The stars of the World game seem to be appearing at an increasingly younger age; demonstrated perfectly in this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, and I expect this trend to hold true in the coming Premier League season also. With so many team’s tactics and game plans now revolving around pace and athleticism on the counter attack, the youthful energy that some of these players bring is crucial for their sides’ success, often overriding a lack of experience which used to limit their appearances in the past. Some of the world’s very best young players ply their trade on these shores, but just who are the top 5 youngsters to watch out for in the Premier League this season.
While all eyes were focused on the SAS partnership of Suarez and Sturridge last season, it was neither of them who impressed me most in the overachieving Liverpool squad. Despite the outrageous volume and quality of the Uruguayan’s goals or Sturridge’s versatility in attack, Raheem Sterling stood out above all others. Of course, everyone acknowledges that he had a terrific season of Premier League football, but from afar it did not seem to reach the level of the lethal striking duo or captain Steven Gerrard. However, watching Liverpool’s games with a great attention to detail threw a spotlight on the QPR academy graduate, placing him on a pedestal in my mind as the key to the future success of Liverpool over the next decade.
Still at only 19 years of age, Sterling is arguably the best teenager in world football. I am certainly struggling to think of a player at his age who even comes close to his level of performance and consistency on a weekly basis. Since his Anfield breakthrough, he has been transformed from a raw individual talent who relied largely on his electric pace to a well-rounded performer with many fantastic attributes. Similar achievements are what we expected from Theo Walcott when he shot to stardom as a 16 year old, however the Arsenal man is now 24 and you could argue does not have as many strings to his bow as Sterling. While this is far from your typical prime age as a footballer, Sterling has already fulfilled much of the promise invested in him that Walcott is yet to fully repay.
The arrival of Brendan Rodgers as manager of Liverpool has had a huge positive boost on the youngster, as their relationship helped him knuckle down on his football and steer clear of the negative press that had followed him around since alleged altercations in his private life. Eased into first team action in the first half of the season, Rodgers has not rushed his development, instead nurturing his obvious talent at the right rate. As the season progressed, England’s bright teenager became a fixture in the first choice Premier League side, often starting from the right flank but could easily interchange and pop up on the left.
In the latter stages of the campaign however, Rodgers commonly employed the system 4-1-2-1-2, entirely depending on the opposition Liverpool were facing. It shows the extent of the overall improvement in Raheem Sterling’s game that Rodgers had the faith to move him inside into a floating number 10 role. The Jamaican born attacker certainly did not flinch at the chance and in the more keenly contested region of the pitch, he flourished. Fabulous first touch, awareness, upper body strength, and a developing eye for a pass meant that he became the most reliable attacking threat in the team, and a player who was widely known as one whom you could give the ball to even in tight situations. He did not forgo his defensive work either, never happy without the ball at his feet and always willing to chase an opponent towards the Liverpool goal in order to win back possession.
With the departure of Suarez and the addition of so many new recruits in attacking midfield positions, the role that Sterling will take this season has grown ever more important, both in the Premier League and away from the domestic scene. He needs to continue the goal scoring form of the latter half of last year to take the pressure off Sturridge somewhat and grasp the nettle of Champions League football. If previous performances are anything to go by, then I have complete confidence in his ability to step up and become recognised as Liverpool’s newest star.
Bursting onto the world stage seemingly from deep in the shadows, Adnan Januzaj was the name on everybody’s lips for a significant portion of the last Premier League campaign. He shone in a struggling Manchester United side for many games on the spin until he was withdrawn from the action by David Moyes towards the tail end, suffering from the infamous ‘burnout’. After scoring a brace of fine goals in his Premier League debut, expectation unsurprisingly sky-rocketed, but what did shock me was that he rose to the challenge.
Several ex-professionals throughout the season were commenting how a teenager was the only one performing to their maximum in the team of defending champions. As his fame increased exponentially however, he did not retreat into his shell as many have done before and many will do in the future. Taking up the mantle of set-piece specialist on several occasions, Januzaj seemed to relish the limelight and grew as a player for the experience. David Moyes did not get a great deal correct at Man United I think most would admit, however sparing the Belgian international from the action for the last few weeks of the season could have been a good move. His batteries should be fully recharged, ready for a full frontal assault on the Premier League this term under Van Gaal, and he could thrive with the Dutchman at the helm.
