The best young hot-shots in the game
If goalkeepers and defenders don’t come into their prime until later on in their careers, attackers are just the opposite – all youthful exuberance, pace and energy. Some academies have got the development of such players down to a fine art and it’s no surprise to see the likes of Lyon, Manchester United, Hamburg and Milan represented on this list, while Flamengo, Uruguayan side Defensor Sporting and Racing of Argentina also crop up.
On the following pages we take a look at the best U23 attackers in the game, from household names already making waves in the Champions League and for their international teams, to some of the younger players taking their first steps into first-team football after wowing at youth level.
15. Amine Gouiri
Just 18, Gouiri has been around the Lyon first team squad for 18 months and has been eased into action for the senior side slowly. Les Gones are rather good at youth development –ask alumni Frederic Kanoute, Karim Benzema, Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette.
Gouiri top-scored at the U17 World Cup in the autumn despite France being eliminated in the round of 16 and found the net on eight occasions at the U17 Euros as Les Bleus were beaten by Spain in the last eight. Armand Garrido, coach of Lyon U17s since 1992, says Gouiri "has a little bit of everything". He definitely has a lot of potential.
14. Alexander Isak
As a towering teenage prodigy born in Sweden of immigrant stock, Isak has inevitably been compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The son of Eritreans scored for AIK on both his competitive debut and his league debut, becoming their youngest ever top-flight goalscorer at 16 years and 199 days old.
At age 17 he ignored reported interest from Bayern, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool to sign for Borussia Dortmund and is now in the right place to flourish alongside a host of other exciting young players like Jadon Sancho, Christian Pulisic, Mahmoud Dahoud and Manuel Akanji.
Starting so few matches since his move to the Bundesliga may harm his chances of going to the World Cup in the summer but with an international goal to his name already, he’s definitely in the frame – and at 18, he has plenty of time on his side.
13. Moise Kean
Only just 18, Kean (on the right in the picture) has quite the future ahead of him and has already started making history: having made his Champions League debut against Sevilla at the tender age of 16, he became the first player born in the year 2000 to appear in one of Europe’s big five leagues when he made his debut for Juventus last season in a match against Pescara.
Promoted to Juve's first team at the back end of last season following a prolific 24 goals in 26 matches for the U17 side, he is currently on loan at Hellas Verona where he has shown his qualities at the top level, scoring goals against Fiorentina, Torino and Milan in Serie A this season.
12. Jann-Fiete Arp
With Arp’s side Hamburg in the relegation zone and time running out to preserve their Bundesliga status, expect a real scramble for the 18-year-old’s signature in the summer. He has been utterly prolific at youth level for club and country and has already been linked with Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Spurs and a host of others but most recent reports suggest a move to Bayern should Hamburg get relegated.
Comparisons with Harry Kane are justified: the young German is capable of scoring every kind of goal, is most comfortable leading the line and can turn a match on his own – as demonstrated by hat-tricks in the Group Stage of the 2017 U17 Euros. He followed up his seven goals there with five later that year at the U17 World Cup, and with a goal against Hertha in the autumn became the first player born since the turn of the millennium to score in the Bundesliga.
11. Vinicius Junior
Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior has already sealed a huge money move to Real Madrid, who he will join following his 18th birthday in the summer. The best player and top goalscorer for Brazil at the U17 South American championships in 2017, the Flamengo forward scored seven times as Brazil lifted the title for the 12th time.
At club level he has already had a positive impact, coming off the bench to score twice as Flamengo beat Ecuadorian giants Emelec in the Copa Libertadores group stage – on his debut in the competition. That's why Real Madrid spent €45m on him as a 16-year-old.
10. Maxi Gomez
For a nation of just over three million people, Uruguay cranks out goalscorers. Luis Suarez has 50 goals in 97 caps, Edinson Cavani 42 in 100, Diego Forlan – still scoring in Hong Kong – got 36 in 112. But with Forlan retired from international football and the other two 31 years old, step forward Maxi Gomez, all baby-face and barrel-chest.
The 21-year-old six-footer joined Celta Vigo last May and has taken La Liga by storm, quickly carving out a reputation as a big-game player with goals against Barcelona and Real Madrid – turning defeats into draws on both occasions. He won his first cap in autumn. It won't be the last.
9. Moussa Dembele
Dembele has been the subject of intense transfer speculation that will surely intensify in the summer with the 21-year-old’s goals firing Celtic towards another league title. Dembele came to the fore last season with five goals in 12 appearances in Europe, as Celtic came bottom of their Champions League group. Goals have been more difficult to come by this season for marked man Dembele, but his record is largely very good at club and national level with eight goals in 12 appearances for the France U21 side.
