Soccer is far from being a one-man game. However having instrumental players in-form in key games surely increases the chances of winning any match by any team against any opposition. The following is part one of a four-piece feature where I choose one player from each English Premier League team who I believe will be key in his side’s chances achieving their objectives, be it avoiding relegation, reaching the top 4 or winning the title.
During the past year, much has been made of the lack of striking cover Arsenal had for Olivier Giroud. With the emergence of Yaya Sanogo and Joel Campbell and the £35million acquisition of Alexis Sanchez, Arsene Wenger will surely put all those groans to bed.
Sanchez, who has scored 24 goals in 71 caps for Chile, has arrived from Barcelona with quite an impressive record in the attacking third as he scored 47 and assisted 34 goals in three seasons where he competed against the likes of Lionel Messi, Pedro, David Villa and Neymar for a starting berth.
Arsene Wenger’s back five seem to be getting stronger season after season as Wojciech Szczesny is slowly turning into a top class goalkeeper and Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker’s partnership has forced Thomas Vermaelen to join Barcelona.
Now the onus is on their front players, led by Alexis Sanchez, to bring more glory to the Emirates Stadium. The Tocopilla-born 25-year-old possesses an impressive burst of pace as well as great body strength that allows him to brush challenges ala Sergio Aguero. Much is expected from a player who has cost £60million in transfer money in three years. Will he be the missing piece that finally delivers another Premier League title for Wenger?
In the six Premier League matches that Vlaar missed last season, Aston Villa failed to register a single clean sheet. When he was in the side for the other 32 matches, they managed to keep a clean sheet on nine occasions. Coincidence? Possibly.
Fresh from a tremendous World Cup leading the Dutch defensive line, the Aston Villa skipper will be a huge part of Paul Lambert’s plans for this season. The 29-year-old centre-back has been linked to other clubs but Lambert will be keeping his fingers crossed that the chairman Randy Lerner won’t want to cash in on his captain.
Surely Villa fans all over the world would rather see their trusted-captain lead their defensive line rather than former Fulham and Arsenal misfit Phillippe Senderos!
The transfer window at Villa Park has been underwhelming to say the least as their American owner looks for a buyer with Aly Cissokho, Joe Cole and Kieran Richardson joining Senderos through the entry gates. Aston Villa is currently riddled with players bought from lower leagues who have failed to make a lasting impact on the Premier League.
On the other hand, Ron Vlaar fully deserves his place in the league and if Aston Villa want to stay in the league, they’d better keep hold of him.
At the beginning of last season, Sean Dyche decided to stick by a 21-year-old striker who had scored 6 goals during the whole of the previous two seasons to replace the QPR-bound Charlie Austin. The player was Danny Ings who rewarded his manager with 21 goals in the Championship and 26 goals in all competitions.
Upon arriving in Burnley, Dyche made sure to strengthen his defense and last season’s 37 goals conceded (the best defensive record of the league) were the fruit of his hard work. With the arrivals of veterans Steven Reid and Chris Baird, one feels that The Clarets are better equipped defensively this time round than they were in the 2009/2010 season where they were the team that conceded the most goals (82).
That was their first ever season in the Premier League and it didn’t end well as they were quickly relegated. That time, Steven Fletcher’s goals gave them a fighting chance and Sean Dyche will he hoping that his forwards will contribute similarly. Last season, Sam Vokes and Danny Ings scored 57% of their league goals. Last January, Ings was said to be close to a transfer to Liverpool and now that he’s in the first tier of English football, he will be eager to show his finishing qualities and pace. Dyche will certainly hope that Turf Moor will see plenty of more goals from their gem.
This time round, Chelsea must be considered as the title favorites. Whatever Mourinho’s words about little horses, one still feels that had Chelsea not lost precious points against the likes of Aston Villa last season, they would have easily stolen the title from the grasp of Manchester City.
Chelsea version 2014/2015 is now even stronger than the 2013/2014 one with the smart acquisitions of seasoned top class players. Mourinho has the strikeforce that, as he nauseatingly always reminded us, he lacked last season with Diego Costa and Didier Drogba replacing Samuel Eto’o and Demba Ba.
