Who are soccer’s 39 best players age 21 or under?

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The world’s best players are getting younger but, as the likes of Dortmund striker Erling Haaland and Man 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 third straight year (read 2019 and 2020 here), ESPN brings you our list of the game’s next top young stars aged 21 or under. The previous two years’ No. 1, PSG’s Kylian Mbappe, at 22, is now too old to be included, while others from the last top 10, including Liverpool‘s Trent Alexander-Arnold and AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, are out too!

Some of this year’s crop have made their mark on the big stage already — you might remember how Haaland announced himself in the Champions League — but who has done enough to make the grade, what are their particular qualities and how can they get even better?

Assembling the list for the second 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 satisfied my two main criteria: appearances at the highest level and consistent performance over a sustained period.

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 online scouting platforms such as WyScout and InStat. Personal preference also played a significant role.

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Is there a reason that 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 RB Leipzig‘s Ibrahima Konate, Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey and Sporting CP‘s Nuno Mendes.

It speaks volumes about the array of attacking talent that players such as Chelsea‘s Callum Hudson-Odoi, Rennes’ Jeremy Doku and Arsenal‘s Gabriel Martinelli narrowly missed out on the final list.

Notes:
– Players included must be age 21 or under on May 1. The top 10 have been ranked, with the rest listed in alphabetical order.
– While there’s still uncertainty over how COVID-19 will affect the transfer market, the transfer values stated are based on pre-COVID prices.

– Positions are: GK (Goalkeeper), DEF (Defender), MID (Midfielder), FW (Forward), ST (Striker)

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Watch highlights of ESPN FC’s selections for the best young footballers in the world.

Jump to: Badiashile | Baumgartner | Bellingham | Botman | Camavinga | David | Davies | De Ligt | Dest | Fati | Felix | Foden | Fofana | Gravenberch | Greenwood | Haaland | Havertz | Isak | Jones | James | Kamara | Kean | Kulusevski | Meslier | Musiala | Pedro Neto | Pedri | Reyna | Rodrygo | Saka | Sancho | Tchouameni | Torres | Tonali | Trincao | Vinicius Jr. | Vlahovic | Wamangituka | Wirtz

The Top 10

Club/country: Arsenal / England
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €50m

Saka has experienced a spectacular recent journey, from promising beginnings as an exciting left-back to a resourceful inverted winger on the right. Capped four times by England, the Arsenal wide man is one of the most consistent teenagers in the Premier League and he has really taken a leap forward after being moved further up the pitch. His goal against Chelsea is certainly a candidate for goal of the season, though the jury’s still out on whether he really intended to chip Edouard Mendy with his weaker foot. Last year he made the full list but didn’t crack the top 10.

Strengths: Saka offers a novel mix of abilities; on one hand he’s a tenacious and enthusiastic defender, while on the other he’s a fountain of creative energy, unpredictability and trickery (back-heels, flicks, changes of direction.) In short, despite being a schooled defender he’s still got the attacking incisiveness and creativity of a natural winger. He’s lightning-quick with the ball at his feet and has great balance. From his new role he’s also proved to be an excellent crosser in the final third.

How he can improve: Having become such a vital key player and difference-maker for Arsenal, the challenge is how he reacts to being roughed up by opponents.

Club/country: Real Madrid / Brazil
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €40m

In soliciting feedback on Vinicius Jr., it was clear that few players polarise opinion more than the Brazilian wide man. Whereas some are enormously excited by his tremendous pace and directness, others despair over poor decision-making and a tendency to get too worked up in crucial moments. The €46m signing from Flamengo in 2018 can look back on 100 official games for arguably the biggest club in the world a few months before he turns 21, which is good going. However, he has dropped from fourth place last year.

Vinicius Jr. nets two in defeat of Liverpool

Strengths: Mostly deployed on the left wing by Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, Vinicius Jr. mainly comes to life with his diagonal runs and movement across the front when the game opens up. When allowed space he can create danger with his speed and dribbling ability, which can see him leave opponents behind on counter-attacks. Though not the usual strategic or polished player favoured by top clubs such as Real Madrid, there’s a reason why Zidane is sticking with him: He’s unpredictable and tricky.

How he can improve: Can improve his positioning when defending, including set-pieces, relies heavily on his right foot and, despite all the promise, can struggle to come up with an end product.

Club/country: Atletico Madrid / Portugal
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €95m

Signed by Atletico Madrid as the second-most expensive teenager in world football when he joined from Benfica for €126m two years ago, he took a full season to fully adapt to Spanish football (let alone Diego Simeone’s demanding brand of football). The Portugal international started the season off well and enjoyed a particularly productive spell during the late autumn, though his impact has tailed off somewhat recently. That said, the second striker or “false No. 9” remains one of the top crowd-pleasers in La Liga and one of the most talented young forwards around. He has risen two places from 10th last year.

Strengths: His first touch — and the way it sets him up for his next action, often combined with a turn or a swift body movement — is almost unparalleled. He also has a natural appreciation of the game and awareness of the players around him. Quick with and without possession, excellent at veering his way past opponents; through flicks, lay-offs and smart combination play, Felix can be a joy to watch.

