With this list I’ve tried to avoid the usual big names that typically appear in this type of article – the likes of Neymar, Draxler, Isco, Lamela, Koke, Marquinhos, Eriksen etc. Here is our rundown of the ten players to watch this season, aged 21 and under, from all over the world.
10) Alen Halilović – Dinamo Zagreb
The Croatian attacking midfielder came very close to joining Tottenham Hotspur in the summer in a double swoop involving Dinamo Zagreb club-mate Tin Jedvaj joining him in a €24 million move to White Hart Lane. The deal fell through at the final hour and Jedvaj soon joined Roma for a fee of €5 million. Speculation as to why the deal collapsed pointed the finger at Halilović’s family asking for ridiculous personal demands during negotiations. It is not the first time he has been linked with a move away from Zagreb. At 14 years old, Alen’s father, former Real Valladolid midfielder Sejad Halilović, was caught by Dinamo trying to arrange a move to Real Madrid for his son. The club temporarily suspended both father and son for the attempted move.
Comparisons have been drawn to Halilović and Modric for their many similarities – composure in possession, ability to hold onto the ball and diminutive stature. He has also been labelled the Croatian Messi due to his skill of beating opposing players and his over-reliance on his left foot. Truthfully, in terms of style the Messi comparison holds more weight. And like Messi in his early career, Halilović has often been deployed on the right-hand side by Dinamo Zagreb. Still only 17, Alen has already been capped three times by the senior Croatian national side and became the second youngest ever player to play in the Champions League when he came on as a late substitute against PSG last season. Surely it is only a matter of time until this lad is household name.
9) Bruma – Galatasaray
After breaking into the Sporting CP line-up in the final third of last season, Bruma went on to become one of the stars of the summer’s Under-20 World Cup in Turkey, scoring five goals in four games for Portugal. The exciting winger would then go on to have a controversy filled summer as he entered a dispute with Sporting a to whether or not he had a contract with the Lisbon club. Bruma said his contract had ended and he was a free agent. Sporting however declared that his current contract did not end until summer 2014. This mess wasn’t sorted until Portugal’s Sporting Arbitration Committee became involved and declared that Bruma still had one year left on his contract. After the falling out a move was still clearly on the cards and he soon joined Galatasaray for €10 million amidst alleged interest from Manchester United and Chelsea.
With Galatasaray badly struggling to find any rhythm playing both Burak Yilmaz and Drogba together in the same system this season, and with the lack of quality from players such as Amrabat and Aydin Yilmaz, Bruma may quickly see himself become vital to Galatasaray’s season. He kickstarted his spell in Turkey in Galatasaray’s match at home to Antalyaspor, adding some much need energy and invention to a dire performance from the Turkish champions, although the match ended 1-1. With pace to burn and the arrogance on the ball to exploit it, Bruma will be another star of a long line of talented Sporting wingers to prosper away from the Lisbon club.
8) Memphis Depay – PSV
With the departure of Dries Mertens to Napoli, Depay will settle into the role he vacated in the left-wing position in the PSV attack under new coach Phillip Cocu. He possesses an almighty right foot and has already scored a screamer from distance in the second round of Champions League qualifying campaign against Zulte Waregem (video below). He also came agonizingly close to scoring the goal of the tournament against Spain in the summer’s Euro Under-21 tournament in Israel (video of this strike also below this paragraph).
With the huge loss of quality in the Eredivise during the transfer market, and with the league being as open as it has ever been, a breakout season for Depay could propel Cocu’s young side to preventing Ajax from achieving their first ever four league titles in a row.
7) Juan Quintero – Porto
In a deal that could quite easily become one of the bargains of recent times, Quintero joined Porto from Colombian giants Atletico Nacional for only €5 million. The price coming as a big shock as Quintero had performed strongly in the previous season with Pescara in Serie A and with Colombia at the U20 World Cup. The environment at Porto will be perfect for his development and with the loss of James Rodriguez to Monaco during the transfer market, Quintero’s presence fills in the exact tactical role left by James.
Quintero has a very similar style to Diego Maradona. He is clearly nowhere near that level and it is extremely unlikely he ever will be but they share that same dribbling action and severely left-footed style. Quintero still has nuances in his game he has to iron out such as holding onto possession for too long and becoming too bogged down in trying to beat a player when a pass is clearly the better option. He plays with that beautiful South American tempo to his game. As Porto rebuild their next generation of moneymakers, Quintero looks to be the most promising of all the talents they acquired over the summer. He has already opened his account in the Portuguese Primeira Liga with a delicious goal against Vitoria Sebutal:
6) Mohamed Salah – Basel
Salah has grabbed the headlines this week with his man of the match performance and goal in Basel’s win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League, it was his second goal at the Bridge after he scored in his side’s 3-1 defeat there in last season’s Europa League. The 21 year old winger already has an incredible goalscoring record at international level with Egypt, 17 goals in 24 caps. Basel has served as the perfect club for Salah to grow and now it looks like it may well be his final season in Switzerland. Strong interest from Roma, Inter and Tottenham Hotspur persisted during the summer. And with his price rising with every passing week, there will probably not be a better time for Basel to cash in on their star man.
