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The 12 Days of Football: Ten lads-a-leaping

Monday 1st January 2018

On the tenth day of football, UEFA gave to me ten lads-a-leaping/Nine ladies 

playingEight managers managingSeven sides-a-sinking/ Six games amazing,

Five Golden Goals!

 Four calls blown/ Three French clubs/ Two title races/and Antonio Conte and a back three

Welcome to the tenth installment of It's Round And It's White's 12 Days of Football, a beautiful game carol that serenades 2017. This verse will be sung by the boys' choir, featuring ten of the most exciting young players to grace the pitch in the calendar year.

As a football fan, there is arguably no better feeling than seeing a young talent come through the ranks to flourish in the first team, especially in the modern era with all the riches teams possess to chase more established names. In 2015 and 2016 Manchester United supporters were treated to a pair of youngsters who have become integral parts of the first team: Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard. Christian Pulisic broke onto the scene with Borussia Dortmund and the US National team. In 2017, young stars were jumping into starting XIs across Europe.

Here, in no particular order, are ten who leaped higher than most.

Phillip Foden/17/Manchester City

Despite the talent blocking his path to Pep Guardiola's first team, Foden's stock has skyrocketed in 2017. The 17-year-old's name is making the rounds in England.

Foden was an instrumental part of the England U17 side that won the country its first ever World Cup this past summer. Involved in all seven England games, he scored three times, including twice in the final, fully deserving the tournament's Golden Ball.

Just before the tournament, Pep had included Foden in the Manchester City pre-season squad. The teenager was hugely impressive, not looking out of place next to the bigger names in the squad. In what was a rather poor pre-season in terms of results for the Citizens, Foden was one of the standout players.

Amazing technical ability is what makes the lad special. He is just one of those players willing to take on opposition defenders every opportunity he gets. He finishes with a wicked left foot but possesses the vision to create for teammates, as well.  Foden is definitely one for the future.

With City since the age of five, he recently made his Premier League debut, a fine achievement in itself. Still, with the kind of talent Pep Guardiola has at his disposal, there won't be too many run-outs this season. Cup competitions look the most likely occasions to see the Stockport-born forward if a loan doesn't materialise in the winter window.

Joe Gomez/20/Liverpool

Gomez has had a more promising year for the Reds.  He signed in 2015, as an 18-year-old, but an anterior cruciate ligament injury sidelined him for the better part of a year. He managed to rack up a few appearances before the end of last season, but has found himself a regular in the Liverpool rearguard this term. Even better, his fine form for the Reds has led to his first call up to the England national team.

The fullback was assured in his two November caps with the Three Lions, even winning the man of the match award for his display in the goalless draw against Brazil. His boundless energy makes him a tough lad to come up against, as Neymar can attest.

Gomez has made 16 appearances in the Premier League for Jurgen Klopp, making the right back slot his, in Nathaniel Clyne's absence. The 20-year-old isn't one to shy away from tackles, averaging 2.4/game. He can also pass, as evidenced by his two assists in the Premier League.

Defence is hardly Liverpool's strong suit, but in Gomez, the Kop can point to one of the finest in-form defenders in the country.

Jonjoe Kenny/20/Everton

The season's start didn't go according to plan for Everton. A number of first team regulars struggled for form. It afforded some youngsters a chance to play with the big boys. One player who took his is Jonjoe Kenny.

Right back has been a real headache for the Toffees with the ever reliable Seamus Coleman sidelined. A number of players were tried in the role. None could match Coleman's dynamism until the 20-year-old stepped in. The academy graduate had only featured twice in the Premier League prior.

Ronald Koeman handed Kenny his first start in the 5-2 defeat to Arsenal. The Scouser has started every league game since, without being substituted. Loaned out to Oxford United only two seasons ago, Kenny has cemented his place as the club's first choice right back in Coleman's absence. He is a crucial part of an Everton defence that has conceded only four goals in its last nine outings.

Kenny was also a part of the England U20 squad that lifted the World Cup. It truly was a magical 2017 for the Evertonian. Who says 2018 won't be better?

Youri Tielemans/20/AS Monaco

The young Belgian had a phenomenal 2016/2017 season and it earned him the Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year award. Tielemans came through the Anderlecht academy and had his best ever season with the Brussels-based side. He scored 13 goals from midfield in 37 appearances as Anderlecht won the Belgian Pro League ahead of bitter rivals, Club Brugge.

Tielemans joined AS Monaco in a €25 million deal this summer. It was a huge step up for the 20-year-old. Although he hasn't played for the principality outfit as regularly as he used in Brussels, it was the right time to move.

The youngster doesn't turn 21 until May. Yet, he has already made over 150 top flight appearances. It's easy to see why he is often heralded as Belgium's next big thing. Capable of playing in a number of positions, he would tell you he prefers the centre of the park, where his tough-tackling nature can be used to good effect.

Having made only 6 Ligue 1 starts, the Belgian is still settling into his new squad. It is never easy to make the transition to a more demanding league, but there is no doubt he will come good for the French side. A full international, he was involved in Roberto Martinez's squad during World Cup qualification. It will be no surprise to see him in Russia come summer.

Jann-Fiete Arp/17/Hamburger SV

Another 17-year-old who makes the list is Jann-Fiete Arp. The German striker enjoyed a breakout 2017. It all began at the U17 Euros, where his seven goals progressed Germany into the U17 World Cup. He starred in that competition, as well.

