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Ajax, Reece James and more: It’s time to take these clubs and players seriously

Call it the “Leicester Effect.” A soccer season is a long and arduous creature, capable of taking even the most promising of upstart stories and squashing it under the weight of money and time. We react to teams’ fast starts and fun individual breakout performances, but by May the same teams as ever top a given table, and the same players occupy the collective Best XI lists.

Some breakthroughs remain broken through, however. Lille won Ligue 1 last year, after all, and every young superstar, from Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland on down the list, was once a mere up-and-comer.

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With more than three months gone in the 2021-22 campaign, certain upstarts appear more sturdy than others. If you’re looking for a new hipster-friendly team to follow, or you’re wondering which hot, young prospects appear most likely to turn into hot, young stars, look no further. It’s time to buy in on the list below and even if they eventually fall just short or let us down, we’re going to enjoy ourselves along the way.

Jump to: FC Salzburg | Ajax | Amine Gouiri | Union St. Gilloise | Lorenzo Pellegrini | UEFA Europa Conference League | West Ham | Reece James | Real Sociedad | Jonathan David | Jude Bellingham | Vinicius Jr.


Say this much for the Red Bull conglomerate: They’re a patient bunch. Sometimes they strike gold, as they have in Brazil, where Red Bull Bragantino went from a third-division club in 2018 to the first division in 2020, and borderline top-four and Copa Sudamericana runner-up in 2021. But in Europe they have long since accepted that their projects take a while. RB Leipzig‘s rise in Germany certainly proved that, but so has that of the sister club in Salzburg.

Speaking of those EloFootball ratings referenced above, the club formerly known as SV Austria Salzburg averaged a ranking of 242nd in the five years before Red Bull got involved in 2005. They rose to an average of 110.8 over the next eight seasons (2005-06 to 2012-13), then finished in the 40s for three straight years, then the 30s for two, and now the 20s for three straight. They’re 22nd at the time of writing. No matter who leaves — Duje Caleta-Car, Amadou Haidara, Valon Berisha and Valentino Lazaro in 2018-19, Erling Haaland, Stefan Lainer and Takumi Minamino in 2019-20, Dominik Szoboszlai and Hee-chan Hwang in 2020-21, Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu in 2021-22 — they keep inching up the rankings.

Thanks to a favorable draw, they have a chance to make their biggest statement yet in the coming months. After having to battle Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in last season’s Champions League, they drew Group G — Lille, Wolfsburg, Sevilla — this time around, and despite back-to-back losses they still have a 66% chance of advancing to the knockout rounds.

After this season, they will probably lose star 19-year-old forward Karim Adeyemi to a bigger club. Maybe midfielder Mohamed Camara, too. And if recent history is any indication, they’ll get even better.

Ajax

It’s odd thinking of Ajax as an upstart. The four-time European champions win the Dutch Eredivisie about as often as not — 35 times in all, six times in the last 11 seasons — and while it’s been nearly 27 years since their last Champions League title, they did come within a heartbeat of the finals in 2019, which feels like 27 years ago, but isn’t.

This isn’t about Ajax looking good, however. They do that a lot. This is about how good Ajax looks.

They began the season with a 4-0 loss to PSV Eindhoven in the Johan Cruyff Shield, and it appears to have angered them. They’ve outscored 13 Eredivisie opponents by a combined 42-2. They beat PSV by a score of 5-0 on Oct. 24. They opened Champions League play by pounding Sporting CP, 5-1, and ran circles around Borussia Dortmund in two wins by a combined 7-1. They needed just four matches to clinch advancement to the knockout stages and despite poor league strength, they currently rank fifth overall, mere decimal points behind defending Champions League winner Chelsea, in FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings. After matchday 5, SPI gives Ajax an 11% chance of winning the Champions League, fifth-best odds overall.

