Young guns on the run in EPL
Mikel Arteta is turning the English Premier League into a secondary school. On 19th September, the Arsenal manager sent on substitute Ethan Nwaneri to make his debut. Nwaneri was 15 years and 181 days old. There are older bottles of wine.
And yet, remarkably, the Gunners are hovering around the summit with more kids than a High School Musical reboot. Tottenham Hotspur’s boys are bulking up. Manchester City’s brightest starlet is twinkling again and Chelsea’s most consistent performer might be one of their youngest.
If nothing else, 2022 is proving to be a very good year for the EPL's young guns. Here are five standouts (with one unstoppable freak as an added bonus).
1) Ryan Sessegnon, 22
The meek has learned from a monster. By his own admission, Sessegnon’s physique was not doing justice to his talent. Too many injuries, particularly a niggling hamstring, had plagued the progress of one of the finest young footballers in English football. The left-sided speedster was tiptoeing towards ‘nearly man’ status, the one who fell just short of expectations.
Enter the monster. Sessegnon calls Gian Piero Ventrone a “killer”. Others are less kind. But Antonio Conte’s legendary fitness coach left Spurs players vomiting in pre-season. But it worked. They are fitter and faster and hanging on in the title race.
And Ventrone turned Sessegnon into a He-Hulk of sorts, forcing the Englishman to develop muscle mass to avoid injuries and gain strength to spearhead Conte’s pressing.
Running up to nine kilometres in training has improved Sessegnon’s stamina and confidence. From bit-part player to regular starter, he scored in the EPL opener against Southampton and is pushing for World Cup selection. He’s now a monster in the making.
2) Reece James, 22
Chelsea have resembled a rowdy house party, threatening to spill over into messy anarchy until the father figure returns home and tidies the place. Only the roles are reversed. The young James is tidying up on behalf of older men who really should know better.
With a goal and an assist already, the right-back has been a rare beacon of consistency in an erratic Blues campaign.
There’s nothing like a new five-year-deal worth a reported £250,000 a week as an incentive to impress and James’ versatility has made him irreplaceable at the age of 22. In the memorably testy derby against Tottenham, James underlined his value. He started on the right-side of a back three (or five when Spurs attacked), nullified the threat of Son Heung-Min and still found time to score for Chelsea.
Manager Graham Potter could conceivably build his long-term defence around James. Gareth Southgate may be pondering something similar for England at Qatar 2022.
3) Bukayo Saka, 21
Saka has only just turned 21, but seems to have been around for years. Arsenal’s protégé broke through as a teenager and is close to becoming an England stalwart in his early twenties. But potential had to give way to sustained pedigree at some point and this season feels like a real breakthrough.
At the time of writing, the attacking midfielder is second only to Kevin De Bruyne in terms of assists. The Belgian has six. The Englishman has four. Esteemed company indeed.
But Saka’s 19 assists overall are a real standout, leaving him behind only Cesc Fàbregas, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen for the number of assists in the top flight at the same age. Esteemed company indeed.
Saka has already attracted the attention of Manchester City and Real Madrid as his contract negotiations continue at Arsenal. Ideally, he’ll stay with the Gunners, where Arteta is creating something genuinely special and unique: a team built around a youthful core, with Saka at the heart of an unlikely title challenge.
Arsenal once built sides around academy graduates like Pat Rice, Tony Adams, David Rocastle and Paul Merson. They could do so again with Saka.
4) Phil Foden, 22
Midfielder, Manchester City
Foden’s inclusion on the list is not a surprise. His star has been in the ascendancy for some time. The surprise is he nearly didn’t make the list. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola habitually avoids criticising players, but even he has acknowledged Foden’s sluggish start.
Foden wasn’t alone. Jack Grealish continues to labour under the weight of expectation and Riyah Mahrez hasn’t yet matched last season’s effervescence. Perhaps the early inconsistency came from the tactical uncertainty. The arrival of Erling Haaland didn’t so much topple the apple cart, but smash it to pieces.
There’s a sense that everyone in City's attacking third is starting over.
But in the Champions League against Sevilla, things clicked for Foden. Injuries elsewhere forced him to the right side, where he flourished. His close control and link play with Haaland underlined his flexibility.
He’s not so much a jack of all trades as he is a master of utility. He really can deliver just about anywhere.
He scored against Wolves recently, his second of the season and is averaging 1.4 shots a game – a figure that his manager wants to see rise.
Foden is already delivering for his age. The coming weeks – leading into the World Cup – will indicate if he’s going to become one for the ages.
5) Gabriel Martinelli, 21
Another Gunner among the EPL’s young guns? In truth, Arteta’s boy band might have filled most of this list, with Gabriel Magalhães, aged 24, Fabio Vieira, 22 and captain Martin Odegaard, 23, all revelling in their unexpected roles of title challengers.
But Martinelli has the most to prove (and the larger obstacles to overcome). According to Arteta, the Brazilian striker was banging on the manager’s door and asking to be selected when he was still a teenager. But the forward has already seen off Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the recent arrival of Gabriel Jesus hasn’t weakened his resolve either.
On the contrary, three goals in six games and a fine working relationship with Arsenal's new forward line suggests the self-confidence might be justified.
Arteta’s faith in youth is paying off and Martinelli is reaping the rewards.
6) Erling Haaland, 22
Striker, Manchester City
Harry Kane called him “incredible”. Former footballer and commentator Jason Cundy called him “Gary Lineker on steroids”. