Fulham's Ryan Sessegnon compared to Bale, but more like Salah or Sterling
It was when he was asked who his idol was growing up that it really hit home exactly how young Fulham's Ryan Sessegnon is. "Luke Shaw," was the response, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. Shaw, just for clarity, is 22-years-old.
Sessegnon, who has been one of the driving forces behind Fulham's increasingly fierce tilt at promotion, is not 18 until May but already has 68 first-team appearances to his name. He has started every league game this season and even in the two EFL Cup fixtures he was rested for, he came off the bench both times.
Conventional wisdom states that players this young should be eased in, not given too much too soon and certainly not asked to play the whole of a grinding Championship campaign, as their game is developing.
But with Sessegnon the only thing young about him is his age. When you watch him play you don't see someone who isn't old enough to legally buy a drink. "He's a young man who did an adult job with a lot of quality," said manager Slavisa Jokanovic in February, after Sessegnon had won the PFA's Championship Player of the Month award.
Maturity is the theme that crops up most frequently with anyone you talk to about Sessegnon.
"That's one of his major strengths," Keith Downing, who managed the England Under-19 side that Sessegnon was a part of last summer when they won the UEFA European Championship, tells ESPN FC.
"He hasn't got ahead of himself. He wants to get better but importantly has the capacity to take that on board much quicker. He's very quick to grasp instruction and opinions on the game, which shows maturity beyond his years."
That last point is the key to why Sessegnon has been so consistently good this early in his career. It is one thing having the focus and awareness that one usually associates with maturity, but it's the ability to learn quickly that has been vital. Often, if a kid like Sessegnon made his debut at 16, as he did in October 2016, and barely broke stride, it would be easy for confidence to turn into arrogance. Sessegnon has managed to avoid that.
It's even more remarkable that he's managed to do so with the distraction of swirling transfer speculation, as every big Premier League club, most prominently Tottenham and Manchester United, seem to have been credited with an interest in him. He had the opportunity to leave last summer, but chose to stay and develop at Fulham.
"I remember talking to Ryan before we went to Georgia [for the U19 European Championships], because there was massive speculation he was leaving, but he just wanted things to settle down," Downing says. "That shows maturity. He just wanted to get better at football rather than concentrate on the noise around him."
His teammates agree. "I've been asked what makes him special quite a lot lately, and I think his mindset is it," Fulham midfielder Tom Cairney told Sky Sports recently. "I remember his first game against Leeds. I thought the gaffer had made a mistake putting his name on the teamsheet but he was the best player on the pitch. Since then he's got better and better. To deal with what he has at his age..."
Furthermore, Sessegnon is doing all of this while still figuring out what his best position is. When he first entered the youth ranks he was a forward, but was eventually shifted back as coaches saw his potential as an attacking left-back. It was there he made his Fulham debut, then in January they signed left-back Matt Targett on loan from Southampton, allowing Sessegnon to play as an attacker again.
It's there he looks most comfortable, even if a good portion of the 14 goals he already has this season were scored from left-back. What's even more interesting is that so many of those strikes have come from inside the area. Watch his goals this season, and you'll notice that a good proportion have been the result of him arriving late into the box to finish off a team move.
That sense of timing is arguably his biggest strength: while many players in that sort of position might excel at individual goals, long runs and shots from outside the area, Sessegnon is essentially a poacher. He's a left-back turned winger with a striker's instincts.
"There is that timing, but also the athleticism to get there," says Downing.
In that respect he's a very modern footballer. Comparisons have been made to players like Gareth Bale, which are completely understandable given he's a young British player who started as a full-back but moved further forward -- as Bale did at Tottenham before moving to Real Madrid.
But in some ways he might be more similar to someone like Mohamed Salah. The Liverpool forward is having a remarkable season as a wide goal scorer, not a centre-forward but certainly not a traditional winger either, exploiting space in the box to devastating effect, as Sessegnon does. Manchester City's Raheem Sterling is similar, in the first-half of the season anyway, able to arrive in the area from wide positions at just the right time to snaffle goals.
Of course, Sessegnon is not quite of their standard yet, but the speed at which his career has progressed so far, when he's still just 17, it wouldn't be a surprise if he got there soon.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.