In the modern world it is nigh on impossible to keep a football talent under wraps. Anyone who shows an ounce of potential has their own highlights reel slapped on YouTube quicker then you can type their name into Google‘s search engine.
Age is no barrier either now. From 18 year olds right down to 8 year olds (and often younger), clips of talented youngsters go viral and make near stars out of players that often won’t even turn professional. It can’t be too long until we see ultrasound footage of an overzealous foetus with an exceptional kicking technique being dubbed the next Pele.
So we all know about the best up-and-coming talents in the world right now. The progress of the likes of Raheem Sterling, Juan Iturbe and Julian Draxler has been monitored since they were youth-team stars.
Yet there are always players just as good that do not receive the same fanfare. You have probably already seen them play but did not watch them as closely as the big name youngsters. They do not immediately spring to mind when you think of the best talents in football today and therefore we are yet to appreciate their talent.
Creating a team of these types of players is something I have done twice before. In 2009 whilst the world focused on the likes of Sergio Aguero, Toni Kroos and Theo Walcott, I picked out Joe Hart just before Birmingham took him on loan, Jack Wilshire when he had made just one Arsenal appearance and Sergio Busquets when he was still battling Yaya Toure for a starting place. In 2011 I ignored Neymar, Mario Gotze and Eden Hazard to highlight Stevan Jovetic after scoring just two goals in his first season for Fiorentina, Raphael Varane before he had made 10 starts for Real Madrid and Thibaut Courtois before he had made a single appearance for Atletico Madrid.
However, this kind of thing is always a gamble and it is impossible to tell how a career will develop. For every one good call there are several bad ones. In 2009 I expected big things from David Santon, Federico Macheda and Yannis Tafer, and in 2011 I also thought Tom Cleverly, Alan Dzagoev and Martin Montoya would set the world alight.
Nevertheless, for all it is worth, here is a team of some of the world’s best young footballers that, for the time being, are currently flying under the radar.
Jan Oblak – 21 years old, goalkeeper, Slovenia/Atletico Madrid
Following on from David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois, Atletico Madrid are looking to bring through another one of the world’s best young goalkeepers, having this season signed Oblak from Benfica.
Signed for close to £13million, Oblak was not even the established number one for Benfica at any point during his four years with the Portuguese club. However, his potential has been clear, especially during a run in the first team last year, peaking during his magnificent display against Juventus in the semi-final of the Europa Cup.
At 6ft 1, Oblak is not in the mould of the giant ‘keepers of the modern age but he has a commanding presence and has shown talent for dealing with crosses and in one-on-one situations.
Ricardo Rodriguez – 22 years old, defender, Switzerland/Wolfsburg
With looks that belie his young age, the Swiss-born half Spanish and half Chilean left-back has definitely gone under the radar as one of the best young defenders in the world.
Built with a defender’s physique, Rodriguez is not as rapid as many of history’s great fullbacks, although he is far from slow. A record of five goals and nine assists to help Wolfsburg finish 5th last season show his attacking prowess, yet he is just as good defensively, with good positioning, anticipation and a firm tackler.
Great at set-pieces thanks to his sweet left-foot, Rodriguez has all qualities needed to soon be at one of Europe’s top clubs.
Sime Vrsaljko – 22 years old, defender, Croatia/Sassuolo
An old-school defender that focuses on defending first, attacking second, Vrsaljko was named the Croatian Footballer of the Year in 2010 and has continued to progress.
The sturdy right-back played a key role in a Genoa team that had the best defence outside of the top eight in Serie A last season. Vrsaljko was used mainly at right-back but was also played at right-midfield, where his composure and ability to cover ground helped the club avoid relegation. He then followed that up with some assured displays in the World Cup, where he played out of position at left-back to fill in after injuries.
Italian promotion winners Sassuolo sent him on loan to Genoa last season but have recalled him since, where he will look to help maintain the club’s Serie A status, whilst furthering his own career which will probably not see him at the club too much longer.
