One of the interesting pieces of deadline day business, in the January transfer window, was Chelsea FC snapping up Kevin De Bruyne from Racing Genk.
De Bruyne is one amongst the talented crop of next generation midfielders who, by virtue of their performances, have caught the attention of the world’s top clubs.
A golden generation of world-class midfielders—Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Xavier Hernandez to name a few—are in the twilight of their careers.
But as is the norm, the wheel has kept spinning meaning younger stars have emerged and are captivating football fans around the world with their talented displays.
While some of them have already placed a firm step in the path to stardom, others are on the threshold of international recognition.
Taking these two factors into account, I have put together a list of under-21 midfield players who have the potential and indeed the skill to one day become the next Zidane, Gerrard, Xavi and Scholes.
Some of the under-21 stars listed here may find themselves on the move come this summer. On that note, let’s start with the man who might have just started the trend…
Kevin De Bruyne joined Chelsea on transfer deadline day and signed a five-and-a-half-year contract at the West London club.
An impressive 2010-11 season saw the Belgian international rack up a tally of five goals and 16 assists in 32 Pro League appearances.
The better attributes of his playing style is his ability to curve the ball, shoot from distance and the vision to make crucial, pinpoint passes.
He can slot himself just behind the striker or play as a traditional winger.
Needless to say, De Bruyne is immensely talented—a potential star of the future— and Chelsea has made the right decision by investing in him.
He is by no means going to be a regular starter for the next season for Chelsea. Andre Villas-Boas will look to loan him out to a club playing in one of the top five leagues in Europe.
Kevin De Bruyne, if he fulfils his potential, is surely a worthy successor to Frank Lampard at Chelsea.
Christian Eriksen is the latest in the long list of world-beating talents who have emerged from Ajax’s brilliant youth system.
The 2010-11 season served as the breakthrough year for the Danish international as his stock rose to dizzying heights.
His ability to control the game from his favoured central midfield role has earned him praise from established names in World Football.
The best attributes of his skill set are his dribbling, short-range passing and long-range shooting abilities.
Christian Eriksen was recently named the Danish Football Player of the Year for 2011 besides being honoured as the Dutch Football Talent of the Year—a recognition to the best under-21 player in the Dutch League.
Top English clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are all rumoured to be monitoring his progress and if they manage to snatch him, then there is no doubt that the 19-year-old will stamp his mark on the club through his performances.
This 20-year-old La Masia graduate finds his name in FIFA’s 2012 list of players to watch.
Expectations are high on the Spanish under-21 team skipper as he looks determined to prove his worth to Pep Guardiola and the folks at FC Barcelona.
The highest point of his career, till date, is winning the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship trophy.
He has been starting a handful of games for Barcelona, of late. But it still is very hard to break into a team that has Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas in their ranks.
His control on the ball, passing and dribbling abilities make him an attractive prospect for clubs looking to add some creativity to the team.
Despite signing a contract that had set a huge release fee on the player, clubs will be monitoring his situation at the club as the summer transfer window nears.
And should he feel the need to leave his current club for a regular first team opportunity, he wouldn’t need to break a sweat to find a new home.
Mario Götze has been a revelation for German club Borussia Dortmund since coming through its youth ranks.
Mario Götze, along with Christian Eriksen, had a brilliant 2010-11 season which led to an increased demand for their services during last summer’s transfer window.
And yet, both players opted to stay with their parent club for the new season.
Known for his speed, technical skill and creativity, Götze can also operate from the right-wing. His preferred position, however, is playing just off the front-men.
He has continued his rich form into the current season and it is only an imperative for me to suggest that clubs will be circling like sharks for this talented midfielder in the summer.
This is partially down to Dortmund sitting atop the tree in the 2011-12 Fußball-Bundesliga charts possibly finishing as champions but with every chance of securing a Champions League place.
From one German talent onto another, Julian Draxler is an 18-year-old midfielder who plays for FC Schalke 04.
