We continue our top 100 players 21 and under with the Potential category. These players are grouped by talents who are yet to fully lock down a position at club level, yet possess a high ceiling.
Name: Malang Sarr
Style: A hometown hero is emerging on France’s Cote d’Azur. From joining Nice’s academy aged six to becoming a goalscoring debutant aged 17, Sarr is living the dream.
Either deployed at centre-back or on the left, he exhibits an understanding of the game far beyond his years – rather than relying on raw physicality. No surprise when you consider his formative seasons were spent under head coach Lucien Favre. Not blessed with great height, which can be an issue against bigger strikers, he nips at the toes of attackers like a guard dog in order to intercept the ball. When he wins it back, a punishing accuracy in possession puts Nice straight onto the counter-attack.
Forecast for 2019: Sarr has dealt well with the disappointment of dropping out of the Nice XI in 2017/18, going on to make several Ligue 1 starts this term. Early results under new boss Patrick Vieira have been mixed, but the France legend previously saw top-line talents blossom in his post at Manchester City’s Elite Development Squad.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Diogo Leite
Style: Leite has taken the giant leap from youth-team football to the hallowed Porto first team this season – and the early results show a jewel in need of polishing. The 19-year-old is dominant in the air, as shown with a fine header in a 3-2 win at Belenenses, strong in possession and possesses an eye for an interception. This boyhood fan used to watch the Dragoes in the stand – now they hope to have a hybrid of Ricardo Carvalho and Jorge Costa on their hands. Links to Liverpool appeared in the summer around the same time that their great rivals Manchester United raided the Porto youth ranks for team-mate Diogo Dalot. But a raw side remains and rashness saw two yellow cards collected in his opening three Primeira Liga starts. A demotion from mid-September back to Porto’s reserves, however, should be temporary.
Forecast for 2019: Porto’s business model revolves around putting bright prospects in the shop window. Leite is no different. Already, overtures from the likes of Borussia Monchengladbach have been rejected. For good reason too, as he needs minutes in a familiar environment to develop. We won’t see the best of this defender for some time yet.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Diogo Dalot
Club: Manchester United
Style: Don’t let the step-overs and a tendency for flair fool you. Diogo Dalot is not your modern day cavalier full-back. In terms of his understanding of the game and his own positioning, he is among the most intelligent young defenders around. His forays forward are strong and with purpose but rarely will he leave his side exposed. Dalot is a well-rounded full-back, capable of playing on either flank and can deliver crosses with both feet. His imposing physique and pace makes him a formidable opponent at both ends of the pitch. While he creates several goal-scoring opportunities, his decision-making in the final third still needs work. In defence though, he shows a level of maturity beyond his years.
Forecast for 2019: Antonio Valencia has been a great workhorse for United at right-back but given his one-dimensional ventures forward and defensive lapses, Dalot would eventually be a big upgrade in that position. The Portuguese is still feeling his way into his new surroundings but is poised to take over from the club captain next season if not sooner.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Brahim Diaz
Club: Manchester City
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Style: Malaga made a 10-year-old Brahim Diaz a promise – he would play in La Liga by 16. His outstanding talent prompted them to give him such an assurance, although their hand may have been forced by the interest he was receiving from other clubs. Barcelona were frontrunners and Diaz had even been given a personal tour of the Camp Nou dressing rooms by Lionel Messi and, his current coach at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola. He turned down La Masia and signed for City at the age of 14 and has become one of the foremost young talents at the club alongside Phil Foden. During pre-season last year, he did his best Messi impression when he scored a sublime left-footed effort against Real Madrid. However, for most of his limited playing time at the Etihad, Diaz has featured as a striker but is more suited in a No10 role. His physique needs work but he’s already a renowned for his creative abilities, possession the kind of vision few players can boast of. Diaz’s low centre of gravity, superb balance and close control makes him a nightmare for defenders while his ability with both feet is a great asset.