John Stones – 20 years old, defender, England/Everton
Under the excellent tutelage of Roberto Martinez, John Stones went from battling relegation in the Championship to challenging for Champions League football in the Premiership in just a few months.
Playing both at centre-back and at right-back, Stones has excelled to such an extent that international recognition came before he had even played 20 Premiership games. The Premiership is famously an excellent breeding ground for quality centre-backs, and with only 22 games in the league so far, Stones has the potential to even more.
Composed on the ball and athletic at 6ft 2, Stones has the ability to follow in the footsteps of the likes of fellow countrymen John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell by becoming one of the world’s best defenders.
Ogenyi Onazi – 21 years old, midfielder, Nigeria/Lazio
In modern football it seems the tough-tackling defensive midfielder is a dying breed, especially in the upper echelons of the game.
More and more teams opt to play midfielders that are in the mould of ‘playmaker’ over the old-school, solid defensive midfielder. However, the emergence of Onazi might just get clubs reconsidering. Although short, Onazi is powerful, quick and relentless, making him the type of midfielder that can neutralise even the best attackers.
Onazi’s tenacious style has seen him regularly pick up bookings. This led to an infamous scandal where Onazi was allegedly recorded by an undercover reporter stating he could ‘fix’ bets on matches by getting himself booked, for a fee. This sinister accusation was evened out with a nicer incident, when Onazi chased down and caught a thief that had just robbed a tourist on the streets of Rome.
Onazi has shined in big games, including on the international stage, notably against the likes of France (before being taken out by a horrendous tackle) and Argentina at the World Cup. If this form continues, Onazi will soon get the chance to show his class at a bigger club.
Georginio Wijnaldum – 22 years old, midfielder, Holland/PSV Eindhoven
Having just played a starring role in Holland’s excellent run in the World Cup, captaining PSV at the age of just 21 and being the youngest ever player to play for Feyenoord, it is a wonder not more of a fuss has been made about the quality of this midfielder.
A typically Dutch midfielder, in that he seems comfortable in a variety of roles, Wijnaldum has elements of a young Clarence Seerdorf. Very comfortable on the ball, athletic, good feet and an eye for goal, Wijnaldum’s range of abilities has seen him played in a several different positions so far in his career.
Coming through as a 16 year old at Feyenoord, Wijnaldum was often used wide and now at PSV he is a central attacking midfielder, whilst for Holland he was played as a deeper central midfielder, playing behind the playmaker. Along with his quality, it is this adaptability that makes Wijnaldum one of the best young players in the world today.
Nabil Bentaleb – 19 years old, midfielder, Algeria/Tottenham
Aside from the consistent chaos that plagues Tottenham, the club do regularly churn out some real gems, and Algerian midfielder Bentaleb is quietly becoming their next great find.
Amidst the Royal-Rumble that occurs in the midfield of every Premier League game, only the very best teenagers have been able to ply their trade regularly and standout. Think, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere.
Left-footed and lithe, Bentaleb has a combination of intelligence and vision that makes him standout as a future deep-lying playmaker. Proving he is now able to handle the hectic pace and physicality in England, Bentaleb is being given a chance to make Tottenham’s central midfield spot his own by their new manager, Mauricio Pochettino.
Under the guidance of a bright young coach, this bright young player may just blossom into one of the best midfielders in the world.
Max Meyer – 18 years old, winger/forward, Germany/Schalke
Even though the number of quality young attackers from Germany is overwhelming, and even if he is currently overshadowed by his teammate Julian Draxler, Meyer could actually just be the best of the lot.
A modern forward, Meyer is able to play in any role advanced of midfield. Schalke’s number seven, Meyer has tremendous dribbling ability, most of which he puts down to his childhood years of playing futsal, the indoor football game of Brazilian origin.
Meyer made such an impact after his move to train from the youth-team to the first-team that he went from playing just six matches in 2012-2013, to 41 in 2013-2014. Considering that this 18 year old is already one of the best players in a side that finished third last year in the Bundesliga, the potential of Meyer is near limitless.
