There’s a history-making teenager in Spain, an afro-donning Englishman whose weekend performance will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as well as a French centre-back courting interest from Manchester United making this week’s list – as well as two more household names.
The aim of this column is to shed light on the players, aged 21 or under, who aspire to lead the game into a bold new era.
The likes of Kylian Mbappe, Marcus Rashford and Ousmane Dembele are sure to regularly pop up but as every week passes, we hope to sift out a few starlets who may have gone unnoticed.
Without further ado, here’s our five picks from last weekend’s action.
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) Age: 20 Position: RB
Key stat: Two key passes, including an assist, in 5-0 Huddersfield hammering
Let’s not get carried away by the performance, Liverpool routed an already relegated team at home 5-0. Yet, there is something so eminently impressive and mature about Alexander-Arnold.
The 20-year-old right-back is only in his second full season in the first team, but he has played with all the poise of a veteran, while seamlessly slotting in to Jurgen Klopp’s high-press, high-energy style – in both defence and attack.
The Reds haven’t won the league title in nearly 30 years and only James Milner has experience of having done it before, yet Alexander-Arnold appears nerveless, a man in a boy’s body, and his nine-out-of-10 performance against Huddersfield on Friday night was full of pace and purpose as his relentless energy left the Terriers chasing their tales.
He jointly led Liverpool with four tackles and his inch-perfect lofted pass for Mohamed Salah’s opening goal was his eighth assist of the season – as many as Paul Pogba.
He started the week with a place in the Premier League Team of the Year and finished it by narrowly missing out on the PFA Young Player of the Year accolade to Raheem Sterling.
Justin Kluivert (Roma) Age: 19 Position: FW
Key stat: Five key passes, including an assist, in 3-0 win over Cagliari
He carries a hefty weight on the back of his shirt and it’s been a difficult debut season in the Serie A spotlight for Kluivert.
He’s featured in 26 games for Roma but has only started 13 since a headline-making €18.75 million move from Ajax – scoring only one goal. Meanwhile, fellow teenager Nicolo Zaniolo has usurped him as whirlwind wonderkid with an astonishing breakout campaign in which he’s scored four goals.
But the 19-year-old has grown in confidence since Claudio Ranieri took charge of the Giallorossi, and had a fine outing in a comfortable 3-0 win over Cagliari – bagging his sixth assist of the season (only two behind Cristiano Ronaldo and four behind league-leading Dries Mertens) when he set up Javier Pastore to make it 2-0.
He also played a role in the third, Edin Dzeko netting after the young forward’s shot was blocked.
His assist was one of five key passes played during the game, two more than any other player while his mazy runs yielded two fouls as Cagliari players just could not clamp down on him.
Justin Kluivert (19) vs Cagliari:— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFtbl) 28 April 2019
Most key passes • 5
Most crosses • 3
Most assists • 1
Joint-most dribbles attempted • 3
Joint-most dribbles completed • 2
Joint-most fouls won • 2
Finding his feet. pic.twitter.com/hGgQOKRejD
William Saliba (Saint-Etienne) Age: 18 Position: CB
Key stat: Four interceptions and four clearances as Saint-Etienne claimed 2-0 win
The central defender only turned 18 four weeks ago but is already turning heads – including those at Old Trafford, apparently.
Saliba is regarded as one of the best young prospects in France and United’s interest is so serious that talks are reportedly expected to begin in the coming weeks.
Saint-Etienne want £25m and the 6ft 3ins defender back on loan next season if a deal is agreed. And it’s easy to see why United would be keen after a stoic display in his side’s 2-0 victory over Toulouse.
In a back four that contained veterans Loic Perrin and Mathieu Debuchy, Saliba stood tall with three tackles, four interceptions and four clearances. He even embarked on one successful dribble and his pass accuracy of 92 per cent was peerless.
As a footballer, particularly a rookie making his way in the game, it’s always nice to stand out individually. But Saliba’s show of strength will have felt even more satisfying as it came at a crucial juncture for Les Verts.
Not only did the rising teenage totem have a day to remember but the result – coupled with Marseille’s slip at home to Nantes – saw Jean-Louis Gasset’s side maintain the initiative in the race for the Europa League, opening up a five-point gap to the side from the French Riviera.
Critically, with four games to go and only three points separating them and Lyon, Saliba and Co may even be dreaming of the Champions League.
Hamza Choudhury (Leicester) Age: 21 Position: MF
Key stat: 46 passes v Arsenal (97.8 per cent success rate)
Choudhury would have left King Power Stadium pitch feeling like royalty following an accomplished performance in another fine win for the Foxes, convincingly defeating 10-man Arsenal 3-0.
It was an all-action display full of life from the 21-year-old that will have caught the eye – in addition to his giant afro. The central midfielder busied himself in both attack and defence, distributing the ball crisply, effortlessly, almost perfectly. His 97.8-per-cent pass-success rate dwarfed any other player on the field – a field that included Henrikh Mkhitaryan – with two key passes included.
Of the 47 in total he made, just one failed to find a target, while his three tackles was joint second for Leicester – two crunching efforts to dispossess hard-nosed Gunners’ midfielders Granit Xhaxa and Lucas Torreira particularly impressive. He also made two interceptions.
Bryan Gil (Sevilla) Age: 18 Position: LW
Key stat: Became the first player born in the 21st century to score a goal in La Liga
They may not have known it at the time, but Sevilla were giving themselves an early Christmas present last December when they wrapped up a three-year contract extension for Bryan Gil, until 2022.
He was 17 at the time, but Gil has already made a great impression at the Andalusia club and on Spanish football in a handful of minutes during his debut season. Earlier this month the 18-year-old set up a goal for Munir El Haddadi in Sevilla’s 2-0 away win at Real Valladolid. It was an historic contribution as it saw Gil become the first player born in the 21st century to provide an assist in any of Europe’s top five leagues.
He wrote more history on Thursday as he came off the bench for former Barcelona forward Munir, this time scoring the fifth goal in a 5-0 win over Rayo Vallecano.
With the game won at 4-0 when he entered the fray with 16 minutes remaining, many players would have coasted. But he found time to embark on one dribble, get fouled and also make it five – nerveless as he controlled a wayward cross before smashing high into the net.
Three days later he again provided a cameo in a 1-0 defeat to Girona – upping his pass accuracy from 60 to 83.3 per cent and even putting in a tackle.
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