Players to watch at the 2022 FIFA World Cup
A young player to watch from every nation at Qatar 2022
Ths year is a World Cup year! To celebrate it, we’ve picked out a player from every (more coming soon) competing nation that could make an impact in Qatar.
Below, you’ll find brief profiles summing up their backgrounds, styles, strengths and weaknesses, while providing links to where you can find out more about them.
Charles De Ketelaere
Charles de Ketelaere is one of the most interesting young attacking prospects emerging in European football.
Tall and lanky but quick and flighty, his movement off the forward line his excellent. Despite his eye-catching size, he ghosts into dangerous positions across the final third. Once in them, he has the technique and composure to pick out a supporting attacker at test the goalkeeper with a solid finish.
He has the potential to be an impactful player at this year’s World Cup for Belgium. It seems unlikely that he’ll start, the crucial games at least, but he will come off the bench. He joined AC Milan in the summer from Club Brugge.
Not long ago it might have seemed unlikely for Antony to play a part in Brazil’s World Cup in 2022, but an Olympic gold medal, a breakout season with Ajax and a huge move to Manchester United has thrust him into the national team scene.
Expect the winger to feature mostly as a sub, where his energy will be used to impact the games both as a dribbler in transition, but also to add presence off the ball – even if his defensive contributions can lack a bit of diligence.
But most importantly, he brings a genuine final third threat both as a goal scorer and as a creator that is effective against all sorts of defensive blocks, using either his speed on the break, or his dribbling quality to unlock set defensive structures.
At just 20, Joško Gvardiol is on a path to more than a decade of dominance. He already has over 100 senior appearances to his name at both centre-back and left-back, an extraordinary number at his age, especially for a defensive player.
While becoming a regular for Croatia at the end of his time with Dinamo Zagreb, Gvardiol has seamlessly transitioned into playing for a top-level European club: RB Leipzig.
Playing as the left-sided centre-back in a back three, Gvardiol’s athleticism and excellence in possession have been standouts, though expect him to prominently feature as a left-back for Croatia, just as he did at the Euros last summer.
You will all know plenty about Aurélien Tchouaméni. Far from an under-the-radar prospect, he has ascended quickly over the last couple of seasons, becoming one of the most talked about players in Ligue 1.
For good reason, as well. Tchouaméni is a tour-de-force in midfield. He is an all-purpose midfielder that can contribute to every phase of play, predominantly in winning the ball back then progressing it up the pitch. France have a couple of question marks in midfield with Pogba’s situation and Kanté’s form; Tchouaméni has the quality to answer them.
After a breakout season at SC Freiburg and milestone transfer to Borussia Dortmund, Nico Schlotterbeck has a strong chance of being a key starter for Hansi Flick’s Germany at Qatar 2022.
He has everything a modern centre-back needs: a dynamic defensive skillset equipped with mobilty and adaptability, he’s strong in aerial duels, and he is adept at progressing possession with his passing off his left foot and aggressive ball-carrying. Moreover, he has proven that he can operate to a high level in back-two and back-three systems, offering Flick the option to switch systems fairly flexibly.
Kamaldeen Sulemana is electric. Since flashing onto our radar at FC Nordsjælland, the wide attacker has made a big move to Stade Rennais in Ligue 1 and become an established member of Ghana’s senior international squad.
But Kamaldeen Sulemana really is electric. He twists and turns at an incredible speed, then dribbles and drives at defences just as quickly. Furthermore, he’s a clever mover off the ball and can attack the box in different ways – dribbling and combining mainly – as he slices inside off the left wing. He has the raw ability to pose a lot of problems in Qatar.
From bit-part player to indispensable starter, Ao Tanaka has emerged as a key member of Japan’s team under Hajime Moriyasu as they escaped the claws of an intercontinental play-offs to qualify directly for November’s World Cup.
Tanaka played a vital part of the resurgence two, starting six of Japan’s final seven World Cup qualifiers, as the team won all six. He also kickstarted the resurgence of their stuttering campaign with an important goal in a 2-1 home win over Australia.
Once shoehorned as a deep-playing midfielder, Tanaka has blossomed into a creative final third player that takes up interesting positions in pockets of space and shows good penalty box nous as a creator and goal scorer.
Jurriën Timber adds both versatility and quality to the Dutch national team. Capable of playing effectively in both two and three-man defences, or as a right-back, Timber now looks like a certainty to play a key role for the Netherlands in Qatar, just as he did at the Euros following his breakout season with Ajax.
