FourFourTwo's 59 Best Under-21 Wonderkids in the World: 10-1
Words: Jonathan Harding, Joe Brewin, David Cartlidge, Seb Stafford-Bloor, Marcus Alves, Adam Digby, Tom Kundert.
10. Ousmane Dembele, 19 (Borussia Dortmund)
Having the skills to consistently win one-on-one duels is a hugely desirable trait, and in that respect Frenchman Dembele has all the tricks of a PlayStation player. In his first Bundesliga game for Borussia Dortmund, the sought-after 19-year-old (BVB beat off competition from Leicester, Manchester United and Liverpool to sign him for €15m from Rennes) left opposing defenders labelling him ‘scary’. He teases opponents, not arrogantly, but with a childlike sense of playfulness. He doesn’t know another way to play.
Dembele’s footwork is mesmerising. He’s shown glimpses of mature vision and clearly has an eye for goal, but it’s his one-on-one ability that Thomas Tuchel wants to use, having spoken about getting Dembele into situations where his skill is most effective. In short, that’s not crowding him with players to dance around, but instead leaving him with two to beat before a pass or shot.
Dembele’s challenge now is to complete his game. If his decision-making and passing were as good as his dribbling, he’d have already stunned world football. One season at BVB and it feels like he might well do. JH
9. Leroy Sané, 19 (Manchester City)
Things haven’t gone perfectly to plan for Leroy Sané at Manchester City so far, but Pep Guardiola isn’t going to willingly endorse the £37m signing of a dud. Besides, a difficult opening chapter – just one start so far, in the League Cup – hasn’t really been Sané’s fault. He can blame a hamstring injury for that.
The player Pep signed was named in Germany’s Euro 2016 squad. He played almost 60 times for Schalke over two seasons, scoring 13 times along the way and establishing himself as the most promising teenager in a country proudly bejewelled with diamonds.
Sané was forced to grow up fast after making his Schalke debut at 18, but has since demonstrated exceptional maturity on every step of his busy journey so far. He’s had good grounding – his father Souleymane was also a professional footballer in Germany; his mother Regina a rhythmic gymnast who won bronze at the 1984 Olympics.
Even now, when things are tougher in new surroundings, the 19-year-old is keeping a cool head. He sees a temporary drop to Germany’s U21s as an opportunity for minutes, rather than a snub (because it isn't). He knows Guardiola will play him eventually because his key qualities – speed, direct running and goal threat from the wing – will validate those opportunities. Man City fans will see them soon enough. JB
8. Marco Asensio, 20 (Real Madrid)
Real Madrid acted quicker than their rivals to snap up Marco Asensio, and in doing so have not only grabbed themselves a bargain at €3.9m, but a potential world-class star.
In fact, Asensio has wasted little time in proving he can aspire to that level. Last season the attacking midfielder enjoyed a highly successful loan at Espanyol in which he became leader of the team, and was rewarded with a place in Real Madrid’s first-team squad this time around. Zinedine Zidane didn’t feel the need to buy anybody else.
The 20-year has shown he’s not intimidated by the stature of the club, nor the players in his way. Isco and James Rodriguez have already been seen off, with Asensio showing plenty to suggest he’ll be Real Madrid and Spain’s midfield star in the coming years.
The boy from the Balearics packs pace, incredible dribbling ability and an eye for a pass. From a wide left role he shows speed and ability to drive inside to torment defenders, while centrally he’s able to conduct attacks. What’s set Asensio apart from the rest, however, is his confidence. He’s well aware of his ability and is never frightened to put it in the spotlight. Expect him to stay there for club and country. DC