Under-21 soccer players in Europe are ushering in a new generation for world soccer.
The first divisions of England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain include some of the finest players under the age of 21 in world soccer. This article will evaluate one player from each of these leagues, and a couple from outside of the top leagues, identifying what these young players have done well to receive a significant amount of playing time.
Leon Bailey (Bayer Leverkusen and Jamaica) - A midfielder/winger from the home of reggae, Bailey, 18, made his top division debut for Belgian side Genk before moving to Leverkusen in 2017. Since that move, Bailey has taken Germany by storm, appearing in 23 matches at a variety of positions. The energetic winger doesn’t shy away from taking a player on with a stepover here and there, but will also track back to defend when necessary.
Of U-21 players in the top five leagues, Bailey’s 10 points (six goals and four assists) positions him 11th overall, as indicated in this table from transfermarkt.com, despite playing only the 83rd most minutes.
Looking past stats for a moment, Bailey’s maturity and determination, as well as the nerve to attempt audacious backheel shots from 10 yards out, keeps his name on Leverkusen’s teamsheet.
OH NO HE DIDN’T! 🇯🇲💎https://t.co/fVfG9Eq1UG— Scott Sandalow (@ScottSandalow) January 20, 2018
In comparing him with Kingsley Coman, another highly touted young winger in the Bundesliga playing for FC Bayern Munich, the Jamaican holds his own.
Although Coman might be lower in the pecking order at Bayern, the numbers check out in favor of the Leverkusen man, as Bailey has a 7.6 average match rating compared to Coman’s 7.25.
Bailey’s move from Genk to Leverkusen last year for around $16.5 million appears to have been a steal with the rumors of his potential to move to Arsenal, Chelsea, or Liverpool that have circulated about his next possible transfer. Having already been tapped by the senior Jamaican national team, no matter what club team he ends up with, the United States will also have to deal with this pacey winger in CONCACAF play for a long time to come.
Ligue 1 (France)
Allan Saint-Maximin (OGC Nice and France) - Another of Europe’s extensive crop of talented young wingers, next up is Saint-Maximin, a 20-year-old left winger from France. He made his debut at 18 with French club Saint-Étienne in 2015 before moving to Nice in 2017. A tireless dribbler, Saint-Maximin can go from zero to 60 in a blink of an eye, and is a nightmare for any defender
The effectiveness of Saint-Maximin’s style is debatable, as his patience on the ball is nonexistent and his decision-making seems occasionally erratic. However, there’s no doubting what he brings to the table: a willingness to put any fullback under pressure.
Saint-Maximin averages the fourth most dribbles in Ligue 1 with 5.2 (3.2 successful) per game, according to whoscored.com. Not all of these dribbles result in clear-cut scoring chances, and his passing is wayward and inaccurate at times, as he averages 1.3 key passes a game, which is only good for 45th among wingers in Ligue 1, but for those who enjoy watching fast-paced, frenetic play, Saint-Maximin is a joy to behold.
Premier League (England)
Richarlison (Watford and Brazil) - Watford’s Richarlison has been arguably one of the most exciting newcomers in the Premier League in 2017/18. Since his rise began in the first few weeks of the season, Richarlison’s journey has been well-documented.
In a story by Caio Carrieri for the English publication, The Telegraph, Richarlison’s journey from a favela in Brazil to playing professional soccer sounds nothing short of a miracle.
Soccer fans should be happy this miracle occurred, as Richarlison has demonstrated how fun he can be to watch gliding past defenders. As far as attacking players go, this Brazilian is a big lad. Standing at about 5 feet 11 inches, the way he maneuvers through and around defenders draws comparisons to a gazelle.
Richarlison has played the most minutes and is tied for first in appearances of U-21 players in the top five leagues, and was key for Watford as the team climbed into the top four of the Premier League in the first month of the season.
But the Premier League schedule always gets the last laugh, and as the season has progressed he has become one of the most fouled players, a reality no doubt taking a toll on his body.
Richarlison will undoubtedly be a sought-after target in coming transfer windows, but for now his maturation at Watford remains paramount.
Richarlison: “Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you as deeply as they have met themselves.” pic.twitter.com/YGOuyIGS3w— Zito (@_Zeets) December 7, 2017
Serie A (Italy)
Federico Chiesa (Fiorentina and Italy) - The son of a former Italian striker, Enrico Chiesa, 20-year-old Federico brings to the pitch a sense of composure and class resemblant of a player who is four or five years older.
Chiesa’s exploits at the U-21 European Championships in the summer of 2017 was central in his development, as he played in four of the squads’ five matches, scoring two goals. The young Italian’s best fit is in an outside midfield position where he can get up and down the flank to send in a cross or unleash a gravity-defying, curling shot.
A maestro for Fiorentina, he can also pop up on all parts of the pitch, basically having free reign to find the best place to impact a match, as shown in this position map.
