Who were March’s best U23 players in Europe?

2 months ago

Welcome back to the ESPN FC Hot List, which each month highlights some of the most in-form talent aged 23 or under across Europe.

Generally, young but established stars such as Manchester City’s Erling Haaland, Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham or Barcelona’s Gavi aren’t included — otherwise they’d be on the list every month — but we’ll shine a light on some of those who deserve praise for their performances and could potentially be European football’s next big names.

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In the absence of Gavi and Pedri, another La Masia product has had the opportunity to shine and Fermin Lopez can look back on several respectable performances in March. Not only has he been trusted with a starting spot in Xavi’s first XI, but he also scored a beautiful header against Atletico Madrid and added another goal in the Champions League against Napoli.

Though essentially a creative central midfielder — pretty much a flair-based No. 8 — Lopez also featured as a left winger earlier in the season. With the high football IQ and fine technical ability that comes with an education through La Masia, the Spain U21 international has shown himself to have a powerful shot and an eye for key passes. Yet, Lopez is also dutiful in his defensive work (8+ defensive duels per 90 minutes at a 55% success rate) and, despite turning up in plenty of action areas across the pitch, he quickly gets back into shape when needed.

The route from South America, via FC Porto, to a top-class European team is well travelled and it’s looking increasingly likely that the €8m signing from Boca Juniors last summer is next in line for a big move.

Having enjoyed a fine debut season in Portugal, Varela has got better as the campaign has progressed and keeps upping his game as the opposition get more prominent — he put in two stellar group-stage performances against Barcelona in the Champions League and was one of Porto’s top players in the recent round-of-16 clashes against Arsenal.

With impressive mobility, Varela is quick to close down opponents and excellent at interceptions (4.45 per 90 minutes), but he also keeps at his task throughout the duration of the game with discipline and application. While he’s consistent at starting attacks from his deep midfield role, his long passing skills are particularly good, especially his switches out to his advancing right-back.

Three years on from making his professional debut for Porto, the Ajax loanee is starting to deliver on his immense promise. The son of current Porto head coach Sergio Conceicao, the 21-year-old winger has recently started to gain more playing time and is emerging as a real difference maker for the club. And for those who suspect paternal favouritism: his inclusion in the XI is very much on merit.

Pretty much a left-footed version of his father, Francisco — who is one of four brothers making a living as a professional footballer — is gifted with excellent technical ability, quick and efficient ball-progression skills, while his active nature is underscored by 10 dribbles per 90 minutes (at a solid 65% efficiency rate) and 4.85 crosses.

Despite being a natural wide attacking midfielder, he is also more than useful when cutting infield — often providing penetrating passes or unleashing a shot (3.1 per 90 minutes). Another reward for his positive development came as he won his first senior cap for Portugal in the friendly against Slovenia last week.

While he’s technically not a European-based player yet, just months before officially becoming a Real Madrid player, Endrick’s reputation as a world star is growing. The 17-year-old’s two recent outings for Brazil did nothing to dampen the already sky-high expectations placed on his young shoulder as, having come on to earn his country a late winner against England at Wembley, he added his second Selecao goal in the 3-3 draw against Spain with a well-struck volley.

As if scoring his first goal for his country wasn’t enough, Endrick also showcased some of his most impressive qualities to a global audience for the first time. His powerful shot, rapid acceleration with the ball, and neat touches around the box were all executed with his trademark enthusiasm.

What we can expect from the wonderkid once he arrives in Spain — especially from a tactical viewpoint — is an open question, but there’s little doubt that Real Madrid have secured a player who is certain to entertain and offer something extraordinary.

Having only arrived last summer from Portuguese side Estoril for €6.5m, Santos is already attracting a lot of attention from visiting scouts — and Premier League clubs in particular. Those scouts would have been impressed by the consistency in his performances and the way the Portugal U21 international almost immediately imposed himself in a more physically demanding league.

Santos has been brilliant in the league and Europe alike. As a converted winger it’s no surprise that the right-back excels in the attacking phase of the game; he darts forward at every opportunity and his fine ball control helps him negotiate tight spaces.

According to WyScout, he averages an outstanding five successful attacking actions per 90 minutes and his six dribbles per 90 minutes (60% success rate) are also highly impressive numbers. With high-quality right-backs somewhat scarce right now, expect plenty of interest to sign him in the next transfer window.

March was a breakout month for the Ivory Coast forward. Before setting off on international duty, Diakite scored for Reims as they secured a draw away at PSG and added another the following week in the 2-1 win at home to Metz. Then, once he joined up with his national team, he got on the scoresheet again in the 2-2 draw against Benin.

Diakité is yet another talent who started his career at the renowned ASEC academy in Abidjan via (you guessed it) FC Salzburg in Austria. Though he never featured in an official game for Salzburg — he spent his time in Austria with their feeder club FC Liefering — the technically sound and quick striker is now showing signs of becoming a reliable Ligue 1 player.

He’s becoming a fine finisher and alongside good link-up play, directness and the pace to run in behind it’s arguably the completeness of his game which makes him stand out.…Read more by Tor-Kristian Karlsen


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