It has been a jam-packed year of football, football, and more football, but 2021 is almost over. 2021 saw Palmeiras win the Copa Libertadores (twice!), Thomas Tuchel turn around a stagnant Chelsea side and lead them to the Champions League, Roberto Mancini lead Italy to their first European Championship in a half-century, Lionel Messi finally win the Copa América with Argentina…and leave Barcelona days later, 12 of Europe’s richest club attempt to form a breakaway competition and leave UEFA in the dark, and plenty more. It also saw various young talents establish themselves on the world stage, and today, we’ll be taking a look at the top 10 (unranked) breakout stars of 2021.
We will solely focus on players who have truly taken the next step and established themselves on the scene in 2021; as such, various talented youngsters such as Erling Haaland and Phil Foden will not be included, and no player over the age of 23 will be considered either, hence why the likes of Luis Díaz have not been included.
No members of last years top 10 will make the list either. These players include Sven Botman, Matheus Cunha, Wesley Fofana, Tariq Lamptey, Alphonso Davies, Bukayo Saka, Dominik Szoboszlai, Giovanni Reyna, Jules Koundé, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
It has been nothing short of a phenomenal 2021 for Florian Wirtz. The Cologne youth product joined Bayer Leverkusen in January 2020 and quickly assembled a variety of accolades, becoming Leverkusen’s youngest player to play in the Bundesliga and the youngest player to score in the Bundesliga at 17 years and 34 days old. He has continued his record-breaking form this season, and on November 28, he became the first player under the age of 19 to score more than 10 Bundesliga goals.
Gerardo Seoane’s side currently sit third in the league thanks in large part to Wirtz, who has become the creative fulcrum of an exciting, young front four featuring Moussa Diaby, Amine Adli and Patrik Schick, and it’s only a matter of time before Wirtz follows in the footsteps of Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt and earns a big move away from Leverkusen.
As I am currently writing this article on December 14, I cannot help but point out a ridiculous, mind-blowing stat: one year ago today, Dušan Vlahović had scored just seven Serie A goals for Fiorentina since arriving from Partizan in 2018. Over the past year, however, he has scored 35 Serie A goals, almost single-handedly kept Fiorentina up in the top-flight, and is now leading the charge for European qualification.
The 21-year-old forward has been likened to ex Viola talisman Luca Toni thanks to his lethal finishing and aerial ability, and with his contract set to expire in 2023, Fiorentina are set for a hefty return on investment next summer. With Vlahović taking Calcio by storm and Aleksandr Mitrović lighting up the Championship for Fulham, Serbia certainly won’t be short of centre forwards going into the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Emile Smith Rowe
Another player who has enjoyed a similar breakthrough year has been Emile Smith Rowe. Despite making his first-team debut on September 20, 2018 and scoring his first goal for Arsenal two weeks later, Smith Rowe would have to spend time out on loan at RB Leipzig and Huddersfield Town, before working his way through Arsenal’s U-23 side and eventually making his first appearance under Mikel Arteta on November 26, 2020. The next few weeks would see Smith Rowe score 2 goals and 4 assists in 7 appearances by January 9, a sign of things to come.
Whilst Arsenal’s big-money signings and high earners such as Nicolas Pépé, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have failed to lead by example for Arsenal, the club’s Hale End products, principally Smith Rowe and Saka, have become two bright sparks for the Gunners. Smith Rowe has impressed thanks to his versatility, hard-working nature, close control and ability to pop up at the edge of the penalty box are qualities that have endeared him to Arteta, and at 21, he’s just getting started at building a legacy at the Emirates Stadium.
Looking back to two seasons ago, it’s hard to believe just how many excellent talents were plying their trade in England’s second division. Smith Rowe, Kalvin Phillips, Matheus Pereira, Saïd Benrahma, Ben White, Eberechi Eze, Marc Guéhi…the list goes on and on. Whilst Ollie Watkins took home the Player of the Season award for his stellar performances at Brentford, it was Jude Bellingham who earned the Young Player of the Season.
Birmingham City promptly cashed in on him for an initial fee of £25 million, with Bellingham following in the footsteps of his compatriot Jadon Sancho and joining Borussia Dortmund. The now 18-year-old has become a mainstay in midfield for the German side, earning an England call-up for the European Championships and winning the Newcomer of the Season award. His unpredictable movement, composure and confidence in possession, and his eye to burst forward and dribbling past players makes him a genuine threat in midfield and a future starter for the Three Lions.
From Jude Bellingham to Emile Smith Rowe, from Declan Rice to Phil Foden, Gareth Southgate is certainly spoiled for choice when it comes to options in the centre of the pitch. It is precisely this midfield depth that prompted Jamal Musiala to end his time with England’s youth teams and make his senior debut for Germany on March 25, 2021.
Born in Stuttgart to a British-Nigerian father and a German mother of Polish roots, Musiala moved to England at the age of seven and spent eight years at Chelsea’s academy, before joining Bayern Munich in 2019. Similarly to Bellingham, Musiala has reaped the rewards of swapping England for Germany and become a key player under Julian Nagelsmann, bagging a goal against Barcelona on December 8 whilst playing in a double pivot, before scoring the decisive winner in a 2-1 victory over Mainz. Whether starting in the attacking quartet or as a deep-lying playmaker, Musiala has an uncanny ability to break the lines, pick out players in dangerous areas, track back and make crucial tackles and find the back of the net – he is a versatile threat who will continue to play a vital role for Germany and Bayern over the next decade
From my top 10 wonder kids to watch in 2021, only two players have cracked the list of my top 10 breakout stars of 2021: Pedri and Florian Wirtz. Whilst Wirtz has delivered some impressive performances in Leverkusen, Pedri has become the first Barcelona player since Lionel Messi to win the Golden Boy award, playing a vital role in midfield for Luis Enrique’s Spain in their run to the Euros semifinals and standing out as one of the few bright spots in what has been a dour year for the Blaugrana outfit.
