Sports

Erling Haaland, Pedri, Phil Foden, Vinicius Jr. lead the 39 best male players age 21 or under


The world’s best male players are getting younger but, as the likes of Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland, Barcelona‘s Pedri and Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden make headlines every week, is it finally time to crown successors to the legendary Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?

For the fourth straight year (read 2019, 2020 and 2021 here), ESPN brings you our list of the game’s next top young stars aged 21 or under. Now 23, Paris Saint-Germain‘s Kylian Mbappe is too old to be included, while some from 2021’s top 10 — Atletico Madrid‘s Joao Felix, Manchester United‘s Jadon Sancho and JuventusMatthijs de Ligt, are out, too!

Many of this year’s crop have made their mark on the big stage already, but who has done enough to land a place on ESPN’s list, what are their particular qualities and how can they get even better?

Assembling the list for the third year running is Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who has worked as a scout and executive for clubs across Europe, including Monaco, Zenit and Watford. He explains his methodology before revealing his picks.

Why 39?

From an initial long list of 75 players, those remaining are the ones who best satisfied my main criteria: appearances at the highest level, consistent performance over a sustained period and the potential to develop into a future top-level footballer.

What types of research were undertaken?

I used a sounding board consisting of professional scouts and sporting directors from several top European clubs before deciding on the final ranking, as well as some online scouting platforms. Personal preference also played a role.

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Is there a reason attacking players dominate the list?

In general, forwards get more playing time at a younger age than, say, central defenders, who tend to need more time to develop tactical awareness, positioning and understanding of the game. Beyond those who did make it, other defenders considered included Benoit Badiashile, Mohamed Simakan, Rayan Ait-Nouri and Tariq Lamptey.

It speaks volumes about the array of attacking talent that players such as Anthony Elanga, Youssoufa Moukoko and Rayan Cherki aren’t on the final list, while Tottenham’s Oliver Skipp and Liverpool’s Curtis Jones only just missed the final cut.

We should also mention that some of the world’s top youngsters — Barcelona winger Ansu Fati, Liverpool midfielder Harvey Elliott and Leicester defender Wesley Fofana among them — didn’t make it, having missed too many games through injury this season.

Notes:
– Players included must be age 21 or under on May 1.
– While there’s still uncertainty over how COVID-19 will affect the transfer market, the transfer values are taken from Transfermarkt.

– Positions are: GK (goalkeeper), LB (left-back), RB (right-back), CB (centre-back), CM (central midfield), AM (attacking midfield), FW (forward), ST (striker)

Jump to: 39-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-6 | 5-1

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Ale Moreno reveals what he disagrees with when it comes to ESPN FC’s list of the top U21 talent in the world.

The List

Club/country: Chelsea / England
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

As a result of injury worries and plenty of competition at Stamford Bridge, Hudson-Odoi hasn’t managed to kick on from the promising 2019-2020 season that saw him given a handful of senior caps for England. But he remains a player of great potential.

Strengths: While he is clearly more mature in several aspects of his game — he takes more defensive responsibility, having been deployed as a right wing-back by Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, and makes more of an impact throughout — it’s still the features that saw him break onto the scene as a teenager in 2018 that dominate his skill set. He is a strong dribbler, particular in one-vs.-one situations, commits opposing defenders with his unpredictable movement and has shown that he can play good combination football in the last third, instead of always going alone.

How he can improve: He can overcomplicate and try too many things when dribbling, and the end product isn’t always there, while his finishing skills can still be polished, but it is his injuries more than anything else that have compromised Hudson-Odoi’s development.

Club/country: Southampton / England
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €25m

Although he made his Premier League debut only last August, the right-back has progressed in a manner which might have surprised even the Southampton management. The England under-21 international is another high-quality academy product to leave Chelsea, having never made a senior appearance, in search of a career elsewhere. Hopefully he recovers quickly from a serious injury suffered towards the end of the season.

Strengths: A resourceful right-back whose fine close control and intelligence help him to deal with attacking opponents in a variety of ways. As with many other full-backs, Livramento can overlap and cross with good accuracy, but he’s also intelligent and calm enough in possession to find space or play a pass in behind the defence. He has good pace, especially over longer distances, and although only 5-foot-6, he has enough upper body strength not to be pushed around.

How he can improve: Become more alert when defending crosses. At times Livramento has found it difficult to defend the back post against crosses from the opposite flank. Either he loses his man or takes up the wrong position.

Club/country: Barcelona / United States
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €18m

Dest, a €21m signing from Ajax in October 2020, performed more than adequately during his debut season, settling in comfortably as a right wing-back in then-manager Ronald Koeman’s 3-4-3 system. This season, however, the USMNT defender has had to fend off competition from 38-year-old Dani Alves, among others, for the right-back slot and has also been troubled by recurring injury woes. He is already being linked with a summer move away from Camp Nou.

Strengths: With exceptional pace and stamina, Dest is able to cover the whole right side for the full 90 minutes. His agility and touch allows him to comfortably receive the ball while under pressure, or while running forward. As a wing-back he also makes central runs in behind the opposing defence to create space and give his teammates an option for a pass.

