Scouting Spotlight: Joris Gnagnon, Inaki Williams, Bruno Fernandes
Which players are attracting attention in Europe's biggest leagues? Introducing Scouting Spotlight, looking at three players each week whose performances are making headlines ...
Joris Gnagnon -- Rennes
Hailing from Bondy, the northeastern suburb of Paris where Kylian Mbappe grew up, Gnagnon left it late to sign for a professional club, joining Rennes as an 18-year-old. He has since made up for lost time, establishing himself in the first-team at Roazhon Park last season and impressing in a miserly defence that had the fifth-strongest record in Ligue 1.
A composed centre-back who is comfortable in possession, Gnagnon's confidence on the ball is what sets him apart from the peers in his age group. He has been described as an "ideal defender" by Rennes manager Christian Gourcuff, who coached Laurent Koscielny at Lorient, and the 20-year-old possesses similar traits to the Arsenal man. He will either wait patiently for a teammate to show for a pass or stride out with the ball from the back.
Gnagnon's positioning is another key strength. Gourcuff has praised his reading of the game and, rather than diving into tackles, he sticks tight to his opponent to block the route to goal. He picked up just two bookings in 27 appearances during the 2016-17 campaign and averaged fewer than two tackles per game, highlighting his tendency to stay on his feet.
Aside from heavy defeats to Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain last season (Gnagnon will be relieved he sat out the 7-0 Coupe de la Ligue thrashing by the former), Rennes largely looked solid at the back. The first four matches of the new campaign saw them concede eight times, however, with Gnagnon enduring a difficult start as Gourcuff searched for the right formula to improve on a ninth-placed finish.
The turning point arrived in Sunday's shock 3-1 win away to Marseille. Gnagnon played a vital role as Rennes picked up their first win of the season, crashing home the visitors' third goal to effectively seal victory 20 minutes from time before denying Valere Germain with a well-timed tackled moments later.
He was caught out by Morgan Sanson's run late in the game, though, allowing the Marseille midfielder to break onto a through-ball and slide home a consolation. The youngster will need to avoid such mistakes if Rennes are to pick up a first clean sheet against Nice on Sunday, who impressed in a 4-0 drubbing of Monaco over the weekend.
Where would he fit in?
A host of clubs have been credited with an interest in Gnagnon, including Chelsea, Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund, but Sevilla have jumped to the front of the queue after reportedly submitting a €10 million bid earlier in the year. Rennes have rebuffed their interest, but it is likely they will lose the centre-back next summer.
Inaki Williams -- Athletic Bilbao
A devastating striker in Athletic Bilbao's academy, Williams has graduated into a versatile forward at San Mames, operating mainly on the right to provide ammunition for the prolific Aritz Aduriz. The 23-year-old was born in Bilbao to a Ghanaian father and Liberian mother, and became the first black player to score for the club in its 117-year history when he netted against Torino in the Europa League in February 2015.
Playing with poise and purpose on the flank, Williams' direct style demonstrates his early training as a striker. His sharp control allows him to release the ball quickly, using his speed and upper body strength to burst beyond the full-back. For a defender, finding yourself isolated against Williams can be a terrifying prospect, as he looks to drive towards goal or whip dangerous crosses into the box.
The youngster has expressed a desire to develop, and improving his finishing from the right side of the box, as well as his ability to cut inside, will be his main priorities. Although Williams was predominantly used as a winger by Ernesto Valverde, he has described Aduriz as his "tutor" and the player he intends to learn from.
Williams came off the bench to play in a central role for Spain under-21s at the European Championship over the summer and may still see his future in that position.
After a tentative early period in the first-team, Williams' most prolific spell came in 2015-16 when he scored 13 goals in 36 matches. He followed up with five strikes and six assists in La Liga last season, and scored a thunderous half-volley against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey as Athletic recorded a 2-1 first leg victory in the round of 16 despite being reduced to nine men.
His early form this season has been encouraging, providing a pinpoint cross for Aduriz to head home the winner at Eibar and laying on both goals in Athletic's 2-0 win over Girona at the weekend.
Where would he fit in?
Liverpool are long-term admirers and Williams will have impressed Jurgen Klopp by scoring against his side in a preseason friendly. After earning his first cap for Spain in May 2016, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham have also sent scouts to track his progress. He signed a new five-year contract with Athletic in 2016, however, and the club are likely to challenge any suitors to match his €50m buyout clause.
Bruno Fernandes -- Sporting Lisbon
After moving to Italy as a 17-year-old, Fernandes returned to Portugal in the summer following four seasons in Serie A with Udinese and Sampdoria. He has hit the ground running at Sporting Lisbon, where a string of impressive performances have attracted plenty of attention.
An attacking midfielder with a keen eye for goal, Fernandes was positioned behind strikers Fabio Quagliarella and Luis Muriel at Sampdoria last season and has been given a similar role at Sporting. As the attacking foil for target man Bas Dost, he likes to receive the ball in tight spaces, turning quickly away from his marker and creating the chance to shoot or play in a teammate.
Fernandes will often loiter around the edge of the penalty area, usually waiting for the ball to break from a set piece so he can test his range. His passing can be rushed at times, but he picks up good positions between the lines to link play together in the final third.
His willingness to put in tackles has seen him earn a poor disciplinary record in the past, with the 23-year-old booked in both of his appearances for Portugal at the European Under-21 Championship in the summer.
Sporting have seen an instant return on their reported €9m investment, with Fernandes revitalised under Jorge Jesus following a challenging year at Sampdoria. With four goals in five matches so far, he has helped lift Sporting to second place behind Porto as they seek to win a first league title since 2002.
The pick of Fernandes' goals came in the third minute away to Vitoria Guimaraes, when he received the ball 40 yards from goal, shifted it out of his feet, and fired into the top corner. That spectacular strike set Sporting on their way to a 5-0 victory, with Fernandes grabbing another from 35 yards in the rout -- this one a little less emphatic as the goalkeeper struggled to get down to a low, bouncing shot.
Where would he fit in?
Given his role and reputation for being somewhat lightweight, Fernandes would be considered a luxury in a more physical division such as the Premier League. His game is all about technique and tactical awareness, playing ahead of two more restrained, combative midfielders.
Leicester were linked with a move last year and, having made a £22m summer deal for his brief Sporting teammate Adrien Silva (still pending FIFA approval), they have no doubt been alerted to Fernandes' free-scoring form this season.