Bellingham, Wirtz, Musiala lead best male soccer players U21

The world's best male players are getting younger, but is it finally time to crown successors to the legendary Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?

For the sixth straight year (read 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 here), ESPN brings you our list of the game's next top young stars aged 21 or under. Now 22, last year's No. 3 Bukayo Saka is too old to be included, while some others from 2023's top 10 -- Gabriel Martinelli, Josko Gvardiol and Moisés Caicedo -- are also over the age requirement, too.

Many of this year's crop have made their mark on the big stage already, but who has done enough to land a place on ESPN's list, what are their particular qualities, and how can they get even better? Collating the list for the fourth year running is Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who has worked as a scout and executive for clubs across Europe, including Monaco, Zenit and Watford. He explains his methodology before revealing his picks.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Why 39?

For the past two years, 39 has worked well, and from an initial long list of 100 players, those remaining are the ones who best satisfied my main criteria: appearances at the highest level, consistent performance over a sustained period and the potential to develop into a top-level footballer.

What types of research were undertaken?

I used a sounding board consisting of professional scouts and sporting directors from several top European clubs before deciding on the final ranking, as well as some online scouting platforms. Personal preference also played a role.

Is there a reason that attacking players dominate the list?

In general, forwards get more playing time at a younger age than, say, central defenders, who tend to need more time to develop tactical awareness, positioning and understanding of the game. Beyond those who did make it, other defenders considered included: Jorrel Hato, Rico Lewis, Illia Zabarnyi, Aaron Hickey and Castello Lukeba.

It speaks volumes about the array of attacking talent that players such as Youssoufa Moukoko, Mathys Tel, Arthur Vermeeren, Yeremy Pino and Elye Wahi didn't make the final cut.

- Players included must be age 21 or under on April 1.
- Transfer values are taken from Transfermarkt.

- Positions are: GK (goalkeeper), LB (left-back), RB (right-back), CB (centre-back), DM (defensive midfield), CM (central midfield), AM (attacking midfield), FW (forward), ST (striker).
- Stats correct as of March 29.

The List

39. Lewis Miley, CM

Club/country: Newcastle/England
Age: 17
Estimated transfer value: €22m

Drafted into the first team as a result of an injury crisis in November, the England U19 international grasped his chance and keeps getting playing time even as the club's more experienced midfielders return to fitness. Miley is not yet an undisputed regular, but he has come a long way in a short space of time and held his own in the Champions League against the likes of PSG and AC Milan.

Strengths: With excellent close control, energy to burn, and outstanding spatial awareness, Miley predominantly operates on the right side of a midfield three but also takes up wide positions to help create an overload. He dovetails well with his full-back and his constant movement helps link the defence and attack. Miley is more efficient in defensive duels (66% won) than those higher up the pitch (22%), while his willingness to regain the ball and get back into shape is not inhibited by his creative tendencies.

How he can improve: At just 17, he still needs to bolster his physical presence and gain some more upper body strength. With an average of 33 passes per 90 minutes, there's also an argument that he should look to get on the ball more in spite of Newcastle's rather direct style.

38. Benjamin Sesko, CF

Club/country: RB Leipzig/Slovenia
Age: 20
Estimated transfer value: €50m

Few other players on this list have been more heavily backed for a breakthrough by professional scouts. And, with 11 goals in 34 games this season, there have been signs that the Slovenia international is now ready to announce himself on the Bundesliga stage following his €24m move from Austria's FC Salzburg in the summer.

Strengths: Sesko possesses all the qualities to become one of the elite No. 9s in Europe. Not only is he a technically sophisticated finisher with both feet, able to score from most angles and ranges, but he's also a fine athlete. Even at 6-foot-5, he is able to surprise opponents with impressive speed over a long-distance sprint and, though he's still fighting for an undisputed starting spot with Loïs Openda at Leipzig, there's never any lack of effort when he gets a chance in the XI as he presses with conviction and tracks back to help his team.

How he can improve: His aerial ability was among the last aspects of his game to develop, but he has found the net three times this season by way of well-executed headers and could improve that. More emphasis on the creative side -- assists, well-directed flicks, lay-offs or touches -- of the No. 9 role would be the next step. A little like Erling Haaland at Man City, he can sometimes appear disconnected from his teammates when he doesn't get on the scoresheet as he only has an average of 16 touches per 90 minutes.