Football Features

Rising stars waiting in the wings at world football’s richest clubs

By Chris Smith

Published: 11:50, 28 April 2020

Is there anything better than a teenage player bursting onto the scene and establishing themselves as an elite-level talent right off the bat?

We’ve witnessed the likes of Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi do so in the past, and right now Jadon Sancho, Kylian Mbappe et al are giving us all a major case of deja vu.

But behind the obvious candidates, there are a whole host of youngsters just waiting for their chance, impressing at youth level and beginning to find themselves on the fringes of senior football. So we picked out one rising star from each of world football’s 10 richest clubs (according to Deloitte) to keep an eye on.

Each has made no more than six league appearances for their parent club and we avoided players who should be fairly familiar to UK audiences, such as Mason Greenwood, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott or, farther abroad, Ansu Fati. If you’d make any changes to the list below, we’d love to hear them. Get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.

1. Hiroki Abe

Club: Barcelona (€840.8m)

Age: 21

Hiroki Abe arrived at Barcelona in 2019 with an AFC Champions League medal and J.League Rookie of the Year award already under his belt after a stellar 2018 campaign. And Blaugrana president Josep Maria Bartomeu was quick to kill suggestions that his signing was purely to strengthen his club’s influence in the Asian market.

“It is a sports decision, because he has the talent and he has the knowledge to be a very important player in our team,” he told Kyodo News.

Abe has since been fantastic for Barca‘s B team, netting four times in 20 appearances and nailing down his spot alongside the likes of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati before the latter’s promotion to the first team.

The midfielder has been sidelined since February following surgery on a hamstring injury but is primed and ready to push on following his return.

2. Takefusa Kubo

Club: Real Madrid (€757.3m)

Age: 18

A nickname like the “Japanese Messi” is bound to put some pressure on your shoulders, especially playing for Real Madrid after a spell in the Barcelona youth team, but so far, Takefusa Kubo is taking it all in his stride.

“After turning 18, I had the chance to choose a team and I chose Real Madrid because of their interest in me. I’m very grateful. And now I’m a big Madrid fan,” he told AS earlier in April.

“[My dream is] to be a great player and to do great things at Real Madrid. Also for Japan. It all depends on me and I will have a place at Real Madrid.

“I’m going to keep working and I’ll wait for my opportunity. When it arrives, I won’t waste it.”

Kubo is currently out on loan at La Liga strugglers Mallorca, for whom he’s scored three goals so far, and was hailed as “one of the most promising players in world football” by Real Madrid upon his arrival last year.

With mesmeric dribbling skills and pace to burn, don’t bet against Kubo pitting his wits alongside Real Madrid’s superstar forwards next season.

3. James Garner

Club: Manchester United (€711.5m)

Age: 19

We’ve all witnessed the goalscoring exploits of Greenwood this season, or marvelled at Brandon Williams’ buccaneering runs down the touchline, but according to Fred, James Garner is in fact the most talented youngster at Manchester United right now.

All are very good, they are not in this profession for nothing, but the player who impresses me most is Jimmy Garner,” Fred told Brazilian outlet Trivela of his fellow midfielder.

“Not just because he is in the same position as me, but because he is a player who has an impressive vision of the game, and he has a huge future for United.

“In addition to his impressive game vision, he always plays with his head up, has an impressive shot and is an incredible passer. He is a player that I admire a lot.”

Four of Garner’s six appearances so far this season have come in the Europa League, where he has notched up an impressive 90 per cent pass completion rate in the competition. He has also completed all 14 of his passes during an eight-minute Premier League cameo against Norwich City back in October, illustrating just how calm and collected he is in possession.

4. Joshua Zirkzee

Club: Bayern Munich (€660.1m)

Age: 18

The whole of the footballing world has been swooning at the sight of Alphonso Davies recently, and why wouldn’t they? He’s brilliant. However, he’s not the only youngster working his way up through the ranks at Bayern, with Dutch tyro Joshua Zirkzee already making an incredible impression during his limited time on the pitch so far.

Standing at 6ft 4in, Zirkzee is an imperious figure but possesses a far more delicate and measured touch than his large frame would suggest. That combination of brains and brawn has seen the 18-year-old forward net three goals in just five Bundesliga appearances for Bayern this season and former Feyenoord midfielder Willem Van Hanegem has urged Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman — who reportedly came close to signing Zirkzee during his time at Everton — to give him a senior international call-up sooner rather than later.

“I hope that Ronald Koeman will really summon that boy for the upcoming international matches against the United States and Spain,” he told Voetbal Primeur.

“I saw at Bayern how Thomas Muller gets to work with him. He plays with Zirkzee, makes him really grow. Zirkzee is only 18, but already deserves a chance at the Oranje. I think it will be soon with him.”

5. Xavi Simons

Club: Paris Saint-Germain (€635.9m)

Age: 17

If you’re going to play for Barcelona with that first name, you’d better be good. Of course, anyone who remembers the flurry of YouTube compilations paying tribute to Xavi Simons a few years ago will know that the teenager is more than just good. He has the potential to be a generational talent.

It would have been heartbreaking, then, for Barca to see the 17-year-old make the switch to PSG last year, although the French champions were left in no uncertain terms about the talent which they had procured.

“At age 16, Xavi is among the most promising players in Dutch football,” a PSG statement declared following his arrival in the French capital.

“With a high technical quality and an excellent vision of the game, this young talent will now continue his training at the Rouge et Bleu.”

