Who is the best rookie of the lot? (Getty/Metro)
As the curtain prepares to fall on another engrossing Premier League season, it is time to pick out the division’s best young players. But there’s a twist. The players must be 21-years-old or under, and they cannot have appeared in more than 15 Premier League matches prior to the 2016/17 campaign.
That means a number of players shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year award are excluded: Winner Dele Alli played 33 times last season, Harry Kane had his first taste of Premier League football in 2013, Romelu Lukaku has hit double figures in five straight seasons and 24-year-old Michael Keane has 161 career appearances. All are ineligible in our selection.
With those parameters in mind, here’s the top 10…
10. Axel Tuanzebe (Manchester United)
Tuanzebe has not looked out of place in the United back-line this season (Picture: Getty)
The 19-year-old may only have made three appearances this season, but they couldn’t have come in more testing circumstances. First, lining up at right-back, he shackled Alexis Sanchez at the Emirates Stadium, before switching to midfield where he battled valiantly against an on-song Tottenham. ‘He did an amazing job,’ said Jose Mourinho of his young prodigy. ‘I think Alexis now knows his name. The kid played very well.’ Tall, quick and with a fine reading of the game, Tuanzebe looks like a future mainstay of the United starting XI.
9. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Alexander-Arnold will hope to feature more next season after impressing this term (Picture: Getty)
Were it not for the fact that Nathaniel Clyne is one of the best right-backs in the division, Alexander-Arnold might have nailed down a place in Liverpool’s back-line by now. He was won admirers in every one of his seven outings this season, not least from his manager. ‘Trent is a wonderful player. We are really happy to have him here,’ says Jurgen Klopp of a player he wishes he could use more. ‘We know about his qualities. As an offensive full-back, it’s really good to see.’
8. Harry Winks (Tottenham)
Winks scored on his full Premier League debut in a thrilling 3-2 win over West Ham (Picture: Getty)
Finding a successor to Mousa Dembele in midfield looks like being one of Mauricio Pochettino’s biggest headaches over the coming years, but the emergence of Winks means it may not have to be. The 21-year-old has made 21 appearances this season, averaging 68 passes per 90 minutes – the highest of any Spurs player. He may not possess the brute strength of his Belgian team-mate, but he is a cultured and clever midfielder able to dictate play and set the tempo. Definitely another Spurs youngster to look out for.
7. Demarai Gray (Leicester City)
Several big clubs are believed to be monitoring Gray, who has a £12m release clause (Picture: Getty)
Leicester’s difficulties this season are well documented, with the Foxes 47 points adrift of the league leaders as they hand over their crown. In trying circumstances, though, Gray has looked like a player of real promise. He has made 28 appearances this season, recording three assists (only three Leicester players have more) and often proving to be a real handful off the bench. If rumours of Riyad Mahrez leaving the club are true, Gray is primed to step up and fill the void. If not, he may find better opportunities elsewhere.
6. Rob Holding (Arsenal)
Holding has excelled in Arsenal’s new back three formation (Picture: Getty)
Arsenal haven’t had much to cheer about this season, but the form of Holding as part of the new-look back three at the tail-end of the campaign is a real bright spark. ‘From the potential to becoming a top star is a long way to go, and that is based on motivation, intelligence and desire, but I’m sure that Rob has the positive ingredients for that,’ says Arsene Wenger. ‘He’s good in the air, calm on the ball, has a good reading of the game and I think he’s a very complete centre back who will have a good mixture of being a good defender and also very good on the ball.
5. Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City)
Ndidi won Leicester’s Young Player of the Year award despite only joining in January (Picture: Getty)
Replacing N’Golo Kante is no easy feat, but Ndidi looks very capable of filling such large shoes. The 20-year-old, arguably the most effective signing made this January, has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water, averaging both the most tackles per game (4) and second-most interceptions (2.3) in the Leicester squad. Tough-tackling, energetic and showing real drive on the ball, he may not be at the King Power Stadium for very long if the big boys start taking notice.
4. Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City)
Gabriel Jesus has made a truly stunning start to his Man City career, scoring six times (Picture: Getty)
Seven starts, six goals, three assists: Gabriel Jesus has made a truly breath-taking start to life in England. The Brazilian looks tailor-made for Pep Guardiola’s team, providing a buzz of energy up front, harassing and closing down the opposition. Throw in his smart link up play and predatory eye for goal and it’s no wonder Sergio Aguero is fearing for game time next season. ‘He has a special talent,’ gushes Guardiola. ‘I will always think what would have happened if Gabriel Jesus would have been with us all season.’
3. Tom Davies (Everton)
Davies had made 23 league appearances for Everton this season, thriving under Ronald Koeman (Picture: Getty)
With his rolled-down socks and wind-swept hair, Davies looks like he stepped out of the 1970s – but he plays like a thoroughly modern midfielder. Since making his first start against Southampton in January, a game he recorded an assist in, he has been virtually ever-present for the Toffees and has exuded calmness far beyond his years. The 18-year-old is a tenacious and combative presence and has brought real balance to Everton’s midfield, as well as two goals and three assists.
2. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
Rashford has become utterly integral to United’s end-of-season hopes (Picture: Getty)
Rashford just sneaks in, having made only 12 appearances last season. Last campaign, he was an unlikely saviour for Louis van Gaal in the second half of the campaign. Similarly, he has once again assumed the role of talisman, this time in the absence of injured striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Rashford has all the skills required to be a first-class striker: the movement, the pace, the eye for goal, the composure. There’s even a sliver of bravado. Against Chelsea, he was magnificent as he ran David Luiz & Co. ragged.
1. Leroy Sane (Manchester City)
Sane takes the top spot (Rex/Metro)
Debut seasons in the Premier League do not get much more promising than the one Sane has produced this year. Admittedly, the 21-year-old has a little more experience than many on this list (he’d started 30 Bundesliga games while at Schalke), but he has looked a truly electric talent. Blisteringly quick, intelligent with his run-making and selfless in his approach play, he ousted Nolito from the starting XI about halfway through the season and the Spaniard is now on the lookout for a new club. In truth, Sane should probably have a few more goals than the five he notched this season, but if he continues his development he’ll surely hit double figures next year. A world-class talent in the making.
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