Veterans Dusan Tadic, Sebastien Haller and Steven Berghuis have created the most prolific partnership in Europe, combining for 29 goals and 23 assists in 17 Eredivisie and Champions League matches this year, while youngsters like defensive midfielder Ryan Gravenberch, winger Antony and center-back Jurrien Timber brings loads of speed and energy to the proceedings. Erik ten Hag has been linked to the Manchester United job, along with plenty of other openings through the years, but he probably isn’t in a hurry to leave — doing so might decrease his odds of winning a Champions League title at some point.

You could call Nice an “unlucky second” right now in Ligue 1. Les Aiglons have the best xG differential in the league — better than even PSG — and they’re in second despite a point deduction stemming from crowd trouble in a rivalry match against Marseille in September. The abandoned match actually cost them multiple points: They were leading when it was abandoned, and they only managed a draw in the neutral-site replay in October.

The fan issues cast a pall on what’s otherwise been an incredible start to the season. Manager Christophe Galtier came to town after leading Lille to a surprise league title in 2020-21, and while fellow newcomers like forward Andy Delort (five goals, 17 chances created) and 21-year-old defenders Melvin Bard (from Lyon) and Jean-Clair Todibo (Barcelona) have provided a spark, Galtier has helped a holdover find a new level as well. Amine Gouiri, also just 21, has combined eight goals with 26 chances created this season; in almost the exact same number of league minutes, Gouiri is one goal ahead of PSG’s Kylian Mbappe, and just one chance behind.

Nothing about what Nice or Gouiri is doing feels particularly unsustainable, especially considering what Galtier has done at his previous clubs. They are fun and aggressive and have a solid shot at making their first Champions League group stage appearance next season.

Union St. Gilloise

Like Aston Villa or Hertha Berlin, USG was a Belgian powerhouse in the early 20th century, either winning the first-division title or finishing runner-up a whopping 19 times between 1903-35. The honors have been minimal since, but they’re currently putting together one of the most stunning runs you’ll ever see.

In their first season since promotion from the second division back in the top flight, they’ve darted to a seven-point lead in the Pro League, and they’ve done it with complete domination: 40 goals scored (most in the league) and 14 allowed (fewest). They’ve won six matches in a row by a combined 23-5. Forwards Deniz Undav and Dante Vanzeir — formerly stars at Germany’s third-division Meppen and Belgium‘s Beerschot respectively — have combined for 23 goals and 15 assists thus far, and manager Felice Mazzu’s 3-1-4-2 is unique and dominant.

Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone has tinkered with said formation; maybe he should visit Brussels and take some notes.

Plenty of attackers have seen their stats thrive under Jose Mourinho, from Didier Drogba to Harry Kane. Pellegrini is a central midfielder, but he’s found a new level of attacking play since Mourinho arrived in Rome. A factor in Serie A since he was 19, the 25-year-old hinted at a different gear over the past couple of seasons, producing nine assists and averaging 0.48 expected assists (xA) plus expected goals (xG) per 90 in 2019-20, then ramping up his scoring with a career-high nine (0.24 per 90) last season.

This season to date: Five goals (0.31 per 90), 40 chances created (3.4 per 90) and 0.67 xA+xG per 90. He’s on pace for 15 goals, six assists and well over 100 chances and 150 ball recoveries. He’s got three goals and an assist in the UEFA Europa Conference League as well. His slow but steady improvement through the years suggests this could be a real and sustainable leap, and he’s just begun to enter his athletic peak years.

UEFA Europa Conference League

Oh great, you probably said when you first heard that UEFA was creating a third continental tournament to fall under the Champions and Europa Leagues. Just what the world needs: another European competition no one cares about. This will totally solve all these growing inequality issues! I get it. I do. But as a college football writer whose favorite moment of a given season is when the head coach of a 6-6 mid-major school cries while celebrating his team’s win in some obscure postseason bowl like the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl or the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama — these are real games, by the way — I was guaranteed to love this competition.

And here’s the thing: I’m right to love this competition, too.

