Over the next 12 months, a fresh crop of footballers will establish themselves atop the men’s game. Here, theScore looks at some talented youngsters – aged 21 and under – who are set to flourish in 2023, while deliberately excluding those who made our lists in previous years.
Karim Adeyemi 🇩🇪
Club: Borussia Dortmund | Age: 20 | Position: Winger
Excitement over Adeyemi‘s potential surged last season when he scored 19 goals and contributed five assists during Red Bull Salzburg’s title-winning campaign. He hasn’t hit the ground running since swapping Austria for Germany, with a nagging foot injury harming his transition, but you can trust Dortmund to do a good job in giving the pacey frontman plenty of minutes against the best teams in Europe.
Benoit Badiashile 🇫🇷
Club: AS Monaco | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back
Badiashile, on the brink of joining Chelsea, is ready to test himself away from Ligue 1 and possesses the physical attributes that should make him a good fit for Premier League football. His age, left-footedness, and experience of 106 appearances in France’s top flight add to his appeal, and he’s skilled at progressing play from the back with measured passes. One of his finest attributes is his knack for outpacing forwards and ushering them off the ball – it looks so effortless for him.
Alejandro Balde 🇪🇸
Club: Barcelona | Age: 19 | Position: Full-back
Xavi was so impressed with Balde‘s performances during preseason that he immediately tasked the young left-back with challenging for Jordi Alba‘s starting spot in the Barcelona lineup. Balde was picked for Barca’s second match of the season and repaid his manager’s faith by quickly setting up Robert Lewandowski‘s first La Liga goal. The teenager seems determined to make up for lost time after injuries disrupted his progress last season. He was included in Spain‘s World Cup squad and appeared four times at the competition.
Armel Bella-Kotchap 🇩🇪
Club: Southampton | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back
The biggest risk to Bella-Kotchap‘s development is his club. Southampton didn’t feel stable throughout Ralph Hasenhuttl’s four-year reign, and his successor, Nathan Jones, has had a rough start to his tenure. Nevertheless, Bella-Kotchap impressed enough with the Saints to earn his first Germany call-up in September. He puts his acceleration to good use, shutting down attacks early or mopping up for his teammates when they’ve been beaten.
Club: Palmeiras | Age: 16 | Position: Striker
Unless you’ve got access to Brazilian football on your television, you’re not going to see Endrick regularly until he joins Real Madrid in July 2024. The teenage forward is a phenomenon, scoring three goals over seven outings as Palmeiras finished top of the Serie A standings. His rise since his professional debut in October has been spectacular, and he’ll relish the prospect of joining Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo in Los Blancos’ attack.
Enzo Fernandez 🇦🇷
Club: Benfica | Age: 21 | Position: Midfielder
Fernandez already hinted at his unbridled potential in the Champions League group stage when he outclassed his contemporaries at Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. Then he was one of the best midfielders in Qatar as he helped Argentina capture its third World Cup, keeping the team ticking with his mature use of the ball while proving to be a tigerish opponent out of possession. His goal against Mexico wasn’t bad either.
Alejandro Garnacho 🇦🇷
Club: Manchester United | Age: 18 | Position: Winger
There were concerns over Garnacho‘s attitude and defensive work earlier in the season, but he’s a player who gets fans off their seats. He oozes confidence, running at opponents and daring them to challenge him. He can create and finish as well: In the space of 10 days in November, he became Manchester United‘s youngest non-English goalscorer in Europe, assisted twice in the League Cup, and nudged in a 93rd-minute winner in the Premier League.
Josko Gvardiol 🇭🇷
Club: RB Leipzig | Age: 20 | Position: Center-back
You’ve all heard of him by now. Gvardiol‘s domineering displays at the back provided the foundation for Croatia‘s run to the 2022 World Cup semifinals. His 6-foot-1 frame is intimidating, but don’t write him off as an old-school defender: He produced the second-most interceptions in Qatar and ranked third for total passes by a Croatian behind Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric. RB Leipzig could demand a world-record fee for a defender when the time comes to sell.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia 🇬🇪
Club: Napoli | Age: 21 | Position: Winger
Kvaratskhelia‘s style is somewhat unrefined – and that’s not a bad thing. Rather than adhering to strict tactical lessons in a lavish European academy, his impulsiveness and trickery flourished while he played in Georgia and Russia. He could take risks and make mistakes. He was allowed to entertain. That increasingly rare introduction to the game has created one of the most watchable and unpredictable players on the globe: like legendary Georgian playmaker Georgi Kinkladze with a dirt bike engine.
Marcos Leonardo 🇧🇷
Club: Santos | Age: 19 | Position: Forward
Marcos Leonardo is determined to make Brazil‘s No. 9 shirt his own. There’s plenty of evidence from his first season as a Santos regular to suggest he could claim the coveted jersey in time for his country’s 2026 World Cup campaign. He’s full of cheek, charm, and class. He scored 13 goals over 35 appearances during the 2022 Brazilian Serie A season and has a wide repertoire of finishes, including powerful drives and audacious lobs.
Rico Lewis 🏴
Club: Manchester City | Age: 18 | Position: Full-back
Lewis only turned 18 in November, but he’s already playing significant minutes at right-back for Manchester City ahead of Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker. He scored in his full Champions League debut against Sevilla and played one half of that game in an inverted role before staying wide as a traditional, overlapping full-back in the other half. It seems he’s already mastered the Pep Guardiola playbook.