Forecast for 2019: Given the star-studded squad at City, Diaz has struggled for playing time. Even if or when a position opens up, the 19-year-old faces stiff competition from Foden. If he can’t make his mark by the end of the 2018/19 campaign, he could be tempted to take the Jadon Sancho route and look for opportunities to play elsewhere. Several La Liga clubs would certainly snap him up.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Ainsely Maitland-Niles
Style: Ainsley Maitland-Niles is the second youngest Arsenal player – after Jack Wilshere – to feature in the Champions League having made his debut for the club at the age of 17 against Galatasaray. After a year on loan to Ipswich in the following campaign, he made 28 senior appearances for the Gunners during Arsene Wenger’s final season at the club. Maitland-Niles’ pace and strength held him in good stead as he made the most of his opportunities. A versatile player, Wenger predominantly used him as a full-back on either flank while he also had a handful of appearances in midfield. The 21-year-old has proved to be a good passer but it’s his driving runs gets spectators off their seats. From a defensive aspect, he’s show good positional awareness while his acceleration helps him make great recovery runs as well. His decision-making in the final third leaves a lot to be desired though while he can be a liability at the back when dealing with an aerial assault.
Forecast for 2019: Having fractured his fibula in Unai Emery’s first match in charge, he suffered a setback in his efforts to establish himself in Arsenal’s first team. However, that will remain his primary target over the next 12 months. With Gareth Southgate turning to youth in the England senior side as well, earning a first cap should be on his thoughts as well.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Enes Unal
Club: Villarreal (on loan at Real Valladolid)
Style: At the age of 16, Enes Unal came off Bursapor’s bench and scored three minutes into his Turkish league debut against Galatasaray, becoming the youngest ever scorer in the division. It’s no surprise he was immediately touted as the Turkey’s next superstar. Unal earned a move to Manchester City in 2015 and while he never broke into the first team, he went on a series of loan spells including a particularly impressive one at FC Twente. He scored 19 goals in 33 outings for the Dutch side and was snapped up by Villarreal, although not without City inserting a buyback clause. The striker is a handful for defenders as his first instinct on receiving possession is to turn and run at the backline. He’s also good at linking up with his team-mates, always alert to a potential flick into space or clever layoffs. His big frame facilitates his role as a lone striker as he has the strength to fend of opponents while his relentless running helps him work the channels. Unal possesses a fierce shot and is dominant in the air but his finishing can let him down at times. He also needs to work on his hold-up play as he tends to be too eager to attack, losing possession in the process.
Forecast for 2019: Currently on loan at Real Valladolid, the 21-year-old is getting the playing time he needs. He will be focused on continuing his good start to the season in an effort to earn his place in the first XI at parent club Villarreal. A good run with Valladolid may also get him back into contention for the national team.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Nicolo Zaniolo
Club: AS Roma
Style: With Radja Nainggolan’s cut-price fee in his transfer from Roma to Inter Milan grabbing headlines, Nicolo Zaniolo’s move in the opposite direction as part of the deal flew under the radar. Such is his talent though, Roberto Mancini called him up to the Italian national team even before he made his first Serie A appearance. The 19-year-old is a blossoming goalscoring midfielder and spent last season with Inter’s reserves with whom he notched up 14 goals and 11 assists in 35 appearances. The lanky midfielder is blessed with surprisingly quick feet. He has good vision and can pick out a pass in the final third. The Italian also has a knack for ghosting into the area and finishing off moves. Zaniolo is not quick but his strength, supreme technique, final pass and ability in the air make him a formidable opponent in the middle of the park and a serious threat inside the box.
