With so much at stake and with transfer fees increasing by the year, the search for young talent has become ever more desperate as football’s elite fight to get their hands on the players who will become the stars of tomorrow.
If you find it difficult to keep track of all the hype and rumours surrounding young players, then don’t worry – we’ve got you covered.
Taking into account form in 2018, experience relative to age, quality of league, international experience and potential, we’ve come up with our list of the top 50 players under the age of 23 in world football.
As a rule of thumb, to qualify, players must have been under 23 on December 31, 2018.
50. Timothy Weah
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
The phrase ‘related to George Weah’ may be enough to send a shiver down the spine of every Southampton fan, but fear not. Unlike Ali Dia, Timothy Weah is definitely related to the Liberian legend, and the early evidence is that he could be a worthy successor to his father’s legacy.
He made his PSG debut last season and scored his first goal in this year’s Trophée des Champions curtain-raiser against Monaco. Weah elected to play for the United States rather than Liberia at international level, so he may get the chance to do something his father never did: play at a World Cup.
49. Fabián Ruiz
After struggling to force his way into a regular starting role at Betis, a loan spell at Elche in 2016/17 was the making of Fabián Ruiz. When he returned to Seville, he became one of Quique Setién’s most trusted deputies, appearing 34 times last season as Betis qualified for the Europa League.
A summer move to Napoli has not slowed Ruiz’s progress as the Spaniard has adapted well to life in Italy, with three goals to his name so far. He is yet to earn a senior call-up for Spain but if his performances continue at this level, it surely cannot be long until Luis Enrique comes knocking.
48. Exequiel Palacios
Club: River Plate
Exequiel Palacios is a man who works hard and plays hard. His womanising antics may have captured the attention of the Argentine public but his footballing abilities have captured the attention of many managers around Europe as he goes from strength to strength for River Plate.
Palacios is a terrier of a central midfield, driving forwards with purpose and then working tirelessly to defend or win the ball back. Players like that are worth their weight in gold, and although Palacios has not chosen his next club yet, Real Madrid are in advanced talks to make him their latest South American recruit.
For most players, winning a move to Real Madrid at the age of 17 would be seen as a major success, but Rodrygo sees it merely as a stepping stone to greater things.
“I have achieved one of my career goals,” he said. “Now my objective is to play for Brazil national team and one day to be picked as the best player in the world.”
Having already made 45 appearances for Santos and scored his first career hat trick just two months after his 17th birthday, perhaps Rodrygo is right to dream big. He will join Real Madrid next summer, and could be fast-tracked into the first team if he picks up where he left off in São Paulo.
46. Nicolò Barella
Following on from the generation of Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso is no mean feat for an Italian midfielder, but Nicolò Barella is one who may be able to live up to the hype. He offers the best of both worlds – passing ability that has impressed Pirlo, and ball recovery skills that Italy have lacked since Gattuso’s retirement.
Behind the youthful facade is a player who is wise beyond his years. Barella hasn’t allowed his head to be turned by links to Premier League giants and signed a new contract at Cagliari in January 2018, saying that he is happy at his hometown club. That decision may be revisited in the near future.
45. Reiss Nelson
Club: Hoffenheim (on loan from Arsenal)
Jadon Sancho may be the blue-eyed boy of English football right now, but Reiss Nelson might not be far behind after following the former Manchester City youngster’s lead by moving to the Bundesliga in pursuit of the first team football he wasn’t getting at Arsenal.
It was a risk which paid off handsomely for Nelson, who scored 14 minutes into his debut against Fortuna Dusseldorf and hasn’t looked back since, with his first six Bundesliga goals coming at a rate of one every 54 minutes. If he can keep it up for the rest of the season, he’ll soon join Sancho in the England squad.
44. Federico Chiesa
The bar was set high for Federico Chiesa by his father Enrico, a journeyman of the Italian game who scored nearly 200 goals in over 500 career appearances. Chiesa Jr may have some way to go before he can boast those sort of statistics, but the apple has clearly not fallen too far from the tree.
