Who tipped Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante to lead Leicester to the Premier League title last season? Did anyone expect Dele Alli and Eric Dier to become mainstays of the England team last season? What about Dimitri Payet becoming perhaps the world's preeminent free-kick taker and a starter for host France at Euro 2016? And what would the reaction have been if you predicted that Watford's Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo would both score more goals than Chelsea’s Diego Costa?
That’s why this part of the season–before the dreams are shattered–is exciting. Leicester’s success has allowed all underdogs to believe that they can break into the elite, even if the raft of super-managers in the league suggests otherwise.
Still, there will always be room for the breakout stars. Below are 10 players who could be on the verge of the biggest season of their lives. And you might just be hearing a lot more about them:
Tosin Adarabioyo, 18
Manchester City, defender
City has no shortage of options at center back to partner with captain Vincent Kompany (when fit) but you can add the name of Adarabioyo to Jason Denayer, Nicolas Otamendi, Eliaquim Mangala–and John Stones, of course–in the battle for places. Adarabioyo is a local lad who impressed in the preseason games against Borussia Dortmund and St. Johnstone. Some fans even suggested that City dropped out of the Stones bidding as Adarabioyo is ready; if he doesn't get game time, then Tottenham, Celtic and Everton have been linked with a move for him.
Ola Aina, 19
Chelsea has a group of academy graduates knocking on the door of the first team, among them Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chalobah, but it seems that Aina could be the first to break into the seniors this season. The London-born defender has started four games at right back, and with Branislav Ivanovic injured, is slated for a Premier League debut this weekend. Aina has won trophies with Chelsea’s Under-20 and Under-21 side, has played for England Under-20s and been called up to the Under-21 squad. Could he be the first local player to become a Blues regular since John Terry?
Sam Byram, 22
West Ham, defender
The former Leeds player only managed four Premier League appearances last season, as injuries cut short his season after joining the Hammers in January. But the right back, who has filled in at left back during preseason, is tipped to start the campaign and might well keep his place.
“Sam has a great deal of potential… and he has room to improve every aspect of his game,” said coach Slaven Biiic. This could be his moment.
Marcus Edwards, 17
Just as Dele Alli caused some excitement with a preseason nutmeg of Luka Modric last summer, so did Edwards excite fans with his cameo appearances against Juventus and Atletico Madrid in preseason. The best news for Spurs fans was that he signed his first professional contract with the club last month, despite interest from Barcelona and Bayern Munich. A tricky winger with an eye for goal, he could be a useful impact sub this season, though coach Mauricio Pochettino has warned against building too much pressure on the Under-17 international.
“He’s very talented, but he’s only 17," Pochettino said. "We need to care for him in a good way.”
Ben Gibson, 23
A stalwart of last season’s success at Boro, the English defender was mentioned as a possible squad member for Euro 2016 but just missed out. A natural left footer who has spent his whole career at his hometown club, Gibson has targeted just starting the first game of the season against Stoke this weekend. By the end of the campaign, the Under-21 international might just make it into the senior squad.
Demarai Gray, 20
Leicester City, winger
There is no major concern about whether Riyad Mahrez stays or goes before the end of this transfer window, and that’s partly down to the presence of Gray, who made enough substitute appearances last season to earn a Premier League winner’s medal. A pacey winger with an eye for goal, he has impressed in preseason and will get more starts this year–maybe on the opposite flank to Mahrez. Now that would be a handful for defenders.
Mason Holgate, 19
Everton has signed Swansea and Wales captain Ashley Williams as a replacement for John Stones, but it also had a solution closer to home. Holgate joined Everton from Barnsley (as Stones did) 12 months ago, after Roberto Martinez called him when he was en route to join Bournemouth. Yet to make a senior appearance, Holgate started Wayne Rooney’s testimonial last week and looked solid against Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He may not be a regular starter under Ronald Koeman this season, but Holgate should get some game time.
Stephen Kingsley, 22
The Scottish left back made his debut against Arsenal at the Emirates and was outstanding as Swansea ran out as surprise winners. One of the rare Premier League talents who served his apprenticeship at the lower level, Kingsley racked up nearly 100 appearances for Falkirk before two loan spells at Yeovil and Crewe increased his game time in the lower leagues. Neil Taylor is currently the first-choice left back but could find his place under threat from the dangerous Scot.
Nathan Redmond, 22
Southampton may have a revolving-door policy when it comes to selling its best talents–normally directly to Liverpool–and acted sharply when Sadio Mane moved to Anfield for £35 million. Redmond scored six goals in the Premier League for relegated Norwich, but new Saints boss Claude Puel has loftier ambitions for the winger, who has impressed on England Under-21 duty.
“He always played wide but I think he is a very good striker,” said Puel, who used to work with Thierry Henry at Monaco and knows a thing or two about wingers converting to strikers.
Callum Wilson, 24
AFC Bournemouth, striker
Wilson scored five goals in six starts before his season was curtailed with a knee injury. He returned before the end of the campaign and was the subject of interest from West Ham and Tottenham in the summer. But he signed a new contract with Bournemouth and will start up top alongside either Josh King, Benik Afobe or Lys Mousset in a side that has greater depth than last season. Wilson has been talked as a future England international, but for now his focus will be playing regularly without injury; after that, the goals and recognition may follow.