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At the start of the year, we at Football Whispers decided to put our neck on the line and choose 20 young players we expected big things from in the 12 months ahead.
Our criteria for selection was fairly simple. The player had to be 21 years old or younger and could not be established at one of Europe's top clubs. So there was no room for the likes of Jadon Sancho and Kylian Mbappé.
We profiled each player included in the 20-strong list in-depth and have tracked their progress over the past 12 months. And while we are pleased with the majority of our choices, there were a couple of youngsters who haven't hit the heights we anticipated… yet.
So before 2019 becomes 2020, we thought we'd take a look back on the year the Football Whispers‘ 20 youngsters to watch have had. Let's start with a success story…
- 1 Nicolò Zaniolo – AS Roma
- 2 Ferran Torres – Valencia
- 3 Rafael Leão – Milan
- 4 Callum Hudson-Odoi – Chelsea
- 5 Dodi Lukebakio – Hertha
- 6 Federico Dimarco – Inter
- 7 Jules Koundé – Sevilla
- 8 Kai Havertz – Bayer Leverkusen
- 9 Jean-Clair Todibo – Barcelona
- 10 Alphonso Davies – Bayern Munich
- 11 Mason Greenwood – Manchester United
- 12 Musa Barrow – Atalanta
- 13 Luka Jović – Real Madrid
- 14 Ozan Kabak – Schalke
- 15 Vinícius Júnior – Real Madrid
- 16 Morgan Gibbs-White – Wolverhampton Wanderers
- 17 Phil Foden – Manchester City
- 18 Rodrygo Goes – Real Madrid
- 19 Riqui Puig – Barcelona
- 20 Tahith Chong – Manchester United
Nicolò Zaniolo – AS Roma
When we profiled the young Italian, he had only made 16 appearances for the Serie A side. He'd shown plenty of promise – and scored a wonder goal – in those matches but had plenty to prove.
It's safe to say Zaniolo has done that over the course of 2019. He's established himself as Roma‘s new poster boy, an Italian international and has attracted interest from several top European sides.
This season Zaniolo has struck five goals, one fewer than his entire total for 2018/19, and has earned comparisons to club legend Francesco Totti. Expect even greater things in 2020.
Ferran Torres – Valencia
Valencia‘s latest homegrown star. Torres has cemented his place in the starting XI this term and has quickly impressed. So much so, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United have been linked with the 18-year-old.
When we profiled the youngster, he had made more than 30 appearances for the senior side but many of those were short cameos from the bench. As a result, Torres had mustered just two assists.
Since the turn of the year, however, he has netted six goals in all competitions and nailed down his spot on the right of Valencia's 4-4-2 shape.
His current contract contains a €100million release clause which would put off any potential buyer. But with that deal expiring in 2021, Los Che could be forced to cash in next summer. Either way, it's only a matter of time until Torres moves onto something bigger.
Rafael Leão – Milan
At the start of 2019, the Portuguese striker was in impressive form for Lille and, alongside Nicolas Pépé and Jonathan Bamba, made up one of Ligue 1's most feared strike-forces.
The trio fired Lille to second in the French top flight and it was inevitable that one, if not all, would depart Les Dogues. Pépé made a high-profile move to Arsenal and it wasn't until late into the transfer window that Leão signed for Italian giants Milan for £23.6million. Bamba stayed put.
The 20-year-old forward has spent much of his early months at San Siro on the substitutes' bench but after several impressive cameos, there have been calls for Stefano Pioli to start the youngster ahead of Krzysztof Piątek.
And if Leão is given a sustained run in the side, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him establish himself as Milan's first-choice striker.
Callum Hudson-Odoi – Chelsea
At the start of 2019 it looked likely the 18-year-old winger would leave Chelsea for Bayern Munich. His first-team football had been rationed by Maurizio Sarri and, with only 18 months left on his contract, the German club hoped to complete a deal worth £40million.
Chelsea stood firm and kept Hudson-Odoi. Sarri then started to use the youngster – who made his England debut in March – more frequently and all was well until he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in April which ended his season.
While injured, Frank Lampard took charge at Stamford Bridge and promoted several of the club's young players. That convinced Hudson-Odoi to sign a new five-year contract and he returned in September and made an immediate impact, assisting or scoring in his first five matches.
Dodi Lukebakio – Hertha
The Belgian started the year on loan at Fortuna Düsseldorf from Watford but, after a number of impressive displays in the Bundesliga, attracted the attention of Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
He ended the 2018/19 campaign with 14 goals and five assists in all competitions and it was clear his future lay away from Vicarage Road.
It was Hertha who won the race to sign the Belgian Under-21 international, paying a club-record €20million.
The German side have endured a disappointing season but Lukebakio has seven goal involvements (three goals, four assists) in 12 Bundesliga games. If Hertha are to move away from the drop zone, Lukebakio will no doubt play a key role.
Federico Dimarco – Inter
This one we got wrong. The full-back started the year injured and didn't return to action for loan club Parma until March.
Dimarco did feature in nine of I Crociati's final 12 Serie A matches – at left-back and at left midfield – then returned to parent club Inter in the summer. Under Antonio Conte, he's barely been given minutes this term.
Ahead of Dimarco in the pecking order for the left wing-back role are Kwadwo Asamoah and Fiorentina loanee Cristiano Biraghi. The former Italy Under-21 international has played just seven minutes.
A January exit is likely. Perhaps Dimarco can then live up to his potential elsehwhere.
Jules Koundé – Sevilla
It's been quite the year for the young French defender. He started 2019 as a fixture in the Bordeaux defence and his long raking passes forward and defensive nous quickly caught the eye of bigger clubs.
Koundé would finish the 2018/19 campaign, his first as a regular, having made 51 appearances in all competitions. He wouldn't feature again for the Ligue 1 side as, in July, Sevilla paid a club-record €25million to sign the then 20-year-old.
Given time to adapt to a new country and style of football, Koundé was eased into the Sevilla team. But he was brought into the starting XI at the end of October and hasn't relinquished his place.
He may be small for a centre-back – only 5ft 11ins – but the 21-year-old's ability in possession and his reading of the game ensure that isn't a problem. He is readymade for a top side, it's only a matter of time until he joins one.
Kai Havertz – Bayer Leverkusen
OK, so this one was almost a dead cert. Havertz was already on the path to stardom at the start of the year and the last 12 months have only enhanced his reputation.
He is now Bayer Leverkusen's star man; a goalscorer and creator in equal measure. Europe's biggest sides are circling and it's almost inevitable he departs in the summer of 2020.
“I'm confident that I can go abroad at any moment and play at clubs outside of Germany,” he told Marca in November. “For the moment, I want to have a good season. Afterward, we'll see.”
The clubs interested? Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Real Madrid. Poor kid.
Jean-Clair Todibo – Barcelona
We felt quite smug about Todibo's inclusion in January when Barcelona opted to bring the defender to the Camp Nou six months earlier than planned.
The centre-back had a pre-contract agreement with the Catalan giants to join the club in the summer but, with injuries in defence, Barça paid a nominal fee to Toulouse to bring forward Todibo's transfer.
But that was as good as it got for the defender in 2019. He has made just four appearances for the Barcelona first-team and has been omitted from the match-day squad far more than he's been included.
The LaLiga champions are prepared to sell Todibo in January and it's time he gets his promising career back on track.
Alphonso Davies – Bayern Munich
The Canadian star arrived at the German giants in January having agreed a move from Major League Soccer side Vancouver Whitecaps a little over seven months earlier.
Plenty was expected of the exciting winger but Niko Kovač opted to ease him in. Davies made six substitute appearances during the second half of the 2018/19 campaign.
But with club legends Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry departing in the summer, Davies was expected to be given a more prominent role this season.
And that's been the case, although not in the position many expected. He has made 13 appearances and 11 have come at left-back. He has adapted to the role well and 2020 may see the 19-year-old blossom into one of Europe's most exciting full-backs. Time will tell.
Mason Greenwood – Manchester United
The young striker had yet to make a first-team appearance for the Red Devils when we profiled him in January, Now he has 23 first-team appearances to his name and six goals.
To those who watched him at youth level, it's little surprise Greenwood has made the step up to senior football appear easy. He is now United's third-choice striker and has only failed to make a matchday squad on two occasions this season.
Over the next six months, expect Greenwood to battle Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial for the No.9 role at United. He is that good and has the trust of Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Musa Barrow – Atalanta
Sadly, we shall have to put the young forward in the misses column. Barrow has only featured sporadically for the Serie A side over the past year, with Duván Zapata, Papu Gómez and Josip Iličić established as Gian Piero Gasperini's front three.
This season the 21-year-old has made just the one start and only six appearances in total. It's little surprise he has been linked with a move away from Atalanta in January.
Parma have been mooted as a potential destination and such a switch would, one would hope, ensure Barrow gains the first-team minutes he has lacked over the past 12 months.
Luka Jović – Real Madrid
It would have been difficult to find a player who enjoyed a better first half of 2019 than Jović.
