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: Cengiz Under
Style: Don’t let the cheeky face fool you into thinking Cengiz Under is a soft spot, this baby-faced assassin is one of the most thrilling talents to emerge from Italy. The 21-year-old broke through at Roma in the 2017/18 season and is now firmly established in the side, solving their issues on the right wing. Quick, direct and technical, the Turkish pocket rocket can play on either wing but his right foot is virtually non existent, so cutting in from the right allows him to unleash mallet left-foot strikes like his winner against Verona last season. Under is an incredibly hard worker with bags of enthusiasm and he’s become a lethal outball option on the counter because he’s not afraid to send in early accurate crosses or shots. In one v ones, he cuts inside sharper than drivers cheating traffic and even though defenders know his strength is that side, he’s so agile it’s difficult to anticipate him. That same strength can be a weakness, though, because invariably Under is a little predictable at times and he does need to add more weapons to his armoury.
Forecast for 2019: There’s talk Bayern Munich are interested in signing Under with a €60million fee mentioned in some reports but it’s perhaps a little early for the Turkey international to make that jump. Arjen Robben is the obvious example for Under to follow because he’s made that cut-and-shoot an art form but another season with Roma is absolutely vital for his development. He’s a regular for Eusebio Di Francesco and being exposed to Champions League football alongside the fiercely competitive football in Serie A is the best way for him to expand that potential.
By Alex Rea
Name: Ismaila Sarr
Club: Stade Rennais
Style: When you think of African teams, you’re immediately drawn to ideas of vivid and vibrant football. But at the 2018 World Cup, Senegal’s pragmatic approach meant we were handed a picture decidedly dull. Within that disappointing structure, though, was a player who represented their true values as Ismaila Sarr painted Russian pitches with performances of alluring skill. Now a regular feature for Stade Rennais, Sarr is lighting up Ligue 1 after his charming displays at the World Cup. A versatile skillset has meant the 20-year-old has been deployed across the front three, but the right wing is where he is most dangerous. Unpredictability – both for good and bad – is what best describes Sarr because his footwork is so slick and creative, even if his end product can be a little wayward sometimes. Yet watching Sarr, you see a player who enjoys the most elegant side of the game, his stylish take-ons a joy for both himself and the fans. Unsurprisingly, he’s been the most fouled player in Ligue 1 this season – a remarkable feat considering Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are in the same league – and that gives you the best evidence of the type player he is.
Forecast for 2019: Sarr has already scored a contender for the Europa League’s best goal this season and his winner against Jablonec served up a platter of what he has to offer. This time operating from the left, he drove infield then after a sharp return ball uncorked a swerving volley which seemed to fight the air as it burst through to the top corner. It’s not the first time he’s produced devastating strikes like that one, last season was dotted with stunners, but his technical finishing is more of a bonus given his primary ability to stretch defences through his bold and brilliant dribbling. It’s for that reason, Sarr will continue to excite and no doubt entice some of Europe’s elite sides.
By Alex Rea
Name: Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Club: Crystal Palace
Style: At Palace there are two crown jewels. One is obvious, Wilfried Zaha, of course, the other is their right-back Wan-Bissaka. Now, Zaha is Palace’s diamond, his blistering speed and dancing feet marking him out as their only genuine threat in attack. But while the 25-year-old has become more polished and refined on his return to the club, Wan-Bissaka’s emergence as a real gem has come through the immense pressure he’s already been exposed to. An injury crisis at the end of February saw the 20-year-old make his competitive debut against Tottenham. Manchester United and Chelsea then followed but instead of crumbling under the stress of those three immensely tough tests, the Londoner thrived in duels with Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. A striker at youth level, he’s carried those attacking tendencies with him despite switching to full-back and now has a defensive discipline to match that ability going forward. His anticipation is mightily impressive, just like his awareness of knowing when to go and when to stay back, although his long-spindled legs help immensely in that regard. Now the first-choice right-back at Palace, Wan-Bissaka has the chance to make the type of huge strides we’ve come to see galloping in the wide areas.
Forecast for 2019: The next step for the defender is England. The Palace academy graduate is already firmly established at club level and having earned a call-up to England U21 side in September, a promotion to the senior set-up is not too far away. It would be fitting to see him challenge Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold so soon given his career so far has been one of a rapid rise, and it’s not totally out of the question. He signed a new four-year deal with Palace in the summer so don’t expect him to depart his local club just yet, but an England cap should certainly be on his radar.
