- Norwegian attacking power
- Outstanding Turkish defenders
- US-American export hits
- Hakimi and dual citizens
While some nations like Germany, France or Spain can choose from an almost inexhaustible pool of talented youth players and also benefit from the strong domestic league, there are many nations that depend on particularly strong generations to be able to celebrate success (sometimes even qualifying for a tournament). A classic example are the Greek European champions of 2004 – since 2014 they have been waiting to qualify for a European or World Cup. Without a “golden generation” they don’t even make the cut for these tournaments and winning them is far from reality.
In this blog article, we take a look at four other nations that have been more or less doomed by too little focus on youth development and a weak domestic league in recent years – now, talents like Haaland, Reyna or Hakimi are inspiring Europe’s football fans and laying the foundation for a successful generation of their home country!
2. Norwegian attacking power
Norway’s national team has only qualified for a European or World Cup four times, the first time in 1938 and then three times between 1994 and 2000. The last successful period was marked by players such as Erik Thorstvedt, Tore André Flo, John Carew and arguably the greatest Norwegian player of all time – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But now, after years of dreariness in which Joshua King or Havard Nordtveit were the stars of the team, they finally want to take off in sporting terms with Erling Haaland as their driving force. We hardly need to introduce the 21-year-old striker, who is currently under contract in Dortmund, as his breathtaking performances (68 goals in 67 games for Dortmund) fill the world’s gazettes day after day.The massive centre forward embodies the ideal type of striker in modern football, combining his physicality with speed and finishing power (4.5 shots/90 minutes, top rate in the Bundesliga).
Haaland should primarily be fed by fellow attacker Martin Ødegaard. The central attacking midfielder moved from his youth club Strømsgodset IF to Real Madrid in 2015 at the age of 16 for a fee of 2.8 million euros, but after various loan spells (including one to San Sebastian) he was unable to establish himself at the Galactics – a 35 million euro move to Arsenal FC followed. The left-footer’s accurate passes in the final third are particularly striking. With his overview, he always finds the interface in the defensive line, averaging more than two through balls per 90 minutes.
In addition, the offense is enlivened by Alexander Sörloth, who failed at Leipzig and is an important part of coach Stale Solbakken’s team, especially due to the teams affinity for crosses (mostly through Feyenoord’s Pedersen) – compared to Haaland, he wins aerial duels significantly more often (over 60% successful aerial duels in La Liga 21/22). In addition, Jens-Petter Hauge from Frankfurt and Aaron Dönnum from Liège enrich the wings with their tempo dribblings and precise finishes – the latter in particular called up a clear highest value in the Norwegian league with 11.7 dribblings per 90 minutes before his transfer to Belgium this summer.
Östigard rocks the Championship
But coach Solbakken, who has been in charge for almost a year after seven years and three championships with FC Copenhagen, is not only focusing on the offensive at Løvene, despite other exciting offensive players such as Genk’s Thorstvedt (great passing skills, similar to Ødegaard), the team also finally has highly talented youngsters in the defensive sector!
Central defender Kristoffer Ajer, who moved from Celtic Glasgow to the Premier Leagues newly promoted side Brentford FC for 15.7 million Euros this summer, is regarded as a beacon of hope – only 6 goals conceded (4 of them against Turkey) in nine World Cup qualifying matches. In addition to his physicality on the ground and in the air, the 23-year-old also has qualities in build-up play, although he still has great problems transferring this to the new league and to a high international level (Celtic’s dominant play suited him very well). His future sidekick should be ex-St. Paulian Leo Östigard, who, in his third loan spell with Stoke City, has impressed as one of the strongest defenders in the Championship and is also making immense progress in progressive passing; perfect foundation for proving himself in the technically demanding game of his parent club Brighton from the summer onwards.
In the central defensive midfield, Solbakken is currently quite limited in his selection, the highly talented Sander Berge could not shine with performance in Sheffield’s relegation season, was accordingly not called up for the national team for over a year and has also been missing for almost two months due to injury – as well as Alkmaar’s Frederik Midtsjö. Therefore, the at Norwich strong-performing Mathias Normann (attacking box-to-box midfielder; many shots) and Sampdoria’s Morten Thorsby are currently in demand.
