The world, we’re told, has a new duopoly. It’s out with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, in with Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. That’s that and it’s done.
Or is it?
Obviously a lot can happen in a short space of time. Hardly anyone was talking about Haaland two years ago, then he just exploded. That could happen again. But for the sake of this article, let’s look for someone who has made their professional debut as a credible challenger to those two. Let’s see if there’s a player who can make it a trio. Here’s some requirements:
Attackers are strongly favoured. Sorry, Alphonso Davies. Hard luck, Eduardo Camavinga. If you want to be a global superstar, you have to be someone who’s going to score and assist a lot of goals. That’s just how it is.
No exact age cutoff, but the younger, the better. There are players on this list who are not as good currently as Christopher Nkunku or Marcus Rashford. But they are both 23, and probably only have one more big leap in them. Others have a higher ceiling, and that’s what we’re after.
So I’ve broken the players into four tiers, based on some vague notion of how likely I think they are to reach Ballon d’Or contention levels. Let’s take a look at our contestants!
Mason Greenwood: Weird year for him, huh?
Last season he exploded onto the scene and just couldn’t stop scoring. This year, he can hardly find the net at all. If you were looking purely at the goals, you’d conclude something had gone horribly wrong. Then you look at the underlying numbers and he’s basically the same player. Both campaigns with an xG per 90 of exactly 0.251. In some ways he actually seems to be improving, adding in more progressive passes and carries.
The argument for Greenwood is that he really is capable of adding things that the xG model hasn’t seen, and that he can then add a lot more to his game beyond scoring. I’m not sure how much of that I expect to happen, but the tools are there.
Harvey Elliott: He hasn’t done enough to really push himself higher yet, but damn if he isn’t exciting.
What stands out about Elliott is less what he is than what he isn’t. He’s not a great athlete for his age. He hasn’t had an early growth spurt. And yet his ability on the ball and decision making is such that he’s handily cutting through a league as physical as the Championship at age 17. We really need to see him get real minutes in a top league before making any proclamations, but everything so far is exciting.
Pedri: I feel bad putting him here, because Pedri is a baller. But it looks like he’ll be much more of a facilitator than someone scoring and assisting lots of goals. Right now he’s kind of a midfield/winger tweener, but it seems as though Barcelona will mould him into the kind of interior the club has loved to produce, more Andres Iniesta than Xavi. But there’s no doubting his ability. Expect him to produce for many years to come, but not as a global megastar.
Gio Reyna: Gotta get those American clicks. The main thing holding Reyna back, at least in the data, is how shot-shy he is. But then you look at some of his teammates, and it makes perfect sense that this 17 year old isn’t racking up more than 1.55 attempts per 90. He’s a good dribbler and ball progressor, which is all positive. But we’re really going to need to see what happens in a year or two, when Reyna and the next generation get handed the keys to this Borussia Dortmund team, to know what his ceiling is.
Youssoufa Moukoko: Speaking of which. You have to take a lot on faith with Moukoko. His ceiling is probably higher than anyone on this list bar The Chosen Two, but he just hasn’t done it yet. As Raphael Honigstein put it, “there’s simply never been a talent this precocious at such a young age in German football, excelling against much older players every step of the way”. When Haaland is sold, Dortmund presumably have Moukoko earmarked as the next man to lead the line. But we might have to wait until then to be sure on him.
Moise Kean: Was last season just a blip? It certainly seems that way. Kean has scored consistently whenever he’s been on the pitch for both Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, even if things just never happened for him at Everton. He doesn’t really do much right now except put the ball in the back of the net, but that’s plenty to start on. He will ultimately need to vary his game more than we’ve seen, but just being a consistent scorer for a top side at 20 is no mean feat.
Bukayo Saka: Sometimes I have a hard time parsing what Saka is going to be. Don’t get me wrong, he’s excellent. The main place where he impresses in the data is his 7.29 progressive carries per 90, and that sums him up right now: a ball carrier in wide areas. He has the qualities to be able to get into dangerous positions and inflict damage in the box, but we’re going to need to see it first.
Kai Havertz: man, I don’t know. Havertz was the hottest deal of last summer when he turned up at Stamford Bridge, but his expected goals and assists per 90 are currently about half of what they were last year. He’s been a non-presence. One can make reasonable arguments for Timo Werner’s Chelsea form, but Havertz has just been bad. All best hope Thomas Tuchel can get to work on fixing this one.
Callum Hudson-Odoi: I wrote about Hudson-Odoi recently, and it’s safe to say I’m a big fan:
“Hudson-Odoi, though, has a slightly unusual skillset for a modern winger. What he’s really outstanding at is driving forward with the ball at his feet. And I mean really outstanding. In terms of progressive carries per 90 (basically how many times a player has the ball at their feet and carries it forward more than 5 yards or into the box) Hudson-Odoi is ranked number one for Europe’s top five leagues. His 15.7 progressive carries edge out a certain Mr. Lionel Messi on 14.8. His ability to take people on and weave his way into dangerous areas is second to none, and that’s a very different skillset to someone like Sterling, who does his best work making runs in behind and arriving for the ball to be played to him.
And he’s certainly not a braindead dribbler, either. He’s consistently been putting up outstanding expected assist numbers, and more and more he’s become an important progressive passer, with his 5.65 of those per 90 within spitting distance of Chelsea’s leader here, Hakim Ziyech (5.74). This is really what Hudson-Odoi can offer: outstanding dribbling from deeper areas to drive forward, combined with a superb delivery and passing ability. The ceiling for him might be as the ultimate classic winger — as though David Beckham and Ryan Giggs combined their talents. It’s a lot to ask of him, but he’s potentially on that trajectory.”
Ansu Fati: What a bummer that injury is. Ansu Fati was on just about the best trajectory of anyone out there. He was looking at a big leap year, hitting 0.66 expected goals and assists per 90, and then the injury completely derailed him. As a prospect, you’d be as high as one can be with him, adding an excellent dribbling threat to his goals and assists. There was nothing stopping him. Except, of course, the thing that’s stopping him. Let’s hope he comes back in one piece.
Phil Foden: Another one where it’s not entirely clear what his best position is. 20 years ago, we’d be in no doubt: he’s a classic number ten, popping up between the lines and carving out beautiful chances as well as scoring himself. He’s the kind of player English football could never produce organically while the likes of Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola brought continental elegance to the Premier League. But now? He’d probably like to be playing in the Kevin De Bruyne role for Man City, as a “free eight”. But he does much of his best football out wide, scoring and assisting goals more than controlling games, and even as a false nine at times. We all know Foden is brilliant, but it’s the versatility that makes him so interesting, and suggests he could be a different sort of player in his peak years.
Joao Felix: If Atletico Madrid are football’s greatest catfish, as Stadio’s Musa Okwonga has suggested, then Joao Felix really bleeds those red and white stripes. Every time you think he’s about to make the leap and become one of the world’s best players, he goes quiet. Right now, Luis Suarez’ goalscoring might be the story at the Wanda Metropolitano, but Felix has slyly added more strings to his bow this year. He’s making more progressive passes without losing anything else from his game, but this is still a side built only to attack when necessary. Atleti might be scoring goals this season, but it’s mainly been about xG overperformance (by about 45%). They’re the same team they always are. This means that Felix can only really shine in moments. But everything is there for him to show he’s absolutely the real deal at some point.
Jadon Sancho: These days, if you say you’re English, you’ll get accused of having a bad season, just for saying you’re English.
In all fairness, there isn’t much question that he’s having a down year. Here’s what I said about where he was at last summer:
“In Europe’s top five leagues last season, seven players 21 or under hit 0.60 expected goals and assists per 90 minutes.
And of that magnificent seven, only two were also producing more than three dribbles per 90.
One of that pair was Kylian Mbappé. But he wasn’t the one who was also making over six progressive passes per 90. Only one young player hit all those marks in terms of scoring and assisting, dribbling and passing.
Say his name.”
This year, it’s clear he isn’t hitting quite those heights. His expected goals and assists per 90 have fallen to 0.53, even as the rest of his game looks much the same. Whether it’s because he has an eye on leaving in the summer or it’s about Dortmund’s various issues, something isn’t quite right. And yet he’s still outstanding. We’re looking at the second best shot creator in the Bundesliga. Still, in my view, the best young player not named Mbappe or Haaland.
Can any of the above names break into the elite? My view would still be that they are most likely the two, but there’s surely a more than 50% chance that someone does it. The field’s wide open. Have at it. Make everyone stand up and applaud.