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Bellingham, Gakpo & more: 5 Breakout Stars at the World Cup

We have a couple of days off in terms of on-pitch action at the 2022 World Cup, but that won’t stop our daily column.

Instead of matches, today we will take a look at some young players who have impressed in Qatar so far (in no particular order):

Jude Bellingham

Even though he is just 19 years old, it almost seems unfair to include Jude Bellingham in this list since he already has established himself as a key player at a Champions League club.

The English midfielder started over 32 league matches last season and has started every match bar one cup tie for Borussia Dortmund this season, captaining the team on occasion too.

His impressive performances prompted Gareth Southgate to give him his first start at a major tournament in England’s tournament opener against Iran, where he scored the opening goal and put in a very impressive performance overall.

He has not looked back since, starting both of the subsequent group matches and keeping his place even as England switched from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3. He remained in the side as the knockouts began against Senegal in the round of 16, where he was named the player of the match.

Those who have been following his progress at Dortmund would not have been too surprised by Bellingham at the World Cup, as he has simply continued to show the qualities he made apparent while playing for his club side.

The midfielder is well beyond his years in terms of maturity, and this shows up in the consistency of his performances. He can basically do it all – defensive work, ball progression, ball carrying, chance creation, posing a goal-threat and everything in between, as his pizza chart from the season.

Everyone has been singing Bellingham’s praises at the World Cup, but the party that is probably the happiest about his performances are Borussia Dortmund, who can add another £10 million to his pricetag with every match he plays.

Cody Gakpo

Bellingham has probably been England’s best player at the World Cup, but for the Netherlands, Cody Gakpo certainly has been the most important.

The PSV Eindhoven forward became the first Dutchman to score in his first three World Cup matches as he helped his side advance as group winners.

What is more impressive is the fact that Gakpo has done so while playing in a slightly unfamiliar position. He has played as a left winger for his club, but has started in a front-two for the Netherlands in Qatar.

Therefore, we have seen a slightly different version of Gakpo at this tournament. In the Eredivisie, Gakpo has obviously stood out with nine goals this season, but his 12 assists are perhaps even more impressive.

In a more central role for his country, Gakpo has naturally not been able to showcase his one-on-one dribbling and chance creation through crossing as much as he has done in the league, but his goal-scoring and ball-striking have certainly caught the eye.

The 23-year-old Dutchman is being linked with several of Europe’s top clubs including Arsenal and Manchester United, so his situation will be one to monitor in the upcoming transfer window.

Joško Gvardiol

At the other end of the pitch, Croatia have relied on the defensive contribution of young Joško Gvardiol to qualify for back-to-back World Cup quarter-finals.

The 20-year-old centre-back has made the third-most clearances among players at the tournament with 25, helping Croatia keep two clean sheets and concede just two goals in their other matches.

His most notable contribution was his last-gasp clearance in stoppage time of Croatia’s last group game against Belgium, where they would have been eliminated had they conceded.

Gvardiol’s club side is RB Leipzig, who are among the better teams in the Bundesliga. They like to keep possession, and in such situations the Croatian centre-back stands out with his on-ball qualities and progressive passing in particular.

Chelsea were reportedly interested in Gvardiol last summer, but they will have much more competition now, which will enable Leipzig to push their asking price further up.

Mohammed Kudus

If you read our tactical preview of the World Cup, you would have already known about Mohammed Kudus since we highlighted him as Ghana’s key player, but few would have expected him to steal the spotlight in the way he did.

His versatility was in full display as he started the three group games in three different positions — on the left of a three-player midfield, as a right winger and up front.

He stood out in each of those games, playing a key role in the build-up to Ghana’s first goal against Portugal, bagging a brace against South Korea, and winning a penalty when the scores were level against Uruguay.

As we predicted, his technical quality and danger in the final third stood out in all cases, as it has done for his club side Ajax this season.

Everton were close to signing Kudus in the summer, but he most likely is out of their price range by now as many of Europe’s elite clubs are said to be interested in the Ghanaian international’s signature.

Enzo Fernández

All the players we have previously seen had starting spots from their very first group games, but Enzo Fernández very much had to earn his place in his side after initially being used as a substitute.

He could not make an impact on the score when Argentina were trailing and eventually suffered a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia, but proved to be a game-changer in their must-win match against Mexico, where he scored a wonderful second goal to seal the result.

He also seemingly solved their ball progression issues in midfield and went on to get an assist in his first start against Poland.

The 21-year-old midfielder’s performances appear even more impressive when you consider that he is playing a relatively deeper role for his national team than he does for Benfica, where he is deployed on the left of defensive midfield in a 4-2-3-1 but has the license to get forward.

That should explain his impressive underlying numbers in these attacking stats, and he obviously is great on the ball in midfield too.

Fernández only joined Benfica from River Plate last summer and has a nine-digit release clause in his contract, so the Portuguese side are in a very strong position for negotiations if any of the world’s biggest sides come asking for him (and they certainly will sooner or later).

Stats courtesy Stats Perform via Fbref.

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