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Premier League Stars of 2011

December 22, 2010 1 comment

“A new year is unfolding – like a blossom with petals curled tightly concealing the beauty within”

There were plenty of men who burst through onto the Premier League landscape in 2010. It was the year when we all got rather excited about Gareth Bale, the year when Nani and Samir Nasri stepped out of Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fàbregas’ commanding shadows and the year when Andy Carroll jumped into Alan Shearer’s intimidating shoes.

Next year promises yet more riveting storylines. Will the fledglings at Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United rise to prominence? Will the youthful core keep Aston Villa competitive? And will Manchester City hang on to their talented products?

This is who I think will burst through in 2011.

Wojciech Szczęsny (Arsenal)

He’s already causing bloggers, journalists and spelling perfectionists everywhere nightmares. Yet the man who fears vowels could soon establish himself as one of the league’s top keepers at the tender age of 20.

Arsène Wenger has already stated that he thinks Szczęsny will go on to be Arsenal’s No 1 one day and with doubts over those supposedly ahead of him in the pecking order, that day may come sooner rather than later. He was assured enough when thrown in at the deep end at Old Trafford recently and certainly has the confidence to play for a big team.

Some of Arsenal’s talented band of youngsters always seem to blossom each year and Szczęsny’s maturation could be imminent. The goalkeeper position remains Wenger’s Achilles heel and Szczęsny may be the answer to his woes.

Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)

There was a time when you thought that with Gaël Clichy for company, Kieran Gibbs was going to have to move elsewhere to kick-start his career. Yet increasingly these days, Clichy looks like a weak link in the Arsenal back line. Gibbs now looks a better all-round and more consistent option for Arsenal and Clichy should be concerned about his starting place next year.

Gibbs is undoubtedly talented but his early forays into the Arsenal team have been hampered by injuries. His development will depend largely on his ability to stay fit.

Sadly he may find it harder to dislodge Ashley Cole in the England team and Leighton Baines’ recent resurgence means Gibbs will have to shine if he’s to even get another call up for the national team.  

Manchester boys Onuoha and Welbeck have flourished at Sunderland

Nedum Onuoha (Sunderland/Manchester City)

Nedum Onuoha has all the physical attributes of Micah Richards yet with the football brain which should take him further.

Whilst he may not possess the cavalier instincts of a Dani Alves or Glen Johnson, the mazy run which led to his goal against Chelsea proved he is adept in advanced positions.

His time at Sunderland has proved that he will shine in this league even if it is not with Manchester City’s instant-gratification project. Vincent Kompany has had a stellar season thus far and City have a plethora of options at both full-back and centre half. But I fully expect Onuoha to be in Fabio Capello’s plans for the coming year wherever he may end up.

Kyle Walker (QPR/Tottenham Hotspur)

Perhaps I have cheated here by including three players who could essentially be considered as “right-backs” but the long-term injury suffered by Blackburn Rovers’ Phil Jones made this a more difficult decision. I believe Johan Djourou will shine too but Wenger will remain cautious as he returns from injury. Kyle Walker has also featured in a more central position for QPR and he has been an inspirational loan signing for them. Their rock solid defence has been the main reason for their lofty position and Walker must take some credit for that.

He looks like a commanding figure who is comfortable on the ball but not afraid to put a foot in when it is required. Walker is the only player in this 11 currently playing outside of the Premier League but his bright performances for QPR should allow him to break into the Tottenham team when he returns.

Rafael Da Silva (Manchester United)

Rafael has so far been plagued by the naivety of youth. His sending off against Bayern Munich last season was a prime example of how, in the heat of battle, he would often do something rash.

He still has a tendency to dive in rather than stand up and hold back but his defensive capabilities are improving.

Excellent performances against Tottenham and Arsenal and the fact he was rested for the big derby against Manchester City prove that Sir Alex Ferguson believes he can trust the Brazilian. With Wes Brown seemingly out of favour, Gary Neville nearing the end and John O’Shea still very much the utility man, Rafael is currently the fore runner for the right back berth.

