Here's to the late bloomers.
The ones you thought had lost their way, would amount to nothing or never recover from a cruel setback.
In 2020 we've been tricked into believing player development is linear, straightforward and rapid. Jadon Sancho, Joao Felix and Kai Havertz all developing into superstars before their 20th birthday creates an unrealistic bar for the many others who must develop a career over time.
Here, B/R Football honours those who have deviated from the path a bit, taken their time to reach the top level, only emerging as a top-tier player in their mid-20s at the earliest.
Not a single one of these players was a star at age 24, and they're ranked by how big their "jump" was—from also-ran to star. Only current players are included, as we turn our focus away from traditional late bloomers (Ian Wright, Miroslav Klose), in search of the next crop.
Martin Braithwaite, 28, Barcelona
Braithwaite's risen to Barcelona's level via odd circumstances, but don't let that take away from the fact he's steadily progressed throughout his 20s. Some early promise at Toulouse was quashed at Middlesbrough, before rebuilding himself at Leganes and arriving on the stage he now occupies.
Papu Gomez, 32, Atalanta
Gomez's late emergence is linked to Atalanta's rise—a theme that is covered heavily in this piece—but perhaps wouldn't have been so stark if he hadn't enjoyed such an eclectic career. Still, few foresaw him becoming this important to a Champions League quarter-finalist at age 32.
10. Dani Parejo, 31, Central Midfielder
Parejo kicks off a running theme in our list: The talent was always there, identifiable from an early age, but for one reason or another things didn't click into place until later on.
With "Real Madrid academy graduate" and "Spanish youth international" on his CV, Parejo screamed promise, but perhaps there was an element of mishandling that shaped his early years—how he ended up on a one-year loan deal at Championship club Queens Park Rangers in 2008 is anyone's guess.
That set him back, forcing him to navigate his way back up to Champions League level via Getafe, and on to Valencia, as part of a deal involving Esteban Granero. He was a spare part in a transfer aged 21.
Years of hard work ensued, transforming Parejo into the midfield general we see today. He didn't initially convince at Mestalla and first had to win his spot in the side—that's a far cry from the situation today, where Los Che recruit and select central midfielders in accordance with how they might complement the 31-year-old.
Around 2014 is when things finally fell into place. Given some freedom in midfield to dictate and create, and handed set-piece duties, his influence and goal tallies rose. Early on, he was a more attack-minded midfielder, but now he plays deeper, spraying balls to the flanks and managing games.
He's grown and grown, and in 2020 counts among the better passers in world football, is Valencia's captain and has four caps for Spain.
9. Ivan Perisic, 31, Winger
Bayern Munich (on loan from Inter Milan)
Perisic has always been varying degrees of good, edging towards great, but it was at age 28 that he truly took off, becoming recognised as one of the better wingers in the world.
An excellent goalscoring record in Belgium prompted Borussia Dortmund to sign him back in 2011, but inconsistent performances and a questionable defensive work ethic meant he never truly integrated into Jurgen Klopp's system.
Wolfsburg rebuilt him, playing him ahead of Ricardo Rodriguez and to the left of Kevin De Bruyne. That piqued Inter Milan's interest, and it's in Italy where he truly found his rhythm.
His two years under Luciano Spalletti (2017-19) were superb, as was his 2018 World Cup. He developed a defensive work rate, tracking back down the wing so well it seemed as though there were two of him at times. He also continued to score goals, several of which were either crucial or just plain brilliant.
By last summer, he'd established himself as good enough to be signed by a club like Bayern Munich after it transpired he wouldn't fit into Antonio Conte's winger-less 3-5-2 formation. Injury has held him up a little there, and he may not stick around, but you can bet another top club will come calling if the opportunity arises.
8. Felipe, 30, Central Defender
Felipe made his professional football debut aged 22. He endured a rockier path into the game than the vast majority of his peers, at one point hanging up his boots to deliver mushrooms in Brazil, before returning and convincing Corinthians to give him a shot.
