Tom Canton takes a look at they key young players to watch from each of the 20 La Liga teams.
Athletic Bilbao: Unai Núñez (21/Centre-Back)
Quickly becoming the next big Athletic Club success story, Unai Núñez has taken the mantle from Aymeric Laporte and become the new face of the Bilbao defence. When people wonder how Athletic manage to always keep themselves in the Primera Division with the restriction of only fielding Basque players, it is no surprise when they produce such talents as Núñez.
In his first full season in La Liga last year he played in 33 matches, in addition to 3 Europa League fixtures. Núñez received an inclusion in the 100 Best Young Players to watch in 2018 Outside of the Boot article earlier this year and for good reason. As mentioned, Nunez is eerily consistent as a defender in his age category, complimentary of those around him and never one to shy from a tackle. With the departure of Aymeric Laporte back in January of last year, the pressure was added to Núñez’s work load but with Bilbao 7th in terms of least goals conceded, if the offensive side of Athletic can begin the fire, they should see a steady rise up the table.
Atletico Madrid: Rodri Hernandez (22/Defensive-Midfielder)
Rodri Hernandez, who turned 22 on June 22nd, was signed by Atletico Madrid for €20 million from Villarreal this summer. With Gabi finally leaving after two stints at the club where he became a club legend and arguably one of the best Spanish midfielders to never play for the senior national side, he has his position and shirt number (14) taken by Rodri.
Rodri will most likely come straight in to replace Gabi in that holding role, he may not yet have the passing astuteness of Gabi but has the positional awareness and tenacity to fulfil the gritty style of play which Diego Simeone loves to deploy. A key factor in Rodri’s success will be how well his partnership with fellow Spain international Saul develops. Gabi became a key role model for Saul in his last couple seasons and now the mantle falls to the 23-year-old to have a similar impact on Rodri.
CD Leganes: Rodrigo Tarin (22/Centre-Back)
Leganes are a team which seem in constant transition, a limited budget and a limited Estadio Municipal de Butarque capacity have often seen the club situated on the outskirts of Madrid struggle in the world’s top league. This limited budget often sees the arrival of young players to boost their ranks. This year is no different and a previously trodden path has once again seen traffic. Barcelona B’s Rodrigo Tarin joins the club after his contract expired with the Catalonian giants. Tarin, one of the newer breeds of centre-backs, is a very mobile ball-playing tactician who should add a new dimension to a defence which consistently leaked goals towards the end of last season, seeing them propped up in 17th by the 3 teams whose time in La Liga came to an end. Now, after turning 22 in July, Tarin is at the right club to take the senior step into his fledging career and must grasp the opportunity to avoid falling to the wayside of Spanish football.
Deportivo Alaves: Adrian Marin (21/Left-Back)
Adrian Marin is the perfect example of a player in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coming up through the Villarreal youth ranks, Marin could only manage 18 first team appearances in 5 seasons. A loan spell to Leganes was met with mixed results, spritely in his 13 appearances but it was Diego Rico (Bournemouth’s new summer signing) who predominantly featured back in the 2016/17 season. After a season back at Villarreal condemned to be back-up to first team regular Jamue Costa, Marin has made the choice to move on and has found himself at Alaves. Marin will be in direct competition with fellow young Spaniard Ruben Duarte, but with just 1 year on Marin, the step-over loving, attack minded full back can hopefully find a starting berth in Vitoria-Gasteiz easier to win.
FC Barcelona: Carles Aleñá (20/Centre-Midfield)
To suggest that Aleñá is a “key” young player for Barcelona over the likes of Dembele, Malcom or Arthur could be perceived as a stretch however there is good reason for his inclusion. Aleñá has been the jewel of a La Masia academy which has received ever-growing criticism for not producing the young talents in the ilk of Xavi and Iniesta over the last decade, leading the club the bringing in the likes of the aforementioned trio from outside of Spanish borders.
Aleñá, a midfield maestro with brilliant passing ability and confidence, has now been promoted to Barcelona’s first team. Although an injury set back will cost him the start of the new La Liga season, the pressure is on the 20-year-old to impress in this ‘new era’ Barcelona team who, with Real Madrid’s detrimental sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, will be looking to claim back-to-back titles.
