The fear of missing out is pushing football clubs into staggering buys far earlier than the norm.
A player’s career trajectory has largely followed the same path; start out at a small side, breakthrough to senior football as a teenager, move on to an established outfit as 20s hit, find form and consistency to catch the elite’s attention.
What’s happened now is that clubs are prepared to cut straight to the start of the route, and at a premium.
We’re seeing more and more teenage players sold for exorbitant fees without even a full season of senior football on their resumé.
This summer saw the precocious Joao Felix (€126 million) break into the top-five most expensive teenage signings of all time with only half a season of senior action for Benfica.
Matthijs de Ligt (€85m), though more accomplished, joined the Portuguese on that list, too. With the new trend of buying early, they won’t be the last.
Here we examine the last six players to have broken the record fee for a teenager and take a look at what happened next.
Kylian Mbappe, 19 (2018) | Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain – €135m
Felix’s early moves at Atletico Madrid will make for gripping analysis because there are so many areas of his game yet to fully form.
Can the 19-year-old develop his talent without the fee headlocking him and at a team so defensively heavy? It remains to be seen, but the one teenager who cost more than him in history was certainly more polished when he moved for a record fee.
Indeed, Kylian Mbappe’s ability was already matured when first loaned to PSG for the 2017/18 campaign – a manoeuvre to circumnavigate Financial Fair Play – with the obligation to buy for €135m last summer.
No one will question the price. Mbappe’s intoxicating athleticism, his savage speed and power, movement IQ, confidence, outrageous feet and smooth finishing traits have enabled him to already capture five domestic French trophies, three of them Ligue 1 titles, and a World Cup.
He’s the second teenager to score in a World Cup final, has snapped goal records in the Champions League and broke the vaunted 30-league goal barrier last season.
Mbappe is still just 20. It’s crazy to think he idolised Cristiano Ronaldo growing up considering the Portuguese is still dominating the global stage.
Anthony Martial, 19 (2015) | Monaco to Manchester United – €60m
Anthony Martial has the skillset to inhabit the same tier as Mbappe. The reasons why he has not are through a combination of his own personal destruction, but also United’s negligence.
The French forward is at his best when deployed in a central position. Although he started out as a left winger, Martial’s explosive traits, his size, speed and finishing instincts are more suited to a leading role.
There’s a reason he wears the No9 shirt after all. In those areas, Martial can showcase the talent he demonstrated on debut, when Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel was left paralysed by his own contorted legs before Martial produced a smooth finish.
Thankfully, a more central role appears likely under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and at 23 there is still plenty of time for Martial to unlock his full capabilities.
There’s a feeling of wasted years as he has cruelly been tied to a torrid period in United’s history. But after the failed trials on both wings, the opportunity for Martial to prowl as a No9 could finally see his undeniable talent flourish.
He may even finally put the infamous ‘What a waste of money’ headline to bed.
Luke Shaw, 18 (2014) | Southampton to Manchester United – €37.5m
Luke Shaw begins the 2019/20 campaign as a 24-year-old and there’s a sense the left-back could be about to take his game up another level.
Shaw feels far older than he is because his United career has been punctured by so many events it would seem he is on the decline rather than incline.
When he joined United to become the most expensive teenager ever in 2014, Shaw had already amassed 60 Premier League games since debuting as a 16-year-old for Southampton and was an England call-up.
Where his level is right now is arguably where it should have been four years ago. Injuries – particularly the horrific leg-break against PSV in 2015/16 when Louis van Gaal was extracting the very best out of him – and the tough love of Jose Mourinho have conspired to lag Shaw’s development.
But he emerged last season from United’s car-crash season as one of their stand-out performers, his man-of-the-match display against Watford serving up a palette of his talent.
Since Mourinho left the club, Shaw has rounded out his game to morph into a defensive beast and an attacking weapon.
He is a permanent fixture on United’s left-side and will have the platform to flourish within a defensive set-up which has added Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire.
Wayne Rooney, 18 (2004) | Everton to Manchester United – €37m
“I am very excited, I think we have got the best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years.”