Jese – 21 years old, winger/forward, Spain/Real Madrid
Although there has been shock about the departure of Angel Di Maria from Real Madrid, it was not just James Rodriguez the club were trying to make space for when they sold him.
For in Jese, Madrid have their own potential superstar in the making. Compared in style to Cristiano Ronaldo, Jese has electric pace, a natural goal-scorer’s instinct and all types of skill in his feet. When Carlo Ancelotti was forced to play him because of injury last season, Jese’s performances were so good many felt he should be picked to play with Ronaldo over the likes of Gareth Bale or Di Maria.
Only injury took him out of the team, but should Jese return to that same form once recovered from his ACL injury, the forward just may find himself ousting one of Madrid’s superstars in the first-team.
Juan Quintero – 21 years old, attacking midfielder, Colombia/ FC Porto
Colombia are currently going through a renaissance period, having cultivated a crop of real quality youngsters, all in their early 20s.
Real Madrid’s latest galactico James Rodriguez may currently be the most famous, but Quintero is fast emerging as another left-footed wonder-kid that could be just as good.
As of yet, it is arguable that Quintero’s best performances have been in youth tournaments for the Colombia national side. This is perhaps because Quintero is an old-school number 10, not truly dynamic enough to play as a forward, but with enough guile and technique to be a real threat in the hole.
Although he has been linked with a move already, despite not having made himself a regular at Porto, the Portuguese club are looking to bring the best out of him before he leaves, knowing at full value, Quintero is possibly a £40m+ player.
Mauro Icardi – 21 years old, striker, Argentina/Inter Milan
Despite having had a fantastic season in Serie A last year, most people will only have read about Icardi through the infamous ‘Wanda-Derby’ game.
This was the game where Inter played Sampdoria, and thus Icardi faced Maxi Lopez, the man whose wife he stole away. After it became official that Icardi had been seeing Argentinean celebrity Wanda Nara, Lopez notoriously refused to shake Icardi’s hand pre-match. Inter went on to win 4-0 and Icardi scored, whilst Lopez missed a penalty.
Perhaps a natural flair for the dramatic, or maybe just a rocky start in the career of the striker once touted to partner Lionel Messi for years to come, both for Barcelona and for Argentina, Icardi has handled it all well.
A proud Argentinean even though he lived in Spain from the age of six, Icardi was taken in to the famous La Masia youth setup at Barcelona aged 15 but left aged 18, already determined to play first-team football. Thanks to his excellent reputation as a talented youngster, Icardi was snapped up by Sampdoria, a club famous for polishing rough diamonds.
After just one full season – and a record of a goal every three games – Icardi was snapped up by Inter, for whom he currently has 10 goals in 24 games. As a player, Icardi is like the Argentine forwards of yesteryear; think Hernan Crespo and maybe even Gabriel Batistuta, meaning he will be around scoring goals for many years yet.
Marc Andre Ter-Stegen: (22 years old, Germany/Barcelona) – another German goalkeeping prodigy that famously out-performed Manuel Neuer when the German number one made his Bayern Munich debut.
Jose Gimenez: (19 years old, Uruguay/Atletico Madrid) – a tough, typically South American, uncompromising defender, Gimenez starred in the 2014 World Cup and is looking to follow up at club level.
Granit Xhaka: (21 years old, Switzerland/Borussia Monchengladbach) – the classy playmaker has already picked up experience at the highest levels, including Champions League (with Basle) and at the World Cup.
Bruma: (19 years old, Portugal/Galatasaray) – from Paulo Futre, to Luis Figo, Simao and of course Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal are renowned for producing quality wingers and Bruma is the star of the next generation.
Angelo Henriquez: (20 years old, Chile/Dinamo Zagreb) – the forward has been sent out on loan by Manchester United for the second season in a row. A penalty box predator, Henriquez has great awareness and is a natural finisher.