Getafe CF: Merveil Ndockyt (20/Attacking-Midfield)
Getafe earned back much top-flight respect after returning to La Liga last season to finish 8th and with that in mind, will now be hell-bent on solidifying their Primera Division status for years to come. As any football lover knows, a key attribute to any certified top-flight side is the introduction and development of young prospects into the team. Getafe have done that this season by bringing in 20-year-old attacking midfielder Merveil Ndockyt – a Congolese national who was discovered in the Albanian league, he moved to Madrid in 2017 and has impressed the coaches to earn a place in the senior team. Coming on in several games last season as a sub for Getafe, Ndockyt looked confident, with an eye for a pass, tenacious and decisive. It will be intriguing to see how many minutes the Congolese international will get this season.
Girona FC: Aleix Garcia (21/Defensive Midfield)
Similar to Getafe, Girona were another impressive newly-promoted side last season, managing a 10th place finish. Their relationship with the City Football Group (CSG) is well documented and the influx of players from Manchester City last season certainly aided in their top half finish. With the likes of Maffeo leaving though, Girona will now need to look to other more established players to fill the void. One City ‘loanee’ who is still in the Girona ranks is Aleix Garcia. The defensive midfielder has already laid down a marker to start more than the 7 games he managed last season with a goal in the 4-1 preseason win against Tottenham, maybe this has caught the eye of new manager Eusebio Sacristan. If Garcia has any hopes of returning to Manchester City in June of next year with hopes of gaining Premier league minutes, the Spain U21 international will really have to improve on his game time from last year.
Levante UD: Emmanuel Boateng (22/Centre-Forward)
Emmanuel Boateng quickly became the most famous man in La Liga in one night last season. With already crowned champions Barcelona just two games from reaching their first invincible season, the small Valencian club of Levante were a mere ant-hill in the way of the Catalans giants achieving their goal. However, up stepped Boateng who scored not 1, not 2 but a hattrick of goals in a historical 5-4 win which dashed the hopes of Iniesta and co.
Those 3 goals doubled Boateng’s tally for a season in which he had struggled to make an impact, the Ghanaian international made a strong start to pre-season before injuring his knee, initially thought to be serious, more recent indications appear to show that Boateng is expected back in the Levante line-up sooner than anticipated. If he can get fully match fit as soon as possible then he can look to recapture the electric giant-killing form he displayed and maybe instead of doubling a mere tally of 3 goals, break the double figure barrier and aim for even greater heights.
Celta de Vigo: Maxi Gomez (22/Centre-Forward)
One of my picks for La Liga’s Breakout Players to Watch in 2017/18, Maxi Gomez absolutely smashed his first season in the Primera Division scoring 18 goals in 36 appearances; the age old football saying of “a season to adapt” went straight in the bin. The Uruguayan international who’s season earned him a call-up to the national side’s World Cup squad this summer, formed a truly wonderful partnership with Iago Aspas. Had Celta’s defence been more solid (conceding the second most goals of the top 17 teams) the northern side might’ve fared better than a mere 13th place finish.
His tall commanding frame and superiority in the air made Gomez one of the league’s most difficult forwards to deal with. With Celta managing to hold onto Gomez’s services for another season, hopefully they can be in a race for a European place once again, having achieved a Europa League semi-final not so long ago. That being said, if Gomez is to have another stellar season, expect him to be on the fast track to one of Europe’s elite clubs.
Espanyol: Javi Puado (20/Left-Forward)
Certainly, the most left field of my picks but one I feel very strongly about. Javi Puado is a very young Spanish talent who had a season ripped away from him by injury and is now looking to regain his love of football. His talent is clearly valued by Espanyol who even after a season of injury have seemingly pushed him through to the senior side. Espanyol Juvenil B technical staff member Albert Sanchez describes Puado as someone with “brutal abilities” and that he “adapts to any attacking position and has a goal in him.”
The key problem for Espanyol this season will be replacing the goals lost by the departure of talisman Gerard Moreno. Having already scored in Espanyol’s preseason fixtures, Javi Puado is certainly one to look out for going forward and maybe he can push for a starting birth in the Catalan’s team.
Real Betis: Junior Firpo (21/Left-back)
A breakout star from last season, Junior Firpo was promoted from Betis’ B team at the start of 2018 and went on to make the left back position his own scoring 2 goals and assisting 2 more. With the sale of Riza Durmisi to Lazio going through, Firpo’s importance to this ever improving and now European competing Real Betis team cannot be understated. So much so that Betis have been trying to tie down the Dominican to a new deal with a €50 million buy-out clause to ward off interest from the likes of Arsenal who had been reportedly on Firpo’s case back in June.