This has turned out to be the perfect competition for the Bodo/Glimts of the world, those fun, optimistic and attacking sides that are a little too small to do damage (yet!) in the Champions League, but care a lot about doing well here. Watching the Norwegian champs destroy Mourinho’s Roma 6-1 at home, then watching them defend with everything they had late in a 2-2 return-trip in Rome, was exhilarating.

There’s a lot of high-class football to be found in Europe, and the Conference League has made it a lot easier to scope out. It’s provided a rousing landing spot for super-middleweight clubs like Basel, Feyenoord, AZ Alkmaar, Gent and Maccabi Tel Aviv, and while the larger clubs in the competition have been inconsistent in their motivation — Roma and Tottenham Hotspur are both second in their group, while Germany’s representative, Union Berlin, is last in its group following losses to Feyenoord (twice) and Slavia Prague — that could change once the lengthy, 24-team knockout rounds (the winners of the eight groups get byes, while the second-place teams face third-place teams from the Europa League) begin and the trophy is in sight.

The winner of this tournament is likely to come from a pool of teams like Spurs, Roma, Rennes, Feyenoord, AZ, Slavia and Gent, plus potential Europa third-place teams like PSV, Leicester or Celtic. The Bodo/Glimts and Maccabis will have a fighting chance as well. Whether you’re watching to scout players who might end up on your own team one day or you just like fun mid-major football, you should put aside your cynicism and watch.

Granted, the Hammers could have done this piece a favor by not losing to Wolves on Saturday and remaining within three points of the top of the Premier League table. Alas, they fell 1-0 and now sit in fourth place. Still, FiveThirtyEight gives them the best odds of finishing fourth — they have a 32% chance of qualifying for next year’s Champions League, ahead of Manchester United (19%), Arsenal (18%) and Spurs (10%) — and even if they pull a Leicester, falling just short of the top four, they have backed up every bit of last year’s growth, and then some.

Of the clubs in the EloFootball.com top 50 right now, four boasted their best-ever ratings this week: No. 49 Brighton, No. 27 Sporting CP, No. 24 Real Sociedad (we’ll get to them in a bit) and No. 17 West Ham. David Moyes’ Hammers leaped from 16th to sixth in the Premier League last year after the acquisition of players like midfielder Tomas Soucek and attacking midfielder Said Benrahma. Despite adding Europa League play to their schedule this year, they didn’t spend a ton, adding Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma and CSKA Moscow winger Nikola Vlasic late in the transfer window. They haven’t gotten much of anything from Vlasic, but Zouma has played well, while Declan Rice, Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen have all raised their respective games.

West Ham is far more vertically-minded and less possession-oriented than England‘s other top teams, but they still average more shots and touches in the attacking third than opponents, and they are absolutely one of England’s top teams.

James was good enough under Frank Lampard last season that I ranked him the second-best young player in the Premier League in January, ahead of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and others. Granted, some on Twitter had a bit of a problem with that, but if they weren’t a fan of Lampard’s version of James, they have to have come around on the version Thomas Tuchel has helped to craft.

Under Tuchel, the 21-year old (for a few more days) James has moved from a full-back role to wing-back, and in just nine league matches and 547 minutes, he’s contributed four goals and four assists — three and two since Oct. 23. He’s winning 60% of his duels, and he’s gone from rates of 1.6 chances created and 0.20 xA+xG per 90 to 2.8 and 0.44, respectively.

In advance of Chelsea’s Champions League match with Juventus this week, Tuchel told media, “He is improving. He takes responsibility and it is needed. He is far from finished in his development. He is super young, has all the potential to be a big and important player for Chelsea.” No offense, Coach, but he already is. He even torched a ball into the back of the net against Juventus to prove it.

Real Sociedad

For a brief period in the early 1980s, the Basque region ruled Spain. Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao each won two LaLiga titles before ceding control of the league back to Barcelona and Real Madrid. La Real have been competitive for most of the time since (bar a brief stint in the second division in the late-2000s), but they have finished in LaLiga’s top four just four times since their 1982 title.

