This time last year, this list included Doria, Aymeric Laporte, Max Meyer, Domenico Berardi and Alen Halilovic. The only qualification is that the player must be aged 20 or younger…
10) Breel Embolo (FC Basel)
It is a mark of the potential of FC Basel striker Embolo that West Ham, Tottenham and West Brom have all been rumoured to be interested in paying £10m for his services this summer. Until now, the Swiss champions have batted away all suitors.
Despite still being just 18, Embolo’s career has already accelerated far beyond his years. He is one of only eight players to score in the Champions League when under the age of 18, and has three senior international caps for Switzerland despite only gaining citizenship in December 2014. He also scored ten goals in 18 league games for Basel last season, including a hat-trick against FC Zurich.
Let’s leave the final word on Embolo to Basel captain Marco Streller: “My heart cheers when I see him playing.” Who can’t get on that?
9) Nikola Ninkovic (Partizan Belgrade)
It is an inescapable fact that Nikola Ninkovic will forever be notorious as the player who racially abused Danny Rose when playing for the Serbia Under-21s. He received a 12-month international ban from the Serbian FA from his gestures.
Aside from (but not forgetting) that, Ninkovic is a bloody star. Partizan’s academy has been a fruitful production line in recent seasons – Stevan Jovetic, Lazar Markovic, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Danilo Pantic, Matija Nastasic and Zoran Tosic have all come to England – and Ninkovic is the new kid on the block.
Possessing wonderful technique and comfortable shooting or passing with both feet, there is no doubt that Ninkovic has the talent to reach the top, with Borussia Dortmund already showing interest. The only questions that remain are over his attitude.
“He’s our Zinedine Zidane and when the time comes, I’m sure he will become the most valuable player in the history of Serbian football,” says Partizan coach Zvonko Popovic. High praise indeed.
8) Jairo Riedewald (Ajax)
Ajax have always been a club to put faith in its young academy products, but last season they took that principle to the maximum. Of the 26 players to start an Eredivisie match for them last season, 15 are still aged 23 or under; seven are 20 or under.
Jairo Riedewald might be the biggest star of them all. Still just 18, he enjoyed the best possible debut when he came on in December 2013 with ten minutes remaining. Ajax were losing 1-0 to Roda JC, but Riedewald scored in the 88th and 92nd minutes to give them a 2-1 win. He became the youngest scoring debutant in Eredivisie history.
Given his Champions League debut in the Nou Camp in October 2014, Riedewald impressed Ajax coach Frank de Boer enough in his 34 minutes to draw a hugely flattering comparison.
“The position of holding midfielder is a complicated one,” De Boer said. “Jairo has a lot of quality, though. He is very agile, quick and physically strong. He reminds me a bit of Frank Rijkaard. He’s perhaps even more agile, although he’s not as strong in the air.” No pressure then.
7) Alessio Romagnoli (Roma)
While the information listed above is factually correct, the likelihood is that Romagnoli will not be a Roma player for long. The central defender (who can also play at right-back) is a transfer target for Milan and Napoli, with Roma holding out for €30m. This is a player with only 13 Serie A appearances for the Giallorossi.
The player himself is thought to prefer a move to Milan, having played under new coach Sinisa Mihajlovic while on loan at Sampdoria last season. Is this the man to lead Milan out of the doldrums?
Romagnoli is not a passing central defender in the style of Fabio Cannavaro, say, but instead relies on tough tackling and stepping out of defence to intercept play. He possesses fine aerial prowess, but also an ability to read the game that is crucial to success in Serie A. It’s a weighty price tag for a 20-year-old, but it could easily look a steal in three years.
6) Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen)
One of the saddest things about modern football is looking at the disgustingly young faces of the newest stars and finally admitting that you will never quite make the grade. Julian Brandt is perhaps the most obvious example of this – even his Wikipedia photo shows dimples in his cheeks.
One could quite reasonably say that a player with 25 Bundesliga appearances, four goals and a couple of assists last season may have already ‘broken through’, but this feels like the campaign when brand Brandt could really take off.
