Central midfielders come in a variety of forms, and the roles occupied have become vaster and more complex as each year rolls over. We now have Mezzalas, Registas, Destroyers, Shuttlers, Box-to-Box players and Playmakers taking up the reigns in midfield. Europe bears the most fruit when it comes to finding ‘world class’ talents in any position, and we are currently blessed with the likes of Jude Bellingham, Pedri and Jamal Musiala tearing it up on the grandest stage. But today we thought it fitting to analyze three alternative candidates, that could one day reach that ‘world class’ stardom. Here is our analysis of the strongest up and coming central midfielders under the age of 21.
Enzo FernándezEmbed from Getty Images
From San Martín to Lisbon, Enzo Fernández has taken one hell of a journey. His meteoric rise now continues in the Primeira Liga, where he’s exhibiting his spectacularly high ceiling on a consistent basis. Having played in Argentina his whole life up until his transfer to Benfica in June, you would imagine the young midfielder to require a lengthy adaptation period to familiarize himself with European surroundings. Fortunately for As Águias, it’s been nothing of the sort.
Already, the Argentine is ordering his teammates about, showcasing his excellent communication skills, vital to a central-midfield role at the top of the game. He prefers operating centrally but can sometimes be seen in the left half-space next to his midfield teammate, Florentino Luís.
Equally efficient both in and out of possession, Fernández rarely moves too far forward into the attack. His clever anticipation makes him a valuable asset in this area, with a well-disciplined mindset in his 3 tackles + interceptions per game in league play. This allows the midfielder to make himself a key destroyer in transitional moments, holding his position in front of the back-line. This has come to life in the UEFA Champions League above all else, where Enzo’s made 4.3 tackles per game in a group that includes PSG and Juventus. Attacking transitions don’t tend to involve the 21-year-old, although he’s frequently the one to start the move from his aptitude in winning possession.Embed from Getty Images
But while Fernández holds his own in defensive phases, his key attributes exist in possession of the ball, where he can make himself something of a ‘Deep-Lying Playmaker’. The Benfica man has accumulated 109.9 touches per game this season, with 1.8 key passes and a 90% pass success rate. He’s completed more passes and long passes per 90 than any other player in Portugal, even completing 77% of his long passes and nearly 82% of his forward thrusts.Embed from Getty Images
Predominantly, this can be accredited to his astute awareness of the surroundings, allowing him to create more unpredictability with his play. During early build-up phases, the young midfielder can act as the central pivot for Benfica, allowing his more offensive teammates to position themselves higher. Fortunately, Enzo’s strength and power makes him a difficult player to dispossess, and so he even makes himself a strong carrier of the ball in those left-half-spaces. If the 21-year-old can just heighten his defensive dueling to the extent of his progressive passing, Enzo Fernández will become a player of interest for every top level team.
A determined character no doubt, Enzo Fernández wonderfully possesses the warrior mentality and aggression needed to make it as a top-level defensive midfielder. He’d be a wonderful suitor for a club like Real Madrid, where he can dominate the midfield in a tough-tackling Casemiro fashion, whilst playing progressive passes for fun around the pitch. For now, he’s playing a pivotal part in Benfica’s stunning sixteen game unbeaten streak to start this season.
Kenneth TaylorEmbed from Getty Images
Ajax’ surprising new breakout talent comes in the form of Dutchman Kenneth Taylor. Having risen through the club’s youth ranks, Ajax fans already adore his quick-thinking ‘pass and move’ style that makes him an idyllic player in their system. Without possessing the abundant technical talent of a player like Christian Eriksen or Frenkie de Jong, he still holds the mental proficiency to thrive at the top of European football.
The recently capped Dutch international is always on the move, scanning for the space to receive away from the opposition. He works tirelessly to ensure Alfred Schreuder‘s triangles maintain their structure, particularly in the wide areas. The young midfielder plays much of his game centrally, ahead of Edson Álvarez, while defensively, he becomes the more central-defensive midfielder, holding position as Álvarez presses. Once Ajax have possession, Taylor often spends the early build-up phases drifting over to the left, supporting his defenders and allowing for rotations to occur further up the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
On the ball, the Dutchman likes to keep things short and simple. In a day and age where many players are consistently belittled for using too much flair or not releasing the ball early enough, Taylor does neither and plays in that ‘Xavi’-esque role to keep the game ticking along. He tends to only play short passes or through balls, keeping the ball low and moving it fast. This suits the one-two touch interplay that Schreuder loves to see, and allows others to showcase their exuberance in attack instead.
There is also an element of explosive unpredictability to his play, being able to carry the ball forward and draw fouls where necessary, combined with the decision-making to pick out an adept penetrative pass. Overall, it’s really the way he suits a high tempo, possession-based style of football that enables Taylor to utilize his impeccable space seeking, and constantly combine in those Ajax triangles throughout the match.Embed from Getty Images
Defensively, the 20-year-old is not necessarily the most intimidating physical presence, but he reads the game well and nicely steps in to make vital interceptions. His defensive assets come more in the form of off-the-ball scanning and positional awareness, where he can nicely assess when to track his man or when to hold the line.
But with his standout ability on the ball, a club like Arsenal could be a nice suitor for Kenneth Taylor and his one-touch exuberance to keep the game ticking along. He likes to drift up into those left-half-spaces like Granit Xhaka, and working on the physical side of his game will only increase his case to one day become a Premier League player.
Nicolas SeiwaldEmbed from Getty Images
The most under the radar of our selections, Nicolas Seiwald has enjoyed a fantastic start to the 2022-23 season in Austria. The 21-year-old combines a strong physicality with intelligent progressive passing, making him one of the most sought-after midfielders in the game at the moment.
Having obtained nine international caps for Austria at such a young age, Rangnick will likely become reliant on the Salzburg mainstay in boosting his side’s defensive presence and attacking variety over the next few years. As for clubs, a move is expected in the near future but why is the Austrian Bundesliga star so well sought after.
His heatmap paints the picture of an energetic force capable of covering ground all across the pitch, as is Salzburg’s style of play to dominate and control matches from start to finish.
The Austrian often positions himself deep in the build-up, and simultaneously makes himself useful for breaking up the play in an authoritative manner. He’s the central focal point of his side’s defensive structure. Playing for Salzburg, this becomes even more imperative to learn different defensive arts, as they switch styles of play between the Champions League and Austrian Bundesliga. Fortunately for the number 13, he suits this impeccably because of his reliability in all thirds of the pitch. Constantly on the alert to his surroundings, Seiwald excels under pressure, and perfectly positions himself in the right places to receive the ball or break up the play.Embed from Getty Images
Defensively, Seiwald is an energetic beast that masterfully times his tackles. He’s won nearly 75% of his defensive duels, significantly more than the two players referenced above. From being a capable aerial presence (80% win rate in the league) to a tough tackler (2 per game), Seiwald nicely holds his own in that defensive midfield role, ensuring his defenders have very little defending to do. He’s even made a name for himself in the Champions League this season, combing 2.4 tackles per 90 in the Champions League with a 64% success rate.
Going forward, he’s also provided an air of bravado and flash into the attack, with 1.8 key passes per game and an 86% dribble success rate. He can play short or long, progressively, sideways or backwards, but most importantly he does it with efficiency, creating chances that allow his teammates to thrive. It’s safe to say that it won’t be long before Seiwald makes his move, and a club like Tottenham or Leipzig could thrive under his energetic passing from deep, and defensive stability in behind.
So there it is! Analyzing three of Europe’s most promising central midfielders, who have gone slightly under the radar in all the fan-fare about Bellingham and co. Be sure to check out more of our Transfer Market Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon! 👊⚽
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