He ended up on the winning side in last year’s DFB-Pokal. He had opened the scoring in the Cup final—also the last match for Manuel Neuer as a Schalke player—as his side easily overcame their opponent.
He has been starting a handful of games for Schalke this season. This augurs well for the 18-year-old’s development process.
He also happens to be the second-youngest player, after Nuri Şahin, to start a Bundesliga game. That is trivia.
Something that is not is that he also happens to be in the same list as Thiago Alcântara in FIFA’s players to watch for in 2012.
That indicates the quality that is waiting to explode onto the international scene. His reputation is already high within Germany and it is only a matter of time before big clubs come sniffing.
Moving across the border to France, one can’t help but notice this young and energetic midfielder who is quite adept at doing the dirty work for his team.
Yann M’Vila is perhaps the most talented defensive midfielder to come up in recent times.
Add to it the fact that he shows a level of maturity beyond his 21 years is an added bonus to clubs looking to invest in his position.
Yann M’Vila plays for French club Stade Rennais FC in Ligue 1.
Known for his excellent defensive abilities and his physical presence, M’Vila’s defence-splitting passing ability—attributes of a deep-lying playmaker—should appeal to potential suitors very well.
Also the fact that Rennes are struggling at the moment in the league—currently occupying the sixth spot—with only a distant chance of qualifying for Europe will definitely push M’Vila into thinking about a summer transfer.
For a player of his ability, he will surely find a top club if he comes up on the transfer list.
Hazard was, is and will be a hot target with really big clubs on his trail in the summer.
The Belgian international plays as an attacking midfielder/winger for French club LOSC Lille.
Hazard’s star has been on the rise since the 2008-09 season. If anything, this was the season that kick-started the whole circus of big clubs being interested in the tricky speedster even prompting Zinedine Zidane to say this about him:
I'd sign him for Real Madrid with my eyes closed.
His best-known attribute is his pace and his technical ability. He can also dribble with the ball at his feet at higher speeds and regularly switch flanks during the game as he is comfortable with both feet.
He has been appreciated for his composed character on-field—a fact evidenced by a mere 11 yellow cards to his name in more than 170 career appearances.
However, for all his exploits at the club level, Hazard hasn’t been successful with Belgium's national team. His weaknesses includes his reluctance to track back and help out in defence—one of the many reasons why playing him in the wing won’t appeal to English clubs—and an apparent lack of charisma (as claimed by Dick Advocaat).
Staying with the Ligue 1, here is another exciting player plying his trade with Montpellier HSC.
This is Younès Belhanda and although he turns 22 in a month’s time, he is one who perhaps deserves to be on this list.
Belhanda is not quite a high profile young talent like most players in this list but his performances for Montpellier haven’t gone unnoticed.
His close-control dribbling skill is perhaps the best since the world noticed Alexis Sanchez doing it often for Udinese. He possesses the knack to convert chances from dead-ball situations and has a great stamina to run around the pitch for 90 minutes without showing much exhaustion.
He is also quite adept at banging in quality crosses from wide positions and very often finds his target with his through balls and long-range passes.
One of the key players in Montpellier’s shift of fortunes this season, his performances have been instrumental in Montpellier mounting a charge for Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain.
He is an exciting addition for teams looking to add some creativity to their midfield ranks. Belhanda, so far, has proved that he is worthy of a No. 10 shirt this season.
Despite being not-as-prolific in front of goal—as is required of a No. 10—the Moroccan international is certain to develop and perhaps, in time, become a world-class attacking midfielder.
Across the channel, in the British Isles there is a new kid on the block.
He walked in with supporters having divided opinions over his purchase. Now, he’s started to answer them all.
He is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and this 18-year-old from Portsmouth is the man of the moment at Arsenal FC.
He is not a potential transfer target for this summer as he will look to continue his development at Arsenal for at least another four years.
But that depends on two conditions—Arsenal manages to win something and Arsène Wenger is still the boss!