Against stronger teams, Norway specialise in counter-attacking with Haaland at the forefront, while against all other nations they make particular use of their creative Ødegaard and Thorstvedt and their dribbling wingers. Despite all this, the 0:0 against Latvia and the all-important match against the Netherlands cost them successful World Cup qualification.
3. Outstanding Turkish defenders
One of Norway’s opponents in the World Cup qualifiers was arguably the worst team at the 2020 European Championship – although they were considered by many to be the dark horse in the run-up to the tournament and were then eliminated in the group stage without a chance. And yet, thanks to a large number of talents, they can look to the future with confidence; only the English tournament squad was slightly younger than that of the TFF (25.6 years on average). This is partly due to the sheer number of Turkish children – the birth rate in the country is almost twice as high as in Germany!
The most promising talents of the Ay-Yildizlilar can be found in the defence: At 25, Ugurcan Cakir of the top team from Trabzon is by all means a young regular goalkeeper for a national team, but his stats in the past Süper Lig season speak for themselves – the best catch rate and by far the most goals prevented by expected goals. After the European Championship, his data, like that of many other Turkish players, deteriorated, but he is still one of the most talented goalkeepers in Europe. Behind him, the very young Destanoglu (Besiktas, 20 years), Bayindir (Fenerbahce, 23 years) and Alemdar (Rennes, 19 years) are lurking for their chance!
Looking at the centre-back position, Stefan Kuntz is spoilt for choice in the long run. Leicester’s Caglar Söyüncü is likely to be set for the time being. In addition to his robust style of play, which is still familiar from his time at Freiburg, he has been able to develop especially on the ball – although he will probably never be the classic ball-playing defender with great play in depth. Next to him, Merih Demiral (on loan from Juventus to Atalanta, purchase option 25 million) has been playing lately, finally finding back to his early form from early days at Juventus this season (best defensive tackling rate in Serie A 21/22; 79%). But he is also very limited in progressive play, so the build-up of the game must be shaped accordingly by the central defensive midfielders. With the ex-Schalker Ozan Kabak (21, on loan at Norwich), Ravil Tagir (18, Basaksehir), Cenk Özakar (21, loaned out by Lyon to Leuven), there are other potential regulars waiting for their chances. It is interesting that Söyüncü, Tagir and Özakar spent parts of their youth at Altinordu.
The flexible Viennese Mert Müldür (can play on the right or left), Zeki Celik and Ridvan Yilmaz are also promising (future) key players for the Turks. The first two in particular have their strengths in attacking play, even if their crosses rarely find a taker, both at the club and in the national team. Celik is also considered extremely aggressive, loves defensive tackling and collects a few cards – he can support the team in transition as a leader. Yilmaz, on the other hand, is considered a typical fullback, skilfully balancing his attacking moments and accordingly providing Besiktas with defensive security on his left side.
Kökcü and Özdemir carry the hope in the build-up play
In future, Berat Özdemir (23, Trabzonspor), who only made his debut in the national team at the beginning of October with the new national team coach, could be responsible for the aforementioned build-up play from midfield. Özdemir, who was educated as a deep playmaker at the capital club Genclerbirligi Ankara, regularly manages to set his team-mates up in the final third with both short and long accurate balls (almost 90% pass rate) and at the same time to protect the defensive stability thanks to his tidy positional play. At present, he is in great competition with Feyenoord’s midfield maestro Orkun Kökcü, who enjoyed his entire football education in the Netherlands (born near Amsterdam) and accordingly operates at the highest technical level. He often operates from deep areas, shines with excellent passing quality in progressive play and very regularly (2+/90 min.) joins the attack with long-range shots.
There, in the Turkish attack, they are currently living off the figurehead Burak Yilmaz, who, at 36 years of age, is not likely to be available for much longer – his sidekick at the Northern French Mastiffs, Yusuf Yazici, was a key player in Galtier’s 4-4-2 system in the year they won the championship, providing far more than 2 shot assists per 90 minutes (top 10 value in the top leagues). But since the weak European Championship and the appointment of Lille’s new coach Jocelyn Gourvennec, the left-footer has not been able to get going and was therefore not nominated for the current international matches. His variability on the pitch is currently being compensated for by the young group of players from Galatasaray around Berkan Kutlu, Kerem Aktürkoglu, Baris Yilmaz and Halil Dervisoglu – the latter scored twice against Gibraltar.