When on the wing, Chiesa can instinctively cut inside on either foot, so he can play a through ball or switch the play, but when asked to play deeper he is physical enough to stand his ground against more experienced opposition.
Until he plays a few more seasons, Chiesa will continue to draw comparisons to his father. A chip off the old block some might say, Chiesa’s rise to prominence ushers in a new age for Italian soccer, with several special players coming up alongside him.
La Liga (Spain)
Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad and Spain) - Playing for your country’s youth national teams can simply indicate a player’s talent, but also serve as a stepping stone to developing that talent further. Along with more repetitions and match experience during the summer months when other players are on vacation, it allows for more exposure to the style of play they will use if they reach the senior national team.
For Mikel Oyarzabal, 20, a winger for Real Sociedad in the Basque region of Spain, he had the chance to represent Spain at the U-18, 19, and 21 levels and thrived during each of these opportunities.
Oyarzabal made his debut for La Real at 18, unleashing his playmaking style, similar to that of fellow Spanish winger, Nolito. Neither are the quickest players on the pitch, but both are excellent dribblers, nifty passers and accurate when shooting from distance.
This season, Oyarzabal has been a mainstay in La Real’s lineup, playing in all but three of his team’s domestic league matches, and in four of their six Europa League ties.
He’s scored six goals and assisted four more, according to transfermarkt.com, a fantastic tally for a wing player, and his impact has been better than Gerard Deulofeu‘s of Spanish super club FC Barcelona, who was consistently selected ahead of him for the Spain U-21 team this summer, and has only two goals and three assists in 17 appearances for the Catalonian side.
Oyarzabal has received attention from a few different clubs, even Barcelona, with the main attraction being his ability to get into dangerous, goal scoring areas.
He has exhibited a bit of the tiki taka, combination style of play that Barcelona and the Spanish national team have trademarked, and plays big minutes for a Real Sociedad team that has scored the fifth most goals in Spain and love to play beautiful soccer. This bodes well for a youngster who looks to have the confidence and technical gifts that can lead to a lengthy career.
Rest of Europe
Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham and England)
Matthijs de Ligt (Ajax and the Netherlands)
These last two players come from outside of the top five leagues, but will likely be there soon.
The only defenders included in this article, Ryan Sessegnon, 17, is a fullback and occasional attacking midfielder, who plays for Fulham in the Football League Championship or second division in England. Sessegnon’s ability to make an easy transition from defender to an attacker is an interesting combination and one that only a few players possess given how much technical ability it requires.
Sessegnon made his debut for Fulham aged just 16 in 2016 in an English Football League Cup match against Leyton Orient. This season he has played the 11th-most minutes of every outfield player in the Championship at 2,406, scoring seven goals and assisting four more.
EFL (@EFL) November 23, 2017
The way Sessegnon can attack and drop back to defend has been instrumental for Fulham this season, as the club has moved to just outside the promotion playoff spots for a chance to go to the Premier League.
Sessegnon might tire out eventually, having played so many matches so early, but if he can stay fresh and spry then hopefully he will keep playing well and earning incredible inform cards on FIFA.
The next player from outside the top leagues is the Dutchman, Matthijs de Ligt, who came up through the famed Ajax youth system. Debuting in 2017, De Ligt was quickly called up to play for the Netherlands in a world cup qualifier against Bulgaria. Following this debut, De Ligt came back to Ajax and helped the club reach the finals of the Europa League tournament against Manchester United.
An enforcer at the back with excellent technical ability and distribution, de Ligt has enough speed to keep tabs on opposing forwards while also remaining a strong aerial threat.
Having been linked to big clubs, de Ligt chose to stay at Ajax this past summer for at least the immediate future, and it will most likely have to be a special offer to lure him away. De Ligt has exhibited a connection with the Ajax supporters, and it will be tough for any club to build that same rapport with him.
Match experience is crucial for these players, as it helps them come to grips with what it takes to compete at an elite level. Now, the rate at which each player develops differs. Although making your debut at 16 like French-born starlet, Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain is nice, being thrust into action too quickly has had its fair share of victims, as Gary Thacker explained in his article for These Football Times about the rise and fall of another French player, Gael Kakuta.
Overall, as price tags in world soccer continue to rise, the ability to scout young talent and develop them has become a priority. Whether a club looks to snatch players up for cheap before they’ve become a household name, like Borussia Dortmund, or cultivate them in an academy before they’re ready for first-team action, such as Liverpool or Barcelona, youth players have become a huge part of the elite levels of soccer. It can be a fool’s errand to try and anticipate how each of these players pans out given the amount of competition there is to continue to play for their national teams and what happens if they decide to transfer to another club. With that being said, I believe these players all have the tools to make big money moves, and a chance to be household names.
[Sources: whoscored.com, transfermarkt.com, youtube.com, TheseFootballTimes.co, futhead.com, twitter.com, realsport101.com, telegraph.co.uk, bleacherreport.com, metro.co.uk, dailymail.co.uk]
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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