The 2017 Golden Boy nominees were announced yesterday and six English players feature on the 25-man shortlist, more than any other nation. Italian newspaper Tuttosport runs the award and the final decision falls to a panel of 30 experienced journalists.
Only players under the age of 21 are eligible, and previous winners include Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba and, not surprisingly, Lionel Messi. Last year’s Golden Boy was Swansea loanee Renato Sanches, whose contribution to Portugal’s European Championship victory earned him this prestigious title.
This year there are a few players in contention to win it, and a plethora of talent amongst the nominees. Let’s take a look at the top 5 contenders.
5. Kasper Dolberg (for Ajax)
Ajax are famed for bringing through some of the best players in footballing history, and last season it was Kasper Dolberg that caught everyone’s eye at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. The young Dane scored 16 times and contributed six assists in the Eredivisie as Ajax missed out on the title by just one point to Feyenoord.
Dolberg finished as Ajax’s top scorer in all competitions as he added a further six goals in the Europa League, including goals in both semi-final legs against Lyon. Ajax fell short in the final where they were beaten 2-0 by Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, but it was a hugely successful European campaign for the club.
It was an explosive entry to world football for Dolberg and he impressed in his first season for the Dutch club. Continued good form will surely gain him a move to a bigger league where he can really start to establish himself as a top striker. In the home leg of the Europa League semi-final he terrorised Lyon, and a number of top clubs will likely be sending a few scouts his way.
4. Youri Tielemans (for Anderlecht)
Fourth spot is higher than a lot of other rankings will have Youri Tielemans, but the Belgian midfielder is being overlooked by many and is a genuine world-class talent already. At just 20-years old he was voted Player of the Year in Belgium, owing mostly to his 18 goals and 12 assists in all competitions for Anderlecht. The club won the Belgian Pro League and Tielemans was instrumental in bringing about that success.
The 2014 and 2015 Young Footballer of the Year in Belgium has played as a holding midfielder, and certainly has the defensive capabilities to perform well in that role, but it is in attacking midfield that he thrives. Comparisons to Frank Lampard have been thrown around, and Tielemans can absolutely strike a fierce shot, as well as possessing a good range of passing and a burst of pace.
In a list of nominees dominated by forwards Tielemans can be overlooked because of his position, but with a summer move to Monaco paving the way for further development and exposure to better players, both to form partnerships with and play against, don’t be surprised to see this young Belgian become a household name in the near future.
3. Gabriel Jesus (for Manchester City)
The aptly named Manchester Messiah hit the ground running straight away in the Premier League, which in itself is a testament to his enormous talent. Seven goals and four assists in his ten league appearances for City last season all came in 2017 following his move from Palmeiras, and the Brazilian proved why Pep Guardiola was right to covet him. A clinical finisher with intelligent movement and the ability to play in any of the forward positions, Jesus even began to force goal-scoring machine Sergio Aguero out of the starting XI.
A quick start to this season with four in five in the league proves that last season was no fluke, and the confidence he has on the ball is highly impressive. A new system this season sees him playing alongside Aguero, and Jesus has begun to establish a partnership with his Argentinian teammate that will terrify all other Premier League managers. It may be a year too early for the youngster to pick up this award, but he will no doubt become an exceptional player as he learns from Aguero and continues to add flair to style to everything he does.
2. Ousmane Dembele (for Borussia Dortmund)
Barcelona paid £96m for Ousmane Dembele making the French winger the second most expensive footballer of all-time, and it’s easy to see why. Dembele, known as ‘the mosquito’ due to his small stature and blistering pace, registered 12 assists in the Bundesliga last season, more than any other U-21 player in Europe’s top five leagues. The winger also added another 6 assists in the Champions League as Borussia Dortmund reached the quarterfinal stage.
The Catalan giants signed Dembele in the hopes that he can fill the void left by Neymar, who left the club for PSG in the summer. While the 20-year old has some way still to go to fully replace the Brazilian superstar, his impressive technical ability, silky dribbling and ability to use both feet interchangeably makes him a threat anywhere in the opponent’s final third.
One downside to Dembele is his goal tally – 6 in the Bundesliga and 2 in the Champions League – which needs increasing if he is going to become a Ballon d’Or contender in the future, but the skills he will learn from Lionel Messi at Barcelona will be invaluable.
1. Kylian Mbappe (for Monaco)
The most sought after player during the summer transfer window, Kylian Mbappe was a sensation last season and it is no surprise that French giants PSG negotiated a stunning loan deal with Monaco to secure his services. The 18-year old bagged 26 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, leading Monaco to the Ligue 1 title and a Champions League semi-final.
Both Monaco and Mbappe surpassed all expectations last season – his side finished eight points ahead of PSG, a club who are historically so dominant in French domestic football, and beat Borussia Dortmund and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Champions League knockout stages. Mbappe himself had the most goal contributions in a Monaco side full of players who all had astonishing seasons.
Two goals in his first three games this season for PSG will go some way towards proving that Mbappe is not a one-season wonder, but all the signs point towards him becoming one of the world’s best players in the not too distant future, and being voted the Golden Boy for 2017.
Controversial Exclusion: Marcus Rashford (for Manchester United)
Last year Marcus Rashford finished as the runner-up in the Golden Boy rankings after his break-out season with Manchester United. The exciting young English forward ended the 2015/16 season with five goals and two assists in 11 Premier League appearances, as well as two Europa League goals in United’s short-lived European campaign.
When Jose Mourinho became manager of Manchester United in the following season many worried about whether Rashford would get the game time he needed to continue his rise to stardom. These concerns were soon dispelled and the 19-year old featured 32 times in the league last season, much to the delight of his fans.
However, Rashford only managed to equal his previous season’s goal tally in almost three times as many games, and actually ended up registering just a single Premier League assist last season – a worrying statistic for someone who usually plays out wide.
What keeps him near the top of this list, and as high as third on some other ranked lists you’ll see, is the fact that Manchester United won the Europa League last season. They wouldn’t have done so without Rashford’s vital goal in the semi-final clash with Celta Vigo, and that is what sticks in people’s minds.
What worries me is that in terms of simple goal and assist tallies, and, I would also argue, performance levels, Marcus Rashford hasn’t progressed significantly enough since the 2015/16 season compared to other players nominated for this award to justify his inclusion in the top five. There is no doubt that Rashford is a great player, but he is in danger of being left behind as players like Gabriel Jesus are only getting better.
One for next year: Christian Pulisic
The American winger is certainly one of the most exciting young players in world football, but with the departure of Ousmane Dembele leaving the 19-year old free to dominate the right hand side of Dortmund’s attack, this will be his season to prove what he can do.
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