Where is the next generation of center-forwards going to come from?
You may notice it in the Champions League knockout rounds. Of the 16 teams left, how many have a proper, first-choice central striker under the age of 25?
I know definitions may vary, but bear with me. If you want to include Marcus Rashford and Kylian Mbappe, who are 21 and 20, respectively, and both played center-forward for their respective teams on Tuesday night, go ahead. But bear in mind that Mbappe is a freak of nature and generally plays wide for Paris Saint-Germain, while Rashford has also spent most of the past 18 months on the wing and it’s by no means certain that his future is at center-forward.
Still, you can imagine both playing up front for a top team five years from now, and that makes them a rarity.
The fact is that most of Europe’s top clubs either deploy center-forwards who are the wrong side of 30 — Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Aguero, Mario Mandzukic, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Karim Benzema, Edin Dzeko — or they’ll sometimes play guys up front who aren’t traditional center-forwards. We’ve seen Liverpool do it with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Atletico with Antoine Griezmann, Lyon with Memphis Depay, Borussia Dortmund with Marco Reus and Ajax on Wednesday night with Dusan Tadic.
In fact, apart from Mbappe and Rashford (who at least look the part) and Gabriel Jesus (who will have to contend with the Sergio Aguero roadblock for the next few seasons), the youngest Champions League center-forwards of any stature are actually in mid-career. There’s a trio of 25-year-olds.
Nobody is going to argue with Harry Kane, but the other two come with asterisks: Romelu Lukaku appears to have lost his starting job at Manchester United and Paco Alcacer comes with an asterisk given the minimal impact he had in two seasons at Barcelona and the fact that, despite his prolific scoring this season, he’s in and out of the starting XI at Dortmund.
You can debate whether Lukaku will regain his mojo or whether Alcacer will keep his, but the point is that if you’re looking for quality under 25, it’s slim pickings beyond Mbappe, Jesus and Rashford, all of whom already play for the very top clubs.