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Alex Blinston brings you the next edition of this series and talks about the best U-19 players to watch out for in Serie A this season.
Kevin Diks // Fiorentina // 19 // Right-Back
Kevin Diks is a player who I’ve watched closely over the last year or so. The Vitesse-Chelsea relationship is one that intrigues and angers me in equal measure. It is artificial, a mutually beneficial association that sees large proportions of Chelsea’s youngsters shipped off. Call me old fashioned, I just can’t stand it. As such I can’t help but watch Vitesse closely: this is how I discovered Kevin Diks.
The 19-year-old right-back staved off competition from the Blues’ bright starlets to establish himself as one of Peter Bosz, and later Rob Maas’ key men for Vitesse. At 17 years-old he made his debut in yellow and black and immediately thrived in the top-flight. In the 2014/15 season Diks led all teenagers in the Eredivisie in interceptions (56), clearances (80) and blocked crosses (9), while also leading his side in tackles per game. Last season Diks continued his progression leading the same age group in tackles (87) and continued to develop his attacking game seeing increases in his dribbles, key passes and crosses per contest. While rampaging full-backs are still very much in vogue, Diks is a defence first full-back; strong in the tackle and a presence in the air.
It is no surprise that a move occurred this summer, Diks is ready to make the step up but the fee certainly caught me by surprise and for all the right reasons as far as Viola fans are concerned. For just €2.5m Fiorentina are picking up a player with tremendous potential and relative experience at just 19 – Diks has already clocked up over 60 professional appearances. Paolo Sousa won’t be changing his 3-4-2-1 that worked wonders for large parts of last year, which obviously doesn’t suit a right-back, however, Diks could potentially slot in at centre-back or on the right in the four man midfield against tougher opponents. Diks is a shrewd signing for so much to offer in Florence.
Gianluigi Donnarumma // AC Milan // 17 // Goalkeeper
When I was 16 I was stumbling through GCSE’s, I still hadn’t come out of the ‘mophead’ haircut phase and just scraped in to the school football team, just. At the same age Gianluigi Donnarumma was making his debut at the San Siro for the seven times Champions League winning AC Milan. I really do feel inadequate.
In truth, while he may be the youngest player on this list, Donnarumma was the first player that sprung to mind and naturally so. The phenomenon of making your debut in the famous red and black stripes is fantastic but the now 17-year-old backed it up with admirable performances for Milan with a defence that was about as convincing as a Roberto Martinez’s post-match press conferences at points last season. It was a turbulent year in Milan, an environment that was far from fertile for young players but Donnarumma kept 10 clean sheets and made 2.41 saves per goal, a figure that ranked in the upper echelon of Italy’s shot stoppers. At 6’5” the 17-year-old is domineering in the air like the older Gianluigi in Turin and is developing his distribution – he had a distribution percentage of 69% with a high average pass length (36m).
Donnarumma – as to be expected with anyone of such a tender age – still requires refinement, but boy is he one bright prospect. Vincenzo Montella’s Milan requires strengthening in many areas, goalkeeper, however, is a position where they could be set for decades to come.
Assane Gnoukouri // Inter Milan // 19 // Central Midfielder
It has been quite a summer for Inter. The Suning Group completed a takeover that was rumoured to be in the ballpark of €300m, Roberto Mancini was replaced by Frank De Boer with less than a fortnight to go before the new season kicked off and one of the summer’s lengthiest transfer sagas ended with Mauro Icardi extending his contract at San Siro – poor old Wanda Nara might miss out on her film that could have been in Naples. Naturally, the state of the Primavera at Inter was put to the back of thoughts; one of the brightest of the group is Assane Gnoukouri.
This is nothing that the Inter fans don’t know, however. Gnoukouri’s first start came at the back end of the 2014/15 season in the Derby della Madonnina: quite the baptism of fire. Although, since then Gnoukouri’s career in black and blue has stuttered with just 186 minutes of first team action on the back of his first start. The Ivorian is a combative midfielder with terrific ability in possession and an eye for a tackle, someone probably more suited to a shuttler role in a midfield three.
