We continue our top 100 players 21 and under with the Elite category. These players are grouped by talents who are quality assets shining at club level for some of the biggest sides in Europe and on the international stage.
Name: Joe Gomez
Style: If you require an indication of just how gifted Gomez is, then consider the fact he’s currently keeping a World Cup finalist and self-proclaimed “world’s best defender” out of the Liverpool XI. Yes, Croatia’s Dejan Lovren has barely had a look in since returning from the World Cup as Gomez has arguably been the Reds most outstanding star in 2018/19. That is far from hyperbole, even when you take into consideration the presence of Virgil van Dijk alongside him. So, what does the 21-year-old defender have to offer? First, there’s the physique. He’s drawn comparisons with Rio Ferdinand and unlike other nonsensical match-ups, it’s actually a pretty reliable piece of analysis. Gomez is super quick and he bundles that agility in an imposing 6ft2 frame which gives him the added advantage of being excellent in the air. He very rarely has to rely heavily on his athleticism, though, because his composure belies his fledgling years. Indeed, Gomez is so competent in one v one situations, he falls back on his speed as a last resort because usually his timing of the tackle and positional awareness is absolutely on point. And if you’re looking for any flaws in his game, it’s genuinely difficult to pick any out. Even when bringing the ball out from the back, the England international is crisp and accurate with his passing. You could argue he should be more productive from attacking set-pieces but then that really is being picky.
Forecast for 2019: Staying injury free is the main aim for Gomez. He’s the present and future for both club and country and now he just requires games under his belt after spending the majority of his Liverpool career on the sidelines. Having a centre-back partner like Van Dijk alongside him will only aid his development but he has all the tools to become a world-class centre-half just like his Reds team-mate.
By Alex Rea
Name: Dayot Upamecano
Club: RB Leipzig
Position: Centre back
Style: So good on the ball you question his position, so physically and mentally mature you second-guess his age. Yes, Upamecano is a fascinating find for Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, a street footballer who grew up alongside Ousmane Dembele in the French suburb of Evreux and is now one of the most coveted young defenders in Europe. Upamecano was never truly gifted in the ilk of countryman Raphael Varane, but he’s a fiercely hard worker and his development over the last few years owes much to his mentality more than anything else. This is a defender who appreciates the art of the position while concurrently changing the way we think about modern centre-halves.
Indeed, all those physical traits we consider a necessity are there to a maximum, the speed across the ground, strength in one-v-one duels and aerial prowess. But Leipzig’s youngest ever Bundesliga player is much more than that. The 19-year-old is a beauty and the beast footballer, one who fuses an animalistic desire to claim possession with grace and poise once the ball is at his feet. He’s so at ease in both situations as he sweeps up the ball then breaks forward into midfield to initiate Leipzig attacks. Don’t be surprised to see the French prodigy even operate as defensive midfielder such his confidence on the ball. That’s not to say it’s all positive, though. He is, after all, 20 years old and so there are a few deficiencies and that’s mainly borne through inexperience, particularly as he can be caught of position when the opposition breaks. Naturally, his speed can bail him out but it shouldn’t require that last resort.
Forecast for 2019: Curiously Upamecano has not come close to featuring for France, although he has progressed through every youth level. There’s a huge amount of time for that, of course, but that’s where he should be looking to next, rather than casting a glance at moving clubs. Barcelona have been linked and in future a blockbuster switch like that is definitely foreseeable but some refinement and experience are next on the agenda.
By Alex Rea
Name: Leon Bailey
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Style: Bailey is all about speed. From an early age the Jamaican knew what he wanted and he wanted it quickly. To get there, he would show the same haste on the pitch and when you watch him, you see an extremely precocious player who plays the game at high speed. Indeed, the 21-year-old is in a hurry, but he’s incredibly confident and has the ability in his feet to back up the mouth. There’s a tale told by former Genk boss Peter Maes in which he recalls an 18-year-old Bailey proclaiming “in three years time I’ll be playing in a bigger competition than Belgian league”. The bravado surprised Maes, all the more impactful when you consider Genk has nurtured the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois, but true to his nature, that prophecy arrived a lot sooner. He joined Bayer Leverkusen at 19, jumping from one hotbed of young talent to another and has since lit up the Bundesliga. Playing on either wing, Bailey’s dynamism, direct running and enchanting left-foot have made him a feature of Leverkusen’s promising young side after a period of settling in. He’s a clever player, too, with his anticipation and instinctive positional sense opening pathways to score when coming in off his wing. It’s not all good, though. That confidence we mentioned earlier has apparently made him tricky to coach while there was an instance at Genk when he was involved in a foul-mouthed rant with a supporter. Still, that single-minded attitude can see him go far.
