Football Features

Europe’s best players aged under 23, from Sancho to Man Utd’s ‘big-game back-breaker’

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 12:20, 19 March 2020

Young players are the lifeblood of football.

Watching a youngster come through and develop in those formative years is one of the best experiences a fan can have. And as luck would have it, right now Europe is full of brilliant young players under the age of 23 that are dominating divisions across the continent.

But who are the 10 best under 23 players in Europe right now? The cream of the crop? We’ve had a look and come up with a list. Disagree with any of our picks? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!

10. Joe Gomez

Age: 22
Club: Liverpool
Position: Centre-back
Key Stat: Joe Gomez has kept more clean sheets this season (10) than he has lost Premier League games in his career (4).

The Englishman began the season sat on the sidelines as Joel Matip looked like first-choice. However, an injury to Matip let him back in and he almost instantly returned Liverpool to their impervious best at the back. Gomez has kept 10 clean sheets in his 14 league appearances and was absent for the Reds’ 3-0 humiliation away to Watford — in fact, Gomez hasn’t lost a game in over two years.

9. Gabriel Jesus

Age: 22
Club: Manchester City
Position: Forward
Key Stat: No Man City player has scored more goals (5) or had more touches in the box (39) in the Champions League than Gabriel Jesus this season.

Gabriel Jesus is perpetually underrated and unappreciated. Sergio Aguero’s gaudy goalscoring blinds everyone to the Brazilian’s brilliance, but he still manages to make crucial contributions. His performance against Real Madrid, first playing as a defensive winger and then a match-winning striker, was the kind of thing legends are built on.

8. Marcus Rashford

Age: 22
Club: Manchester United
Position: Forward
Key Stat: Marcus Rashford has more goals (14) than any U-23 player in the Premier League this season.

Manchester United’s one-man attack for the vast majority of the season, Marcus Rashford carried the Red Devils so much that it literally broke his back. United’s early-season big-game prowess was built almost entirely on Rashford’s quality in those matches (he scored or assisted eight of the 11 goals United scored in those clashes).

7. Lautaro Martinez

Age: 22
Club: Inter
Position: Striker
Key Stat: Lautaro Martinez scored exactly 50% (5/10) of Inter’s Champions League goals in 2019/20.

The tenacious Argentine has been in blistering form for Inter this season, especially in Europe where he came perilously close to dragging the Italian giants to the knockout rounds, only for their defence to collapse underneath him. His development has taken such a massive leap that Barcelona are reportedly ready to anoint him Luis Suárez’s heir.

6. Frenkie de Jong

Age: 22
Club: Barcelona
Position: Midfielder
Key Stat: Only Lionel Messi (165) has completed more dribbles for Barcelona than Frenkie de Jong (55) in La Liga and the Champions League this season.

Arguably one of the best midfielders in Europe last season, De Jong took a huge risk to leave his comfort zone in Ajax to join Barcelona. It’s not all gone to plan as he has looked less than spectacular as Barcelona’s disjointed season has limped from game-to-game, but there have been enough flashes of genius to remind us that he is an all-world talent just in need of some stability.

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5. Martin Odegaard

Real Sociedad respond to suggestions Real Madrid could ask for Martin Odegaard back early

Age: 21
Club: Real Sociedad
Position: Attacking midfielder
Key Stat: Martin Odegaard has created more chances (54) than any other U-23 player in La Liga this season.

Odegaard made a terrible move to join Real Madrid at 15 years old but having “flopped” so early, he’s since gone on to build a very sensible career that is heading into the upper atmosphere in San Sebastian. Odegaard has been one of La Liga’s most electric playmakers this season and Los Blancos will be delighted he’s only out on loan.

4. Erling-Braut Haaland

Age: 19
Club: Borussia Dortmund (and RB Salzburg)
Position: Striker
Key Stat: Erling Haaland is the first teenager to score 10 or more goals in a single Champions League campaign.

Erling-Braut Haaland hit 2019/20 like a prime Mike Tyson right hook. The tall Norwegian is an utterly devastating combination of size, speed and supernatural finishing ability. After tearing up the Champions League group stages with RB Salzburg, he earned a move to Borussia Dortmund and has been devastating the Bundesliga like some kind of smiling juggernaut ever since.

3. Trent Alexander-Arnold

Age: 21
Club: Liverpool
Position: Right-back
Key Stat: Trent Alexander-Arnold is the first-ever defender to notch 10+ assists in consecutive Premier League seasons.

It’s rare to see a right-back be so dominant, let alone a 21-year-old right-back be so dominant. Alexander-Arnold is genuinely one of the six most important players in a Liverpool side that has run roughshod over the Premier League. Jamie Carragher called him “world-class” and, honestly, he’s not wrong. The best Englishman to cross a ball since David Beckham.

2. Jadon Sancho

Age: 19
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Position: Winger
Key Stat: Jadon Sancho has scored and assisted in the same match more times (9) than any other player across Europe’s top five leagues this season.

Jadon Sancho bet on himself back in 2017, and he’s cashing in his chips in 2019/20. The Englishman has been in utterly ridiculous form for Borussia Dortmund, scoring plenty of goals while also being the Bundesliga’s chief creator. Sancho looks destined to become a world-conquering wing wizard, the other question is who will win what is sure to be a colossal auction for him when this season ends?

1. Kylian Mbappé

Age: 21
Club: PSG
Position: Striker
Key Stat: Kylian Mbappé has been directly involved in more Ligue 1 goals (84 – 64 goals, 20 assists) than he has played Ligue 1 games (76).

Kylian Mbappé has been so good for so long that it’s almost mundane now. The Frenchman is only 21 yet he’s already won Ligue 1 for two different sides, won a World Cup where he scored in the final, and reached such an incredibly consistent level that you can almost guarantee that he’ll score or assist if he plays. That is frankly ludicrous for a player who wasn’t even born when France won their first World Cup in 1998.

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