Who are the 39 best male soccer players age 21 or under?

The world’s best male players are getting younger, but is it finally time to crown successors to the legendary Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?

For the fifth straight year (read 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 here), ESPN brings you our list of the game’s next top young stars aged 21 or under. Now 22, last year’s No. 1 Erling Haaland is too old to be included, while some others from 2022’s top 10 — Phil Foden, Vinicius Junior and Alphonso Davies — are also over the age requirement, too.

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

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Why 39?

For the past two years, 39 has worked well, and from an initial long list of 100 players, those remaining are the ones who best satisfied my main criteria: appearances at the highest level, consistent performance over a sustained period and the potential to develop into a future top-level footballer.

What types of research were undertaken?

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

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 Benfica‘s Antonio Silva, Atalanta‘s Giorgio Scalvini and soon-to-be Tottenham full-back Destiny Udogie.

It speaks volumes about the array of attacking talent that players such as RB Leipzig‘s Benjamin Sesko, Arsenal‘s Folarin Balogun, Leeds United‘s Wilfried Gnonto, Newcastle’s Anthony Gordon, and 16-year-old Palmeiras prodigy Endrick (who is to join Real Madrid in 2024 for €72 million) didn’t make the final cut.

– Players included must be age 21 or under on April 1.
– Transfer values are taken from Transfermarkt.

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

The List

Club/country: Sporting CP/Uruguay
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €25m

One of the most rapidly improving midfielders in Portugal, Ugarte has seen his stock rise over recent months and was part of Uruguay’s squad for the 2022 World Cup. Whereas the majority of up-and-coming South American talent habitually originate from prestigious academies, the 21-year-old has made it the hard way through smaller clubs (Uruguayan side Fenix and Famalicao in Portugal) before joining Sporting CP in August 2021.

Strengths: His career offers some clues about Ugarte’s mentality: he’s determined, hard-working and focused on improving the weaker aspects of his game. An irrepressible ball winner, he attempts a stunning seven tackles per 90 minutes (at a success rate of 55%) and swiftly looks to press opponents and close gaps. Technically he’s a master of the basics with tidy control, a solid short-to-long passing range and an absence of anything flashy. He is intelligent, often finding the right option after regaining possession, and plays to his strengths.

How he can improve: Despite not being a natural playmaker, his passing in the face of a low block from the opposition can be on the predictable side. As a by-product of his tenacity, his frequent fouling (2.2 fouls per 90 minutes) leads to numerous bookings and he will need to curb that to avoid suspension.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund/United States
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €35m

Three years on from making his Bundesliga debut at the age of 17, many would have expected the American to be further down the line in terms of development. While injuries have played their part, lack of confidence and controversies over his standing for the USMNT may also explain Reyna’s start-stop career trajectory.

Strengths: Before a drop in playing time in the middle of February, Reyna enjoyed an impactful spell in which his creativity in front of the opposing defensive line was in evidence. Along with his opportunism in the box and excellent right-footed shot when cutting in from the left, he is able to unlock defences and create chances for his teammates.

How he can improve: While Reyna’s skill set hasn’t evaporated, what was previously demonstrated on a weekly basis now tends only come in moments. The daring dribbles in the final third and sharp combination play that set him apart early in his career are yet to fully return. Whether it requires a lift in energy, attitude or self-belief, Reyna must regain the trust of his club head coach, Edin Terzic.

Club/country: Borussia Monchengladbach/France
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €25m

Having signed from then-Ligue 2 side Toulouse for €9m in 2021, “Manu” immediately settled into the top tier of German football, becoming an instant regular at Gladbach. The France U21 midfielder finished his debut season as one of the club’s top performers and has since built on his positive first campaign to find himself in the gossip columns being linked with a move to Liverpool and Chelsea.

Strengths: Usually fielded as the more defensive-minded midfielder in a double pivot, Kone provides balance in the centre of the pitch. With his athleticism, work rate and discipline, he covers large areas, presses and protects his centre-backs. In possession, he is adept at advancing with the ball with both speed and dexterity. Hard to dispossess, he is also nimble and able to successfully negotiate his way out of congested areas.

How he can improve: Kone is not a playmaker, but his passing can appear overly cautious. His aggressive style and full-bodied commitment also leads to unnecessary frequent bookings.

Club/country: Liverpool/England
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €35m

It has taken Elliott — one of the players most consistently featured by manager Jurgen Klopp this season — some time to properly get going in a struggling Liverpool midfield. However, the signs are positive that the 19-year-old, who began his career as a winger, is adapting to his role as an attacking No. 8.

Strengths: Energetic, lively and light-footed, the England U21 international presses with intent and opens up space with his movement. On the ball he adds to the fluidity of the game by way of instinctive touches, directness in his passing and excellent dribbling abilities. His left foot — though underused from set-pieces and long-distance shooting — is of a high standard, too.