A bizarre, delayed education took place from there: "Corinthians were very patient with me, they gave me training," he told Marca. "At 23, they taught me as if I was a 15-year-old kid."
He eventually blossomed, joining FC Porto aged 26 and impressing over the course of three seasons there. Atletico Madrid took note and signed him last summer, already age 30, but presumably confident he had a lot more left in the tank than you'd expect given his late start in the game.
His injury record is also absurd; he appears to have...never had one?
Felipe's been one of Atletico's best performers this season, settling into a defensive line that lost Diego Godin, Juanfran and Filipe Luis last summer. It's amazing to think how close he was to not making a single professional appearance at all.
7. Iago Aspas, 32, Forward
When Liverpool bought Aspas for £7 million in 2013, he was already 25 years of age and had just one top-tier season of football under his belt; the five years before had all been spent in Spain's second and third tiers.
It made his story all the more heartwarming when he held the red shirt aloft—but then, conversely, all the more heartbreaking when his famous "moment" came in the form of a terrible corner kick that directly led to a Chelsea goal, destroying any lingering hopes of a Premier League title win.
He didn't recover and couldn't show his best form in England. After returning to Spain, he continued to impress. Back at Celta Vigo now, he's put together La Liga scoring seasons of 14, 19, 22, 20 and 9 (so far), playing a major role in steering the club away from the jaws of relegation.
Since 2018, he's been capped by Spain 18 times, scored six and played at the 2018 World Cup. His work rate, eye for goal and positional versatility can be a huge asset when harnessed correctly...as Celta and La Furia Roja know very well, but Liverpool, perhaps, still seem oblivious to.
6. Duvan Zapata, 29, Striker
Back in 2013, there was serious buzz about Zapata. Premier League interest from West Ham surfaced—Football.London have detailed how and why that deal fell apart—before he eventually moved to Napoli, but that move didn't work out.
By the time relatively unconvincing loans at Udinese and Sampdoria had taken place, the year was 2018, Zapata was 26, and he looked set for a page in the "what could have been" book.
But then Atalanta happened.
Manager Gian Piero Gasperini has unlocked Zapata, whose goalscoring record at La Dea—34 goals in 52 Serie A appearances over the last 18 months—is sensational. He's become a penalty box presence most can't handle, converting close-range chances with efficiency and helping his team assert dominance in the final third.
He's not the only player whose career has transformed in Bergamo—he's not the only Atalanta player on this list—and the pattern is becoming too obvious to ignore.
5. Victor Moses, 29, Wing-Back
Inter Milan (on loan from Chelsea)
Moses' career trajectory is proof that sometimes, it's more about which manager's lap you fall into than anything else.
The potential has always been there. He graduated from Crystal Palace's academy as an extremely highly rated winger, did well at Wigan Athletic, got scooped up by Chelsea and spent time on loan at Liverpool. Bad players don't do this.
But up until 2016, when Antonio Conte took charge at Stamford Bridge, things hadn't quite clicked for him. He'd already been at Chelsea four years by this point, and had played for six clubs in his nine years as a professional.
Conte took one look at Moses and thought "you're a wing-back"—a position he'd rarely, if ever played before. He proceeded to hand him 29 Premier League starts on the right flank en route to a title win. At age 26.
Relocating him to wing-back unlocked his athleticism, aggression and crossing ability, while masking his so-so defensive acumen and the fact he's not an X-factor winger, who demands the ball and decides games.
He featured heavily the following season, too, and he has now followed Conte to Inter Milan to perform...the exact same role.
It took nine years for Moses' best role to transpire, and six Chelsea managers to realise it, but it happened. Eventually.
4. Ciro Immobile, 30, Striker
Immobile's career will be a strange one to look back on. Football fans in 20 years, who never saw him play, will look at his trajectory and goal records with heavily furrowed brows.
