Stepping Up

Joshua King

2015/16: 31 games, 1914 minutes, 6 goals, 2 assists, 45 dribbles won, 25 chances created, 77% pass success, 51% shot accuracy.
2016/17: 35 games, 2624 minutes, 15 goals, 2 assists, 74 dribbles won, 28 chances created, 80% pass success, 60% shot accuracy.

Josh King’s Premier League career this season looks like a rare case of New Year Resolutions being taken seriously and fulfilled with dedication. Until the Christmas, the Norwegian was on just two goals, scored in the away draws against Crystal Palace and Watford. Even in the most spectacular Cherries’ games during that period – 6-1 hammering of Hull , 1-0 success at Stoke and 4-3 comeback against Liverpool – he’s only delivered one assist. By December, Eddie Howe became to sub off his Norwegian lad more and more frequently and it seemed that his career as Bournemouth’s number 10 can take the same direction as Jordon Ibe’s ambitions to become one of the leading EPL’s wingers of new generation.

The tables turned as late as in February, when King has finally switched to a centre-forward’s position for an away match with Everton. In that highest-scoring game of 2016/17 season, Cherries have been destroyed by Romelu Lukaku’s four goals – but their newborn striker netted a brace and carried his goalscoring form to the key games against West Brom, West Ham, Swansea and his former employers, Manchester United. Against all odds, the team in red and black stripes picked up seven points from these matches, removing the looming threat of relegation dogfight just in time before Crystal Palace and Hull hit the fifth gear themselves. King’s loot there? Five goals and one assist in 358 minutes.

“I think he’s always had the ability (…) as a player, I think he has everything: he has strength, pace, technical ability – it’s was just a case of him putting those things together.” Those were the Cherries’ gaffer words after King produced a hat-trick against Hammers in a tumultuous game marred by two wasted penalties by his team. “I’m proud of the players’ performances, but we are not looking to sell anybody.” – he added on another occasion, when the news about Tottenham’s interest in King’s signature emerged. Regardless of the players’ future, one thing is obvious: he’s already joined the legion of Pogbas, Drinkwaters, Heatons, Keanes and Zahas as yet another, unfairly judged, Manchester United reject.

Victor Moses

2015/16: 21 games, 989 minutes, 1 goal, 2 assists, 31 dribbles won, 10 interceptions, 4 clearances, 7 aerials won.
2016/17: 32 games, 2318 minutes, 3 goals, 2 assists, 51 dribbles won, 43 interceptions, 63 clearances, 28 aerials won.

“I felt, and feel, that I am ready for Chelsea. I did not see the loan overall. Why did I play so much in pre-season?” – said Bertrand Traoré in November, after being loaned out from London to Amsterdam and before virtually leading Ajax to the Europa League final. Indeed: The Blues’ loan system has been a sort of a travesty (38 players were involved in it by the end of 2016!). It continued to produce an army of frustrated, rejected footballers at an alarming rate, as none of them would ever manage to beat it and establish a foothold on a Stamford Bridge’s pitch. Andreas Christensen’s defensive heroics at Gladbach didn’t matter; Juan Cuadrado’s importance to Juventus didn’t matter – it was all the same.

At least until Antonio Conte decided that he needs a right wing-back. After two, painful, September defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool, the Italian boss ditched the reliable 4-2-3-1 setup in favor of 3-4-3. And even though he could choose from Willian, Pedro and Branislav Ivanović, he’s taken the risk and handed a chance to Victor Moses. The Nigerian has quickly become CFC’s talisman, featuring in 14 consecutive wins that saw Chelsea coasting past Leicester in the League Cup and unexpectedly building a ten-point lead at the top of the league. It was him, who delivered an assist to Hazard to open Southampton up at St. Mary’s; it was him, who scored scored a winner in a critical six-pointer against Spurs. Willian got nailed to the bench; Ivanović departed for Zenit. Moses grew stronger and stronger.

“I had never actually thought about playing wing-back. After the session he went through it all with me, how to play the position and everything. I took it in and didn’t look back.” – said the former Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham winger before converting into a brand new role. Deployed deeper than usual, he grew to be an essential link between two Spaniards, Azpilicueta and Pedro, who both had a marvelous campaign too. “I just wanted to play football. It does not matter what position.” – he candidly replied, being asked about the challenges arising from playing in a setup he’s never encountered before. So there’s a hope for you, Chelsea loanees, after all; all you have to do is completely re-invent yourselves…

Oriol Romeu

2015/16: 29 games, 1613 minutes, 1 goal, 57 tackles won, 40 interceptions, 36 clearances, 11 blocks, 85% pass success.
2016/17: 30 games, 2621 minutes, 1 goal, 77 tackles won, 78 interceptions, 57 clearances, 12 blocks, 84% pass success.

It feels like yesterday when Southampton have been the Premier League’s defensive powerhouses; when the duo of Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin raced with bigger names for the title of the most reliable, defensive midfielders’ pair in the league. Between those days and now, Schneiderlin has managed to complete two big transfers, hardly get a chance at Manchester United, join Everton and gradually replace ageing Gareth Barry there; Wanyama, on the other hand, has landed a deal at Tottenham and formed a powerful partnership with Moussa Dembélé. And Saints, without those two? For many, they were heading towards the mediocrity, with Højbjerg and Jordy Clasie taking over their jobs.

