Where are they now? Marca’s ‘best European Under-18 XI’ from 2016
In February 2016, Spanish sports newspaper Marca published an XI of what they considered the best footballers in Europe aged 18 or under at the time. Here, we take a look at how those players’ careers are progressing.
It’s often hard to judge how good a teenage player will be, whether undoubted talent will amount to a glistening career in the game.
We’ve heard countless stories in years gone by of youngsters destined for greatness who never reached the levels many thought they were capable of – Ravel Morrison being just one example in an endless catalogue of names.
But five years on – despite the threat of early promise fizzling out – most of the inclusions in Marca’s subjectively selected team have gone on to shine in various top European leagues and on the international stage. There’s one French forward in particular who hasn’t done too badly.
We’ve decided to revisit the players Marca earmarked as exceptional and see what they’re up to now.
GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma
It’s difficult to believe Donnarumma is only 23; it feels like he’s been playing for decades.
As the star of Italy’s dramatic penalty shootout victory in the Euro final last summer, most would agree that Donnarumma is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe – he was named player of the tournament.
He made his first-team debut for AC Milan in October 2015, when he was 16. The custodian’s rapid rise came as little surprise after the Rossoneri battled hard to secure his signature from youth side ASD Napoli.
“The first club interested was Inter,” Ciro Amore, his former head of football at ASD Napoli said.
“Their youth team manager came here to the office, to discuss it with his father. We even went to Milan to sign a pre-contract agreement with them.”
Inter no doubt rue the fact he slipped through their grasp and later joined city rivals. Donnarumma quickly came to be regarded as the heir to Gianluigi Buffon’s Italian throne, becoming a main-stay in Milan’s side during his teenage years.
After an acrimonious exit from San Siro, he joined PSG at the start of this season on a free transfer – one of the raft superstars the French side have recruited in their (not particularly successful) quest for Champions League glory.
RB: Cristian Manea
The Romanian right-back was reportedly Chelsea-bound for £2.3million in 2015 as a 17-year-old. You could understand why the London club would have been interested in a youngster who had already been capped by his national team.
Bizarrely, Chelsea never announced the signing of Manea. The player’s official Facebook page listed him as a Blues player, but he was never registered at Stamford Bridge. It begs the question, did Manea even know who he played for?
Seven years on from an unusual transfer saga, the defender now plays in his homeland for CFR Cluj.
CB: Reece Oxford
Oxford pocketed Mesut Ozil on his Premier League debut for West Ham in 2015 as a 16-year-old – not a bad introduction for an Englishman who was considered one of the best young talents the Hammers had ever seen.
After being rewarded with a four-year contract at 18, the start of Oxford’s Irons demise began when he failed to make the grade on loan at Reading.
“We have a lot of young players in the squad. They need to improve and it’s not my style to improve the players by letting them do their own thing,” former Reading manager Jaap Stam said.
Following further loan spells in Germany, Oxford was snapped up permanently by Augsburg in 2019 – a club where he remains.
The 23-year-old has started to reignite his career abroad. However, returning to the level he showed when he gave Ozil the run around at the Emirates still feels a long way off.
CB: Joe Gomez
Gomez was a product of Charlton Athletic’s youth academy. He made 21 appearances for the club in the 2014-15 season and his impressive performances earned a move to Liverpool.
Going on to feature for England and win silverware under Jurgen Klopp at club level, the 24-year-old has displayed his class as a centre-back on the biggest stages. Torrid luck with injuries is the only reason why Gomez is yet to cement his position in Gareth Southgate’s plans.
The fact Gomez has struggled for minutes at Liverpool this season says more about the quality of options Klopp has at his disposal than anything else. You’d have to be some player to dislodge Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate for a regular starting berth.
LB: Kieran Tierney
Coming through the Celtic youth system to make his debut in April 2015, Tierney went on to become a Scotland international and key player for the Glasgow side in double-quick time.
It was a case of when and not if Tierney would be prized away from his boyhood club, and soon enough, Mikel Arteta took the full-back to Arsenal in 2019.
He’s a vital player for a Gunners team vying to secure a much-coveted Champions League spot this season.
🎯 The pass
🔥 The finish
😍 The celebration
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) December 27, 2021
DM: Youri Tielemans
Tielemans became the third-youngest player in Champions League history when he started for Anderlecht against Olympiakos in 2013. After four years in his homeland running the show at first-team level, the Belgium international joined Monaco.
“It’s extraordinary we have been able to enjoy four seasons of such a talent. Tielemans is on all lists of most promising young players in Europe.” Anderlecht’s sporting director Herman Van Holsbeeck admitted after the youngster left for France.
Leaving Monaco in 2019, a loan spell at Leicester was turned into a permanent deal by the Foxes after Tielemans hit the ground running in the Premier League.
Yet his stay with Brendan Rodgers’ side could end in the summer as the 24-year-old hasn’t signed a new deal at the club.
Youri Tielemans vs. Chelsea.
The Emirates FA Cup Final, 2021.
— Leicester City (@LCFC) November 19, 2021
CM: Ruben Neves
Neves became Porto’s youngest goalscorer and the youngest player to captain a side in the Champions League when he did so against Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2015. The Portugal international was the subject of interest – and still is – from top clubs in Europe.
At 20, Wolves used their close relationship with the player’s agent Jorge Mendes to complete the shock signing of the midfielder. He helped the club reach the Premier League and remains one of their finest assets.
How long he stays at Molineux remains to be seen. We can expect a few clubs to be queuing up to take him from Bruno Lage in the summer.
CM: Renato Sanches
Sanches rocketed through Benfica’s youth ranks to become a first-team starter at just 18, and he featured in Portugal’s 2016 Euro-winning team. His incredible early career saw Bayern Munich sign him for €35million.
But his time in Germany didn’t go to plan, and his loan spell at Swansea City was undoubtedly the lowest point in a so far up and down career as he failed to impress under Paul Clement.
“[Renato] thought he was going to Man United, Chelsea or PSG,” Clement said.
“When he came [to Swansea], he was far more damaged than I thought. He was a boy who had almost got the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
Thankfully, Sanches now has his career back on track as he enjoys a renaissance in France with Lille.
RW: Martin Odegaard
Odegaard arrived at Real Madrid as a wonderkid in 2015 – he made his debut for Norway when he was just 15. The prospect of playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale was a “dream come true,” but the midfielder didn’t make the impact many anticipated at the Bernabeu.
Despite impressing in loan spells with Real Sociedad, his career looked to be stalling at Madrid before Arteta took him to Arsenal in January 2021 – a move which was made permanent last summer.
Like Tierney, Odegaard is one of the Spaniard’s most trusted lieutenants.
ST: Dominic Solanke
Solanke fired in goals for fun at youth level for Chelsea. He was the star in several FA Youth Cup triumphs, but like so many before and after him he never broke into the Blues’ first-team.
Jurgen Klopp recognised the striker’s potential and took Solanke to Anfield in 2017.
Yet it didn’t work out for the youngster on Merseyside. Dislodging a front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane wasn’t possible; a challenge any forward in world football would have found arduous at that time.
Solanke is now Bournemouth’s top scorer in the Championship this season. A chance to shine in the Premier League could arrive next term should Scott Parker’s men clinch promotion from the second tier.
LW: Kylian Mbappe
Not much needs to be said about this generational French international. From the moment he made his first-team bow for Monaco in 2015, it was clear Mbappe was exceptional and he’s gone on to be recognised as one of the best players on the planet.
Starring for PSG and France – a World Cup win already under his belt – the 23-year-old is still a few years away from his peak. Frightening. A Ballon d’Or is only a matter of time.