I recently wrote a post about a few defensive midfielders I expected to stand out in Football Manager 2016 — you can check it out here; I’ve written about the attributes, preferred positions, and potential of Matias Kranevitter, Lucas Romero, Victor Wanyama, Sven Bender and more excellent ball-winners and deep-lying playmakers. The article quickly became by far the most popular one on my blog, and gave me the idea of writing more player profiles, since fellow FM-ers seem incredibly keen on using the existing FM community to assist their due diligence and scouting process.
I’m currently eight seasons into my primary save on FM16, and am in charge of Manchester United; During this time, I’ve come across some spectacular young talents who are guaranteed to achieved stardom in the game and in real life over the next decade. In this series, I’ll briefly discuss over 40 of the best teenagers, categorized by playing position — I’ll look at their attributes at age 24-28, when they’ve had a good few years to develop and reach their full potential. Looking at their careers in my save will hopefully give you a good idea of their expected career paths and how you can get the best out of them.
Given there are over 40 teenagers on this shortlist, I’ll divide it into four — potentially even five — parts; in this third article, I’ll deal with some of the most talented wonderkid midfielders in the game.
I should mention here that the star ratings for potential are deceptively low; these midfielders are being evaluated based on my Manchester United side that has won seven Premier League titles and five Capital One Cups in a row, reached three European Champions Cup finals in a row, winning two, and won two FA Cups. Some high standards, in short.
For the first article in the series, where I profile seven outstanding teenage goalkeepers, click here.
For the second article in the series, where I profile nine outstanding teenage defenders, click here.
Since the initial shortlist for this article covers 18 midfielders, I’ve split it into two pieces; here’s a list of the 9 players you’ll read about here: Abdou Lahat Diakhate, Thiago Maia, Ruben Neves, Kristoffer Ajer, Filipe Soares, Andres Cubas, Godfred Donsah, Callum Gribbin, and Renato Sanches.
Check the home-page to read about the best midfield prospects from Croatia, Romania, and Poland, and other exciting wonderkids in the second part of this article.
Abdou Lahat Diakhate
Club: Fiorentina | Nationality: Senegalese | Position: DM/M(C) | Age: 17
We begin this list with an incredibly impressive creative playmaker who combines technical prowess and the ability to dictate games from start to finish with physicality and consistency. Abdou Lahat Diakhate is one of the brightest prospects in Italian football, and if his performances in my save are anything to go by, he is meant for big things.
Capable of playing in five or six roles each in Central Midfield or as a Defensive Midfielder, Diakhate’s attributes are stunning across the board: superb core Technicals such as First Touch (17), Passing (18); Mentals such as Anticipation (17), Composure (16), Concentration (16), Vision (17); and Physicals such as Natural Fitness (18) make him one of the most complete wonderkids on this list by the age of 24. To sum up just how incredible Diakhate is, consider this: where else will you find a playmaker with Marking (13), Tackling (16), Natural Fitness (18), Stamina (16), and Strength (17) like his?
I had been keeping tabs on Diakhate’s progress at Fiorentina in my save, but he simply got too good too fast for me to afford, and Chelsea snapped him up in the summer of 2021 for a fee of £33,500,000; in the two years since, his value has skyrocketed to £45,500,000 thanks to 4 goals and 11 assists in 94 appearances; while these figures are not incredibly impressive, and other saves have seen him hit the 10-goal mark for a season, Diakhate has stood out for his average ratings (7.47 and 7.50), tackling (4.08 and 4.75), and passing (84% and 82%), indicating high levels of effectiveness both going forward and when defending.
Scout reports indicate a player who thrives on his natural fitness and athleticism, and tireless ability to cover ground (he covered 9.03 miles per game in the 2022/23 game, the best in the Premier League), allowing him to dictate the tempo of games. Given he is still only 24 in my save, I expect him to dominate the Premier League for a good 7 to 8 more seasons, and if I were to restart my save with any top club, I would make Diakhate one of my first signings.
Club: Santos | Nationality: Brazilian | Position: DM/M(C) | Age: 18
The Brazilian wonderkid has been labelled by many FMers and articles as one of the absolute best youngsters in the game this year, and one look at a 26-year-old Maia at Man City confirms this. Arguably a slightly more intelligent player than Diakhate, Maia offers a similar set of strengths and weaknesses, with the exception that he is better suited to a deeper position, and his slightly inferior Physicals make him less suited to an aggressive playmaker role.
