The Kids Are Alright | Lukaku, Januzaj Amongst Prem's Best Youngsters

The Kids Are Alright | Lukaku, Januzaj Amongst Prem's Best Youngsters

Few quotes have been repeated as often as Alan Hansen’s famous line, “you can’t win anything with kids.”  If you hail from the red part of Manchester, you’re mocking the former Liverpool man because the ’95-’96 squad that provoked the remark went on to win the title.  Then again, over the past few years, Gooners from North London have found themselves screaming the phrase in anger down the terraces at Arsene Wenger.

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Of course, the real truth is that age matters little when compared with ability—if you can play, you can play.  For the proof in the pudding, look no further than the following four players setting the league alight, even if they can’t grab a stateside brew just yet.

Romelu Lukaku (20), Everton (on-loan from Chelsea)

Romelu Lukaku needs little introduction to Premier League followers who have seen the giant Belgian bully their defences over the past year.  Initially signed by Chelsea in 2011, the striker’s appearances for his parent club have been sporadic.  After a debut season spent picking up table scraps of playing time, Lukaku moved to West Brom for the 2012-2013 campaign and snagged 17 goals across 38 appearances under Steve Clarke.

Upon returning to Chelsea, Lukaku remarked he’d like to stay and earn a place for the impending season.  Yet, he ended up on loan once again, rejecting West Brom’s advances for another turn and joining Roberto Martinez’s new-look Everton.

The former Anderlecht sensation has been in fine form with the Toffees, leading the team with five goals.  More impressive than just his total however, is his clinical efficiency in front of the net.  Ten of his 18 shots have been on target, a stunning 77% accuracy rate, and he’s converting his chances at the elite rate of 38%.  Tying it all together, Lukaku has been presented with three clear-cut chances this term, and he’s buried all three.

There are, however, a few areas of his game that could use improvement.  For one, despite standing at 1.9 meters (6’3”) tall, the dreadlocked menace is surprisingly only winning 32% of his aerial duels.  Furthermore, he leads Everton with 14 heavy touches and can sometimes struggle to make much of an impact outside of the penalty area.  Of course, these are but minor wrinkles to be ironed out over time and Lukaku’s pinpoint assist for Ross Barkley’s goal against Newcastle shows he can be more than just a poacher.

Fernando Torres has enjoyed a minor renaissance this term, but Lukaku’s imperious form suggests Jose Mourinho may have been better off keeping the Belgian, as opposed to the likes of Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o.  With Christian Benteke’s injury woes, Lukaku may well find himself spearheading Belgium’s attack at the World Cup.  Surely then he’ll be considered ready to emulate his mentor Didier Drogba as a Stamford Bridge icon.

Ross Barkley (19), Everton

Sticking at Goodison Park, another youngster making a name for himself under Roberto Martinez is the aforementioned Ross Barkley.  The Merseyside native has long been tipped as a potential star and though he received his first-team breakthrough under David Moyes, it’s been within Martinez’s free-flowing system that Barkley has shone.

Last year, Barkley made the rare trick of appearing for three clubs in a single season when loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United were mixed in with appearances for his hometown Everton.  This season, Barkley’s impressive pre-season form placed him firmly in Martinez’s first team squad right from the start.

The Spaniard’s faith was rewarded with some excellent performances over the first stretch of the season.  Barkley’s scintillating showing in the opener against Norwich, capped by a long-range thunderbolt, put the Premier League on notice and the youngster was rewarded with his first England cap against Moldova in September.

Since the leaves started to turn however, Barkley’s form has dipped and he has recently lost his starting berth in fixtures against Tottenham and Crystal Palace.  When examining the stats, it’s clear that the local boy is still something of a rough diamond in need of polishing.

If anything, Barkley’s play has been extremely energetic “in the hole” role in Everton’s 4-2-3-1 formation.  He leads the team with 47 dribble attempts and is completing them at a solid 66% clip.  Further, he has drawn a team-leading 29 fouls and his 24 penalty area entries are second only to the inexhaustible Leighton Baines (remarkable for a left back).  Barkley has also fully bought into Martinez’s high-octane approach, and his 130 attempted ground duels leads the squad.

The key word in Barkley’s development is clearly “efficiency.”  He leads the team with 27 shot attempts, though with just six on target his 35% accuracy can be improved upon.  Similarly, while his ambition with the ball has led to the spectacular, he has also been dispossessed a team-leading 20 times.  Perhaps most importantly, the “in the hole” midfielder is usually charged with being the side’s attacking fulcrum and Barkley has only created eight open play chances, one clear-cut chance, and no assists.

