BEST YOUNG FOOTBALL DEFENDERS

BRIEF SCOUTING REPORTS ON SOME OF THE BEST EMERGING DEFENDERS

Here’s our eight newest reports on a small selection of our favourite young strikers. More profiles can be found in the young players, goalkeepers, midfielders, wingers and strikers sections. Below, you’ll find profiles covering backgrounds, styles, strengths and weaknesses, while providing links to where you can find out more about them.

You can find our best and most detailed reports in the Scouted Football Handbook, our quarterly magazine in which we profile 25 of the world’s best up-and-coming talents, with additional features and interviews also included.

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LAST UPDATED: FEBRUARY 7, 2022

Anel Ahmedhodžić

Anel Ahmedhodzic of Girondins Bordeaux

DATE OF BIRTH

26/03/1999

positions

Centre-back

CLUB

Girondins Bordeaux

NATION

Bosnia-Herzegovina

AHMEDHODZIC

5

HEIGHT

1.92 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Right

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Anel Ahmedhodžić started his career at Malmö FF, moved to Nottingham Forest as a 16-year-old in 2016, hardly played across three years in England, then returned to Malmö FF in the winter of 2019. Since then, his career has kick-started and sky-rocketed. He spent six months at Hobro IK in Denmark to align him to Sweden’s summer season, then established himself as an almost ever-present starter in yet another title-winning campaign for his boyhood club.

Following another title-winning term in 2021, Ahmedhodžić has finally made the step up to a top-five league – albeit to Girondins Bordeaux, a club with serious issues on and off the pitch. He’s joined on an initial loan deal, with Bordeaux retaining an option to buy him outright if they escape relegation.

STYLE OF PLAY

Ahmedhodžić is a right-sided centre-back with imposing athleticism, solid defensive ability, and impressive skill in possession. Despite being 6’4 tall, he has high-level speed; he recovers positions quickly and uses his frame to lever/seal players off the ball when covering depth. His footwork is decent too for someone his size. Ahmedhodžić could add some muscle to his frame, which would make him more sturdy in physical duels as he can be bumped off balance too easily in certain situations.

As already alluded to, Ahmedhodžić is adept at utilising his athleticism in defensive situations – he knows how to overwhelm opponents in contact with his size and he rarely gives free-kicks away in doing so. His likes to be proactive and push onto play, be it to pressure the receiver’s touch, intercept a pass or compete in an aerial duel, and he shows good anticipation and composure in doing so. He reads and reacts to play quickly and intelligently. Similarly, he has a solid sense of where to position himself relative to the ball and his opponent – he has good alertness to situations and adjusts his position competently. His blindside awareness is poor though and he is slow to react to runners off his shoulder; he needs to scan more often.

When defending transitions, Ahmedhodžić can struggle to sort his feet/posture against fast attacks that travel across his body but he is good at delaying attackers in 1-v-1 situations; he has the patience and mobility to match most Allsvenskan attackers, and he rarely over-commits. His sliding tackles are also excellent, a result of great length, timing and technique.

Ahmedhodžić is a really impressive ball-player. He plays with tempo and has the vision/confidence/technique to punch passes through lines into advanced areas. Unlike some centre-backs, he is very much focussed on playing through the lines, not over them – he keeps passes on the ground. Despite that, he is often slow to create angles to receive, which is frustrating.

Sven Botman

LOSC Lille & Netherlands defender Sven Botman

DATE OF BIRTH

12/01/2000

positions

Centre-back

CLUB

LOSC Lille

NATION

Netherlands

BOTMAN

4

HEIGHT

1.95 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Left

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Sven Botman is a product of the AFC Ajax academy, but it was in Friesland where he announced himself. After a full season of B team football in the Dutch second division with Jong Ajax, he joined sc Heerenveen on a season-long loan for the 2019/20 campaign; his career has gone from strength-to-strength since. An impressive first season in the Eredivisie caught the eye of Luis Campos at LOSC Lille, who duly picked him up from his parent club, Ajax, for €8 million in summer 2020.

In his very first season, Botman was an integral part of a LOSC team that toppled to all-conquering Paris Saint-Germain to clinch an unlikely Ligue 1 title.

STYLE OF PLAY

Botman is comfortable in possession, a result of his decade-long education in the Ajax academy. He receives and releases possession with good posture and touch on either foot, which enables him to play with a brisk tempo and execute positive passes into midfield. He is also adept at stepping forward, with and without the ball, to create overloads and options in build-up.

As a defender, Botman stands out for his size and physicality – those traits are especially advantageous in contact, where he overwhelms attackers with his imposing frame. Botman uses his physicality to good effect in aerial duels, sealing off opponents and attacking the ball well. He consistently wins the first ball and few players can compete with him in those situations.

