100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2017 | Part 5 | Midfielders


For the 4th year running, Outside of the Boot has returned with our years’ special feature – a detailed look at the best young players every football enthusiast must keep an eye out for in 2017.

This feature is published in 10 parts which help us divide the list positionally (10 goalkeepers, 30 defenders, 40 midfielders, 20 forwards). 

All players born on or after January 1st 1996 are eligible for the feature.


AKRAM AFIF


20 / Qatar / Sporting Gijon (On loan from Villareal)


Written by Hamoudi Fayad

Blurb: There was something special about this kid, something that made his move to a Qatari-owned club in Europe all the more different. A nation constantly scrutinized and criticized by media and fans around the world due to the highly controversial issues that surround them finally have a European-based star to cheer on. A player to cheer for, a generation to look forward to, on rocky road to Doha. It is Akram Afif, on his way to becoming the most talked about player in his nation’s relatively small footballing history.

Analysis: An attacking midfielder by trade, Akram Afif is best when he plays on the wing as he can use his mesmerising technical ability alongside his speed to get the better of most full-backs that he has come up against. The nimble winger is a pest for opposition teams whether that comes via his underrated creative instinct or his calmness in front of goal. By the age of 19, he had already scored for each of the U19, U20, U23 and Qatari senior national teams in official matches.

Afif is excellent with a trait that is rarely seen on the big screens today. His off the ball movement, a key aspect of any winger’s final third play, is vital to the qualitative superiorities he aims to create on the pitch. The fact that he has been coached by Spaniards for most of his football career has been highlighted by his understanding of the importance of the central and half spaces, rather than sitting out on the flank and attempting to hoof the ball into the box like the archetypal Middle Eastern winger.

Looking Ahead: Villarreal signed Akram Afif in the summer of 2016 and subsequently loaned him out to Sporting Gijon, also of the La Liga, to get some game time. At the age of 20 he is arguably amongst Qatar’s best players and certainly is the most promising player to come from West Asia, but eyes will be on him to avoid falling into the trap that many Middle Eastern players fall into when they play abroad: the psychological trap. 


KRISTOFFER AJER


18 / Norway / Celtic


Written by Brian Hradek

Blurb: The big Norwegian midfielder started his career in the Lillestrøm SK academy. When his parents moved at age fourteen, he joined IK Start, introducing himself as one Norwegian’s finest young talents. After making his debut at age sixteen, he went on a fine streak of form, scoring twelve goals in thirty four games in 2014/15. He slowed down quite considerably last season, however his impressive showing during his one-week trip to Lennoxtown convinced former Celtic manager and Norwegian Ronny Deila to sign him for a relatively small fee. He officially joined Celtic this past summer, though has yet to make an impact in the first team.

Analysis: Ajer carries a bit of baggage with him to Celtic. He is known for being a bit over aggressive on the pitch, often times going into tackles a bit ruthlessly. He likes to have the ball at his feet, creating for others and opening up space for his teammates to make runs. However, he might be most dangerous when his team doesn’t have the ball. His aggressiveness and determination to get the ball back when his team loses it is something that you love to see out of young teenager. His 6’4” frame is a big part in why he’s such a pain to play against. It’s not often you’ll be able to escape Kristoffer with the ball when you’re in his vicinity. When Ajer gets the ball back he shows off his quick feet and skill, but also his long strides that let him glide down the field with ease. He reminds you of pre-injury Abou Diaby in that every touch and movement seems so effortless for him. Once he refines his skills a bit more and gets his game under control, he could take off.

Looking Ahead: Ajer has yet to feature in a Scottish Premiership match this season. Questions remain regarding if Brendan Rodgers sees a place for Ajer in his squad for the future. It seems a loan might be best for him to regain his form, or else he could end up heading down the wrong path like a few of the other top Norwegian youth talents have recently. With all that being said, Kristoffer Ajer is still a massively talented kid who is only eighteen years old, the future looks bright and an opportunity for some game time could show that.


DELE ALLI


20 / England / Tottenham Hotspur


Written by John Smith

Blurb: After securing a move to North London side Tottenham Hotspur in the 2015 Winter Transfer Window, it seemed as if it would be a long road ahead for Dele Alli to break into a strong Spurs side. Nearly two years on from the transfer, the highly-rated midfielder has gone on to earn the earn the right to be called one of England’s great young prospects currently. In his debut season, the English midfielder put in consistent top performances to earn a spot in the Team of the Season as well as claiming the prestigious Young Player of the Season award.

