Editor’s note: With the past four Ballon d’Or winners — Lionel Messi, Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo (twice) — all over the age of 30 at the time of their victory, and other would-be winners such as Antoine Griezmann, Neymar and Eden Hazard well on the way to veteran status, there has never been a better time for the next generation to take over. So step forward, Kylian Mbappe, Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold and others!
ESPN brings you the game’s next generation. Some of tomorrow’s stars have already made their mark on the big stage — you might remember what Mbappe did to help France win the World Cup two years ago — but all of them have one thing in common: They are the top talents aged 21 or under. So who makes the grade, what are their particular qualities and how can they get even better?
Compiling this year’s list 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 the list.
From an initial “long list” of 75 players, those remaining are the ones who satisfied my two main criteria: appearances at the highest level and confirmed performance level over a sustained period. Chelsea’s Reece James, for example, was a contender, but the 20-year-old has made only 12 Premier League starts.
Meanwhile, only the absolute top players born in 2002, such as Ansu Fati and Eduardo Camavinga, were considered, whereas exceptional 2003-born talents — Rayan Cherki and Jude Bellingham among them — were noted for future reference.
What types of research were undertaken?
I used a sounding board consisting of professional scouts and sporting directors from several top European clubs before compiling the final ranking, as well as online scouting platforms such as WyScout and InStat. Personal preference also played a significant 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 Dan-Axel Zagadou, Boubacar Kamara, Jules Kounde, Ozan Kabak and Ibrahima Konate.
– Players included must be age 21 or under on May 1. The top 10 have been ranked, with the rest listed in alphabetical order.
– With uncertainty about the coronavirus’ effect on the transfer market, valuations are based on the writer’s pre-COVID-19 estimations.
The top 10
Does Joao Felix deserve to be in the top ten?
Tor-Kristian Karlsen explains why Joao Felix is amongst the top ten players under 21.
10. Joao Felix (FW; Atletico Madrid / Portugal)
Estimated transfer value: €95m
In terms of culture changes, going from a free-flowing Benfica side to the tactical discipline instilled by Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid is about as stark as it gets in European football. So it is no surprise that Felix got off to a slow start after arriving in Spain last year, with four goals and one assist in La Liga. However, the talent that saw him cost €126m has not gone away, and he remains a top prospect.
Strengths: As a second striker, he erupts in creativity when on the ball, and when dropping deeper, he is an inventive playmaker. Although Cristiano Ronaldo comparisons are premature and imprecise, it would be a surprise if Felix did not establish himself as a leading performer at the top level. His refined touch excites fans, who also appreciate his fluid, intelligent movements, as well as his dangerous shot and finishing abilities.
How he can improve: Even though his undisputed talent is on show in patches during every game, as with many young talents the search for consistency is his main challenge.
– Kundert: Meet ‘new Ronaldo’ Joao Felix
9. Federico Valverde (MF; Real Madrid / Uruguay)
Estimated transfer value: €75m
Valverde arrived in Madrid at age 18 and played for the club’s B-team before going on loan to Deportivo for a season that ended in relegation. More disappointment followed when he missed Uruguay’s 2018 World Cup squad, but since then he has established himself for club and country. With Luka Modric in the twilight of his career and Toni Kroos very much a veteran himself, Valverde is set to run Madrid’s midfield for the foreseeable future.
Strengths: Not only does Valverde possess the technical ability and passing skills to seamlessly slot into one of the world’s best midfield units, but he also has the pace and agility to escape crowds and the determination to pose a goal threat. In addition, a tenacity and whatever-it-takes attitude — as shown by his sending off in the Spanish Supercopa final — gives his game an edge. Potentially one of the world’s top box-to-box midfielders.
How he can improve: Poor decision-making and youthful enthusiasm can tempt him to try audacious attacking runs with the ball, when a more experienced player would keep possession and build from the back.
– Marsden: Valverde decisive as Madrid hold off Atletico
How can Haaland still improve?
Tor-Kristian Karlsen explains why Erling Haaland still has room for improvement despite his fine form.
