The best young footballers to watch in 2021

A Liverpool kid nicknamed ‘Philipp Lahm’, the latest midfield maestro off the Chelsea conveyor belt and a player branded the ‘best 16-year-old in England’… meet the exciting young talent set to break through in 2021

  • The new year is set to bring a host of football talent onto the radar of many fans 
  • Liverpool have a starlet in their ranks who is likened to legendary Philip Lahm
  • Borussia Dortmund believe they have got the next Jadon Sancho from Man City
  • One raw talent has already been hailed as ‘the best 16-year-old in England’ 

A new year means there will be some new names hoping to become more familiar ones over the next 12 months. 

Sportsmail takes a look at 13 youngsters you might be hearing more about in 2021.

Mikel Arteta has not been afraid to give Arsenal’s youngsters game time and Azeez is one expected to receive more in 2021. 

He has worked his way to the fringes in 2020, making the bench in the Europa League and being handed his debut against Dundalk in December. Important figures in Arsenal’s setup are convinced the England youth international has a big future at the club. He certainly has all the attributes. 

Comfortable on the ball, combative, technically impressive, with a good shot from distance. Azeez has the discipline to perform as a holding midfielder who recycles possession and keeps things ticking over but there is a sense that he has more in his locker, with his ability to break forward from midfield and contribute higher up the pitch too. 

Azeez will be one of a number of players coming through at Arsenal to keep an eye on with goalkeeper Karl Hein, midfielder Charlie Patino and winger Kido Taylor-Hart among others who are making an impression.

Arsenal midfielder Miguel Azeez certainly has all the attributes to become a top player 

Lewis BATE (Chelsea) – Midfielder – 18

Chelsea are not short of central midfielders and they now have another poised to roll off the Cobham conveyor belt in Bate. 

A short clip, from Chelsea U23s’ recent 6-1 hammering of Manchester United, showcased some of Bate’s best qualities. 

In a few seconds he defied the odds and three United challengers to retain possession and set up an attack. Bate burst away from his first opponent, threw himself wholeheartedly into a 50-50 he won, skipped away from another incoming challenger with a brilliant bit of skill before moving the ball on. 

In Lewis Bate, Chelsea have another starlet poised to roll off the Cobham conveyor belt

Bate’s awareness, balance, bravery, quick feet and composure under pressure were all on display. Add to that his eye-catching short and long passing range, ball-carrying ability and tenacity and it’s no wonder this midfield conductor has caught Frank Lampard’s eye, making the bench in the Premier League and Champions League last season. 

His team-mate Tino Livramento is another one to watch while the likes of Jude Soonsup-Bell, Harvey Vale and Charlie Webster are also highly thought of in Chelsea’s academy and will be arriving behind Bate and Livramento in years to come.

Jamie BYNOE-GITTENS (Dortmund) – Winger – 16

Borussia Dortmund have done it again – spotted an opportunity to lure one of Manchester City’s brightest young players to Germany and pulled it off. 

After Jadon Sancho in 2017, winger Bynoe-Gittens made the same move in September and Dortmund’s expectations are just as high.

Bynoe-Gittens is a player who loves to dribble and is excellent in one v one battles. When he gets the ball there is one thought on the skilful wideman’s mind – to instantly face up his opponent, take them on and beat them. 

The 16-year-old has vast potential and Dortmund believe he can emulate Sancho’s success

City received around £200,000 compensation for Bynoe-Gittens and while that is a source of frustration for them it looks set to be a steal for Dortmund with the youngster having the potential to be a world-class winger. 

Due to his delayed arrival, Bynoe-Gittens has featured for Dortmund’s Under 19s and been working hard to build up his fitness since moving over in the summer ahead of his eventual elevation to Dortmund’s first-team set-up, where he will join the likes of Sancho and former Birmingham starlet Jude Bellingham. 

That promotion is not far away. There is a good chance Bynoe-Gittens could get the opportunity to start staking his claim in first-team training this season but, if not, he is earmarked to be with Dortmund’s seniors by next term.

Carney CHUKWUEMEKA (Aston Villa) – Midfielder – 16

Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow increased the spotlight on Chukwuemeka last year when he said the midfielder is ‘probably the best 16 year-old in England. Absolutely no debate, he’s starting for the Under 23s.’

Little has changed in terms of how highly thought of Chukwuemeka is at Villa with the now-17 year-old considered one of their best young hopes along with Aaron Ramsey, younger brother of Jacob Ramsey who was handed his first Premier League start for Villa this season.

Carney Chukwuemeka (seen in action for England, right) has big things expected of him

Chukwuemeka has been featuring for Villa’s Under 23s since he was 16, was involved with Dean Smith’s first team in pre-season and has been wanted by nearly all of the Premier League’s top clubs and represented England at youth level.

With the change in transfer regulations for Under 18s about to change post-Brexit, gifted box-to-box midfielder Chukwuemeka is expected to be a player in even greater demand though Villa have the security of having tied their starlet down on a new contract in October.

