Eleven for 2011: The young stars who will light up football this year

The English game has had a bad 12 months but the future is bright. Sam Wallace and Mark Fleming pick the players to watch
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The Independent Football

Benik Afobe: Arsenal (on loan at Huddersfield Town)

His father Ange was a refugee from war-torn Congo in 1990, and moved to Dagenham, east London, where Benik was born in 1993. He was spotted playing Sunday football when he was six, and joined the Arsenal academy.

A prolific goalscorer at junior levels, Afobe is currently cutting his teeth in the professional game on loan at Huddersfield Town. He joined the League One side in early November and has already scored three times.

Quick and physically imposing, he signed professional terms with the Gunners earlier this year, and has regularly featured for the reserves, making his debut for the second string aged just 16 years and four days.

Steven Caulker: Tottenham Hotspur (on loan at Bristol City)

Caulker is currently proving himself at the heart of the Bristol City defence, where his impressive performances earned the 18-year-old the npower Football League young player of the month award for November.

Last season he played 44 times for Yeovil Town in League One, and won a host of club end-of-season awards. Tottenham rewarded him with a three-year contract and he made his debut for the first team in a 4-1 Carling Cup defeat to Arsenal in September, before moving to Bristol on loan. Tall and commanding, he made his England Under-21 debut against Germany in November.

Nathaniel Chalobah: Chelsea

Chalobah is only 16 but he has been fast-tracked into the first-team squad at Chelsea, and was an unused substitute in a Carling Cup tie with Newcastle United in September.

Born in Sierra Leone, he now lives in south London and goes to school in Streatham. He was spotted by Chelsea aged 10 and is blossoming into a real talent, who is comfortable in the centre of defence or midfield. Chalobah made his England Under-17 debut at the age of 14 and was one of the stars of the England Under-17 side that won the European Championship in Liechtenstein in July, where he was the youngest player in the tournament.

Tom Cleverley: Manchester United (on loan at Wigan Athletic)

Now in his third loan spell away from United at Wigan, and aged 21, he has done enough to be recalled to Old Trafford at the end of the season and given his chance. Cleverley has never played for the senior United team in a competitive fixture but he has now established himself at Wigan – he scored against Wolves on Boxing Day – after loan spells at Leicester City and Watford.

A skilful midfielder signed from Bradford City's academy, he is now a regular member of Stuart Pearce's England Under-21 side that will play at the European Championship in Denmark this summer. Cleverley has had to bide his time, but 2011 could be his breakthrough year at United, where he has been since the age of 11.

Gary Gardner: Aston Villa

The younger brother of Birmingham City's Craig, Gary Gardner has been at Villa since he was six years old, and is expected to be the next young player to graduate from the club's prolific academy.

An 18-year-old goalscoring midfielder, Gardner tore his cruciate ligament in January, having scored 14 goals for the youth team last season. He is due to return to full fitness imminently. Gardner was promoted to England's Under-20 squad at the age of 17 before his injury.

He has impressed Villa's manager, Gérard Houllier, and earlier this month signed a three-and-a-half year contract that ties him to Villa Park until 2014.

William Keane: Manchester United

No relation to Roy, William turns 18 this month and is coming up to that stage for so many talented United academy players where they have to go out on loan to get first-team experience. A reliable goalscorer at academy level, Keane has played in the reserves this season and has scored goals at that level too.

A striker, he won the club's young player of the year award, the Jimmy Murphy prize, at the end of last season. Born in Stockport, his twin brother Michael is also at the club. Unlike William, who has played for England at youth level, Michael, a defender, has chosen to represent the family's native Republic of Ireland.

Henri Lansbury: Arsenal (on loan at Norwich City)

It is only a matter of time before Lansbury forces his way into the reckoning at Arsenal, and that time is coming soon. The tall right-winger is currently on loan at Norwich City, where he has been hugely impressive in his four appearances. Last season he played 44 games for Watford, and at 20 years old he is pushing for recognition at Arsenal, a club he joined when he was just nine.

He has started just one game for Arsenal, against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in the Carling Cup in September, when he scored the opening goal in a 4-1 victory. Capped by England at Under-16, Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 levels.

Jordon Mutch: Birmingham City (on loan at Watford)

The 19-year-old central midfielder is currently on loan at Watford, where he has become a regular first-team starter. He has been marked out as a future star for some time, and was set to play for Birmingham in a Carling Cup tie in September 2007 at the age of 15 until the club realised they would have fallen foul of the FA's child protection regulations.

Mutch suffered terribly in 2009 when rapid growth necessitated surgery after fractures in both feet. However, his form at Watford suggests his career is back on track and he will soon be knocking on the door of the Birmingham first team.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Southampton

The son of former Stoke City and England winger Mark Chamberlain, the 17-year-old has attracted interest from Premier League clubs with his displays for the Southampton first team this season. Arsenal, Liverpool and Fulham are reportedly keen on signing the latest from the Southampton academy that has previously produced Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott.

Chamberlain has scored five goals in 23 games for Southampton this season, and can play in central midfield or on the wing, which has been his position in the first team. He joined the club at the age of seven, when his father took him for a trial. He has one cap at England Under-18 level.

Nick Powell: Crewe Alexandra

The small club with a big reputation for producing great young footballers have done it again with this 16-year-old striker. Powell stands out in the England Under-17s as one of the few players affiliated to a club outside the top two divisions (although Crewe team-mate Ben Garrett, a goalkeeper, is also in the squad).

He made his first-team debut in August, having been fast-tracked through Crewe's development sides – he was in the club's Under-18 team at the age of 15. Traditionally, it has been Liverpool who have had the closest links with Crewe. However, Powell has attracted attention from all the big Premier League sides and further progress this season will mean that he is snapped up before long.

Raheem Sterling: Liverpool

Signed by Liverpool at the age of 15 from Queen's Park Rangers' academy, he was regarded as one of the best talents in his age group. The signing of Sterling was the first occasion in a while that Liverpool had seen off other top Premier League clubs in pursuit of a teenage player.

He only turns 17 in December so realistically a place in Liverpool's first team is still some way off, although he did play in a first-team friendly in the summer. However, he has impressed with his performance for the England Under-17 team and represents one of the brightest hopes at the club's academy in some time. Can play on either wing and is fast and direct.