“If they are good enough, they are old enough.”
These were the words of legendary Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby who knew a thing or two about bringing through the next generation of exciting footballers.
His ‘Babes’ remain part of Old Trafford folklore and continue to be the standard future academy graduates are evaluated against. Some — like members of the famous ‘Class of 92’ — pass with flying colours, while others have unfortunately fallen by the wayside.
This attitude of promoting from within is not exclusive in Manchester, but very much across Europe, and with this season happening to coincide with the 20th year of this century we thought it would be worth constructing an XI of the most-promising post-2000 talents around.
GK: Stefano Turati
Born: September 5, 2001 (18)
2019/20 league minutes: 180
If there’s one position you find scarce among this current generation across Europe’s top five leagues, it’s the role of goalkeeper. And there’s a very good reason, the man between the sticks tends to get better with age, meaning a teenage shot-stopper is more likely to be playing for the reserves or in a lower division.
However, there is one bucking this trend, Stefano Turati. He has made just two league appearances for Serie A outfit Sassuolo this season but made headlines before the winter break after starring in a 2-2 draw with champions Juventus, a game which saw him make no fewer than seven saves.
Right-back: Max Aarons
Born: January 4, 2000 (20)
Club: Norwich City
2019/20 league minutes: 2,430
It wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that Max Aarons will finish his career as a one-club man. That said, his age and ability on the ball are bound to attract attention from bigger clubs. He continues to excel and impress at Norwich City, whose first-team he’s been very much part of since the 2018/19 season.
His first Premier League campaign, which if finished could see the Canaries go down, has been a modest success with the England U-21 international creating one goal, which came in their recent 1-0 win over Leicester City.
Centre-back: Ozan Kabak
Born: March 25, 2000 (20)
Club: Schalke 04
2019/20 league minutes: 1,190
Ozan Kabak would make 18 appearances for boyhood club Galatasaray before relocating to Germany and joining VfB Stuttgart in January 2019. His time in Baden-Württemberg was even briefer as Schalke 04 snatched him months later and he’s not looked back since.
David Wagner immediately placed the one-time capped Turkey international at the heart of his defence and his subsequent performances will no doubt attract the attention of Europe’s super clubs.
Centre-back: William Saliba
Born: March 24, 2001 (19)
Club: Saint-Étienne (on loan from Arsenal)
2019/20 league minutes: 991
Given how this season has transpired, William Saliba must be fancying his chances of slotting into Arsenal’s backline when 2020/21 kicks off. The Gunners preemptively moved for the French youngster last summer but agreed for him to remain at Saint-Étienne where his career began.
However, it’s been an injury-plagued campaign for Saliba, who sustained a serious ankle injury soon after recovering from a hamstring problem. When available, though, he’s been a firm fixture in Claude Puel’s starting line-up.
Left-back: Alphonso Davies
Born: November 2, 2000 (19)
Club: Bayern Munich
2019/20 league minutes: 1,592
Not many counted on Alphonso Davies to cement a regular starting berth right away for German giants Bayern Munich when he made the switch from MLS outfit Vancouver Whitecaps in January 2019, but then-manager Niko Kovac saw something in training which earned him an opportunity, and to say he grabbed it with both hands is an understatement.
The rapid Canadian left-back — whose ascent means the multifunctional David Alaba is now firmly a centre-back — combines stamina and creativity, we saw that in Bayern’s recent humbling of Chelsea in the Champions League. He’s only going to get better, which is the most frightening thing.
Defensive midfield: Eduardo Camavinga
Born: November 10, 2002 (17)
Club: Stade Rennais
2019/20 league minutes: 2,112
You must be doing something right when Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid are following your every step. Eduardo Camavinga, though, is keeping his feet on the ground.
The incredibly talented 17-year-old has already made 43 appearances for boyhood club Stade Rennais, with 84% of those outings coming this season, an uncompressed defensive midfielder the world is certainly his oyster.
Central midfield: Sandro Tonali
Born: May 8, 2000 (19)
2019/20 league minutes: 2,041
Being compared to a player of Andrea Pirlo’s calibre is both a blessing and a curse. People regard you so highly that they can’t help but think of him, but living up to those lofty standards is not straightforward, and the pressure that it comes with could be overwhelming.
Sandro Tonali, who bears a striking resemblance, has taken it all in his stride. Pirlo made Brescia dance before embarking on a glittering career and there’s nothing to suggest Tonali will not go down that same path given his performances to date.
Central midfield: Phil Foden
Born: May 28, 2000 (19)
Club: Manchester City
2019/20 league minutes: 355
Pep Guardiola is a manager that doesn’t mince his words. So when he suggested Phil Foden, and not Lionel Messi, being “the most talented player” he’s ever coached then you bet your bottom dollar that folks sat up and took notice.
Of course, this could be the Spaniard dabbling in some man-management, boosting the English youngster’s confidence as he’s yet to cement a regular starting berth at Manchester City, but there could be a kernel of truth. Whatever it may be, no one is doubting Foden’s potential, with David Silva about to say goodbye this could be the opportunity he’s been waiting for.
Right wing: Jadon Sancho
Born: March 25, 2000 (20)
Club: Borussia Dortmund
2019/20 league minutes: 1,806
Foden is backing himself to succeed at City but someone who grew impatient waiting for regular first-team minutes there was Jadon Sancho, now one of Europe’s most dangerous wingers. His move to Borussia Dortmund in August 2017 was seen as something of a gamble, but it proved to be a masterstroke as the England international was given the ball, and he ran never looking back.
His numbers this season are nothing short of scary — only him and six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi have registered double figures in goals and assists, such excellence could ultimately see him leave BVB but wherever he goes, his legend will only continue to rise.
Centre-forward: Erling Haaland
Born: July 21, 2000 (19)
Club: Borussia Dortmund
2019/20 league minutes: 1,491
Speaking of a potential future legend, Erling Haaland is a name firmly on everyone’s lips after his devastating form in front of goal this season. Before joining Dortmund in January — reportedly in favour of Juventus and Manchester United — the Norwegian marksman was making a mockery of the Champions League after becoming the first player in tournament history to score six goals in his first three games.
Since moving to Germany from Red Bull Salzburg, he’s shown no signs of letting up and created more history when he became the first Bundesliga player to score five goals in his first two games. One wonders if he can keep this up, especially with the likes of Real Madrid sniffing around.
Left wing: Vinícius Júnior
Born: July 12, 2000 (19)
Club: Real Madrid
2019/20 league minutes: 901
Speaking of the record 13-time European Cup winners, their president Florentino Pérez has been on a spending spree to sign football’s next superstars. The signs of late have been promising. No one illustrates this point than Vinícius Júnior, who before joining Los Blancos was being compared to compatriot Neymar, but he’s certainly his own man and though Vinícius is yet to be among the first names on Zinedine Zidane’s teamsheet, we’ve seen enough to suggest it will not be long before that changes.
Honourable mentions: Ansu Fanti (Barcelona), Rodrygo (Real Madrid), Mason Greenwood (Man Utd), Ryan Gravenberch (Ajax), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Eric Garcia (Man City), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Ferran Torres (Valencia), Billy Gilmour (Chelsea), Alessandro Plizzari (Livorno on loan from Milan), Ryan Sessegnon (Tottenham).