Top 100 players 21 and under: Established stars including Ajax striker Kasper Dolberg

Sport360 Writers 14:49 22/11/2018
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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: Nicolo Barella

Club: Cagliari

Age: 21

Position: Centre midfielder

Style: Football is an expression of culture for the Italians, no different to their cuisine and history. There is a discernible style to the Italian game, a mixture of tactical astuteness and technical brilliance, and few are more brilliant at exporting those qualities than midfielder Barella. Already the owner of three Italy caps, the Cagliari-born star carries plenty of hype but he’s justified that with his performances in Serie A since breaking through three years ago. For a player so young, Barella’s command of midfield is what shines most. He’s not particularly quick, but doesn’t need to be as his tenacity and hunger means he’s able to operate box-to-box with ease. When Cagliari don’t have possession, he doggedly hunts for the ball, and when they do, he bursts forward to connect with team-mates. It’s that desperation to always be at the centre of play which is to be applauded because for midfielders of his age, the responsibility of that role is usually reserved for more experienced heads. But he represents the new age of modern complete midfielders, a player with the intelligence to shield his defence with well-timed tackles but then carry the ball forward with real purpose. His mobility, passing range, pressing, positional sense, balance and desire are why some of Europe’s top clubs are monitoring Barella’s progress.

Forecast for 2019: Big fees are being bounded about for Barella and considering he only signed a contract extension through to 2022 earlier this year, it’s unlikely we’ll see the Italian depart his boyhood club anytime soon. That being said, exposure in Italy’s senior set-up, alligned with is consistently brilliant displays for Cagliari will mean the elite come calling at some stage. The allure of playing for more illustrious sides could be too hard to ignore but expect him to remain with his local club through the next year at least. 

By Alex Rea 

Barella

Name: Scott McTominay

Club: Manchester United

Age: 21

Position: Centre midfielder

Style: Jose Mourinho rarely praises a player as much as he has Scott McTominay, whose uncomplicated requests to his barber, and disdain for ‘big cars’ and ‘big watches’, makes him a winner in his manager’s eyes. Seemingly the less he is like Paul Pogba, the better. Pogba has his upsides, of course – chiefly that he’s very, very good at football when he wants to be – and McTominay has few of the frills to suggest he will ever be a truly special player. However, there is enough about the 21-year-old to have caused a mini-squabble between Scotland and England for his services. He possesses the ideal physique for a quintessential Premier League midfielder, allying that size and strength with a decent passing range and a tactically astute mind. With Nemanja Matic partnering him at Old Trafford, and Michael Carrick marshalling the training pitch, there are two perfect role models for McTominay to shoot for.

Forecast for 2019: It is hard to gauge his future due to Mourinho’s capriciousness. The Portuguese was so enamoured by the Scot that he invented an award for him at United’s awards ceremony last season. Conversely, after the comeback victory over Newcastle, he claimed McTominay looked ‘scared’ under the mounting pressure at Old Trafford. McTominay has not done enough to stake a claim for a regular berth but nor has his far more illustrious and well-paid team-mates. It’ll likely depend on whether the next manager favours diligence over daring.

By Chris Bailey

McTominay

Name: Fyodor Chalov

Club: CSKA Moscow

Age: 20

Position: Striker

Style: Fyodor Chalov was just as talented as his fingers as he was with his feet during his childhood, equally talented as both a flautist and a pianist. From classical music to a classical No9, his third senior season with CSKA Moscow started with a return of seven goals from nine domestic games, as well as an important goal against Plzen in the Champions League. Chalov, measuring at 5ft11in, is not physically overbearing but he is robust enough to fight through debris in the six-yard box, allied to an eye-catching burst that can disarm an offside trap. The 20-year-old is a confident dribbler, too, though is occasionally guilty of overplaying the ball and marooning himself on the flanks.
In his homeland he has been compared with Roman Pavlyuchenko while the most excitable evaluators see shades of Andriy Shevchenko. Shooting for somewhere in between is by no means fanciful.

