With the transfer window closed and the 2018/2019 Premier League season in its infancy, clubs are getting back into the swing of things.
Summer signings are bedding, newly appointed coaches strive to get their tactics across while every team attempts to gain as many points on the board as possible, taking advantage of those unexplained, early-season slip-ups. Unlike years gone by, clubs are unable to delve back into the market for reinforcements on the back of a few suspect results, but many already have stars in the making, waiting in the wings.
On July 2nd, many premiership clubs faced the realities of pre-season without their star men, who were busy strutting their stuff on the world stage in Russia. As the likes of Belgium, Croatia, France, Brazil and England progressed through the rounds, the world cup schedule left many teams scrabbling around their respective youth set-ups to fill their quota of squad members for pre-season tours.
While Jose Mourinho announced to the world that he felt sorry for ‘poor Alexis Sanchez’, having to slum it with the reserves, others used the opportunity to promote from within. While Jordan Henderson sat at the base of England’s midfield, young Curtis Jones earnt rave reviews deputising for him in the Liverpool team, the same with Oliver Skipp, a dynamic 17-year-old who used Eric Dier’s absence to his advantage. Such opportunities afforded to these younger players were grasped with both hands, and across the board, it felt like this summer more than most, the kids were grabbing the spotlight.
A good showing pre-season showing is fine, but holds no guarantee that these players will start the season – Kevin Miralles hitting five goals, including a four-minute hat-trick in a friendly against ATV Irdning didn’t stop Marco Silva shipping him off to Fiorentina shortly afterwards.
So how many of these players will get a chance this year? Rewind twelve months and the likes of Reece Oxford, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ben Woodburn were talked about as the probable break-out stars of the 2017/2018 campaign. While all are undoubtedly premier league quality, they found game time at their parent clubs hard to come by. Oxford and Loftus-Cheek were sent out on loan by the end before August was up, while Woodburn featured only a couple of times from the bench. This season, Woodburn is already out on loan, while game time looks limited again for the others.
The reality is just that the vast financial incentives on offer from the Premier League dictate, to a certain degree, the players likely to feature. Club expectations and owner demands mean that managers are not often afforded the time to develop and blood these younger players, instead preferring experienced and ready-made first-teamers. So, unsurprisingly, most of these youngsters who may have featured heavily throughout summer face the prospect of dropping straight back into the under 23’s for the games that matter. But there are a few select players who will be knocking on the door of the first team, and for them, 2018-2019 could finally be their breakthrough year.
Phil Foden – Manchester City
Touted as the long-term solution to England’s lack of midfield creativity, he might seem an obvious choice, but five Premier League appearances to date hardly constitutes an established player. A breakthrough year on the back of the England Under 20’s World Cup success was predicted last season, but after a promising start, an ankle ligament injury curtailed his development. After returning to pick up an EFL winners medal, featuring for the last few minutes, he went on to make a handful of substitute appearances at the tail end of the run-in but was back with the reserves for crucial games against Everton and Manchester United.
A positive showing in the season opener, the community shield against Chelsea, coupled with an unfortunate injury to Kevin De Bruyne, has thrust Foden firmly back into the first team reckoning. Gaining a regular starting spot over the collective superstars ahead of him in midfield will be tough, but with Guardiola a firm believer in squad rotation, the early signs look positive. Described as a gift to City by Pep, he chances were further enhanced but the lack of signings in central midfield, with supposed targets Fred and Jorginho joining Manchester United and Chelsea instead. Calm and composed on the ball in a manner that belies his years, his ability to work through opposition lines that has caught the eye.
With City battling on four fronts again, their number 47 can expect increased involvement, and with England boss Gareth Southgate keen to promote from within the youth set-ups, it may not just be a regular City squad place that Foden nails down by the end of the season.
At the height of last season’s injury crisis, things looked desperate for Roy Hodgson. The absence of Joel Ward and Martin Kelly meant he was forced to turn to the relatively unheard of right back for the home clash against Spurs, and the home faithful held their breath. Fast forward 90 minutes and local boy Wan-Bissaka was the name on everyone’s lips. Forgetting Kane’s eventual late winner, his energetic performance up against established internationals in Lamela and Davies was one of the main talking points.
The impressive display led to him keeping his place for the visit of Manchester United. In fact, his first five games featured the visits of Spurs, United and Liverpool, as well as an away trip to Chelsea. While all four ended in defeat by the odd goal, Wan-Bissaka was starting to impress.
A month after making his Premier League bow, he was elected Palace fans player of the month for March and was recognised with an England under 20 call-up.
A solid pre-season followed and he has continued in the same vein as he finished last season. Having started the opening two games, his anticipation and eagerness to roam forward with every opportunity gives the team balance, complementing Van Aanholt’s raids down the left. Expect to see him return straight into the first team after suspension, and promoted to the England Under 21s in due course.