A winger by trade, Chiesa is a creative menace for Fiorentina. Last season was his best yet with six goals and nine assists, and he has started this season in similar form with three goals and five assists already. He has already played 11 times for Italy and looks like being a crucial part of the next generation for the Azzurri.
43. Giovani Lo Celso
Club: Betis (on loan from Paris Saint-Germain)
It crept under the radar a bit, but Betis’ loan signing of Giovani Lo Celso from PSG was possibly one of the best pieces of business done last summer. The Argentine midfielder has been particularly impressive in the Europa League, scoring one and creating the other in Betis’ win over AC Milan at the San Siro.
Lo Celso also scored against Barcelona in La Liga, proving himself to be a man for the big occasion. His loan move has a purchase option and Betis will be ripping PSG’s arm off to make the move permanent. Playing in a higher quality league will also be beneficial for Lo Celso’s personal development.
Club: Atletico Madrid
Sad as Atletico Madrid fans were to wave goodbye to Gabi at the end of last season, his departure ushered in a new era as he was replaced by Rodri. Rodri left Atletico as a youngster in 2015, but his performances for Villarreal convinced Diego Simeone to give him a second chance.
Atletico were already considered one of the best defensive teams in Europe and the addition of such a highly-rated defensive midfielder has done them no harm. Los Rojiblancos are yet to lose a league match in which Rodri has started, and he has also chipped in with a couple of goals against Athletic Bilbao and Alaves.
41. Justin Kluivert
Justin Kluivert has big shoes to fill. His father Patrick was a legend of Dutch football, becoming the Netherlands’ leading goalscorer of all-time, though he has since been surpassed.
Kluivert may not have won the Champions League at age 18 like his father, but he is giving his old man a run for his money in other respects.
He made his Ajax debut at a younger age than his father, scored a hat trick in the Eredivisie (something Patrick Kluivert never managed), and scored on his first Champions League appearance for Roma after a summer transfer. The weight of family legacy does not seem to be a problem for the young winger.
40. Luka Jovic
Club: Eintracht Frankfurt (on loan from Benfica)
Luka Jovic showed what he was capable of with eight goals in the Bundesliga last season, but the Serbian has skipped right past the ‘exciting potential’ stage to establish himself as one of the most lethal strikers in Germany. He already has 17 goals this season, 12 of them in the Bundesliga, putting him joint-top of the Golden Boot race with Paco Alcacer.
The undoubted highlight of Jovic’s season was his five-goal haul in a 7-1 demolition of Fortuna Dusseldorf back in October, and he also scored five goals in the Europa League group stages as Frankfurt won all six games. Between Jovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Nikola Milenkovic, Serbia could be a very interesting international team to watch in the years ahead.
39. Lucas Paquetá
Club: AC Milan
AC Milan hope that Lucas Paquetá can be the man to re-invigorate their stuttering season, having recently completed the signing of the young Brazil star from Flamengo. In moving to the San Siro, Paquetá follows in the footsteps of Brazilian greats like Kaka, Dida and Cafu.
Paquetá’s versatility is one of his greatest strengths as he has played in a variety of positions including central midfield, both wings and as a centre forward. His preferred role is as an industrious attacking midfielder, from where he can create chances and score goals, which he did at a rate of one every five games for Flamengo.
38. Diogo Dalot
Club: Manchester United
Injuries prevented Diogo Dalot from making his Premier League debut for Manchester United until November, but it was well worth the wait. Jose Mourinho said after Dalot’s first start against Arsenal that his young countryman could be United’s right back for the next decade on this evidence.
Mourinho is gone now, but his prophecy about Dalot could prove to be true. At the age of 19 he already looks like a very accomplished full back, and although he shows signs of naivety, those will soon be eradicated as he plays more and more games at the highest level.
37. Julian Brandt
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
There cannot be many 22-year-olds in the world who are as productive as Julian Brandt. The Bremen-born midfielder is fast approaching his 200th Bayer Leverkusen appearance and already has 23 international caps under his belt as well. You’re making the rest of us look bad, Julian.
