The Premier League has a golden generation of young talent
The Premier League is currently enjoying a golden era of young attacking talent. Up and down the table, on teams large and small, young players are staking their claims as some of the brightest stars in England. A unique confluence of circumstances has led to teams of all stripes giving the kids a chance, and those kids are performing.
This season there are a whopping nine players aged 22 or younger who have played 600 minutes (a filter used for all stats in the piece) and average over 0.40 combined expected goals and expected assists. Relax the criteria to 0.30 combined xG and xG assisted and that number springs to 17. Last season, there were only 4 players over 0.40 combined and 12 with over 0.30. Two seasons ago those numbers stood at 7 and 11. So, what exactly is going on in the Premier League this season?
One major factor in the young success bump is that Chelsea and Manchester United, for different reasons, handed the keys over to young stars in the attack. Chelsea sold Eden Hazard and bought Christian Pulisic, but also accepted a transfer ban, instead opting to rely on Pulisic, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount. All four of those players have cleared the 0.30 threshold, and all but Mount are over 0.40. Chelsea took a good squad, rolled the dice on playing the kids and were richly rewarded.
Abraham in particular has turned into one of the best pure strikers in the league. He’s fourth in the Premier League in xG per 90 with 0.54, thanks to a classic striker mix of taking a lot of shots (his 3.30 is fifth in the league) and keeping those shots high quality. Of the 20 highest volume shooters in the league, only Danny Ings of Southampton and Gabriel Jesus at Manchester City have a better xG per shot than Abraham’s 0.16. He’s just really really good.
Manchester United and Arsenal are similarly undergoing their own forms of youth movements, although for reasons somewhat less clear than Chelsea’s transfer ban. United spent large on defenders last summer, bringing in Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka while letting go of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez (though, granted, the two are at very different points in their careers and have had very different fates at Inter Milan). Of their young players, only Marcus Rashford makes the 0.30 cutoff, with a 0.49 combined xG and xG assisted a respectable fourth among the kids, behind only Gabriel Jesus, Abraham, a surprise player who we’ll get to in a second, and Pulisic. Daniel James just about sneaks on at the very end of this list at 0.31 combined stats. It’s also worth noting that Mason Greenwood just misses the minutes cutoff, or else he would join James at 0.31, so if he continues to produce in the minutes he’s given expect him on the list if it's revisited at the end of the season.
For Arsenal, it’s Gabriel Martinelli who appears on the list although he barely makes the minutes cut. Still, at only 18 years old, his 0.35 combined numbers are a bright sign, placing him eighth on the list. It’s also understandable that Arsenal, despite playing their kids, have just one player on this list and it's an attacker with limited minutes. They do still have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Özil on the books after all. Most of their kids are, to one degree or another, midfielders.
Rounding out the top portion of the table, there’s Jesus at Manchester City who sits atop the list. He's putting up monster stats, as he always does, 0.86 combined xG and xG assisted while also missing tons of shots. The distribution of his numbers is fairly comical with him missing more than expected, averaging (a still obscenely high) 0.63 goals per 90 and an even obscenely higher 0.73 xG per 90 but making up for it by scoring 0.28 assists per 90 despite assisting only 0.09 xG per 90.
Meanwhile, in the kind of age distribution you might expect from an upstart, Leicester City have Harvey Barnes sitting seventh on the list with a robust 0.48, Wolves have Pedro Neto in limited minutes on 0.40 in ninth and then in 11th there’s Liverpool’s assist machine, Trent Alexander-Arnold, with 0.37.
But, part of what makes this season so special is that the super talented kids are not restricted to the top of the table (not even when I generously include midtable big six club Arsenal as an honorary member of the top of the table list). Everton, in fact, have three separate attackers on the list, second to only Chelsea. The standout is our mystery player from earlier in the piece, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has quietly turned himself into one of the better pure strikers in the Premier League. Not only is he fourth among young players in combined xG and xG assisted with 0.53, but his xG per 90 of 0.48 places him seventh overall. That puts him ahead of players like Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, and Harry Kane, just to name a few players not selected at random at all.
Calvert-Lewin is joined on the list by fellow Evertonian attackers Moise Kean, who in limited minutes has far underperformed his combined 0.40 xG and xG assisted combined and last year’s star transfer, Richarlison, whose 0.37 combined numbers put him 12th on the list. Everton have a full quarter of the top young attackers in the Premier League. They're no Chelsea, but it’s not too shabby a start for a team trying to orchestrate a medium-term plan to graduate into the top tier of the table.
Three other players clear the arbitrary threshold of 0.30 combined. Southampton’s Moussa Djenepo just makes the list with 0.31, though he’s been in and out of the side over Southampton’s two-month-long sprint from relegation battler to the top half of the table. Then there’s Ismail Sarr, who didn’t make his second start until November 30th but has been an ever-present force in Watford’s lineup since then, at least until he went off injured two matches ago.
Finally, there’s the crown jewel of the relegation battle, Todd Cantwell. Norwich’s young winger is playing heavy minutes on a bad team and is still putting up the tenth best attacking numbers among young players in the Premier League, with 0.39 combined xG and xG assisted. If Norwich, who are currently six points adrift at the bottom of the table, don’t stage a miracle comeback, it’s likely that Cantwell will be plying his trade elsewhere next season. Whoever gets him will pick up an exciting young prospect who should be a Premier League mainstay for years to come. And Norwich, at least, should have the financial blow of relegation at least somewhat alleviated.
The Premier League is awash with good young talent right now. Good teams are letting their kids play, teams in the middle are using younger players to build toward the future and teams near the bottom have their own young gems to pin their hopes on. And, as development is an uncertain science, some of these players will likely flame out before turning into the stars of the future, but some will surely come good. More than any year in recent memory, this Premier League season is the launching pad for the stars of the future. Just remember to say you saw them when.