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100 to Watch in 2018

100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2018 | Part 4 | 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.


20 / USA / Orlando City

Written by Mateus Carvalho

Blurb: The MLS is steadily becoming less of a retirement home for European stars and more of an incubator for young talents, eager to transform their league into one of the most prominent in the world. One of them is Tommy Redding, a defender that completed all of his upbringing in the United States, playing in the Florida-based academy club, IMG Soccer Academy. He then signed with Orlando City where he completed his formation (being the first Orlando City homegrown player), with a loan to the semi-professional Wilmington Hammerheads sandwiched in between. He quickly assumed an important role in the Orlando City rotation and is also a frequent presence in the USA’s youth teams.

Analysis: Being 20-years-old and 1.87m tall, Redding is at the peak of his physical strength, which helped him to assert himself as the aggressive centre-back every MLS team needs in order to neutralize the mobile and savvy forwards of the more competitive sides in the league. In fact, Redding grew up in an family of sportsmen and his athletic capacities undoubtedly benefit him. That is especially true when his heading game and pace are concerned. Tommy certainly displays outstanding impulsion abilities and an ease in performing defensive transitions, complemented by a fairly decent tackling efficiency.

Talent Radar Accolades:

The young defender is also prone to controlling the ball and starting the build-up by avoiding the simplistic long pass into the back of the opposition’s defence. As such, his characteristics also make him suitable for a defensive midfielder role.

Looking Ahead: Although the past few MLS seasons have certainly been positive for Tommy Redding (individually speaking, for he became a starter being only 19-years-old and assumed a regular spot in the Orlando line-up), this must only be considered as the beginning for the American youngster. He is still learning the craftsmanship of professional football and, at his age, there is plenty of time to dream with more ambitious challenges.

For now, he must work on his weaknesses to fully affirm himself as one of the most reliable defenders in his league (profiting from the contact with his more experienced teammates), something he has yet to achieve. The transition to the USA senior national team will then come naturally.


19 / Greece / Bayer Leverkusen

Written by Josh Sippie

Blurb: Panagiotis Retsos was just 18-years-old when he broke through with the Olympiakos senior side in 2016. He made 34 appearances in his inaugural year and made it quite clear that Greece had a young defensive titan to be proud of. So highly was he thought of that he was even named captain in a Greek Cup match as a teenager. That was all Bayer Leverkusen needed to see, as they snapped him up in the summer and have given him every opportunity in the world to succeed, which he has duly taken.

AnalysisRetsos was already making a name for himself as a solid, versatile defender with undying stamina for the perennial Greek powerhouse, but to carry that over to the Bundesliga is another thing. That said, he has found few obstacles in his rise to becoming a frequent face in the Leverkusen starting XI.

Utilizing his diverse skillset that bolsters his defensive solidity with sneaky attacking prowess, Retsos has been able to split time between right-back and centre-back, utilizing that engine and work rate to pound forward and even set up his team mates for a few key chances.

Retsos’ proactive style of defending further benefits the athleticism that he has, as he is keen to close down opposing attackers rather than allowing them to come to him. He is aggressive in his willingness to attack the ball and wins it back using pure determination and strength.

Restos also boasts a keen eye for the long ball. Seeing as how he can’t always drive forward with the ball, he often opts to send floating longballs over the top to pick out team mates, and he does so with a high success rate.

Looking Ahead: Like many other young players that have chosen the Bundesliga, Retsos is already reaping the rewards. Top young talents like Retsos choose Germany for a reason and that reason is experience. You can’t get it in the same quantity if you’re stuck at the youth level.

Leverkusen are utilizing Retsos quite liberally already. As mentioned, his split time between right-back and centre-back may indicate a need to nail down a set position in order to solidify himself in the starting XI, but for now, he should be quite happy with the number of minutes he is receiving and looking forward to nothing but positivity going forward.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Panagiotis Retsos


18 / Republic of Ireland / West Ham United

Written by Danny Lewis

Blurb: West Ham have struggled to blood their young talent into their first team in recent years. However, it seems as though Declan Rice will be the academy graduate to finally make their mark on the first team after breaking into the squad this campaign.

Rice was the only teenager to get any Premier League minutes for the Hammers last season, coming on for the dying moments of the final game against Burnley. This year, he’s received more chances and has certainly taken them, impressing against Manchester City in the league and in the Carabao Cup win against Tottenham Hotspur.

Analysis: For such a young player, Declan Rice has great maturity and composure. He was captain of the team that won the U21 Premier League Cup last year and he has translated those leadership qualities across when playing in the first team, despite playing with men by far his senior.