Alongside the experienced heads of Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidić, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, Rafael can be the final component of United’s rear-guard this coming year.

Gaël Kakuta (Chelsea)

His name will be familiar with many fans even if his appearances for Chelsea’s team have so far been sparse.  The controversy surrounding his signing should tell you that Chelsea were simply desperate to sign Gaël Kakuta.

His limited number of first team appearances have been received warmly and he was a key cog in the French under-19 team that won the European Championships last summer.

Chelsea rarely dip their sizeable hands into the transfer market these days and with an aging squad, the emphasis is clearly on youth. Few have broken through since Roman Abramovich’s arrival but Kakuta is heading a talented group of players who may well finally buck that trend.

Anderson (Manchester United)

It’s not been easy for Anderson at Manchester United. He has struggled to define his role, there have been question marks about his attitude and on top of that, an injury somewhat derailed his progress.

In the past few weeks though, Anderson seems to be finally realising what he needs to do to make himself into a top class footballer. He offers United something which nobody else in that midfield group can. He is a bustling box to box midfielder with the energy, stamina and strength to drive the heart of that midfield. If he can start scoring on a regular basis, he will be invaluable to United’s title aspirations.

This time last year teammate Nani embarked on a turnaround and now Anderson has the chance to tread a similar path. Anderson has been rewarded with a new contract and an extended run in the first team. The stage is most certainly set for him to finally blossom in 2011.

Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers)

At 25, Stuart Holden is the oldest man in this group but in terms of his time in England, his football career is still very much in its infancy.

Initially at Sunderland before heading to America, Holden has only been with Bolton for 12 months but in that time he has been the catalyst for their Owen Coyle-inspired turnaround.

Holden’s poise and calmness on the ball make him an instantly likeable player. He is proficient with both feet and is excellent at keeping possession. Coyle’s Bolton have utilised a 4-4-2 formation and their recent success has owed much to Holden’s marvellous midfield play.

Whilst he has received some praise I fully expect Holden to soon be recognised as one of the league’s best midfielders and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end up with a bigger club in the summer.

Aston Villa's academy has been one of the league's best in recent years

Marc Albrighton (Aston Villa)

Marc Albrighton has spent the last few months of 2010 forming a burgeoning reputation in the game as one of the country’s more exciting prospects. He was desperately unlucky to miss out on the last England squad but his time is fast approaching. 

Unlike compatriots Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips, the main weapon in Albrighton’s artillery is his final delivery. His whipped crosses are akin to something the magical right boot of David Beckham might conjure up. Albrighton has the pace and the trickery, but his nous for providing exquisite crosses set him apart. He has also weighed in with plenty of goals.

His attitude too is mightily refreshing as pointed out in a recent Sunday Times feature.

I fully expect Albrighton to nail down England’s right midfield position by next year and that can only be good news for England’s frustrated strikers.

Danny Welbeck (Sunderland/Manchester United)

Sir Alex Ferguson had suggested the summer before last season that Danny Welbeck would be included in England’s World Cup squad. But Welbeck endured a difficult season, ending it on loan at Preston North End. Marginalised in wider roles and still needing to bulk up, Ferguson’s premonition looked rather foolish.

Yet in the past few weeks, he has been inspired at Sunderland. He has scored goals with his feet and his head, performed the role of poacher and creator and been both quick and strong. There now seems little doubt that Welbeck will end up back at Old Trafford next year and he certainly has the fans rooting for him. United haven’t brought through many strikers in recent years and Welbeck now has an excellent opportunity to fill that void.

Nathan Delfouneso (Aston Villa)

Delfouneso’s inclusion is a gamble based on the fact that he has rarely featured thus far for Villa. It would have been easier to pack the midfield and opt for Barry Bannan, Jack Rodwell or Josh McEachran. Yet Delfouneso could feature prominently for Villa next year and has all the attributes to be 2011’s Andy Carroll.

With Villa’s brash spending days firmly behind them, Gérard Houllier has to look at what he already has. John Carew’s temperament and Emile Heskey’s injuries could propel Delfouneso into the spotlight. He is quick and has a robust figure which should allow him to cope with the physical demands of the league.

