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100 to Watch in 2018

100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2018 | Part 6 | 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.


TOM DAVIES


19 / England / Everton


Written by Liam Bekker

Blurb: There are few things purer in football than an academy graduate breaking into the first-team. Tom Davies did just that when he made his debut for Everton in April last year and the England youth international has not looked back since. Despite the managerial revolving door at the club over the last two years, Davies has remained a near-constant in Everton’s midfield and looks to have established himself as an important player for the club.

Analysis: The 2016-17 Premier League campaign was a breakthrough season for Tom Davies and saw him announce himself to the world as a player to keep an eye on. Davies’ flowing golden locks were outshone only by his performances on the pitch which saw him earn the Everton’s Young Player of the Season, Goal of the Season, and Performance of the Season awards at the end of the season.

He covers every blade of grass on the pitch with a high-octane approach and has introduced an energy and dynamism into Everton’s midfield which was lacking before. He is equally impressive with the ball at his feet, and despite his age has proven himself capable of dictating the play with both a strong dribbling and passing game.

Though not necessarily his strength, the young Englishman also knows how to find the back of the net and scored twice for the Toffees last season, including a screamer against high-flying Man City. Scoring and creating chances more frequently is, however, an aspect he will need to improve on if he is to take his game to the next level.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: Davies’ performances over the last year or so have undoubtedly been a positive point in an otherwise difficult time for Everton. He shows a maturity and composure in midfield that belies his age and it’s not hard to imagine him assuming the captain’s armband in a few years time if the club are able to keep hold of him. Given England manager Gareth Southgate’s willingness to blood young talent, it is also likely that Davies will get a crack at senior international football in the coming years.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Tom Davies


AMADOU DIAWARA


20 / Guinea / Napoli


Written by Rahul Warrier

Blurb: Amadou Diawara, unlike many young talents, was not one to emerge at a big club; quietly making his way to the big stage instead. After a couple of stints at local sides, he was picked up by Italian Serie C side San Marino. Despite his side’s relegation, he impressed Bologna director Pantaleo Corvino enough to earn a move to the top tier. Another year of quick progression saw him move to Napoli in the summer of 2016. With several high-class showings in recent months, Diawara has fast become a vital cog of an enterprising Napoli unit. And deservedly so too.

Analysis: Despite his age Diawara is a pretty complete defensive midfielder, with a set of all-round abilities that make him adept in his position. His passing is one of his main attributes, allowing him to turn over possession with minimal fuss, finding teammates in narrow spaces or under pressure. That allows him to either protect the backline or spray cross-field balls to further the offence. His style fits well with the type of football Napoli promote: offensive football with plenty of passes through the centre. Blessed with the ability to read the game, it allows him to make numerous interceptions in the game. It’s that intelligence that holds him in good stead.

Diawara however has his shortcomings: in that he needs to improve on aerial duels in order to win the second ball, an ability required to compete in the Premier League, if he angles for a move there in the future. His tackling is also a facet that could be improved with time. The dual role of protecting the defense and contributing to the attack suits Diawara well, and the style of football he is suited towards is clear. He’s perfect for Napoli.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: The Napoli juggernaut have impressed all in Europe and beyond this season, with their aesthetically pleasing style winning plaudits from all corners. Diawara is part of this unit, even if he is not a starter in Sarri’s domestic XI. He has been the heart of Napoli’s rotational XI in the Champions League, a fine place to be collecting game time. There is not much to suggest that Diawara won’t eventually make his way into the first XI, especially given the likely sales in future transfer windows. That should pave his way for a bigger move elsewhere.

At an international level, he is inching closer towards eligibility for the Italian national side, which would be welcome for a country smarting from failed World Cup qualification. He possesses the skill and ability to run the game for both club and country. Despite his lack of relative game time so far, he is fast becoming one of the highly-rated defensive midfielders in footballing circles, a symbol of his performances in those minutes. His rise has been so quick that you may miss the next stage of his development if you blink. He’s an asset that must be kept. Guinea will loath to lose him, and rightly so too. We’re soon going to live in a world run by Amadou Diawara.


DENNIS GEIGER


19 / Germany / Hoffenheim


Written by Dan Davis

Blurb: Born in Mosbach, Germany, Geiger has played a large part throughout Hoffenheim’s youth system. He first represented the club at U12 level, and his rapid progression also saw him receive call-ups for Germany’s youth teams. In January this year, Geiger was signed to a professional contract by Hoffenheim at the age of 18. Following the big name departures of Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Sule, Geiger was called into the first team by Julian Nagelsmann and he has held down a starting place ever since, even scoring two goals in the Bundesliga.

Analysis: Throughout his time at Hoffenheim’s youth system, Geiger impressed coaching staff with his constant, sheer willingness to be in possession. When in control of the ball, the young midfield has proven that he has the capacity to dictate the flow of any game. In the Bundesliga, Geiger has been adept at receiving possession and quickly moving the ball on, allowing Hoffenheim to turn defence into attack at lightning speeds.

Geiger has comfortably filled the boots of the departing Rudy and Sule, and operates in front of the defence admirably. Despite being fielded as a defensive-minded midfielder; Geiger has also popped up at important times to grab himself a couple of goals in only nine outings. His aerial presence is particularly surprising considering his 5’8ft frame, but his important headed clearances while short on defensive numbers have prevented Hoffenheim from potentially conceding several goals. His composure on and off the ball, combined with his impressive tactical awareness, is certain to make sure Geiger is an invaluable player for Hoffenheim heading into the rest of the campaign.

Looking Ahead: Despite his first-team starts at club level, Geiger’s international career has been made up primarily with youth team appearances at U17 and U19 levels. His full breakthrough into his country’s senior team seems unlikely, with the likes of Toni Kroos and Joshua Kimmich holding down their starting places with relative ease. If Geiger performs well in Germany’s youth teams, then it seems only likely he will receive a senior call up for a friendly in the nearby future. As for his domestic performances, the positive football on show from Nagelsmann’s team makes Hoffenheim the perfect place to continue growing as a player, providing the young coach doesn’t move to Bayern Munich.


GERSON


20 / Brazil / Roma


Written by Dan Davis

Blurb: The 20-year-old Brazilian was born in Rio de Janiero, and began his fledging footballing career at Fluminense. Gerson was promoted to the main squad in 2014, after being included in the club’s 22-man list for the Copa Sudamericana. Two months later, Gerson signed a five-year contract with Fluminense, despite links with European giants such as Barcelona and Juventus. He was handed his senior debut in February 2015, when he came on as a second-half substitute against Vasco. He scored his first goal in the next month, and began to make regular appearances for the Brazilian club. After impressing in his home country, Gerson earned a move to Italian side Roma, and made his debut in Serie A in November 2016.

Analysis: Roma’s general manager, Mauro Baldissoni, once described Gerson as: “the most promising U20 midfielder in the world – at least that’s what clubs like Barcelona who wanted him at all costs have told us.”

Talent Radar Accolades

He has proven himself adept at playing in central midfield, out on the wing or behind a striker, and filled all of these roles at both his senior clubs. In his first season at Roma, Gerson didn’t receive many minutes on the pitch – but when he did he impressed mostly as a spearhead playing behind the lone striker. He is strong on the ball, and well equipped to hold off challenges to retain possession. He is also surprisingly rapid, which has allowed him to drag away defenders and open up the space for his team mates on many occasions. Gerson’s ability to dictate play makes him a promising player for Roma heading into the future.

Looking Ahead: If Gerson follows the career trajectory that he has teased in his flashes of brilliance for Roma, then he would be more than capable of slotting into a midfield place and replacing Miralem Pjanic. Former Roma manager Luciano Spalletti didn’t place a great amount of trust in the youngster, but this has now changed under Eusebio Di Francesco. With increased minutes on the pitch in an increasingly competitive Serie A, Gerson will be able to prove that he really is the future of Brazil’s midfield. With improvement to his decision-making and passing range, Roma would be assured of a constant creative hub if Gerson is called upon to lead attacks in the near future.


AMINE HARIT


20 / Morocco / Schalke


Written by Mosope Ominiyi

Blurb: Just like Mbappe and Augustin, Amine Harit’s performances for club and country at youth level granted him the chance to test himself against better opposition in tougher conditions with higher expectations attached. So far, it is an opportunity that he has snatched with both hands, as he continues to progress at a rapid rate outside home comforts.