Brandt only played 19 minutes of Germany’s disastrous 2018 World Cup campaign but was one of the few Germans to emerge with any credit, striking the woodwork with thunderous efforts against Mexico and Sweden. After Germany’s Nations League relegation, perhaps Joachim Low will finally put his faith in the Leverkusen man.
36. Phil Foden
Club: Manchester City
The English are nothing if not hopelessly optimistic about their young footballers, but I think we can all agree that after 134 minutes of Premier League football and one goal in the Carabao Cup against Oxford, Phil Foden is the promised one who will lead the Three Lions to World Cup glory.
Foden recently signed a contract extension so he must have been given some assurances about his first team chances. If Pep Guardiola does not put faith in him soon, the 18-year-old may be shooting envious glances at Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson and wondering if he would be better served by a move abroad.
35. Christian Pulisic
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Over 100 appearances for Borussia Dortmund, 23 caps at international level and talk of a move to the Premier League – all before he can legally drink in his home country. It’s been quite the rise for Christian Pulisic, and it could be about to get even better with a Bundesliga title and a big-money transfer possibly on the agenda for 2019.
Jadon Sancho’s form has been keeping Pulisic out of the starting lineup lately, but with Champions League commitments continuing alongside a title challenge, the American will definitely be needed in the new year – unless Liverpool or Chelsea come calling in January.
When Barcelona swooped in to sign Malcom from under Roma’s noses last summer, it was seen as quite a coup. The Brazilian was hot property after two excellent seasons for Bordeaux in which he scored 19 goals – often spectacular – and made 15 assists.
Malcom has endured a frustrating start to his Barcelona career with only one La Liga start so far. A goal against Inter in the Champions League was his best moment yet and he clearly has huge potential, but will he get the chance to prove it amid such fierce competition in Catalonia?
33. Lautaro Martinez
There is very little that intimidates Lautaro Martinez. The 21-year-old netted a hat trick on his first appearance in the Copa Libertadores, scored on his full debut for Argentina, and is adapting well to Serie A since his summer move to Inter, with a last minute winner against Napoli on Boxing Day being his highlight so far.
Martinez could not have a better teacher during his development years as he plays alongside the prolific Mauro Icardi for club and country. After years of false dawns for both Inter and Argentina, the hope is that a partnership of Martinez and Icardi can fire them to overdue success.
32. Vinícius Júnior
Club: Real Madrid
It was rumoured that Real Madrid would loan Vinícius Júnior back to Flamengo after signing from the Brazilian side last summer, but it was a measure of the faith they had in him that he stayed at the Bernabeu and was handed a run in the team after Santiago Solari took over as manager in October.
He took his chance, providing two assists against Melilla on his first start, scoring his first La Liga goal against Valladolid, and then setting up a goal on his Champions League debut against Viktoria Plzen. With form like that, it can’t be too long until he’s pushing for a regular starting berth.
31. Leon Bailey
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Leon Bailey’s terrifying pace immediately marked him out as one to watch when he burst onto the Bundesliga scene in January 2017, earning him the nickname ‘the Bundesliga Bolt’ in reference to his speed and his Jamaican heritage. Although if Bolt’s efforts in Australia are anything to go by, Bailey is definitely the better footballer.
There was temporary excitement earlier this year when it was reported that Bailey had English grandparents, but it turned out they had not been born in the UK, making Bailey ineligible to represent the Three Lions. He could soon end up in England though, with Chelsea and Liverpool both keeping an eye on the Caribbean starlet.
Eyebrows were raised to new heights when Everton spent a club record £50m to sign Richarlison from Watford last summer, but it seems that Marco Silva knew what he was doing. The Brazilian has been a revelation for his new side with nine goals already, making him the highest scorer outside the Premier League’s big six this season.
Richarlison’s early season form saw him handed a first international call-up and he enjoyed a dream debut against El Salvador, scoring twice and winning a penalty. He seems to have cemented his place in Tite’s squad and will have his sights set firmly on next summer’s Copa America in his home country.
