Top 30 Talents: The best young players in the world (30-21)
After taking you through the biggest names in the transfer market we are now looking at the 30 best young players in the world. The only criteria is that they have to have been born on January 1, 2000 or later. Let’s begin with the first 10 players.
Age: 16 Position: Midfielder Contract until: 30 June 2021
It appears that at every stage of Jude Bellingham’s development his coaches have been wary of putting too much on his shoulders. Whether it was within the Birmingham City youth academy or with Pep Clotet in the first team there has been a reluctance to increase the spotlight, and pressure, on this remarkable teenager. Yet, as is so often the case, talent wins out. Bellingham, at the tender age of 16, had played 32 Championship games before the coronavirus suspension. Thirty-two professional games, at 16. And Bellingham is making a difference, he’s there on merit.
Bellingham has moved between the centre of the pitch and out left depending on Clotet’s set-up/personnel choices but there’s no doubt his future is through the middle. He covers ground with ease and grace and makes it easy for his partner when one part of a midfield two. The attacking output isn’t all there, although he has weighed in with a few important goals, but there is more than enough to suggest that it will come, particularly around better players. His defensive work however - particularly in one so young - is hugely impressive. So many of this exciting new English generation are forwards or defenders; Bellingham stands out as one of the best central midfield prospects.
Fun fact: Unsurprisingly, Bellingham is both Birmingham City’s youngest ever player and scorer. His dad Mark was a prolific scorer at non-league level.
Player comparison: Bastian Schweinsteiger. Plenty have started to compare Bellingham to England legends Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. The comparisons are certainly tempting but realistically unfounded. At this stage in his career Bellingham is yet to show a real goalscoring flair in the way those two did, although some of his late arrivals into the box are eerily similar to Lampard. To mention those two in some ways is to do a disservice to Bellingham’s defensive work, though.
In many ways he is similar to a young Schweinsteiger, who was a devastating box-to-box midfielder who could play wider when he came through. It was only as he got older and his legs gave way that he started to sit deeper. If he can add goals to his game then, Gerrard could be an apt comparison...
Who’s interested? The big two links are Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund. The former were thought to be in the lead and even had a bid of £30 million rejected in January. However recent reports have suggested that Bellingham is now in favour of following in the footsteps of his compatriot Jadon Sancho and moving to Dortmund.
Market value: €10.9 million (All figures courtesy of Transfermarkt)
29th - Sebastiano Esposito (Inter Milan)
Age: 17 Position: Striker Contract until: 30 June 2022
Born in Castellammare di Stabia, Esposito has rapidly become one of the best prospects to come through the renowned Nerazzuri youth academy in recent years. Football is in his blood: his grandfather played at an amateur level and his father, Agostino, was in the Napoli youth set-up.
Sebastiano has built on that heritage, progressing through the age groups with both Inter and the Italian national team.
He was handed his first-team debut at Inter by Luciano Spalletti and became their youngest debutant in any European competition at the age of 16 years and 255 days when he played against Eintracht Frankfurt. He has enjoyed more opportunities under Antonio Conte, under whom he made his league bow. He has game intelligence that belies his years, is mobile and has a keen eye for goal. In addition, he can play anywhere across the frontline.
Fun fact: Esposito’s footballing hero is Francesco Totti. On 23 October 2019, he became the youngest player to play in the Champions League for Inter when at 17 years and 113 days old he came on as a sub against Borussia Dortmund. On his arm he has a tattoo which reads "Love your dream, even if it torments you.”
Player Comparison: Ciro Immobile
Who’s interested? Parma, SPAL, Sassuolo and Cagliari were the clubs that wanted to take the youngster on loan. Brescia have more recently shown an interest and his loan might be part of a deal Inter put together for Sandro Tonali.
Market Value: €16 million
28th - Adil Aouchiche (PSG)
Image credit: Getty Images
Age: 17 Position: Attacking Midfielder Contract until: 30th June 2020
The top scorer at the last U-17 European Championships with nine goals, the French star can operate as a wide player in a 4-3-3, but has now evolved into a playmaker in the 4-2-3-1 formation preferred by Thomas Tuchel.
However, since making his first team debut he has struggled for regular playing time and unless a new agreement is found soon, he could be looking at a new club next season. He is inconsistent but he has wonderful technique and a wand of a right foot.
Fun Fact: When he made his debut for PSG on August 30 2019 he had no name on the back of his shirt. Why? In France if a player is too young to sign a professional contract, he can't have a name on the back of his shirt.
Player Comparison: Franck Ribery
Who’s interested? There’s a big range of clubs interested in signing Aouchiche, from the likes of Rennes, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne in France, to Juventus in Italy.
Market Value: €5.4 million
27th – Pedri (Las Palmas)
Age: 17 Position: Midfielder Contract until: 2024
If Jude Bellingham’s rise was long foreseen, at least at Birmingham City, the astonishing ascension of Pedri came completely from nowhere. Rejected from local club Tenerife for being too small, Pedri took his chance with neighbouring island side Las Palmas.