Maia possesses excellent attributes for a Deep-Lying Playmaker role in a three-man midfield, and is technically good enough to play in a possession-based system. His Marking (16), Tackling (16), Anticipation (17), Determination (16), and Positioning (17) make him excellent in the defensive aspect of the game — he won 185 tackles in 45 appearances (4.65 per 90 minutes) in the 2022/23 season at an 83% success rate, while also making 390 interceptions — while his Passing (16), and Teamwork (13) make him a fantastic playmaker — he achieved 82% pass completion in the 2022/23 season, with 44.32 passes per 90 minutes indicating his ability to dictate the tempo of games.
Maia also offers consistency across seasons, achieving average ratings between 7.15 and 7.35 in his five seasons at Man City, with pass completion in the 80%-85% range and tackles in the 4.50-5.30 range. One weakness would be his relatively poor discipline, seen in his 51 yellow cards in 223 appearances, with a season-high of 13. However, this comes with the turf, and does not deter from my positive appraisal of Maia’s ability.
Despite being just 18 years old in 2015 with no international caps at senior or youth level to his name, he will get a work permit on appeal, and thanks to the short-term contract, he should be available for around £5 to 7 million if you swoop for him straight away; don’t balk at the fee if you’re in charge of a smaller team, since it will cost you at least four or five times as much if you wait for a couple of seasons.
Club: FC Porto | Nationality: Portuguese | Position: DM/M(C) | Age: 18
When UEFA describe Ruben Neves as “not afraid to go forward and prompt attacks, showing great maturity combined with an accurate passing skill, great vision and an astute sense of positioning”, you know you simply cannot ignore the 18-year-old midfielder who happens to be the youngest captain in the history of the UEFA Champions League; and they haven’t even mentioned the defensive side of his game which I can confirm is excellent.
Ruben Neves is, to be honest, not as stunning a physical specimen as either Diakhate or Maia, but where he is truly in a league of his own is his core Mental attributes, which are all in the 15-17 range at the age of 26.
Neves is most comfortable as a defensive midfielder in a Deep-Lying Playmaker role, but I have found he can be used as a CM-Box-to-Box midfielder late in games to great effect, thanks to his Work Rate (16), Agility (19) and Natural Fitness (15). His Passing (16) complements his Mental attributes, allowing him to dictate games, and his Positioning sense (17) means he is effective at stabilizing attacks from the midfield, and spreading possession to the flanks.
His 48 appearances in the 2022/23 season saw him achieve a tackling rate of 81% and passing rate of 82%, and he was superb defensively, making 378 interceptions and above 5.70 tackles a game. In his 330 appearances for Manchester United across 8 seasons, he has been unbelievably consistent, showing maturity and reliability even as a teenager, with between 5.30 and 6.70 tackles a game, and passing percentages in the mid- to high-70%s.
Neves is a fantastic prospect, and even though he will cost about £15,000,000 to £18,000,000 if you choose to buy him the summer of 2015, I would consider that a bargain given the 12-15 years of superb performances you’ll get out of him.
Club: Start | Nationality: Norwegian | Position: DM,M,AM(C) | Age: 17
Alongside the likes of Eder Alvarez Balanta and Gabriel Barbosa, among others, Norwegian wonderkid Kristoffer Ajer has been one of the most famous wonderkids over the last two iterations of Football Manager, and with good reason.
The most positionally versatile player so far, Ajer can play anywhere along the spine of your team, reminiscent of real-life legends like Manchester United’s Duncan Edwards and the Welsh giant John Charles; while he doesn’t start as capable of playing as a center-back, six months’ training and a handful of appearances in the position were enough to make him almost a natural, showcasing his invaluable versatility. During my career at Manchester United, I’ve used him in mainly four positions: a CDM-Deep-Lying Playmaker-Defend or a CM-Deep-Lying Playmaker-Defend, or an attacking midfielder in the Shadow Striker role; of course, the fourth role has been that of a center-back.
While Ajer is technically gifted, with decent First Touch (15), Passing (15), and Technique (15) as of June 2023 (age 25), and quite well developed mentally, with key attributes in the 15-17 range, he stands out for his physicality, allowing the manager to use him in the different positions with incredible effectiveness. He is key in breaking up the opposition’s play, and in his best season with Manchester United made 6.22 tackles every 90 minutes, winning 91% of headers attempted (tactically, his superb Strength (18), Jumping Reach (17), and Heading (13) can be used by instructing the team to prevent the opposition goalkeeper from passing the ball out at goal-kicks; Ajer’s physicality ensures he laps up ensuing long-balls.