How he can improve: Having come under fire for repeated defensive mistakes, Dest might be better off looking for a club where he can feature regularly (especially in a World Cup year). While he is a threat in the last third, his crossing technique needs polishing.

Club/country: Rennes / Belgium
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €22m

Doku sealed a €26m move to Rennes before he had even completed 25 league starts for Anderlecht. A star for the Belgian club’s youth sides, Doku was heavily scouted and had been tipped for a move to the Premier League before heading to Ligue 1. After a flying start to his career in Brittany, the winger has struggled to make an impact in an injury-impacted season.

Strengths: With his remarkable pace, quick turns and ability to beat his markers for fun (with 61% success rate), few players are more entertaining to watch than Doku. As seen in last summer’s Euro 2020 tournament, the 19-year-old is a potential game-changer when thrown on from the bench. Unfortunately, those game-changing moments have been few and far between this season. However, when he’s healthy, Doku has the skills to single-handedly create havoc.

How he can improve: His game can be somewhat one-dimensional — running into blind alleys or struggling to find the right space — when it’s not his day. And although it’s not always about the lack of quality service, he could increase the precision of his crossing, as he only hits a teammate on 17% of his deliveries.

Club/country: FC Porto / Portugal
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €17m

Though still not a regular at Porto, Vieira has taken huge steps in his development. This progress has not gone unnoticed, with many of Europe’s elite clubs tracking the Portugal under-21 international.

Strengths: Rapid turns and a change of pace mixed with a low centre of gravity make the attacking midfielder — who tends to play centrally behind the striker(s) or cuts in from the right — both an entertainer for the fans and a headache for opponents. When in form, he can advance forward by slaloming past helpless defenders and has 14 assists in the league this season. His left foot is excellent, and while he hits a powerful shot, he is also sensitive enough to thread well-weighted passes to runners behind the defensive line.

How he can improve: Vieira can be slightly selfish and prone to take on an opponent too many times. And, as most other talents who thrive on their technical ability, he can improve his defensive discipline. There’s also a need to provide a more consistent presence for the entire 90 minutes.

Club/country: FC Salzburg / United States
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €20m

The USMNT midfielder has gone from strength to strength since leaving Philadelphia Union in January last year. Not only has Aaronson established himself as one of the top players at one of the most exciting sides in European football, but he’s in the process of outgrowing the Austrian league — with a move to a bigger division likely to happen this summer.

Strengths: One of the top players in Europe without the ball — there are few more avid and effective pressers around — the American also knows what to do when he gets hold of it. Whether spearheading the midfield diamond or playing out wide, Aaronson has neat and practical ball control, the ability to play quick one-twos, an energetic, enthusiastic approach to football, and an attitude that his teammates find infectious.

How he can improve: Considering the number of good positions he’s able to find through his penetrative running, Aaronson should easily be able to up his goal (and assist) tally over the next seasons regardless of where he ends up playing.

Club/country: Barcelona / Spain
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €18m

Garcia only registered a dozen Premier League starts for Manchester City before heading home to his first professional club Barcelona on a free transfer. Already a full Spain international whose impact and trust is growing both under Luis Enrique (for the national team) and Xavi (at Camp Nou.)

Strengths: Educated at Barcelona’s renowned academy, La Masia, before spending four years under Pep Guardiola’s watchful eyes in Manchester, it’s no surprise that Garcia is as cultured as centre-backs come. Although he’s improved defensively over the past six months, he’s rightfully lauded for his ball-playing abilities. Both for Spain and Barcelona, he likes to take on the prime responsibility of distributing the ball from the back, in which he’s excellent at picking line-breaking passes into midfield or combining with his goalkeeper to play out from the back. Despite his young age, he’s also vocal on the pitch and enjoys the added responsibility of leading the defensive line.

How he can improve: At 6 feet tall, Garcia isn’t one of the tallest centre-backs around and, as such, needs to ensure an opponent is off balance to win aerial challenges and become even more assertive in his duels.

Club/country: Bayer Leverkusen / Ecuador
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €17m

In less than 18 months, the Ecuador international went from playing youth football in his homeland for Independiente del Valle, to moving to Talleres in Argentina, to top-flight action in Germany. During that period the defender has also become an undisputed regular for his country, standing out both at the Copa America and in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

Strengths: It’s fair to say that Hincapie is an unorthodox defender. Though he prefers playing in the heart of the defence, he does feature regularly as a left-back in the Bundesliga. His approach to the game is pretty much the same regardless of whether he plays in the centre or wide; he’s remarkably attacking-minded. Thanks to an impressive mix of pace, mobility and strong ball-carrying abilities, Hincapie is capable of creating a numerical advantage higher up the pitch and his attacking style often creates a surprise element for the opposition. He’s also a good passer of the ball who is able to hit precise long and medium range passes with his left foot.

How he can improve: In addition to sharpening his focus on defensive set pieces, his aggressive and proactive style can cause him to challenge for balls that he’s second favourite to win, with the end result being a foul or more space for opposition counter-attacks.