However, I believe that Chelsea’s trump card for this season is an acquisition they made last January. Towering at 194cm, Nemanja Matic was instrumental in Chelsea’s victories in the Premier League last season against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham where they scored a total of 13 goals and didn’t concede any. His sheer power and body strength were the more evident as he brushed the giant Yaya Toure multiple times in the Etihad Stadium.
Added to his industry and passing ability, the 26-year-old acts as the perfect link between defense and attack in a way that John Obi Mikel can only dream of doing. After his January transfer, Matic boasted an impressive 85% pass completion rate for Chelsea. Why did Chelsea ever let him go in the first place?!
Ever since Tony Pulis took over at Palace, they have become defensively very organized as he managed to turn a side that was shipping in goals into when that is incredibly difficult to beat. Pulis’ tactics may not be everyone’s cup of tea but one has to admit that this Palace side is easier on the eye than his Stoke side. Has Pulis decided to bend his principles? Or is it just a matter of this time having forward players that are suited to his system?
It’s no secret that Pulis expects his players up-front to do a lot of dirty work and at Stoke it seemed as if his forwards were, as a consequence, not being as much of as a threat to opposition defenses as they should have been. They were hard to beat, but they were also difficult to be beaten by.
On the other hand, last year with Crystal Palace, Pulis’ side also seemed to be capable of getting a goal from somewhere and this was in no small part due to Jason Puncheon’s contribution. The former Blackpool and Southampton winger had a magnificent second half of the season as he scored 7 goals from 1st January onwards directly contributing 16 points to the table, having scored just 9 goals in his Premier League career previously.
His ability to cover opposition fullbacks and at the same time be a threat with his pace and direct approach makes him ideal for Pulis’ philosophy. Palace fans will be thinking: “More of the same, please!”
£28 million may be an awful lot of money to spend on a 21-year-old for a club of Everton’s size, but then again, Lukaku isn’t any ordinary 21-year-old. The 6 feet 3 inches striker has scored 32 goals in his last two seasons in the English top flight showing a composure that belies his age.
Apart from being a goal threat, Lukaku’s aerial ability makes him the perfect foil for the runs of the likes of Kevin Mirallas, Steven Naismith, Leon Osman and Muhamed Besic. Coupled with a decent passing range and football intelligence, the Belgian forward is ideal player to be the fulcrum in Everton’s attacks.
Roberto Martinez’s side achieved a record 72 points last season with their Antwerp-born striker scoring 15 and assisting 6 goals. His 3.2 shots a game show that he has the “football arrogance” that his coach regularly talks about and wants to promote in his team.
Lukaku already has 32 caps for Belgium, in which he scored 7 goals, so he is not short of experience in various football stages. Upon entering the game against the USA in the World Cup, he had an instead impact scoring the second goal and playing an important part in the first as his country ran out 2-1 winners after extra time.
During last year’s summer transfer window Steve Bruce significantly improved the spine of his team by acquiring Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone and centre-back Curtis Davis. These moves turned out to be truly inspired as Davies to a defence that conceded just three goals less than second-placed Liverpool, and Livermore and Huddlestone’s mutual understanding made them one of the best central midfield partnerships in England.
Towering at 6 feet 2 inches, Huddlestone is not the typical playmaker ala Pirlo, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Mikel Arteta and co. However, his range of passing is truly a thing to behold when he has all his guns blazing and there are very few players who can master a long ball as well as the 27-year old.
Having been capped just four times with England, it’s fair to say that Huddlestone’s qualities haven’t always been fully appreciated. A couple of seasons on the bench for Tottenham at a crucial age for a footballer’s development didn’t help matters but, under the stewardship of Steve Bruce, the central midfielder seems to have found his feet once more.
Hull’s second consecutive season in the Premier League will be far from easy especially as they need to balance it with the Europa League. However, Huddlestone has showed at times that he can carry on his team on his shoulders and a few moments of inspiration from him in crucial matches can be the difference between a fine season and a disastrous one.
He will be looking to contribute more in the goals departments last season’s tally of three Premier League goals can do with a significant improvement. Still, Hull fans are optimistic that he can deliver.