Turkey can also look forward to a resurgent Cengiz Ünder in Marseille, who currently has 4 goals in Ligue 1 and is one of the most successful dribblers in the league. Like Abdülkadir Ömür, he belongs to the country’s technically excellently trained youth, even if the hype surrounding the Trabzonspor playmaker has diminished due to various injuries and poor performances.
From a German point of view, one also looks forward to the further development of Güven Yalcin (ex-Leverkusen youth) and Ahmed Kutucu (ex-Schalke), but the competition for Enes Ünal and Co. is strong with regard to the national team. In addition to the new Frankfurt player Ali Akman and the new Bielefeld player Burak Ince, especially the development of the Leverkusen newcomer Zidan Sertdemir (16, 2.5 million euros transfer fee) can put Turkey in an excellent long-term position! The box-to-box midfielder, signed from Denmark, already has six goals and two assists in ten games with Bayer U19.
Stefan Kuntz, in office since the beginning of October, helped the German U21s to win the European Championship in the summer – mainly thanks to a well-formed backline that hardly conceded any goals. In Turkey he achieved the minimum goal of the World Cup play-offs with a slightly less restrained approach.
4. US-American export hits
The United States have participated in every World Cup since 1990, with the exception of 2018, but aside from a quarter-final in 2002, their success has been more than modest for a nation with a population in excess of 300 million. Too few of the national team’s players have been regulars at top European clubs in the past, but the current situation is very different: The US is a hot export hit, various national players regularly play in the Champions League and are under contract at top European clubs! The qualification for the 2022 World Cup is almost complete thanks to an overpowering team and quite harmless opponents in the CONCACAF group.
Pulisic and Adams as young leaders
But as if that were not enough, the core of the team is also very young and extremely capable of development! In the current squad for the games against Mexico (27.1 years on average) and Jamaica, the average age of the field players is just 21.7 years – only six outfield players are older than 24! The big star and hope of the entire nation is Christian Pulisic, who at only 23 years of age can already call himself a Champions League winner with Chelsea FC, while Tyler Adams from Leipzig is the captain at 22.
But the two youngsters, who are well known in Germany, are by no means all that the “Soccer Boys” currently have to offer. While the goal is guarded by Manchester City’s substitute goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who at 26 is still very young for a keeper, the back four goes straight on with Bundesliga power! Hoffenheim’s Chris Richards is regarded as one of the country’s greatest talents, an outstanding technique in passing and great qualities in winning the ball are among his main strengths, along with a swift acceleration. But Miles Robinson, currently still under contract in the US at Atlanta United, as well as Mark McKenzie from Philadelphia and Justin Che from Munich’s partner club FC Dallas, who will be loaned to FC Bayern on a short-term basis at the beginning of 2021, also meet the prerequisites of a modern central defender – physicality, technique, speed.
There is also a lot of pace at full-back, with FC Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest, a 20-year-old Dutch-American dual citizen who opted for the US national team a year ago, which speaks volumes for the development of the “Stars & Stripes”! In his first season for the Blaugrana, he was already an integral part of the first eleven, and is a great added value especially in the offensive sector thanks to his dribbling and passing! Defensively, however, he is one of the weakest full-backs in the league. On the left, Fulham’s Antonee Robinson, whose transfer to AC Milan in 2020 fell through due to a heart problem, is currently a favourite – his attacking urge (many accurate crosses, mostly received by Mitrovic) is emblematic of the bold approach of US coach Gregg Berhalter, who usually runs his team in a 4-3-3 with only one six. With Sam Vines (Antwerp) and Reggie Cannon (Boavista), there is still a lot of potential up their sleeve, and Gladbach’s Joe Scally is also very progressive and fast-paced, but still has room for improvement in the final third.
In central defensive midfield, the aforementioned Tyler Adams is set, who with his running ability and defensive positioning is particularly important for the stability of the game of the “Yanks”. Especially in the game against the ball, he shines with his “nasty” tackling, rarely allows the opponent to get away despite his physical inferiority and is particularly strong in anticipating opponents’ passes. After winning the ball, he was able to implement an excellent build-up play in the moment of transition into his repertoire, especially under Jesse Marsch – without wasting time, he plays sharp and accurate, often diagonal, passes to the offensive wingers, thus enabling counter-attacks with little remaining defence.
