Pedri, Joao Felix, Ansu Fati lead LaLiga’s top 21 U21 players


There’s no shortage of top players in Spain‘s LaLiga (stream live matches and replays on ESPN+), and clubs have a ton of young talent breaking through this season. The league is banking on finding its newest stars among a group of promising youngsters determined to sit on a throne left vacant by Lionel Messi‘s departure from Barcelona.

Members of this new generation have enjoyed breakout debuts, unexpected performances and national team call-ups in recent months, so with that in mind, ESPN Deportes presents its list of 21 players in LaLiga who were aged 21 or under when the season began who merit special attention.

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Jump to: 21-15 | 14-8 | 7-1

Country: Spain
Age: 17
Position: Midfielder
Club: Barcelona

Gavi Paez might be “last” in our rankings, but don’t be surprised if he ends up first at some point in the future. He’s already part of Ronald Koeman’s plans at Barcelona despite being just 17, showing remarkable talent in midfield and an unexpected boldness considering the challenges the club is going through in overcoming Messi’s exit.

Gavi is a footballer with superb technique and innate decision-making ability. It is unclear if his star will rise as quickly as happened with Pedri a year ago — a difficult ask — or if he will be a slow burn. Either way, Gavi is without doubt primed to become an essential character for Barca in the future. — Jordi Blanco

Country: Uruguay
Age: 19
Position: Forward
Club: Alaves

Pellistri made his debut with Penarol’s first team in Uruguay at age 17, then signed for Manchester United in October 2020 after the club paid close to €8 million for his transfer. Daring and skilled, the Uruguayan is also an excellent dribbler with a great ability to change pace. The tough competition on the wings at Old Trafford prompted the Red Devils to send him on loan to Alavés, where he is playing his second campaign after a half-season in which he showed glimpses of his outstanding quality.

Pellistri shined in preseason with United, and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping his development continues before his loan spell ends. — Jordi Blanco

Country: Spain
Age: 20
Position: Midfielder
Club: Athletic Bilbao

When the rumblings at San Mamés hint at Vencedor being the perfect attacking midfielder to fill the spot that once belonged to Julen Guerrero, you know this is a special talent. A playmaking midfielder with a smooth touch, superb organizational qualities and an impressive work ethic, Vencedor is part of a generation of youngsters destined to shine with ever-improving Bilbao. Vencedor owes a significant part of his rise to manager Marcelino Garcia Toral, who has shown trust in him from the start. The young midfielder has responded surprisingly and efficiently to the point that it’s difficult to imagine an Athletic lineup without him. — Jordi Blanco

Country: Japan
Age: 20
Position: Attacking midfielder
Club: Mallorca

It’s now or never for this young Japanese talent, who has returned to Mallorca on loan from Real Madrid. This will be either his breakthrough season, or a realization that he needs to find a permanent home elsewhere. Having showed potential in Barcelona’s youth ranks, the club didn’t offer him what his agents expected, and Madrid wagered on a future that so far hasn’t materialized.

Kubo, an attacking midfielder or a right winger who inspired style comparisons to Messi, left La Masia because of the recent youth player controversy and is now at Barca’s fiercest rival. Madrid trust that his ability to dribble, his directness and leadership will finally come to fruition. — Jordi Blanco

Country: Spain
Age: 20
Position: Forward
Club: Mallorca

Niño came through the youth system of Villarreal, where he made his debut in January 2020 with two goals in his first two matches. The intense competition within Villareal prompted his agents to facilitate a loan to Mallorca and he couldn’t have had a more promising debut, scoring the winning goal at Vitoria and being a crucial part of Villarreal’s second win against Espanyol.

Niño is the son of a defender who made his career at Mallorca and Elche, however he plies his craft at the other end of the pitch as a forward. He knows how to make space, is quick, able to seamlessly pair up with teammates and is a bold finisher. If he measures up to the lofty expectations Villarreal have placed on him, Niño will either be Gerard Moreno‘s successor-in-waiting, or eventually make a blockbuster transfer to a big club. — Jordi Blanco

Country: Spain
Age: 20
Position: Midfielder
Club: Espanyol

Melamed is Catalan and his mother is Argentine. He is also the grandson of former Estudiantes de La Plata player Felipe Ribaudo, who won the historic Intercontinental Cup in 1968 by beating Manchester United. Melamed joined the Espanyol academy aged 12 and rose steadily within the club’s system before making his first-team debut in August 2019 in a Europa League match against Switzerland‘s FC Luzern. A highly technical offensive midfielder with a bold dribble and great vision, Melamed constantly troubles opponents with his agility and ability to break opponents’ defensive lines.

Though he faces plenty of competition within the squad, Melamed is confident of his abilities. His emergence is turning into one of Espanyol’s best storylines and he’s expected to become a key figure throughout the season. — Jordi Blanco

Country: Austria
Age: 18
Position: Forward
Club: Barcelona

Rapid Vienna loaned Demir to Barcelona’s B squad, a transaction that came with a €10m option to sign him permanently. But, amid Barca’s squad issues, he has transformed from a questionable bet to a highly feasible option at Camp Nou, with Koeman already giving him a first-team debut and the club deciding to activate his option after seeing his preseason performance.

