In this article I want to look ahead with you to the future of football. With aging giants like Messi, Ronaldo, and Zlatan certainly in the back ends of their careers and other stars like Sergio Ramos, Sergio Agüero, and Robert Lewandowski into their 30s, there’s no time like the present for youngsters to make their names. We want to stick to players under the age of 20 and those who might not quite be household names just yet. So someone like Martin Odegaard is too old, Callum Hudson-Odoi is too well known, and Kylian Mbappé violates both restrictions.
These youngsters are going to be ruling the game sooner rather than later, so the time to get to know them, how they play, and where they fit is now. (The list is not ranked, just numbered.)
Alphonso Davies – Too Good
At this moment Alphonso Davies is the second-best player on this list. Maybe just a few months ago he might make the main grouping, but the 19-year-old left back has come screaming onto the scene for Bayern Munich, becoming a staple on the flank. Originating as a winger, Davies has pure technical abilities that allow him to play with fluidity and singe the box with clean crosses. The Canadian star has one goal and six assists across the Bundesliga and Champions League this season.
Phil Foden – Too Good
Phil Foden’s first Premier League start came at Old Trafford in the Manchester Derby. If that doesn’t show you how much Pep Guardiola trusts him, I’m not sure what will. Foden has become a household name in Manchester and is set to take on a bigger role once David Silva moves on from the club. The 19-year-old central midfielder has been used sparingly in EPL this season but has produced at an alarming rate in international play. He scored 13 goals in 23 appearances for England’s U-17 team and registered two goals and two assists in just 187 minutes of Champions League play.
Mason Greenwood – Too Good
With Manchester United undergoing some of their tougher times as a club, Mason Greenwood has given hope with his meteoric rise both domestically and in European play. The Bradford-born center-forward has netted 10 goals combined from EPL and Europa League. Given the platform, the 18-year-old is sure to be one of the biggest names in football if he continues at this pace.
Sandro Tonali – Too Old and Too Good
You may not have heard of Tonali thanks to his being buried away on a terrible Brescia team, but the Italian defensive midfielder has jaw-dropping talent. He just turned 20 on May 8th, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s the next generational Italian star. He has a howitzer of a right foot for free kicks and while his dribbling is a bit clunky, he uses it to devastating effect. He never tackles in a reckless manner, he’s always calculating how to turn his dispossessings into a counter-attack, usually dribbling to open space moments after taking the ball. Tonali is going to be one of the greats.
Jude Bellingham – On the Rise
One of England’s youngest potential stars is Jude Bellingham. Rising through Birmingham City’s academy, Bellingham became the youngest player to ever appear for the club’s first team at just 16 years and 38 days. The versatile midfielder has earned four goals and three assists in the Championship this season and is beginning to draw the lusting eyes of European giants.
Harvey Elliot – On the Rise
Harvey Elliot has already garnered the attention that Belligham is beginning to draw as Elliot, a London native, was picked up by Liverpool in July of 2019. The 17-year-old right winger was pried off of a relegated Fulham side after becoming the youngest player in Premier League history at 16 years and 30 days. The youngster has a way to go before beating out Mohamed Salah on Liverpool’s right wing, but he’s well on his way with so much experience at a young age.
Troy Parrott – On the Rise
Tottenham’s gem of their youth academy isn’t a player out of London or even an Englishman, it’s actually Irish striker Troy Parrott. Less than three years ago Parrott was at Belvedere FC in Ireland, but now he seems to be the future talisman for Spurs. The 18-year-old hasn’t had the chance to break onto the scene in North London just yet, but he has plenty of potential. He’s still a bit raw as he’s only been with a top club for a few years, but he’s sure to be a leader of the Irish national team as well as a staple for Tottenham’s future.
