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Sancho, Felix & Mbappe... 20 wonderkids primed to be best of next decade

  /  autty

The new decade of football is on lockdown after the coronavirus pandemic brought the sport to standstill.

The 2020's is set to bring a new generation of dominant players to the football field, succeeding a dominant list of superstars from the previous decade.

The past 10 years have belonged to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Argentine and the Portuguese claiming 10 of the last 11 Ballons d'Or.

Neymar, Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Sergio Aguero, Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Harry Kane and many more also starred in the 2010s, which saw the emergence of Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Jan Oblak.

Others, such as Bojan Krkic, Jese Rodriguez, Ravel Morrison, Hatem Ben Arfa and Renato Sanches were unable to fulfil their early potential.

Ronaldo is now 35 while Messi will turn 33 in June. And many of the above are now in their late 20s or early 30s. Over the next decade, it is time for a different group of footballers to define the sport.

But which ones will flourish and which will flatter to deceive in the 2020s?

Here, Standard Sport's Ben Hayward has picked 20 players who should shine in this decade…

Trent Alexander-Arnold

Already a Liverpool legend for his part in the Reds' run to Champions League glory in 2018-19, which included that famous corner in the 4-0 win over Barcelona at Anfield, Trent Alexander-Arnold should be a big part of the club's future as well.

The 21-year-old, a local lad idolised by the fans, is redefining the right-back role and showcased his unique talents by scoring one and setting up two in Liverpool's 4-0 demolition of Leicester on Boxing Day.

Such is his quality that many pundits have tipped him for a switch to midfield in future, although Jurgen Klopp appears happy to have him attacking from the right flank for now.

“I have known Trent Alexander-Arnold since he was 17 years old,” Klopp said in December. “He was a big talent but we were not sure he could do it physically. Now he is a machine – so he is a big surprise.” And after the win over Leicester, James Milner said: “Trent is getting better all the time. He is unbelievable and there is plenty more to come as we will be on him to keep improving.”

Eduardo Camavinga

Born in Angola in November 2002, Camavinga is already a regular in the Rennes first team and became the youngest player to make an appearance for the club's senior side when he made his debut last season against Angers at just 16 years of age.

Camavinga plays in front of the defence and operates with a composure and elegance far beyond his years. A modern-day holding player, the 17-year-old is strong, quick and always seems to be in the right place to recover possession.

But he is also much more than just a destroyer, as shown by his super pass which set up the winner against Paris Saint-Germain in August.

Later, he became the youngest winner of Ligue 1's Player of the Month award.

A France Under-21 international, the midfielder has been described by national team coach Didier Deschamps as a “very good thing” for French football and he is already attracting interest from Real Madrid and has been linked with Liverpool. A big future awaits.

Frenkie de Jong

Barcelona's young Dutch midfielder was one of the revelations of the 2018-19 season as he helped Ajax to the semi-finals of the Champions League, a run which included memorable wins away to Real Madrid and Juventus.

Virtually an ever-present for the Catalan club this season, De Jong has impressed fans, team-mates and even coaching staff with his ability to cover ground in both defence and attack.

The 22-year-old has added much-needed dynamism to the Barca midfield, playing mainly on the left so far, but he could be a long-term replacement for Sergio Busquets in the pivot role in future.

“I have sometimes shown my qualities but, in general, I can play much better,” he said last week. “I'm still not as dominant as I was at Ajax. I have to score more goals and give more assists.”

Already one of the best in his position and with that determination to keep improving, De Jong could spend a decade or more at the heart of Barcelona's midfield.

De Ligt

A key part of the young Ajax side which reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2018-19, Matthijs de Ligt rejected the overtures of Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and others to sign for Juventus in a €75 million transfer last summer.

After some high-profile mistakes earlier in the season, the 20-year-old Dutch international finally looks to be adapting to life in Serie A and has earned praise for his recent performances.

A former winner of the Golden Boy award, De Ligt is tall, physically strong and commanding in the air, with good technical ability, pace and passing. And he is seen as a long-term option in an ageing Juve back line, although his release clause of €150m from 2021 could prove tempting for one or two of Europe's top teams if he continues to develop as planned.

“His mentality and the way he wants to improve… he wants to be the best defender in the world,” former Ajax great Edwin van de Sar said. And Sarri has defended the young centre-back after criticism from fans and the media. “De Ligt doesn't speak Italian well yet, but he is adapting very quickly to our style of football, our type of defending and has enormous potential,” he said after the 2-1 win over Inter Milan in October.