Since arriving from Las Palmas, Pedri has provided a breath of fresh air to Barcelona’s midfield with his nonstop running, ball-carrying ability and eye for a key pass. He is a precious gem that must be taken care of – another year of careless fixture congestion for the teenager will see him struggle with injuries once again and fail to reach the levels we have grown accustomed to.
One of the signs of a true leader are stepping up to the task and performing when the going gets tough. That’s certainly been the case for Lille’s 21-year-old sharpshooter Jonathan David. After finishing as the joint-top scorer in the Belgian top-flight for Gent, David earned a €30 million transfer to Lille in 2020, making him the most expensive Canadian transfer to date and saddling him with the pressure of replacing Victor Osimhen following his departure to Napoli.
David initially struggled to cope with the pace and physicality of Ligue 1, with his first goal coming on November 22, 2020 in a 4-0 win against Lorient. However, manager Christophe Galtier never lost faith in him and kept him in the starting line-up, and bit by bit, his confidence paid off. David scored 13 goals and 5 assists for Les Dogues, forming a devastating partnership with Turkish journeyman Burak Yılmaz and opening the scoring in Lille’s 2-1 win against Angers on the final matchday, which sealed the club’s first Ligue 1 title in a decade.
This season has been a difficult and trying campaign for Lille, who have lost Mike Maignan, Boubakary Soumaré, Luiz Araújo and most importantly, Galtier. They currently sit 11th in the league and have nevertheless qualified for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, but one player who has stepped up and delivered on countless occasions is David, who has already found the back of the net on 14 occasions in 25 games this season.
Vinícius Júnior was 16 when Real Madrid purchased him from Flamengo for an initial fee of €45 million, and 18 when he scored his first ever goal for Los Blancos. Today, at 21 years of age, he is solidifying a case as one of the finest attackers in Europe this season.
Whilst his speed, defensive work-rate and tricky dribbling made ‘Vini’ a constant fixture in Real Madrid line-ups since joining the club in 2018, he consistently struggled to churn out goals and make the step up from ‘promise’ to ‘bonafide world-beater.’ That has changed this season, with the Brazilian providing 12 goals and 9 assists in 23 appearances to lead Real Madrid to first place in their Champions League group and eight points clear at the top of La Liga. It was just over a year ago when Karim Benzema whispered to Ferland Mendy: “Do not pass it to Vinícius, on my mother’s life he is playing against us.” Today, though, Vini and Benzema have combined to become arguably the deadliest attacking duo in all of Europe, and Carlo Ancelotti’s side are reaping the rewards.
Brazil may be churning out elite-level attackers like Vinícius and Raphinha on a regular basis, Spain may be producing a treasure trove of midfielders like Pedri and Gavi, but when it comes to talent production, nobody does it quite like France. In terms of talent exporters, there are few French teams that have built as much of a reputation as AS Monaco: Kylian Mbappé, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar, the list goes on and on. It would come as a surprise, then, that the last time Monaco sold a player for north of €15 million was in the summer of 2019, when Youri Tielemans made the permanent switch to Leicester City after an impressive loan spell at the King Power Stadium.
However, that could be set to change soon. From Sofiane Diop to Youssouf Fofana to Benoît Badiashile, the principality club boast a glamorous collection of prized talents, but the brightest gem of them all is Aurélien Tchouaméni. Having arrived in January 2020 from Bordeaux, the 21-year-old has quickly become an all-action midfield dynamo for Niko Kovač’s side, blending a relentless ball-winning nature, composure and quick feet under pressure, and an impressive passing range. Monaco were able to keep hold of him amid interest from Chelsea, but with his contract set to expire in 2024, they may not be so lucky this coming summer.
Be it Erling Haaland, Dominik Szoboszlai, Dayot Upamecano or Naby Keïta, Red Bull Salzburg are certainly no stranger to developing top-caliber prospects and selling them for hefty profits. The next player who looks set to leave the Austrian giants for greener pastures is Karim Adeyemi.
Faced with the unenviable task of replacing Patson Daka as the club’s attacking talisman, Adeyemi has exploded to life under Matthias Jaissle with 18 goals and 4 assists in 28 appearances, capping off his excellent 2021 with a hat-trick and an assist in a 5-0 win against WSG Swarovski Tirol. The 19-year-old has already scored his debut goal for the German senior team and led Salzburg to the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 for the first time in club history. He’ll be going up against Bayern Munich – the same city where he grew up in, and the same club where he scored 22 goals in 3 years before being released at the age of 10 due to disciplinary issues.
Mohamed-Ali Cho, Antony, Gavi, Rayan Aït-Nouri, Julián Álvarez, Conor Gallagher, Vitinha, Ryan Gravenberch, Etienne Green, Ricardo Pepi, Yéremy Pino, Moussa Diaby, Roger Ibañez, Ronald Araújo, Randal Kolo Muani, Noa Lang, Nicolás González, Thiago Almada, Pape Matar Sarr, Pedro Porro, Aaron Ramsdale, Marc Guéhi, Jurrien Timber, Gianluca Scamacca, Arthur Cabral, Romain Faivre, Nico Schlotterbeck, Terem Moffi, Valentino Livramento, Matheus Nunes, Arnaud Kalimuendo, Ludovic Blas, Ben Brereton Díaz, Trevoh Chalobah, Diogo Costa, Arsen Zakharyan, Gonçalo Inácio, Samuele Ricci, Yacine Adli, Piero Hincapié, Abdallah Sima, David Raum, Tajon Buchanan, Ivan Ilić, Jacob Ramsey, Kouadio Koné, Beto.