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Late 2013/early 2014 we had published a list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2014, the progress of who we’ve been tracking with our detailed Scout Reports and regular Talent Radar features. This Top 20 Young Players of 2014 feature takes a look back at the year and the stand-out performers.
As seen above, in addition to a look back at 2014, we’ll also be looking ahead to 2015 and the best young players to watch. Note that for this feature only first team games in the top division of leagues, cup & continental competitions plus games for the senior national team have been taken into consideration. Figures mentioned in brackets are those of their positions in the aforementioned 100 Best Young Players of 2014 list.
Who? 20-year-old Argentine forward playing in the Serie A and infamous for his off the pitch issues involving his wife, her ex-husband who is his ex-team mate, their kids and more recently, his own supporters.
Why? A bit of a spoiler here, there aren’t many forwards in this Top 20 Young Players list, with Mauro Icardi being a rare youngster playing up front who managed to impress. The Argentine had a disappointing start to 2014, plagued by injury that kept him out of the first six leagues game of the year and two matches in the Coppa Italia. But he returned mid-way through February, and how! Coming off the bench to replace fellow country-men Diego Milito, he took just ten minutes to strike what proved to be the winner away against a difficult Fiorentina side. It was a vital win with both sides then chasing Champions League football.He would go on to score six more goals before the end of the season, including two consecutive braces, one of which came against his former club Sampdoria, a game which saw the aforementioned ex-husband/ex-team mate miss a penalty.
Expectations only grew for both club and the individual as the 2014-15 season kicked off. Expectations that were maintained by only one of those parties. The 21-year-old has carried the side along with fellow youngster Mateo Kovacic (and no he doesn’t feature in the Top 20), as the side continue to struggle in their bid to return to their past glories. Icardi however continues to grow his profile with prolific displays week after week, compiled with his questioning of supporters’ passion & loyalty when the side performs poorly, making him quite the character, but one you can’t ignore.
The Future? With Roberto Mancini his coach at Inter, the experience that can be transferred from one of the best offspring of Italian football can’t be mistaken. There’s a need from Icardi to let go of the ‘bad-boy’ image and focus solely on his on-field displays. A more committed professional may well find his way into the Argentine national team set-up, following a long dispute between the South American country and Italy for his services.
Who? Americans are proud of their sportsmen, often picking that one individual as the ambassador for a generation. Every sport in the States has it; with football and for the future generations, DeAndre Yedlin is that ambassador.
Why? The hype around DeAndre Yedlin and the appointment of him as the unofficial ambassador isn’t without good reason. The 21-year-old made his name with Seattle Sounders but his rise to fame hit a high in 2014, even managing his second MLS All-Star appearance. To top off what was developing into a memorable year domestically, Yedlin went to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad. This attention was bound to get noticed in European circles, as the youngster earned a move to Tottenham Hotspur (which will only go through in 2015) with tons of pressure on the American to relive his 2014 displays.
For a man still in his early twenties and yet to play in a major league (you know what I mean), his maturity is pleasantly surprising. Good on the ball while in attack with the willingness to take on the opposition, his ability in defence has proved to be rather admirable as well. It’s a common issue with young full-backs as they fail to strike balance in both major phases of play, but Yedlin seems to have perfected this part of his game (another spoiler, he’s the only right sided full-back in this Top 20 Young Players list). His development from here on involves rather subtle improvements in minor instances of the game.
The Future? Having already drawn a fair amount of pressure in the States, the need to carry that forward and into the Premier League is a whole different experience. There isn’t much to doubt in his genuine playing ability, but success or failure at the top level isn’t based solely on the physical part of the game. A young player, in a new country, at a popular club, the need for a coach is paramount but the Spurs’ managerial job is always volatile and doesn’t bode well for the American.
Who? Being widely regarded as one of the best football academies in the World, there is always bound to be a Feyenoord graduate in a list of this sort. 20-year-old Jean-Paul Boëtius is the representative here, having had a commendable 2014 and still not considered to be fulfilling his potential.
Why? Though nothing stopped Ajax from winning their 4th consecutive Eredivisie crown, Ronald Koeman’s youthful Feyenoord side certainly made the Amsterdam club work for it. Jean-Paul Boëtius’ explosive runs down the left-flank aided in their runners-up finish as the side went on a run of just 2 losses in 15 games in 2014. Though sometimes accused of going lost in the big games, his overall consistency is worth trusting in the first-team. He finished the season third in the assists charts having creating 10 goals and scored the same number. His exploits didn’t go unnoticed as he was called-up to Louis Van Gaal’s initial 30 man squad but failed to make the final cut. With a point to prove and a place in the Euro 2016 squad potentially up for grabs, Boëtius was expected to start the new campaign from where he left off. Unfortunately, the 20-year-old has disappointed, lacking that same explosive influence he earlier had and struggling to get going in games (an issue no different from the side in general).