Club/country: Crystal Palace / England
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

One of the standout performers in Patrick Vieira’s side, Guehi came through the Chelsea academy but played only twice for the senior team before spending two seasons on loan in the Championship at Swansea. Since moving to Palace, he has shown himself to be comfortable in the Premier League, which was reflected by the fact he was handed his first senior England cap in a friendly against Switzerland on March 26.

Strengths: A committed and focused centre-back, Guehi’s pace means the backline can push up the pitch higher and his ability to win nearly 72% of his challenges (70% in the air) shows how much he likes to play on the front foot. The fact that Vieira’s Palace concede fewer goals than Roy Hodgson’s version, despite playing more expansive football, is another testament to his qualities. He is also good at picking out attacking runs with long well-weighted passes.

How he can improve: Though he’s by no means out of his depth with the ball at his feet, he can be forced into making errors when under pressure.

Club/country: Aston Villa / England
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €22m

From occasional flashes of brilliance last season, the England under-21 midfielder has become a vital part of Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa side. His peaks have been high and his emergence has been one of the main positives from an inconsistent Villa season.

Strengths: Ramsey is a dynamic, energetic midfielder who appreciates both the attacking and the defensive side of the game. Whether operating as a wide-left midfielder or in a more central “No. 8” role, he is progressive in his approach to the game; if there’s space to exploit he’ll find it, or provide a useful link-up option for the full-back or forwards dropping deep. His quick thinking and natural understanding of the game allow him to execute smart flicks and layoffs. The 20-year-old is diligent without the ball as well (20+ pressures per game) and his ability to convert late runs into the box into goals was in evidence with his double against Leeds United earlier in the season.

How he can improve: His enthusiasm and eagerness to finish the attack — either through taking on another opponent or having a shot — can sometimes see him make the wrong decision.

Club/country: FC Salzburg / Germany
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €35m

Once on the books of Bayern during his formative years, Adeyemi burst onto the scene with some awe-inspiring performances for FC Salzburg towards the end of the last season. Since then he has scored in the Champions League, as well as for Germany on his senior international debut in September 2021. No surprise then, that he has been linked to some of the biggest clubs in Europe, such as Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool.

Strengths: Though he’s improving in all aspects of his game, the 20-year-old striker is still mainly recognised for his burst of pace and first-rate (often one-touch) finishing skills. With his excellent off-the-ball running, he can also roam wide to pick up the ball and tends to stretch the opposition with his direct, forceful movement. One of the Salzburg’s top dribblers and creators, he makes plenty of opportunities for his teammates.

How he can improve: The most immediate concern for Adeyemi is to address his consistency. He can blow hot and cold when it comes to goal-scoring streaks, and he’s finding it hard to score from open play.

Club/country: Arsenal (loan to Marseille) / France
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €24m

The centre-back — who has yet to play a first-team game for Arsenal after his €30m arrival from Saint-Etienne in the summer of 2019 — has had a great season on loan at Marseille in Ligue 1. Having shown promising signs during his loan move at Nice the previous season, Saliba has been Marseille’s top defender and recently earned a well-deserved call-up to France’s senior national side.

Strengths: Saliba has stood out as the right centre-back in Jorge Sampaoli’s back four (occasionally three) with excellent decision-making and anticipation, plus ever-improving technical and passing skills — often spotting runners with early, precise passes. Indeed, he has looked as comfortable as anyone playing for France.

How he can improve: After such an impressive season, you’d expect Saliba to break into the Arsenal first team when he returns from loan next season. While he has improved in practically all facets of his game this season, he might find it more challenging to time his interceptions (especially high up the pitch) in the hurried nature of the Premier League.

Club/country: Dynamo Kyiv / Ukraine
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €13m

The centre-back didn’t miss a single minute of Ukraine’s impressive Euro 2020 campaign. Since then, Zabarnyi has picked up useful experience from the Champions League group stage and was linked with top clubs in Europe before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put the domestic league on hold.

Strengths: Zabarnyi is a remarkably mature centre-back who likes to point, organise and direct the back four, whether in open play or defending set pieces. While not exceptionally quick, his alertness, coupled with upper body strength and balance, allow him to cope efficiently with danger. He is good in the air, coming out on top in 65% of his aerial duels, and able to win the ball back through a well-placed tackle.

How he can improve: Already a reliable defender who makes few glaring errors, Zabarnyi’s distribution from the back does leave room for improvement. He can get also stressed and sloppy in possession, especially when facing intense, high-pressing teams.

Club/country: Reims / France
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €22m

Only a year ago the Frenchman was a relative unknown having been on an uneventful loan at Danish side Vejle. This season, however, the centre-forward has come of age, scoring nine Ligue 1 goals before injuries cut short his campaign at the end of February. Before that he attracted repeated Premier League interest in January, with Newcastle agreeing to pay over his valuation to land him for €35m, before the deal fell through.

