With the European seasons coming to an end and crowning their champions, fans look ahead to a long and busy three months before the start of the next campaign. Taking over the headlines for the summer will be the transfer window and the flurry of moves that are expected to take place before that August deadline. Here are some under-the-radar players to look out for during the hectic window.
Konrad Laimer (CM, RB Leipzig)
Kicking off with a trending name in football, garnering interest from Bayern München and Manchester United, Konrad Laimer seems to be one of football’s most versatile talents.
Valued at about €27.4 million, according to transfermarkt, the 24-year-old Austrian could see a big move in the summer coming off a solid campaign in the Bundesliga. Currently on eight goal involvements in 25 appearances, Laimer’s impact comes beyond his attacking output, with his per 90 metrics suggesting he excels in a fast, end-to-end system. He currently is in the 99th percentile of all midfielders in pressures per 90 at 34.3 with almost five blocks and tackles, making him a premier box-to-box player with a nose for pressing. Stats like these are to be expected from a German league player, especially a Leipzig one, but his defensive performance this season has made him an outstanding talent in Europe. Laimer’s attacking per 90 numbers are all within the 85th to 96th percentile as well, somewhat debunking his seemingly underwhelming production on that end of the pitch. A deeper dive into his output even shows that he is outperforming his expected goal contributions by a staggering amount, producing four assists out of an expected 1.7 and four goals out of an expected 2.3.
In general, there isn’t a glaring hole in Laimer’s game and transfer situation that can turn away a big side from buying him in the next couple of months. His flexibility offers whatever team he goes to more freedom with other players in the squad, something that a side like Manchester United can use if they stick to the midfielders they have now. His high-octane pressing would be perfect for United as well, who now have Erik ten Hag at the helm with Ralf Rangnick backing him in a consultant spot. It would be an ideal move for both sides but Bayern remains a looming option after another summer of poaching Bundesliga talent. Staying put in Leipzig wouldn’t be much of a surprise either, as Champions League football is back on the horizon if they finish the season strong. Certainly, an interesting thread to follow once July rolls around.
Hugo Ekitike (ST, Stade Reims)
Moving over to France, Ligue 1 has a plethora of young talent looking for a big move to put their career in motion, but talks surrounding Stade Reims’ Hugo Ekitike are starting to heat up, and for good reason.
The 6-foot-2 Frenchman has been clinical in front of goal this season for Les Rouges et Blancs, scoring nine goals in 14 starts as well as three assists. With 0.62 non-penalty goals and 2.1 dribbles per 90, the 19-year-old is showing veteran-like production and efficiency along with an active work rate as he sits in the 99th percentile in interceptions among strikers. Like Laimer, there is a massive overperformance in terms of goals scored, as he converted exactly three more goals than expected which can be slightly unsustainable. He does also lack output in other per 90 metrics and there is a clear weakness in his passing, but at such a young age this only means he will get better with more experience.
His current market value is €21.1 million, making him a hefty investment for any side that wants his services but a team with a good track record in development can turn him into a world-class talent. Clubs like Borussia Dortmund come to mind, but there’s already a focus on Donyell Malen and a new incoming transfer in Karim Adeyemi. Leeds United are in desperate need of depth in the forward lines and even with relegation breathing down their necks, the possible sales of Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips can give the Whites room to work out a transfer. Jesse Marsch’s system can also capitalize on his defensive work rate as well, offering a high-pressing style of play that can make use of Ekitike’s ability to intercept the ball. Reims may also just keep him in an attempt to give him a full season to boost his value but this is a lot of money for a side like them, despite their mid-table finish this season.
Ben Brereton Diaz (CF/LM, Blackburn Rovers)
A pick for the football hipsters out there, Ben Brereton Diaz could be a bright prospect in the top five leagues after a prolific 2021-22 campaign in the EFL Championship with Blackburn Rovers.
Somewhat made popular by his nationality switch from England to Chile as a result of a fan campaign to get him international minutes, Brereton Diaz has thrived under that spotlight this season. He put up 25 goal involvements in 34 starts after a couple of underwhelming seasons in the English second division and even with the Rovers’ apparent fall-off, the numbers aren’t necessarily empty, with the team seeing 51 goals while he’s on the pitch and about 1.6 points per match whenever he is healthy. His goals and goals per 90 tally both rank within the top three in the division, only under Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, who broke the Championship’s goal-scoring record, and Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke, who played nine more matches than the Chilean. Though the discussion of what a player could have done if they were healthy are rarely ever productive, these are positive signs going forward if given a full, healthy season.
Brereton Diaz has a value of about €16.9 million, making him a big-money move for any mid-table side in Europe, which should be his aim for the next season. A team of Brighton’s caliber and quality would be ideal for the 23-year-old as Graham Potter plays a very progressive style that favors quick, undersized players. The Seagulls are also in dire need of a play-finisher, infamous for their high expected goals count but low goals scored tally, and Brereton Diaz offers both creation and finishing. The move would also keep him in England if he prefers staying put but a transfer to Italy would be equally ideal if that isn’t a factor for him. Just about any mid-table side in Serie A need an exciting spark down the wing and the league’s offensive evolution can transform the Stoke-native into a great squad player for any of Europe’s top sides.
Stefan Ortega (GK, Arminia Bielefeld)
Heading back to Germany, Arminia Bielefeld’s Stefan Ortega may be past a big money move, but at 29 years of age, there is still plenty of room to get a solid campaign or two from the German shot-stopper.
Coming in at 6-foot-1, Ortega isn’t the biggest keeper, but his metrics suggest that his resourcefulness more than makes up for the lack of size in net. He ranks in the 94th percentile in post-shot expected goals per 90, with a +0.19 rating, simply meaning he saves about 0.19 goals for every 90 minutes he plays. In total, Arminia were expected to concede about 56 goals on the season, but Ortega’s efforts prevented four from going in, an impressive clip for a relegation-doomed side with a porous defense that has also conceded two own goals. His ability on the ball is well above average as well, logging in just under 55 touches per 90 and completing about 99 percent of his attempted passes, excluding long balls. Stats like these are harder to come by if you look at keepers outside of the top sides in Europe, demonstrating Ortega’s quality despite playing for a weaker side, with all due respect. Going back to his shot-stopping, Die Blauen’s keeper also provides a great prescence beyond the penalty area, with 1.1 defensive actions outside of the box per 90, good enough for the 86th percentile for all keepers.
Ortega may not be a exciting prospect, but his expiring deal with Bielefeld this summer almost implies a move away from the German minnows after the season is over. A side like Leceister City should be keen on signing Ortega, as an aging Kasper Schmeichel declines more and more as seasons go by and there seems to be no focus on the side’s defense as it stands. Any team looking for Europa League or Conference League football can make great use of him as well, perhaps as a backup keeper for Roma or Freiburg as they’ll face more games in the following season. It’s a very low-risk move for anyone seeing as his previous contract was so cheap. The one asterisk is a new deal with Bielefeld, which would be more of a symbolic move than a football one, but it remains a possibility nonetheless.