29. Kingsley Coman
Club: Bayern Munich
At the age of 22, Kingsley Coman already boasts a CV of which most footballers would be jealous, having won 13 trophies, including six league titles, in spells at Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich. He also became the youngest player in PSG history when he made his debut aged 16 in 2013.
Having experienced astronomical success at such a young age, Coman is not accustomed to setbacks, so his recent ligament injuries have been hard to deal with, and Bayern Munich have missed him. Since he returned to the side, the German champions have won five consecutive Bundesliga matches.
28. Gabriel Jesus
Club: Manchester City
2018 has been in many ways a frustrating year for Gabriel Jesus. A knee injury put him out of action until March, he failed to shine at the World Cup for Brazil, and he has dropped further behind Sergio Aguero in the pecking order at Manchester City, despite many people suggesting that he would establish himself as Pep Guardiola’s first choice striker.
However, there have also been some incredible highs. Jesus won his first Premier League title, scoring the goal that made City centurions, and he scored his first hat trick in senior football when he netted three against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. Consistency is the only thing standing between Jesus and being a world class striker.
27. Cristian Pavón
Club: Boca Juniors
Born in Córdoba, Cristian Pavón started his career in his hometown with second division Talleres, where he signed a first professional contract at the age of 16. However, it wasn’t long before he came onto the radar of Boca Juniors, who brought him to La Bombonera in 2014.
Pavón’s goalscoring prowess, his creative talents and his ability to play on either wing makes him an attractive proposition, so it’s no wonder he has been linked with teams like Barcelona, Arsenal, and, erm, West Ham. With a reported release clause of $37m, Pavón is sure to be plying his trade in Europe soon.
26. Patrick Cutrone
The days when AC Milan ruled Europe seem a long time ago now as a fifth season without Champions League football unfolds, but Patrick Cutrone offers hope of a brighter future. He scored 18 goals in a revelatory 2017/18 campaign, during which he was a lucky charm for the Rossoneri, who won every match in which Cutrone found the net.
That run broke when he scored in a defeat to Betis this season, but his love affair with the Europa League has continued, adding four more goals to the six he scored in last season’s competition. Cutrone is destined for great things – whether or not he can achieve them at the San Siro remains to be seen.
25. Davinson Sanchez
Though Davinson Sanchez has only been at Tottenham for one and a half seasons, it already looks like Mauricio Pochettino has got his hands on a defender who could become one of the best in the business. Spurs had the third best defensive record in the Premier League last season, and statistics show that Sanchez played a huge part in that.
Tottenham conceded a goal every 59 minutes when Sanchez wasn’t on the pitch, compared to one goal every 121 minutes when the Colombian was playing. Toby Alderweireld may be the one drawing all the admiring glances, but Sanchez could turn out to be even better.
24. Cengiz Ünder
If there is such a thing as a bargain in modern football, the €13.4m Roma paid İstanbul Başakşehir for Cengiz Ünder in 2017 might be it. He announced himself to the rest of Serie A with five goals in five appearances at the start of 2018, and also scored on his Champions League debut against Shakhtar Donetsk.
A speedy right winger with a wand of a left foot, many of Ünder’s goals in Turkey were long-range screamers, and he was at it again earlier this month in a 2-2 draw with Inter. Arsenal and Chelsea scouts were in attendance and Ünder put himself in the shop window with his performance.
23. Achraf Hakimi
Club: Borussia Dortmund (on loan from Real Madrid)
A pacy and powerful player who is capable of playing in defence or as a winger, Achraf Hakimi showed promise in his breakthrough season for Real Madrid, scoring twice in nine La Liga appearances. But it was decided that he was not good enough for the first team yet, and he was told he could leave on loan after the signing of Alvaro Odriozola.
Borussia Dortmund jumped at the chance to sign Hakimi, and it seems to be paying off. Fittingly, his best performance came in the Champions League against Atletico Madrid, when he provided three assists in a 4-0 victory.
Hakimi will still harbour hopes of returning to Madrid, but based on the two teams’ current trajectories, Dortmund might be the place to be.