Forecast for 2019: Chalov is now an irreplaceable part of CSKA’s line-up in much the same way as Alan Dzagoev, who will be relieved there is someone to share the attacking burden since Alexsandr Golovin’s departure to Monaco. Should he continue to impress in Europe there will be suitors, but it takes a lot for a Russian to leave his homeland. Of more importance to establish is his standing with the national team, as coach Stanislav Cherchesov does not seem sold on him just yet.

By Chris Bailey

ESTABLISHED new2

Name: Maxime Lopez

Club: Marseille

Age: 20

Position: Attacking midfielder

Style: The comparisons are irresistible. Maxime Lopez has come through the same club as Samir Nasri, the same position as Samir Nasri, similar Algerian roots – and he even resembles Samir Nasri. Lopez hums with the energy of a firework a millisecond before lift-off, twisting his feet in one direction and swiveling his head in another. All potentialities exist with the ball in his thrall. As such, discipline isn’t his calling card. Marseille coach Rudi Garcia has trialled him in a midfield three, a midfield two and in almost every position behind the striker. In almost every case he finds a way to lead the team in touches. There is always a chance Lopez will create something from nothing, and quite possibly nothing from something.

Forecast for 2019: After two seasons that saw him accrue 80 appearances, the arrival of Kevin Strootman as an anchor in midfield has curtailed Lopez’s involvement a touch. He names Xavi and Andres Iniesta as his idols, and Barcelona, as well as Real Madrid, are said to have been seduced by his intangibles. His beautiful flaws may well flourish on a bigger stage.

By Chris Bailey

ESTABLISHED18

Name: Kieran Tierney

Club: Celtic

Age: 21

Position: Left-back

Style: That Kieran Tierney is still situated in Scotland is a measure of how much he loves Celtic, a club for which he’d have ‘spat his teeth’ out for after a stray elbow during the 2016/17 Scottish Cup final saw him require emergency dental surgery. Even beyond the same full-blooded commitment to the cause, if Steven Gerrard had been a left-back, he’d have looked much like Tierney. There is a joy in watching how direct the 21-year-old is, knocking the ball past his man by an almost reckless and then often propelling both feet off the floor such is the velocity of the cross. His work going backwards is just as forceful if not quite as refined, with his pace or penchant for slide tackles lending his defending the air of last resort.

Forecast for 2019: It seems bitterly unfair from a Scottish point of view that Tierney and Andrew Robertson, their two best prospects for many a summer, are both left-backs. The rub of that turned raw against Israel in October as Tierney, shoehorned at left centre-back in a 3-5-2 formation, scored an own goal that was quite frankly not for the faint-hearted. Nevertheless he will continue to be Celtic’s prized asset and a Premier League move at some point is inevitable, though it will tear his heart to do so.

By Chris Bailey

ESTABLISHED17

Name: Kasper Dolberg

Club: Ajax

Age: 21

Position: Striker

Style: Kasper Dolberg is football’s equivalent of John Galt. Often as laconic a person off the pitch as he is on it, no one truly knows who or what he is. Sure, he had six wonderful months for Ajax at the start of 2017 but that form seized almost as swiftly as it started, and after once blowing hot the blond-locked boy from Denmark has almost thawed over. Dolberg truly merited comparisons with an early-day Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Ajax, driving from deep and confounding defenders with his dribbling and every manner of turns. His finishing ability covers the full spectrum – from ferocious shots to the deftest of touches, such as the top-spin dink he applied against Lyon in the Europa League. The 21-year-old has largely floundered ever since that run, though, hampered with an almost constant cycle of niggles. He is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The answer’s still worth puzzling out.

 Forecast for 2019: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is busy on a greatest hits tour at Ajax, but despite a bright start to the season that saw the 35-year-old hit six goals from eight games, a fit-again Dolberg is challenging him for game time. His chequered record has reportedly not put off would-be suitors and Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli are on the scent. Establishing himself for club (again) and country should be the priority.

