As players increasingly break through and peak at a younger age, the current Young Player of the Year criteria aren’t fit for purpose.
So rather than being aged 23 or under at the start of the season – meaning a 24-year-old Bernardo Silva is eligible for the prize this year – who deserves to be on a shortlist of those who were 21 or under before August 1, 2018?
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Alexander-Arnold hasn’t been as effective this season as in the second half of 2017/18, but that was inevitable. Young players enjoy a rapid rise to the top, before high-class opponents work out their flaws and subsequently exploit them. Alexander-Arnold’s task then becomes to improve the weakest parts of his game as a countermeasure.
Still, it’s hardly been a disaster. Alexander-Arnold has played 29 matches in the Premier League and Champions League, lost only three, and is first-choice right-back for the club that sits top of the table.
If the competition for places is punishing at international level (Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier might both be ahead of him in Gareth Southgate’s new flat back four), that only keeps Alexander-Arnold motivated to improve further. At the age of 20, he is extraordinarily mature and grounded – and long may that continue.
David Brooks (Bournemouth)
Despite winning the Toulon tournament with England in 2017, Brooks declared for Wales and already has 10 senior caps at the age of 21. Ryan Giggs has picked a wonderful time to take charge: Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey remain the superstars, but around them flitter and float a range of young attacking options that include Brooks, Harry Wilson and Daniel James, with Rabbi Matondo, Ben Woodburn and Matthew Smith following in behind.
Of that group, Brooks is the most developed. Eyebrows were raised when Bournemouth chose to spend north of £10m to sign him after only nine Championship starts for Sheffield United, but the attacking midfielder would now be worth at least three times that were Eddie Howe to sell.
Brooks’s speedy adaptation to Premier League life has stood out most. He has 10 league goals and assists, and will comfortably pass the 2,000 league minutes mark in his first top-flight season. Before 2018/19, Brooks had played fewer than 1,500 career league minutes.
James Maddison (Leicester)
One of the benefits of Brendan Rodgers being named Leicester manager is that the club’s young players will feel cherished. Claude Puel deserves credit for putting faith in youth during his time in charge, but his brand of football and stop-start tenure risked allowing them to go stale.
The same cannot be said for Rodgers. When Maddison missed out on the latest England squad because Gareth Southgate pointed out that he doesn’t use a No.10, Rodgers immediately picked Maddison on the left and watched as he produced a virtuoso performance against Burnley. These things matter.
Maddison could consider himself unfortunate not to be part of England’s latest squad. No player in Europe’s top five leagues – not Lionel Messi, not Eden Hazard – has created as many chances this season. If Maddison might need to curb his tendency to shoot from distance quite so often, you can hardly accuse him of allowing that tendency to affect his creativity.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Crystal Palace)
When Southgate announced his latest England squad and Aaron Wan-Bissaka was not included, Crystal Palace fans rolled their eyes and uttered several variations of the phrase “well isn’t that a surprise”.
But they needn’t be too disheartened. England have somehow engineered a situation where they have one of the best right-backs in the world, have Kieran Trippier struggling for Tottenham but still with plenty of England goodwill, and two of Europe’s best young defensive prospects in Alexander-Arnold and Wan-Bissaka. Rather than sit on the bench for the senior team, far better for Wan-Bissaka to make his way in under-21 football with a European Championship this summer.
That disappointment is a sign of just how far Wan-Bissaka has come in a short space of time. Thirteen months ago he was making his Premier League debut amid a Crystal Palace injury crisis. Now he is undroppable at club level, the subject of £40m transfer rumours linking him with the country’s biggest clubs, and knocking on the door of the England senior team. Remarkable.
Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
It hasn’t even been a vintage season for Rashford, who was stymied by the stench of Jose Mourinho’s football and regularly pushed onto the bench at Manchester United. And yet he has still scored or assisted 15 Premier League goals in 26 games, netted twice in four Nations League games for England (including a goal and assist against Spain), and scored against Valencia and PSG in the Champions League.
Most importantly, Rashford doesn’t seem to have been permanently affected by the Mourinho mess. Taken under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s wing and told to get into the penalty area more often and relax in front of goal, his form rebounded almost immediately under the interim manager.
"Given that he's only 21, he will definitely continue to improve," said Gareth Southgate in January. "When you have a mindset like he has and a desire to be as good as he wants to be, then that will happen. He's showing great signs with his club of maturing and getting stronger and playing with the belief – and that’s so important for young players." Onward and upwards.
Declan Rice (West Ham)
The dark horse of the competition, still available at 25/1 but with a growing swell of goodwill behind him that’s linked to his England switch and first senior caps.
Rice only just turned 20, but plays with a maturity and technical ability way beyond his years. His ability to drop into central defence or step up as a passing central midfielder is bad news for Eric Dier, but great for England and West Ham. His club’s next test will be keeping him.
Such is his composure on and off the ball, it’s very easy to forget that Rice only moved out of his teenage years in January. He has played more league minutes this season than any other player on this list, but watch him close down opponents, position himself perfectly to thwart counter attacks, and give-and-go with ball at feet. You quickly see why he’s undroppable. The manner with which he dealt with his international switch demonstrates a wherewithal that plenty of his age lack. The exciting conclusion is this: He’s only going to get better.
(Honourable mentions: Richarlison, Ruben Neves, Joe Gomez, Ben Chilwell, Issa Diop, Matteo Guendouzi, Diogo Jota, Yves Bissouma.)
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