22. Rodrigo Bentancur
Deep-lying midfielders are all the rage right now, but while Frenkie de Jong and Tanguy Ndombele are attracting all the attention of Europe’s heavy hitters, Rodrigo Bentancur is quietly going about his business, already in place at arguably the best squad in world football.
Last season Bentancur was restricted mostly to substitute appearances, but this season he has started the majority of Juve’s matches and the upturn in results and defensive solidity has been noticeable. It speaks volumes about the Uruguayan’s ability that he does not look out of place in a world class team.
21. Kai Havertz
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Never let it be said that footballers don’t have to make sacrifices – Kai Havertz once missed a Champions League knockout tie because he was revising for school exams! He was 17 when he made his debut for Bayer Leverkusen, becoming the youngest player in club history and then the youngest goalscorer the following year.
Now 19, Havertz is still setting records, as he was the youngest player to reach a half-century of Bundesliga appearances last season. When he was younger, he was likened to Mesut Ozil, but he has gradually evolved into an all-rounder, more comparable to someone like ex-Leverkusen midfielder Michael Ballack.
20. Marcus Rashford
Club: Manchester United
Rightly lauded after scoring braces on his Europa League and Premier League debuts in 2016, then criticised after struggling to live up those high standards – Marcus Rashford is a classic case of the media building up a young English player only to knock him down.
Rashford may not be the most prolific goalscorer – yet – but many of his goals are important ones: a brace against Liverpool last season, a 90th minute winner against Bournemouth in November. He’s been good for England too, scoring home and away against Spain in the Nations League, and he has plenty of time to get even better.
19. Ruben Neves
Club: Wolverhampton Wanderers
It’s not everyday a Wolves player appears on a list of the best young players in world football, but this is no ordinary Wolves team and Ruben Neves is no ordinary player. He has scored eight goals since his move from Porto in 2017 and every one (apart from his penalty against Tottenham) has been an absolute scorcher.
Despite his attacking qualities, Neves is actually a defensive midfielder by trade, and when he isn’t scoring he’s launching attacks with his excellent vision and impressive range of passing. How long a player of this quality will be at Molineux remains to be seen, so Wolves fans should appreciate every moment of Ruben Neves they can get.
18. Houssem Aouar
With his teammates Nabil Fekir and Tanguy Ndombele hogging the headlines, Houssem Aouar has managed to creep under the radar somewhat, but his show-stealing performance in Lyon’s Champions League draw with Manchester City recently meant that he could no longer go unnoticed.
Despite receiving praise from Pep Guardiola after the game, Liverpool seems a more likely destination for Aouar. The Reds pulled out of a deal for Fekir last summer, but they are still searching for a Philippe Coutinho replacement and Aouar’s technical ability would make him a tempting optiion.
17. Joe Gomez
There were plenty of raised eyebrows among Liverpool supporters when Joe Gomez started alongside Virgil van Dijk at centre back in their season opener against West Ham, but the former Charlton man has transformed opinions with his mature displays in subsequent months.
Gomez, who can also play as a right back, offers terrific pace and positional awareness. He and Van Dijk have turned Liverpool’s notoriously leaky defence into one of the best in the Premier League. Reds fans will be praying for a speedy return from the injury he suffered against Burnley earlier this month.
16. Lucas Torreira
Unai Emery has made a lot of changes since he arrived at Arsenal but few can be as important as the signing of Lucas Torreira. Arsenal’s flimsy midfield often left their defence exposed last season but the tough-tackling Torreira shows no signs of letting that happen as he has quickly formed an understanding with Granit Xhaka.
Arsenal fans have been crying out for a midfielder of Torreira’s tenacity for so long that the Uruguayan has become an immediate cult hero at the Emirates Stadium, and his shirt-rending celebration after scoring his first Gunners goal in the north London derby cemented his new-found popularity.
15. Frenkie de Jong
Ajax may lack the financial resources to compete with Europe’s best on a regular basis, but they continue to produce top talents at an astonishing rate, and the latest future superstar to roll off the production line is versatile midfielder Frenkie de Jong.