Aaronson brothers represent Tanner’s philosophy
On the two positions of the eight and the two wings, coach Berhalter rotates almost at will, various players have already been used here, the density of quality is probably not as high in any other position. First and foremost are star Pulisic and Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna – who again, in typical American fashion, have excellent technique and plenty of pace. In addition, with Gianluca Busio (Venice) and Weston McKennie (Juventus), they have two modern eights who cover large parts of the field, both offensively and defensively, with high running performances. Busio, in particular, who is an immediate starter for the promoted Serie A team, stands for immense robustness in defence and distributes the balls in the centre thanks to his high passing accuracy and constant availability. A little more offensively, the Aaronson brothers could help shape a successful future for the national team: while playmaker Brenden Aaronson moved to Salzburg in January 2021 for just over five million euros after strong Bundesliga advances, the arguably even more talented brother Paxten is getting his first professional minutes in Philadelphia under the guidance of German sporting director Ernst Tanner. Together with long-time coach Jim Curtin, Tanner restructured the franchise from the east of the country from scratch, almost completely waving the in US sports customary draft picks and instead investing strictly in their own academy, following the European model – with success! Together with the San Jose Earthquakes (around super talent Cade Cowell), they currently provide the most junior national players in the U17 and U20 camps (8 in total).
But also the 18-year-old right winger Yunus Musah, who repeatedly plays in the attacking centre for the USA and who moved from Arsenal to Valencia on a free transfer in the summer of 2020, is already an important performer for Berhalter. While in La Liga his poor overview and inaccurate finishing are his downfall, he uses his mobility in the 1 vs 1 for the USA as a ball carrier in midfield – a tactical trick that seems to work. The Serbian-born Djordje Mihailovic from Montreal, on the other hand, was not called up for the national team recently. With 13 assists, he set up the most goals in the entire MLS and at the same time created the third most chances (52).
And the forward line is also increasingly gaining quality depth – for one thing, they can call on target man Daryl Dike, who is back in Orlando after a strong 20/21 second half with Barnsley FC (9 goals). “The Tykes” geared their long-ball game entirely towards Dike, but were unable to sign the brawny attacker, who enters the third most aerial duels in the entire league (20/90 mins, a tidy 37% won) on a permanent basis due to missing out on promotion. In Ricardo Pepi one of the USA’s greatest talent has been given the telling number 9, the 18-year-old, who has already registered 5 scoring points in the first two of his six caps. In the MLS 2021, the attacker, who impresses with his coolness and an outstanding right foot, scored 13 league goals with FC Dallas – but the top scorer of the “Frisco Kids” is playmaker and congenial partner Jesus Ferreira (20), who both scored and assisted 8 goals thanks to his excellent overview, passing skills and precise finishes.
Last but not least, the French champion Timothy Weah, who is increasingly able to step out of his famous father’s shadow thanks to his variability and acceleration. Ex-Bundesliga players Hoppe and Sargent also continue to be in the orbit of the national team.
It is clear that football in the USA has experienced incredible exponential growth over the last 5-10 years, partly due to the restructuring of the MLS from 2015 and the 2026 World Cup at home (awarded in 2018). While still perceived as a fringe sport in the States, various talents are opting for a career in football due to better salaries, a more competitive domestic league and possible transfers to Europe – and the growth is still in its infancy!
5. Hakimi and dual citizens
Four years ago, Morocco took part at the World Cup for the first time since 1998, and their qualifying campaign for the tournament in Qatar is also looking excellent – after five wins from five matches, they lead Group I by a wide margin. Only a play-off round with two legs against one of the other group winners still stands in the way of further participation, which is probably only a formality due to the squad being equipped with top performers from European clubs. And yet the coaching staffing of Vahid Halilhodzic in particular is dividing the country – the top performers Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui have not been called up for the “Atlas Lions” for several months due to “undisciplined and team-damaging behaviour”. Especially Ajax right-back Mazroui, who shines with offensive drive at the club, seems to have his problems with the Yugoslav-born coach, who is regarded as narrow-minded; a feigned injury and old-fashioned training methods are said to stand between the two characters. A return of Mazroui to the national team under the 69-year-old coach seems out of the question.