Alex’s strength—similar to his teammate at Arsenal Theo Walcott—is his speed. Although utilised as a winger in all his games, so far, Alex is also very adept at operating the game from a central position.
He is also very tricky to mark and can find his man with a pass. Judging by his recent performances, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fabio Capello calls him up for the upcoming friendly.
Jack Rodwell is one of those midfield players best known for their hard-tackling and tough approach to their game.
The 20-year-old Southport native is one of the best young defensive midfielders that England has to offer. His strength and combative nature plus the fact that he can play as a defender, when needed, add up to his profile.
Jack Rodwell isn’t exactly a hot prospect for clubs outside of England but he is very much in demand within.
Injuries have halted his progress a bit but as former Everton man Mikel Arteta observes—time is still on his hands and he may well grow into one of the best defensive midfielders by the time he is 23 or 24.
Another one of Arsenal’s youth products, Francis Coquelin is currently moving upwards in terms of his overall development.
Unlike Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin has been with Arsenal for some time now. The French under-21 midfielder wasn’t fast-tracked into the first team.
Most of it was down to the presence of Fàbregas and Nasri and the emergence of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey as midfield options for Arsène Wenger.
But he has been impressive, of late, and the one attribute that has done him a world of good is his versatility.
His ability to adapt to right-back and wide midfield areas, despite the fact that he is a defensive midfielder by trade, haven’t gone unnoticed amongst the supporters and sections of the media.
Francis Coquelin is surely a star in the making but something within me suggests that he just may end up being a late bloomer.
He may go out on loan to another Premier League club in the summer.
In any case, let’s wait to see how his career pans out and whether or not he will make the grades at Arsenal where Alex Song is his biggest obstacle.
Let’s take a hike down south for some samba magic!
Lucas Silva plays for São Paulo FC as an attacking midfielder and for a 19-year-old has skills that prove he was born to play football!
He is widely regarded as one of the hottest prospects of South America at the moment. He is also very capable of playing the No. 10 role with ease in any team.
His excellent dribbling skills, close control of the ball and good finishing ability makes him one of the dangerous attacking prospects while his super vision and ability to thread in dangerous passes make him an all-round exciting potential.
Lucas, on account of his excellent performances, has started to appear for the Brazil national team more regularly.
Carlos Henrique Casimiro—better known as Casemiro—is another youth product of São Paulo FC who has made the step up from reserves to the first team.
Casemiro’s versatility is what appeals to the scouts as he can play as a defensive cover while being equally comfortable in moving up and joining the attack.
The 19-year-old started out as a striker during his youth and dropped down the field later on.
Casemiro was a part of the Brazil U-20 squad that clinched the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia. He also captained the U-20 squad to glory in the 2011 South American Youth Championship.
Here’s the player himself talking about the difficulties he faced as a young footballer growing up in Brazil.
A hard-tackling midfielder by nature, his physical presence is also a handy attribute for clubs looking to add him to their roster. Plus the fact that he is a natural leader on the pitch only helps his case.
Oscar is one of the several young Brazilian talents who may move onto new clubs in the summer.
A 20-year-old attacking midfielder, Oscar switched clubs from São Paulo to his current Sport Club Internacional in 2010.
Oscar shot to limelight with his hat trick in the final against Portugal for the Brazil U-20 squad during the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
By doing so, he became only the second player in history to score a hat trick in a World Cup Final after Geoff Hurst did it for England in 1966.
He is well-known for his accurate passing and distance-shooting abilities. His pace also enables him to play as a winger.
Another Latin-American footballer who places in this list is 20-year-old Colombian wide-midfielder James Rodríguez.
Rodríguez plays for FC Porto as a winger. He has been in scintillating form in this season scoring eight goals in 12 appearances in the Primeira Liga.
Rodríguez made a name for himself as a teenager playing for Club Atlético Banfield in Argentina.
His ability to remain calm in one-on-one situations is perhaps the best attribute of Rodríguez.
Besides, he has got above average dribbling skills, but still is a bit ineffective when it comes to his passing skills.
