Gab and Juls’ soccer draft: Saka No. 1 for players born in 2001

We’re both big NBA fans, and the draft is a special day for those who love the league. Football is an entirely different sport, with youngsters joining top clubs via entirely different pathways, but we couldn’t resist the challenge of our own draft.

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Following last year’s version, when we chose players born in the year 2000, the only eligibility requirement for this draft was being born in 2001. Here we go …

It was a close call between him and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia for the top spot, but what swings it Saka’s way is 3½ seasons as a bona fide starter on a top Premier League team. Great attitude, great teammate and he has become a prolific scorer from wide areas too.

He may have the highest ceiling of anyone in this draft and the “Kvaradona” moniker, while still blasphemous, isn’t as absurd as it once sounded. A bag of tricks off the dribble, great workmate and superb athleticism make him unplayable at times. If his finishing improves, too, the sky is the limit …

His growth at the Bernabeu has been steady over the years, and he seems entirely unfazed by the big stage. He’s not just a guy who was thrived in the shadow of Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior however, he has made his own mark, whether out wide or through the middle. And, of course, he has notched his share of big goals.

In the space of a few weeks, he won a World Cup with Argentina and became the most expensive player in the history of the Premier League. And yet he handled both situations with the aplomb and maturity you expect from a natural leader. He’s as plug-and-play as they come in the middle of the park.

This tall, commanding old school center-back took some time to find his feet at Arsenal after being signed in 2020, but he’s now a mainstay. And maybe it’s not a coincidence that Arsenal’s run to the 2022-23 Premier League title hit a major bump in the road after his season-ending injury.

A high-intensity, perpetual motion, ball-winning machine in the middle of the park, Caicedo also presents a threat from distance and has the tactical nous to fill multiple roles (including, on occasion, right-back) in Brighton’s system. The Ecuadorian was one of the Premier League’s top newcomers last season.

Not the biggest at center-back, but more than makes up for it with his reading of the game, quickness and ability to defend one-on-one. Started out as a right back and equally comfortable in a back four or back three.

The first proper center-forward picked in our draft, Ramos is all about dynamism and movement. Few player his age are as adept at finding space and having an eye for goal. Ramos is also unusually unselfish for a central striker.

The third Arsenal guy to be drafted — a testament to the Gunners’ emphasis on youth — Martinelli’s route to the top is unusual, given he started out playing futsal and only moved to football full time in 2015, at age 14. Futsal may have given him tight control and tricky dribbling skills, but he is just as comfortable in wide spaces and he chips in with plenty of goals, too: he was Arsenal’s top scorer last season.

The son of legendary French defender Lilian Thuram — and brother of France international forward Marcus Thuram — he’s an oversized, live-wire midfielder with plenty of physicality and energy who is also excellent in the air.

A big, left-footed center-back, Badiashile is strong and aggressive, but also a calming influence on those around him. He arguably settled in quickest out of all of Chelsea’s midseason signings and wasn’t rattled by the club’s tumble down the Premier League table.

OK, he had a bit of a nightmare after moving to Stamford Bridge in January, but this is like those guys who have a terrible senior season only to go on and show plenty of promise before that. Mudryk is fast, technically gifted and direct like few other wide men his age. He just needs to regain his mojo.

He’s your old-school ball-winning defensive midfielder who will run all day and doesn’t mind a bit of physicality. He also knows how to distribute the ball and protect his center-backs.

Another physical, all-energy type of central midfielder, Kone has been a fixture at Gladbach for two seasons. Boasts tremendous work rate, but also a keen sense of what the team needs and great tactical awareness.

The transition from Liga MX to Europe (let alone the Dutch Eredivisie) is far from straightforward, yet Santi Gimenez settled in quickly at Feyenoord, notching 23 goals in his first season despite starting the campaign on the bench. Mobile, athletic and good in the air, he played a big role in Feyenoord becoming Dutch champions.

OK, this one is a bit of a gamble, given he suffered a season-ending injury in November and hasn’t played since. He’s the highly rated prospect that misses most of his senior year through injury, I guess. However, Broja is tall, strong and intelligent and has plenty of physical and footballing skills to harness, assuming he makes a return to full fitness.

Not many keepers get drafted this high, mainly because few of them get significant playing time at a young age. But Trubin has been Shakhtar’s starting keeper — and playing Champions League football — since he was 19, and there’s a reason. He has a big, lanky frame, but is also hugely athletic; there’s something of the Thibaut Courtois about him.

Technically outstanding, but athletically gifted, too, Olise has played mainly wide for his club, though his natural position may be through the middle where his vision and one-touch passing make him stand out. Hugely hyped as a child, he bounced around several top clubs and that may have hindered his development somewhat, but he has massive upside.

Impressive man-child of a defensive midfielder, Onana is an intense and physical backstop in front of the back four. Despite his young age and despite having newly arrived at the club, he played a huge role in helping Everton avoid relegation.

“Nicky Beans” is an old-school midfield playmaker who sits deep and dictates play, though he’s capable of a sudden, defence-splitting through-ball as well. After guiding little Cremonese to promotion two years ago, he returned to Juventus and despite their difficult campaign, was often a beacon of stability in the middle of the park. There’s also a definite edge to him too, which fans love.

Just to highlight how this is far from an exact science, a year ago we went with:

1. Erling Haaland, FW, Manchester City
2. Phil Foden, FW, Manchester City
3. Vinicius Junior, FW, Real Madrid
4. Alphonso Davies, DF, Bayern Munich
5. Aurelien Tchouameni, MF, Real Madrid
6. Jonathan David, FW, Lille
7. Dusan Vlahovic, FW, Juventus
8. Antony, FW, Manchester United
9. Sven Botman, DF, Newcastle United
10. Sandro Tonali, MF, AC Milan

With the benefit of hindsight, you’d probably have Vinicius ahead of Foden. We still love Foden, but there has to be more to come. Tchouameni, Vlahovic and Antony — for different reasons — didn’t have outstanding campaigns. We’re still big believers in their abilities, but it does highlight how, at that age, consistency is difficult to maintain.

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