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100 to Watch in 2018

100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2018 | Part 2 | Defenders

For the 5th year running, Outside of the Boot has returned with our year’s special feature – a detailed look at the best young players every football enthusiast must keep an eye out for in 2018.

This feature is published in 10 parts which help us divide the list positionally (5 goalkeepers, 30 defenders, 35 midfielders, 30 forwards). 

All players born on or after January 1st 1997 are eligible for the feature.


19 / England / Liverpool

Written by Sami Faizullah

Blurb: After producing the likes of Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen in the not too distant past, Liverpool’s academy seemed to have stagnated for the last couple of seasons in developing first team players. But when manager Jurgen Klopp integrated Trent Alexander-Arnold into his first-team squads before eventually handing a first league start at Old Trafford, Liverpool supporters were convinced they had their next big home grown local talent.

Analysis: Alexander-Arnold’s rise to first team football was gradual after initially being named in the match-day squad for the opening game of the 2016-17 season. He wouldn’t make his first team debut until two months later in the League Cup. But being Klopp’s first established academy graduate during his Liverpool tenure, Alexander-Arnold has benefited from being moulded into the German’s style of play. With an intense work-rate, the 19-year-old has firmly won over Liverpool supporters. Marauding runs down the flanks to support the attack, and threatening crosses into the box, Alexander-Arnold has done well to deputise for the injured Nathaniel Clyne (a role he shares with Joe Gomez).

Though initially deceiving due to his physical appearance, Alexander-Arnold has shown immense strength in duels to recover possession. His tactical awareness ensures he’s rarely caught out of position, and he recently showcased his ability from dead-ball situations. Whilst Alexander-Arnold seemed a raw nervous youngster in the game against Manchester United at Old Trafford, he has developed quickly into a more polished player in recent months.

Looking Ahead: Though Klopp would have been disappointed at the long injury lay-off suffered by Nathaniel Clyne, he’ll certainly be pleased with how Trent Alexander-Arnold (and Joe Gomez) have stepped up. The 19-year-old Liverpool local is in the midst of healthy competition with Joe Gomez for the right-back spot for the foreseeable future. He may have not expected to have had as much experience for the first team by the age of 19, but the journey has only started for Trent. 2018 will see him attempt to establish himself as a main-stay, much like Gerrard and Carragher before him. Liverpool supporters have for years been calling for more passionate displays on the field- with Klopp in the dugout and local talent in the ranks, they are being treated to their wishes.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Trent Alexander-Arnold


20 / Mexico / Club America

Written by Thomas Harrison

Blurb: After making his league debut in October 2016, Edson Álvarez has rapidly ascended to become a regular starter at Club América, and one of Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s favourite players. Osorio took him to the Confederations Cup for experience in a big tournament, used Álvarez in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and has since regularly called him up for qualifiers and friendlies. A place in the World Cup squad is certainly up for grabs.

Analysis: Edson Álvarez is a versatile defensive player, capable of filling in at centre-back, defensive-midfield and right-back.

When Álvarez burst onto the scene last autumn, he instantly caught the eye with how comfortable he was in possession, and this is backed up by stats from this season. With 1.4 per hundred possessions, Edson completes a much greater rate of dribbles than the average Liga MX centre-back (0.5 per hundred possessions), and misses a lower rate of passes (14.8 compared to 15.5 per hundred possessions for the league average).

Álvarez is also adept at winning one v one duels. In the 2017 Apertura, the América defender won over 58% of his duels, and 54% of his aerial duels, aided by his 6’3” height. Coming from Mexico, where the average male height is around 5’7”, Edson’s height is noteworthy, especially considering Juan Carlos Osorio’s belief that at least six “tall” players are needed on a pitch at all times.

The area where Álvarez must improve is in winning possession. When looking at the fifty centre-backs that have played more than five hundred minutes in Mexico this season, Edson is ranked just 29th for possession won per ninety minutes.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: This time last year Edson Álvarez would have been a complete outside shout for a World Cup place, but now his chances look very positive. His quality in possession, height, ability to play in multiple positions and in different systems makes him an extremely attractive option for Osorio.

If he continues to impress for club and country, Álvarez looks very likely to end up on the plane to Russia. In fact, he may be able to develop into a regular starter, probably either at defensive midfield or right-back, considering the inconsistent performances from the likes of Diego Reyes and Carlos Salcedo.