By Alex Rea
Name: Tom Davies
Position: Centre midfielder
Style: Davies is not your average young footballer. In fact, he’s just not your average bloke full stop. There is no dividing line between Davies the fan and Davies the Everton star and that has filtered into his personality away from football. Indeed, Davies is a young man with an appetite to move away from your typical football stereotype. His messy blond locks and throwback dress sense outwardly points to a real character while his desire to learn a musical instrument and a second language fortifies that fact. He is an antidote to the cavalier type we are so used to seeing and the same notion can be said of his playing style on the pitch. Paired with Idrissa Gueye in Everton’s midfield, we are beginning to see the very best of Davies under Marco Silva. He’s flourishing in a box-to-box role, able to showcase his defensive prowess as he snaps at opposition midfielders while also distributing the ball into forward areas with purpose and precision. He’s added a rich quality to Everton’s midfield and it’s important to point out his dribbling ability over shorter distances as well. It’s this quality which has become a big feature for Everton as he’s able to create openings by attracting players toward him before releasing an accurate pass. Longer deliveries are not really his thing and he must add that to his game, as well, as win more duels but this a player with the potential to be a future leader for Everton.
Forecast for 2019: As mentioned before, Davies is captain material and he is actually already the youngest starting skipper in Everton’s history having stepped in for Phil Jagielka. He’s easily ousted Morgan Schneiderlin in Silva’s midfield and added real spark there as well. Now the target is to be consistent. Becoming a homegrown star is what everyone linked to Everton wants from Davies but he must prove he can produce the goods regularly in order to fulfill that potential.
By Alex Rea
Name: Christopher Nkunku
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Position: Centre midfielder
Style: It’s ironic Nkunku is afraid of heights and yet is a talent with a very high ceiling. His slight frame perhaps explains his unease, yet also forms part of the reason why there are such lofty expectations for the Parisian. Indeed, Nkunku is the nucleus of PSG’s emerging youthful core and although he is still in the embryonic stage of his career, the 20-year-old has already shown he’s a sharp and cute midfielder. Game time was at a premium last season until Neymar’s ankle injury opened up a spot on PSG’s left wing and although he’s actually a middle-man by trade, the Frenchman was stirring. He scored four times in the league, a reasonable return considering 16 of his 20 appearances arrived from the bench, but in that time his passing was neat and controlled, his feet clever and cutting. Confident without stepping into the realms of arrogance, he’s desperate to get on the ball and dictate play. Although he filled the boots of Neymar admirably, it’s actually the shirt of Marco Verratti he reveres most. The two are similar in stature and one of the Italian’s finer features is the way he intelligently uses his lightweight frame to also be in the right position. That’s something Nkunku has to develop but there are few better players than Verratti for him to be going through this education process alongside.
Forecast for 2019: Despite the managerial change and a strong showing in pre-season, Nkunku splits his time on the bench because of the wealth talent at Thomas Tuchel’s disposal. That’s not to say he’s not rated, quite the opposite, but he’s clearly too talented not to be getting more game time. The problem is that the young midfielder isn’t quite ready to nudge the likes of Verratti out of the team on a consistent basis and so there is every chance he’ll push for a loan move come January.
By Alex Rea
Name: Allan Saint-Maximin
Style: Style? The Frenchman has bags of it. For the unaware, Allan Saint-Maximin has maybe the freshest dance moves in football and he matches that with fancy footwork on the pitch. He’s been accused of over complicating play and slowing games down in order to pull out a shuffle or jive and it’s why his career at Monaco was never really going to take off. But after jumping along the Riviera to sign for Nice in a €10 million deal, the France Under-21 star is now making the sort of noise to match the moves. Inevitably, dribbling is his signature and he splashes that skill from the left or right wing, although, he has switched to a more central role this season. Only Neymar and Eden Hazard attempted more take-ons last term and the key for Saint-Maximin is knowing when to bust out the moves, rather than it being his preset whenever he’s in possession. Ultimately, he is difficult to tame, only both for defenders and coaches. The attacker can frustrate when he twists and turns into blind alleys but when he does find space, he’s lethal. The reason he’s so direct is because of his fast feet, but it’s more in the dexterity rather than raw pace across the ground. He does need to trust and find his teammates more to increase his assists column and the same can be said of finding the net as well. But Saint-Maximin is a real entertainer despite the areas of rawness.
Forecast for 2019: Boost the numbers. For a fast player he’s been a bit of a slow burner considering the talent he possesses but the young Frenchman can really announce himself over the next 12 months or so. He’s only goal shy of last season’s tally in the league already and hitting double figures for assists would be a cracking return as well. Operating in a front two, he should have more opportunities to get on the scoresheet and Saint-Maximin is at a club which trusts his talent and will help him flourish with the prospect of a big move never likely to be out of the question.
