EPL: 5 Players Coming Up from the Lower Leagues Who Could Make a Big Impact
This week I thought I'd focus on five young players who spent last season making a name for themselves in the lower leagues of English football and are now preparing for Premier League life, either as a result of a recent transfer or having been part of teams who earned promotion last season.
English football has always had the strongest lower leagues of all the major European leagues. The Championship has higher average weekly gates than the mighty Serie A and is awash with players who deserve a chance to ply their trade in the highest league.
Blackpool proved last season that a group of Championship players can do themselves proud in the Premier League. There is a long list of players in the Championship, and indeed in League One, that I believe could make the grade at the highest level, and the five players I'm about to list are just the tip of a talent-rich iceberg.
It is my belief that a lot of English clubs would be better served spending their time and money scouting for players in the lower leagues rather than spending it on the numerous second-rate foreign players that pad out the squads of many top tier teams.
I hope you enjoy the article, and as always, feel free to comment.
5. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arsenal are a club in the midst of a six-year trophy drought and are facing the prospect of losing two of their best players, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, in the next few days. Manager Arsene Wenger has never before come under as much pressure from his own fans as he has over the last few months.
With Nasri and Cesc on the way out, replacements are being called for. Big-money replacements. Fans demand that Wenger takes the chequebook out and splashes the cash to bring in top-class replacements for the two players who been the focal point of Arsenal's style of play over the last couple of season.
The recent signing of 17-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton has been dismissed by many as simply the signing "another one of Wenger's kids for the future."
While admittedly Chamberlain's young age means that he shouldn't be expected to start every game, Wenger has just spent £12million, possibly up to £15million with add-ons, to secure the most sought-after prospect English football has to offer.
He has not, in my opinion, spent that kind of money for a player to not play him. I think Oxlade-Chamberlain could play a big role for Arsenal this season as Nasri's replacement. While he may not play every game, I think we'll be seeing quite a lot of him. The only reason he's not higher on this list is because I'm not sure how quickly Wenger will use him, or how he will.
The common misconception about Oxlade-Chamberlain is that he is another Theo Walcott-esque winger; he's not. He's far more than that, and far more talented and well-rounded than his fellow ex-Saint.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's game is based around his short passing, quick movement and vision. That's not to say he's not capable of taking the ball wide and beating his man, but to limit him to that would be an insult to his talent. In an ideal world, he would play as in a midfield trio, acting as the link between the midfield and the attack, partnered by a defensive midfielder and Jack Wilshere who will surely become the hub of the Arsenal team utilizing his quick passing and excellent vision to dictate how Arsenal play.
While many have, correctly, said that Wilshere shows the qualities of the pass-master Xavi in the way he goes about his business, I would put forward the case that Oxlade-Chamberlain has the potential to become Arsenal and England's answer to Xavi's partner in crime for club and country, the mercurial Andres Iniesta.
Now before anyone spills their tea over themselves jumping up to protest such an outrageous comparison between a 17-year-old player coming out of League One and a man who is arguably one of the top five players on the planet, I'm not saying he will be that good, but there's no question he could be that good.
Having followed both of their careers from the age of 15, I have no hesitation in saying that Oxlade-Chamberlain is a better player at the same age. Whether he can take the same large step in improvement that Iniesta did between the ages of 17-22 and become a world-class player remains to be seen but he's at the best club to give him that chance.
One need only look at the aforementioned Wilshere to see Wenger's capabilities with top-class young talent, and while I'm on the subject, Arsenal fans should rejoice that in Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain they not only have two players who will form the creative heart of the England team for the next 15 years or so, they also now have in-house replacements for Nasri (Oxlade-Chamberlain) and Cesc (Wilshere). It may take them a couple of seasons to get up to that level but Wenger's rebuilding of Arsenal, on and off the pitch, has earned him those couple of seasons.
Having those two players means that Wenger can now direct all his spending power on what's really needed: an experienced top-class goalkeeper, a central defender to partner the excellent Thomas Varmaelen, quality width on the left flank and a natural goalscorer to pair with the wonderful Robin Van Persie.
4. Kyle Naughton
Kyle Naughton should be England's first-choice right back. There I said. Forget Glen Johnson, forget Micah Richards, forget Kyle Walker. Kyle Naughton is the best right back England has to call on.