20 / Brazil / Corinthians

Written by Anderson Moura

Blurb: In 2015, Corinthians were crowned the champions of the Brazilian First Division and many had the impression the left-back was a place of no concern with Uendel and his back up, Guilherme Arana. 2017 comes to an end with another national title for the club and this time the position had an even bigger impact and importance during the season. Arana had an absurd growth and not only is he the indisputable owner of the left flank on his team, he can also indisputably be elected the best left-back of the 2017 Brasileirão at only 20 years of age.

Analysis: Arana is the classic Brazilian full-back, with a strong presence in the offensive game and skills that could make him a fantastic winger elsewhere. But luckily, he was shaped in Corinthians, a European-style team in the last few years, and had two perfect coaches to help his defensive attributes and increase his awareness: Tite and Fabio Carille. Altering his aggressive game to a team which values a strong tactical commitment could only benefit him to become a complete player.

But Guilherme has to improve his maturity. He’s gotten into trouble on social media, but sometimes the lack of responsibility is also seen on the field and one of his strong points may turn into a trap. Arana just loves to nutmeg his rivals. He can’t control himself and he’s pretty good at it. But this can be a problem when he is on his own or when his team is preparing to advance on a fast transition. This is however his only weak point and is compensated by accurate passes and crosses and, mainly, by his attitude in big games. He loves the derbies and knockout round matches.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: Thinking about the Brazilian national team is natural for someone with Arana’s virtues, but this is probably the most crowded sector of the Seleção, with Marcelo, Filipe Luís, Alex Sandro and Jorge ahead of him. 2018 will bring a new challenge, with Arana’s move to Sevilla confirmed in the new year. Corinthians were unable to hold on to him, as his time has come. He just needs to have a clear and focused mind and, if he succeeds, he can easily play for a bunch of great teams, starting with Sevilla.


20 / Croatia / Dinamo Zagreb

Written by Mateus Carvalho

Blurb: Having spent all of his formative years at Dinamo Zagreb, Filip Benkovic managed to obtain a spot in Dinamo’s line-up at the age of 19. A regular of the Croatian U21 national team, the young centre-back has already gathered a lot of experience due to his Champions League and Europa League appearances, something that differentiates all young players that play for Dinamo Zagreb in terms of competitive maturity.

Analysis: Benkovic embodies the paradigm of the modern centre-back. On one hand, he has the physical build to assert himself against his opposition, helping him to show a great heading game, which has also benefited him in offensive aspects (for example, he has already scored three goals this season at the time of writing).

On the other hand, he sets himself apart from other developing players in his position by his great passing skills (mainly his impeccable long passing) and ease in starting the build-up whether discovering teammates in the half-spaces or using his pace and technical skills to advance with the ball at his feet.

It would be remiss to not mention Benkovic’s tactical knowledge. He is keen to ‘read’ the game and is able to apply this capacity in his positioning, which will ultimately result in a high rate of interceptions and anticipation moves, completed by his very effective (in an almost stylish way) tackling technique.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: Even though a continuation of his spell at Dinamo would always benefit him, the Croatian starlet seems to be in line for a big transfer. After almost two years of accumulated experience as a starter in Dinamo, such a turn of events would not be that surprising. Regardless of the choices Benkovic makes in the near future, it seems that he is determined to grow sustainably as a player, not rushing into anything. That mentality can lead him to fulfil his bright promise.


18 / Netherlands / Ajax

Written by Jack Heale

Blurb: Brought up through the respected ranks of the Ajax academy, Matthijs de Ligt has had a meteoric rise to the starting side in the most iconic team Netherlands has to offer. Just over a month after his 17th birthday, De Ligt deputised and scored against Willem II to make himself the second youngest scorer in the club’s history. Since then, the 18-year-old has firmly established himself as one of the hottest prospects in football and a leader in a youthful Ajax side.

Analysis: De Ligt is the complete modern-day centre back. One of De Ligt’s main assets that sets him apart from the rest is that he oozes composure when in possession of the ball. He is calm, cool and collected in the light of pressure from opponents, which allows him to stride out of the backline further afield. When moving forward, he will often have found the appropriate pass whether that be of a short distance or long. This is reflected by his impeccable 90.2% pass competition in the Eredivisie this season.

Standing at 6’2”, his well-built frame enables him to succeed in one-on-one duels with opponents and assert his dominance over them in contention for the ball. De Ligt triumphs in the air winning in an average of 3.3 duels per game. His proficiency from set-pieces is clear to see when helping to contribute to the goals this season, with two in the Eredivisie both against NAC Breda, one being a precise header and the other a glancing volley, demonstrating his threat in both attack and defence.