Forecast for 2019: The likes of Tottenham and Liverpool were linked in the summer, a predictable result after an impressive first full season in the Bayer XI. However, a move to a club of that stature is a little premature because Bailey is a very streaky talent. Consistency has to be the aim over the next 12 months because he’s still not completely consolidated his spot in the XI.
By Alex Rea
Name: Justin Kluivert
Style: When your father is an iconic figure in his own right, the massive shadow cast can either be viewed as a guiding light to follow or a cloak to conceal your own shine. For Justin Kluivert, being the son of legendary former Ajax and Barcelona striker Patrick Kluivert has helped, not hindered his career. The Dutchman’s early genesis through youth football and into the professional arena saw Justin tagged with the typical bio of being ‘Patrick’s son’. But he has since flourished to become a name of his own, a complete detachment from the success of his father and this is just the beginning. From academy graduate to marquee winger, Kluivert was at the centre of Ajax’s new generation of superstar talent with his devastating pace and electric skill earning him a €18.75million move to Serie A giants Roma in the summer. Here is a young left winger who has all the attributes to grow into one of the world’s finest talents. Packed into his diminutive frame are sacks of explosivity because Kluivert’s low centre of gravity enables him to twist and turn defenders before blasting them away with his incredible speed. He’s a traditional winger in the sense he sticks to the touchline and wants to beat his man before crossing to team-mates in the box. That’s not to say he can’t shoot, quite the opposite, he has already produced some gorgeous goals with his smooth right foot but Kluivert’s focus is to aid the striker. He’s reminiscent of a young Cristiano Ronaldo in the early days of his Manchester United and he’s quickly carving out his own reputation which could one day see him be a legend in his own right.
Forecast for 2019: The move to Roma represents an important step at a crucial phase of his career. It’s hard to believe Kluivert’s just a teenager because you read some of the interviews him and you detect the same swagger and confidence he displays on the pitch. He happily invites rumours linking him to the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona but for now, Roma is a perfect environment for evolution. Nail down a starting berth there and the next few years will be fascinating indeed.
By Alex Rea
Name: Jean-Kevin Augustin
Club: RB Leipzig
Style: If the summer of 2018 was all about Kylian Mbappe, Jean-Kevin Augustin can at least point to the time he stopped the sun from shining on football’s boy wonder during the summer of 2016. At that time Mbappe, while revered inside scouting circles, was to most just a name on the bench at Monaco. Meanwhile hope was building in the French capital for another precocious Parisian. During that year’s European Under-19 Championship, Augustin finished not only as the top scorer with six goals but by being named the best player of the tournament. The 21-year-old is a rather novel sight in this day and age, a pacy striker who thrives on taking the most direct route rather than relying on the flanks to pry open some space. Unsurprisingly that means he’s good in restricted space, and has made turning a through ball into a pirouette and a waspish strike something of a recurring motif. This showcase has come at RB Leipzig, who paid €13m for Augustin in the same summer that Mbappe moved to PSG for €222m. Still, it is likely that their paths will converge once more for France in the near future.
Forecast for 2019: Augustin may be filling his boots with RB Leipzig, but there is evidence he is growing a little too big for his britches. According to reports from France, a peeved Augustin demanded that Under-21s coach Sylvain Ripoli not talk to him after being taken off at half-time in a friendly in September. Shortly after, he refused a call-up – via text message. All is not rosy back in Leipzig, either, after he and team-mate Nordi Mukiele broke protocol before the ‘Red Bull’ Europa League derby. This is not the time for drama. If any position is uncertain in the senior France team it is central striker, but Youssef Poulsen has recently muscled into first-team contention alongside Timo Werner at Leipzig.
