For academy prospects and aspiring stars, pre-season football is often the perfect opportunity to catch a manager’s eye.
With limited opportunities provided to top-flight youngsters these days, some of the game’s most promising starlets often go under the radar, festering away in the reserves or struggling for consistency across multiple loan spells.
But, every so often a budding talent seemingly emerges from out of nowhere and explodes onto the scene, immediately earning the moniker ‘the next Messi’ or the ‘Stockport Iniesta’.
And, that latter nickname has been earned by Phil Foden, a beneficiary of pre-season football, after the fledgling midfielder flourished in the International Champions Cup last summer, notably producing a stellar performance during Manchester City’s 3-2 win over Bayern Munich.
Such was the lasting impression Foden left on Pep Guardiola during the club’s Stateside sojourn last year, that the Catalonian even referenced his impressive summertime displays as a key reason for his ascent to the first-team fold.
“I had the feeling in pre-season – I was incredibly impressed.”
So, which youngsters have impressed for their respective clubs this time round, and who could be knocking on the first-team door for 2019/20 based on their pre-season performances?
Mason Greenwood (Manchester United)
When there are major question marks about the future of the club’s main striker – in this case Romelu Lukaku – the best thing you can do as an understudy, is demonstrate to the manager that he can live without his chief threat, and that is exactly what Greenwood has been doing, with his dazzling performances yielding two goals, including a winner against Inter Milan last week.
The fleet-footed ambipedal forward has excelled this summer, prompting comparisons with Ryan Giggs’ emergence nearly three decades ago by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while the Norwegian has also hinted at a starting berth for the teenage tyro for the club’s opening Premier League match against Chelsea.
Rhian Brewster (Liverpool)
Earmarked as a future Liverpool star, the Merseyside wonderkid has left Kopites purring this summer with his destructive abilities inside the penalty area evoking fond memories of legendary Anfield strikers of old, including Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler.
Brewster famously drew acclaim after clinching the Golden Boot in England’s FIFA U-17 World Cup triumph in 2017, but a long-term injury lay-off plagued his progress last season. However, the scintillating Londoner is back, and he certainly means business, netting four goals in four games, including against Borussia Dortmund, as well as a clinical brace in the 6-0 mauling over Tranmere Rovers.
Jurgen Klopp has already lavished praise on the youngster, with the German even suggesting his elite-level prospect is now “ready” for Premier League football.
Eddie Nketiah (Arsenal)
Long-tipped to break into the first-team reckoning in north London, Nketiah has perennially been on the cusp of fighting his way into Arsenal’s starting XI, but is yet to truly hold down a prominent role in senior plans.
That said, the lethal Lewisham marksman has just turned 20 and has been making significant noise this summer, bagging three goals against high-quality opposition, including a double to sink Fiorentina and a winner during the Gunners’ 2-1 triumph over Bayern Munich.
There are substantial blockades preventing Nketiah from making the centre-forward role his own in Unai Emery’s first-team – notably the world class talent of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the high level performances of Alexandre Lacazette – but the pre-season breakout star believes he is now ready to rival Arsenal’s current crop of insatiable strikers.
“I am trying to show in pre-season that I have developed and I am ready to show what I can do. I am ready to start playing regularly.”
– Nketiah on his first-team prospects
Billy Gilmour (Chelsea)
Position: Central midfield
With Chelsea currently enduring a two-window transfer embargo, this could prove the perfect opportunity for Frank Lampard to nurture and blood in young talent, and that is exactly what he has been doing for his pre-season so far, with Billy Gilmour the pick of the teenage bunch.
A Glasgow-born midfielder, the 18-year-old could be mistaken for a La Masia alumnus such is his technical ability and dazzling imagination. He drew widespread adulation from Chelsea fans for his performances in Ireland and was even namechecked by Lampard for his mesmeric form against Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic.
Lampard told Chelsea TV: “Billy Gilmour has had a brilliant trip.
“As a young lad, the personality he has shown on this trip to play two games at the level has played them is great.
“I just hope Billy pushes on with that this season.”
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Adrian Bernabe (Manchester City)
Position: Attacking midfield
Apart from the usual suspects, Bernabe was arguably the star of the show in the Citizens’ 4-1 mauling over West Ham, impressing on the right flank with his improvisation and twinkle-toed feet. Lining up in a very inexperienced City XI, Guardiola’s young guns strutted their stuff and swaggered to a half-time lead, before his top dogs emerged after the restart and wrapped up a comfortable win.
Such was his impact against the Hammers that he retained a starting berth ahead of David Silva for the Premier League Asia Trophy final against Wolves, and looked every bit a first-team player.
It’s clear Bernabe has been educated in Barcelona’s esteemed academy, such is his innate ball-playing ability and passing range; perhaps best exemplified by his sensational assist for Silva against the Hammers…
Won’t see a better goal today than David Silva’s for Man City v West Ham 🔥
— GiveMeSport Football (@GMS__Football) July 17, 2019
Ben Johnson (West Ham)
Provided a first-team start against Man City by Manuel Pellegrini in the league last season, the Chilean followed up on Johnson’s debut appearance by handing him a second start against… City in pre-season. It doesn’t get much tougher than that for an introduction to senior football, but the teenage defender handled himself expertly in both games and looks set for a season in-and-around Pellegrini’s first-team plans.
Nephew of former Man Utd full-back Paul Parker and cousin to ex-Spurs centre-back Ledley King, Johnson has defensive blood running through his veins, and given his proficiency with either foot, his versatility could prove indispensable for the Hammers next term.
Dion Sanderson (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
🐺Delighted to have made my first team debut for my boy hood club tonight ❤️hopefully it’s the first of many , dream come true. Thanks for all the support and messages appreciate you all 🐺🧡🖤🧡
— Dion Sanderson (@SandowRs) July 17, 2019
With Wolves set for a European travail next season, squad depth will be crucial for Nuno Espirito Santo, but he may not have to scour the market quite so vigorously as he has a number of talented youngsters on the books ready to step into his religious 3-4-3 formation, particularly Sanderson.
Of course, Morgan Gibbs-White is the star teenager in the Molineux ranks, but he has already developed into a senior professional of genuine Premier League quality, and so Sanderson comes in as the unheralded teenager to have impressed most for Wolves this summer.
His second-half cameo caught attention during the 4-0 drubbing over Newcastle last week, but his stock skyrocketed as he excelled at right-wing-back during the final victory against Man City, drawing rave reviews from Wolves fans.
Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur)
— Troy Parrott (@troyparrott9) July 21, 2019
Starting against Juventus on your senior debut is not mean feat, especially for a teenager who is filling in for Harry Kane. But, Dublin-born Parrott showcased his worth and vindicated Mauricio Pochettino’s selection choice.
The Argentine has perpetually struggled to find a competent backup option for Kane, but Parrott looks like he could be the man to step up and provide Pochettino the requisite depth to remedy any void the England international may leave should he suffer another injury set-back.
Against the Old Lady, Parrott, not only kept pace with some of world football’s finest athletes, but he often outshone the globally-recognised superstars, putting on a masterclass of a performance as well as having a key hand in Spurs’ opening goal.