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100 to Watch in 2018

100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2018 | Part 5 | Midfielders

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.


KHALED AL-SUMAIRI


20 / Saudi Arabia / Al-Ittihad


Written by Hamoudi Fayad

Blurb: Khaled Al Sumairi is one of the rising stars in Saudi football. Born on the 1st of January, 1997, the player who sits in central midfield for one of Saudi’s biggest clubs Al Ittihad, he has been one of the bright spots in a season filled with few ups and many downs. The 20 year old gives hope to the side plagued with financial and administrative issues for seasons.

Analysis: Al Sumairi is an odd kind of defensive and central midfielder coming through the ranks in football today. Instead of being the deep lying playmaker who sends exquisite through balls to the final third from his own half, Al Sumairi mixes the technical aspects of dribbling and body positioning with more defensive aspects such as intercepting, tackling and defensive positioning to excel as a youngster in his position.

His best aspect is arguably the trait in which he receives the ball and moves his body to suit his release into attack, either via a pass or dribble. The only issue with Al Sumairi when following up is his release of the ball itself into players who are in the final third. He fails to hit the pass with the ideal power to reach another player with accuracy, but when forced into a dribble Al Sumairi is fantastic at protecting the ball despite his relatively small size.

Defensively, Al Sumairi is considered by Al Ittihad fans as one of their most tactically disciplined players. His smart body positioning to prevent opponents on the flank from moving back into the centre coupled with his confidence when moving into tackles is one of his greater defensive traits, but improving on his timing of the tackles may be something to look into in the future.

Looking Ahead: Al Sumairi may slowly be embedded into the ranks of the national team after the 2019 Asian Cup to be hosted in the UAE. He currently plays for the Olympic national side, but a baffling decision is his omission from the Saudi Arabian B team at the 2017 Gulf Cup in Kuwait next week.


HOUSSEM AOUAR


19 / France / Lyon


Written by Nathan Staples

Blurb: The Olympique Lyonnais academy churns out another wonderkid, this time in the form of 19-year-old Houssem Aouar, who has already embedded himself into the current team. Despite only 17 first-team appearances, the crafty midfielder is already being mentioned as a future international footballer and has the potential to be one of the best of his generation.

Analysis: Having played in a variety of roles this season, from defensive midfielder to a winger on either side, it’s clear his more natural position is in the heart of the pitch. That is exactly where he can get on the ball, dictate the pace of play and showcase his wide-ranging skills.

His passing ability is excellent, able to switch play on a whim or carve out the perfect defence-splitting pass to make an opportunity for a teammate. Add to that some glossy first touches and ball control, along with a willingness to move forward with the ball at his feet, and he has the effortless elegance that fans dream of witnessing.

In fact, he saved his best performance for the club’s recent 2-1 win against Amiens. The team fell behind early but the youngster did not panic, keeping the ball for his team and coming deep in order to keep connected with the game.

Then he would explode into life, playing short passes with the attacking options and finding the tiniest bits of space in the opponent’s box. His two goals earned his side a vital win in their race for second place in Ligue 1 and sent out a statement that he is one to watch in 2018.

Looking Ahead: Now established at Lyon and even becoming a key factor, he needs to repeat that on a consistent basis. He will be fighting with another strong prospect in Tanguy NDombele for a permanent spot in midfield alongside the more defensive Lucas Tousart and he needs to convincingly win that battle.

It’s a great problem from Bruno Genesio to have and one the club can adjust to should star man Nabil Fekir leave in the summer. For now, the opportunity is only in front of Aouar to become heir to the Lyon throne and spark yet more interesting looks from the European elite.


SANTIAGO ASCACIBAR


20 / Argentina / Stuttgart


Written by Griffin O’Neill

Blurb: Santiago Ascacibar is a member of the new generation of Argentine youngsters who appear ready to lead the national team onto great things, and many trophies.  The 20-year-old defensive midfielder moved to Vfb Stuttgart from Estudiantes this summer and has provided a strong presence in the Stuttgart midfield.  Ascacibar is the natural heir to Javier Mascherano’s hold on the defensive midfield position in the Argentinean national setup, and it appears that cagey midfielder will flourish in this position based off of his club career so far.

