“You can’t win anything with kids”, Alan Hansen remarked after a youthful Manchester United side were beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa on the opening day of the 1995/96 season. The former BBC pundit was proved wrong as the Red Devils went on to win the league title and FA cup despite their squad having an average age of just 26 years. Since that time, only Chelsea have lifted the title with a younger squad on average in 2005.
Clubs have placed more faith in their youngsters in recent seasons following breakthrough success stories such as Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. Teams without the financial power to spend big during transfer windows will rely on their academy and hope to unearth the next break-through superstar.
We take a look at the top ten teenagers based on current ability in the Premier League…
Marcus Rashford – Manchester United
Few people would have recognised the name of Marcus Rashford when he made his senior debut for Manchester United against Midtjylland in the Europa League. The 18-year-old was a late addition to the squad following an injury to Anthony Martial but delighted United fans with two second half goals; making him United’s youngest ever goal scorer in Europe.
Rashford quickly dispelled fears that he could be a one-hit wonder as he started his first Premier League game just three days later against Arsenal. He was named the man of the match as he netted another brace and assisted another in the 3-2 victory which derailed the Gunners’ title bid.
There have been calls for Roy Hodgson to include the youngster in his Euro 2016 squad which has been dismissed by academy director Nicky Butt who believes it would be harmful to his development. Manchester United fans have seen players such as Federico Macheda make an instant impact on their debut but never make the grade when the going got tough. The Red Devils must make sure they don’t make the same mistake with Rashford.
Brendan Galloway – Everton
Everton signed Brendan Galloway from MK Dons for an undisclosed fee in 2014 with the defender signing a five-year contract with the Toffees. With an injury to first choice left back Leighton Baines, Bryan Oviedo still side-lined and Luke Garbett joining Fulham on loan, Brendan Galloway was handed the left-back role for the Blues this season.
Galloway impressed with some assured performances at the back. Although he is naturally a centre-back, Galloway displayed an impressive work-rate and desire to help the side both offensively and defensively. The 19-year-old was rewarded with a new five-year contract in December following his league performances.
With Oviedo and Baines returning to fitness, Galloway has lost his place in the side. The defender admitted that although he is willing to play any position on the pitch, he sees his long-term future in the centre of defence. If he can continue to replicate his early season form, Everton could have a long-term centre-back partner for England team-mate John Stones.
Kelechi Iheanacho – Manchester City
Few players have graduated from Manchester City’s youth academy with Nigerian striker, Kelechi Iheanacho the only youngster to make a break-through for the Citizens. City have restructured their academy but do not expect to produce regular first teamers for at least another three years.
Iheanacho has been a breath of fresh air for Manchester City fans who have grown frustrated with the troubles of £30m signing Wilfried Bony who has failed to adapt to life at City following his big-money move from Swansea. 19-year-old Iheanacho has quickly established himself as one of City’s most promising players, scoring nine goals this season.
The arrival of Pep Guardiola to the Etihad will only aid the teenager’s development. Guardiola has nurtured talents through the youth systems at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. His development of Thiago Alcantara saw the Spanish midfielder follow his manager to Germany. Kingsley Coman is the latest name to be developed under Guardiola’s watch after failing to impress at both Juventus and PSG; he has been one of the Bundesliga’s stand-out performers. Iheanacho can only be encouraged by Guardiola’s arrival who could transform him into one of the league’s deadliest strikers.
Joe Gomez – Liverpool
Former Charlton defender Joe Gomez was not viewed as a first-team regular when he arrived for £3m in the summer. However, following the irregular form of Alberto Moreno, Brendan Rodgers thrust the youngster into action in an unfamiliar left back role. Gomez performed admirably and kept his place for crucial games against the likes of Arsenal.
The 18-year-old’s explosive start to life at Anfield took a turn for the worst in October when the youngster began to take strides in his development. An anterior cruciate ligament injury whilst representing England effectively ended his season. Rodgers was soon replaced with Jurgen Klopp who was quick to assure the defender that he remained a vital part of his long-term plans and to ‘count the days’ until his return to fitness.
Spanish newspaper Marca named Gomez in the best under-18 XI in European football and Gomez will only get better. He has admitted that like Galloway, he sees his future in the heart of defence. “At the moment I just have to learn and be grateful to play where I can and use it as a stepping-stone to be the best centre-back I can be,” said Gomez. Liverpool fans should be excited at the prospect of a world-class centre-back who is extremely level-headed and displays the highest level of professionalism.
Kenedy – Chelsea
One of the few positives in a dismal campaign for Chelsea has been the emergence of Brazilian star Kenedy. Chelsea completed the £6.3m transfer from Fluminense in August 2015 following a brief trial with the club. Remarkably, the striker featured in Jose Mourinho’s plans and was not shipped out on loan to Vitesse Arnhem; which has become Chelsea’s development club with a large number of players moving to Holland to gain first team experience.
He scored his first goal for the club against Walsall in September in the League Cup and also grabbed an assist. Kenedy has been used as make-shift left back this season and was described by Mourinho as a “beautiful young egg”.