Looking Ahead: De Ligt will undoubtedly sustain his position as Ajax’s main man at the back for the remainder of the campaign and must continue to solidify his partnership with fellow countryman Joel Veltman to have a chance of chasing league leaders PSV. On the national team front, he will be looking to build on his pair of caps for the Netherlands in order to cement his spot in the side.

There is no doubt that the still-developing Dutchman has a bright future ahead and if performances of these standards can be maintained then some of Europe’s top clubs will be in contention for his signature. Whatever his future beholds, it will surely lead him to prosperity at club and international level.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Matthijs De Ligt


20 / France / Toulouse

Written by Nathan Staples

Blurb: France have a frightening amount of quality young centre-backs at the moment and none come much better than Toulouse man Issa Diop. After impressing over the past two campaigns and Les Violets batting away offers from RB Leipzig this summer, the 20-year-old has now been made captain by Pascal Dupraz in an effort to keep him on the upward trajectory.

Analysis: Diop has all the attributes that big clubs look for in their defenders. He possesses what you usually expect from a defender in terms of strength, size and heading ability but mixes it with the rarer traits of speed to cover and passing ability.

However, the most important is positioning and he’s getting better as time goes on. He likes to play on the front foot and be aggressive in pressing players but over the last year, he’s learned when that’s needed and when it’s more important to hold the defensive line. It’s emphasised by his 2.6 interceptions per game, only bettered by Papy Djilobodji for centre-backs. He always seems to know where he needs to be to snuff out danger, without even having to put a tackle in.

A threat from set-pieces too, he’s almost the perfect package at the back. If he can become a little more confident when pressured and even add long passing to his game, he could be frighteningly good.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: It’s been a tough 2017 for Toulouse, especially with Diop’s partnership with Christopher Julien starting to weaken. Now, the onus is on the captain to be the inspiration, both to help lift his fellow defenders and rise to the leadership the rest of the squad need to get out of their current rut.

Both of those will be real defining moments of a young career that if he passes, clubs should be queueing to sign him in the summer. From humble beginnings, to a breakout year and then a growth into an influential individual, that should be too hard for many to ignore and Toulouse could be in for a big payday.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Issa Diop


20 / Portugal / Estoril Praia (on loan from Porto)

Written by Jose Miguel Saraiva

Blurb: Fernando Fonseca was truly a surprise as he has never stood out significantly in his previous seasons in Porto’s youth and B teams. He has always played regularly in every season but it wasn’t clear whether or not he could achieve a level that was good enough to play in the Primeira Liga. He is currently in the mid-table Portuguese team Estoril Praia, on loan from Porto, and he has been a reasonably regular option so far.

Analysis: Fernando Fonseca is a Portuguese right-back that mainly stands out for his accurate positioning skills and defensive stability. He is a player that enjoys moving up in the field and participating in attacking situations. Being a young and inexperienced player, he still doesn’t have the necessary confidence to risk performing attacking individual initiatives as we are used to seeing in the modern-day full-backs. Such confidence will only grow if he plays regularly at a high level; he certainly has the required quality to play at such level.

Nevertheless, despite not being a right-back with a very clear attacking proclivity, he is undoubtedly a defensively assuring right-back, being very abiding and stable in terms of tactical positioning. Technically, he is at the level of the modern Portuguese youngster, mainly those raised in the great Portuguese clubs, showing great technical capacity. Such capacity always ends up benefitting the player, especially when he plays in or faces teams of a lower competitive level.

Looking Ahead: Fonseca is unquestionably a young player with a big question mark on top, but that question mark is fading more and more, as football fans can state by watching some of Fernando Fonseca’s performances, both at Estoril and in the national age-level teams. However, every young promising player must pass this crucial test, which involves playing more and more in first-tier teams, gradually evolving and becoming more used to that competitive level. Fonseca is currently taking that test and so far, he has been having a good run. The current and future seasons will be crucial for his evolution and for his affirmation in Portuguese football, at first, and hopefully in European football.


19 / South Africa / Bidvest Wits

Written by Liam Bekker

Blurb: Having spent his junior years at the club operating as a winger, Reeve Frosler was converted to the full-back role by Bidvest Wits manager Gavin Hunt towards the back end of last season’s Premier Soccer League campaign. Frosler proceeded to start and play every minute of the eleven matches thereafter and thus repaid Hunt’s faith in him by helping the club charge towards their first ever league title.

Analysis: Born in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, Frosler has established himself as one of South Africa’s brightest young talents. Towards the end of last season, manager Gavin Hunt described him as ‘the future’ and highlighted his strengths, stating that, “he’s got good pace, he’s good in the air, can pass the ball, he’s tough. He’s got all the ingredients we need.”

