Richard O’ Donovan dishes out some of his own alternative awards for the PFA Young Player of the Year Nominees.
Note: Tests, laziness and post test celebrations are to blame for not getting this in before Gareth Bale was announced as the double winner. That said most of the points made below are as relevant/irrelevant now as they were before yesterdays announcements.
For now we can only work with the tools that we have so let’s assess the qualities of some of the young players who were up for consideration……before Bale won everything.
As I’ve already talked about Gareth Bale and Eden Hazards season’s in the main piece we’ll skip over them quickly. Just know that by the criteria the players are supposed to be following now Bale should have won in a landslide. Hazard should possibly have been second, at worst third.
Going on past seasons, I’m genuinely surprised Bale actually won.
Team Belgium/The Didier Drogba impersonation Awards
Lukaku arrived at Chelsea a couple of years ago now under the guise of a baby Drogba. Strong, powerful, direct and armed with canons in his feet, the comparisons were inevitable. After a quiet first season, mostly confined to the subs bench, Lukaku was given the chance to stretch his legs under former Chelsea assistant manager Steve Clarke at West Brom this season. Lukaku has responded well, scoring 13 league goals for the surprising Baggies this year, despite almost half his 30 Premiership appearances this year coming from off the subs bench. Instantly on his arrival at the Hawthorns, the raw abilities of the Belgian became clear, as he demonstrated the speed, power and finishing ability that was reminiscent of Drogba in his Premier League days. At West Brom however, Lukaku has been at his best in two areas of the game, the first when operating in large spaces vacated behind defences as teams have pressed forward against Steve Clarke’s side. And the second when simply getting after hopeful balls into the box, making the most of his imposing frame.
This is important as we assess his potential value to Chelsea at this stage of his development. While few would argue that Chelsea’s strikers have set the league alight this year, we need to be conscious of the differences in style of play that Lukaku would encounter if called back to Stamford Bridge. With Chelsea expected to dominate possession in the vast majority of their domestic games, and with their opponents likely to sit back and absorb attacks, there is often little in the way of the spaces behind defenders that Lukaku thrives in. Lukaku will need to evolve into a slightly more sophisticated player if he is to eventually thrive at the bridge in the manner of his predescessor Drogba. Regardless, big things do beckon for the still 19 year old Belgian in the coming years, even if his ceiling becomes 15 goals a year for a mid table club. However, if he can take a step forward and begin to harness his physical superiority over opponents in a more team controlled fashion, then Chelsea fans will be able to forget about the corpse of Fernando Torres before too long.
While Lukaku has enjoyed an excellent season for the baggies, he has been unable to match the all round contribution of his compatriot, Christian Benteke. As if only to emphasise the superior all round performances of Benteke, he has also gone on to take Lukaku’s place in recent Belgian national teams, impressing greatly once given his chance. From Belgium’s point of view, it is probably unclear if both strikers will be able to form a complementary partnership at some point down the road given their similarly direct styles. For now all we can say that, if you have to declare a preference for one of the burly Belgian’s, most people would take the Villa man.
Benteke has notched 19 goals (15 league) in 36 games since joining Villa from Racing Genk at the start of the season. But more than that, the robust Belgian has carried a team somewhat void of the required Premiership experience and probably even sufficient Premiership level talent to survive and excel. Put simply, if you could relegate parts of a team, the Villa defence would be halfway to League One, while the midfield would probably be already planning for Championship football next season too. So really, that Villa are still favoured to pip Wigan for the last survival spot owes everything to the displays of Benteke and to a lesser extent Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann in Villa’s attack.
Having announced himself in the Premiership spotlight with his bullying of Chris Smalling in Villa’s first meeting with Manchester United (naturally a game the porous defence would go on to throw away), Benteke went on to give a display at Anfield, in Villa’s 3-1 win that showed off all the attributes that will have top tier clubs knocking down Paul Lamberts door in the summer months. The strength, speed and finishing ability are obvious, but the additional cleverness of his link up play is what makes Benteke such a sought after prospect at this juncture.
Under the current rules of the young player award, Benteke was never likely to see off Bale in this season, but if we were to look back at the season under the eyes of best newcomer/rookie, it would be hard to argue against the Belgian frontman.
The Papier-Mâché Ankles Awards
Wilshere has only managed 30 total appearances for Arsenal this season, and that following on from a 2011/2012 campaign completely lost to injury. With further surgery scheduled in the summer for his troubled ankle, Arsenal and England fans could be forgiven for being increasingly nervous as to whether their latest prodigy will ever be able to scale the heights he seemed destined for having picked this award up in 2010/2011.
Another smaller worry has been Wilshere’s nasty streak also resurfacing this season, leading to more missed games having picked up the second red card of his senior Arsenal career. While a lesser concern then the injuries, Arsene Wenger would do well to reign in this aspect of Wilshere’s play given the dearth of talent of his calibre in Arsenals current ranks.
On a more positive note, when he has managed to consistently take the field, there have been little signs that Wilshere’s progress has been halted by his frequent trips to the treatment room. While he may have managed only a couple of goals and four assists in his appearances this season, Wilshere heavily falls into the category of players who can’t fully be appreciated by a stat sheet.
While in my senior piece, I criticised Michael Carrick for his struggles to really knit the play and move with the ball, Wilshere in many ways is the opposite. Wilshere’s range of passing may still lag behind his senior England teammates, but the quickness with which he gets off his passes and moves and dribbles for another gives him far greater authority as an attacking force. It is this ability which also marks him out as so rare in an English context. Recent central midfielders in the national team have either being spectacular goalscorers and athletes (Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard) or more solid defensive types (Gareth Barry and Carrick) but none has displayed the fluidity on the ball of the young Arsenal man. In the recent friendly victory over Brazil (a friendly though it was), it was this command of the games tempo that had commentators purring at the potential of the young man, and of the England team with him in it.
