From some of Europe’s biggest sleeping giants like AC Milan and Arsenal to clubs like OGC Nice and Brentford who are brewing something special, here we look at ten football clubs entering a golden generation.
A golden generation can be subjective and different for different clubs based on circumstances. This is something that is usually marked by a club’s past successes.
For clubs like AC Milan and Arsenal, a golden generation means a crop of players capable of challenging for every competition over a sustained period of time. For a club like Brentford, a golden generation could simply mean establishing themselves as a top-half side in the English top-flight over the course of the next decade — something they haven’t done in over 85 years.
So, with all that in mind, here are 10 clubs who I think are entering a golden generation.
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#10 Leicester City FC
Leicester City have endured a dreadful start to their 2021/22 season and currently sit 10th in the league table with just 25 points. Although it has been a disappointing campaign so far—their worst points tally at this stage since the 2017/18 season—the rebuild that has taken place under Brendan Rodgers cannot be overlooked. Yes, deals for the likes of Ayoze Pérez and Dennis Praet have been widely off the mark in terms of both player profile and their contribution to the system, but signings such as James Justin, Wesley Fofana, Boubakary Soumaré and Patson Daka show the reasoning behind their transfer strategy. Add to that the ongoing list of youngsters coming through their academy setup, with the likes of Harvey Barnes, Luke Thomas, and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall all amassing more than 1,000 minutes of football, the Claude Puel era really feels like a thing of the past.
Having averaged five or more players aged over 30 among their eleven most-used players ever since their 2015/16 title-winning run, this term, Leicester have Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel as the only veterans among their eleven most-used players, signalling a clear intention of wanting to invest in youth and build for the future with a core of young players.
#9 AS Monaco
Just as they did with the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva, and Anthony Martial among others, AS Monaco have continued to implement a model built around producing top young talents.
The appointment of former Bayern Munich head coach Niko Kovač in June 2020, who developed the likes of Sébastien Haller and Luka Jović at Eintracht Frankfurt before bringing the likes of Alphonso Davies and Leon Goretzka to Bayern Munich, should have worked out nicely for the Monégasque club.
This season under Niko Kovač, eight players aged 23 or less played more than 1000 minutes of football. Players like Aurélien Tchouaméni (21), Axel Disasi (23), and Sofiane Diop (21) all amassed more than 1500 minutes individually, with the young Frenchman Diop producing 6 goals and 3 assists in 18 starts so far this season.
Apart from the above-mentioned young talents, Kovač had lots of other young exciting players at his disposal like Myron Boadu, Benoît Badiashile, and Eliot Matazo.
However, the Croatian was sacked recently following a difficult start to this campaign. After last season’s third-place finish in Ligue 1 along with Champions League qualification, Monaco were sitting in seventh in the French first division with 8 wins, 6 draws, and 6 defeats from their 20 games when Kovač got the sack.
The club have since roped in former Genk and Club Brugge manager, Phillipe Clement. The 47-year-old has a high-pressing attacking system, primarily shifting between the 4-3-3 and 5-4-1 setups as per the requirements.
#8 Newcastle United FC
It has been 67 years since they won their last piece of silverware and 94 years since they last won the first division title, and yet, Newcastle United rank ninth in England for overall titles won with 14 major trophies.
However, for a club that dominated English football during the 1900s to post-war mediocrity in the late 1930s, the Tyneside club’s journey has always been one hell of a rollercoaster ride. The team rose again during the 1950s, winning three FA Cups before ending up bouncing between divisions from late 1960s to early 1990s.
Premier League football saw the Magpies being labelled as “The Entertainers”. With their brand of football under Kevin Keegan, they challenged for the title consistently during the mid-90s. Following a slump that lasted a couple of seasons, Brian Robson’s Magpies were back at it, challenging for cups and league titles every single season.
In recent years, 14 years of pain under the now previous ownership of Mike Ashley saw the club face relegation twice, while their owner spent most of his time investing in his other ventures, making the St. James’ Park faithful understandably unraged. Their recent takeover, though, is set to make the club one of the modern powerhouses in English and European football.