FiveThirtyEight currently gives them a 57% chance of finishing there this season and a 9% chance of winning their first league title in 40 years. They’re in second place, just one point behind Real Madrid, and haven’t lost since a meek season-opening loss to Barcelona. They’re also unbeaten in Europa League play (albeit with three draws).

Now, I must temper this by saying that this is Real Sociedad. They were tied for first after 13 matches last year and finished fifth. They were tied for first after 12 matches in 2019-20 and finished sixth. This season doesn’t have to be any different, but if it is, it’s because of depth. Stars Mikel Oyarzabal and Alexander Isak — plus warhorse David Silva — have all battled injury this fall, but midfielder Mikel Merino has found another level (he’s one of the best midfielders in the league) while center-back Robin Le Normand has seen a star turn as well. With all their key pieces healthy, they might have their best chance yet of maintaining this level of play through the winter months.

I’ve already tried to send him to AC Milan this month, but he deserves a mention in this piece as well. The Brooklyn-born Canadian is just 21 years old and improving by leaps and bounds each season. After scoring 18 league goals (and five more in Europa League qualifying and group play) for Gent in 2019-20, he made a $30 million move to Lille and immediately found his footing, contributing 13 goals and two assists to Les Dogues’ surprise run to the Ligue 1 title.

With Burak Yilmaz‘s production tailing off and Lille’s defense briefly cratering after coach Galtier left for Nice — they allowed 23 league goals last season and have already given up 21 in 2021-22 — Lille has desperately needed David to raise his game.

He’s done so. He’s scored 10 league goals already, and he’s on pace for 25. In the past two weeks, he’s scored the game-winner for Canada against Costa Rica in World Cup qualification (he’s got seven goals and four assists in 12 qualification matches), scored a brace in a 2-2 draw with Monaco and, on Tuesday, scored the game-winner against RB Salzburg to push Lille to the top of its Champions League group.

The best part: He could still be years from his peak!

Haaland has missed most of the past two months with injury and is likely out for at least another month. Giovanni Reyna has been out even longer. Star signing Donyell Malen has struggled to produce. The Borussia Dortmund lineup has been under enough strain that only five players have logged over 800 league minutes, and two of them are 32-year old Marco Reus and Axel Witsel. After a spry start, they lost three straight Champions League matches and got relegated to the Europa League.

And yet, there stands BVB, only one point behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race. Reus and other veterans like Julian Brandt and Raphael Guerreiro have certainly had large roles to play in the team’s steady water-treading, but perhaps the biggest reason is the steely-eyed midfielder who’s directing the show, winning 56% of his duels, completing 84% of his often-aggressive passes. He frequently raised his game in the Champions League, too.

Bellingham doesn’t even turn 19 until next June, but in the past year he’s already transformed himself from future star to star. He has raised his game during BVB’s injury issues, and if the team manages to get itself healthy early in 2022, its ceiling could be even more immense than we thought thanks to its ace midfielder.

“Don’t pass to him, brother. He’s playing against us.” Karim Benzema was caught on camera saying that to left-back Ferland Mendy during a Champions League match last October. It has long been assumed that he was referring to left-winger Vinicius Junior, to whom he didn’t make another pass during the match in question.

Though there have been few other signs that the two might have a particularly tendentious relationship, the incident certainly helped to affirm a certain view of the flashy, but inconsistent, young Brazilian winger’s play. At some point in the past year, however, the inconsistency began to melt away. As good as Benzema has been this season (15 goals and eight assists in 17 La Liga and Champions League matches), Vini Jr., now 21, has almost matched him with 10 goals and five assists among 37 total chances created.

Finishing had been an issue — he had turned 15.3 xG into just 10 goals in the two competitions over the previous two seasons — but he has overachieved his xG so far this season. Better yet, it doesn’t feel like he’s playing above his head at all. He could be just getting started, and it’s still eight months before his 22nd birthday.

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