It is impossible to make a broad stroke of the brush with such a small sample size but Gnoukouri didn’t set the world alight in his first team showings. However, in Frank De Boer he has a manager who has promoted a myriad of young talent at Ajax – Davy Klaassen, Christian Eriksen and Riechedly Bazoer just to touch the surface. Furthermore, Inter are short in midfield, very short, and with Geoffrey Kondogbia flattering to deceive for the Nerazzurri and Gary Medel and Felipe Melo also ageing, opportunities will arise. It is a big season for Assane Gnoukouri who, if circumstances arise, could have a big season in Milan.
Gerson // AS Roma // 19 // Attacking Midfielder
Roma general manager Mauro Baldissoni: “Gerson is considered the brightest talent in the world among midfielders his age, or at least that’s what we learned from those who wanted him at any cost, like Barcelona.” That isn’t hyperbole, Gerson really is one of the world’s brightest talents and the hype isn’t without substance.
I fall for Roma every season, I get caught up in the whirlwind of pre-season optimism, believe they can compete with The Old Lady only for the inevitable to happen. This season I don’t believe Roma can compete with Juve – nobody in Italy can – but they do look mightily strong. The real strength of Luciano Spalletti’s side lies in the midfield and Gerson is a very welcome addition. The 19-year-old Brazilian can operate in central midfield, as a trequartista – Spalletti has said he sees it as Gerson’s strongest position – or a wide forward role. He is incredibly quick and is very strong in possession also but Gerson is still very raw.
The Roma midfield will be a tough one to break in to this coming season with Kevin Strootman returning from injury, Leandro Paredes is back from his loan with Empoli and Mohamed Salah, Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy all impressing in wide areas. Even if the versatile Brazilian struggles for minutes this term, what must be remembered is that few players have such a high ceiling as Gerson. Who knows, we could be talking about Rome’s future king.
Amadou Diawara // Bologna // 19 // Defensive Midfielder
For some on this list there may be fears over limited playing time this coming season, for Amadou Diawara there are no such worries. Under the wonderful Roberto Donadoni, the Guinean made 34 Serie A appearances – of all players aged 21 and under in Italy no player made more – and was instrumental to Bologna as they staved off early relegation trepidation to finish comfortably in 14th.
Donadoni on the teenager: “He is a top prospect, he is still very young but when you are that good, age is not important.” He is not wrong either; Diawara is performing at a level where his age simply isn’t considered. At the heart of the Bologna midfield he averaged 2.7 interceptions, 2.2 tackles and a clearance per game, alongside a strong 84.2% pass completion rate. They’re not N’Golo Kante esque-numbers from defensive midfield but they are highly admirable.
There has been talk of a move for Diawara but he is in fruitful surroundings with a manager of great experience and pedigree; a move for the Guinean could really be disappointing. He isn’t quite ready for that great leap just yet – any talk of a move to Juve should be put on hold for now at least – but he is ready to make a massive impact for the Rossoblu once again.
Franck Kessie // Atalanta // 19 // Defensive Midfielder
As Serie A debuts go, few will come close to matching that of Franck Kessie. Atalanta may have suffered an agonising 4-3 opening day loss to Lazio but on a personal note at least, there are worse ways to kick off a career than with a brace. The Ivorian midfielder has returned to Bergamo after a year in Serie B with Cesena and is already making an impact in blue and black making the season’s first Talent Radar Team of the Week.
Kessie, already capped five times by Ivory Coast, is a defensive midfielder by trade – the goals may suggest otherwise, however. The 19-year-old is a beast in midfield, strong in tackle and a domineering presence. It would be wrong to take so much from one game, and I admittedly didn’t catch a whole lot of Kessie at Cesena but he also seems strong is possession leading the match in passes (73) on Sunday.
It was rumoured that the likes of Arsenal, QPR, Southampton and Schalke were all tracking the Ivorian this summer but he looks set – with little more than a week to go in the transfer window – to be staying in Bergamo; both parties look set to benefit greatly. Many have graduated from the famous Atalanta Primavera and while Franck Kessie may not have risen through the ranks in blue and black, he could be the next one in line to reach stardom with La Dea.
Assane Diousse // Empoli // 18 // Defensive Midfielder
For ‘smaller’ clubs success is a double-edged sword. The immediate fruits of higher league finishes, and finally some plaudits is often later overshadowed by the circling of bigger clubs around prized assets: Empoli felt the full effect of the sword this summer. The aforementioned Leandro Paredes returned to Rome and old boss Maurizio Sarri returned to swoop for Piotr Zielinski and Lorenzo Tonelli. They are losses that will always be hard to recover from but in Assane Diousse, boss Giovanni Martusciello may have a player who is tailor made to make the step up.
