We continue our top 100 players 21 and under with the Established category. These players are grouped by talents who are already integral members of their respective sides and are on the brink of becoming a recognised name in the game.
Name: Declan Rice
Club: West Ham United
Position: Defensive midfielder
Style: West Ham and England have plenty to thank irked Ireland for. Rice was – largely – a centre-back of middling prospect before Republic manager Martin O’Neill pushed him up into an anchorman role for June’s friendly against United States, with man-of-the-match honours following in a 2-1 victory. New Hammers boss Manuel Pellegrini must have been paying attention, as this is the position he’s fulfilled throughout 2018/19 – and to such success that the Three Lions are rumoured to have won a tug of war about his international future. The London-born player of Irish heritage exudes an authority beyond his years, comfortable dictating play and never shirking a tackle. Rawness from his recent time at centre-back, however, is shown by a passing game that can unravel under pressure. Regardless, the teenager appears to have likely pressed ahead of veteran Mark Noble and injury prone Jack Wiklshere in the Hammers’ pecking order.
Forecast for 2019: It’s not just at international level where Rice’s future is uncertain. Negotiations to extend a contract which expires next summer have been fraught, meaning West Ham face the very-real prospect of losing their finest academy product this decade for nothing. This means 2019 is all about Rice proving his value. Both to prospective future employers – that include Chelsea, who released him as a child – and to his current employers, who must be convinced to stump up the wages demanded.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Diogo Jota
Club: Wolverhampton Wanderers
Style: Jota is the archetypal product of the Portuguese system. Sharp in possession, technically gifted and, most importantly, drafted into the GestiFute network of ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes. This influence has seen him travel through Atletico Madrid, Porto and now the enclave of his countrymen at Wolves by his early 20s. Jota isn’t blessed with searing pace, or even mesmerising dribbling abilities. But an awareness of space and ability to cut inside onto his favoured right foot led to a prolific 2017/18 as Wolves gained promotion. Jota was expected to carry on where he left off. The increased physicality of the Premier League, however, has not been to his liking.
Forecast for 2019: When you watch a Wolves game, you can see him struggling to pick up the pockets of space from which he wrought destruction last term. Jota is currently being left behind – especially in relation to great friend Ruben Neves’ outstanding early-season form. With Wolves sure to invest substantially in the January transfer market, a big improvement is required to kick-start his development.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Lucas Tousart
Position: Defensive midfield
Style: From the outside, it looks an air of assuredness is a permanent feature of Tousart’s game. The reality, however, is different. Tousart has gone on to admit that serious doubts crept in during 2015 when he went from playing for Valenciennes in Ligue 2 to the fourth division with his new employer’s reserves. A solid frame, expert reading of the game and cute use of the ball meant his formative time with the stiffs was never going to be permanent. This is the perfect player to set the platform for exuberant colleague Tanguy Ndombele. Although a recent red card in the 5-0 routing at Paris Saint-Germain showed there is still much to learn, Lyon will be thrilled with the fact that earlier in October they tied Tousart, an the Inter Milan target, down until 2023.
Forecast for 2019: The only way is up for the exceptional Tousart. He knows chances will continue to come his way at Lyon – who will nurture him expertly until the time is right for player and club to cash-in. Tousart’s yet to fully recapture the exceptional form of 2017/18. But if he does, a France bow could happen in the coming months.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Nikola Milenkovic
Style: It doesn’t get much better as an emerging Serbia centre-back than being hailed as “a new Vidic”. These were the words spoken by international head coach Mladen Krstajic after Milenkovic’s solid displays in the build-up to World Cup. At the tournament itself, 34 tackles in the group stages followed – figures to make ex-Manchester United warrior Nemanja proud. Milenkovic’s towering frame means he will always dominate aerial battles, with an added bonus being provided by his possession of enough pace to regularly be deployed at right-back by Fiorentina. This positioning, however, isn’t a natural fit and swift wingers continue to draw an unnecessary volume of fouls from him. Intriguingly, the parallels with Vidic’s stellar career might be about to continue. Current United boss Jose Mourinho was in the stands during October to catch Serbia’s victory against Montenegro.
Forecast for 2019: Fiorentina have made a solid start to 2018/19 and this should provide the platform for Milenkovic to keep developing. With giants such as Manchester United and Barcelona on the lookout for young defenders to groom, a huge summer 2019 transfer would not be a surprise. On current form, he’d deserve it.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Alex Meret
Style: Alex Meret ranks high among the young shot-stoppers in the modern game. His outstanding reflex saves put him on the map when he impressed on loan to SPAL from Udinese in the last couple of years. Some eye-catching saves coupled with quick reactions and good decision-making drew interest from Juventus last season who considered him as a potential replacement for Gianluigi Buffon. However, Napoli swooped in and acquired his services in the summer for €35 million. Meret towers at 6ft 3” which aids him in commanding his box despite his slender frame. He excels at claiming crosses, reading the trajectory of deliveries early while the ball rarely escapes his grasp. The 21-year-old’s agility sees him produces smart saves against low shots. One area that needs improvement though is his distribution as he isn’t known for releasing the ball quickly or with precision to set up attacks.
