There is an assumption that footballers get better with age before peaking in their late twenties and regressing in their thirties. The theory goes that players improve with greater experience before their fitness deteriorates and they inevitably get worse. However, a look back at the best players aged 21 or under in the 2009-10 season shows that not every promising youngster is destined for greater things.
Goalkeeper: Vito Mannone, Arsenal
Vito Mannone makes our young team of 2009-10 by default as he was the only goalkeeper in the league who was 21 or under. He made five starts early in the season, keeping clean sheets in his first two outings – victories over Wigan and Fulham – before he shipped five goals in his next three matches and was quickly replaced by the returning Manuel Almunia.
The Italian had to wait two years to play for Arsenal in the league again, enjoying two loan spells at Hull City in the interim. He was sold to Sunderland in 2013 and had an impressive start in the north east, winning the club’s player of the season award in his debut campaign. However, Mannone eventually lost his place and moved on to Reading, then Montreal Impact and, this January, to Danish outfit Esbjerg on loan. Rating in 2009-10: 6.84
Right-back: Rafael, Manchester United
Rafael was not a regular starter for Manchester United in the 2009-10 season, but he made a real impression when he was picked. The Brazilian deputised for Gary Neville and John O’Shea and boasted an unbeaten record in the league, winning six and drawing two of his eight appearances. He was always busy on the pitch – both in and out of possession – and he made outrageous average of 6.3 tackles per 90 minutes.
Rafael featured more and more for the club and cemented his place as first-choice right-back in the 2012-13 season. He did not put in many ordinary performances; he was either dazzling or disastrous. He was just too erratic for United and was eventually sold to Lyon in 2015. Now 29, he is still at Lyon, but he is not a guaranteed starter. Rating in 2009-10: 7.82
Centre-back: Phil Jones, Blackburn
Phil Jones broke into the Blackburn side as a fresh faced teenager. Ten years later, he is as fresh faced as ever and still plays with the same youthful exuberance. Jones bundled his way around the pitch, very much a no-nonsense style of player. He averaged an outstanding 12.4 clearances per 90 minutes, but his pass accuracy of 58.4% was a woeful.
Manchester United thought they saw a diamond in the rough, with Sir Alex Ferguson tipping him to become a club legend, yet he never really added polish to his game. It is telling that Jones made 29 appearances in his first season at United and has never matched that figure since. While injuries have played their part, his importance has waned over the last five years. However, the club did extend his until 2023 early last year. Rating in 2009-10: 7.24
Centre-back: Jonny Evans, Manchester United
Jones’ arrival at Old Trafford was not good news for Jonny Evans, who was eventually deemed surplus to requirements. The Northern Ireland international made a promising start to his senior United career, although it was difficult to break into a team that contained Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand – even Gerard Piqué struggled with that challenge. Evans was not a standout player at United, but he was more consistent than many of the defenders who have been signed since he left the club.
Since leaving United in 2015, he has been one of the most reliable defenders in the Premier League, initially at West Brom for three seasons and then at Leicester for the last two. Unlike many others on this list, he has definitely improved with age and experience. Rating in 2009-10: 7.36
Left-back: Emiliano Insúa, Liverpool
Emiliano Insúa joined Liverpool from Boca Juniors as a teenager in 2007 and became the club’s first choice right-back in the 2009-10 season. He was a steady performer, but Roy Hodgson was not convinced and replaced the youngster with Paul Konchesky in 2010, allowing Insúa to join Galatasaray on loan that same summer.
Insúa has since played in Portugal for Sporting, in Spain for Atlético Madrid and Rayo Vallecano, and in Germany for Stuttgart. He signed for LA Galaxy on free transfer at the start of this year. Rating in 2009-10: 7.18
Central midfield: Denilson, Arsenal
Having joined Arsenal from São Paulo as an 18-year-old in 2006, Denilson was a regular in the team by the 2009-10 season. He scored three goals in his 20 league appearances that season and also made 6.5 tackles and interceptions per minutes – an excellent return.
Nevertheless, he was allowed to return to São Paulo in 2011, initially on loan before signing permanently in 2013. A move to Abu Dhabi followed, then another loan back to Brazil with Cruzeiro before a knee injury ultimately ended his career. He signed for second-tier side Botafogo in 2019 after two years out, but he made just one appearance for the club before being released last year. Rating in 2009-10: 7.26
Central midfield: Alex Song, Arsenal
Having arrived at Arsenal from French club Bastia way back in 2005, Alex Song enjoyed his breakthrough season in 2009-10. The Cameroon international started 25 games in the league and really shone in his defensive midfield role, ranking 13th in the league for tackles per game (3.3) and eighth for interceptions (3.1).
