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100 to Watch in 2018

100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2018 | Part 3 | 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.


JORIS GNAGNON


20 / France / Stade Rennais


Written by Dan Davis

Blurb: Gnagnon was born just outside France and plays his football for Stade Rennais. The 20-year-old has slotted perfectly into the club’s backline and is now considered the club’s finest defender. It wasn’t until the age of 18 when Gnagnon was persuaded to sign for a youth academy, and the young centre-back opted for the facilities at Rennes in 2014. He made his Ligue 1 debut against Troyes in January 2016, and hasn’t looked back since.

Analysis: Gnagnon could be considered relatively small for a centre-back, as he stands at roughly 6ft tall. However, his physical prowess is surprising for a player such a short way through his career, and he has proven time and time again this season that he is more than capable of repelling the league’s finest attackers. His calmness in possession is another invaluable trait for the youngster. It would be extremely easy for any inexperienced defender to simply clear their lines when put under pressure, but Gnagnon isn’t afraid to dribble out from the back and play a mixture of simple and long passes to spark attacks.

In March, Gnagnon made his debut for the France U20 team, and he proved himself capable of adapting quickly to international football. Despite that fixture being his first for a French international youth team, the youngster impressed with his no-nonsense defending and eye for an incisive pass.

Looking Ahead: In the latter half of this year, Gnagnon decided he would represent Ivory Coast at international level, and was called up to the national team for the first time in May. If the talented defender is able to continuing impressing for Rennes, then a move to a larger European club is sure to be just on the horizon. Further opportunities are guaranteed at international level, if Gnagnon can continue his solid start to the Ligue 1 campaign. France is well known for its solid central defenders, and Gnagnon promises to be another addition to that ever-growing roster.


JOE GOMEZ


20 / England / Liverpool


Written by Sami Faizullah

Blurb: Joe Gomez was set to be another common rhetoric of a young player who made a big Premier League move too soon. That story would end with disappointment and eventual lower league obscurity after being ravaged by injuries before realising his true potential wasn’t meant for the grand stages. The 20-year-old Gomez was well on course to fit that profile, before eventually turning his career around.

Analysis: There were nearly two full years between Joe Gomez’ last Premier League appearance and the next post his injury. Under Brendan Rodgers he was deployed in a left-back role; Jurgen Klopp has continued to use him on the opposite flank of the defence whilst Gareth Southgate handed Gomez his England senior debut in a central defensive role. Such is the Liverpool youngsters’ versatility that his central defensive allegiance has propelled him to combine his defensive traits wherever he is deployed.

Gomez has more recently done well in developing his abilities as a full-back, both in terms of supporting the attack and his positional awareness when the team lose possession. Young full backs are often accused of lacking in the defensive department, especially in their understanding of the game. But Gomez employs a central defender‘s method of defending in the full back role. This is particularly helpful when his side are in a phase without possession for extended periods of the game.

He also doesn’t shy away from putting a strong foot in while defending, unlike many younger full backs who are often more concerned with showing the attacker onto the wrong side, or driving him into a central defender who recovers possession.

Having said that, his style of play is certainly suited for a central defensive role- a position he developed at Charlton Athletic, and more recently showcased on his England debut. Combining his newfound full-back experience, Gomez would be a rare youngster who’d switch from full back to central defense early in their career and bring a ball playing aspect to it as modern football demands.

Looking Ahead: Once Liverpool’s injuries in defence sort themselves out, Klopp may well be thinking of handing Gomez a change of roles better suited for the 20-year-old‘s attributes. More importantly though, Gomez will be looking for a World Cup call-up in 2018 that was more than unlikely in the not too distant past.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Joe Gomez


ACHRAF HAKIMI


19 / Morocco / Real Madrid


Written by Tom Canton

Blurb: With the new-look setup at Real Madrid seeing the likes of Marco Asensio, Theo Hernandez and Vallejo making more regular appearances for Los Blancos’ first team, it is no surprise to see Zidane deciding to opt for a youth player to be the backup for one of the world’s top right-backs in Dani Carvajal. Achraf Hakimi, a Madrid-born Moroccan 19-year-old, has seen his footballing world explode over the course of this season. From scoring his first goal against Fuenlabrada in the Castilla side back in 2016 to being promoted to the first team squad last summer and playing in the Champions League alongside his heroes: quite simply, that is the dream.

Analysis: That dream though has been fulfilled from far more than pure luck. It is not every day when Madrid decide to sell a 30 million pound Brazilian full-back to Manchester City to replace him with a 19-year-old youth player. Hakimi has worked extremely hard to get to where he is and be noticed by the mercurial Zinedine Zidane.

His work-rate is, at times, difficult to comprehend. The Moroccan can run about a pitch like a stabbed rat so determined to retrieve possession it can sometimes be considered erratic. It is this desire which has led him not just into his club’s first team but also onto the international stage. Hakimi started the final 4 World Cup qualifiers for Morocco, scoring in the 6-0 demolition of Mali, as Les Lions de l’Atlas marched on to qualify for Russia 2018 with a 2-0 victory over regular attendees Ivory Coast. For Morocco, Hakimi showed his versatility playing as a left-back, performing consistently there, cutting inside often but making accurate and incisive passes through the opposition’s back line.

Looking Ahead: With Carvajal back in the first team, opportunities will not be coming thick and fast for Hakimi so the chances in the Copa Del Rey fixtures and the odd La Liga game will need to be grasped tightly. He can then continue to show his worth at both club and international level, as he gets ready for the World Cup. Luckily, Zidane’s success last season saw a rotation technique employed to keep the first team fresh. Hakimi can take confidence from this and hope that more opportunities will arise to allow him to impress.


BENJAMIN HENRICHS


20 / Germany / Bayer Leverkusen


Written by Griffin O’Neill

Blurb: After making his Bayer Leverkusen debut in 2015, Benjamin Henrichs has become one of the brightest full-back prospects in the world. His ability to play on either side of the back line has helped him become a staple for the Leverkusen first team over the past three years, making over fifty appearances as well as his senior international debut for Germany as a teenager.

Analysis: Like many modern defenders, Henrichs is extremely accomplished on the ball. He completes more than 35 passes per game, which is one of the best rates for fullbacks in the Bundesliga. While he can get forward very well, Henrichs is also an extremely accomplished defender. In seven Bundesliga appearances so far this season, Henriches has completed 2.9 tackles per game, while only being beaten 0.9 times per game. This is a very impressive ratio for a player as young as Henrichs.

One place where Henrichs does struggle is in his physical presence. Because of his slight frame, he struggles in aerial duels and can sometimes be pushed around by larger attackers. Henrichs wins less than half of his aerial duels, a problem when defending set pieces, but this physicality will come with time. His development is also seriously helped by the faith that both Tayfun Korkut and Heiko Herrlich have placed in a player as young as Henrichs when they could have easily gone with the safer option and played a more experienced player instead.

Talent Radar Accolades:

Looking Ahead: Due to Henrichs’ already highly developed football IQ and maturity, there is almost nothing holding him back from becoming a regular for the German national team as well as making a move to one of Europe’s elite teams in the next few years. He already has four caps for the senior team, and with Germany’s lack of world class fullbacks since the retirement of Phillip Lahm, Henrichs is in the poll position to become a key member of one of the world’s best national teams.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Benjamin Henrichs


DANE INGHAM


18 / New Zealand / Brisbane Roar


Written by Oliver McManus

BlurbDane Ingham made the headlines in Oceania when he opted to play for New Zealand as opposed to his birth country of Australia back in March this year. Since then, he has managed to start making the front pages thanks to his performances on the pitch. The 18-year-old plays for Brisbane Roar in the A-League having been part of their youth academy system since 2015 and became the club’s second youngest goal scorer of all time when he netted against Perth Glory in just his second professional game.

AnalysisA right-back who’s been dabbling slightly further up in midfield for both Roar’s first team and the reserves, Ingham has caught the eye of pundits down under thanks to his high attacking work rate. This is owing in large parts to his slight, nimbly figure combined with a quick turn of pace that enables him to provide a secondary attacking option via the overlapping run.

The right footed defender measures up at 6’1” and uses all of that height to prove a deceptive threat from within the box with Ingham being a capable man-marker from set pieces as well as being one to watch from inside the opposing 18-yard area- he’s won 100 aerial duals already this season.

However, questions have been raised at the fitness levels of the youngster after he was sent home from international duty for not being “match fit” earlier this year. The four-time national representative is determined to put those fears to bed and has been working hard on his conditioning in the run-up to the A-League this year.

Having played 29 times for the Brisbane Roar Reserves and seven times for the first team, Ingham is very much in the development stage of his career but his rate of improvement over the last 12 months has been exponential, to say the least.

Looking ForwardWith two appearances in the A-League this season, Ingham already has nearly 80% of A-League minutes under his belt as he did last season and with two-thirds of the campaign still to go, he’ll be looking to establish his name in the Roar first-team.

In order to become the poster boy of New Zealand football he’ll need to focus more on his match level fitness as well as becoming more of a well-rounded defensive footballer. Nonetheless, Ingham looks likely to have a bright future and could be the All Whites’ best shot at cracking the European footballing scene in recent memory.


PABLO MAFFEO


20 / Spain / Girona (on loan from Manchester City)


Written by Rahul Warrier

BlurbThere is a sense of fate in that Pablo Maffeo, a Catalan, is making waves at Girona this season. Manchester City, who own him, are managed by Pep Guardiola, while his brother Pere and City’s owners hold a 40% stake each in Girona. Born in Barcelona, the right-back spent ten years in Espanyol’s academy, before being poached by City in 2013. He earned a smattering of cup appearances in 2015 and 2016, but his loan spell to Girona in Jan 2017 was the breakthrough he needed. After extending his loan for this year, he’s now soaring high.

