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 / Uganda / Standard Liège
Written by Andrew Thompson
Blurb: Africa, for so long, has been untapped. There’s no doubt a veritable mountain of events and facts that show how the continent was exploited for personal and international gain, but regarding positive uplift and growth, it’s a continent just waiting to explode. Home to some of the worlds largest deposits of natural resources, and boasting immense economic potential, Africa isn’t just a continent bursting with untapped natural and financial muscle, but football as well.
Though only one African has ever won the Ballon d’Or, it has given us a cadre of world class players over the years, who conquered the very top levels of the sport. With nations like Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Senegal leading the way, smaller nations have begun their own building projects. With an average squad age of just 25, Uganda, like many smaller African nations (at least in terms of football) is putting faith in the process and building for the long term. One of their many young players, is Farouk Miya.
Analysis: Born in the town of Bulo, in the central region district of Butambala, Miya is at the forefront of Ugandan footballing progression. An exponent of the Ugandan football infrastructure, Miya was first scouted while at the Airtel Rising Stars program, a youth combine that gives aspiring Ugandan players a platform for exposure. During his participation, Miya eventually moved to Ugandan Super League-side Vipers SC, eventually making his full debut in 2013. After three years with the club, where he bagged 20 goals in 49 appearances, becoming a full international in the process, Miya would move to famed Belgian-side Standard Liège, though his first season in Belgium would be spent on-loan at Royal Excel Mouscron. He would only make a handful of appearances for Mouscron, and he returned to Standard this past summer.
To date he’s only appeared four times in the Jupiler Pro League, and five in the JPL Playoff, where he did manage to bag a goal. Despite his limited experience in European competition, the consensus surrounding Miya’s potential is quite positive. Dubbed “Muyizi Tasubwa” (A hunter who cannot miss), Miya’s goal record for Vipers, as well as his decent strike rate for the national side, shows his growing ability as a finisher. By his own admission, Miya is a disciplined player who values putting a shift in as well as exhibiting intelligent movement in the final third. If his goal scoring record for his former club showed signs of promise, his 17 goals in 50 appearances for Uganda already has him third in goals for active players as well as the seventh most caps, all by the age of 20; his influence is unquestionable.
Looking Ahead: Successful at club level in Uganda – and for the nations national team – is one thing, but Miya should have really broken into the first-team at Mouscron or Liege. But age is perhaps his biggest ally. There is still plenty of time for Miya to take on at a club in Europe, though it may not be in Belgium where he finds growth. Still, he remains one of only three Ugandan national players who ply their trade in the top flight of a legitimate European league. He may have been a slow starter after his leap of faith, but for a player who is devout in his faith, he’s determined to make faith into reality.
Read a detailed Scout Report on Farouk Miya
20 / Cameroon / FC Basel (on loan from Red Bull Salzburg)
Written by Josh Sippie
Blurb: Dimitri Oberlin has bounced around to an awful lot of teams in his youth, but one thing has remained true wherever he goes – the lad scores goals. Red Bull Salzburg facilitated a big stage of his growth, but with his contract nearly up, Oberlin was sent to FC Basel on loan. There, he proved that no matter the level, the theme remained the same. Featuring in their Champions League run has made no difference to his mantra. Goals. Goals. Goals
Analysis: Oberlin has already played 7,000 minutes in his young club career and has surpassed 40 total goals across eight different teams and levels. That is a lot of moving and shaking for a young man, but it hasn’t fazed him in the slightest. He is still scoring with the frequency of an emerging top striker and he is doing it a multitude of ways.
You don’t score as frequently as Oberlin does, and across so many different teams and levels, without a cool head when it comes to finishing, and Oberlin certainly has the ability. His scorching pace and determination manages to see him into deadly positions and from there, a quick jab of the ball sees him back on the score sheet.
Oberlin’s primary tool for getting into space is his speed, but his dribbling makes an excellent companion, as he makes getting around defenders look elementary. He is able to blow by them by wheels alone, or, when pinned into a corner or against the touchline, he can whittle his way through like a smooth tactician.
Looking Ahead: What has really made Oberlin pop this year has been his super performances in the Champions League. He scored four goals in the top European competition, three against Benfica alone, and earned him a man of the match performance when Benfica came to town. He had already been attracting a lot of suitors, but that list multiplied when he proved he could do it on the highest stage.
