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February’s U23 hotlist: Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz, Celta star Gabri Veiga

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Welcome to the ESPN FC hotlist, which each month highlights some of the most in-form talent aged 23 or under across Europe’s top leagues.

Generally, young but established stars like Manchester City’s Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund’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 who could potentially be the European football’s next big name.

After nine months out with torn cruciate ligaments, it’s good to see the Germany international back to his previous best. From his free role behind the centre-forward, Wirtz enjoyed two stunning performances as his side knocked Monaco out of the Europa League.

On evidence of his blinding dribbles (nearly six per 90 minutes since the turn of the year), well-weighted touches and dynamic movement on and off the ball, the 19-year-old appears to be back to the physical and technical levels he displayed before the injury struck in March 2022.

The playmaker scored four goals in all competitions in February — including two wonderful curled efforts from the edge of the box — and provided a delightful assist. The return of the record-breaking teenager (he was the youngest Bundesliga player to reach 50 league appearances) is not only good news for Leverkusen in their late surge for a European spot, but also for his country as they prepare for next year’s home Euros.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)

Having been brought into the Milan starting XI following coach Stefano Pioli’s successful tactical tweak to a back three, the Germany under-21 international has seized the opportunity and has been one of the top defenders in Serie A since the turn of the year. Operating in the heart of Milan’s defence, Thiaw has performed with exceptional confidence, dealing resolutely with any challenge coming his way.

A €6 million summer signing from German side Schalke, Thiaw blends excellent pace and mobility with the smartness to anticipate danger, plus safe distribution skills. Since claiming a regular spot he has won 75% of his challenges on the ground and nearly 80% of aerial duels.

As well as standing out against Tottenham — and isolating Harry Kane in the process — in the Champions League round-of-16 first leg, he capped the month with another excellent display in the 2-0 home win against Atalanta, in which he neutralised the speedy Rasmus Hojlund.

The midfielder has experienced a spectacular rise over the past few months. From making just one LaLiga appearance prior to this season, Veiga has become one of the symbols of the semi-resurgent Celta side and is attracting plenty of interest from abroad, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal reportedly admirers.

His recent goal-scoring spree — he netted twice against Real Betis and Valladolid last month — has added to the hype, yet Veiga has plenty of other intriguing attributes. He’s exceptionally versatile and though his roaming, energetic nature means he is best described as a No. 8 or box-to-box midfielder, he can play in any role in the centre of the pitch.

His delicate technique, combined with a long stride, makes him a real driving force and he is physically strong enough to hold his own against opponents. Veiga is also excellent at timing his forward runs into the box from deep and has had 1.89 efforts per 90 minutes this season, which have translated to eight goals in 22 LaLiga games.

Picking up where he left off at the 2022 World Cup, the Ghana midfielder has recently taken his Ajax status from key player to indispensable. After the introduction of John Heitinga as head coach, Kudus has gained more consistent playing time than he has since joining the club in the summer of 2021, while his impact on the team has grown too.

Usually deployed as a right winger (or occasionally as an attacking No. 8 or false No. 9), the technically superb Kudus is a constant threat when cutting infield onto his preferred left foot. Through trickery and rapid accelerations he has proved a valuable creator for his teammates (his playful assist against Cambuur alone was worth the admission price), just as his knack for picking the right spaces in the box and sensitive left foot have provided goals.

Though the gifted playmaker is yet to reach the level expected of him after he burst on to the scene a couple of years ago, Cherki can look back on February as the most impactful run of games in his Lyon career to date.

Lyon’s tactical tweak in moving the prodigy from the wing to a central role behind the strikers seems to have paid dividends in terms of higher involvement on the ball and added attacking freedom. While there are still improvements to be made in the defensive side of his game, Cherki does seem to have added elements of determination that have previously been missing.

By keeping up his current level of end product (three goals and one assist in February), along with his frequent dribbles (seven per 90 minutes) and creativity, the France under-21 international may once again find himself subject to plenty of transfer speculation this summer.

Manuel Ugarte, 21, DM, Sporting CP

Already well known by scouts from the top clubs in European football, the Uruguay international has gone about his business in usual fashion despite missing out on a big move in January when Spurs were reported to have shown a keen interest.

As a reliable, relentless defensive midfielder, Ugarte might not stand out when it comes to key passes or assists, but a closer look at his numbers tells the tale of an efficient operator with a continued mounting impact. As well as being remarkably consistent — his absence, often due to bookings (four just in the month of February), is instantly noticed — Ugarte is among the top-ranked defensive midfielders for tackles (eight per 90 mins since the turn of the year), challenges (20 per 90 minutes) and interceptions in European football.

His well-documented tenacity paired with fine mobility make for a player with an expert ability to recover the ball early, high up the pitch. And he’s technically adept too, with a swift, practical passing game.

Lyon’s tactical tweak in moving the prodigy from the wing to a central role behind the strikers seems to have paid dividends in terms of higher involvement on the ball and added attacking freedom. While there are still improvements to be made in the defensive side of his game, Cherki does seem to have added elements of determination that have previously been missing.

By keeping up his current level of end product (three goals and one assist in February), along with his frequent dribbles (seven per 90 minutes) and creativity, the France under-21 international may once again find himself subject to plenty of transfer speculation this summer.

Already well known by scouts from the top clubs in European football, the Uruguay international has gone about his business in usual fashion despite missing out on a big move in January when Spurs were reported to have shown a keen interest.

As a reliable, relentless defensive midfielder, Ugarte might not stand out when it comes to key passes or assists, but a closer look at his numbers tells the tale of an efficient operator with a continued mounting impact. As well as being remarkably consistent — his absence, often due to bookings (four just in the month of February), is instantly noticed — Ugarte is among the top-ranked defensive midfielders for tackles (eight per 90 mins since the turn of the year), challenges (20 per 90 minutes) and interceptions in European football.

His well-documented tenacity paired with fine mobility make for a player with an expert ability to recover the ball early, high up the pitch. And he’s technically adept too, with a swift, practical passing game.

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February’s U23 hotlist: Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz, Celta star Gabri Veiga

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