As the Premier League season enters its final weeks, clubs have started looking deeper into their squads to find a few hidden first-team gems.
10) Juan Mata (Manchester United)
The sofa is knackered and living off past glories, while the item dredged from its innards is a little worn and being imminently shifted, but it remains perfectly serviceable and somehow incredibly handsome for an inanimate object. Juan Mata joined the reigning Premier League champions for a club-record fee and will leave them stranded in the Europa League, yet the Spaniard’s reputation has not been even vaguely damaged by eight-and-a-half years wasted at Old Trafford.
It seemed to take Manchester United that long and almost as many managers to figure out how best to utilise Mata, who excelled as a No.10 against Brentford on his 15th Premier League start in the last three seasons. Considering those who have been permitted to float around in the sea of mediocrity and been rewarded, his relative lack of recent use has been startling. This renaissance itself is pointless, coming as it does so soon before his departure as a free agent. Yet the contrast between how well Manchester United play with Mata in the side compared to their disjointed performances without a player of his calibre remains telling.
9) Fabian Delph (Everton)
The use of players on deals with a looming expiration date can often be polarising. But Everton supporters will likely give no second thought to Fabian Delph’s contract status, provided he continues to help in their quest for survival. The midfielder started three of 19 Premier League matches under Rafael Benitez and none of Duncan Ferguson’s single-game interim reign. Frank Lampard appreciates the “honesty” of a two-time title winner and hoped in April that Delph would be capable of “carrying on with what he did against Manchester United” before necessary discussions over his future were held.
The 32-year-old has held up his end of the bargain, replicating those leadership qualities and defensive instincts that thwarted United in a 1-0 win at Goodison Park to secure the same result against Chelsea. Delph also started the 1-1 draw at home to Leicester and will retain that starting place provided his hamstrings hold up.
8) Tim Iroegbunam (Aston Villa)
“I thought Tim had some really good moments today. I think you can see the profile, what he is going to become,” said Steven Gerrard, who added after Tim Iroregbunam’s full senior debut against Norwich: “We need him to realise that he is a first-team player. He needs to use his voice more, he needs to keep pushing himself on a daily basis.”
There are worse former Premier League midfielders to receive constructive praise from. A cynic might argue that Iroregbunam’s reward for being able to “out-train certain individuals” was timed impeccably for the visit of Norwich, yet the 18-year-old embraced the challenge and further smoothed that pathway Jacob Ramsey first trod. Iroegbunam was upgraded from four Premier League minutes against Brighton in February to a quarter of an hour at Leicester and then a start in the Norwich victory, having been an unused substitute in 14 of the prior 16 fixtures. He failed to make the squad altogether in the other two; that is unlikely to happen again soon.
7) Nathan Collins (Burnley)
The alchemy of Sean Dyche might have wavered at Turf Moor but the last season of signings during his reign could have established Burnley’s spine for the next few years. Maxwel Cornet and Wout Weghorst have finally added some new dimensions to the attack, while Aaron Lennon and Wayne Hennessey have been useful enough as elder statesmen. But the purchases of Championship prospects Connor Roberts and Nathan Collins may be the most important of all; both were eased into the side and neither look likely to relinquish their places.
Collins has been a particularly influential arrival. Burnley have won five and drawn four of the 14 Premier League games he has started; they have won two and drawn nine of the 20 he has not. Dyche never gave the centre-half more than three consecutive starts but Collins has not missed a single minute of Mike Jackson and company’s caretaker reign. The 21-year-old’s impact has even allowed Ben Mee to step comfortably into that role and the forthcoming exit of James Tarkowski need no longer be of great concern. The reimagining of Burnley’s defence has already started.
6) Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
The third signing of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City tenure still has his uses to the Spaniard almost six years later. His first, Ilkay Gundogan, has become a midfield lynchpin at the Etihad, while Nolito was the opening transfer misfire of this monumental reign. Oleksandr Zinchenko’s first-team relevance has never been particularly settled – the most appearances the Ukrainian has ever made in a single Premier League season is 20 – but he can still be relied upon when needed.
That has been a little less often this season. Fifteen starts in all competitions represents a low return for Zinchenko, whose Manchester City minutes for the campaign rank in between those of the similarly peripheral Nathan Ake and the fading Fernandinho. The only teams to beat Guardiola’s side when Zinchenko has started are West Ham, Leipzig and Liverpool, stretched across three different competitions. As the season reaches suffocatingly pressurised levels at the top, the 25-year-old can still slot in at a moment’s notice with no discernible detriment in quality.
5) Joe Gomez (Liverpool)
The full circle that has been Joe Gomez under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool is close to completion. Injuries scuppered the defender’s development initially and are the primary reason for his current role as dual back-up. When the German first brought Gomez, it was as a right-back in 2017/18, designed to eventually share the right-back position with Trent Alexander-Arnold by the end of the season. His current status seems to be generally restricted to filling in when the Liverpool academy product needs a rest. Perhaps next he will rekindle the fruitful centre-back partnership with Virgil van Dijk upon which the Reds won the Premier League title.
