Although the top male athletes in the world are getting younger, is it really time to name Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s successors?
For the fifth year in a row (learn about 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 here), ESPN presents its ranking of the best young players under the age of 21. Erling Haaland, who was ranked No. 1 last year and is now 22 years old, and three other players from the top 10 in 2022 — Phil Foden, Vinicius Junior, and Alphonso Davies — are also too old to be considered.
Several of this year’s crops have already made their mark on the big stage, but which ones have excelled enough to make ESPN’s list, what distinguishes them, and how can they improve?
Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who has worked as a scout and executive for clubs throughout Europe, including Monaco, Zenit, and Watford, is compiling the list for the fourth consecutive year. Before announcing his selections, he discusses his selection process.
- Streaming on ESPN+: Bundesliga, LaLiga, and more (U.S.)
From an original extensive list of 100 players, 39 have been successful over the past two years, and those who are left are the ones who best met my main requirements: high-level appearances, consistent performance over an extended period, and the potential to become a future top-level footballer.
What kinds of studies were conducted?
Before settling on the final ranking, I employed a sounding board made up of professional scouts and sporting directors from a number of big European teams, as well as various online scouting platforms. An additional factor was personal preference.
When compared to central defenders, who often need more time to develop tactical awareness, positioning, and game comprehension, strikers typically see greater playing time at a younger age. Other defenders who weren’t selected included Antonio Silva of Benfica, Giorgio Scalvini of Atalanta, and soon-to-be Tottenham full-back Destiny Udogie.
Top Players Under 21 Football Players: League
|Premier League (England)||12|
|Ligue 1 (France)||2|
|Serie A (Italy)||2|
|Primeira Liga (Portugal)||2|
The fact that players like RB Leipzig’s Benjamin Sesko, Arsenal’s Folarin Balogun, Leeds United’s Wilfried Gnonto, Newcastle’s Anthony Gordon, and 16-year-old Palmeiras prodigy Endrick (who will sign with Real Madrid for €72 million in 2024) didn’t make the cut says a lot about the depth of attacking talent.
- The transfer market is used to determine transfer values.
- The positions are: goalie, left back, right back, center back, defensive midfield, attacking midfield, forward, and center striker (striker.)
- Players included must be age 21 or under on April 1.