Tactical Insights

Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG & Man Utd wonderkids all in the mix

Back in December, Real Madrid superstar Jude Bellingham claimed the Tuttosport’s prestigious Golden Boy award for the best player under the age of 21 across Europe’s big leagues.

Bellingham followed in the footsteps of the likes of Gavi, Pedri and Erling Haaland, while further back we saw era-defining greats such as Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero pick up the Golden Boy award when they were first breaking through.

But who will win it this year? We’ve put together our power rankings featuring 10 contenders to win the Golden Boy award in 2024, in order of least to most likely.

10. Evan Ferguson

When Bellingham claimed the award back in December, you’d have said that Ferguson looked a genuine contender to succeed him.

The Republic of Ireland international was being talked up as the Premier League’s next £100million transfer and his outrageously clinical hat-trick against Newcastle was still fresh in the memory.

But he’s now failed to score in his last 21 appearances for Brighton, a run that stretches back to November, and an ankle problem now leaves him sidelined until 2024-25.

Ferguson’s chances of winning the award look slimmer by the week, but it’s not impossible he makes a late challenge if he can get back to his best in the first half of next season.

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9. Arda Guler

“I will say three names,” Bellingham responded when asked for his picks on who might succeed him in picking up the Golden Boy award.

“First of all, Arda Guler is a phenomenon, we see him training and we are delighted with him. Then my former teammate Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, from Borussia Dortmund. And lastly, my brother Jobe, a thoroughbred striker like our father.”

Sorry, Jude. Unless your brother moves from Sunderland to a major European club in the summer and instantly tears it up, we can’t see it. And Bynoe-Gittens just misses out on cracking our top 10, talented as he is.

Turkish wonderkid Guler does make the cut, though. He recently offered a reminder of his quality with a match-winner in Madrid’s 1-0 victory over Real Sociedad.

The 19-year-old will need to have an amazing Euro 2024 and play a much bigger role for Madrid in the latter half of this calendar year if he’s to have any chance of claiming the Golden Boy award, though. He’s only made one La Liga start this season and clocked up zero minutes in the Champions League.

8. Leny Yoro

The 18-year-old centre-back has been solid as a rock for Lille this season.

Everything looks set for Yoro to move to a European giant for a big-money fee this summer, by which point there’ll be no ignoring him.

Real Madrid are reportedly leading the race to sign the teenager, but Barcelona, Manchester United and Liverpool are also said to be in the mix. Watch this space.

7. Kobbie Mainoo

The face that Mainoo has looked so mature and so assured in his breakthrough season, in the utter mess that is Manchester United right now, is testament to his ability.

The 19-year-old from Stockport is said to be one of only three players that Sir Jim Ratcliffe has completely ruled out leaving Old Trafford this summer. A key pillar of his club’s future – and every chance he brings some much-needed balance to England’s midfield at Euro 2024.

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6. Pau Cubarsi

This list shows that ludicrously young attackers and wingers aren’t all that rare.

But Cubarsi is a centre-back, only turned 17 back in January, and looked completely at ease in Barcelona’s Champions League knockout clashes against Napoli and PSG.

La Masia keeps on producing.

5. Alejandro Garnacho

Manchester United’s Argentinian wing wizard might end 2024 with both the Golden Boy and Puskas awards.

It’s been quite the season for the 19-year-old. We can’t wait to see what he’s got in store for us at this summer’s Copa America.

Puskas Award contenders 2024 Alejandro Garnacho Patrick Bamford Leeds Manchester United

READ: A definitive list of 2023-24’s Puskas contenders: Garnacho or Bamford?

4. Endrick

It feels like a bold shout to have generational talent Endrick as low as fourth place. The Brazilian is doing incredible things at boyhood club Palmeiras and is almost certainly the most talented player under the age of 20 in world football.

The hype machine went into overdrive when he scored his first goals for Brazil against England and Spain earlier this season. He turns 18 this summer and looks like Real Madrid have a fully-fledged world-beater on their hands.

Here’s the but: the Golden Boy Award is for players in European football. Endrick won’t make his competitive debut for Los Blancos until August at the earliest, meaning he’ll have missed a good chunk of the eligibility period – as well as those big crunch games from the latter half of 2023-24.

And given Madrid’s stacked attack, with Kylian Mbappe also set to arrive this summer, we wouldn’t be surprised if Endrick is used sparingly at first – a patient approach to get him integrated into life on a new continent.

Still, there’s no questioning his potential. We’d be amazed if he doesn’t win the award in 2025 or 2026. And you never know; he might follow in Bellingham’s footsteps, instantly tear things up at the Bernabeu, and claim the award this year.

3. Joao Neves

Playing his football outside one of Europe’s top five leagues for a Benfica side that went out of the Champions League at the group stage and look set to be pipped to the Primeira Liga title by Sporting, Neves arguably goes under the radar a little. But those who regularly watch the midfielder swear he’s the real deal.

The academy graduate stepped up into Enzo Fernandez’s place following the World Cup winner’s club-record sale to Chelsea.

His prodigious rise has seen him capped regularly by Portugal, with a starting spot at Euro 2024 a real possibility, and talk of moving to Barcelona to fill their Sergio Busquets-shaped hole in midfield.

A big few months await.

2. Warren Zaire-Emery

PSG have a nasty habit of letting some of their best graduates from their world-class academy go and shine elsewhere – Paris born-and-bred Kingsley Coman even scored the winning goal in a Champions League final.

But Zaire-Emery is one prospect that’s too good to let leave, a foundational keystone of their post-Mbappe future. He’s just signed a new deal that runs until 2029.

The 18-year-old was arguably their best player in the 1-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund. And with the tie hanging in the balance, 2023-24 could end with Zaire-Emery lifting the Champions League trophy, having played a starring role in a historic treble.

If that comes to pass, it’ll be extremely difficult to look beyond the midfielder.

Montpellier v Paris St Germain - Stade de la Mosson, Montpellier, France - February 1, 2023 Paris St Germain's Warren Zaire-Emery celebrates scoring their third goal with Lionel Messi

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1. Lamine Yamal

“He’s just a monstrous talent,” says Barcelona boss Xavi Hernandez.

“And he’s only 16. Very few shine at such an age. How he works, how he fights, how he contributes to the team. He has no limit.

“I’ve devised a specific plan with him, and it matters. We have something special ahead. I emphasize how he competes. He doesn’t tire. He covers a lot of kilometers with high intensity. He eludes opponents. I really enjoy watching him play.”

Couldn’t have put it better ourselves. An astonishingly talented kid.

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