There are few things in football as captivating as the emergence of a young talent.
Witnessing a raw, mistake-addled academy product morph into a bona fide star with wide-ranging skills is like supporting a local indie band that goes on to score worldwide acclaim.
So, like Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, and Marcus Rashford before them, here’s this year’s crop of potential household names who are plying their trade in Europe’s top-five leagues, and who could be one impressive season away from stardom:
Lucas Torreira (Arsenal): Largely unknown outside of Uruguay and Italy’s top flight prior to last season’s solid showing with Sampdoria, the 22-year-old Torreira is set to break out with Arsenal out of necessity, filling a massive defensive-midfield void in Unai Emery’s squad.
Demarai Gray (Leicester City): Pegged to be one of the biggest benefactors of Riyad Mahrez’s exit, speedy winger Gray, 22, sure looked up for the task in Leicester’s opener against Manchester United, combining well with fellow fledgling Fox James Maddison.
Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham): A few months removed from his 18th birthday, Fulham stud Sessegnon is on the cusp of becoming a top-tier talisman, though Slavisa Jokanovic may fancy playing him in a more advanced role after his Premier League debut at left-back hinted at a challenging acclimation period.
Issa Diop (West Ham): Slated to snatch starting center-back duties from Angelo Ogbonna, the 21-year-old Diop, 21 proved his value in Ligue 1 with Toulouse prior to the West Ham switch courtesy of an eye for a timely tackle and composure in possession.
Yves Bissouma (Brighton): A dynamic midfield talent who showed glimpses last season with Lille, Bissouma, 21, made an immediate impact when he came on for Pascal Gross at the hour mark in a 2-0 defeat to Watford in a box-to-box role for Chris Hughton’s Seagulls.
Clement Lenglet (Barcelona): Two years after making the leap to first-team football with second-tier Nancy, center-back Lenglet, 23, has piggybacked a stellar season at Sevilla with a move to Barcelona, where he and countryman Samuel Umtiti form a tandem in waiting.
Maximiliano Gomez (Celta Vigo): A brace on his Celta Vigo debut versus Real Sociedad set the table for a commendable first season in Spain for Gomez, 22, an imposing forward who excels at aerial duels. The Uruguayan is set for big things once he returns from a knee worry.
Rodri (Atletico Madrid): In returning to Atletico Madrid after 11 years at Villarreal, Rodri, 22, is a ready-made first-team player tasked with replacing Qatar-bound Gabi. He’s also expected to be the eventual replacement for Sergio Busquets with Spain in a deep midfield role.
Sergio Reguilon (Real Madrid): With Theo Hernandez off to Real Sociedad on loan, Real Madrid appears set to promote Reguilon, 21, to the first team to back up Marcelo. An impressive preseason tour with Los Blancos may have sealed the Spanish left-back’s fate.
Ferran Torres (Valencia): La Liga’s first player born in the 2000s, the 18-year-old Torres is a speedy winger who made 16 appearances last season for Valencia after his debut in December, and was the subject of reported interest from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus): Set to be a prominent part of Max Allegri’s Juventus plans after a stellar showing for Uruguay at the World Cup, Bentancur, 21, is a versatile midfielder suited to play any number of roles for the seven-time defending Scudetto champion this season.
Federico Chiesa (Fiorentina): Making the cut ahead of fellow La Viola young studs Alban Lafont, Giovanni Simeone, David Hancko, and others, Chiesa is a 20-year-old left winger with an eye for goal who might just be the best young player in Italy’s top flight. The lad’s got some decent genes, as well.
Nicolo Barella (Cagliari): Barella, 21, has drawn comparisons to Marco Verratti and is poised for a marquee move to one of Italy’s biggest clubs. He made 62 first-team appearances over the last two seasons on the left side of a three-man midfield while displaying oodles of quality on the ball.
Claud Adjapong (Sassuolo): Making the grade ahead of another young Sassuolo defender Pol Lirola, the 20-year-old Adjapong is an Italian youth international right-back slated to have a breakthrough campaign after appearing in 16 league matches last season for the Modena side.
Musa Barrow (Atalanta): A Gambian youth international with pace to burn, Barrow, 19, bagged a treble against Sarajevo in the Europa League this season and is set to play a bigger role at Atalanta alongside Papu Gomez following Andrea Petagna’s departure to SPAL.
Houssem Aouar (Lyon): Part of a dazzling Lyon midfield, Aouar, 20, makes the list ahead of mates Tanguy Ndombele, Lucas Tousart, Ferland Mendy, and others for a mature and versatile game that allows the local boy to play several positions courtesy of an exquisite set of skills. A star in the making.
Rony Lopes (Monaco): Monaco have become an incubator for young talents, and 22-year-old attacking midfielder Lopes fits the profile, leading Ligue 1 with 14 goals this calendar year. Exits for Adama Diakhaby, Keita Balde, and Thomas Lemar will only help Lopes’ stature.
Ismaila Sarr (Rennes): That lightning-quick blur speeding down Senegal’s right flank during the World Cup was Rennes attacker Sarr, 20, a dribbling wizard who continues to add elements to an enthralling skill set that should continue to grow after two first-team spells with Metz and Les Rouges et Noirs.
Malang Sarr (Nice): No relation to Ismaila, Nice defender Sarr, 19, has already made 52 league appearances for Les Aiglons, and after a strong 2016-17 season, the France youth international was named the CIES Football Observatory’s fifth-most promising player under 20 years old.
Timothy Weah (Paris Saint-Germain): Like Fiorentina’s Chiesa, Paris Saint-Germain’s Weah is a wide attacker with rich footballing heritage, and after coming on as a sub in Les Parisiens’ season opener following a noteworthy preseason, the 18-year-old could be a factor under Thomas Tuchel.
Leon Bailey (Bayer Leverkusen): Much more than a one-trick pony blessed with blinding pace, Leverkusen winger Bailey, 21, is a versatile talent capable of playing on either flank where the Jamaican profits from pinpoint deliveries. A move to one of Europe’s elite beckons.
Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund): One of many burgeoning English talents to look abroad for progression, 18-year-old London native Sancho became a regular with Borussia Dortmund toward the end of last season. For Manchester City, the winger may end up being the one that got away.
Dayot Upamecano (RB Leipzig): France is producing top-tier footballers at such an alarming rate that a player like RB Leipzig center-half Upamecano, 19, has somehow flown under the radar despite an outstanding 2017-18 effort. It’s only a matter of time before the aerial whiz gets a look from Didier Deschamps.
Denis Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach): The third-youngest player on Vlad Petkovic’s World Cup squad, towering Swiss midfielder Zakaria played just 50 minutes in Russia but is an integral part of Monchengladbach’s setup thanks to a penchant for tough tackles and timely interceptions.
Santiago Ascacibar (VfB Stuttgart): Despite the middle name Lionel and a Maradona tattoo, 21-year-old Stuttgart stud Ascacibar is anything but an alluring attacker, rather a sturdy and aggressive defensive midfielder who captains Argentina’s Under-20 side and has a bit of Javier Mascherano in him.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)