Analysis: After making over 40 appearances for the Estudiantes first team, Ascacibar took his talents to Germany and has flourished. According to whoscored.com, he has completed 3.4 tackles per game, which ranks him second in the entire Bundesliga, only behind Hertha Berlin’s Per Skjelbred. Ascacibar is also 14th in the Bundesliga in interceptions per game, with 2.7 per game, which puts him ahead of established stars such as Arturo Vidal and Lars Bender. Ascacibar also completes an average of 84.4 percent of his passes, while still playing 2.2 long balls per game.  This composure on the ball and his impressive decision making ability, make it easy for Ascacibar to control even the most crowded of midfields.

While Ascacibar is an extremely tension midfielder who is not afraid to risk his own safety to win the ball, his 5’7” (170cm) frame makes it difficult for him to win many aerial duels with larger players.  Another place where Ascacibar struggles is in his on field discipline. He has already accumulated six yellow cards in ten appearances for Stuttgart this season, and if this trend continues, it will be difficult for Ascacibar to preform at the highest level in years to come.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: With Javier Mascherano’s decline due to age, Ascacibar has emerged at the perfect time to stake his claim to a regular role in the Argentina national team. He has already been capped eleven times by the Argentina U-20 national team, as well as representing them at the 2016 summer Olympics.  And while he has not yet appeared for the Argentina senior team, it is only a matter of time until his talents are recognized by Jorge Sampaoli and he is fully capped and groomed to be the anchor of an extremely attack minded nation.  All of these factors, along with Ascacibar’s technical ability and tenacity make him a very bright prospect for both Stuttgart and the Argentina national setup.


NICOLAS BENEDETTI


20 / Colombia / Deportivo Cali


Written by Tom Robinson

Blurb: The best thing to come out of Cali since Narcos! Despite being only 20 years old, Benedetti is already an indispensable member of the Deportivo Cali squad and one of the brightest prospects in Colombian football.  The elegant attacking midfielder has amassed over a hundred appearances for his hometown club and has hit the back of the net on 18 occasions.  Sevilla and Ajax are just two of the clubs interested as Benedetti aims to follow in the footsteps of other great Colombian number 10s such as James Rodriguez and Carlos Valderrama.

Analysis: Benedetti is very much the creative hub of the Cali team and has a great eye for a pass, earning him the moniker of ‘The Poet’.  However, you’d be mistaken if you thought he was merely a fancy Dan; in actual fact he is a very modern playmaker who offers dynamism, athleticism and work rate on top of the inventive side of his game.

Boasting impressive shooting from range, Benedetti has a decent scoring record but given his technique and ability to find space it’s probably an area where he could add more goals to his game.

Benedetti is also a player who has been through a lot already.  On one hand he’s been a league winner with Cali, but he’s also suffered the disappointment of missing a league final after receiving a second yellow for taking his shirt off in celebration.  He also missed out on the 2016 Copa America and 2017 U20 Sudamericano through injury but has come back stronger each time.  These experiences – positive and negative – are priceless and should benefit his development and mental fortitude in the long run.

Looking Ahead: It feels like the time has come for Benedetti to fly the nest and it would be a surprise if he was still plying his trade in Colombia this time next year. His attributes seem tailor-made to succeed in Europe and a canny club would probably be able to acquire his services for a relatively low fee – especially compared to Brazilian or Argentinian players of his ilk.  The Netherlands or Portugal could be a good stepping stone but they’ll be plenty of Spanish clubs interested too.

He may not explode into wider consciousness straight away but 2018 could be a pivotal moment in his career and his is certainly a name to keep track of for the future.  