He is also effective when attacking corners, either by winning a far-post header or marking the goal-keeper. Ajer has been fantastic for Man United, making 223 appearances in 6 seasons, contributing 17 goals and 23 assists despite playing largely as a defensive midfielder. With his stats for passing, tackling and headers won always consistently high, he offers a strong option for breaking opposition teams’ attacks, and retrieving and circulating possession.
Despite his immense potential, Ajer is arguably the easiest wonderkid to purchase in the game, since Norwegan side Start have very little bargaining power; while a bid of £1,600 would have been sufficient in FM15, you will have to chalk out anything under £500,000 to prise the starlet away in the summer of 2015. If you’ve played 15 seasons in FM15, you don’t need me to tell you that money is more than worth it for this gem.
Club: Benfica | Nationality: Portuguese | Position: M/AM(C) | Age: 16
One of many unbelievable Portuguese prospects at Benfica’s academy (expect to see more in this and future lists), Filipe Soares is a solid, technically superb playmaker who stands out for his consistency and ability to motor through games without making significant mistakes.
While his Physicals are all good (either 15 or 16; his Strength and Natural Fitness are rather excellent for a European player of his height, age, and position), as are his Mentals (unspectacular but more than sufficient at the 13-15 range), what makes Soares a must-have for any team looking to dominate the ball and tempo of the game are his Technicals; with First Touch, Passing, and Technique (17) at unbelievable levels, he excels at distributing possession, keeping the ball moving with minimum fuss.
A unique weapon in his arsenal is his ability from long range; when played behind the striker, he is a genuine threat from distance, and more than a handful of his 9 goals in 103 appearances for my United side since joining at age 20 have been from distance. When played as an attacking midfielder, he works very well with a Complete Forward in a Support role, since he is superb at linking with the striker and playing short intricate passing sequences in front of the opposition defense before picking the defense-splitting pass.
A clear chink in his armour is his absolute inability to participate in an aerial game; with Heading and Jumping Reach in single digits, Soares is most comfortable with a more physical midfield partner; in fact, this weakness is good reason to play him behind the striker as opposed to in central midfield.
During his time at Man United, Soares has stood out for his passing consistency, averaging the high 70% range for pass completion. He performs admirably as a back-up midfielder in my team, and at his transfer fee of £20,500,000 and wages, he presents real long-term value for money.
Club: Boca Juniors | Nationality: Argentinian | Position: DM,M(C)/M(R) | Age: 19
A superbly well-rounded player, Cubas has the potential to be absolutely world-class, and should be a prime candidate for anyone looking to play a three-man midfield triangle with a combination of technical prowess and physicality.
At age 27, Cubas has a frightening combination of technical ability — First Touch (17), Passing (17), Technique (17), Marking (16), and Tackling (16) — and the intelligence to be decisive both when in possession and when defending — Anticipation (17), Composure (18), Decisions (16), Determination (15), Off the Ball (15), Positioning (17), Vision (18), and Work Rate (19). To top things off, scouting reports mark him out for his Agility (17) and Stamina (18).
Cubas has played most of his football for Boca, Shakhtar, and Manchester City at the base of a midfield triangle in a 4-3-3 system, and has excelled thanks to his indefatigable ability to control the tempo of games with incisive short passing. He is capable of playing a number of roles, and has been a threat as a box to box midfielder as well. In the 342 appearances he has made for the three clubs over the last 9-and-something seasons (as of November 2023), Cubas has made an astonishing 7 substitute appearances, the last of which came six years ago, indicating his ability to slot into any team from the get-go. Scoring 28 goals and laying on another 59, Cubas has never failed to achieve pass completion ratios below 78%, making at least 50 passes per 90 minutes without fail. His disciplinary record of 19 yellow cards and 3 red cards defy his positional responsibilities and the fact that he makes above 3 tackles a game.
As with some other players on this list, the only clear weakness in his game is his inability to threaten in the air, with Heading (6) and Jumping Reach (3) in single digits; there is some doubt training him in these categories will yield any results. Nonetheless, Cubas’ intelligence on the pitch makes him an invaluable member of Manchester City’s squad in my save, and Cubas comes highly recommended; snap him up early, because the biggest names in the game will look to snap him up very quickly.
At around £5 million, Cubas is a steal, and a proper top-class midfielder in the making. I’d also take a closer look at Boca’s other young players; the club has a knack of producing sensational talent, and with the plethora of talented up-and-coming South American players, I would expect to unearth a few more gems.
