We continue our top 100 players 21 and under with the Potential category. These players are grouped by talents who are yet to fully lock down a position at club level, yet possess a high ceiling.
Name: David Brooks
Position: Attacking midfielder
Style: As English observers lament the dearth of homegrown midfielders in the Premier League, they’ll doubtless wonder why Cheshire-born David Brooks was allowed to be smuggled across the Welsh border. Brooks’ first season with Bournemouth has been impressive in several ways. Since a summer move from Sheffield United, not only has he immediately assumed the creative reins of the club, but done so from a fairly unaccustomed role on the right. It suits him, too – Brooks has a surprising initial burst and it is often enough to beat his man on the inside, before letting a pass fly with his cultured left foot. Not of all his threaded balls find black and red stripes, but in a daring Bournemouth side that are often one break away from a sucker-punch, the 21-year-old is perhaps the bravest of them all.
Forecast for 2019: Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe likes to give the impression that Brooks has competition from players such as … Jordon Ibe. In reality, he is stenciled in as a starter for every crucial game. As for Wales – he owns eight caps already – it will be intriguing to follow his development under a manager who once was the very embodiment of vibrancy in Ryan Giggs.
By Chris Bailey
Name: Gedson Fernandes
Position: Central midfielder
Style: Think of modern-day Portuguese midfielders and unrushed playmakers such as Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves, or William Carvalho’s long-limbed destruction, comes to mind. Iberan heart-rates will quicken through Gedson Fernandes. Fernando Santos has reacted to Portugal’s insipid World Cup by shaving years off his squad and a first cap for Fernandes, in the 1-1 draw with Croatia in September, was richly deserved. Indeed Fernandes is anything but insipid – for better or for worse. The 19-year-old can extricate himself from peril through power or panache. Other times he’ll end up looking a trifle silly, rendering the Paul Pogba comparisons rather apt. How deep in midfield he should be played is an issue, but already with Benfica he has shown a unique ability to pierce defences with a languid swing of his right boot and his left isn’t bad, either.
Forecast for 2019: Fernandes is competing with summer signing Gabriel Pires for minutes in a midfield three with Benfica, but was trusted with a start in their Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich. Portugal have also transitioned to a three-man midfield which boosts his chances, but there’s a somewhat revitalised Renato Sanches in the mix, too. Playing those two together would certainly be … interesting.
By Chris Bailey
Name: Jovane Cabral
Position: Left winger
Style: Portugal must wait until Jovane Cabral is 23 until he is eligible to pull on their colours, but the Cape Verde-born forward has wasted little time introducing himself to his adopted nation. There is a rinse-and-repeat pattern to Cabral’s play. Surge up the left, cut onto his right. But it’s a method – along with a few Ronaldo-esque chops – that has harvested incredible produce for Sporting. In nine appearances this year, just three of which have been starts, his contributions have directly led to six goals. It is the type of bang-for-your-buck ratio that Jadon Sancho has been revered for with Borussia Dortmund. There is a caveat that to the chaos. His explosiveness only gets him so far if given the start, as he wearies without possession the tactical nous or decision-making to fall back on. His floor, it appears, is at least a career like club-mate Nani. The idea will be to keep infuriating the opposition more than his own team.
Forecast for 2019: Sporting fans have delighted in Gelson Martins’ minimal impact at Atletico Madrid after a summer which saw many first-team players flee the club due to the infamous training ground attack. Cabral is an exciting replacement but hardly ready-made. Sporting coach Jose Peseiro has a raw asset to mould, and he has at least three years to do so as his charge sits tight for a Portugal call-up.
By Chris Bailey
Name: Ethan Ampadu
Position: Centre-back/central midfielder
Style: Ethan Ampadu is a confident young man. He played a game of risk by moving to Chelsea, who can perhaps only count Ryan Bertrand and Andreas Christensen as the only two academy players to break through since the rise of John Terry. Hardly a surfeit of club legends. There is though a hubbub of certainty surrounding Ampadu. Since combining playing for Exeter City in England’s fourth tier with studying for his GCSEs, his maturity and physicality while shackling professionals twice his age has marked him as a rare breed indeed. On his debut for Chelsea – at the age of 17 – against Nottingham Forest last season, Ampadu had no qualms directing his team-mates about the field while calmly conducting the midfield. His football IQ is his most striking asset and the reason why there is debate whether he will spend his career as a ball-playing centre-back instead. With the future looking so bright, there is little else up for discussion.
Forecast for 2019: Former Wales coach Chris Coleman offered up the words ‘Rio Ferdinand’ as a description for the shaggy-haired teenager and Ryan Giggs has shown a willingness to put the Welsh torch in his hands, having featured him heavily in the autumn. However, at Chelsea, Ampadu has not had so much as a Europa League run-out, with Maurizio Sarri keeping squad rotation to a bare minimum in defence. Christensen has not had a sniff, either, and it would take several casualties for the situation to change – this year, at least .
