LEANDER DENDONCKER (ANDERLECHT, Belgium)
Position: Defensive Midfielder/Centre-Back
2016/17 stats: 57 games (16 of which in Europe) (5137 minutes) – 6 goals – 0 assists – 6 yellow cards – 1 red cards
The Belgian champions Anderlecht won the title in the 2016/17 season because of their outstanding stability in the middle of the park and many probably overlooked the major contributions made by the extremely consistent in his solid displays inner midfielder Leander Dendoncker. The 22-year-old box-to-box player formed a formidable partnership with his friend Youri Tielemans, they grew together through the junior ranks of Anderlecht, but it was somehow the latter that was attracting all the attention. Tielemans already completed a multimillion move to Monaco.
Dendoncker might have been left out of the spotlights for most of this campaign, but everyone that knows football and watched his displays must recognise how important and impressive they were. Aged just 22 Dendoncker played in 57 matches this last season, including 16 in European competitions. This great achievement also confirmed the already known fact that his fitness is very good and he is not prone to injuries. His main role is to protect the back four, but also to start the attacks and keep the ball when this is needed. Dendoncker is very good in all of these things as his instincts to position himself on the pitch are next to none, he has excellent tackling skills, his passing at short distance is near perfect, plus his forward passes regularly release teammates in space.
Greatly matured for his tender age, Dendoncker has been part of Anderlecht’s senior squad for four years now, he also started showing much more intent when going forward this season. For a player whose main job is to help the defenders and slot in the back line when one of them venture forward Dendoncker can be really satisfied with his six goals scored in 2016/17. He is improving quickly his shooting ability from middle and long distance, plus his height and agility make him a threat at set pieces.
The other great thing about Dendoncker is that as a junior he was used a lot in the heart of the defence and if it is needed he can fill that position with great success. This versatility and his undisputable talent make Leander Dendoncker one of the names that very soon will be on everyone’s lips and the only question is which of the big teams will recognise his talent first and sign him!!!
The thing that is certain is that Dendoncker’s price tag will only be moving upwards and those with an eye for a bargain need to act quickly.
YUTA NAKAYAMA (KASHIWA REYSOL, Japan)
2017 stats (as of 05th July with 17 rounds played): 16 games (1420 minutes) – 0 goals – 0 assists – 1 yellow cards – 1 red cards
Despite being just 20 Yuta Nakayama is playing his second season as a regular starter for Kashiwa Reysol’s senior squad and undoubtedly the extremely talented central defender is one of the key players for the successes enjoyed by the Yellows in 2017.
Nakayama is showing stunning natural instincts this year and despite not being the tallest of players he is always excellently positioned to neutralise dangers. He is impressing with his ability to always find himself between the arriving cross and the striker, which already brought seven clean sheets for his team this season. Nakayama is starting every match he is available for over the past two years and his health and physical condition seem to be at a top level.
Back in 2016 he played in 32 games for Kashiwa and on top of the very solid defensive displays also contributed two goals, which comes to show that with the right development he can become a real threat from set pieces. Nakayama is also one of these versatile modern players that can easily fill several positions and he is a very capable left-back, as well as left wing-back if his team operates with three defenders. He has the speed and crossing abilities needed to be successful in these roles, but his true strength lies in the heart of the defence where he quickly became one of the best ball winners in the entire J-League.
All this and the fact that he has many years ahead of him to master his skills make Yuta Nakayama one of the hottest defenders currently playing in the J-League and he will definitely be a great addition to any squad that looks for a dedicated young player who will always give it his all on the pitch for the cause.
SIEBE SCHRIJVERS (Racing Genk, Belgium)
Position: Secondary Striker / Attacking Midfielder / Left winger / Right winger
2016/17 stats (until January on loan at Waasland-Beveren): 46 games (6 in Europa League) (3631minutes) – 9 goals – 15 assists – 7 yellow cards – 0 red cards
Siebe Schrijvers is one of the most versatile and talented attacking players that operates in the Belgian Jupiler League and he led the ranking for most assists pretty much throughout the entire 2016/17 campaign. This last season saw him performing at a constantly high level and he ended the campaign with 9 goals and 15 assists.