In many ways, the current season has indeed been a bit of a letdown for Claude Puel’s side, which never looked like anything more than just a mid-table team. However, hit by both departures (Mané, Pellè, Wanyama) and injuries (Bertrand, Rodriguez, van Dijk), their performance couldn’t possibly have been any better. In fact, they’ve fared relatively well, given that their backline has been experimentally set-up with Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida. Those two owe it all to a rather unexpected stand-up: the defensive screen in front of them, called Oriol Romeu. As we speak, the Spaniard leads his clubs’ charts for passes (1836), interceptions (79) and tackles (103). Højbjerg and Clasie have nothing on him.

On surface, Romeu is not a very impressive footballer. A bit clumsy with his challenges, he gets booked frequently, sometimes in situation when he absolutely doesn’t have to get stuck in. He rarely gets involved in the creative part of the game, leaving it to Steven Davis and the rest of the lads upfront. However, his ball-intercepting abilities have been constantly evolving these days and without real squad rivals to breathe down his neck, he stepped up with the defensive aspect of his play. “I think he’s not far off Kanté, he’s an important player for this team because he can do fantastic work to recover the ball and start the play.” – said Puel, upon being informed about this season’s PFA Player of the Year choice. For the Catalan lad, who’s once struggled to get a game at Stamford Bridge – that’s a huge praise.

Son Heung-Min

2015/16: 28 games, 1134 minutes, 4 goals, 1 assist, 17 dribbles won, 18 chances created, 80% pass success, 52% shot accuracy.
2016/17: 31 games, 1832 minutes, 12 goals, 4 assists, 40 dribbles won, 39 chances created, 81% pass success, 55% shot accuracy.

These days, Spurs have been rather unlucky with the big-money signings of attacking players. £26 million for Roberto Soldado will forever be remembered as one of the biggest transfer mistakes in the Premier League history; £17 million paid Twente for Vincent Janssen could soon reach the same level of money-wasting. Last summer, Daniel Levy has surpassed all expectations and authorized the hiring of Moussa Sissoko for £30 million from relegated Newcaste United. Ever since, the French international has become the most expensive squad player in England, started only nine games for his new team and has been publicly slammed by Mauricio Pochettino, who openly said that he’s “failed to live up to expectations”.

In view of that, Son’s rise this season has been a pleasant exception. Brought to London from Leverkusen for £22 million in 2015, the Korean has been nothing but a squad player last season, accumulating 1107 Premier League minutes and ending the season with just four goals and one assist. Despite netting a September winner against Crystal Palace, the Korean remained in the shade of Erik Lamela, who’s had a seemingly an infinite credit of trust from his boss and compatriot, Pochettino. It all changed when the ex-Roma winger suffered a hip injury early in the 2016/17 campaign and mysteriously went off the radar. Son, back in business, has found his goalscoring mojo and managed to match Cha Bum-Kun’s record of 19 goals ever scored by a Korean in a single, top-flight European season.

“He can play like a striker. One of our best performances was against Manchester City and he was the striker when Harry was injured.” – said Poch following the cup game against Milwall, in which Harry Kane has suffered a dangerous ankle injury. The free-flowing Spurs side was expected to struggle with finding the net but it relied on Son instead to secure seven straight league victories immediately after their leading strikers’ demise. The Korean has produced five goals and one assist in those games, using clever movement and his trademark work-rate to the maximum. If only Spurs could field 12 players: he’d probably starting every single game for them. Sadly, they can’t – which is why they’ve unsuccessfully tried to play Son in a right wing-back position in that memorable, lost FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea.

Juan Mata

2015/16: 38 games, 2889 minutes, 6 goals, 5 assists, 30 dribbles won, 53 chances created, 23 tackles won, 89% pass success.
2016/17: 23 games, 1469 minutes, 6 goals, 3 assists, 15 dribbles won, 42 chances created, 16 tackles won, 90% pass success.

This season was supposed to be the dawn of Juan Mata. The appointment of a manager, who effectively kicked out the Spaniard from Chelsea, combined with the signings of both Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan suggested that there won’t be no place or even reason to give the ex-Valencia playmaker any more real chances. At best, he was expected to become just a squad player; at worst, he could become yet another Wayne Rooney with a potential move to either MLS or Chinese Super League looming around the corner. “(…) at the end of the season we will sit down and evaluate our future more seriously.” – said the players’ father, regarding his son’s prospects at Old Trafford; the prospects that were far from clear.

Then, the games were on. Soon enough, it turned out that the veteran Mata provides an important extra dimension to a team which is otherwise heavily depending on Pogba’s and Ibrahimović’s performances. An early Mkhitaryan’s injury only boosted his status: while the Armenian was out with a knee problem, his Spaish colleague has led United to a resounding victory over Leicester, scored a League Cup winner against Manchester City and then proceeded to shine in a difficult, drawn clash with Arsenal, completely taking Mesut Özil out of the game. All through that time, his ability to convert few scoring opportunities he’s been given firmly stood in a contrast with the wastefulness of José Mourinho’s side.

Mata’s good days have ended in March. After few, crisp games at the start of the year and a handful of quality Europa League performances, he’s suffered a painful groin strain against Middlesbrough and was expected to miss out on the remainder of the season. Fortunately, the surgeons and physios have done an excellent job, managing to get him back to fitness by the last weekend; unfortunately, against Arsenal at Emirates,he’s been far from his optimal form and the uninspired United side has flat-out lost 0-2.

However… ‘Mata has adapted to the football I want to play. I knew since the beginning he would be an important player’ – said Mourinho in February, when the Spanish lad’s goal helped MU to overcome Watford. Despite his fitness problems, despite the relative lack of playtime compared to the last season, the long M-M beef is officially over. That itself has got to count for something.

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