Future champions: 270 names to watch closely

1. Introduction

This report highlights the players born in 2003 or later who have accumulated the most playing experience over the last year (until 11 December 2023) in nine positions: goalkeepers, centre backs, left backs, right backs, holding midfielders, attacking midfielders, left wingers, right wingers and centre forwards. Footballers who played in more positions were ranked in that in which they played the most during the current season, or the last completed one for the leagues already ended.

Expressed on the basis of 100, the ‘experience score’ was calculated from the number of last year official game minutes played at club (league, national cups, international cups) or national team (senior, U23 and U21) level (limited to 2,250 minutes), the sporting level of the 25 most competitive matches in which the footballers took part (method available in this note), as well as the percentage of minutes played as first choice players.

In total, the report highlights no fewer than 270 players active in clubs in 49 leagues around the world: the top 30 for the nine positions listed above. With 17 footballers, the Spanish Liga is the most represented league, followed by the Belgian Pro League, the Dutch Eredivisie and the MLS (16 players in the three cases).

2. Rankings by position


The very precocious Guillaume Restes (Toulouse FC) has the highest experience score among goalkeepers: 77.6 out of 100, an extremely high value for a goalkeeper born in 2005. The French U21 international is ahead of the Ukrainian Pavlo Isenko (FK Vorskla) and the American Chris Brady (Chicago Fire). The latter is the highest-ranked goalkeeper among those born in 2004. The relatively low scores measured for goalkeepers compared to outfield players reflect the greater difficulty they have in obtaining playing time at senior level from an early age.

Centre backs

When it comes to players who have primarily played as centre backs in the current or last completed season, the Italian international Giorgio Scalvini (Atalanta BC) has the highest experience score (92.7), ahead of the Brazilian Lucas Beraldo (São Paulo FC) and the Portuguese international António Silva (SL Benfica). Eighth-placed Argentinian Felipe Sánchez (Gimnasia La Plata) is the top-ranked centre back born in 2004, while Frenchman Leny Yoro (LOSC Lille) tops the list among those born in 2005 (ninth overall).

Left full/wing backs

The top four ranked left full or wing backs play for teams in Europe’s big-5: Alejandro Balde (FC Barcelona), who has the third highest experience score overall (95.4), Levi Colwill (Chelsea FC), who also plays as a centre back, Milos Kerkez (Bournemouth AFC) and Luca Netz (Borussia M’gladbach). The Brazilian Rikelme (Cuiabá EC) is the top-ranked player outside the five major European leagues, as is the American full international Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United) among left or wing backs born in 2004 (ninth overall).

Right full/wing backs

Two players stand out for right full or wing backs, one born in 2003, Spain’s Arnau Martínez (Girona FC), and the other in 2004, England’s Rico Lewis (Manchester City). Third-placed Argentinian Agustín Giay (CA San Lorenzo) is the highest ranked player outside the European big-5, while Frenchman Saël Kumbedi (Olympique Lyonnais) tops the list for right full or wing backs born in 2005 (sixth overall). No other footballer born in 2005 is ranked in the top thirty, while there are eight born in 2004.

Holding midfielders

One player born in 2004 has the highest experience score (96.0 out of 100, second highest value overall) among holding midfielders: Pablo Gavi (FC Barcelona). The Spanish full international is ahead of two French footballers: Ismaël Doukouré (RC Strasbourg), who also plays in central defence, and the very talented Warren Zaïre-Emery (Paris St-Germain). Born in 2006, Zaïre-Emery is the best-placed player born in 2005 or later. He is ahead of three other very promising holding midfielders born in 2004: João Neves (SL Benfica), Roméo Lavia (Chelsea FC) and Hugo Larsson (Eintracht Frankfurt).

Attacking midfielders

On the podium for attacking midfielders are three top-class full international players: England’s Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid), as well as Germany’s Florian Wirtz (Bayer Leverkusen) and Jamial Musiala (Bayern Munich). All three have an experience score above 90, with Bellingham’s value being the highest in absolute terms (96.2). Eleventh-placed Moroccan full international Bilal El Khannouss (KRC Genk) is the top-ranked player born in 2004, ahead of Israeli Oscar Gloukh (RB Salzburg, 17th).

Left wingers

Three Argentinians top the list among left wingers: the full international Alejandro Garnacho (Manchester United), another player born in 2004, Valentín Barco (Boca Juniors), as well as Brian Aguirre (Newell’s Old Boys). Fourth-placed Dutchman Myron van Brederode is the best-placed European, just ahead of Frenchman Habib Diarra (RC Strasbourg), who also plays in midfield. Another South American footballer, the Colombian Óscar Perea (Atlético Nacional), is the highest-ranked left winger born in 2005 (thirteenth overall).

Right wingers

The outstanding Xavi Simons (RB Leizpig, on loan from Paris St-Germain) tops the table for right wingers. The Dutchman is ahead of two other full internationals: Italy’s Wilfried Gnonto (Leeds United) and Belgium’s Johan Bakayoko (PSV Eindhoven). Sixth-placed Mexican Rodrigo Huescas (Cruz Azul) is the top-ranked player outside Europe, while Ângelo Gabriel (RC Strasbourg, on loan from Chelsea FC) and Malick Fofana (KAA Gent) head the list among players born in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

Centre forwards

Two English Premier League players top the list for centre forwards: the 2003-born Dane Rasmus Höjlund (Manchester United) and the 2004-born Irishman Evan Ferguson (Brighton & Hove). Two very talented Brazilians born in 2005 and 2006 respectively feature in the top 10: future FC Barcelona’s Vitor Roque (Athletico Paranaense), fourth overall, and future Real Madrid’s Endrick Felipe (SE Palmeiras), seventh. Two other South American forwards born in 2005 are in the top 15: Argentina’s Jerónimo Domina (CA Unión), eleventh, and Chile’s Damián Pizarro (Colo Colo), thirteenth.

3. Conclusion

While early experience of top-level adult football is no guarantee of a great career, it is at least a stepping stone towards one. The 270 players listed in this report are in an excellent position to one day play for the world’s top clubs and leagues, as it is already the case for those with the highest experience scores: Jude Bellingham, Pablo Gavi, Alejandro Balde, Arnau Martínez, Levi Colwill and Rico Lewis, to name just the top six.

Written in February 2015 using a more rudimentary but similar method, the CIES Football Observatory’s second Monthly Report highlighted players who have thereafter enjoyed very good careers, such as, among those who had not yet turned 20 and were playing for modest clubs, the Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livaković, the Slovakian centre back Milan Škriniar and the Polish winger Przemyslaw Frankowski.

Other names mentioned have failed to live up to their promises for a variety of reasons, such as injury, a drop in form or motivation, indiscipline, mistaken career choices, etc. From this point of view, no scouting method, no matter how solidly constructed, provides a total guarantee of success. Nevertheless, with the proliferation of available data, now more than ever, science can be an undeniable asset in the recruitment process.

CIES Football Observatory 

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