RODRIGO BENTANCUR


20 / Uruguay / Juventus


Written by Tom Robinson

Blurb: Languid deep-lying midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur has had a pretty sensational year by all accounts.  A regular in the Boca side that won the Argentinian Primera, Bentancur also won the U20 Sudamericano with Uruguay – their first title at that level for 36 years – before helping them reach the semi-finals of the U20 World Cup.  If that wasn’t enough, he then made the switch across the Atlantic to Juventus and has slotted in seamlessly to the Old Lady’s first team squad.  To cap it all off, he made his debut for the Uruguay senior team as they qualified for the World Cup.  Not bad, not bad at all.

Analysis: A tall, elegant, multi-fuctional midfielder with excellent technique and sub-zero composure under pressure, Bentancur has gradually made the withdrawn playmaker role his own, having initially started out as a more attacking player.  He uses the ball well, passes well between the lines and has supreme confidence in his ability to evade the press and glide forward.

His casual demeanour never really sat well with Boca fans who demanded more blood and thunder and he can occasionally be overly complacent in possession.  Having said that, the defensive side of his game has come on leaps and bounds this year and particularly since moving to Italy he has improved in marking and put on some 5kg of extra muscle to help him compete in the midfield battle.

With these characteristics, Bentancur is the type of player who belongs at an elite club; a Rolls Royce of a midfielder who thrives in a possession-based team.  If you weren’t convinced of his talents before this year, then you should be now.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking ahead: Bentancur is in a great place to develop and Italian football suits his intelligent style, so this year should be one of continued adaptation and consolidation.  At club level, he’ll look to keep racking up the minutes in Serie A and the Champions League and could well become a mainstay for Juventus for the foreseeable future.

Probably the most interesting aspect of Bentancur’s year ahead will come in the form of his international career.  He may only have four caps to his name for Uruguay but he’s increasingly making a case for himself to be in the squad taken to Russia.  Along with Torreira, Valverde, De Arrascaeta and Nandez, he will become a pivotal player in ushering in a new and stylistically different Uruguayan midfield.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Rodrigo Bentancur


SANDER BERGE


19 / Norway / Genk


Written by Andrew Thompson

Blurb: It has been quite some time since Norway could claim they were the proud owners of a truly world class player, and you’d have to go back to John Arne Riise’s prime until you could make such a statement.  Everyone in Europe took a ride on the Martin Ødegaard train – though briefly – when the teen rose to stardom and made an unexpected move to Real Madrid, and much hope we placed on his shoulders that he could have been the next big Norwegian player to grace Europe.  But the move to the Bernabeu was ultimately a failure, and it would take a recent rekindling at SC Heerenveen while currently on loan for people to remember he even existed.

Though Norway can now boast that they have a fair few good young players now at their disposal in the likes of Morten Thorsby, Alexander Sørloth, Mats Møller Dæhli, Ole Selnæs, and the aforementioned Ødegaard, but it’s 19-year-old Sander Berge who now perhaps comes with the greatest amount of expectation.

Analysis: Standing 1.93m tall (6ft 3in), Sander Gard Bolin Berge is the product of a sporting family.  Both his parents and older brother played basketball at the international level, while his grandfather, Ragnar Berge, played for Norwegian-side Vålerenga Fotball for twelve years. Born in the posh Oslo suburb of Bærum, Berge went through the youth ranks at Asker Fotball, who he made his professional debut for at the age of fifteen for the 2.divisjon-side.  He then made the move to Vålerenga, where he would further develop for a further two years while establishing himself as an important player for Enga, before moving to Jupiler Pro-side KRC Genk in January 2017.

Since his move to Belgium, Berge’s reputation has continued to grow.  The massive holding unit has maneuvered himself into the same discussion as the likes of Santiago Ascacibar for brightest young holding midfielder in Europe at current.  For the beefy player that he is, the Norwegian international is more reliant on his technical ability, while exhibiting very good passing and dribbling attributes; all things required of a modern holding player.  Despite his age, he reads the flow of play well, and positionally he isn’t often caught out.  Able to be deployed in central midfield a bit further up the pitch, it’s hard to find any glaring weaknesses in his game, as he’s even a bit more fleet of foot than expected for someone of his size and frame, and even is comfortable bombing forward to aid in attacking efforts.