A very modern, quick, forward thinking full-back, Firpo has all the quality to cause opposition full-backs a lot of issues. Confident on the ball, with a keen and accurate eye for a cross, Firpo’s distribution and ball retention skills improve with every game he plays. It is no wonder Betis want to tie the man down to a new deal as he looks to be something very special for the future.
Real Madrid: Dani Ceballos (22/Real Madrid)
Yes, I admit it, part of me still wanted to write about Marco Asensio this season even though he broke our age threshold by a couple months, but Real Madrid still always throw up some great options, so I was still spoilt for choice. I could have chosen the most expensive teenager in Vinicius Jr, or the most over-hyped teenager in Martin Odegaard or even a more established forward in Borja Mayoral. So why did I pick the outcast Dani Ceballos?
Well, it is for that exact reason. Dani Ceballos who turned 22 earlier this month, joined Real Madrid from Real Betis in what was seen as a “step too soon” for the young talent. This did prove to be slightly true with just 4 starts and 8 substitute appearances. However, with Kovacic leaving on loan to Chelsea and Julen Lopetegui coming in to take the reins from club legend Zinedine Zidane, this could be a season for Ceballos to jump-start his career again. Excellent on the ball, an accomplished passer and with an eye for goal, Ceballos is exactly the injection of energy Real Madrid need to try and reclaim the La Liga title and attempt to partially fill the void left by the departing Cristiano Ronaldo.
It will still be tough, a midfield of Isco, Kroos and Modric is never going to be the easiest to break into but with age on his side and a determination to prove all his doubters wrong, I for one am backing the young Spaniard to star.
Real Sociedad: Theo Hernandez (20/Left-Back)
It would have been too easy to go with the talismanic Mikel Oyarzabal, and therefore we go from one Real Madrid outcast to another. Theo Hernandez, the Frenchman made the move from one side of Madrid to the other and failed to impact on Marcelo’s dominance in the left-back role. Understandably then a loan to the Basque country was a good move for both player and clubs.
With Sociedad left-backs Alberto de la Bella in his twilight years and young Portuguese Kevin Rodrigues failing to make a solid impact at San Sebastien, Hernandez comes in with a great chance for some minutes. His fast-paced, offensive style of play is a perfect addition to the left flank and hopefully will provide Oyarzabal with even more freedom to damage teams from his natural left-wing position.
A big year for the Frenchman awaits and after seeing his older brother win the World Cup with France playing in that left-back role, it will only invigorate his motivation to regain the faith of the Los Blancos hierarchy and return to reclaim a starting spot.
SD Eibar: Xesc Regis (21/Centre Forward)
Eibar’s current senior squad has no players whatsoever below the age threshold we’ve set out to cover, so I have decided to look deeper into Eibar and to their “feeder team” CD Victoria. I stumbled across a young forward Francesc ‘Xesc’ Regis. Regis signed for Eibar in 2017 and was sent straight to Victoria to develop, he was the club’s top scorer last season with 8 goals and even managed to earn a call up to the Eibar senior side, making a last-minute substitute appearance in a 2-2 draw against Atletico Madrid.
A confident, young player from Mallorca, Regis looks set to remain with Victoria for the new season but if he improves his goalscoring form, he will soon be knocking even harder on the door of the Eibar first team.
Sevilla FC: Joris Gnagnon (21/Centre-Back)
With the expected departure of Clement Lenglet to Barcelona, Sevilla were left with a hole to fill and where else better to look than the country which has fed the club with so many top talents including Lenglet himself. This year’s Ligue 1 addition to Sevilla is French youth international Joris Gnagnon from Stade Rennes, a quick, strong and confident centre-half, Gnagnon might bring the strength needed to once again sure up the Sevilla back line.
Having impressed in France and earned the £13.5 million price tag, Gnagnon has gone on to make an impression already in the Andalusian state by starting in Sevilla’s 1-0 win over Zalgiris in the 3rd qualifying round of the Europa League. If there’s one team you want to impress playing in their Europa League campaign, after 3 successive wins in the competition, it is Sevilla. The signs appear to be positive, but the void left by Lenglet is sizeable and Gnagnon must continue to impress to make sure the cracks don’t begin to show.
Valencia CF: Carlos Soler (21/Right-Midfield)
Whilst I was prohibited from writing about Asensio for Real Madrid, the stars have aligned, and the focus is still very much on Carlos Soler for Valencia. Arguably the best player of his age category on this list, Soler has been a mainstay in the Valencia midfield for the last two seasons. The majority of his games have been played from the right, but Soler has featured in both central and left midfield positions as well.