It’s easy to overlook Bayer Leverkusen’s other young star considering Kai Havertz takes up the spotlight on most nights, but Rio-born Paulinho might start getting some fame of his own soon. The 19-year-old left winger was sold from Vasco da Gama for $27.5 million and the investment has begun to pay off. In seven Bundesliga appearances Paulinho scored thrice and added an assist for good measure. The attacking midfielder prefers the ball at his feet, dribbling around opponents, slamming home goals for Brazil’s youth teams, and occasionally distributing. And for those questioning whether he can survive alongside Havertz, take Leverkusen’s 4-0 beating of Frankfurt as evidence: Paulinho scored twice and assisted once just behind Havertz in the formation. One of Paulinho’s goals was assisted by Havertz and his lone assist was to the German wonderkid.
19. Sontje Hansen
The Dutch youngster Sontje Hansen currently plays for the Ajax U21 team despite being just 17. The striker preys on defenders after getting them on his hip, mastering a quick pivot and even quicker shot. Hansen scores in droves for Dutch youth teams, most recently scoring 13 times in 24 games for the U17 squad. Hansen can also play out on the wings, but does his best work in the middle where he has more space to operate. With Dušan Tadíc tied down long term it isn’t likely that Hansen will get a shot very soon, but he’ll do well to develop in one of the world’s best youth academies.
18. Gabriel Martinelli
Martinelli is a bit more well known than most of the names on this list, but he probably isn’t as widely known as the Fodens or Greenwoods of the world despite Arsenal fans singing his praises. Martinelli is a prototypical striker as he has decent size and very good speed and strength. The Brazilian was bought for just $7.37 million from Ituano but that already looks like a steal. Combining the Europa League and Premier League appearances, the striker has scored six goals and assisted once, including an incredible run against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The “next Ronaldo” praises might be a bit premature, but Martinelli sure seems to have huge potential at just 18 years old.
Lincoln is certainly one of the more raw prospects on this list as he hasn’t accrued much playing time down at Flamengo. That’s not of his own doing, but instead because Flamengo is one of the best squads in South America. The 19-year-old Brazilian striker has fantastic leg strength and dribbles very well in space. He still does need to become more consistent and grow overall, but the sparks of brilliance where he slices a pass through a back line to find a cutting winger like prime Iniesta is truly incredible. Don’t be surprised if a European club jumps the gun to get him for a discounted price.
16. Kenneth Taylor
Kenneth Taylor is Sontje Hansen’s teammate on Ajax’s U21 side and has some of the same qualities. Taylor likes to push up the field despite just being a central midfielder, and shoots well and with ease. He has a powerful shot and blends athleticism and quick decision making to form a nasty opponent. Taylor is a good attacker but needs to grow as a passer to become a more complete player. At 17 years old, Taylor still has plenty of time to develop and continues to captain the Dutch U17 team.
15. Xavi Simons
Xavi Simons carries a name with a heavy weight attached to it, but the Dutch midfielder has the makings to handle that load. Simons, a La Masia product, transferred to PSG last summer and wears some of the most recognizable hair in football… or at least it will be. The baby-faced 17-year-old is a force in the midfield. He doesn’t force the issue at all. He’s happy to pass to an open teammate for an easier goal, he has sumptuous ball skills, he’s constantly aware of his surroundings and is able to attack the game while not being reckless. The hair may help, but the excitement that every touch brings with Simons genuinely reminds me of Ronaldinho.
14. Giovanni Reyna
Gio Reyna is an American/Portuguese dual citizen that has famously chosen to play for the United States national team. At 17 years old, Borussia Dortmund plucked Reyna from the NYCFC Academy and shortly after promoted him to the first team. Reyna has made eight appearances in the Bundesliga and two in the Champions League, all as a substitute. Reyna cherishes having the ball at his feet and knows how to use it. He always keeps his options open; his on ball positioning may seem awkward at times but he’s always ready to drop off a pass, cut to either side, make a burst forward, or any other option thanks to his spatial awareness. The fact that Dortmund trust him in such a high leverage league race at such a young age should have the Americans jumping for joy.