While these attributes have seen Frosler adapt to a new position better than most would have expected, there are still a few positional and defensive aspects to his game which need refining. He is an intelligent and highly talented player, however, and these facets will undoubtedly be improved upon as he gains experience. Frosler’s versatility also makes him a valuable asset for his side as he is able to cover and contribute successfully in a number of positions.

Looking Ahead: Frosler will undoubtedly become one of the star players in the PSL in the coming years but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to achieve the much-coveted goal of European football. Having represented South Africa at various youth levels, including appearing at the 2017 U20 World Cup, Frosler also looks set to break into the senior international side in the near future.


20 / Australia / Rosenborg

Written by Ben Cullimore

Blurb: Despite only being 20 years of age, Alex Gersbach never fails to dazzle both domestically and internationally as he continues to rack up plenty of game time. He may be young, but the talented left-back already has 81 league appearances to his name, and his progression hasn’t gone unnoticed. With four senior international caps, one gets the feeling it won’t be long before he’s a fully established member of the Australia squad.

Analysis: Gersbach only turned 20 in May but it’s already been over three years since he was handed his senior debut for Sydney FC in the A-League. He made an immediate impact at his hometown club, earning him a move to Norwegian giants Rosenborg in January 2016. Since then, he has only continued to develop, and his time in Trondheim has helped him flourish into a thoroughly impressive and energetic full-back. A slightly lanky figure, Gersbach doesn’t look the most imposing of defenders, but he boasts the important combination of strength and agility that all full-backs desire.

His positional awareness and reading of the game has improved since joining Rosenborg, and his time with the 25-time league winners has allowed him to also develop his attacking capabilities. The danger he poses inside the oppositions’ half of the pitch was evident when, operating as a wing-back, he was on hand to win a penalty in Australia’s 1-1 draw with Cameroon at the Confederations Cup, and it seems that is a position in which he is starting to feel increasingly comfortable. He’s still not the finished article but has certainly done enough to make other clubs sit up and take notice.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: Playing for Norway’s most dominant club has certainly helped aid Gersbach’s development, as the free-flowing, attacking style utilised at Rosenborg has allowed him to flourish in a more offense-minded role. However, he has dropped slightly behind fellow impressive youngster Birger Meling in the pecking order and was limited to fifteen league appearances this season, with six of those coming from the substitutes’ bench. Whilst he has indicated a desire to fight for his place in the team, it may soon be time for Gersbach to continue his development elsewhere. There’s no doubt several clubs would love to have the youngster bursting up and down their left wing on a weekly basis, and further playing time would help him make the case for a more regular place in the Australia national team heading into next year’s World Cup.


20 / United States of America / Real Salt Lake

Written by Anderson Moura

Blurb: Justen Glad has an easy smile in most of his interviews, but his defensive talent is becoming something very serious. Technical full-backs are always a rest for sore eyes. Some may like the Neanderthal style in defense, and that is necessary sometimes, but those who understand and value possession knows how important it is to have a ball playing defender to start the set-pieces earlier and avoid errors on their own field. 

Analysis: What makes Glad so special is his capacity to work with and without the ball. When he has it, he shows a great first touch and a great accuracy on passes. And when he has to face the opponent his positioning is incredible. He has a good height to win aerial duels (1.83m), but what makes him so efficient in these moments is his game reading. He knows where he has to be to avoid the rival to reach the ball and often block it.

Justen is aware he can improve his physical game; he is already having a special program with the team’s strength conditioning coach. It’s very common that MLS teams uses burly strikers and Justen needs more balance to deal with them. That is a point where he has already made some progress, but there is room for more.

His agility and skills with the ball made him an option to play at right-back position in the 2017 U20 World Cup. While this is not something coach Mike Petke is willing to go deeper into at Salt Lake, this is an ace Justen can have on his sleeve in an emergency situation.

Talent Radar Accolades:

Looking Ahead: USA’s failure to quality for the World Cup means there is time for a revolution in the USNMT. Justen can take advantage since there is no unanimity in the defensive line. Some old names may remain in the squad, but the trend is experimentation. He may need Real Salt Lake to contend more in the West Conference to help boost his career, but his experience at the national sides since the U17 team- including a U20 World Cup- is definitely already being considered. Even though he has only played for the youth teams, international experience is still a very important asset.

2018: Full List

Parts: 1 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10

2017 // 2016 // 2015 // 2014

Images: Getty / Illustrations: Sami Faizullah

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