“You can’t win anything with kids” is possibly one of Alan Hansen’s most memorable career moments. When scrutinising a fairly lacklustre Manchester United side with a very young average age, Hansen uttered these now infamous words. The players he was talking about? David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Phil and Gary Neville, Nicky Butt: The Class of 92. I believe that children are the future, teach them well and let them go on to become world class footballers in a few years time. Now I’m an avid player of the Football Manager series and they are notoriously good at predicting the next Messi or Ronaldo, so now, I’m going to do the same. Sit back and hold tight as I give you my top ten young players in world football right now!
10) Jose Luis Gaya – No sniggering in the back, that genuinely is his last name. Now we all know how good Spanish academies are for churning out some of the best players in world football (Xavi, Fernando Torres, David de Gea to name a few). It’s hard to pick out the best one because they are all so good, but believe me, Valencia’s is definitely up there in contention, mainly for their production of left backs with Jordi Alba being their latest triumph. It’s their latest product Jose Luis Gaya who is in line to challenge the likes of Alba and Juan Bernat for that starting left back position in the Spain team in the next few years and it’s easy to see why. He has the ability to overtake Alba and Bernat, with his ability on the ball and self belief the stand out areas of his game. If he can eradicate his tendency to cross from deep too much, we could be looking at a serious challenger to Luke Shaw as the best young left back around in the next few years.
9) Pierre-Emile Højbjerg – A product of Danish giants Brondby’s youth system since the tender age of 14, Højbjerg found himself at one of the biggest clubs in the world 3 years later: Bayern Munich. It hasn’t been a smooth journey for the 19 year old since making his first team debut in the 2012/13 season but he’s shown a lot of promise and, if used and nurtured correctly, he could solve the post-Schweinsteiger central midfield problem for Bayern. For a 19 year old, he is tall and well built and has already shown how solid he is in the squad. So far he’s shown us that he has excellent vision and can pick out the correct pass on near enough every occasion, whilst still being calm and composed whilst in possession.
8) Mateo Kovacic – There aren’t many 20 year olds out there who can write “I play for one of the most famous Italian clubs in football history and have nearly 20 international caps for Croatia” on their CV, but Kovacic is a special player. He started off his career as a classic number 10, but his game at Inter Milan has developed into a more deep-lying playmaker role. Obviously with any player he has weaknesses in his game, notably his stature which leads to him often being bullied off the ball by much more physical opponents. However, I feel his vision and his excellent ability to link up play helps his side to transition between defence and attack. His hunger to feed the attackers and his sublime through balls make him a joy to watch.
7) Domenico Berardi – The first striker to appear on the list is this up and coming 20 year old Juventus front man. Currently, Serie A is one of the best leagues in the world for rising young stars breaking into some of the best teams around. With the likes of Paul Pogba and Stephan El Shaawawy already considered as established first team talents, there is a new batch of young players on the horizon. Not many youngsters can say they have achieved what Berardi has in 2014. He netted 16 goals in 29 Serie A appearances in 2013/14; a record that is quite astonishing. His goal tally looks even more impressive when you consider the players he is in and amongst – the likes of Llorente, Rossi, Palacio, Di Natale and Higuain all scored a similar amount of goals in the Italian top flight. Oh and did I mention he hit 4 past AC Milan last season? Yeah he did that too…
6) Alexsandar Mitrovic – You wait ages for a striker to appear on a SevernSport list of the best young players and then 2 come along one after the other. You might recognise the name from this season’s Champions League, where Mitrovic scored a last minute equaliser in Anderlecht’s 3-3 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates. And yet, when he scored, fewer eyebrows were raised than expected. Although still very young, Mitrović’s impact on Belgium defending champions’ game is extremely significant, and the striker is showing signs of improving even further with every match. He is a classic centre forward, always wandering around the opposition’s box, just waiting for an opportunity to score to arise. His truly remarkable positioning and space exploiting serves perhaps as his biggest forte, although is also really good when striking the ball.
5) Luke Shaw – The first Englishman and Premier League player to make the list is Manchester United’s £30 million summer acquisition from Southampton. It seems like he’s been around forever, but Luke Shaw is still only 19 years old. Shaw was one of the stars of the Southampton team that was so impressive last season, having made his bones at the top level a season earlier. Like many young full backs who are making their presence felt across Europe, Shaw is fantastic going forward. He has good technical ability, and his pace and power often give him a big advantage over his opponents. Shaw loves to run with the ball, and drive into opposition territory. What really sets him apart though, is the fact that he’s very solid defensively as well. His awareness at the back, and while pressing forward meant that Southampton were able to implement their pressing based system well. His electric pace also meant that he was hardly caught with forwards or wingers behind him, and this ability has made him the stand out left back in world football at the moment.
