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England’s 2008 generation—the talent offering a glimpse into the three lions’ future

England, as a footballing nation, has never struggled to produce some of the world’s leading talent. The question has always remained: is there enough at any given time to form a competitive outfit, and if so, can they put club rivalries aside for cohesion’s sake? In this multi-part series, I set out to highlight some of the key players destined for long-term success as they (hopefully) blossom into established first-team players. 

The FA have worked tirelessly attempting to achieve a culture shift towards increased unity, helping to capitalise upon the wealth of talent now at England’s disposal. The advent of a new state-of-the-art developmental facility in St. Georges Park, headed by prospective Manchester United sporting director Dan Ashworth during his time working as the FA’s Director of Elite Performance, has significantly contributed toward this goal. Other initiatives, like large-scale investment in grassroots football and the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), are beginning to manifest in some of the strongest England youth squads in decades.

The current under-16 cohort, managed by Neil Ryan, who previously spent 19 years working for Manchester United’s academy, is quite possibly the brightest assortment of young players in England to date. Earlier this year, England claimed victory at the Under-16 Football Federations Cup, a prestigious international youth tournament which hosts some of the most talent-rich footballing nations each year

England’s 2008 Generation:

Amir Ibragimov, Attacking Midfielder, Manchester United

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PORTSTEWART, NORTHERN IRELAND – JULY 26: Amir Ibragimov of Manchester United during the Super Cup NI under-16 match between Manchester United and Coleraine on July 26, 2021 in Portstewart, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

It feels like every week you hear of a new wonderkid likened to Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo—a claim that essentially sets a young player up to fail by default. I couldn’t say, however, that I had ever heard of a prospect compared to the anomaly that was a sixteen-year-old Wayne Rooney—until Amir Ibragimov. The Dagestanian prodigy, born into a family with sporting ability coursing through their veins, has been a known entity to avid Carrington followers for years. Amir’s younger brothers, Gazik and Muhammad, also play in lower age groups at United. Meanwhile, their eldest brother, Ibragim, a professional MMA fighter, claimed a gold medal at the under-23 world championships last year and looks set for big things. Amir started garnering significant recognition from United fans after his outstanding performances in the SuperCup NI in July 2022, where, despite being United’s youngest player, he played a fundamental role in the Red Devils’ victory in the competition. Ibragimov played as an advanced #8 throughout the competition, evidencing his versatility and adaptability.

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Comparisons with Rooney predominantly stem from Amir’s bull-dog-like tenacity and aggression out of possession, not to mention his elite technical ability and ferocious ball-striking technique. The England under-16 is a dynamic, explosive player capable of performing at a high level in any position across the front line. Amir has publicly described himself as a #10, although I see his future as more of a second striker, linking play and making third-man runs into the box. Ibragimov benefits from a low centre of gravity, aiding his agility and sharp turn of pace. A former academy coach at United, Raducio King holds the youngster in high regard: “I haven’t seen many who can run like him. I could see him playing number 10—in a Wayne Rooney role. Amir is a highly intelligent player who intuitively adapts to the flow of the game, with a strong sense of space and timing.”

Malachi Hardy, Centre Back, Tottenham Hotspur

England’s captain for the most recent UEFA under-16 development tournament in San Pedro Del Pinatar, Malachi Hardy, is one the most highly regarded prospects in Tottenham’s academy ranks. The young defender has been at the club since the age of nine, consistently playing several years up thanks to a combination of outstanding physical and technical attributes. Hardy is set to be rewarded for his impressive performances by signing a two-year scholarship with Spurs next season, becoming an established member of the Lilywhite’s under-18 squad. Malachi made his debut for Tottenham under-18s against Burnley earlier this season but has since only managed one subsequent appearance in a 6-1 victory over Reading.

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Hardy is tailor-made for the modern high-pressing sides dominating today’s game, boasting impressive recovery pace and a proactive, front-footed defensive style. The defender is beginning to fill out his sizable frame, standing at 189cm, and possesses a robust physical base, making him a proficient duel winner, especially in the air. Perhaps Hardy’s biggest strength is his one-on-one ability, thanks to a strong grasp for body positioning as well as an intelligent reading of his opponent’s body language and intentions. Like an increasing proportion of modern centre-backs, Hardy is a confident ball player, equally capable of progressing through passes and carries. All things considered, England’s towering captain has a clear future in the game, possessing many desirable attributes synonymous with top-level modern centre-backs. 

Rio Ngumoha – Attacking Midfielder, Chelsea

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– Chelsea U21, U 21 v Colchester United U21, Premier League Cup, Group Stage, Group D, Kingsmeadow Stadium, Kingston upon Thames, UK – 22nd January 2024. Rio Ngumoha of Chelsea U21. – Chelsea U21 v Colchester United U21, Premier League Cup, Group Stage, Group D, Kingsmeadow Stadium, Kingston upon Thames, UK – 22nd January 2024. Kingston upon Thames Kingsmeadow Stadium UK Copyright: xDanxWeirx CP_Chelsea_U21_Colchester_U21_58

One of the brightest talents in his age group, a first-team training regular at fifteen, this attacking midfielder is generating considerable excitement amongst the Chelsea faithful, and for good reason—in Rio Ngumoha, the football Gods have gifted The Blues a chance to rectify the mistakes of the past in their amateurish mishandling of Jamal Musiala—now an established superstar producing consistent world-class performances for Bayern Munich. Unlike Musiala, Ngumoha must be provided with a clear, accessible pathway to first-team football. The 2008-born talent made his under-21 debut in January this year, becoming Chelsea Development’s 3rd youngest player this century. 

Ngumoha is near-impossible to knock off the ball thanks to his low centre-of-gravity, compact build and deceptive core strength. An elite ball carrier in the making, Ngumoha glides elegantly past opponents as if they weren’t there. Rio possesses a certain arrogance on the ball (in the best sense), allowing him to take on opposition defenders in the same manner as the game’s best dribblers. Ngumoha explodes over the first five yards, boasting extreme dynamism and athleticism, not to mention his blistering top speed. Rio’s agility is reminiscent of Chelsea legend Eden Hazard, who, like Ngumoha, could turn on a sixpence. The Cobham midfielder is a top-level ball striker, with a variety of finishes in his arsenal. A combination of coordination, vision, creativity, decision making and innate understanding of space means Ngumoha has everything required of a world-class modern #10. A truly unique attacking talent; barring injury, Ngumoha will go very, very far.

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It goes without saying that player development is not linear, and any number of factors could positively or negatively influence a player’s progress. The purpose of these articles is not to apply unnecessary pressure upon these young prospects, but instead, so that eager fans can keep tabs on the exciting talent on the way at their clubs. 

This is the first of a five-part series, where I’ll be detailing the backgrounds, positions, strengths, and areas to improve on for fifteen of the most promising young players from England’s 2008 generation – talents from across the Premier League as well as one Championship inclusion. Make sure to stay tuned for subsequent releases, so you can be ahead of the game when it comes to England’s biggest upcoming stars.

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