Analysis: Harit can play on the wing but his best performances usually come from a free roam role in midfield, playing in the number ten role. There, he can express himself, create chances for team-mates and effortlessly link up play between midfield and attack.

He has shown this ability on several occasions in the past few years, too. He created three assists and countless opportunities for France’s successful crop of u19s last summer, while replicating these types of displays to impress despite unflattering statistics (one goal, one assist) for Ligue 1 side Nantes during the 2016/17 campaign.

Bayern Munich and Liverpool were among the clubs tracking his progress, while Schalke persuaded him to choose them over Arsenal as an £8m deal was concluded in July.

His arrival has already added another dimension to Schalke going forward, as a fearless youngster who wants to assert himself as their creator-in-chief – he did his reputation no harm after coming off the bench to help spark an unlikely comeback against Borussia Dortmund at the end of November.

This term, he’s already netted two and created four assists in the Bundesliga. Playing as a right-sided winger or in attacking midfield, his early influence has created a selection headache for Domenico Tedesco, which is always an encouraging thing for a new acquisition to do.

Looking Ahead: Harit has already shown his capability to lead Schalke both now and in the future for years to come. Despite the youthful swagger he plays with, it’s often easy to forget that he only turned 20 in the summer and has plenty of potential still to reach. Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer are Schalke’s key midfield pairing, both of whom have been heavily linked with moves away in recent seasons – it is increasingly likely that neither will remain in Gelsenkirchen for much longer.

Having represented France up to u21 level, Amine made the decision to switch his allegiance to Morocco in September. The country of his parents’ birth, Harit has a golden opportunity to star for them at next year’s World Cup in Russia, although their group includes Euro 2016 winners Portugal and Spain, which will be far from an easy ride.


KAI HAVERTZ


18 / Germany / Bayer Leverkusen


Written by Andrew Thompson

Blurb: There is no better place than Germany if you’re a young player; from top to bottom, Bayern to Köln. Though not currently one of the big boys in the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen are currently somewhat of a haven for developing players.  The likes of Julian Brandt, Leon Bailey, Benjamin Henrichs, and Jonathan Tah are all young players with immense potential, but it’s the youngest of the bunch, Kai Havertz, that could end up being the most influential in years to come.

Analysis: Hailing from the ancient city Aachen, Havertz, like so many other German footballers, began his youth education quite young, starting out with local amateur-side Alemannia Mariadorf before joining 2.Bundesliga outfit Alemannia Aachen’s academy in 2008.  He would only spend two more years in his home town, however, moving to Leverkusen in 2010.  Havertz would go on to impress through the youth ranks for the BayArena-side, including an 18-goal haul for the U17’s in the B-Junioren Bundesliga West during the 2015-16 season.  In the following season, the central attacking player was promoted to the first team, and in that same season, became both the clubs youngest ever player and youngest ever goal scorer in the Bundesliga.

Havertz is currently apart of a young attacking trio of himself, Brandt, and Bailey.  As the focal point of the three, Havertz’s intelligence going forward and creativity has already drawn comparisons with the nation’s premier number 10, Mesut Özil. By his own admission, Havertz looks up to the German-born Turk, and some similarities in their games can certainly be seen. Very creative, with an eye for the killer pass that exceeds most in his age group, while being technically astute when in possession, Havertz’s strengths align with that of Özil’s almost exactly.

He’s bigger (physically) than the Gelsenkirchen native, however, and is ability to win a ball in the air gives him additional threats that he can call upon, so much so that he’s deputized as a center forward on a handful of occasions this season for Heiko Herrlich. Again, much like Özil, Havertz so often struggles on the defensive side of the ball, as most young central attacking players do.  Additionally, though he showed an impressive ability to score goals at youth level for Leverkusen, at the moment he has shown himself to be lacking in that extinct at a higher level. Despite being deficient in certain areas, he’s fit in quite nicely at Bayer, and his performances for the German U-19’s will no doubt have him on the radar for bigger and better things by the time he’s reached his early 20’s.

