FourFourTwo's 59 Best Under-21 Wonderkids in the World: 20-11
15. Christian Pulisic, 18 (Borussia Dortmund)
While the American media tend to hyperbolise, they weren’t exaggerating about how good Pulisic is. Direct and fearless, the teenager has benefited immensely after making his big move to Borussia Dortmund from Pennsylvania in summer 2015.
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The speed at which the 18-year-old has developed, though, is testament to his quality. Aged only 17, two goals in two wins at the end of last season turned heads. At the very least it became clear that he wasn’t simply a marketing ploy (if there was any doubt in the first place, that is).
This season his trajectory has continued upwards. A standout display in a 6-0 home romp of Darmstadt was a turning point, but even more so his 17-minute cameo against Real Madrid in the Champions League. On the biggest stage in club football, Pulisic’s impact changed the game and showed he is where he’s supposed to be. America has a new star and he’s shining brightly in Dortmund. JH
14. Kelechi Iheanacho, 20 (Manchester City)
When you’re 20 years old and battling Sergio Aguero for the spot in a one-striker system, it’s important you make your limited opportunities count. And quite how Iheanacho has done just that.
Manchester City’s Nigerian striker – quiet, humble and unspectacular in his play – doesn’t light up matches like Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial. He doesn’t thrill fans with YouTube-worthy party tricks. But he scores goals, assists them too – and both very frequently.
Iheanacho has made 43 first-team appearances for City now, having joined them from the Taye Academy in 2014, but only 15 of those have been starts. Yet from a combined 1,576 minutes of football the 6ft 1in hitman has plundered 17 goals and added added eight more assists, making him directly involved in a Manchester City goal every 63 minutes. Even his goals alone practically average at one every 90 minutes. It takes a lot for a young player to make an impression at his club, but Iheanacho looks like he has so much to offer for years to come. JB
13. Julian Brandt, 20 (Bayer Leverkusen)
Brandt is set for his most exciting season yet. In the final 10 games of 2015/16 he scored in six consecutive games and notched five assists. His sensational salvo nearly landed him a spot in Germany’s Euro 2016 squad, but the 20-year-old still had a stunning summer winning silver for Germany’s Olympic team. Brandt played every minute, delivered nine assists and, even though in vain, he scored in the final's penalty shootout defeat to Brazil.
The 20-year-old’s talent has been undisputed ever since Leverkusen poached Brandt from Wolfsburg’s academy in January 2014 when his contract ran out. Now, with his wonderful control, strong finishing and mature playmaking, he is showing it on Germany’s biggest stage and beyond.
With over 100 appearances to his name for Leverkusen now, Brandt’s time to move on could be approaching as fast as a regular spot in the Germany squad. JH
12. Giovani Lo Celso, 20 (Rosario Central, on loan from PSG)
Just when everyone at Rosario Central was speaking about the talented Franco Cervi (now at Benfica), 19-year-old Lo Celso was stepping up to send him to the bench. Less than a season later, PSG splashed €16m on the exquisite midfielder who will join the French side in January.
Comparisons with Angel Di Maria had been inevitable. “But I feel miles away from him – the only thing we have in common is that we grew up in Rosario, are left-footed and played and support the same club,” Lo Celso himself protested.
Actually, his game is completely different: a classic No.10 who enjoys pausing more than acceleration, and through-balls over one-on-ones. His repertoire is full of tricks: backheels, nutmegs and rabonas now fill his YouTube showreel. “My dream game would be one where I don’t miss a pass,” says the Andres Iniesta admirer, who represented Argentina at the Olympics in Rio and hopes to be called up for the national team soon enough. MM
11. Gabriel Barbosa, 20 (Inter Milan)
Where Santos are concerned, saying that lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place just isn’t true. Just see Robinho and Diego in 2002. Or Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso a few years later. And now Gabigol. Santos’s Meninos da Vila factory never disappoints, and Gabriel Barbosa – as the new Inter Milan forward prefers to be called – is the newest of them to move abroad.
He’s got the same agent as Neymar, Kaka and Robinho in Wagner Ribeiro, so it’s no wonder that the summer transfer window was crazy for him. There were also offers from Leicester and Juventus, and a fight against Barcelona about a first-option clause.
In the end, Inter got the Brazil international for a shade under €30m. The 20-year-old has done well to get this far: he’s one of few successful cases of hyped academy youngsters who actually fulfil expectations in the professional ranks. The key for Gabriel now is not so much how he shows off that impressive technique of his, but to sustain the confidence that his football carries and has attracted so many teams to follow him. The rest will come. MA