Could these Chelsea and Manchester United youngsters be among this season's breakthrough stars?
Few things fill supporters with pride than seeing young players break through into the first team and play a key role in the squad. The emergence of Harry Kane has proved that clubs don’t necessarily need to spend £50 million on a player to take you to the next level.
English football today is criticised for a reliance on wealth and talent from abroad, that clubs in the Premier League neglect their academy products and shift them on to the lower leagues for a profit, leaving a gulf in quality home grown players.
Arsenal, despite pushing for trophies season after season, had the most academy graduates in their squad last season alongside Tottenham and Southampton. 9 players in the squad joined before their 18th birthday without making a senior appearance for another club.
One of Arsenal’s youngsters was Alex Iwobi. The young forward emerged at the tail end of the season and became something of a staple in the Gunners line-up, and will doubtless go on to build his profile next season. The 20-year-old mainly features on the left wing but has featured across the front line in various competitions.
The Nigerian made 13 appearances in the Premier League, including 5 substitute appearances. In that time he scored twice and assisted a further two goals, an impressive contribution for a fresh face in the line-up.
Iwobi is renowned for his solid passing and driving runs. In the Premier League last season, he had pass completion rate of 86%. Arsenal often rely on possession football, but Iwobi’s precision through balls helped put defences to the sword on the counter.
Already capped at international level, Iwobi is one of the biggest young talents in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger has tipped him to make a big impact for the Gunners this season, so he’ll doubtless continue to feature and impress for the club that is “in his blood.”
Under Jose Mourinho, young players struggled to force their way into the Chelsea first team line up consistently. While he handed five players their debuts in his second spell at the club, none of them went on to feature on a regular basis.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was one of those players. The 20-year-old has consistently been tipped as the future of Chelsea’s midfield, and this could be the year that he truly establishes himself in the Blues first team.
New manager Antonio Conte is considering abandoning plans to sign another midfielder after being impressed with the Englishman’s preseason and training performances. He has drawn comparisons to Chelsea favourite Michael Ballack in the way he plays, with his impressive off-the-ball movement calmness in possession.
The Guardian’s Barney Ronay described Loftus-Cheek as a great fit for the England national team with his “shielding, covering, deep-playmaking presence, calmness in possession and a naturally telescopic reach”
Despite his plaudits, there are several areas of his game that need improvement. Conte seems to favour a two man midfield, which requires incredibly sophisticated positioning from both players. While Loftus-Cheek is developing fast, the positional aspects of his game still need work, and he has occasionally been caught out in preseason so far.
He also has a tendency to “fall out of games”, starting strongly but fading into anonymity with the progression of play. To be the player he’s touted to be, he needs to be a consistent influence for 90 minutes and not fade off the pitch.
Loftus-Cheek is rumoured to be earning £60k per week at Stamford Bridge after only 16 senior appearances. His new manager is unlikely to keep a player on those kinds of wages present without a serious role in the first team. First impressions are that Ruben Loftus-Cheek could have a big season for Chelsea, and may need to in order to secure his future at the club.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah is a name scarce known outside of Old Trafford and The Netherlands, but the versatile 18-year-old could have a big future at Manchester United.
The Dutchman arrived in England in 2014 from the famed Ajax youth academy, which is responsible for players like Johan Cruyff, Wesley Sneijder and Christian Eriksen.
Under compatriot Louis van Gaal last season, Fosu-Mensah finally gave fans an insight into why experts were so excited by his arrival. He looked composed on the ball, incredibly fast and more than willing to win the ball higher up the field in order to launch a counter attack.
The Dutch under-19s international mainly featured at centre-back for United, but according to his former coach Paul McGuinness, he can offer far more to the Red Devils. “Tim made an impact,” said the ex-academy coach. “He’s a lad who was very good in the FA Youth Cup games. He played in midfield and at the back.”
United under-21’s manager Warren Joyce echoes the belief in the youngster but believes patience is the key to Fosu-Mensah’s footballing education. “He played at the back for us in the first game against Salford and he was arguably at fault with their three goals. We’ve got to hone his strengths as well so he ultimately he can be selected for the first team.”
While some English teams may struggle to bring promising players through the ranks and into the first team, the problem isn’t as rife in the Premier League as some might expect. Plenty of talented young players could make their breakthrough onto the world stage. Expect to hear a lot more about Alex Iwobi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah in the coming months.
Featured image – All rights reserved by Stuart MacFarlane.
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