Leighton CLARKSON (Liverpool) – Midfielder – 19

Jurgen Klopp did not really want to but could not help letting slip that Clarkson has earned the nickname Philipp Lahm inside of Liverpool.

A similar height to Germany’s World Cup-winning captain, around 5ft 7in, Clarkson also has a great tactical understanding of the game with the technical ability to match, both hallmarks of the versatile Lahm’s game.

A classy mover who glides around the pitch, Clarkson, primarily a deeper-lying midfielder, possesses a wide range of passing and has already earned the respect of his senior Liverpool team-mates because his quality is clear.

Leighton Clarkson has been compared with Bayern Munich and Germany legend Philipp Lahm 

In fact, some at Anfield and beyond consider Clarkson already at the required tactical and technical level… it’s now just about the experience.

Has featured three times for the first team including a Champions League debut last month and it is now about what next.

For the time being, Liverpool want to keep him in and around the fold rather than loan Clarkson out and he could follow a similar development path to Curtis Jones, being kept involved and drip-fed minutes. If the injury issues Liverpool have had in central midfield persist though Clarkson could benefit sooner rather than later.

Jacob GREAVES (Hull) – Defender – 20

The son of club legend Mark Greaves is following in his dad’s footsteps and making a name for himself with Hull. 

Centre-back Greaves got his first taste of senior football during a successful loan spell at Cheltenham in League Two last season and has continued to develop since returning to Hull, featuring regularly in League One. 

Jacob Greaves is looking to follow in the footsteps of his father, Hull City club legend Mark

Brave, aggressive, calm on the ball and effective in both boxes, Greaves has been likened to England and Brighton defender Lewis Dunk and Hull’s view on him can be seen from the two new long-term contracts they have handed him in the last 18 months. 

With Hull well in the promotion hunt there is a good chance Greaves, who they already value in the £500,000-£1m bracket, could be playing in the Championship next season. 

However with Premier League clubs also interested he could be one on the move during 2021.

Romeo LAVIA (Manchester City) – Midfielder – 16

Lavia arrived at Manchester City in the summer and has made such an impression he is already being considered for a permanent promotion to their Under 23s when he was expected to remain in their Under 18s for the season.

The tenacious holding midfielder with the eye-catching passing ability has already played for City’s second string and been a standout performer in their EFL Trophy ties against Lincoln and Tranmere, again against significantly older opponents. Lavia is viewed by some as the best prospect in his position coming through at City.

Romeo Lavia is being considered for the first team despite only arriving at City this summer

Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea were among those also keen to sign the Belgian youth international. But after impressing for winners Anderlecht at Kevin De Bruyne’s increasingly prestigious youth tournament in 2018, in front of the man himself and his manager Pep Guardiola, City made Lavia an offer that he considered too good to turn down. 

Fernandinho is one player Brussels-born Lavia looks up to but his Anderlecht background and ability to play in central midfield and in defence has earned him comparisons with Vincent Kompany. 

Time will tell if Lavia can hit those heights but what is not in doubt is his potential and that City have one of Europe’s brightest young talents coming through their ranks. Winger Sam Edozie and defender Luke Mbete are worth keeping an eye on too.

Teden MENGI (Manchester United) – Defender – 19

Of all the prospects coming through at Manchester United, Mengi is the one widely expected to be next to make a big breakthrough. 

The Manchester-born centre-back has had a little taste, making his debut last season against LASK in the Europa League and his upward curve should continue in 2021. 

England Under-19 defender Mengi is loved at Manchester United and, in keeping with his progress throughout his time at the club, edged his way into the first-team set-up ahead of schedule. Mengi made a big impression when included in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first-team group ahead of Project Restart and has continued to train and travel with the seniors and made the bench numerous times. 

Defender Teden Mengi is highly regarded at United and has the composure to play in midfield

At one stage United’s Under-23s captain Mengi was being considered for the holding midfield role due to his comfort on the ball, passing range and vision. However, his nose for defensive danger combined with his speed and athleticism have seen him settle at centre-back, though it is not unusual to see him burst out of defence and go on marauding runs with the ball. 

Those qualities will eventually be being showcased in United’s first team. Winger Anthony Elanga is another highly-thought of young talent.

Andrew OMOBAMIDELE (Norwich) – Defender – 18

Norwich have a good record of producing defenders in recent years and in Omobamidele have another with real promise. So much, in fact, that they tied the Ireland Under-19 centre-back down on a new contract until 2024 this month to ensure they have his future all secured. 

Omobamidele, rated highly by the club’s youth staff, joined Norwich aged 16 from Irish side Leixlip United and has already shown he is a fast learner, debuting for their under-23s aged just 17. 

Norwich feel Andrew Omobamidele is their latest defensive prodigy coming through

Now he is on the brink of first-team recognition and just waiting for his opportunity to arise having been a regular on Daniel Farke’s bench since November. 

