It may not be the most glamorous position on the field, with strikers and attacking midfielders often stealing the glory, but no good side is complete without a top-class goalkeeper.

Here are five of the best young emerging keepers in Europe…

Gianluigi Donnarumma – AC Milan

When given his senior debut by Sinisa Mihajlovic last season, Gianluigi Donnarumma became the youngest goalkeeper in the history of Serie A at the age of 16 years and eight months.

Almost immediately, a new superstar of calcio was born. The teenage quickly established himself as the Rossoneri’s first choice between the posts, keeping the vastly experienced Christian Abbiati out of the team.

Standing at 6ft 5ins tall and blessed with remarkable reflexes for such a large young man, Donnarumma has all of the physical gifts to excel as a top-level goalkeeper.

But perhaps the now-17-year-old’s most valuable attribute is his temperament. Ever since making his Serie A bow back in October 2015, Donnarumma has carried himself with the poise and unawed demeanour of a seasoned veteran.

The Milan stopper, who wears the number 99 to reflect the year of his birth, demonstrated his value to the team in the closing stages of their season opener against Torino at the San Siro. Milan were hanging on to a slender 3-2 lead when the away side were awarded a penalty in stoppage time. It was the first time in his fledgling career that Donnarumma had faced a spot kick. But with the coolness of a much more experienced keeper, he made a superb diving save to deny Andrea Belotti and seal the three points for his team.

In just 41 appearances for Milan, Donnarumma has already kept 15 clean sheets. So far this season, he is averaging 2.91 saves per game and has a 100 percent success rate when coming to claim crosses.

This is the kind of form that led to him becoming the Azzurri’s youngster ever goalkeeper when making his debut in a friendly against France in August.

Alban Lafont – Toulouse

In France, 17-year-old Toulouse goalkeeper Alban Lafont has been earning rave reviews.

The teenager became the youngest keeper in Ligue 1 history when he made his first-team debut at the age of 16 years and 10 months last November. At 6ft 4ins, Lafont has all of the physical tools to thrive in his position despite his tender years, and has represented France at under-18 level.

Born in Burkina Faso, Lafont moved to France when he was nine. It wasn’t long before the young man’s athletic gifts were noticed and, after receiving a host of offers from clubs all over the country, he elected to join Toulouse’s youth academy.

With the team shipping goals and struggling at the bottom of the table, Lafont’s introduction to the first team coincided with Toulouse’s turnaround. His debut came in a 2-0 win over high flying Nice; it was Les Pitchouns’ first clean sheet of the campaign.

In the 14 games before his debut, Toulouse had conceded 29 goals; the subsequent 24 matches with Lafont between the sticks they allowed 27 goals. And this season he has been in equally superlative form, with his performance in the 2-0 win over champions PSG in September particularly impressive.

Former Lyon goalkeeper Gregory Coupet believes the key to Lafont’s success is his maturity: “He is a smart goalkeeper who reads the game well. It is possible to feel that. He brings a lot of confidence despite his young age.” It also helps that he is playing behind his good friend Issa Diop. The 19-year-old centre-back was a team-mate of Lafont’s at youth level and the pair have now both become key players for Toulouse.

Jordan Pickford – Sunderland

There are few reasons for optimism for Sunderland fans at the moment. Davis Moyes’s team are bottom of the Premier League having taken just two points from their first 10 games.

But the emergence of young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is providing a small ray of hope in these dark times for the Black Cats.

The 22-year-old England under 21-international has spent the last four years gathering first-team experience through a series of loan spells in the lower divisions.

Darlington, Alfreton Town, Burton Albion, Carlisle United, Bradford City and Preston North End have all benefited from the burgeoning talent of Pickford in recent seasons.

The youngster made his Sunderland debut in December 2015 in an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal. When he made his maiden Premier League appearance against Tottenham Hotspur nine days later, it meant that he had appeared in all of the top four divisions in England by the age of 21.

An injury to regular first-choice keeper Vito Mannone handed Pickford the chance to impress at the Stadium of Light earlier this season. Although Sunderland continue to struggle, the number 13’s stock has risen.

Were it not for Pickford’s average of 3.38 saves per game and 100 percent claim success this season, Sunderland could be in an even worse position.

Joël Drommel – FC Twente

FC Twente’s 19-year-old goalkeeper Joël Drommel made his first-team debut against the mighty Ajax in a 2-2 draw December of last year.

The youngster, who is a product of Twente’s own youth academy, went on to make 15 appearances for the Dutch club last season.

This term, Drommel has been back-up to the more experienced Nick Marsman, but there is no rush for the talented stopper to be thrust into regular senior action as he only turns 20 this month.

Much like Donnarumma and Lafont, Drommel cuts an imposing figure for one so young, standing at 6ft 4ins. His decision-making ability and reliability when collecting crosses marks the youngster out as having a level of maturity beyond his years.