The list of clubs Gomez has started against is revealing: Milan, Benfica, Watford, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest, Preston, Leicester and Norwich three times. It reflects his bit-part function in this winning machine. But Klopp has challenged his squad players to be “ready for the moment when the situation changes” and throughout his regular appraisals of those on the fringes, Gomez is almost always the first to be mentioned. The 24-year-old would start in most other Premier League defences; serving consistent time on the Anfield sidelines will not be a permanent arrangement either way.
4) Mads Bech Sorensen (Brentford)
Sixteen Brentford players have featured more often than Mads Bech Sorensen so far this season, but the Danish centre-half might slowly be rising to prominence. Before Boxing Day his campaign was limited to 19 minutes of the opening win against Arsenal. He then started three straight games until January 2, was benched for a couple more matches and returned to face Manchester United as February approached. Ten consecutive fixtures either on the bench or out of the squad altogether followed, before Ethan Pinnock’s injury at Watford opened a first-team door that had been irregularly blowing barely ajar for months.
Sorensen finished that Vicarage Road victory, retained his place in the goalless draw against Tottenham and was arguably the best Brentford defender on show at Manchester United, even if that bar remains low in a 3-0 defeat. He, Saman Ghoddos and Mads Roerslev have been critical utility players who might have earned Thomas Frank’s trust during their respective stop-start campaigns.
3) Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace)
It has been a curious few years for Nathaniel Clyne. Brendan Rodgers signed one of the Premier League’s most dependable right-backs for Liverpool in 2015, and while Klopp might have been plotting an internal upgrade at some point, it was injury that eventually took him out of the side. A back problem suffered in summer 2017 effectively ended Clyne’s time as a regular starter; another pre-season injury, this time to his cruciate knee ligament in July 2019, signalled his quiet farewell the following year. The 31-year-old had left Crystal Palace for Southampton in 2012 but came back as a free agent and trialist by October 2020, training with his former club to regain fitness and soon a 12-month contract that was renewed last August.
Clyne has had to accept a subsidiary role under both Roy Hodgson and Patrick Vieira; he didn’t feature in the Premier League from February to December 2021. But an injury to Joel Ward presented an opening that has reinvigorated the erstwhile England international’s career. Clyne’s current run of 10 consecutive Premier League starts is his longest in five years and an enduring testament to his fortitude. Even if Palace intend on sourcing an improvement at right-back in the transfer market, they could do worse than renew Clyne’s terms as a trustworthy reserve.
Nathaniel Clyne appreciation tweet
The guy doesn’t stop trying, goes about his business quietly, and has been absolutely solid for us
Proper palace pic.twitter.com/rOfwPYvqRH
— Benj (@Beniesta_) April 30, 2022
2) Moises Caicedo (Brighton)
Graham Potter perhaps understood the unique pressure of having to live up to such a daunting Barclays surname. Felipe Caicedo struck terror into the heart of Premier League defences for two years at Manchester City and surnamesake Moises would have to carry that burden for the rest of his career. Brighton signed the midfielder for £4.5m in February 2021, sat him on the bench as an unused substitute in five Premier League and FA Cup games, nodded astutely as his Ecuador side reached the Copa America quarter-finals, then sent him on loan to Beerschot in Belgium for some season-long fine-tuning.
Except Caicedo would return to the coast sooner than planned. An injury to Enock Mwepu and the loss of Yves Bissouma to Africa Cup of Nations duty led to a midfield shortage at Brighton, the solution to which was a January recall for Caicedo. The Seagulls battled through that period regardless and only for the trip to Arsenal did the 20-year-old finally get his long-awaited debut. Brighton’s seven-game winless run was curtailed at the Emirates as Caicedo shone, assisting one goal and displaying the sort of quality Potter has found impossible to resist since. The midfielder has started each of the subsequent four matches as the next stage of Brighton’s transformation comes into full view.
1) Mo Elneny (Arsenal)
“Maybe there wasn’t a lot of competition because we were the only club interested in signing him. Not too many people spoke about him and he was basically not much on the radar,” said Arsene Wenger, really milking the excitement of the Arsenal fanbase in January 2016. Plenty of teams have pursued the Egyptian since, from Leicester to Galatasaray and, most recently, Newcastle. A productive year was spent at Besiktas, yet the Turkish giants thought better of exercising their buy option. And so Elneny returned in summer 2020, farmed out under Unai Emery and inherited by Mikel Arteta.
The Spaniard has consummate faith in Elneny to deliver when called upon. He started the Community Shield final win over Liverpool almost two years ago, as well as wins at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Heading into this season it was believed that the midfielder would finally leave, yet even when Arteta culled the squad with ruthless abandon, he knew Elneny would be needed at some point. The Egyptian’s only Premier League starts this campaign have come against Manchester United (twice), Chelsea and West Ham and no player has been more crucial to their turnaround over the past fortnight.
Elneny’s contract is scheduled to expire this summer but, by his own admission: “If Arsenal say ‘we want you’ I don’t think about leaving. It’s my family for six years. I love this club.'” Arteta will reciprocate that fondness; he could not find a better or more committed and reliable squad option if he tried.
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