Young footballers are sought-after not only because of their potential future resale and commercial values but also for the brilliance that they can deliver on the pitch right now.
Football matches, as the old adage goes, are won or lost in midfield, so it makes sense that winning teams have quality midfield units.
For the sake of this discussion, we’re excluding any players who are specialist defensive midfielders and looking at the five most valuable central midfielders in world football (according to transfermarkt), who all happen to be 26 or younger. Then you can decide which is your favourite.
🇪🇸 Pedri – €80m
The reigning Golden Boy of European football is still just 19 years old, but he’s already an indispensable member of both the Spanish national setup and the Barcelona first team. What stands out most about him is his staggering natural fitness, incredible movement off the ball, and of course that characteristic technical security on the ball, a quality which Barcelona has been famous around the globe for nurturing.
A sensational string of displays at Euro 2020 earned him the Young Player of the Tournament award as he helped Spain to the semifinals. Including national team games for the senior Spain squad and their Tokyo Olympics side, Pedri played 73 matches for club and country last season, in what was his first year in top-flight football.
There is a lot more to come from Pedri, which is a frightening prospect, and Barcelona will be delighted that he has committed his future to them.
🏴 Jude Bellingham – €75m
A prodigiously gifted box-to-box midfielder who came through the youth setup at Birmingham City, Bellingham only turned 18 in June last year. The astonishingly complete nature of the young Englishman’s midfield performances has been something to behold, especially in the Champions League. His versatility and innate ability to fit into various systems will make him a jewel in his club and country’s crowns for a decade and more.
Nine goals and four assists in all competitions is a healthy return, and it’s scary to think what those numbers will look like in three years time.
🇳🇱 Frenkie de Jong – €70m
If you want a guy to tick possession over and tire out opposition midfielders in the process, Frenkie is your man. He’s immaculate on the ball and takes risks with it when it’s appropriate to do so. His versatility means that he can be deployed in a variety of central midfield roles in a number of tactical systems tactical. A typical Dutch player out of Ajax’s famed academy.
At 24, De Jong is already an integral piece of a Barcelona jigsaw whose most important operators are either the wrong side of 30 or in their teens. He bridges that gap.
🇷🇸 Sergej Milinković-Savić – €70m
Lazio’s midfield dynamo has been a target for Europe’s wealthiest clubs for some time now, but he’s stayed put in the Italian capital and started to churn out some world-class displays this season. There was a notion that Milinkovic-Savic had all of the ability but couldn’t quite knit it together for extended spells, but eight goals & assists from 23 Serie A appearances this term is a superb output for a central midfielder, and it’s also evidence that he’s becoming more reliable as his team’s kingpin.
Don’t be surprised if Champions League regulars test Lazio’s resolve with a big-money offer for their star man this summer. At 26 years old, this might be one of his final opportunities to make a move to a truly elite side.
🇮🇹 Nicolò Barella – €70m
A man who is being earmarked as a future Inter and Italy captain, Barella only turned 25 yesterday. His box-to-box abilities have drawn tongue-in-cheek suggestions that he has an extra lung. He can do pretty much everything you would want a central midfielder to do, including selfless running of the channels and possessing the mighty useful knack of scoring goals in big games. A manager’s dream.
He does have the occasional tendency to get unnecessarily hot under the collar, in typically passionate Italian style, but that’s unlikely to change. Barella’s managers will need to channel that quality into something positive. His strike against Belgium in the semifinal of the Euros was a neat summary of what he can do in the final third, especially with that feisty never-say-die attitude.
There’s a reason that a host of super clubs are watching Barella, but don’t hold your breath over a move.
Which of these five talents would you sign for your club?