Looking Ahead: “At 18 he is already very mature.  He is intelligent, reads the game well and takes the initiative.  He has the potential to become a future leader.” – Genk manager Albert Stuivenberg.  High praise for someone so young at the time of the quote, so it goes without saying that many in Norway will expect Berge to reach a level much higher than he is now.  After he shone well in Genk’s run in the Europa League last season, Berge has caught the attention of a few Premier League clubs, namely Everton and Arsenal.  Though it’s unclear how long he will remain in Belgium, what is clear is that he’s at the perfect place to continue his development.  Genk have given us the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Wilfried Ndidi, Sergej Milinković-Savić, Kevin De Bruyne, Leon Bailey, and others.  Given such a successful track record of sending players on to the best leagues in Europe, Berge will surely join that list…Perhaps sooner rather than later.


STEVEN BERGWIJN


20 / Netherlands / PSV Eindhoven


Written by Trong Nhan Doan

Blurb: Eredivisie is a league that nurtures some of the best wingers in the world thanks to the traditional 4-3-3 Cruyff-esque setup that most of the teams are using. One of the more exciting prospect that has made his mark in recent years is Steven Bergwijn. The 20-year-old winger breaks into PSV first team this season, having been mostly featured on cameo appearances the past year.

Analysis: Bergwijn is excellent at ball retention. Although a player of his role operates mainly on the final third, which the opposing team puts more emphasis on defensive effort, he rarely loses the ball. He can shield the ball to wait for more supports, or use his technical ability to dribble past several players. He is also an excellent space investigator who can makes off-the-ball at the right place and at the right time. Also he isn’t the paceiest winger, his dribbling skill and offensive awareness makes him a lethal weapon on the wing.

Looking Ahead: Although Bergwijn is considered an exciting prospect, he is still an unpolished player who needs to develop in many areas. His requirement of getting fed to feed other players, which is made of Philipe Cocu’s system, can easily minimize his impact especially once he makes his move to an elite league (for example, Memphis Depay). He lacks strength and stamina, which is shown by his failure to complete any 90 minute match this season. In addition, though he is deployed on the right flank, he doesn’t carry any traits of a traditional winger. His inability to cross and his tendency to drift inside the space can lead him be exposed as if Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a similar player who is struggling at Manchester United. With Hirving Lozano and Jurgen Locadia taking the top spot on the depth chart, Bergwijn should look for a loan move where he can further improve his weaknesses. A different system that requires him to be a well-rounded player definitely helps.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Steven Bergwijn


FEDERICO CHIESA


20 / Italy / Fiorentina


Written by Sami Faizullah

Blurb: When Cristian Tello was substituted off at half-time for Fiorentina in August 2016 at Juventus Stadium, Italian supporters were treated to a nostalgic moment as a young teenager came on to replace him – #25 on his back and Chiesa above it.

Analysis: A traditional winger, Chiesa most impresses viewers with his technical ability, allowing himself to find passes and control possession with ease. Though not the quickest wingers, Chiesa showcases commendable in-game intelligence particularly in possession. His awareness of players around him, both team-mates and opponents, makes him a smart attacker for the team to possess.

Talent Radar Accolades

The 20-year-old showcases good work rate when not in possession, helping his side in defensive phases of the game. He has also occasionally been used in a wing-back role, owing to his energy allowing him to run the channels both in defence and attack.

Favouring his right foot, Chiesa has the propensity to cut inside if deployed on the left wing but with a range of passing options to his forte, he still remains unpredictable in situations.

Looking Ahead: The Viola have off late been planning for the future with a host of young signings and pushing through players from the academy. Federico Chiesa represents this new wave and is particularly popular among the passionate supporters having developed with the club from youth level. At international level Chiesa will be pushing for the senior team call up, a move that is bound to happen sooner or later.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Federico Chiesa


ANTE CORIC


20 / Croatia / Dinamo Zagreb


Written by Mateus Carvalho

Blurb: Any Football Manager fan has already heard of Ante Coric. In every of the most recent editions of the popular virtual game, the Croatian youngster grows up to be one of the best midfielders in the game, and every year that goes by it seems that the FM’s prediction becomes real.

