Europe’s hottest youngsters: Haaland, Mbappe and more

At the end of one of the most pulsating and thrilling seasons of European football, we take a look at the top youngsters who have excelled this term.

With the pace of a sprinter and the body of a gymnast, Erling Haaland’s ability to sniff out goalscoring opportunities and mental tenacity make him a nightmare to play against.   -  AP

Erling Haaland (22, Borussia Dortmund)

A force of nature, a born goalscorer, a Norwegian enigma. Erling Haaland has been the most successful youngster in European football this season by a country mile. The youngest player ever to net 34 goals in the Bundesliga, the Borussia Dortmund striker is one of the hottest properties in global football.

With the pace of a sprinter and the body of a gymnast, Haaland’s ability to sniff out goalscoring opportunities and mental tenacity make him a nightmare to play against. The 20-year-old scored 25 goals in 27 games this campaign – the third-most in the Bundesliga. Standing tall at six feet and four inches, he has forged a formidable attacking partnership with Jadon Sancho at Dortmund. Haaland can turn provider too, racking up 12 assists across competitions.

Having arrived at Signal Iduna Park after reportedly rejecting offers from more than 10 clubs, Haaland has emerged as an unstoppable force. After a remarkable debut season, he worked on the nitty-gritty aspects of his game and has shown great improvement in his aerial abilities, and has also spent a considerable amount of time pumping iron to work on his physique.

READ | Erling Haaland's double earns Dortmund win over Leverkusen in season finale

The difference is there to be seen as the youngster often steamrolls his way past bigger defenders, almost running past them as if they were invisible.

Haaland was also instrumental in Dortmund’s Champions League campaign as the Black-and-Yellows topped their group and advanced to the quarterfinal stage. Haaland shouldered the German club’s goalscoring demands and bagged 10 goals and two assists before Dortmund was ousted by eventual finalist Manchester City.

His poker face and dry wit in press conferences have made him a fan favourite. After the club’s DFB Pokal Cup win on May 13, he said: “I am proud to win my first title (with Dortmund), and yeah, damn it feels good. The first half was good but the second half was shit… So we were a bit lucky, but yeah...just feels good to win. Of course, it’s shit without fans and I wish we could celebrate with them, but yeah, that’s how it is now and we’ll celebrate later I am sure.”

Haaland does not believe in sugarcoating what he has to say, he keeps it raw. Here’s how he described his celebration after scoring in the same game: “I’ve been in the gym a little bit more than normal lately. I felt it today...a little bit of boost in my biceps and I yeah...it felt good to get it out a little bit. So yeah, it was a nice goal.”

Though he has a deal with the club that will see him remain there until 2024, Haaland continues to attract interest from all the major heavyweights in European football and will always remain one of the most sought-after strikers in the game.

Kylian Mbappe (22, Paris Saint-Germain)

It almost comes as a surprise that Kylian Mbappe is still only 22. The Frenchman has been among the leading strikers in the world for the better part of the last three years and even has a World Cup title to his name.

Clinical, pacy, versatile, stylish – Mbappe is many things. But the one aspect that stands out is his consistency. He has been indispensable in the Paris Saint-Germain squad that won the Ligue 1 three years running since his arrival in 2017. The Parisian striker finished the last two seasons as the league’s leading goalscorer and remains on top this term as well.

Kylian Mbappe has been indispensable in the Paris Saint-Germain squad that won the Ligue 1 three years running since his arrival in 2017.   -  Getty Images

 

Widely known for his rapid bursts of pace and regarded as one of the fastest footballers in the world, Mbappe might well be on his way out of France. His contract is up for renewal next year, and while his teammate Neymar recently signed an extension, Mbappe seems to be cautiously playing the waiting game. The youngster has spent his entire professional career in the French Ligue 1 and will be keen to test himself in the more competitive European leagues such as the Premier League or La Liga. And there is a long list of potential suitors, reportedly including the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester City, waiting to get Mbappe to sign the dotted line.

It is a no-brainer that Mbappe generates so much interest – he has 41 goals from 46 games this season and steered PSG to the Champions League semifinals. His game has gone up a notch has since Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival. Mbappe has been given the freedom to don the right flank, play down the centre, and at times even play in a more central defensive role. He has the talent and the skill to dictate the game irrespective of his position on the pitch and will have the spotlight shining brightly on him when the transfer window opens this summer, provided he does not extend his deal with the nine-time French champion.

Phil Foden (20, Manchester City)

A product of the Manchester City academy, Phil Foden is just getting better with age. The 20-year-old has positioned himself as one of the most versatile midfielders in the Premier League and recently picked up his third domestic crown with the club. Foden, who holds the Guinness record for being the youngest player to win the Premier League, has enjoyed a lot more game time and has been particularly vital for Pep Guardiola’s side this season, starting in over 30 games and playing in 48 across competitions.

READ | Who will challenge for Man City's Premier League crown next season?

Foden has 15 goals and 10 assists so far and two trophies this campaign – the Premier League and EFL Cup – and a key role in City’s bid for a maiden Champions League title.

Operating on the left flank, “Stockport Iniesta,” as he is fondly known, does really well to create space for himself and open up a channel for a pass. His spatial awareness and ball distribution have made him a prized possession in the star-studded City lineup. Guardiola, who is said to be grooming Foden for a more creative No. 10 role, often stresses how crucial he is to the team. “This guy is growing. His influence in our games is massive. Phil right now is becoming such an important player. His influence in the final third is so important,” Guardiola said in April after Foden scored in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa.

Phil Foden has 15 goals and 10 assists so far and two trophies this campaign – the Premier League and EFL Cup – and a key role in City’s bid for a maiden Champions League title.   -  AP

 

Dutch legend Ruud Gullit has been so impressed by Foden’s recent performances that he put him in the same bracket as Lionel Messi. “In the past only the big, strong, quick players were the ones always selected by the English teams, but now I think smaller, agile and more technical players are trusted more. City has given Foden his chance and he has shown he is unbelievable, that he is in the same category as Lionel Messi. He is not exactly like Messi as a player – no one is – but with his stature, his height, his quickness – he is the same. He is a wonderful player and I’ve loved watching him,” Gullit said, voting for Foden as the PFA’s men’s player of the year for 2020-21.

Having also broken into the England senior team last year, Foden – who won the Golden Ball when the Three Lions won the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017 – will be keen to impress at the Euro Championships this year.

Jadon Sancho (21, Borussia Dortmund)

A prolific goalscorer during his first two seasons at Dortmund, Jadon Sancho also doubled up as a terrific playmaker this season. The London-born winger has emerged as one of the most complete all-round players in Europe, crafting 21 assists and scoring 16 times across competitions this season. He has been a vital cog in Dortmund’s top-four finish and has created a telepathic understanding with Erling Haaland – setting up a staggering 30 percent of the Norwegian’s goals this season.

The 21-year-old has enjoyed a fantastic season despite suffering a muscle injury in March that kept him out for nearly a month. His absence was felt in Dortmund’s Champions League campaign as it bowed out in the last-eight stage. However, the stylish dribbler made a strong recovery and has two goals and as many assists from his last two League games. He also struck a brace in the DFB Pokal final against RB Leipzig earlier in May.

Jadon Sancho has enjoyed a fantastic season despite suffering a muscle injury in March that kept him out for nearly a month.   -  AP

 

Sancho, a Manchester City academy graduate, shocked the footballing world in 2017 when he rejected a new contract at the Premier League club to join Dortmund. The Ruhr Valley club was so invested in Sancho that they flew him to Germany midway through the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017.

However, speculation over his future has been simmering since the last transfer window when Manchester United was unable to meet Dortmund’s asking price of £108 million. Dortmund’s sporting director Michael Zorc said in a recent interview that the club has a “gentleman’s agreement” with Sancho, which essentially means that he could leave provided certain conditions are met. The latest rumblings in the rumour mill suggest that United has once again enquired about Sancho’s availability and is eager to splash the cash to make him a Red Devil.

Gianluigi Donnarumma (22, AC Milan)

AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is yet another player who almost seems like a veteran now. Donnarumma raised eyebrows when he was promoted to the senior team at the age of 16, but he has already gone on to make 250 appearances for the Rossoneri. At 21 years and 361 days, he became the youngest player to make 200 Serie A appearances earlier this season when AC Milan lost 3-0 to archrival Inter Milan in February.

Donning the No. 99 on his jersey, Donnarumma is a born leader and has phenomenal game management skills. He was awarded the captain’s armband more than 20 games this season and has become one of the most commanding players in the league. He is also the youngest goalkeeper ever to play for the Italian national team and is vice-captain of the Gli Azzurri and will be the top ’keeper going into the Euro Championships.

READ | Mason Mount changing perceptions at Chelsea

The towering custodian’s future at the San Siro seems uncertain as his contract runs out this summer and the club is yet to discuss a renewal with him. The 22-year-old has been on the radar of Serie A rival Juventus as well as La Liga giant Barcelona, while multiple Premier League clubs are also said to be interested.

Donning the No. 99 on his jersey, Gianluigi Donnarumma is a born leader and has phenomenal game management skills.   -  Getty Images

 

Other notable mentions

Some other youngsters who missed this list by a whisker include Mason Mount, who has grown leaps and bounds at Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel’s arrival seems to have unlocked further potential in him. The 22-year-old Englishman has been named Chelsea’s player of the season and has nine goals and eight assists across competitions. A central figure in Chelsea’s midfield this season, he will look to end the campaign on a winning note with the Champions League winners medal around his neck.

Another promising youngster is Atletico Madrid’s 21-year-old forward Joao Felix. The Portuguese played as a second striker behind Luis Suarez this season, returning with seven goals and six assists in 30 La Liga games.