But also Sassuolo’s new number six Abdou Harroui (no senior team appearance so far), ex-Schalker Amine Harit (officially not nominated for performance reasons) and Yassine Benrahou (Nimes; waiting for an invitation to the national team despite public pressure) do not seem to be in Halilhodzic’s favour either – from an interpersonal point of view, the coach could have an inhibiting effect on the national team, but from a sporting point of view, as outlined above, things are going extremely well.
Hardly any national players born in Morocco
star of the team is of course Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid and one of countless dual nationals in Morocco’s squad – in the last match against Sudan, centre-back Nayef Aguerd was the only player in the starting eleven with only Moroccan citizenship (only he and Masina were born in the north-west African country)! Hakimi, a classic wing-back who regularly drives opposing defences to despair with his high-tempo progressive runs and dribbles, often permeates deep to the baseline and sets the scene for his teammates from there. He often defends on the left side and the talented Sofiane Alakouch from Metz gets the chance to play in Hakimi’s regular position.
The defensive centre of the Lions is usually formed by captain Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd, who has developed into one of the strongest centre-backs in Europe since his €4 million transfer from Dijon to Stade Rennes a year ago! Few players in the top leagues combine robustness in tackling on the ground and in the air with outstanding positional play and excellent passing qualities as much as the left-footer. In addition to an outstanding passing rate of almost 93%, the 25-year-old plays more than 30 very accurate balls forward in the build-up play, a top value! Goalkeeper Bono, in our keeper analysis 2020 the best goalie of the top leagues, only conceded one goal in 2021 thanks to a brilliant defence.
In central midfield, Florence’s Sofyan Amrabat and Watford’s new signing Imran Louza pull the strings, but both players operate as box-to-box midfielders at their clubs, linking the defence with the attack. Thanks to their progressive runs and Amrabat’s extremely accurate passing, the attacking forces in the centre, but especially on the wing, are fed with passes, Louza also frequently penetrates into the final third and is correspondingly goal-threatening (7 goals 20/21). Amrabat often plays a deeper role, but has problems in defensive duels. In addition, Youssef Maleh, another AC Fiorentina player, was called up to the squad but is still waiting to make his international debut and has made great use of the last two Serie B seasons in Venice for his development. Against strong opponents, the quite attacking midfield could be Morocco’s downfall.
Slightly more attacking, Aymen Barkok from Frankfurt and Ilias Chair from Queens Park Rangers are strong options in the creation of chances – especially Chair, who had only 4 assists reached a total of 18 expected assists in the Championship last season! He often operates via swift tempo dribbles and very accurate crosses, which in the best case are converted by top striker Youssef En-Nesyri (18 league goals 20/21 for Sevilla) with his head. However, apart from his goals, the 24-year-old centre-forward hardly takes part in the game, playing an average of less than 12 passes per 90 minutes. He embodies a typical poacher, excelling in strong positioning and skilful movement in the penalty area, scoring 16 of his 18 league goals from less than ten metres out. However, the attacker’s chance conversion rate has never been above 30% in his career. Average.
In addition, Selim Amallah is another highly talented attacking player, with the left-winger having been involved in 33 goals (all competitions) for his club Standard Liege since the 2019/20 season. As an inside forward, he often moves to the middle with pace and lets opponents off with his technique, was accordingly fouled the second most times in the entire league (3.6 times/90 min.). Around the penalty area, he prefers his own finish over the assist. Alkmaar’s Zakaria Aboukhlal also acts similarly, moving from the left to the centre (successful high-tempo dribbles), but is very imprecise in his finishing. Both are less suited to playing together with En-Nesyri, so the burden will be on Hakimi’s shoulders in the future.
More than 5 million people with Moroccan citizenship live outside the country – the majority in France and Spain, making it the largest foreign community in Europe after the Turks! In addition to the young and promising internationals already mentioned, there are therefore many more players who could easily opt for Morocco due to their lack of senior internationals for other nations – for example, ex-Herthan player Mattéo Guendouzi (22, on loan from Arsenal at Marseille), Brahim Diaz (22, on loan from Real Madrid at AC Milan) or Amine Adli (21, Bayer Leverkusen). So there is a good chance that the North Africans can develop into Africa’s strongest football nation in the medium term.