31. Exequiel Palacios, 1998 (Argentina, River Plate)
by Fabrizio Gabrielli

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If we compare Exequiel Palacios’ 2018 to a firework, we would notice that his luminous tail hasn’t been the expected multicoloured explosion but more some sort of regal and silent shiny rain.

River Plate’s 20-year-old, that has already debuted in Scaloni’s Albiceleste, is now in that typical status of the young Argentinian footballers, somewhere behind the “future crack” and the “speculative bubble project”: looks like Real Madrid already appointed him as the first target for the winter transfer window, even if, truth to be told, Palacios hasn’t shined, nor technically or personality-speaking, in the last two massive fixtures we had the chance to see him – the Copa Libertadores Final and Club World Cup.

He’s a central midfielder that is usually played on his opposite side (he’s right-footed but played on the left both with River and Argentina), he amazes for his innate tendency to verticality, his minimalist and associative style, a game very similar to Giovani Lo Celso’s one, his doppelgänger in the Albiceleste. Palacios bonds a first-rate class with a rooted traditional box-to-box feeling: he assaults the opponents’ ball-carrier, he wins the ball back but he’s also capable of discrediting every cliché about impetuosity by controlling the ball and hiding hit from the opponent’s eyes.

2019 will tell us which kind of player Exequiel Palacios is: and maybe – even if his transfer to Madrid looks like a certainty – he will stay with the Millonarios for another semester, continuing to rule the midfield with the arrogance of 20-year-old footballers.

 

32. Nicolò Zaniolo, 1999 (Italy, Roma)
by Emanuele Atturo

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In July, nobody knew who Nicolò Zaniolo was but, after six months, he debuted at the Santiago Bernabeu, reached the U19 European Championship Final, scored his first Serie A goals and, in general, confirmed himself as one of the most exciting prospects of European football.

Zaniolo is 1.90m tall, has an American Football player’s physique, with wide shoulders and massive biceps. But he also has a quite delicate left-foot and a surprising intellect for choices for a player that young. He’s still a clump of undefined talent, far from finding his definitive shape.

About that, we should find some things about Zaniolo out in 2019:

If, as he says, he can confirm as an internal midfielder, repressing his offensive instincts; or if he will continue to be a trequartista, that currently looks like the perfect spot for him in Roma’s 4-2-3-1 lineup.
If he will play with continuity as a starter in a Champions League team like Roma.
If Roberto Mancini will consider him a useful talent for the National Team.
He will hold the pressures that surround him without mercy.

Zaniolo’s talent has a precise direction so far and maybe that’s the most exciting thing about him.

33. Juan Foyth, 1998 (Argentina, Tottenham)
by Alfredo Giacobbe

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Watching him on a football pitch on TV, Juan Foyth really looks like an odd player. It has been difficult for me even to understand his height, measuring him with other footballers, but even on specialized websites the data are discordant: for Wyscout, he’s 182cm tall, while Transfermarkt measures him at 189. Like if Foyth has grown overnight, making impossible to record his growth. And maybe he really has: Foyth has long and thin legs and he walks through the pitch with bended knees, ready to jump ahead to close an opponent or backwards towards his goal. The first time I saw him, I thought of an old pic of Stefan Eldberg, crunched down like a cat in front of the net, sit on an invisible chair. Foyth looks like a duckling athlete in transformation.

Seems that Pochettino has scouted him while he was at Estudiantes, then supporting his signing in the summer of 2017. He played him early both in Premier League and Champions League, then waiting for him to recover from a bad injury and throwing him back into the pitch at once. Maybe Pochettino seems himself and his path as a footballer in this kid. For sure, Foyth has a weapon thanks to Toby Alderwiereld’s missed renewal, that became a proper fight between the Argentinian manager and the Belgian defender, that next summer will leave the Spurs after 4 seasons.

Foyth will have to complete his physical growth, but he already proved his qualities – very similar to Alderwiereld’s – on the pitch. As the Belgian, Foyth is very precise with his passes (averaging 85% so far, 88% for Alderwiereld), he has the same attitude in giving the ball to a teammate in the opposite midfield (77% to 76%). Of course, they have different game volumes, as Alderwiereld plays fifteen more passes every game, but that’s part of a responsibility that the youngster will have to take if he wants to play at these levels.

Foyth already paid for his inexperience: his mistake in the derby against Arsenal left a negative mark, not only on that game but also on his season. But a single negative event, as important it may be, won’t change the trajectory of his rise, that is now completely unpredictable. And this unpredictability makes Foyth a must-follow footballer.

