As iconic names of the past decade reach the latter end of their career, there’s an emerging generation looking to become the next Messis, Ronaldos and Lewandowskis of their era.
Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland are widely thought of as the natural heirs to the throne of those titans, but who are the best of the bunch emerging behind even them?
We’ve created a best XI of players aged under 23, a selection process that makes even messrs Mbappe and Haaland too old to feature. Each of these names will be looking to become the best of their generation.
Choosing the best u23 side in world football right now:
Goalkeeper: Anatoliy Trubin (Benfica)
Goalkeepers tend to mature later than their outfield counterparts, with the best often not reaching their peak until their thirties. Anatoliy Trubin is among the next generation emerging, alongside Gianluigi Donnarumma, Diogo Costa and Gregor Kobel, each of who are fractionally too old to feature in this XI.
Trubin – who has won seven senior caps for Ukraine – left his homeland during the summer to sign for Portuguese champions Benfica. The 22-year-old was named as the Ukrainian Premier League’s Goalkeeper of the Year in each of the last two campaigns and appears ready to test himself at a higher level in Lisbon.
Right-back: Jeremie Frimpong (Bayer Leverkusen)
In an era where contributions from full-back are sought more than ever, it’s easy to see why Jeremie Frimpong is in such demand. The 22-year-old scored eight goals and laid on seven assists in the league alone last season, form which earned him inclusion in the Bundesliga Team of the Season.
Frimpong – who made his international debut for the Netherlands in October – signed a new contract with Leverkusen earlier this month, as the Germans look to ward off rumoured interest from Manchester United and Barcelona. The right-back has began the new season in strong form, with five goal involvements in seven appearances.
Centre-back: William Saliba (Arsenal)
William Saliba’s early season form has led some to suggest the defender is already among the best centre-backs in the game. The Frenchman has been outstanding as Arsenal have made an unbeaten start to the campaign, with his absence during the run-in a factor in the Gunners’ title collapse last season.
The 22-year-old appears to have it all as a central defender, with the athleticism to match any forward and the cool to play confidently from the back. Saliba took an unorthodox route to the Arsenal first team, but he’s there to stay. He’s irreplaceable to Mikel Arteta’s side.
William Saliba has not been dribbled past in his eight Premier League appearances in 2023/24.
And he’s committed just two fouls all season. 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/eOYkmvkMPv
— Squawka (@Squawka) October 8, 2023
Centre-back: Josko Gvardiol (Manchester City)
Manchester City spent big to sign Josko Gvardiol from RB Leipzig last summer, with the £77m fee making the Croatian centre-back the second most expensive defender of all time.
Gvardiol’s premium price-tag is a result of two excellent seasons in the Bundesliga, in which the 21-year-old alerted Europe’s elite with progressive football and powerhouse defensive strength.
Croatian powerhouse! 🇭🇷💪 pic.twitter.com/IFxuf89LAi
— Manchester City (@ManCity) October 12, 2023
Left-back: Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
Alphonso Davies is still just 22-years-old, despite several seasons of elite wing-play at Bayern Munich.
The Roadrunner’s career accolades already include five Bundesliga titles, two DFB-Pokal trophies and the Champions League, having broken into the Bayern team as a teenager and not looked back.
The Canadian is among the quickest players anywhere in Europe, a trait which allows him to burst forward into the final third or hurtle rapidly back in recovery. There are few things that put fear into opposition players quite like scintillating speed.
Midfield: Pedri (Barcelona)
One of Barcelona’s brilliant Spanish starlets, the emergence of Pedri and midfield accomplice Gavi have provided room for optimism in an otherwise challenging era for the Catalans.
Each are among the very best young talents in the game right now, having collected each of the last two Golden Boy awards. Barcelona might be in financial trouble right now, but boast a midfield that can be depended on for the next decade.
Pedri – who has already made more than a century of appearances for the club, aged just 20 – has been likened to Andres Iniesta for his excellent close control, technique in tight areas of the pitch, and ability to drift dangerously between lines. It’s a huge comparison, but not one unbefitting.
Midfield: Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid)
Jude Bellingham is arguably the most talked about talent in European football right now, following a stunning start to his career at Real Madrid. Bellingham was good, that we knew, but his instant impact at the Spanish giants has raised the level of just how good.
The 20-year-old has scored 10 goals in his first 10 appearances for Real Madrid and is La Liga’s leading scorer – from midfield. Several of those goals have come at clutch moments, with Bellingham having fast become the main man at the Bernabeu.
Jude Bellingham (8) has now scored more goals in his first eight LaLiga games for Real Madrid than Cristiano Ronaldo did (7).
This is insane. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/n6Illp5ixe
— Squawka (@Squawka) October 7, 2023
For a footballer who won’t celebrate his 21st birthday until next summer, it’s been an astonishing adaptation to the demands of world football’s biggest club.
Midfield: Jamal Musiala (Bayern Munich)
Had circumstance been different, Jamal Musiala could have featured alongside Bellingham in a destined-to-be-elite England midfield. As it is, Musiala will line up on the other side of one of football’s great rivalries, having declared for Germany despite representing the English at youth level.
The 20-year-old has already won 24 caps at international level, having become a centrepiece in the Bayern Munich side at club level. Musiala carries the ball with an ease few can, navigating past defensive challenges with fluid changes of direction.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) October 9, 2023
Last season, the midfielder produced 22 goals and assists in 26 league starts for Bayern, a contribution which led to the fourth Bundesliga title of his fledgling career. Expect more to follow, with Musiala the most exciting talent in the Bayern collection.
Right-wing: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
Bukayo Saka is no longer just Arsenal’s ‘Starboy’, but one of the elite wingers in world football. Saka broke into the team under Unai Emery and has taken his game to new levels in Mikel Arteta’s team, earning the PFA Young Player of the Year award for his performances last season.
Saka scored 14 goals and provided 11 assists in the Premier League last season, with the winger one of just two players – alongside Mohamed Salah – to reach 10+ on each metric. The 22-year-old has started the new campaign in a similar vein with six goal involvements in seven games for the Gunners, with Saka a certain starter for England despite the fierce competition for places.
Left-wing: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (Napoli)
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia was the breakout start of the 2022/23 campaign in Europe, as the Georgian winger earned cult status for his role in Napoli’s drought-breaking title success.
Signed from Dinamo Batumi for a fee of just €10m, he ended the campaign clutching a Serie A winners medal, the division’s Most Valuable player award, and as the UEFA Champions League Young Player of the Season.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia for Georgia national team:
📊directly involved in a goal every 101 minutes
22 years of age. The living legend of Georgian football. 🇬🇪 pic.twitter.com/czBF5AdZRc
— Football Talent Scout – Jacek Kulig (@FTalentScout) October 16, 2023
Kvaratskhelia led Serie A for assists as Napoli won a first title in 33 years, and has been nicknamed “Kvaradona” after Napoli legend Diego Maradona.
Forward: Gabriel Martinelli (Arsenal)
Gabriel Martinelli might not be an out-and-out centre-forward, but the brilliant Brazilian is too good to leave out of our XI.
Martinelli enjoyed a coming-of-age campaign last term as Arsenal competed for the Premier League title, ending the campaign as the club’s leading scorer with 15 goals in the division.
The 22-year-old is lightning quick and whirlwind of work-rate and tenacity, the perfect frontman for a team intent with pressing opposition teams into mistakes. Victor Boniface (22), Benjamin Sesko (20), Rasmus Hojlund (20) and Evan Ferguson (18) lead the next generation of centre-forwards.