Analysis: After showing moments of brilliance at White Hart Lane as well as at former club MK Dons, it is no surprise that Alli has been heavily praised for his overall ability in recent times. A versatile midfielder capable of playing in either a central or attacking midfield role, the Englishman is a perfect fit in Pochettino’s side regardless of the position in midfield he plays. With traits of athleticism and skilfulness to his name, the midfielder is successfully able to pose a threat whenever he steps out onto the pitch.

Whilst having traits to fit into a central midfield role, Alli’s eye for goal – whether scoring or assisting – makes him seem a better fit to play in the No. 10 role. With a strong passing ability overall, Alli’s through balls in the attacking third allow for his team mates further up the field to try their luck at goal. Albeit having a build that does not replicate his height at 6’2’, Alli possesses a lot of balance and looks strong enough to stay on his feet from tackles and also when trying to win the ball back from the opposition.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: After an incredible start to his career at Tottenham Hotspur, it’s evident that the fans will want to see more and more from the midfielder in the coming years whilst learning his trade to become an even better player. Although discredited at first due to his lack of experience, the English midfielder deserves the praise he has received this year due to his brilliant start at Tottenham.

Whilst the North London side have not enjoyed the greatest of starts to the new league season, the future still looks bright. With a new stadium to move into combined with European football, success could be in sight for Spurs, and players such as Dele Alli will be looked upon to bring the team some glory.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Dele Alli


SANTIAGO ASCACIBAR


19 / Argentina / Estudiantes


Written by Tom Robinson

Blurb: When Gaston Gil Romero was allowed to leave Estudiantes at the start of the year, a few people were left scratching their heads. They needn’t have worried though because nineteen year-old midfield pitbull Ascacibar has more than filled his boots and has quickly become arguably the standout young player in the Primera Division over the last twelve months.

Analysis: Ascacibar possesses all the qualities you could possibly want from a defensive midfielder. Strong and accurate in the tackle but also positionally excellent, allowing him to make numerous interceptions before recycling possession to begin the next wave of attack. In fact, last season no player averaged more tackles per game (4.8) than Ascacibar.

And he has carried that form into the new season, helping his hometown side Estudiantes to the top of the table after a great start to the campaign which saw them go and unbeaten for the first ten games. The fact their only loss of the season came when Ascacibar was suspended, was no coincidence. Simply put, the young midfield tyro is already an integral part of the side and Estudiantes are a significantly better side when he is in the squad.  No mean feat when you consider he only made his debut in February.

One of few players to impress during Argentina’s ill-fated Olympics disaster, there are naturally areas for Ascacibar to work on though.  He can be a little hot-headed and over-zealous in the tackle – just see his challenge that sparked a brawl in a pre-season “friendly” against bitter rivals Gimnasia – and at 1.68m is never going to be the best in the air. But these are minor gripes and El Ruso has all the traits to become a truly superb number 5.

Looking Ahead: Still only 19 and playing good football at a title-challenging side, there will be no rush to move just yet.  There is also the added possibility of potentially playing alongside club legend and current president Juan Sebastian Veron in the Libertadores. Obviously a whole host of clubs are circling, but the smart money is on Ascacibar spending another year in Argentina trying to win domestic or continental silverware with Estudiantes.

At international level, Ascacibar should be included in the Argentina sub 20 squad that will participate in the Sudamericano in Ecuador in January, with the expectation of qualifying for the World Cup in South Korea later this year. Long term he has already been dubbed the replacement for Javier Mascherano as the Albiceleste’s midfield warrior and could go on to form an interesting double pivot with Kranevitter or Paredes in the not too distant future.


MARCO ASENSIO


20 / Spain / Real Madrid


Written by Tom Canton

Blurb: Marco Asensio, Spain’s next superstar. From breaking into Mallorca’s first team just over 3 years ago to scoring on his European, La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League debuts. The journey of Marco Asensio has been well documented and his improvement is astonishing for a player of his age.

What is most impressive about the young Spaniard is that the lights of Los Blancos have not dampened his spark. Whereas other players, even some highlighted in the #100ToWatch, have been slightly overcome by a more prominent league or club, Asensio built on his experience at Espanyol and brought that through to this season with the European Champions.

