Who else to look out for this year…
Moisés Caicedo (Brighton/Ecuador)
You have probably learned by now, reader, that there is a type of player I cling to more than most. The central midfielder, the jack-of-all-trades player who makes everything go, is one that sticks out more than many. And here is one more who is on the brink of being a big name. Again, we do not usually go into the Premier League in these articles, but Brighton’s Moisés Caicedo is a player you absolutely need to remember.
I do not believe there is a player more emblematic of the success of Brighton’s transfer policy than young Moisés Caicedo. Amazingly now starting and showing the level of a future star in the Premier League at only 20 years old, Caicedo was brought in from Ecuadorian side Independiente del Valle in 2021 for a fee allegedly only in the range of £5 million. People who followed football in Ecuador knew who this kid is, but Brighton seemingly did their homework more so than any other European team. Caicedo took some time to adapt and went on loan for a season, but he has since hit the ground running since his loan. He can really do anything, combining aggressiveness and intelligence in defense and pressing with a strong technical and passing ability. He is the definition all-action midfielder, filling the void left by Yves Bissouma. It was most exemplified last season, actually, in Brighton’s 4-0 win over Man United, dominating the midfield on the big stage and even scoring. There is no doubt that his league performances for Brighton will get him a big move very soon.
And the added element of Caicedo’s breakout season will be his time in the World Cup. Caicedo has quickly become a key player in a young and exciting Ecuador team that have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2014 and only the fourth time ever. Will Ecuador win the World Cup? Surely not. But they have the capability to be one of those exciting teams that greatly overperform. It feels similar to Colombia in 2014, and it is possible that Caicedo will be their version of James Rodríguez, being one of the big young talents who is able to make a move following a strong World Cup. Combining his time with Brighton and Ecuador, Caicedo should be able to show his entire skillset, the skills of a player who will be going to the top very soon.
Enzo Le Fée (Lorient/France)
Lorient are fighting for the podium places in France. Yes, I am still trying to comprehend this, but it is something that people need to be paying attention to. Lorient are an incredibly exciting team with an exciting manager, one that as a whole we need to all be watching. There are three young stars in this team, and while I will not be able to talk about Terem Moffi and Dango Ouattara, they are both still outstanding young players.
Enzo Le Fée, however, is one player who cannot be ignored. Again, another all-action midfielder, but one with much less attention than Caicedo. Le Fée can, quite literally, do everything, and the stats reflect that. The Frenchman is among the leaders both in France and in the Top Five Leagues in Key Passes, Progressive Passes, and Shot-Creating Actions. He is also leading Ligue 1 in tackles and in the top five of the Top Five Leagues in tackles won. He is not in the rankings for this, but his pressure stats are also remarkable and he is a very good set-piece taker. It is literally everything, every aspect of his game is strong. He is near-impeccably well-rounded. Add on to this a composed disposition and a calmness that he projects to his teammates and you have a technical and personal leader in the center of the pitch, one that can operate in many different roles and do many different jobs for a team in many different systems. These are the types of players that teams will be looking at.
These sort of midfielders are emerging everywhere in football at the moment, with many coming from France in particular. Le Fée has the tools to be a star in this field, and the comparisons to Marco Verratti and Bernardo Silva are certainly as deserved as they are accurate. It would not be fully fair to suggest that Lorient’s success early this season is down to him alone, as Moffi and Ouattara deserve their own recognition as breakout stars and manager Régis Le Bris might be doing the best job of any manager in the Top Five Leagues so far this season. But Le Fée is special. He is a player who might be the first gone from Les Merlus this coming summer.
Diogo Costa (FC Porto/Portugal)
Of all the players going to Qatar who could make the biggest name for themselves, this kid is the most likely. Meet Diogo Costa, the 23-year-old 6’4″ wonderkeeper who will fly to the Middle East as his country’s number one goalkeeper. Very rarely do players that young earn the responsibility that Costa is bearing, and it is something that should make plenty of teams sit up and take notice.
Diogo Costa is a product of FC Porto’s academy, starting in goal for the Dragões team that beat Chelsea to win the UEFA Youth League in 2019. He was brought into the senior team the next season as the backup before earning his chance as the first choice at the beginning of last season, when then-starter Agustín Marchesín got injured. All young players need is the opportunity to shine, and Costa took that with both hands, playing a crucial role in Porto’s league and cup double with several heroic performances. Even at his young age, he was entrusted to be Portugal’s starting goalkeeper during their World Cup Qualification Playoffs, displacing national stalwart Rui Patrício and helping to guide his nation to Qatar, where he will once again be Portugal’s starting goalkeeper. This season has been no different for the youngster, despite Porto lagging behind Benfica in the league, as Costa has been undoubtedly the best goalkeeper in the Portuguese league this season and played a crucial role in Porto’s Champions League run so far.
The hype is certainly warranted, as the kid has everything needed to be a top goalkeeper. Cat-like reflexes paired with a notably calm disposition and incredible judgment makes him one of the best young shot-stoppers in world football at the moment. This has been most exemplified by his penalty-saving ability, demonstrated incredibly in the Champions League for Porto. Costa is, per Opta, the first goalkeeper to save three non-shootout penalties in a single Champions League campaign, and he now famously saved two consecutive penalties against Brugge, one from Hans Vanaken and, when the penalty had to be retaken due to infringement, from Noa Lang. And he is no slouch in distribution either, with a passing range in drop kicks and with the ball at his feet that makes him the prototypical modern goalkeeper. His two best traits came together in the Champions League as well, as Costa both assisted a goal for Galeno and saved a penalty from Kerem Demirbay in Porto’s win over Leverkusen.
