April’s U23 Hot List: Leeds United’s EFL stars making waves

Welcome back to the ESPN FC Hot List, which each month highlights some of the most in-form talent aged 23 or under across Europe.

Generally, young but established stars such as Manchester City‘s Erling Haaland, Real Madrid‘s Jude Bellingham or Barcelona‘s Gavi aren’t included — otherwise they’d be on the list every month — but we’ll shine a light on some of those who deserve praise for their performances and could potentially be European football’s next big names.

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Signed by Leeds United for a miniscule €1.5 million from Feyenoord in 2020, the Dutchman has enjoyed his proper breakout season in English football, it’s safe to say. Recently named “Championship Player of the Season,” Summerville has been instrumental in the Yorkshire club’s promotion push (19 goals, nine assists). Having shown signs of promise in the Premier League last season, there’s every reason to expect the 22-year-old to make a stronger impact at the top level next time around — be it with Leeds or elsewhere.

The year in the Championship has clearly made the winger a more complete attacker. He continues to be a menace in one-vs-ones, and he executes his actions with such a speed that it’s hard for defenders to read his intentions or direction. But Summerville is also now better at navigating the central areas. His “signature move” of curling the ball into the far corner when cutting in from the left — he takes more than three shots per 90 minutes — has also been perfected and should prove effective at a higher level too.

Archie Gray, 18, right-back/central midfielder, Leeds United

While staying in the Championship and at Leeds (though, frankly, it hasn’t been a great week for them as they look like facing the promotion playoffs), it’s only fair to flag up the “Championship Young Player of the Season.” With no senior experience prior to this campaign, Gray has started a remarkable 40 games out of 43 — and often in what was initially an unfamiliar right-back position.

While Gray — the son of ex-Leeds forward Andy and the great-nephew of club legend Eddie — has performed excellently at right-back, his future might play out in a more central role. Already capped at under-21 level for England despite only recently turning 18, Gray is an exceptionally intelligent teenager who combines first-class positional awareness, brilliant ball-retention and passing skills wrapped up in a physically well-developed body.

With such a well-balanced skillset plus a tenacious attitude that defies his age, it’s easy to envisage him dictating the Leeds midfield for years to come.

Morgan Rogers, attacking midfielder, 21, Aston Villa

On early evidence, Aston Villa have done some stellar scouting work by picking up the Middlesbrough winger for £8m in the January transfer window. Rogers looks a great fit and has adapted to the Premier League in record time. Not only did the England U21 international get on the scoresheet twice in April, but he’s even looked a genuine difference-maker as Unai Emery’s side push to cement their Champions League status for next season.

What makes Rogers particularly exciting is the blend of his physical and technical characteristics. Despite being rather tall, he’s athletic rather than lanky and has a great turn of pace — especially useful when breaking lines in possession. Yet, he also features a smooth touch on the ball, turns elegantly away from pressure, strikes the ball exceptionally well (three shots per 90 minutes of which 52% are on target) and has an eye for a penetrative pass too.

With those crucial skills already in his locker, there’s no reason to believe that he can’t keep developing into a proper Premier League protagonist.

Adam Wharton, 19, central midfielder, Crystal Palace

On the subject of making the step from the Championship to the Premier League, Wharton has looked ever so impressive in manager Oliver Glasner’s revived Crystal Palace side. Following the same successful blueprint that saw Palace recruit Eberechi Eze (QPR) and Michael Olise (Reading) from the second tier, Wharton joined the South London club from Blackburn in January for £18m.

Just a few months on, Wharton has gone on to start 12 Premier League games, and to claim he’s feeling at home up there with the best is no exaggeration. Having registered assists against Manchester City and Newcastle United in April, the all-action box-to-box midfielder has most of the ingredients to be efficient in the No. 8 position.

His relentless energy sees him cover large areas of the pitch, he’s diligent in his defensive work (9.6 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes) and when on the ball, Wharton is happy to up the risk in his passing game — often looking for forward options (15 forward passes per 90 minutes is a pretty sound tally) or finding the wide runners with longer passes (which is a stand-out feature of his game). What’s more, the left-footed midfielder is also blessed with rapid, practical ball-handling and can drive past opponents thanks to his fine ability to travel with the ball.

With his 23 league goals, the French-born Georgian international could claim his fair share of credit in Metz‘s successful promotion run last season. This season, though, on the back of a difficult half season at Ajax, the pacey 23-year-old may again turn out a club hero as he’s scored nine goals in 14 performances since joining his former club on loan from the Dutch giants.

Mikautadze hit the net six times — including one delightfully chipped effort — during the month of April, three of which secured crucial wins for Metz. Mikautadze’s roaming, energetic style clearly suits Metz’s counter-attacking style better than Ajax’s more rigid, possession-based type of football — which also led to positional challenges as he’s hardly a traditional No. 9, meaning the temptation was to play him wide.

However, being somewhat independent-minded from a tactical viewpoint and with quick, poacher-like finishes being his trademark, there’s little doubt that Mikautadze needs an open licence to push into the attacking box — plus space to exploit — to play to his strengths.

Though Thiago Motta, the head coach who’s about to lead the Bologna into the Champions League, is the main architect behind the Serie A club’s excellent defensive record this season (just 27 goals conceded, third lowest only to Inter Milan and perennially tight Juventus), defender Calafiori also deserves his fair share of credit.

Calafiori, an AS Roma academy graduate, has made a huge impression in Serie A this season after returning to Italy from a year with FC Basel in Switzerland. In April, Calafiori — who plays to the left in Bologna’s back four — was as dominant as ever as Bologna kept clean sheets against Salernitana and Frosinone, while the 3-1 away against Roma was probably the sweetest win in his career to date.

The left-footed centre-back — whose mobility, pace and ball-carrying also make him capable of featuring at left-back — is very much an imposing modern defender who plays on the front foot, intercepts and anticipates before setting off on an attacking run. Furthermore, he carries with him an imposing presence which is rare for a 21-year-old.

His overall defensive input is well illustrated with an average of 10.9 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes (for comparison: 8.5-9 would be the norm for a top, young centre-back). Understandably, Calafiori’s spectacular breakout year in Serie A has attracted the attention of a number of European top clubs.