Though yet to appear for the Netherlands at under-21 level, the Bussum-born teenager was called up to the Jong Oranje squad last season.

Raúl Gudiño – FC Porto

Mexican goalkeeper Raúl Gudiño signed for FC Porto from Guadalajara in his homeland for $1.5 million in the summer of 2015, following a successful 10-month loan spell with the Dragões.

Gudiño is yet to make his first-team debut for Porto, but he does have Primeira Liga experience thanks to spending last season on loan with União da Madeira.

The 6ft 5ins 20-year-old is renowned for his lightning-quick reflexes and shot stopping ability.

Gudiño was named the CONCACAF Young Goalkeeper of the Year in 2013 for his performances with Mexico at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, and has appeared five times for EL Tricolor at under-23 level.

About the author – Ryan Baldi

Ryan is a Midland’s based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications.

Twitter:  @RyanBaldiEFB


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Jordan Henderson just can’t win over the majority it seems. To some, he can’t pass, can’t dribble and doesn’t have a fixed position. He has underwhelmed for England, doesn’t really offer much in defence and was captain of the national under-21 side that was comprehensively dismantled at the European Championships in 2013. How could he ever be worth £20 million?

The armchair fan lives to fight another day. With Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson in his sights and a disdain for modern football, his argument rages on. Except this is no theoretical debate; this is the raging debate between most Liverpool fans and their counterparts that don’t watch the Anfield club on a regular basis.

It seems to be a running theme among opposition fans that the young midfielder isn’t worthy of a place in Liverpool and England’s team. It’s yet another example of English football’s insanity and some fans’ desire to write off young talent before it has had a chance to fully mature.

It’s pointless going into the argument of why countless England fans seem to want to shoot down the nation’s best young players – that’s another article in itself – but let’s focus on why Hendo is in fact one of the Premier League’s most effective midfielders and most underrated team men.

To understand the numerous facets to the Sunderland-born midfielder’s game, it’s perhaps wise to look into his past. Henderson was captain of every Sunderland side – whose academy he joined aged 11 – from under-14 up. It offers a telling insight into the maturity of a player who was so widely misunderstood when he made his breakthrough at the Black Cats.

At academy level he was an all-action central midfielder, capable of bursting into the box and one of the younger proponents of a dying art: the box-to-box midfielder. As Yaya Toure and Aaron Ramsey revitalize a position that had declined for a period time in English football, Jordan Henderson is brilliantly regressing back to his natural role at Anfield.

Rewind back to Sunderland and it was with a tremendous fanfare that the midfielder, who was operating behind a lone striker or off the right flank, was called up by England manager Fabio Capello. He was the new light in attacking midfield, and for many fans that hadn’t seen him play the praise among the tabloids, chat forums and social media was enough.

Therefore it was a surprise when they did. The Ozil-esque, technically perfect attacking midfielder was nowhere to be seen. Instead a shy workman with simple ideas and a laidback mentality was on show. For many, it was the moment Jordan Henderson was written off.

Like many on their England debut, he had a quiet game. The hype surrounding his inclusion was disproportionate to his performances in the North East and while Sunderland were playing good football at times under Steve Bruce, he wasn’t even their main man. He was the club’s Young Player of the Season for two years running (2009 and 2010), but what does that really mean?

The boo-boys and the choir that supported them truly stepped out from behind the sofa when Henderson made his long-awaited move away from the Stadium of Light.

Anfield was his next destination, in June 2011, as he sought to further his career at the Merseyside giants. It’s strange to think that Henderson signed for Liverpool over four years ago – it certainly doesn’t feel that long. Perhaps it’s testament to how he’s settled into the ethos of the club and the work he’s put in to become a vital cog in the Brendan Rodgers era.

The reported fee was £20 million as Liverpool fought off competition from Manchester United and Tottenham to secure pen-to-paper. Unfortunately for Henderson, the fee, and Damien Comolli’s British Revolution at Anfield, was to weigh heavy early on.

He came in at the same time as Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam – players who have since left the club after failing to deliver on a consistent basis.

Without knowing much about the midfielder’s strengths, fans expected a number of things that he couldn’t deliver. Much like Lucas before him, some sections of the home support grew tired with the outlay on Henderson and the all-too simplistic performances. It was these very fans that have been turned as the 25-year-old continues to swim against the tide in wider scope of English football.

It takes time to settle at Anfield, much like any big club. Jordan Henderson is an example above all else.

In the case of Lucas Leiva, it was more an issue of football’s pace in England that forced him to struggle in his first 18 months. There was little question about his ability once he picked up the speed of the game in England and settled into the holding role.

