Marcus Rashford is ‘not sulking’. Nor are we. Well, not until Blue Monday next week at least. Who can up their game in 2022?
1) Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
The whispers that he’s not the same ever since Jordan Pickford’s ahem – body blow – have become rather louder (not so much a whisper as a shout) and less sympathetic as the season wears on. After Chelsea equalised in that thrilling 2-2 draw, Graeme Souness bellowed: “Why has Van Dijk not come across there? He’s just running in a straight line back to his goal. Come over, come over, come over – he’s not even sprinting.” Liverpool’s top cat defender reminded us in October that “I am not a robot, I have come back from a very serious injury”. Everything he does is now looked at through a skewed prism. There’s work to do, but his average is someone else’s excellent.
2) Harry Maguire (Manchester United)
Christmas holidays are about 16 days long and that’s the break that Manchester United enjoyed between their unconvincing win over Norwich and their dreadful performance in a 1-1 draw at St James’s Park. It hasn’t livened them up one iota. Within the first couple of minutes of the Newcastle game, the Guardian reported: ‘Harry Maguire seems to fall asleep and Ryan Fraser skids away with the ball.’ Maguire’s form has been woefully inadequate as player and captain. He needs to sort out the “whingebags” and stamp his authority as the leader of the listing (though not in terms of actual results) ship.
3) Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
It’s been a self-professed difficult year for the Senegalese. He searched high and low for “the answer” to a drop-off in form during Liverpool’s destabilising and decrepit title defence. After a brighter start this term, he’s gone off the boil again with the goal at Stamford Bridge his first for ten games. AFCON may see a different Mane. The Reds will be hoping he comes back with that supercharged spring in his step rather than the heavy work boots he’s been wearing at Anfield.
4) Harry Kane (Tottenham)
England’s skipper wasn’t all there for the kitchen sink drama of Premier League’s weekly return and admitted as much: “You go through the highs and lows of a major tournament, coming so close to a dream and it being taken away from you in such a quick moment, and then it was my first summer of transfer speculation, having to deal with those situations. So, of course, it takes a toll mentally.” Kane only reported back to team training just two days before Tottenham’s first game in mid-August. Nuno wasn’t the man to make him overcome the mirage of Manchester City but Antonio Conte has restored the colour to his cheeks. 2022 might even see in his first trophy…
5) James Maddison (Leicester City)
Maddison is not backward in coming forward on social media, but his diminishing returns on the pitch this season have been overshadowed by some poor misjudgements off it, including a breach of coronavirus protocols. It’s okay to send photos of the darts, your booming Lamborghini(s) and an expensive shoe collection, but there has to be a little bit more dashing and dedication to restore confidence in the day job. If The Daily Mail call you ‘football’s Kevin Pietersen‘ then that is a questionable badge of honour. Recent improvements have been noted, including literally running himself into the ground against Liverpool.
6) Luke Shaw (Manchester United)
Well, he’s only gone off the boil like a hot water system with no booster. Shaw was progressive right up until that goal against Italy in the Euro final. After that high, the lows have kept piling up and we are reliving the Jose Mourinho quotes of a sub-par football brain and – a new barb about “dramatically bad” corners. Shaw has struggled to position himself within the Keystone Cop United defensive line, suffering key malfunctions against Liverpool and Manchester City. It’s grim up north at the moment and when he says the team are not together, then can there be a more startling public statement of discontent?
7) Stuart Dallas (Leeds United)
In 2020/21, Stuart Dallas played in all 38 league matches and finished in the top half-dozen for Leeds across tackles, interceptions, average passes and goals. This season, he has struggled in the face of a new term, a pile of injuries and the intensity of doing it all over again, saying: “I feel my energy levels on the pitch haven’t been as good as what they have been”. As a relative regular compared to those fallen men around him, Dallas has had to carry a burden while still powering around the pitch. The release may have started with the 3-1 win over Burnley which was his 250th game. Leeds simply do not have a handbrake.
8) Chris Wood (soon to be Newcastle United)
Three goals in 21 appearances this season. Not quite sure how he is going to justify that £25m transfer unless he quickly gets a lot sodding better.
9) Jack Grealish (Manchester City)
“At first I thought I’d have more of the ball, get more assists and goals but it doesn’t work like that at all. I’ve had nowhere near as much of the ball as I used to get at [Aston] Villa.” You might wonder just how much Grealish knows about football if he thought he would get more of the ball at City when he is playing with Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva et al but there is no doubt that for £100m, City might have expected a little more than two Premier League goals and two Premier League assists. The pressure has been minimal because City are walking away with the title but Grealish will surely want to contribute a little more to that success.
10) Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
It’s a dirty job singling out a man who has helped out society in a much more beneficial way than kicking a ball, but in that day job, Rashford isn’t what he was. Or perhaps he wasn’t who he is supposed to be. The 24-year-old looks a little bereft at the moment. He has ten goals in all competitions for Manchester United in 2021. The ‘ever since he got his gong, he’s different’ keyboard warriors are out in blah blah blah land. They may or may not be something in it. It doesn’t matter. Rashford knows who he is. He’s just got to improve without the speed dial pressure of the naysayers.
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