68 months after having played his last Premier League game for Manchester City, the son of Danish goalkeeping legend Peter Schmeichel will once more have a chance to impress in the highest tier of English football.
Having been displaced by an emerging Joe Hart in goal, Kasper Schmeichel will be looking to help save the Foxes from immediate relegation. He was a big reason why Leicester had the third best defensive record in the Championship last year having kept 18 clean sheets.
At the time of writing, the free transfers of the veteran Matthew Upson and rookie Louis Rowley have been the only defensive recruits to have entered the gates of the King Power Stadium. The Foxes, who had to endure a 10-year absence from the “best league in the world”, will therefore be looking towards Schmeichel to save their bacon against Premier League-level forwards.
For the past two seasons, the Copenhagen-born shot-stopper was part of the Championship’s PFA Team of the Year thus has been the quality of his performances. Like his father before him, Kasper is known to be very vocal with his defence and his leadership qualities will be essential to help his defensive unit keep a cool head.
As Cardiff City showed last year, a brilliant goalkeeper may not be enough to win games but head coach Nigel Pearson will be looking at his vice-captain at his last man to give his team a fighting chance. He excelled in the Championship; will Schmeichel manage to make the grade a level higher?
With Luis Suarez gone the onus will be on Daniel Sturridge to lead Liverpool’s forward line as they try to reproduce some of the remarkable attacking flair of last season. Between them, Suarez and Sturridge scored 52 goals (more than the total number of goals scored by ELEVEN teams in the EPL) as one defense after another came crumbling down when facing their pace, creativity and unpredictability.
This time round, can Sturridge reproduce those brilliant performances without Suarez by his side supplying world class passes and opening up spaces by his intelligent runs? As the Uruguayan was serving his suspension in August and September for biting Ivanovic, Sturridge scored in the first four matches of the 2013/2014 campaign, including in each of the 1-0 victories against Manchester United, Aston Villa and Stoke City.
Can this be reproduced in the long-term?
Only time will tell, but in Raheem Sterling, Phillippe Coutinho and new signing Lazar Markovic Sturridge has the kind of inventive and past-paced team-mates that can prove to be a perfect foil to his undoubted ability.
Ever since joining the Reds in January 2013, the 24-year-old scored 35 goals in all competitions in just 49 games. Apart from his 21 goals in the EPL last season, he provided a very reasonable 7 assists putting to bed claims done earlier in his career about him being a selfish player who put his achievements before those of his team.
Strikers generally don’t have a very good pass completion rate due to the area of the pitch were they mostly operate but in 2013/2014, Liverpool’s number 15 boasted of a 79% pass success rate. Luis Suarez’s was 75%.
Much of the attacking thrust present in abundance last season will thus time need to be delivered by only one half of the fables SAS partnership. Liverpool expects and the pressure will be firmly placed on the former Chelsea and Manchester City forward.
When he’s in-form, Toure can single-handedly win the league as demonstrated by his impressive performances in the latter stages of the 2011/2012 campaign. The 31-year-old seemed at times last season to have put it on himself to win matches single-handedly. An impressive 20 league goals and an average of 1.8 shots per game is a testament to that.
The term the “complete midfielder” is becoming a bit of a cliche to describe any midfielder that can pass and run, but in Toure’s case it is most apt. This colossal figure has a unique talent of towering above the rest of the opposition’s midfielders by using a mix of his sheer power and strength along with an eye for the perfect pass and a sniff for goalscoring chances.
His goals are also more often than not a thing to behold. In a side full of talent, the man from Ivory Coast is regularly entrusted with taking free-kicks from dangerous positions.
Toure also offers a wide passing ability range as he’s not afraid of trying the odd long ball and to free strikers with defence-splitting through passes. Albeit, he still managed a 90% pass success rate last season.
Manuel Pellegrini has showered his giant in midfield many-a-times and no one can really argue that Toure will be essential in the defense of a title that Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and, possibly even Manchester United, will be trying to wrestle from their hands.
We continue looking at the one player from each English Premier League side who I believe will be instrumental for his side’s hopes of achieving the objectives set out at the beginning of the season.
A New Centre-Back
In Manchester United’s case, their most important player for the season is one who they don’t have and that will hopefully, at least for the fans, be coming soon.
At the time of writing, Manchester United have three senior injury-prone centre-backs on their books – Johnny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. From these three, only one, Evans, has really impressed for the Red Devils over a span of more than a season. On the other hand, Chris Smalling has managed to produce one bad display after another over the past two seasons and his inclusion in England squads just highlights the lack of English central defenders of any classthat are available for Roy Hodgson to select.
Phil Jones is currently not much more than a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none kind of player. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that the player he bought from Blackburn Rovers may one day surpass Bobby Charlton as a legend of the club. Boy oh boy Fergie was no Nostradamus now, was he?
If pre-season is of any indication for what is to come, it seems that Louis van Gaal will be using a back three quite often with Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia seemingly his favoured wingbacks. However, this system is only possible if he has three fully fit and in-form centre-backs and this simply won’t be the case over a period of 9 months even if Manchester United won’t be playing in Europe.
Michael Carrick may be an option as a make-shift centre-half as his ball distribution skills may actually be quite useful in starting attacks from deep inside his side’s half. Still, it’s not enough. Far from it! Louis van Gaal has already made a positive impression on his squad and supporters; now it’s time to deal a decisive strike in the transfer market.
The long-awaited replacement for Yohan Cabaye has finally arrived (6months too late!). With the departure of their talisman to PSG in January, Newcastle’s season unravelled. Having managed to keep a save distance from relegation up till January, Mike Ashley, the Toon owner, decided not to invest in any replacement. This proved to be the downfall of Newcastle’s season as they lost 8 of the last 10 games, including three at St. James’ Park. Having scored 7 goals, Cabaye still ended the season as Newsactle’s second top-scorer behind Loic Remy.
This saw the Toon fall to tenth place having previously occupied a top 6 spot.
Cabella’s, who won the Ligue 1 with Montpellier in 2011/2012, last season with the French outfit was one to remember on a personal level as he bagged 14 goals in 37 league appearances as well as contributing 5 assists. Not bad for an offensive midfielder!
According to whoscored.com, Cabella won 9 man of the match awards in Ligue 1 in 2013/2014 producing 2.2 key passes a game.
With his versatility to also play on the wing, the 24-year-old will be instrumental to a side that has lacked numbers, especially up-front, in recent years. Filling the shoes of Cabaye won’t be easy but Cabella certain has the ability and confidence to make a name for himself in the black-and-white shirt. Along with fellow new signing de Jong, Cabella may once more help make the Toon army dream.
Queen’s Park Rangers
Old, over-paid players looking for a last huge pay-off before they retire into their massive mansions and bungalows. That’s quite an apt description for most players QPR bought for their Premier League season a couple of years ago.
They are currently being linked with a host of such players and one can’t help but think that they will never learn their lesson. Last January, Harry Redknapp brought in the likes of Richard Dunne, Karl Henry and Kevin Doyle who all are used to. Premier League wages. Luckily for the Loftus Road faithful QPR managed to scrape through promotion via play-offs. They managed, but only just.
However, at least this time round Tony Fernandes has brought in a player with genuine quality and potential who is on the road to becoming England’s best centre-back. Steven Caulker was a shining beacon at the back for Cardiff last year as his performances gave genuine hope to the Bluebirds in what was a farcical season due to the controversial actions of their owner Vincent Tan.
The 22-year-old chipped in with five EPL goals, including the winner against Welsh rivals Swansea. His class is further shown by the fact that he only conceded ONE yellow card all season producing just 0.2 fouls per minute. He made 8.6 clearances and blocked 1.6 shots per match.
By feeding off from the expertise of the legendary Rio Ferdinand, Caulker can only get better. Much is expected a potential England star.
The 29-year-old Italian’s career has taken an up-and-down road that saw him play for sides such as Parma, Lecce, AZ Alkmaar and, more recently, Feyenoord. Having struggled to make a name for himself in the Eredivisie with AZ from 2007-2011, Pelle returned to the Serie A where goals were still hard to come by.