Forecast for 2019: After signing for Napoli in the summer, Meret suffered a huge blow when he broke his arm during training. Establishing himself as their first choice keeper will be his primary target while a first cap for Italy is surely on the horizon as well.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Franck Kessie
Club: AC Milan
Style: AC Milan have been short of stellar central midfielders since the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seerdorf moved on but in Franck Kessie they may have landed a real gem. The Ivorian had a superb 2016/17 campaign with Atalanta which prompted the Rossoneri to swoop in for the all-action midfielder. An impressive work-rate ranks high on his list of attributes and allows him to shuttle from box to box effectively. Kessie is blessed with a formidable physique and makes full use of his strength whether he’s shielding the ball from opponents or brushing them off it. He has an eye for a pass and is threat from range as well but from an attacking perspective, it’s his powerful runs with the ball that’s most impressive, attracting opponents towards him and thereby creating space into which he can release a team-mate. The 21-year-old needs to work on gaining more control on a game though as he can switch off at times while his tackling needs to be a lot cleaner as well. Milan fans took to him instantly for his supreme talent and general demeanour. His military salute goal celebration pays tribute to his late father and is one of the things that’s endeared him to the Rossoneri faithful.
Forecast for 2019: Kessie has several clubs vying for his signature but at Milan, he is already an integral part of restoring the Italian outfit to its former glory and can grow into the finished article.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Lee Seung-woo
Club: Hellas Verona
Style: He may only be 20 but Lee Seung-woo’s story is one of a prodigious talent working to get back on track. Barcelona added him to their youth ranks as a 12-year-old and it was hardly surprising when he was inevitably dubbed “The Korean Messi” – a tag he has since lost along with his way. There are similarities to the Argentine though. For one, he proceeded to break some of Messi’s goalscoring records at Barca’s youth level. Operating as a winger, his diminutive frame is little more than a blur when he’s in full flight, slaloming his way past defenders with his innate dribbling ability. He went on to star at the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship, finishing as the tournament’s top scorer and MVP. However, the hype around him gave way to a poor attitude. His transition into the senior South Korea side was not smooth and Barcelona sold him to Hellas Verona last summer – but did include a buyback clause. Despite the Italian outfit’s relegation, Lee started to rediscover his form and ended up playing a big part in his country’s World Cup 2018 showing starred at the Asian Games, winning gold. His slight physique puts him at a disadvantage as he poses no aerial threat and can be brushed off the ball but Lee is learning to compensate for those shortcomings with his ability in possession, adding some defence-splitting passes to his repertoire.
Forecast for 2019: The first step for Lee is establishing himself in Verona’s starting XI. He has impressed on the international stage of late but consistency is key as there’s plenty of competition for places in the South Korean set up.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Achraf Hakimi (on loan at Borussia Dortmund)
Club: Real Madrid
Style: What’s immediately appealing about Achraf Hakimi as a young, inexperienced full-back is that he has no glaring weaknesses. He excels in certain areas but is at least competent in every other. The Moroccan showed great composure when he was handed his debut for Real Madrid last season in Dani Carvajal’s absence, proceeding to ably fill in for the Spaniard during his spell on the side lines. Hakimi enjoys getting forward and linking up with the attackers, regularly overlapping his winger and getting crosses in. In just seven Bundesliga appearances on loan at Borussia Dortmund, he’s already bagged a goal and three assists. However, he’s also eager to track back at pace, aided by his excellent work rate. He’s a solid defender who isn’t afraid of a crunching challenge.
Forecast for 2019: Following a breakthrough season at Madrid, Hakimi is only going to improve during his loan spell at Dortmund with more game time under his belt.
The exposure to a foreign league will hone his understanding of the game. Given that he is Morocco’s first-choice right-back though, he will want the same at club level and may consider challenging Carvajal for a starting role. However, the Spaniard is in his prime and has experience on his side so another loan move could be on the cards for Hakimi but given his development and consistency, he will be fielding some offers for permanent deals as well.
By Brendon Netto
Name: Jadon Sancho
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Style: Jadon Sancho is a tremendous athlete, gifted with a great turn of pace and superb acceleration. Capable of playing on either flank, he’s most dangerous when operating as an inverted winger, cutting in from the left side. The Englishman receives the ball well, often on the turn or letting it run across him so as to expedite his attacking intentions. He is also blessed with a good first touch, enabling him to take possession in tight areas. Sancho likes to release the ball quickly as well, usually with short lay-offs or flick-ons while darting beyond play immediately. Like many young, tricky players, he enjoys dribbling past defenders but has a tendency to overdo it. However, his vision offers the most promising sign that his talent is the real deal. It’s encouraging to see he isn’t entirely reliant on his pace and is capable of getting his head up before picking out a team-mate making a forward run.
Forecast for 2019: The sky’s the limit for Sancho. Having already impressed on his England debut, he’s more than capable of nailing down one of the wide roles in Gareth Southgate’s 4-3-3 system and feature prominently at the Nations League finals. He’s growing into one of Borussia Dortmund’s most prized assets but will be eager to make the transition from impact player to permanent fixture. Consistency is key but he’s shown great maturity so as long as he remains fit and focused, he should have no problems.
By Brendon Netto
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