Callum Hudson-Odoi – Chelsea
The beauty with blooding young attackers can be the fearless attitude they display – that raw willingness to impress and beat their man. Marcus Rashford is a perfect case in point, thrust into the limelight for a Europa League game, bagged a brace and never looked back.
In Hudson-Odoi, Chelsea have their own lightning-quick wide attacker. Blessed with the skill to match his pace, the 17-year old gave Hector Bellerin a torrid time in pre-season, and showed glimpses of what he can do in the community shield defeat to Manchester City. He managed two substitute appearances under Conte, as well as featuring in the FA Cup and EFL trophy, but with new boss Maurizio Sarri switching to a high-pressing 4-3-3, this can only bode well for Hudson-Odoi.
A member of Jody Morris’ famed, all-conquering youth academy, the Chelsea fans have been clamouring for a player to breach the Cobham divide and properly challenge for a first-team place. Having loaned out Batshuayi for the season, Chelsea look light in the front three positions, and the Thursday-Sunday routine of Europa League football means first-team opportunities will open up. With Sarri professing to prefer coaching the players at his disposal rather than dipping into the transfer market, Hudson-Odoi will benefit from the introduction of the attack minded “Sarri-ball’ – a quick passing style sure to complement is pace. While Hazard and Willian are expected to occupy the wide berths alongside Morata for now, don’t be surprised to see him feature more regularly as the season progresses.
Kieran Dowell – Everton
For the second consecutive summer, Goodison Park has been a hive of transfer activity, with player comings and goings continuing right up to the second the window closed. But amongst all this, one piece of business is likely to have crept under the radar. At the beginning of August, young midfielder Kieran Dowell signed a new three-year deal with the club. While other youngsters departed on loan, new manager Marco Silva opted to keep Dowell with the first team squad.
Another England under-20 world cup winner, Dowell burst onto the scene on loan at Nottingham Forest last season. A stream of stand-out performances, including a goal and assist in the FA Cup dispatching of Arsenal, had Everton fans rubbing their hands. He tailed off towards the end of the season, unsurprising for a player of his age in his first full season and given the dismal of Mark Warburton, who tactics suited Dowell’s game perfectly. Under Silva, the attention to detail and style of play should allow Dowell to flourish when given the opportunity. An excellent and creative passer of the ball, he is predominantly a left-footed attacking midfielder but can operate in a deeper central midfield role or on either wing. It may take an injury for Dowell to get a look in initially, but expect big things if he and when he does.
Eddie Nketiah – Arsenal
You could be forgiven for not having heard of Eddie Nketiah ahead of the EFL Cup clash with Norwich back in October last year. With just two minutes of previous first team experience under his belt, Nketiah entered the fray to jeers of ‘Who Are You’ from the away side, who were leading 1-0 with minutes to go. Half an hour later and it was the Arsenal fans turn to serenade him as his two-goal salvo rescued them from an embarrassing cup exit. Regular substitute appearances in the Europa League followed, as well as brief Premier League cameos against Brighton, Newcastle and Leicester.
His scoring record at international level takes some beating, registering two goals in three appearances in the Under 21’s Toulon tournament at the start of the summer, as well as 12 in 10 for the under 18’s and 19’s combined. Highly rated by Arsene Wenger, and now Unai Emery, Nketiah has his work cut out to break past Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, but with a busy Europa League schedule ahead, expect him to take advantage in games when Emery rests his main stars.
Nathaniel Chalobah – Watford
Having spent a number of seasons treading the loan circuit without ever really having a chance at Chelsea, Nathaniel, the older of the two Chalobah brothers on Chelsea’s books, opted to sign permanently for Watford in the summer of 2017. A promising start saw him partnering Abdoulaye Doucouré in the centre of Watford’s midfield, with the pair impressing in Watford’s blistering start. However, a fractured kneecap effectively ended Chalobah’s season in September, with just six games under his belt. All the more cruel, seeing as he had been working his way into Southgate’s England plans ahead of the world cup, after having played over 90 times at various youth levels.
Having missed most of pre-season too, Chalobah is now back, with boss Javi Gracia confirming the midfielder is playing catch-up with the rest of the squad. While Étienne Capoue currently partners Doucouré at the base of the midfield, he will face a fight to keep Chalobah from reprising his role from last season.
Tactically intelligent – he spent a year on loan at Napoli under Maurizio Sarri – the tall and rangy midfielder is as happy screening his back four as his is bombing into the box. Impressive energy reserves and strength add to the physical side of his game, while his leadership skills have been recognised through the youth set-ups for both club and country. While he was a Premier League medal recipient in Conte’s first season at Chelsea, he only managed five starts year and six last season, so assuming he can stay fit, this should be the year Nathaniel Chalobah kicks on.