Oberlin’s contract is up in the summer of 2018 and it would be shocking to see a prospect of his potential returning to Austria to play for Red Bull Salzburg. A move is on the cards for young Oberlin, now it’s just a matter of where.
20 / Nigeria / Anderlecht (on loan from Everton)
Written by Andrew Thompson
Blurb: Nigeria have always been a nation that prides itself on producing talented young players. If current evidence is anything to go by, with their impressive international performances – and qualification for Russia 2018 – The Super Eagles continue to play the role of upstart much to their delight. Though players such as Alex Iwobi are getting much of the attention, Henry Onyekuru is undoubtedly a player to keep a keen eye on over the next few seasons, and potentially this summer as well.
Analysis: Born in the port city of Onitsha, Henry Chukwuemeka Onyekuru is one of a handful of attacking players from Nigeria who are looking to cement themselves at the highest levels around Europe. After a brilliant overall 2016-17 season with Belgian minnows KAS Eupen, where he bagged a combined 22 goals and 9 assists through league and playoff play, a rumored heavy interest from Arsenal would end up materializing into him rocking up at Goodison Park in a move to Everton. Deemed not quite ready for the Premier League, but rather a long-term project for the club, Onyekuru was loaned back to the Jupiler Pro League, but this time he would be suiting up with Belgian giants RSC Anderlecht.
At current, the Nigerian international has netted eight times in 16 total league appearances, as well as one additional goal in the Beker van Belgie. He’s also featured five times in the Champions League, and though he’s failed to find the back of the net in Europe, it’s clear that, though only on loan, he’s become an important part of Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s attacking plans.
Incredibly fleet of foot, a good technician, and an instinctual finisher, Onyekuru is a prime example of a modern wide player. Able to either burst past you, or tuck in and beat you in tight situations, the versatility in his personal game suits the fact that he’s tactically versatile as well. Comfortable through the middle as a center forward or out on the right flank, he excels on the left, however, and brings an impetuous but controlled approach on the pitch. Though he’s not the focal point of the attack overall, he certainly can be considered the dangerman in the final third.
Talent Radar Accolades
- 2016-17 Jupiler Pro League U-22 Team of the Season
- 2016-17 Jupiler Pro League 10 U-19 Players to Watch
Looking Ahead: Everton did incredibly well to bring in a player who, at least reportedly, was being eyed up by much bigger clubs. The question now becomes whether if The Toffees can hold on to the pacey Nigerian for more than a season or two. With rumored interest from a lot of big clubs, it’s unlikely that the Liverpool-based side will want to part ways with Onyekuru before he’s ever featured for the club. Additionally, with the sacking of Ronald Koeman and the appointment of Sam Allardyce, it will be interesting to see if the raw yet gifted Onyekuru can find his footing in Big Sam’s brand of football. There will be questions around his future, and how long he’ll call the blue side of Liverpool home, but what isn’t in doubt is the nature of his ability.
16 / Italy / Genoa
Written by Rahul Warrier
Blurb: At the age of 15, Pietro Pellegri was playing in the Serie A; he scored his debut Serie A goal just two months after his 16th birthday. Let that sink in. Youngsters rarely make their debut at that young an age, and yet Pellegri did with maturity and ease that belied his age. That debut would have come when he was 14, but then-coach Gian Piero Gasperini, known for his faith in youngsters, was talked out of it. It is natural that Pellegri will slowly be eased into the first team, but one thing is clear: Il Grifone have a gem on their hands.
Analysis: Genoa’s club owner Enrico Preziosi labelled him the next ‘Lionel Messi’: clear hyperbole, especially as that statement was made when he was just 14. But it is more inaccurate for the fact that Pellegri is more Ibrahimovic than Messi. The Swede is Pellegri’s self-confessed idol, and there are some similarities between the duo. Pellegri has a physical build that belies his young years: he stands at nearly 190 metres, is physically strong with broad shoulders that help him to hold defenders off. That holds him in good stead against good defenders, allowing him to hold his own and not be overawed by opponents of a higher ilk.
But that is not all he possesses in his locker: he has a dash of pace in him and a strong shot, showing he has a number of gifts on him. The comparisons with Ibrahimovic end on technique though, for Pellegri is still an uncut diamond and thus unrefined. That did not hamper him versus Lazio though, when he grabbed a brace, reducing his father, the team manager, to tears. His main weakness is not of his own making: it’s his young age and inexperience. That is something only time will help in order for him to develop his all-round abilities. If at 16 Pellegri possesses this much upside, it is exciting to picture him two years down the line.
