This is a guest post by TSG community member Ryan Rosenblatt
There was some outrage around England over the summer as the new 25-man roster rule began to set in.
Teams like Manchester City would be forced to sell off players below market value because there was no space for them on the 25-man roster.
Quality players fighting injury, such as Jonathan Woodgate and Owen Hargreaves, would have to prove that they were at least near fitness because their teams could not afford to have one of the precious 25 spots taken up by a player who may not be healthy. Sure, when January comes around the teams get a chance to select a new 25 and this only applies to Premier League matches, but clubs will be 20 matches into the season by then and league matches make up the vast majority of a club’s outings.
There was one caveat in the 25-man roster rule, though. Players under the age of 21, defined as having been born on or after January 1, 1989, did not count against a team’s 25-man roster. Now, some teams, like Chelsea and Wigan, have so many young players that they named just 19 players to their rosters and filled out the rest with young players, but other teams, like West Ham, have a youth system so robust that they named 16 young players to their roster, all exempt. This is in contrast to Birmingham, Stoke, West Brom and Wolves, who all did not name a single young player to their roster.
With young players exempt from this new roster rule, they became exceedingly valuable beyond the obvious qualities of a young player who is capable of holding his own in the world’s top league. When one takes a glance through the young players named by 16 of the league’s clubs though, it is rather astonishing the quality of young players that grace the Premier League. So, let’s take a look at the Premier League’s Under 21 Best XI:
Two of the team’s biggest headliners are up top and form a rather intimidating pairing. Mario Balotelli, for all of his immaturity and petulance, is still one of the brightest young talents in the world. Few 20-year-olds have bagged 20 goals in a top league, let alone doing so in Serie A for a club like Inter. Doing it in 59 appearances makes it all the more impressive and making your international appearance at that young of an age for a team like Italy, who has shown to be so resistant to youth says all one needs to know about the pure talent that Balotelli is.
Joining him up top is the new English phenom who is drawing the praise of any newspaper with a lick of ink left, Andy Carroll. The striker was named to the Championship Team of the Year last season when he scored 17 goals to help Newcastle gain promotion and has already bagged four this season, three of which came versus Aston Villa. Carroll scored in his youth international debut as a U-19 player and went on to get chances with the U-21 team, but like Balotelli, he is not immune to controversy. Already arrested twice and sent home from a U-19 England camp for breaking curfew, Carroll is on watch for his attitude, but as long as he keeps scoring, it will be overlooked.
Gareth Bale has been arguably the best left-sided player in the Premier League so far this season, picking up right where he left off at the end of last season. The Welshman picked up three assists and drew a penalty in Tottenham’s 4-0 Champions League play-off win and has used his blistering pace and fantastic vision to put a fright into all right backs he’s come across. His play has been so good that The Special One is rumored to be lining up a big money bid for him this January, which isn’t bad for a kid who just turned 21 this summer.
Next to him is Spain’s next starlet who lit up the 2010 UEFA U-19 Championship en route to earning the Golden Boot. Signed away from Barcelona by Liverpool, Pacheco has already made seven appearances for the Reds at just 19-years-old and was described as a creative force when he was just 17-years-old and helping the Liverpool win the reserve title. A product of the Barcelona youth academy with extraordinary vision and a nose for goal, many see him as the next great Spanish attacking midfielder, something Liverpool would only be too happy with.
Leave it to Sven to make things difficult on a young player, but that’s what he did when he selected a 17-year-old Theo Walcott to the England 2006 World Cup team before he had even made a Premier League appearance, Highly touted as the next great player going back to his days at Southampton, Walcott has always been a star in the making and has already made 89 appearances for Arsenal. He has 13 goals in those appearances to go along with three goals in 13 senior caps for England. Anyone who follows the English game even a little bit knows Walcott and his mind-numbing pace.
Behind Bale, Pacheco and Walcott are a pair of accomplished youngsters. Jack Wilshere has always played an age level up for England and has never disappointed, even earning a cap for the senior team last month. The smooth midfielder has started all three matches for Arsenal this season and looks set to be a fixture for the North London powerhouse. With fantastic vision and deceptive pace, Wilshere is often pegged as the future of England. It’s high praise for a young player, but few have doubted him.
Sandro has accomplished about as much as a 21-year-old can accomplish with so little fanfare, but that’s what happens when you do your work in South America. Sandro made 99 appearances for Inernacional, of Brazil, the last of which came in the Copa Libertadores Final that Inter walked away with. Now moving to Tottenham, Sandro show off the skills that not only accomplished so much at Inter, but earned him the captain’s armband for Brazil at the 2009 South American Youth Championship and a place as one of Brazil’s seven back-up players for the World Cup. With tough tackling and smooth distribution, it might not be long before Sandro finds a home in the Spurs’ midfield
At just 18-years-old, Phil Jones was tossed into the fire by Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce last season when he was given a start versus Chelsea, but the youngster showed a maturity beyond his years in dealing with the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba. The performance led Allardyce to compare Jones to John Terry, but only for his play between the lines. It was about as good a debut as anyone could hope for and led Arsenal to come calling, but Jones committed himself to Blackburn and now will look to match his debut performance each week.
Had he not injured his groin last season, Kelly might already be the fixture in the Liverpool back line that he will be before long. Kelly’s first start for Liverpool came in a Champions League match against Lyon and was so stellar that he earned Man of the Match honors from the Liverpool website. An injury derailed most of the rest of his season, but the defender, who can play either centrally or on the right, returned towards the tail end of the season and picked up this season in fine form. Kelly played exceptionally in the Reds’ Europa League home leg, showing off how well he reads the game.
Rounding out the back line is another Englishman, Jordan Spence. Capable of playing all the way across the back line, Spence is plenty versatile and gives West Ham plenty of options. With good pace and standing 6’3’’, Spence is a physical specimen who made vast improvements over two seasons on loan at Leyton and Scunthorpe. After making his West Ham debut on the final day of the season last year, Spence figures to have his opportunity to earn time with the Hammers this season and build upon his sterling England youth career.
In goal, it was rather simple. The number of young keepers can be counted on one hand so there aren’t too many to sort through and a couple of those have barely played in competitive matches as a professional. Peter Gulacsi’s 18 appearances for Hereford United in League Two last season and five for Tranmere Rovers this season on loan from Liverpool are far more than any other young keeper. Toss in Gulacsi being a staple of various Hungarian youth teams and you have yourself a winner. Mention that he was the best keeper at last year’s U-20 World Cup, saving three penalties in the third place match, and you have yourself a star.
Astonishingly, players such as Tom Cleverley, Jordan Henderson, Nathan Delfouneso, Gael Kakuta, Jonjo Shelvey, Giovani dos Santos, Chris Smalling, Daniel Sturridge, John Bostock, Jack Rodwell, David Ngog, Rafael, Federico Macheda, Dan Gosling and Danny Rose, all couldn’t find a place on this team. When one takes a look at the outstanding young players that fill the Premier League and don’t even take up a spot on the 25-man roster, it makes one do a double-take.