How he can improve: Being a supremely talented, creative player nobody expects him to waste his time picking fights with centre-backs, but he could still make a greater nuisance of himself in attacking duels.

Club/country: Barcelona / Spain
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €70m

You could be forgiven for thinking that Pedri is a La Masia academy product. He has all the qualities associated with Barcelona’s own youth players — great touch, vision and passing skill — yet the attacking midfielder was signed from Las Palmas in 2019 and loaned back to the Canary Islands club for a season before he moved to Catalonia. Having grown up wanting to play like Andres Iniesta, the comparisons are there for anyone to see. Recently capped three times by Spain at the senior level, he has a big future ahead of him as a newcomer to this list.

Hunter: Messi remains Barcelona’s talisman, but Pedri is the future

Strengths: Manager Ronald Koeman moved Pedri, initially a winger, to the centre of midfield for his excellent technical skills and vision. He is already perfectly comfortable with Barca’s possession-dominating style. So smooth, neat and intelligent in possession, Pedri’s ability to thread a precisely weighted ball behind the opposing defence is a regular feature of his game. He’s also reasonably industrious for an attacking midfielder and is always keen to get on the ball.

How he can improve: The next step for Pedri is to show more aggression in the defensive side of his game as well as attempting more shots on goal — with his skill and technique he could score 12-14 goals a season from midfield.

Club/country: Dortmund / England
Age: 17
Estimated transfer value: €70m

Another newcomer to the list, Bellingham’s ascent from battling relegation with Championship side Birmingham City at the age of 16 to a dominating presence in the latter stages of the Champion League less than a year later is nothing short of astounding. Although his talent has never been in doubt — he ran circles around opponents even in his early teens — the way his development has skyrocketed has surprised even the Dortmund management. Bellingham, who was capped by England at senior level last month, is starting to look every bit a generational talent.

– Laurens: Bellingham can be a complete midfielder

Strengths: He’s turning into the ideal, modern midfield “No. 8”; Bellingham is excellent on the ball, using his close control and technique to get past opponents and drop into the right spaces to receive a pass. Brilliant at timing late runs into the box, he also possesses a precise but varied passing game and a first-class application to teamwork.

How he can improve: Bellingham has already made such staggering progress over the past year it’s a matter of staying at this level — expecting more from a 17-year-old at this point in his career is unfair.

Club/country: Juventus / Netherlands
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €70m

The winner of the 2018 “Golden Boy” award and Ajax’s youngest-ever captain missed three months of this season due to a shoulder injury, but has looked the part for Juventus since his return in November. Signed for a whopping €75m from the Dutch giants (which made him the fourth-most expensive defender in world football) in 2019, he has collected 26 senior caps for Netherlands. We placed him sixth last year.

– Kuper: Why ambitious De Ligt chose Juventus

Strengths: Exceptionally calm and assured in possession with his 93% pass completion rate in Serie A this season, the Dutchman has the quality (with either foot) to break lines with his pass out of defence, often playing his way out of pressure to find an available teammate in midfield. He reads the game like a centre-back 10 years his senior and understands when to intercept and when to drop deeper. Exhibits a high level of focus (only loses the ball on average 1.9 times per game) and wins an impressive 70% of challenges in the air as well as on the ground.

How he can improve: He has a tendency to struggle for pace over the first metres when caught out with space behind him.

Club/country: Barcelona / Spain
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €75m

Just as he was beginning to prove why he keeps being mentioned as the possible heir to Messi, the extraordinarily talented winger picked up a serious meniscus injury which has kept him out for the best part of six months. What he showed prior to the injury — especially in his home senior debut for Spain and in the subsequent league match against Villarreal in September — was as exciting as can be expected from someone his age. He did enough last year to make the full list, but is now a different class.

– Karlsen: How Barcelona can look to youth for help

Strengths: Mostly at home on the left-hand side of the attack, he has been sporadically fielded on the opposite flank in order to cut infield. His ability to dribble and turn opponents inside out, through unpredictability and quick changes of direction, is probably his most distinct quality. But, being a La Masia product, he also possesses a highly developed understanding of movement without the ball and the tactical awareness to keep the game moving.

How he can improve: It’s all about getting fully fit and picking up where he left off. He was in the process of upping his efficiency in front of goal when injury struck.

Club/country: Man City / England
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €85m

Among the top performing midfielders in Europe since the turn of the year, Foden seems to get better as the opposition gets stronger and the tempo of the game increases. With six senior caps for England, the Manchester City academy product is expected to enjoy a key role in the Euro 2020 and has already reached double figures for goals in all competitions this season. Same as Fati, he made the full list last year but his career has taken off incredibly.

Foden, Saka, Pedri headline ESPN’s breakout players of 2021

Strengths: Foden moves around the pitch, scanning the terrain to be in the best possible position to gain an advantage when he has the ball, and cleverly positions his body when he receives a pass (most often turned towards the direction where he wants to move). That, and his tactical and spatial awareness, are not just signs of a special talent but also a testament to the quality of the academy in the east end of Manchester. He is an instinctive, mobile, intelligent player and is able to unlock a defence with a clever pass or progressive dribble. Whether playing on either wing, or in the middle, or swapping positions throughout the game, he’s always a threat.