Gianluigi Donnarumma

Milan's Gianluigi Donnarumma is the only goalkeeper on this list and at the age of 21, he is considered to be the heir to Italy legend Gianluigi Buffon.

Donnarumma has already made 180 appearances for AC Milan's first team, having made his debut as a 16-year-old in October 2015. And he has also been first choice for the Azzurri since 2018.

Having reached six foot at the age of 11, Donnarumma now stands a further five inches tall and is a commanding presence for both club and country. Big, strong and athletic, he is already world class and will continue to improve. Given the situation at San Siro and the fact his contract is up in 18 months, he could also be on the move soon to one of Europe's elite clubs.

“He is the diamond who shines brightest,” Buffon said of Donnarumma in October when asked about Italy's next generation of goalkeepers. And Italy coach Roberto Mancini, who has installed the youngster as first choice, called for patience: “He will make mistakes like any young player, but he has extraordinary quality and he will have a long career.”

Ansu Fati

Hardly anybody had heard of Ansu Fati when he made his Barcelona debut as a 16-year-old in September, but the young forward made an instant impact and was a bright light amid the doom and gloom as Lionel Messi missed the start of the season through injury.

Born in Guinea-Bissau, young Anssumane moved to Spain at the age of six and starred for Seville's youth sides before joining Barca's La Masia academy as a 10-year-old in 2012.

His winner at Inter Milan in November saw him become the youngest ever scorer in the Champions League and the teenager recently signed a contract extension which will see his release clause rise to €400 million when he turns 18. Clearly Barca believe there is much more to come and there should be.

“He's an amazing player and he's got what it takes to succeed,” Messi said in September. “I hope he keeps on enjoying it and that all the fuss around him doesn't have a negative impact on him because he has the quality to become one of the best.”

Joao Felix

Signed as a replacement for Antoine Griezmann by Atletico Madrid after the French forward moved to Barcelona last summer, Joao Felix became the third-most expensive player in football history when he joined the Rojiblancos from Benfica for €126 million as a 19-year-old.

The Portuguese attacker won the Golden Boy award in November for the best Under-21 talent in Europe and despite some difficulties and an injury interruption at Atleti so far, he has shown signs of the enormous potential that should see him go right to the very top.

Felix combines pace with excellent dribbling and is one of those players who looks likely to make something happen every time he is on the ball. The 20-year-old should also go on to become a prolific scorer, although he is finding goals harder to come by this term after hitting 20 last season for Benfica.

“Can he repeat my successes in Spain? I believe that a lot, because he is an excellent player with a lot of potential who can evolve,” Cristiano Ronaldo said of his compatriot back in August.

Erling Braut Haaland

Borussia Dortmund pipped Manchester United to the signing of talented 19-year-old striker Erling Haaland, who joins the Bundesliga side from Red Bull Salzburg this month for a fee of €20 million plus commissions.

The young Norwegian international, who is the son of former Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City player Alf-Inge Haaland, scored 28 goals in 22 appearances for RB Salzburg this season – including eight in six games in the Champions League and five hat-tricks overall. He scored 12 goals in 11 appearances so far for Dortmund.

Already considered one of the most exciting young players around, he has represented Norway at every level since the Under-15s and scored nine goals for the nation's U20 side in an astonishing 2-0 win over Honduras in the U20 World Cup in Poland back in May. He has since gone on to win two caps for the senior side.

“The kid is an incredible talent, he can do almost anything,” RB Salzburg coach Jesse Marsch said in September of the young striker, who has been compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic because of his height and his goalscoring ability.

Kai Havertz

The latest in a long line of talented German midfielders, Kai Havertz has already racked up over 120 appearances and 31 goals since becoming Bayer Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant in 2016.

Havertz, who has been compared to Arsenal's Mesut Ozil and former Bayer Levekusen greats Toni Kroos and Michael Ballack, is technically gifted, two-footed and also physically strong.

The 20-year-old has seven caps and one goal for Germany, having made his debut against Peru in 2018, and is reportedly being tracked by seven of Europe's top clubs ahead of a summer scramble for his services.

“He is a player who combines excellent physical qualities with great technical skills,” Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri said in October. “At the moment they are using him mainly as an attacking midfielder behind the central forward or as a winger. I think he is a complete player that could also play as a midfielder. He is a player born in 1999. With those qualities and with that personality, it makes you think it is certain he will become one of the most important players in Europe.”

