We continue our top 100 players 21 and under with the Elite category. These players are grouped by talents who are quality assets shining at club level for some of the biggest sides in Europe and on the international stage.
Name: Trent Alexander-Arnold
Style: Liverpool have quite the blood line when it comes to locally sourced talent thriving in front of the Kop. Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Steve McManaman are just some of the hallowed names to have shaped the Scouse heartbeat in recent years, and although the supply was temporarily cut off, Alexander-Arnold has ensured the Merseyside soul remains alive. Indeed, it brings great joy to the home faithful that the young right-back has rapidly matured into one of the finest English talents around. Despite spending much of his youth career in centre-midfield, it is a right-back the 20-year-old has excelled under Jurgen Klopp. The academy graduate actually fits the profile for a modern-day full-back more than he does a midfielder, although Klopp did use him there towards the end of their 2017/18 campaign. He is, though, extremely important to Liverpool, not just because of his birthplace, as his attacking mindset helps to pin opposition full-backs in their own half. His exceptional endurance allows him to bomb up and down the right wing with ease while his delivery in attacking areas is consistency threatening. Whether on the under or overlap, he’s a consistent option and a persistent danger when on the ball thanks to his sweet close control and passing range. Typically, improvements to be made are in the defensive side of the game because he can slack off in that regard. However, as he showed against Manchester City in the Champions League last season, he’s more than capable of standing up to the challenge when targeted.
Forecast for 2019: Alexander-Arnold has more than established himself as the first-choice right-back for Klopp and he’s also locking down that position for England as well. In our elite category, the next step is to elevate his talent into world class status and he can do that by helping Liverpool carry a title challenge to Manchester City in the Premier League. The boy has become a man very quickly and the next step in that development is to become a household name. For Liverpool fans, though, just having one of their own in the side makes his success story oh so much sweeter.
By Alex Rea
Name: Ruben Neves
Style: Even though big things were expected of Ruben Neves when he made what some saw as a surprising switch to Wolves in the summer of 2017, his rise since arriving in England has been remarkable. The 21-year-old has adapted to life in England incredibly well thanks to his outstanding reading of the game from a defensive midfield position, impressive range of passing and a remarkable accuracy with long-range efforts. Neves loves to control the play, whether it’s winning back possession in key areas of the pitch and offloading to his faster team-mates, or switching the play with either foot. The Portugal international plays the role of deep-lying playmaker perfectly. The midfielder’s exquisite close control means he rarely needs time to take an extra touch, and thanks to a great understanding of the game, he often looks as though he’s one step ahead of those around him.
Forecast for 2019: Having made such a huge impression since arriving at Wolves, there is undoubtedly going to be big interest from some of the Premier League’s top clubs if Neves’ form continues. Wolves will hope he can help them stay in the top flight, improving their chances of keeping hold of him for another season or two. Having missed out on a spot in Portugal’s World Cup squad, he’s now starting to make a real impact on the international front too, with his qualities now realised in full by Fernando Santos.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Ruben Dias
Style: Benfica look to have another supremely talented youngster progressing through their ranks. Defender Ruben Dias has excelled since breaking into the first-team in 2017, quickly catching the eye of Portugal boss Fernando Santos. While Dias may lack a natural pace, he more than makes up for it with his intelligence, positioning himself smartly to make up the ground in a race against a quick striker. Dias’ composure and calmness in possession are also a standout of his game, and while he often looks to keep things simple by playing passes into his midfielders, the 20-year-old is equally as adept at stepping out from the back and building play himself. His commanding presence is a positive both at the back and in the opposition penalty area, with the defender netting four times during his debut campaign with Benfica.
Forecast for 2019: Despite renewing his contract in the summer, after heavy speculation had linked him with a move to Lyon, Dias may be the next in line to leave Benfica for a big-money move to one of Europe’s top clubs, with Arsenal among those interested. Dias will hope he can help Benfica regain the Primeira Liga title after missing out last year, while having already earned recognition at senior level for Portugal, the defender will want to cement his place in Santos’ plans.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Denis Zakaria
Club: Borussia Monchengladbach
Position: Defensive midfield
Style: Monchengladbach and Switzerland’s midfield is in safe hands, for the next decade. Zakaria – born in Geneva to parents from Sudan and DR Congo – is a colossus, merging supreme physical capabilities with a beautiful use of the ball. His first four Bundesliga matches since June 2017’s €10 million switch from Young Boys saw 100-per-cent pass accuracy registered. Such a skillset has seen Zakaria talk positively about comparisons to Paul Pogba and Patrick Vieira. Gladbach legend Lothar Matthaus, instead, likened him to Real Madrid metronome Toni Kroos. With 11 yellow cards registered in his debut top-flight campaign in Germany, however, discipline remains an issue. Age should bring added composure.
