World football is currently blessed with an abundance of young talent as an emerging generation begin to make their mark on the sport, a series of precocious talents currently starring for some of the biggest sides in the game.
Some notable names are leading the race to establish themselves as the world’s best following an era dominated by all-time greats Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and we’ve decided to compile a dream XI of football’s finest young talents aged under 23.
Here is our best U23 XI in European football right now:
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Donnarumma – AC Milan
It’s quite remarkable to think that Gianluigi Donnarumma is still just 21-years-old, the goalkeeper having incredibly racked up more than 200 appearances for AC Milan since bursting onto the scene as a teenage talent five years ago.
Donnarumma has come a long way from the gangly teenager who first adorned the colours of the Rossoneri, establishing himself as one of Serie A’s leading shot-stoppers and replacing the legendary Gianluigi Buffon as Italy’s number one goalkeeper.
The youngster has now kept 10+ clean sheets in five consecutive seasons for Milan, Donnarumma a model of consistency in what has often been a turbulent time for one of world football’s most iconic clubs.
Only Udinese’s Juan Musso kept more Serie A clean sheets than Donnarumma in 2019/20, the goalkeeper set to be a cornerstone of the Milan side as they bid to build on a strong second half of the campaign next season.
Right-back: Trent Alexander-Arnold – Liverpool
It’s been some start to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s career since coming through the academy ranks at boyhood side Liverpool, the youngster having flourished into a key component of a formidable side under the guidance of Jurgen Klopp.
Alexander-Arnold helped the Reds to Champions League success last season before adding further silverware to the club’s burgeoning trophy cabinet throughout 2019/20, winning the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup alongside ending the Merseysider’s long wait for a Premier League title in record-breaking fashion.
The full-back is tasked with being Liverpool’s chief creative threat despite his presence in the backline, his superb passing range utilised by a licence to provide width and attack. Alexander-Arnold broke the record for most assists in a Premier League season by a defender last season, before eclipsing his own personal record during the club’s triumphant title pursuit.
In 2019-20, Trent Alexander-Arnold played more passes into the box (509) than any other player in a top-five European league.
He also set the single-season Premier League record for most assists (13) by a defender… again. ? pic.twitter.com/w80FVV2FSn
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 7, 2020
Only Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne created more Premier League goals than the 21-year-old last season, Alexander-Arnold the odds-on favourite to be named as the Young Player of the Season following another sensational campaign.
Centre-back: Matthijs de Ligt – Juventus
Matthijs de Ligt was linked with almost every major club in Europe last summer following his exploits at Ajax, the teenage defender captaining the Dutch side to a domestic double and the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Juventus won the race to sign the Netherlands international in a big-money deal, with De Ligt overcoming a difficult period of adaptation to win over the critics with a series of imperious displays for the Bianconeri.
The individual errors of his opening months in Turin have been replaced by performances of consistency and defensive strength, the 20-year-old growing in both status and importance in a Juventus side who were crowned as champions for the ninth successive season in 2019/20.
De Ligt’s growing confidence has seen him reproduce the form which made him so highly-coveted, the centre-back a bullish figure who looks set to develop into a future leader of Italy’s biggest club.
Centre-back: Dayot Upamecano – RB Leipzig
The name of Dayot Upamecano has been a regular amongst readers of transfer talk in recent seasons, the centre-back having seemingly been linked with every major club in European football – and for good reason.
The French youngster is the latest exciting talent to come through Red Bull’s notorious production line, a defender who seemingly has all the ingredients to become one of the world’s best in his position.
Quick and physically imposing, the 21-year-old is equally as adept at starting attacks as he is preventing them, comfortable in stepping out with possession and registering a pass success rate of 89.1% last season, a figure comfortably amongst the highest in the Bundesliga.
Likened to former France great Marcel Desailly, Upamecano has been linked with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and, quite predictably, Bayern Munich of late, but has recently signed a new deal to remain at RB Leipzig and continue his development.
If he continues at this rate, his list of suitors may just grow even longer.
Left-back: Alphonso Davies – Bayern Munich
Full-backs have arguably never been more fashionable and in Alphonso Davies Bayern Munich seem to have found one of the most exciting in world football.
The youngster arrived from MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps and has swiftly found himself at the forefront of German football, breaking into the Bayern side during the 2019/20 campaign and producing a series of exhilarating displays.
Davies’ electric pace and attacking instincts have seen him thrive in an attack-orientated team under Hansi Flick, the Canadian’s forays down the left flank a vital component of Bayern’s forward play this season.
The 19-year-old was named as the Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Season following his breakthrough campaign in Bavaria, a season which has seen the teenager win a domestic double and flourish in the Champions League.
Davies’ conversion from a winger into a full-back has proven a masterstroke, the youngster scoring three times and providing five assists in 24 Bundesliga starts this season. His attacking instincts and physical prowess are also backed by encouraging defensive displays, Davies averaging more tackles-per-game than any other Bayern player this season.
Midfield: Federico Valverde – Real Madrid
Much has been made of Real Madrid’s ageing side despite their Spanish title success this season, but in Federico Valverde they have a midfielder capable of making the transition into a new era that much easier.
The Uruguayan has enjoyed a breakthrough season at the Bernabeu this term, becoming a regular under Zinedine Zidane and showcasing his ability to thrive in different roles, including as a deep-lying playmaker, on the right-hand side or when pushed further forward.
