Jamie Vardy (28, England / Leicester City)
It’s been a Cinderella story of incredible rise from a player whom noone expected to go this far – but it’s not what delighted me the most about it. What really made this story awesome was the unbelievable contrast between it’s protagonist and the reality he’s been tackling. In the days of money-obsessed, glamorous, exclusive, expensive and metrosexual Premier League, Jamie Vardy has popped up like a rabbit out of hat – and, let’s be honest with ourselves: we’ve all absolutely loved it.
Twenty years old Raheem Sterling went to Manchester City for £49 million just on the basis of being English, young, pacey and looking like a good prospect for a class footballer. Even younger lad, Anthony Martial, got snapped by Manchester United in a deal that could in the end cost Red Devils £57.6 million. Five months later, in terms of goalscoring return, they were both left in the dust by a 28-years old striker, brought to Leicester City from a non-League team for a mere £1.7 million (add-ons included).
But it wasn’t just about transfer fees – it was also about the complete failure of Premier League’s ability to raise their domestic talent. Back in the days when ‘Big’ Andy Carroll went to Liverpool for £35 million, Vardy was kicking the ball for F.C. Halifax Town in the Northern Premier League – the seventh level of the English football pyramid. Before that, the lad’s been rejected by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of 16 and spent the next few years working 12-hours long shifts at the factory, treating football purely as an after-hours hobby. How far would he have gone if he spent that time honing his attacking skills? Sadly, we’ll never know.
Even on the pitch, Jamie’s display have been refreshing. While the others are preoccupied with concepts like ‘having a striker who distributes the passes and does the work for the others’, Vardy represents the raw power of a vintage striker: the pace, the positioning and the decisiveness. There’s no bigger counterattacking threat in the Premier League than him: whenever he needs, he just loses his man because nobody runs faster (35.44 km/h!) than him. To find another main man with a similar profile, we’d have to look in the other league.
Over the past eighteen months, Jamie has already been instrumental to the sensational 5-3 destruction of Manchester United. After that, his club then went on a terrible run of 13 games without a single victory. For 23 league games, the name ‘Vardy’ simply did not exist on the Premier League scoresheets. It was only April that marked a miraculous change of the flow: three goals in the last 8 matches and a Great Escape by Foxes, who avoided relegation by a whisker. Then Claudio Ranieri came along and dragged this team and it’s best striker to the absolute upper limit of their abilities…
…or didn’t he?
Douglas Costa (25, Brazil / FC Bayern München)
March 2015. Shakhtar’s 25-years old winger is desperate to leave the club. In Donetsk, he’s already accomplished everything: won five domestic titles, became the top assist provider all across the Ukraine and survived the 2014 war, when the front lines of conflict between Russians and Ukrainians were drawn just few miles away from Donbass Arena. Both Chelsea and Manchester United are lining up for the services of the Brazilian; he himself pays courtesy visits to his former teammates Fernandinho and Willian, who’ve already ditched Eastern Europe for England. In the interviews, the man in question underlines his admiration for CFC’s boss José Mourinho: ‘I can achieve everything in Chelsea’ – says the lad while a £25million lies on the table.
December 2015. Following a 0-1 home defeat to Bournemouth, Chelsea are in shambles, having lost 8 out of the first 15 Premier League matches of the new season. Injury-plagued Manchester United go out of the Champions League already in the group stages and the winger they’ve eventually signed for a £25million becomes one of the biggest flop of the new season. But neither of those teams features Douglas Costa. Unlike Eden Hazard and Memphis Depay, the Brazilian has the best days of his life in Munich, where he becomes a crucial part of Pep Guardiola’s puzzle. Providing pace, width and ability to win one-on-ones, the ex-Shakhtar stalwart scores 4 goals and 9 assists in 17 matches for Bayern; so many that his jealous colleague and rival for the starting XI mumbles something about ‘circus tricks’.
For The Bavarians, there was nothing more important to accomplish this summer than signing Costa. First of all: Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery were widely expected to suffer another injury setbacks – and they did live up to those ‘expectations’. Secondly, Pep Guardiola has already experienced the slow, grotesque decline of a pure, possession-based football – and it happened, because at one point, his Barcelona started lacking fast and decisive players out wide. And thirdly: there is not a more motivated, more dedicated employee than the one who’s been given a second chance after getting frozen out for way too long in a company too small for his skills and aspirations. Released from his Ukrainian cage, Costa has become a beast – so much of a beast, that even Neymar’s position as the world’s leading left-winger has been subtly undermined.
Grzegorz Krychowiak (25, Poland / Sevilla FC)
When it comes to Polish footballers, all headlines this year have been captured by Robert Lewandowski and his five goals against Wolfsburg. However, unlike Bayern striker, it was actually Krychowiak, who lifted a European trophy – and did so by scoring an important equalizer in the final game. It’s been a cherry on top of the cake for the defensive midfielder; after all, earlier, he’s been elected to La Liga’s Team of the Season. Rightfully so: all through the 2014/15 campaign, he’s been the third most proficient tackler in Spain. With aerial and intercepting skills ranking him among the top 20 Primera Division footballers, Krychowiak’s stature kept growing on a weekly basis – while his club was successfully coasting towards victory in the Europa League.
Second half of the year saw him facing an entirely different challenge, as injury-plagued Andalusian club has sold their leading striker Carlos Bacca and immediately started to decline. Ugly 0-0 draw in Malaga, 0-2 defeat from hands of newly promoted Las Palmas’ side, four goals conceded in a Champions League clash with Gladbach – those weren’t the results worthy of the last seasons’ cup winners. Krychowiak shifted between his usual DM role and an emergency centre-back partnership with players like Rami, Carriço or Andreolli – whom all, at some point, have suffered painful injuries. In both cases, “La puta Maquina” (f..ing machine, the nickname given to Grzegorz by some of the most die-hard Sevilla socios), played one level above all of his teammates.