One trait that is often important for youngsters coming through is versatility and Declan Rice is able to play comfortably as a defensive midfielder, despite predominantly being a centre back throughout his time in the U21 squad. This is helped by his composed nature on the ball and ability to retain possession in different situations, shown by his Premier League pass success rate of 83.3%.

His primary role though, whether he’s in defence or midfield, is to ensure that he nullifies the opposition’s attacking threat. The 18-year-old times his tackles well and has good positioning. These traits, alongside his aforementioned communication and leadership, give him a great platform to push on and establish himself.

Looking Ahead: He’s clearly a talent who will make his mark in the Premier League. Whether it is in defence or midfield, Rice now needs to get as much game time as possible to help him hone his game and continue developing.

He was born in London, but Rice has represented Republic of Ireland up to the U21 level, having previously been named their U17 Player of the Year. His progress with Ireland has been rapid and there is even talk of a first-team call up. Rice is on his way to becoming a regular for both his club and country; if he continues to progress as he has done he will be a key player for both for years to come.


19 / Paraguay / Basel

Written by Josh Sippie

Blurb: Blas Riveros made his leap across the Atlantic in 2016 when he left his native Paraguay and joined FC Basel, the factory of young talent. He made a pretty decent impact with the Swiss powerhouse in his inaugural year, contributing two assists in just 663 minutes of league play while also racking up some minutes in other competitions. This year has been a continued progress, as he looks to build on that momentum.

Analysis: It’s always something special when you watch a player, knowing that he is just 19, and you realise he doesn’t play like a 19-year-old. Riveros is one of those guys. He is so smart with and without the ball that it looks as though he’s been doing this for years, when in fact he’s rather new at this professional game.

Riveros’ intelligence pairs rather well with his mentality of winning the ball and pushing forward. There is no break in between the two. He is a fantastic judge of his own abilities and knows when he can nick in, filch the ball and start an attack of his own. And he is clean in his possession-winning as well, which makes it even more entertaining to watch.

When it comes to pushing forward, Riveros has a tendency to cut inside rather early, which is unique for full-backs, but it has served him very well. He doesn’t tether himself to the touch line and almost adapts himself as a temporary midfielder when it comes to attacking. Thankfully, he is sure-footed enough over the ball that this is a blessing and not a curse.

Talent Radar Accolades:

Looking Ahead: Good full-backs are hard to find, and Blas Riveros is working his way into their slim ranks. He still has a way to go in his progression in terms of becoming a first-team regular, but even this year, he is on target for a 1000+ minute season, which would work wonders for his standing.

FC Basel is a great place to get your feet underneath you in the professional footballing world, and as such, Riveros is in the right place. He has already surpassed his total minutes from all of last year and will only see his minutes increasing as he steadies himself into a consistent performer, a goal that isn’t that far away.


17 / England / Fulham

Written by Danny Lewis

Blurb: It’s safe to say that 2017 has been good to Ryan Sessegnon. In the summer he won the U19 European Championships with England, finishing the tournament as the joint top scorer with three goals, including two strikes in a 4-1 demolition of Germany. At club level he has cemented his spot in Fulham’s first team and scored his first ever league hat-trick in a recent 5-4 win over Sheffield United in what was his 50th appearance for the Cottagers.

Analysis: Sessegnon’s versatility is a big strength of his, as he is able to play in any position down the left in a variety of formations. This positional and tactical versatility shows real maturity for a 17-year-old and is something that adds to his technical ability and makes him a very useful player to have. The youngster has blistering pace, which helps him in both a defensive and attacking sense, but also makes intelligent runs to maximise the effectiveness of his speed.

Getting in the right positions is one thing, but Sessegnon has shown that he has the end product to make it count. In 30 games for England from U16 to U19 level he has clocked up seven goals and six assists, while in 50 games for Fulham he has 11 goals and seven assists, which is a brilliant tally for somebody who has alternated between playing on the wing and at full back throughout their short career.

Looking AheadHe may still be 17 years old, but Sessegnon’s performances for club and country show that he is destined for the Premier League, whether that be with Fulham or another club. However, there is no rush for him to reach the top tier, as the guaranteed gam time he receives at Fulham is the best thing for his development and something he may not get if he was to join a Premier League side. He has already been linked with the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, so it is clear that he isn’t going to be short of options when it comes to furthering his career.


19 / Netherlands / Twente

Written by Dan Davis

Blurb: Hidde ter Avest is another young prodigy who has broken through at senior level after impressing throughout his youth. The right-back has been a shining light throughout FC Twente’s youth system, and finally made his first team debut at the age of 17. In that season, the 2014/15 campaign, ter Avest made 10 appearances and impressed with his offensive abilities and dribbling skills. Financial issues at the club has meant that ter Avest is now the first choice right back, and his impressive performances saw him start every game for his country at the U19 European Championships this summer.

