FourFourTwo's 59 Best Under-21 Wonderkids in the World: 59-51
Words: David Cartlidge, Marcus Alves, Priya Ramesh, Jonathan Harding, Tom Kundert, Joe Brewin, Andrew Gibney, Michael Yokhin.
59. Jesus Vallejo, 19 (Eintracht Frankfurt, on loan from Real Madrid)
Like they did with Marco Asensio from Mallorca, Real Madrid acted swiftly to snap up Jesus Vallejo from Real Zaragoza in 2015. The centre-back had to grow up quickly too – at 18 he’d already captained his boyhood club and was handed the armband with reason.
Vallejo is a mature performer and leadership comes naturally to him – he also captained Spain's U19s to victory at the 2015 European Championship. But it’s his playing style that has won the most plaudits. He could well be Spain’s next Gerard Pique given the way he approaches his defending: smooth, subtle and extremely stylish.
Vallejo is incredibly gifted in possession and a key component in starting attacks from defence. He’s also shown the capability to play at full-back due to his speed, and also in defensive midfield given his ability on the ball. Spain fans have little reason to worry about the future of their defence. DC
58. Thiago Maia, 19 (Santos)
On the recommendations of his close friend, the PSG defender Marquinhos, Thiago Maia signed a contract with agent Giuliano Bertolucci last summer. What does that mean exactly? Well, he could now be eyeing a transfer to Chelsea.
Blues fans should be satisfied with the link. The Santos defensive midfielder is impressive – at just 19 years old he plays like a veteran on the field, solid enough to protect the back four but with good enough passing to play a box-to-box role. He was Brazil’s outstanding man during the group phase at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Maia excels with the ball at his feet, and can dribble his way through a pressing opposition to get his team further upfield. He’s also confident enough to play passes between the lines and is always looking to get the ball forward quickly, in a smart way. Consider yourself introduced. MA
57. Kasper Dolberg, 19 (Ajax)
Just a few weeks ago, this young Dane joined some illustrious company in Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten by scoring on his Ajax debut, in his case at home to PAOK (a fine goal at that too, below).
Dolberg was signed from Silkeborg IF only a year back after being scouted by John Steen Olsen, who has a track record of spotting Scandinavian talents for Ajax — notable among them, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Christian Eriksen.
Despite the loan signing of Bertrand Traore from Chelsea, Dolberg has been given the chance to start up front for Ajax – and more importantly, whenever given those opportunities, his performances have easily justified his selection. The 18-year-old brags speed and, particularly, a terrific shot on his right foot. Even beyond his stoic face and quiet persona, Dolberg exudes a certain calmness and lack of nerves beyond his years – perhaps similar to his compatriot Eriksen when he broke through. That’s not a bad lead to follow. PR
56. Benjamin Henrichs, 19 (Bayer Leverkusen)
Capped at every youth level for Germany, product of Bayer Leverkusen’s esteemed academy system and winner of the 2016 Fritz Walter gold medal in his home nation, Henrichs has quietly appeared out of nowhere to become a genuine right-back option for the first team. Or is that left-back, where he put in a man-of-the-match display against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday? Seemingly, it doesn’t matter.
Converted from an attacking midfielder – 11 goals and 17 assists served him well over three seasons at U19 level – Henrichs retains a strong desire to get forward. Nevertheless, his tackling is strong and his speed enables him to intercept the ball more often than not.
Although still improving on other aspects of his game, Henrichs is beating team-mate Tin Jedvaj (himself an excellent player) into the first XI so far this season. Based on the acceleration of his development, a full season of first-team football will see him flourish and finish near the top of Germany’s current crop of young defensive talents. JH
55. Jorge Meré, 19 (Sporting Gijon)
They’re crying out for centre-backs in Spain, and one at the forefront of those emerging is Meré. He's being labelled the best talent to emerge from Sporting Gijon since David Villa, and that may well have substance.
Meré has had to grow up quickly at Sporting, and was thrown into the first team at a tender age. He made his debut at 18 and is now a regular at 19, but his composure is terrific – a perfect mix of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.
There’s also a rough exterior to his game too, shown in the unfussy undertakings of his defensive duties, but also a tranquil one in which he snuffs out danger in graceful fashion. It’s a perfect defensive cocktail, and Meré packs a punch. DC
Next: Who's the Premier League's early entry?