The best young players of 2023 – ranked

If the end of 2022 was Lionel Messi’s peak, the ascension of his final mountain, then 2023 was a wind-down year for the all-time great.

Both Messi and supreme contemporary rival Cristiano Ronaldo have continued to dominate on less significant shores, away from the European limelight. Their respective career trajectories depicts the gradual decline of an era that we may never see again.

In their place, French superstar Kylian Mbappe and Nordic machine Erling Haaland have been touted as the second coming of the two aforementioned greats. While contrasting in style, those have been regarded as the two best their generation has to offer.

But 2023 bore witness to a fresh litany of young talent attempting to thrust themselves into conversations alongside Mbappe and Haaland in a post-Messi/Ronaldo Europe.

Here are the ten best young players – ‘young’ being 21 or younger at some point in the calendar year – of 2023.

Alex BaldeAlex Balde

Alejandro Balde has cemented himself as Barcelona’s starting left-back / Eric Alonso/GettyImages

A key reason why Barcelona were content with allowing Jordi Alba to team up with Messi in Miami was the emergence of Balde at left-back.

Barca certainly knew what they had in the Spaniard and it looks as if the Catalan club have their starting left-back for the next however many years.

Balde made just five La Liga appearances before the 2022/23 season, but he’d go on to play 33 times as Barcelona recaptured the league title. An immensely dynamic operator from full-back, Balde recorded six assists last season and quickly thrust himself into the best left-back in Europe conversations.

He hasn’t quite been so reliable in 2023/24 with Barca’s defence struggling as a collective.

Lamine YamalLamine Yamal

Teenager Lamine Yamal broke a whole host of records in 2023 / Eric Alonso/GettyImages

In 2023, Lamine Yamal became…

– La Liga’s youngest ever player and goalscorer.
– The Champions League’s youngest ever player.
– Barcelona’s youngest ever goalscorer.
– Spain’s youngest ever player and goalscorer.

Etc, etc.

This was the year Yamal announced himself to the world and we’re set to enjoy the masterful young winger for years to come.

Johan BakayokoJohan Bakayoko

Bakayoko rejected a move to the Premier League in the summer / BSR Agency/GettyImages

With Cody Gakpo departing for Liverpool in January, PSV needed an alternate hero to emerge. Johan Bakayoko had been on the periphery for the first half of 2022/23, but Gakpo’s mid-season exit saw him blossom down the stretch.

The Belgian winger ended last season with eight goal contributions in 16 Eredivisie appearances and garnered plenty of summer interest from the Premier League.

Bakayoko opted to remain in Eindhoven and incoming manager Peter Bosz has helped take his game to the next level. The winger has starred for Bosz’s dominant side, recording 17 goal contributions in 27 games this term. He’s an electric talent down the right flank, with his first eight Belgium caps all arriving in 2023.

Xavi SimonsXavi Simons

Simons is starring for RB Leipzig after impressing at PSV last season / Luciano Lima/GettyImages

Simons worked in tandem with Gakpo for Ruud van Nistelrooy’s PSV last season and his stellar form continued after his partner in crime’s departure. With Bakayoko and others stepping up to fill the void, Simons ended 2022/23 as the Eredivisie’s joint-leading scorer with 19 goals.

Considering his profile as a versatile but masterful between-the-lines playmaker, Simons’ scoring haul was incredibly impressive.

The Dutchman returned to PSG in the summer before exiting again on loan to RB Leipzig. Simons’ scoring form from 2022/23 failed to waver in Germany as he took the Bundesliga by storm at the start of the campaign. His production tailed off towards the end of the year, but Simons remains Leipzig’s leading man.

CORRECTION / FBL-EUR-C1-BORUSSIA DORTMUND-PARIS SGCORRECTION / FBL-EUR-C1-BORUSSIA DORTMUND-PARIS SG

Zaire-Emery is set to become the cornerstone of France’s midfield / FRANCK FIFE/GettyImages

Another who enjoyed a record-breaking rise in 2023, Zaire-Emery was integrated into a superstar-studded PSG team towards the end of 2022/23 and his supreme talent has since been harnessed by Luis Enrique.

The teenager was used in a myriad of roles last term, but he’s cemented a centre-midfield spot for Enrique no matter the Spaniard’s system of choice.

Zaire-Emery is a game-breaker; a do-it-all midfielder who has already shown he can grab a game by the scruff of the neck and pull his side over the line.

