They say you can tell when you’re getting old when policeman and new Popes start to look younger to you. Ditto the world’s best footballers although in the case of football’s top table it is no optical illusion, the fact is that the very best players in the world ARE getting younger.
And to prove it here’s my list of Europe’s top XI players under the age of 21 featuring a veritable goldmine of talent that would grace any team in the world and featuring my own personal top five, the creme de la creme.
Donnarumma (AC Milan, £1.50), Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool £3.76), De Ligt (Ajax £3.90), Militao (Porto £2.03),Theo Fernandez (Real Madrid on loan Real Sociedad £1.20), Pulisic (Chelsea £4.38), De Jong (Ajax £4.12), Ndombele (Lyon £3.10), Sancho (Borussia Dortmund £8.76), Mbappe (Paris Saint Germain £13.53, Rashford (Manchester United £8.25).
Gianluigi Donnarumma (£1.50) made his first-team debut for AC Milan aged just 16 years and 242 days. An injury to the highly rated Diego Lopez gave him his chance and he didn’t look back. When the Spanish keeper returned from injury he was unable to regain his place.
Since then he has made 140 appearance for the first team, earned 11 caps for his country and is generally regarded by just about everyone as the natural successor to the legend that preceded him, Gianluigi Buffon.
Donnarumma is just 19-years-old and according to another legend, Dino Zoff predestined to become a great goalkeeper,” adding that “it all depends completely on him.”
The revival of the Dutch national side after failing to qualify for both the 2016 European Championships and the 2018 World Cup is due in no small part to the resurgence of a reliance on the quality of young players its academies have historically produced.
Mattijs de Ligt (£3.90) is one such player although it would appear that his days as an Ajax player are surely numbered. At the end of last year the Manchester Evening News announced that Manchester United would be prepared to fork out £50m to secure the services of the star defender in the January window.
Strong, a leader by nature, always calm and composed on the ball, and always ready to charge forward to launch defence into attack, he became at 17 the youngest player to be picked for his country since 1931.
Aged just 19, CEO at Ajax, Edwin Van der Saar said of him, ” He looks like he’s been doing this for six or seven years; he has the physique of a 24-year-old…he is also strong with both feet, has an extremely good range of passing, can head the ball, scores goals and is a real leader at the back already at the age of 18.”
In the same Ajax side is defensive midfielder Frenkie de Jong (£4.12) who according to Sport Bild in Germany has just agreed a five-year contract with Barcelona, in turn ending Bayern Munich’s pursuit of the player. Barca reportedly only need to agree terms with the Dutch club before the deal can be completed, something that might be easier said than done with rumours of a £70m fee for the youngster who many, including Xavi, see as a natural replacement for Sergio Busquets.
A youth product of Willem II, 21-year-old, de Jong played through the entire youth system of the club before joining Ajax on a four-year contract in the summer of 2015
He has now played 50 times for Ajax across all competitions, including in this season’s Champions League, and already has five caps for the Netherlands.
But most impressively it is his ability to excel wherever he happens to play be it in defence or as a creative player going forward that make him such a great player and almost certainly what makes a move to Barcelona look so attractive to both parties.
Borussia Dortmund currently sit six points clear at the top of the Bundesliga and one of the reasons for that is the staggering form the 18-year-old phenomenon that is England’s Jadon Sancho (£8.76).
When Gareth Southgate picked him for his first full international cap Jadon became the first English player born in the 21st century to receive a full international call up for his country. An excellent performance showed he was more than ready.
Desperate for first team football and not able to be guaranteed it at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, he took a huge risk when deciding to leave for foreign shores but once again, after a slow start his decision has proved to be the right one for him.
Asked to describe himself Sancho has said: “I’m a bit tricky, direct, confident – I believe in myself in one-on-one situations”.
Ambitious, driven, desperate to succeed, he is as speedy as he is technically gifted, at home on either flank and most importantly both for his club and country seems to be improving game by game.
And finally, I got a lot of stick for not including Kylian Mbappe (£13.53) in my team of 2018, regardless of age, and in truth, there is certainly an argument that he is already one of the top eleven players in the world.
Aged just 20 he won a World Cup with France and, all things going to plan, should certainly be a contender for the accolade of the greatest player in the world in the not too distant future. But not yet, and even his own coach, Thomas Tuchel has agreed with Barcelona legend Xavi who said that Mbappe still lacked “football maturity”.
He said: “He’s amazing. He’s one of the best players in the world and he’s going to be the best. Xavi is right. He needs to improve on everything, it’s totally normal when you’re 19.”
That time could come should he ever move on from PSG and there is no question that Real Madrid would move heaven and earth to bring him to the Bernabeu.
He’s certainly already got the demeanour and demands of the world’s best which, should it happen – and there’s no guarantee of that – will include a fee that will start at around €200m and probably start to travel north.
Diario Gol recently published a list of his demands should the move take place which included being made the clubs highest earner, a bonus of €500,000 for winning the Ballon D’Or, the club’s no.10 shirt, a private driver, a butler, a bodyguard, a house that’s similar standard to that of a ‘mega star’, and 50 hours usage of his own private jet. Phew!!
What Madrid would get in exchange is a superstar with electric pace and staggering dribbling skills, a predator in front of goal and a player that shows he can turn up for the very biggest of occasions.