Analysis: Ter Avest primarily plays as a right back, but his height could make him a useful option for club and country at centre-back. During the U19 European Championships, the youngster was deployed in the middle of defence, and, despite the Netherlands’ early exit, ter Avest impressed with his physical displays. He is blessed with natural pace and a surprising amount of strength, which sees him more than a match for a pacey winger down the touchline.

His technical abilities defy his age, and his defensive work is impressive in particular. His timing of tackles and knowledge of when to slide in makes him a very intelligent full back, who is able to provide width down the right channel and support attacks. His positional awareness and crossing abilities need to be sharpened, but if ter Avest improves on these areas he will be crucial at both supplying goals and preventing FC Twente from conceding them.

Talent Radar Accolades:

Looking Ahead: Ter Avest certainly has time on his side, and is in the right team to improve as a player. FC Twente’s financial issues provided the youngster with a route to regular first team football, and he has taken the position and made it his own with confident and mature performances. However, if the full-back can improve on his attacking abilities, then a move to a larger European team seems likely in the future. As for the international stage, the poor state of Dutch football means that ter Avest will certainly receive a senior call-up at some point, provided the player can sustain his impressive performances throughout the rest of the Eredivisie season.


20 / Scotland / Celtic

Written by Oliver McManus

Blurb: In an increasingly mediocre season for Celtic which has seen Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths failing to match their scintillating form from last season, a new name has emerged as the brightest prospect in Brendan Rodgers’ team. That player is Kieran Tierney, a rampaging left back who’s in his fourth season of professional football and already has his own terrace chant ballooned his way for the full 90 minutes.

Analysis: Proclaimed by many to be the best full back in Scotland, it’s not hard to see why he’s garnered so much acclaim from fans, pundits and opposition alike or, indeed, why he’s been scouted by the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur over recent months.

An astute tackler, Tierney possesses the rare quality of being patiently aggressive in his timing of a tackle- being far more willing to put in the extra graft in order to execute a tackle well as opposed to going in rash and, potentially, giving away a free-kick.

Despite being more of a defensive-orientated full-back, the 20-year-old is more than capable of being a key cog in the Celtic attack. Being one of the fastest defenders, nay players, in the Scottish League, it’s hard to miss him on the pitch and he consistently wears down the opposition with a torrent of crosses into their penalty boxes. Four assists and two goals from 26 games in all competitions this season is a testament to that.

101 domestic games and nine international appearances at his age is more than many could ask for but considering all his pedigree, the last two seasons have seen him far from the first name on the team sheet (23 and 24 Scottish Premiership appearances, respectively). But with 12 games from 13 under his belt thus far this season, he’s putting to bed any questions regarding his experience and, in doing so, making it harder for Celtic to resist any big money bids that come in for him during next summer’s transfer window.

Talent Radar Accolades:

  • Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2017

Looking Ahead: The future knows no bounds as to the potential of Tierney and, to be honest, it’s up to him how successful he wants to be. The level of commitment and dedication to being the best he can possibly be will determine how far he goes in the game. For now, he needs to focus on his career at Celtic and continue to put in performance after performance. Get that right and his move to the big time will come soon enough.

An asset he probably needs to look at is his shooting ability which, admittedly, isn’t necessarily the most important attribute for a left-back but for a player who gets as forward as he does, it would help if he had an improved end product to offer.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Kieran Tierney


19 / France / Red Bull Salzburg

Written by William Sinsky

Blurb: Over the past couple seasons, it is hard to talk about the Bundesliga without mentioning the controversial yet remarkable rise of RasenBallsport Leipzig. Founded in 2009, the club has flown up the successive flights of German football, and is now vying for championships both domestic and continental. The connection between Leipzig and other clubs of the “Red Bull” name is well documented, as in-form players have often moved around amongst these teams. Dayot Upamecano is one of those names.

Analysis: Dayot Upamecano came to RB Leipzig from RB Salzburg, the Red Bull owned club in the Austrian Bundesliga. He began to be noticed while in Valenciennes youth academy in France, excelling to the point where he not only made the roster for France’s U17 side, but was named to the 2015 European U17 Championship’s Team of the Tournament.

While Upamecano is often classified as a ball-playing central defender, he is first and foremost a defender. Describing his tackling and interceptions as world class wouldn’t be an exaggeration. He has the strength to out-muscle opponents off the ball yet the technique to not get called for a foul while doing so. With the fourth most interceptions per game this season and not a single error leading to goal, Upamecano has begun this season in fine form.