Under Gus Hiddink, the Brazilian has been given the chance to kick on and stake his claim for a starting berth at Stamford Bridge alongside the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Bertrand Traore. Kenedy scored his first Premier League goal against Norwich after just 39 seconds – which is the fastest goal of the season so far. Main striker Diego Costa is facing further disciplinary action following his dismissal against Everton meaning Kenedy will have to step up to the plate as Chelsea look for a strong finish to the season.
Reece Oxford – West Ham
West Ham starlet Reece Oxford started his first professional league game back in August against Arsenal at the Emirates. Tasked with the job of keeping Mesut Ozil quiet, few would have expected Oxford to play as well as he did. The 1- year-old kept the German playmaker nestled in his pocket for the entire game with the Hammers picking up a 2-0 win.
Oxford has not started a game since being substituted at half-time against Leicester in the same month but he remains one of the club’s brightest prospects. The youngster has just one year left on his contract and has been linked with a move to Manchester City.
The England under 21 international can play in midfield or defence and has been compared to Rio Ferdinand who also came through West Ham’s prestigious academy. West Ham manager Slaven Bilic was quick to keep a lid on the hype surrounding his young gem after the performance against Arsenal. “He’s definitely going to be a big player. He’s only 16 so he’s going to have ups and downs, but for now, we have to manage him – not only on the pitch but off it too so he stays grounded and can progress. The boy has everything, everything.” If the Hammers can secure Oxford to a new contract, they will have secured one of Europe’s biggest talents and are able to offer him the Olympic Stadium as the perfect location to showcase his skills.
Josh Onomah – Tottenham
English midfielder Josh Onomah is another young prospect currently loving life under Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine has received plaudits for giving youth at a chance at White Hart Lane and his youngsters have fully repaid their manager’s faith.
Onomah was given his first start against Monaco in the Europa League after being introduced to the first team during the final months of last season. The attacking midfielder’s quality is evident and the 18-year-old showcased his finishing ability with a wonderful goal for England U19 against Japan which can be found here.
Although Onomah may not have progressed as quickly as some of Tottenham’s other hot prospects such as Tom Carroll, Eric Dier and Ryan Mason but under Pochettino’s tutelage, he will develop into a quality attacking midfielder. Spurs have been quick to secure the youngster’s future as Onomah put pen to paper on a new four-year-deal in February.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson – Manchester United
Teen defender Cameron Borthwick-Jackson joined the long list of youngsters to appear for Manchester United this season under Louis van Gaal. The Dutch manager has been forced to turn to youth due to injuries to many first teamers this season. The devastating injury that cruelly ended Luke Shaw’s season gave Borthwick-Jackson his chance to impress.
The 19-year-old seized his chance and has proved a useful deputy to Shaw, somewhat justifying the club’s decision to not sign another left-back in the January transfer window. Able to play as a central defender or on the left, Borthwick-Jackson is described as a ball-playing defender; a trait that is becoming more important for defenders in modern day football.
Borthwick-Jackson performed admirably when asked to step up to the plate this season being thrown into games against the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool. Like any young player, mistakes were made against the likes of Diego Costa but the youngster remained cool, calm and collected in extremely difficult circumstances. His performances are likely to be rewarded with a new contract and his development has been one of the few shining lights in another poor season for the Red Devils.
Patrick Roberts – Manchester City
The signing of Fulham youngster Patrick Roberts very much went under the radar in the summer as Manchester City strengthened their squad heavily. The fee understood to be around £12m may have seemed high to some fans as Roberts failed to score during his 22 appearances for the Cottagers. However, stats do not show the potential that the young winger possesses. His path to first-team football at the Etihad was blocked by new signings Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne who cost over £100m collectively.
In order to aid his development, the 18-year-old was loaned to Scottish side Celtic to gain consistent first-team football over the next 18 months. Roberts says that he styles his game on Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and calls the Argentine maestro his idol. “You try to copy what he does and it also comes naturally to me as well. Because I’m left footed I tend to move the same way as he does. My view is that you watch the best to learn from the best.”
Roberts is extremely determined to achieve his dreams and has been described by Sir Trevor Brooking as the player to help England win Euro 2020. The former director of football development at the FA has also criticised City for not giving Roberts a chance to impress for the Citizens this season. If Roberts can impress during his spell with The Hoops, he could become an important player whether it be for Manchester City or another member of Europe’s elite.
Dele Alli – Tottenham
Rumours suggested that former MK Dons midfielder Dele Alli would leave Tottenham on loan again in the summer. The midfielder refuted these reports and vowed to win his place in the side. Since then, the England international has been instrumental in Tottenham’s title bid and is now one of the favourites for the Player of the Season award.
Pochettino’s £5m signing is currently the most experienced player born in 1996 or later in Europe’s top five leagues. The CIES Football Observatory compiled a list of player who had made the most league appearances with Alli’s 102 games for both MK Dons and Spurs topping the list. There have been few starts to Premier League life more impressive than Alli’s; registering seven goals and eight assists from midfield.
His performances have made him favourite for both the PFA Player and Young Player of the Season. He is also set to play a vital role in England’s Euro 2016 campaign after he netted on his debut for the national team. Alli also remains a contender for goal of the season for his magnificent strike against Crystal Palace which can be found here. Reports have linked both Real Madrid and Barcelona with the teenage sensation who has the potential to be one of the best midfielders in the world.