He remained an important player for the club for the next two seasons before a surprise move to Barcelona. Song struggled to hold down a starting place, but he did pick up a league title with the club before returning to London with West Ham in 2014. He has since played in Russia for Rubin Kazan and in Switzerland for Sion. He was in the news recently when he and eight of his Sion teammates were sacked by the club, reportedly because they refused to take pay cuts following the coronavirus outbreak. Rating in 2009-10: 7.50
Central midfield: Marouane Fellaini, Everton
Marouane Fellaini was an unmistakable figure from the moment he arrived at Everton from Standard Liège in 2008 for a club record fee of £15m. Fellaini became an instant hit with fans, if not opposing players, becoming renowned for flailing his long limbs around and taking no prisoners on the pitch.
Initially signed as a defensive midfielder, his move to a more attacking role in the 2012-13 season reaped great reward for David Moyes, who took the Belgian with him to Old Trafford the following season. Fellaini had his moments in a United shirt, chipping in with some important goals, but he did not win over crowd. Last February, he made a cut-price move to Chinese Super League club Shandong Luneng, for whom he has scored eight goals in 22 league games. Rating in 2009-10: 7.49
Right wing: Lee Chung-Yong, Bolton
Gary Megson signed Lee Chung-Yong for Bolton from FC Seoul in 2009 and the South Korean became an instant first-team regular. Megson lost his job a few months later, but the winger kept his place under new manager Owen Coyle, scoring four goals and setting up three more in his 34 league appearances in the 2009-10 season.
Industrious without ever really getting bums off seats, Lee had a prominent role in the team the following season, but a leg fracture kept him out of the 2011-12 campaign, when Bolton were relegated. After a few years in the Championship, he earned a move to Crystal Palace – and a return to the Premier League – in the winter window of 2015. He never really nailed down a starting place in his three years at Palace and moved on to Bundesliga II outfit Bochum in 2018. He has since returned to the K-League with Ulsan Hyundai. Rating in 2009-10: 7.00
Left wing: Gareth Bale, Tottenham
Gareth Bale is the real star in this line-up, yet he started the 2009-10 campaign with an unwanted record: he had played in 24 games in the Premier League without ever winning one. That unwanted record perhaps deterred Harry Redknapp from starting the teenager – a left-back at this point – more often. Indeed, Bale was not in the starting XI until January, but he play every minute of the final 18 matches of the season.
Bale finished the 2009-10 season as a winger, having scoring three goals and registered five assists. He has never looked back. He won the Premier League player of the year award in the 2012-13 season before moving to Real Madrid for a world record fee that summer. He made a superb start to his career in Spain and has won La Liga, the Copa del Rey and four Champions League titles, but injuries have restricted his playing time in recent years. He has a tumultuous relationship with Zinedine Zidane and has only started 11 league matches this season, at a standard substantially below his brilliant best. Rating in 2009-10: 7.65
Forward: Nicklas Bendtner, Arsenal
Nicklas Bendtner was something of a cult figure at Arsenal. His off-field antics and at times over-inflated sense of self-belief have earned him near comedy status in the game. Yet he was a handy player on his day. Bendtner enjoyed his best form between 2008 and 2010, having joined the Arsenal academy in 2004. He started just 13 of his 23 league matches in 2009-10, but chipped in with six goals and five assists. His high number of shots – 3.9 shots per 90 minutes – highlights how much confidence he had in his own ability.
However, Arsène Wenger did not share his confidence and by 2011 Bendtner had been sent to Sunderland on loan. Bizarrely, he also had a loan spell with Juventus the following season. He started just two Serie A matches in Italy before finally leaving Arsenal on a free transfer to Wolfsburg in 2014, where he would start just nine Bundesliga games across two seasons.
After a brief stint back in England with Nottingham Forest, he moved to Rosenborg in Norway, where he found his level with an impressive 19 goals in his debut season. That form did not continue, however, and he returned to Denmark with FC Copenhagen last summer. He was released by the club before the end of the year and, like his former teammates Denilson and Song, the striker is once again a free agent. Rating in 2009-10: 7.01