A Hamburg youth product,  Arp was given his senior team debut in September, in the dying minutes of a goalless draw with Werder Bremen. He would score in his next two games in the Bundesliga. Without that brief introduction prior, he might have matched Christian Pulisic's impressive debut for Dortmund in 2016.

Arp isn't the quickest around, yet he has Juan Mata's ability to slip past defenders effortlessly. More than just a goal-poacher, he will drop deep to receive the ball, then drive forward.

He isn't the complete package yet. His hold up play can improve, as well as his aerial ability. That said, Arp made nine Bundesliga appearances before the winter break, starting six. It's safe to say he is firmly in his manager's thoughts.

For a player living in obscurity just a few months ago, the 17-year-old has come a long way. Hamburger will need him to keep delivering the goods if they are to avoid relegation.

Harry Winks/21/Tottenham

There is more than one Harry being mentioned in north London pubs, and neither is a Windsor. Spurs academy graduate Winks shares the same given name as a certain Mr Kane. Both had a cheerful 2017.

Winks began the season as a regular on the bench. Although ever-present in the Champions League, he had to wait until Match Day seven to get his first Premier League start. The 21-year-old went on to start six of the next seven.

"Neat" and "tidy" are words that fittingly describe Winks with the ball at his feet. He is similar to Michael Carrick in the way he reads the game. Also in the manner he receives the ball from his defenders, then distributes it to forward players.

The Englishman has demonstrated a ball-handling ability uncommon in a young player. He rarely gives it away, as typified by the better than 90% passing accuracy he has recorded across all competitions.

Winks made his first two appearance for the England national team in 2017, again, impressing in midfield. He may be in Gareth Southgates plans for the World Cup.

Henry Onyekuru/20/Anderlecht

For Henry Onyekuru, 2017 was a dream year. Having finished joint-top scorer with 22 goals in the Jupiler League last season, a number of top European clubs sought to sign him. Everton won out. Onyekuru was immediately loaned back to Anderlecht. The move raised a few eyebrows, given the Toffees' struggles to find a proper striker in the summer window.

In Anderlecht colours, the Nigerian sensation has continued to impress, scoring nine goals in his 19 league appearances to date. Like many young forwards, he has predominantly been used out wide. It hasn't affected his output.

Blessed with electric pace and immense dribbling ability, the 20-year-old is a real pain to defend. He takes on opposition defenders like his life depends on it. More often than not, he leaves them trailing in his wake. Onyekuru has established himself as Anderlecht's go-to man. He played in every match in the Belgium's club short-lived Champions League campaign and is the club's top goalscorer this season.

Currently injured, there are rumours he won't be back in time for the World Cup. That would be a shame. Everton fans won't mind too much, however, providing he returns fit and firing in time for the new season.

Kylian Mbappe/19/PSG

Unless you live under a rock, this is one youngster who needs no introduction. While it wasn't exactly his breakout season, 2017 was a wonderful year for the Frenchman. He stepped up from a minor role to carry Monaco to the Ligue 1 title and an impressive Champions League run before turning 19. After stunning Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, two teams backed by oil money, one made an audacious move for him.

PSG's €180 million buy-now-pay-later 'loan' will be made permanent at season's end, providing UEFA validates the move. Meanwhile, Mbappe has continued to dazzle, forming a fearsome attacking trio alongside Edinson Cavani and Neymar. The teenager has scored an impressive 12 goals, while setting up a further 11 in just twenty games at the Parc des Princes.

After nine caps with Didier Deschamps Bleus, expect him to feature in the World Cup.

Andreas Christensen/21/Chelsea

Christensen is another young defender who had a superb 2017. No stranger to first team football following two glorious years on loan with Borrusia Monchengladbach, he made 62 Bundesliga appearances for die Folen.

Like many players who come through the Chelsea academy, Christensen struggled to break into the Blues' first team. After his two years with the German side, many expected the move to Germany to be made permanent. The Dane had other ideas.

He began this season on the Blues bench, probably Antonio Conte's fourth choice at centre half. It didn't take long for him to become a regular. Gary Cahill saw red in Chelsea's first game. The Dane hasn't looked back since, making 22 appearances,15 in the Premier League. 

Christensen's reading of the game, aerial prowess, and composure with the ball make him ideal for Conte's back-line. He's dislodged both Cahill and David Luiz from the Italian's plan.

Having played every minute in Denmark's World Cup qualifiers, the youngster will surely be making the trip to Russia. 

Achraf Hakimi/19/Real Madrid

Moroccan wunderkind Achraf Hakimi and Real Madrid have begun what could be a wonderful friendship. He's been a regular for his World Cup-bound national side and forced his way into Zinedine Zidane's squad in the Spanish capital.

Hakimi only turned 19 in November. Coming up through La Fabrica, he caught the Frenchman's eye. Promoted to the first team as Dani Carvajal's understudy, he's stepped in ably after the Spaniard was diagnosed with a heart condition.

He made his La Liga debut in the 2-0 win over Espanyol in October, but Hakimi's most famous moment in a Real Madrid shirt came last year in the 5-0 victory over Sevilla, when he scored his first senior goal. In what was probably Madrid's best performance of the season to that point, the young Atlas Lion was a joy to watch running up and down the right flank.

The epitome of the modern-day fullback: attacking-minded and energetic, with pace to burn and accurate service, Hakimi has made nine appearances across all competitions. Presumably, there will be more in the New Year.

Adoyi Joshua Adoyi

Adoyi is an avid supporter of Manchester United. He spends his weekends glued to his TV screen, watching the beautiful game, cheering every goal, and bemoaning every save.

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