Manchester City Need to Find Their Own ‘Heartbeat’ for Long-term Success

July 31, 2010 1 comment

“Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow”

With untold riches, Manchester City’s relentless pursuit of instant gratification is understandable. But even with their wealth, it has not been easy. Unlike Chelsea, who provided the blueprint for quick success, City started from a lower rung on the ladder. Chelsea finished fourth the season before Roman Abramovich weighed in; City only achieved ninth place before the Abu Dhabi United Group arrived. The squad needed reinforcements and the new recruits could not be guaranteed Champions League football. Two years on and the same problems exist. To cure this ill, City have again delved into the transfer market.

Bright stars like Ireland and Richards could struggle to cement places

The worry is that assembling a team of global superstars will come at the expense of their own fledglings. The academy has been praised in recent years and rightly so. Few English clubs have produced players of the calibre of Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha, Stephen Ireland and Daniel Sturridge. The academy won the F.A. Youth Cup two years ago and two of that victorious team, Dedryck Boyata and Vladimír Weiss, have been on the fringes of the first team. While Sturridge willingly opted for pastures new, Richards, Onuoha and Ireland have struggled to establish themselves as mainstays in City’s revolution. Jérôme Boateng’s arrival this summer could result in departures for his psychical prototypes, Richards and Onuoha. Meanwhile Ireland continues to be linked to a host of other Premier League clubs. Shaun Wright-Phillips, back for a second spell at Eastlands, has Adam Johnson ahead of him in the pecking order. Even Joe Hart, England’s brightest young goalkeeper, faces a spell as Shay Given’s understudy.

It is a problem which has caused concern over at Stamford Bridge after Chelsea’s initial triumphs. They pumped money into their academy and Frank Arnesen was installed to bring through the next generation. No longer would Chelsea rely solely on Abramovich’s millions, rather they would look to their own to step up. Up until now, the exercise has been a colossal failure but with the forthcoming homegrown rule about to come into effect, its importance cannot be overstated.

The blame shouldn’t lie squarely on manager Roberto Mancini’s shoulders. He needs to build a successful team and quickly or he will face the axe just like his predecessor Mark Hughes. Those who have worked their way through City’s ranks may not be Champions League standard just yet and Mancini needs established talent if he is to go one better than last time around. His first priority is not to develop future stars; it is to bring in trophies. By jettisoning too many of their own, City may struggle to find leaders and long-term servants. These types of players not only help create a club’s identity but they also spearhead long term success.

Zanetti's leadership skills are vital for Inter

Across Europe the top sides all have these players, men who have become synonymous with their clubs. Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol at Barcelona, Del Piero at Juventus, Totti at Roma and before his retirement, Maldini at Milan. At the revolving door that is Real Madrid, Iker Casillas has out-lasted two waves of Galácticos and until his recent departure; Raúl was an ever-present figure since he broke through 16 years ago. Inter Milan’s Champions League winning squad included few Italians but the man who lifted the trophy in Madrid, Javier Zanetti, has been captain for over a decade. In England it is no different. Giggs, Scholes and Neville are a part of the furniture at Manchester United, scousers Gerrard and Carragher make up the fabric of Liverpool. Chelsea’s turnover of players has been greater than most in recent times but John Terry is still a figurehead for the West Londoners. Even Arsenal, with their foreign legion, possess Cesc Fàbregas who epitomises the exciting, young attacking side Arsène Wenger is honing.

It is a key ingredient that City lack and it is not something which should be underestimated. He need not be a local boy and as Fàbregas and Zanetti have shown, he does not need to come from these shores. What he does need to be is a player who embodies their club’s style, a leader who works harder than most and can be called upon in the toughest situations. Even in pursuit of short-term success, City need to find their own Terry, Giggs or Zanetti, their own heartbeat. It is something which should be taken under consideration when in their quest for glory; they contemplate offloading their bright, young hopes to free up room for the more household names.