The youngster has earned comparisons to Sergio Busquets for his ball retention and incisive passing, and Xavi says De Jong is exactly the sort of player who could take over from Busquets at Barcelona. His style of play seems well-suited to Spanish football and a move to the Nou Camp is likely at the end of the season.
14. Trent Alexander-Arnold
It had been a long time since a young Scouser came up through the ranks to become a first team regular at Liverpool. So when born and bred Reds fan Trent Alexander-Arnold made his debut in 2016, there was cautious optimism that he could be the vanguard of a new generation.
Alexander-Arnold has lived up to the expectation, going from the periphery of the first team to starting in a Champions League in less than a year. A confident defender and a clinical striker of dead balls, Alexander-Arnold could be a Liverpool and England regular for the next decade at least – and maybe a future captain.
13. Benjamin Pavard
“Are you telling me Pavard is the best right back France have available?” asked Mark Lawrenson as the French full back struggled on his World Cup debut against Australia. A month later, Pavard was a World Cup winner, scorer of the goal of the tournament, and everyone agreed that he had been a revelation. So yes, Mark, he is.
Pavard admits that he has already rejected a number of bigger clubs because of his love for Stuttgart, but with Markus Weinzierl’s team struggling at the bottom of the Bundesliga, he may not have a choice. Bayern Munich, Tottenham and Liverpool would happily offer Pavard a fresh start.
12. Tanguy Ndombélé
With over 50 Lyon appearances behind him, French audiences have been espousing the qualities of Tanguy Ndombélé for a while, but English viewers recently joined the bandwagon after the 21-year-old bossed the midfield in both of Lyon’s matches against Manchester City in the Champions League.
French football expert Julien Laurens reckons Ndombélé “could become one of the best midfielders in the world”. Didier Deschamps clearly thinks so too, handing him a first international cap in October. He has been strongly linked with Manchester City, who desperately need back-up for Fernandinho.
11. Timo Werner
Club: RB Leipzig
Timo Werner was not known for being a prolific goalscorer during his formative years at Stuttgart, but RB Leipzig saw enough to make him their marquee signing after promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016. It proved to be a wise investment, with Werner since scoring over 50 goals in less than 100 appearances for the top flight newcomers.
Werner has been prolific for Germany as well, winning the Golden Boot at the 2017 Confederations Cup after scoring three goals and providing two assists. He couldn’t find the net at the 2018 World Cup, but he is likely to be a big player for Die Mannschaft in the years ahead.
10. Lucas Hernandez
Club: Atletico Madrid
Already a World Cup winner by the age of 22, Lucas Hernandez is well on his way to becoming one of the best defenders in world football. He couldn’t be at a better club to achieve that goal, given Atletico Madrid’s notoriously impressive defensive record and the experience of those around him. Whether he stays is up for debate, with Bayern lurking.
Though he has always played at centre back for Atletico, Hernandez is usually deployed as a left back by Didier Deschamps at international level. He is equally adept in either role and also contributes well in an attacking capacity, providing two assists at the World Cup including one in the final against Croatia.
9. Arthur Melo
While Barcelona pursue a midfielder to take over from Sergio Busquets, it would seem that Andres Iniesta’s replacement has already been found in the form of Arthur Melo. Signed from Grêmio in the summer, he has quickly become a regular in Ernesto Valverde’s side, starting six consecutive league games before a muscle injury.
If Arthur seems undaunted by the task of succeeding Iniesta, that’s because he thrives under pressure. He was the man of the match in the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final when Grêmio won it in 2017, so the knockout stages of the Champions League may bring the best out of him.
8. Gianluigi Donnarumma
Despite growing up as an AC Milan supporter, Gianluigi Donnarumma idolised legendary Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Seen by many as a natural successor to Buffon, Donnarumma emulated his hero by making his Serie A debut at 17, and broke Buffon’s record as the youngest goalkeeper ever to represent Italy.
