Under 21 players to watch this season | Top 5
With the new Premier League season on the horizon, teams are desperately trying to optimise their squads. With COVID-19 putting a significant halt on incoming fans (and therefore money) though, managers may be forced to look at their team’s younger fringe players to bolster their teams squad depth and strength. Though the Premier League may not boast any of the best football academies in the world, there are still plenty of fantastic young talents. Here are five under 21 players to watch in the Premier League this season.
Curtis Jones (Liverpool)
Last season’s Premier League champions, Liverpool, will be hoping to continue their rich vein of form and secure successive titles this season. The Reds haven’t been the most active in the transfer market but, after finishing 18 points clear of Manchester City, they certainly aren’t in desperate need of fresh faces. Jurgen Klopp has almost secured the signature of Bayern Munich centre-midfielder Thiago, after an extensive contract saga, but that looks as far as it will go in terms of marquee signings. Therefore the German coach may have to look to the younger academy products for squad depth.
One player in particular who will be looking to make the step up to becoming a regular rotation player for the Anfield outfit is Curtis Jones. The boyhood Liverpool fan is versatile, calm in possession and isn’t afraid to shoot. If Klopp needs to look to his bench for a direct replacement for a box-to-box midfielder, then he most certainly be looking to Jones to step up. Jones can play right-back or central midfield, which probably explains the similarities he has with Trent Alexander-Arnold. Undoubtedly one of the under 21 players to watch this season.
Aaron Connolly (Brighton and Hove Albion)
Since the arrival of Graham Potter at the beginning of the 2019/2020 season, the emphasis on the South Coast has been very much on young footballers playing free-flowing, attacking football. One of two players that were thrown into the first team setup was now-Ireland international, Aaron Connolly – the second player being Steven Alzate.
At just 19-years-old, Connolly possesses the special intelligence of a second-striker who has been playing at a top level for several seasons. The striker is quick, determined and is capable of scoring from many angles. It is no secret that the Seagulls are looking to add a new striker to their books but if owner Tony Bloom can’t find a suitable candidate then it would be a great opportunity for Connolly to consolidate himself as a starter for the season. His recent five-year contract extension showcases that Albion have faith in Connolly and believe he will be a big player for them for the next few years, especially as his partnership with striker Neal Maupay improves.
Taylor Harwood-Bellis (Manchester City)
Manchester City have been prone to injuries in recent seasons, with their defence particularly vulnerable. Manager Pep Guardiola has always been in need of centre-backs who can play out from the back, hence the use of ex-midfielder Fernandinho and 21-year-old Eric Garcia in defence after the coronavirus restart.
However, now Pep looks like he may be in for a more significant defensive crisis heading into this season; Garcia supposedly wants to move to Barcelona, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi have not been good enough to justify regular game time for the 2018/19 Premier League winners and Fernandinho’s career looks to be concluding at 35-years-old. The £50million signing of Nathan Ake from Bournemouth does provide Laporte with a defensive partner but if injuries hitthe Citizens then they may be forced into bringing through the youth.
This may provide 18-year-old Taylor Harwood-Bellis with a prime opportunity to stake his claim and he is certainly one of the under 21 players to watch. The England under-19s defender has only played for the first team twice, once in the EFL Cup and once in the Champions League group stage against Dinamo Zagreb. However, on both occasions his strength, maturity and composure with the ball at his feet drew plaudits from the City faithful. The Englishman may be young but, given the opportunities former Barca boss Pep gave to Eric Garcia last season, his inexperience wouldn’t be a fair reason not to give Harwood-Bellis a shot at securing regular first team football or even just securing a place on the bench.
Luke Matheson (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
The departure of Matt Doherty to Tottenham Hotspur has left a gaping hole in the Wolves defence, especially considering how their wing-back positions lack depth. The 3-5-2 formation that Nuno Espirito Santos has sworn by in the Midlands means that his wide men are arguably the most important players on the field, they provide overlapping runs and an extra man in the box when Wolves are on the attack, but also drop into a back five when their opposition is attacking to provide a strong defensive wall.
With regaining a Europa League position a priority heading into the 2020/1 season, Nuno Santo may well look for some fresh new energy to step into the first team and push them forward. The right wing-back vacancy may open the door to January’s £1million signing Luke Matheson. The 17-year-old signed from Rochdale last season after he hit the headlines following a 1-1 draw (5-3 loss on penalties) with Manchester United, he put in a solid defensive performance and also scored the equaliser, aged just 16 at the time. Matheson is full of energy, solid to a tackle and can provide the necessary width that Wolves may fear they have now lost due to Doherty’s departure.
Emile Smith-Rowe (Arsenal)
Mikel Arteta has completely rejigged a lacklustre Arsenal side since his appointment, starting youth prospects rather than continuously playing the regular starters that underperformed under Unai Emery. The likes of Bukayo Saka, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Eddie Nketiah have all been made into first team players by the former Gunners midfielder, showcasing Arteta’s trust in youth as well as how open he is to be change his squad depending on the opposition. The latest of the under 21 players to watch is Arsenal academy graduate Emile Smith-Rowe, a central attacking midfielder who is raring to take the step up.
The Englishman is best used as a number 10, which Arsenal desperately lacked last season following Ozil’s declining form and Joseph Willock best form coming in a deeper role. Smith-Rowe spent last season on loan at Huddersfield Town in the Championship where he was one of the most creative players in the league, averaging 1.5 key passes per game and scoring two and assisting two in just 19 appearances. Smith-Rowe has a willingness to dribble with the ball and can often draw a foul or pull defenders out of position, this matched with how Arsenal have the speed and attackers capable of punishing teams when given time and space could make Smith-Rowe an important asset at Arsenal as they push for Champions League football.
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