The Spanish U21 international formed an important trident with loan signings Goncalo Guedes and Andres Perreira last season but with both returning to their parent clubs, the focus will be firmly on Soler as the new season kicks off. This may lead to Soler playing in a more central role, however it depends as to who Marcelino feels should accommodate the right-hand slot after the signature of Danish midfielder Daniel Wass from Celta Vigo – noting Wass’ preferred position, it will most likely be the former.
Valencia will be hoping for another strong season, looking once again to be the winners of the fabled La Liga 4th spot; keeping Soler, has gone a long way to helping achieve that.
Villarreal CF: Enes Ünal (21/Centre-Forward)
Another young player with a huge year ahead for his career is Enes Unal. The Turkish forward had an indifferent season at Villarreal last year which included a short 7 game stint at Levante where the Turkey international scored just one goal, scoring 6 in total.
What makes this an even bigger year for him is the competition he faces in the squad. Whilst Carlos Bacca returned to parent club AC Milan, the Yellow Submarine have been busy bringing in other forwards such as Gerard Moreno from Espanyol and Toko Ekambi from Angers who combined had a goal tally surpassing 30 goals for the 2017/18 season.
For me, it is stick or twist come the conclusion of the next 38 games and I feel as though it will not be a decision made by the player. He has the capabilities of being a leading striker for Villarreal with his pace and finishing ability, but it needs to happen this season or risk falling into mediocrity.
SD Huesca: Cucho (19/Centre-Forward)
As with many of the smaller Primera Division or Segunda Division clubs with limited budgets, they present as an opportunity for wealthier European teams to loan players out in order to gain valuable competitive experience. Newly-promoted Huesca should give the Premier League’s Watford a huge thank you for the two-year loan deal which saw centre-forward Cucho join the north-eastern Spanish club. Cucho scored 16 goals, assisting 6 more, in Huesca’s promotion season last year.
What many would describe as a ‘fox in the box’ Cucho has great positional awareness, always popping up at the right place and right time, combining this with his ferocious accuracy in front of goal and the young Colombian is quickly becoming a very hot prospect. This season will be a test, Samuele Longo joins from Inter Milan and competition for places will be tough. Cucho has certainly given the Huesca coaching staff enough evidence of his importance, but the question will be if he can replicate it in Spain’s top flight.
Rayo Vallecano: Santi Comesaña (21/Attacking-Midfield)
After the departure of Fran Beltran to Celta Vigo this summer, much apprehension surrounds what Rayo Vallecano will offer during this La Liga season, the roles of players who have not been poached will certainly be a key in keeping the side firmly in the Primera Division.
With Beltran’s exit in mind I spoke with Sarthak Kumar, a Rayo Vallecano fan and blogger and he pointed me in the direction Comesaña, an attacking midfielder with a good eye for a pass. Sarthak said, “Given that Beltran has gone, the role of Comesaña is even more important. He completely justifies his €25 million release clause.”
With some further research I find it hard to disagree with Sarthak, Comesaña is a wonderfully free flowing attacking midfielder, confident on the ball and always looking to create a chance. He finished last season with 6 assists and 2 goals, and it will be vital he keeps up his contributions this season if Rayo are to stay up.
Real Valladolid: Daniele Verde (22/Right Winger)
Daniele Verde can be described as a player trapped in the ‘Big Italian Club Loan Cycle,’ yes it might be phrase I have just invented but it still rings true. Verde now joins his 5th team on loan from Italian giants Roma, however, this year is a little different. His first time away from the Italian leagues he joins newly promoted Real Valladolid.
An archetypical small, quick and technically gifted winger, Verdi keeps the ball close to his feet looking to take on players, without the ball he is a kid a toy shop, always looking around to find a key pass and make runs accordingly.
Defences win titles, but goals keep you in the division. This specific signing for Valladolid may bring that little extra which the club needs to get the goals which keep them up to avoid dropping, once again, into the Segunda.
Read all our Talent Radar articles here.
Latest posts by Tom Canton (see all)
- 20 Key Young Players to Watch from 20 La Liga Teams - August 15, 2018
- La Liga’s 10 Young Breakthrough Players to Watch in 2017-18 - August 21, 2017
- Journey to the Top: The Rise of Marco Asensio - November 12, 2016