With the January transfer window now coming to a close, everyone’s focus will now shift back to their clubs and the important stretch of months ahead for their respective seasons. Most leagues remain intensely close with no signs of the tension wearing down until the final matchday, where players have a chance to display their class under pressure or prove themselves to the big dogs of Europe. With that being said, here are four breakout stars that have been trending upwards throughout the campaign with no signs of slowing down, and what their ideal path should be beyond this season.
Nico Schlotterbeck, CB (Freiburg)
Starting with a relatively known young star, Schlotterbeck not only has proven himself to be a top youngster in the world, but a top talent currently. His current campaign with Freiburg has been beyond exceptional, currently a point out of a Champions League spot and two points out of the top three and the German international has been at the forefront of their domestic push. Easily slotting into Christian Streich’s meticulous system, Schlotterbeck plays a very disciplined, yet assertive style of football on both ends of the pitch, one of the game’s prime examples of a modern defender in today’s game. Though physically imposing, Nico is the opposite of a traditional center-half, with 1.48 shot-creating actions per 90 and 1.43 shots per 90, showing his proactive nature on the attack which would be suitable for any of the world’s top sides. He matches this production on the defensive end as well, averaging about 5.1 tackles and interceptions per 90, leading Freiburg’s defense and only conceding 23 goals this season, tied for the second least behind Bayern München with 19 goals allowed. Schlotterbeck has also played into Streich’s steady and disciplined system, only tallying two yellow cards in 18 matches for Freiburg this season. The 22-year old has already snatched a couple of appearances with the German national team, throwing his name in the ring for Germany’s top defenders of the past year.
As for his future, it has been quite uncertain. Little comes from Schlotterbeck’s camp about wanting a move but he has more than proven himself to be Champions League quality and may want to explore that prospect with the club and coach that have helped him rise to the front of the world’s top young talent. Many fans are eager to see him in the Premier League but a jump to a vastly different league may be a set up for a premature failure, though his aerial dominance and seamless transition into attack may be perfect for Crystal Palace, who not only lack aerial ability in their defense, struggling with set pieces throughout the season, but are also looking to become a truly formidable attacking side in the Prem. Personally, staying in Germany seems like the only viable option to me, he knows the game and there are definitely clubs he can work his way up to if he wants to avoid Bayern München, who have been eyeing him down for some time. A move to Italy would be interesting as well, especially with the defensive necessity top teams in the Serie A have right now, and the quick, end-to-end style could certainly challenge Schlotterbeck to evolve as a player.
Ethan Ampadu, CDM/CB (Venezia)
Staying on the defensive side of things, 21-year old Welshman Ethan Ampadu has been unbelievable for Spezia in the Serie A this season. Currently on loan from Chelsea, Ampadu leads both midfielders and defenders in multiple per 90 categories, offering versatility to plug into the backline or midfield at will. Averaging about 15.4 pressures per 90, he suits the Italian league’s relentless style, providing a firm presence deep into his own half with about 4.8 blocks and interceptions per 90. He hasn’t had as much success as Schlotterbeck so far, but among an average Spezia side, he has been one of their stars for the season while proving himself to be a player of Chelsea’s quality. There are some holes however, but nothing glaring for the style he suits. If Ampadu does want minutes in the midfield going forward however, his progression in attack and overall creativity must improve as defensive midfielders are beginning to trend towards becoming deep-lying playmakers.
As for Ampadu’s future, there is something for him in London, as Chelsea are headed into a defensive mess this summer if they don’t extend players quickly. Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christiensen and Cesar Azpilcueta are all facing an expiring deal this summer and the chance that Chelsea reels everyone back in is unlikely as rumors grow stronger for Rüdiger and Christiensen to pursue a different path. Ampadu could take advantage of this opportunity, but a rigid system that the Blues sport since the entrance of Thomas Tuchel doesn’t lend itself to below average creators in the backline. Another loan or permanent deal in the Premier League could be in the books if he desires a move back to England, but Italy more than suits his style and mid-table teams on the fringe of a top spot in the Serie A may look his way once his loan spell expires.
Julian Alvarez, CF (River Plate)
Probably the biggest and most recognizable name on the list as a result of his rumored transfer to Manchester City from Argentine giant River Plate, Julian Alvarez may be among the hottest young goal scorers in the world. After only playing a combined 12 games in the two seasons leading up to 2021/22, the 21-year-old has been on fire in the Primera Division, tallying 24 goal contributions in 21 games at the moment of writing. He’s a quick and elusive player, able to seamlessly progress the ball from the midfield into the final third as well as displaying a sixth sense for scoring, poaching goals from anywhere. Alvarez has established a death grip on the Primera Division, leading in goals, goal contributions, goal contributions per 90, goals per 90 and shots on target per 90, proving himself to almost be too good for Argentina’s first division, with all due respect.
As mentioned before, Alvarez has almost been confirmed to Manchester City, according to Fabrizio Romano. This would be an excellent step up for the young Argentine but as always, Premier League moves that skip the “stepping stone” clubs of the world are always met with skepticism, especially for South American players. Regardless, he does seem to fit the mold that Pep Guardiola wants in a forward. A progressive player with positive distribution as well as an efficient finisher and willing presser. It would definitely take time for him to adjust if the move is real but the excitement could overshadow a poor start if he even has one.
Amadou Haidara, CM/CDM (RB Leipzig)
The final player on the list but certainly not the least, Amadou Haidara has been among the top midfielders in the world and definitely one in the Bundesliga. The Malian has proved to be an elite box-to-box player, making about 6.75 progressive passses per 90 and 5.73 progressive carries per 90. His overall traditional attacking stats aren’t all impressive but distribution and link-up play is as important to a team and Haidara is essentially Leipzig’s hub for passing. He’s also solid defensively, averaging 2.27 blocks per 90, good enough to be in the 95th percentile of all midfielders in Europe, and 9.72 pressures per 90, an average clip but spectacular for a deep-lying playmaker. The 23-year-old has been one of the few bright spots for a struggling Leipzig and has attracted attention as a result of his form.
It’s no secret that Haidara has been sought after so far this season, with Manchester United being one of the leading teams in the chase with a massive hole in the number six spot for them currently. The Leipzig midfielder would be decent for the Red Devils, especially considering that Ralf Rangnick is the current placeholder manager but it’s only temporary, and it’s up in the air whether United’s new coach would employ a similar system to Rangnick. All this is to say that he may be used solely as a defensive midfielder which would make sense for United as they have a surplus of progressive talent but it may end up wasting Haidara’s potential. A move to a more stable team in Germany would probably be the smartest move. He knows the style and a team like Dortmund or Bayern, who are experiencing a drought in midfield depth, would suit him currently and for his development.