By Chris Bailey
Name: Lautaro Martinez
Club: Inter Milan
Style: Even if Lionel Messi never throws on the Argentina jersey again, or the country’s high-octane attack on paper continues to be low-grade on the pitch, hope shall exist in the form of Lautaro Martinez. Whereas much of La Albiceleste’s once august front line looked they like they aged a few years during the World Cup, at 21, Martinez has the ability to define the next decade of Argentinian football. Martinez hassles centre-backs in a way that is eerily reminiscent to Sergio Aguero, while his centre of gravity is as low as a crocodile’s belly. But the former Racing Club man, who made the rite of passage to Europe and Inter Milan last summer, is so much more than just a predator. His sheer cheek can only be commended. The flicks, the back-heels, the chops and the spins are all part of his repertoire, and sometimes it seems as if he will only agree to pass if he can first pull from his bag of tricks. It’s all part of his charm.
Forecast for 2019: A move to an often slow-burning Serie A was a slightly curious one for Martinez, as was the ultimate destination. Inter routinely play with one striker under Luciano Spalletti and that player just so happens to be Martinez’s countryman Mauro Icardi, whose place in the team is ironclad. Icardi has always been much more valued in Milan than the national set-up, however, and Martinez got off the mark for Argentina with a header against Iraq in September. Should new coach Lionel Scaloni continue to eschew reputations, Martinez may not be far away from the team for the rest of his career.
By Chris Bailey
Name: Carlos Soler
Style: David Beckham would love to bend it like Carlos Soler. The first thing you notice about the Valencia midfielder’s passing range is just how late the ball arcs on its trajectory from wayward to wondrous. That’s just the eye candy, though, as Soler has an assortment of chips, straight drives and penalty-box putts in his golf bag. His mastery over both the long and short stuff is why he is such a rare breed of player, as suited to ticking play over in a deep-lying central position as he is gliding on the right wing. It’s hard enough to be even capable of all these things, but after two full seasons in Valencia’s first-team, the 21-year-old now possesses the engine to go with his fine machinery. Just like the Koke and Saul combo at Atletico Madrid, Soler has no trouble working himself into the ground. It is not a surprise when he covers 12 kilometres in a game (the average is approximately 10) and only left-back Jose Luis Gaya can match him for duels won this term.
Forecast for 2019: Marcelino, Valencia’s drill sergeant, has whipped both Soler’s mind and matter into impressive shape. It is easy to see him being a success elsewhere, but aside from a squall of speculation surrounding a move to Manchester United last season, there are no immediate links. He is on the bubble of the Spain squad and shares many traits with Saul, who Luis Enrique has quickly made a centrepiece for his new-look side. Euro 2020 is a realistic goal.
By Chris Bailey
Style: No one made better out of Barcelona’s Malcom hijacking then ‘Roma Admin’, the brains behind the Giallorossi’s Twitter who cashed in on a heap of jokes – and possibly a pay rise – after the club was spurned by the Brazilian. From photoshopping him out of a pre-season Barca line-up to muting any mention of his name on social media, Roma made fun of the situation. And quite possibly jinxed him. Malcom appeared just two times for the Blaugrana in the first three months of the season, both times from the bench. For now we can only go on what we saw at Bordeaux. At his very best in Ligue 1 he was a game-breaking conquistador, habitually bursting into enemy territory – via a nutmeg or two – before swerving in from the right flank. The 21-year-old is a decent passer in the final third, but sometimes he need not get there, as his shooting from distance is so violent and unpredictable through the air. He can sometimes get tangled up in his own good intentions while dribbling and is a defensive non-entity, yet on pure excitement alone he was worthy of his move.
Forecast for 2019: This is where it gets complicated. While the club has reportedly preached patience to Malcom, he is right to question why on earth they parted with a Roma-gazumping €41m for him in the first place. Ernesto Valverde – who wanted Willian instead – pointedly said ‘the club’ thought it would be a good idea to sign the former Corinthian back in the summer, and he has dialled back on the 4-3-3 that has made Barca so vulnerable in defence. That move has jettisoned €100m plus man Ousmane Dembele, let alone Malcom. His agents have become increasingly active in the press, and the player himself must look on enviously at Everton winger Richarlison and his recent Brazil call-up. It may soon be time for yet more drastic action.