AnalysisNot many can come out of man-marking Messi with credit to his name, but Maffeo did so, and with effusive praise from Messi too. While Girona suffered a loss in the end, ironically in part due to the man-marking, Maffeo did his job with determination and the desire to impress. By neutralising the dangers that Messi posed, following him around the pitch relentlessly, he demonstrated his ability to follow tactical instructions as well as sacrifice himself for the team.

Maffeo is not a stereotypical full-back: rather than relying solely on pace, he is much more intelligent and balanced in his duties as a full-back. He is not one-dimensional: that sense of control and responsibility is an excellent skill to possess in one’s locker. That allows him to shut out any attacker, regardless of name or stature.

His size remains the main concern: he remains lithe and is unlikely to outmuscle opponents. Whether or not he will be able to cope in the rough physicality of the Premier League remains to be seen. But Maffeo is smart enough to have realised that, and his footballing brain will ensure he works on using brain, rather than brawn, in outmuscling footballers. He’s shown that against Cristiano Ronaldo this season, and he won’t be the last. Maffeo has a bright future ahead of him, with a skill-set that many will treasure (including Guardiola).

Looking AheadThe future shines bright for the young Spaniard. City’s full-back problems have been long documented, but with their summer acquisitions, it is tough to see where he fits. Dislodging Kyle Walker from the first XI next season will be difficult, considering his reputation, but it is not a herculean task. His City future revolves around Guardiola, and if the manager decides to keep him and gives him a chance, you can discount Maffeo at your own risk.

For now, Girona remain the ideal place for development; playing week in and week out against high quality opponents in the La Liga. The club’s growth mirrors his: seamlessly adjusting from the second tier to the first. Maffeo is fast becoming one of the best youngsters City have at their disposal; it is up to them to ensure they keep up his progression. If they do, the sky is the limit for Maffeo.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Pablo Maffeo


CRISTIAN MANEA


20 / Romania / CFR Cluj ( on loan from Apollon Limassol)


Written by Youssef Amin

Blurb: Cristian Manea is a 19-year-old defender who is one of the most promising prospects to come out of Romania in recent years. The right-back started off at the famed Gheorge Hagi academy staying there for the entirety of his youth career. He then moved to Viitorul Constanta and was there for a short time before he was signed by his current club Apollon Limassol. He has been sent on a series of loans, most recently at CFR Cluj. He also has the honour of being the youngest ever player to start for the Romanian national team.

Analysis: Manea is very much an old school full-back- he enjoys defending more than attacking, something you don’t see a lot these days. That is largely due to the fact that he started his career in a more central position, playing mostly as a centre-back or a defensive midfielder. His strongest attributes are his pace and positioning, making him the perfect defensive full-back. He loves getting stuck in and he attempts a lot of slide tackles, which can sometimes be risky. Despite that he is comfortable in the attacking phase; while his stats don’t convey this, he is a good presence in attack when he decides to come forward. He is very confident and with bundles of pace he is a good attacking weapon: he just needs to work on his final ball.

One concern in his game is his attitude: his loan spell abroad at Mouscron in the Belgian League was a failure due to his attitude. He believed he was better than he was and he struggled for game time, not even getting on when Mircea Rednic, a fellow Romanian, was hired as manager. He seems to have recovered though and has endured a very good start to the season with Cluj.

Looking Ahead: If he keeps his attitude in check then Manea will almost definitely end up at a big club soon. There has already been a mooted move to Chelsea that apparently collapsed, resulting in his move to Limassol. His progress was stunted a bit with a couple of failed loan spells but he seems to be back on track at Cluj this season. If he continues his current form then the interest in him will be inevitably renewed. Whether from Chelsea or from other clubs, this youngster has a very promising career ahead of him.


CESAR MONTES


20 / Mexico / Monterrey


Written by Tom Harrison

Blurb: This year hasn’t exactly gone to plan. César Montes continued to enhance his reputation with a strong 2017 Clausura but is still struggling to impress Mexico boss Juan Carlos Osorio. Montes did earn a call-up to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where a “B” squad was sent due to Mexico’s involvement in the Confederations Cup, but Montes started just one of El Tri’s five matches.

AnalysisOsorio’s apparent dislike of Montes is difficult to comprehend. Like fellow young defender Edson Álvarez, a favourite of Osorio, Montes is very tall and comfortable in possession. César’s passing, particularly his ability to pick out long range through balls, is often cited as one of his main strengths.