Strengths: Despite scoring the majority of his goals from one-touch finishes in and around the six-yard box, it’s the speed, balance and ability to run in behind the defence that sets Ekitike apart. Often deployed as a roaming forward, he tends to move across the defensive line to find space to exploit when he turns to face goal. An exciting prospect, Ekitike is great fun to watch.

How he can improve: Having started just 14 Ligue 1 games, Ekitike is still learning his trade at the top level. His first touch can be heavy and once he becomes more precise with his flicks and layoffs, he can also become a useful hold-up forward.

Club/country: AC Milan / France
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €17m

Signed under the radar for a nominal fee from Lyon in the summer of 2020, the France under-21 defender has experienced a mini-breakthrough for the Serie A side. He arrived as a right-back with experience of the France national youth teams, but Kalulu has not looked back since being given manager Stefano Pioli’s trust as a stand-in centre-back during a recent injury crisis.

Strengths: Kalulu’s physical and mental quickness allow AC Milan to play with a high defensive line, and if errors are committed or the ball is lost high up the pitch, the Frenchman is able to make amends. In addition, he reads the game well and is confident enough to intercept or win a loose ball in midfield (nearly 80% of his 2.8 tackles per game are successful.) At 5-foot-10, Kalulu may not boast the typical size of a centre-back size, but he is still a tough opponent.

How he can improve: Kalulu only recently won a regular place in the Milan side, so will be looking to keep it when the injury absentees return. Cutting out individual errors and increasing his aerial ability — he comes out on top from close to 60% of his challenges — are also key.

Club/country: Barcelona / Spain
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €25m

One of many La Masia players fast-tracked into the first team by then-manager Koeman, “Nico” Gonzalez drew immediate comparisons with Sergio Busquets for his tall stature and ability to retain and circulate the ball in midfield. Even after new manager Xavi added to the squad in the January transfer window, the 19-year-old is still being given playing time for the reinvigorated giants.

Strengths: Though the Busquets comparisons are not completely off the mark, Gonzalez is more of a midfield all-rounder than the legendary “pivote” (who stays deeper, recycles the ball, beats opposing pressure and assists the build-up play.) In fact, when both are on the pitch, Gonzalez tends to play in a more advanced “No. 8” role, in which he makes excellent use of his ball-carrying abilities. Perhaps contrary to the archetypical La Masia player, who tend to be smaller and more technical, Nico is powerful and makes good use of his size on the pitch.

How he can improve: Become even more disciplined in his defensive work, especially when tracking runners in midfield. Apart from that, he should continue to learn from Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Xavi.

Club/country: Club Brugge / Belgium
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €27m

Despite his impressive development, suitability for most European top leagues and movement towards becoming a regular for one of the top national sides in the world, rather surprisingly De Ketelaere still finds himself playing in Belgian football. However, as one of the outstanding performers in the league, he will surely move on soon.

Strengths: Tall, left-footed, technically gifted, great at running with the ball at his feet and able to play in a plethora of offensive positions, the 6-foot-3 Belgian can resemble Chelsea’s Kai Havertz in style. Much like Havertz, De Ketelaere finds smart positions between the opposition lines with an awareness to instinctively pick out runners around him (he averages an impressive 2.2 key passes per game this season.) He is a brilliantly schooled player and a delight to watch.

How he can improve: Without wanting to encourage foul play, De Ketelaere could possibly gain from adding more aggression to his game, especially if he ends up playing centre-forward; withstanding the bullying of the opposing centre-backs (and giving back in equal measure) is part of the game.

Club/country: RB Leipzig / Croatia
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Signed from Dinamo Zagreb for €18.5m last summer, the Croatia international has wasted no time in settling into the Bundesliga. Already on the wish list of many of the elite European clubs like Bayern, Chelsea and Tottenham, Gvardiol’s progress over the past year has been impressive to the point that he has softened the blow of Leipzig losing Dayot Upamecano (FC Bayern) and Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool).

Strengths: The left-footed centre-back, who is also good with his weaker foot, combines physical strength, resolute defending and a fine passing game. He is comfortable in a back four, but his best performances this season have come as the left centre-back in a back three — a role in which he can step up with the ball and take part in the build-up phase of the game. Gvardiol is also a threat from set pieces and, despite being 6-foot-1, has won 65% of his aerial duels this season.

How he can improve: At times, Gvardiol can be too focused on the ball, allowing opposing forwards to make successful runs behind him. He has good pace to get him out of trouble, but his positional sense needs to improve.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund / United States
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €42m

After struggling with injury this season, Reyna was being slowly reintegrated for club and the USMNT when he was ruled out for the rest of the season after sustaining a muscle and tendon injury against Stuttgart in April. A supremely talented player, Reyna has already demonstrated enough skill to suggest that he could become North America’s best male footballer of the decade.

Strengths: Reyna is an enthusiastic winger or central attacking midfielder who loves taking on opponents with his array of feints and trickery. At his most effective when he picks up the ball in front of the opposition defence, he can create danger by way of swift combinational play or flashes of individual inspiration. In addition to being a smart player, Reyna brings with him a fine mentality, illustrated in a defensive discipline which is well above average for his position on the pitch.