As an athletic centre-back, Timber is an excellent decision-maker defending in transition. He struggles a little more as a man-marker, affording attackers more space than he needs to when considering his own physical qualities.
On the ball, he is a diligent player that is happy to defer to better ball-players (think Daley Blind, Lisandro Martinez) or take on the responsibility himself when required.
It may have taken a little while, but Rafael Leão is now a widely-appreciated young player. His breakout season powered AC Milan to their first Scudetto in a decade, and now he has some of Europe’s ruichest clubs chasing him as his contract in Italy is into its last 18 months.
Leão has learnt to pull the different aspects his dynamic skillset together on a more consistent basis. Leão poses a scary attacking threat for defenders to deal with; he combines an athletic frame with a smooth but sharp change of speed, which he uses to glide past defenders as a dribbler or runner – all with the end goal or creating a shot, for himself or others.
Portugal will have a difference-maker in their squad that would start for most nations. He’s most likely to be an impact player in Qatar.
Little known outside of European circles, Akram Afif might just be Asia’s best player. But unlike many of his team-mates, he has European experience, featuring in La Liga and Belgium’s Pro League with Gijon and Eupen, before returning to Qatar with Xavi’s Al Sadd.
Since then, he has become a dominant attacking force. His performances at the Asian Cup were a sight to behold, registering 10 assists and a goal in just seven games as Qatar lifted the trophy.
While deprived of chances to shine in World Cup qualifying, Qatar’s participation at CONCACAF’s Gold Cup and the FIFA Arab Cup have underscored his dominance as an wide forward that can both create and score with ease.
He starred at last summer’s Euros, and there is no reason why Pedri won’t do the exact same thing at the World Cup. He will still be a teenager by the time the tournament starts, but the Spaniard is already one of the most feared midfield players in the world, with his combination of excellent passing, movement, and an unbelievable engine.
Watch for his combination play with whoever starts at left-back for Spain. Pedri loves to drift into the left channel to create overloads that allow his left-back to get to the by-line and into cut-back territory.
At the same time, Pedri’s own creativity from the centre of the pitch can’t be ignored, especially given the freedom he has to roam and break down the opposition midfield and defensive structures.
Darwin Núñez is a name on many people’s lips. The striker exploded last season, despite SL Benfica’s underwhelming form, and it earned him a massive move to Liverpool in the Premier League.
He has some issues, not least erratic link play and a temperamental technique, but he also has his idiosyncratic virtues. His size and speed makes him difficult to stop once he gets going, especially when driving into space. His movement in and around the box is excellent as well, and he’s also an explosive ball-striker that can score from any angle and most distances.
We’ve started to see him come alive at Liverpool, creating chaos in intense appearances, be it from the start or off the bench. Uruguay can make the most of that chaos in a tournament setting.
In 2018 it was Daniel Arzani, this time Garang Kuol is Australia’s World Cup bolter. After a recent move to Newcastle United was confirmed at the backend of a whirlwind six months, Kuol has firmed as Australia’s X-Factor player at this tournament, with his impact likely to come from the bench.
The Central Coast Mariners winger is an incredible talent, blessed with lightning quick speed, incredible agility, aggressive instincts in transition, and brings real final third impact with an exceptional record so far in his short senior career in the A-League.
Look for him to combine late in games with his Mariners team-mate, and former Scottish international, Jason Cummings.
Some may have been surprised to see Saudi Arabia top their AFC World Cup qualifying group featuring Japan and Australia, but this is a veteran team with plenty of quality, spearheaded by the slightly younger and less experienced Firas Al-Buraikan.
Al-Buraikan will lead the line: he’s a leggy striker with speed in behind, both running with the ball, or as a penalty box poacher. His goal record at senior international level is not astonishing by any means, but his role is an important one opening up spaces for others – Saudi Arabia’s star man Salem Al-Dawsari in particular.
At 21, Strahinja Pavlović is a key player for Serbia, marshalling their defence with his physical, aggressive approach. He is coming into the tournament after a proper breakout season so far with Red Bull Salzburg, after his move from AS Monaco and the various loan spells he had from there.
Flanked by Fiorentina’s Nikola Milenković and Werder Bremen’s Miloš Veljković on either side, Pavlovic has the responsibility of playing the all-important role in the middle of the back three. He has shown in the past though that he can be a fantastic enabler, while being quick enough and alert to the danger in behind his defensive partners.
It’s safe to say that Enzo Fernández has been one of the revelations of the season in Europe after his summer move from River Plate. In particular, he played a starring role in the Champions League, where his Benfica topped a group including Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.
