For the 4th year running, Outside of the Boot has returned with our years’ special feature – a detailed look at the best young players every football enthusiast must keep an eye out for in 2017.
This feature is published in 10 parts which help us divide the list positionally (10 goalkeepers, 30 defenders, 40 midfielders, 20 forwards).
All players born on or after January 1st 1996 are eligible for the feature.
20 / Brazil / Inter Milan
Written by Mosope Ominyi
Blurb: Gabigol was heralded as one of the world’s hottest young prospects last season, and rejected interest from plenty of top sides to join Inter this past summer for a transfer fee in the region of twenty-five million pounds. Since then, he made his hotly-anticipated debut in a sixteen minute cameo against Bologna, and has only featured amongst the substitutes since then.
Analysis: Current manager Stefano Pioli has recently said the versatile forward is not as prepared in comparison to his team-mates, which suggests there may be a fitness issue behind-the-scenes. Then again, it’d make no sense to involve him in match-day squads altogether, if he wasn’t physically ready to play in some capacity when called upon.
The left-footed winger is versatile in the sense that he can use both feet and play across the forward line, but hasn’t played any competitive football since the middle of September as Inter themselves have had three managers since the start of August. It hasn’t proven beneficial for morale or squad balance, especially with a number of new players and it’s understandable that he’d take more time acclimatizing to European football – but most of his attack-minded team-mates have struggled, bar captain Mauro Icardi.
Talent Radar Accolades
Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016
Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2015
Looking Ahead: It’s clear that Gabigol needs a solution to his current issue, and there’s no doubt he’ll get one sooner rather than later. There are a whole host of clubs across Europe eager to sign him on a temporary basis, whilst questions have once again arose as to whether he made the right decision joining Inter in the first place. He’s still only 20-years-old and needs to be playing regular minutes; otherwise his potential will be wasted away like many Brazilian forwards of yesteryear.
Read a detailed Scout Report on Gabriel Barbosa
20 / France / Lyon
Written by Eric Devin
Blurb: A longtime youth international who has improved as he has risen up the ranks, his arrival from Metz in January 2015 for a mere 200,000 euros has looked an increasingly astute deal. Admittedly, Lyon took advantage of Cornet’s unsettled situation with Les Grenats, but the trust placed in the winger by Bruno Genesio has considerably burnished the manager’s reputation for improving young talent.
Analysis: Cornet is, in many ways, the quintessential modern forward. While he is most comfortable on the left wing, he can also play on the opposite flank or as part of a strike partnership. A bit too wiry to be used on his own centrally as yet, he relies on pace and instinctive finishing to make his mark. A good dribbler with a proclivity for cutting inside, Cornet is an intriguing prospect, but has more work to do as regards his defensive work ethic and crossing ability if he is going to make his mark with an elite club.
It should be offered as a caveat, though, that while Cornet may have regressed slightly this season, much of that can be attributed to playing in a variety of systems; last year Lyon played solely in a 4-3-3. As the club have managed long-term absences to Nabil Fekir, Alexandre Lacazette and Mathieu Valbuena, they have been forced into tactical variation. Lacking consistency in terms of a system or a role, Cornet has struggled along with the entire team to find any sort of attacking rhythm, although a recent demolition of Nantes may suggest that a fully fit squad can aspire to greater things.
Looking Ahead: While he has yet to make his mark as a center forward, building his upper body strength and cultivating a better eye for linking play will serve him well; many view him as Alexandre Lacazette’s long term replacement. His goal-scoring record is impressive enough to suggest that there may be something to this; one would do well to remember that Lacazette himself wasn’t played centrally for the first part of his career, only becoming an out-and-out striker after the departures of Bafetimbi Gomis and Lisandro Lopez. Competition for places in the first team at Lyon is tough, and it would be foolhardy to think that Cornet being an automatic starter is a likelihood. He should continue to get regular playing time through rotation and cup matches; improving upon last year’s assist and goal totals is a realistic objective, as is becoming a starter for the French U21s, where he will face fierce competition from Jean-Kevin Augustin and Moussa Dembéle. If he can succeed in both of these aims, his progression is well-poised to continue.
