We’re now approaching an era of football with the unthinkable happening – Ronaldo and Messi not featuring on the end of season lists. With that prospect in mind, there’s plenty of new contenders gunning to position themselves as Ballon d’Or candidates.
We’re witnessing the rise of a new wave of ballers. An obsession with finding “the next big thing” sees the Golden Boy – and now the new Kopa Trophy – looked at with more interest than the senior awards, with these prizes highlighting the next crop of talent who will be dominating the senior game in years to come.
In our list of the 25 Best Young Players in European Football, we’ve excluded some established talent that have already had two or three seasons at the top – the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Ousmane Dembele, and Marcus Rashford. We’re spotlighting the players who are about to make their mark and become the sport’s next household names.
1. Leon Bailey
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Blessed with the sort of pace his compatriots are renowned for, Bailey’s breakthrough season in 17/18 saw him terrorise Bundesliga defences while reaching the sort of speeds (21.4 mph) that are associated with his famous friend, Usain Bolt. He’s now becoming renowned for launching rockets from distance, and will be looking to add more than the nine goals and six assists he recorded in 18/19.
2. Jadon Sancho
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Jadon Sancho is making this season his own. Leading the way for England’s new generation, Sancho has assisted more goals (9) than anyone else so far this season in Europe’s top five leagues at just 18 years of age. As a result, he’s not only secured a new contract at Dortmund but got a well-earned call up to Gareth Southgate’s England team, meaning he’s arguably the most exciting 18-year-old in world football.
3. Justin Kluivert
Club: AS Roma
Unfazed by the pressure of being the son of one of the game’s most prolific strikers, and one of the most hyped names in world football after winning the NxGn award, Justin Kluivert finally got his much-rumoured move away to Roma ahead of their 18/19 campaign. He’s already transitioning from being one of the most talented players out of Ajax’s notorious production line and getting to work breaking records at the Stadio Olympico, having recently bagged his first UCL goal and continuing to run defences ragged in a much better league. If he continues his ascension, he could surpass Kluivert senior’s legacy.
4. Federico Chiesa
Already garnering attention from the likes of Chelsea and Man United, Federico Chiesa is widely regarded as one of – and if not the –best young Italian talents. An incisive runner with a powerful shot and eye for an assist, the Fiorentina forward was reportedly subject to offers of £63m last season. Expect his stock to continue to rise if he continues his red hot Serie A form for the Viola.
5. Matthijs de Ligt
Matthijs de Ligt is widely tipped to become one of the best centre backs in world football, having already become Ajax’s vice-captain at the age of 19. A towering figure and commanding presence blessed with composure on and off the ball, de Ligt is easily the biggest defensive talent on the list, and a big money move similar to his Oranje partner Virgil Van Dijk’s away from his boyhood club is probably imminent.
After scoring screamers galore for Bordeaux last season, Malcom looked to have sealed a move to Roma before Barcelona swooped for the Brazilian at the eleventh hour. While he’ll have to go some way to get game time off the likes of Dembele, Suarez, Coutinho and Messi this season, Malcom in an explosive talent who Barca will be looking to turn to in a world when their talismanic Argentinian decides to hang up his boots.
7. Ryan Sessegnon
Sess absolutely lit up the Championship last season, where he played an integral role in Fulham’s promotion to the Premier League with 15 goals and a flurry of assists while winning pretty much every PFA award going. Big money moves to bigger Premier League clubs were tipped, but Sess has stayed grounded. Srarting week-in and week-out at a talented Fulham side – that should stay up – will see the 18-year-old reach new levels this season.
8. Tanguy Ndombele
Lyon midfielder Tanguy Ndombele was called up to the France squad for the first time in October 2018, but he already looks like he could cement his spot in the World Champions midfield sooner rather than later. Already assisting four goals by October as a box-to-box player who doesn’t stop looking forward, Ndombele could well be the central cog in the next wave of ridiculously talented French squads in years to come.
9. Steven Bergwijn
Despite not making the grade at Ajax, Bergwijn is now flourishing at PSV and looks like one of Holland’s best wingers since Arjen Robben. Having just turned 21, Bergwijn has – at the time of writing – contributed a goal or assist in every Eredivise game this season. Bergwijn joins Chucky Lozano as part of a frightening forward line for the Dutch club, and is tipped for a move to the Premier League before too long.
10. Kylian Mbappé
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
What else is left to be said about this kid. The 19-year-old is a world champion, shoe-in for Europe’s Golden Boy award and is stealing the limelight from Neymar every weekend for PSG, where he recently notched four goals in thirteen minutes. No-one else at 19 has stats remotely comparable to Mbappe, who is now firmly in with a shot of winning the Ballon d’Or this season.
11. Rhian Brewster
After firing England’s young lions to glory at the U17 World Cup, Rhian Brewster was the name on everyone in England’s lips. A clinical forward who has a knack for finding space in the box, the 18-year-old Liverpool forward is looking to get his FIFA shooting stats up and replicate his England form (24 goals in 27 appearances) once he’s back from his ankle injury.
12. Christian Pulisic
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Pulisic is widely believed to be the USMNT’s foremost talent and best player, and he’s gradually beginning to assert himself as one of Borussia Dortmund’s leading lights. A move to Liverpool has long been mooted, and if he can keep up the electrifying pace, deadly crossing and smart finishing, expect to see Pulisic secure that more sooner rather than later.
