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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

7. Anthony Martial, 20 (Manchester United)

It's a sequence which will live longer than he does: picking the ball up in Liverpool’s wide channel, squaring up Martin Skrtel, then slithering through a thicket of defenders before side-footing beyond Simon Mignolet.

British football is insular and it still fancies itself, incorrectly, as an ultimate proving ground. But if it had paid little attention to Anthony Martial before his arrival at Old Trafford, that goal couldn't be ignored. It was his debut and it occurred within Manchester United's biggest game of the year, but it was also like watching the ghost of Thierry Henry: the Arsenal great used to feast on Liverpool and scythe through their backline a couple of times a season. The comparison was irresistible.

Some players' futures are up for discussion. Development is an inexact science and predicting careers, with all the variables involved, is impossible. Martial seems to transcend that thinking, though, because he plays the game with a certain inevitability. In 2015, he won the sports journalists' Golden Boy award, adding his name to a list which includes Sergio Aguero and Leo Messi, and his instinct for goal, balance on the ball and pace make a similar future almost guaranteed.

When those individual abilities find a regular equilibrium, Martial will become a force of nature in the game. That's as certain as the sun rising in the morning. SSB

6. Gabriel Jesus, 19 (Palmeiras, joining Man City in January)

Watching Palmeiras at their home stadium is a unique experience – especially when their No.33 touches the ball and the fans start singing “Glory glory hallelujah, it’s Gabriel Jesus”.

The 19-year-old forward deserves all the hype. Ronaldo loves him. Pep Guardiola has his phone number. And he broke a mark for Brazil that not even Romario, Garrincha or Zico could, by scoring a brace on his debut in a 2018 World Cup qualifier.

The Palmeiras wonderkid, who signed for Manchester City last summer for £27m and will join the Premier League side in January, is often seen crying on the pitch – it has become reason for memes among supporters. Don’t be distracted by it, though – despite his age, Jesus is more mature than anyone could expect and very strong mentally. He’s definitely not one of those Brazilian starlets who move abroad and ask to come back home within six months because he’s missing the food. He’s even prepared to give up a position high up the pitch to help out defensively, the same as he did for Brazil at the Olympics when they won gold.

Besides all that, he has scored 26 goals this season for club and country. Jesus. MA

5. Marcus Rashford, 18 (Manchester United)

It was a Europa League game like any other. Marcus Rashford was just a Louis van Gaal debutant like any other. Only he wasn’t. The 18-year-old’s first Manchester United appearance, against FC Midtjylland, wasn’t even supposed to happen – he’d only got in the team because Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up.

Two goals in 12 second-half minutes helped round off a 5-1 trouncing at Old Trafford. But still: who was this lad? Three days later it was Arsenal’s turn for punishment when Rashford, as part of a youthful starting XI, struck twice in the first 32 minutes and assisted another goal in United’s 3-2 win. Seriously: who is this lad?

From that moment it was known that Manchester United had a special player on their hands. He started all 17 remaining games of 2015/16 in all competitions, scoring six more goals. His movement was exceptional, matched by a finishing ability that was just as special.

But then came Jose and Zlatan, the two ugly sisters of this Cinderella story. At first they threatened the happy ending – Rashford was benched for the first two games of 2016/17, but then saved United’s bacon with a last-gasp winner at Hull before adding goals against Watford and Leicester. This fairy tale is just getting started. JB

4. Gianluigi Donnarumma, 17 (Milan)

It’s difficult to explain just how good Gianluigi Donnarumma actually is. Common wisdom tells us that goalkeepers get better with age, yet the Milan star doesn’t celebrate his 18th birthday until the end of February and has still only played 30 games in Serie A, having made his first-team debut aged 16 last season – a Serie A goalkeeping record.

Yet watching him between the posts for the Rossoneri is to see a fully accomplished player making very few mistakes thanks to his excellent positioning. He’s already confident enough to verbally blast any errors from his veteran team-mates.

Given the current state of Milan’s side, those are plentiful and yet they continue to win games thanks to Donnarumma’s brilliance. He’s often compared to Gigi Buffon, yet is much more reminiscent of a young Edwin van der Sar; accomplished and intelligent enough to be in the right place but athletic and so tall (6ft 5in – what on earth did his parents feed him?) that he can recover if he ever gets his footwork wrong.