Looking Ahead: It’s tough to see any of Leverkusen’s young guns remaining at the club for the long term, and that includes Havertz.  Brandt has long held the interest of Europe’s elite, and the progression this season of Bailey will surely see him gain suiters as well.  For Havertz, though, his younger age puts him behind in the exit queue.  His immediate future is with his current employers, as he is guaranteed to be a focal point of the attack, aided by an increased understanding being formed with center forward Kevin Volland.  The Die Werkself faithful will not want to get too attached to the young midfield maestro, though, as his stint in Leverkusen will no doubt be far shorter than when his manager was still lacking up his boots on the same pitch.


YANGEL HERRERA


19 / Venezuela / New York City (On loan from Manchester City)


Written by Tom Robinson

Blurb: The beating heart of the Venezuela side that made it all the way to the U20 World Cup final, captain Yangel Herrera picked up the tournament’s Bronze Ball for his all-action performances.  His displays at the Sudamericano at the start of the year hinted at his potential and Manchester City swooped to make him a surprise January deadline deal signing, before loaning him out to sister club New York City.  He made the step up to the MLS with ease, effectively relegating Andrea Pirlo to the bench, and has quickly become a regular for the Venezuela senior setup.

Analysis: An energetic, combative box-to-box midfielder in the style of Arturo Vidal, Herrera dominates the centre of the park with his physicality, ball-winning and athleticism.  Strong in the tackle and good in the air, the 19-year-old also uses the ball very well and has an excellent range of passing.

Herrera also possesses good technique and can operate in a more advanced midfield role when required.  Rather than being merely a workhorse, he has a good touch and can produce an exquisite bit of skill when necessary, chipping in with the odd goal too.  His heading ability also means he’s a potent threat going forward from set pieces.

A born leader and midfield general, one area of his game that does need some work is his discipline.  Herrera picks up more than his fair share of cards and, even though this is an inevitable by-product of his style of play, he does need to learn to channel it. 

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: For all the vast sums of money spent by Manchester City, the under-the-radar signature of Herrera could turn out to be a masterstroke.  In theory his potent blend of power and technique would be perfectly suited to the Premier League but having said that he does have some serious competition ahead of him.  After a successful spell in MLS, perhaps another loan – say Girona for example – would seem the next logical step.

Meanwhile for the national team Herrera is at the vanguard of an exciting golden generation who will be looking to get the Vinotinto to a first ever World Cup in the next qualification cycle.  A future Venezuela captain in the making and a fantastic midfield prospect – watch this space!


KONRAD LAIMER


20 / Austria / RB Leipzig


Written by Josh Sippie

Blurb: The Bundesliga’s ongoing trend of giving young players a chance is not lost on Konrad Laimer. After establishing himself as a regular and making 44 appearances in the 2016/17 season with top Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg in his final year with the club, Laimer made the move to fellow Red Bull side, Leipzig. He got off to a good start in the middle of the pitch and, at just 20 years old, has a lot to look forward to with the German outfit.

Analysis: Laimer is one of those rare, yet highly sought-after “what can’t he do” midfielders. Billed as a defensive midfielder, Laimer is known for his anticipation in snuffing out the passing lanes. His positional awareness makes him look like he is always a step ahead of the opposition. He closes down on every ball and never gives opposing players a minute’s rest.

By comparison, Laimer is very similar to fellow Leipzig midfielder Naby Keita. Keita uses his bursting pace and athleticism to control the center of the pitch, despite not boasting the biggest of physiques. It’s all about awareness and reading the game, which Keita and Laimer both do quite well. That said, Laimer does have a bigger frame than Keita and, at 20, is already showing the ability to wield that plus-strength to his advantage.

Given the presence of Keita, Leipzig already have a senior, proven player capable of doing what Laimer does best, but with Keita always tied to an exit, having a ready and able replacement like Laimer is a nice situation to be in.

Looking Ahead: Laimer has all of the tools to make it as a top-tier central midfielder. He can pass, tackle, intercept and even score the occasional goal. His astuteness on the pitch is always going to put him on a pedestal of potential, but he is already well on his way to turning that potential into a proven product.

Thanks to the willingness of the Bundesliga to be an outlet for young up-and-comers, Laimer’s future couldn’t be much brighter. He is already making steady appearances with the Leipzig senior side and given the likelihood of a Naby Keita exit in the near future, Laimer will have first dibs at claiming the role that he was clearly brought in to fill.

However, even if Keita does remain, the 20 year old is only getting better and will find his way into that starting XI one way or another.