But encouraging as it was, this type of performance (and style of play) will only be possible if Wilshere is able to stay at the controls in the England midfield, and avoid the injuries which are for now, as defining a point as his talent is on his young career.
The destined for a £5-10m move to Sunderland/Stoke Award
One positive first.
At 23 since September, Danny Welbeck was hopefully in his last year of eligibility for young player award this season, meaning hopefully this is the last time I have to rant about a single goal striker being nominated for anything other than a career change.
Now onto the negatives.
For the record, Danny Welbeck has scored 1 Premier League goal this season (a crucial one at that in the 4-2 win at home to Stoke), or exactly half the amount that centre half John Terry scored in the space of 28 minutes against Fulham a few weeks ago. Teammate Rafael, (bizarrely not nominated) has scored more league goals for United this season from right back, captain Patrice Evra has done likewise from left full, even the very seldom used Alexander Buttner has matched Welbeck’s output.
If we dig even a small bit further, the picture does not get any prettier. For example, Welbeck has converted 1 of his 38 Premier League attempts on goal this season, a solid 2.6% conversion ratio. But really that obscure stat probably doesn’t even capture the struggles the United forward has had in front of goal. Countless other times, there have been potential chances where Welbeck has either been incapable of getting the ball out of his feet or simply hasn’t shown the predatory instincts needed to anticipate how a move might develop. If former United striker, Ruud Van Nistlerooy was the posterboy for knowing where to be in the box, Welbeck this season has been the polar opposite, a perfect cocktail of clumsiness and cluelessness.
Fans of Welbeck will point to the fact that he is often asked to play wide of the central striking roll as an excuse for his porous goal return, while others will highlight his displays in the Champions League against Real Madrid as demonstrations of his quality and potential. But while I will admit that his Madrid performance were the best of a horrible season, nothing in those games made me a believer that Welbeck can be an every game player for a successful United team in the future. The Madrid games were the rare United one’s where they do not dominate possession, meaning in Sir Alex’s selection, that a premium was placed on players who do their best work in disrupting the opposition and in playing in the spaces vacated at the attacking team presses forward. As a wonderful athlete, this is where Welbeck can look strong, quickly closing down the early passes of deep lying midfield players and the back four. While his pace also serves to stretch the game and keep defences honest as defenders, in such a game where his team is on the back foot. Personally, I think this is an underrated skill in such a game, as it inevitably prevents attack minded defenders from abandoning their posts to help the attacking cause of their team. However these attributes in themselves cannot be enough to sustain a career at one of Europe’s elite clubs, as a forward player you must offer more. Ferguson himself must know, that he can get the qualities Welbeck is offering him out of a number of other players (Villa’s Benteke springs to mind) without having to carry a player who is heading into Emile Heskey territory as a goalscorer.
If United again bolster their forward line this summer Welbeck’s United days may prove numbered. Nevermind though, he’ll find a good home at one of the Premier League clubs who appreciate strikers with 10 goal a season ceilings. Hell Tony Pulis may be licking his lips as I type.
The Glaring Omissions Awards
That the United right full could be overlooked for a nomination is truly astounding. Rafael has probably been the second best full back in the Premiership this season, and a vital cog in the league’s best team, yet he gets beat out by a forward player who has been unable to match his goal output?
But alas we’ve already discussed the woes of Welbeck, this paragraph is about lauding the development of the Brazilian. This season, Rafael has brought a stability to the United right full position which has become a problem position at the club since the decline and retirement of long time stall worth Gary Neville. While Rafael still remains overly excitable at times as a defender, most noticeably this season in the first half of the first leg against Madrid where he seemed intent on going mano y mano with Ronaldo, he has come on leaps and bounds as a player. That Ferguson chose to keep him on at half time in that game (and that he settled himself down to play well for the remainder of the tie) was a testament to that.
For the United team as a whole, finding a protypical new age right full (bundles of energy and stamina, exciting going forward, tenacious as a defender) is key to so many parts of the team. For example, with Rafael dependably embedded at right full, it means that potential stud centre halfs, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones don’t spend too much time clogging up the position and can instead concentrate on their development as centre backs and not turning into John O’Shea version 2.0’s. It also means that, like most successful teams in the modern game, United can attack from either flank by creating genuinely threatening overlaps. This just wasn’t the case whenever Johnny Evans or Smalling in particular played the right full role, as defences could largely ignore their ability as dribblers, crossers and shooters.
Benteke’s most obvious challenger for the inaugural Rookie of the Year trophy and also probably the most glaring omission from the actual Young Player Ballad is young Manchester City centre half Matija Nastasic. Only just turned 20, Nastasic has been a central figure in the league’s stingiest rearguard this season, displacing England centre half Joleon Lescott and proving an able partner for club captain Vincent Kompany. While another centre half across town in Manchester may provide competition for the league’s best young defender, Phil Jones simply hasn’t played enough this season to be considered here. Nastasic on the other hand has turned out for City 28 times since his early season move from Fiorentina, and has looked every bit the young Vidic in that time.
In his time in England so far, Nastasic has shown himself to be an excellent and developing athlete, as well as showing a level of maturity and anticipation which bellies his experience his experience to date. Looking ahead, City look to have unearthed a jigsaw piece, which will go a long way to helping the challenge to regain the Premier League title next year. Achieve that, and surely Nastasic will be a deserving nominee next year.
My Actual Fake Votes (using the players actually nominated)
- Gareth Bale
- Eden Hazard
- Christian Benteke
112. Danny Welbeck
My fake votes if the award was more for newcomers
- Christian Benteke
- Matija Nastasic
- Romalu Lukaku