12 Days of Football 2018: Ten Lads-a-Leaping
On the 10th Day of Football, UEFA gave to me
Nine Ladies Playing,
Eight Managers Managing,
Six Games Amazing,
FIVE GOLDEN GOALS,
Four Calls Blown,
Three French Clubs,
Two title races and
Pep Guardiola's Manchester City
Welcome to It's Round and It's White's second annual celebration of the year-past in football. We're nearing the end of the holiday fixtures but bear with us as we deliver a different view of 2018 each day. On Day 10, it's the young guns' chance. Toby Prince introduces ten young stars who made significant in-roads during the calendar year.
For many youngsters, the Premier League is mere fantasy. Manchester United is its climax. Diogo Dalot wasn't any different. Although part of FC Porto's new generation of exciting prodigies, that was it. He was untapped; untested and unnoticed.
Dalot wasn't even the best among his peers. He spent 10 years toiling in the youth ranks before ultimately making his debut last February. He then added five other league outings. Despite that scanty game time, he charmed Jose Mourinho into offering Premier League heaven.
The 19-year-old’s mysterious summer deal shows 12 months is ample time in football. A lot can change. From scraping the barrels at Porto, Dalot finds himself at his dream club, following the illustrious footstep of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Although sparingly used, Dalot's shown positive signs. His physicality, tactical intelligence and technical quality were tailor-made for the English game. The teenager is outrunning wingers with pace at one end, recovering the ball, dribbling past the opposition fullback and delivering the perfect cross on the other. All of it with nonchalance.
Not many knew James Maddison's name prior to his Leicester debut. The few who did simply didn't rate him. He was perceived as one of Britain's random prospects, shuffling through the lower league dungeons. Unheralded, he developed into a well-rounded midfielder with elements of David Silva and Philippe Coutinho.
At 22, Maddison has the experience Dalot once sought. No padded life in a Category One academy for him. He started playing for Coventry City in League One at the age of 17. Two years ago he moved to Norwich for £3 million, was loaned back to Coventry, then out to Aberdeen to learn more in the SPL.
A return to Carrow Road last season triggered his fortunes. The offensive beast in Maddison was unleashed. The 22-year-old created more chances than anyone in the division, producing goals and assists at will. On his day, he was a joy to watch. A graceful, incisive number 10 gliding past defenders.
Leicester City quietly secured his services. Maddison missed just one of the Foxes' league games in the season's first half. By a distance, he’s been their best player, scoring five, lacing three others. The 22-year-old was rewarded with an England invitation by Gareth Southgate in October and is already being tipped for a bigger move next summer.
A drastic overhaul was expected at Arsenal when Unai Emery arrived. The Spaniard didn’t disappoint. Jack Wilshere, Santi Carzola, David Ospina, Joel Campbell, Lucas Perez and Per Mertesacker made way for new faces. Among them was an unknown 19-year-old rookie.
Matteo Guendouzi followed a famous path to the Emirates from Lorient. The most recent trip to Brittany bore Laurent Koscielny. Yet only a dull murmur of excitement accompanied the teenager. His physique and hairstyle resembled a younger, overpriced Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian would offer some tips on teasing out the split ends when the two met last month.
Meanwhile, Emery showed immense confidence in the teenager. Guendouzi professional debut came in 2016/17 season. Before signing with the Gunners, he lacked experience and exposure, having spent the bulk of his young career in the second tier. Not even his new patron anticipated his swift blend to life in North London.
Guendouzi was cast into the firing line against Manchester City and Chelsea. He emerged unscathed. His energy, work rate and composure extinguished the flames. The French youth international has featured 26 times in all competitions. His natural ability on the ball, as well as his enthusiasm for the game, phenomenal. With Jose Mourinho no longer at Old Trafford, all Marouane Fellaini has is a clump of the youngster's hair.
Nelson first set pulses racing last season at Arsenal. He appeared 16 times in all competitions, featuring heavily in the Europa League. Highly tipped to follow Alex Iwobi's leap up from Meadow Park to the Emirates, the 18-year-old opted for a year under Julian Nagelsmann in Germany.
The move was tricky. Nelson had to adapt to a strange language and without the warmth of family and loved ones. But unlike home, Germany offered a hospitable habitat for a promising prospect. Nelson took advantage.
The 18-year-old has been Hoffenheim’s shining star. He scored on his debut against Fortuna Dusseldorf 15 minutes after coming off the bench. It’s the sort of impact you'd expect from a seasoned professional. He followed that up with five other strikes. Gooners can't wait for his return.
Nelson is a difficult player to compare to others. He can do everything at a high level. His pace is electrifying, especially during dribbles, like Marcus Rashford. He often drifts inside and displays his unexpectedly impressive passing skills, like Anthony Martial. He'll play through balls or even link-up play to allow himself a chance at running in behind the opposition defence, like Jesse Lingard. His end product is inconsistent like many young players. Time tends to smooth the bumps and Nelson has all the time in the world.
Last season, Houssem Aouar was shuttling around Lyon’s B team. Now he's the most courted young midfielder in Europe. The story may have taken a completely different twist had the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Maxime Gonalons remained at the Stade Louis II.