The Frenchman is bound to become the cornerstone of PSG and Les Bleus’ midfield for the next decade.

VfL Wolfsburg v FC Bayern München - BundesligaVfL Wolfsburg v FC Bayern München - Bundesliga

Harry Kane’s brilliance has taken some shine of Musiala’s genius / Sebastian El-Saqqa – firo sportphoto/GettyImages

England could’ve been blessed with the mercurial talent of Musiala for the next decade, but it’s a currently troubled Germany who are instead enjoying the Bambi-like figure in a creative function.

The skinny but mightily effective 20-year-old is oh-so-easy on the eye, with his Houdini-esque ability to escape out of condensed spaces a notable aspect of his game.

His versatility has enamoured coaches, with Thomas Tuchel labelling Musiala as Bayern Munich’s difference-maker despite Harry Kane’s presence. His 2023/24 season has been disrupted by an injury setback or two, but it was Musiala’s strike late on at FC Koln that sealed yet another Bundesliga title for the Rekordmeister in May.

Pablo Martin Paez Gaviria 'Gavi'Pablo Martin Paez Gaviria 'Gavi'

Gavi had enjoyed a stellar 2023 before he sustained a devastating knee injury / Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/GettyImages

As a result of his less flamboyant profile, Gavi’s emergence was overshadowed by Pedri’s brilliance. The former Las Palmas academy star enjoyed a majestic 2021, but injuries have since curtailed his rise.

Gavi, however, continued to excel before he was struck by a devastating knee injury towards the end of 2023.

The indefatigable Spaniard established himself as an integral figure in both Barcelona and Spain’s midfields. Gavi has evolved from Xavi’s impressive utility man into an outright superstar and his absence will undoubtedly be hard-felt during the second half of 2023/24.

Bukayo SakaBukayo Saka

Saka almost fired Arsenal to the Premier League title last season / Catherine Ivill/GettyImages

Relentlessly utilised by Mikel Arteta, Saka endured lean periods in an Arsenal shirt in 2023, but his knack for producing the necessary moments in the final third means his production remained impressive.

In 2023/24, Saka hasn’t been at his devastating best, yet the Englishman has 21 goal contributions in 26 appearances across all competitions. Some of his best work this term has come in the Champions League and his maiden England hat-trick in the summer shouldn’t be overlooked.

The winger endured a slow end to 2022/23, but he was in irresistible form to start the year and his brilliance down the right flank inspired hope in almost all Arsenal supporters that the Premier League title was finally returning to north London.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen v Eintracht Frankfurt - BundesligaBayer 04 Leverkusen v Eintracht Frankfurt - Bundesliga

Wirtz is leading Leverkusen’s quest to dethrone Bayern in the Bundesliga / Ralf Ibing – firo sportphoto/GettyImages

After enduring a year on the sidelines with a ruptured ACL, Germany’s next great hope returned to action in 2023. Determined to continue from where he left off before his devastating injury, Wirtz embarked on a sensational year and some might claim he’s currently the best player in the Bundesliga not called Harry Kane.

He returned to a Bayer Leverkusen side coached by Xabi Alonso and Wirtz swiftly took the the Spaniard’s ideals. Given the freedom to roam from an inside forward position, Wirtz is now the creative leader of a side hoping to finally end Bayern’s supreme run at the Bundesliga summit.

The German is nothing short of joyous in full flight and he averaged a goal contribution every 108 minutes across all competitions in 2023.

Jude BellinghamJude Bellingham

Real Madrid sensation Bellingham won the 2023 Golden Boy Award / Denis Doyle/GettyImages

Okay, Birmingham City, that whole ‘retiring a teenager’s shirt’ thing makes sense now.

Bellingham’s boyhood club knew full well what their homegrown superstar would eventually evolve into, but surely not even the most optimistic of Jude supporters thought he’d capture the footballing world’s attention quite like he did in 2023.

His superb spell at Borussia Dortmund ended on a sombre note as they surrendered the title on the final day to Bayern with Bellingham out injured.

However, since then, Bellingham has rapidly reached superstardom and more amid his conquest of Madrid. After signing for the European behemoths in the summer for a fee that looks minute in retrospect, Bellingham, emboldened by the freedom of the role thrust upon him by Carlo Ancelotti, topped the La Liga scoring charts at the end of the calendar year.

2023 really was the year of the Jude.

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