With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting football clubs’ finances around the world, Europe’s top teams are looking to their youth teams rather than to transfers for ways to freshen up. Already this season we’ve seen teenagers like Borussia Dortmund‘s Giovanni Reyna, Arsenal‘s Bukayo Saka and Manchester United‘s Mason Greenwood make their names at their clubs.
Not all young players come through a team’s own academy, of course, as Manchester United spent a potential €41 million on signing 18-year-old winger Amad Diallo from Atalanta in January, while Barcelona landed Pedri from Las Palmas for €5m over the summer.
But who could be the next star to make the step up? Here’s some hot prospects under the age of 19 — already first-team regulars, or making an impact in their B/U21 teams — that could have a breakout year in 2021.
AC MILAN: Gabriele Alesi, 17, AM
The Sicilian is still mainly competing among his U17 peers, but is arguably the biggest prospect at Milanello. Alesi reached notoriety two years ago when he decided the U15 championship by scoring the winning goal in the last seconds of the game with an effort from his own half! Still a bit on the skinny side, the creative, technically gifted midfielder has been compared to Milan legend Kaka for his ability on the ball and in how he’s able to seamlessly run past opponents.
Possibly the next Arsenal star from the Hale End production line set for his Premier League debut, the holding midfielder has attracted rave reviews from those monitoring him in training and competitive youth games. However, apart from eight minutes in the Europa League against Dundalk, the composed midfielder has had to be content with just being a part of the first team environment on a regular basis.
The England U18 international, who also qualifies to play international football for Spain and Nigeria, brings order to the midfield with his calm and measured approach to the game. Originally a more advanced box-to-box midfielder, Azeez is already capable of imposing himself on the game from a deeper, more strategic role, and counts Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets as his idols.
Long an attraction at youth level, the powerful box-to-box midfielder is now seeing the wheels turn on his move up to the first-team. Having kicked off the new year with his first senior start for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, he made his full league debut against Alaves on Feb. 13. Based on the minutes he’s collected for the first team so far, Ronald Koeman is likely to keep giving him opportunities. Potentially a complete “No. 8” (or even holding midfielder), Moriba’s excellent technical skills are matched by his strength.
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The son of a British-Nigerian father and a German mother, Musiala moved to England in late childhood and spent his formative footballing years at the Southampton and Chelsea academies before returning to Germany in the summer of 2019. With his repatriation to the country of birth, Musiala also recently switched allegiances as he chose to represent Germany despite picking up a couple of England U21 caps.
A naturally-gifted footballer who is remarkably focused, his appreciation of space, where best to pick up the ball, and his ability to pick the right moment for his involvements have long left people stunned. His ability to score from outside the box was in evidence in the Champions League last week, but having been used in a variety of positions — he prefers to play as an advanced midfield playmaker — it’s still too early to call whether he’ll eventually end up as a wide left midfielder or in a deeper role.
CHELSEA: Charlie Webster, 17, CM
Chelsea have a large number of prospects at Cobham born between 2002-2004, but Webster stands out as one of the most talented. Along with fellow U18s midfielder Harvey Vale and prolific striker Jude Soonsup-Bell, it will be interesting to see who will be the first to see first-team action.
Webster is a supremely-skilled, dynamic central midfielder who can alternate between the role of a deep-lying organiser or more advanced playmaker. Playing with his head up and positive in his decision-making — trying to pick out runners with an early ball — the 17-year-old often exhibits a variety in his passing and problem solving, something usually associated with more senior players.
To date, the Cameroon-born Germany youth international has broken more records than he’s scored Bundesliga goals: in November last year he became the youngest player ever in a Bundesliga game just one day after turning 16, before repeating the feat in the Champions League a few days later. For good measure, he also became the youngest ever to score a Bundesliga goal, converting against Union Berlin just before Christmas.
Moukoko has scored for fun at youth level and despite the precocious pace of his development, Dortmund are still gently managing his transition to senior football. The teenager’s directness — he always looks to run with the ball instead of pausing to think of what to do next — intelligent movement, lightning quick speed and ability to finish off moves in a variety of ways make him exceptional for his age.
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INTER MILAN: Gaetano Oristanio, 18, FW
One year younger than the last product to come out of the club’s production line of forwards, Sebastian Esposito (out on loan at Serie B side, Venezia), Oristanio is a 5-foot-8 second striker with a low centre of gravity and a vicious left foot. Though yet to get the nod from manager Antonio Conte for first-team duties, the 18-year-old Italian has been named on the bench and after impressing at U19 level he’s becoming more comfortable in the Serie A training environment. One of the top players born in 2003 for club as well as country.