On the other side of play, Upamecano’s ball skills are very good for a defender. He dribbles well with the ball close to his feet, and has solid passing accuracy, with a tendency to hit long balls, though he sometimes dwells on the ball too long. He also has the speed to keep up with fast attackers on the counter, and uses his positioning to get himself open for a back pass if his more forward teammates need a safety net. He has a calm demeanor in the way he plays the game.

Talent Radar Accolades:

  • Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2017

Looking Ahead: France has arguably the deepest player pool of all nations for the World Cup this summer. While Upamecano should get a call-up to the national team soon, it would take some standout performances in Les Bleus’ upcoming friendlies for him to make this summer’s roster. However, ball-playing centre backs are becoming widely coveted among top clubs, such as John Stones at Manchester City and Samuel Umtiti at Barcelona. Dayot Upamecano perfectly fits that model of defender, and it’s only a matter of time before the titans come calling.

Read a detailed Scout Report on Dayot Upamecano


19 / Austria / Ajax

Written by Danny Lewis

Blurb: Maximilian Wöber may have only started 29 first team matches in his career at club level, but he has already impressed massively. It took just one full season in the Austrian Bundesliga with Rapid Vienna to earn him a £6.75 million move to Ajax. After moving to Amsterdam, he has had to be patient as he didn’t start any of their first four league games with him at the club, but since then he’s become a regular. Wöber has even forced his way into the Austrian national team, completing the 90 minutes in qualification wins against Serbia and Moldova in October.

Analysis: The teenage Austrian is primarily a centre-back, but can also perform well at left back. This versatility has helped him stay in the team at Ajax, as that is where he got his first minutes, coming on against VVV-Venlo and where he also played in the recent 5-1 win against Roda JC.

Wöber is solid defensively, making 1.6 tackles, 1.3 interceptions and 3.5 clearances a game. In the 495 minutes he’s been on the pitch for Ajax in the Eredivisie this season, they have conceded just four goals and they’ve kept two clean sheets in the six matches he’s started.

He is also useful at the other end of the pitch, as he already has two goals in a combined 11 league starts for Rapid Vienna and Ajax this season. His first came from a towering header in Rapid’s opening game draw against SV Mattesburg, while the other was a scrappy volley on his Ajax debut in a 4-0 win against Heerenveen.

Looking Ahead: Wöber’s sole aim for now has to be ensuring that he is a regular name on Marcel Keizer’s team sheet. As well as getting into the team, he will also want to play in his preferred centre-back position and if Ajax are able to keep hold of Matthijs de Ligt, the pair could create an exciting partnership to form Ajax’s foundation for the next few years. Austria aren’t in the World Cup so there is no pressure on him to force his way into the national team permanently at the moment, but it is expected that he could be an important player for his nation by the time the 2020 Euros come around.


18 / France / Borussia Dortmund

Written by Sami Faizullah

Blurb: Not many heads turned when Borussia Dortmund acquired the services of Dan Axel-Zagadou despite two of Europe’s biggest clubs being involved. Having only played for Paris Saint-Germain’s B team, Zagadou seemed like a average buy who could eventually knock the doors of the first team. But in August 2017, Peter Bosz named Zagadou in his starting XI against Wolfsburg, laying a platform for the Frenchman to develop into one of the season’s brightest upcoming talents.

Analysis: Though forced into a left-back role, Zagadou is a modern day central defender with the physicality to bode with. Comfortable on the ball and easily shifted to a full-back role as a result, Zagadou is encouraged to move ahead with the ball at his feet.

Standing at 6’4”, the tall teenager is immense in aerial situations- a key attribute for a side like Borussia Dortmund that like to play their football higher up the pitch and run the risk of being exposed to vertical balls as a countermeasure from the opponents. His physicality aids his aerial prowess, much like a traditional centre-back, but his ball playing ability is deceivingly quick.

His attacking intent is further heightened with his long ball ability, an added avenue for a side that deploys pacey attackers up with the potential to get behind the opponents (a recurring theme in the Bundesliga).

His early stint with Borussia Dortmund has opened up his abilities at full-back, but his physical presence suits best in the central role. Whilst world football has strong and tall traditional defenders along with the more ball playing ones, we’re hoping Dan-Axel can combine the two and grow into a modern hybrid central defender.

Looking Ahead: Despite his first-team stints, Zagadou is yet to establish himself in the starting eleven. Fairly raw but with incredible potential, Zagadou’s 2018 will be characterised with an attempt to establish himself at club level while also pushing for the national team, laying the foundations for being part of the setup in the not so distant future.

2018: Full List

Parts: 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10

2017 // 2016 // 2015 // 2014

Images: Getty / Illustrations: Sami Faizullah

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