He worked his way through the club’s youth set-up, with a failed trial at Real Madrid along the way, but it was a big surprise when he was included in Pepe Mel’s first-team squad for last summer’s pre-season. Pedri took his chance, was named in the squad for the opening weekend of the Segunda season and just a few weeks later was snapped up by Barcelona - he will officially sign with the Catalan club on July 1.
That rise has continued at national team level, starting with Spain’s U17s before moving to the U18s and then, earlier this year, the U19s. He continued to thrive for Las Palmas right up until the coronavirus suspension although there is a strong chance that he may have played his last game for the club.
Fun Fact: Pedri is a HUGE Barcelona fan. So much so that they used to have Barcelona-themed plates at his house. Lucky for everyone it seems that the trial at Real didn’t work out…
Player comparison: Andres Iniesta. The way he has always space, always being available for his team-mates is eerily reminiscent of the Barcelona great. His passing matches up as well - as does his ability to glide past players. It’s certainly not a coincidence either.
“I always watched Barça games because of Iniesta,” Pedri has said. “Because I love the way he and Barcelona played and the way they are in everyday life,
“My biggest reference was Iniesta, but my dad used to show me videos of Laudrup and I loved how he played. They’re both references.”
He often plays wide for Las Palmas but can play centrally too.
Who’s interested? Barcelona acted quickly last winter, agreeing a deal with Las Palmas, beating out Madrid and Chelsea in the process. Now the question is what will happen to Pedri next season? Barcelona B? A return to Las Palmas on loan? Or a temporary move elsewhere?
Market value: €7.3 million
26th – Lee Kang-in (Valencia)
Lee Kang In, Valencia
Image credit: Getty Images
Age: 19 Position: Attacking Midfielder Contract until: 30 June 2022
One way or another, whether they like it or not, there is always going to be huge pressure on South Korean players. In a football-obsessed country with a fairly poor domestic league, albeit one that is surely getting a nice boost from being one of the first to return during the coronavirus pandemic, players that leave Asia and move to Europe are always going to have the national spotlight on them.
For much of the last few years that spotlight has been directed firmly at Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, a worthy standard-bearer.
Now though the pressure on Son may be easing, as Lee Kang-in continues to make waves at Valencia. The attacking midfielder is starting to feature more and more and he is part of a young revolution at Valencia alongside Ferran Torres and Carlos Soler.
Fun Fact: He was featured on South Korean TV show Shoot Dori at the age of six before moving to Spain when he was 10. Lee is the reigning Golden Ball winner at the U-20 World Cup, following in the footsteps of the likes of Paul Pogba, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi…
Player comparison: David Silva. The comparisons are easy to understand - both are elegant left-footed attacking midfielders who have come through the Valencia academy.
There is a lot of a young Silva in Lee: the way they glide past players and constantly look for space in the attacking areas. Remember when Silva arrived at Manchester City and he and Samir Nasri would wreak havoc behind Aguero or Edin Dzeko? That is the sort of style with which Lee plays.
Who’s interested? Real Madrid are definitely keen. However, Valencia will point them - and any other potential suitors - to Lee’s €80 million release clause.
Market value: £12.15 million
25th – Reinier (Real Madrid)
Age: 18 Position: Attacking Midfielder Contract until: 30 June 2026
When Real Madrid signed Ronaldo back in 2002, he was considered one of the most exciting young players in the world, at the age of 25…
These days if you’re not a teenager there’s no chance you can be considered young and exciting, such is the brutal worldwide scouting employed by the world’s biggest clubs. Reinier is a perfect example, tracked by European giants throughout the youth system before Real swooped shortly after he made his senior debut for Flamengo.
A fantastic second striker, who is best used exploiting space created by the man in front of him, he can also play wider in a 4-3-3 if needed. He’s already 6'2'' at the age of 18 and could become even more physically imposing before he finishes growing.
Fun Fact: His idol? Zinedine Zidane. His dad? A Brazilian Futsal World Cup winner, Mauro Brasília. Not bad.
Player Comparison: The easy one here is certainly Kaka although he is a noticeably different player to the former Brazilian superstar. Reinier is more of a goalscorer and less of an elegant playmaker. He drives into the box late, arriving at the opportune moment. However, it seems as if that Kaka label is going to be a difficult one to escape.
Who’s interested? Real Madrid have won the race for Reinier’s signature, with the Brazilian arriving in January. He will spend the rest of the season with the Castilla side, at least that was the plan before coronavirus struck. It remains to be seen whether that’s the plan, whether he goes out on loan or if he moves into Zinedine Zidane’s first team when football returns.
Market value: £20.25 million
24th - Joshua Zirkzee (Bayern Munich)
Image credit: Getty Images
Age: 18 Position: Forward Contract until: 2023
Zirkzee has had a fairly storied youth career taking in stops at VV Hekelingen, Spartaan '20, ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord before ending up at Bayern Munich in 2017. He is a fan of a debut goal, scoring a hat-trick on his Bayern Munich II bow before following that up with a winning goal for the U19s a day later; while for the senior team, he scored the winner against Freiburg in a 3-1 win in December, again on debut.
Zirkzee has already shown an aptitude for stepping up at senior level – scoring three times in six league games – and led the line with distinction in the absence of Robert Lewandowski before lockdown brought the Bundesliga to a halt. The Polish star is expected to return when the league resumes on Saturday, but Hansi Flick knows he has a more than able deputy in Zirkzee.
Fun Fact: He has hit eight goals in nine games for the Netherland U19 side.
Player Comparison: Technical, intelligent, imposing and, most of all, proficient, polished and predatory when presented with a goalscoring opportunity, Zirkzee has drawn favourable comparisons with current Bayern stalwart Robert Lewandowski.
Who’s interested? The usual cabal of elite clubs were sniffing around after some standout performances for the Feyenoord youth teams saw Zirkzee plunder an impressive 34 goals in 27 games back in the 2016-17 season.
Manchester United and Arsenal were both said to have shown an interest and he even went as far as a trial at Everton, but the Dutch player opted for a move to the Allianz Arena instead.
Market value: €6 million
23rd – Thiago Almada (Velez)
Age: 18 Position: Attacking Midfielder Contract until: 30 June 2023
Considered one of the most promising young stars within Argentina, Thiago Almada is now waiting patiently for the right opportunity in Europe.
The 18-year-old grew up in the Velez youth system, making his first-team debut in August 2018, and last season he established himself as one of the cornerstones of Gabriel Heinze’s team, with 22 appearances and four goals as Velez finished third behind River Plate and Boca Juniors. The next step is the national team.
His low centre of gravity allows for incredible close ball control that is ably backed up with an eye for goal and a fierce shot, but his standout attribute is his vision.
Fun Fact: He shares a hometown with Carlos Tevez, Fuerte Apache, and it is said to be where he nurtured his fighting spirit. A young Almada used to earn a living selling fruit and vegetables to the locals.
Player Comparison: Eden Hazard
Who’s interested? Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are very keen and have already offered €20 million to Velez, only for Almada to turn them down, instead renewing until 2023.
However, with another good season behind him it’s going to be hard for him to stay put. Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid are also both interested and both willing to pay his new release clause of €25 million
Market value: €25 million
22nd - Dusan Vlahovic (Fiorentina)
Dusan Vlahovic esulta insieme a Federico Chiesa, Sampdoria-Fiorentina, Getty Images
Image credit: Getty Images
Age: 20 Position: Striker Contract until: 30th June 2023
Big and strong but also technical with an excellent left foot, Vlahovic is a modern striker, able to keep up with today’s super-athletes but without giving up the technical qualities required in any era.
The Serbian, born in January 2000, is one of the most interesting players in Italy. Brought to Fiorentina by Pantaleo Corvino under the noses of Arsenal he was one of the shining jewels of the Partizan Belgrade academy. His start in Italy was not straightforward, however, partly because of bureaucratic issues and then having to wait under Stefano Pioli.
The big leap came last summer under Vincenzo Montella, who was impressed with his pre-season showing. Vlahovic can no longer lean on the physical dominance he held over his peers at youth level and remains a work in progress, but he has shown plenty of potential. He has surprising pace for someone of his size, but his weaker foot still needs improvement.
Fun Fact: At 15 Vlahovic signed a contract with Partizan, becoming the youngest professional in the club’s history. It turned out to be a wise decision as he made a number of appearances in the first team despite his tender years. He was born in Zemun, the same area of Belgrade as Dejan Stankovic and Mateja Kezman.
U21 goals in Serie A
Goals / minutes
Dusan Vlahovic (Fiorentina)
1 goal per 195 minutes
Dejan Kulusevski (Parma)
1 goal per 380 minutes
Justin Kluivert (Roma)
1 goal per 340 minutes
Nicolo Zaniolo (Roma)
1 goal per 322 minutes
Hamed Junior Traore (Sassuolo)
1 goal per 367 minutes
Player Comparison: Edin Dzeko
Who’s interested? Both Roma and Napoli are interested and contract talks between Fiorentina and the player have been put on hold. The club want him to commit until 2025.
Market Value: €16 million
21st - Gabriel Martinelli
Age: 18 Position: forward Contract until: 30th June 2024
Martinelli was originally a futsal player with Corinthians before playing for Serie D club Ituano in Brazil before having trials with both Barcelona and Manchester United. But it is at Arsenal where he has exploded onto the scene.
The 18-year-old can play anywhere across the frontline but prefers to come in off the left.
The Brazilian has shone in the cup competitions for Arsenal but has also appeared for the London club in the Premier League on 14 occasions, scoring three goals - the most notable of which came in the 2-2 draw with Chelsea in January, with that strike seeing Martinelli become the first teenager since Nicolas Anelka to hit double figures for the Gunners in a single season.
He has already trained with the Brazil national team in May 2019, having been called up ahead of the Copa America, but has yet to earn a cap for Tite's men.
Fun Fact: Martinelli learned his craft as a futsal player.
Player Comparison: Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is the player he looks up to most and the 18-year-old has a comparable work rate.