Kyle Walker-Peters – Tottenham
As the Danny Rose situation rumbles on and rumours of a loan move to the continent gather traction, Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino remains remarkably calm about the whole situation. The reason for this may be the recent emergence of Kyle Walker-Peters – a right back by trade, but comfortable filling in on the opposite side too – handy given he has Kieran Trippier and Serge Aurier blocking his path. Given a few opportunities in cup competitions last season, he only started the first and last Premier League games of the season but won MOTM on both his debut against Newcastle and in the final day thriller against Leicester. Highly rated by Pochettino, he was kept on to train with the squad, as opposed to going out on loan, and recently signed a contract extension tying him down until 2021.
Like his namesake, the former Spurs and current Manchester City star Kyle Walker, Walker-Peters is blessed with pace and a willingness to get forward, highlighted with his two assists against Leicester. His reading of the game and defensive awareness mean Pochettino will have no reservations in throwing him in, and with a full back rotation policy common practice between league and cup games, expect to see him given the opportunity to press a claim for regular first team action
Yves Bissouma – Brighton
As soon as their survival was confirmed against Manchester United with a couple of games to spare, Brighton set about bolstering their squad for their second season in the Premier League. While Alireza Jahanbakhsh, fresh from starring for Iran in the World Cup, might have drawn most of the attention as their record signing, Yves Bissouma was snapped up for an undisclosed fee from Lille on a five year contract. Signed to provide competition to Davy Propper and Dale Stephens at the base of the midfield, Bissouma is a powerful and uncompromising central midfield, strong in the tackle and excellent at breaking up play.
Born in the Ivory Coast and raised in Mali, Bissouma signed for Lille from AS Real Bamako in early 2016, spending the remainder of the season with the B team. He was promoted to Lille’s first team squad at the start of 2016/2017 preseason followed and never looked back, making 54 appearances in all competitions for Les Dogues and well as earning 13 caps for Mali.
In addition to his combative style of play, Bissouma is an excellent dribbler of the ball, taking on opposition players without hesitation, and chips in with the occasional goal. Propper and Stephens are likely to continue as the first-choice midfield pairing, but manager Chris Hughton’s preference for a 4-2-3-1 formation means there should be plenty of opportunities for Bissouma to force his way in.
David Brooks – Bournemouth
Another transfer that was soon eclipsed by the club’s record signing was that of David Brooks to Bournemouth from Sheffield United. Jefferson Lerma’s arrival at Vitality stadium meant that the earlier capture of Brooks was soon forgotten, but while Lerma gets up to speed, and fitness, for the demands of the Premier League, Brooks started both victories at Cardiff and West Ham. Impressed, manager Eddie Howe suggested that he already looks at home in the team after the win at London Stadium.
Originally a product of the Manchester City academy, Brooks switched to Sheffield United aged 17 and broke into the first team at the beginning of the 2017/2018 season. While an attacker midfielder by trade, he has been deployed on the right of midfield by Eddie Howe and was positioned as a second striker for some of his time in Sheffield.
Despite his slight physique, his pace and trickery have already caught the eye in the Premier League, while Wales won the battle for his international future, despite playing for the England under-20’s side. Howe’s free-flowing football suits Brooks game perfectly, and if they can steer clear of the relegation battle for another year, expect him to shine and the Premier League big boys to start sniffing around him.
Ethan Ampadu – Chelsea
It’s not often you get multiple Chelsea youth prospects with a realistic chance of making the first team. Typically viewed as a hoarding club, Chelsea’s strategy has been to bring in the brightest youth prospects, develop and loan them out, before cashing for an inflated profit a few years later. But along with Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ampadu looks like he is going to be one to stick around and buck this trend. Signed from Exeter back in the summer of 2017, aged just 16, having already played 13 games for the Devonshire side, Ampadu slotted straight into the youth set-up run by Jody Morris.
Hard to miss on the pitch, with his trademark dreadlocked hair, there is more than just the physical resemblance to his teammate David Luiz. Both are primarily centre backs but are eager to show for the ball, and so are comfortably stepping up to defensive midfield when required.
His first season saw his top-flight game time limited to a substitute appearance against Huddersfield, but he was already catching the eye in cup competitions, as well as the EFL trophy, gaining airtime marshalling the Chelsea under-21’s to a final against Lincoln. Watching him, it is easy to forget that he is still just 17 years old, as he oozes confidence on the ball, and his reading of the game is exceptional for someone so young. With Sarri in the process of electing his starting centre-back pairing for the coming season, expect to see Ampadu afforded more game time, especially given the Europa league schedule.