20 / France / Celtic
Written by Brian Hradek
Blurb: The young 20-year-old Frenchman started his career at US Cergy Clos before joining PSG’s academy in 2004. After spending eight years in PSG’s academy, Dembele realized that he needed a change. The young striker had hit a rough patch in his game and wasn’t getting the game time necessary to develop. So during the summer of 2012, after being rumored to go to a few French clubs, he joined Fulham for a small fee. It took him a while to find his footing with the senior squad but once he did last year, he took off. In fifteen games last season he scored seventeen goals, which drew plenty of attention towards Dembele, ultimately leading to his transfer to Celtic FC.
Analysis: Dembele’s quick rise has been unexpected to some, but others that know him well are familiar with the talent he possesses. His ability with the ball on his feet in world class, especially when he’s moving at high speeds. He’s had a relatively easy time this year blowing by defenders in the Scottish Premiership, however that’s more about him and not the league. His solid first touch is usually what sets him up for his exciting runs, throwing defenders off and even surprising them with just how quickly he can go from zero to full speed. His improved finishing is what has brought his game together. He’s always been extremely quick and good with the ball, but struggled to convert his chances in his early years.
The development over the last season and a half however has turned him into a lethal striker. His newfound ability on set pieces is another little niche that he’s added to his game. All this added up is why he’s considered one of the top young strikers in Europe.
Looking Ahead: There’s a reason Dembele is one of the most highly coveted strikers in Europe right now, his performances of late are setting him up for a big move in the next few transfer windows. It would probably be best for him to stay with Celtic for at least another season and wait for the right move. One thing is for sure though; he is certainly on the right track to becoming one of France’s next great forwards.
Read a detailed Scout Report on Moussa Dembele
19 / Denmark / Ajax Amsterdam
Written by Alex Lynch
Blurb: Dolberg is the latest name on an impressive list of Danish talent at Ajax. Names like Viktor Fischer, Christian Eriksen and first team player Lasse Schone come to mind, but the striker is quickly making himself a big name as well. Ever since the sale of Arkadiusz Milik, Dolberg has been called upon as the first team striker. And the 19-year-old has delivered, with ten goals and three assists in fourteen starts across all competitions this season. His scintillating form has led to a senior international cap for Denmark, which was just another milestone in Dolberg’s meteoric rise.
Analysis: The Dane posses all of the traits of an elite striker, one of which is his long range shooting ability. His shot has been on display all season, particularly against PAOK in the Champions League qualifiers. Dolberg received the pass, took a touch and shot it right into the bottom right corner from distance. Another example of his shooting was on display against PEC Zwolle, where he dribbled by a few players and then rifled a shot into the top right corner of the goal. Both of these goals demonstrated the elite shooting ability the Dane possesses.
Besides his great shot, Dolberg also has top class heading ability; this was on display against NEC, when he scored a backwards header that was one of his three goals in that match. Another header he scored was against Roda JC, which saw him run towards the goal and head the ball into a wide open net. Both of those goals displayed Dolberg heading ability, which is helped by the fact that he stands at 6’2″.
Looking Ahead: With the great form that Dolberg has been in during the league and European season, many bigger clubs are looking at him. Dolberg has all of the tools to be a world class striker with his shooting, heading and passing ability. If he keeps on developing as quickly as he has, he could be the main man for Denmark along with Eriksen very soon. There have been many great Danish players in the recent memory of football fans, and Dolberg might be the next one.
Read a detailed Scout Report on Kasper Dolberg
20 / Argentina / River Plate
Written by Tom Robinson
Blurb: Since his starring role for the Argentina U17s Driussi has been touted as a big prospect. Since then he had to bide his time, often playing out of position, and the fears began to creep in that maybe he had been somewhat overhyped. However, a switch to his favoured position up front and an extended run in the first team has been rewarded with an excellent start to the season, ending the year strongly with ten goals in fourteen league games.
Analysis: A player first highlighted here on Outside of the Boot back in 2014 after his swaggering displays for the national team at the U17 Sudamericano, Driussi has been part of a River squad that under Marcelo Gallardo have hoovered up the silverware, albeit as something of a bit part player. Although there were criticisms of inconsistency and lack of final product, it did however allow Driussi to hone his all-round game, gain experience and show his versatility, as well displaying his commitment to work hard and fight for his place. In fact, he was almost loaned to Velez in the summer but stayed and has now reaped the rewards.