Demir is bold with outstanding technicality, quick improvisation skills and precise passing. Though most comfortable as a winger, he is able to adapt to any attacking position and already shows a maturity well above his age. Demir will battle for a coveted spot in the Barça attack. If Pedri was able to impress under similar circumstances just a year ago, it isn’t difficult to imagine that the Austrian will also break through. — Jordi Blanco

Country: Brazil
Age: 20
Position: Forward
Club: Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane gave him plenty of chances, and the Brazilian winger capitalized on a few. Rodrygo is known for his speed and crisp dribbling, but needs more consistent playing time going forward — a tall order within a club such as Real Madrid. — Moisés Llorens

Country: Spain
Age: 20
Position: Centre-back
Club: Barcelona

Garcia was raised in the Barça youth system and developed under Pep Guardiola’s watch at Manchester City before moving back to Camo Nou on a free transfer this summer. He is a centre-back who fits nicely inside Barcelona’s system and possesses elegant passing skills from the defensive line. He is also quick, but his lack of height could play against him. — Moisés Llorens

Country: Spain
Age: 19
Position: Midfielder
Club: Athletic Bilbao

Williams is a similar player to his brother Inaki. However, Nico stands out with a bit more technical quality — he is fast, skillful and dribbles well with the ball too. Athletic Bilbao insiders say that the quick and aggressive Williams is one of the foundations of the club’s impressive rebuild. — Moises Llorens

Country: United States
Age: 18
Position: Midfielder
Club: Valencia

Musah flourished last season under manager Xavi Gracia. However, he lost steam and eventually slipped into a supporting role in Javier Bordalás’ Valencia. The club assessed a possible loan move for Musah, who broke through in Spain as an attacker, and the hugely talented United States international’s future is still a little unclear. One thing that’s not in doubt is his talent and versatility in midfield. — Moisés Llorens

Country: Mexico
Age: 21
Position: Forward
Club: Real Betis

Lainez is an attacker who oozes class, but two factors have kept him from becoming a force in European football. He has yet to play for a manager who trusts him to the point of giving him 15 consecutive starts, and he must attain the physical strength needed to withstand aggressive defenses. The Mexico international is learning the ropes at Betis, though a loan to a club where he could clock significant playing time would do him good. — Moisés Llorens

Country: Spain
Age: 19
Position: Left winger
Club: Real Sociedad

Barrenetxea, an attacking midfielder operating on the flanks who is quick and tricky on the ball, grew up at Real Sociedad and is already playing with Spain’s youth national teams, where he has gradually gained prominence with a string of impressive performances. He is able to play with his left foot, and his “one-on-one” play is one of his main virtues. — Moisés Llorens

Country: Spain
Age: 19
Position: Midfielder
Club: Barcelona

Gonzalez is a physical yet dynamic presence, a midfielder able to operate inside or as a pivot. He’s destined to inherit Sergio Busquet’s spot as Barcelona’s anchor. Nico extended his contract a few weeks ago at Camp Nou, where they have always believed in the potential of the Spain youth international. — Moisés Llorens

Country: France
Age: 18
Position: Midfielder
Club: Real Madrid

Clubs like Manchester United and PSG were big on Camavinga, who finally landed at Real Madrid from Rennes for around €30m this summer. The France international is destined to become a replacement for Toni Kroos and Luca Modric in midfield. Camavinga impressed in his debut Madrid debut, scoring in the match that marked the reopening of the Santiago Bernabéu. — José Bartolomei

Country: Georgia
Age: 20
Position: Goalkeeper
Club: Valencia

At 6-foot-6, the Georgia keeper has been crucial to Valencia’s early season successes. Mamardashvili, who has let in seven goals in six matches so far, is in the top 10 in saves in LaLiga. — José Bartolomei

Country: Sweden
Age: 22
Position: Forward
Club: Real Sociedad

The Sweden striker (who turned 22 in late September) forms one of LaLiga’s most feared partnerships with Real Sociedad teammate Mikel Oyarzabal. With a powerful physique, excellent ball control, and a fine finishing touch, Isak is primed to play with a big club in the coming years. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the duo combined for 28 goals and 10 assists last season. Isak’s 17 goals in 34 games last season in LaLiga ranked third among the best U21 players in Europe’s Big Five leagues. — José Bartolomei

Country: Brazil
Age: 20
Position: Forward
Club: Real Madrid

Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are gone from Spain, but Vinicius Jr. remains. At least that’s the sentiment of LaLiga president Javier Tebas. With hyperbole aside and Madrid forever awaiting the arrivals of Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland, the Brazilian forward has assumed a more prominent role to start the season. “Vini Jr.” is not just a favorite of the Madridista faithful, he’s also their franchise player moving forward. — José Bartolomei

Country: Spain
Age: 18
Position: Forward
Club: Barcelona

For the first time since 2008, a player on the pitch not named Messi is wearing Barcelona’s hallowed No. 10 shirt. That player is Ansu, the attacker with the highest talent ceiling at both Barcelona and Spain’s national squad. A severe injury to his left knee that required four surgical procedures was the only thing that coiuld slow his spectacular emergence in European football. Last season, he became the youngest player in Barcelona history to score in LaLiga at 16 years and 304 days; now back to full fitness, he scored in his first game back. — José Bartolomei

Country: Portugal
Age: 21
Position: Forward
Club: Atletico Madrid

The most expensive signing in the history of Atletico Madrid (€126m) has not yet become a fixture in Diego Simeone’s starting XI. However, the Portugal forward is striving to make the leap to compete alongside LaLiga’s most complete attack with Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann. Felix dazzled at a young age playing with Benfica, and it’s just a matter of time before he does the same with Atleti. — José Bartolomei

Country: Spain
Age: 18
Position: Midfielder
Club: Barcelona

Barcelona’s hopes for the next decade rest on the shoulders of Fati and Pedro Gonzalez Lopez — better known as Pedri. The same holds true for Spain after Pedri was recognized as the Best Young Player at this summer’s Euro 2020. His four goals and six assists in all competitions last season do not do justice to his exquisite vision and creativity, elements of his game that have inspired comparisons with none other than Barça and Spain legend Andrés Iniesta. — José Bartolomei.





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