 

34. Federico Valverde, 1998 (Uruguay, Real Madrid)
by Marco D’Ottavi

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At 4, Federico Valverde dreamt of playing in a stadium full of people with a white shirt. A dream that he’s now turning into reality by wearing the whitest shirt of all, Real Madrid’s. After accumulating experience at Deportivo La Coruña last season, Valverde went back to his home (Real bought him from Peñarol in 2016) to study under Kroos and Modric.

Valverde is a complete midfielder, capable of playing both in his own and opposite midfield. His physicality allows him to break beneath the lines while carrying the ball, while his intelligence makes him an excellent defender on the passing lines. He has a very powerful shot, not yet a very precise one, a good vision for the game that allows him to risk to find the pass. In Real Madrid’s 3-lined midfielder, he’s played as inside-midfielder, a position that looks fitting for him, even if he played as trequartista at Depor.

Valverde isn’t playing very much, mainly because of Real’s quality in the midfield, but his game time has improved under Solari. In a complicated season, the Uruguayan CM could earn some space in the next months and maybe become a valid back-up for Kroos and Modric. That is the exact reason why Real Madrid bought him.

 

35. Lee Kang-in, 2001 (South Korea, Valencia)
by Daniele V. Morrone

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Lee Kang-in arrives at Valencia at 10 in 2011, following the path that another Asian wonder-kid, Takefusa Kubo, makes to Barcelona. Both have small height, good ball control technique and are famous at home for the typical videos of them dribbling everyone with the ball and looking like the only ones capable of shooting to the goal. He has even attended a reality show about football on television at 6.

Now that he’s 17, Lee Kang-in is moving his first steps in professional football: even starting his season in the second team, in the summer he has spent the pre-season with the first team and played all the friendly matches, he has been called for the Champions League group stage, debuted in the Copa del Rey (the youngest non-Spanish player to debut with Valencia) and signed a contract with an €80M release clause. In Valencia youth teams, he has played every offensive position, both for his height and his dribbling-based skills, his understanding of the game and ability at football. The young Korean seems destined to play in the offensive midfield, maybe starting on the wing.

It may seem unbelievable, but Lee Kang-in is considered such a promising talent in Spain that the football federation tried to call him for the youth national teams. We will see if 2019 will hold him a place in professional football.

 

36. Martin Odegaard (Norway, Vitesse)
by Daniele Manusia

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Here we are with the annual update about Martin Odegaard. At the end of the last season, once his loan to Heerenveen expired, Real Madrid chose to leave him in the Netherland a year more, this time with Vitesse. Since October, Odegaard has become a starter, playing every single minute – both as a trequartista and right-winger, where he can cross to the centre and shoot with his left foot (he scored 3 goals in the first 14 games). About his talent, what said last year is still correct: “with his left foot, he can shoot the ball in any part of the pitch within 30-40 meters. He could shoot the ball in a half-open window on the fourth floor, kicking from the opposite sidewalk; placing the ball on a blindfolded teammates’ foot to make it stop by itself”.

But the impression is that Odegaard is shaping his game at a different level than the one he looked destined to. His choices are now more logical but also easier; he looks confident at playing in the open space with the ball, not so much when time and spaces shrink. Athletically, and even technically, as much as gifted with passing technique, is not the kind of player that can make the difference, neither in Netherland. If he plays in the middle, he can’t stand being marked from the back, and ends up playing too low; if he plays on the right he wants to take the ball behind the lines but he’s unpredictable with his next move. He needs players moving in other lines, creating spaces and game options for him, that’s why it could be nice to see him in a more competitive environment, with a responsible position, such as internal-midfielder.

Actually, Odegaard has turned 20 and it’s now time to let him have his breakthrough: at the end of the season, once again, Real Madrid will have to chose if bring him back to Spain and let him train with champions, hoping that he becomes a champion himself, or… maybe, at that point, if he shouldn’t consider him capable for that level, Florentino Perez should sell him, letting the market show us Odegaard’s true value.

 

37. Diego Lainez, 2000 (Mexico, Club América)
by Fabrizio Gabrielli

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The Mexican talent-factory seems to have specialized in the production of a specific kind of player: the talented and dribbly offensive winger. An idea of a coherent player with the “Mexican school” given by the former coach of the National Team – the Colombian Osorio – and followed by the most important clubs of the Liga MX, like Pachuca, América, and Tigres. Diego Lainez Leyva, though, more than Hirving Lonzano or Jurgen Damm, and differently than “Tecatito” Corona, loos more faithful to Carlos Vela and Gio Dos Santos’ tradition: players, then, that don’t just runs like Japanese Shinkansens on the wing monorail – leaving it just for shooting – but that often fluctuate between the opponent’s lines, just behind the box, trying to invent the sensational play or find the shot.