By Chris Bailey
Name: Luka Jovic
Club: Benfica (on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt)
Position: Centre forward
Style: October 19, 2018 is the date that a special talent announced himself to the wider world. Jovic then went from an under-the-radar attacker in the Bundesliga, to the youngest-ever player to score five goals during one match in the competition. Fortuna Dusseldorf had no answer to Eintracht Frankfurt loanee’s startling brilliance, with the acrobatic volleyed opener showing all you need to know about a prospect dubbed the ‘Serbian Falcao’ in his homeland. The comparisons to the Colombia superstar are easy to see; both are stocky yet skilled, plus utterly ruthless in front of goal. Jovic’s ability was also quick to show itself – at 16 years, five months and five days he’s the youngest-ever goalscorer in the history of Red Star Belgrade. Consistency is now key for the Benfica-owned prospect. On the evidence of 2018/19, the Fortuna rout looks to be only the beginning of a startling rise.
Forecast for 2019: Board representative Fredi Bobic, chief scout Ben Manga and sporting director Bruno Hubner have made Frankfurt another fortune. Their foresight to include an option to buy in the initial loan, for a player then struggling in the Benfica reserves, deserves the highest praise. A similar arrangement secured Croatia’s Ante Rebic from Fiorentina at a knockdown rate – a forward they managed to retain despite ample covetous glances after World Cup 2018. Chelsea and Tottenham are already linked to Jovic. If he keeps progressing at the current precipitous rate, an irresistible offer may arrive next summer.
By Matt Monaghan
Name: Bartlomiej Drągowski
Style: What were you up to at 16 years old? In Poland, on the banks of the Biala river, Drągowski was closing the floodgates for Jagiellonia Bialystok after winning the starting job. His debut was as good as any goalkeeper could reasonably expect during a 4-4 draw and he held firm to the gloves thereafter. The season after, Dragowski collected awards as the Ekstraklasa’s best goalkeeper and breakthrough player. His rise has been underpinned by immaculate footwork, covering angles with near-geometrical position. Every promising goalkeeper is good at ‘reflex’ saves; Dragowski gives himself the best chance before the ball even reaches him. Allied to his long, long arms and 6ft3in frame, there is a lot to like here.
Forecast for 2019: Fiorentina came calling two years ago and, having appeared 69 times in his first three seasons, the next three have thus far yielded just nine appearances. La Viola’s capture of the even younger Alban Lafont from Toulouse over the summer will have gone down like a slap in his face and his father Dariusz, a former footballer himself, has admitted staying put may have been an error. With Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski blocking his international path too, it’ll be a shock if he does not seek his fortune elsewhere soon.
By Chris Bailey
Name: Stanley N’Soki
Style: If reports are to be believed, Newcastle turned down the opportunity to spend £9 million on Stanley N’Soki last summer. It’s a story he can laugh about now. Instead, the 19-year-old has become a valued member of a PSG side that covets their homegrown produce almost as much as their monster-money imports. Layvin Kurzawa’s back surgery has seen N’Soki timeshare at left-back with Juan Bernat, and the France youth international has jumped off the screen for his aggressiveness down his flank. N’Soki takes gambles – mostly educated ones – to intercept passes and he’s not afraid of a strong tackle/borderline hack to win the ball back. His distribution is clean, as it should be when the Neymar and Co are pulling at the seams of teams, but his athleticism is a hand-and-glove fit for PSG.
Forecast for 2019: Kurzawa is unlikely to return until some point in the New Year and as Champions League football seeps into the bones of the Parisians, N’Soki will be needed in relief more than ever. There is little chance of expenditure at left-back with Neymar drastically unbalancing the books. A 19-year-old not named Kylian Mbappe as a rotational piece of the squad? It’s not looking bad for N’Soki at all.
By Chris Bailey
Name: Jordi Mboula
Style: Monaco is a repository for some of the brightest young things in Europe, so it came as no surprise when Jordi Mboula’s name lit up Twitter when he waved goodbye to Barcelona last year. The video, an excerpt from a UEFA Youth League game, was outrageous. Sucking in a defender before executing a 360-degree spin, Mboula bore down on goal before beating both his original victim and new one with a blur of feet. Mboula bears a striking facial resemblance to Neymar but, despite his proclivity for tricks and flicks, his style of play is far more direct. With scarcely distinguishable feet, he is just as at ease prowling the touchline as he is driving towards the centre. Impressively built for such a balletic player, Mboula teased Ligue 1 with a glimpse into the future at the end of last season, firing off a stepover before rasping into the top corner of Troyes’ net.
Forecast for 2019: Mboula had been a misfit in Leonardo Jardim’s recent wingback-oriented system – his last throw of the dice – but the Portuguese’s goose is now cooked. Monaco are now starting from ground zero and while there is competition from the even younger Sofiane Diop on the flanks, a manager like Thierry Henry may see a little of himself in the rangy wide forward.
By Chris Bailey
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