Now playing in his preferred position up front, Driussi has hit a purple patch of form that has seen him realise the abundant talent that was always apparent. Possessing great movement, technique and penalty box instinct, he has now also added a clinical edge to his forward play and currently leads the scoring charts of the Primera despite River’s indifferent start to the campaign. That trademark confidence is flowing back and he is reveling in being the man of the moment for los Millonarios.
There are still some rough edges to be ironed out and, while he may not quite have the potential to be the next Dybala or Icardi, he is rapidly improving and showing that he can be relied upon for goals, as well as a moment of inspiration to change a game. Long may it continue.
Talent Radar Accolades
Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016
Looking Ahead: In last year’s list, we said Driussi should try to consolidate and add more goals to his game. And he has done just that. So now the challenge is to maintain this upturn in form and prove that he is capable of being the main goal threat for River on a regular basis. There might not be quite the same buzz about him but his strong start to the season certainly creates a case for himself.
20 / Ecuador / El Nacional
Written by Tom Robinson
Blurb: One of the revelations of the Ecuadorian Primera this year, 20-year-old striker Michael Estrada, has taken to life in the top flight like a duck to water. After impressing in the Primera B with CSD Macará, Estarda moved north to Quito-based El Nacional where he has scored eighteen goals in forty appearances in his debut season in the top division, earning a call-up to the national team in the process.
Analysis: A rangy, athletic forward, Estrada has been in the form of his life, making the step up to the Primera A with ease and rewarding the faith shown in him by coach Eduardo Favaro. The Guayaquil-born youngster offers a duel threat up front, both able to stretch out his long legs and explosive pace to run in behind the defence while equally adept at playing as a target-man.
Naturally his height means that he is a threat in the air and his upper body strength allows him to hold the ball up well and bring others into play. Not afraid to drop deep to link the play, there are the signs of a maturity to his game despite obviously needing to smooth out the rough edges of his game.
While Ecuador have been successful in producing pacey wingers, there have been fewer strikers of genuine quality, particular those with the physical characteristics of Estrada. Although yet to make his debut, Estrada was called up to the national team in November and the intention is clearly there to integrate him into the squad. With plenty of service coming from the pace and power out wide, Estrada could be the perfect #9 to finish off the moves, so it’s understandable why he is so highly thought of in his country.
Looking Ahead: Although El Nacional have the option to buy, Estrada is still technically registered to Macará and there is some uncertainty around his future. His stellar performances have attracted the attention and Macará are keen to cash in while they can. Vasco, recently promoted back to the top flight, are the latest to be interested but there are also Mexican sides keeping a close eye. Either way, Estrada will hope to keep up his electric form and a debut for El Tricolor will surely be round the corner. With Ecuador well-placed in World Cup qualifying, the emergence of a young striker could be exactly what they need to book a place in Russia.
20 / South Korea / Red Bull Salzburg
Written by Tom Canton
Blurb: Typically, it is the likes of Spain, Germany, France, etc. which hit us with the world’s pinnacle of top footballing talent. However, now and again, a name from the continents in the far east provide us with players which surprise plenty and for good reason.
Hee-Chan Hwang announced himself on the European stage by shocking the current French leaders Nice with a four minute brace to give the Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg hope of progressing to the knock-out stages. Moving to Austria at the age of eighteen from Pohang Steelers for just over 20,000 pounds, the youngster enjoyed a storming first full season for Salzburg’s B-team FC Liefering; scoring eleven goals in eighteen Erste Liga starts.
This current season has seen his promotion to the first team and as well as his brace in the Europa League, Hwang has netted four league goals in 743 Austrian Bundesliga minutes, at the time of writing.
Analysis: Whilst Hwang has struggled for consistency in the minutes he’s earned this season, there is no doubt that Hwang has the capabilities to perform against bigger sides and possibly even at a higher level.
For someone who is watching Hwang for the first time, what you’ll notice initially is the player’s movement. A man who is very keen to get the ball in behind the defence to allow his pace to carry him beyond the defenders in order to give him a great chance to score. Not necessarily a rapid player but certainly a quick one, the South Korean has shown he can combine both his pace and movement to good effect whilst playing in Austria.
During his season with FC Liefering he also claimed six assists, his cross field passing is becoming an increasing strength to his game which, in a striking partnership, is extremely key to developing and perfecting a formidable striking pair.
His final notable strength to his game emphasises his use of speed further, a confident mover with the ball in possession, Hwang can make incisive runs into the opponent’s half to create chances for his team mates. Whilst his final ball could sometimes be better, this is an ability which, in the future, could attract larger sides into taking him on.
