First and foremost, the disconcerting decline Turkish clubs have had on the European stage has been demoralising for many. From the Turkish national team’s woeful performance at the Euros to the habitual underperformance in European competition from club sides to the mass exodus of promising young players from Turkey to other European leagues, the lurking sense of Turkish football’s decline has become a foreboding and unavoidable truth that requires immediate attention.
One thing however is that the league itself still has plenty of potential. There is a great wealth of young players, enthralling storylines and impassioned rivalries. It may seem odd to mention but Turkey has a huge population and one of the youngest populous percentages. This has seen a big spike in great young players that have went on to play for huge clubs in recent years.
Some players have even leapfrogged the Süper Lig and went straight from Turkey’s second-tier and went straight to Europe like Çağlar Söyüncü and more recently, Ali Akman. Therefore, it is definitely worth looking at some of the most promising players in the Süper Lig because they may well be coming to a league near you.
Gökdeniz Bayrakdar (19, Antalyaspor)
After a meteoric rise from Turkey’s third division to signing for Antalyaspor, this looks set to be Gökdeniz Bayrakdar’s confirmation year in the elite. In his debut campaign in the top-flight, Bayrakdar scored eight goals in 37 matches, two of those coming against champions Beşiktaş. Moreover, he led his club to an unprecedented runners-up finish in the Turkish Cup, with Antalyaspor losing to Beşiktaş in the Final via goals from Josef de Souza and Valentin Rosier.
This, and the consistent showing of his lofty potential, give us the impression that the young star from Kocaeli will not take much longer to make the step up to a bigger club. Gökdeniz is a rather vertical forward, quick and efficient in counter-attacks, with shrewd body movement and an ideal physique for his style of play. He typically plays on the wings, but when he was tested as a center forward he also impressed, although always with a reference point playing behind him.
On the flank, however, it is clear that he has more creative freedom and more liberty to attack spaces and create dangerous opportunities. While he often struggles with his decision-making and can be accused of holding onto the ball for too long, his authentic talent can put any spectator on the edge of their seat.
The power in his shots will also help him score even more goals this year, and at the end of the day, that must be his objective — improve his numbers. He will be in charge of leading Antalyaspor’s attack and in order to repay manager Ersun Yanal’s trust, he must improve his decision-making but also his efficiency in front of goal.
With Yanal, a manager who has an impressive track record when it comes to developing raw, young footballers, Gökdeniz should grow and have far more importance in attack after the departure of Lukas Podolski to Górnik Zabrze, in order for this season to be his confirmation. After an impressive adaptation to the Süper Lig in 2020/21, the 19-year-old could be one of the biggest stars of this upcoming campaign and quickly make the step up to a top-five league or a bigger club in Turkey.
Umut Güneş (21, Alanyaspor)
Alanyaspor will be forced to reconstruct from the bottom up, once again, after the departures of their biggest stars. Salih Uçan and Berkan Kutlu have left the humble club from the beach resort city on the Mediterranean coast, and with the two set to take their talents to Beşiktaş and Galatasaray, respectively, Umut Güneş will be forced to be an even greater protagonist in the team.
The 21-year-old, who was born in Albstadt, Germany and developed at Stuttgart’s renowned academy before leaving in 2019, ended the 2020/21 season as a starter and will be looking to build on his momentum this season. In the few occasions that he has started, Umut’s vision has stood out in comparison to his midfield partners, with the Germany native playing in an interior midfield role and showcasing the potential to replace Uçan and Kutlu with ease.
With quick, efficient touches, the ability to break the lines with superb passes, and the intelligence to build possession, he is a unique talent who could be one of the team’s revelations in 2021/22. After two years of gradual progression, he is expected to be the midfield linchpin of manager Çağdaş Atan and play a bigger role in the center of the pitch.
Alanyaspor are one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in Turkey, and their quick, free-flowing style of play will help them increase their profile and showcase their status as a unique asset in the league. Few clubs have done a better job of buying low and selling high and exporting their young prospects to bigger clubs, and if he continues his impressive form, Umut Güneş could very well be the next prospect to make the leap to a bigger club.
