Real Madrid’s Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema might be gone, but LaLiga is still loaded with talented players, many of whom have their whole careers ahead of them.
Continually producing and nurturing young players, there seems to be a conveyor belt of talent in Spain’s top flight. With so many highly rated youngsters poised for bigger roles again this season, the 2023-24 LaLiga campaign is sure to produce another class of breakout youngsters.
ESPN’s resident scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen picks out some of the top players aged 22 or younger who could make their mark this season.
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Lamine Yamal, 16, FW, Barcelona
It could come a year too early for the winger, but his performance in the Joan Gamper Trophy win against Tottenham this week will have left Xavi wondering whether he should keep the 16-year-old in the first-team setup. (Though Lamal has already become the youngest player to ever appear for the first team in an official game.)
With just 10 minutes to go vs. Tottenham, Yamal helped turn the game in Barcelona’s favour. Not only did he set up Ansu Fati with a sublime assist for the equaliser, but through magnificent flair and quick thinking he also started the moves that led to another two late goals to drive Barca to a 4-2 win.
Arguably the star of the European Under-17 Championship earlier this year, Yamal usually drifts in from a wide-right position or picks up smart positions in space in the front line. Never afraid to get on the ball, he’s extremely constructive with it and is always looking to break lines with dribbles, passes, or test the goalkeeper from distance.
Abde Ezzalzouli, 21, FW, Barcelona
The Morocco international experienced a mini breakthrough while on loan at Osasuna last season and has taken that excellent form into preseason at Barcelona (he even got on the scoresheet against Tottenham this week.) Alongside the emergence of 20-year-old midfielder Fermín López, he’s been one of the positives this summer.
Though Abde tends to play on the opposite wing, the impending departure of Ousmane Dembélé to PSG may open up a chance for him to shine for the Spanish champions. Abde already showed promise for Barcelona during the 2021-22 season but, as proven in preseason, he’s grown with age and the added exposure to senior football at Osasuna.
Brilliantly skilled in one-vs.-ones (3.5 successful dribbles last season), the winger is particularly hard to read and anticipate. He controls the ball expertly at high speed, is hard to knock off balance and is able to hit the target from long range too.
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Arda Güler, 18, AM, Real Madrid
Despite being ruled out for parts of the club’s preseason with a knee injury, there are huge expectations for the Turkey international once he’s fit. Real Madrid shook off competition from an ensemble of elite European top clubs to sign him for his €17.5 million release clause and he is arguably the most promising Turkish player for generations.
An attacking midfielder who can operate across any role in the final third, but prefers to start his movements from wide right, Guler has exceptional skill and close control. He also has an elusive way of escaping tight situations with the ball at his feet.
Courtesy of a wonderful left foot, Guler is a gifted playmaker with a penchant for finding gaps with weighted passes, while he can create imbalance in wide areas with his tremendous one-vs.one skills (6+ successful dribbles per 90 minutes last season.)
Luiz Henrique, 22, FW, Real Betis
Signed from Fluminense a year ago for €8m, the Brazilian’s impact grew as his debut season progressed and he showed his significant potential on multiple occasions. As a left-footed winger operating on the right, Luiz Henrique uses his outstanding technical ability to take on defenders to great effect. He approaches his markers with an instinctive resourcefulness, often picking the right means — quick acceleration when space allows, clever body feints in tight areas, or delicate flicks — to feed supporting movement.
Recently linked with a handful of midtable Premier League clubs, don’t be surprised if the 22-year-old — who’s also diligent in his defensive work — finds himself courted by even bigger names next summer.
Pablo Barrios, 20, CM, Atletico Madrid
Slowly phased into first-team football by Diego Simeone during the second part of last season, the multi-talented academy graduate equipped himself well and showed enough to suggest that appearances may come thick and fast from this point.
Capable of playing as a deep midfield pivot, or as a No. 8, Barrios is safe in possession, picks line-breaking passes with either foot and possesses an aggressive edge to his game that no doubt enthuses his Argentine manager. In the slightly higher role, Barrios is also capable of gaining ground in possession and, courtesy of his strong build, he’s hard to knock off the ball.
Tanguy Nianzou, 21, CB, Sevilla
One of the top centre-back prospects born in the 2000s, the 6-foot-3 defender has excelled for France’s national youth sides for years, but only started to see regular first-team action following his €16m move from Bayern Munich last summer.
A graduate of the PSG academy, Nianzou has a strong aerial game and his impressive jumping ability also makes him a threat at attacking set pieces too. Excellent on the ball, he can launch precise long passes out of defence and he still needs to work on his positioning and concentration, Nianzou possesses all the prerequisites to become an elite defender.
Lázaro, 21, FW/ST Almeria
After a tentative start to his LaLiga career, the Brazilian announced himself with a hat trick in a 3-0 win against Mallorca in late May. Highly rated in Brazil, after breaking through at Flamengo in 2022, Lazaro has shown glimpses of promise after his €7m move last summer.
Though most comfortable roaming inside from a wide-left position, his direct style sees him always looking to progress with the ball, or to filter passes through to runners in central areas. A useful supporting striker, Lazaro is creative, quick and his off-the-ball movement can create space behind the opposing defensive line.
Mohamed-Ali Cho, 19, FW, Real Sociedad
Having made his league debut for Angers at the age of 16, Cho arrived at Real Sociedad with a reputation as one of the most exiting prospects in Ligue 1. Though the forward failed to make a proper mark on LaLiga during his first season — at times prone to running into blind alleys and an overreliance on individual actions — his potential is still undisputed.
Often likened to Man United forward Marcus Rashford in style, Cho represented England at youth level before switching allegiance to France (born in Paris, he moved to England with his family when just a week old.)
A roaming central striker who can turn quickly away from danger, he is a tough opponent to face in a spring duel when facing goal. Though his finishing, layoffs and decision-making are still in need of polishing, the former PSG and Everton teenager’s exciting combination of energy, flair and industry (he presses and hassles defenders well) make for an intriguing technical profile.