Talent Radar Accolades
Looking Ahead: The future holds plenty of possibilities for the teenager, but it is playing time coupled with a level head that will keep him on the straight and narrow in the short-term. Genoa, stuck in a relegation battle this season, will naturally turn to experienced heads to get them out of the rut, leaving Pellegri in the dust. But he’s only 16, and so there’s no reason to panic. His time will certainly come; for now, he needs to focus on his own development. Genoa fans will have to savour Pellegri’s time at the club, for it is bound to last for just a few more years.
After that, it will be up to him to live up to Preziosi’s words. The reins of the Italian national team, as well as his future club, could be wielded by the boy from Genoa. After all, Pietro Pellegri’s just getting started: it’s up to him.
19 / USA / Borussia Dortmund
Written by Sami Faizullah
Blurb: American sport has always strived to be the best in the world, and the country has managed to achieve this across multiple individual and team sports. But football has continued to elude the country from its potential dominance. Neither has the national team reached its greatest heights, nor has the domestic league competed with the attraction of those in Europe. But with Christian Pulisic’s football development taking shape, the American may well be able to compete at the highest level with the sports’ biggest individuals.
Analysis: Comfortable across the attacking third, Pulisic can be deployed in multiple roles based on the sides’ attacking approach and shape. Though often used in a wider capacity, he has been used in a central role at both club and international level to devastating effect.
The American is extremely comfortable on the ball with terrific close control and dribbling ability. He has the willingness to take on a defender or two and finds it most comfortable when facing an opponent in a one-v-one situation.
But what’s most striking about Pulisic is his intelligence off the ball. His movement in attacking situations to find pockets of space to receive the ball into displays his maturity. He is quick to find a passing outlet for his team-mates with his awareness off the ball.
Talent Radar Accolades
- Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2017
- 2017 North American Young Player of the Year
- 2016-17 Bundesliga 10 U-19 Players to Watch
- 2016 Copa America 5 Best Youngsters
- 2015 U-17 World Cup 10 Players to Watch
While his pace and dribbling helps in counter-attacking phases, his movement is what sets him apart from other youngsters who may not quite have the maturity displayed by Pulisic.
Developed in a high paced game at Borussia Dortmund, Pulisic has showed immense work-rate from a young age. While this certainly is ideal in attacking phases of play, it’s particularly helpful in defensive situations with the teenager willing to get back and assist in recovering possession.
Looking Ahead: Though the national team is going through an underwhelming phase, Pulisic characterises the future of the sport, becoming the unofficial poster boy for the new chapter. Though there’s a ton of pressure associated with this role, Pulisic is in good hands for his ongoing developed in Germany. As Borussia Dortmund look to continue to compete at the highest level, a lot of trust would be thrown on to the feet of the youngster.
Read a detailed Scout Report on Christian Pulisic
20 / England / Manchester United
Written by Vatsal Dani
Blurb: A player who barely needs introduction, Marcus Rashford’s meteoric rise to pinnacle of English football is straight out of a Hollywood movie. Yet for the unintiated, Marcus Rashford is 20 year old forward plying his trade for Manchester United. He is the sole reason why United fans love Louis van Gaal as he drafted him into the first team in 2015. And he has come a long way since thumping a brace on his debut against FC Midtjylland. 2017 is the year in which the Manchester’s boy wonder asserted himself on the global footballing map.
Analysis: Pace, power, decision making and movement are hallmarks of a good centre forward. In addition, if the forward posseses deadly finishing and professional work ethic then that elevates him in to world-class category. The former Fletcher Moss prodigy ticks all of the above boxes but it’s his temperament which makes him rise above his peers. Be it scoring the winner in Europa League quarterfinal or tormenting the title winning defense of Chelsea at Old Trafford, he surely knows how to announce himself in the key games. His versatility makes him an asset hard to ignore. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku’s arrival shunted him out to the left wing and he has been equally enchanting with his twinkling feet from the flanks. The lanky Englishman also has lethal set-pieces in his armory. He is almost a complete package which every manager desires to have in his team. Going by the adage that no one is perfect, Rashford too has some teenie-weenie bugs in his eye-catching gameplay. His ability to stay on his feet when facing defenders is something which he needs to improve. He goes to the ground too easily which leads to loss of possession in key areas. Hopefully, this will ironed out by his current manager in time.