Of course the Parisians boast a plethora of young talent in the French capital, including Adil Aouchiche and Tanguy Kouassi — who have both already appeared for the first team — but both players will see their present deals expire this summer, leading to uncertainty over their PSG futures, meaning Simons may be the one to watch in the near future.

6. Jayden Braaf

Club: Manchester City (€610.6m)

Age: 17

Dutch youngster Jayden Braaf has been in strong form at youth level for Manchester City this season, scoring nine goals in 16 Premier League 2 appearances so far. In fact, the 17-year-old has been so impressive that Pep Guardiola has allowed him to train with the first team on the odd occasion.

“I see what you do and you just have to keep going and then your chances will come,” Guardiola is said to have told Braaf (via Manchester Evening News) in October.

With the likes of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez operating across the City frontline, Braaf will have to be patient. But then again, Guardiola did pluck the likes of Pedro and Sergio Busquets from obscurity at Barcelona and is well versed in blooding young talent, regardless of what some critics say of him.

7. Neco Williams 

Club: Liverpool (€604.7m)

Age: 19

Thanks to fixture clashes and Jurgen Klopp’s apparent disregard for the FA Cup, we’ve been able to see a lot more of Liverpool’s academy prospects than we might have expected this season.

Curtis Jones scored a spectacular winner against Merseyside rivals Everton in January, while Harvey Elliott has been touted for big things ever since becoming the youngest debutant in Premier League history at Fulham. But one player who has perhaps gone under the radar so far is Neco Williams.

The young Welshman has scored against the likes of Oldham and Fleetwood Town for Liverpool’s youth side in the EFL Trophy earlier this season, while he also assisted Divock Origi’s late equaliser in that memorable 5-5 Carabao Cup draw with Arsenal.

Wales manager Ryan Giggs, already known for his willingness to give chances to youth, seems to have earmarked Williams for a spot in his senior national team, too.

“We are looking at Neco because he is playing for a brilliant team at the moment and he has done really well when he has stepped up,” Giggs said in February.

“When a player makes a few appearances in such a big club like Liverpool, he is suddenly catapulted into the public eye. He is a fantastic player, still young and still learning, but the energy and quality he has shown when he has stepped up into the first team has been really good, so it’s exciting.”

8. Japhet Tanganga

Club: Tottenham Hotspur (€521.1m)

Age: 21

Tottenham have been responsible for some fantastic breakthrough talents over the years, not least the likes of Harry Kane and Harry Winks. Next in line appears to be Japhet Tanganga, who has already made six Premier League appearances this season and has featured right across the Spurs backline.

Strong in the air, powerful in one-on-one duels and displaying positional intelligence way beyond his years and experience, Tanganga has impressed Spurs fans so far, making more interceptions per 90 minutes in the Premier League (1.88) than any other player at the club this season.

Often criticised for his lack of faith in youth, Jose Mourinho clearly believes in Tanganga – a 34-time England youth international – and back in February, claimed he wanted him and fellow youngster Oliver Skipp to feature in his side for years to come.

“Tanganga’s already in the dressing room, with Skipp,” Mourinho said. “Both are fantastic kids – both kids in which we believe a lot.

“The difference is with Japhet that the big opportunity appeared. With Skipp that has not happened yet – the big opportunity to start matches and play many minutes.

“But both are in the first-team dressing room. And our objective – what we are working on – is to make them Tottenham players for many years.”

9. Tino Anjorin

Club: Chelsea (€513.1m)

Age: 18

We’ve already seen the likes of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori flourish under Frank Lampard, while Billy Gilmour looks set to be the next to nail down his place in the Chelsea starting XI. However, the Blues boss has also pointed to teenage midfielder Tino Anjorin as another one to watch.

Anjorin has been at the club since he was just six years old and was recently awarded with a new five-year contract. According to his father, Sheriff, Anjorin has been showing elite level promise since he was just three years old, making a mockery of kids twice his age.

“When he was three-and-a-half, he went and joined in a training session with six-year-olds,” Anjorin senior told Goal.

“He was dribbling better and shooting with more power than those older than him, it was like he had been beamed back down to earth as a complete player overnight!

“After that he was always the standout player, people knew him before he even knew how to spell his name. He is a goalscoring midfielder in the Frank Lampard mould. Lampard was one of his idols, but so were Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane.”

Anjorin replaced Willian for a 19-minute cameo during Chelsea’s 4-0 thrashing of Everton in March and one gets the feeling this won’t be the last we see of him.

10. Pablo Moreno

Club: Juventus (€459.7m)

Age: 17

Former La Masia player Pablo Moreno is already making waves at Juventus despite not yet making his senior debut, garnering a reputation as Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘protege’.

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According to Marca, Moreno netted over 200 goals during his time with Barcelona’s youth team after being picked up in his hometown of Granada. His youth coach there, Javier Mahia, has noted the effect of his moves to Barca and Juve in the local area, with the 17-year-old seen as an example of what can come from hard work and dedication for other teenagers.

“In Granada, there are more and more Juventus jerseys appearing on the streets but it isn’t because of Cristiano Ronaldo,” Mahia said.

Ronaldo’s absence allowed Moreno to sit on the bench during Juve’s 2-0 win over Genoa in March and with four goals in three Uefa Youth League appearances so far this season, it’ll be hard for Maurizio Sarri not to reward him with minutes on the pitch soon.