manchester City in the summer, but after the Spanish club rejected their offer of €55 million, City instead purchased Rúben Dias from Benfica. Nevertheless, at 22 years of age, it’s only a matter of time before Koundé lands Sevilla a record profit.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin – Everton
On June 11, 2017, England faced off against Venezuela in the FIFA U-20 World Cup Final in Suwon, South Korea. The sole goal of the match came in the 34th minute; Dominic Calvert-Lewin leapt over Nahuel Ferraresi to control a free-kick from captain Lewis Cook, and after his initial shot was saved by Wuilker Faríñez, he coolly followed up his effort to gently tap it into the bottom left corner. It was the fairytale ending to a season that had seen Calvert-Lewin leave boyhood club Sheffield United and join Everton on August 31 for a fee of £1.5 million. With top scorer Romelu Lukaku departing for Manchester United for a club record fee, the pressure mounted on Calvert-Lewin to solidify a starting spot at Goodison Park.
He struggled to live up to the lofty expectations across the next two seasons, registering 10 goals and 9 assists in 67 Premier League appearances. It seemed that manager Marco Silva had lost his patience in him after attempting to bring in Juventus striker Mario Mandžukić, but Sporting Director Marcel Brands convinced Silva to back the English forward. It was a risky gamble that saw the Toffees fall to 18th in the table, and by the time Silva was sacked on December 5, 2019, Calvert-Lewin had scored just 3 goals in 13 Premier League appearances.
Silva was replaced by Duncan Ferguson, who had scored 60 goals in 239 appearances during his multiple stints at Everton. In his first game in charge, Everton defeated Chelsea at Goodison Park, with Calvert-Lewin scoring the first brace of his Premier League career. He continued his impressive form under Carlo Ancelotti, who was given the reins on December 21, and after scoring eight goals in five appearances to start the 2020/21 campaign, Calvert-Lewin was handed his maiden call-up to England’s national team by Gareth Southgate.
“I had a fantastic striker in Inzaghi, who scored 300 goals and 210 with one touch,” said Ancelotti in September. “A striker has to be focused in the box and I think Calvert-Lewin understands really well because in the box he has speed, he jumps really high, he has power. Where he has improved more is there, in the box.”
Calvert-Lewin currently leads the Premier League scoring charts with 11 goals in 13 appearances, tied with Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah. As the Toffees look to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 2005, they’ll be counting on their fox in the box to continue his stratospheric improvement under Ancelotti.