Forecast for 2019: The youngster is only just getting his first taste of top flight football as Roma gradually implement him into the squad. Getting regular playing time will be his priority while the lack of young talent at Mancini’s disposal means an international debut is within reach as well.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Reiss Nelson
Club: Arsenal (on loan at Hoffenheim)
Style: If Reiss Nelson keeps his head down and continues to develop into a mature professional, Arsenal could have a special talent on their hands. The Englishman’s pace, trickery and dribbling are his chief assets and put him among the most devastating attacking talents around. At the moment, Nelson is an outstanding impact player, already proving as such early into his loan spell with Hoffenheim, but he has the potential to be so much more. The 18-year-old is still raw and has some way to go in terms of his tactical education but that will only come with minutes on the pitch. He likes to receive the ball into feet, particularly in wide areas, and then set off on weaving runs past defenders. Nelson is no headless chicken though. His runs attack defenders and while some are left in his wake, others get sucked in and create space that he is only too happy to exploit with passes or lay-offs for his team-mates. He is of slight built and poses no threat in the air but isn’t easily bullied off the ball either. For a young player, he possesses good decision-making in the final third but his execution isn’t always accurate as he’s often trying to shoot or make a pass while running at pace or quickly changing direction.
Forecast for 2019: Nelson will keep getting opportunities off the bench for Hoffenheim and at some point will look to get some starts under his belt. He’s still on a learning curve and Unai Emery was perhaps wise not to thrust him into the spotlight in the Premier League. Gaining experience is key for him at the moment. Ideally, he’ll return to the Emirates in the summer poised to stake a claim for a spot in the Gunners’ first team for the 2019/20 season.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Jacob Bruun Larsen
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Style: Even before they wowed spectators in Borussia Dortmund’s first team, many were already familiar with the prodigious talents of Christian Pulisic and Jadon Sancho. However, few were aware of another young winger who would turn heads at the start of this season and that’s largely because, at first glance, there’s not much to write home about. Jacob Bruun Larsen seems to have come out of nowhere and inserted himself into the first team setup. The Dane was suspected to be surplus to requirements in the summer after being loaned to Stuttgart in the previous campaign. Despite the likes of Pulisic, Sancho, Marco Reus, Marco Wolf and Maximillian Philip being ahead of him in the pecking order, impressive showings in pre-season where he scored against Liverpool and bagged a hat-trick against FC Zurich earned him opportunities this season which he has taken with both hands. Bruun Larsen does not have bags of pace or many tricks in his locker. He won’t weave his way past a host of defenders but he will catch them napping. His intelligent movement, decisive final ball and cool finishing has made people take notice. An understated talent, the Dane is a creative force, frequently providing key passes and is generally a well-rounded player for his age.
Forecast for 2019: Bruun Larsen is not a world beater and that’s why establishing himself in the first XI may be unrealistic in the near future. The competition for places is intense but he has proven to be a valuable squad member and must continue as such. He’s an intelligent footballer with strong physical attributes so he should also be aiming to be more versatile in order to get more game time – especially since 18-year-old Alexander Isak is the only recognised striker in the squad after Paco Alcacer.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Reece Oxford
Club: West Ham United
Style: Mesut Ozil is a world class player but he’s no stranger to the inside of a pocket. Reece Oxford is just one of many opponents to dominate the German on an off day but the significance is he did so on his Premier League debut, at 16. The Englishman has the tools to make it as a classy, modern centre-back. He is comfortable on the ball, can carry it out of defence and has a good turn of pace. Oxford can also read the game well, is alert to danger and makes several interceptions. All these attributes earned him comparisons with another West Ham prodigy in Rio Ferdinand. Such is his talent with the ball at his feet that he has constantly been switched between defence and midfield. His height and aerial dominance is an asset at the heart of the defence but his passing can have a greater influence from midfield.
Forecast for 2019: Oxford’s famous debut in a 2-0 win over Arsenal was three years ago. Following a new contract that season, the youngster has failed to push on. Loan spells at Reading and Borussia Monchengladbach have done little to increase his playing time. Currently featuring in West Ham’s reserve team, the 19-year-old is running out of time to prove himself, especially with Declan Rice impressing in the first team. His may be a case of too much too soon. Oxford, the second-youngest Premier League debutant, is in danger of following Jose Baxter (the youngest) down the path to obscurity.
By Brendon Netto
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