Technically strong, a good reader of the game, quick and a good one-on-one defender who distributes the ball well from the back, Omobamidele idolises Virgil Van Dijk but has earned comparisons with a young Rio Ferdinand. 

Norwich’s former Arsenal winger Josh Martin, who broke into Farke’s plans at the end of last season, is another one to watch at Carrow Road.

Rico RICHARDS (West Brom) – Forward – 17

Survival is West Brom’s priority under new boss Sam Allardyce but they also have some youth team talents they are keen to develop too, not least exciting forward Richards.

Richards has been at West Brom since he was seven after they snapped him up from under the noses of rivals Birmingham and he has progressed all the way through their ranks.

Rico Richards was taken quickly from Birmingham after the Baggies saw his vast potential

The buzz around the England Under-20 forward has continued to grow since he began training with the first team under former boss Slaven Bilic, made the bench in the FA Cup last season while still a schoolboy and then scored a hat-trick against Manchester United’s Under 18s last month.

He has continued to train with the first team this season while playing well above his age, most recently with the Under 23s.

The Baggies consider Richards, who can play wide, up front or as a No 10, a special talent and have ensured they have his future all sorted by tying him down on a new three-year contract in August.

Dane SCARLETT (Tottenham) – Striker – 16

You need to have something special in Jose Mourinho’s eyes just to train with him, never mind play. And even more so aged just 16. 

That is an indication of the talent Scarlett possesses which earned him an elevation to Tottenham’s first-team plans in pre-season and then a historic debut last month against Ludogorets when he became their youngest-ever player. 

Scarlett, one of the most promising strikers coming through in England, is an old-fashioned, throwback of a forward. 

He has little interest in nutmegs and step-overs, just an insatiable appetite for goals and a refreshing, burning desire to put the ball in the net, however it goes in. Thirteen goals in 10 Under-18 games and one in one at Under-23 level – a determined diving header past Petr Cech no less – underlines that. 

Dane Scarlett has impressed Tottenham with his hunger to score goals and desire to succeed

Scarlett has also impressed Spurs with his mentality and attitude, in the way he responded to knee and ankle injuries in the last year or so, knuckling down to ensure he remained on track when others’ progress might have stalled. 

There is also a belief that those spells on the sidelines have helped him mature, will only increase his hunger to succeed and, in the long run, could serve him well as a learning experience. 

As his record-breaking debut suggests, Spurs believe Scarlett is indeed one of their most special talents along with midfielder Alfie Devine. Also keep an eye out for another midfielder coming through in Jamie Bowden.

Dejan TETEK (Reading) – Midfielder – 18

There are a couple of reasonable indicators of Tetek’s potential. The admiring glances he has earned from Premier League clubs including Chelsea and Arsenal before he has started a league game for Reading is one. 

So too is the tug-of-war for him between Serbia and England. Oxford-born with a Serbian mum, Tetek qualifies for both countries and has been involved with England at youth level. But his club manager Veljko Paunovic may have done his country a favour by alerting them to the midfield prospect coming through the Reading ranks and for now Tetek is involved with Serbia’s Under 19s. 

Premier League clubs are already sniffing around Reading midfielder Dejan Tetek (right)

With good reason, there is considerable excitement going into 2021 about Tetek, a central midfielder who can do it all – as capable sitting as breaking forward and so comfortable on either foot it’s hard to tell if his better one is his left or right. Set pieces are taken with both. 

Tetek made his league debut as a late sub against Watford in October and has featured regularly on the bench. Should see more of him next year and why clubs and countries are paying attention.

Kaide Gordon (Derby) – Winger – 16

Wayne Rooney knows a thing or two about what it takes to be first-team ready at 16 so his selection of Gordon is some endorsement. Rooney called Gordon up for the first time for Derby’s final game of 2020 and his late sub appearance against Birmingham made him the Rams’ fourth youngest player ever. 

Rooney said: ‘I brought Kaide up with the first team initially to train with us for a week to see how he reacted to it, and he was one of the best trainers. I kept him with us and he has been training at the same level, if not better, as the others.’

A quick and skilful forward, with balance, an eye for a pass and who loves to drive at and commit defenders, grounded Gordon’s attitude and work-rate have also caught the eye. 

At just 16 Kaide Gordon is starting to make a name for himself under Wayne Rooney at Derby

Gordon’s older brother Kellan, once of Derby but now at Mansfield, is a model professional type he has learned good habits from. Seeing that work ethic first-hand has only encouraged England Under-16 attacker Gordon to push himself and the extra work the pair put in together during lockdown together paid off when the younger sibling returned to Derby flying, his fast-tracking underlining the Rams’ belief they have a special talent on their hands. 

Gordon has been at Derby since he was nine, played for their Under 18s aged just 15, won their academy player of the year award last season and is rated as one of the most exciting 16-year-olds in the country. Almost inevitably the vultures, including Liverpool and Manchester United, are circling. The praise and attention looks all set to keep on coming in 2021.

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