With links to the likes of Manchester United, Marseille, Chelsea and Roma and a firm offer from Brighton turned down in January, many suggest his recent struggles have been as a result of having his head turned.
8. Santi Mina
Valencia striker Santi Mina has already got 150 games under his belt with Los Che and previous side Celta Vigo but it’s this season that he has really come to the fore, scoring 11 league goals in just 13 starts. He is linked with a summer move up Spain's east coast to Barcelona, following in the footsteps of the likes of David Villa and Paco Alcacer.
He’s technically very good, protects possession well, is tactically and positionally flexible as well as being an excellent passer with an eye for goal – and there’s an awful lot of room for improvement still with Mina having just turned 22.
7. Patrik Schick
It’s not been an easy start to life in the Italian capital for Czech striker Schick, but there are a number of reasons Roma paid what may turn out to be a club record fee for the 21-year-old last summer. While goals have been few and far between at club level, he scored on his international debut for the Czech national side and, injuries permitting, will be their No.9 for the foreseeable future.
When Schick was linked with Juventus before he opted for Roma, Czech legend Pavel Nedved compared him to the Zlatan Ibrahimovic that arrived at the Old Lady when Nedved was a player there in 2004: raw but technically outstanding while offering a physical presence too. Others have compared him to compatriot Jan Koller, who notched 55 goals for the national team.
6. Lautaro Martinez
Racing Club’s Martinez made his Argentina debut this year, replacing Gonzalo Higuain during the humbling defeat to Spain in Madrid. The timing was both terrible and excellent: the game was gone but the prolific 20-year-old would have been very glad to catch Jorge Sampaoli's eye before the World Cup this summer.
That said, the buzz around Martinez is real and his 11 goals in 10 appearances prior to the international break show just how prolific he can be.
5. Patrick Cutrone
At Milan since he was eight, Cutrone has scored 15 goals for the Rossoneri this season. Something of a throwback, the 20-year-old is probably the truest No.9 on the list; a clinical finisher who plays on the shoulder of the last defender and is positionally perfect. He’s drawn comparisons to Pippo Inzaghi, who coached him for a couple of seasons in the Milan youth teams.
Prolific at every international youth level from U15 to U21, he made his senior debut this season. With the Italy team in transition following their failure to qualify for the World Cup this summer, Cutrone looks set to be a part of the furniture for a long time to come.
4. Marcus Rashford
Rashford will go to the World Cup with major tournament experience, having been selected in Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad. Nearing 20 caps for England and with more than 100 Manchester United appearances so far, it’s been a sensational start to Rashford’s career at Old Trafford, with it all coming before his 21st birthday.
Although his preferred position is through the middle, he has been mostly utilised out wide by club and country and his goals contribution has suffered as a result, but Rashford has contributed massively to the League Cup, FA Cup and Europa League successes he’s enjoyed since breaking into the United team in the spring of 2016.
3. Timo Werner
Werner has improved exponentially since his 2016 move to RB Leipzig from hometown club Stuttgart. He is a thoroughly modern striker; quick, hard-working, selfless and prolific, comfortable up top on his own or as part of a two and equally adept as a No.9 or a support striker. Werner has already caught the eye of Europe’s top clubs and a summer move is looking increasingly likely, despite the player stating he would be happy to remain in Leipzig.
Joachim Low will favour Werner over renaissance man Mario Gomez in the summer if both are fit and in form, and with the likes of Ozil, Reus, Muller, Sane, Draxler, Goretzka and more ready to supplement the attack, Werner may add a World Cup to his trophy collection before his 23rdbirthday.
2. Gabriel Jesus
The Brazilian international joined Manchester City in January 2017 and has played 33 Premier League matches since, scoring 16 goals and losing just one match. In his first full season he has already won the League Cup and is a victory away from lifting the Premier League title to add to his Olympic gold medal. Not bad for a player who celebrated his 21stbirthday this month.
Jesus’ seven goals in qualification fired Brazil to the World Cup top of the table, a whopping 10 points clear of Uruguay as they lost just once in 18 matches – in match day one, when Jesus wasn’t called up to the squad.
1. Kylian Mbappe
European Golden Boy, second most expensive player in the history of the game and nailed-on for France at this summer’s World Cup in Russia, it’s easy to gorget that Mbappe is just 19-years-old. After a seminal season with Monaco last term, PSG took Mbappe home to Paris, initially on loan, amid interest from the great and good of European football. Forming a fearsome front three with Neymar and Edinson Cavani, the French international forward has been compared to Thierry Henry and Brazilian Ronaldo in his short career.
He won Ligue 1 with Monaco in 2017, is set to repeat the accomplishment with PSG this time round and was named in the Champions League Team of the Season last year for his efforts as Monaco made the semi-finals of the competition.
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