Before the takeover, Newcastle United were sitting at the foot of the Premier League table with 10 points and one win from 15 games. Since then, Eddie Howe has been appointed as the head coach, and the Englishman is experienced enough to steady such a ship, having led AFC Bournemouth from the fourth tier of English football to the Premier League in his previous job.
Besides, Newcastle have already started splashing the cash, with Kieran Trippier and Chris Wood having already joined the club, with more incomings possible throughout a busy January. They are also linked with Sven Botman of LOSC Lille, with the 23-year-old reportedly keen on the move.
Thus, over the next decade or so, Newcastle United should be expected to be challenging for the European places at the very least.
#7 OGC Nice
Across Europe’s top five leagues, OGC Nice rank highly among the clubs with the best xG difference (Goals-Expected Goals) per game. Moreover, their squad ranks among the top 10 youngest squads in Europe’s top five leagues — giving an indication of what to expect from them for years to come.
While we are already used to seeing the likes of AS Monaco, Real Sociedad and RB Leipzig focus on developing young talents, Nice are newcomers to the party. Credit needs to be given here to Christophe Galtier, who oversaw LOSC Lille’s surprise title win last season with a core of young, talented players assembled under him. Players like Victor Osimhen, Gabriel Magalhães, Boubakary Soumaré all excelled under him before securing big moves.
Having joined Nice last summer, the 55-year-old Frenchman is already working his magic in the southern coast of France, with 23 of Nice’s 33 goals coming from players aged 25 or below. 21-year-old Frenchman Amine Gouiri, in particular, is flying at the moment with 9 goals and 5 assists in 17 starts for the club, while youngsters like Kasper Dolberg, Hicham Boudaoui, and Justin Kluivert have all chipped in with crucial goal contributions.
With an average of more than 6 years and 250 games at each of his previous jobs, Christophe Galtier is in it for the long haul, which means Nice have a great opportunity to stake their claim as Paris Saint-Germain’s main rivals for the next decade or so, especially given the inconsistent competence of the likes of Lille, Lyon and Marseille.
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#6 AFC Ajax
Whenever I talk to someone about a golden generation, in recent memory, I think of the Ajax team from the 2018/19 campaign. Dominating victories over some of the biggest European giants like Real Madrid, Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur meant Erik ten Hag’s team were minutes away from their first Champions League final since 1996 before the Lilywhites—inspired by a Lucas Moura hat-trick—crushed that dream.
This year, it looks like history might repeat itself, with Ajax having won all six of their Champions League Group Stage matches — a first in their glorious history — scoring 20 goals and conceding just 5. Besides, they face Portuguese club SL Benfica in the Round of 16, a tie they are likely to win, although nothing can be taken for granted in the world of football.
What is more impressive about Ajax’s current crop of players is that they are much younger than the 2018/19 batch; the current squad contains only five players aged 28 or more, while the 2018/19 starting XI alone contained five players aged 28 or more.
Although it could lead to collapses in clutch situations, the fact that players like Jurrien Timber (20), Ryan Gravenberch (19) and Antony (21) have played almost every minute for Ajax thus far will do a world of good to their development and the team’s progress in years to come.
Europe’s busiest conveyer belt of talent is producing top players at a rapid rate, and the supply isn’t expected to halt any time soon.
#5 Brentford FC
As stated above, a golden generation will have different meanings and parameters for different clubs. Although Brentford may never challenge for the Premier League title or the Champions League places, they are clearly at the beginning of a special era.
Revived by club owner Matthew Benham, who brought in advanced data analytics from his previous career in betting, Brentford look set to retain top-flight status in their first attempt in 76 years, and they are doing so by playing attacking and exciting football.
The Bees have built their side for next to nothing, with the 2021 summer transfer window marking the first time since 2014 when they haven’t made a profit. Thus, the influx of cash coming from playing in the Premier League will allow them to strongly resist offers for their stars.
Despite their newfound wealth, Brentford have remained true to their principles of securing players aged 23 or below. Their clear vision and their charismatic manager Thomas Frank mean they remain an exciting proposition for players, given the examples of Kristoffer Ajer turning down Newcastle United and goalkeeper David Raya resisting overtures from Arsenal in the summer.