Prior to Christmas last season Diousse had made twelve league appearance, however, after the Christmas cracker jokes had been read the Senegalese teenager made just three Serie A appearances. This points to a midfield that was fun and formidable for most of last season and a player that is still early in his progression; however, this season with the summer sales Diousse could see his role increase. In his 820 minutes of Serie A Diousse made 85.5% of his passes and 1.2 tackles per game but never really got going like his counterparts.
This will be a big season for both club and player. Empoli face the prospect of possibly seeing regression after several years of continuing success. And for their no.8, more playing time could and should be coming his way, and Diousse will hope to show some of the potential that many believe he possesses.
Rey Manaj // Pescara (On loan from Inter) // 19 // Striker
Much like Juve, Inter boast a wealth of talent out on loan and Albanian striker Rey Manaj is one of the names on that extended list. Albania’s showings at Euro 2016 may not have provided thrilling games or goals galore but they secured their first win at a major tournament. It was a monumental achievement for a country such as Albania and suddenly the future is bright: Rey Manaj will be a big part of it.
Manaj, already capped by his country twice with a goal to boot also, has joined up with the newly promoted Pescara in their survival bid. Napoli may have clawed back from two down to secure a point but there were certainly bright points for Pescara with Manaj coming off the bench. Manaj is a multifaceted forward, adept at playing with his back to goal or picking the ball up from deep and driving at defences.
There are fears over a whimsical personality but there is also the hope that it is an inner drive and stubbornness that will see him thrive. At Pescara there is the real possibility of securing regular playing time and both Manaj and the Delfini could reap the rewards.
Pedro Pereira // Sampdoria // 18 // Right-Back
I was never lucky enough to see the Sampdoria of the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the Roberto Mancini-Gianluca Vialli striking tandem was in full flow or when Ruud Gullit was manning the royal blue. In recent times Samp have flattered to deceive, there was the brief Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini fuelled renaissance but there has been little to lift the mood in Genoa. At least in Pedro Pereira the Blucerchiati faithful have someone to get excited about.
The 18-year-old right-back joined Samp from Benfica last summer for the incredibly modest €190,000 and the Portugal U-18 international made an instant impact. He made eight appearances before Christmas but, in a similar vein to Diousse, just one post-winter break. In his time in the side Pereira averaged two tackles and 1.3 interceptions per contest whilst also being strong in the air – Pereira won 57.9% of his aerial battles. The teenager has blistering pace, strong attacking instincts and a developing defensive game, as emphasised by his strong numbers.
It may have been a frustrating last six months to the season for the former Benfica man and he didn’t come off the bench for Samp’s opening day win over Empoli, however, it is a long season and Pereira offers Samp a lot. I hope success returns to Samp this season, I really do and I equally think Pereira could be an important part of boss Marco Giampaolo’s plans this coming season.
Andrija Balic // Udinese // 19 // Attacking Midfielder
This is the biggest wildcard on this list, and a few players can count themselves unlucky – Andres Tello (Empoli), Federico Dimarco (Empoli) and Umar Sadiq (Roma) to name a few – but Andrija Balic is a really intriguing prospect. Croatia has, what is seemingly, a production line of midfielders both established ones at the top of their game and upstarts trying to find their feet. Balic is a player who was linked with Europe’s giants but since his move to Udine his career has somewhat stuttered.
Balic is somewhat of an unknown prospect with him still yet to make a first team appearance in black and white. However, in Croatia with Hadjuk Split he really made his mark; ten goals and five assists in 45 appearances are certainly respectable numbers. He was largely deployed at attacking midfield for Hadjuk but can play in a deeper role as a deep-lying playmaker.
As much as it could be a breakout season for Balic, it could also prove to be another season of frustration for the 19-year-old. Toto has now gone for (famous last words) good and this Udinese side, while it is industrious, seems to be lacking in star quality. Balic may not be able to provide it just yet but the sooner he is incorporated in to the side, the quicker Udinese will benefit from his colossal potential.
Read all our Talent Radar 2016-17 Young Players to Watch across all leagues, here.