21 under 21: Most exciting youngsters to watch in 2021

Over the next 12 months, a fresh crop of footballers will establish themselves atop the men’s game. Here, playsarea takes a look at some talented youngsters – aged 21 and under – who are set to flourish in 2021, while deliberately excluding those who made our lists for 2019 and 2020.

Thiago Almada

Club: Velez Sarsfield | Age: 19 | Position: Winger, attacking midfielder

Velez Sarsfield’s Copa Sudamericana hunt is still alive, and much of that is down to Almada’s efforts. The agile Argentine attacker assisted one and scored the other as they progressed from the first round, and he then scored twice in the last-16 before injury cut short his quarterfinal involvement. He can switch direction in an instant.

Mitchel Bakker

Aurelien Meunier – PSG / PSG / Getty

Club: Paris Saint-Germain | Age: 20 | Position: Left-back

Juan Bernat faces a fight for the left-back spot when he overcomes his cruciate ligament injury. Bakker hasn’t been cowed by his premature promotion to the Paris Saint-Germain XI, as he neatly combines his imposing physicality (6-foot-1) with attacking quality (a dangerous left-footed delivery).

Jude Bellingham

Club: Borussia Dortmund | Age: 17 | Position: Midfielder

Many European giants tried to tempt Bellingham from Birmingham City during his time in the academy, but he and his family decided staying put was best for his development. Now, after becoming the youngest debutant and goalscorer in the Blues’ history, he’s already making an impression at Dortmund following his July transfer.

Moises Caicedo

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Club: Independiente del Valle | Age: 19 | Position: Midfielder

Ecuador hasn’t been great at producing deep-lying midfielders over the years, but Caicedo looks set to redefine the country’s footballing identity. His skill and composure allow him to wriggle away from opponents, and he always tries to progress play up the pitch. Manchester United are apparently interested.

Rayan Cherki

Club: Lyon | Age: 17 | Position: Attacking midfielder

Cherki’s workload has been carefully managed since his breakout performance in the Coupe de France last January, as he’s started only three matches in the 2020-21 Ligue 1 season. His outrageous street skills, willingness to take on players, and vision make him a joy to watch.

Sergino Dest

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Club: Barcelona | Age: 20 | Position: Right-back

Signing a right-back was a priority for Barcelona last summer and, after entertaining a move for Max Aarons, they opted to dish out €21 million for Dest. The American international is settling well in Catalonia after progressing through Ajax’s ranks. He’s a great two-way full-back and a general improvement on Nelson Semedo.

Harvey Elliott

Club: Liverpool | Age: 17 | Position: Winger

With little chance of usurping Mohamed Salah or finding an alternative place in Liverpool’s attack, right-winger Elliott has been granted regular minutes during a loan spell at Blackburn Rovers. He’s among the Championship’s best for key passes and has directly contributed to 10 goals so far.

Wesley Fofana

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Club: Leicester City | Age: 20 | Position: Defender

Fofana’s transition into English football has been seamless, as he’s contributed to seven clean sheets across all competitions. His reading of the game is phenomenal for a defender of his tender years, and he’s much more assured in possession than long-term Leicester absentee Caglar Soyuncu.

Marc Guehi

Club: Chelsea | Age: 20 | Position: Defender

Guehi has legitimate hopes of following Reece James into Chelsea’s starting XI next season. The center-back is on his second loan spell with Swansea City, where he’s garnering attention for his incisive distribution, athleticism, and leadership. He could be Thiago Silva’s natural successor.

Reece James

Chris Lee – Chelsea FC / Chelsea FC / Getty

Club: Chelsea | Age: 21 | Position: Right-back

James’ reputation continues to grow since breaking into the Chelsea lineup following a season-long loan with Wigan Athletic in 2018-19. His crossing is pinpoint, he has a venomous shot, and he doesn’t have any clear weaknesses to his defensive game. He’s already one of the Premier League’s finest right-backs.

Curtis Jones

Club: Liverpool | Age: 19 | Position: Midfielder

Jones is turning into a key player for Jurgen Klopp and could be a wise pick for Gareth Southgate’s England squad at this summer’s European Championship. The Liverpool product can create and kibosh attacks in midfield with equal success and is seemingly primed for stardom.