SEUNG-WOO LEE


19 / South Korea / Hellas Verona


Written by Rahul Warrier

Blurb: Turning 20 in January, fans may wonder how Lee Seung-Woo is still so young. That would be justifiable, given Lee has been around the footballing circuits for many years. His talent has never been in question, but a combination of the dreaded comparison to Lionel Messi and FIFA’s age ban has stunted his development. Impressing a Barcelona scout at the age of 12 in the Danone Nations Cup, he joined the Catalan club, quickly making his way up the ranks, freely plundering goals and collecting accolades. He was one of La Masia’s top talents, but the ban effectively halted a fast-rising career and ended his hopes of making it at Barcelona. He consequently moved to Hellas Verona last summer.

Analysis: The comparison to Messi was typically met with fanfare, and while that unfortunate moniker has done more bad than good, it serves to explain his style of play. Considering he was schooled in the famous ‘La Masia’, Barcelona’s academy that encourage flair play, that is no surprise. He plays with more freedom than most South Koreans, using his pace to terrorise defenders. It’s that flair that is not found in abundance in Asian countries, which is why Lee is a special talent. On form, he can make those Messi-esque runs. What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, his lack of top level playing time makes any judgment on him a flimsy one. The sample size is far too small to ascertain where the hype on Lee is justified. It’s certainly died down in recent years, whether circumstantial or not. Concerns remain over his attitude and his work-ethic (a big part of the South Korean ethos), and his one-dimensional game could work against him. Many have done well in youth football but have been shown up at the top level, while some have struggled with hype created by YouTube videos. One hopes Lee does not fall into either category.

Looking Ahead: It is imperative that Lee looks forward towards the boundless opportunities in the future rather than mull about what could have been at Barcelona. The FIFA ban has to be relegated to an unfortunate sidenote in his career. The talent he displayed through his years at La Masia are still there, which begs the question: are Hellas Verona the right place for it to be harnessed? His move to Hellas Verona appeared to be a fresh start, but the Italian club are second from bottom, and as a result Lee has played just 72 minutes in the league this season. That does not look good, but all he needs is regular game time and a manager to harness his potential. One hopes he will find a loan move in January, even to a Serie B club. At this stage, playing time is paramount. Time is on his hands: that should afford him chances to establish himself in the big leagues.


MANUEL LOCATELLI


19 / Italy / AC Milan


Written by Sauharda Karki

Blurb: One of the more exciting prospects to come through the ranks at Milan, Locatelli spent most of his youth career with the Rossoneri, joining the side at just 11 years of age. The young midfielder, who started for the senior team at Milan in 2016 and is a current Italy U21 international, joins a new generation of exciting Italian talent.

Analysis: In terms of position, Locatelli enjoys most periods of the game in deeper defensive areas of central midfield. Frequently employed in a ball-winning role, the Italian often puts in a commendable shift in these areas. As expected from the largely Italian influence on the midfielder’s youth coaching, most of his defending is based on tactical traits.

Locatelli’s intelligent defensive positioning is what often sees the player make crucial interceptions and win the ball back in central areas. Alongside this, the midfielder’s clever marking instincts and decent tackling ability make him a valuable asset in the center of the park during the defensive phase of play.

Along with his defensive abilities, the young Italian also has a good range of passing, allowing him to dictate tempo from deeper areas. However, the youngster isn’t seen exercising his creative abilities very often. Locatelli also does considerably well in offensive areas, often proving a threat arriving around the edge of the box from deep, and is a good striker of the ball from distance.

Overall, from a defensive perspective, Locatelli appears to have a very similar temperament to his Italian compatriot Montolivo. Locatelli certainly has more to add to his game in terms of offensive and creative aspects. The youngster still has plenty of time left to develop and refine the dull aspects of his game.

Talent Radar Accolades

Looking Ahead: Considering the play style and preference of the midfielder, a longer stay within Italy, preferably with Milan may be the most beneficial for both Locatelli and the club, atleast until the youngster ensures his place in the international stage. Just 19 years of age, the young Italian is still developing at an impressive rate, and looks like he is only going to get better.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Manuel Locatelli


2018: Full List


Parts: 1 – 23 – 4 – 5 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10


2017 // 2016 // 2015 // 2014


Images: Getty / Illustrations: Sami Faizullah

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