Premier League Young Guns XI 2011/12
This summer has been marked by the arrival of numerous promising youngsters on the Premier League stage.
Brimming with talent, they could go on to become the future of the beautiful game.
Before the season proper kicks off on Saturday, we pick a team of eleven whippersnappers who might give the more senior pros a serious run for their money.
Criteria: The players considered for selection had to be 21 years or younger, have played 35 or less top-flight league games with a realistic chance of making vital contributions to their respective teams this season.
As such, outstanding young talents like Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea), Jack Rodwell (Everton), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool) and David de Gea (Manchester United) were all ineligible.
The formation chosen was 4-5-1.
Goalkeeper: Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal)
Age: 21, Premier League appearances: 15
Many have identified this young man as the main reason why Arsenal lost last season's Carling Cup final to Birmingham. Had it not been for his comical misunderstanding with Laurent Koscielny, Gunners fans would no longer have to be the subject of taunts from their rivals about a six-year trophy drought.
Yet, perhaps the young Pole should be given some slack; given how well he has done apart from that one blunder. He showed no signs of being overawed by the occasion when he was handed his debut at Old Trafford in December last season.
Arsene Wenger threw Szczesny to the wolves, yet the youngster acquitted himself remarkably, and could have kept a clean sheet had it not been for Park Ji-Sung's looping header.
He has clean hands, good command of his penalty box, and makes full use of his imposing frame by covering his angles well. And with Wenger looking increasingly unlikely to buy a goalkeeper this summer, Szczesny is presently the odds-on favourite the start the season as the number one at the Emirates.
Right-back: Kyle Walker (Tottenham)
Age: 21, Premier League appearances: 18
Signed from Sheffield United along with Kyle Naughton for a combined £9million, Walker's arrival at White Hart Lane was in line with Harry Redknapp's policy of purchasing the finest young English talent.
Before him, the likes of Gareth Bale, Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon had all been similarly poached from lower league clubs, and groomed as eventual Premier League stars.
Yet, Walker did not enjoy the immediate chance to make an impact that his predecessors had been afforded. Instead, he was sent straight back to his old club for most of the 2009/10 season, before returning to White Hart Lane in the wake of a defensive injury crisis, where he was handed his debut in March 2010.
2010/11 was the same story for Walker, but while many would have been unhappy at being regularly farmed out, the England U-21 international decided to use the opportunity to show his manager what he was capable of.
A steady half-term at Queens Park Rangers was followed with a similar spell at Aston Villa, where he managed to score a cracking goal in his 15 appearances, proving along the way he was ready for top-flight football. For Walker, that could just happen this season with Tottenham.
Centre-back: Phil Jones (Manchester United)
Age: 19, Premier League appearances: 35
It's never easy to back up on an impressive debut, in which many immediately herald you as the new John Terry. But Jones has comfortably lived up to the hype in the next 34 Premier League games of his short career so far.
Turning down a club of United's stature is never easy, and when the Red Devils came knocking, Jones was always going to end up at Old Trafford. However, an even more difficult task appears to be on the 19-year-old's hands: breaking into a United team featuring the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans.
Yet under Sir Alex Ferguson, Jones will have no doubt he will be presented an opportunity to impress. And if he does, he could just turn out to be this season's Smalling. Already, the two have lined up alongside one another for the England U-21s.
And it's not difficult to see them going on to form the cornerstone of the United defence for the next decade or so.
Centre-back: Martin Kelly (Liverpool)
Age: 21, Premier League appearances: 12
It seems quite remarkable that someone like Kelly, who made his debut for the Reds in 2008 and has long been tipped as a future England regular, has only made twelve Premier League appearances for the club.
But it is important to remember that he has had a wretched time with injuries in his brief career, and in the few games he has played for Liverpool, the talent has been there for all to see.
For someone standing 1.91m, Kelly is extremely nimble and skillful, which has seen him deployed as a right-back quite often. Capable of supporting the attack, but equally adept at defending, Kelly could just hold down the spot for years to come.
Yet there are some within Anfield who believe Kelly could eventually shift to the centre of defence, and while he is yet to get an extended run of games there, it's hard to argue with that given his attributes.
Strong in the air, comfortable on the ball, and an excellent reader of the game, the future of Liverpool's defence looks safe regardless of where Kelly is deployed.
Left-back: Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)
Age: 21, Premier League appearances: 18
Arsene Wenger has never been one to allow himself to be bullied by his players. As Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have found out this summer, just because you want to leave the club does not necessarily mean you will be allowed to.
Yet when Gael Clichy requested a transfer earlier this summer, he was jettisoned off to Manchester City within a couple of weeks. The difference between the midfield duo of Fabregas and Nasri, and Clichy, is that in Gibbs, Wenger has a ready-made replacement who could just turn out to be an even better player than his predecessor was.
Already, Gibbs appears defensively more competent than the attack-minded Clichy. He stays on his feet more often, and doesn't concede as many fouls by diving into challenges. At the same time, he possesses an adventurous streak going forward - something that fits right in with Arsenal style of play.
It also seems as though the Gunners have a factory line producing left-backs who can run, dribble, shoot and cross. And despite only making eighteen Premier League appearances to date, Gibbs has already been handed his first senior cap by Fabio Capello.
For now, it seems as though Fabregas and Nasri are unlikely to be allowed to leave the Emirates without a fight from Wenger. Yet the French tactician's decision to cash in on Clichy - and put his faith in Gibbs - might just turn out to be his most shrewd piece of business this summer.