How he can improve: In addition to his inconsistent defensive contribution and his physical shortcomings in terms of strength and height, Elliott should be attempting to beat opponents in central areas to a higher degree — especially since he’s so good at it. Given his creativity and intelligence, one expects a higher input than his five goals and two assists from 40 games this season.

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

A key player for the USMNT at the 2022 World Cup, Musah has lacked consistency in a struggling Valencia side in LaLiga. On the whole, though, he’s making progress: his playing time has been increasing and he recently put in one of his best performances of the season in a 1-0 home win against Osasuna.

Strengths: Often a victim of his own versatility, Musah has been assigned a more suitable No. 8 role in the centre of midfield for Valencia. Never short of application, his increased efficiency has been predominantly seen on the defensive side of his game (3-plus recoveries per 90 minutes.) His speed of dribbling with the ball and eagerness to press opponents are other attributes that keep Premier League clubs alert to his availability.

How he can improve: Being such an influential, progressive and active midfielder — especially from his central position — upping his attacking game would add another dimension, as he has yet to score in LaLiga this season.

Club/country: Lyon/France
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €18m

The prodigal talent is experiencing his best run of form after breaking into the Lyon first team two years ago. Now, under Laurent Blanc’s stewardship, Cherki tends to stay on the pitch for the duration of matches and has added maturity and consistency to his game.

Strengths: Technically superb with an array of footwork trickery, quick turns and body feints, Cherki has often been considered a player who can only express his skills in the final third. But this season there’s a lot more end product to his game: he releases the ball to teammates quicker, his passing game has become more progressive and, with some extra muscle, appears harder to knock of the ball. Equally skilled with either foot, the playmaker (who manages 1.7 key passes per 90 minutes) can create things in any role behind the centre-forward.

How he can improve: Having made significant strides in his attacking output, the Frenchman will look to better his defensive contribution, too. Despite an increased determination to regain possession high up the pitch, he still has fewer ball recoveries than his teammate and striker Alexandre Lacazette.

Club/country: Nottingham Forest/Wales
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Despite a slow start to his Premier League career, the Wales international is starting to answer his critics who doubted whether he’d be able to cut it at the highest level. While he initially struggled to get to grips with higher tactical demands and better defenders in the top flight, his upturn in performances for Forest has been impressive.

Strengths: With an outstanding ability to run with the ball at high speed, Johnson thrives in transition or when the game opens up. Regardless of his position wide right or as a central attacker, he prefers to drift and exploit the space between opposing centre-back and full-back. Though he is naturally right-footed, he is able to take on opponents with both feet and finish with power.

How he can improve: Johnson can opt for an individual move instead of taking an extra second to look for a better-placed teammate. In his enthusiasm to get things done quickly, the precision in his short passing and lay-offs also suffers.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund/Germany
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €35m

It took the Germany international some time to settle into the Bundesliga following his €35m move from FC Salzburg in the summer, but he has shown his potential. After scoring in four consecutive matches for the title chasers, he picked up a muscle injury in mid-February which is likely to rule him out until early April.

Strengths: His goal against Chelsea in the Champions League showcased his strong points: Pace, dribbling and skill in one-vs.-one situations. Breaking from a defensive corner, Adeyemi set off on a run from the edge of his own box, picked up the ball with 65 meters left to cover before bursting past Enzo Fernandez with a quick change of pace and playing the ball calmly behind an outmanoeuvred Kepa in the Chelsea goal. In addition to the acceleration, effortless running style and fine technical ability, Adeyemi is also an instinctive finisher — especially with his left foot — with a penchant for improvisation (as proven a couple of days later with his backheeled opener against Hertha Berlin.)

How he can improve: At times his tremendous pace can come at the expense of ball control. His insistence on taking on opponents, even when the situation calls for a supportive pass, can force him into blind alleys and he can lose possession.

Club/country: Villarreal/Spain
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €38m

Last season, Yeremy provided memorable moments aplenty and was rewarded with his first senior Spain cap. This campaign has been a slower start and while he might struggle to match last term’s six-goal haul (he has three at the time of writing), he’s shown himself to be a big-game player by getting on the scoresheet in the wins against Real Madrid and Atletico.

Strengths: Alternating between starting positions on either wing, the quick and nimble forward is capable of providing width in attack or setting off on rapid diagonal runs towards central areas. In addition to possessing fine attributes for a winger — excellent dribbling skills, acceleration from a standing position, innate interchanges and smart runs — Yeremy also has the vision to put in penetrative passes through the middle. He doesn’t go to sleep when out of possession either; he is committed to his pressing and, despite his 5-foot-8 frame, is surprisingly strong in aerial duels.

How he can improve: In short, he needs to score more goals. Considering his mobility and intelligence, he could sharpen his attacking involvement, as he can be prone to drift in and out of games.



Counting down the best U21 players in the world

ESPN FC analysts give their take on the top 10 best players under 21 in world football.