How he can improve: Missing most the season — he featured in 10 Bundesliga games — is a setback for a young player who was breaking out, so Reyna’s first priority is to regain full fitness and make sure he’s in ideal condition ahead of next season and the World Cup.

Club/country: RB Leipzig / Hungary
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €28m

Signed by RB Leipzig from their Austrian affiliate FC Salzburg in January 2020 for around €22m, the Hungary international spent the first few months in Germany on the treatment table recovering from an adductor problem (which also kept him out of Euro 2020.) He started this season brilliantly with a brace at home against Stuttgart, but has since struggled to earn a regular spot in the starting XI — though he has had some highlights, including a goal in the Champions League win against Manchester City.

Strengths: As a modern playmaker, Szoboszlai possesses a skill set not too far removed from Man City star Kevin De Bruyne. In addition to having an eye for a defence-splitting pass, he has a tremendous right-footed shot — his 35-yard free-kick goal against Stuttgart in the second round of the season was hit with an amazing technique from an almost impossible angle. As a product of the RB school, Szoboszlai is diligent in his defensive duties.

How he can improve: It took time for Szoboszlai to settle in the Bundesliga, but he is finally rediscovering his form based on strong running from midfield. He will need to increase his creative threat and consistency to maintain his place in the side, while his one-on-one dribbling and tackling need work.

Club/country: Arsenal / Brazil
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €38m

Nearly three years since breaking into the Arsenal first team, the Brazilian has seen his career in North London interrupted by injuries. He’s found more consistency this season, even earning his way into the senior Brazil squad.

Strengths: A bright winger or striker whose agility, intensity and quick feet make him particularly useful in tight spaces. In addition to being lively and nimble, Martinelli’s excellent close control and technical ability enables him to draw an opponent out before beating him in either direction. An instinctive footballer, Martinelli demonstrates smart off-the-ball movement, often finding space behind the opposing full-back and centre-back to create room up front. He is also a fine finisher.

How he can improve: Though he prefers to cut inside from a wide position, Martinelli’s crossing success rate of 15% is on the low side (though, admittedly, sometimes the fault rests with his teammates for not reaching the cross).

Club/country: Paris Saint-Germain / Portugal
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €40m

Having joined PSG on loan from Sporting CP last summer, it looks increasingly likely that the Portugal left-back’s move will be made permanent for a €40m fee. After a timid start, Mendes has quietly improved since the turn of the year, emerging as a long-term solution to PSG’s past deficiencies at left-back.

Strengths: As a 19-year-old loanee surrounded by world stars at one of the most tempestuous clubs in world football, it would be easy to keep your head down or, worse still, let your performances suffer. Mendes, however, is one of few PSG players who can look back on a positive season, which speaks volumes about his mental strength. Quick, tactically adept and physically strong, he’s happy to get involved in the build-up and ask for the ball.

How he can improve: Considering his high amount of involvements in the final third, or how often he finds himself with ball possession when PSG are attacking, there’s clearly more to come from Mendes in terms of assists (only two this season) or even “pre-assists” where he is involved in the move before a goal.

Club/country: Arsenal / England
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €40m

An emerging talent last season, Smith Rowe’s impact on Arsenal has grown this campaign. Called up to the senior England team at the end of last season, he is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged, undisputable Premier League regular.

Strengths: Though his preference tactically is as a “No. 10” behind the striker, he has the directness and box-to-box energy of a “No. 8” and often plays on the left wing to dovetail with teammate Martin Odegaard. Positionally smart, Smith Rowe does well to create an outlet for the deeper midfielders and is able to link the midfield with the attacking players through neat triangles and combinations. Able to shoot and finish with both feet, he poses a genuine threat when drifting inside from the left in the last third — the majority of his goals come from picking up loose balls on the edge of the penalty area.

How he can improve: Though he rarely shuns his defensive duties, it’s an area where he could do better. Tactically, he would benefit from finding a position that best suits his abilities rather than being frequently shuffled between roles.

Club/country: Villarreal / Spain
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €40m

After bursting onto the scene with no shortage of self-confidence last season, the Villarreal teenager has recently grabbed even more headlines. At the end of February he scored four goals in the 5-1 thrashing of Espanyol; a few weeks later he netted his first senior goal for Spain in a friendly against Iceland.

Strengths: A versatile forward who can play anywhere across the front line, he has excelled as a right winger this season. Yeremi’s combination of a low centre of gravity and excellent pace make him a strong, penetrative runner who can be difficult to knock off the ball. While his one-vs.-one abilities have long been a feature of his game, he has become more lethal in the penalty area this season and makes well-timed runs to the back post. In addition to his traditional, winger-like skill set, it’s worth noting that Yeremi is also committed to his defensive duties, regularly tracking opposing runs and making sure he drops back to help the team.

How he can improve: Yeremi’s next task is to make more of an impact over 90 minutes in goals, assists and chances created. If he’s not brought on as a substitute, he is almost invariably taken off towards the latter stages of a game, so his stamina and concentration need to get better.

Club/country: AC Milan / Italy
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €40m

The midfielder has bounced back after being dropped back down to Italy’s under-21 side ahead of last summer’s successful Euro 2020 campaign. Now reinstated in Roberto Mancini’s senior side on the back of a fine season as predominantly one of two holding midfielders for AC Milan, Tonali has played his part in what could be the club’s first Scudetto in 10 years.

Strengths: Tonali was once branded the “new Andrea Pirlo” as the midfielder also came through the Brescia youth ranks and sported the same floppy hairstyle as the legendary Italian. However, the two are quite different style-wise, and Tonali is carving out his own identity. He combines craft and graft, is capable of dictating proceedings from deep midfield, and tends to keep his position while his central midfield colleagues are given the liberty to break forward. As well as fine ball distribution, positioning and an underrated capacity to use his body well to protect the ball, the 21-year-old also makes his presence felt in duels across the pitch.

How he can improve: Though not necessarily the prime responsibility of a deep-lying midfielder, one would expect Tonali’s passing to be even more progressive, especially in a table-topping team. To be picky, you could argue that his defensive improvement this season has also come at the expense of his creativity and attacking output (although he did score a dramatic injury-time winner against Lazio).

Club/country: Real Madrid / Brazil
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €40m

Three seasons into his Real Madrid career and the Brazilian’s development is still stalling a bit. Despite being backed by Carlo Ancelotti more than his performances may have warranted — he even started in March’s El Clasico defeat to Barcelona — Rodrygo has failed to make an impact beyond a few memorable moments (a goal and game-changing cameo against Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinal and kicking off the incredible comeback at Sevilla a few days later.)

Strengths: There’s no doubting Rodrygo’s intrinsic talent; he’s equipped with brilliant technical ability, is quick off the mark, progresses well with the ball at his feet and swaps positions with his teammates like it is second nature. The Brazilian’s dribbling skills are also up there with the best in the game, he reads the game well and moves expertly with or without the ball.

How he can improve: He has such natural talent that he could become a world-beater, but Real Madrid — especially with the options they’ll have in the summer if Mbappe joins — have little to lose by loaning Rodrygo out for a season. Despite a promising recent run of games, he is still some way off the consistency that’s expected from him at one of the biggest and most successful clubs in the world.

Club/country: Ajax / Netherlands
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €35m

The midfielder is a useful reminder that development is not always linear. After establishing himself in the Ajax first team at the age of 17, he enjoyed a run in the Netherlands senior side and was rewarded with a couple of games at Euro 2020 before being dropped back to the under-21 team. Now linked with Bayern Munich and other top sides, with a contract that expires in 2023, he will soon move on from Dutch football.

Strengths: Whether fielded as a holding midfielder or as a more advanced “No. 8,” Gravenberch excels with his outstanding vision, appreciation of space, full range of passing skills, wonderful technique and close control, as well as the ability to progress with the ball. In addition, he has a keen understanding of the game and makes football look easy.

How he can improve: The midfielder has few obvious downsides to his game but, given his talent, he needs to learn to take even more responsibility both defensively and in attack. Leadership qualities come with age, but he should be looking to make his mark now.

Club/country: Ajax / Netherlands
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Timber is arguably the star of the Ajax defence that has looked as good as any this season. His almost-telepathic partnership with Argentine centre-back Lisandro Martinez — with neither being above 5-foot-10 — has been the foundation of manager Erik ten Hag’s well-functioning side. Already an integral part of the Netherlands national side, Timber is understandably attracting interest from Europe’s top clubs.

Strengths: Timber’s aggressive style is a prerequisite to Ajax’s ambitious brand of football. With his excellent agility and pace, he thrives on defending high up the pitch and, with a strong focus to go with it, the young defender is expert at anticipating the play and intercepting the ball early (he wins more than 70% of his duels). Once the ball is won, he can often be seen wriggling his way out of pressure either through quick body feints or neat footwork, before heading forward to start an attack.

How he can improve: At the risk of nitpicking, his relative lack of height can be a rare issue on defensive set pieces.

Club/country: Real Madrid / France
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €55m

Rightfully touted as one of the top prospects in European football, Camavinga arrived at Bernabeu from Rennes for €31m on the last day of the 2021 summer transfer window. Though time is on the young Frenchman’s side, he might be somewhat disappointed with the amount of first-team minutes during his first season in Madrid, only recently being given an extended run in the team in a variety of midfield roles.

Strengths: With his ability to dictate play in midfield, Camavinga quickly caught everyone’s eye — including France manager Didier Deschamps who called him up to the senior international side at the age of 17. Courtesy of quick feet and graceful movement, Camavinga can evade challenges, run at opponents and whirl his way out of crowded areas with the ball at his feet. Arguably at his best as a deep-lying playmaker, the midfielder could be the long-term replacement for Luka Modric.

How he can improve: Spending a full preseason with Real Madrid will be of great help to the 19-year-old, while he can learn a lot from Toni Kroos and Modric. Then he’ll need to come out of his shell, dare to assert himself in midfield and claim his place.

