FourFourTwo's 59 Best Under-21 Wonderkids in the World: 10-1
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