Lee Kang-in

After moving from his homeland to join the Valencia academy in 2011, Lee Kang-in has gone on to establish himself with the club's first team squad and is seen as a big talent for the future.

The attacking midfielder made his debut last season as a 17-year-old and has gone to make more appearances this term, featuring in 13 games so far and scoring in the 3-3 draw against Getafe in September.

Lee also claimed the Golden Ball for the best player at the Under-20 World Cup in the summer to join an illustrious list of previous winners, including Diego Maradona, Robert Prosinecki, Adriano, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Paul Pogba.

“He is a boy with a lot of ambition, and is very talented,” said former Valencia youth coach Miguel Grau. “The two things come together. It is very difficult to work with such concentration and be so talented. Putting the two things together is very difficult to find and Kang-in is like that. Those of us who know him have no doubt about him.”

Lautaro Martinez

A €22.7 million signing from Racing Club in 2018, Lautaro Martinez is thriving in his second season at Inter Milan and has hit 16 goals in 31 appearances already this term.

The Argentine striker was a handful in both Champions League group games against Barcelona, netting inside two minutes of a 2-1 loss at Camp Nou. He is admired by the Catalan club and has been earmarked as a possible long-term successor for Luis Suarez by the Blaugrana, although Inter are keen to hold on to their star striker, who has a €111m release clause.

Lautaro has also enjoyed a fine year with his national team in 2019, scoring eight times in 13 games, including two in the Copa America and a hat-trick in a friendly against Mexico in September.

“Lautaro is only 22 years old and has exploded with a very high return in a short time. I hope he stays here for a while,” Inter vice-president Javier Zanetti said in November. And his national coach, Lionel Scaloni, added: “Lautaro Martinez is the present and the future of Argentina."

Kylian Mbappe

The France forward is already a World Cup winner and a three-time Ligue 1 champion, once with Monaco and twice at current club Paris Saint-Germain. 

A target for many of Europe's elite clubs, including Real Madrid, Mbappe only turned 21 in December and he has all the attributes to become the world's finest footballer in the years to come.

Explosive, skillful and pacy, the PSG attacker possesses tremendous technique and is a fantastic finisher. With over 100 career goals to his name at club level (including 76 in 108 games for the Parisian outfit), the youngster is already among the world's top players and is considered by many to be one of the future greats.

“I call him Golden Boy,” PSG team-mate Neymar said in an interview last March. “He's a boy for whom I have a very special affection, who will become one of the best players in football history.”

The 21-year-old is happy in Paris for now, but a move to Spain appears to be on the cards at some point and if there is one player who seems certain to dominate the next decade, it is Mbappe.

Martin Odegaard

There was much fanfare when Martin Odegaard signed for Real Madrid as a 16-year-old in 2015, but it has taken several spells away on loan for the Norwegian to realise his early potential.

After a season at Heerenveen and another at Vitesse in the Netherlands, Odegaard is finally back in La Liga and is impressing in an exciting Real Sociedad side.

The midfielder, who turned 21 in November, has seven goals already this term and plenty of assists, including one outrageous piece of skill and long pass to set up Mikel Oyarzabal in the 3-0 win over Alaves in September. He also put on a super show in the 2-2 draw at home to Barcelona in December.

“He is a very mature youngster who knows the steps he must take to make it,” Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil said recently. And he added: “He is capable of playing at a high level in LaLiga, which also means Real Madrid.”

Riqui Puig

Many Barcelona fans could understand why Riqui Puig is not being used in the first-team squad under Ernesto Valverde.

Valverde said in November that the young midfielder will go on to play for the first team, but that he does not know when that will be. The midfielder's performances for Barca B and brief outings for the senior side suggest he is already good enough, though, and he has the potential to be a generational talent at Camp Nou.

His slight stature means he is not physically strong, yet he is not easily pushed off the ball and his ability to ghost past rival players and slide pinpoint through-balls into the box for his team-mates are skills straight out of the La Masia blueprint.

“He has a lot of self-confidence when he plays. He always looks forward and never hides,” Valverde said last year.

“Let's see if he can take a step forward in his career.” Given the chance, he should, but the midfielder may have to wait until the current coach departs. After that, he has the talent to play a pivotal part over the next decade.


Real Madrid may have missed out on Neymar from Santos a few years ago, but Los Blancos have signed the next big talent from the Brazilian club and he has already made a big impression.

Rodrygo, who turned 19 in January, was expected to spend much of the 2019-20 season with the youth team after his €45 million move in the summer, but the winger has been promoted to the senior side and has scored six goals already for Zinedine Zidane's side.

His hat-trick in the 6-0 win at home to Galatasaray in November saw him become the second-youngest player to score a treble in the Champions League and later that month, he made his debut for Brazil in a 1-0 friendly loss to Argentina.

“He is a player who is always trying to improve and he has already shown he is very important for Real Madrid,” club and international team-mate Casemiro said in November. “Aside from his great talent, he has his head screwed on and his feet on the ground. He's aware of the moment he is in, but he won't get carried away by the euphoria. He'll be key for the future of Brazil and Madrid.

Jadon Sancho

Since moving from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund in 2017, Jadon Sancho has impressed for the German club and is now in his third season in the BVB first team.

The current campaign has brought 19 goals in 40 games for club and country so far this season. Sancho scored his first goals for England in 2019, hitting a brace in a 5-3 win over Kosovo in September, and is being tracked by a number of Europe's elite clubs.

“He's still a kid, he's 19, has all the right characteristics, and if he doesn't suffer a dip, he'll be a top player,” BVB team-mate Paco Alcacer said in December. “If he keeps improving and acquires a few more attributes, he'll be one of the best in the world.”

Raheem Sterling

The oldest player on this list, Raheem Sterling should be approaching the finest football of his career as he reaches his peak in the early part of the 2020s.

Having netted over 20 goals in each of the past two seasons, the England midfielder has already hit that total in 2019-20 and is on course for his most prolific campaign to date.

This past year has also been his best for the Three Lions, with eight goals in nine appearances. In the 2020s, he has the potential to be even better and the way he takes care of his fitness, the 25-year-old should be able to play well into this 30s.

Asked if Sterling could reach the level of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Pep Guardiola said in September: “Right now no, but maybe in the future, I wish for it. They are legends, something unique in world football. If Raheem can target that level, wow. Of course, he can do it and I won't be the guy to tell him his limits.”

Ferran Torres

Valencia are being careful to avoid excessive hype surrounding young winger Ferran Torres, but the 20-year-old is growing in stature at Mestalla and is considered one of Spain's brightest teenage talents.

After progressing through the youth system at Valencia, Ferran is now in his third season with the senior squad and became the club's youngest Champions League goalscorer when he netted against Lille in November.

A right winger with superb technical ability and an eye for goal, the Spanish Under-21 international has recently penned a new, long-term contract at Valencia and has a release clause of €100m.

“He's got all he needs to reach the very top. Speed, ability … he's the complete package technically,” Spain Under-19 coach Santi Denia said. “He is combative, but what he has above all is the pace and directness in one-on-ones that modern footballers need.”

Fede Valverde

When Real Madrid failed to sign a new midfielder last summer, it looked like their season might flounder. But the emergence of Fede Valverde has changed everything.

The 21-year-old Uruguayan has transformed Los Blancos' midfield in 2019-20 and with it, their season, splitting up the Luka Modric-Toni Kroos axis and adding energy and verve to what was becoming a static sector in Zinedine Zidane's side.

A box-to-box midfielder with impressive energy and drive, Valverde is contributing in both defence and attack for Real and bringing out the best in some of his team-mates. For the big games, he is now a must for Zidane and whoever arrives next summer, he should remain a fixture in Madrid's midfield.

“I love this player,” Kroos told Standard Sport in November. “To come here is not easy, to play like that, at this age, means he has a lot of quality and I'm pretty sure he will have a great future here. For many, many years."

Vinicius Junior

A beacon of hope in a troubled 2018-19 season for Real Madrid, Vinicius Junior has found opportunities harder to come by this term following the arrival of Eden Hazard and the emergence of Rodrygo at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The 19-year-old also took time to recover from the injury he suffered against Ajax in the Champions League last term and has been left out of several squads by coach Zinedine Zidane.

Problems in front of goal have also brought scrutiny and question marks over whether he will make it to the highest level, but his ability to beat players makes him a very special talent and over time, his decision-making and shooting should both improve.

“Vinicius Junior is an amazing footballer,” Brazilian great Ronaldo said in November. “He had a fantastic last season and he saved Real Madrid from an even greater failure. The expectation is very high and he has a lot of potential to improve.”