Analysis: In two seasons in Spain’s top flight, Asensio has displayed two different sides to his game. His loan spell at Espanyol during the last campaign was the year of creativity for the former Mallorca attacking midfielder. The Spaniard achieved thirteen assists for Espanyol in an indifferent campaign by the Catalan-based club.

Asensio has a wonderful ability at spotting passes, in particular, his reverse pass is a perfected attribute of his game. With the pace or Hernan Perez and Gerard Moreno, Asensio quickly integrated. This is another feature of his game, his versatility. Whether it was at Mallorca, Espanyol, Real Madrid or even the national side, Asensio slotted into any of the three attacking midfield roles – central, wide left or wide right.

This season, at Real Madrid, Asensio has built on his scoring abilities. Whilst he did score 4 goals in 34 league appearances for Espanyol, Asensio has two more goals in just 16 appearances across all competitions already. As previously mentioned, Asensio scored on his European, La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League debuts; his goal in the European Super Cup final against Sevilla was something to behold, a long range out-swinging effort into the top-left hand corner. Stunning.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking ahead: With a long-term injury to Gareth Bale, Asensio has looked to get more opportunities in the first team but regular utility man Lucas Vazquez has, so far, been Zidane’s choice on the wing. Zidane has stated his admiration for Asensio and knows that he has the potential to be a great player for the club in the future.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Marco Asensio


LEON BAILEY


19 / Jamaica / Genk


Written by Andrew Thompson

Blurb: There has never been a Jamaican player to take Europe by storm.  A handful carved out halfway decent careers, but never has one set the world alight.  Some will argue that Raheem Sterling deserves mention, and while he is in fact Jamaican-born, his status as an England international (all youth levels included) will see him go down in the record books as an English player rather than a Jamaican.

Despite the tiny Island nation being passionate about the beautiful game, their success as a country and indeed their players on an individual level has been less than underwhelming. There is one current young player who could change all that – Leon Bailey.

Analysis: A native of Kingston, Bailey would begin his footballing education at Phoenix All-Stars Jamaica, before swapping Jamaican sun for Austrian peaks in 2011 when he moved to USK Anif at the age of fourteen. Two years later he would move again, this time to Slovakian side AS Trencin, where he would feature for their U19-side. After his second two year spell, Belgian-side KRC Genk would come calling, paying 1.4 million Euros for his services in 2015.

His first season in Belgium would go off without a hitch, as Bailey went on to bag seven goals and eleven assists in forty-two appearances in all competitions en route to winning the Belgian Young Player of the Year award.  

During the current campaign, Bailey is once again impressing. Though he’s only registered one goal and five assists in seventeen combined domestic appearances, his performances in Europe have been nothing short of brilliant. Between Europa League qualifying and the group stage itself, Bailey has bagged seven goals and added a further three assists in eleven appearances – a brilliant return for a 19-year-old winger, while being Genk’s top scorer in the competition and earning them a place in the knockout stages.

Capable of playing on either flank in the attack with equal proficiency, Bailey is very much a threat from wide areas. Blessed with pace he may be, but his technical ability is laudable, highlighted by his 4.6 successful take-ons/90min in the Europa League.  Though his passing percentage rests at a respectable 78%, he certainly prefers to have the ball at his feet, creating space and chances with his willingness to take defenders on rather than pull strings.  He will even force his opponents into fouling, being taken down an average of two times per match, often times further forward.

Naturally he still has a bit of growing to do given his tender age, but on the balance of form combined with current ability, Bailey is seemingly one who can be tipped for bigger things.

Looking Ahead: Leon Bailey’s talismanic performances over a two year span for manager Peter Maes have been impressive to keep tabs on. While a move away from Belgium is sure to materialize as his development progresses, one question mark will surround his international career.

To date, Bailey has made just one appearance for Jamaica, a match with the U23’s against the Cayman Islands in which he scored. However, a player with his potential ceiling may surely look to play for a national team of higher pedigree.  It would not be the first time a youth player switched allegiances, with two recent examples being Wilfried Zaha (England to Ivory Coast) and Alex Iwobi (England to Nigeria). While Zaha and Iwobi switched given an increased ability to play, a change in who Bailey represents would surely be in relation to the level of competition as well as an increased chance of playing at a major international tournament.