Ian Maatsen 🇳🇱
Club: Chelsea | Age: 20 | Position: Full-back
Ben Chilwell‘s injury issues and Marc Cucurella‘s underwhelming start to life at Stamford Bridge could work out well for Maatsen. The versatile Chelsea youngster previously had spells on loan at Charlton Athletic and Coventry City, and he’s now thriving in Vincent Kompany’s attack-minded Burnley side. He can sometimes be erratic and predominantly spends time in the opposition’s half, so he could be a strong left-wing-back option for Chelsea next season.
Nuno Mendes 🇵🇹
Club: Paris Saint-Germain | Age: 20 | Position: Full-back
Mendes is already establishing himself among the best left-backs on the globe. He initially boosted his reputation at Sporting CP after becoming a regular starter following the departure of Alex Telles. His speed, close control, and strong link-up play encouraged Paris Saint-Germain to swoop in the summer of 2021, and he quickly claimed the left-back spot ahead of Juan Bernat in the French capital.
Fabio Miretti 🇮🇹
Club: Juventus | Age: 19 | Position: Midfielder
Juventus have recently been blessed with a flood of talent from their youth academy, and Miretti might be the best of the lot. He’s missed just two Serie A matches this season as he pushes to be a starter in Massimiliano Allegri’s side and has showcased his fine vision, ability to find space between the lines, and impressive decision-making in the final third. Allegri has praised Miretti for playing like a veteran.
Mykhailo Mudryk 🇺🇦
Club: Shakhtar Donetsk | Age: 21 | Position: Winger
Shakhtar Donetsk‘s asking price for Mudryk rose sharply during the 2022-23 Champions League group stage. The Ukrainian caused chaos down the left flank, tearing strips off right-backs with his searing pace and notching three goals and two assists over six appearances. Mudryk’s end product still has room for improvement, but his overall quality after just a season and a half in his country’s top tier is jaw-dropping.
Joao Pedro 🇧🇷
Club: Watford | Age: 21 | Position: Forward
Given his success while recruiting for Brighton & Hove Albion, it’s wise to trust Newcastle United sporting director Dan Ashworth’s moves in the transfer market. Newcastle tried to sign Joao Pedro for £30 million last summer, and the Brazilian’s form in the Championship has dispelled any reservations over the size of that fee. He’s scored eight times and assisted twice for an underperforming Watford side and only ranks behind Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye in England’s second tier for successful dribbles.
Goncalo Ramos 🇵🇹
Club: Benfica | Age: 21 | Position: Striker
Ramos had no problem with replacing Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo in the starting XI, scoring a hat-trick as the Selecao obliterated Switzerland in the World Cup round of 16. It was the perfect way for Ramos to mark his first international start. His heroics in Qatar came as no surprise to Benfica fans, who’ve witnessed the 21-year-old rack up 14 strikes in 22 appearances across all competitions this season. His goals have helped ensure Darwin Nunez wasn’t missed after his big-money move to Liverpool.
Club: Real Madrid | Age: 21 | Position: Winger
With Vinicius down the left and Rodrygo on the right, the edges of Real Madrid’s frontline should be set for the next decade. But, unlike Vinicius, Rodrygo is yet to become a bona fide starter for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, with an untimely hamstring injury midway through the 2021-22 season and Federico Valverde‘s immaculate form denying the 21-year-old regular playing time. Rodrygo can be a super sub, but he can also be so much more.
Georginio Rutter 🇫🇷
Club: Hoffenheim | Age: 20 | Position: Striker
Rutter‘s basic numbers are underwhelming: two goals and two assists over 15 Bundesliga appearances. Still, the attacker – who progressed through the Rennes ranks with Eduardo Camavinga – has been one of the most impressive youngsters in Germany’s top flight. His defensive work out of possession is reminiscent of Roberto Firmino, who also improved rapidly at Hoffenheim, but Rutter provides more flair and mobility for his team’s counterattacks.
William Saliba 🇫🇷
Club: Arsenal | Age: 21 | Position: Center-back
Saliba had to bide his time at Arsenal, but after three separate loan spells away from the club, the defender is a key element of the Gunners’ surprise charge for the Premier League title. He’s proactive without being impulsive. He’s forceful without being reckless. And, importantly for a team that likes to play out from the back, he’s extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet and regularly picks the right pass.
Joe Scally 🇺🇸
Club: Borussia Monchengladbach | Age: 19 | Position: Full-back
Scally was fast-tracked into senior football when New York City FC signed him to a Homegrown Player contract at 15, but he then found it hard to usurp Anton Tinnerholm in the MLS club’s lineup. That didn’t prevent Scally from earning a move to Europe, and the natural right-back drew plaudits when he made his Bundesliga debut at left-back in a 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich in August 2021. There are plenty of areas where Scally can improve, but being a Monchengladbach regular at just 19 could allow him to reach his potential.
Kiliann Sildillia 🇫🇷
Club: Freiburg | Age: 20 | Position: Center-back/Full-back
France‘s conveyor belt of talent is relentless. Sildillia wowed onlookers in the Bundesliga with his versatility, work rate, and maturity during Freiburg‘s marvelous opening half to the 2022-23 campaign. He’s willing to carry the ball or release the midfielders ahead of him with wise passes and can rapidly halt opposition attacks with his pace, brawn, and aerial ability. It’s rare that someone so young is so important to a team.
Kenneth Taylor 🇳🇱
Club: Ajax | Age: 20 | Position: Midfielder
This list is incomplete without an Ajax player. Taylor enjoyed a breakout campaign under Erik ten Hag as Ajax won the Eredivisie title last season and has proved he’s comfortable in a variety of midfield positions. After making a single substitute appearance for the Netherlands at the World Cup, Taylor will look to kick on in club football and add to his tally of five goals and three assists in the league this term. Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar has called Taylor a “gem.”