In Aouar, though, Lyon found a blend of the trio. The exciting 20-year-old is quick, likes to dribble and can play anywhere. His eye for goal and killer passes are simply phenomenal. Even Pep Guardiola described him as “incredible”.
Aouar is the latest rising star in Lyon’s long line, following the likes of Anthony Martial, Corentin Tolisso and Samuel Umtiti. He started out at AC Villeurbanne, aged eight. His talent was soon noticed by the team in the neighbouring city. At 11 he signed a contract with Lyon.
The multi-faceted youngster is now an integral part of the River Rhône side. He started 16 Ligue 1 matches this term, scoring six times. He didn’t miss a minute of Lyon's six Champions League group matches, lacing three assists. Only Kylian Mbappe can boast a more memorable 2018 in France.
Hype is a double-edged sword. It can cut through the normal barriers or tear apart a player's career faster than being on Mourinho’s witch-list. Such buzz accompanied Patrick Cutrone when he broke through in 2017 at AC Milan. Fortunately, he overcame.
The 20-year-old was christened the new Filippo Inzaghi. The similarities were there for all to see. Cutrone's greatest strengths are finishing and positional sense. He doesn't stand out for his silky touches or ability to take on defenders with skill. Nor will he deliver anything extra outside the box. But he's almost certain to score every time the ball is sent into the danger zone.
All these traits beamed this year. Cutrone has been ruthless in the final third. Last season, he buried 18 goals in all competitions, assisting four. He's had less impact this term, making way for Gonzalo Higuain. Still, he's struck seven times from just 11 starts.
Cutrone began playing kids football with his local five-a-side, Paradiense, aged five. Three years later, the striker was snapped up by Milan and made his way through their youth ranks, impressing at almost every turn. Before promotion to the first team, Cutrone had a lethal track record, scoring 43 goals in 67 appearances and helping Milan's youth side win the Viareggio Cup for the first time in 13 years.
Now he's ready for bigger things.
In the 1990s Patrick Kluivert established himself in the Ajax first team while still a teenager. Soon, he was regarded as the most exciting young player in Europe.
Like father, like son. Justin was in the Ajax first team at 17, a year earlier than his dad, and quickly established a reputation as a young star on the rise.
The similarities don’t end there. Patrick left Ajax to test himself in Serie A with AC Milan. Last summer Justin, whose resemblance to his father is unmissable, left the familiar and safe world of Dutch football to join AS Roma.
The move to the Giallorossi has allowed the 19-year-old to forge his own path. With speed and acceleration, he bursts past opposition defenders striking four times in eight starts. His remarkable rise earned him a maiden Netherlands cap against Portugal in March. He may have a part to play in the Dutch team at the Nations League semifinal in June.
It takes an incredible amount of guts and bravery to turn your back on Manchester City and manager Pep Guardiola when you are just 17. Two summers ago, Jadon Sancho did exactly that. Even Guardiola must be pleased.
Since leaving, the 19-year-old’s reputation surged to the extent he earned three England caps and made the scoresheet with an assist in a friendly against the United States. Now an indispensable part of Bundesliga table-toppers Borussia Dortmund, His 14 combined goals and assists are the most in Germany’s top-tier.
At first, Sancho's Deutschland foray appeared flawed. He rarely came close to the first team. Christian Pulisic, Andre Schürrle, Shinji Kagawa, Andrey Yarmolenko, and Marco Reus all barred his way. He garnered just 16 minutes before 2018. However, his career picked up quite remarkably this year when Lucien Favre became manager.
In his short career, Sancho's shown a knack for hitting the target even though he operates primarily on the flanks. Naturally right-footed, he prefers to play on the left side in a front three. According to the player, his main strength is in 1v1’s. His pace and close control allow him to take advantage in isolated duels with defenders. When they receive help, Sancho can find the open teammate just like he found an open future away from the Etihad.
TAA enjoyed the sort of year his peers can only dream. The 20-year-old cemented his place on the right of Jurgen Klopp's defence. He was influential as Liverpool reached the Champions League final. He was there during the Three Lions famous run to the World Cup semi-final. He is still there for the Reds, chasing a first Premier League title.
Trent’s rise has been nothing short of remarkable. It was only two years ago he was making his debut for Liverpool’s Under-21s. Originally a central midfielder, the Merseysider moved to right back during his time in the older age groups and eventually for the under-23s. He occasionally deputises in the middle of the park, but he owns the right-back spot in Jurgen Klopp's roster
He surpassed 50 appearances for the senior team in that position and is being tipped as a prospective Reds skipper.
It finally happened. After 15 years, the Golden Boy award was given to a defender. And what a defender.
Still only 19, De Ligt has already garnered over 100 club appearances for Ajax, making a Europa League final and earning 13 caps for the Netherlands. His work earned him the Amsterdam club's armband.
As skipper, he commands the resurgence at Ajax. Physically and technically, the signs are certainly good for the defender. He is tall, imposing, quick. He displays a good passing range but also keeps it simple. Tactically, his positional sense is improving. Mentally, his attitude is widely praised.
He may not have featured at the World Cup or Champions League final like Alexander-Arnold, but it's just a matter of time.