Oğulcan Ülgün (23, Konyaspor)
Despite not making an appearance in Turkey’s first division since 1970, Altınordu F.K. have carved out a reputation as one of, if not the finest academy in the country. From Cengiz Ünder to Çağlar Söyüncü, the list of talents who have emerged is endless, and the next one who could be plying his trade in Europe’s major leagues is Oğulcan Ülgün.
After two years of consistently performing as one of the best defensive midfielders in the second tier, Ülgün finally made the step up to the top-flight this summer, joining Konyaspor on a three-year contract. The move to Konyaspor is a deserved step up to him, as he joins a club where various midfielders such as Mehdi Bourabia have established themselves before departing for bigger clubs.
It is an ideal destination for a player who is physically skilled, who uses his strength to his advantage by shifting into the backline as a third center back and supporting the defenders. Moreover, the Istanbul native is a player with the physical capabilities to operate as a box-to-box midfielder as well as a defensive pivot, and a versatile campaign will allow him to not be pigeon-holed as an overly defensive player.
His numbers may not reflect it, but his influence in attack, with successful passing and good positioning, make him one of the best U-23 talents in Turkey. Numerically speaking, Oğulcan won over half of his duels last season, becoming a rock in Altınordu’s midfield.
The Turkey U-21 international has been a regular in the team over the past two years and has what it takes to make a seamless transition to the top division. Konyaspor fans should cherish him while he is still at the Konya Büyükşehir Arena; if everything goes well, he has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Merih Demiral and Mamadou Fofana and make the step up to a major league.
Bariş Alper Yilmaz (21, Galatasaray)
Apart from Oğulcan, another player who has made the leap from the second tier to the first division is Bariş Alper Yilmaz, and deservedly so. Bariş Alper will have an adaptation year ahead of him as he prepares for life at one of Turkey’s biggest clubs, but this could be a year for him to accumulate plenty of minutes — especially if Galatasaray manage to qualify for the UEFA Europa League group stage.
Last year saw him make the leap from the third tier to the second division, swapping Ankara Demirspor for Ankara Keciörengücü, and now, he joins a historical football giant. It is nothing short of a meteoric rise and a testament of his unique quality.
He is a left winger who utilizes his speed and nerve to create danger throughout the match, proving superior in systems with open rather than inverted wingers and situations where the rival team can be stretched. In the counter-attacks, he is a dagger that few teams evade, utilizing his close control and dribbling in tight spaces to evade markers and reach the opposition box. In fact, he completed the third-most dribbles in his division, accumulating 1.8 per match with a 65% success rate.
Last season, whenever he scored or assisted, Keçiörengücü never lost. His impressive tally of 8 goals and 5 assists saw Keçiörengücü pick up 7 victories and two assists in that time period, finishing 7th in the league — just two points behind Altınordu. This should be a factor that Galatasaray exploits to the maximum, using his verticality to stretch tired defenses and pick up points.
One year after plying his trade in the third division, Bariş Alper has a chance to replace the outgoing Henry Onyekuru, who has returned from his loan and joined Olympiakos on a permanent deal, and stake out a first-team spot under Fatih Terim. He will compete with Ryan Babel for a starting spot, and with the Dutch forward set to turn 35 in December, Alper has what it takes to excel at Gala and lead them back to their spot atop Turkish football.
Kerem Aktürkoğlu (22, Galatasaray)
Despite missing out on the title last season, one of the brightest spark for Galatasaray was the emergence of Kerem Aktürkoğlu. He featured mostly as a substitute but in just 6 starts he managed to score 6 and assist twice (0.84 goals and assists per 90). Kerem’s emergence came after three separate loan spells, the third of which was by far his most successful. In the TFF Third League with 24 Erzincanspor he scored 24 in 30 games in the 2019/20 season.
In terms of Kerem’s qualities, he is very instinctive finisher. Many of his goals and chances are first time shots taken after very intelligent runs. Moreover, he might just be able to find a way to be a consistent starter under Fatih Terim this season. He not only featured in the last run of games last season, but also featured in the Champions League and Europa League qualifiers for this season.
Galatasaray are a little front-loaded with attackers and have plenty of options up front even with the failure to secure Rachid Ghezzal, who was of great interest to Terim, taken into account. This may make things a little difficult for Kerem but he offers enough attributes that contrast to the options Galatasaray already have.