Still, a return to Holland totally changed his career and reputation as he netted 50 goals in 57 games for Feyenoord in the past couple of seasons. Towering at 6 feet 4 inches, Pelle is very strong in the air as well as being very good technically, making him a reliable replacement for Rickie Lambert.
Saints supporters have experienced a depressing summer so far watching their star players, as well as their manager, leave the club. The forward play that was so exciting to watch was built on Adam Lallana’s pace and creativity, as well as Jay Rodriguez’s runs and Rickie Lambert’s footballing intelligence and passing ability. Lambert and Lallana are now in Liverpool while Rodriguez is just coming back from a long-term injury, putting the weight firmly on the shoulders of Pelle to deliver as soon as possible.
The Italian has struggled to score against top-class defences but this time round he’ll have the confidence built from two unbelievable seasons in Holland that, however, went under the radar for most football fans. Pelle will be determined to showcase his qualities at the top level, knowing that further similar opportunities will be hard to come by in the future.
Here’s hoping that this new export from Holland will be more of a Wilfried Bony or Ruud van Nistelrooy, rather than a Ricky van Wolfswinkel or Afonso Alves.
The Potters skipper has been playing for Mark Hughes side since 2007 when Stoke were still plying their trade in the Championship. The 26-year-old is now just 16 matches away from making his 300th appearance and few will argue against his importance to the side ahead of the new season.
The one-capped England international epitomized Tony Pulis’ Stoke with his aggressive style and no non-sense defending. However, he has added a new dimension to his game under Hughes being especially evident in his 74.4% pass completion rate which is significantly better than his previous best of 69.3% in 2011/2012 and 65.1% last year.
Contrary to what many critics believed in the Pulis era, Shawcross has adapted well to a more passing game and it’s perhaps a shame that he is still remembered for his awful, leg-breaking tackle on Aaron Ramsey.
Nevertheless, his defensive qualities are still as important as ever averaging 8.6 clearances per game under his Welsh manager. In an era of tiki-taka passing, fast-paced counter attacks and possession-obsessed managers, the determination and never-say-die attitude of the likes of Ryan Shawcross will always stand out and may be the difference between a top 10 finish and a scrap with relegation.
Here is the fourth and final part of the previews of all the players I believe are going to help their side achieve their objections or more for the coming English Premier League Season. One player from each side has been selected as being the one most likely to be a hero come May.
January 2014 proved to be a turning point in Johnson’s career as we finally saw some of the potential that so many have said he has come out. He picked up the Premier League Player of the Month as he netted 6 goals and thus helped Sunderland kick-start their fight against relegation.
However, talk of a World Cup place proved to be greatly premature as the winger’s season somewhat fizzled out. 24 goals in 5 Premier League seasons from a player that was thought to be the next big thing coming out from England is just not right. This is all the more disappointing as Johnson has been widely criticized in the past for failing to spot a pass in the final third and instead just take a shot with his left foot. He doesn’t pass and he doesn’t score.
At 27 years of age, now is the time for Johnson to deliver consistently, game after game, on the big stage. The hat-trick performance against Fulham needs to be repeated more often. At times, towards the end of the season, Gus Poyet seemed to be losing patience with his winger playing him less and less. Roberto Mancini once said of the former Manchester City that he doesn’t try hard enough and unfortunately for Johnson time is now running out for him to prove to everyone he deserved all the hype that accompanied his first few months in the Premier League.
2013/2014 is the time for Johnson to take his opportunity to perform regularly by the scruff of the neck and help prevent a season similar to the one past for the Black Cats.
After Michu’s injury-ravaged past 12 months Wilfried Bony took full advantage of being the focal point of the Swans’ attack netting 25 goals over the whole season. Being just 25 years of age, Bony’s next 5 years should see him reach the peak of his career and Swansea will be desperate to hold on to him as much as possible.
Forty seven goals in 64 league games in the past two years is a great achievement for a striker who, truth be told, doesn’t do a whole lot of running during games. Goals are his main contribution, even though he did contribute 4 assists last season. Bony averaged just 24.3 passes per league game for Swansea but if one had to take away his goals they would have ended last campaign with ten points less.