At the tender age of 21 Schrijvers already has vast senior experience and during this last campaign he played 46 games for Waasland-Beveren and since January back for his parent club Racing Genk. Schrijvers spent the second part of the previous campaign and the first half of the last one on loan at Waasland-Beveren, there he was the main star up front, and thanks to his constantly solid displays he was recalled back to Genk in the winter, where he finished the season in sizzling form. Schrijvers even played in 6 Europa League games for Genk this spring and he is quickly gaining the trust of pretty much every manager that sees him on the training ground.
Siebe Schrijvers is an extremely versatile player that loves to play behind the main target man or down the wings, which makes him suitable for all sorts of formations and tactical plans. His natural instinct to create chances makes him a very popular player amongst his teammates and Schrijvers is showing great crossing abilities, but also excellent penetrating passes through the middle.
On top of all that his natural predator’s instinct inside the box is well known too and he gets on the scoresheet often enough. Schrijvers not only assists for goals and scores them, but he is very lively throughout the games and in the space of 90 minutes one can see him operating down both flanks, right behind the centre forward, in midfield or even as a target man if that is needed. With so many tactical tasks coming easy for Schrijvers and with age on his side he is expected only to be getting better and better. A smart coach will always find a role for a player of his calibre in his squad.
As stated above Schrijvers is already very experienced for his tender age and as of the end of the 2016/17 season he already has played in 130 senior games in Belgium in which he managed to score 20 goals and also provided 22 assists. What these stats don’t tell is that Siebe Schrijvers is actually creating over 4.2 scoring chances per match since his return to Genk in January and this comes to show that he is maturing really fast.
Riley McGree (Adelaide United, Australia)
Position: Attacking midfielder / Central midfielder / Left winger
2016/17 stats: 16 games (1013 minutes) – 1 goals – 0 assists – 4 yellow card – 0 red cards
Asian Champions League: 5 games (450 minutes) – 1 goals – 0 assists – 2 yellow cards – 0 red cards
In a season that was very difficult for the Australia’s defending champions Adelaide United they still had something to celebrate with the 18-year-old wonderkid Riley McGree bursting onto the senior stage. Due to poor results and injuries to midfielders come December 2016 McGree was starting regularly in the middle of the park for the Reds and very quickly his vibrant solo runs with the ball at feet and ability to stretch defences made him a regular starter.
McGree ended up playing in 16 of his team’s 27 games during the campaign and despite the fact that he scored just one goal in these matches and failed to register an assist the skills that he displayed earned him two calls for Australia’s senior national squad in the spring, making McGree one of the youngest players in history to be part of the Socceroos.
This was possible only because McGree showed exemplary workload in the heart of the midfield where he never shied away from a tackle, but mostly because his dribbling skills allowed him to be very effective and damaging when moving forward with purpose. McGree started playing in the heart of the midfield, but he was also used at the number ten role with great effect, although the few appearances as a winger probably brought the best out of him.
Even at the age of 18 McGree is showing great ability to use both his feet and despite the fact that he still needs to work on his crosses and long pass accuracy he is without a doubt a player that in the right team and under the right management can reach his true potential.
On top of his regular league appearances McGree took part in five of his team’s six group matches in the Asian Champions League this spring and he even scored one goal in this competition to show that his character and desire to give it his all on the pitch every time he steps on it guarantee that he will be working hard for his team at all times.
Reducing the aggression of his tackles is an area that needs working on, although it is very likely that in future years and with more practice he will improve the timing of his interventions. This will only add a new spectrum to his possible use on the pitch as the combination of his undisputable attacking threat and the likely improvement defensively could make him an extremely desired box-to-box player.
Ritsu Doan (GAMBA OSAKA, Japan)
Position: Attacking midfielder / Secondary Striker / Left winger / Right winger
2017 stats (as of 20th June with 14 rounds played): 8 games (393 minutes) – 3 goals – 0 assists – 1 yellow card – 0 red cards
Asian Champions League: 6 games (224 minutes) – 1 goals – 0 assists
Ritsu Doan is a small but very hard-working Japanese attacking midfielder that made his senior debut for Gamba Osaka a few years back when he was just 16-years-old and very quickly in the last few campaigns he is progressing to the level of being rated these days as one of the future big stars of Japanese football.