His crossing and finishing abilities resembles that of a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo when he signed for Manchester United.
This young midfielder can also seamlessly slot in as a forward in a three-man attack system. He believes that this season could be the breakout year in his career that would fetch him international recognition.
So, it seems like he is well on track.
The 21-year-old Greek international plays as an attacking midfielder for Athenian club Panathinaikos FC.
The most significant attribute of his football is his vision. Add to it some excellent pace and dribbling skills and we have a complete attacking midfielder/winger package.
Although the young midfielder’s stock has fallen since the World Cup in South Africa, courtesy of long-term injuries, it doesn’t take away the talent and potential he has come to show the world.
There were rumours, in the not-so-distant past, linking him with switches to Manchester United, FC Barcelona, AS Roma and a host of other top European clubs.
But none of it came to fruition because the clubs weren’t willing to take the risk on a player who was injury-prone.
Ninis’ case is a classic example of too much, too soon. Playing a 16-year-old as a regular first team player was one of the few mistakes of previous Panathinaikos regimes.
If that wasn’t anything, burdening with the club captaincy at the age of 18 really stopped his progress. His unfortunate injuries were a direct consequence of overexposure.
Protecting talented youth players should be on top of a manager’s mind in order to avoid situations like Ninis’.
But Ninis’ career is by no means doomed. He is still one of the best young, talented attacking midfielders on the pitch. But it would do a world of good to him if he secures a playing contract with one of the top European clubs.
Markus Henriksen is a 19-year-old central midfielder who plays for Rosenborg Ballklub (RBK) in the Norwegian league.
He is one of the best, young box-to-box midfielders in world football today. Already a first team player for his club, the youngster’s best attribute is his stamina.
Even at such a young age, Henriksen has demonstrated his endurance capacity with his never-stop-running attitude. He is also a good trickster and executes a few skill moves to perfection.
His breakthrough season was the year 2010 when, from his central midfield position, Henriksen scored 14 goals in over 46 appearances for the club.
He is a two-time Tippeligaen winner with his club. Also, the Norwegian Athletes Organisation (NISO) named him Young Male Player for the Year 2010.
He has managed to stay put with his parent club, amid interests from other clubs, to continue his development.
Markus Henriksen is certainly a shining star to have emerged from Norway in recent times. And in the next couple of years, he will be primed to make a big money switch to a top European club.
Erik Lamela is a 19-year-old Argentinean attacking midfielder who plays for Serie A club AS Roma.
Lamela, a River Plate youth product, joined Roma in a €19 million deal last summer after his boyhood club was relegated in only his first full season.
A powerful left-foot, set-piece accuracy and top standard dribbling skills are his strengths. Erik Lamela’s clever movement also makes him a tricky customer to mark for the opponents.
His movement off the ball is one of the reasons why deploying him in the wings is a plausible option.
One of Lamela’s weaknesses is perhaps his lack of pace and that is why Serie A suits him at this point of time. But he has to work on that if he intends to move on to greener pastures.
Erik’s stay at Roma has been a successful one so far. Most of it is down to the support he receives from his manager Luis Enrique and Roma’s skipper Francesco Totti.
But, even in this short stay, he has somehow managed to hog the limelight for a negative reason. Anyway, that isn’t going to hamper his image the least bit but he has to focus on the task at hand and work his way up to fulfil his potential.
Lamela, without a doubt, is a highly talented youngster who is certainly a star in the making for the future.
Another Roma player finds his name in this list—Miralem Pjanić.
The 21-year-old Bosnian international has been a regular starter for Roma this season. In 18 Serie A appearances, Pjanić has scored three goals (including this wonderful free-kick) and claimed seven assists.
Pjanić plays as an attacking midfielder for his current club.
Pjanić’s qualities as a playmaker are a bit different to the others on this list. His strength isn’t the use of pace or dribbling forward with the ball.
Rather he uses his excellent passing skills as a way to unlock defences. Plus he is fairly decent at converting set-pieces.
