Kenan Yildiz was sufficiently nervous to have the shakes when he made his senior debut for Juventus on the opening day of the 2023/24 Serie A season in August.
But the Turkiye international, who turns 19 in the final month of the campaign, has quickly found his groove in the title contenders’ first team.
Seven more appearances in all competitions followed during the remainder of 2023 for the player described as a “a cut above” by his youth-team coach and told to cut his hair by Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri.
Former Bayern Munich prospect Yildiz’s performances have led to the fan of storied former striker Alessandro Del Piero being linked with Premier League giants Arsenal and Liverpool.
The Sporting News looks at Yildiz’s story so far, including the views of the international newcomer and his parents on his prodigious talent.
Who is Kenan Yildiz? Age, position, career
Born in Germany on May 4, 2005, Yildiz says he started playing football at three and was guided by his father, Engin, a self-taught footballer.
“He couldn’t play in his youth because he lived in a small town in Turkiye,” Yildiz told Juventus’ official channel of his dad’s influence. “It was difficult for him but in his head, he was really good. So he started to train with me.”
Yildiz senior says he informed his teachings from matches he attended with his son and watching YouTube videos.
By the age of seven, his pupil had joined Bayern, scoring six times and assisting a further eight goals in 20 matches at Bundesliga regional Under-17 and Under-19 level in 2021/22, as well as being involved in four goals in six appearances in Turkiye’s UEFA European Under-17 Championship campaign.
When his contract at the 33-time Bundesliga champions ended, Yildiz saw Juventus as the “best option”. “Naturally, at the start, I was a bit worried,” his mother, Beate Hackl-Yildiz, said.
“I was worried he wouldn’t settle in but we were with him and supported him. He could focus on his football and it’s been the best choice for him.”
“The scouting department were really impressed when they first saw him,” said Massimo Brambilla, the coach of Juventus’ Next Gen reserve and development team, which competes in Serie C. “You could tell he was a cut above.”
Allegri included Yildiz in Juve’s preseason trip to the USA, using him as a second-half replacement for Italy forward Federico Chiesa against AC Milan and, after the squad returned to Turin, in the same switch during a friendly against Atalanta.
“I decided to take [him] on tour because, every season, great youngsters come through,” said Allegri. “Juventus’ aim is to incorporate youth players into the first team. It’s to be expected that such players have fantastic footballing ability.”
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The experience was useful for Yildiz off the pitch. “You may be a bit shy or something,” he explained. “You’re scared to talk to the big names, the big players. So it was nice to be able to be with each other sometimes.”
A five-minute run-out in Juve’s 3-0 win at Udinese on the first day of the 2023/24 season was the teenager’s bow for the Old Lady.
“The feeling was crazy because you didn’t know the day before that you’re going to play tomorrow,” recalled Yildiz. “I was warming up and already shaking a bit because I was really nervous, I have to say. But when [Allegri] said my name, it was like ‘wow’.”
Yildiz’s parents are suitably proud, although his mother was calmer about his achievement. “My husband watched the game at home,” she said. “I didn’t watch it with him. I saw that Kenan came on towards the end and my husband went crazy.”
Engin Yildiz “couldn’t believe it”. “I got goosebumps,” he said, alluding to the work involved in honing Yildiz’s skills. “I was speechless. I got so emotional. He got the ball and controlled it wonderfully. Everyone thinks that, in football, having good control should be a given.”
If Yildiz’s introduction was no surprise, Allegri’s stony faced response when he was asked for his observations afterwards was. “He has to get his hair cut tomorrow,” said the manager. “He’s touched his hair 100 times, so he has to have it cut tomorrow. Let’s take things from there.”
Video evidence duly emerged of Yildiz following Allegri’s advice. “He got it cut the next day,” said the four-time Serie A Coach of the Year. “I was glad because it shows he’s a smart lad who listens.”
My Boy Kenan Yildiz found out Allegri wasn’t kidding 🤣 🍿 pic.twitter.com/6KFxqnpSfp
— Ley (LeRoi) Lo (@Ley3Lo) August 21, 2023
Six days later, Yildiz was given the second of his string of brief outings for Juventus between August and mid-December, during which time he was more of a regular in Serie C while remaining part of first-team training.
Having scored in Euro Under-21 qualifying for his country against the Republic of Ireland in September, he played his first senior game for Turkiye in October and scored on his full debut in a 3-2 win in Germany in the Euro 2024 hosts’ first home match under new manager Julian Nagelsmann.
In Euro qualifying three days later, Yildiz won the 70th-minute penalty that gave Turkiye a 1-1 draw in Wales to ensure they won their group ahead of Croatia.
Better was to come for Juve: 12 minutes into his full debut for the club on December 23, Yildiz dribbled past three players to fire the opener in a 2-1 win at Frosinone in Serie A, almost certainly catching the eye of any leading clubs around Europe unaware of his abilities.
First start for Juventus, first goal ✅
Juventus have a half-time lead at Frosinone thanks to 18-year-old Kenan Yıldız ✨ pic.twitter.com/VC9BkRykjg
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) December 23, 2023
Yildiz stuck his tongue out while celebrating to mimic one of his heroes: all-time Juve top scorer Del Piero, who won the 1995/96 Champions League and six Serie A titles among his honours with them.
The youngest foreign Serie A scorer in the club’s history started again in a 1-0 win at home to Roma in Juve’s subsequent game. He returned to the bench when Salernitana visited in the Coppa Italia on January 4, requiring 22 minutes to score an even better solo goal after being brought on in the 66th minute of his side’s 6-1 victory.