Sir Alex Ferguson was right about a lot of things so it’s no surprise the conviction with which he talked about a fearless 18-year-old Wayne Rooney turned out to be justified.
Rooney’s 13-year career at United was bloated by trophies and goals, helping the Red Devils win five Premier League titles and the Champions League before leaving as the club’s all-time scorer with 253 strikes.
At his peak, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were the two best players in the world, orchestrating an unstoppable team.
But we should have anticipated that after Rooney raised the curtain for a showstopping career by scoring a hat-trick against Fenerbahce in the Champions League.
Weirdly, from outside Old Trafford and inside it as well, Rooney’s career at United seemed to fall short.
Obviously his achievements on paper speak for themselves, but then Rooney never won the Ballon d’Or and only procured the PFA Player of the Year once.
Rooney was absurdly talented and incredibly driven from a very young age, and perhaps the early flourish was to his detriment as the miles clocked up.
Yet he’s not viewed in the same light as contemporaries like Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, despite a rivalling ability.
At United, many won’t consider him their best-ever player, a legend no doubt, not one universally adored, although his flirtations with Chelsea explain why.
Still, Rooney excited in exciting teams and he was undeniably a success story when he left to rejoin Everton in 2017.
Antonio Cassano, 18 (2001) | Bari to Roma – €28.5m
Antonio Cassano was violently evocative. Even as a teenager, the striker was a pumped-up ball of passion and emotion, characteristics which would become his vice and virtue.
Those traits frequently seeped away from the pitch and into real life, causing havoc for his managers, particularly Fabio Capello, who sought to build his Roman Empire around Cassano when he made him the most expensive teenager ever in 2001.
At that time, Cassano was ordained ‘The Jewel of Old Bari’, making his Serie A debut at 17 against Lecce and scoring a sublime individual goal against Inter a week later.
He was maverick, a pocket of explosive dynamism entwined with swagger, technique and vision.
But having grappled with poverty – Cassano’s mother was forced to work two jobs after his father had abandoned him – his rapid rise to riches at Bari were already causing trouble as he was labelled arrogant.
At Roma, the Italian’s temperament coated his genius, he was repeatedly involved in fiery exchanges with Capello and other managers with the on-pitch nadir arriving in 2003 when he flashed satanic ‘horns’ at a referee after being sent off.
Still, he was twice named Serie A’s Young Player of the Year and a formidable partnership with Francesco Totti certainly entertained.
Cassano was developing into a truly world-class centre-forward, but his volatility blocked the ascension and when a contract dispute rose during the 2005/06 season, he left for Real Madrid in the January. His lack of respect toward managers ultimately prove Cassano’s undoing, railing against the flashes of brilliance.
Ronaldo, 19 (1996) | PSV to Barcelona – €15m
Ronaldo was the most expensive teenager ever when he joined PSV in 1994.
When the Brazilian left two years later – still a teenager – he was the most expensive player period.
The original Ronaldo was a freak, Il Fenomeno by name and by nature. PSV, Barcelona and Inter are three fortunate clubs because they were able to witness Ronaldo in peak physical/superhero form.
Injury of course ravaged his latter years, but in the beginning, Ronaldo was a blip in the Matrix, a player with the power of a heavyweight boxer but the lightning fast speed and footwork of a flyweight.
His sojourn in Holland was merely an education as every top club in Europe chased his signature from Cruzeiro, only for Romario’s recommendation to take him to PSV.
Ronaldo tore it up for two seasons scoring 54 times in 58 games, then left to join Barca for €15m. He was there for one season, but it might just be the greatest individual campaign of all time.
The numbers are absolutely ridiculous, he banged in 47 goals in 49 games. Of that tally, 34 were in 37 La Liga games and it included four hat-tricks and seven doubles.
So many of those goals were absurd because he just annihilated defenders through his untamed speed and balletic dribbling skill, his goal in a 5-1 win over Compostela defying description.
In those moments, we applauded his skill and sympathised with defenders.
Ultimately, Ronaldo would leave under a storm, bought by Inter for another record-fee as the youngest Ballon d’Or winner ever.
The divisive nature of his departure won’t ever cloud that one season, though.
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