Throughout his senior career, the Dutchman has played in a mid-block defence. Doing so accentuates his strengths and mitigates his lack of speed and general athleticism. Botman reads the game intelligently and has solid positional sense; he scans regularly, knows when to step up or drop off, and generally demonstrates good control when defending as a compact unit. His flaws are clear when he needs to cover space and wide areas. He does not have the speed nor agility to cover depth and defend quicker attackers in 1-v-1 situations, and he generally struggles to match – let alone control – attackers in open space. His heavy-legged mobility makes him an unsuitable option for teams who defend with high lines, like Liverpool.

Similarly, he can struggle at set-pieces with man-marking assignments. He isn’t always completely focussed and  his general lack of mobility means he can lose runners. He would be better utilised as a zonal marker covering a key central area.

Achraf Hakimi

Paris Saint-Germain & Morocco's Achraf Hakimi

DATE OF BIRTH

04/11/1998

positions

Right-back

CLUB

Paris Saint-Germain

NATION

Morocco

HAKIMI

2

HEIGHT

1.81 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Right

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Achraf Hakimi is a force. After developing as a youth player at Real Madrid, the Moroccan proved he could be one of the most destructive wide players in world football during a fruitful two-year spell at Borussia Dortmund.

Seeing a natural fit in his 3-5-2 formation, Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan prized Hakimi away from Real Madrid in 2020 and he then took Serie A by storm with a monstrous attacking output from wing-back.

Paris Saint-Germain, sensing Inter’s financial instability, took the opportunity to sign the Moroccan last summer in a mega-money deal. He now forms a formidable right-hand side with Lionel Messi.

STYLE OF PLAY

The addition of Achraf Hakimi to Inter Milan’s starting XI last season had a massive impact on their successes. The Moroccan was instrumental in diversifying Inter’s attack with his electric speed in transition that allows him to stretch the play and get in behind the opposition defence his team’s primary source of width.

Romelu Lukaku feasted on Hakimi’s cutbacks, but it is the variety of his attacking play which has been the most impressive. He attacks the penalty willingly on and off the ball, surprisingly willing to cut in onto his left foot routinely.

Hakimi helped Inter dominate games. He was key to their pressing structure, using his speed to close players down quickly. And while he did rely on the mobility of Milan Škriniar to provide cover in defensive transition, he can handle his own when he does drop into the defensive line.

But at the same time, he has his eye further afield, looking for the space to burst into as soon as Inter won the ball back so that he can be the outlet that ignites a counter-attack. He will bring these exact same qualitiess to Paris Saint-Germain, although Mauricio Pochettino will need to experiment with how to get the best out of Hakimi if he intends to use him in a four-man defence.

Boubacar Kamara

Olympique Marseille's Boubacar Kamara

DATE OF BIRTH

23/11/1999

positions

Defensive midfield

CLUB

Olympique Marseille

NATION

France

KAMARA

4

HEIGHT

1.84 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Right

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Boubacar Kamara is very experienced for a young player. Since breaking into the first-team in the 2017/18 season, Kamara has amassed over 150 appearances and 12,000 minutes played for OM.

While he has not experienced a conventional breakout season, Kamara has gradually developed into one of the higher-valued defensive prospects in European football. That said, he will leave OM at the end of his contract this summer, an opportunity that will interest multiple high-ranking teams across the top-five leagues.

STYLE OF PLAY

Boubacar Kamara is adept both as a centre-back and as a defensive midfielder, but has been used more as the latter under Jorge Sampaoli. He is a destroyer; great in the air, a brute in physical duels, but he also possesses great instincts for when to time his interventions.

While he is strong when contesting for the ball out wide too, he can be susceptible when isolated against faster, trickier wide players in space. His penchant for making clean challenges from behind allows him to make some crucial interventions, but he needs to get better at keeping players in front of him.

On the ball, he receives the ball cleanly with a great first touch that helps him evade pressure. His ball progression is also quite competent, although he can struggle when burdened with too much pressure to create play from deep.

A better ability to recognise when to recycle possession and when to try to break down the opposition will help Kamara take more care of the ball and ensure he does not turn it over in compromising positions.

Félix Nzouango

Juventus' Félix Nzouango

DATE OF BIRTH

07/01/2003

positions

Centre-back

CLUB

Juventus

NATION

France

NZOUANGO

5

HEIGHT

1.88 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Right

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Félix Nzouango is a symbol of the new direction Juventus have taken at academy level. Developed by Amiens, Juventus invested heavily to bring Nzouango to Turin in the summer of 2020, spending €3 million to sign the then-17-year-old. Since then he has become a key pillar at the heart of Juve’s defence at Primavera and UEFA Youth League level.