His goals helped Eintracht Frankfurt reach the Europa League semi-finals, where they were knocked out by Chelsea on penalties, while in the Bundesliga he finished third to Robert Lewandowski and Paco Alcácer in the scoring charts.
His haul of 27 strikes in all competitions convinced Real Madrid to pay an initial €65million to bring him to the Bernabéu. And that is the point at which Jović's 2019 tailed off.
He has scored just once for Real and has not started a game since mid-October. There has even been talk he could leave on loan in January, which may be a wise move with Serbia's Euro 2020 playoff against Norway to be sharp for.
Ozan Kabak – Schalke
It's certainly been an interesting 12 months for the young Turkish defender. He started the year at Galatasaray but departed in mid-January for Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart.
He went straight into a struggling side and his composed displays immediately drew attention from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. And when Stuttgart were relegated, a €15million release clause in his contract became active.
Schalke moved quickly to sign the 19-year-old but a foot injury saw him miss the opening games of the season. However, Kabak was brought into the starting XI at the start of November and scored in back-to-back games against Augsburg and Fortune Düsseldorf.
He has kept his place since and ensured David Wagner's side continue their unlikely push for, at the very least, a Champions League finish this term.
Vinícius Júnior – Real Madrid
Perhaps the exception to our rule as the Brazilian had started to impress in the Real Madrid side before 2018 became 2019. But Vinícius wasn't a bonafide star. He is now.
Yet that isn't because he has become a breakout first-team player at the Bernabéu. Far from it in fact. A knee ligament injury suffered in March curtailed his 2018/19 campaign and he has struggled to break into the starting XI under Zinedine Zidane this term.
But being the poster boy for FIFA20's Volta mode gave Vinícius a worldwide profile, one that he has the talent to match. If Real Madrid aren't prepared to give him first-team football and a number of other clubs will.
PSG have hinted they would want him included as part of any deal for Mbappé next summer.
Morgan Gibbs-White – Wolverhampton Wanderers
In truth we expected the midfielder to have established himself as a regular for Wolves by this point. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened for the 19-year-old.
He has started just three Premier League games this calendar year and missed two months of football between October and December due to a back injury.
Gibbs-White is back involved in the Wolves match-day squad but remains behind Rúben Neves and João Moutinho. The latter is 33 years old, though, so first-team opportunities should be there for the England Under-21 international in the future.
Perhaps we just went a year early with our selection.
Phil Foden – Manchester City
At the start of the year we wrote the following:
Playing time has been hard to come by for Foden in the senior ranks at the Etihad, where City boast one of the most expensive and talent-rich squads ever assembled.
Sadly, not much has changed. Foden has started just three Premier League games this year despite being regularly involved in Pep Guardiola's match-day squad and featuring sporadically in the Champions League.
But something must change. That may be a loan move in January. If not the 19-year-old will need to be given more outings by the Manchester City boss. He is too talented to sit on the bench.
Rodrygo Goes – Real Madrid
It's not always easy for a player to match the hype, and the Brazilian youngster had a whole year of expectation to live up to when he arrived at Real Madrid this summer.
The then 17-year-old's €40million move to the Bernabéu had been agreed in June 2018 after a series of dazzling displays for Santos, for whom he made almost 50 senior appearances before departing.
A hamstring injury delayed his involvement for Real's first team but, when handed his debut, he made an immediate impact – and we mean that very literally.
Rodrygo scored just 93 seconds after being brought on against Osasuna in September. From then on he has been a regular start and scored a hat-trick in the Champions League against Galatasary. Comparisons to Neymar are deserved.
Riqui Puig – Barcelona
The Barcelona midfielder has endured a disappointing year. Lauded as one of La Masia's great exports, Puig has struggled to break into the first team under Ernesto Valverde.
There were two starts at the end of the 2018/19 campaign but the 20-year-old has spent much of the year turning out for Barcelona B in the Segunda División B.
A potential loan move in January has been mooted but Puig appears happy to bide his time at the Camp Nou. He told Mundo Deportivo last month: “My references have been Xavi and Iniesta. They were patient to have the opportunity and I have to be like them.”
Tahith Chong – Manchester United
After Chong made his debut for United in January’s 2-0 FA Cup third-round victory over Reading, we expected the winger to establish himself in Solskjær's first-team squad.
It hasn't happened. The 20-year-old has only made eight further appearances and just three of those have been starts. And, if recent reports are to be believed, time may be running out for the Premier League side to reap the benefit of Chong's talents.
Juventus are interested in the Dutchman and want to sign him to a pre-contract in January when his United deal will only have six months left to run.