How he can improve: He’s turning into a complete attacking midfielder and is in the process of becoming indispensable to Guardiola, which should be his next challenge. While he is diligent in his defensive pressing duties, he can up his concentration levels in that department too.

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Watch some of Phil Foden’s best goals as he earns a top 10 spot in ESPN FC’s best Under-21 players.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund / England
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €90m

Last year’s No. 2, Sancho’s poor run of form during the start of the season triggered speculation that he’d been mentally affected by the summer-long transfer saga linking him heavily with a €120m move to Manchester United. From the turn of this year, until he picked up a muscle injury towards the end of February which kept him out until recently, he came back strong, showing the kind of form that stunned the Bundesliga last season. His presence was sorely missed when Dortmund were knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester City.

– Schoenfeld: Sancho will be a star, on his own terms

Strengths: A natural, gifted footballer whose joy of playing the game is clear. Whether on the left or right wing, alternating between the two positions, or drifting into the centre, Sancho is a persistent threat. His quick burst of pace and agility in small spaces make him extremely difficult to handle; he’s excellent one vs. one and his perfectly timed runs on the blind side of defenders set up the ideal angles for lay-offs, assists or a neat finish. A modern, attacking forward whose footballing brain matches his physical and technical abilities.

How he can improve: When not in form, his defensive work rate tends to drop.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund / Norway
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €180m

The most coveted player in world football, the Norway striker leaps from eighth last year to a fairly uncontested top spot. His 37 goals from 38 games in all competitions this season is a phenomenal return for any forward, let alone for a 20-year-old. His on and off the pitch demeanour, with the possible exception of some stroppy body language in front of the cameras, has also helped him edge towards a proper “superstar” persona (which he seems to be enjoying) and Europe’s elite clubs are all keen to sign him before his €75m release clause kicks in next year.

– Teng: Why Haaland can become the world’s best player
– Karlsen: How Haaland became soccer’s most-wanted

Strengths: Though he’s clearly improving his all-round game, it’s still his explosive pace, raw power and exceptional left-foot, combined with a knack of sniffing out goal-scoring positions and finishing in a plethora of ways, that catches the eye. Haaland made his mark early on by leaving opponents trailing on counter-attacks and transitions, but has become a natural at scoring goals from multi-pass build-ups, rebounds and crosses. He has all the physical and mental qualities to become the top centre-forward of the decade.

How he can improve: The 6-foot-4 Haaland is more dominant in the air than he was a year ago (one of his relative weak points previously) and has become a better link-up player as well, yet he still only averages 17 passes per game and you wonder if he were involved in a more intense pressing game whether his goals would drop.

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Watch the best of Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Gio Renya in the Bundesliga this season.


The next 29 (in alphabetical order)

Club/country: AS Monaco / France
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €35m

Arguably the biggest prospect to come out of the Monaco academy since Mbappe, Badiashile has played close to 80 official games at the senior level and is one of the top players from a remarkable generation of French centre-backs. Usually a sure starter for France U21s, he could soon earn his first senior cap despite the immense competition. It’s easy to see why he is high up on the scouting agenda of many European elite clubs, including Man United.

Strengths: Badiashile has everything: He’s not only smooth on the ball (91% pass accuracy this season), but he’s fast, strong and dominant in the air (73% successful rate from aerial challenges). As an added bonus, he’s impressively stylish with a calm, measured approach to his role in the centre of defence.

How he can improve: He’s ready for the next level, which might be a move to a top European club or to keep on developing with Monaco — who should be back in the Champions League next season — but his focus in certain defensive situations can still be improved.

Club/country: Hoffenheim / Austria
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €25m

In a fairly uneventful season for mid-table Hoffenheim, Baumgartner has stood out. Usually deployed in an attacking midfield role, preferably in the half position to the left — although he’s not restricted to that and can pop up anywhere — the Austria international has been a steady source of creativity. Due to some outstanding performances and impressive consistency, the 21-year-old is predictably appearing on the radar of more illustrious European clubs.

Strengths: A strong-running, dynamic midfielder who is able to slide past opponents with his impressive ball-progression and balance. But, unlike the archetypal creative midfielder, he keeps himself involved with a committed pressing game and interceptions due to his industrious, disciplined nature. He also draws in opponents and attracts fouls, while he poses a threat with his excellent right-footed shot and the ability to pick out a runner with a precise, penetrating ball.

How he can improve: As an energetic midfielder who likes to execute his actions quickly, he can tend to give away possession too easily at times.

Club/country: Lille / Netherlands
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Having just offloaded Gabriel to Arsenal for €26m, Lille’s brilliant ex-sporting director, Luis Campos, moved swiftly to sign the Dutchman for approximately a quarter of the price as a replacement. The Ajax product, who arrived in France from a loan spell at Heerenveen, never actually played first-team football for his formative club who now may look upon him as “the one that got away.” He is attracting interest from top Premier League clubs, including Liverpool and Tottenham.