Many, if not all of you, will disagree but that's my belief and until I'm proven wrong, I'm sticking with it. While Naughton hasn't proven himself in the Premiership as yet, anybody that has seen him play over the last three seasons while know the talent and potential this lad has. His lack of Premiership playing time for Tottenham Hotspur since his £5million move from Sheffield United in 2009 has been more to the quality of Vedran Corluka and Alan Hutton than anything Naughton has failed to do.
In two of the last three seasons Naughton has shown himself to be the best right back in the Championship, first for Sheffield United in the season prior to his move to Spurs, and last season on loan at Leicester City, where he gave consistently brilliant performances.
Tottenham has a major headache at right back for the coming seasons, when they have Naughton at right back along with Corluka, Hutton and fellow ex-Blade Kyle Walker, who was also returning after a successful season on loan.
Corluka is expected to see more time in his natural position of centre back this coming season, leaving Hutton and one of the youngsters to fill the right back spot. Manager Harry Redknapp had to choose between Naughton and Walker and, mistakenly in my view, has plumped for Walker. While Walker has his merits and impressed during his spell at Aston Villa, Naughton is a better defender and adds just as much going forward.
Naughton has again been sent on loan, this time to Premier League newboys Norwich City. For my money, Norwich have gotten themselves a fantastic player.
Excellent defensively and good going forward, Naughton is a complete right back who will solidify their right flank and should be pushing for an England call-up by the turn of the year if he carries over his form of last season. If he gets himself into the England team, he'll be very hard to get out of it, especially as it's easily the weakest spot with the defensively awful Glen Johnson currently filling the role.
Come the end of the season, Spurs will either welcome him back with open arms and install him as their first-choice right back for next season or Redknapp will make a classic Harry mistake and sell him to the highest bidder, where he will go on to bigger and better things. Either way, Kyle Naughton has a great career ahead of him.
3. Scott Sinclair
The man who is solely responsible for Swansea City's first-ever promotion to the Premier League, Scott Sinclair is a talented, versatile player whom Chelsea gave up on too soon because he wasn't a big enough name for Roman Abramovich.
Sinclair is a goal scorer, as well as a goal maker. Played either as a winger or a striker, he's very effective and very potent. Blessed with natural pace and a calmness in front of goal that belies his young age, Sinclair has long been touted as one to watch.
Having been stolen by Chelsea from the Bristol Rovers youth team at the age of 15, Sinclair was seen as having the potential to become a future England star. He endured an incredibly frustrating couple of years at Chelsea as they constantly sent him out on loan to make room in their squad for overpaid but underperforming "name" players, before finally being allowed to leave on a permanent basis a year ago when he signed for Swansea City for a bargain price of just £500,000 that rose to £1 million based on certain incentives.
Without knowing what those incentives are, I'm sure it's safe to say that Swansea have paid the full £1million and would gladly pay five times that based on the season Sinclair just had for them.
Scoring 27 goals in 50 games, including 19 in the league, meant that Sinclair repaid his transfer fee with interest. But those numbers simply don't tell the story of just how good he was.
A look at those numbers don't mention the number of goals he created for his teammates. They don't mention the number of games he won single-handedly for his team. Most importantly, they don't mention the hat trick he scored in the playoff final in May when Swansea beat Reading to become the first Welsh team to ever gain promotion to the English Premier League.
If Sinclair can carry on his form from last season, he will draw major interest from a bigger club, and with all due respect to Swansea, he deserves a bigger platform to display his talents. Perhaps if he can display his full range of talents this season, next summer Mr. Abramovich might decide he is a big enough name and buy him back for Chelsea. His talents would fit very well with a certain Fernando Torres.
2. Connor Wickham
In January of this year Liverpool splashed £35 million to bring Andy Carroll to Liverpool, primarily because they wanted a young English centre-forward with a lot of potential that they could build a team of young English players around.
For my money, they should have taken that £35 million, spent £22 million of it on improving other areas of the team and with the remaining £13 million bought this man, Connor Wickham.
Wickham may not be as good as Carroll right now, but he's four years younger and an awful lot better than Carroll was at the same age. He's also more rounded, more talented and has far more potential than the limited Carroll. In the long term I don't think there's any doubt that he'll be a better player.