#4 RB Leipzig
The Red Bull-led operation at Leipzig deserves a mention in my list. RB Leipzig have been the conveyer belt in Germany for developing top young talents in recent memory. They have made a name for themselves in producing top forwards in recent years, and this season, too, two of RB Leipzig’s youngsters rank among the most dangerous forwards across Europe.
Christopher Nkunku and Dominik Szoboszlai have scored 12 goals and produced 12 assists between them, while players like Joško Gvardiol, Mohamed Simakan, Nordi Mukiele and Amadou Haidara have been a regular feature in the Leipzig starting XI.
Moreover, what’s more impressive about them is the fact that despite losing three managers and £281 million worth of players since their promotion to the Bundesliga, RB Leipzig have averaged third in terms of points accumulated in that period while scoring 1.77 goals per 90’.
Besides, the club’s annual revenue has risen drastically from €120 million at the end of their first season in the Bundesliga to more than €300 million in 2021. Thus, they can now reject bids for some of their star potentials, and with more than half the squad aged 25 or below, Leipzig are perfectly poised to emerge as one of the biggest forces in European football over the coming decade or so.
#3 Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Under Gerardo Seoane, Bayer Leverkusen have fielded five of the ten youngest starting XIs this season. Seoane was the head coach of BSC Young Boys from 2018-2021, another club with a reputation for trusting young players.
In a Bundesliga campaign that has so far seen Die Werkself win five of their opening seven fixtures before the crumbling of their domestic form, Seoane has given chances to a large chunk of young and exciting players.
Across all competitions, Leverkusen have fielded ten players aged 22 or less with a game-time of more than 900 minutes individually. Their young front trio of Florian Wirtz, Moussa Diaby and Patrik Schick has been a constant menace for the opposition centre-halfs. Seoane’s team are averaging 2.33 goals per game in the Bundesliga, with their front three having contributed 33 goals and 21 assists among them.
This is a young and exciting—though inconsistent—crop of players that are fighting to rewrite history by winning Leverkusen’s first silverware in 29 years. However, an early exit from the DFB-Pokal and a 14-point difference between them and Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich mean their wait for that elusive silverware might stretch to another season.
#2 AC Milan
A golden generation can be as good as circumstances allow. With Juventus focusing more on the past than planning for the future, and their neighbours Inter Milan about to embark on a downward spiral, bracing themselves for a contract apocalypse within the next couple of years, with 15 Nerazzurri players having their contracts expiring by June 2023, the Rossoneri have a golden opportunity to rule Italy for the foreseeable future.
AC Milan have the youngest squad in Serie A, with nine of their eleven players with the most minutes played aged 25 or below. Milan chairman Ivan Gazidis had put his trust in manager Stefano Pioli on recruitments, with their vision set on rebuilding for the future, and their work has paid dividends this term, with the team sitting in second, just two points behind leaders Inter, though they have played a game more in which they threw away a one-goal lead to lose 2-1 in the 96th minute to Spezia.
While there are players like Simon Kjær (32), Olivier Giroud (35) and Zlatan Ibrahimović (40) to provide experience and legs in clutch situations, there is a youthful spine to this AC Milan squad which will only grow week after week.
#1 Arsenal FC
Ever since the move from Highbury, Arsenal have seen very little success which ultimately led to Arsène Wenger’s downfall. However, Arsenal’s direction since then has been even more vague, with the club looking to bring in quick short-term fixes in order to return to the Champions League.
However, under the stewardship of manager Mikel Arteta, the club have decided to adopt a completely different approach — a full rebuild. There have been moments of utter chaos, but two years since his appointment, Arteta continues to win over people who doubted him and his methods. People can finally see a style of play and a crop of players so talented that, if nurtured properly, can become world-beaters.
Arsenal are sitting fourth in the Premier League table, and ten out of the twelve players who have played more than 1000 minutes for them are aged 24 or below. Moreover, their front four—Gabriel Martinelli (20), Bukayo Saka (20), Martin Ødegaard (20) and Emile Smith Rowe (21)—have produced 37 goal contributions among them already.
Although Arsenal have just started to click following a tumultuous couple of years, they are a constantly-evolving side with a very high ceiling. Moreover, the Hale End academy is churning out top-class talent every year, which only boosts their chances of returning to the top English football sooner rather than later.