Strengths: In partnership with much-travelled Portuguese veteran Jose Fonte, the left-footed Botman is part of Ligue 1’s tightest defence. With Lille fighting for their first league title for 10 years, Botman keeps impressing with his highly focused application to defending: alert, assertive and ready to intercept or engage in a challenge, yet concedes few fouls. He comes out on top from 75% of his challenges on the ground and can boast an equally good number in the air (he’s one of the tallest defenders in Ligue 1 at 6-foot-4). Also composed on the ball and deceptively quick.

How he can improve: Botman plays to his strengths and seems well aware of his weaknesses, but as with most centre-backs of his size, he can fail to keep up when faced with quick and slick combinations in and around his own penalty area.

Club/country: Rennes / France
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €60m

Just narrowly missing out on a place in our top 10, the midfielder has seen his rise to the top level out slightly after experiencing a meteoric first professional year, making his Ligue 1 debut at just 16. In his young career to date he’s clocked up more than 60 games at league level as well as making his senior debut for France (followed by a scoring appearance vs. Ukraine). His amazing development has seen him being courted by practically every club that can possibly afford him, with Real Madrid favourites.

Strengths: Left-footed, elegant and a pleasure to watch, Camavinga has a remarkable blend of work rate, technical ability and intelligence. Predominantly a holding midfielder (but has also been tried as a “No. 8”) he brings order and fluidity to the midfield with his ability to win the ball and play a sensible pass. He covers a lot of ground, is agile and dynamic, plays the game with a high tempo and rarely takes unnecessary touches. The 18-year-old is also excellent at getting out of tight spots without losing possession.

How he can improve: In the next step of his development he can become even more positive in his passing game.

Club/country: Lille / Canada
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

The young Canadian earned himself a €30m move to Lille last summer after scoring 30 goals in twice as many appearances for Belgian side Gent. At first he struggled to find his feet in the competitive, more physical French league — it took him 14 games to find the net — but David has grown in sharpness and confidence since the turn of the year. He scored the opener for table-topping Lille against PSG in early April, before having to limp off in the first half with an ankle injury, while his two injury-time goals in a 2-0 win against Marseille are the highlight of his club career so far.

Strengths: Though it took him a few months, David has started to adapt to French football. Primarily a movement-based forward, his main forte is his clinical finishing and he takes time to map out the dynamics of a situation before deciding where to shoot. The smart, speedy striker also loves making deep runs off the shoulders of defenders.

How he can improve: As much as he’s also capable of dropping deep to involve himself in the build-up, he should look to up his number of assists and key passes in the last third.

Club/country: Bayern Munich / Canada
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €50m

Expectations remain high for Davies, who broke through into the Bayern first team with some stunning displays last season. This campaign, however, has been something of a backward step for the ex-Vancouver Whitecaps winger — now converted into a left-back at Bayern. An ankle injury which kept him out for six weeks did not help, but while Davies is certain to bounce back, he’s going through the most difficult patch of his career. He just missed out on a place in the top 10 here.

Davies on his refugee background and how it shaped him

Strengths: When he gets into trouble defensively, especially in the transitional phase, Davies can use his tremendous pace to bail himself out. While the freshness and unwavering confidence that saw Davies become almost unstoppable down the left side last season has not quite been there this campaign, with his pace, movement and overlaps it won’t be long before he proves his doubters wrong.

How he can improve: Following the expectations of an initial high, a youngster at a big club will face some adversity every so often. Some physical and mental rest over the summer should see Davies back on track next season.

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

Signed by Barcelona from Ajax for €21m last summer, the American has enjoyed a respectable debut season in La Liga, despite a shaky start (he was taken off at half-time in El Clasico in Madrid after being given a torrid time by Vinicius Jr.). Yet, having started more than 20 league games and equipped himself well in the Champions League and for the United States men’s national team, Dest can look back on a successful first season.

Strengths: Barcelona signed Dest for his relentless attacking mindset and high-quality passing game. Whether used as an “orthodox” right-back or as a wing-back, the 20-year-old usually poses a significant attacking threat, although this season he’s scored just two league goals plus one assist so far. Pacey, an excellent ball carrier and with a compact physique, he’s the epitome of a modern full-back.

How he can improve: As witnessed in El Clasico, there’s progress to be made in the defensive department of his game. His positioning can sometimes leave him exposed to a well-executed switch ball.

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Sergino Dest scores his first goal for the senior men’s national team to give the USMNT a 1-0 lead vs. Jamaica.

Club/country: Leicester City / France
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €60m

Signed by Leicester City from Saint-Etienne for a substantial €35m in October 2020, the Frenchman is a strong contender for “signing of the season.” From the moment he arrived on English soil, he’s hardly ever looked uncomfortable, or as though he needs a period of adjustment to his new league, which is uncommon at the best of times, but is particularly impressive for a young centre-back.

Strengths: Remarkably complete for his age, he is quick and able to bring the ball out of defence to pinpoint a forward pass. He’s also exceptionally dominant in the air and in defensive challenges (winning around 70% of both categories). Additionally, he plays with a high level of concentration throughout the game, hardly ever failing to track a runner or needing to resort to a panic tackle. Whether playing in a back two or three, he’s equally capable.

