A new European football season has given several talented footballers the platform to announce themselves on the world stage. TheHardTackle looks at the top five breakout stars from the first half of the 2015-2016 season.
It has been an exciting five months of football action across Europe’s top 5 leagues, and apart from the unsurprising exceptions of Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga, there is still everything to fight for in terms of the title race.
A topsy-turvy season in the English Premier League has allowed mid-table clubs to gain unprecedented prominence this season — at least in terms of influencing the football narrative in the country — and it is no surprise that Leicester City’s most influential stars are reportedly being coveted by the top teams in the division.
Germany, meanwhile, is known to be a veritable breeding ground for talented young footballers, and once again this season, several German nationals have begun to make a real name for themselves and attracted the interest of some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
Spain, Italy and France too are arguably kinder environments for burgeoning talents in the nascent stages of their careers than the more demanding, unforgiving climate of the Premier League, and some hugely promising careers have spawned as a consequence in the first half of this season.
Here are the top five breakout stars from Europe’s Top 5 leagues this season:
1. Riyad Mahrez (24, Leicester City)
There can only be one place to start when compiling this list — Leicester City, and their talismanic playmaker Riyad Mahrez. The 24-year-old joined the Foxes in the January transfer window of 2014 from French second-division side Le Havre, and after a relatively quiet 2014-2015 English Premier League season which saw his side finish in the bottom half, the current season has been nothing short of extraordinary.
His technical qualities — the fleetness of foot, the quality of his passing, his ability to finish — were seen in brief flashes every now and again last season, but have been entertaining the Leicester supporters on a weekly basis this season.
Mahrez has a remarkable 14 goals and 7 assists in all competitions thus far this season, and has been instrumental in an entirely unforeseen half-season from the Foxes which has seen them reach the halfway point in the league in second place — ahead of the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea FC, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool FC.
Unsurprisingly, the Algerian has been attracting the interest of the the big boys in the league, including Manchester United and Chelsea FC. A January transfer is unlikely however, and would be extremely disappointing given the implications it would have for Leicester’s season.
The Foxes’ rise under Claudio Ranieri has been refreshing to watch, and even neutrals want to see this incredible underdog story endure. The key to ensuring that is keeping Mahrez, and if the club can manage that, a promising second half of the season awaits.
2. Leroy San (19, Schalke 04)
In September 2014, Schalke’s Leroy San was on the wrong end of a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Chelsea FC’s U19 side in the UEFA Youth League at the Blues’ Cobham training base. A year later, the German youngster was about to begin a run of performances that would cause the league and Europe’s top clubs to sit up and take notice.
The teenager scored in three successive Bundesliga games against Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Hamburg, and prompted manager Andr Breitenreiter to grant him a permanent position in his starting XI. San hasn’t looked back since, and has continued to impress primarily from a right-wing position, putting in good performances on a consistent basis and getting an assist against each of Germany’s big boys in Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
The 19-year-old attacker’s searing pace, skill on the ball, and ability to go both ways in one-on-one situations has caused plenty of Bundesliga defences problems so far this season, and it is no surprise that the likes of Liverpool FC and Manchester City have been linked with a move for him.
San ‘s form was impressive enough to earn him a call up to the senior German national team, for whom he made his d but against France in November on that fateful night in Paris. A move to a bigger club at some point in the future seems inevitable, but Schalke 04 fans will likely enjoy watching the youngster strut his stuff in Germany for a while yet.
3. Sofiane Boufal (22, LOSC Lille)
The Morocco international made the step up from then Ligue 2 side Angers SCO to Ligue 1’s LOSC Lille in January 2015, and as luck would have it, his former side currently sit in 3rd position in France’s premier division, eight positions and seven points ahead of Lille. However, it has been a very successful 2015-2016 season for Boufal on a personal level, with the 22-year-old piquing the interest of the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United due to his performances for Les Dogues.
The Lille attacker’s playing style bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Belgian footballer who also played for the club in the recent past, and who has gone on to achieve big things since moving to the English Premier League. Like Eden Hazard, Boufal has prodigious dribbling ability, can change direction at will when running with the ball, and has the ability to drop his shoulder and drive to the byline with his pace and skill, leaving defenders and their often belated challenges in his wake.
Although his best position is arguably on the left of the attack, the former Angers man can also play centrally and on the right, and his versatility is a huge asset for his current employers. Boufal has a solid 5 goals and an assist to his name in Ligue 1 thus far, but those statistics do not paint a true picture of his season for a dysfunctional, disorganised Lille side who changed their manager in November due to the below-par results.
If he does move to the Premier League, the Moroccan might take a while to adjust to the physicality as well as the negative press that ‘simulation’ gets, given he has been guilty of it on a couple of occasions this season. Nevertheless, he has the talent to adjust wherever he goes next, and the season he is having could well be his ticket to a bigger club.
4. Gianluigi Donnarumma (16, AC Milan) .
Born in 1999, Gianluigi Donnarumma became the youngest keeper to start a match in Serie A history when he made his bow against Sassuolo in late October. The teenager hasn’t looked back since, starting every game for AC Milan between the sticks and impressing hugely with his calmness in goal.
An incredible 6ft 5in already, Donnarumma doesn’t look 16, nor does he play like it. His composure is barely believable for someone so very young, and his performances so far in the Serie A — particularly in games like the 0-0 draw against Atalanta — are ample proof that he has the talent to make his position in the Milan side permanent, and to one day be a regular for the Italian national team.
The 16-year-old has three clean sheets in his nine games for the Milan first team so far, and has conceded a respectable seven goals in that time. The shot-stopper has already been labelled the heir to Gianluigi Buffon’s throne, and his assured performance against the legendary keeper’s Juventus side away from home suggests he could well be that one day.
Another stand-out quality in Donnarumma is his agility despite his tall frame. That, combined with his naturally wide span and sense of positioning make him extremely difficult to beat from a distance, as the likes of Hernanes and Paul Pogba found out in Juve’s game against Milan.
All of the biggest clubs in the world will undoubtedly be tracking the teenager’s progress, and on the evidence of what he has shown so far, a special career lies ahead for Gianluigi Donnarumma.
5. Sergi Roberto (23, FC Barcelona)
Although Sergi Roberto is not really a new name for most followers of La Liga, the quality and consistency of his performances have meant that he has been a star for FC Barcelona in the first half of the 2015-2016 season. Last term, the Spaniard completed 90 minutes just thrice in the entire season. This season, he has played the full 90 seven times already.
The 23-year-old initially became a fixture in Luis Enrique’s side at right-back in the absence of Brazilian Dani Alves, but has since been equally impressive playing in the midfield three of FC Barcelona’s 4-3-3 — usually alongside Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakiti . Not only did Sergi Roberto alleviate the ‘depth’ problem that the Catalan side had in the first half of the campaign, he also showed that he can be a real difference-maker for the team.
Following a starring performance away to Getafe where he picked up two assists, he put in an equally impressive performance in El Clasico at the Santiago Bernab u, where he assisted Luis SuA?rez’s opener with a darting midfield run, waltzing past Real Madrid players as though they weren’t there.
Understandably, it is extremely difficult to stand out in a team that boasts the likes of Neymar, SuA?rez and Lionel Messi, but the fact that the Bar a academy product has managed to do so is an indication of how impressive he has been.
With Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan now eligible to feature for Luis Enrique, Sergi Roberto will have two serious challengers for his position. However, if he can maintain his current level in the second half of the season, neither of the new boys will find it easy to displace him.