Blessed with quick pace, Boëtius is the ideal option for the flanks in a side relying on a proper goal-scorer as Feyenoord did last season with Graziano Pelle. The combination of the two complemented both players as Pelle depended on the youngsters’ creativity while the winger himself counted on the Italian forward’s ability to pull defenders away, allowing him to cut inside with shyness to shoot never an issue for the Dutchman. His lack of defensive intelligence can sometimes be an issue for someone playing on the flanks (especially in big games), and a coach like Ronald Koeman would have been a perfect fit to aid his continued development.
The Future? The Eredivisie is a breeding ground for young players and a perfect platform for youngsters to develop on with most sides depending on a youthful core. At the same time, standing out is equally competitive with the plethora of options. Boëtius made his mark in the early half of 2014, but has failed to maintain it thus far, rather having regressed in terms of development. There’s a fine line he’s trotting on, and will need to recuperate to prevent failing.
Who? Football is at such a stage that the household defensive heads of yesteryear just don’t quite exist anymore. The current generation does have some exceptional names, but none that stand-out; Raphael Varane is potentially one that can be that individual. On pure ability, he’s well among the best even beyond the age criteria set in this feature. But owing primarily to a lack of game time, he fails to feature higher up.
Why? Among all the players appearing on this list, Varane has made the least amount of appearances; plagued by injuries and kept out by a world class duo at the defending UEFA Champions League holders. But the intelligence and positional sense that the Frenchman displays remains exceptional. Certainly helped by top level coaches at Real Madrid, the ex-Lens man never fails to amaze viewers that focus on the defensive side of the game. His awareness of his surroundings is quite incredible with him often thinking a phase or two ahead of his attacking opposition.
Having been kept out of action with a knee injury at the start of the season, his return to the first team was always going to be a difficult task. But his best performance in the first half of 2014 came in that incredible 120 minutes he played at the Estadio Da Luz, as the white side of Madrid earned their 10th Champions League crown. Despite the lack of game time, Varane was a part of the French World Cup squad and didn’t fail to impress as Didier Deschamps men rather surprised many. His displays were enough to convince Outside of the Boot to name him in the 2014 World Cup XI. The second half of the season has been better injury wise, but Pepe & Sergio Ramos continue to keep him out of regular domestic action.
The Future? The hope for Raphaël Varane is that he does manage to successfully earn a spot in the starting XI at Real Madrid, with regular football paramount to his progress as potentially the sport’s finest. With Pepe the wrong side of 30, it certainly seems to be a reasonable possibility and even if the Spanish giants were to dip into the market for a replacement centre-back, they won’t find any better than what’s available in their squad.
Who? At a time when Brazil is failing to produce quality ball playing midfielders, Cruzeiro’s Lucas Silva is a rare gem emerging at just the right time. The 21-year-old defensive midfielder has been compared to the likes of Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo and could well become an important component of a new look Seleçao.
Why? Following on from his breakthrough year in which he established himself in Cruzeiro’s title-winning side, Silva has continued in the same vein in 2014 and has cemented his reputation as one of the best youngsters plying his trade in Brazil. A Raposa look set to retain their title and Silva has made 24 league appearances, as well as gaining continental experience with a run to the Libertadores quarter-finals. Throw in a starring role in Brazil’s U20 Toulon win and this year has gone exactly to plan for the midfield maestro.
An excellent passer of the ball with good positioning, Lucas is not your archetypal midfield destroyer that has tended to prevail in recent years in Brazil. Tall and strong, he is not particularly good in the air and doesn’t dribble often but what he does do brilliantly is circulate the ball effectively as well as launching attacks from deep. Tim Vickery has described him as “probably the best passing midfielder that Brazilian football has produced in the last few years”
What Next? As with most of South America’s top talent, Lucas’ future lies in Europe. Having won two league titles, the time has arrived to test himself in new surroundings and to continue to work on his game. He will be afforded less time on the ball than in Brazil but he should be able to take his game to the next level for a top European side if given the chance.
A move is unlikely to materialise until next summer and Lucas will have another opportunity of a Libertadores campaign in the new year. While a place in the national team shouldn’t be too far off, the more immediate and probable challenge will be representing the U23 squad at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Big things beckon for this talented midfielder.