5) Adrien Rabiot – PSG
For anyone who watched Ligue 1 , the physical difference in Rabiot between now and this time last year is night and day. He has filled out considerably in that time, growing taller and broader. The appointment of Laurent Blanc as PSG head coach will do nothing but good for him as he is not shy to use youth, having already displayed that already this season. A loan spell at Toulouse in the second half of last season served Rabiot well in exposing him to consistent Ligue 1 football. He has already made a telling contribution in the league this season when he came on as a second half substitute and scored the vital opener in the 91st minute against newly promoted Guingamp in a match were PSG looked completely out of ideas. Although he faces stiff competition from fellow youngsters Paul Pogba and Geoffrey Kondogbia for a prospective future role, it will be no surprise to see Rabiot as a full French international at some point this season. Although World Cup 2014 comes a touch too early for the 18 year old.
4) Luciano Vietto – Racing Club
The hottest prospect in Argentina and with the sale of Neymar perhaps now the most sought after player on the South American continent. Rumours circulated for weeks of Borussia Dortmund’s interest in Vietto, a bid relied upon the departure of Lewandowski which never came to realise. Vietto has been a shining light for Racing Club in some tumultuous times for the Argentinian powerhouse. The 19 year old striker made his name with a blistering hat-trick in a match against San Martin de San Juan last year before going on to score his second hat-trick against league champions Newell’s in April. With Europe beckoning, it only a matter of time before Vietto is strutting his stuff for one of Europe’s biggest teams.
3) Doria – Botafogo
Over the past decade Brazil have been second to none in producing world class centre-backs and Doria will be another off of that assembly line. The 18 year old is already a key member of a Botafogo side chasing the Brasileiro, currently lying in second place with one of the tightest defences in the league. The recent purchase of Marquinhos from Roma to PSG for €35m made him the fourth most expensive defender of all time behind Lilian Thuram, Rio Ferdinand and Thiago Silva. Doria is very much in the Marquinhos mould. Already unbelievably mature in his defensive style, Doria is much more physical than his PSG counterpart. For someone so young he is far along in his physical development. Given his no-nonsense demanour to playing, t is easy to see a future Brazil captain in Doria.
2) Filip Đuričić – Benfica
Benfica announced the signing of Djuricic for a reported €6m before the transfer window even opened and then proceeded to slap a €40m buy-out price in his contract. The Serb was coming off the back off an electrifying season for Heerenveen. Djuricic found himself thriving at the left wing position in the Eredivise although it is yet to be seen where exactly he will play for Benfica as they could look to return him to his former attacking midfielder role. Djuricic is an incredible talent – intelligent, direct and elegant in possession. He has all the raw qualities there to go on and become a truly world class player. He has already scored in his Champions League debut against Anderlecht in the past few days. Benfica banked one of the deals of the transfer market when they moved swiftly for him, swooping in before interest from Serie A champions Juventus could be confirmed. And in Portugal he will be in the perfect league to hone his craft for the next 2-3 seasons. Not a name that is one everyone’s lips at the moment but be rest assured, Djuricic will become one of the most sought after players in Europe soon.
1) Adem Ljajić – Roma
When Roma sold Erik Lamela to Spurs for €30m (€35m including performance related bonuses), many were gobsmacked at the low price he had gone for. However, Roma Sporting Director Walter Sabatini had a move up his sleeve. He instantly moved for Fiorentina’s want-away star Adem Ljajic in a deal that could go as high as €15m. The 21 year old playmaker was statistically one of the most productive players in the whole of Europe last season when it came to key actions such as key passes and shots on goal. And was by far the most productive player of anyone aged 21 and under. A more in-depth look at this can be found in this fantastic article at StatsBomb of Europe’s Best Young Attackers.
Roma have effectively replaced Lamela with a player just as talented and pocketed half the change in doing so. He started his life at Roma with a bang (video below). Ljajic was a huge factor in Fiorentina’s renaissance under Montella and with Roma looking much more balanced under Rudi Garcia this season in a Serie A looking more competitive than it has been over the past decade, Adem Ljajic could prove fatal to his former club when it comes down to the bitter race for those three Champions League spots in Italy. And learning from the master Totti, Ljajic could be a match made in heaven for Roma.