It is widely expected that Louis Van Gaal will employ the same 3-5-2 formation that was so successful for the Dutch national team at this summer’s World Cup. As Juan Mata has demonstrated so adeptly during pre-season, the number 10 role can be pivotal and when played correctly, is devastating for the opposition defence. Januzaj showed last year that his skills allow him to be equally threatening when deployed on either flank or behind a striker. With such a quick brain; matched only by his feet, defenders closing him down should prove no concern and I can see Rooney and Van Persie thriving off his assists. While Juan Mata will most likely begin the campaign as first choice in this position, the former Chelsea man is by no means ultra-fit or injury free so expect Januzaj to have his fair share of chances in this position. There is of course the possibility of Van Gaal changing system throughout the year, perhaps to a more conventional 4-2-3-1, which provides 3 positions in which Januzaj to flourish. He has the talent to seize the opportunity when the time is right.
The best Everton academy graduate since Wayne Rooney, Ross Barkley has had a wonderful 12 months, and his future performances in the Premier League could well be enhanced by the signings that Roberto Martinez has made this summer. We saw how Barkley blossomed when he was able to make runs beyond Belgian beast Lukaku, whilst also having the option to knock the ball into him at any height and pace, knowing that there was a good chance that possession could be retained. Gareth Barry is vital too for Barkley, as we were able to observe last season that the former Manchester City and Aston Villa midfielder gives him the license to commit to forward runs. This is where he is most effective in causing damage to the opposition and Barry removes the shackles that would otherwise restrict his performance.
New signing Besic’s tough-tackling style and James McCarthy’s extra legs can also combine in the high tempo Premier League matches to assist Barkley’s utility in an offensive sense. Christian Atsu has just arrived on loan from fellow Premier League side Chelsea, and can take up the same role that Gerard Deulofeu had last season while borrowed from Barcelona. Scintillating pace allows them to stretch the defence, making more space in which Barkley can work his magic, and additionally gives another option for where to deliver a scything final pass.
A seemingly lost art in football these days is the naturally two-footed player. Santi Cazorla at Arsenal and Ross Barkley are the two prime saviours of this dying breed, and the Everton midfielder showed off this trait in the opening weeks of the Premier League last season when he scored a stunner against Norwich. The ball was passed to him on the edge of the opposition area and, creating space for himself with a dummy off his right onto his left, he thundered a drive past John Ruddy with his ‘weaker’ foot. Other attributes that he possesses are being able to dribble at pace and power, fantastic stamina and desire, along with a barrel chest allowing him to shrug off defenders. He exhibited all of these in his goal against Newcastle in March as he broke from deep inside his own half, beating defenders with ease and leaving them trailing in his wake, to then blast the ball into the net, again with his left foot.
Ross Barkley had been plagued with injuries for a few seasons before finally making a sustained breakthrough in the Everton first team for many Premier League games in succession last year. Prior to this, he had been forced to go out on loan to Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, purely to gain experience of regular football and to get some playing time under his belt. Now that he has managed to achieve a full Premier League season; playing regularly at the highest level, he will be all the better for it. Barkley must have the sense now that he really belongs on the World stage too after being taken to the World Cup in the summer with England, and this can only help him to express himself even more during games.
Martinez felt at times last year that it was prudent to rest Ross Barkley on occasion. This could be for any number of reasons, such as saving him from excessive exertion at a young age or fearing the presence of a lurking injury. Simply as Premier League football fans, we have to hope that he has the capacity to play 30+ league games for several years to come, so that he can grace the country’s pitches with his blend of power and technique. If Barkley somehow manages to top last year, he could push Everton into Champions League football.
The former Southampton full back is the only one of the players in this list who have changed clubs over the summer, and as a result may find it more difficult at first to nail down a first team spot. Shaw’s start at Manchester United has not been helped by news on Wednesday that he will be out of action for around 4 weeks with a hamstring injury, thus missing at least the first three games of his side’s Premier League campaign. This has interrupted his pre-season preparations, well known to be highly important to a footballer’s well-being and as such, he will not get a full run at the Premier League from the get go. Although Van Gaal is yet to draft in a replacement at left back, Shaw’s absence will inevitably hand the advantage to a team mate to get in ahead of him and make a positive impression, possibly even keeping him out of the side upon his return.