Looking Ahead: There are key attributes of his game that can be enhanced in Salzburg. He should look at the likes of Naby Keita, Marcel Sabitzer and Sadio Mane, all forward thinking players, who, after gaining valuable coaching at Salzburg, have gone on to play at the highest level and perform well so far.
There are huge benefits of getting regular game time at lower levels before moving on and Hwang is an example of a player who should certainly consider this before thinking of any possible move.
20 / Nigeria / Manchester City
Written by Mark Ooi
Blurb: With the plethora of big money signings at Manchester City, few would have expected Kelechi Iheanacho to be where he is now ― a first team City player ― when he signed straight out of the Taye Academy in his native Nigeria. He had shown great promise, being awarded the Golden Ball and Silver Shoe awards at the 2013 Under-17 World Cup, which Nigeria won, as well as being named CAF Most Promising Talent of the Year for 2013 and more recently in 2016. That said, it was difficult to see how he would get a chance at the Etihad Stadium.
Since joining City in 2014, the young forward has outlasted big money signings in his position, from Alvaro Negredo and Edin Džeko to Wilfried Bony. With his performances, Iheanacho has merited his current standing at the club as backup to Sergio Agüero, and should be a mainstay in the club’s post-Agüero era.
Analysis: What Kelechi Iheanacho is, first and foremost, is a goalscorer. The youngster has ice in his veins in front of goal, finishing off chances with a seemingly innate ruthless nature. He is extremely intelligent with his positioning and off-ball movements into space. Many of his goals showing the intangible “goalscorer’s knack” of sniffing out chances. For example, his first competitive goal for City, which was the winner in a match against Crystal Palace in September 2015 ― Kelechi was the first player to react to the rebound from Samir Nasri’s shot, reacting quicker than the three Palace players around him. Statistically, the Nigerian ranks amongst the Premier League’s best with regard to his ratio for goals-per-minutes and shots on-target.
Iheanacho’s skill set exceeds that of being just a poacher. He is able to create chances for himself. When required, he is a smart and quick thinker in using the positioning of his body to hold off opponents before accelerating away with his rapid burst of pace. A goal he scored at youth level against Manchester United stands out in that regard. The Nigerian international has the versatility and skill set to operate off a #9, but is clearly at his best when playing as close to the opposition goal as possible.
Defensively, he has displayed a willingness to put in the effort when City press the opposition. It is not a natural part of his game, but is an area which should improve exponentially under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola.
Talent Radar Accolades
Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016
Looking Ahead: It is difficult to think of a better place for Kelechi Iheancho to be right now. He is learning from one of the best coaches in the world, Pep Guardiola, who also has an excellent record for having faith in young players. He is playing with and learning from some of the best attacking players in the world ― namely, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Agüero. Kelechi Iheanacho has also gone on to become one of Nigeria’s most important players at senior international level.
To his credit, he has come across in interviews as a driven young man, highly motivated to realise the fullest extent of his potential. What he needs now is to continue working as hard as he has been. Rarely do the stars align for a young player as they have for Kelechi Iheanacho.
Read a detailed Scout Report on Kelechi Iheanacho
17 / Sweden / AIK
Written by Andrew Thompson
Blurb: Though we may not want to come to terms with it, the reality is that the era of Zlatan has come to an end for the Swedish national team. Throughout his magnificent career, Ibra featured on the biggest stage no matter where he played, and shined brightest. Whether if it was for hometown-side Malmo FF, Ajax Amsterdam, both giants of Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, or now with Manchester United, his goals, his flair, and yes, his attitude, have been at the forefront.
But in the wake of his immediate retirement from international football following Sweden’s disappointing showing in Euro 2016, Blagult are left reeling in the wake of his departure. Sixty-two goals in one hundred and sixteen caps for his country are, without question, irreplaceable. Just like in life, however, there is always birth where there is death, and perhaps one rising domestic star could be the one to take up the mantel of one of the greatest (if not the greatest) strikers of the current generation. That budding young player is Alexander Isak.