Club/country: Manchester City/England
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €10m

To the surprise of many, the England U19 international has seen plenty of playing time this season after making his Premier League debut in August. While Lewis is not an undisputed regular for Manchester City, the fact that manager Pep Guardiola let a world-class full-back in Joao Cancelo join Bayern Munich on loan in January offers a clue as to how highly the teenager is rated at his club.

Strengths: A polished, well-schooled academy product, Lewis is neat on the ball, dribbles well and has the composure and intelligence to respond to Guardiola’s tactical demands. His agility on the ball also means he can shift inside to feature in midfield, take part in swift one-touch combinations and find space in areas other than down the touchline.

How he can improve: While his pace often comes to his rescue, Lewis’ decision-making and incisiveness in defensive one-on-ones are areas to work on. Adding more aggression to his game would also be a good idea.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund/Germany
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €30m

Moukoko’s early career has not taken off in the way that was predicted following his incredible goal tally at youth level and his record-breaking entry to the Borussia Dortmund first team at the age of 16. However, the Germany international has seen increased playing time this campaign (initially because of Sebastien Haller‘s illness) with six goals in 18 Bundesliga games so far.

Strengths: Predominantly recognised for his spectacular left-footed shot (his first goal against Bochum was a goal of the season candidate) which made him so prolific at youth level, Moukoko is a fast, penetrative forward with sharp off-the-ball movement. He comes to life when turning his marker and entering the final third, where he can bear down on goal and test the goalkeeper.

How he can improve: His ball control can be slightly untidy, which can result in unnecessary touches or losing possession completely. His hold-up play remains in development, and he could be more imaginative and positive in his choice of passes.

Club/country: AC Milan/Germany
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €6m

A €7m summer signing from Schalke, the German’s introduction to the AC Milan side — and their reshaped back three — has coincided with an upturn in results for the reigning Serie A champions. Though he has started around a dozen games for Stefano Pioli’s underperforming side, Thiaw has looked unfazed by being fast-tracked into a high-pressure environment.

Strengths: Despite standing at 6-foot-4, Thiaw is elegant, moves with ease and exudes a calm authority uncommon for a young centre-back. Along with good timing and interception skills, he is particularly dominant in the air (having won nearly 80% of his challenges since the turn of the year) and stays alert for clearances and crucial tackles. When playing out from the back, he avoids risks and his long passes are of high quality.

How he can improve: Unsurprisingly for a 21-year-old defender, there have been lapses of concentration in both the passing and man-marking departments, as illustrated in the recent away defeats at Fiorentina and Udinese.

Club/country: Aston Villa/England
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €32m

The Villa academy graduate — now playing under his third head coach — has established himself as an integral part of the first XI. His upward trajectory means that a senior England call-up should be a viable short-term goal for the U21 international.

Strengths: Adapting to a more attacking role (further wide, but with the licence to cut inside) under manager Unai Emery, Ramsey has been given the freedom to use his incredible spatial awareness in attacking areas. Full of energy and enthusiasm, the dynamic midfielder is among the best dribblers in the Premier League. He times his runs into the box well, is a fine finisher and doesn’t shirk his defensive duties to help regain possession.

How he can improve: Ramsey needs to learn how to dial back the pace a little to add more patience, imagination and precision to his passing game.

Club/country: PSV Eindhoven/Netherlands
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €30m

In his first season as a regular, the Barcelona academy graduate has treated the PSV fans to some displays of individual quality. Having left PSG in the summer — ostensibly because of limited game time — the French giants may regret not hanging on to the midfielder, who plays with childlike joy when he is on the pitch.

Strengths: Because of his roaming nature, Simons operates with ease in any attacking formation. He has the nous to find space between the lines, a low centre of gravity and sublime ball control that makes him hard to dispossess. In a Martin Odegaard-esque manner, he picks out teammates with perfectly weighted passes (1.26 chances created per 90 minutes), even in crowded areas. Not to mention there’s end product too; his 13 goals — varying from flamboyant chips and well-timed runs off the shoulders of defenders to curled efforts from the edge of the box — have placed him at joint top of the Eredivisie goal-scoring charts.

How he can improve: His playfulness can lead to him losing the ball too much, while he could make even more use of his left foot.

Club/country: Everton/Belgium
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €42m

Struggling Everton may have faced criticism over their recent transfer spending, but the €35m summer signing from Lille is a rare success story. Under former manager Frank Lampard (who was sacked in January), Onana performed well even in that dysfunctional team and has been one of the main protagonists of the club’s recent mini-revival.

Strengths: Courtesy of his excellent work rate, the 6-3 Onana provides a persistent, reliable enforcing presence in midfield. His size doesn’t restrict his mobility as he enters duels (an average of nine attacking challenges per 90 minutes) and presses with high intensity. Just as his frequent ball recoveries, aerial dominance and tackling alleviate the pressure on Everton’s defence, Onana is also hard to dispossess — especially when he sets off on a forward burst with the ball.

