National Football

What a difference a year makes: the rise of 2018's stars

 • by Mark Thompson
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Football didn’t have a number of breakout stars in 2018. Luka Modrić being awarded the Golden Ball had the sniff of a ‘lifetime achievement’ gong, as well as a symbol of the end of the Leo Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo era.

However, there have been some players who have risen from relative obscurity –or irregular playing time – to become truly household names in the past 12 months.

So here are five(ish) of Football Whispers’ favourites.

Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez

The pair may have started their rise to prominence in 2017, but it was in 2018 that they solidified it. Both have become key parts of Liverpool’s defence, at the astonishingly young ages of 20 and 21 respectively.

Were it not for England’s unusual strength in the right-back position, TAA could have been the Three Lions’ break-out star of the Russia World Cup.

Alexander-Arnold became the youngest player to feature in a Champions League final in May and in November became the youngest Liverpool player to score for England men’s national team since Michael Owen.

He’s solidified his place as the Reds’ first-choice right-back and is still just 20 years of age. It’s only a matter of time before he takes that place in the England starting lineup as well.

As for Gomez, it was only an injury that kept him out of the World Cup squad this summer, where he may have played himself into the first XI.

Back at home, he’s become the first-choice centre-back alongside Virgil van Dijk, relegating World Cup finalist Dejan Lovren to the bench.

A lot has been made of Liverpool’s defensive signings — Alisson in the summer, Van Dijk in January, Andy Robertson last summer — but their English pair have been just as valuable upgrades.

Jadon Sancho

Sancho is the perfect ‘had a good 2018’ player to write about. His full debut for Borussia Dortmund came in January and he’s now having an astonishing season for the team who top the Bundesliga.

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Manchester City were ‘baffled’ during the summer of 2017 by his conduct as he tried to get a move away from the Etihad.

“Sancho’s desire to leave City is believed to stem in part from concerns about his chances of getting an opportunity in the club’s first team,” wrote James Ducker for The Telegraph. Pep Guardiola was ‘puzzled’ by his decision to leave.

His first few months in Germany were quiet, with only two substitute appearances in the league before 2017 turned into 2018. But afterwards, he wasted no time.

Sancho made ten appearances in the league in the first half of 2018, starting seven times, scoring once and getting four assists. This season, he’s scored five and set up seven. He’s also made an appearance for England. Oh, and he’s still only 18.

Leaving home as an 11-year-old to go to a boarding school closer to the Watford academy (paid for by the club) made his move to a foreign country easier.

“From Year 7, being away from home, I got over it,” he said, earlier this year. “It was leaving home on another level, a different country, I’d never done it before and didn’t know how I would cope.

“I felt like I was ready for first-team football, so I wanted to do something different.”

Benjamin Pavard

This summer’s World Cup wasn’t as full of breakout stars as the competition usually is. Maybe, by now, everyone knows who everyone else is. Maybe it was just a blip.

But one man who emerged from nowhere (in the public consciousness) to centre-stage was Benjamin Pavard, scorer of the goal of the tournament.

Of course, like most overnight sensations, Pavard didn’t actually come from complete obscurity. He started every single one of Stuttgart’s Bundesliga games in 2017/18, so was a 21-year-old starter by the turn of this year.

However, a look back at the January 2018 internet shows he’d made very little impact on the footballing world’s imagination. There were rumours that Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich were interested and a small handful of stories about Arsenal tracking him.

Pavard had just made his debut for France in November 2017, the only reason why non-avid Bundesliga watchers would have reason to take note of him.

A wondrous goal against Argentina aside, he was a regular starter in a World Cup-winning team, which is enough to put anyone on the radars of the footballing public and Europe’s top clubs.

The World Cup saw rumours that he had agreed a deal to sign with Bayern Munich, but that doesn’t seem to have materialised. The latest on those rumours is that he’s keeping his options open — it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him in Bavaria next season.

In terms of what 2018 means for Pavard, then, it’s quite an odd year. Last year was the one where he became a starter and a capped international; next year will likely be the one where he gets his big move; but it will be 2018 that everyone will think of as Pavard’s landmark 12 months.

Lucas Torreira

The Uruguayan midfielder might have been the player who got the biggest reputation boost from the World Cup, apart from Pavard.

A year ago, he was performing well for Sampdoria in Serie A but, barring a brief rumour of Napoli interest, he’d not made much of a ripple on the European stage.

He caught the eye in Russia for Uruguay, outshining Barcelona’s Luis Suárez, who had a difficult tournament. He was the scrappy midfielder who helped the South Americans to the quarter-finals, where they only lost to eventual winners France.

When it emerged that Arsenal were interested, it made a lot of sense. He was — and has gone on to prove to be — exactly the type of central midfielder that Arsenal have lacked for so long.

A genuine defensive player, he’s managed to show Granit Xhaka in a good light which, last season, you’d have been laughed at for saying.

Josef Martínez (and friends)

Josef Martínez — the Venezuelan striker who scored 31 goals for Atlanta United on the way to MLS Cup victory — didn’t have a break-out year quite like the others on this list.

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His name isn’t (quite) known across the footballing world, and his stock was already pretty high in the United States from his debut season in Atlanta. He’d scored 19 in 21 appearances in 2017.

But his record-breaking campaign (he became MLS’ single-season record scorer in late August, with three months of the season left to go) coincided with Atlanta United going mainstream.

An expansion side, Atlanta debuted in MLS in 2017. They were well-run and played good football, and were an instant point of envy for fans of other teams in the U.S. Breaking attendance records along the way, the team finished fourth in the Eastern Conference but went out in the first round of the play-offs.

This year they, and Martínez, were even better. They narrowly missed winning the most points in the country — although some still believe 2018 Atlanta are the best team in MLS history — and they went all the way in the post-season. Martínez scored Atlanta’s opener in the MLS Cup final, where they won 2-0.

It was a year that proved, domestically and abroad, that America can create its own authentic fan culture; that Atlanta United were for real and that MLS can become a serious league.

Martínez’s teammate, Miguel Almirón — for whom 2018 was more ‘business as usual’ than ‘marked improvement’ — has been linked to Arsenal and Newcastle United. 2018 was the year MLS became a league to be taken seriously, and Atlanta United and Martínez were the face of it.