There are a few players in the discussion to be the best young goalkeeper in the world, but I truly believe that Costa tops that list, and everyone will know it by the end of the World Cup. Any team looking for a replacement goalkeeper will be knocking down Porto’s door to sign him next summer.
Mykhailo Mudryk (Shakhtar Donetsk/Ukraine)
Another player that has set himself apart from the rest in the Champions League Groups Stages this season. While Shakhtar Donetsk did not make it out of their group like Porto did, star winger Mykhailo Mudryk certainly took his chance in the spotlight to grab attention.
Mudryk is another exciting, pacy, and direct winger, one that defenders never like running at them one-on-one during games. His skill and flair on the ball earned him early and lofty comparisons to Neymar, and while we do not know whether the Ukrainian wonderkid will end up like Neymar, the skillset archetype does seem similar to the Brazilian great. This skillset allowed him to fit perfectly in the counter-attacking style Shakhtar employed in the Champions League. While he has scored some wonderful goals for Shakhtar, he has primarily been more of a provider than a scorer. His skill and pace has often been used to get to the byline and find positions to pass or cross rather than score. His highlight-reel goals can be deceptive, as his finishing ability is actually one of the weaker parts of his game, but it is something that can certainly be refined over time. Mudryk is still a very raw talent, but the potential is clearly there. As he is coached and he matures as a player, he has the ability to become more of a varied and multi-faceted threat.
Shakhtar know what they are doing when it comes to scouting and development. When they find a young stud, they usually end up being something great. Players like Douglas Costa, Fernandinho, Willian, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Oleksandr Zinchenko left Shakhtar and became stars, and Mudryk looks like the next player to take that leap into the spotlight. With clubs like Arsenal monitoring the player, it seems like it is only a matter of time before Mudryk makes his move to Western Europe.
Giorgi Mamardashvili (Valencia/Georgia)
Our second goalkeeper of this article and the second Georgian of the series, Giorgi Mamardashvili is a player that I have referenced previously, with his heroics for Valencia in the Copa del Rey Final last season giving Los Che the opportunity to win the cup on penalties. In 2022/23, the hulking 6’6″ Georgian has the opportunity to prove that his strong first season in Spain was not a fluke.
Mamardashvili might not be as developed in distribution as the aforementioned Diogo Costa, but the lanky Georgian is just as good at stopping shots. He uses every bit of his frame to cover wide swathes of the goal, and his high-level reflexes and composure under stress, despite only being 22 years old and playing in his second season outside of his native country, is absolutely incredible. As mentioned before, it was a heroic performance from the youngster that kept Valencia in the Copa del Rey Final against Betis last season, and while Valencia eventually lost the game, Mamardashvili emerged as one of the heroes of the night. The long frame and reflexes will obviously lead to comparisons to Thibaut Courtois, and he fits that archetype of goalkeeper to the detail. Many bigger sides who would covet the Georgian would obviously want him to improve in his distribution, but he is still someone who has the time and capability to grow in the weaker areas of his game.
Goalkeeper might be a position of serious interest for many top teams going into next summer, and while most eyes will be on Diogo Costa, a team could get a very good player if they pursue Mamardashvili. Valencia recognize how talented this kid is, though, raising the Georgian’s contract release clause to €100 million in a contract that locks him down until 2027. While the fee might not be near that clause amount, it is clear that it will take significant investment for teams to pry him away from Los Che. The upper end of the goalkeeper market is looking quite pricy, but if these two are anything to go by, then there is an incredible generation of goalkeepers coming into their own at the moment.
Oihan Sancet (Athletic Club/Spain)
Yeah, there is another Athletic player who deserves some attention. No this is not just Nico Williams but again, as much as I do love him. A second young cub is growing into a full-blown Basque lion for Athletic this season.
Oihan Sancet has done a lot of things for Athletic Club since coming into the first team. He originally came out of Lezama as an attacking midfielder, thought to be best in the number ten role or as a shadow striker. He then played a bit as an actual striker under Marcelino, being an imperfect but still fairly capable solution to Athletic’s well-known and much-discussed striker issue. He even got a hat trick against Osasuna last season, becoming the first Athletic player to record a hat trick in LaLiga since club legend Aritz Aduriz did so in 2016. Since Ernesto Valverde returned to Bilbao, however, Sancet has settled into a deeper midfield role as one of the double pivot in Valverde’s 4-2-3-1 system. It is here where the Navarrese midfielder has shone.
While he was not the most refined technical attacking player in previous seasons, his passing ability this season has been very strong. While his dribbling may not have been perfect for taking on defenders, it allows him to move gracefully and efficiently through the middle of the pitch. With Mikel Vesga shielding the defense behind him, Sancet has had the freedom to roam and advance, finding the game and allowing him to be where he is most effective. He is a very intelligent player and has learned how best to affect the game from deeper positions, and he still has the opportunity to get forward and get a goal on certain occasions. He is similar to a few midfielders already featured in this series, but he is also as deserving of praise as those other players.