How he can improve: Fofana has performed to a level which almost makes it silly to point out minor shortcomings. He’s pretty much the finished article already but it would be interesting to see how he copes with a step up to a major club (with all due respect to Leicester) as his reading of the game improves.

Club/country: Ajax / Netherlands
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €30m

The elegant midfielder is perhaps the No. 1 prospect from an exciting crop of Ajax academy products. His standing was confirmed when he was selected for the senior Netherlands team for 2022 World Cup qualifying this March (where he made substitute appearances in all three international fixtures) instead of joining the U21 side. At 18, Gravenberch commands the aura of a “big club player” that belies his age.

Strengths: A defensive midfielder or “No. 8,” he’s comfortable on the ball and has the vision to see things early, often choosing to pick out attacking runs with an ambitious long-range pass. He’s easy on the eye and moves effortlessly around the pitch despite being tall (6-foot-2) for a central midfielder. Hard to dispossess, he’s excellent at twisting his way out of crowded situations. Not the most aggressive of midfielders, he comes out victorious from nearly half of his challenges.

How he can improve: With his physique, technical ability and lovely strike on the ball he should be able to increase his goal-scoring tally from midfield (he only has three league goals this season) and perhaps break into the box even more often.

Club/country: Manchester United / England
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €55m

Though he’s failed to repeat his goal-scoring exploits from his breakthrough season (17 goals in 49 games), Greenwood’s development is still on track. The Carrington academy product was handed his first England cap against Iceland last September and, although he didn’t cover himself in glory with his off the pitch antics, hopefully he’s learnt from that experience. Having also made the list last season, he appears ready to kick on to another level, which is why he is held in such high esteem by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Strengths: His physical attributes are backed up by a smart footballing brain. Greenwood takes up good positions in attacking areas, is eager to run in behind when drifting into central areas and, though he’s had to be content playing mostly wide right, he shows the sense of opportunism and finishing skills of a central striker (as shown when pinching the winner against Brighton in March.) He possesses one of the cleanest left-footed strikes in the Premier League, but is more than able with his right. He also deserves praise for keeping up his work rate even when he’s not scoring.

How he can improve: While there’s no reason to doubt Greenwood’s credentials as a future goal scorer, he did go through a 15-game barren spell this winter and needs to impose himself more on the game when given the chance to play as a centre-forward. At 5-foot-11, his aerial ability also has room for improvement.

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Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood has a bright future, as these sharp finishes show.

Club/country: Chelsea / Germany
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €60m

Last year’s No. 6 in the ranking drops out of the top 10 after a frustrating start to his Premier League career, but there are some signs that the €79.4m signing from Bayer Leverkusen is finally starting to feel more at home. While Havertz initially failed to settle into a suitable role under Frank Lampard (mainly used as a right or central midfielder), new manager Thomas Tuchel has given him confidence in a more central attacking position.

Strengths: Despite the challenges in acclimatising to Chelsea, the left-footed Germany international remains a potential top player of the highest order. Though maybe overlooked by his occasional lack of coordination, he’s got excellent technical ability on the ball, is able to play quick, intelligent combination football and is good at finding space between the lines. His capacity to swerve away from his marker with quick changes of direction has not quite come to the fore in England, yet there’s still plenty of time for Havertz to live up to the massive expectations (not helped by his hefty transfer fee.)

How he can improve: Havertz knows what it takes as he’s already shown a high level in the Bundesliga, in Europe and for Germany. A proper preseason (building himself up physically and mentally) with Chelsea and working under Tuchel should see him better prepared for the next Premier League campaign.

Club/country: Real Sociedad / Sweden
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €20m

The Sweden international earned a sensational €8.6m move to Borussia Dortmund as a 17-year-old in 2017 on the back of 10 league goals for his home club AIK, yet started just one Bundesliga game. Following a successful loan move to Dutch club Willem II, he moved to Real Sociedad where he’s growing into a fine centre-forward.

Strengths: Isak is a reasonably straightforward striker; he’s quick enough to play on the shoulders of defenders and clever enough to pick the right spots for tap-ins. Curiously, despite his size (6-foot-2), he’s not particularly dominant in the air (he wins around a third of his attacking duels), but he knows how to use his height to his advantage inside the penalty area as a useful target for crosses. Courtesy of a powerful right foot, he can take charge of direct free kicks too.

How he can improve: Perhaps slightly underrated because he’s been around for quite some time, Isak can still improve his hold up game (lay-offs, winning free kicks, making a general nuisance of himself.) His defensive contribution is also relatively modest.

Club/country: Liverpool / England
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €25m

The versatile central midfielder won over manager Jurgen Klopp towards the tail end of last season, after showing some fine development at reserve and youth level for Liverpool and England. This campaign the academy product has gone on to feature regularly in the Premier League, while he’s also started in the Champions League.

Strengths: Courtesy of futsal-like close control, he’s at ease in crowded spaces, always asking for the ball, wanting it back and making nice combinations and triangles. Secure in possession, his pass accuracy ratio of 92% is respectable by anyone’s standards, especially from a player who’s not adverse to taking risks or hitting a 30 meter diagonal ball. Jones knows when to drop deep to allow defenders to come forward and kept performing at a decent level even during the club’s difficult spell in the winter.

How he can improve: Curtis could be more assertive and efficient in aerial or midfield duels.

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

The defender came through the youth ranks for Chelsea and England but is now excelling at senior level for both club and country — and has seemingly overtaken last year’s No. 3, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, in the race to start as England’s right-back at Euro 2020. James is slightly less assured of a starting role for Chelsea after Thomas Tuchel went with a back three, moving him into a wing-back role which doesn’t suit him as well as the traditional right-back slot in a back four, but he’s still a fine option.

Strengths: Physically imposing and resolute, James is among the best Premier League full-backs in terms of his defensive game, reflected by the fact he wins about two-thirds duels in the air and on the ground. Secure in possession, he rarely loses the ball under pressure or commits sloppy mistakes. He is a fine crosser with a relatively good precision rate and is astoundingly consistent for his age.

How he can improve: As much as James is more than eager to participate going forward, he could be even braver in taking on defenders or looking for the creative pass rather than the habitual option of an early cross.

Club/country: Marseille / France
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Initially drawn into the first-team setting to perform centre-back duties, Kamara has mainly been deployed as a defensive midfielder for Marseille over the past year. Closing in on his 100th Ligue 1 start for the most high-pressure club in France, which is no mean feat for a 21-year-old, Kamara is considered as one of the fastest-maturing midfielders in Europe. With his contract due to expire next summer, Marseille will have a battle on their hands to keep their most talented player.

Strengths: Tactically astute, Kamara positions himself well to pick up second balls and makes good interceptions — often by means of a well-timed tackle or by winning aerial challenges in midfield. His aggression and mobility make him likely to win the ball even high up the pitch. A non-stop, dependable player, safe in possession and able to hit a precise switch ball, he hardly ever records a below-par performance and has a first-class mentality.

How he can improve: Being the disciplined player that he is, he often sticks to what he’s told to do, but it would be interesting to see Kamara become even more imaginative in his attacking contribution.

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

Kean has impressed during his loan spell at PSG. Seen as a prestigious signing by Everton in 2019 when he joined from Juventus for €27.5m, the Italy international failed to make much of a mark on the Premier League (despite flashes of promise) during his first season. In France, however, he’s found the net 12 times in the league and even got himself on the scoresheet in the 4-1 demolition of Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Champions League. Now PSG face a struggle to keep him beyond the expiry of the loan deal this summer (no option to sign him permanently was included in the agreement.)

Strengths: While Kean’s directness, pace and ability to take on defenders in one vs. one situations have always been widely appreciated, he’s improved his finishing over the past season. He seems to run towards goal with more conviction, just as he’s become sharper in the execution phase — he no longer needs that extra half a second to shuffle his legs or ponder where to place the ball.

How he can improve: He’s often used wide on the right, but when fielded as a centre-forward he can be even more focused and precise in his link-up game and when playing with his back to goal.

Club/country: Juventus / Sweden
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €40m

Kulusevski enjoyed a fine Serie A campaign with Parma last season, scoring 10 goals and earning a €35m move to Juventus where, 12 months on, he’s in the process of becoming a regular. His impact has grown since the turn of the year, helped by learning his trade alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. Kulusevski has impressed in his preferred right-wing position, as well as doing shifts as Andrea Pirlo’s utility man in attack.

Strengths: The Sweden international’s directness, powerful running (with and without the ball) and sensitive left foot — he loves a far-post curled effort — immediately catch the eye. He is a creative forward with a high rate of key passes, an avid dribbler in wide areas and a fine link-up player when positioned in a more central role. In addition, he’s a loyal team player with an enthusiastic approach and a willingness to regain possession high up the pitch.

How he can improve: He still tends to rely heavily on his favoured left foot. He could also benefit from testing the opposing goalkeeper from distance more frequently.

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Watch some of Dejan Kulusevski’s top moments during his first season with Juventus.

Club/country: Leeds United / France
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Meslier showed admirable maturity when he excelled after stepping in for the suspended Kiko Casilla at the end of last season’s promotion race. Fast forward to this season and not only is he manager Marcelo Bielsa’s undisputed No. 1 between the sticks, but he is also among the elite goalkeepers in the Premier League, having arrived at Leeds initially on loan from French club Lorient in 2019.

Strengths: The 6-foot-3 Meslier has good control with the ball at his feet and high distribution accuracy (89%). As is required when playing Bielsa’s high defensive line, he’s quick, reads the game well and typically has a high level of concentration. This season the young Frenchman is among the top five goalkeepers in the Premier League.

How he can improve: Despite being a fine passer, he can occasionally be casual on the ball when receiving a backpass (as witnessed against Arsenal and Chelsea this season.) As with most young goalkeepers, he can work on his timing for crosses and when to come out to collect the ball.

Club/country: Bayern Munich / Germany
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €40m

Few can match the speed of Musiala’s rise to prominence over the past year. Since making his first outing for Bayern last summer, the 18-year-old has featured in over 30 official matches for the first team and also made his senior Germany debut. Musiala spent his early teenage years at the Chelsea academy (and also had a brief stint at Southampton) and, courtesy of a British-Nigerian father, he represented England from U15 to U21 level before deciding to represent his country of birth, Germany.