JUVENTUS: Matias Soule, 17, AM
Signed by the Italian giants one year ago after turning down a professional contract with Velez Sarsfield, the Argentinean might not see first-team action for quite some time yet, but his impact for the Primavera development team is growing. Likened in style to Angel Di Maria in his home country, Soule is an easy on the eye, left-footed winger or “No. 10” with a lovely touch on the ball. The teenager is still growing and has added some weight since arriving in Italy; he seems better equipped to evade challenges and cope physically when dropping deep to pick up the ball.
In May 2019, having just turned 16, Fulham‘s Elliott became the youngest player ever to taste Premier League action; fast forward two years and, after a £4m move to Liverpool, he is tipped for the top. The right winger, who loves cutting inside on his favoured left foot, has scored five goals and set up a remarkable nine while on loan at Blackburn in the Championship, which raises the question as to whether he could have been useful at Anfield this season.
Even at 17, Elliott seems a sure bet to have a career at the very top level. To go with his excellent technical skills, ability to create havoc anywhere in the last third and natural interpretation of the game, comes a certain edge and temperament often associated with a top player.
As the club’s ongoing relationship with top Dutch prospect Jayden Braaf, who made his Serie A debut on loan at Udinese at the weekend, remains unclear, Manchester-born Cole Palmer seems to be the next to follow Phil Foden‘s path to the top.
Having already trained with the first team since the summer, Cole repaid manager Pep Guardiola with an assured, confident display when handed his debut in the Carabao Cup at Burnley last September, and was subsequently even given a late appearance at Marseille in the Champions League a few weeks later. With his long legs and gangly look at 6-foot-2, the England U18 international cuts a somewhat atypical figure for an attacking midfielder, but he’s deceptively mobile — excellent at finding space between the lines — and has a fine goal scoring record at youth level.
Shoretire grabbed the headlines when he became the youngest-ever player to feature in European competition for Man United when he came on against Real Sociedad in the Europa League last week — just four days after making his Premier League debut coming off the bench at the tail end of the game against his hometown club, Newcastle United.
Nimble and quick off the mark, Shoretire gives the impression that he’s quicker with the ball than without and his balance, mixed with the ability to navigate short spaces and quickly change direction on either foot, make him hard to read. Though capable of playing anywhere off the front, the England U16 international prefers starting on the left to cut infield on his right foot.
It’s been a rollercoaster season for the supremely talented young Frenchman. From the highs of making his full Ligue 1 debut back in September and being rewarded with the occasional cameo throughout the autumn, Ruiz-Atil is yet to be given any attention by new manager Mauricio Pochettino. As Ruiz-Atil joined PSG from Barcelona in 2015, it goes without saying that midfielder is blessed with a wonderful touch on the ball and the vision and passing range to execute a precise through-ball; he’s also no slouch at picking out deep runs from his own half. A potential reunion with Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea is being mooted as a possibility given that his contract in Paris expires this summer.
REAL MADRID: Alvaro Carrillo, 18, CB
Perhaps an odd pick from a club with the tradition of bringing through talent further up the pitch, the mobile, ball-playing centre-back has recently seen playing-time for the Castilla and should make more rapid steps up with the introduction to senior football.
Carrillo made his mark for Spain at the U17 World Cup in 2019, impressing scouts with his reliable distribution, pace and aerial ability (though at 5-foot-9, he’s not the tallest). In an age when top centre-backs are required to deal with the ball as well as a midfielder does, Carrillo possesses the prerequisites to make a fine La Liga career. Whether he makes the final cut at Real Madrid is another question, but the early signs are promising.
TOTTENHAM: Dane Scarlett, 16, ST
Jose Mourinho is not usually one to shower youth players with praise or attention, but on recent evidence he seems content with the progress of Scarlett. The striker is currently best known for becoming the youngest ever Spurs debutant when he came on for Lucas Moura in the Europa League in late November (the record, incidentally, only lasted two months as Alfred Devine played a half — and even got on the scoresheet — at Marine in the FA Cup.)
A fast, confident and aggressive striker with an impressive leap, Scarlett seems to enjoy himself as the intensity of the game steps up. In addition to his obvious athleticism, the direct and roaming Spurs forward also likes to show off nice flicks and lay-offs. He became Spurs’ youngest ever assist-maker just a couple of minutes after coming on late on in last week’s Europa League win against Wolfsberger (the first 16-year-old with an Europa League assist since Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe in 2015, coincidentally against Spurs) having made his Premier League debut in February with a last-minute appearance against West Brom.