Efe Tatlı (19, Fatih Karagümrük)
Of the many exciting developments at the Istanbul-based club Fatih Karagümrük over the past year, the progression of Efe Tatlı is one that has perhaps gone under the radar. He was involved, despite only featuring twice, in the clubs promotion to the Süper Lig, and played a role in the first team last season particularly when new coach, Francesco Farioli, took charge.
Tatlı is a central midfielder very capable of anchoring a midfield three, in a ‘regista’ role and thrives in this capacity because of his quick passing and good screening ability. He is surprisingly aggressive at just 5ft 9 and has surprised many fans, especially in his start against Galatasaray last season in a 1-1 draw. Interestingly, he actually began his career in the Galatasaray academy and was picked up by Karagümrük in 2018.
Crucial to his development, he could be partnered in midfield next season with Lucas Biglia and Andrea Bertolacci, two players with a great wealth of experience and will no doubt be a foremost influence on Tatlı. His coach, Francesco Farioli, has taken great influence from Roberto De Zerbi, whom he worked closely with at Sassuolo before leaving to assistant manage Alanyaspor.
Farioli will be a huge aid to his development too, with his strong emphasis on possession-based football and proactive approach, it is imaginable that a player like Tatli will benefit greatly from his tutelage.
Ridvan Yilmaz (20, Besiktas)
For the first time in four years, Besiktas became champions of Turkey. There is a good amount of positives in Sergen Yalcin’s squad too. The additions of Kenan Karaman and Valentin Rosier and Rachid Ghezzal on a permanent transfer bulk out the squad well. In addition to this, they have a left back in Ridvan Yilmaz who has already been bled into the first team and shown the qualities to be a consistent starter this season.
When the Black Eagles secured the title in May, it meant a great deal to everyone in the squad but few more than to Yilmaz, who grew up through the club’s academy. Pictures circulated quickly of Yilmaz as a child playing for Besiktas’ junior side juxtaposed to him achieving his first piece of silverware as a first team player.
In terms of style of play, Yilmaz is very calm on the ball, strong with his positioning in build up and overlaps well on the left hand side of the pitch. He tends to cover a huge amount of ground on the pitch as he can become very involved in attacks, making this an area he has potential to thrive.
Abdulkadir Ömür (22, Trabzonspor)
Any fans of Turkish football may see Ömùr’s inclusion here and be filled with a wave of hesitation and a touch of doubt, due to his terrible injury record. What is not in doubt though, is his ability. At one time, Ömür was referred to as the ‘Turkish Messi’ due to his close control, short stature, quick feet and enigmatic presence on the pitch.
Unlike some other names on this list, he does not lack Süper Lig experience and actually has 71 appearances under his belt. However, last season he missed around two-thirds of the campaign with torn meniscus. He also has a fractured ankle, calf and hamstring injuries and coronavirus all featuring on his long injury history.
Importantly, Trabzonspor fans have a lot to be excited about this season. With new signings Gervinho, Marek Hamšík, Andreas Cornelius all anchored by a talented and experienced manager in Abdullah Avci. The squad is very deep in many positions, particularly in midfield where Anastasios Bakasetas and Hamšík will most likely start. Ömür may be able to force his way in though when considering the dynamism he can bring to complement Hamšík creative passing and ability to provide a link from the midfield to the attack.
I wouldn’t call it Ömùr’s ‘last chance’ at being a top player in the Süper Lig but it is an incredibly important season for his development. The potential for his growth and development is huge due to the players he will be playing alongside – much like Tatlı at Karagümrük – and who he will be coached by. Avci has a great ability to get the best out of particular players and has already expressed his intention in involving Ömür in his plans.
Crucially, it is worth mentioning that these are eight names of many promising young players in Turkey. You could easily make a longer list including those in Lig.1 too. With the season beginning this weekend, the anticipation is palpable and the potential is there for every player listed to come to the forefront of the Turkish Süper Lig and truly make a name for themselves.
By: Louis Young and Alejandro Parra / @FrontPostPod and @AleParra_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / BSR Agency – Getty Images / Galatasaray website / Alanyaspor website