Forecast for 2019: The challenge now for Zakaria is to complete his rapid transformation from bright prospect into a dominant senior figure. He’s got everything in his locker to do this throughout 2018/19. If he does, expect him to follow in the footsteps of the man he’s ultimately replaced for Gladbach – Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Tanguy Ndombele
Position: Centre midfielder
Style: Ndombele is a ball of energy for Lyon – which will come as a shock to those who saw him as an adolescent. Guingamp grew exasperated by his nonchalance and released him at 17. A series of rejections elsewhere then followed, before Amiens offered a lifeline that he couldn’t turn down. Ndombele is now an electrifying midfielder who comes alive when he receives possession under pressure. Then, he can exhibit his extravagant dribbling skills to evade markers and progressive passing – two assists were recorded in September against Marseille – to swiftly get his team up the park. At under 6ft tall, he doesn’t win many battles through raw physicality and struggles under high balls. But his expansive skillset, and the impressive pace that he plays the sport at, make him a competitor to admire.
Forecast for 2019: It is no surprise that the Premier League’s big guns are circling the new France cap. Ndombele appears ready made for success in England. Especially if he continues at the same rapid pace of development witnessed since August 2017’s, initial loan, move from Amiens.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Frenkie de Jong
Position: Centre midfielder
Style: Stick De Jong at the heart of your team and all problems are solved. The hottest prospect at Ajax – an interesting state of affairs considering that he comes from a family of die-hard Feyenoord fans – possesses an angelic touch, laser-guided pass, eye-catching ability to dribble out of a tight spot and firmness in the tackle. One note of caution was September’s culpability as a makeshift centre-back – a position he has played in before – during the 3-0 hammering by Eredivisie champions PSV Eindhoven. The comparisons to Germany great Franz Beckenbauer received a terminal blow on that day. As a midfielder though, he’s got every major club in Europe salivating. The chase for his signature is set to be fiercely – and expensively – contested.
Forecast for 2019: Whether it is in Barcelona, Paris, London or Manchester, do not expect de Jong to be plying his trade in Amsterdam this time next year. Barca and Tottenham are reported to have already had sizeable offers rejected. Judged by the Netherlands international’s rapid rise, even bigger bids will be coming in.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Kai Havertz
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Position: Attacking midfielder
Style: When you are mentioned in the same breath as Michael Ballack and Mesut Ozil, something is going right. These are the comparisons drawn when discussing the teenage Germany playmaker. Havertz’s comfort at senior level is detailed by the fact he is Bayer’s youngest-ever Bundesliga debutant, youngest-ever goalscorer and the competition’s youngest player to reach 50 appearances. He is also the consummate all-rounder; being able to invent off both feet, win a sizeable chunk of aerial duels and cleanly win tackles. With experience, he can only get better. Not bad for a kid who dreamed of glory alongside his father and brother on the terraces of humble Alemannia Aachen.
Forecast for 2019: Leverkusen has proven to be an excellent incubator of talent for several decades. Havertz will continue to learn his trade, alongside the likes of Leon Bailly, this season. From this platform, he must aim to position himself for a key role with Germany by Euro 2020.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Federico Chiesa
Style: Easily one of the hottest prospects in Italian football, Federico Chiesa is renowned for his energy, relentless runs and effective dribbling. The Fiorentina man is known to take up great positions in attack, often roaming across the width of the pitch, making him unpredictable and difficult to pick up. The youngster’s weaving runs past defenders are a product of his ability to plot the right course and leave opponents off balance. His dribbling isn’t the most graceful but his stop-start, jinking style is certainly effective. However, a growing reputation has been tarnished by repeated simulation. Meanwhile, Chiesa still struggles with delivering an end product and only registered a pass completion of 78 per cent last season.
Forecast for 2019: Chiesa is a regular starter at Fiorentina and should work on honing his skills at the Serie A club rather than being lured away by one of the many clubs tracking his progress. On the international front, he still needs to establish himself under Roberto Mancini.
By Brendon Netto
Style: Richarlison is comfortable with either foot but his right side is his predominant one. As such, he normally operates from the left flank owing to his propensity to cut inside from wide areas. It’s from there that he also makes diagonal runs in behind the right-back and centre-back. His movement and uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time sees him ghost into the box and get on the end of several deliveries from the opposite flank. Standing at 5ft 10in, Richarlison isn’t the tallest but he has an excellent leap on him, making him an aerial target either from open play or set-pieces. The Brazilian is gifted with supreme technique and close control while his physicality has allowed him to flourish in the Premier League. The youngster also has an aptitude for identifying spaces and areas to exploit in the final third, an asset which has seen Marco Silva – his manager at former club Watford and now Everton – place plenty of trust in him. Richarlison is excellent in beating the first man but doesn’t normally go on dribbling runs through the defence. His tendency to try to though often lets down his team as he usually ends up losing possession in those scenarios.