4) Adnan Januzaj – 2 Manchester United players in a row! Butler will be happy. A lone bright spot in a nightmare season, Belgian winger Adnan Januzaj has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the last one year. Entrusted with the number of club legend Ryan Giggs, Manchester United fans around the world will hope this teenage prodigy reaches the same heights the legendary Welshman did. In an age where raw pace has become so important, Adnan Januzaj brings a different approach to the art of beating a defender. The Belgian is blessed with grace and poise; he seems to glide around the pitch, sucking defenders in before leaving them in his wake. Despite his youth (or maybe because of his youth), Januzaj exudes confidence and always backs himself to beat his man, maybe to a fault. While he has started his career on the wings, many see Januzaj’s future in the number 10 role, as the 19 year old has the vision and the passing ability to open up defenses. Combined with his knack of opening up space for himself and his ability to beat defenders, Januzaj has the weapons in his armory to become a complete attacker.
3) Gabriel Barbosa – If you’ve ever played Football Manager, you’ll know how much of a monster this guy can become. Dubbed the new Neymar, Gabriel Barbosa is the latest jewel to come out of Santos and is the most exciting young striker in Brazil right now. As his nickname ‘Gabigol’ suggest, Barbosa is the type of forward who instinctively knows where the goal is and knows how to find the back of the net. With exquisite technique, searing pace and bags of creativity, the comparisons to Neymar are understandable if somewhat lazy. Not as lithe and lightweight as Brazil’s golden boy, Gabriel is more akin in build and style to other South American forwards like Sergio Aguero or Luis Suarez. His excellent finishing and intelligent movement are two of the other main strengths of an extremely talented superstar in the making.
2) Raheem Sterling – Having risen to stardom while still in his teens, Raheem Sterling has had to deal with pressure & expectations fairly early on. And while the tiny wonder continues to surprise, it’s easy to forget just how far he’s come at such a young age. He’s only 20 after all. The Englishman played a key role in Liverpool’s surprising title challenge in 2014 that fell apart at the last hurdle. His exploits were enough to convince Roy Hodgson of a call-up to the World Cup squad, a spot he has since made his own. Exploding down the touchline and taking on opponents in dangerous positions around the box, Raheem Sterling is the ideal livewire every quick attack requires. An energetic burst of pace, a surprising show of physical strength and a much improved defensive contribution show that Raheem is not a raw youngster. While his physical appearance speaks of the contrary, Sterling has grown into quite a formidable all-round performer. Quick feet to go with his existing ability have often made him a terror for opponents to handle, and at just 20 there is still a whole level of frightening development to continue.
1) Marquinhos – I bet you were expecting Martin Odegaard weren’t you? Well no, we haven’t seen enough of him to justify him even being near this list. So instead I decided to opt for 20 year old Brazilian centre back Marquinhos. Having garnered the world’s attention from a young age, Marquinhos has had pressure and expectations to deal with. And as he developed further, the climate only got competitive to the point where he now competes with David Luiz and Thiago Silva for starting spots at both club and country. The simple factor that sets young central defenders apart from others and be considered good enough to make a list of this sort is the unbelievable level of intelligence displayed in understanding the game. Marquinhos is no different and his sheer reading of the game at 20 years old is frightening and leaves most viewers asking just how much better can he get with him yet to reach his peak. His experience of playing in a wider role often allows him to seamlessly be involved in general outfield play far more than most defenders would, and you’d often expect a defender of that sort to leave gaps and disrupt organisation at the back; surprisingly again this is rarely the case owing again to his defensive intelligence.
So that’s all she wrote folks on another episode of my top 10 series! I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into some of the players to keep an eye out for in the footballing world over the next 5 to 10 years and who knows, in a few years time when Marquinhos wins the Ballon D’Or you can look back on this post and think to yourself “By God, Kelsey was right!”
Kelsey De Maria
Keep an eye out on the SevernSport website next week where I’ll be previewing the 2015 NFL Combine and looking at some of the top prospects going into the Draft!