With Mino Raiola as his agent and Milan in a clear period of decline, it remains to be seen how long ‘Gigone’ will remain at San Siro once some of his older peers need replacing. Someone else could be getting an exceptional goalkeeper for a very long time. AD

3. Renato Sanches, 19 (Bayern Munich)

The term ‘meteoric rise’ is vastly overused in football (and also just plain wrong: who ever saw a meteor rise? – Ed.) – but there’s no doubting how Renato Sanches has rocketed onto the European footballing scene this year.

The teenager was given his full Benfica debut in the Champions League in November 2015 against Astana. One week later he scored a 30-yard wonder goal against Academica on his home debut in the Primeira Liga. He was never out of the first team again.

Exhibiting power, stamina and maturity beyond his years, Sanches played a leading role in helping the Eagles win a thrilling Portuguese title race and also looked anything but a rookie in the Champions League as Benfica’s commendable run only ended in a narrow quarter-final loss against Bayern Munich. So impressed were the German giants with the 19-year-old that they promptly paid a staggering €35 million (with a potential €45m in add-ons) to sign him.

But Sanches’s appetite for making a big impact on elite-level football was not sated. He played in all but one of Portugal’s seven matches at Euro 2016, was named Young Player of the Tournament and picked up a winner’s medal. All before his 19th birthday. TK

2. Kingsley Coman, 20 (Bayern Munich)

Of all the wingers in this list, Coman is surely the most complete. While his dribbling isn’t as YouTube-friendly as Ousmane Dembele’s, his slender frame still helps him leave opponents behind with deft drops of the shoulder. It’s his delivery that separates him, though, just one of the fine technical abilities that the 20-year-old boasts.

Last season, his performance in Bayern Munich’s thrilling Champions League last 16 extra-time win against parent club Juventus was a turning point. It was then that Coman showed he could deliver right when it mattered. His cross in the final moments of the game was pinpoint. His goal in extra-time iced the cake.

Gazelle-like when speeding down the wing, Coman is a fascinating player to watch. He poses a dual threat by being able to play on either wing, crossing comfortably off one or darting inside off the other.

His work has already yielded success too. Although PSG fans will dispute the true value of his contribution, Coman has already won league titles in France, Italy and Germany. With his two-year loan in Munich due to end this season, it’s hard to imagine Bayern won’t exercise the option to buy the French wizard permanently. JH

1. Dele Alli, 20 (Tottenham)

What a blur. Young players should always be treated with care and so, when Dele Alli made the quantum leap from Stadium:MK to White Hart Lane in 2015, it was to the sound of gentle applause. Alli had a name and a reputation, but he was a third-tier player and, in this age, supporters clamour for bigger names and want the reassurance of larger fees.

But then it began and the mood started to change. His first Tottenham season would start with cheek and impudence, but end with the Young Player of the Year award. A first Premier League goal at Leicester had warmed the coals, a classy European debut against Qarabag lit up that match, and Alli would spend that first year burning ever so brightly. By its end, everyone knew what David Pleat had first seen in him and why Spurs had worked so hard to bring the teenager to north London.

A thoroughly modern footballer, but one with anachronistic traits: Alli influences games in short, sharp doses. Rather than being a stable attacking presence, his best moments tend to appear from nowhere. He can be anonymous, but then with a flash of those feet or one of those instinctive late runs, he can change a game's texture in a heartbeat. His balletic goal against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, for instance, was an unlikely exclamation point in a thoroughly unremarkable performance. That is the Alli calling card, though, and the precious trait of a match-winner.

But if his ability is rare, so is his mind. Behind that choirboy smile lies teflon self-belief. From MK Dons to Tottenham, and then onto England within the space of year: that kind of rise doesn't happen without fearlessness, and all of his delicate technique would be worthless if it couldn't survive the pressurised air of the Premier League.

It's that capacity for expression which lies at the heart of the goals, the runs and the velvet-slippered touches. Ultimately, it's that same quality which will one day elevate him into the game's stratosphere. SSB

59-51 • 50-41 • 40-31 • 30-21 • 20-11 • 10-1

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Joe Brewin
Joe Brewin

Joe is the Deputy Editor at FourFourTwo, having risen through the FFT academy and been on the brand since 2013 in various capacities. 


By weekend and frustrating midweek night he is a Leicester City fan, and in 2020 co-wrote the autobiography of former Foxes winger Matt Piper – subsequently listed for both the Telegraph and William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards.