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.
RAHEEM STERLING | 19 | Liverpool | England | Attacking midfielder | (#6 in attackers)
Who? The brightest young sensation to grace the Premier League fields, Raheem Sterling has become the figure of England’s future and the focus of much hype and added pressure. Impressing in Liverpool colours, the dependence of the club on his young shoulders has only grown alongwith the expectations of England’s national team supporters.
Why? 2014 started for Raheem Sterling on the back of questions about his true ability and whether he was potentially good enough to turn out for a side that were chasing Champions League football. Brendan Rodgers responded with a show of a support and an occasional positional change into a more central role. The results were fantastic. Sterling in attack, overshadowed by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, helped Liverpool to an unprecedented runners-up finish in the Premier League. Performances of his sort only raised his profile as he grew into an integral part of Rodgers’ future plans, secured a place in Roy Hodgson’s 2014 World Cup squad and even made it into our Talent Radar Team of the Season 2013/14. A key sale and injury rose Raheem Sterling to the status of the focal point of Liverpool’s 2014/15 season, an added pressure that hasn’t helped the youngster with performances far from what he showed he was capable of. After Steven Gerrard, the 19-year-old seems to be the next name on the team-sheet irrespective of previous performances with an ever increasing risk of fitness levels crashing. Despite this, there have been instances that have worked as reminders of his true quality; but consistency is key as he enters his 20s.
An energetic burst of pace, a surprising show of physical strength and a much improved defensive contribution show that Raheem is not a one hit raw teenage star wonder. While his physical appearance speaks of the contrary, Sterling has grown into quite a formidable all-round performer. Quick feet to go with his existing ability have often made him a terror for opponents to handle, and at just 19 there is still a whole level of frightening development to continue.
The Future? Performances of this sort from an Englishman are bound to raise expectations. The media certainly play a part in unwanted attention, but as is apt for any young footballer, sticking to his current club and getting all the assistance he can from his manager is vital. While Sterling is playing a vital role (and regularly) the possibility of burn-out always looms large. The youngster is in need of having the pressure eased of his young shoulders, something that has already effected his international career.
PAUL POGBA | 21 | Juventus | France | Central midfielder | (#2 in midfielders)
Who? One of the most high profile players in our list, the fact that Paul Pogba is still eligible for this list is a feat in itself. Having been hailed as a future Ballon d’Or winner from the early days in his career, Pogba is well on his course to fulfilling that prophecy and at the age of 21 the world is at his feet.
Why? The Juventus domestic juggernaut has been seemingly unstoppable in the recent past and a major reason behind their success has been their midfield, one that on paper could match any of Europe’s elite. A crucial component of this midfield is of course Pogba. He has more than 100 appearances for the Bianconeri to his name and displays a maturity far beyond his young age on the pitch. Whether under Conte or his successor Allegri, Pogba has made himself an integral part of the line up in the 3 man central midfield with his all action style of play. His achievements weren’t limited to club either as he picked up the Hyundai Young Player award at the World Cup to further cement his reputation as one of the World’s best young players.
The Frenchman’s imposing frame means that physicality is a major attribute of his game though that is but a single dimension of his play. Graced with sublime technique, the 21 year old is equally likely to find a teammate with a quality pass or dribble past his opponent with consummate ease. He is also adept at finding the back of the net from powerful long range shots.
The Future? With a change in manager at the helm, Juventus will be looking to set the record straight in Europe and improve what is a pretty poor recent record. Allegri has shown a tactical flexibility that could mean more freedom for Pogba, something that could well serve to bolster his contribution in the final third. Looking at the longer term future, a continued lack of European success could lead to Pogba looking for a new challenge as he looks to make a mark among Europe’s elite.
PACO ALCACER | 21 | Valencia | Spain | Forward | (didn’t feature)
Who? You see that mention in the brackets above, (didn’t feature)? That’s Talent Radar’s biggest regret. Despite having named 100 young players to watch in 2014, the majority of whom we were right about, we have failed to make any mention of Paco Alcacer. But the Spanish striker has made us eat our
Why? Though we regret having not named him in our players to watch list, it was with good reason. The possibility didn’t seem bright for the Spaniard who barely got a game heading into the new year. That didn’t change either in the opening games of 2014, as he was restricted to a place on the bench, rarely ever coming on. And then..he burst onto the scene. He started finding his feet, getting into the right positions and being rewarded with goals. He went on a run of 3 consecutive games scoring 4 goals in the league adding a few more before the end of the season. A hat-trick in a thrilling come-back aggregate victory against Basel in the quarter-finals of the Europa League only further showed what he is capable of. Despite this, a World Cup spot was always a long shot and he understandably didn’t make the squad. But the progress of Alcacer was only beginning; the 21-year-old started the 2014/15 season just as he finished the previous one, with goals. His exploits were enough to now convince Vicente Del Bosque to give him his first national team call up, an opportunity he took with open arms, scoring on his debut against Macedonia and following it up with two more in the next two games.