Strengths: The fact that Bayern boss Hansi Flick has had no second thoughts about starting Musiala, or throwing him in to change the dynamics of the attack, speaks volumes about how highly he’s rated by the club’s coaching staff. Though an attacking midfielder who can play anywhere in the final third, he tends to prefer the “No. 10” role or cutting in from the left. He creates space for his teammates with amazing individual runs and is technically brilliant with a natural understanding of football.

How he can improve: He can be overly keen on doing it alone, but experience will come with more games, just as his body will gain power and strength with time.

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1:04

Jamal Musiala dances through the Wolfsburg defence to give Bayern Munich the lead.

Club/country: Wolves / Portugal
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

From being a highly regarded (though sparingly used) talent at Lazio, Neto has progressively become a vital contributor at Wolves. At €17.9m, the left-footed Portugal winger’s transfer hardly came cheap, but during the weeks leading up to his terrible knee injury against Fulham in April (ruled out for the coming six months), he played the best football of his career so far. In fact, he was even rewarded with his first competitive senior caps for Portugal.

Strengths: A fan favourite at Wolves, Neto is an intense, industrious winger with a great change of pace. Despite being a skilled dribbler, courtesy of an array of body feints and changes of direction, his acceleration gives him the option of simply knocking the ball past the defender and sprinting ahead. Those qualities, along with a fierce long-range shot, make him particularly dangerous on the counter-attack.

How he can improve: Neto’s only immediate concern is to make a full recovery from his injury.

Club/country: Dortmund / United States
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €40m

Following the excitement of his early substitute appearances last season, Reyna has experienced his proper breakthrough at senior level for club and country. Son of U.S. legend Claudio Reyna, the ex-NYCFC academy product has become a key player for Dortmund this season, including in the Champions League. The American can play anywhere off the striker, though is most regularly used as a right winger.

Strengths: He is equipped with all the necessary attributes — mentality, technique, understanding of the game, even the physical make up — to eventually give Landon Donovan a run for his money as the best American male footballer of all time. Though Reyna’s individual qualities elicit most of his accolades, he’s also a generous team player who puts in a shift, making energy sapping attacking runs off the ball without any guarantee of receiving it, or dropping into midfield to create an advantage of numbers. He’s an excellent, creative passer of the ball with a natural understanding of the game.

How he can improve: Being so keen on taking on opponents, he could benefit from releasing the ball earlier. His first touch can also let him down (more due to impatience than technical shortcomings).

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USMNT’s Gio Reyna hits a stunning strike from distance for Borussia Dortmund vs. Bremen.

Club/country: Real Madrid / Brazil
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Having signed from Santos two years ago for €45m, this was the year when the Brazilian was expected to kick on from the early promise of his debut season. But Rodrygo can ultimately look back on a frustrating season. Apart from the highlight of scoring the Champions League winner against Inter, 2020-21 has mainly been a story of adverse form — he’s struggled to make an impact when coming off the bench — and injuries. He is too talented not to have a great career eventually, but questions remain whether it will be at Real Madrid.

Strengths: Rodrygo is still one of the most talented young wingers around. When on form he’s an extremely skilled dribbler who possesses a fierce shot, while his understanding of the game makes him an expert at changing positions with his teammates and engaging in quick, sharp interplay.

How he can improve: Needs to regain his confidence, which will help him in one vs. one situations — logically, his willingness to take opponents has dropped with his self-belief.

Club/country: Monaco / France
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €55m

Alongside Youssouf Fofana, Tchouameni has made an outstanding central midfield partnership for title-chasing Monaco. The France U21 international was signed from Bordeaux in January 2020 and, after the arrival of head coach Niko Kovac last summer, has made himself a permanent fixture in this youthful, vibrant Monaco side. Until recently a somewhat underrated player, Tchouameni is on the radar of top clubs such as Chelsea.

Strengths: Imposing, hard-working, powerful, technically accomplished and tactically aware, Tchouameni plays with the confidence of a much older player. He’s excellent at quickly closing down opponents, while he is also able to hit long passes with a variety of techniques and angles. Mentally and physically strong, he moves almost effortlessly around midfield. Though mainly used as a defensive midfielder, the 21-year-old is perfectly capable of playing anywhere in central midfield.

How he can improve: From initially being a predominantly defensive-minded midfielder, Tchouameni is working on his attacking game too. In fact, he’s quickly developing into the complete central midfielder.

Club/country: Brescia (on loan at AC Milan) / Italy
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €25m

It’s never easy to be compared to a legend, especially Andrea Pirlo, and Italy’s new midfield maestro hasn’t quite managed to set Serie A alight to the predicted levels. The defensive midfielder joined AC Milan on loan last summer from Brescia and he’s still to claim an undisputed central midfield slot in Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 formation. In March he was also “demoted” from the Italy senior squad to the U21 side, where he got himself sent off in the first of the group stage matches of the European Championship (and consequently missed the last two fixtures). This marked probably the most difficult spell of Tonali’s professional career to date.

Strengths: At Brescia, Tonali was able to dictate the tempo of the game — few build-ups would play out without the young midfielder getting on the ball. And although his impact on the game for the Rossoneri has vastly diminished of late, those intrinsic qualities — vision, intelligence, passing, playmaking, interceptions in midfield — are still in his DNA.

How he can improve: Keep calm and carry on. Tonali is far too mature and naturally gifted a player not to find his way to a leading role within a top side.

Club/country: Manchester City / Spain
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Few can have any complaints about the Spaniard’s progress over the past year. Brought to Manchester City with an eye on the future, Torres has featured regularly and scored in every competition. Has become an undisputed member of the Spain squad (six goals from 10 appearances), to the point where he has emerged as one of the key players ahead of Euro 2020 this summer.

Strengths: Predominantly an out-and-out right winger at Valencia, Torres has — rather predictably — been given more flexibility under Pep Guardiola. At City he’s been utilised in almost every attacking position, including as a “false No. 9.” A technically gifted, smart player, he has an ability to pick the right spaces, including goal scoring positions; indeed, he’s a sharp finisher for a wide player. Skilled at taking on opponents, he comes out on top nearly half of the time in one vs. ones.

How he can improve: Torres is developing well and has shown progress in most departments — even his defensive contribution and winning second balls — since arriving at Manchester City. The next obvious step would be to become more consistent and give himself a chance to make a more continuous impact over the duration of the game.

Club/country: Barcelona / Portugal
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €25m

Despite arriving from Braga last summer as one for the future, Trincao’s transfer fee of €31m inevitably triggered high expectations. After a modest start to his Barcelona career, he’s looked a more confident player since the turn of the year, to the extent that he’s set for a proper breakthrough next season.

Strengths: An immensely talented winger who prefers playing wide on the right to cut in on his left foot, where he often contributes with lovely flicks and touches of creativity. Quick and positive in his play, Trincao is a live wire who’s as eager to take on opponents as he is pulling away from his marker for a deep run behind the defensive line. His balance and coordination are also first class and he’s very hard to knock off the ball.

How he can improve: For all his natural ability, talent and willingness to succeed, the Portugal international is yet to be fully tuned in to the same wavelength as his Barcelona teammates, including a guy named Messi.

Club/country: Fiorentina / Serbia
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €40m

One of the most improved forwards in world football, the 6-foot-3 Serbia international is emerging as a summer target for big clubs across Europe — perhaps even as a back-up option for those missing out on Haaland. At 16, Vlahovic became the youngest-ever goal scorer for Partizan Belgrade and has been considered a top prospect since joining Fiorentina in 2018, but is now kicking on to the next level in his career. Staying at one of Italy’s perennial underperformers seems less and less likely by the week.

Strengths: Even before becoming an efficient goal scorer, Vlahovic was a useful team member with a well-developed link-up game. He is good at directing his flick-ons and has an advanced understanding of the game, making sensible runs and spotting the right areas to pick up the ball. Whether as a starter or off the bench, Vlahovic’s left-footed strike on the ball — he can score from anywhere from 25 meters to the goal line — leaves his admirers drooling.

How he can improve: While Vlahovic has received a lot of credit for his ability to convert chances, he still has margins of improvement possible in his overall game, especially a larger involvement when dropping into midfield. There’s also work to be done on his right foot.

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2:38

Take a look why Fiorentina’s Dusan Vlahovic is emerging as a summer target for top clubs around Europe.

Club/country: Stuttgart / DR Congo
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €20m

Wamangituka joined Stuttgart from second-tier French side Paris FC in an €8m move ahead of the 2019-20 season, and took time to adjust to German football, but looked a different player following the club’s promotion to the top flight. Unfortunately, just as he’d pushed on to another level he ruptured his crucial ligaments in March 2021 and is expected back late in the autumn. He scored 11 league goals before suffering the long-term injury against Bayern Munich.

Strengths: Few can match the youngster for pace — if he finds space down the wing he will fly at top speed and shows admirable control with the ball at his feet. While he previously held on to the ball for too long before running into trouble, he’s showed a lot more practical football sense and efficiency in his actions this season. He is also effective at dispossessing opponents and has a good success rate for his duels.

How he can improve: Once he is recovered from injury, one can only hope that Wamangituka regains the form that saw him emerge as one of the most exciting young players in the Bundesliga.

Club/country: Bayer Leverkusen / Germany
Age: 17
Estimated transfer value: €40m

Having just turned 17, Wirtz became the youngest-ever goal scorer in the Bundesliga in June 2020 (the record has since been beaten by Dortmund’s Youssoufa Moukoko). Now already a regular, the talented midfielder who joined Leverkusen from rivals Cologne — not without controversy, as the two clubs generally refrain from picking up each other’s talent — recently marked his phenomenal progress with a call-up to the full Germany squad in March 2021.

Strengths: A dynamic and attack-minded central midfielder with excellent vision and close control. He finds space in attack efficiently and is skilled at navigating crowded situations, often escaping with the ball glued to his foot. He is among the elite providers of key passes in the Bundesliga and is arguably the most promising German central midfield talent since Toni Kroos.

How he can improve: Though his impact has sometimes faded (from his brilliant highs) throughout the season, it’s just a matter of keeping up the hard work — he’s already well ahead of what can be expected from a 17-year-old.





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