However, Luke Shaw did not come cheap from Southampton at all, requiring a significant outlay of £27 million; typically extortionate for any Englishman in the Premier League these days. This deal may have been secured before Van Gaal was officially in place as Manchester United boss, but you can’t imagine that he did not have any input towards the signing as he was appointed only a short time after. The 19 year old fits perfectly as a left wing back in a 3-5-2 formation which the ex-Dutch national coach seems to be favouring with his current crop of players. Shaw’s attacking approach is a very quick and direct one, he crosses well, and possesses the necessary exuberance to get up and down pitch all game. It is possible that work is needed on the defensive side of his play, but you could not wish for a better coach to be responsible for that. Van Gaal is certainly one of the best to have in charge of the youngster at this formative stage of his career and I expect him to instil the right principles in him, growing Shaw into a more rounded footballer. This is exactly what every Englishman wants and I predict even more improvement from the full back over the next 12 months.
This season, Luke Shaw is only having to deal with a single game a week in the Premier League, due to the fact that Manchester United are not in any form of European competition for the campaign ahead. This is perfect to allow him to retain his fitness while not having a derogative effect due to excessive minutes on the pitch. Shaw was taken to the World Cup with England which will only improve his self-confidence. Simply the fact that he can now feel included at national level should override the poor showing that the England squad gave in Brazil. Over the next couple of seasons, Man United’s recent recruit will be embroiled in a fierce fight with Leighton Baines for the first choice left back shirt in the Euro 2014 qualifiers. If this doesn’t give him the determination to be constantly improving then I’m not sure what will. I personally don’t think that Hodgson will hand the shirt initially, but he is the long term solution in this position so it would be the best idea to play him later in the campaign for sure. Luke Shaw gives us so much to look forward to and with such potential that; with the right attitude, he is destined only to do well.
Arsenal’s youthful midfielder had a mixed Premier League season last year, suffering from more than his fair share of injury problems but at the same time, impressing greatly when he did manage to string a few games together. Previously, Oxlade-Chamberlain has been seen essentially as a wide player, and an effective one at that. His pace, dribbling ability, and determination to reach a lost cause have produced a wide variety of issues for all sorts of top defenders throughout his short career so far. However, last season Wenger began to deploy him in a more orthodox midfield role, with great success.
While we always knew that Oxlade-Chamberlain had good skills on the ball, his game intelligence had not been seriously tested and it is this facet of a player’s game that is perhaps the most important in the hustle and bustle of central midfield. Whether through a moment of brilliant foresight or out of necessity due to injury problems at the time, Arsene Wenger placed the necessary faith in him and he was repaid with interest! The Southampton youth academy graduate blossomed magnificently and it turned out that not only did he have the composure to receive the ball in tight and congested areas, but he was still able to use his refined speed in this area of the pitch. The drive that wing-play had developed in him meant that his first thought upon picking up the ball was always “Can I possibly take it forward and spring an attack for my team?”. In an age where the incessant passing at the back and in a deep midfield position has become far too much of a default option; in the Premier League and across Europe, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s attitude was refreshing and I could not wait to see his impact at the World Cup. Sadly for all concerned, a twisted knee injury coming from a rather innocuous challenge in a warm-up match put pay to his tournament. Hodgson’s desperation to have him available as an option meant that he was still a member of the touring party but never actually saw action as he struggled to recover fully.
With a complete and uninterrupted pre-season behind him under the watchful stewardship of Arsene Wenger, I hope and expect to see the Oxlade-Chamberlain that lit up so many Premier League games last season. With the impressive addition of Alexis Sanchez and the return to full fitness of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, it will not be easy for the young superstar to cement a starting place. However, nothing drives self-improvement like real competition for places and we have seen enough of The Ox so far to know that he will not settle for a place on the bench. He has proven his value; both in terms of quality and versatility, so Wenger will not hesitate in trusting him in the biggest of games. Injury permitting, I believe that he will learn a great deal from Chilean star Sanchez, apply it to his own game, and finish the season as one of the first names on Wenger’s team sheet.
Do you agree that these are the top 5 youngsters in the Premier League right now, or do you think there is someone else who we should be paying even closer attention to? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball .