Goal’s annual NxGn list gives us a glimpse into the future, putting the microscope on some of the most promising young players on the planet.
But beyond the individual personalities that make up the list, it also provides an in-sight into the success and failure of clubs, countries and leagues around the world when it comes to youth development - shining a light on those getting it right and those getting it wrong.
Here are four things this year’s top 50 has revealed about the state of world football.
Dortmund offering a pathway to the top
Many traditionally successful academies are represented on this year’s NxGn list: Ajax, for example, have Justin Kluivert and Matthijs de Ligt in high positions, while Lyon send three starlets from an impressive crop.
The club with the most players in the top 50, though, is Borussia Dortmund, with four. And they have built a bright future not so much by developing their own talent but by recruiting it from around the world.
The quartet featured offer a window into their appeal: A clear route to first-team football. That persuaded Sergio Gomez, Jadon Sancho and Dan-Axel Zagadou to leave Barcelona, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain respectively for Germany, and saw 18-year-old striker Alexander Isak plump for them when his form with Swedish side AIK caught the eye of most of Europe’s top clubs.
It’s early days, but Sancho (six), Zagadou (11) and Isak (five) have all made at least five appearances in the Bundesliga so far this season. Sancho has already attempted 27 dribbles - putting him alongside the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Mahmoud Dahoud, who have played far more often, in that category - while Zagadou is averaging an interception per game.
If just one can follow in Ousmane Dembele’s footsteps, he will fund their next wave of teenage signings and then some.
Better days could be ahead for England
After multiple failures at major tournaments, England followed in Germany’s foot-steps by drawing up a whole new blueprint for the future of their national teams.
It might be starting to pay off. The Three Lions have eight players on this year’s NxGn list - more than any other country.
There are a couple of caveats. One is that the attention Premier League clubs command puts the spotlight on their top prospects at a very young age, when they still have a lot of work to do to make it in the senior game. And other nations - particularly France - are ahead of England when it comes to the first-team experience of players in our top 50, which has resulted in the likes of Sancho leaving the English top flight.
But though this is a noticeably inexperienced group, it is undoubtedly a talented one. And when you add names such as Ryan Sessegnon and Phil Foden to Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and John Stones, you have the makings of a team that might finally be able to return England to World Cup relevance.
Sessegnon, in particular, has shone, scoring 14 goals and adding five assists for Fulham in 2017-18 despite spending as much time at left-back as left wing.
Foden has only played 18 minutes of Premier League football this season but already has an assist under his belt.
The smaller stage can be a great platform
Gianluigi Donnarumma leads this year’s NxGn top 50 in first-team appearances made, having already cracked a century for Milan.
The goalkeeper is a prodigy who was thrown in at the deep end at a big club and there are, unsurprisingly, a few such players on the list, including De Ligt of Ajax and Kai Havertz of Bayer Leverkusen.
But it is also clear that dipping your toes in senior waters at a slightly lower level can have its benefits. Alongside Donnarumma and De Ligt there is Alban Lafont at Toulouse, Sessegnon at Fulham and Ezequiel Barco, who made the breakthrough at Argentine club Independiente and will now have the chance to be a key player for Atlanta United in MLS.
These players get the chance to learn from their mistakes without them being scrutinised to the extent they would be at a club like Barcelona or Manchester United, and can make the move to the elite level when the time is right.
While Donnarumma will command a huge fee if he leaves Milan, a few of those top-tier sides might have their eyes on Lafont: he is every bit the modern goalkeeper, ranking sixth in Europe’s top-five leagues in keeper sweepings (25) this season.
North American football on the rise
Having had Christian Pulisic finish third in the 2017 NxGn top 50, the USA are represented by Tillman and Weah this year.
The fallout of the Americans’ failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was huge, with a new president of the national federation elected and widespread calls for change at every level of the men’s program. Amid the hysteria, though, is evidence that efforts made across the past decade or so to improve the country’s youth development are starting to bear fruit.
Bayern Munich prospect Tillman grew up in Germany, so he is not evidence of that. But Pulisic, who leads Borussia Dortmund in assists (four) and dribbles attempted (165) and is second in chances created from open play (25), certainly is, and so is Weah. The son of Liberia legend - and now president - George Weah has made two appearances in Ligue 1 for Paris Saint-Germain.
There is undoubtedly work to do in the States, where players growing up in urban areas are not always identified effectively enough and 18-year-old Liga MX star Jonathan Gonzalez, who was born in California, has been lost to the Mexican national team. In that regard, MLS’ pivot away from expensive veterans towards much younger squads is an important step.
The USA’s competition is only going to get tougher: Diego Lainez of Mexico features in the NxGn top 50 for the second year in a row and Canadian phenom Alphonso Davies will be a con-tender in future years.