Forecast for 2019: Having started his career with Everton like a house on fire, the challenge for him now is to carry that form into 2019. He fizzled out during the second half of the season with Watford last term and preventing a similar downturn in form would show great maturity. Part of that will be improving his decision-making in the final third. Richarlison has a tendency to go for goal and ignore better options. Having earned a first call-up to the Brazil national team, he scored a brace on his full debut. The aim will be to establish himself in the Selecao squad.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Patrick Cutrone
Club: AC Milan
Style: Patrick Cutrone does not boast raw pace, an especially powerful shot or incredible dribbling ability. Yet, he is one of the most sought after young strikers. What sets him apart is his intelligent position and movement. Cutrone works hard and is always buzzing about in the final third, scoping the area for pockets of space to exploit. He’s a nightmare for defenders as he often looks to turn and run off his man into space in behind but does have a tendency to get caught offside. Once he gets into goalscoring positions, he shows great composure and is equally proficient with both feet although his aerial threat needs improvement. Cutrone is always involved in link-up play as well, making quick short passes and clever lay-offs.
Forecast for 2019: The 20-year-old will strive to become more clinical in front of goal having established himself at Milan. With Italy going through a transition period, positions are up for grabs and he will want to nail down a starting berth up front.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Matteo Guendouzi
Style: In Matteo Guendouzi, Unai Emery signed the kind of player his predecessor would’ve passionately approved of. Young, French, an elegant passer and bundles of potential – Guendouzi is the archetypal Arsene Wenger recruit. The midfielder has been thrown into the deep end in his first season with Arsenal, beginning the campaign as a consistent starter. While early results went against the Gunners, their summer signing seemed to standout with his tidy passing and subtle defensive interventions proving particularly impressive. The 19-year-old operates as a deep-lying midfielder and frequently receives the ball from the goalkeeper or back-line to initiate the team’s build-up play. His distribution is top notch, ranking highest among his team-mates for pass accuracy this season, but he has a tendency to falter under pressure. Guendouzi has shown glimpses of his ability in attack as well, with a few effortless dribbles and gliding advances forward. However, his primary role is to recycle possession, look for forward runners and win back the ball as one of two holding midfielders in Emery’s system. He strives to receive the ball in space out wide as he has been guilty of being brushed off possession in tight areas through the middle. When afforded time on the ball though, he is capable of producing a killer pass.
Forecast for 2019: Having only made 18 appearances for Lorient in Ligue 2 before being roped in by Emery and thrust into the spotlight against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, Guendouzi has naturally exhibited a few key areas that needs improvement. The Frenchman will need bulk up to cope with the physicality of the Premier League and that should help him be more confident under pressure. He also needs to work on receiving the ball on the turn to manouevre away from opponents. He should be looking to establish himself in Arsenal’s midfield and hope for an international call-up at some point next year.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Rodrigo Bentancur
Position: Centre midfield
Style: The Uruguay team of this generation has built a reputation off gnashed its teeth – quite literally in a certain No9s case – but Bentancur represents somewhat of a departure from the norm. The long-limbed midfielder is all feline grace, prowling the park with his languid strides rather than chasing after the proverbial bone like the habit of so many of his countrymen. The 21-year-old’s long-range passes are a motif of his work on the ball, and comparisons to Sergio Busquets are not far off the mark. Bentancur is more of a free roamer, though, and his positional versatility means he is often asked to play on the flank or higher up the pitch. His production as yet perhaps doesn’t match those instincts. When Juventus stop asking him to do the odd jobs, expect him to settle as a No6 with a well-timed habit of streaking into the box.
Forecast for 2019: Juventus’ bench is arguably the strongest in Europe and this is no truer of a position than midfield. Emre Can’s layoff has opened a window of opportunity however and Bentancur has regularly taken his place in a three alongside Blaise Matuidi and Miralem Pjanic, or a two when Matuidi shifts out wide. Can will have to light up the training pitch upon his return. While the marketeers were frothing over the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford, Bentancur passed Manchester United into submission during the 1-0 victory. With his place in the Uruguay team encased in cement since the start of the World Cup, that the former Boca man is already so well-regarded by Juventus is a sign he’ll be on the highest plane of European football for years to come.
By Chris Bailey
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