For Henderson, pace was never an issue. It was merely adjusting to the quality of talent around him. Luis Suarez’s runs couldn’t be compared to Kenwyne Jones’. Playing with Steven Gerrard was a world-away from sitting alongside Lee Cattermole. And working on Philippe Coutinho’s wavelength took some learning, unlike Stephane Sessegnon’s.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a slight on the aforementioned players; they all offer a variety of skills, particularly Cattermole, but comparisons between them and Liverpool’s top players are redundant. As a result Henderson began his learning process again. It’s a process that was conducted under difficult circumstances. Let’s not forget he was in an underachieving Liverpool team that showed little signs of progression, and a leaky back line.

Operating on the right also stunted his early progress. The traditional view is that Anfield has long missed a byline winger. Even Dirk Kuyt – for me one of football’s most underrated players – was much maligned for his inability to beat the man and play with directness and pace.

Isn’t it funny then that Henderson, now with some of the most impressive stats in the Premier League and captain of the club at just 25, still operates off the right side, albeit tucked-in slightly more than previously.

The Brendan Rodgers system has changed everything for England man and highlights the difficulty, and conversely the ease, some players have in adapting to specific formations. It’s often not the manager or the player’s fault that they can’t perform; it’s just not a compatible match.

Fortunately for Henderson, his role on the inside right of the midfield has helped him play his natural game. Along the way he’s highlighted the indispensible quality that his energy has given the team, while also forging a career at Anfield that looks like it will continue for a numbers of years. His stats last season back that up.

As a midfielder he’ll be looked at for his passing and distribution above all else, so what better place to start? In spite of completing 1.8 key passes per game and 3.1 long balls, his pass success rate stands at an excellent 84%. Factor in the crowded midfields in the Premier League and his often-advanced position in the attack, and the numbers take on a higher significance. Nine assists are nothing to be scoffed at either.

Furthermore, he’s averaging 1.4 shots per game, a solid return for a midfielder who covers as much ground as he does. With the added responsibility as captain, he’ll need to add goals to his game as the close proximity of teams at the top of the league can be widened by a few telling goals from unlikely sources. Henderson can provide them.

Perhaps his most telling contribution, aside from his distribution, comes in the defensive phase. He averages a outstanding 2.5 tackles per game. That’s more than Michael Carrick (1.4), Ramires (1.2), James McCarthy (2.3), Yaya Toure (1), Nabil Bentaleb (2.3), Cesc Fabregas (2.4) and Aaron Ramsey (2).

In the case of Toure, Fabregas and Ramsey, we’re talking about midfielders who are seasoned internationals and widely considered to be the best box-to-box midfielders in English football. His offensive stats stand up against most of the aforementioned too; only Yaya Toure is ahead, although he’s streets ahead of most players let alone Henderson.

Further to his tackles per game, he averages 1.7 clearances and one interception. Stats, it goes without saying, aren’t everything, and the intangible factors like ground covered and areas pressed are hard to acquire information on. Suffice to say, he’s always pushing forward in Rodgers high-pressing game yet providing ample cover to the central midfielders and right-sided full-back.

Attitude is a huge part of ‘The Liverpool Way’. Dirk Kuyt was often revered by those who attend Anfield far more than those who don’t. It was his attitude, hunger and unwavering desire to leave the pitch having contributed something that endeared him to the Kop. He wasn’t flashy, silky or even typically Dutch but he was more than just a footballer.

It’s this sense of belonging and wanting to impact on a game that is the greatest improvement in Jordan Henderson’s game, above even the stats. The shy, quiet lad from the North East has been replaced with a decisive, mature England international who finally believes in his considerable ability.

Liverpool now boast a player who is quickly beginning to repay the initial outlay. Next up for Liverpool’s number 14 is a fight for his place as a regular in the heart of England’s midfielder at Euro 2016. He will need to take his Anfield form to Wembley on a consistent basis, scoring goals and laying on a few to be considered worthy of a regular place in midfield – especially with the likes of Ross Barkley and Fabian Delph in the mix.

He’s arguably the most improved midfielder in the English game, alongside the aforementioned Delph, and his stats back that up. Some have more assists, others more goals, but few can lay claim to a greater all-round impact. Barring one strong season, he has also been riddled with mediocre performances around him, particularly in defence.

Only time will tell whether he can kick on again and contribute goals in a Liverpool team struggling at both ends of the pitch. Until then, Henderson’s journey is only just beginning in a season that promises much for his employers – and even more in the white of England. The key now is consistency at the highest level and remaining fit. If he manages that, England may well boast one of the game’s most effective midfielders in the heart of their central three come the Euros.

About the author – Omar Saleen

Based in London, Omar is the editor-in-chief at These Football Times. A professional coach by day having worked at clubs including Fulham, QPR and Red Bull New York, he also writes freelance for a number of outlets.

twitter: @omar_saleem


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