Introducing YOUR Premier League club’s breakout star for 2016/17

Introducing YOUR Premier League club’s breakout star for 2016/17


Arsenal – Alex Iwobi

Iwobi has really already emerged. Eight starts, two goals and regular flashes of ability in 2015/16 suggested that a tipping point had been reached, but 2016/17 should see his evolution from curiosity to outright star. He has an eclectic range of attacking abilities which make him him dangerous in all sorts of forward positions and, with some refinement and greater upper-body strength, he could become a regular game-changer in any number of them.

The Nigerian is fascinating because he could be anything at all: an outright forward, a supporting striker, or a winger. He’s a malleable footballer with the ability to specialise in several different areas and, because that narrowing process will largely take place over the next 12 months, he’s one of the players to watch in the division as a whole rather than just at Arsenal.

Alex Iwobi celebrates his goal against Everton

Meanwhile, although still some years away from league football, Reiss Nelson might also appear in the early rounds of the League Cup. An inside forward with an eye for goal, Nelson will enter the season off the back of an excellent U17 European Championship and his attacking movement and dizzying array of skills makes him someone to be aware of even now.

Bournemouth – Lys Mousset

There would have been a time when spending £5m on 20-year-old French forward with no top division experience would have been seen as a risk, but in today’s market and within the context of the Premier League‘s wealth, Bournemouth’s decision to recruit Mousset from Le Havre looks a sensible gamble.

Fourteen goals at Ligue 2 level illustrate his promise and, while there are natural caveats over the value of edited highlights, it’s not hard to see what caught Eddie Howe’s eye. Sharp acceleration, good height, calm finisher; Mousset ticks a lot of boxes, although the speed with which he makes decisions in front of goal will need to hasten if he’s to be a success.

According to French Football Weekly, he has a good “sense of tactical and positional awareness” and “like most players who emerge from the club’s academy, his technical ability on the ball (was) vastly superior to most other players of his age in Ligue 2

The newly fit Callum Wilson will stand in the way of first-team opportunities, as will the improving Benik Afobe, but Le Havre have a proven record for developing excellent players (Paul Pogba, Steve Mandanda, Dimitri Payet, Riyad Mahrez) and Mousset could well be the next.

Burnley – Andre Gray

Gray is already in his mid-twenties, but his career’s sharp trajectory makes him worth his place on this list: from Luton Town in the Conference to the Premier League in two years.

Originally a beneficiary of Brentford’s statistic-based talent identification processes, he earned his move to Turf Moor off a single impressive season under Mark Warburton. After then moving north for £6m, he was collecting the Championship Player of the Season and Golden Boot awards in Burnley’s colours, having scored 23 goals from 41 starts.

A good finisher with smart vertical movement and a harrying, hassling approach which will serve him well in the Premier League, he should translate to the top level. Paul Walsh, who runs Burnley‘s matchday media for local radio station 2BR, acknowledges that Gray retains some rawness but sees him as someone who, after adjusting to the thinner air, will have all the attributes needed to score goals in a higher division.

Chelsea – Nathaniel Chalobah

Chelsea have a lot of talent at youth level and Lewis Baker, Tammy Abraham and Charly Musonda are all very intriguing. In the short term, however, Chalobah is probably best positioned to make significant strides.

Having grown up as a centre-half, his defensive attributes are very sound, but his year on loan at Napoli has evidently added a welcome degree of composure to his possession play. He was never a regular at Stadio San Paolo, but his time abroad appears to have sanded away some of his rougher edges and made him at least eligible for one of Chelsea’s deep-midfield roles.

Nathaniel Chalobah against Club Brugge

A year on from his clunky performances in the European U21 Championship, he was a smooth, composed presence at the base of the English midfield in Toulon and quietly one of the tournament’s best players.

As a broader point, this is absolutely the time for the club to start using their academy to supplement the first XI. Though it’s never outwardly been Chelsea’s focus, the level of ability they possess between the U16 and U19 age groups is arguably more concentrated than it is anywhere else in the country. That’s an opportunity which should not be wasted.

Crystal Palace – Jonny Williams

A circumstantial pick: Palace are an ageing team and Alan Pardew is prone to keeping faith with the players he trusts. Troublingly for Williams, that may be a problem. Pardew’s public comments about the Welsh midfielder suggest that he’s yet to be convinced and, to be fair, nothing he did in on loan in the Championship (Nottingham Forest and, later, MK Dons) demanded his recall or future involvement.

