Which young players played the most minutes in 2021?
It seems like footballers get younger every year, or maybe it’s just us spectators getting older. Either way, it is certainly true that young players are an important part of the beautiful game, with stars emerging each season. 2021 has been a stellar year for young players, with a number of exciting talents breaking through across Europe’s top leagues.
The Canary Island-born Barcelona midfielder was one of few bright spots in a disappointing 2020/21 season for the Catalan club. He played over 50 games for the club in his debut season, and looked set to continue in the same fashion this season before injury curtailed his progress.
After an exhausting club season, Pedri went on to star for Spain at the European Championships, where he played all but one minute in his country’s run to the semi-finals, earning the Young Player of the Tournament award and a place in the team of the tournament. Pedri was then called up to Spain’s squad for the Olympic games, where he played another six games in the run to the final, his 73rd game of a gruelling season.
Many observers believe these international exertions are the reason for the injury problems Pedri has struggled with since the start of the 2021/22 season, but he’s not the first player to suffer the negative effects of fixture congestion and he won’t be the last. Both he and his club will be hoping that there are no longer-lasting effects.
Despite only playing two further games in 2021 after the Olympics, in November he was awarded the Kopa Trophy, a Ballon d’Or equivalent for players under 21 in recognition of his efforts last season.
After cementing his place in the Birmingham City first team and earning a big move to Borussia Dortmund in 2020, England midfielder Jude Bellingham took his game to another level in 2021.
Bellingham finished as runner up in the Kopa Trophy voting after helping his club win the DFB Pokal final and reach the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City, where he was unfortunate to have a goal ruled out. After the club season ended, Bellingham was named in the England squad for the European Championship where he became the youngest England player to play at a major tournament when he came on as a substitute in the first game of the group stage.
He began the 2021 season in fine form. In December, Bellingham managed two assists against Bayern Munich, continuing his meteoric rise. In total, he played almost 4000 minutes during last season, scoring nine goals, and anyone who’s watched him knows there’s no doubt more to come from the young midfielder.
Another young England player who made waves in 2021 is Bukayo Saka. The versatile Arsenal man can play almost everywhere, having filled in at left back, left wing-back, right wing back, and centre midfield. However, 2021 has been all about cementing a place on Arsenal’s right wing. Saka has done so in spectacular fashion, keeping his club’s record signing Nicolas Pépé on the bench, while managing to add goals to his already well-rounded game.
In the summer, Saka made a big splash at the European Championships. After surprising many by being called up in the first place, he ended the tournament as one of the best young players to feature. He started in the semi-final against Denmark and was brought on to try and help England win the final against Italy. However, the tournament ended in heartbreak for the Arsenal man – he was one of three players to miss a penalty.
While such a devastating moment would break some players, the steely determination you now see in Saka’s eyes suggests it has toughened him up. After a well-deserved rest, Saka returned to Arsenal and has been better than ever, forming a vibrant attack alongside other young stars Emile Smith-Rowe, Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli.
Ajax midfielder Ryan Gravenberch is another young player who had a stellar 2021. The 19-year-old holding midfielder made his debut in 2018 at the age of 16, following in the footsteps of Dutch legend Clarence Seedorf. However, 2021 was when Gravenberch really took his game to the next level, becoming a regular first team starter at his club and earning the Marco Van Basten award for Ajax talent of the year and Dutch Football Talent of The Year.
Gravenberch also made his international debut in 2021 when he was called up to the postponed European Championships, going on to make 10 appearances for the Netherlands during the year, with his first goal coming in July against Turkey.
He started the 21/22 season in similar fashion, featuring in 12 of Ajax’s 18 league matches so far, as well as all six of their Champions League group stage matches. Ajax have qualified for the last 16 of Europe’s premier competition, while the Netherlands have secured their place at the next World Cup, so expect to see much more of Gravenberch for club and country in 2022.
- Top 10 UEFA Champions League goalscorers of all-time
- Top 10 Best Paid Managers in Football 2022
- Top 10 Fastest Football Players in the World 2022