Stars in the making?
Every season without fail, one or two promising young players will discover a new level to their game and start to live up to their billing as the next big thing.
It might be due to a change of position or club, exposure to regular first-team football or just playing alongside better players week-in-week-out. Examples that immediately spring to mind include Frank Lampard, once a plodding midfield general at West Ham before an eyebrow raising £10m move across the capital saw him blossom into the free-scoring box-to-box phenomenon he is today.
Another late bloomer was Arsenal’s all-time record goalscorer Thierry Henry, who failed to find the net in his first eight games as a Gunner and looked incapable of dealing with the physical demands of English football.
Henry joined the North London club after a dismal spell on the wing at Italian giants Juventus. After playing only a minor role in France’s World Cup triumph on home soil, he hardly looked like a world-class prospect when Arsenal snapped him up for £10m. It was Arsene Wenger’s decision to deploy the Frenchman as an out-and-out striker that transformed him into one of the world’s finest players in his Arsenal heyday.
Last season’s breakout performer was James Milner, a talented if slightly inconsistent winger during his spells at Leeds and Newcastle of whom Graeme Souness once famously remarked: ‘You’ll never win anything with a team of James Milners.’ Souness may still be right on the trophy front after Aston Villa were beaten by Manchester United in last year’s Carling Cup final, but since Martin O’Neill moved the 24-year-old into centre midfield he has flourished, attracting interest from big-spending Manchester City this summer.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Michael Dawson is another player who stepped out of his team-mate Ledley King’s shadow last season to earn plaudits for his commanding displays at centre-back. Dawson appeared to find a new level to his game last term, cutting out the costly errors that used to blemish his performances on the road and at White Hart Lane. After England’s debacle in South Africa, Dawson is likely to be rewarded for his excellent club form with a regular berth in the senior international side.
So which players from the Premier League’s stable of young talent will raise their game and put down a marker in the forthcoming campaign? Here are three players that could make a big splash next season.
1. Lee Chung-yong
The tricky South Korean winger had an impressive first season in the Premiership, nailing down a regular berth in a struggling Bolton side and chipping in with four goals and numerous assists. Before his move to England, Chung-yong was a target for Manchester City, but turned them down in search of regular first-team football. After a series of impressive displays last season, speculation linked the fleet-footed winger with a move to Liverpool.
Chung-yong was also one of his country’s star performers in South Africa, scoring against Argentina and Uruguay before the Taeguk Warriors crashed out in the last 16. With Bolton set to play more open, expansive football under Owen Coyle, Chung-yong should once again catch the eye and it would not be a surprise if one of the big clubs comes knocking in January.
2. Jack Rodwell
Possibly the Premier League’s worst kept secret, Rodwell has been on the radar for a while and is being tipped to make the step up to the England senior set-up this season. Already attracting admiring glances from Arsenal and Manchester United, Rodwell was mainly used as a substitute by David Moyes’ last season, as the Everton boss tried to keep a lid on his most precocious talent. However, due to an injury crisis at Goodison Park, Rodwell enjoyed a decent spell in the first team and duly impressed in his preferred defensive midfield role. In the pulsating 3-3 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Rodwell was the most composed player on the park, distributing the ball quickly and effectively and breaking up play in a mature performance that belied his tender years. A solo run ending with a smart finish past Van der Sar in Everton’s 3-1 win over Manchester United also underlined the midfielder’s ability going forward.
Rodwell is likely to start the majority of games this season as Moyes’ rewards the youngster for pledging his loyalty to the Toffees, and if the 19-year-old fulfills his undoubted potential there is every chance he will be picking up PFA honours come the end of the season.
3. Adam Johnson
Johnson has long been tipped for the top after coming through the ranks at Middlesbrough, earning favourable comparisons with the club’s other youth team graduate, Stewart Downing. In reality, Johnson is on another level to the one-paced, one-footed Downing. It may have taken the 23-year-old a while to find his feet in the Premier League, despite regularly being linked with Spanish giants Real Madrid before he had even made a significant impact in the Middlesbrough first team, but Johnson certainly made an impression last term. Comfortable with both feet and boasting great speed, close-control and dribbling skills, Johnson scored some outstanding goals in the Championship before Manchester City snapped him up for what now looks like a bargain £7 million.
England coach Fabio Capello must surely regret leaving Johnson behind at the expense of Shaun Wright-Phillips, who ironically can’t get into the Man City first-team due to his club mate’s superb form on the left-hand side. Having had the summer to rest, Johnson’s first full season in Man City colours promises to be even more productive, and a regular berth in the England senior side is surely within his grasp.