Talent Radar Accolades
- Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2017
Looking Ahead: He is tipped to be the next poster boy for both England and Manchester United, which in all fairness is bare minimum results for his talent and potential. The late bloomer should continue his fascinating growth and has all the attributes to register himself along side legends like Sir Bobby Charlton and Ryan Giggs. If 2017 was baptism to first team football then 2018 is where he carves out his niche with his consistency for both club and country.
Read a detailed Scout Report on Marcus Rashford
20 / Brazil / Watford
Written by Charles Onwuakpa
Blurb: It’s fair to say that, so far, Watford have enjoyed a particularly successful campaign this season with their new coach Marco Silva. the Portuguese manager, a couple of players have caught the eyes of many with some impressive performances: one of these is certainly Richarlison de Andrade, a.k. a Richarlison.
With five goals and three assists so far in his first Premier league season, the Brazilian winger is gradually taking English football by storm thanks to his raw talent, which has been on showcase for many.
Analysis: The most impressive aspect of Richarlison is his combative style of play: most wingers don’t usually do much in terms of defensive distribution and tracking back; the 20-year-old Brazilian instead likes to help his team without the ball. Unsurprisingly, he wins 2 tackles per game while committing 2 fouls per game. As you can probably guess, this style of aggressive play has its pros and cons; Richarlison though is still young and will definitely improve in the next few years.
While his defensive style might seem rash, he certainly has the end product to justify the incredible amount of effort Watford put into his signing this summer: as said earlier, the Brazilian has actively participated to 8 out of Watford’s 24 goals (as at the stage when this article was written), which is impressive. Standing 179 cm tall and weighing 71 kg, Richarlison de Andrade is strong and quick on and off the ball, therefore he is able to receive the ball in dangerous spaces: no player, expect Sterling, has made more touches in the box this season. Although he mainly plays as a left winger in order to cut inside and shoot, he can also play on the right flank and in a more central position, where he showcases his incredible agility in the air, a quality which could make him become a serious threat on set-pieces in the future.
Talent Radar Accolades
Looking Ahead: An area of his game in which he can definitely improve is his passing, which is below average: he has the skill and flair but lacks composure and accuracy when picking out a teammate. He isn’t particularly creative but is a strong dribbler. Should he maintain this form, he could get his first Brazilian senior team call up next year from Tite, although it is highly unlikely for us to see him in Russia next summer. In the meantime, playing in the Premier League can help him to develop his physicality.
We mustn’t forget though that this is a player whose football career is still very short in history at the moment. Under the likes of Marco Silva and Tite, the former Fluminene winger could enjoy a very successful 2018 and, perhaps, start hitting double figures regularly for Watford.
18 / Argentina / Velez
Written by Tom Robinson
Blurb: Romero burst onto the scene as a precocious 16-year-old and was on the verge of joining Arsenal before an ACL injury scuppered the move to London. The burly centre forward has worked his way back to fitness and is now getting regular game time leading the line for a youthful Velez side struggling to avoid relegation. Still only 18 and regarded as one of the best striking prospects in Argentina, there is plenty more to come from Romero and 2018 could be the year he kicks on to the next level.
Analysis: It seems like proper old-fashioned number nines are in short supply these days but Romero is a throwback to powerful centre forwards of yesteryear. Physically impressive, with a fearsome strike and quality aerial ability, Romero is a handful for opposition defenders despite his tender years. His acceleration, off the ball movement and link up play are all good too and suggest that maybe he could become the long term heir to Gonzalo Higuain.
His goal record of nine goals in 39 appearances is decent when you consider his age, his injury, plus the fact he is playing in an inexperienced squad with one of the youngest average ages in the league and that only half of those were as a starter. It’s still not clear how much the injury has taken its toll on his developing body but the early signs are positive.
With the emergence of Santiago Caseres and Matias Vargas at Velez, there are signs that a good crop is emerging and Romero has struck up a good understanding with the latter, as displayed by his two goals against Tigre. Given the right service, Romero could be the man to fire them up the table.
