Football clubs have experienced a radical shift in their approaches to the transfer market over the years. Some of the best teams the world have shifted their priority to find the most talented young players available, as opposed to purchasing finished articles.
A simple look at the list of football's most expensive transfers could help understand this shift in policy. Four of the ten most expensive players of all time were aged 23 or under at the time of their transfer, all of which occurred in the last five years. However, only one of the four transfers (that of Paul Pogba to Manchester United) was a world-record fee at the time of purchase.
Real Madrid have pioneered this approach, having spent over €250m in the last decade on prodigious talents from other clubs. Not all of them would turn into world-beaters, but a handful of them have impressed profoundly in Madrid.
Understandably so, most transfer stories and speculation ahead of the transfer window surrounds young players who could grow into bonafide superstars. Here, we take a look at the most valuable U-23 forwards in the world.
5 Lautaro Martinez | Inter Milan | €64m
Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez has made headlines all over with a reported switch to the Nou Camp being lined up. The forward had vastly impressed his compatriot and Barcelona legend Lionel Messi when they shared the pitch on national duty.
Inter spent €25m to bring the Argentine from Racing Club and are now reaping the benefits of their purchase. He currently has a €111m release clause, and Inter are insistent on receiving the full amount for his services. Lautaro has scored 13 goals and set up three goals in his 26 starts in Serie A this season. He's formed a lethal partnership with Romelu Lukaku at the tip of Inter's attack.
The man referred to as 'El Toro' or 'the bull' combines his raw pace and strength with elegant dribbling and intelligent positioning. The 22-year-old has excellent composure and is a sharpshooter in and around the 18-yeard-box. Lautaro's knack for contributing to the build-up in the attacking third also helps bring other attackers into play. He's aggressive off the ball, continually pressing opposition defences while hunting for the ball.
Barcelona view the South American striker as the long-term natural replacement for the ageing (and declining) Luis Suarez. El Toro is inclined to move to the Nou Camp as well, but Barcelona are still locked in negotiations with the Nerazzurri.
4 Erling Haaland | Borussia Dortmund | €72m
Former Molde forward Erling Haaland announced himself to the world in a breathtaking manner during the 2019/20 campaign. The Norwegian striker has wreaked havoc in every competition he's played in and against every team he's played for both Dortmund and RB Salzburg.
Before his €20m move to Germany, Haaland smashed in a whopping 16 goals in 14 games in the T-Mobile Bundesliga, of which just 11 were starts. His record in the UEFA Champions League is even more astonishing as the 19-year-old hit ten goals and an assist in 8 games, starting only six. As expected, Haaland took practically no time to settle into the German top-flight, having registered 13 goals in 11 starts, setting up a further two.
Dortmund won the battle against Manchester United and Juventus to sign him in January and Haaland hasn't looked back since. The towering Norwegian has been one of the sharpest finishers in the world this campaign. He's scored an impressive variety of goals so far including a few scorchers from distance, as well as close-range finishes from ridiculous angles.
To go with his ability to finish commendably well, he is a superb athlete, combining his presence and pace on the counter with brute strength.
He is widely regarded as one of Real Madrid's and the Red Devils' leading target for the centre-forward role. However, potential suitors would have to tread lightly given that Haaland is represented by the notorious Mino Raiola.
3 Joao Felix | Atletico Madrid | €81m
There is always a certain amount of anticipation when a young player steps up on the big stage and has a devastating impact. In this case, the word 'anticipation' would be severely understating the hype surrounding Joao Felix. He made the front pages of Portuguese newspapers at 19 with the tag of being the most talented Selecao attacker since Cristiano Ronaldo.
Felix's unbelievable technical ability belies his age as is simply remarkable. His understanding and reading of the game allows him to float around the attacking third and find pockets of space. The Portuguese's superb movement makes him very difficult to mark, and he can wriggle past opposition players with his excellent ball control. He's also capable of playing all across the front line.
Felix excels at playing off a more focal striker, much like his predecessor at Atletico Madrid, Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman loves to operate in a similar area and was hugely successful at the Wanda Metropolitano. Although Felix is still some way off the World Cup winner, there is little doubt that he has a scarily high ceiling.
Felix also received massive praise from former legends of the game, including the likes of Rui Costa and Kaka. The latter, in particular, flattered Felix by telling him that he is already more skillful than Kaka ever was.
The Atleti No 7 is just 20 years old and can go on to become one of the best players in the world. Los Rojiblancos invested a stunning €126m in the Portuguese starlet, and it could pay dividends in the near future.
2 Jadon Sancho | Borussia Dortmund | €117m
Jadon Sancho is, perhaps, the most talented English youngster the Three Lions have had in a very long time. The fleet-footed winger is one of the biggest success stories among players who left their home comforts for valuable minutes abroad.
The former Manchester City winger departed from the Etihad Stadium due to a lack of minutes in the first-team. The long list of City's attacking wizards such as Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva, and others was too tall an order for the young an inexperienced Englishman.
Sancho replaced Ousmane Dembele at the Signal Iduna Park for £8m and now has the world at his feet.
His pace and trickery help him beat his man either out wide or while drifting into the middle. Predominantly a wide player, the Englishman is excellent at operating from between the lines and has utter and complete over the ball. His ability to dribble past players like they were training cones is exquisite, and additionally, he's got an eye for goal.
Sancho has continued to break records with his sublime output this campaign, having amassed 17 goals and 16 assists in 32 league games. His surreal performances have helped BVB seal second place on the Bundesliga table.
Manchester United's interest in the former City winger is well-documented, and he is said to be keen on a move to Old Trafford. Should he make the move, he is expected to cost the Red Devils upwards of €100m despite the ongoing pandemic.
1 Kylian Mbappe | Paris Saint-Germain | €180m
There is not a more talented individual aged 23 or under in the world than Kylian Mbappe. The French superstar has already achieved immense success for a player who turned 21 in December 2019.
Mbappe already has won each of the last three Ligue 1 titles on offer and the FIFA World Cup 2018 with France. The young attacker spearheaded Les Bleus to glory with crucial and, not to mention, stunning goals in Russia. For his immaculate performances, he was voted as the best young player at the prestigious tournament as well.
The PSG No 7 is also the defending Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year, having bagged both in the 2018/19 campaign. Although he started just 24 games, he ended the season with an astonishing 33 goals and seven assists. Mbappe has also been in blazing form this year scoring 18 goals in 20 games, having started only 17.
His ability on and off the ball, tactical intelligence and sublime ball control is simply unrivalled by anyone of his age, and perhaps, even beyond. Mbappe combines his excellent positioning in the final third with a host of abilities. He is arguably one of the fastest players in the world and, to add to that, he's a razor-edged finisher. It would not be fair to call him one of the best youngsters in the world when, in truth, he's one of the best players in the world bar none.
Real Madrid have always been interested in recruiting Mbappe to the Santiago Bernabeu. The capital club were said to have been tracking his progress for years before he moved to PSG. The Frenchman remains a player Los Blancos admire. Should Mbappe move to Real Madrid, he could certainly go on to become one of the greatest footballers of his generation.
He is the most valuable U-23 attacker in the world.
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