On September, “Tuca” Ferretti, ad interim coach of the Mexican National Team until the appointment of Osorio’s successor, debuted him, the fifth youngest in history, in the Tri: four days later, he played 75’ minutes in a very important game against the USA, when he forced Matt Miazga to one of the funniest reactions we saw this year.

Ajax looks ready to bring him to Europe, at least if América will let him leave. Eredivisie, after all, already proved with Hirving Lonzano experience to be the best place for a player with those skills to exalt themselves. Mexico has decided that the go-to-guy of the future will be him: actually, at the 2026 World Cup’s assignment ceremony – alongside with Alphonso Davies for Canada – there was Diego Lainez Leyva himself.

 

38. Dennis Man, 1998 (Romania, FCSB)
by Emanuele Atturo

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Dennis Man is 20-year-old, he plays for Steaua Bucharest and has a smart-ass face that somehow announces his talent. In Romania there hasn’t been a talent like him since Adrian Mutu; Steaua’s president George Becali has already unveiled a €10M offer or him last summer, but he says he won’t even talk for less than €30M.

So, Man stayed in Romania, where he can pass all the players between him and the goal starting from the left wing, before breaking hearts with the shots from his left foot. Man is about 180cm tall and he has a light physique that makes him look smaller than he really is. Is not super-quick but moves his feet at a great speed, that is the most important skill when it comes to moving the ball away from the opponents at the last second. Being a left-footed with an excellent technique and first-class dribbling instinct, Man has been compared to Messi in Romania, earning – it goes without saying – the pathetic tag of “Romanian Messi”.

There’s no chance that Man won’t leave Steaua next summer. It will be interesting to see if this player with massive technical skills and a slightly mechanical game will be able to express at higher levels or if his left foot will only guarantee him a place in the cult of Europa Leagues’ Thursday nights.

 

39. Rodrygo Goes, 2001 (Brazil, Santos)
by Emanuele Atturo

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Maybe, after living with the regret of letting rivals Barcelona buy the original one, Real Madrid is trying to get its hand on the “New Neymar” from Brazil. So, after buying Vinicius Jr. for €46M, the Casa Blanca also bought Rodrygo for 40.

Rodrygo shares some banal stuff with Neymar: the team he comes from, Santos, the position, left winger, but also less banal ones, like a certain lightness in running and dribbling.

It’s still to be understood Real Madrid’s strategy, that now has tow players with similar qualities in the same position, with just a year between each other. Differently, than Vinicius Jr., an explosive winger with a low barycentre, Rodrygo is fast and light and, yet having a remarkable ball control, he has a more essential and defensive-disciplined game. As disciplined as a young Brazilian winger can be. Rodrygo can do fewer things than Vinicius Jr. but, if you like elegant and fragile footballers, you won’t have any doubt who to support.

 

40. Matias Zaracho, 1998 (Argentina, Racing Avellaneda)
by Fabrizio Gabrielli

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Even if he’s just 20-year-old, Matias Zaracho is already a symbol of the Academia, just like Licha Lopez: after Lautaro Martinez’s departure, the “Negrito”, that has grown in Racing’s youth teams until the debut in the first team two years ago, has become the top man of the club, and the project that Eduardo Coudet seems to have embraced with the most enthusiasm.

The manager has coached Zaracho’s versatility, making him a multivalent midfielder, highly adaptable to every context, other than a trequartista – his original role – that can play as a right winger, inside-midfielder in a 3-lined midfield, as a full-back on both wings and, most of all, in the tactical context that fits him the most, as a defensive volante, a ‘5’ without offensive purposed but neither only defensive ones.

Coudet gave him not only the task to break the opponents’ game but also to start the transition with the ball thanks to his excellent ball control, that he uses to avoid opponents that press him from behind. Coudet called him a “60 kg tractor”; Zaracho has an inborn tirelessly and, in the last year, he also made an impressive job for improving his physique.

Simeone seems in love with him and he’s certain to bring him at Atlético. If so, with Zaracho, Palacios and Lo Celso, LaLiga could enjoy the best fruits of Argentinian volantes in 2019, a bloodline made of classy but not fragile players, aggressive without impetuosity. Maybe the best one of the last five years.

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