Enzo can do all you need an all-action midfielder to do. He’s energetic, aggressive, technically sound, a great ball carrier through midfield, and an excellent passer in a range of scenarios, whether that be as a progressor from deep, or a short, incisive final third passer.
And with Gio Lo Celso out of the tournament, there’s potential for him to play a role for Argentina, despite coming into the tournament with just two caps to his name.
Iran’s ageing squad are going for one more tilt at success at a World Cup under Carlos Quieroz, and so youth prospects aren’t expected to play a major part in their squad, especially since Allahyar Sayyadmanesh will miss the tournament due to an injury.
But if a young player does have a chance to play, it’s likely to be Charleroi’s Amirhossein Hosseinzadeh, who starred for Iranian giants Esteghlal before arriving in Belgium in the summer. Hosseinzadeh is an energetic attacking midfielder that thrives in transition – a style that should suit Quieroz’s tactical plans.
Danish supporters may be fond of hard-working wide forward Mikkel Damsgaard, but England fans are unlikely to share the same sentiment after the 22-year-old Dane scored a rasping free-kick against the Three Lions at last summer’s European Championships.
The former FC Nordsjælland and Sampdoria attacker remains one of Denmark’s finest attacking talents in this year’s World Cup squad, for his ball-striking technique at dead ball situations alone.
Despite limited Premier League involvement with Brentford this season, Damsgaard remains a reliable option from the bench for Thomas Frank’s side. A creative player from wide areas, typically the left, Damsgaard’s dribbling ability, tendency to pick high-value passes and defensive work-rate make him an incredibly likeable attacker.
Leeds United secured the long-awaited signing of USMNT international Brenden Aaronson this past summer and the 21-year-old has already made big strides in endearing himself to the Elland Road support.
For club and country, the versatile attacking midfielder is an incredibly hard worker out of possession, whilst boasting mesmeric close control on the ball and a knack for wiggling free of opponents in tight spaces. Gregg Berhalter’s side are among the youngest in Qatar and ex-Philadelphia Union and FC Red Bull Salzburg man Aaronson is likely to be central in determining how far the US progress, along with terrier-like clubmate Tyler Adams.
Canada’s first World Cup Finals appearance since 1986 was in no small part secured by the contributions of 22-year-old centre-forward Jonathan David, whose nine goals in this cycle helped Les Rouges top CONCACAF qualification standings.
Formerly of KAA Gent in Belgium, the Brooklyn-born forward has demonstrated his ability as a supporting forward, as well as a player who can feasibly lead the line whilst at Lille OSC and with the Canadian national team.
An intelligent mover in the final third and an efficient, precise ball-striker, there is every chance David will be Canada’s talisman in Qatar.
Sporting a Sideshow Bob-esque hair-do, Manchester United’s Hannibal Mejbri is a hard one to miss and has been a mainstay for Tunisia in recent years, despite not yet turning 20 years old.
Nominally an attacking midfielder, Mejbri is currently experiencing the rigours of the English Championship whilst on loan at Birmingham City, a crucial step in his long-term development after costing Man United 10m€ from AS Monaco as a 16-year-old.
Creative, but sometimes lacking consistent influence in matches, Mejbri’s contributions often arise from dead-ball situations or following a dribble, which invariably end with the languid teenager being felled by an opponent.
Jude Bellingham is arguably the most exciting midfield prospect in world football. Except that he isn’t really a prospect at all, with over 150 senior caps and 15 international caps at just 19 years of age – not to mention becoming the youngest club captain in Bundesliga history.
You would be hard pressed to find a more rounded midfielder with energy to support in both boxes, defensive nous, an ability to glide past players and more recently, the emergence of his goalscoring touch. His intangibles – leadership, mentality and demanding standards – have also stood out in North Rhine-Westphalia.
With England lacking senior options in midfield, Gareth Southgate would be foolish to overlook Bellingham whose all-action game, on paper, provides the perfect mix of attributes alongside Declan Rice. Already In rich form at club level, this could be a breakout tournament for the teenager.
Brighton know a thing or two about recruitment and Moisés Caicedo already looks to be their next big win. Signed from Independiente del Valle last January, it took the midfielder some time to settle in English football but has now become a consistent fixture on the south coast.
His strengths are mostly defensive with great capacity to press, cover large distances and snap into challenges, but his technical quality should not be overlooked with a penchant for flicks and no-touch turns to evade pressure. It’s a testament to his quality that Brighton don’t miss Yves Bissouma.