Jamaica has performed admirably in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but only one appearance at a World Cup (France ‘98) surely won’t be enough. Come World Cup 2018, Bailey could well be eligible to feature for Belgium, and if his development continues on it’s current course, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he could be suiting up for De Rode Duivels in the future.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Leon Bailey


RIECHEDLY BAZOER


20 / Netherlands / Ajax


Written by Alex Lynch

Blurb: Another product of the famed Ajax youth system, Bazoer is an incredible talent. The 20-year-old is already a senior Dutch international after he made his first appearance for his country against Wales. His play for Ajax in last season’s Eredivisie didn’t disappoint, as Bazoer picked up five goals and four assists from his central midfield role. Despite all of the progress the Dutchman made last season, he’s fallen out of flavor with new boss Peter Bosz. Things haven’t gone his way this season, but Bazoer still earned the Ajax Talent of the Year award for 2016.

Analysis: Bazoer is a Dutch international at only 20 because of his impressive characteristics. One of his main strengths in the central midfield is his long range shooting ability. Bazoer displayed his shooting range against rivals Feyenoord, when he received a pass from outside of the box and without taking a touch he shot the ball into the top corner.

Another skill that Bazoer has is his passing ability, which is shown by his passing percentage of 85% and his four assists. His percentage has increased this season to 90% and Bazoer averages almost three long balls per game over his career. For a central midfielder like Bazoer, passing is incredibly important and one of his biggest strengths. Besides his passing, Bazoer is also a good dribbler of the ball. He averages more than one successful dribble per game, and the ball is rarely taken off him by the opposition. Part of the reason why Bazoer had the four assists from last season was because of his dribbling.

The 20-year-old also has plenty of experience for a player of his age. He’s already in his third season as a member of Ajax, while he’s featured in the Europa League during his time in Amsterdam as well. Bazoer has made over sixty appearances for Ajax in the Eredivisie and Dutch Cup alone, which is a lot for such a young player.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: With Bazoer’s presence at Ajax not looking as enticing as it did last season, his future is a bit uncertain. With the talent and the experience that Bazoer possesses though, there isn’t much need for concern. The track record that Ajax players have after leaving the club is phenomenal, which gives Bazoer a great chance to succeed at his next club should he move. As for his international career, once stalwarts like Robben and Sneijder retire, Bazoer could be one of the players who fills their boots.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Riechedly Bazoer


RODRIGO BENTANCUR


19 / Uruguay / Boca Juniors


Written by Tom Robinson

Blurb: Praised by Riquelme, Boca’s 19-year-old Uruguayan midfielder will join up with Juventus after the Italian Champions exercised their first option on him that was added as part of Tevez’s homecoming deal.  Despite his obvious talents, some Boca fans are yet to be truly convinced by the multi-functional midfielder. 2017 promises to be an important year in terms of his development.

Analysis: When he first broke through in 2015 under Rodolfo Arruabarrena, the expectation seemed to be that Bentancur would take on the role of enganche. His languid, elegant style drew comparisons with Javier Pastore and club idol Riquelme but by his own admission he sees himself as more of a deep-lying midfielder, more similar to current teammate Fernando Gago.

Tall, comfortable on the ball and with good passing and technique, Bentancur prefers to knit play together, providing the link between defence and midfield. Though not too quick, he can glide past players thanks to his balance and body shape. One aspect of his game that has improved lately is his defensive work and, while not an aggressive tackler, his reading of the game and ability to play his way out of danger makes him suited to playing at the base of midfield as well as further forward.

Nevertheless, there is a feeling among Boca fans that he has yet to prove his true worth. There are questions marks over his best position and he has yet to show consistent form, while lapses in concentration have led to the odd big mistake – such as a stray pass that cost Boca victory against San Lorenzo. Despite his height, he is not the best in the air or the strongest, occasionally losing the ball when in possession.  It’s easy to forget he is still just a teenager and all the raw material is there for him to become a very attractive footballer for club and country.

Looking Ahead: 2017 looks set to be a year of change and adaptation for Bentancur. You get the feeling that a move away from the intense pressure of Boca might do him well and Juventus know that they are investing in a long-term project. The most likely scenario is that Bentancur will go out on loan for a year or two to get used to the pace of Europe, while getting regular first team football.