Nevertheless, Palace lack creativity and remain overly-reliant on Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie to win games. Therefore, a player like Williams who has a degree of subtlety in his passing could find himself involved by default. He’s unconvincing at the moment and owes his place on this list purely to a lack of alternatives, but it’s not quite time to dismiss him yet.

Jonny Williams, Nottingham Forest

Everton – Muhamed Besic

Over the last two seasons, Besic has been a prisoner of his own body: two years into his Everton career, he has just 22 league starts to his name and, though partly influenced by form, that’s a very descriptive measure of his fragility. His future, therefore, comes with a natural caveat: if he can’t stay fit, it doesn’t matter how talented he is.

Since arriving in England, Ronald Koeman has established himself as a defensive specialist and in his two years at Southampton managed to construct two separate, but equally impressive defensive systems. The curiosity, therefore, is over what Besic could potentially be inside a well-constructed unit and how he might be able to grow. He can be rash and prone to over-exuberance on the ball but, owing to Roberto Martinez’s various shortcomings, those issues were at least partly circumstantial.

Muhamed Besic walks off the pitch injuried

At his best Besic is a terrier without the ball and unexpectedly elegant with it. If Koeman can build a structure to accommodate those abilities, expect the Bosnian to start replicating the form he has shown for his country.

Hull – Moses Odubajo

Odubajo is an interesting player. In his first season at Hull, having moved north from Brentford, the bulk of his 42 Championship appearances came as a right-full-back and his aggressive ball-carrying and reliable distribution were a big part of the club’s promotion.

That type of player has become increasingly important in the Premier League and a lot of sides, especially those employing a degree of caution, rely on their full-backs for almost all of their width. Whether that proves to be the case with Hull remains to be seen, but Odubajo was once highly effective as a more forward-thinking player and actually reached double figures in his final season at Leyton Orient.

Moses Odubajo against Brentford

That isn’t to dismiss his contribution in his own half, because he doesn’t conform to that modern, frustrated winger stereotype. But he’s a footballer rather than just a defender and, in the past, he’s shown himself to be an accomplished finisher on either foot. He’s young, English, and gave a strong account of himself during England’s 2015 Toulon matches, so a strong Premier League season could see his reputation and value soar. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Leicester – Demarai Gray

Were it not for Christian Fuchs and his hold over the left-back position, Ben Chilwell would be Leicester’s standout prospect. As things stand, however, it’s difficult to foresee Claudio Ranieri jettisoning such an essential component. Chilwell’s time will inevitably come, but perhaps just not yet.

Demarai Gray with the Premier League title

Gray’s rise has already begun and, though a peripheral figure in last season’s championship run, most will have already seen enough of him to be convinced. Comfortable on either flank and able to beat defenders off either foot, if Gray develops a reliable final ball and learns how to fully exploit the space he’s able to create, he will add an extra shade of menace to Leicester’s already-lethal counter-attack.

His involvement will depend on not only his own progress, but also how tactically emboldened Claudio Ranieri has been by last season; Gray warrants an extended opportunity, but there aren’t many Leicester players who deserve to lose their first-team place either. The sooner he starts playing, though, the sooner that £3.75m paid to Birmingham will start to look ludicrous.

Liverpool – Divock Origi

Origi is lightning fast, accomplished on the ball and capable of a range of finishes

Origi’s last season at Lille was not a success and his arrival at Liverpool appeared to suffer from that loss of momentum. Initially unfavoured by Brendan Rodgers, he was jolted by Jurgen Klopp’s appointment and the young Belgian – albeit partly because of Daniel Sturridge’s prolonged injury difficulties – was given just enough opportunity to show that the hype is real.

He remains a patchy, unpredictable forward without a compartmentalising definition, but – crucially – his strengths complement his manager’s fast-breaking, turnover-based approach. Origi is lightning fast, accomplished on the ball and capable of a range of finishes, and it would be a surprise to no one if he flourishes.

There’s competition at Anfield and Origi will have to win a place ahead of Adam Lallana or Sadio Mane, but he’s theoretically perfect for both his current club and the division in which they play.

Manchester City – Kelechi Iheanacho

In a few years’ time, Brahim Diaz will begin his climb into the professional game and that really will be exciting. For now, though, Iheanacho is Pep Guardiola’s brightest young thing.

There’s currently almost an indifference to him, which is odd. Perhaps of less interest because he is of no concern to the English national team or maybe a reflection on City being a less popular team, Iheanacho has been allowed to grow in the shadows. Healthy, certainly, but as a consequence there seems to be minimal appreciation for just how good a player he could be.