This 2017 season that is just halfway through seems to be the breakthrough year for Ritsu Doan (now age 19) on the big stage and despite starting just 4 times in the 14 rounds that are gone at the time of writing of this article the little wizard already scored 3 J-League goals that could be witnessed in the links below:
https://youtu.be/R2ijKkd7tHQ (scored goals 3 and 6, plays with No. 38)
Ritsu Doan might be small in size, but his ability to place low shots from middle and long distance on target and the versatility in terms of positions he is capable to occupy makes him a real gem. Gamba are not only using him a lot in the J-League but they also gave him plenty of playing time in the Asian Champions League this season with Doan taking part in 6 of the 8 matches and even scoring 1 goal.
Ritsu Doan was also one of the biggest stars in the just finished U20 World Cup where he was again scoring goals at will. Early in his career Doan was used mostly as a wide midfielder, he can play both down the left and down the right with great success, but from April onwards he was tested in a new role that seems to suit him a lot. In the last few months Doan has been playing as an attacking midfielder or a secondary striker and as his ability to use both of his feet is very good this allows him to open the play a lot for his teammates.
Without a doubt Ritsu Doan was evaluated as a future big star from very early on by Gamba Osaka’s coaches and with his development taking a sharp upward curve in 2017 one wonders if it is not time for the young talent to move on to the next level. Without a doubt Doan is still not a proven star, but with such quick development witnessed in just a few months since the start of 2017 it seems that he is already an accomplished player that can dribble, cross, shoot, pass and even tackle very well. One thing guaranteed about Ritsu Doan is that he will always leave on the pitch everything he has and despite his small statue he is destined for big things.
Sander Berge (Racing Genk, Belgium)
Position: Defensive Midfielder
2016/17 stats (joined in January): 25 games (1915 minutes) – 0 goals – 0 assists – 2 yellow cards – 0 red cards
The 19-year-old Norwegian wonderkid Sander Berge has been highly rated and well known in his home country for years, but he burst onto the international stage in 2017 after making a move from Valerenga to Racing Genk in Belgium. Towering at 1.93 cm the defensive midfielder immediately became a regular starter for his new club and in just a few months he made 25 appearances, 6 of which in Europa League.
Berge showed so many good displays in the heart of the midfield that he is already interesting teams like Everton and Arsenal. Without a doubt Genk’s asking price for the player that is expected to have a great future will be hefty, but based on what Berge showed in the second part of the 2016/17 season he is worthy of the investment. Much bigger than N’Golo Kante, but showing similar energy when committing in tackles, he is a rock in front of the defensive line and thanks to his sublimely timed tackles he constantly discourages opponents and breaks down attacks. Berge is using every bit of his body very well and time after time he wins back possession without committing needless fouls.
It is not only his ability to win 50/50 balls and air duels that impresses, but also the great maturity when it comes to positioning. Sander Berge showed great instinct when needed to intercept dangerous through balls and also he protected Genk’s goal very well from opponents rushing from deep when that was needed. This is not hugely surprising as Berge has vast international experience with Norway even at his tender age. He already has 3 caps for the senior squad and also played games for all age groups before that (U21, U19, U18, U17, U16).
The one drawback so far in his development is the lack of goals and decisive forward passes, but as his main job is to sit back and protect his team’s own goal this is not so surprising. Berge is allowing the full-backs to roam forward freely as he always stays behind and slots in when this is needed.
With age on his side, plenty of experience already and a role on the pitch that is highly rated by all modern managers Sander Berge is a name that very soon will be talked a lot about.