Club/country: Barcelona / Spain
Age: 17
Estimated transfer value: €60m

Perhaps this year’s revelation in not just LaLiga, but European football altogether, Gavi was promoted to the Barcelona first team last summer just a few weeks after turning 17. He almost immediately settled in and has been a regular ever since. Subsequently fast-tracked into the Spain senior side, Gavi also became his country’s youngest-ever debutant.

Strengths: You don’t need to spend a lot of time studying Gavi to detect his Barcelona DNA (he’s a La Masia product despite having spent a few years at the Real Betis academy.) The innate appreciation of space, the lovely ball control and ability to play with just few touches are all there. But unlike many technically gifted academy footballers, Gavi is also competitive and hardworking. In his debut season he averages an impressive 13 challenges per game (45% successful) and whether fielded as an inverted winger on the left or as a “No. 8,” he is hard to dispossess and always wants the ball throughout the game.

How he can improve: It’s hard to find faults in the game of a teenager who seems to keep doing everything right, but he can fine-tune his finishing skills.

Club/country: Bayern Munich / Canada
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €70m

Despite injuries, COVID-19 and a heart complication compromising the second part of his season, the Canada international is starting to look like his old self and when fully fit he has been one of Bayern’s best players.

Strengths: Few full-backs in the world, regardless of age, match Davies for athleticism and pace. He’s also an excellent ball carrier and an exceptionally active dribbler. He is also good on the ball and, unlike many top-level full-backs, doesn’t lose his composure or vision when he enters the penalty area. He is also an ideal transition player, quick to enter “recovery mode” when he loses possession and equally alert when the opposition gives away the ball. Davies, 21, creates 1.10 chances on average per game — a high number for a full-back — and has improved his crossing too.

How he can improve: Provided he avoids the kind of injuries that have seen him miss more than 50% of matches over the past two seasons, Davies can continue to work on his defensive concentration and aerial ability.

Club/country: Bayer Leverkusen / Germany
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €70m

Wirtz had enjoyed a fantastic season with Bayer Leverkusen when disaster struck on March 13 as he tore his ACL against FC Cologne (incidentally the team where he began his career). The Germany international now faces a race to be fit for the World Cup in November.

Strengths: Already a key player for Leverkusen, Wirtz is a central attacking midfielder who, contrary to many of his contemporaries, generally prefers to pick up the ball and create through the middle rather than cutting infield from wide areas. The architect of the majority of the club’s attacking moves, Wirtz has averaged 2.3 key passes-per-game this season. In addition to having a superb first touch and a brilliant understanding of the game, his most notable attribute is his vision, which allows him to pick the right positions between the lines for a well-executed pass or to hit a shot. He’s a skilled finisher too, with a 42% conversion rate.

How he can improve: Wirtz’s confidence to play progressive, risky passes also means that he’s prone to losing the ball. Hence, the precision in his passing can improve even further.

Club/country: Bayern Munich / Germany
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €55m

Another world-class talent who has transformed from a player of potential to a full-fledged senior international — and practically a regular for his club side, Bayern — within the past year. Musiala can be unstoppable at times.

Strengths: The Germany international is an intelligent and adaptable midfielder who has predominantly performed as a “No. 10,” as a “floating forward” or as one of two holding midfielders for Bayern. Quick, dynamic and a skilled dribbler, Musiala is excellent on the ball and is arguably at his best when he’s able to link defence with attack from the centre of the pitch. He takes up intelligent positions in the last third, creating problems for the opposition with diagonal runs and looking for quick passing combinations or positional swaps, with or without the ball.

How he can improve: Musiala struggled to make a mark on the big occasions (one of his poorer games of the season was against Villarreal in the Champions League quarterfinals). Also, his defensive input, especially when losing the ball, still leaves something to be desired.

Club/country: Arsenal / England
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €65m

Saka is an important part of the senior England set-up and one of the first names on the team sheet at Arsenal. Despite missing a key penalty for his country in the Euro 2020 final, he has shown admirable maturity and has performed well during the Gunners’ adverse runs of form.

Strengths: Originally a left-back, Saka started the season on the left side of midfield but has found a home as an inverted winger on the right. He’s a wide player who excels with great movement, links well with his teammates and finds space in dangerous areas even when coming up against deep-sitting opponents. Saka’s fine technique, change of pace and variety of skills give him the edge in most attacking scenarios: he’s strong in one-vs.-one situations, crosses the ball precisely (38% accuracy this season), can pick up runners into the box with smart passes (1.4 key passes per game) and is able to score from many different positions. Last but not least, he’s becoming an expert finisher — 10 Premier League goals (and counting) is an excellent return for a predominantly wide player.

How he can improve: Though his manager’s tactical instructions play a part here, as a wide midfielder, Saka needs to be even more intense in his pressing game.