8. Erling Haaland (FW; Borussia Dortmund / Norway)
Estimated transfer value: €90m
This time last year, Haaland was known best as the son of former Premier League midfielder Alfie and had barely featured for Red Bull Salzburg. Many goals later — he scored nine in one game at the Under-20 World Cup — he is a star striker for Borussia Dortmund, who signed him in January after activating his €20m buyout clause, and is already being linked with the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United.
Strengths: Haaland plays the centre-forward role with intensity, chasing every ball and showing great speed over medium and long distances. He is very strong and possesses a powerful shot with his left foot. His finishing skills are impressive, too, and give him an end product in front of goal that belies his age.
How he can improve: At 6-foot-4 and over 190 pounds, Haaland should pose a greater aerial threat — in 11 games for Dortmund, he has not scored a header — while there is also room for improvement in his hold-up game. If he progresses in those areas and can deal with mounting expectation and non-scoring spells, he could become the most dominant centre-forward of the next decade.
– Karlsen: How Haaland became soccer’s most-wanted teenager
7. Gianluigi Donnarumma (GK; Milan / Italy)
Estimated transfer value: €60m
While outfield players might expect to get chances to play in their late teens, the specialized nature of their position means opportunities can be harder to come by for goalkeepers. As such, the fact that Donnarumma debuted for Milan at 16 and has since played more than 200 times for club and country, where he inherited icon Gigi Buffon’s position, shows just how good he is.
Strengths: Whereas the physical aspect has never been an issue for a goalkeeper who stands 6-foot-4, Donnarumma has also developed technically; quick to get down and make saves, his distribution is precise and, without being extravagant, he takes an extra touch, when under pressure in possession, to make the right pass. He has also stood out during a period for Milan that has featured on-pitch underachievement and off-field controversy.
How he can improve: His aggressive style works to his advantage most of the time, but he can be prone to overestimating his own reach when dealing with crosses.
– Miller: Donnarumma among the best homegrown stars
6. Matthijs de Ligt (DF; Juventus / Netherlands)
Estimated transfer value: €85m
After playing so well in Ajax’s impressive Champions League semifinal run last season, De Ligt had his pick of Europe’s top clubs and chose to join Juventus. Life in Italy has not been smooth sailing for the centre-back and his early games featured several errors, but he has started 17 of 26 Serie A matches and will benefit from the guidance of central defensive legends Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
Strengths: At his best, De Ligt displays presence and leadership qualities beyond his years. His distribution is excellent, and he is able to dominate both boxes; scoring the derby winner against Torino showed his prowess. He has worked to win doubters over after moving from Netherlands to Italy, and an assured display in the 2-0 win against Inter further showed his progress.
How he can improve: Perhaps too keen to impress at his new club, De Ligt has been uncharacteristically rash in tackles and committed himself too early. When he is composed, though, he is the same defender who made such an impression in the Champions League last season.
– Kuper: Why ambitious De Ligt chose Juventus
Does Kai Havertz need to leave Leverkusen to progress?
Tor-Kristian Karlsen explains what makes Kai Havertz so exciting and discusses where his future lies.
5. Kai Havertz (MF; Bayer Leverkusen / Germany)
Estimated transfer value: €95m
Among Havertz’s claims to fame is missing a Champions League game in 2017 because of a school exam, but he has done plenty before and since on the pitch — including becoming the youngest player to make 100 Bundesliga appearances — to show the talent that will surely see him move to one of Europe’s top clubs soon. He has 10 goals and eight assists in all competitions this season.
Strengths: An elegant attacking midfielder, capable of touches that wrong-foot opponents and creating space to play a penetrating pass, Havertz plays with an ease and confidence that almost borders on arrogance. Left-footed, but very comfortable with his right, he never seems hurried and has vision and ability to pick a pass, combined with the stamina to make well-timed runs into the box.
How he can improve: To fulfill his enormous potential, you could argue that Havertz needs to add aggression to his game, especially in terms of winning challenges and recovering balls in midfield.