ROBIN KOCH (Kaiserslautern, Germany)
Position: Centre-back/Defensive Midfielder/Right-back
2016/17 stats: 24 games (2114 minutes) – 12 clean sheets – 0 goals – 0 assists – 3 yellow cards – 0 red cards
Robin Koch’s talent burst on the senior stage during the 2016/17 season when the young and very talented player became an integral part of one of the best defensive formations in Bundesliga 2. Kaiserslautern had all sorts of problems defensively early in the season and this was why Koch was given a chance to make his first appearance in round 8 and from there on he was a key player.
The very tall centre-back, he is 1.87 cm, showed great versatility and amazing marking skills. Koch played 14 games in the heart of the defence and in the other 10 he started he was used as a holding midfielder right in front of a back three. Robin also filled the right-back positions a few times late in games when the gaffer was changing formation and the very physical player has been one of the stars of his team this season.
At the tender age of 20 he showed amazing composure and great tackling and marking skills that in the future could only be improving under the right coach. Robin Koch was key figure for months on with Kaiserslautern achieving a run of nine consecutive clean sheets on home turf and altogether the Red Devils kept twelve clean sheets in the twenty-four matches which Koch started.
Koch is not overly aggressive and he rarely commits needless fouls or sees himself punished with cards, which is great considering that in the 2016/17 season he attempted on average 4.2 tackles per game, from which 3.1 resulted in successful dispossession of the opponents.
The future can only be bright for this young player, who has the ability to play in several positions and already looks ready for much bigger things than solid displays in Germany’s Second Tier.
I must mention that during this breakthrough season Koch missed three weeks due to muscle problems, but with the right physical preparation over an entire summer his fitness should improve quickly and with age on his side Robin Koch is very likely to become one of the next generation of German rock-solid defenders.
Koch is also yet to show attacking threat, but this can easily be explained with the fact that his current team Kaiserslautern are very poor when going forward and as a whole they create only a handful of chances in their games. With his height and the proper tactical development he could easily become a major aerial threat from set pieces.
YOSUKE IDEGUCHI (GAMBA OSAKA, Japan)
Position: Central Midfielder
2017 stats (as of 08th June with 13 rounds played): 11 games (875 minutes) – 2 goals – 4 assists – 1 yellow card – 0 red cards
Asian Champions League: 5 games (405 minutes) – 0 goals – 2 assists
Yosuke Ideguchi is one of the several promising youngsters that are developing in Gamba Osaka and as of 2017 the extremely talented 20-year-old (to be 21 in August) central midfielder seems to be playing a major role for his team. Helped a lot over the past two seasons by several experienced veterans that play in his position Ideguchi started shining at the back end of 2016 when he registered three goals and an assist in four consecutive starts and this year he has been an integral part of Gamba’s midfield.
Ideguchi is an exciting box-to-box midfielder that shows good defensive skills when his team needs that, he has been utilised as a holding midfielder successfully in the Asian Champions League, but his true talent is his ability to create chances for his teammates. In 2017 Ideguchi is starting many games – he was in the main line-up for 10 of the first 13 rounds in the J-League – and with four assists and two goals already he is quickly becoming a key factor. Below are links to probably his best two displays so far this season (he plays with No 8):
Ideguchi is showing great ability to use both his feet and also an envying composure when on the ball for such a young player. With Gamba known to be a team that dominate possession and enjoy lots of time on the ball these skills make Ideguchi really effective. His percentage of successful passes is very solid and without a doubt a player that creates on average 2.7 serious chances per match needs to be noticed.
This season Ideguchi is not only attempting a decent amount of long-range shots that constantly cause problems, but when Gamba use counterattacks he loves to attack the penalty area from second position and already this brought his team several goals, he scored two of them. It seems that the young player is loving the freedom given to him in the middle of the park and despite being very disciplined when Gamba don’t have the ball, the moment the Blue and Blacks are in possession he always asks for it and looks to force the issue in attack.
With plenty of experience in the different junior formations of the national team (he also just made his debut for Japan’s senior squad on 07th of July 2017), lots of games in the cup competitions over the past three years, solid displays in the Asian Champions League and now constant star presence in the J-League Yosuke Ideguchi is without a doubt not just a star in the making, but practically already a well-developed all around inner midfielder that looks destined for big things.
