Welcome to the ESPN FC hotlist, which each month highlights some of the most in-form talent aged 23 or under across Europe.
Generally, young but established stars like Manchester City‘s Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund‘s Jude Bellingham or Barcelona‘s Gavi aren’t included — otherwise they’d be on the list every month — but we’ll shine a light on some of those who deserve praise for their performances and who could potentially be European football’s next big name.
Next week we’ll also have a look at the top performers from the Under-20 World Cup currently happening in Argentina.
Signed from Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer last summer, the incisive winger-playmaker capped a sensational full season at senior level in style as he outpaced and outsmarted the AZ Alkmaar defenders to score both goals in a 2-1 away victory last Sunday.
In addition to being a fountain of creativity (1.6 key passes and 4+ successful dribbles per 90 minutes) and end product — he finished the season as the Eredivisie’s joint leading scorer with 19 goals — Simons is also enthusiastic in his pressing duties. The Netherlands international’s exceptional performances begs the question of whether he has played his last game for PSV, as there are plenty of interested clubs.
Yamal became the youngest player to feature for Barcelona in a league match when he was brought on for Gavi in the 83rd minute against Real Betis on April 29. Then he was selected to play for Spain at the U17 European Championship in Hungary and has been in outstanding form.
Though Spain lost 3-1 to France in the semifinal, Yamal has arguably been the best player at the tournament. With four goals (two of which were genuine world-class efforts) the prodigal talent — who has been likened to Ansu Fati and, inevitably, Lionel Messi — has shown why he’s a potential star in the making.
Naturally skilful and equipped with remarkable vision, Yamal has delighted the crowds with no-look passes, quick turns and sublime first touches. On the evidence of his performances in Hungary, he could be a regular member of the Barcelona first team already next season.
Arguably the most productive LaLiga player over the past couple of months, Jackson has found the net eight times in his last seven matches. In addition to his goal-scoring exploits, he’s at his most effective in the transitional phase where his pace, physicality and one-vs.-one abilities make him hard to deal with for defenders.
The Gambia-born Senegal international has also improved other parts of his game: his first touch is getting more reliable and he appears more aware of his teammates’ movement when dropping deep to link the play. He has also shown growing maturity as he unselfishly set up two goals against Girona.
Earlier in the month, Wahi famously got on the scoresheet four times in a Ligue 1 match against Lyon, yet still ended up losing 5-4 as former Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette also netted four! But while spectacular finishing — astonishing overhead kicks and extravagant chips count among his 17 goals in the league this season — brought the France U21 international to prominence, there’s so much more to his game.
Usually tasked with spearheading the attack, his style of play is more akin to an old-fashioned roaming “second striker” than a centre-forward. Wahi utilises his acceleration, outstanding movement and dribbling skills to deceive opponents and, when the space opens up, any defender is fair game in a one-vs.-one sprint duel.
His remarkable form for Montpellier has inevitably sparked speculation over a potential summer move, with Arsenal and AC Milan frequently linked.
Some fans may have been surprised when Dortmund boss Edin Terzic called upon the 17-year-old, ahead of more famous names on the substitutes bench, with his side trailing Mainz by 2-0 in the Bundesliga title decider at the weekend. Though the game ended in a 2-2 draw and heartbreak for Dortmund as Bayern Munich pipped them to the post, it was clear that Terzic knew what he was doing.
The quick, nimble, technically brilliant teenager was the ideal player to make things happen against Mainz’s ultra-low block. During the course of his debut, Duranville registered two key passes and kept beating opponents for fun (seven successful dribbles.)
Although he couldn’t make the final difference, the introduction of the €8.5m January signing from Anderlecht provided a ray of hope for the future.
Having built his reputation as an energetic, speedy right winger, Isaksen’s scoring rate has taken off recently after he moved to a more central position. Since the turn of the year, the Denmark U21 international has scored 13 times in 14 appearances and, with the ability to finish with either foot, he has proven hard for his opponents to mark.
With his excellent high-speed dribbling, Isaksen thrives on exploiting space in wide areas or behind the defensive line. Mentally alert, he often pounces on rebounds and is clever at finding the right space to run into without the ball.
There’s every chance he might be the next Danish Superliga star to leave for a top league, while his goals in the Europa League against Lazio and Feyenoord would have reassured any travelling scouts that he’s ready to make the step up to a higher level.
Finding a young right-back with high potential who has not already been spotted by Europe’s elite clubs is a struggle, but Salzburg’s No. 70 is one to keep an eye on. Born in Austria to Bosnian parents, Dedic is already a regular international for the Balkan country and scored a magnificent left-footed goal against Iceland in March.
What makes Dedic particularly attractive to watch is his energy and commitment. By always playing on the front foot, he’s quick to close down opponents (six interceptions per 90 minutes) and constantly pushes forward to provide an outlet down the right flank.
May’s U23 hotlist: Yamal, Simons, Duranville among the stars