Sekou Koita

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Club: Red Bull Salzburg | Age: 21 | Position: Forward

Left-footed Malian marksman Koita is yet another player plotting a rise to the top of the game via Red Bull Salzburg. The 21-year-old has netted 10 times despite starting only five matches in the 2020-21 Austrian Bundesliga term and has a knack for catching out goalkeepers by taking his shots early.

Tariq Lamptey

Club: Brighton & Hove Albion | Age: 20 | Position: Right-back

Lamptey didn’t see enough openings at Chelsea while he was behind James and Cesar Azpilicueta in the pecking order, so he completed a transfer to Brighton last January. The diminutive right-back is arguably the Seagulls’ most prized asset, as his tireless attacking and combative style consistently light up matches.

Youssoufa Moukoko

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Club: Borussia Dortmund | Age: 16 | Position: Forward

Moukoko became the youngest goalscorer in Bundesliga history at 16 years and 28 days when he latched onto Raphael Guerreiro’s through-ball and rifled an unstoppable effort into the roof of the net against Union Berlin in December. It was a fitting way for the Cameroon-born phenom to open his account.

Michael Olise

Club: Reading | Age: 19 | Position: Midfielder

Olise’s current productivity may not last the season – he’s scored four and assisted eight – but the French teen is already one of the Championship’s most creative players. He’s destined to be another EFL-schooled star to graduate to the top flight, following the likes of Jarrod Bowen and Eberechi Eze.

Pedri

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Club: Barcelona | Age: 18 | Position: Attacking midfielder

Pedri’s twinkle-toed footwork has been a welcome highlight of a largely miserable campaign for Barcelona. He’s second to Valencia’s Yunus Musah for 2020-21 La Liga minutes tallied by a player born in 2000 or later and is forging a promising on-pitch partnership with Lionel Messi.

Giovanni Reyna

Club: Borussia Dortmund | Age: 18 | Position: Attacking midfielder

As a son of two former U.S. internationals, Reyna was probably a waste of the school guidance counselor’s time. Soccer is in his blood. His fidgety movement and ability to ride opposition lunges make him one of the most slippery attackers in Europe, and his vision and weight of pass are reminiscent of his father, Claudio.

Perr Schuurs

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Club: Ajax | Age: 21 | Position: Defender

Liverpool are reportedly among the clubs most interested in acquiring Schuurs from Ajax. He twice performed well against the Reds’ vaunted attack in the Champions League group stage and has consistently shown similarities to fellow Ajax academy alumnus Matthijs de Ligt.

Ferran Torres

Club: Manchester City | Age: 20 | Position: Winger, forward

Torres rarely ventured too far from the right flank with Valencia, but he’s already cropped up in various positions at Manchester City – including as a striker – and has impressed. His tactical intelligence, work rate, and vision are ingredients Pep Guardiola can use to turn Torres into a world-class operator.

Florian Wirtz

WOLFGANG RATTAY / AFP / Getty

Club: Bayer Leverkusen | Age: 17 | Position: Midfielder

Kai Havertz, Julian Brandt, and Benjamin Henrichs all played in the Champions League as youngsters at Leverkusen, and considering the club’s current domestic performance, Wirtz could soon follow suit. He can fulfill a range of midfield roles, his dribbling can be hypnotic, and he’s blessed with sublime creativity.

Joshua Zirkzee

Club: Bayern Munich | Age: 19 | Position: Forward

Zirkzee started getting game time at Bayern in 2019 and has arguably the game’s finest tutor in Robert Lewandowski. “He’s the kind of player who is highly sought-after: a powerful striker who keeps his cool and doesn’t let himself be caught out,” the club’s academy boss, Holger Seitz, said when Zirkzee reached the senior ranks.

Honorable mentions: Riccardo Calafiori (Roma), Billy Gilmour (Chelsea) Yunus Musah (Valencia), Jamal Musiala (Bayern Munich), Pedro Neto (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka (both Arsenal)