Who are the U21 players that impressed the most last season and which clubs have benefitted from handing minutes to youngsters in 2022-23? We analyse the data.
How old was each team’s starting line-up on average in 2022-23, and how many minutes did they hand to players aged under 21? Find out in the table below:
Once again in 2022-23, Ligue 1 was the place to go for your fix on upcoming young talent across Europe. The 20 French top flight clubs handed a total of 68,212 minutes to players aged under 21 years old across the entire season, which was more than the Premier League and Serie A combined.
Like in 2021-22, Ligue 1 was the league competition to reward U21 players with the most minutes to develop on pitch, although the total numbers of minutes did fall slightly from last season’s 70,946. Youngsters were given almost twice as much game time as any of the other top four leagues in Europe.
One of the most interesting changes across 2022-23 saw La Liga move into second place in the ranking for minutes handed to U21 players. The cumulative number of minutes given by La Liga clubs was 37,873, which was an increase of 31% on last season (28,887) and the highest total across the last six La Liga campaigns.
Eight of the top 20 clubs across the top five European leagues to hand the most minutes to U21 players in 2022-23 came from Ligue 1, with Lyon leading the way.
Laurent Blanc’s side may have relied on the goals of 32-year-old Alexandre Lacazette last season, but the future looks bright for Lyon (or their bank balance), with 11,153 minutes given to U21 players across the 2022-23 campaign. That total was 2,598 minutes higher than the next most, achieved by La Liga champions Barcelona (8,555).
To win the league while handing so many minutes to U21 players is no mean feat. Since 2000 across the top five European leagues, no other team to win a title has given over 6,000 minutes to young players apart from Nantes in Ligue 1 2001-02 (6,882).
Overall, Barcelona used nine different U21 players across their successful 2022-23 season. Four of those played over 1,000 minutes while aged under 21 years old: Gavi (2,541), Alejandro Balde (2,476), Pedri (1,982) and Ansu Fati (1,381).
Gavi’s total was surpassed by only five players in the top five European leagues, with Lyon’s Castello Lukeba (2,985) leading the way. The 20-year-old central defender will be playing for France in the Under-21 European Championships this summer, as they aim to win the tournament for only the second time and the first occasion since 1988.
Another player in the top five in 2022-23 was Jude Bellingham, who will play for Real Madrid next season – another top U21 player moving to Spain.
Overall, Bellingham was one of a select group of teammates score 25 goals and add 10 more assists while aged under 21 years old for Borussia Dortmund in 2022-23: both the highest tallies by a top-five European club across the season. The England international’s eight goals were just one more than both Youssoufa Moukoko and Gio Reyna’s tallies of seven each.
Bellingham’s total of 2,693 minutes in 2022-23 means that he has played 7,817 minutes of top-flight league action as a teenager before turning 20 in June 2023 – or 10,526 mins if you add on his first league season as a professional at Birmingham City in the 2019-20 English Championship.
The English midfielder features joint-fifth for the most goal involvements by U21 players in the top five European leagues in 2022-23, thanks to his eight goals and four assists (12), the second highest tally by a Bundesliga player last season after Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala, who was also the U21 player with the most assists (10).
Both of those goal involvement tallies fell below that of Montpellier prodigy Elye Wahi, however.
Wahi was involved in 24 Ligue 1 goals for Montpellier across 2,530 minutes in 2022-23, with 19 goals and five assists. The forward, who has been linked with Arsenal this summer, scored seven more goals than any other player while aged under 21 years old across the top five European leagues last season (19). In fact, only Kylian Mbappé (26), Lacazette (21) and Loïs Openda (20) scored more non-penalty goals in Ligue 1 than Wahi (18).
It was another Ligue 1 club that handed the most appearances to individual players aged under 21 years old in 2022-23: Reims.
Will Still’s side used 13 different U21 players in their teams across their 38 Ligue 1 matches last season, which was one more than Southampton (12) and two more than Brighton & Hove Albion (11). Overall, those 13 players tallied 4,233 minutes of football, which was the 15th highest tally.
It was a season of struggle for Valencia in 2022-23, as they narrowly avoided relegation to Spain’s second tier. That happened with the youngest average starting XI across Europe’s major leagues last season, as they were the only team to be under 25 years old across the campaign (24y 275d).
As well reported across the media, Arsenal would have become the youngest team to win the Premier League had they hung on and not lost out to Manchester City. Mikel Arteta’s side had an average starting XI age of just 25 years and 51 days across the English top-flight season.
The Premier League was cruel to young sides last season, however. As well as Arsenal did, the other three teams with the youngest starting XI ages on average across 2022-23 were all relegated: Southampton (25y 41d), Leeds (25y 285d) and Leicester (26y 155d).
Not all teams believe in giving youth a chance, of course.
The team with the oldest starting XI age across the top five European leagues in 2022-23 were Bundesliga side VfL Bochum, who found that experience helped them avoid relegation from the German top flight. They had an average starting XI age of 29 years, 354 days old in 2022-23, which was ahead of Ajaccio in Ligue 1 and Cádiz in La Liga.
UEFA Champions League finalists Inter Milan had the fourth oldest average starting XI in the top five European leagues last season, and the oldest in Serie A (29y 107d). Italian champions Napoli, meanwhile, were one of only two sides not to hand a single minute of action to a player aged under 21 years old, alongside another successful team in 2022-23, Bundesliga top-four outfit Union Berlin.