The Premier League’s 20 clubs have submitted their 25-man squads for the current season, but can name as many Under-21 players as they please. Here’s a team of the best from the crops of youngsters, defined by the Premier League as born on or after January 1, 1996…
GK – Freddie Woodman (Newcastle United)
Really the only Premier League goalkeeper who qualifies for this team on age guidelines. Woodman is still just 20 but is rated so highly that he has already been invited to train with the England senior team.
Woodman was named as the best goalkeeper at the Under-20 World Cup this summer as England won the tournament, but even the departure of Tim Krul to Brighton doesn’t give him any hope of first-team action at Newcastle; Rob Elliott and Karl Darlow are both ahead in the queue.
Having been loaned out to both Crawley Town and Kilmarnock, playing league football at the age of 18, another temporary exit from St. James’ Park would surely have been the more logical move than staying put.
RB – Timothy Fosu-Mensah (Crystal Palace, on loan from Manchester United)
It’s all very well getting excited about Trent Alexander-Arnold, and he may well become a wonderful player, but Fosu-Mensah is only nine months older, has played 12 league games for Manchester United, made his senior debut for Netherlands and will be a crucial part of Crystal Palace’s defence this season.
There are Manchester United supporters who believe that the right-back, who can also play in central defence or central midfield, could have stayed at Old Trafford and been given chances to impress in each of the four competitions this season, but his development will surely be helped by a full campaign in a potential relegation battle.
LB – Jairo Riedewald (Crystal Palace)
It’s not just that Frank de Boer hasn’t been allowed to spend much money this season, but that the players who have been recruited are so inexperienced. Mamadou Sakho might be 27, but the other three arrivals are aged 19, 20 and 21. It’s some ask for them to hit the ground running at a club that only survived relegation last season in their final home game.
At least Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fosu-Mensah have experience of English football. Riedewald has been recruited from Dutch football at the age of 20 and put into a defence by a new manager and expected to immediately get to grips with the increase in pace and quality that the Premier League represents. Having been at Ajax since the age of 11, it is likely to be a huge culture shock. Still, at least his name scans perfectly into a ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ chant.
CB – Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham)
From one young Ajax defender to another, Mauricio Pochettino signed two central defenders in the final days of the transfer window, but only one of them might cost £42m and smashed the club’s transfer record at the age of 21. No pressure.
Still, Davinson comes with some reputation. He was named as Ajax’s best player last season and has already made his senior debut for the Colombian national team. “He is so super strong, a killer, but also an adventurer,” teammate Matthijs de Ligt said. “It’s great to play with him in defence.” For balance, Paul Merson says Sanchez is “just happy to be there”, whatever that means.
Having joined from Atletico Nacional for a fee of £4m, Ajax have made at least £35m on Sanchez in the space of 14 months. As ever, it is worth scouting the people they scout.
CB – Andreas Christensen (Chelsea)
Christensen must have doubted that his chance at Chelsea would ever come. Having made 10 appearances for Denmark and played against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga and Barcelona and Manchester City in the Champions League, he had earned his opportunity. Yet that does not necessarily mean anything at Stamford Bridge.
Following a two-year loan at Borussia Monchengladbach, Christensen finally got his first ever Premier League start against Tottenham at Wembley. He started the game nervously, misjudging the bounce of a ball, but grew into the match as Chelsea took the lead and eventually secured victory. With Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger, Christensen should not expect to be busy this season, but at least people at Chelsea actually recognise his face.
CM – Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City)
It took until April 2 for the rumours to start. Ndidi had signed for Leicester less than three months earlier, but such was his impressive form that newspapers linked him with a move to Manchester City or Arsenal in the summer. Amidst all the praise, it was easy to forget that the Nigerian had only turned 20 three weeks before arriving in England.
If Nampalys Mendy was intended to be Leicester’s N’Golo Kante replacement, his departure this summer demonstrates how badly that went. Yet after a difficult start to life in the East Midlands (Claudio Ranieri, who had bought him, was sacked), Ndidi was one of Leicester’s star performers under Craig Shakespeare. That he had been parachuted in mid-season from the Belgian league and tasked with saving Leicester’s season indicates just how quickly the midfielder has taken things in his stride.
Only 24 players made more tackles in the Premier League in 2016/17 than Ndidi. He didn’t even start his first game until January 14.
CM – Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace, on loan from Chelsea)
The final member of the Crystal Palace trio, and another player who has had responsibility piled onto young shoulders. Palace have started the season in rotten style, but Loftus-Cheek has been comfortably their best player. Having failed to make the grade at Chelsea, much to his chagrin, the central midfielder now has the chance to make sure Antonio Conte cannot ignore him.
Loftus-Cheek might already consider himself to be a better bet than Danny Drinkwater, signed for £30m on Deadline Day when Chelsea had already allowed their academy graduate to leave. We should be careful of pouring lavish praise on a player after little first-team evidence, but Glenn Hoddle says Loftus-Cheek reminds him of Michael Ballack. Then again, he did so those other things too…
CM – Dele Alli (Tottenham)
When Alli scored his 40th goal in April, a host of outlets calculated that he had been involved in as many goals by age of 21 as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard combined, and a nation lost its collective sh*t. Yet my favourite fact about Alli is that he will still be eligible for the Young Player of the Year award handed out in 2020.
Continue at his current scoring rate (and play 35 league games a season) and Alli will become the fifth highest goalscoring midfielder in Premier League history at the age of 23, which is several strands of absolutely ridiculous. In an international setup beset by doubts over the quality of players produced, Alli truly is the honourable exception. Even if he doesn’t always produce his best for his country, he must be cherished.
WF – Leroy Sane (Manchester City)
It would be a damn shame if Manchester City’s decision to finally buy some decent full-backs limited Sane’s first-team opportunities this season, but it is certainly a danger. With Benjamin Mendy an adventurous full-back happy to overlap beyond his midfielders, the thought of Sane and Mendy on the same wing might give a full-back nightmares, but also threatens to leave City vulnerable. One option used by Pep Guardiola was to play Sane as a wing-back, but Mendy’s return to fitness probably kiboshes that too.
The alternative is that Sane will be used as the perfect impact substitute, introduced into Premier League and Champions League to stretch tired defences when City need a goal and be Guardiola’s perfect counter-attacking weapon when City have a lead and are inviting their opponents on. That makes me feel sexy.
WF – Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
It might be labouring an obvious point, but you really do have to remind yourself just how quick Rashford’s rise was. A first-team debut in February 2016. A first Premier League goal three days later. A Manchester derby winner in March 2016. And England debut – and goal – in May 2016. An appearance at a major tournament in June 2016.
If Rashford’s career feels like it has stalled since then, that is only in comparison with an outrageously accelerated rise to prominence that he could never hope to maintain. He has won FA Cup, EFL Cup and Europa League in his 18 months as a professional, and is now one of England’s brightest hopes. Despite achieving all that, Rashford is still the sixth youngest Premier League starter this season.
ST – Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City)
He has moved for a fee of £30m. He has been uprooted from one continent to another. He has already scored five competitive senior goals for his country. He scored or assisted 11 goals in 11 games in his first Premier League season, despite serious injury. He has been touted by Ronaldo as the future of the Brazil team.He was the youngest foreign player to start more than one Premier League games last season. He has pushed Sergio Aguero, one of the world’s best strikers, to the fringes of the first team.
He is Gabriel Jesus, and he only stopped being a teenager in bloody April.