What a talent Kenan Yildiz is! 🙌
A magnificent solo goal from the 18-year-old to make it 5-1 to Juventus ⚫⚪ pic.twitter.com/awheSsCTGC
— Viaplay Sports UK (@ViaplaySportsUK) January 4, 2024
KENAN YILDIZ THAT IS A RIDICULOUS GOAL! 🇹🇷 pic.twitter.com/NN69K9hUEv
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 4, 2024
“Yildiz has a great footballing brain,” said Allegri, calling him “a model player for the new approach Juventus have to football”. “He’s technically gifted and really direct. As a player, he doesn’t mess about.”
Yildiz partnered another striker who has been linked with Arsenal, Dusan Vlahovic, against Roma. “I think he’s a second striker,” Allegri told reporters. “He has quality and goals in his legs. I don’t think he can be a midfielder — at least, not now.”
Kenan Yildiz Juventus stats, goals, appearances
Yildiz produced a combined haul of 15 goals and seven assists in 35 games in the UEFA Youth League and Italian youth competitions the Primavera 1 and Coppa Primavera in 2022/23, when he also made seven appearances for Juventus Next Gen.
After appearing against Salernitana, he had played 183 minutes for the first team. He averaged a pass completion of 86.2% on his first two starts for Juventus, according to Fbref.com, which says that he touched the ball roughly every three minutes on average in each game, contributing four actions that directly led to shots against Roma and one against Salernitana.
By that point, he had also played 600 minutes in Serie C in 2023/24, contributing two goals and an assist and being booked once.
Kenan Yildiz Fifa rating, FC 24 stats
Right-footed Yildiz has a medium workrate on FIFA 23.
He has a two-star rating for skill moves and four-star weak foot rating.
- Overall: 64
- Potential: 80
- Attack: Crossing 60; Finishing 54; Heading accuracy 60; Short pass 68; Volleys 48
- Skill: Dribbling 68; Curve 62; Free-kick accuracy 52; Long passing 58; Ball control 70
- Power: Shot power 56; Jumping 68; Stamina 60; Strength 62; Long shots 60
- Movement: Acceleration 69; Sprint speed 72; Agility 72; Reactions 58; Balance 64
- Mental: Aggression 48; Interceptions 30; Attacking position 60; Vision 64; Penalties 58; Composure 56
- Defence: Defensive awareness 28; Standing tackles 20; Slide tackles 16
Kenan Yildiz international record for Turkiye
Yildiz made his international debut at Under-17 level as a 16-year-old, scoring twice and setting up two goals in their 2021/22 Euro qualifying campaign, as well as being booked once.
He also played in four friendlies at the age group that season, featuring in all but 39 minutes of those games and scoring against Germany away.
A goal against Kosovo in March 2023 was part of six appearances he made at Under-21 level in 2022/23, and he made two more the following season.
Yildiz is a clear candidate to be named in Turkiye’s squad for Euro 2024 after making his senior debut with a four-minute cameo in Croatia in qualifying, scoring against Germany and impressing again in the draw with Wales.
Thirty-five of the 108 minutes he has played for Turkiye have come in competitive games, and he also started two matches for the Under-21s this season before making the step up.
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah replacement? Kenan Yildiz linked with Reds, Arsenal
Juve have turned down offers from Turkish clubs for Yildiz and Arsenal and Liverpool are interested in signing him, according to Turkish football expert Emre Sarigul.
Writing in early December 2023, Sarigul said the Italian giants wanted €30 million (£25.8m/$32.8m) for Yildiz, adding: “This kid is the real deal: explosive raw power, technically gifted, mentally strong, an eye for goal. Keep a close eye on him; he’ll be at Euro 2024.”
A day after Yildiz’s spectacular strike against Frosinone, Sarigul claimed Juventus asked for €40m (£34.4m/$43.8m) once Arsenal were keen and predicted he will be worth “€80m (£68.8m/$87.6m) to €100m (£86m/$109.5m) by the end of summer”. “He is a frightening talent with so much hunger to play and prove himself,” the reporter said.
Days earlier, ESPN cited Italian outlet Corriere dello Sport as reporting “concrete interest” from Liverpool, with Yildiz said to have asked his agent to find him another club because of purported unhappiness at the lack of game time Allegri has given him.
With the January transfer window open, the English title hopefuls are both in position to move for Yildiz, who signed a contract extension at the end of August committing him to Juve until summer 2027.
Liverpool could be without inspirational top scorer Mohamed Salah until mid-February because he is at the Africa Cup of Nations with Egypt. Salah’s 18 goals and eight assists in the division in the first half of 2023/24 show what a huge miss he is likely to be for his club, with no other Reds player scoring more than nine league goals by the time of the mid-winter break.
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Manager Jurgen Klopp may also be wary of the need to provide support for and potential successors to the 31-year-old talisman, who has been persistently linked with a move to one of Saudi Arabia’s hugely wealthy Saudi Pro League teams.
Arsenal’s title challenge faltered with two successive defeats as part of a three-match winless run before the break, scoring only twice along the way.
They also had 18 of the 30 attempts at goal and five of the eight on target against Liverpool in the Third Round of the FA Cup, when their 2-0 home defeat after Martin Odegaard shot against the woodwork early on provided more cause to suggest the Gunners need greater firepower quickly.
No Arsenal player had hit double figures in the top flight at that stage, with Mikel Arteta’s team heavily reliant on Bukayo Saka. The England international’s nine goals and 11 assists had put him 10 goal contributions clear of any of his team-mates.