At 21, it is fair enough to suggest that Pjanić has found a club to stay put for the near future. But, who are we to predict?
It’s football. Anything can happen!
OK. Let me make something clear.
Thomas Joseph Delaney isn’t exactly a popular under-21 talent. He hasn’t done anything crazy on the field for the big clubs to trail him. But he definitely is a star in the making.
Thomas Delaney is a 20-year-old Danish centre midfielder who plays for FC København having come up through the club’s youth ranks.
Now, let me clarify something else. If anybody has been wondering why his name doesn’t sound Danish, it’s because he is Irish-American. Hence he qualifies to play for USMNT.
Although, he has represented Denmark at the under-21 levels, he has yet to make his debut for the senior side. So, if Jürgen Klinsmann thinks he could add some youth to his midfield, he doesn’t need to dig deep.
He broke into the first team in the 2009-10 season and has been able to make consistent appearances for the club.
His achievements to date have been winning successive Danish Superliga with his club. Delaney was named the Danish Under-19 Talent of the Year in 2009.
Lewis Holtby is a 21-year-old centre midfielder/winger who plays for FC Schalke 04.
He is the second Schalke player to feature in this list after Julian Draxler.
The breakout season of his career was incidentally when he was on loan at FSV Mainz 05. The dynamic midfielder recorded 30 appearances in the second half of 2010-11 season and returned with figures of six goals and 10 assists.
He has continued his form into the 2011-12 season having scored six goals and claimed three assists in over 25 appearances across all competitions for Schalke.
His performances has helped Schalke, in the race for the Bundesliga title, who are level on points with second-placed Bayern Munich only separated by goal difference.
Holtby made his debut for the German national team last year but has found himself out of reckoning in recent times. Part of it is down to Mario Götze’s phenomenal form for BvB.
Holtby is also an ardent Everton FC supporter through his father. A big move to the Premier League in the pipeline...?
But, of course, if it is big—it doesn’t involve Everton!
Normally, I’d place samba stars higher up any list.
But Philippe Coutinho finds himself lower because his 2011-12 season has been insignificant, if there isn’t a better term to describe it.
He hardly appeared for Inter Milan but that doesn’t take away the fact that he is an extremely talented youngster who is still a 19-year-old.
I say that because we’ve heard much from the media about Coutinho—especially during his days at former club Vasco da Gama—that I somehow convinced myself into thinking he might have grown up.
And yet, here he is on this list. Still only 19 years of age!
This kid was a boy wonder when he was at his former club. I mean, any kid who could make the first team at 16 years for that matter should be considered a wonder kid.
Coutinho has now made the right step in his career, trying to rejuvenate it, by going on-loan to Spanish club RCD Espanyol.
At this time I need to remind you about this player’s abilities. Known for his excellent dribbling skills and ball control, the added advantage with Coutinho is that he isn’t shy to take a pop at the goal be it from distance or close-range.
Anyway, it is in his hands to make this loan move count and let the folks in power at Inter Milan know what he is capable of. Alternatively, he needs to perform with Espanyol in order to secure a transfer to a club that can assure him first team opportunities.
His season-long injury was the reason for exclusion.
He really should have moved to a new club from FC Sochaux in the summer.
Not quite there yet!
The shining light of Blackburn Rovers in this season who just failed to turn up at the Emirates!
Some of the players on here have already made a mark on the international scene. Some of them are emerging stars and are currently through in their breakout year.
But, regardless of the kind of impact that these players have had at club and country level, one thing is for sure.
A few of them will go on to be the superstars of world football. They will, without a doubt, reach for the stars and achieve the good fortunes that they were destined to.
Some of them may fade away. I mean, not all young talents are destined for greatness.
Nevertheless, let’s enjoy the gift that these youngsters possess as they continue to impress and strive to make a mark.
In the meantime, let’s wait to see what’s in store for them…
Thank you for reading. And if you have the time, please check out some of my other articles.