How he can improve: First and foremost a defensive-minded midfielder who is mainly tasked with ball-winning and retention, Onana can improve his first touch and be less predictable when he has time and space.

Club/country: Celta Vigo/Spain
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €40m

Veiga is the breakout story in LaLiga this season, helping Celta Vigo climb up the table. The midfielder’s rapid rise — he had only started one league match prior to this season — has sparked interest from several top Premier League sides and also Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Strengths: Predominantly a roaming No. 8, Veiga has all the qualities to become a top performer in the role. Not only is he exceptionally good at finding the right attacking spaces, but he also exhibits the confidence, precision and technique to hit the target from the edge of the box, which has seen him score nine LaLiga goals this season.

His forceful drives forward are an essential aspect for a player in his role, while he breaks through the opposing lines with his passes and provides passing options for his own teammates. Veiga’s willingness to work hard defensively and smart off-the-ball positioning to regain possession add another dimension to his game.

How he can improve: With even more sharpness and accuracy from his passing in the final third, Veiga could become a frequent assist provider.

Club/country: Manchester United/Argentina
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €25m

Garnacho has been one of the beneficiaries of new Man United manager Erik ten Hag’s youth-focused leadership and, although he tends to be used as an impact substitute, there’s little doubt that the Argentina international is held in high esteem by his head coach. As well as scoring two Premier League goals, he has also made an impact in the Europa League and domestic cup competitions.

Strengths: Usually deployed as a left winger, Garnacho can turn the dynamics of a game through mesmerising, intuitive dribbles. His outstanding balance, coordination, burst of acceleration and ability to take on defenders on either side make him hard to read. He draws defenders to him, helping create space for his teammates, while his confidence in the first-team environment has grown.

How he can improve: Often too selfish in possession, his decision-making needs work. His off-the-ball movement is becoming less predictable, but some added upper-body strength would make him even more effective.

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

Once considered one of the best young talents in European football, the midfielder has had a frustrating time since moving to Bayern Munich from Ajax for €18m last summer. Playing time has been scarce — he has only started one Bundesliga match — and when coming on from the bench, he has generally been unable to make the desired impact. Gravenberch hasn’t hidden his discontent, which in turn has triggered speculation about his long-term future at the club.

Strengths: At his best, the Netherlands international — who was recently demoted to the U21 side — is a technically superb, agile and intelligent central midfielder. Equally able to play as a holding midfielder or as a No. 8, Gravenberch can dictate the flow of the game by dropping deep to pick up the ball and distribute it with well-angled passes. At 6-foot-2, he pairs excellent coordination with the ability to seamlessly glide past opponents without losing the ball. Though more prevalent from his Ajax days, Gravenberch’s shooting skills are also of a high standard.

How he can improve: The key for Gravenberch to reverse his fortunes at Bayern is likely to come down to his mental toughness and ability to overcome adversity. In the short term, it’s a matter of asserting himself when given the chance or, if that fails, kick-start his career under the guidance of a coaching team prepared to make him an integral part of their midfield.

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

Without any prior first-team experience, Lavia was handed immediate Premier League exposure following his move to Southampton from the Manchester City academy last summer. It took the Belgian midfielder no time to find his feet at the highest level and, despite missing a dozen games through injury, he has shown enough to attract reported interest from Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, while City are considering using a reported £40m clause in his contract to re-sign him.

Strengths: Typically lined up as one of two deep midfielders, Lavia is charged with the less glamorous tasks of the role. Powerful, mobile and disciplined, he closes down space, regains possession, offers receiving options, covers sizable areas and hassles opponents. Moreover, the teenager conducts himself with an aura of authority that belies his age. Equipped with a fine close control and balance to shield the ball, Lavia rarely gives away possession.

How he can improve: The former Anderlecht prospect could add another dimension to his game by taking more risks in his passing — though easier said than done in a struggling side.

Club/country: Chelsea/Brazil
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €12m

Santos was signed by Chelsea from Brazilian second-tier side Vasco da Gama for around €12m in January. However, any doubts about his quality were quickly wiped out as the midfielder captained Brazil to another South American Under-20 Championship, finishing as joint-top scorer with six goals. Santos would have figured for Chelsea this season but, because of work permit restrictions, had to return to his former club on loan before he can play in England.

Strengths: With great energy, strength and high levels of technical ability, the 18-year-old can successfully be deployed as a No. 6 defensive midfielder or as a roaming box-to-box midfielder. In fact, his vigorous style makes him more suited to the latter as he is brilliant at driving forward with the ball and timing his runs into the box. Most of his goals originate from picking up rebounds and reading where the ball will drop in the final third.

How he can improve: The Premier League’s intensity means he will have less time on the ball. He will need to adapt to its physicality, too.

Club/country: Bayer Leverkusen/Ecuador
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €25m

Following a positive debut season in European football, the 21-year-old has further cemented his status as the preferred left-sided centre-back (or left wing-back) in Leverkusen’s back three. However, consistency remains an issue, with his showing for Ecuador at the World Cup offering a fair snapshot of his tendencies: composed and alert against Netherlands, he struggled against Senegal and gave away a penalty with a rash challenge.

Strengths: Proactive, confident, quick and technically proficient, Hincapie is well suited to a team wanting to dominate possession and defend high up the pitch. Slotting in on the left of a back three, he enjoys the freedom to push forward to create numerical advantage in midfield and possesses the touch, vision and passing skills to add an attacking X-factor. His steady progression has included more interceptions and more tackles won, and he is now being trusted more on the ball.

How he can improve: His aggressive style of defending does result in excessive fouling — he has two red cards this campaign — just as his high-risk style of defending high up the pitch occasionally puts his teammates in trouble.

Club/country: Atalanta/Denmark
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €15m

A few eyebrows were raised when Atalanta paid a substantial €17.2m to Austrian side Sturm Graz to sign the relatively unknown teenager in the summer. But, after an initial period of adaptation, Hojlund has imposed himself on Serie A — as well as for his country, where he scored five goals during the two recent Euro 2024 qualifiers — and is on the transfer shortlist at some of European football’s elite clubs.

Strengths: At first glance it’s tempting to expect the 6-foot-3 striker to operate like an out-and-out centre-forward. However, he thrives when setting off on deep, incisive runs against high defensive lines and can also be fielded from a position out wide on the right. Combining his impressive physique and lightning pace (according to his head coach, Gian Piero Gasperini, he completes a 100-meter sprint in less than 11 seconds) with smart, varied movement and a powerful left-footed shot, Hojlund is stylistically similar to young Man City striker Erling Haaland.

How he can improve: With added composure in front of goal, a more focused hold-up game (he has around nine ball losses per 90 minutes) and better timing with his headers (he wins just 30% of his aerial duels), Hojlund could develop into a top-level forward.

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

Williams has elevated himself from impact substitute to key player in the Athletic side. To underline his sharp development, the winger has earned a spot with the senior Spain team and made four appearances at the 2022 World Cup.

Strengths: Williams has impressive upper-body strength, good balance and an electric turn of pace. Combined with instinctive control and an ability to time his runs well, he is an unpredictable winger who can be hard to defend against. His capacity to turn, dribble, shoot and finish with either foot (he’s naturally right-footed) makes him adept at tormenting full-backs on either side of the pitch, often cutting infield to create havoc.

How he can improve: Williams has to up his efficiency in defensive challenges (only a 40% success rate), while the quality of his crossing also leaves something to be desired.

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

So far, Badiashile represents a rare success story of Chelsea’s €350m January spending spree. A €38m signing from Monaco, the left-footed defender has brought coach Graham Potter the necessary balance to revert to his preferred back three, without appearing fazed by being hurried into a challenging environment as the Blues won only four of their first 15 games in 2023.

Strengths: Physically imposing and comfortable on the ball, Badiashile looks every inch the modern centre-back. Though he can walk a tightrope with the excessive confidence he displays when bringing the ball out of the defence, the France international has toned down his risk-taking for a more safety-first approach. Badiashile reads the game exceptionally well, deals assertively with challenges and transmits confidence across the back line.

How he can improve: Badiashile needs to show more of what we saw from his Monaco days: evading opposing pressure and playing the first, incisive pass out of defence.

Club/country: Benfica/Portugal
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €60m

Ramos took Cristiano Ronaldo‘s starting spot for Portugal against Switzerland at the World Cup, scored a hat trick and has gone from strength to strength since. His goal scoring in the Portuguese league, with over 20 this season, has firmly placed him among the best young centre-forwards in the game and he will surely become Benfica’s next high-profile export.

Strengths: Ramos has sharpened his game in all departments after being trusted with the centre-forward role this season (he was previously also used as a left winger.) While his pace has never been in question, Ramos has also demonstrated fine spatial awareness inside the box with the majority of his goals (his expected goals per 90 hovers around 0.75) coming mainly from one-touch finishes from close range. His mental toughness, aerial potency and general involvement in the build-up phase have also seen improvement. Ramos has demonstrated he can raise his game for big occasions such as the World Cup or a derby against Sporting CP, in which he scored a brace in January.

How he can improve: In addition to being occasionally sloppy with flicks and lay-offs in the final third, Ramos could — as much as it may sound unfair given his impressive numbers — up his scoring efficiency even more (he takes nearly three shots per 90 minutes now.)

Club/country: Paris Saint-Germain/Portugal
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €60m

In his second season at PSG, Mendes has confirmed his status as one of the top young full-backs in world football. Though injuries have proved disruptive both for himself (his 2022 World Cup with Portugal was cut short for that reason) and PSG coach Christophe Galtier, he is still one of the most consistent members of the squad.

Strengths: Whether fielded as a left-back in a back four or as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation, Mendes is a force to be reckoned with down the left side. Providing an outlet for switches of play, he is exceptionally skilled at taking on opponents through rapid turns of direction and his 3-plus touches inside the opposing penalty area per 90 minutes speak volumes of his desire to join the attack. He has built a fine understanding with Kylian Mbappe and is also a tenacious defender who comes out on top in 55% of his defensive duels.

How he can improve: Though Mendes is a fine crosser of the ball, his efficiency (17%) could improve. However, this isn’t necessarily all down to him — it’s also the job of his teammates to get on the end of the crosses.

Club/country: Ajax Amsterdam/Netherlands
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €42m

Having been linked with a big transfer for the past year or so, one may have expected Timber to have departed Ajax by now, especially since half the side that fared so well in the Champions League last season have secured lucrative moves themselves. The highly rated central defender, who can also play at right-back, is still on the watchlist of the elite clubs in Europe amid another fine season.

Strengths: Timber has most of the attributes required for a modern centre-back. Safe in possession — a passing accuracy of 93% (per 90 minutes) is impressive for a defender who likes to build from the back — his close control allows him to draw opposing pressure from which he can escape with a neat touch or dash of acceleration if options to pass are lacking. His lightning pace makes him well suited to playing a high line in defence, while his anticipation enables him to get his body in front of opponents and time his tackles well.

How he can improve: Being relatively short for a defender at 5-10 impacts his aerial efficiency (55% of duels won), so he may be best suited to a club that plays a back three (as he lines up for Netherlands.)

Club/country: Barcelona/Spain
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €50m

One of the most naturally gifted talents of his generation, Ansu is striving to return to the spectacular form that saw him burst onto the scene with Barcelona at the age of 16. Whether still compromised by the knee injury that kept him out for nearly a year, burdened by the expectations that come with his reputation, affected by a lack of minutes or simply going through the natural ups and downs of a young player, he is still yet to reach his full potential.

Strengths: The Spain international has had his attacking principles and technical proficiency ingrained in the Barcelona academy. When featuring in his preferred role on the left wing, he playfully joins swift combinations and interchanges through instinctive lay-offs and touches. Though injuries over recent years may have limited his bursts of acceleration past opponents, the 20-year-old still represents a significant attacking threat and remains an expert, composed finisher despite the fact he has only found the net three times in LaLiga this season.

How he can improve: Staying injury-free and finding more consistency at the highest level is key. But a loan move to an environment away from the demanding Camp Nou could see Ansu obtain the required playing time to kick-start his career.

Club/country: Barcelona/Spain
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €15m

It has been an incredible journey for Balde: from Barcelona’s La Masia academy and the B team to becoming the first-choice senior left-back and a full Spain international in less than a year. The emergence of such a wonderful prospect who has adapted so quickly to the highest level is a dream come true for financially stricken Barcelona.

Strengths: Balde possesses most of the qualities you want from a young full-back. He times his runs well, his positioning when playing out from the back is improving and when entering the final third, his one-on-one skills and quick interchanges with teammates are excellent. While he often relies on his pace to deal with defensive situations, his reading of the game is getting better and, as an attacking force, he is a danger in wide areas as well as when he cuts inside.

How he can improve: He needs a higher degree of focus to track opponents’ runs off his shoulder and could be more attentive in his marking inside the box. His crossing could also be more varied.



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Club/country: Brighton & Hove Albion/Ecuador
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €55m

Caicedo has established himself as one of the elite defensive midfielders in the Premier League even before completing a full season at Brighton. He also impressed for Ecuador at the 2022 World Cup. Arsenal and Chelsea tried to sign him for £70m in January and the 21-year-old fell out with his club over not being allowed to leave, but differences were quickly resolved and he recently committed to a new contract until 2027.

Strengths: Covering large areas of the pitch with ease, Caicedo is alert to the dynamics of the game and can make a big impact when he steps up. In addition to his remarkable consistency, endurance and presence on the pitch, he tackles with precision, presses diligently and continuously scans for interceptions and loose balls. Though a natural in his defensive duties, he is capable of carrying the ball forward, linking well with the left full-back and finding space to take advantage of rebounds to fire off shots from the edge of the box.

How he can improve: Caicedo almost unfailingly plays to his maximum capacity every game, yet he has the quality and vision to take more risks with his passing in the final third.

Club/country: RB Leipzig/Croatia
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €75m

The Croatia defender hardly put a foot wrong at the 2022 World Cup — at least until he encountered Argentina’s Lionel Messi in full flow — and he has made a big impact in the Champions League for his club, getting on the scoresheet and standing out against Real Madrid and Manchester City (in the first leg). While he is contracted at Leipzig for another four years, Gvardiol is attracting interest from the biggest clubs in Europe.

Strengths: Gvardiol is blessed with excellent pace, balance and physical robustness that makes him efficient in defensive one-on-ones. He has a great left foot, with fine close control, and is comfortable spraying medium- and long-range passes out of defence with accuracy. At 21, he operates with the confidence of a defender 10 years his senior.

How he can improve: He needs to pay more attention when tracking opponents on crosses and in high-intensity defensive situations. His sporadic lack of focus was highlighted in the 7-0 Champions League defeat at Manchester City, though that was down to a collective collapse rather than any one individual.

Club/country: Bayer Leverkusen/Germany
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €85m

Following a nine-month injury absence because of a ruptured cruciate ligament, Wirtz has managed to get himself back to the level he was at before disaster struck. Alongside No. 4 on this list, Wirtz is arguably the most talented German prospect of his generation and has made a huge impact for Leverkusen, both domestically and in Europe.

Strengths: One of the most complete attacking midfielders in European football, Wirtz — who is equally dominant in a central position behind the striker, cutting in from the left or even as a false nine up front — is excellent at gaining space with his wonderful dribbling abilities. Not only is he capable of beating opponents from a standing position, he also does something clinical afterwards, with cleverly executed passes, well-engineered combinations or shots on target. In addition to being a technically gifted playmaker, Wirtz’s avid pressing helps him win the ball back.

How he can improve: Staying clear of injury will be key in his development but he needs to target double figures in goals and assists next season. Making a consistent impact on games throughout the 90 minutes will ensure he steps up to the next level.

Club/country: Arsenal/Brazil
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €70m

Not only has the Brazilian forward been a major contributor in Arsenal’s spectacular Premier League season, but he has also been one of the most improved players in European football. Aided by more fluency in the team’s attack and compatible players around him, Martinelli’s confidence has skyrocketed and he has polished the rougher sides of his game.

Strengths: With his explosive pace, excellent balance and unpredictable off-the-ball movement, Martinelli poses a constant threat to opposition defences. Over the course of the year, he has sharpened his skills, adding another level of precision which has seen him make 1.33 key passes per 90 minutes. On the evidence of his 13 Premier League goals from position on the left wing — often by way of late, well-timed runs and one-touch finishes with either foot — he possesses superb timing and appreciation of space. His ever-present intensity helps in the press, and his work rate and eagerness to learn is high.

How he can improve: Martinelli could stand to improve the accuracy of his short passes, combination touches and lay-offs, and he can also be liable to lose momentum or run out of ideas when facing a wall of defenders.

Club/country: Real Madrid/France
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €60m

A €31m signing from Rennes, Camavinga’s importance continues to grow. The France international has some stiff competition in the Real Madrid midfield but has got on with his job even when fielded as a left-back for both club and country. Recently, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has entrusted him with an extended run of games in his favoured role as a midfield pivot and Camavinga has impressed.

Strengths: Calm in possession and comfortable on the ball, Camavinga performs his deeper role in midfield expertly. He drops back to collect the ball from his centre-backs and actively roams in space to provide a passing outlet for his full-backs. When distributing from defence with his left foot, he demonstrates impressive accuracy in all facets of his passing, while he’s often the initiator of moves that end in goal-scoring opportunities. Versatile enough to operate as a No. 8, too, he can break opposition lines with a rapid burst of pace, presses with intent and reads the game well in order to pick up loose balls.

How he can improve: Given his skill set, there’s no reason why Camavinga shouldn’t develop into one of the top midfield playmakers around. More variety in his range of passing could help; however, he is on record saying: “I would only change my right foot: it’s very bad.”

Club/country: Barcelona/Spain
Age: 18
Estimated transfer value: €90m

Just when you thought Gavi’s development would plateau on the back of a magnificent debut season, he keeps getting better and better. The 18-year-old is a first choice in Barcelona’s midfield and, after becoming the youngest player to debut for the Spain national team in its history, he has become a vital component at the international level as well. In September, he signed a new contract at Camp Nou until 2026 but the club are now involved in a legal fight with LaLiga to register it and, theoretically, could lose him as a free agent in the summer if it’s not sorted out.

Strengths: To find such a high level of technical, physical and mental attributes wrapped up in an 18-year-old midfielder is nothing short of awe-inspiring. His classy touch, combined with fabulous spatial awareness, cognitive sharpness and remarkable command of his body (when he sends opponents the wrong way when receiving the ball on the half-turn), are most commonly associated with flair players like Neymar or Ronaldinho. Yet Gavi backs that up with an unyielding desire to get on the ball and an unwavering determination to win it back. His competitive nature really stands out and, regardless of where he lines up tactically, his input is unquestionable and his energy contagious.

Weaknesses: While he is super competitive — he was involved in more fouls for and against (23) than any other player at the 2022 World Cup — his decision-making around tackles still needs work.

Club/country: Bayern Munich/Germany
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €110m

Despite a slightly below-par season by Bayern Munich’s high standards, Musiala has delivered a level of performance that exceeds any reasonable expectations for the squad’s youngest first-team player. Thanks to his versatility, he has been utilised in a variety of positions and while former coach Julian Nagelsmann preferred him as an attacking midfielder on the left side, it remains to be seen what new boss Thomas Tuchel will do.

Strengths: A technical star on the ball, Musiala applies himself with maturity and is quick at reverting to pressing mode when his team lose possession. There are few unnecessary touches or flashy moments; instead, he aids the team’s attacking flow with constructive, progressive involvements, illustrated by his admirable judgement of when and where to make use of his wonderful dribbling skills (64% successful dribbles per 90 minutes.)

On top of his brilliant control, playmaking capabilities and linking of midfield and attack through his passing, he brings the end product too. With 11 goals this season, making him Bayern’s leading scorer in the Bundesliga, Musiala exudes calmness in his finishing and, even at speed, ensures he scans the play before deciding on the best course of action.

How he can improve: With a versatile skill set in both attack and defence, perfectly made for the modern game, Musiala has few shortcomings. However, he has a slight tendency for his influence to drop towards the latter stages, so completing more games to the full 90 minutes will be beneficial in his development.

Club/country: Arsenal/England
Age: 21
Estimated transfer value: €110m

The main creative catalyst behind Arsenal’s unexpected challenge for the Premier League title this season, Saka, a converted left-back, has blossomed into one of the best right wingers in the game. He has hit double figures for goals and assists, while also proving an inspirational presence for England at the World Cup. With his ability to make an impact at the highest level, the down-to-earth Saka has taken every challenge in stride.

Strengths: Saka thrives when he finds space wide on the right as his fine command of either foot gives him the option to either proceed at high speed for a quick one-two combination or advance on the outside of the marker to put in a cross or shot. Adept at picking up the ball on the move and carrying it with pace, he has increased the intensity of Arsenal’s attacks and disrupts opponents’ defensive organisation.

Saka has improved all parts of his game over the past year, with the technical and tactical aspects the most obvious. This season he has significantly polished his shooting technique — his efforts are often executed quickly and with variety — while his understanding of space has seen him take advantage of low crosses at the back post.

How he can improve: There are moments when he goes missing and fails to impose himself on a game which, in fairness, is not unusual for such a young player. Saka can improve his defensive contributions, yet he is already winning more challenges in every area of the pitch and is showing more alertness to his pressing duties.

Club/country: Barcelona/Spain
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €110m

Indispensable for club and country, the gifted midfielder has built on his sky-high reputation with an outstanding 2022-23 campaign. He excelled for Spain during the World Cup and confirmed his status as one of the top midfielders in the world regardless of age or role. Pedri’s influence on Barcelona has also grown under Xavi’s leadership. Much like last season, however, injuries have been a disrupting factor.

Strengths: Though he already has the profile of a complete central attacking midfielder, the former Las Palmas star’s skill set goes off the charts when it comes to technical ability, receiving and distributing the ball. In addition to his passing range — instinctive, penetrative, needing few touches and on the half-turn — is an extraordinary awareness to pick the right space with consistency.

Arguably best in an offensive No. 8 role, Pedri glues the attack together with his rhythmic interchanges. He demands the ball in the most advantageous areas before moving it on with precision to a teammate. Off the ball, his exceptional spatial awareness and timing of runs sees him get on the end of attacks with one-touch finishes or quick combinations to create a chance. What makes Pedri even more special is that he’s a team player: he presses with diligence and recovers the ball three times per game on average.

How he can improve: Performing consistently at the upper limits of what can be expected of a 20-year-old, he does have one area of improvement — becoming more robust in physical duels.

Club/country: Borussia Dortmund/England
Age: 19
Estimated transfer value: €120m

After his exceptional development for club and country over the past year, Bellingham is no longer an up-and-coming talent: he has arrived and is an elite player who can carry a team. The teenage midfielder is on the radar of Europe’s biggest clubs — most notably Liverpool, Man City and Real Madrid. The race to sign him for a potential transfer fee of around €150m will be one of the biggest stories to watch this summer.

The England international features an exceptional array of physical, technical and mental attributes, and as the perfect box-to-box midfielder — with the versatility to feature deeper or higher up the pitch as a starting position — he is a generational talent.

Strengths: Where do you start? Equipped with athleticism, stamina and close control, Bellingham is outstanding on the ball (nearly three progressive carries and six dribbles per 90 minutes.) Once a defensive line has been broken, he’s an accurate passer too and is able to create chances with precise touches and impressive vision. From deeper positions, he spreads the play routinely and picks out the attacking runs of his teammates early.

As seen at the World Cup with England, Bellingham is strong in the air and, when arriving in the box, displays composure in front of goal. For all the technical and tactical mastery, it can be overlooked that he is both meticulous and proficient in his defensive game too. From an impressive 19 challenges per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga, he comes out on top at a rate of 55%.

How he can improve: Though it speaks volumes about his confidence and willingness to take responsibility, his inclination to take lots of shots on goal does lead to his accuracy being slightly on the low side (39%).


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