13. Willem Geubbels
The French have a thick group of players one must wade through to make the national squad, but Willem Geubbels is doing well to get a head start as he’s on the country’s U18 team. The Monaco winger hasn’t played much since coming over from Lyon, but the team likely plan on implementing him heavily next season. He’s a bit of a taller player, especially for a winger, and the 18-year-old seems to still be growing into that body. Sometimes he seems to be running off balance or flinging himself around wildly, but there’s certainly a fantastic player somewhere in that frame. AS Monaco have a wonderful staff that excel at doing more with less, so I trust that Geubbels will develop into a fine player.
12. Takefusa Kubo
You’ve likely heard of “the Japanese Messi” in passing somewhere, so meet the man behind the name: Takefusa Kubo. Kubo’s story is incredible as he was signed to Barcelona’s La Masia academy, excelling with their training but ultimately being sent home for the club’s violation of FIFA rules. After tearing up his home country’s competition, Kubo was bought fairly by Real Madrid, a move that must infuriate their Catalan rivals. Kubo is currently on loan to Mallorca as Real have a full squad, but the right winger’s time will come soon. Kubo has a ton of skill, but like many players on this list, he needs to figure out how to channel it consistently. The 18-year-old right winger has a powerful shot but does his best work blazing down the sideline and searing a cross in front of goal. He’s an excellent dribbler and it’s very tough to knock him off the ball thanks to his small size. With seven caps already under his belt, Kubo is going to have plenty of experience before he’s even 20.
11. Dominik Szoboszlai
Dominik Szoboszlai is a Hungarian footballer who’s currently employed by Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga, the same team Erling Braut Håland came from. Szoboszlai is a left midfielder who has a lot of desirable skills to pair with his very solid size and frame. The 19-year-old has been linked to major teams across Europe, but they would like to see him become a more particular footballer. Szoboszlai has a tendency to settle instead of making an extra pass or dribble to get a better chance which is something that he could certainly benefit from thanks to his dribbling skills. He’s a very good passer still, so learning how to make the most of his runs and passes will be a must to occupy a midfield position for Europe’s giants.
10. Eduardo Camavinga
Camavinga is one of the highest rated players on this list presently. He’s a mainstay for Stade Rennais and just made his first appearance for the French U21 team last November. Camavinga, born in Miconje, Angola, has a reasonable comp with Casemiro. His ability to find open teammates, create opportunities, and draw fouls is topped only by his unbelievably mature knack for stripping opponents of the ball. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player of this defensive caliber at this young of an age. He isn’t a very adept scorer but that’s not his game; France has plenty of players that can handle that for the time being.
9. Cǎtǎlin Cîrjan
Cîrjan, the most highly touted Romanian prospect since the great Gheorghe Hagi, is a 17-year-old Arsenal U18 product who is considered to be a possible piece to the puzzle. The central midfielder is offense-oriented, often pushing into the box and finishing long runs with blistering shots. He’s always been neck and head above his counterparts in Romania so adjusting to a much more competitive English game was slow at first. Now Cîrjan is back in control, scoring and assisting three times in 15 appearances in the U18 Premier League. The playmaking Hungarian will look to be a staple in the North London club’s plans and will have opportunities as there is some uncertainty in the midfield going forward.
8. Reinier Jesus
The other, other Jesus, Reinier is a bit more well known thanks to his recent move to Real Madrid, but the palindromed striker is more than just a Flamengo flash in the pan. The 18-year-old Brazilian is a goal-focused maniac, scoring in the blink of an eye and making passes generally reserved for players well beyond his years. Reinier is an attacking midfielder and he has an opportunity to command one of the best sides in the world. His development has been astronomical as he scored six goals and assisted twice on the stacked Copa Libertadores winning Flamengo. Real will have some tough decisions to make if all their prospects pan out the way they’re intended to.