 
 

 

 

STYLE OF PLAY

Nzouango arrived in Italy having been dubbed ‘the new Varane’ by one member of the Italian press. It must be said, he does profile quite similarly as an athlete; tall, a little lanky, but very mobile either in a straight line or laterally.

The Frenchman’s game is a lovely blend of calmness and aggression. He reads the game well and seems to have a good grasp of when to push wide or press up to extinguish dangerous attacks. But he also understands when the hold back and use his aforementioned mobility to play a covering role.

But when it gets down to the fine details of defending, Nzouango is across the basics well, and at least against youth level attackers he uses his body well to lever his way into winning duels and is generally hard to get past one-on-one. His main defensive deficiency is a weird inability to effectively clear aerial balls, with a strange tendency to knock them centrally, presenting follow-up opportunities to the opposition.

With the ball, he can be a little uncomfortable when pressed, but when given time to play he can be a pretty good passer breaking through the lines of midfield.

Cristian Romero

Spurs & Argentina defender Cristian Romero

DATE OF BIRTH

27/04/1998

positions

Centre-back

CLUB

Spurs

NATION

Argentina

ROMERO

4

HEIGHT

1.85 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Right

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Cristian Romero is a young defender with a veteran presence. After moving to Italy from Argentina as a 20-year-old to join Genoa, his immediate impact at a struggling team caught the eye of Juventus, who immediately snapped him up the next summer, allowing Romero to remain on loan with Genoa for another season.

Financial issues at Juventus meant that they were forced to sell him to fund deals in other areas of the squad before he was given the opportunity to fight for a place at the club in 2021. Naturally, Atalanta presented themselves as a perfect fit, with Romero proving comfortable playing in Gian Piero Gasperini’s preferred three-man defence.

Just one season at Atalanta, in which he was crowned the league’s best defender, preceded his big-money move to Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. The transfer capped a massive summer for him, after he played a key role in helping Argentina win the Copa América.

STYLE OF PLAY

Romero has all the physical traits required to be a dominant centre-back. He is around six foot tall, strong, quick across the ground and malleable to any physical duel he needs to contest.

And he uses this skillset to his advantage, as he plays a high-octane style of defending that suited Atalanta’s tactical set-up perfectly. The three-man defence affords him the opportunity to be a bit more adventurous closing down play developing ahead of him, routinely placing him amongst the highest raw totals in Europe for pressures, tackles, interceptions and aerials won per 90 minutes.

While a high number of defensive actions does not necessarily signify a good defender, Romero plays his role brilliantly.

Going forward, Romero looks like a promising ball-carrier when given space to venture into, but can look slightly awkward in possession. In terms of distribution, his short passing is secure, but he does struggle with more incisive passes to break through pressure.

His silent ventures into the penalty area have become a bit of a trademark since his time at Genoa too, and he rates very strongly amongst defenders for a range of attacking metrics from expected goals and assists, to touches in the penalty area and shot-creating actions.

Mohamed Simakan

RB Leipzig & France defender Mohamed Simakan

DATE OF BIRTH

03/05/2000

positions

Centre-back

CLUB

RB Leipzig

NATION

France

SIMAKAN

2

HEIGHT

1.87 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Right

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Before his breakthrough 2019/20 season, Mohamed Simakan bounced around many different clubs dotted around the sprawling suburbs of his native Marseille. He spent time at Olympique as a youth player before being released. But it was a spell at SC Air Bel, a small, amateur youth club, which gave him the platform to succeed. After two years there, he moved to newly-promoted RC Strasrbourg where he played for the B team initially then broke into the first-team last season.

RB Leipzig signed him in the summer of 2021, as Dayot Upamecano made his move to Bayern München. Simakan is now a starter in Leipzig’s defence.

STYLE OF PLAY

At 20 years old, Simakan is one of the best defenders of his generation. He stands out for three key reasons – intelligence, composure, mobility. His defensive style isn’t defined by a standout skill, it is predicated on flexibility. He can step up to intercept a pass and engage in physical contact, or drop off to cover a run and sweep up behind the defensive line. He has good awareness and alertness, reading and reacting to situations quickly. He makes intelligent decisions and is constantly on his toes, adjusting position and posture to defend developing threats. 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Simakan’s defending is how assured he is, especially for his age and experience. He has great poise in defensive actions, particularly in one-on-one duels. He has great footwork to close the space quickly but without over-committing, and his timing in is impressive too. He is difficult to beat in wider areas, whether it be with a dribble or cross.