Analysis: Hailing from the northern Stockholm suburb of Solna and born to Eritrean immigrants, Isak has been on the rise since the earlier days of his career. Still just 17-years-old (as of September, this year), Isak has lived and breathed his hometown club Allmanna Idrottsklubben, more affectionately known as AIK. Beginning his footballing education in the clubs’ youth system at the age six, the 6’3” center forward progressed through the ranks well, eventually earning his first full appearance for Gnaget in February 2016 in a Swedish Cup match against Tenhults IF. After scoring in his first appearance in the 6-0 win over the fourth division minnows, former head coach Andreas Alm gave Isak his full domestic debut early on during the now completed 2016 Allsvenskan campaign. Not only did Isak start the match against Ostersunds FK, but he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win, becoming AIK’s youngest ever player to score in the league.
Despite a managerial change that saw Rikard Norling take over for Alm, Isak’s talent did not go unnoticed, and his status in the first team remained one of great importance. All told, Isak went on to lead the team in goals with ten (finishing tied for sixth in the league in goals) in twenty-four league appearances, helping AIK finish second and well ahead of rivals IFK Goteborg, Djurgarden, and Hammarby IF.
Known for his obvious finishing ability, he’s certainly not just a poacher of goals in and around the area. Despite his stature, Isak exhibits a wonderful ability to slide a teammate into space, very good technical ability on the ball in either his hold-up play or when running with the ball at his feet, and, as expected, strength in the air in the opposition area.
As with any young player, however, there are bound to be negatives in one’s game. Though he has a knack for playing a solid through ball, his overall ability to pass is not highly laudable, sporting just a 70% passing percentage, a number that is 10% lower than AIK’s season average. In much the same notion, his contributions on the defensive side of ball have not been stellar. Perhaps he can be forgiven in regards to a lack of defensive contributions as he is a center forward, but seeing as how AIK average less than 50% possession, and thrive on aggressively regaining the ball and being direct when possession is one, this is an area he should seek to improve in. The only other criticism one could levy, at least in my estimation, is the streaky performances that characterized his first full season at the club.
But it is that very statement that also brings salvation for Isak, as you can probably count on one hand how many 17-year-old players were consistent strong performers in their debut season.
Looking Ahead: Current teammate and Nigerian international Chinedu Obasi earlier this year stated that Isak was “Sweden’s new Zlatan Ibrahimovic” – there could be no higher praise for a budding center forward who has hit the ground running at such a young age in Sweden’s domestic top flight. While he is sure to garner attention from wandering eyes on the continent, the bigger question surrounding Alexander Isak is if he can indeed fill the void left at the spearhead of Sweden’s attack. Regardless of come what may for his international future, at club level, he is sure to continue to shine.
20 / Romania / Universitatea Craiova
Written by Raghunandhanan Narasimhan
Blurb: Starting his youth career at CSM Moreni and later moving to Sporting Pitesti in 2012, Ivan was transferred to Craiova in July 2014. He made his first appearance for the club in August and since then gone on to establish himself as a regular in the starting line up. Having made his dreams of playing for a top European club known when he rejected a move to Steaua Bucharesti, Ivan looks to keep true to his word as he keeps showing his immense potential when he plays.
Analysis: A fantastic young striker who has the all round ability to make it to the top, Ivan is a complete forward in the truest sense. He is physically strong, very fast and more than capable of improving on his aerial prowess. His dribbling and finishing are top notch while his tricky touches takes him away from defenders and always has an eye for small yet effective tricks. His bursts of pace are more than capable of pulling him away from defenders while his ball control is very good. Ivan’s off the ball movement is excellent and his awareness is also great. He usually drifts wide to the wings and looks to run at defenders and beat them. His direct approach is very difficult to handle for defenders as Ivan has an unpredictability about his next move as to whether he may pass or go for a shot himself. Along with his excellent technical qualities, Ivan also has a poacher like instinct that allows him to turn up at the right positions at the right time to score the goals.
Ivan has a tendency to be selfish at times. A forward can do good by being selfish but his decision making in the final third is a bit lacking but nothing out of the ordinary for a 19-year-old. He may be better off passing the ball to one of his team mates rather than dribbling all the way himself. That being said, Ivan does release a few good passes to put any of his teammates through on goal.
Talent Radar Accolades
- Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016
Looking Ahead: Having already made 63 league appearances for Craiova Ivan should look to keep his head down and work hard. Playing time will do him good with his potential there for all to see. Romania have not had great stars coming through in abundance and it looks like Ivan might be the next in line for being the face of Romanian football after the likes of Gheorge Hagi and Adrian Mutu.