KOHEI TEZUKA (KASHIWA REYSOL, Japan)
Position: Central Midfielder
2017 stats (as of 05th June with 13 rounds played): 10 games (805 minutes) – 2 goals – 0 assists – 2 yellow cards – 0 red cards
Kohei Tezuka is the newest bright addition to Kashiwa Reysol’s kindergarten and 2017 seems to be his year. The young inner midfielder that is used mainly as a box-to-box player impacted the displays of his team so much during this ongoing Japanese season that I felt the need to dedicate an article about him even before his first full campaign as a senior player is over.
The 2017 campaign in Japan started in late February and when this article is written only the opening 13 rounds have been played, but Tezuka already built a huge name for himself with his greatly timed tackles, smart positioning on the pitch and also outstanding long-range shots with his powerful left foot that even earned him the right to take free-kicks and set pieces.
Tezuka didn’t make his senior debut until round 5, with Kashiwa losing three of their opening four matches, but immediately he became a regular starter and the results improved vastly. Which saw Kashiwa climbing all the way to first place at the beginning of June. Tezuka started nine consecutive matches, with his team winning eight of those. The impact that this young creative midfielder brought was huge and he also scored two vital goals that could be seen in the following links:
On top of these league stats Tezuka also played twice in the J-League Cup, scoring one goal.
Tezuka is already impressing with his powerful shots from middle and long distance and his accuracy is envying. In these nine games 69% of his shots have been on target, with the player attempting on average three shots per game. This is not his main strength though and without a shadow of a doubt Kashiwa are winning games because Tezuka is distributing the ball very well. In fact with just 9 starts from 13 rounds he leads the entire league for successfully completed long passes (30 meters and longer), which constantly helps his teammates to open defences and to shift the play from one wing to the other.
Without a doubt Kohei Tezuka looks like a gem in the making from very early in his career and any manager or scout around the world that sees that might be willing to add to their team a rough talent that should only be getting better and better. His current market price is set at the modest 50,000 Euros and Tezuka is definitely someone worth investing in.
PIETER GERKENS (SINT-TRUIDEN, Belgium)
Position: Attacking Midfielder/Defensive Midfielder
2016/17 stats: 39 games (2682 minutes) – 14 goals – 5 assists – 0 yellow cards – 0 red cards
Pieter Gerkens is a young Belgian midfielder that a few years back made his senior debut for Racing Genk, but his undisputable talent really flourished in the 2016/17 season when he became a key midfielder for Sint-Truiden.
Gerkens is a player that shows ability to use both of his feet well when passing or shooting, but on all his other great talents one of his best qualities is his natural instinct for positioning his body on the pitch. He played 39 games in all competitions for Sint-Truiden in his last season and was never booked, while winning many tackles and 50/50 balls.
However, the main reason for his inclusion in this Risers list was his vast improvement when it comes to converting and creating chances. For a player that started his career as a defensive midfielder nobody expected Gerkens to become so effective in attack, but he was trusted by his manager this last season to play in a much more advanced role and this proved the right thing for him.
Gerkens scored the impressive six goals during the thirty regular season rounds in Belgium, that for a team from the bottom half of the table that generally struggle for goals. His true leader’s abilities came through clearly in the play-offs that followed with Pieter Gerkens netting eight goals in eleven play-off fixtures, while also providing four assists. In these games that took place between March and May 2017 Gerkens showed great ability to join the attacks from deep positions and his delayed runs made him very effective. He also showed great accuracy with his mid-range shots, with over 60% of his attempts from middle distance being on target.
This was his first full season with Sint-Truiden, he joined them in January 2016, and he made massive improvement comparing to his first year. He also had a decent breakthrough campaign at Genk before that and in my opinion the future of this young man is very bright, with an offer from a much bigger club only a matter of time.
With his abilities to keep the ball, protect the defence when needed, create chances for others and score goals himself Pieter Gerkens should be on the radar of many clubs and scouts, with his market price likely to spiral up quickly if he keeps performing like that.
Last but not least his fitness seems to be very good and he didn’t miss a single minute of the 2016/17 season due to an injury.