Club: Bologna | Nationality: Ghanaian | Position: M(C),DM.M/AM(R) | Age: 19
Once compared to Michael Essien and sought by Chelsea, this Ghanaian midfielder has the potential to grow into a well-rounded midfielder with consistently good attributes across the board who can easily offer backup for the top European sides, while becoming a midfield mainstay for smaller clubs.
With Technicals in the 12-15 range, Mentals in the 13-15 range, and Physicals either 14 or 15, it comes as no surprise that Donsah is capable of playing at a decent level in a remarkable EIGHT different positions, making him suitable for any team with a rotation policy and tactical flexibility.
Making 282 appearances in the game so far, Donsah has scored 38 and assisted 52, for a rather remarkable goal contribution ratio of one goal or assist every three games. His passing percentages have hovered in the 60%-70% range, perhaps a result of being played in wide areas at times, and he has made between 2.70 and 3.40 tackles per 90 minutes.
One drawback for those interested in buying Donsah early in the game is that he began the 2015/16 season at Bologna, who have taken him on loan with a mandatory option to buy; this makes him unavailable for potentially the first two seasons in the game. After that, though, his versatility and solid combination of attributes make him a very decent prospect.
Club: Manchester United | Nationality: English | Position: AM(C), M(C), AM(R) | Age: 17
Arguably the best prospect at Manchester United’s youth academy since Paul Pogba, Gribbin is a fleet-footed, technically gifted attacking midfielder with an eye for a pass and superb set-piece ability.
Gribbin’s core attributes are Dribbling (17), First Touch (18), Free Kicks (18), Corners (19), Passing (16), Technique (17), and Vision (16); as expected, this makes him more of a creative player who thrives in the hole between opposition defenders and midfielders. He also does superbly as a right-sided inside forward, cutting in and linking up with the striker. His creativity is easy to see, and he has made 49 assists in 223 senior appearances so far in his career, despite most coming either sporadically at Man United or at vastly inferior lower league sides. Having personally managed him at United, I remember him putting on some astonishing displays, including one that featured 5 assists and 2 goals from direct free-kicks; I should mention that that display came in a pre-season friendly against a university side from Hong Kong.
Despite his obvious strengths shining through, Gribbin is somewhat let down by the severe drawbacks in his game; with only average physicality, poor aerial ability — indicated by Jumping Reach (9) and Heading (5) — and a lack of Concentration and Work Rate, he can be prone to floating through games, and often needs to be carried by more hard-working players. This may be the biggest impediment to him succeeding at the highest level in the game, since he does not always affect the game despite having the ability to be decisive.
Nonetheless, ask most lower league managers looking to take a young English creative playmaker from a Premier League side on loan, and you will hear the name Callum Gribbin mentioned.
Club: Benfica | Nationality: Portuguese | Position: M/AM(C) | Age: 18
Yet another outstanding youngster from Benfica, Renato Sanches differs from Filipe Soares in that while the latter is a really good player, Renato Sanches is nailed on to be absolutely world-class, and would be one of my four or five highest recommendations to any manager.
Sanches is the modern European midfielder, technically brilliant but with the physicality to take care of himself on the pitch; one look at the highlighted core attributes for his preferred position of Deep Lying Playmaker indicates he is technically astute, with his First Touch (16), Passing (17), Technique (16), Composure (17), and Decisions (16) making him perfect for the role. However, it’s his whole set of attributes that makes him such a fantastic prospect; with Mentals in the 15-17 range and Physicals at similarly high levels, he is pretty much the complete package.
He offers the ability to control games when in possession, but also offers a more aggressive creative outlet with his mobility and forward runs, which are enabled by high levels of anticipation and game intelligence. He links up with strikers very well, and on the many occasions I’ve played against his Chelsea sides, I’ve found him difficult to suppress, either by man-marking or crowding the midfield.
As of June 2022, Sanches has made 182 appearances in 4 seasons since joining Chelsea for a whopping £49,000,000 at age 22, scoring 23 and creating 26. His average ratings for any given season have never dropped below 7.50, thanks to passing percentages of 79%, 83%, 82%, and 81%, and he stands out for his fantastic discipline, receiving just 11 yellow cards and not a single red. He has completed over 61 passes per game, made almost 5 tackles a game, and just under 4 dribbles a game in 27 appearances so far in the 2022/23 campaign, showcasing his effectiveness in every aspect of a modern midfielder’s role.
If all this hasn’t been enough to convince you that Renato Sanches is one of the absolute best wonderkids in the game, he’s also been nominated for the Golden Ball twice. Spend whatever amount of money it takes.