By Chris Bailey

new kasper dolberg

Name: Jesus Vallejo

Club: Real Madrid

Age: 21

Position: Centre-back

Style: “I have not seen a player like him before, neither as player or as coach. The boy is outrageous,” Niko Kovac was moved to say after taking Jesus Vallejo on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt in 2016. Kovac, now coaching Bayern Munich, had hung around the uniquely gifted Croatia side that left the 1998 World Cup as semi-finalists and is not usually given to hyperbole. It is just a shame that so few will have seen what Kovac has. Injuries, mostly to his hamstrings, have dogged Vallejo incessantly when there should be very little holding back a player mature enough to captain Real Zaragoza as a teenager. At his best the 21-year-old never rarely looks rushed yet manages to stay as tight as the skin on an apple to his man, despite not being overwhelmingly blessed with pace. Much of the ground Vallejo covers is with his mind, and he has a geometry professor’s understanding of the best angles from which to intercept. If only his matter would hold up.

Forecast for 2019: Vallejo was included in Julen Lopetegui’s preliminary World Cup squad with Spain. However, another pre-season tweak has seen him slide even further behind Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Nacho for minutes at centre-back. He was close to another loan move, this time with Real Sociedad, before opting to stay put over the summer. Madrid would be loath to lose him permanently but there may come a time – soon – when he has to force his hand, having played just 12 games in 14 months up until October.

By Chris Bailey

ESTABLISHED15

Name: Houssem Aouar

Club: Lyon

Age: 20

Position: Centre midfielder

Style: Houssem Aouar likes to please. The 20-year-old is still ordered around by his mother in the family home, so it’s no wonder he runs errands for Lyon almost anywhere on the pitch. In his short career Aouar has proven himself comfortable in both a midfield duo and trio, or recently on the left flank behind the striker, and there is an impressive willingness to his work off the ball. He would not make this list without a certain je ne sais quoi, however, and his barely perceptible feints and shakes with the ball at his feet mark him as a man who is equally adept when off-script. Though not fast, his close control and balance are game-changers in compacted space and he can dig out defence-bisecting balls with his left as well as his favoured right foot.

Forecast for 2019: Mariano, Rachid Ghezzal and Corentin Tolisso have all passed through the Lyon carousel in recent times but Aouar is best advised to stick around for another season at least. Working off the all-action Tanguy Ndombele and imposing Lucas Tousart in midfield, Aouar is part of a finely balanced if extremely young Lyon nucleus. Rumours of Barcelona and Juventus interest have fluttered around but Aouar is just one among a bevy of talented French playmakers. Jumping ship for a spot on a bench should be the furthest thing from his mind.

By Chris Bailey

ESTABLISHED14

Name: Steven Bergwijn

Club: PSV

Age: 21

Position: Winger

Style: With blistering pace, excellent close control and quick feet, 21-year-old Steven Bergwijn is certainly a player who will get fans up off their seats, and one defenders will fear being made to look silly when playing against. Having become a regular for PSV in their 2017/18 title-winning campaign, Bergwijn’s game developed dramatically under the guidance of Phillip Cocu, and has continued this season current boss Mark van Bommel. While Bergwijn must develop a better understanding of when he needs to pick a pass or offload the ball, his ability to keep possession, while at the same time making meaningful and incisive passes is impressive. His quick movements and drops of the shoulder mean defender struggle to know what is coming next. Bergwijn can play centrally, but he’s most comfortable on either flank, drifting inside to find a pocket of space. When he receives the ball, he’s immediately on the front foot, looking to drive at defenders and pull them out of position.

Forecast for 2019: Bergwijn’s decision making and final product continue to improve, with the winger already providing six assists and five goals for PSV this term. Both he and team-mate Hirving Lozano will be catching the eye of teams across Europe if their form continues. The 21-year-old has already caught the attention of Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman, who called him up the senior squad for the first time in October with two appearances following. Bergwijn will hope to build on that in 2019.

By Tom Biggs

ESTABLISHED new3

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