At international level, Bentancur must aim to enter the conversation for a spot in the Uruguay team as the Charruas start to phase out the old guard. With no shortage of defensive midfielder and gifted playmakers, Bentancur’s versatility could be an interesting option for Oscar Tabarez in the near future.


GABRIEL BOSCHILIA


20 / Brazil / AS Monaco


Written by Mark Ooi

Blurb: For a player who was once Brazil’s top goalscorer at an Under-17 World Cup, in 2013, Gabriel Boschilia has largely stayed under the radar since. After leaving São Paulo in August 2015, the starlet has impressed at AS Monaco. The signs are there that he will continue to improve, with the potential to shine on the world stage, at both club and international level.

Analysis: He has a proficient level of footballing intelligence which allows him to utilise well his technical skills. On the ball, the young Brazilian is adept at passing long and short distances, and has a good passing range. Most importantly, his intelligence has aided his rather quick adaptation to European football, blending well with his Monaco team-mates. He has thus far had to be versatile and patient in fitting into the Monaco side. He has played on either flank in a playmaking capacity, albeit featuring off the bench for the most part.

Boschilia’s main strength is his technical ability. He has displayed a growing expertise with free kicks. It is in dead ball situations that he comes into his element. Looking past the talent, it is clear that a considerable amount of work has been put into practice in this area of Boschilia’s game. His technique allows him to stand out markedly from his peers. The way Boschilia strikes the ball makes it seem like he is stroking and caressing it, intimately whispering encouragement in its ears as the ball makes it way to the intended destination.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: Since returning from a six-month loan spell at Standard Liège in Belgium, Gabriel Boschilia has impressed as a squad player at Monaco. Being out of the double-edged sword that is the media spotlight has allowed the Brazilian to develop his game away from the hype and hyperbole that often surrounds young players in Brazil. He has shown the potential to reach the upper echelons of football, yet what he needs now is the patience to keep working on his game before thinking about a big move away from the Principality outfit.

French football has boasted of free kick specialists like Ronaldinho, Juninho Pernambucano and Dimitri Payet. Gabriel Boschilia might not reach the levels of his compatriot Juninho, but he might soon have his name up in the lights.


JULIAN BRANDT


20 / Germany / Bayer Leverkusen


Written by Alex Lynch

Blurb: Brandt has been one of the top German prospects for years, but now he’s truly become a prodigy. The German was one of the stars at the Rio Olympics as he led the tournament with seven assists and made the Team of the Tournament. His exploits in the Bundesliga were also outstanding this past year, as he scored in six consecutive games and finished with nine goals in eighteen starts. It was clear to every German football fan that Brandt had improved, which was displayed by the fact that Joachim Loew awarded him with a prestigious international call up.

Analysis: One of Brandt’s main strengths is his passing ability, which he showed with a wonderful assist against Leipzig. He ran down the through ball, and placed his pass between two defenders across the box to an open Kevin Kampl. 

Besides his passing, the twenty-year-old is also a good dribbler of the ball. Brandt showcased his dribbling ability against Stuttgart last season, with a couple of moves around a defender before he ran through the open field and got the assist. Part of the reason why Brandt picks up so many assists is his ability to free himself with his dribbling.

Another main strength of the German’s as a player is his pace. This aspect of his game is why he’s often alone when he scores, since he runs by the defense. His goal against Darmstadt demonstrated his pace, as he ran down a long ball and put away the easy finish. That goal displayed Brandt’s ability to get in behind the opposition, and it’s part of the reason why he scored in six consecutive games last season. Most top class wide players have pace to burn, and Brandt fits that profile.

Looking Ahead: Brandt continues to make a name for himself with his fine displays in the Bundesliga as his future is incredibly bright. His passing, dribbling and pace make the 20-year-old a can’t miss prospect for football fans. Brandt’s international future is also very bright with Loew finally giving him a shot with the senior squad. People in Germany see him as the next Marco Reus, and Brandt certainly has the talent to live up to that billing.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Julian Brandt


Goalkeepers Part 1 → // Defenders Part 2  → // Defenders Part 3  → // Defenders Part 4  → // Midfielders Part 6 → // Midfielders Part 7 → // Midfielders Part 8 → // Forwards Part 9 → // Forwards Part 10 →


2017 // 2016 // 2015 // 2014