Valverde’s ability to cover the ground makes him an ideal foil for the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, whilst his comfortableness in possession and diligent passing sees him slot seemingly into a Real Madrid side who often dominate the ball.
The midfielder’s tenacity and talent have made him a popular figure for Los Blancos and his emergence has helped restore balance to Zidane’s side. Their disappointing Champions League exit – in which Valverde was surprisingly omitted for the second leg – proves fresh additions are still required if the club are to return to their European pedestal, but the 21-year-old is undoubtedly a player who can play a major role in their rebuild.
Midfield: Kai Havertz – Bayer Leverkusen
German football has a long and illustrious history of producing leading talent and Kai Havertz is a player billed as the country’s next great hope, the midfielder having made a huge impression since coming through the ranks at Bayer Leverkusen.
The youngster has shattered a host of records since his emergence as a precociously talented teenager, the midfielder becoming Leverkusen’s youngest ever Bundesliga player and goalscorer, racking up 50 appearances in Germany’s top tier aged just 18 years and 307 days.
Last season saw Havertz scored 17 league goals to fire Leverkusen into the Champions League, before another hugely impressive campaign this time around, the 21-year-old scoring 12 goals and providing six assists as the talisman of Peter Bosz’s side.
Havertz’s performances have marked him out as a generational talent, an elegant and versatile goalscoring midfielder who has been labelled a hybrid of German greats Mesut Ozil and Michael Ballack. Linked strongly with a big-money move to Chelsea this summer, the west London side could be set to secure the signing of Germany’s next superstar.
Right-wing: Jadon Sancho – Borussia Dortmund
The trailblazer for English youngsters seeking first-team opportunities, Jadon Sancho escaped the glass ceiling of the Premier League when signing for Borussia Dortmund three years ago, a move which has seen the winger explode as one of the most exciting and effective talents in world football.
Sancho’s precocious talents have blossomed amid exposure to regular first-team football at Dortmund, his mix of speed and skill leaving many a full-back flummoxed during his Bundesliga breakthrough.
This season has seen the England international once again raise his levels of productivity, scoring 17 league goals and providing a further 16 assists in just 25 starting appearances for Lucien Favre’s side.
English football’s best young talents are often weighed down by hype, but the carefree style and maturity shown by Sancho to date indicate he can fulfil his potential and become one of world football’s finest.
The 20-year-old has been tipped as a potential Ballon d’Or winner such has been his impact in German football, a mega-money move to the Premier League awaiting the star this summer as he bids to continue his steep upward trajectory.
Left-wing: Marcus Rashford – Manchester United
The third of English football’s emerging crop to feature in our side of world football’s best youngsters, Marcus Rashford is another player who seems to have been around forever despite his tender years.
Rashford burst onto the scene as a teenager at boyhood side Manchester United and has since continued his rapid rise, enjoying a season-upon-season improvement at Old Trafford to emerge as a key figure in the club’s rebuild.
Already a veteran of two major international tournaments and 38 caps for England, the 22-year-old has made huge strides in his fledgeling career to date and his increased maturity away from the field – including taking on the government over child poverty – has led to suggestions he could be a future Manchester United captain.
Aside from those achievements, however, the Manchester-born youngster is a hugely talented and quintessential modern attacking player, blessed with pace, power and an improving goalscoring ability.
This season has seen Rashford enjoying the best goalscoring season of his career to date with 22 goals in all competitions despite spells on the sidelines through injury, the forward a vital component of a Manchester United side bidding to close the gap on England and Europe’s elite.
Forward: Kylian Mbappe – Paris Saint-Germain
Kylian Mbappe’s list of achievements would rank highly amongst most leading players at the end of their careers, but to have enjoyed his success at just 21-years-old is, quite frankly, utterly phenomenal.
The French forward is widely regarded as the best young player in world football following his performances in recent seasons, the youngster becoming a talismanic figure in a Paris Saint-Germain side amongst the world’s best.
His list of accolades already includes World Cup success and four Ligue 1 titles won at Monaco and PSG, twice finishing as the leading scorer in French football and being named as the division’s Player of the Year during the 2018/19 campaign.
Mbappe is frighteningly quick and ruthless when presented with goalscoring opportunities, the forward possessing the talent and temperament to succeed Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the leading player of a generation.
The born-and-bred Parisian has eclipsed the feats of those players at a similar age and become the face of the capital club despite a wealth of stars including the likes of Neymar and Mauro Icardi, his record of 64 league goals in just 76 league appearances for PSG the tangible evidence of a player seemingly destined for greatness.
Forward: Erling Haaland – Borussia Dortmund
Another player who has enjoyed a stratospheric rise into the upper echelons European football, Erling Haaland is now a name more than familiar with football fans following a sensational breakthrough season.
The Norwegian forward garnered attention following a blistering first half of the season with Red Bull Sazlburg, the 19-year-old scoring a hat-trick on his Champions League debut before becoming the first teenager in history to score in each of their first five games amongst Europe’s elite.
Haaland scored a ridiculous 28 goals in just 15 starts over the first half of the season in all competitions, his form leading to a winter window move to Borussia Dortmund to continue his development.
Any doubts that the forward may take time to adjust were removed in spectacular fashion, however, scoring a hat-trick on his debut after coming on as a substitute before enjoying a blistering run of form.
Haaland’s first half season with Dortmund saw him score 16 goals to take his season’s tally to 44 in all competitions, an incredible achievement for a player who only recently celebrated his 20th birthday.