Similarly, Simakan is a very well-rounded athlete: he has good acceleration and top-end speed, impressive body control in terms of agility and balance, and has a sturdy frame with good core strength which he uses well in contact. He isn’t particularly tall for a centre-back but holds his own in aerial duels, largely because he leverages his physique intelligently and has a decent leap.

Simakan is simple in possession but operates at a decent tempo. His technique is adequate if a bit inconsistent at times; as a result, he tends to prioritise possession over progression. He is a decent ball-carrier though and does show some promise in being able to solve problems by dribbling out of smaller spaces, using his composure and athleticism to do so. Overall, he adds little value as a progressive passer but there is potential there to develop.

Pascal Struijk

Leeds United's Pascal Struijk

DATE OF BIRTH

11/08/1999

positions

Centre-back

CLUB

Leeds United

NATION

Netherlands

STRUIJK

21

HEIGHT

1.90 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Left

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Pascal Struijk has been primarily used in two positions since his accession to Marcelo Bielsa’s first team over the past 12 months: centre-back and defensive midfield.

The Dutchman has struggled to adapt much more in the highly-specialised Kalvin Phillips role in front of defence, but in his more natural position, has actually performed to a higher standard than the alternatives in the Whites’ squad.

As to be expected in a Bielsa side, Struijk ranks highly for pressures made, making him a different animal to attack for a forward who relies on dropping deep. Struijk reads opposition patterns of play well and steps out often to make decisive interceptions.

STYLE OF PLAY

On the whole, his distribution could be more ambitious, but it is highly proficient for a young defender taking his first steps at Premier League level with very little first-team experience in tow.

Leeds witness a marked improvement in their defensive set-pieces with Struijk in the side, using his 6’3” frame to good effect in both penalty areas.

More often than not, the Dutchman – who has been courted by Roberto Martínez’s Belgium – shows up well against less mobile, more abrasive forwards in the air, which is a positive sign for his all-round defensive game.

Edmond Tapsoba

Bayer Leverkusen entre-back Edmond Tapsoba

DATE OF BIRTH

02/02/1999

positions

Centre-back

CLUB

Bayer Leverkusen

NATION

Burkina Faso

TAPSOBA

12

HEIGHT

1.94 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Right

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

From the Burkinabé Premier League to the Bundesliga in four years: Edmond Tapsoba has enjoyed a rapid rise.

Bayer Leverkusen signed the defender in January 2020 after impressing for Vitória Guimarães and have likely doubled their investment already. It took him just four training sessions to start for his new side and has remained a key fixture under Peter Bosz since.

An injury disrupted his start to the 2021/22 season, then involvement in the Africa Cup of Nations took him out of a high-performing Leverkusen team.

STYLE OF PLAY

What instantly stands out whilst watching Tapsoba is his distribution. His passing is always well-intentioned which helps set a progressive tempo from deep areas.

The Burkina Faso international can also carry the ball if passing lanes are blocked. Defenders can look clumsy but he is comfortable evading forwards who sell themselves too easily. He is far more natural when improvising off-script, using physical qualities to win duels as opposed to more calculated play. Excellent at covering ground when stretched.

Tapsoba can be guilty of ball-watching and often loses discipline within his defensive line, either stepping up too late or pushing up too early which makes runners hard to track.

The 23-year-old is also too relaxed in possession at times, taking too long to release the ball and looks vulnerable when identified as a pressing trigger. But he does deserve credit for minimising his gung-ho moments and sloppy yellow cards after stepping up to the Bundesliga.

Micky van de Ven

VfL Wolfsburg & Netherlands defender Micky van de Ven

DATE OF BIRTH

19/04/2001

positions

Centre-back

CLUB

VfL Wolfsburg

NATION

Netherlands

VAN DE VEN

5

HEIGHT

1.93 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Left

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Micky van de Ven broke into the FC Volendam first-team two months into the 2019/20 season, and he has not looked back. Since making his senior debut in the Eerste Divisie, Van de Ven has started almost every game he has been available. He impressed last season but has improved again this, and has recently assumed the role of captain of the club he joined at 12 years old.

This summer, Van de Ven was mired in controversy as his agent, Mino Raiola, tried to engineer a deserved move away from Volendam. After threats of legal action and a later retraction, he eventually got his move, joining Bundesliga club Vfl Wolfsburg.