Paco Alcacer is the texbook definition of a pure goal-scorer. His ability to get into right positions and insistence on pouncing on any opportunities that presents itself have shown the similarities he bears with top strikers of yesteryear. Though still capable of developing into a more finished product, his general base has been well set in. Young strikers often show a bit of technical skill that amazes most, but Alcacer’s footballing intelligence is what sets him apart.
The Future? Spain has longed for a striker to lead the national team. From the days of Raul to David Villa and Fernando Torres (in his prime), the senior team set up now lacks a figure head of similar sort. Diego Costa is seen as the next in line, but he has thus far failed to manage expectations. With similar progress from Paco Alcacer, no reason why he won’t be seen as Spain’s main striker in the near future, possibly leading into Euro 2016.
MEMPHIS DEPAY | 20 | PSV Eindhoven | Netherlands | Forward | (#4 in attackers)
Who? At just 20, Memphis Depay is one of the most watchable players in World football right now. Blessed with bags of the ability, the PSV and Dutch star has quickly established himself as one of the Eredivisie’s brightest stars; and while the league has been a conveyor belt of talent, Depay represents the next-gen succeeding the one involving the Wesley Sneijder’s and Arjen Robben’s of the world.
Why? The 2013/14 season was an important one for Depay as he made the step up to become a key member of a youthful PSV starting XI. Having been given a run of games to prove himself after the departure of Dries Mertens, he did just that. The youngster had a great season with a healthy tally of goals and assists and it came as no surprise that he was included in Van Gaal’s World Cup squad in the summer where he caught the eye once again albeit with performances mainly from the bench. The 20 year old started the 2014/15 season on fire only to be briefly halted by injury. He’s since returned though and carried on in much the same vein terrorizing opposition defenders.
An exciting player, the sight of the Dutch International cutting in from the left and letting fly with his right is a common sight. A combination of excellent close control, inventive trickery, and pace makes him a handful for any defender to deal with. He also poses a threat from dead-ball situations having scored numerous free kicks in his still relatively short career. Though widely considered as a winger, his pure influence in attacking phases, centrally and in the box make him more of a forward that an individual deployed out wide.
The Future? It seems like a matter of time before a bidding war erupts for his services. The raw ability of the 20 year old has been an incredible sight, as the youngster leads the way for another golden generation of the Oranje.This might well be the his last season in the Eredivisie and we’ll be waiting to see how he handles the step up to what should be one of Europe’s elite clubs.
JUAN BERNAT | 21 | Bayern Munich | Spain | Left-Back | (#8 in defenders)
Who? In the modern game, keeping in tandem with the universality of roles, the importance of full-backs has evolved, advanced and absolutely transformed since it’s previous status. The need to balance the defensive and attacking phases of play, the way they handle transitions and their general footballing intelligence is far more crucial than ever before. Juan Bernat isone such full-back who even at his tender age, seems to have mastered this aspect. If at Valencia he was known for his attacking prowess, at Bayern he has become that well-rounded full-back that every side craves for.
Why? When Jordi Alba left for Valencia, there was a void that needed to be filled; not many would have thought that a youngster who was largely used out-wide in midfield would emerge as that individual. But credit has to be given to ex-Valencia boss Miroslav Dukic who decided to shift the young Spaniard into that defensive role that he is now employed in. What makes Bernat’s rise peculiar is that the situation at the Spanish club has been rather volatile, with the team having gone with regular managerial changes. It didn’t seem to effect Bernat; despite Dukic being sacked and replaced as we moved into 2014, the 21-year-old only got better.
The summer saw Pep Guardiola come in for Bernat and to everyone’s surprise make a move at a minimal value. The common narrative from the average fan was that he’d become a squad player, used only in a limited capacity. But what was more surprising was how Bernat became an integral part of Guardiola’s plans at Bayern Munich as the ex-Barcelona coach looked to amend mistakes in the previous years’ Champions Legaue competition. A whole host of flexible formations have been tried, with Bernat alternating between roles out wide in defence, midfield and event a central role in the middle of the park. The Spaniard has gone on to make an appearance in each and every Bayern game this season at time of writing, starting the vast majority of them. The youngster has become the most integral part of Guardiola’s flexible formations, proving his versatility and managing to handle that very universality that breeds in the beautiful game in it’s modern appearance. His exploits have also earned him a call-up to the Spanish national team, having scored on his debut and set the stage for potentially securing a place in Vicente Del Bosque’s transforming side.
The Future? At 21, the youngster has already earned a move to one of the biggest clubs in the World, established a role in the side and having welcomed with open arms the versatility asked of him, he represents the future of the sport and the type of roles players are asked to play. The common suggestion with players this age is to leave for regular playing time at another club or move on to a bigger club rather than a club holding him down; Bernat has already skipped these two steps. The future for the Spaniard is more than just bright; he could be at Bayern Munich for another decade, and soon enough could secure a role at the national team for a similar period.
Written by Sami Faizullah & Arnab Ray.