There are weaknesses to his game: his pass selection can sometimes let him down and he must become more economic with his touches, but those are flaws borne from naivety. He’s already a startlingly good finisher, but is also a creative presence who processes the game quickly and can drop off the frontline and influence the play with a broad passing range – indeed, he averaged a Premier League goal or assist every 84 minutes last season, a league high.

Iheanacho scores a penalty against Aston Villa in the FA Cup

It’s too early to know for sure, but he will probably grow into something between the traditional No.9 and 10 roles and, not incidentally, become the sort of malleable attacking component which Guardiola has historically favoured.

Manchester United – Er, nobody

Though it may seem contrived or accusatory, the chances of Jose Mourinho allowing emerging talent to grow are remote. In his introductory press conference, the Portuguese spoke of the need for specialists in key positions and in conjunction with Manchester United’s completed and intended transfer business, that would seem to represent diminishing opportunities for anyone not already established at first-team level.


Mourinho doesn’t tolerate imperfection and his tactical approach can’t accommodate players who are still learning the game. Given United’s current position and the resources they are committing in pursuit of a Champions League return, don’t expect that to change.

Middlesbrough – Viktor Fischer

The young Dane was very much in wunderkid territory a few years ago, but a succession of injuries saw him stagnate at Ajax and his current reputation is still too reliant on dated YouTube highlights. If he can stay fit in England, though, he could well become one of the signings of the summer.

At his best he’s a highly watchable, free-spirited player who finishes with cultured calm and, consequently, it’s far too early to reclassify his talent.

The worry, of course, is that his apparent fragility and the Premier League’s attritional nature will make for a bad combination, but it would be football’s great gain if he matured into the player he was projected to be several years ago. If all goes well, he may again become one of the game’s hottest properties.

Catherine Wilson (the club’s ESPN FC blogger) also speaks highly of twenty-three year-old centre-half Ben Gibson, the nephew of popular chairman, Steve. He will be entering his fourth full season in the Boro first-team (following loan spells at York, Plymouth Argyle, and Tranmere), has represented England at U17, U18, U20, and U21 level, and was an integral part of the meanest defence in last season’s Championship.

Southampton – Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

It’s difficult to pick a standout from Southampton because their production line is so rich. Matt Targett, Harrison Reed or James Ward-Prowse could all make notable progress this year and would all be worthy selections.

However, new signing Hojbjerg is a level above. Although hardly an unknown, the twenty year-old Dane is another victory for the club’s recruitment strategy. Despite being at Bayern Munich since the age of sixteen, Hojbjerg has never quite made the breakthrough but, given the competition at the Allianz Arena, that’s hardly damning. He’s spent the last two years out on loan (Augsburg and Schalke) and a permanent move to Southampton represents a chance to grow into his mighty talent.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Schalke

A very complete midfielder, he’s typically been used from deep but, with his passing range and ball-striking ability, he could potentially migrate further forward as he gets older.

Although not the same kind of player, his anticipation and ball-stealing will go a long way to replacing what Southampton lost in selling Victor Wanyama, but it’s that attacking flourish which will really help him to stand out. And, if they’re kept together for any length of time, his combination with Jordy Clasie could foreseeably become one of the best in the country.

Stoke – Giannelli Imbula

Imbula was signed for nearly £19m last season, so he’s hardly in the “developing” category. Even so, it feels as if the world is yet to realise just how good a player he is.

Watch him – preferably from a stand rather than a couch. Not only is he an extremely accomplished technical footballer, but his workrate is almost freakish. Towards the end of last season, at the point at which almost every other Stoke player had physically and emotionally checked-out, Imbulla was still covering the hard yards and – though the results with which he was associated don’t reflect this – providing an admirable contribution in both directions.

The pertinent question, therefore, regards what he could be when surrounded by a fully-functioning side. In the general sense, he has already made it and can rightly think of himself as a star, but this will be the season when he’s truly validated. His transfer-fee was very large and certainly constituted a risk for a club like Stoke, but this time next year it will look like a bargain.

Sunderland – Jordan Pickford

While his debut at White Hart Lane provided a fine stage for his reflexes, Pickford’s real promise has only been visible beneath the radar. Though short for a goalkeeper and, at twenty-two, unlikely to grow, he has become an excellent decision-maker and his penalty-box command and defensive organisation was a feature of his summer performances in England’s Toulon Tournament success. Time and experience will tell, of course, but he looks to be growing into a very complete goalkeeper and someone who can challenge Joe Hart and Jack Butland for senior international caps in the future.