STYLE OF PLAY

Van de Ven played as the left-sided centre-back in a 4-3-3 shape for FC Volendam. He possesses a tall, lean but athletic build with very long limbs. He uses his size to overwhelm opponents in contact in defensive situations and when protecting/carrying the ball. The Dutchman has a good burst of speed off the mark and an excellent change of speed over longer distances which he uses to maintain/increase separations created by initial accelerations.

He plays with an aggressive style which has its positives and negatives, but certainlt has elements of dominance in his skillset. His athleticism enables him to cover big spaces behind defence and in wider areas, while he utilises his large frame in contact; good at sealing/levering against the ball to disrupt opponents cleanly and recover possession effectively. His timing in challenges is average though, and he can lack composure when diving in too aggressively. He possesses poor technique in one-on-one duels, often standing too upright and unbalanced in his posture – he needs to be lower to match opponents and shift direction.

Crucially, his focus can slip at times, and he can be beaten too easily by simple changes of tempo. Conversely, he is solid in aerial duels; again, he uses his frame well to give himself decent reach and conviction in headers. He is not dominant in the air, but there is clear potential.

On the ball, he has good technical ability in general, with strong fundamental skills and unique nuances in build-up. Clean, consistent first touches help him to set up positive actions. He is not a standout passer but has adequate technique, especially with switches to wider areas. Composed and confident under pressure, he commits players to dribble out of small spaces and drive forward while manipulating the ball with neat close control. He is then able to burst out of pressure and drive forward with great athleticism.

He is excellent at carrying into midfield and beyond from the back, blowing past defenders on the outside with long strides and withstanding challenges at full speed. From there, he executes good passes/crosses inside while on the move. He is extremely disruptive and difficult to stop as he carries the ball forwards.

Owen Wijndal

AZ Alkmaar & Netherlands left-back Owen Wijndal

DATE OF BIRTH

28/11/1999

positions

Left-back

CLUB

AZ Alkmaar

NATION

Netherlands

WIJNDAL

5

HEIGHT

1.76 metres

PREFERRED FOOT

Left

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

background

Owen Wijndal was part of the Jong AZ team that won the Dutch third division, along with Calvin Stengs and Myron Boadu. All three excelled in the 2019/20 season, establishing themselves among the best of their position in the Eredivisie and senior Netherlands internationals. Unlike Stengs and Boadu, Wijndal has managed to translate last season’s performance into this season, boasting a strong argument for being the best left-back in the league.

Now club captain, Wijndal is part of a resurgent AZ team under Pascal Jansen in the 2021/22 season. He will very likely make a well-deserved move to an elite league this coming summer.

STYLE OF PLAY

Owen Wijndal is very much a modern full-back. His technical level is excellent and he’s very comfortable in possession: he scans space regularly; he receives the ball with good touch and poise; he operates at a fluent tempo, adept at playing under pressure. 

What makes him an especially impressive player in build-up and attack is his intelligence. Under Arne Slot, Wijndal was a key to AZ Alkmaar’s ability to progress possession. He is good at knowing where/when to move, either sliding inside to offer for passes between lines or holding his width to stretch play/teams. His intelligent body positioning enables him to create good angles to receive the ball, often doing so on the half-turn to maximise his touch and transition into attack.

His movements beyond the ball are very good too. He consistently demonstrates excellent timing of his runs, attacking defences with speed and conviction from depth. He rarely moves in a straight line, often angling his overlapping runs in toward goal which means he can immediately attack dangerous areas when he receives the release pass. From those dangerous areas, Wijndal is a capable crosses. His low, quick, one-touch crosses into the six-yard box or toward the penalty spot are dangerous because they can catch defences in an unbalanced state, and he executes them with little hesitation and impressive technique.

Wijndal has upsides and downsides as a defender. His good athleticism enables him to match most opponents in 1-v-1- situations, using an above-average change of pace, quick footwork and good balance to do so. He positions his body pretty well too, but just needs to be more composed – to slow down his approach to the ball, gradually shut down the ball/man and improve his timing. When defending in a block, he is often too focussed on the ball. He should scan more often to be more aware of what’s around him. Being less square to the ball would also help. Above all, he needs to be more engaged/attentive.

In terms of true transfer value, it’s Matthijs de Ligt – he joined Juventus for €85 million in 2019. As for other young defenders that could move for similar fees, Jules Koundé is the one that could be bought for a similar price in the short-term future.

In FIFA, you need defenders with speed – that’s why players like Maxence Lacroix and Wesley Fofana are perfect for the game. Similarly, Alphonso Davies and Achraf Hakimi are the best full-backs.

If you’re looking for good value, Anel Ahmedhodžić is always a go-to on any Football Manager save. Nico Schlotterbeck is another great option for European level clubs, as are David Carmo and Levi Colwill.