Having joined Leverkusen from Wolfsburg on a five-year deal in 2013, Brandt has it all. He is a two-footed winger with notable speed, but the most striking aspect of his game is his physical presence. There aren’t too many fleet-footed wingers who stand at 6ft 1in, pretty scary considering Brandt is still growing.
5) Ruben Neves (FC Porto)
You couldn’t move in January for rumours linking Liverpool with a move for FC Porto’s latest wonderkid, but Ruben Neves eventually stayed put. It’s only a matter of time before a European heavyweight takes the plunge.
It’s easy to see why Brendan Rodgers was interested. Neves has only played 24 Primeira Liga matches for Porto but has already established a reputation as the new Sergio Busquets in a football culture where nothing must be left uncompared.
2014/15 was a whirlwind season. Neves became the youngest ever player to start a league game for Porto (scoring on his debut), and then the following week became the youngest ever Portuguese player to start a Champions League match.
Now closely monitored by Real Madrid and Juventus, Porto have slapped a £29m minimum fee release clause on their young prodigy. He’s going to become the next Iberian central midfield star, basically.
4) Jose Luis Gaya (Valencia)
There were huge sighs of relief in Valencia when the club persuaded left-back José Luis Gayà to sign a new five-year contract in May. The circling vultures represented by Real Madrid were beginning to cast a shadow.
“We are all happy,” Gaya said after signing his new deal. “I have seen and heard many lies about the process, but I decided it was best not to comment on them. Both the club and my agent knew that I intended to continue here. I am very happy here and hope to stay for many more years.”
That may be true, but how long can Valencia stave off the interest? The good news is that the previous £13m release clause is now thought to have more than trebled. If Gaya is Real’s long-term left-back, it’ll cost them.
Having already produced Juan Bernat and Jordi Alba, it seems only a matter of time before Europe’s three best clubs all possess left-backs who are products of Valencia’s academy?
3) José Giménez (Atletico Madrid)
Having picked Jose Giminez as one of my top ten players to watch this summer, the defender played every minute of Uruguay’s Copa America campaign, scoring the equaliser against Paraguay that took his country through to the knock-out stage.
At club level, things are about to get a whole lot more interesting. The departure of Miranda to Internazionale leaves a space that Giminez can and will fill. He will form a partnership alongside international teammate Diego Godin – there is no doubt the 20-year-old is ready for his chance.
Having already turned down a bid of £17.5m bid from Manchester City in December 2014, don’t be surprised if that price rises substantially by the end of this season.
2) Munir El-Haddadi (Barcelona)
Any skilful forward coming through Barcelona’s ranks will inevitably be tagged as the ‘New Messi’, but Munir El-Haddadi might be the first player to have the talent to match up to the expectation.
Now 19, and having joined from Atletico Madrid in 2011, Munir has had to wait for his Camp Nou opportunities, unsurprising given the options in front of him in the queue. He made ten La Liga appearances last season, and also made his senior Spain debut in September 2014, having scored 11 goals in ten UEFA Youth League games the previous season.
The potential departure of Pedro to the Premier League may be the chance Munir needs, and this could truly be his breakthrough season. The rumours linking Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City with a move won’t go away, but Munir feels like he’s very much one for Barcelona’s future.
1) Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht)
It’s difficult to comprehend just how complete a player Tielemans is when you consider that he only turned 18 in May. I’d normally dissuade you from making up your opinion on players from Youtube clips, but just watch this and this. He was seven-bloody-teen throughout all this.
A composed central midfielder, Tielemans looks at home either in a holding role or further up the pitch. He already has three goals in seven appearances for Belgium’s Under-21 team. He also said the following thing about life at Anderlecht: “Sometimes the older players like Silvio Proto or Olivier Deschacht say to me ‘Hey, you were only born yesterday’, but it’s just banter.” A Richard Keys fan!
“Tielemans is a phenomenon. There are not many players better than him,” says former Andelecht player Pär Zetterberg, while youth coach Mohammed Ouahbi is just as effusive with his praise: “We have always known Tielemans was a super talent. Whenever anyone asked me who I thought would go far, I would mention his name first.” He might be Paul Pogba’s nearest rival for the tag of the best midfielder of football’s next generation.