Jordan Pickford, Sunderland

Swansea – Matt Grimes

To date, he has made just a single Premier League start but it’s not difficult to imagine him becoming a permanent fixture within Francesco Guidolin’s midfield.

If ever a player was suited to Swansea’s governing philosophy, it’s Grimes. Signed from Exeter in 2015, he’s a possession-based midfielder who could have been grown in a laboratory underneath the Liberty Stadium. To date, he has made just a single Premier League start and has had to rely on loan spells (Blackburn) and periodic substitute minutes for experience, but it’s not difficult to imagine him becoming a permanent fixture within Francesco Guidolin’s midfield.

He’s never going to become a “star” in the true sense, because his future probably lies at the heart of midfield rather than in a position of obvious or dramatic influence. However, Swansea have long since been reliant on the same deep-lying passing attributes which Grimes possesses and, though he faces stiff competition from the excellent Jack Cork, the ultra consistent Ki Sung-yueng, and the ageing Leon Britton, he will likely emerge sooner rather than later. If he can impress on loan at Leeds this term first, that is.

Jack Cork and Matt Grimes

Tottenham – Alex Pritchard

His ability to press without the ball remains unknown and will presumably be a concern for Pochettino, but in possession he is very much a Premier League-calibre player.

Pritchard has been a fixture on this type of list for some time and not without due cause. Talented, technical and with a low centre of gravity, he’s potentially a destructive, direct attacking midfielder who would be at home in a Mauricio Pochettino team.

Last year, the good progress he made on-loan in the Championship during 2014/15 was negated by an ankle injury sustained at the U21 European Championship, but now – with a full preseason and a clean bill of health – he has at least an outside chance of pitch-time in one of the wide-forward positions. His ability to press without the ball remains unknown and will presumably be a concern for Pochettino, but in possession he is very much a Premier League-calibre player.

This will be win or bust: either he breaks through the glass ceiling or he moves on. At twenty-three, that “promising youngster” tag is starting to become a bit of a stretch and if he doesn’t emerge during 2016, he likely won’t be still be at Tottenham in 2017.

Alex Pritchard, Brentford

The signing of Vincent Janssen probably means that Shayon Harrison is set for a loan move rather than a first-team debut, but he’s also omeone to know. As, rather obviously, is Marcus Edwards, who is rumoured to have committed his professional future to the club and – fingers crossed – may just make the odd league cup appearance.


Watford – Adalberto Penaranda

There will be no middle-ground here: Penaranda will either be an overwhelming success or a desperate failure in England.

Penaranda’s signing was announced back in January and he’s another who arrives at Vicarage Road from the Pozzo family’s confusing network of clubs.

There will be no middle-ground here: Penaranda will either be an overwhelming success or a desperate failure in England, though first he’ll spend a season on loan at Udinese. Fabulous to watch with the ball at his feet and a hard worker without it, he can look lightweight against burly opponents. However, his long stride and deceptive acceleration should make him a problem in the channels and also a challenge for any defender prone to lunging tackles.

Ultimately, his success in this country will likely depend on how he responds emotionally to the physical attention he’s almost certain to receive. If he’s resilient, however, and if his expressive best becomes the norm, then Watford will have a precious player. He’ll likely never be a prolific goalscorer and his finishing has a mildly uncouth quality, but – for those who haven’t seen him – imagine watching Dimitar Berbatov on fast forward.

West Brom – Jonathan Leko

One of last season’s oddities, missed on account of it happening at an inconsequential end of the table, was Tony Pulis giving Jonathan Leko his first-team debut. Leko, a Bambi-esque forward with a big bag of tricks, is about as far from the Pulis ideal as it’s possible to get and, back in April and May, he added a dash of fun to an otherwise dour West Bromwich Albion side.

Pulis likes size, organisation, and obdurate reliability and, being none of those things, Leko’s inevitable ascension into the national consciousness promises to be extremely entertaining. He, as they say, is a player.

West Ham – Martin Samuelsen

A tall, rangy attacking player, Samuelsen spent last season on-loan at Peterborough before making his senior international debut for Norway (against Iceland) during the summer.

If such a thing still exists, he’s a perfect stylistic match with West Ham’s club ideals. Extremely elegant on the ball and equipped with a startlingly delicate touch, his success will depend on his physical suitability. Still just nineteen – and with the body of a teenager – he may have to bulk up before Slaven Bilic deems him to be a viable first-team option.

Martin Samuelsen, West Ham

As and when he does get that chance, however, expect him to take it: Samuelsen’s rise through the game seems almost inevitable.