7. Mohamed Ihattaren
Mohamed Ihattaren is a Dutch attacking midfielder likened a bit to Reinier. Ihattaren currently plays for PSV Eindhoven, and though he is likely to leave soon, he’s one of the best young stars in the Eredivisie. The 18-year-old lefty is sensational on the ball, often kicking into another gear whenever a defender attempts to make a tackle and zipping by. He can score and does so with some regularity, but his real value comes in creating space and chances for his opponents. In 22 league appearances for PSV this season, Ihattaren has netted three goals and six assists. In 10 U19 matches for the Netherlands, he’s scored twice.
6. Bukayo Saka
Another Arsenal product makes this list thanks to a dip in quality in recent years; this time the man is Bukayo Saka, a left side specialist who has taken a keen liking to left back. Saka has risen through Arsenal’s ranks and graduated into the first team as a staple while Kieran Tierny rehabs his injuries. Saka is a menace on the flanks and uses his attacking background to fly up the sidelines and whip crosses into the box. In all competitions Saka has scored three times and assisted nine times, most of those coming with the full first team. Saka is 18 years old and has 10 appearances with the England U18 side, netting four goals in those games.
5. Gabriel Brazão
Gabriel Brazão is the only keeper on this list and there’s a good reason why he’s here. He saves everything. There isn’t a clear line to wear the Brazilian gloves seeing as Alisson is one of the best keepers in the world and Ederson is a world class number two, but Brazão has been promoted to the senior squad but has yet to make his debut. The 19-year-old has gone from Cruzeiro in Brazil to Parma to Inter to loan on Albacete and will come back to Inter at the end of this season, but all that movement is clearly trending positively for the keeper. If a team were to make him a regular starter between the pipes there would be very little issue with that decision.
4. Eric García
García is another player who might have garnered some attention seeing as he’s made some appearances for an injury-riddled Manchester City defense, but he’s still young and relatively unknown. The Spaniard is a very solid tackler and infrequently makes mistakes. He’s methodical and calculated with most of his decisions resulting in the right play. Even if it’s not the right play, it’s a safe option. He’s likened to Gerard Pique and while I’m not positive he has that superstar potential, he certainly plays a lot like his hometown hero. With Manchester City short on defenders, 19-year-old García is likely to get plenty of reps in the future at center back.
3. Pablo Moreno
Yet another La Masia student, Pable Moreno moved on from Barcelona to Juventus’s U19 team. Moreno, a striker, has found it difficult as he hasn’t been scoring much since the move, but Juventus firmly believed in his potential. The 18-year-old Granada product has decent speed and a good set of skills, he just needs to fit in. I really don’t have an answer as to why he isn’t flourishing for Juventus yet, but the Spanish also believe in him as he’s played three matches for the U18 team sinceSeptember of 2019 and netted a goal for them. There’s so much skill here, it just needs to be unlocked.
2. Ansu Fati
Of the players on this list, Ansu Fati is probably the most hyped of all of them. The Barcelona first teamer made a name for himself early in the season when he was just 16, scoring to keep his team afloat in La Liga. Fati has been a regular for the Catalans and plays in most competitions despite being so young. He’s proven himself to be a very dependable left winger who makes few mistakes and often contributes to the goal scoring in one way or another. For such a young player to step in at Barcelona and take control of his future is impressive and suggests that he’ll be playing at Camp Nou for years to come.
1. Kang-in Lee
Lee, a 19-year-old from South Korea, currently plays the attacking midfield position for Valencia and really thrives in the environment. He hasn’t played a tremendous amount of football for the first team this season, but he has scored a goal and amassed a decent amount of substitute appearances When Lee is playing his best football he’s seeing the entire field, picking out nearly invisible passing lanes, and firing shots from his atomic left foot. He takes free kicks and corner kicks, not because he’s deadly accurate, but because he reads plays and sees the openings that his teammates improvise. Lee may not be the staple of a giant club in the future, but he’s going to be the engine of some very good teams going forward.