BEST YOUNG DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDERS
FROM NIKLAS DORSCH TO AURÉLIEN TCHOUAMÉNI
Defensive midfielders – or the number 6 – are the lynchpins of teams. They come in all shapes and sizes, with all sort of different skills – from the destructive ball-winner to the talented passer. Some combine those different skills as well. Here are some profiles on some of the best emerging goalkeepers in football. Each cover their backgrounds, styles, strengths and weaknesses.
You can find more in-depth player 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 original features and exclusive interviews included.
Bilal Hussein has led a fairly routine development so far in his career. He joined Stockholm giants, AIK, as a 13-year-old and worked his way up the age groups. A couple of months on loan at a fourth-tier team preceded more involvements with the first-team, before breaking into the side as a starter in 2020.
Since then, Hussein has established himself as a key starter next to the veteran Sebastian Larsson in midfield, helping the club mount a valiant title push in 2021. He’s also been a regular with Sweden at under-21 level.
STYLE OF PLAY
Hussein is a high-volume passer, and that’s his standout skill in his current stage of development. He helps his AIK team build out from the back with intelligent positioning and quick movements to receive the ball in any situation. Once he gets it, his touch is clean and his passing is crisp – Hussein rarely needs more than two touches to receive and release possession.
That quick, two-touch style is the basis of his game. It keeps the ball moving in a valuable way, finding gaps to exploit in the oppponent’s defensive structure. He can penetrate through lines with his passing as well, especially from deeper positions and over 15-20 yards. Moreover, he’s shown some skill as a passer into depth.
As a defender, Hussein’s game is predicated on speed of though and movement. He reads sequences intelligently and is quick to pounce on passes into a receiver or cut in ahead of them to intercept. While his slender frame affords him great sharpness, he can be overwhelmed in contact situations by bigger, stronger opponents.
After a couple of impressive seasons as a starter in Sweden, Hussein is ready to take the next step in his development. That will be best served in leagues like the Eredivisie.
Pape Matar Sarr
Pape Matar Sarr is the latest exciting product of FC Metz’s fruitful link with Senegalese academy club, Génération Foot. After moving to north-east France from Dakar in the summer of 2020, he needed little time to break into the first-team and grab the attention straight away.
So much so, Tottenham Hotspur moved quickly to sign one of the big breakout talents of last season’s Ligue 1, immediately loaning him back to Metz for another season.
What immediately stands out about Pape Matar Sarr is his borderline elite range of mobility. He covers big spaces with ease. He has a leggy frame with catches the eyes straight away as well.
STYLE OF PLAY
What immediately stands out about Sarr is his borderline elite range of mobility. He covers huge spaces with relative ease; his speed going both ways is excellent, as is his engine to mantain a strong intensity throughout the full ninety. His physique only accentuates it: he’s tall and slender with rangy legs and skinny arms, a frame which catches the eye when moving as freely as it does.
He maximises that mobility in defensive situations. When he first broke onto the Ligue 1 scene, Sarr put up extraordinary ball-winning numbers – he tackled and intercepted to a league-leading level. He reads the game pretty well on the front foot and he makes the most of his rangy size to overwhelm players in contact and effect the ball in unlikely situations.
His long-range mobility is also useful in carrying the ball forward from deep, particulrly in transition. Sarr has a great burst off the back foot and, once he hits full stride, is difficult to stop, carrying the ball over long distances.
His skillset in more structured phases of build-up has its issues but is promising all the same. He can be a bit clumsy under pressure and he can lack accuracy with his passing, but his basic techniques are of a solid level. There’s more than enough glimpses of quality to suggest that he can develop into a very capable ball-player.
Without carrying a huge reputation into the 2020/21 season, despite an €18 million move from Bordeaux to Monaco six months earlier, Aurélien Tchouaméni is now one of the hottest properties in Europe after an excellent start to life in the principality. It has been recognised by Didier Deschamps too, with the French manager handing the midfielder his first caps in World Cup qualifying.
STYLE OF PLAY
Tchouaméni’s skillset is intriguing. He is very versatile: not positionally, but in the fact that he can do a lot of things competently. He is a decent if unspectacular passer, an average final third contributor, and a pretty good dribbler when he is on the move.
Above all though, he is an elite ball-winning midfielder that combines his willingness to hunt the ball down with high level athleticism akin to a slightly thicker set version of a young Paul Pogba.
The Frenchman’s main concerns are his unwillingness to push forward and receive the ball in more attacking areas, though this could partly be due to his lack of confidence manoeuvring himself in tight spaces.
This limits him to playing his best football in a double-pivot, where the threat of being pressed at the base of midfield as the primary ball progressor is reduced, and where he does not have to assume the role of between-the-lines technician should he function as an interior.
After a tough first season in Milan, Sandro Tonali seems to be finally growing into his role patrolling the Rossoneri’s midfield. Tonali arrived at Milan with a big reputation derived from his performances with Brescia, where he guided them from Serie B into Serie A with consistent performances and comparisons to his childhood idol Gennaro Gattuso.
“Like Gennaro Gattuso, Sandro Tonali is an aggressive and defensively active midfielder that doesn’t shirk a challenge.”
STYLE OF PLAY
Like Gattuso, Tonali is an aggressive and defensively active midfielder that does not shirk a challenge and will throw himself into any physical duel without hesitation. He is a strong and robust athlete despite not being overly big. He is pretty quick too, making him a useful defender of space, as well as someone that can nip into passing lanes to break up play.
He is growing as a player in possession, but it still feels as though he lacks a real weapon in his game going forward, especially for a player that arrived on the scene with the reputation he had built when he left Brescia in 2020.
He is a decent passer and a decent ball carrier, he chips in with a goal every now and then, he can deliver a good set piece, and he has his occasional spurt of creativity in the final third, but it is not yet enough to turn him into a force that demands defensive attention.
Aurélien Tchouaméni is the hottest property of the young defensive midfielder. He’s been excellent over the past year, establishing himself as one of Ligue 1’s best and as a strong newcomer in the French fold. Declan Rice is another, althought his role has evolved into more of a box-to-box presence. Teun Koopmeiners has been a standout as well.
Patrick Berg at FK Bodø/Glimt is one of the best value pick-ups at the start of the game; you can get him out of Norway for around €5 million. Act quickly though, because that deal won’t be available after the winter update.