By Alex Rea
Name: Mikel Oyarzabal
Club: Real Sociedad
Style: Oyarzabal is an unassuming winger in comparison to some of the other profiles you’ll come across. He’s not overly quick or flashy, but the Sociedad star is technically tight and he’s quick of thought than he is of feet. Indeed, the young Spaniard is a far cry from your conventional wideman and he’s a little bit of a throwback in some aspects of his game. Take his propensity for crossing. It’s arguably one of the strongest areas of his game because he creates chances with a wicked delivery off his left foot. Whether it’s a flat, dipping or driven cross, his variety and ability to get the ball out of his feet and distribute is what has made him such a threat of La Real. Entwined with that gift, is an excellent understanding of the game, not in the sense of reading rhythm but rather in how to open up space. He’ll use quick one-twos in the channels or the box to pull players out of position and then is mature enough to know when the shot or cross is on. Oyarzabal excels when it comes to scoring as well. The 21-year-old scored 12 times in La Liga last season and if you take a look at his highlights reel, you’ll see deadly accurate strikes and first-time finishes from all angles and ranges. Granted, he’s not a physical specimen and not quick either, but he’s durable and when you add to what he already offers, that more than makes up for his shortcomings.
Forecast for 2019: Oyarzabal was the youngest player in Sociedad’s history win an international cap when he made his Spain debut at just 19 back in 2016. He’s not added to that since, though. Having become an integral member of the Basque side, the target is surely to expand his international experience. The problem for him is that Spain don’t really employ out-and-out wingers so it’s difficult to see how he fits into the set up right now. But all he can do is continue to build on the form of 2017/18. He looks like doing so having scored two pivotal penalties earlier in the season against Sociedad’s rivals Athletic Bilbao, a club who made eyes for the promising young forward in the summer.
By Alex Rea
Name: Benjamin Henrichs
Style: German football has a lot to thank Henrichs’ parents for. A flood of tears followed his first experiences of the game as a three-year-old. These would swiftly dry up as a natural propensity emerged that has seen prolific backers of youngsters, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco, hone his talents. All-rounder Henrichs excelled as an attacking midfielder at youth level, was given his Bundesliga debut aged 18 by the former and bought last summer for €20 million by the latter as a full-back of true promise. An assured senior debut for Leverkusen in front of 80,000 fans at Borussia Dortmund showcased his unnerving composure, while he’s shown no discord when asked to play on either flank. A regular end product is still to come from the Germany international, plus his starts in a porous Monaco backline have largely come at left-back thanks to the presence on the other flank of France’s Djibril Sidibe. But with a smart defensive brain and desire to get on the front foot, he can only improve.
Forecast for 2019: Life hasn’t been easy in France, with Monaco going into a meltdown under Leonardo Jardim. The – once-inspirational – Portuguese head coach is now gone and a fresh start under Thierry Henry should aid Henrichs’ assimilation. A regular spot with Die Mannschaft is the next target.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Donny van de Beek
Position: Centre midfield
Style: The Netherlands international is a hive of activity in the middle of park, racing to win back possession – with laudable precision – before either swiftly laying the ball off with concise passes or embarking on a dribble. This economy to his game garnered the attentions last summer of Roma’s director of football, Monchi – a talent spotter of rare refinement. Ajax head coach Erik ten Hag, however, has not always been a consistent believer in the player’s talent – a situation that recently sparked a row with agent Guido Albers that descended into jibes about “dairy cows”. Van de Beek was in a strange position at the start of 2018/19 where starts for the Netherlands were easier to come across than with Amsterdam giants where he remained in the shadows of fellow ‘wonderkinds’ Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong. Expanding his vision this term and becoming a more regular goal threat will add to his allure. For both Ajax and his suitors.
Forecast for 2019: Ajax’s fabled production line appears to have produced another gem in Van de Beek. Whether Ten Hag truly shares this view is up for debate. With Lasse Schone and De Jong locks in midfield, fierce competition for places exist. Such are the economies involved in modern football, however, that another impressive season at club and international level will generate summer bids that the Amsterdam side cannot afford to turn down.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Timothy Fosu-Mensah
Club: Manchester United (on loan at Fulham)
Style: Fosu-Mensah has long beaten contemporaries Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek to a big move away from Ajax – whether this causes any regrets would be interesting to hear. Where the aforementioned trio have become regular picks for club and country, there is a feeling that the Manchester United-owned youngster is still finding his way. An exemplar of this is the fact that he is yet to feature in the Champions League, while Van de Beek and De Ligt were part of a team that has already drawn 1-1 at Bayern Munich in this term’s competition. Another aspect of this problem stems from the fact that versatility is both Fosu-Mensah’s great asset, and a potential downfall. The tall Netherlands Under-21 regular is considered – despite suspect passing – a future defensive midfielder, provided a physical presence at centre-back under Louis van Gaal for United and has excelled at right-back when on loan at Crystal Palace and Fulham.
Forecast for 2019: The Ajax youth product – injury aside – seems destined to rack up plenty more Premier League matches this term. How this aides long-term ambitions to make it at United is difficult to see. Current manager Jose Mourinho has shown little inclination to play him at centre-back or centre midfield, while the expensive signing of Porto teenager Diogo Dalot at right-back points to that position also being closed off.
By Matt Monaghan
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