With an unusual formation period (including a three-year stay at Red Bull Salzburg), Coric signed with the dominant Dinamo Zagreb at the age of 17 and has asserted himself as one of the team’s most influential players, having already played the top European competitions, won two Croatian league titles, and join Croatia’s senior national team being only 19 years old.

Analysis: Coric is a true offensive midfielder, honouring the legacy of the no.10-role, more and more obsolete in modern football as we used to know it. A true phenomenon, the new Croatian wonderkid combines incredible technique with a capacity to define the rhythm of the game at his exclusive will, a one of a kind talent. Versatile with both feet, Coric delights any spectator with his dribbling prowess, pace, ball control and passing.

Tactically, Ante has already played every single position in the midfield, which is prove of a singular mastery of all movements and nuances of a match, as well as the role every midfielder has to play in every stage of a game. He often likes to promote a short passing game, with 1×2 combinations with his teammates that support the high possession game he clearly is comfortable in.

In order to succeed in every country he might go to after Dinamo, Ante Coric must definitely improve his muscular prowess as well as his constant will to defend, in order to offer his team the same balance his recuperation that he provides in organised attack.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: Bearing in mind the weaknesses I’ve pointed out in Coric, I do believe he needs to move to another more demanding league so as to improve said aspects of his style of play, that (with all due respect) are not that stimulated in Croatia. Having spent four seasons as a starter at Dinamo, a big transfer is already due and I believe the youngster presents every major European club with true added value. Having conquered all there is to conquer is Croatia, his motivation might not be sky-high and that is being shown, I believe, this season. But his quality and promising future remain unspoiled.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Ante Coric


ALPHONSO DAVIES


17 / Canada / Vancouver Whitecaps


Written by Josh Sippie

Blurb: Alphonso Davies broke through with the Vancouver Whitecaps at the age of 16 and with the senior Canadian National team at his current age of 17. Nothing quite like a quick start to get you acclimated to professional football at both the club and national level. And he isn’t just sitting idly by, either. Davies made 27 appearances for the Whitecaps in the 2017 season, solidifying himself as an asset for the Canadian-based MLS club

Analysis: Alphonso Davies is a premium athlete. With long legs and a sturdy frame, he is one of those exciting players that accentuates his goals with a backflip. His lengthy strides gives him stellar pace and superb stamina down the wide areas, where he traditionally suits up, and he makes it all look so effortless.

Couple that with his super physique and you’ve got yourself a pretty special player, which Vancouver certainly do. He is unfazed by opponent’s attempts to wrest the ball off of him, and weathers tackles like a proven veteran, almost bouncing off of them and using their attempts as momentum to push him forward.

This ability to shield the ball combined with his sure-footed dribbling ability makes him a talent worth keeping both eyes on. He is just as deadly in the box, where he can utilize a thunderous shot, as he is in acres of space, where he can cut through opposing midfields and defenses like a knife through mashed potatoes.

Given his physique and strength, Davies is also strong in the air, making him about as well-rounded of a player as can be found. He has the raw tools to fill any role. Now it’s just a matter of ironing down his best position.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: Davies made 27 appearances with the Whitecaps, but 18 were as a sub. That’s impressive, and it shows good faith from management, but it only amounted to 1000 minutes. The next step for Davies in 2018 is ironing out the rawness in his game and finding a place in the starting XI. He was used on both flanks in 2017, so the options are there for him.

MLS is becoming a much more attractive destination for young talents such as Davies and he could be part of this wave of young MLS talents that eventually get sold off to Europe. He has the physical skills, that much is certain. Now he just needs to fine-tune his abilities.


2018: Full List


Parts: 1 – 23 – 4 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10


2017 // 2016 // 2015 // 2014


Images: Getty / Illustrations: Sami Faizullah

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