– Schoenfeld: Everyone knows Havertz is destined for the top
Is Vinicius Jr. really the fourth best player under 21?
Tor-Kristian Karlsen explains why Vinicius Jr. has impressed him enough to secure a top 5 ranking.
4. Vinicius Junior (FW; Real Madrid / Brazil)
Estimated transfer value: €80m
Given he signed for one of the biggest clubs in the world as a 16-year-old and cost almost $50m in May 2017, Vinicius Junior has been known as a promising youngster for several years and made his Brazil debut in September. He has not yet reached double figures for league starts in a season, but scored the opening goal in El Clasico against Barcelona in early March.
Strengths: His change of pace, balance and rapid movements make him next to impossible to read and stop; many right-backs look silly when they allow too much space. Although Vinicius is not a regular in the Real Madrid starting lineup, his playing time has increased and his display against Barcelona proved he can handle the grandest of occasions. The fact that he is starting to understand that back-heels and trickery are often of little use is another sign of maturity.
How he can improve: Decision-making still remains an issue, as the opening goal against Barcelona showed. Whereas he should have cut the ball back for a better-placed teammate, he instead went for the near-post finish that — fortunately for him — was deflected in.
– Hunter: How Vinicius turned the title race in Madrid’s favour
3. Trent Alexander-Arnold (DF; Liverpool / England)
Estimated transfer value: €100m
Alexander-Arnold combines effective defending with an ability to set up goals that is unmatched by any other Premier League full-back. He has assisted on 24 goals in the Premier League since the start of 2018-19, and only Kevin De Bruyne has created more chances than his 75 this season, although Alexander-Arnold’s most famous assist was surely a quickly taken corner against Barcelona in last season’s Champions League.
Strengths: Alexander-Arnold is a gifted all-around footballer, to the extent that he could do an excellent job as a box-to-box midfielder. Not only does he have a good touch on the ball, he can also pass, strike set pieces, cross and shoot with a range and variety of techniques normally reserved for players further up the pitch; his precisely executed switch-of-play ball to Andy Robertson on the opposite flank is a fine example of what he can do.
How he can improve: While full-backs are often singled out for having lost the fine art of defending in one-on-one situations, Alexander-Arnold has made steady progress in this area over the past year.
– Reddy: Why Alexander-Arnold will not stop
2. Jadon Sancho (FW; Borussia Dortmund / England)
Estimated transfer value: €125m
Over the past 12 months, Sancho’s form and progress have been so impressive that he is being linked with a $125 million move away from Dortmund, with Manchester United the reported favourites for his signature. He has scored 26 times and assisted 29 other goals in the Bundesliga alone since the start of 2018-19, and the winger’s outstanding form has made him a regular in the England team.
Strengths: From mainly playing in bursts, Sancho has grown close to the finished article and capable of influencing throughout a game. Quick, technically proficient and able to score and create goals, he can play on either flank but is even more of a threat when he moves centrally. The ease with which he lays off passes to overlapping full-backs and dinks weighted through balls behind opposing defences make him a joy to watch. Sancho loves playing football, and it shows.
How he can improve: Previously criticised for a lack of tactical discipline, Sancho is becoming more diligent in his defensive work.
– Schoenfeld: Sancho will be a star, on his own terms
1. Kylian Mbappe (FW; Paris Saint-Germain / France)
Estimated transfer value: €175m
That last year’s No. 1 retains the top spot shows that Mbappe has been so good for so long at such a young age. In the two years since helping France win the World Cup at 19, he has scored more than 70 goals for club and country and arguably usurped Neymar as PSG’s main man. But with Real Madrid rumours ongoing, how much longer will he remain in Paris?
Strengths: Is there anything he cannot do? Every bit the complete forward — Mbappe tends to play wide on the right for France and in a more central role for PSG — he is exceptionally strong and quick. He can finish with power or with skill, he can head the ball, he is tactically disciplined and he reads the game better than most. His movements are smooth, smart and incisive.
How he can improve: There are no sides of his game worth trading, at the risk of ending up with a lesser player.