Keeping hold of the Ivory Coast forward will surely be one of Garry Monk’s main aims of this transfer market. Without their talisman up-front, the Welsh club will be severely lacking in the attacking department as they simply don’t have a like-for-like replacement.
Being surrounded by players who prefer having the ball on the ground and playing it short, Bony is a breath of fresh air in the Swans’ line-up. He lacks the pace of Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer but his physicality and heading ability is virtually unrivaled in Swansea’s forward players. Bony offers a direct approach that will simply not exist if he is no longer in Wales.
A genuinely world-class goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris has been silencing the critics that accompanied his arrival to the British shores with brilliant reflex saves and well-timed interceptions. The French captain is the perfect modern goalkeeper as he combines his role as a shot-stopper to that of a sweeper. Andre Villas Boas was desperate to get him to White Heart Lane as his qualities make him ideal for a side playing a high defensive line as the Portugese coach regularly instructed his side to do.
Along with Manuel Neuer, Lloris is one of the best goalkeepers in the world in coming out of his line. As football is moving more towards fast-paced play and counter-attacking tactics, such goalkeepers are becoming priceless. Time and time again they prevent attackers from coming in a one-on-one situation with them by intercepting cross-field passes and through-balls.
The 27-year-old kept 18 clean sheets in the whole of last season and was left hapless in drubbings suffered against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City as his defense was in a shambles.
With the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs will be expected to press high up the pitch and thus keep a high line. Hugo Lloris should fit in easily with the system and he will in no doubt be reminded that his place isn’t only on the goal-line.
Tottenham will do well to hold on to Lloris in the next few months as he can truly be a game changer from between the goal posts. Having such a classy goalkeeper can only be of benefit to a defense that still needs to gel together after it was completely disrupted last year due to various injuries. If he has a fine season, rest assured that a top 4 spot is more than possible.
West Bromwich Albion
Once more it’s another goalkeeper that may prove to be instrumental as the Baggies will need their number one to be on his toes and at his best if they are to avoid a fight with other relegation contenders.
Alan Irvine’s appointment was hardly the most edge-of-the-seat of stuff as the 56-year-old former Everton Head of Academy was given his first gig in the top flight. Last season, only five teams conceded more goals than West Brom with Foster missing around 3 months of football due to injury but still managing to keep 4 clean sheets. His impressive displays saw him being honoured by the club for a second time with both the Players’ and Supporters’ Player of the Year.
The former Manchester United shot-stopper is now 31 years old and it’s only in recent seasons that his career has really peaked. He never really made it as the next Peter Schmeichel whilst in. Manchester but currently he’s probably the only player in the West Brom squad who can have a genuine claim to play in a top 4 side.
Creativity, steel, pace and invention were all lacking in the West Brom squad in the past 12 months and the arrivals of Joleon Lescott, Andre Wisdom and Brown Ideye still leave a lot to be desired. It seems that once more, Ben Foster will need to be called upon to bail his side out and try to use his leadership qualities to help organize his defence.
The Hammers captain is the longest serving member of Sam Allardyce’s squad having appeared 287 times for the first team squad despite his 27 years of age. At times last season it looked as if he was the only one who cared about the team’s fortunes as West Ham struggled to achieve any positive results at the turn of the year.
Playing in Sam Allardyce team means that the ball will spend an awfully long amount of time high up in the air and Noble averaged 5.1 long balls a game last season. However, rather impressively, his pass completion rate was 82.8% contributing 4 assists and making 1.5 key passes per match from his deep midfield role. He is also their primary penalty taker, scoring 3 Premier League goals.
Unlike most of his team-mates, he managed to keep fit all season appearing in all 38 Premier League games. Following a summer of turmoil, West Ham fans will be hoping that their skipper will keep things ticking at the middle of the park.
For so long Noble has been nothing more than an unsung hero as he quietly helped win midfield territory against more fabled opponents. He may once more not receive the plaudits he deserves from the media and England manager these next 12 months, but West Ham fans will be under no illusion about the fact that their skipper will be instrumental in their fight against survival.