Picking a World Football Under-23 Dream Team
World football is benefiting from an unprecedented explosion of young talent.
As scouting, training and player development become more sophisticated, young professionals are hitting their stride earlier—and thanks to squad rotation, we're seeing them introduced at the highest level more often.
There is an amazing wealth of football talent at the under-23 level. Here's a dream team made up of some of the best.
David de Gea, 21
Manchester United, Spain U-21
David de Gea has drawn a lot of criticism since moving to the Premier League—mostly for not being big enough and not screaming at his defenders. Welcome to British football!
And, to be fair, when he does look vulnerable, it is alarmingly eye-catching.
But it is astonishing that a keeper whose saves have safeguarded so many points for his team continues to inspire doubt among supporters.
Last season, De Gea had the best save success rate of any Premier League starting goalkeeper.
In a season when Man United's defence struggled, conceding a high number of shots on goal, De Gea's contribution was decisive in their second-place finish.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen (20; Borussia Monchengladbach, Germany)
Thibaut Courtois (20; Atletico Madrid, Belgium)
Cesar Azpilicueta, 23
Chelsea, Spain U-23
Chelsea's new signing has not yet had much opportunity to prove himself, but in terms of skill has to be considered one of the top right-backs under 23.
Azpilicueta was a key player at Olympique de Marseille, and looks primed to get his full senior debut with Spain, having won the European Championship at both Under-19 and Under-21 levels.
Tony Jantschke (22; Borussia Monchengladbach, Germany U-21)
Kyle Walker (22; Tottenham, England)
Mamadou Sakho, 22
Paris Saint-Germain, France
Already established in his national side, Sakho is a product of the PSG youth academy.
Shortly after his first-team debut, Sakho's precocious leadership instincts earned him the captain's armband at just 17.
At 20, he made his senior international debut as part of France's fresh start in the aftermath of their appalling World Cup 2010 campaign.
His work at the heart of the PSG defence has contributed to one of the best defensive records in Europe this season.
Neven Subotic (23; Borussia Dortmund, Serbia)
Stefan de Vrij (20; Feyenoord, Netherlands)
Juan Jesus (21; Internazionale, Brazil)
Mats Hummels, 23
Borussia Dortmund, Germany
Just making the under-23 cut by a few weeks, Hummels is the stand-out defender of his generation.
In contrast to Sakho's combative, aerially dominant style, Hummels is a positionally savvy, ball-playing defender with the vision to match his skill.
His masterful performances with the 2011 and 2012 Bundesliga champions earned Hummels a starting place in Germany's Euro 2012 side, where he consistently impressed in their run to the semifinals.
Gareth Bale, 23
Bale's devastating talent for getting forward at pace and cutting inside to find scoring positions has largely shifted his regular starting position from left-back to winger, but the Southampton youth product can still fill his old spot with aplomb.
In fact, Bale has statistically performed more strongly at left-back this season.
Jordi Alba (23; Barcelona, Spain)
Yann M'Vila, 22
M'Vila has established such an imposing reputation, it is easy to forget he is still only 22.
A physical, defensive midfielder whose aggression and power sometimes belie his precision and skill, M'Vila has spent his entire career so far at Ligue 1 club Rennes, despite perpetual transfer rumours linking him with Europe's finest.
Like Mamadou Sakho, M'Vila broke into the French national side as part of Laurent Blanc's post-World Cup 2010 shake-up.
Sven Bender (23; Borussia Dortmund, Germany)
Jack Wilshere (20; Arsenal, England)
Malaga, Spain U-21
M'Vila's steel in central midfield allows for an attack-minded partner, and Isco fits the bill perfectly.
Although Santi Cazorla's departure from Malaga has seen the 20-year-old move up the pitch, Isco's passing, vision and strength in possession make him a strong choice at playmaker.
He has been instrumental to Malaga's success both this season and last, as well as in Spain's Under-21 European Championship qualification.
Thiago Alcantara (21; Barcelona, Spain)
Axel Witsel (23; Zenit St. Petersburg, Belgium)
Right Attacking Midfielder
Erik Lamela, 20
AS Roma, Argentina
The former River Plate youth has had a sensational start to the 2012-13 season, with five goals from his first eight appearances securing a starting berth at Roma.
Lamela has yet to make himself a fixture in the talent-swollen Argentina side, with just one senior appearance, but looks destined to impose himself in coming years.
Eden Hazard (21; Chelsea, Belgium)
Mario Gotze (20; Borussia Dortmund, Germany)
Central Attacking Midfield
Oscar impressed for Brazil at the London 2012 Olympics, but many questioned how the new Chelsea signing would adapt to the Premier League.
The answer was: very well indeed.
Alongside Eden Hazard and a resurgent Juan Mata, Oscar's creativity, vision and technique have elevated Chelsea's game this season.
His mercurial ability to dribble through opponents has largely neutralised the physical robustness of the league that many thought would hamper his skills.
Left Attacking Midfielder
Santos FC, Brazil
Expectations on Neymar as Brazil prepare to host World Cup 2014 are surreally high.
As long as international success eludes him and he delays the inevitable big-money move to Europe, sceptics over his quality will remain.
But despite the hype, Neymar continues to improve, surprise and delight, as evidenced by his recent wonder goal for Santos just hours after stepping off the plane from international duty in Poland.
Iker Muniain (19; Athletic Bilbao, Spain)
Thomas Muller, 23
Bayern Munich, Germany
Few players his age have perfected their positioning and finishing like Thomas Muller.
In his 2009-10 debut season, Muller's 13 goals helped Bayern to the Bundesliga title.
That summer, at just 19, he won the Golden Boot at World Cup 2010 for his five goals and three assists.
Although a change of coach at Bayern has seen his influence wane, Muller remains one of the great young scoring talents in world football.
Rodrigo (21; Benfica, Spain U-21)
Stefan Jovetic (22; Fiorentina, Montenegro)
Mario Balotelli (22; Manchester City, Italy)