By Chris Bailey
Name: James Maddison
Club: Leicester City
Position: Centre midfielder
Style: Very few youngsters make the kind of impression in the Premier League Maddison has since his arrival at Leicester City. The former Norwich City man went straight into the Foxes first team and hasn’t looked back, with his playmaking ability key to their performance. A key aspect of Maddison’s game is his low centre of gravity. Although he doesn’t possess blistering pace, his ability to faint or change his direction subtly allow him to gain the edge on opposing defenders. On the ball, the midfielder is superb, with a pass accuracy of just under 90 per cent since the start of the 2017/18 campaign. Maddison’s propensity to find himself space, both anywhere in the final third and in the penalty area, has helped him on his way to 18 league goals already in his career. His confidence and superb technique have both been evident this season, having scored from the penalty spot and netted a superb free-kick already. Defensively, while Maddison can’t be faulted for his work ethic and contribution, there are lapses in concentration that must be eradicated, while his positional awareness when his team are in possession also needs work. Because he lacks that lightning pace, and to help his adaptation to life in the Premier League, the youngster’s physical presence could also improve.
Forecast for 2019: Maddison has made the step up to the Premier League look relatively easy, becoming a permanent fixture under Claude Puel in the early months of the campaign. Maintaining his excellent form for the entirety of his debut season in the top flight will be the 21-year-old’s biggest challenge. And while Maddison may be better served with a full international season at the highest youth level, culminating in the 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Championships next summer, Gareth Southgate has already come calling, with the midfielder included in England’s most recent first-team squad. The England boss clearly sees Maddison as the true creative playmaker that the Three Lions have been desperate for in recent years.
By Tom Biggs
Name: David Neres
Style: What is it with Brazil and skillful attackers? The Canarinho have a plethora of talent available to them in wide attacking positions, but Neres is certainly starting to make a big impression with his pace, trickery and confidence in front of goal. Having flourished as a right-winger during the 2017/18 campaign, where he showcased his excellent vision and passing ability regularly, Neres has operated in a more central position this time around, interchanging freely with Dusan Tadic and Hakim Ziyech. At just 21-years-old, he possesses confidence and composure on the ball way beyond his years, while his awareness also affords him time and space to find the gaps between the opposition’s midfield and defence in his new central role. As much as he loves to create chances for his team-mates, Neres is also assured in front of goal. The Brazilian youth international netted 14 times in the Eredivisie during his first full season with Ajax.
Forecast for 2019: With a full season of Eredivisie football under his belt, in which he scored 14 goals in 32 games, Neres’ progression into a more central role should see him continue to flourish in 2019. The youngster will also hope to help Ajax end their wait for a 34th Eredivisie title, having struggled to keep pace with major rivals PSV and Feyenoord in recent seasons. In Europe, progression to the knockout rounds of the Champions League would hand Neres the chance to shine for Ajax on club football’s biggest stage. For Brazil, Neres won nine caps for the Under-20s, but will now have to hope his form for Ajax can earn him a call-up to Tite’s full side in 2019, with his form having already caught the attention of the Brazil boss, despite no call-up arising just yet.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Ben Chilwell
Club: Leicester City
Style: Claude Puel’s extreme confidence in the 21-year-old Ben Chilwell has been reflected in his displays on the pitch, with a calm and composed nature in the left-back slot for Leicester City – and now England. Despite his young age, Chilwell’s defensive understanding is excellent, while his ability to defend with confidence in one-on-one situations has improved vastly since holding down a starting spot in the Foxes starting line-up. Going forward is where Chilwell is at his best. With a winger cutting inside, Chilwell loves to make overlapping runs down the left-hand side, where he’s able to produce quality balls into the box with regularity, thanks to his superb technique. Puel has praised his ability to “take the space to join the attack”, highlighting his awareness in attacking positions, and also causing an extra threat for opposition defenders who need to be wary of him. Chilwell’s energy and pace mean he is also suited to a wing-back position should he be required to play that role in the future.
Forecast for 2019: Chilwell’s excellent form for Leicester will no doubt see some of the Premier League’s top clubs registering an interest in the left-back, but with a contract at the King Power Stadium until 2021, continuing his progression with the Foxes may be the smartest move. Having already displaced Christian Fuchs from the starting line-up, managing his body well to cope with the demands of a full Premier League season will be key for Chilwell. He has already caught the eye of England boss Gareth Southgate, making his Three Lions debut in October, producing composed displays in the games against Croatia and Spain.
By Tom Biggs
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