Despite his inconsistency, few would bet against Barkley recapturing his incredible early season form.  Martinez has a long track record of developing talent and is clearly eager to mold Barkley’s abundant natural ability.  Young players have their ups and downs, and should Barkley refine his game a bit, don’t bet against him hopping on the plane to Brazil next summer.

Ben Davies (20), Swansea

It’s the cruel nature of the business that one man’s injury is another man’s chance to shine, so Neil Taylor can’t fault fellow Welshman Ben Davies for seizing his chance.  When the veteran Taylor went down with injury early last season, his compatriot immediately filled his place without missing a beat.  Even with Taylor’s return to fitness, Davies managed to hang onto his spot through the end of last season and returned to Swansea to find his position solidified as first-choice left back.

Beyond sharing a history in Danish football (Davies spent three years as a junior player with Viborg FF), manager Michael Laudrup clearly values Davies for his sturdy defensive play.  The young full back is Swansea’s leading total tackler with 20 successful challenges out of 21 attempts, his 95% success rate truly outstanding.  Further, his 6.27 minutes per challenge and 10.28 minutes per challenge won are both only behind the figures of impact substitute Alex Pozuelo – the Spaniard routinely providing bursts of energy over the final 25 or so minutes.

Offensively, Davies is no slouch either and, with Angel Rangel having an excellent season on the other side, Swansea boast excellent thrust from the full back positions.  Davies has recorded 23 penalty area entries—right up there with more attack-minded players like Jonjo Shelvey and Wayne Routledge—and has created five chances from open play.  The 20 year old has even chipped in with two stunning goals from open play, with his volley against West Brom only bettered by a brilliant one-two sequence against Arsenal.

Even with his sterling performances, there are two main areas of weakness to Davies’s game.  First, the Welshman’s diminutive 1.7m (5’7”) frame has seen him win just 50% of his aerial duels; which is not a horrific mark, but decreases his value at the back post and on set-piece duty.  An area Davies has more control over however, is his crossing ability—with just 18% of his crosses finding the head of a fellow Swan.

Davies may not find himself with an exciting adventure to Brazil over the summer, but with the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, and Joe Allen in the side, Wales just may be able to snag a place in Euro 2016.

Adnan Januzaj (18), Manchester United

You didn’t think I’d leave Januzaj out did you?  Another former Anderlecht trainee like Lukaku, Januzaj first showed his face in United’s first team at the tail end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s swan song last season.  Then, he didn’t make it off the bench and he had to wait until the installation of David Moyes to get his true first-team chance.

Scraps of minutes off the bench in the Community Shield, League Cup, and against Crystal Palace showed flashes of ability but nothing too spectacular.  The first warning sign however, came against West Brom at the end of September when Moyes brought the youngster on at half-time to try and spark his side.  The move didn’t work, United lost 2-1, but it set the stage for Januzaj’s full debut the following weekend against Sunderland.

Down an early goal to the cellar-dwelling Black Cats, Januzaj bagged a stunning second-half brace that saved United’s blushes and sent commentators stuttering over themselves pronouncing his name.  Indeed, the brace kicked off a veritable firestorm surrounding Januzaj’s murky international future—Kosovo has no competitive squad, while his father has already criticised both the Albanian and Belgian FA’s—that has taken some attention away from his fantastic ability on the pitch.

Having largely taken up a berth on the left wing, Januzaj has been a creative spark for United, nicely cutting inside to link up with Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie.  The 18 year-old has created four chances, three from open play, and two clear-cut opportunities for his teammates—one of which was converted for a goal.  His creative talents are built upon both incisive passing, 74% final third passing accuracy, and the confidence to take on defenders, 22 dribble attempts at a 64% success rate.

As we saw against Sunderland, Januzaj also isn’t afraid to let shots fly.  He’s actually leading the entire squad attempting a shot every 27 minutes and recording a shot on target every 36 minutes—his 50% accuracy rating something which Barkley should note.

Perhaps most impressive of all has been Januzaj’s defensive commitment.  Incredibly, he’s leading the team with a ground duel every 5.76 minutes and winning one every 9.39 minutes.  The slim winger struggles in the air, but is still third on the squad in attempting a challenge just under every five minutes and winning one every 8.5.

Considering he’s broken into one of the world’s premier clubs at the age of 18, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at Januzaj’s tremendous overall ability.  United wisely scared off the vultures by handing the youngster a new five year contract and could very well have a superstar on their hands.

Internationally, Januzaj has already rejected the opportunity to represent Belgium in a World Cup Qualifier.  However, should he continue to get consistent first-team minutes, Januzaj will likely get another call-up request from Marc Wilmots before Brazil this summer.  Considering he’s years away from being eligible for England, it’s hard to imagine Januzaj turning down the chance to perform in a World Cup before he’s even reached the age of 20.