At humble age of 25, the Polish international is all but set for yet another step forward in his career; this time, perhaps the ultimate one. Even though he’s recently signed a new deal with Sevilla and increased the release clause on his name to £33 million, his skills are still good enough to warrant a massive fee like this. Especially when it comes to English clubs. Arsenal have been linked with him for months; Manchester City, though packed with competent DMs, were lacking quality in tackling department for quite a while too – and, coincidentally, it’s Citizens, against whom Grzegorz had his two best, Champions League performances this season. The bidding war may ensue already in January – after all, both both Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla are currently out of action with some nasty, long-term injuries…
Should Grzegorz ever move to England, the only thing that Premier League fans can expect is the ruthless, hard-working mentality from the lad. Even his girlfriend, Célia Jaunat has described him as a man who ‘comes from work only to eat and sleep, after which he goes back to work’. For a ruthless man like that, leaving Spain in January could be the last chance for a moderately expensive move. EURO 2016 is around the corner. His market value will certainly go up. Again.
Marcos Alonso (25, Spain / ACF Fiorentina)
This kid has come a long way. As a youngster, he’s been surplus to requirements at Real Madrid. As a twenty-years old, he emigrated to Bolton and experienced an upsetting relegation from the Premier League in the year 2012. As one of the top Championship left-backs, he went to Fiorentina – but his journey didn’t end there. After being pushed out of the Viola’s starting XI by experienced Manuel Pasqual in late 2013, Alonso swapped the bench in Florence for playtime at Sunderland. He would then help Gustavo Poyet’s team to make a Capital One Cup final – arguably, the biggest Mackems’ success since their 7th-place finish in 2001. Most of the executives at Stadium of Light wanted him around on a permanent deal; but the player was already eyeing ACF return – only in a completely different role.
Since autumn 2014, Alonso has been steadily growing in Fiorentina, moving up the ranks from a reserve left-back to a versatile starter, capable of delivering pretty much anywhere down the left flank. The summer appointment of Paulo Sousa and the subsequent change of formation to a fluid, possession-based 3-4-3, saw the Spaniard adapting to new role of a wide midfielder – and he transitioned to it seamlessly. Excellent in aerial duels and tackling, he also loves to go forward and provide killer crosses for his teammates – just like he did in September, during a sensational 4-1 rout against Inter at San Siro. And when the other Milano team has arrived at Stadio Artemio Franchi, the Spaniard has greeted them in the most exciting way – by scoring this beautiful free-kick.
The success didn’t come without pleasant consequences. Two years ago, clubs like West Ham and Sunderland were offering pennies for Marcos’ services. Couple months ago, Norwich City considered him a back-up transfer target. Today, a keen interest from both Barcelona and Real Madrid has already surfaced in rumors. Blaugrana seem to be looking for a player who could replace Adriano as their additional left-back; Los Merengues want a viable alternative to Marcelo. Alonso, now 24 and having the best season of his career, seems to be a good candidate for this role. The only obstacle here might be an attitude of the player himself. So far, he’s been known as a fan of nightlife and booze – he even took part in a nasty car accident back in 2011. Will those off-the-pitch credentials outweigh the Serie A successes? Well, not if Fiorentina end up winning the Scudetto…
Michy Batshuayi (22, Belgium / Olympique de Marseille)
For as long as I can remember, OM were on a roller coaster. Their gigantic ambitions as well as the unavoidable departures of their key players led the team to enjoy success one year only to be shot down with ease next season. This time last year, they were leading the Ligue 1; today, following the loss of 12 players during the summer, they’re struggling to save the 2015/16 campaign from a total disaster. André Ayew, André-Pierre Gignac, Dimitri Payet, Giannelli Imbula, Florian Thauvin… the list of departures pretty much explains the difference in a performance between then and now. The only upside is that in the absence of stars, back-up players have been given a chance. And while the Moroccan winger Abdel Barrada takes care about the assists, the goalscoring burden rests on the shoulders of 22-years old Michy Batshuayi.
At the moment, the young Belgian is being scouted by both Arsenal and Tottenham. Not without a reason – with the qualities, he’s been showing, he seems like a perfect fit for the Premier League. Powerful and decisive, he’s not afraid of playing for 90 minutes with an opponent on his back – and his occasional selfishness in front of the goal only proves how determined he is to make a name for himself. His ability to get on the end of the crosses would please pretty much any BPL team that prefers a classical, British style of footballing. Price tag for this package? At the moment, nothing less than £25 million. And that seems reasonable – after all, the lad scored 14 goals in 24 games across all competitions this season. With the service he’s been getting at OM lately, that’s a very respectable achievement.
So when will the big move happen? As it stands, the striker has a deal at Velodrome until 2019. Some of the English clubs (Chelsea, Spurs, Everton, Man City) already have a first-choice number 9 and are unlikely to burn cash on a back-up forward. However, Manchester United and Arsenal are a completely different story. With Red Devils severely lacking some cutting edge in front of the goal and Gunners having two strikers who’ve been very hit-and-miss, one more product of the excellent Belgian youth training system could be a decent solution. Batshuayi himself has expressed his willingness to join Arsenal already in 2014, when he used to play for Standard Liège. Will Arsène Wenger pick up the gauntlet? The time is nigh; as Marseille president Vincent Labrune pointed out: “there’s is not a single top 15 world club that is not interested in Michy”.