Club/country: Real Madrid / Brazil
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €100m

The Brazilian’s inclusion in top 10 of the previous two editions of this ranking stirred up quite a bit of controversy. This time, however, the only discussion point is whether he should have made the top three. With 14 LaLiga goals and 11 assists to his name there’s no denying that the forward has experienced a proper breakthrough.

Strengths: Over the past year, he has become better at what he was already good at: This season he averages nine dribbles (52% success rate) instead of 4.9 last season. He also tackles more, wins more challenges, attracts more fouls and has doubled his amount of key passes. The flamboyant yet industrious winger — he prefers to play on the left in order to cut inside on his right foot — has gone from a prodigy to a borderline world star. Credit to Real Madrid for sticking with him.

How he can improve: While he was previously prone to overdo his dribbling, or not release the ball at the right time, it’s clear that Vinicius Jr. has improved his decision-making and efficiency. He thrives when the game opens up, but he can still improve his impact and find more solutions when space is tight.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund / England
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €75m

Bellingham is gradually becoming indispensable for Dortmund and for England. The ex-Birmingham City midfielder plays with the confidence and maturity of someone in his mid-20s. Though he’s developing so well at Dortmund, he might soon find himself in the middle of a transfer tug-of-war between Europe’s top clubs.

Strengths: Already close to being the complete “No. 8” in midfield, though he’s also featured successfully as an anchor man, Bellingham combines outstanding close control, technical prowess, ball progression and tactical awareness with an ability to time late runs into the box. Defensively, he takes up good positions and executes blocks, while he’s also enthusiastic in his pressing duties at the other end. His most impressive aspect, though, is his ability to drive forward with the ball, often effortlessly sliding past challenges in midfield. Bellingham is happy to get on the ball, either looking to move it quickly through short passes and combinations or open space by way of a neat switch. He’s a gifted footballer who could develop into the top all-round central midfielder of his generation.

How he can improve: At times you can’t help wonder whether Bellingham assumes too much responsibility for his own good. As much as he continues to progress, it would be exciting to see him perform with even more attacking freedom.

Club/country: Man City / England
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €90m

Foden is approaching his 100th Premier League game for Manchester City. Even manager Pep Guardiola admitted that, when Foden was at 17, he had “never seen a player with this potential” (he only coached Messi from age 21).The England international has never shied away from big matches — often being among the main protagonists when the game heats up, as we saw against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals.

Strengths: From initially being considered a “No. 8” or “No. 10” in midfield, Foden has grown into a multi-purpose attacking midfielder under Guardiola. While he previously caused most of a threat when making runs behind the defence from central positions, his impact now often comes when finding space wide left, almost like a traditional winger. Regardless of where he plays, Foden picks up the right positions and, thanks to an excellent focus, tends to be drawn into the attacking action areas. He is a brilliant combination player, technically strong and generous in his defensive work too.

How he can improve: For all the defensive work he puts in, Foden could be more effective when it comes to recovering the ball and winning challenges.

Club/country: Barcelona / Spain
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €80m

Having had an extremely eventful first half of 2021 — in which he became a rising star for Barcelona, a regular for Spain at Euro 2020 and won an Olympic silver medal in Tokyo — Pedri has endured several injury layoffs, which was somewhat inevitable after playing a total of 70-plus games last season. (Most players struggle to reach 50 in a season.)

Strengths: Pedri can fill any role in the centre of midfield and deputise in wide areas, with his versatility making him the quintessential Barcelona player. He has got a silky touch on the ball and a natural appreciation of space and positioning to play cleverly between the lines. His low centre of gravity and balance allow him to perform rapid directional changes that can make opponents look silly. Furthermore, Pedri is wonderfully skilled in possession and can distribute the ball expertly through a variety of techniques. His improving shooting skills were also on display against Sevilla, with a composed solo effort that saw two defenders sent spinning, which will be a contender for goal of the season.

How he can improve: He has managed only one assist this season. For the amount of times he gets on the ball in the last third, such a creative, excellent passer of the ball should hit double figures.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund / Norway
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €75m

The most sought-after player in world football, alongside PSG’s Mbappe. Last year’s No. 1-ranked player is No. 1 again and has Man City, Real Madrid and Barcelona looking to sign him when his reported €75m release clause comes into effect this year. Sources have told ESPN that City are front-runners, but all eyes will be on his future this summer. Despite some recurring injury woes and an unusual barren spell after the turn of the year, it has pretty much been business as usual for the Norway international: Goals, goals and more goals.

Strengths: Haaland has a host of exceptional abilities: pace, direct running, an extreme physicality that makes him hard to mark or stop without fouling, a venomous left foot and finishing skills that see him average around one goal per competitive game. Then there are his mental qualities: his temperament, persistence and the boylike, contagious joy of playing football. Even standing at 6-foot-4, his penetrative running — the way he thrives on exploiting space behind the defensive line — and sharp movement in the box when expecting a cross or cut-back, are of the highest order.

How he can improve: Though it might be down to how his coaches want him to play, Haaland averages only around 16-18 passes per game, which is low for a centre-forward who has the ability to play a hold-up game. While his heading ability is improving, he still relies too much on his left foot.





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