Who are the very best young players in the world? For the purposes of this article, “young players” are those no older than 22.
First there are the obvious: Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Alexandre Pato, Francesc Fabregas, Karim Benzema, etc. Their class has been established before this mysterious “young” label vanished, and subsequently they command enormous transfer fees, if their clubs are even willing to part with them. They often aren’t and for good reason. These are players who will win Ballon d’Ors, change Champions League finals in a single play, and will also sell shirts.
Then there is a second tier of young players who might becomes world class, but aren’t quite there yet: Chelsea’s Mikel, Villarreal’s Giuseppe Rossi, Werder Bremen’s Mesut Ozil, Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain, etc. Another way of saying this is, although they wouldn’t be guaranteed a starting position on a Champions League final team, they’d at least be on the bench.
Then there’s a third tier of players who are still unpolished and generally unproven, though many people believe they have the quality to go on a to great things. These are players like Inter’s Santon, Everton’s Rodwell, AZ’s Dembele, Palermo’s Pastore, Bayern Munich’s Kroos, or Athletic Bilbao’s Muniain (the new youngest La Liga goalscorer, or “the Spanish Wayne Rooney”).
What strikes me from these lists, which are meant to be totally cursory and by no means inclusive, is the lack of EPL representation. Considering the league has come under fire for “luring youngsters away from the academies that developed them”, why do football’s future luminaries seem to ply their trade on the continent?
Some might say they don’t, and that the best youth in the EPL could easily match Serie A and La Liga’s best young players. Aaron Lennon, Fellaini, Agbonglahor et al, the argument goes, have just as much class.
Teams like Arsenal, Everton, West Ham, and Manchester United have fine traditions of developing youth players into great players. These traditions, especially at Everton currently, look like they’ll continue.
Yet despite Arsenal’s policy of youth, I see few players who will go on to be world class. Fabregas already is, Nasri has a great chance of becoming, and for Jack Wilshire and Aaron Ramsey, it’s too early to tell. But can anyone see Bendtner as Ibrahimovic’s heir, or Denilson as a second Fabregas (or a defensive midfielder, or whatever they want to make him these days)?
In La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, the Eredivisie, and the Bundesliga, these young players have a greater chance of getting lots of playing time and actually being stars.
Would Fiorentina’s Stevan Jovetic (in my opinion the second best teenager in the world, behind only Pato), have started for Liverpool in the match in which he scored against them?
Probably not, likely because he isn’t good enough to do so. As exciting a prospect as Jovetic, he still could not have replaced Gerrard, Torres, Benayoun, Riera, or Kuyt because he isn’t a better player than any of them. He does, however, have the potential to be better than the last three especially. Yet in Liverpool he would ride the bench this season, just as he would at Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, or Manchester City. He would get chances at smaller clubs, but he wouldn’t taste Champions League football like he does now at Fiorentina.
At the best clubs in the EPL, the competition is too great for young stars to truly break through, it seems. I don’t mean seeing the least four minutes ten games per season, but rather the chance to play 90 minutes regularly.
With the exception of the “predestined” youngsters – the Fabregases and Messis and Rooneys and Ronaldos – the Serie A, La Liga, Eredivisie, and the Bundesliga provide better opportunities.
It seems the youngsters and their agents realize this too. Javier Pastore, Palermo’s 20 year old midfielder, was hesitant to join Manchester United when the rumors were flying because of the lack of minutes. Instead, he opted to join Serie A’s 8th place Palermo. He might have joined a team in the Champions League, but now he gets to play about 30+ games per season, ninety minutes each. His contract lasts until he’s 25, when by then, he could be one of the premier playmakers in the world.
When the “Big Four” come knocking, the theory goes, you don’t turn down the golden opportunity in your career. It’s supposed to be your big chance to break into the national team, to win trophies, and become an elite player. This doesn’t seem to be the case in the EPL, with the exception of the truly greatest.
For simply the good players, let Chelsea’s Saloman Kalou be a warning. When the Blues signed him in 2006, it seemed like the 21-year old could be Chelsea’s Cristiano Ronaldo – a winger who could score lots of goals and dribble past opponents. Instead, he’s gone from promising star to inconsistent substitute, age 24. One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the Ivorian had opted to join a German, Italian, or Spanish club instead of one of the EPL’s elite and hyper competitive giants. Would the consistent minutes have made him a better player? It’s very possible.
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