Some people like to say that Liverpool bought the England No. 9 for the next decade. I don't think so.
I think Sunderland bought that man, and Liverpool spent a lot more buying his future understudy. While Wickham may not have been the perfect partner for the magical Luis Suarez this coming season, he would have developed into it. Dirk Kuyt showed last season that he was the best possible partner for Suarez in the short term anyway. If Liverpool had gone with Kuyt and Suarez for the next year or so while Wickham develops, they'd have been a lot better off in the long term.
Many people will point to Wickham's scoring record and say that it's not all that impressive for a £13 million striker who's meant to be the next big thing. Those people are probably unaware that Wickham has had to play as a winger for a large portion of his career at Ipswich. Wickham's talent is such that he made the move to the wing flawlessly and impressed most people who saw him play there.
But there should be no doubts about Wickham's ability to find the net. Blessed with a natural finisher's touch, Wickham will score goals if given the chances. He's good in the air and great on the ground. He's also strong and imposing, owns a good first touch as well as quick feet, and isn't afraid to rough defenders up when the need arises.
In my opinion, Sunderland have bought themselves a player who will become a fixture for England for the long term and that's the good news for Sunderland. The bad news is that if he performs to the height of his ability over the next two seasons and develops as he should, he won't be a Sunderland player for the long term.
1. Adel Taarabt
Adel Taarabt has always been recognised as a player of wonderful footballing ability. Nobody has ever questioned whether or not he was a talented footballer who could make a football speak when it was at his feet. The questions about him arose regarding his attitude and commitment to the game.
Taarabt first landed on English shores when the current Liverpool director of football, Damien Comolli, brought him to Tottenham during his time in a similar position at Spurs. From the offset Taarabt displayed his magical talents in training and his teammates raved about him. Unfortunately for him, his manager at the time, Juande Ramos deemed him too young to play for the first team and felt it was best that he continue his development in the reserves. Taarabt did so and seemed content to await his opportunity to break into the first team. As time passed and a new manager arrived, Taarabt began to grow restless. His performances began to dip as he started to feel unappreciated and began to engage to frequently visit London nightclubs, much to the annoyance of new manager Harry Redknapp.
Now personally, I've never bought into the "Harry Redknapp is a top manager" myth. I don't rate him as a tactician, nor do I believe in his so-called "eye for talent." Redknapp has always been a wheel-and-deal type of guy who does well at small or struggling clubs and can avoid relegation when he has to. The fact is that if you buy enough players, eventually you will end up with one good one. It's the law of averages.
Redknapp has allowed many talented players to slip through his fingers throughout his career because he didn't rate them as being good enough for his club. A prime recent example of that is Taarabt's friend and fellow former nightclub enthusiast, Kevin-Prince Boateng. Boateng was "never going to make the grade" at Spurs, according to Redknapp when he sold him in 2009. Now he's a key player for the mighty AC Milan, he starred for Ghana in last summer's World Cup and he's quickly becoming one of the best central midfielders in world football.
Another example is Taarabt.
Redknapp simply never gave him a chance. He didn't feel his style of play suited his vision of Spurs. While there's no doubt that Redknapp does like to have talented playmakers in his team, his current duo of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, whilst hugely talented are also conventional players who rarely go against the game plan and play "off the cuff."
Taarabt on the other hand is a maverick who can win and lose games on his own, depending on his mindset. Last season as captain of QPR he decided to win games: a lot of them. He racked up 19 goals and 16 assists and turned in virtuoso performances on an almost weekly basis from his attacking midfield role as he led QPR's march to the Championship title.
In doing so he attracted a lot of attention from top clubs all over Europe, and for me the biggest surprise of this transfer window so far is that he's still a QPR player. There are still three weeks left in the window and with Liverpool, PSG and Arsenal all being linked, it's still possible he may leave.
QPR fans better hope they can hang on to him, because if he goes, their chances of staying up will go with him. I'm expecting big things from Taarabt this season, and in the next few years he could, just like his buddy Boateng, prove Redknapp spectacularly wrong by becoming one of the best players in Europe.
So there's my five picks for players coming into the Premiership having impressed in the lower leagues last season. Feel free to leave your own opinions of the five I've mentioned, or indeed mention any you feel deserved inclusion.
As always, thanks for reading.