13. Tim Weah
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Another young talent looking to emulate his father’s career, Tim Weah is just beginning to show signs of his potential world class talent. Blessed with his father’s finesse, Weah Jr. notched his first goal for PSG at the start of the 18/19 season, as well as making his mark for the USMNT. While he’ll have a tough time dismounting PSG’s all-star front line, who better to learn from? He’s set to be a Nike poster boy in years to come.
14. Amadou Haidara
Club: Red Bull Salzburg
The 20-year-old box-to-box player already has prestige in Austria despite his youth, where he’s played an integral role in guiding the Red Bulls to their second successive Austrian Bundesliga triumph and the UEFA Europa League semi-finals. While becoming renowned for breaking up play and getting his team going on the attack, the Malian midfielder also notched eight goals in 55 appearances from midfield last season, which highlights his well-rounded game.
15. Vinícius Júnior
Club: Real Madrid
One of the more high-profile additions on this list after his move to Real Madrid last summer, Vinícius has all the archetypal Brazilian flair traits that could see him become a genuinely world class player. Also blessed with sublime pace and an eye for goal, Real will be hoping Vinny will flourish into a similar sort of player Barcelona signed from Brazil in a big-money move earlier this decade.
16. Phil Foden
Club: Manchester City
England are already beginning to expect big things of what could be the next golden generation of talent, and Phil Foden is one of the main men leading the charge. Compared to Iniesta after his recent MOTM performance in the League Cup, Foden will be hoping Pep will give him more game time to really flex the agility, vision and attacking nous that was on display when he won the U17 World Cup Golden Ball award last year.
17. Trent Alexander-Arnold
It’s been a mad year for Trent Alexander-Arnold. Going from being a Liverpool Academy starlet to playing in the Champions League final and representing England at the World Cup, Trent has got the composure, vision and technique of someone ten years his senior. It’s mad he’s only just turned 20, and with him being as level-headed and grounded as he is, Trent is very much next up for both club and country.
18. Alban Lafont
While Gianluigi Donnarumma’s career has stagnated in Italy, another teenager keeper’s is really starting to rev up. After becoming Ligue 1’s youngest ever goalie for Toulouse as a 16-year-old in November 2015, Lafont kept three clean sheets for Fiorentina in his first six appearances this season. He’s still only 19 years old, and the Frenchman now has plenty of suitors all over Europe.
19. Joe Gomez
Another Liverpool defender blessed with ice cold composure, Joe Gomez has solidified his place as a pacey, bullish, ball-playing centre back in Liverpool’s water-tight backline this year. Alongside Trent, Virgil and Robertson, Gomez has so far shut out more opponents than anyone else in the Premier League this season, where he’s somehow looked even more formidable than the world’s most expensive defender on occasions – despite having recovered from two separate ACL injuries. He’ll now be aiming to secure the same slot for England in years to come.
20. Ruben Neves
After scoring screamers for fun in the Championship last season, Ruben Neves has silkily transitioned into life in the Premier League with a Wolves side that have endured one of the hardest fixture lists so far this season. Already renowned for raking cross-field passes, controlling the tempo of games and long-range rockets, Neves also has a on-pitch maturity which saw him captain Porto at the age of just 17. If he fulfils his potential, he should be a shoe-in to captain Portugal.
21. Houssem Aouar
Another byproduct of one of the most fertile academies in Europe, Aouar arrived in the Lyon team after the departure of Tolisso without anyone thinking he could instantly replace the Bayern-bound player. What they got in reality was a playmaker with an incessant work rate that instantly filled that void. As a deep lying playmaker Aouar supports one of the most exciting attacks in Europe – that recently vanquished Man City – with incisive passing and a control of the game that will see him cut more and more top teams apart in the future.
22. Kai Havertz
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Hotly-tipped as Germany’s next big thing, Havertz is already looking like one of the most accomplished playmakers in the game at just 19 years of age. Blessed with a Ozil-esque wand of a left foot and Kroos-like vision and precision, whoever signs Havertz from Leverkusen will have a serious player on their hands.
23. Frenkie de Jong
Alongside Lyon, Ajax boast arguably the top production line in Europe as this list suggests. De Jong’s acute positional awareness and ability to dictate the game from deep at just 21 has understandably attracted interest from both Spurs and Barcelona. Fearless in possession and a natural athlete, De Jong’s stock will continue to rise should Ajax continue to do well in the Champions League this season.
24. Ethan Ampadu
It’s been ridiculous to watch the level of composure Ampadu plays with as a 17-year-old in both red and blue recently. One of Chelsea’s brightest academy talents, the Welshman has already put in stellar performances from a deep playing playmaker role for club and country that has left an influx of fans with Twitter avis featuring the dreadlocked don. His potential trajectory is one of the highest on this list, with Ryan Giggs stating that he and the rest of the young Welsh team reminds him of the ‘Class of 92’.
25. Cengiz Ünder
Club: AS Roma
Widely tipped to be Turkey’s next top talent, the Undertaker is slowly beginning to find his stride in Rome, where he’s become the latest Monchi purchase set for a huge resale fee. A agile winger with assists and goals in his locker, he’s already being tipped to move to Bayern Munich as Arjen Robben’s replacement for when he finally hangs up his boots. He’s got far more to his game than just cutting inside, and alongside Justin Kluivert forms a reinvigorated Roma front line with plenty of potential.