Talent Radar Accolades
Looking Ahead: There’s only so long that Romero will put up with ploughing a frustrating furrow for Velez and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of the Superliga’s bigger clubs swoop in and offer him a chance to showcase his talents at a higher level. There remains firm interest from Europe, with Liverpool reportedly being another of the clubs seriously interested, but for the time being any move abroad might be premature, while making an impact for the Argentina U20s will be another realistic short term aim for Romero. The next 24 months will go a long way to determining just how good Romero might be but there is enormous potential that, given time and patience, could be unlocked.
19 / Senegal / Rennes
Written by Nathan Staples
Blurb: Another Senegalese star that shined for Metz, Ismaila Sarr looke like he could follow in the footsteps of international teammate Sadio Mane. A move to Rennes has yet to benefit him but with a recent change of manager, it could only be a matter of time until he rediscovers his magic touch.
Analysis: Many were reminded of Ousmane Dembele’s rise watching Sarr last season, where he would carry the ball from his own field and transform defence into attack within a matter of seconds. Unafraid of driving at opponents, he was the perfect counter-attacking option Metz needed to drag them out of trouble last season.
His five-goal contribution saved Les Grenats from relegation and even had Barcelona inquiring about his services. Instead, the 19-year-old wanted to continue his development playing regularly in France, earning the move to Roazhan Park for a reported 17million.
Under Christian Gourcuff, he was moved further forward into a striking role, one that the youngster professed he prefers. However, the move hasn’t worked as well as hoped as he looked so much more dangerous playing in front of defenders and picking the ball up from deeper in order to attack at full speed.
An injury that will keep him out until early 2018 hasn’t helped either but there remains hope that new man Sabri Lamouchi will return him to his previous position. It’s become clear that getting him on the ball more often is much more complimentary to his game and if Rennes can get him going, they can rise through the ranks in Ligue 1.
Looking Ahead: There’s still plenty of expectation on the shoulders of young Sarr, with both the fee and his team not hitting the goals many expected of them before the campaign started. He was supposed to be the catalyst and he certainly has the ability to be, now it’s the time to show it.
Much like his meteoric rise in the second half of the 2016/17 season, expect him to come out of the blocks next year like a house on fire. With a point to prove and hopefully a new position with Les Rouges et Noirs, he could become a terror for French defences once again.
20 / Turkey / Levante UD (On loan from Villarreal)
Written by Griffin O’Neill
Blurb: After signing for Manchester City from boyhood club Bursaspor in 2015, Turkey international Enes Unal went on a succession of loan spells with varying degrees of success until he spent the 2016/17 season on loan at Dutch club FC Twente where he scored 18 times in the league, earning himself a 12 million pound move to Villarreal. Unal spent the beginning of the season at Villarreal before being sent on an emergency loan to Levante where he has become a contributing member of their first team.
Analysis: Throughout his professional career, Unal has been seen as a physical player. His greatest strengths lie in him winning aerial duels and his ability to score off of either crosses or free kicks. Unal wins 2.7 aerial duels per game, which is extremely impressive for a striker of his age and in a league such as La Liga. While his aerial ability is good, Unal does not have the same killer instinct on the ground. He has been known to be profligate in front of goal, and while this is an easily rectifiable problem, it is one that can easily determine wether Unal is able to fulfill his world class potential or not.
One area where Unal greatly struggles is in his ability to hold onto the ball. He has ben dispossed more than twice per game, while taking 4.2 unsuccessful touches per game as well. These stats are worrying for a player who likes to dribble as much as Unal, but while these stats are troublesome, they are easily rectifiable by the quicker decision making and maturity that comes with age.
Talent Radar Accolades
- Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2017
- Featured in 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016
- 2017-18 La Liga 10 Breakthrough Players to Watch
- 2016-17 Eredivisie U-22 Team of the Season
Looking Ahead: If Unal is able to impress during his loan spell with Levante, he will hopefully be able to lock down a place in the Villarreal first team. There is also a chance for a return to Manchester, with City inserting a 17.5 million pound buy back clause into his transfer.
Unal has shown great promise in flashes, and if he can regain the consistency that he had during his time with Twente as well as improving his decision making on the ball, he is sure to turn into a star for Villarreal as well as the Turkish national team for many years to come.
Read a detailed Scout Report on Enes Unal
2018: Full List
Images: Getty / Illustrations: Sami Faizullah