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: Theo Hernandez
Club: Real Madrid (on loan at Real Sociedad)
Style: For Real Madrid to break their long standing gentleman’s agreement with rivals Atletico, you would have to assume hopes for Theo Hernandez must have been sky high at the Bernabeu. Unfortunately, his progression has stalled somewhat since his move across the city. After impressing on loan at Alaves, Madrid met the 21-year-old’s buyout clause to bring him to the Bernabeu, but a difficult first season has seen him loaned out to Real Sociedad for the 2018/19 campaign. Just like current Madrid left-back Marcelo, Hernandez loves to attack. His athleticism, power and raw speed mean he’s able to get forward and provide a threat in the opposition’s final third, but also able to recover quickly and defend smartly. Hernandez’s speed is perhaps surprising considering his height (185 cm), but matched with his obvious strength and power, he can make life difficult for anyone who comes up against him down the flanks.
Forecast for 2019: While a move away from Madrid after one full season at the club may have seemed like a backwards step, with Marcelo firmly planted as first-choice left-back, Hernandez must make the most of his opportunity at Sociedad. Should he impress again, just as he did during a loan spell at Alaves which earned him his move to the Bernabeu, Marcelo may well be looking over his shoulder come the start of the 2019/20 campaign. There is also the suggestion in Madrid that the defender could well switch to a central position in the future, thanks to his height and defensive understanding.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Alban Lafont
Style: There will be very few goalkeepers in the world who have played over 100 top-flight league matches before they turn 20, but Alban Lafont is one of those. After breaking into the Toulouse first-team aged 16 in 2014, he hasn’t looked back. The Frenchman missed just two games in two seasons in Ligue 1 after his breakthrough campaign, with interest in the stopper spreading around Europe. He made the move to Serie A side Fiorentina in the summer, where his progression has continued. Expected to become France’s first-choice goalkeeper in the coming years, Lafont is the very definition of the ‘sweeper keeper’ coming off his line confidently to support his defenders whenever he can. Lafont’s excellent shot-stopping ability, coupled with real speed in springing into action and closing down an angle, means he makes life very difficult for opposition forwards. His confidence on the ball, as well as his passing ability, are also key facets of the youngster’s style of play.
Forecast for 2019: Having made the move to Serie A with Fiorentina, Lafont will hope to make the same sort of impression in Italy as he did in France after making his breakthrough in 2015 at Toulouse. Interest in the 19-year-old was high in the summer of 2018, and a positive debut season with Stefano Pioli’s side could see some of those suitors return at the end of the current campaign. At international level, Lafont, who has been capped at every level up to France’s Under-20s, is yet to make his debut for the Under-21 side, despite being called up in late 2017. Should his impressive form continue, it may not be long before Didier Deschamps comes calling instead.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Youri Tielemans
Club: AS Monaco
Position: Centre midfielder
Style: The 2017/18 season was very much a transitional one for Tielemans following his move to Monaco from Anderlecht, but the intelligent central midfielder has already made an impressive start to the new campaign, despite his side’s struggles. Ever since making his breakthrough at 16 with Anderlecht, Tielemans has shown an excellent awareness on the pitch, whether in a defensive or more advanced central midfield position. Thanks to that understanding, coupled with a real confidence on the ball, Tielemans shows a maturity way beyond his years on the pitch. When deployed in a more defensive position, Tielemans, largely thanks to his playmaking habits, reads the game extremely well, cutting out passes and making interceptions, while also putting pressure on the opposition rather than backing off and allowing them time on the ball. In possession, Tielemans opts for quality over quantity, averaging around just 40 passes a game since moving to Monaco. The Belgium international, who loves to split open defences thanks to his excellent range of passing, also has an eye for a stunning goal, as proved with his strike against Toulouse earlier this season.
Forecast for 2019: Having featured heavily Monaco so far this season, Tielemans has already taken positive steps forward following his debut campaign in Ligue 1, in which he made nine of his league appearances from the bench. Monaco have a history of developing young talent, and Tielemans may be the latest in a long line to reap the rewards of a spell at the Stade Louis II. Having worked with Thierry Henry at international level, the midfielder will now get the chance to work under him every day at club level. On the international front, Tielemans has been part of the Belgium setup since 2016, and since their World Cup exploits, he has forced his way in to Roberto Martinez’s starting XI.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Ryan Sessegnon
Style: From cleaning his own kit, to taking a bus to training and agreeing a new deal with Fulham rather than make the move to one of England’s top six, Sessegnon’s humility and selflessness are reflected in his style on the pitch. Drive and tenacity, coupled with his raw pace and excellent game understanding, helped Sessegnon become the first player in history from outside the Premier League to be shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year award after a terrific campaign with Fulham last season. While there is room for improvement defensively, Sessegnon excels when on the front foot, providing a constant outlet down the left, whether that be from left-back or left-wing; two positions he has switched between regularly since breaking into the Fulham first-team. His eye for a pass and confidence in front of goal saw him register 16 goals and seven assists in the Championship. With excellent balance and control, and plenty of tricks to boot, Sessegnon has shown extreme confidence in one-on-one situations up against his man down the left-hand side.
Forecast for 2019: Staying with Fulham may well be one of the wisest decisions Sessegnon makes throughout his career. Regular Premier League football, at the age of 18, will only serve him well moving forward. Under the stewardship of the recently sacked Slavisa Jokanovic, the England youth international was given the sort of freedom and opportunity many others his age can only dream of and he should follow suit under Claudio Ranieri. Sessegnon made the step up to England’s Under-21 squad in 2018, but a call-up to Gareth Southgate’s senior side won’t be out of the question in 2019 if the teenager continues his upward trajectory and keeps his place in Fulham’s first-team. At club level, Sessegnon, who signed a new five-year deal before the start of the current campaign, will hope to keep his starting spot in Fulham’s new-look squad, while helping his boyhood club secure Premier League survival. If he can do that, his loyalty may be tested again with the big clubs circling next summer.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Justin Bijlow
Style: At 6ft 1in, Justin Bijlow is relatively small for a goalkeeper and doesn’t possess a huge presence within his goal, but the 20-year-old more than makes up for that with his quick feet and ability to come off his line to close down the angle sharply. With ball-playing goalkeepers becoming more and more popular, Bijlow certainly possesses the qualities on the ball required to play with confidence from the back thanks to his terrific distribution and range of passing. Bijlow’s sharpness isn’t just with his feet. The stopper has shown excellent reflexes and agility, while his well-executed positioning is another aspect of his game that makes up for his lack of height compared to some of his rivals. While he likes to command his area, Bijlow’s aerial ability does need some work, making his presence felt as much as possible when claiming corners or high balls into his penalty area.
Forecast for 2019: Aged just 20, Bijlow has established himself as Feyenoord’s first-choice goalkeeper in the opening months of the 2018/19 campaign, and will hope to build on that as the season progresses. Having already won three trophies in his young career, including the Eredivisie title, adding to that collection will be at the top of his agenda. Bijlow has represented the Netherlands at every youth level, and while still eligible to play for the Under-21s, the stopper will be hoping to catch the eye of senior boss Ronald Koeman. Koeman has already shown his willingness to give youngsters an opportunity, even inviting Bijlow to a training camp earlier this year.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Amadou Haidara
Club: Red Bull Salzburg
Position: Centre midfielder
Style: Aged just 20, Amadou Haidara has already made over 100 senior appearances and represented Mali at senior level. In his first full season with RB Salzburg, his industrious displays helped his side to a Europa League semi-final and a league title. His tireless running and terrific work ethic, as well as his pace and quality on the ball, mean Haidara, while predominantly a box-to-box midfielder, is equally as capable playing a right-midfield position. He loves to dictate the tempo with his cunning vision and passing range, and while his passing accuracy can improve, he has all of the qualities required to become a top-class central midfielder. Timed runs into the box, whether to meet a through pass or finish off a move, are another aspect of Haidara’s game that will excite some of Europe’s biggest clubs, with the midfielder averaging a goal or assist every three games for Salzburg.
Forecast for 2019: Another strong season at Salzburg could see interest in securing Haidara’s services rise in the summer. The midfielder was terrific in the Europa League last season and has another chance to impress in UEFA’s second tier competition this time around. He’s already helped Mali secure qualification to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and that tournament will serve as another important milestone for Haidara in his young career, and should his form continue for both club and country, he could be in for a very busy summer.
By Tom Biggs
Name: Renato Sanches
Club: Bayern Munich
Position: Central Midfield
Style: Everyone remembers Renato Sanches being his best self at Euro 2016 when he starred for tournament winners Portugal and was named Best Young Player. That’s probably why his failure to meet those standards since his move to Bayern Munich that summer has been so disappointing. Sanches has bundles of energy, shuttling from one end of the pitch to the other trying everything to be as involved as possible. When he’s on the ball, it’s nearly impossible to force him off it while he has the technique to consistently find passes and retain possession. Off the ball, he boasts the work-rate to cover vast areas of space and doubles up as a ball winner. Arguably his most eye-catching feature is his ability to carry the ball into enemy territory, providing thrust to the attack from midfield. He also has the passing range to create and get on the end of several chances in the final third. He may have thrived in a throwback orthodox 4-4-2 formation as a box-to-box midfielder but in modern football he requires the right system and circumstances to thrive. He is lacking in tactical discipline, straying from where he should be positioned on and off the ball. He can be a little overzealous with his tackling as well, walking a fine line between full-blooded challenges and recklessness. His most notable weakness is his lack of goals and that stems not from a reluctance to get forward but his simply woeful finishing that needs a lot of work.
Forecast: As far as his career at Bayern is concerned, it may just be salvageable yet. The Portuguese has shown a willingness to improve and has had some relatively good performances this season. He’s still regaining his confidence but once he’s in full flight, he’s capable of being a real asset even to a powerhouse like Bayern. Sanches needs to continue clocking valuable playing time this season and focus on reclaiming a spot on the national team. Leona Goretzka’s arrival this summer hasn’t done him any favours but Thiago Alcantara’s injury issues afford him ample opportunities and in Niko Kovac he has a coach who seems to genuinely believe in him.
By Brendon Netto
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