They also possess similar skillsets, with both men being commended from a young age for their reflexes, positional skills and penalty-saving record, and Donnarumma shows maturity beyond his years, just as Buffon did at the same age. Comparisons to great players are handed out like confetti, but this one is well-earned.
7. Jadon Sancho
Club: Borussia Dortmund
You know a young English player must be pretty special when even the Germans are raving about him. Jadon Sancho is not just an incredibly exciting talent but also a potential trendsetter, with his move to the Bundesliga proving that youngsters do not have to suffer on the sidelines in England.
In the early stages of this season, Sancho was averaging an assist every 30 minutes for Borussia Dortmund, and Gareth Southgate couldn’t ignore that sort of form, making Sancho the youngest player to receive a cap during his tenure. A first assist on his full debut against the United States proved that it was the right decision.
6. Ousmane Dembélé
Ousmane Dembélé is playing his career on hard mode. Trying to get into a Barcelona team containing Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho. Trying to get into a France team containing Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. Trying to live up to the expectation that comes with a €145m price tag.
Dembélé is proving his doubters wrong week by week, directly contributing to 15 goals this season including some breathtaking strikes, most notably his Spanish Super Cup winner against Sevilla and his sublime finish against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League. Playing on hard mode is easy when you’re as good as this.
5. Matthijs de Ligt
When Matthijs de Ligt is regarded as one of the world’s best centre backs a few years from now, people will look back at this season’s Champions League match against Bayern Munich as his coming of age moment. The Dutchman nullified Bayern’s many attacking outlets with an outstanding display in a 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena.
De Ligt would be a perfect signing for Barcelona given their recent defensive struggles, and rumour has it that he and teammate Frenkie de Jong could move together in a lucrative package deal.
At international level, a partnership of De Ligt and Virgil van Dijk could make the Netherlands a serious force over the next few years.
4. Marco Asensio
Club: Real Madrid
Zinedine Zidane’s best legacy at Real Madrid – apart from the small matter of three Champions League triumphs – may prove to be Marco Asensio. It was Zidane who handed Asensio his first start in the 2016 UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla and Asensio repaid his faith by scoring after 21 minutes with a rasping effort into the top corner from outside the box.
Asensio ended that season by scoring in the Champions League final and began the next campaign by finding the net in both legs of the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona, both of them stunners. Amazing to think he only cost Real Madrid £4m – his left foot alone is probably worth ten times that now.
3. Leroy Sane
Club: Manchester City
The more you see of Leroy Sane, the more mystifying Joachim Low’s decision to leave him out of his 2018 World Cup squad seems. No German player in Europe set up more goals than Sane did in 2017/18, and only his Manchester City teammate Kevin De Bruyne made more assists in the Premier League.
The 22-year-old has proved that last year was no fluke with his incredible form at the start of this season. With six goals and eight assists to his name already, Sane either scores or creates a goal every 77 minutes in the Premier League. Some of that creative talent might have been useful against South Korea, you imagine.
2. Dele Alli
After years of England players who looked frightened to wear the shirt, Dele Alli‘s 25-yard screamer on his full Three Lions debut against France in 2016 was a watershed moment. Alongside his Tottenham teammate Harry Kane, Alli is the face of the fearless new generation which has thrown off the shackles of the past.
Like his idol Steven Gerrard, Alli is a man for all situations, with the passing range of a midfielder and the predatory instincts of a seasoned striker. Alli recently scored his 50th goal for Tottenham, becoming the fifth youngest player to reach that milestone in Premier League history.
1. Kylian Mbappé
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
A future Ballon d’Or winner if ever there was one, Kylian Mbappé was the most obvious winner of the World Cup’s Best Young Player award since Michael Owen in 1998, and the records he set at the tournament suggest we may be witnessing the emergence of a once-in-a-generation talent.
He became the first teenager since Pelé to score a World Cup brace, and the first since Pelé to score in a World Cup final, as well as becoming France’s youngest ever World Cup scorer with his group stage goal against Peru. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo may finally have a challenger on their hands.