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09th Jan 2024

‘Football’s best players under 21’ – Five years on, where are they now?

Patrick McCarry

football's best players under 21

We had the new ‘Maldini’, ‘Batistuta’, ‘Hazard’, ‘Ronaldo’ and the ‘Mexican Messi’ – not all made the cut…

Back in January 2019, ESPN tasked its top football writers and pundits with compiling a Top 30 list of ‘soccer’s best players under 21’.

Five years on, it is worth revisiting that list to see what players lived up to the hype, and what ones are merely getting back as highly paid footballers and international stars [spoiler alert: they are all still going].

In fairness to the crew, their Top 10 selections were pretty solid, although No.2 is very much up in the air. It is when you dig into 11-30, though, that some punts did not fully pay out. Without further ado, working down to No.1, let’s get to it.

Footballers 30-11

Leon Bailey (Bayer Leverkusen): One of three players Aston Villa signed with their ‘Jack Grealish to Man City’ money, ‘Jamaican football’s answer to Usain Bolt’ was hit-or-miss in his first two seasons at Villa Park. One of several players now doing well under Unai Emery.

Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta United FC): Described, in 2019, as ‘a fusion of Pablo Aimar and Ariel Ortega’, Barco never kicked on in the MLS and is currently in his second season on loan at River Plate. Yet to be capped by Argentina but did feature for them at the last Olympics.

best players

Rodrigo Bentacur (Juventus): Has racked up 56 international caps for Uruguay and played 181 games for Juve before a January 2022 move to Tottenham. Has been a handy asset for Spurs.

Federico Chiesa (Fiorentina): Has developed into a real gem for the Italian national team, helping them to European Championship glory. Moved from Fiorentina to Juventus in 2020. Suffered a bad knee injury in 2022 but is back, and scoring goals, again.

Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona): So much was expected of the young Frenchman after he scored 14 goals for Barca, aged 21, in his first full season with the club. Niggling injuries halted his progress and a heavy burden was placed on his shoulders when club legends left. Moved to PSG for €50m, last summer.

Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid): Speaking of heavy burdens… at the age of 19, following one excellent senior season with Benfica [20 goals in 43 games], Atletico decided to pay €126 million for the lad. ‘The next Cristiano Ronaldo (no, really)’ never really got going in Madrid and, after a loan stint with Chelsea, is now on loan at Barcelona.

best players

Phil Foden (Man City): One listing that would now comfortably sit near the top of this collection of players. Has scored 71 times in 247 games for City, made 31 appearances for England and has 14 major trophy wins on his CV.

Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea): 2019 to 2021 was his high point at Chelsea (eight goals in 70 games), and he played three times for England in that window. Unsettled vibes at the club did not help and he was loaned to Bayer Leverkusen for game-time. His dip in prospects was evidenced by a £3m move to Nottingham Forest, last summer.

Moise Kean (Juventus): Made a shock move to Everton in the summer of 2019 and struggled in the Premier League [scored twice in 32 games]. Had loan spells at PSG and Juventus during his time at Everton before making a summer 2023 return to ‘The Old Lady’. Has yet to score for Juventus, this season.

Diego Lainez (Real Betis): Described as ‘the Mexican Messi’, five years ago, Lainez is back in his home country with Tigres UANL after failing to convince at Betis and during a loan spell at Braga, in Portugal. Has earned 26 international caps.

Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan): Tagged as ‘the new Batistuta’, he may not be as scary a striker to deal with as Batigol but he is enjoying a fine career. Has plundered 120 goals for Inter and won three major titles with them. Failed to fully fire at the 2022 World Cup but still ended up on the winning side.

Eder Militao (Real Madrid): Was establishing himself as a long-termer in that Real Madrid defence when, in September 2023, and ACL injury scuttled his season. Has won 30 caps for Brazil.

Exequiel Palacios (River Plate): Reportedly rejected a move to Real Madrid only to pick up an injury scuppering a summer 2019 transfer. Ended up with Bayer Leverkusen, with who he has been with for five seasons. Won the World Cup with Argentina in 2022 and has picked up 27 caps, so far.

Lucas Paqueta (Milan): ‘Milan’s new Kaka’ only lasted two seasons before moving to Lyon. Joined West Ham in August 2022 and has proved to be an astute signing. Was linked with Man City, last summer, but the deal fell through. Has scored nine goals in 42 Brazil games.

Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) Flagged as the ‘new Hazard’ for Chelsea, the American ultimately underwhelmed in London, despite a bright start. Is now with AC Milan, in Serie A. Has scored 28 times in 64 appearances for his country.

best players

Ismaila Sarr (Rennes): Went from Rennes to Watford and showed flashes of his undoubted talent but always looked more dangerous in the Championship than his two Premier League seasons. Moved to Marseille, last summer.

Youri Tielemans (Monaco): Has already amassed 60 caps for Belgium and is a valuable player for them. Had been linked with Arsenal and Man United when he was at Leicester City, but ended up joining Aston VillaHas not made the impact at Villa that he would have expected when he joined up.

Sandro Tonali (Brescia): ‘The Pirlo doppelgänger’ joined Milan on loan, initially, before a permanent switch in 2021. Won the league with AC and started picking up regular caps with Italy. Moved to Newcastle but only made 12 appearances before a gambling ban saw his season cut short.

Cengiz Under (Roma): Has played 51 times for Turkey (16 goals) so is doing okay for himself, but his club career has been a wild ride. Loaned to Leicester City for a full season, in 2020, he only played nine games for the club. Did better during a Marseille loan spell then moved to the French club for €9m. Only lasted a season there and is back in Turkey with Fenerbahçe.

Nicolo Zaniolo (Roma): Yes, the THIRD player from the list now at Aston Villa. Described as ‘the heir to Francesco Totti’s throne’ at Roma, he fell out of favour at the club during his final season (2022/23) and ended up at Galatasaray. Only played 12 times there before Villa took him on loan for the season. Faring better for his country, with two goals in 17 games.

best players

‘Football’s best players under 21’ – Top 10

10. Luka Jovic (Real Madrid): ‘The Serbian Luis Suarez‘ (pictured above) was bought by Real Madrid for €60m in 2019. Endured a torrid time with Los Blancos, scoring three times in 51 games. Had a loan spell with Eintracht Frankfurt (his old club) before Fiorentina got him on a free transfer in 2022. Scored 13 times there but moved to AC Milan last summer. Has scored 10 in 31 for Serbia, so far.

9. Marcus Rashford (Man United): When Rashford is in form, he merits a place in the Top 10. Unfortunately for him – and United & England – the periods between purple patches are getting longer and longer.

8. Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan): The only goalkeeper on the list, Donnarumma has 60 caps for Italy and was a key figure in their European Championship success. Moved to PSG, from Milan, in 2021, and has won two Ligue 1 titles with the Parisians.

best players

7. Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona): Nearing his 200th appearance with Barca and a La Liga winner, last season. ‘The next Cruyff’ wisely avoided any talk of a Manchester United move and eventually got paid what Barcelona owed him. 54 caps, and counting, for The Netherlands.

6. Vinicus Jr. (Real Madrid): Signed by Real Madrid, in 2018, when they failed to lure Neymar Jr. to the Bernabeu, the Brazilian has really hit his stride over the past two and a half seasons. Has won six major trophies with Real and played 26 times for his national side.

5. Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen): Won the 2021 Champions League for Chelsea but was not prolific enough to become a mainstay at Stamford Bridge. Described as ‘the next Mesut Özil’, Havertz succeeded there (in one way) by joining Arsenal last summer. Has 14 goals in 42 games for Germany.

best players

4. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool): Is he a full-back or a midfielder? That one still divides people but there is no doubt about his attacking talent. An assist king for Liverpool, he helped them to a Champions League in 2019 and a Premier League in 2020. Closing in on 300 Liverpool appearances, with another 23 for England.

3. Matthijs de Ligt (Ajax): ‘The new Maldini’ moved from Ajax to Juventus but skipped Turin to join Bayern Munich in 2022. Much more at home in the Bundesliga, he is well established in the Dutch defence, too. Still only 24, de Ligt has won league titles in Holland, Italy and Germany.

2. Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund): As Sancho prepares to head back to Dortmund, on loan, after a rough time at Manchester United, he is at a crossroads in his career. The German club will hope to get him back on his feet but a recall to Gareth Southgate’s England squad before Euro 2024 may be miracle territory.

1. Kylian Mbappé (PSG): Labelled as ‘the future Ballon d’Or winner’, Mbappé had already won a World Cup when this list was compiled. Still the undoubted No.1 of this list, he is approaching 250 goals with PSG and 50 goals for France. He scored a hat-trick in the 2022 World Cup final and has all the top sides on alert, again, this summer.

best players

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