The Italian is one of the most potent forwards in world football right now; before the pause, he was on track to break Gonzalo Higuain's Serie A goalscoring record (36), having netted 27 goals in 26 matches. In the three seasons before, he scored 15, 29 and 23.
That's a prolific record covering the entire second half of his 20s, but before that he was a shadow of his current self bar one outstanding season with Torino in 2013-14.
For both Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla he underwhelmed, leading to a loan back to Torino and, eventually, a buy-low transfer from Lazio. He's barely stopped scoring since, and it's at times difficult to reconcile the image of Immobile tearing Serie A's best apart with the one we have of his slumped shoulders in Germany and Spain.
Perhaps the Torino season was both a hint and a warning: The goalscoring talent is undoubted, but home comfort is key.
3. Josip Ilicic, 32, Forward
How do you go from tricky, inconsistent winger to Ballon d'Or-type levels of brilliance in your early 30s? Ask Ilicic, because he's somehow done it.
The Slovenia international has netted more goals (14) than anyone else this calendar year and more hat-tricks (2) too. He's scored from the halfway line and almost single-handedly led Atalanta into the Champions League quarter-finals.
All this from a player who has always been talented but rarely managed to produce this frequently, and to this level, before now.
Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini (who is something of a managerial late bloomer himself) has had a big role in this development. The two have connected, unlocking the best in each other, and playing Ilicic centrally in an uber-attacking system has ensured he's constantly fed the ball, kept involved, given chances and, crucially, can't drift out of games.
The results have been devastating.
2. Thomas Partey, 26, Central Midfielder
It's taken a long time—much longer, perhaps, than intended—but Thomas can now count himself as a key player for Atletico Madrid, eight years after signing for them.
It took until 2017 for him to work his way into the regular rotation, spending years honing his craft and biding his time. Over the next two seasons, he graduated from genuine option to a must-start.
He took in some loans from 2013-15, but it was hard graft on the training pitch that saw him break into the side. He did the dirty work manager Diego Simeone asked for, identifying himself as one to be counted on—and playing any position he was asked to, including wide midfield and full-back.
That opened the door, but what has really cemented his place in the side is his emergence as one of—if not the—best vertical passing midfielder at the club. He slides passes through the lines and into strikers better than anyone, all the while fulfilling the defensive duties his manager demands.
He's a complete midfielder: Passer, tackler, dribbler, worker, thinker. It's just taken a bit longer to round out the skill set than you'd traditionally expect.
1. Jamie Vardy, 33, Striker
Perhaps the modern poster-boy for late bloomers, Vardy's tale has thrilled, inspired and most likely had a colossal impact on others. In the wake of his rise, how many non-league footballers who were considering hanging up their boots decided to give it one final shot?
At age 25, he finally clawed his way into the Football League, moving from Fleetwood Town (in England's fifth tier at the time) to Leicester City (in the second tier).
He made his Premier League bow two years later and netted just five goals in 34 appearances. With all of that evidence to hand, not a soul on earth could have predicted what would happen next.
A hot start to the 2015-16 campaign refused to fizzle out. Vardy led the Foxes to a 5,000-1 league title, top scored with 24 goals and scored in 11 consecutive matches, breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy's record of 10.
Vardy found his groove as Leicester settled into one of the most direct attacking game plans ever witnessed. It asked him to simply run off the shoulder and/or split wide to drag a defender out, use his searing speed to gain a yard and then finish.
A telepathic connection with Danny Drinkwater, who lifted balls behind the defence and into general "areas," was key to Vardy getting so many chances. From there, the low, drilled, right-footed strike found home more often than not.
The rise was swift, and those hoping for a decline of a similar ilk were left disappointed: He's been one of England's top marksmen ever since, netting 13, 20, 18 and 19 in the campaigns that have followed—that last figure coming from the current incomplete season.
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All statistics via WhoScored.com.