Having edged through a gruelling CONMEBOL qualifying campaign, Ecuador have been tipped by many as ‘dark horses’ in Qatar thanks to their impressive young spine, featuring Piero Hincapié and Pervis Estupiñan. However, there are no doubts that Caicedo will be central to any success for La Tri.
It would be fair to say that Red Bull Salzburg know a thing or two about attacking talent. In recent seasons, Erling Haaland, Patson Daka and Karim Adeyemi have all flourished with the Austrian club before going on to bigger things – although Noah Okafor has waited longer than most.
However, his patience is finally starting to pay off this season in a new central role, using his speed and hypnotising penalty-box feet to score both domestically and in Europe, despite the sides’ Champions League group stage exit.
Switzerland are likely settled at centre-forward with Breel Embolo and Haris Seferović, but Okafor should have opportunities as a versatile, attacking option whose intense style can exploit tiring defenders. This squad will be full of known quantities – having a joker in the pack could make all the difference.
Okafor is being linked with moves to big clubs, too, meaning this World Cup will be an invaluable opportunity to show everyone what he can do.
Neco Williams has established himself as one of the first names on the teamsheet for a Cymru team that are transitioning into a new era under head coach Rob Page. It coincides with him being one of Nottingham Forest’s bigger signings in their first season back in the Premier League.
He’s made the left wing-back role his own. His enthusiasm and drive is infectious; it gets bums off seats and gives this Cymru team, one which lacks a bit of dynamism, an outlet in attacking transition and a bit of unpredictability in attack. Williams is fast and direct, capable of beating players in one-v-one situations. Playing off the left enables him to cut onto his right foot too.
If Cymru do well at this tournament, they’ll need Williams to assume his share of attacking responsibility. If they can get him into games and squeeze a couple of goals out of him, they have every chance of reaching the knockout stages in what is their first World Cup in 64 years.
Iliman Ndiaye has taken a unique route to the 2022 World Cup. Born in France, his developmental years have seen him bounce from Rouen to Senegal via Marseille, then onto London, Sunday League football with Rising Ballers, and now Sheffield United.
Having joined Sheffield United in 2019, Ndiaye has gradually grown into starting-calibre forward and outstanding EFL talent in three years. His style – moulded by his varied development, defined by its street style – has demanded attention. He’s physical and skilful, robust and technical; he bounces off one defender then beats another with a little bit of skill. He has shades of Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus in style and skillset.
Relatively new to the Senegal set-up, Ndiaye will likely assume a peripheral role at this World Cup – but training every day with the squad may force him into the rotation, especially if Sadio Mané’s injury rules him out.
Almost three years away from the international scene because of two serious knee injuries, Krystian Bielik played the full 90 minutes in the play-off game that qualified Poland for this World Cup. That tells you everything you need to know about how highly he’s appreciated in his homeland.
Bielik has had no luck with injuries at all; they’ve stunted his career ever since he broke into Arsenal’s senior squad and started to make an impression away on loan in the Championship. Nevertheless, the talent remains. Now nominally a defensive midfield, the 24-year-old is a big-bodied athlete that combines physicality with technical flexibility. He passes the ball around well, he can drive past defenders as a ball-carrier, and he uses his physicality to regain possession.
Having fully recovered from the latest injury, Bielik looks set to play an important role for Poland in Qatar. It’s the perfect opportunity to remind people of his ability and, health permitted, potential.
One of a tiny group of 2004-born players at this World Cup, Costa Rica’s Jewison Bennette is one of the youngest players at the tournament. The son and nephew of former Costa Rican internationals, Bennette has already played a full season of senior football for CS Herediano.
He made an eye-catching move to Sunderland in England this past summer and has since become an impact substitute in the Championship, scoring a goal in a 2-2 draw against Watford in the process. Capable of playing off either wing, he’ll likely fulfil a similar role at this World Cup, coming off the bench to try and make an impact for his side.
Kylian Mbappé is the best player of them all. After him, there’s two standouts, Phil Foden and Pedri. Then there’s a strong group of players that includes the likes of Jude Bellingham, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Nico Schlotterbeck, and so on.
Beyond the obvious ones like Aurélien Tchouaméni and Jude Bellingham, keep close tabs on the likes of Kamaldeen Sulemana, Akram Afif and Piero Hincapié. There’s Joško Gvardiol as well.
Argentina and Brazil are our favourites to win the 2022 FIFA World Cup.