Right-midfield: Marc Albrighton (Aston Villa)
Age: 21, Premier League appearances: 32
There hasn't been much to cheer at Villa Park over the last few months. After being tipped to challenge for a European berth, Villa had an inconsistent year that saw them finish 9th. Then came the summer departures of key wing duo Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.
But as always, a new season brings with it renewed optimism. And Albrighton darting down the right wing definitely gives Villa fans something to look forward to.
Comparisons to David Beckham - aside from the unwanted pressure - are always a good thing, but they might actually be doing the youngster a disservice.
Albrighton does have the vision and ability to whip in a sumptuous cross for his strikers to feed on. However, with all due respect to Beckham, Albrighton has much more to his game that being a good crosser.
Blessed with pace and skill, the England U-21 international has already terrorised full-backs in his 29 league appearances last term.
With a regular berth on the wings up for grabs at Villa Park, it's hard to see Albrighton not becoming a star this season.
Centre-midfield: Tom Cleverley (Manchester United)
Age: 21, Premier League appearances: 25
Apart from the most ardent United fans and those who follow Wigan Atheltic, not many would have heard of Cleverley ahead of this season.
Then came United's pre-season friendly against Barcelona and Sunday's Community Shield clash with Manchester City. In a game-and-a-half of football, Cleverley had everyone tipping him as the long-term successor to Paul Scholes.
Extremely neat when in possession, Cleverley is tenacious without it, and already looks a better tackler than Scholes was. He also has an inclination to make off-the-ball runs into the box - an attribute that provides him with many a goalscoring opportunity.
But perhaps his biggest asset is his versatility. While Sir Alex Ferguson has deployed him centrally this pre-season, it was on the wings where he impressed for Wigan last term. With all the big names at United, it still remains to be seen how much game time Cleverley actually will get. Nonetheless, when he does play, in whatever position, expect him to make an impact.
Centre-midfield: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)
Age: 20, Premier League appearances: 34
When the criteria for selecting this young XI was set, Ramsey did not even feature in the probables. It was unthinkable someone that with so much poise and maturity in their game could be younger than 21 with less than 35 appearances under his belt.
But once these numbers were established, there was no question of leaving the Welshman out.
The mental strength he showed to recover from a horrific injury garnered him the admiration of many, but the way in which he returned to the Arsenal team and orchestrated play like he was never away has made him into something of a cult figure at the Emirates.
All the talk last season was about Jack Wilshere, but it is quite possible Ramsey could go on to become the better player. He has a cooler head on his shoulders, an impressive range of passing, and is an expert at dictating play - knowing when to slow the game down, and when to speed things up.
With Ramsey and Wilshere in charge of midfield affairs, Arsenal's future is looking very bright.
Left-midfield: Nathan Delfouneso (Aston Villa)
Age: 20, Premier League appearances: 24
Despite having been deployed up-front for most of his career, Delfouneso has shown during his brief stints on the flanks that he could evolve into a world-class winger.
And Villa could do worse than try him out wide this season. Much of the team's results over the last few seasons were built on excellent work down both flanks by their twin wing terrors: Young and Downing.
With Albrighton set to continue that tradition down the right, having Delfouneso on the other side could be an excellent move by Alex McLeish, especially with Gabriel Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey likely to be his first-choice strike partnership.
Blessed with blinding pace and not one to shy away from taking on an opponent, the only obstacle in Delfouneso's path could be new signing Charles N'Zogbia, who many expect to be an automatic starter.
Nonetheless, should McLeish put his faith in the explosive youngster, we could just witness the start of something special.
Attacking-midfield: Josh McEachran (Chelsea)
Age: 18, Premier League appearances: 9
Time to be completely honest; there were two reasons why 4-5-1 was the selected formation for this young XI. Firstly, there is currently a dearth of talented young strikers in the Premier League.
But here's the second reason. We chose five midfielders because there are just that many talented players in the centre of the park at the moment.
Already, the central midfield partnership of Cleverley and Ramsey looks extremely impressive. Now imagine if - just in front of them - there was a nifty little playmaker by the name of Josh McEachran pulling the strings.
In his brief appearances in the Chelsea first-team, McEachran has far shown more vision than many of his senior teammates. He can see the game unfolding ahead of him, and almost always chooses the perfect pass.
Many still don't believe he will play much at Stamford Bridge this season, and should go on loan. While that would do much good to the youngster, there is a sneaky suspicion he could just prove too good for manager Andre Villas-Boas to leave out over the next ten months.
Striker: Connor Wickham (Sunderland)
Age: 18, Premier League appearances: 0
The youngest member of the team and its biggest unknown quantity is the man tasked to fire this side to victory.
Wickham only turned 18 in May, but he already stands at 1.91m. Having said that, he is unlike the last two towering strikers that English football has produced.
Peter Crouch came along first, standing at 2.01m, but playing like a nifty little forward. He had skill and made his opponents look silly, but never put his height to good advantage. On the other hand, we have Andy Carroll, who most times bullies his opponents to submission with his physicality, yet can be a little slow once the ball hits the ground.
Wickham seems to be an amalgamation of the duo. Already in his time with Ipswich in the Championship, he has put his height to good use, yet is deceptively quick. Don't be surprised to see him regularly race in behind defences throughout the course of the season.
With Sunderland lacking depth in attack, Wickham could just be handed a starring role this term.