When Gotze was named Europe’s best youngster in 2011, he’d already won the Bundesliga once and was on his way to doing it again the following year. The poster boy of Jurgen Klopp’s youthful Dortmund revolution, Gotze was the 2010/11 Bundesliga’s second-highest assister as his team smashed Bayern Munich to clinch the title, and he began the following campaign in similar form – Dortmund lost only three of their first 16 matches, but two of those came when their midfield prodigy was suspended. His award in December was well justified, but it was followed by a hip injury that practically ended his season. He returned for the final three Bundesliga games, scoring in the second, as Dortmund scooped the title for the second year running. Gotze stayed at Signal Iduna Park for another season before being lured to Bavaria by Bayern, but his starting opportunities were far from guaranteed and his final season was marred by injury and form troubles. Despite Pep Guardiola declaring his love for the Germany international, he couldn’t always find space for him, so Gotze crawled back to Dortmund in the summer 2016 for €26m. “Today, three years later and at 24, I look at that decision [to leave] in a different light,” he later mumbled.
Valencia may have developed and sold some fine players over the years, but they’re also really good at making mistakes. Losing Isco for just €6m in 2011 has proved one of those, having afforded him few opportunities (perhaps understandably so) in the 2010/11 campaign as they secured Champions League football. Malaga was only too happy to have him, snaffling the young Spaniard on a five-year contract after triggering a ludicrously low buyout clause. The Boquerones threw in their new 19-year-old from the start, and he repaid his new team by helping them qualify for the Champions League in fourth place. In the following campaign under Manuel Pellegrini, his Golden Boy year, Isco helped Malaga to a fine Champions League run; they escaped the group stage, then beat Porto, and were only denied a place in the semi-finals by two last-gasp Dortmund goals. Malaga finished sixth in La Liga too – but Isco wasn’t done there. He followed up an excellent season with a starring role in Spain’s dominant U21 European Championship success and joined Real Madrid for €30m amid other interests from Man City.
Alex Ferguson may have been unwilling to satisfy Pogba’s hunger for regular football during his first spell at Manchester United, but sports journalists across Europe chose the midfielder as their Golden Ball winner in 2013, a year after he’d swapped north-western England for north-western Italy. The Frenchman became a regular starter at Juventus after the resumption of the 2012/13 campaign following a two-week winter break, immediately catching the eye with his impressive blend of athleticism and technique. Pogba started 13 of Antonio Conte’s side’s 17 games between the start of January and the beginning of May, ending the season with five goals to his name and a Serie A winner’s medal around his neck. The 20-year-old continued in a similar vein at the start of 2013/14, excelling alongside Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal in a star-studded midfield and scooping the Golden Boy prize ahead of Romelu Lukaku, Raphael Varane, and Julian Draxler. He spent another couple of seasons in Turin, both of which ended with Juventus securing a domestic double, and became an even more frightening prospect as he continued to develop. Pogba proved himself as a midfielder who could do it all, and while that occasionally worked to his detriment, he still managed to establish himself as one of the world’s best players at Juventus. A move back to United materialized in the summer 2016, the Red Devils happily spending a world record £89m to bring their former chargeback to Old Trafford.
It may have been Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge’s goals that propelled Liverpool towards title contention in 2013/14, but Sterling was another essential member of Brendan Rodgers’ thrilling outfit. He entered 2014 in superb form having scored against Norwich, Tottenham, and Cardiff in December, and his performances over the next few months made Premier League followers take notice of his prodigious talent. With Suarez joining Barcelona that summer and Sturridge consigned to the treatment table for long periods, the teenage Sterling became even more important to the Reds in the following campaign – something that probably contributed to him winning the Golden Boy award shortly after his 20th birthday. He then joined Manchester City in the summer of 2015, but a £49m price tag seemed to take its toll: Sterling impressed in flashes, but his debut season at the Etihad Stadium was ultimately a little underwhelming. He also had a tough time at Euro 2016 in France, with a string of poor performances making him an easy scapegoat for a disgruntled fan base and blood-baying media. Step forward, Pep Guardiola. The winger blossomed into a different player under the Catalan’s guidance, rediscovering the attributes that marked him out as an elite prospect.
Martial had only started 14 Ligue 1 matches before 2015, so the fact he ended the year as the most expensive teenage footballer of all time demonstrates what an excellent 12 months the Frenchman enjoyed. Martial netted 11 times for Monaco in the latter half of the 2014/15 campaign, with his domestic form leading to a first senior call-up for France by August. Just days after that landmark, Manchester United paid £26m to bring the then-19-year-old to the Premier League, a move dismissed as a panic buy by many at the time. Such notions were soon silenced. Martial scored a stunning solo goal on his debut against Liverpool – the ideal way to get United fans on his side – before netting a brace against Southampton eight days later. He’d already become a regular for United by the end of 2015, and it was no surprise to see him named Golden Boy in December. He was just as good in the second half of 2015/16, frequently providing the pace and improvisation that Louis van Gaal’s dreary side otherwise lacked in the final third, with his late strike against Everton in the semi-finals of the FA Cup putting United on the path towards silverware.
On a basic level, Sanches went from a €35m move to Bayern Munich followed immediately by Euro 2016 glory with Portugal, to playing for Swansea in little over a year. That came with a couple of caveats, however: first that his stint in south Wales was only temporary; second that it perhaps wouldn't have happened at all were it not for Paul Clement. Sanches was a rightful recipient of this award in 2016. Having broken into Benfica's first team with a string of thrilling performances in central midfield – helping the Eagles reach the Champions League quarter-finals, where they only narrowly lost to Bayern Munich – the teenager got into Portugal's Euro 2016 team on merit. He was a standout performer for them too, a fearless hustler who carried possession from box to box and earned the Young Player of the Tournament prize to go with his winner's medal. His first year at Bayern proved overwhelming in the end, though: Sanches never really recovered from a hairy debut and was scarcely trusted by Carlo Ancelotti, who could regularly call upon a crop of more experienced and reliable stars instead. Six Bundesliga starts were the sum of his travails – but they'll make a man out of him yet.
The red-hot favorite for 2018 has been here and done it before – and is still young enough to do it all over again in 2019. The youthful swine. Mbappe reached the halfway mark of 2017 by becoming the second-most expensive player in football history when PSG agreed on a potential €180m to sign him (once an initial season-long loan had been completed). Better still, he looked absolutely worth it after helping fire Monaco to a shock Ligue 1 title and the semi-finals of the Champions League. Aged 18, Mbappe had ended the 2016/17 season with 26 goals in 44 matches, including crucial ones against Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund en route to the final four of Europe's elite competition. Before that he'd made his full France debut in March – one of 10 caps for the calendar year – and become the second-youngest player in Bleu's history. At PSG he continued his upward trajectory in forming a devastating frontline alongside Neymar and Edinson Cavani: Mbappe scored on his debut against Metz, then against Celtic in the Champions League mere days later. By December he'd become the youngest player to score 10 goals in the competition. Golden boy indeed.