Transfer season is here. While many of the headlines will focus on big rumors about big players in big leagues, there’s a whole lot more soccer out there. So, here are four players from across eastern Europe who might catch a smart team’s eye.
Dani Olmo, Dinamo Zagreb
What’s surprising is that Dani Olmo is on this list—although perhaps by the time you’re reading this, he’ll have signed with one of the major Spanish clubs (for example, it’s rumored that Barcelona, the team of his youth, have made a formal offer) or for Chelsea (who appear to be chasing every sweet young thing in eastern Europe).Some of us have a type, and for me, that type is an attacking midfielder who usually plays on the wing (and truth be told I prefer a left-winger, naturally). I fall more deeply in love if that winger is good with the ball at his feet
The surprise about Olmo isn’t that some would argue that Croatia is not part of “eastern” Europe, it’s that the Barça youth product hasn’t left Dinamo Zagreb already. He signed for Croatia’s most successful team when he was just 16, part of the deal that sent Alen Halilović to Barcelona, and it’s fairly obvious that it’s Dinamo that got the upper hand in that exchange. His four years in Croatia have shaped him into the best player in the domestic league by far, and he showed his skills to a wider audience in this year’s Champions League, first scoring against Shakhtar Donetsk, then recording the opening goal in the eventual 1–4 defeat to Manchester City.
Sure, two European goals does not maketh the man, but a lot more production at home in his domestic league sure does maketh the radar.
Those who paid attention to Dinamo, particularly those of us who also happen to be lovers of Atalanta who were shocked to see them knocked down 4–0 in Zagreb, will have noticed Olmo is the one who directs his side’s play. He’s an attacking midfielder/winger with an excellent dribbling technique (especially noticeable during those Champions League matches) with the ability to change his pace quickly, making it easy for him to lose his marker. This allows Olmo to boss the game all over the field; as his passing sonar shows, he’s capable of picking the ball up all over the place and progressing Dinamo up the field.
This strategy allows him to create opportunities in which Dinamo are two against one in the attacking zone. Plus, he’s on the short side—what more can one ask for in an attacker? Olmo has clearly outgrown the Croatian league, and his talents make it almost certain he’ll be snapped up in January.
Filip Stevanović, Partizan Belgrade
The latest product of Partizan’s famous youth academy made his senior debut last season, when he was just 16—just like Luka Jović did for crosstown rivals Red Star six years ago. And while Stevanović is no imposing central forward (he is, surprisingly, another small attacking winger), it’s not hard to imagine he’ll end up at a club like Real Madrid someday. But, like his fellow Serbian U-21 player, it’s likely he’ll need to jump through a few hoops to get there, given that he’s barely 17, and still isn’t starting in every Partizan match. Then again, the Grobari employed a bit of a rotation system at the beginning of the season, attempting to battle it out for a spot in the next round of the Europa League while closing the 11-point gap between themselves and Red Star at the top of the table. They’ve not succeeded, but it’s not for any lack of talent on Stevanović’s part. The left winger has scored 4 in 14 this season, and tacked on his first European goal against Wales’ Connah’s Quay Nomads, way back in the second round of Europa League qualification. There might be a little bit of good fortune in those shooting numbers, but given his age even the 2.68 expected goals he’s totaled is darn impressive. Clearly, Stevanović is never one to shy away from taking a shot from distance and while that might be something that eventually needs to get drilled out of him, he is, again, only 17 years old.
Truly, though, what’s attractive about the youngster is that he’s simply fun to watch. In addition to his fine technique, he possesses fantastic speed. His quickness makes it almost impossible for defenders to track him, plus he loves implementing a good trick to get past an opponent. Sometimes he goes for the more attractive move, rather than the pragmatic one, but that’s likely to improve as his youthful arrogance decreases (and he is faced with more challenging opposition). Good thing, too, because his love for having the ball at his feet often places him further away from the opponent’s goal than he should be—but all those flicks, tricks, and skills means he’s relentlessly attacking the edges of the penalty area.
Given his bursts of speed and developing skill with the ball at his feet, a mid-sized club from one of the top leagues should seriously consider stepping in and snatching him up for a low price, then molding him into the player his talent suggests he could be.
Fyodor Chalov (Fedor), CSKA Moscow
Fyodor Chalov is perhaps one of the most interesting players to come out of Russia since . . . Andrei Arshavin? We can only hope that if he gets snatched up by the likes of West Ham or Chelsea, he’ll give the same sort of bonkers responses that Arshavin used to come out with. But this is an article on football prowess, not my obsession with Andrei, so back to Chalov. Alas, the 21-year-old is not having the best of seasons, having scored only 5 goals in 19 games thus far. Yet if August is silly season, January is absurdity season, and clubs needing a forward may come forth with large wads of cash for a man who scored 15 goals and provided 7 assists last season. And, while the sample size might be small, it’s hard to argue with these Europa League numbers.
It helps that Chalov is a modern forward, one with a nose for goal yet willing to participate in the buildup. He’ll make his own chances happen, and if left any space in any part of the penalty area, he’ll take a shot, being equally adept with both feet. His profile in Europe is one of a player who doesn’t shoot often, but is careful to pounce on the best goalscoring opportunities.
The lack of shot volume might be a concern if he wasn’t capable of creating chances for his teammates through his credible passing play. Perhaps his biggest downside is his physique; he is by no means weak, but ball protection and aerial duels can sometimes be a problem. He operates better when he has space to outrun his opponents, and even more so when he has teammates who are also able to threaten the defense, which may be why he’s faltering now—his only real help is coming from midfielder Nikola Vlašić, who’s scoring his own goals. It may be he needs to part of a squad that provides a larger number of credible threats, drawing defenders away from Chalov. Personally, this Aston Villa fan would be fine with him stepping in to compensate for Wesley, who’ll be out for the rest of the season.
Dennis Man, Fotbal Club FCSB [Steaua]
Dennis Man, a 21-year-old attacker described as “one to watch,” may already be on your radar screen if you watch a lot of Romanian football, paid close attention during the 2019 U21 Euros, or enjoy watching Malta get beaten in their attempts to qualify for world competition (having earned his first senior cap in 2018, he first scored for the Romanian national team in their 4–0 victory last June). Man, currently playing for the club once known as Steaua Bucharest and now referred to as FCSB, is expected to leave Romania this summer at the latest, but he could be snatched up by a club eager to turn their fortunes around midseason. In fact, Steaua reportedly rejected a €15m bid from Manchester United in 2018, saying the price was too low. Given his buyout clause is €100 million, that’s not terribly surprising. It’s hard to say whether Man is worth that much, but we’ve seen desperate clubs pay ridiculous prices for far less before.
Man has a tendency to dribble past anyone who gets in his way. Usually I prefer my favs to be a bit on the short side, but even at 6’0”, he isn’t physically imposing. Instead, his strength lies in his fantastic technique and his orchestration of play. He tends to cut in from the right, getting into promising positions that help create goals for Steaua—or the opportunity to net one himself. His numbers are about what you’d expect from an attacking midfielder, with 10 scored last season, and 4 after 15 league games. But the thing is, he doesn’t take too many shots, so when he does fire one off, it’s likely to go in. It’s little wonder, then, that Sevilla are rumored to be after him, particularly as his technical qualities seem particularly suited to La Liga.