Failing to break into Osorio’s first team plans ahead of a World Cup year isn’t the only concern for Montes. The Monterrey centre-back has been placed on the bench for three of the 11 Liga MX matches that he’s been available for, and has recently been missing through injury.

Monterrey have dominated the 2017 Apertura, but there’s evidence to suggest that fellow, and more experienced, centre-backs José María Basanta and Nicolas Sánchez have out-performed Montes. Basanta and Sánchez have won possession more often per 90 minutes than Montes has, and have better duel win percentages. César’s passing accuracy has also dropped in comparison to 2016/17, although this may be due to the highly-direct style adopted this campaign by Monterrey coach Antonio Mohamed.

Talent Radar Accolades:

Looking Forward: Montes needs to remain fit and continue to develop as a player if he’s to re-cement himself as a regular for Monterrey and have a good chance of making it onto the plane to Russia.

Regarded as one of Mexico’s top young talents for a couple of years, Montes is likely to have turned more than a couple of heads in Europe. If César has stagnated, or even regressed a little over the past few months, a move to Europe, and all the challenges that it will entail, could be a fantastic way to push the 20-year-old to the next level. The potential is certainly there.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Cesar Montes


YUTA NAKAYAMA


20 / Japan / Kashiwa Reysol


Written by Josh Sippie

Blurb: Yuta Nakayama won the best young player award in the J-League this year, which just adds to his growing resume of potential international relevance. He continues to build on his potential with steady, reliable performances that prove that he isn’t just a prospect, but that, at the age of 20, he is a consistent defender worthy of the praise he receives.

Analysis: Nakayama fits the requirements of a young defender. One of those is his reading of the game. No play is ever out of reach and no ball is ever not his responsibility. He is always putting himself in position to make a difference, whether that be making clearances off the line or slowing down the attacker as the last line of the defense. He always manages to put himself in a position to get the job done.

Going beyond that, his calmness is another highlight. Any time he finds himself in these one-on-one situations, he doesn’t make a rash tackle or throw himself at the opponent. He is able to read the situation and assess what his options are and usually make the right one. This intelligence pairs incredibly well with his body’s ability to utilize it.

He is superb at cutting out passes of all types- low crosses, high crosses, over the top balls- he can cover it all. And with some speedy wheels to this name, he is rarely caught out of position because his recovery speed simply doesn’t allow him to be. He can track back just as quick if not quicker than most attackers and get himself back into a position or snuff out the attack entirely before any serious threats emerge.

Looking Forward: Nakayama broke through into the J-League in a big way in 2016, making 34 appearances with the club and scoring two goals in the process. That regularity in the starting XI has proceeded into the 2017 season, where he made 30 appearances and continued to elevate himself to the top tier of J-League players. At just 20, he may start to look to assert himself on the European stage before too much longer.

Looking into 2018, Nakayama is unlikely to push away from Kashiwa Reysol yet, not with a senior Japan call-up likely around the corner, but keep an eye on him in the years to come, because this is a name you’ll want to remember.


UNAI NUNEZ


20 / Spain / Athletic Club


Written by Tom Canton

BlurbIt would almost feel blasphemous for an Athletic Bilbao player to not make this list. Thankfully, the Lions have produced another fine defensive prodigy from their plethora of Basque talent. Unai Nunez, a 20-year-old, 6ft plus centre-half full of desire and potential, is making a name for himself in an Athletic side currently struggling in the La Liga.

AnalysisThe term ‘hit the ground running’ is often banded around the footballing world but Nunez certainly fulfils the criteria. Making his debut at the start of this season in a goalless draw against Getafe, Nunez has gone on to start each and every one of the 14 La Liga matches so far. His entrance to the first team has been helped by the unfortunate cancer diagnosis to team-mate Yeray (to whom our best wishes certainly go out to the Spaniard and his family).

Nunez though can be simply defined as a classic rough and ready centre-back who is willing to put his body on the line for the team at all costs. Athletic Club UK’s Rob said, ‘Nunez is very strong, loves a tackle and compliments team-mate Aymeric Laporte very well.’ Whilst the youngster can be prone to an error or two, totally normal for a player of his age, his consistency has been excellent and his fearlessness in games is clear to see- simply look at the last ditch tackles the youngster made in the Lions’ recent goalless bout with Barcelona to see the evidence.

Looking Ahead: What’s next for Nunez? Without sounding too much like a manager’s half-time team talk going into the break 1-0 up, he needs to keep doing what he’s doing. Remaining consistent, continuing to put in those accurate and defensively brilliant tackles and fight to keep his starting spot away from the more experienced heads of Etxeita and Boveda. Although Bilbao have struggled recently, their forward line can hopefully take confidence from their enforcers at the back and push forward to succeed in the second half of the season.


2018: Full List


Parts: 1 – 24 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10


2017 // 2016 // 2015 // 2014


Images: Getty / Illustrations: Sami Faizullah

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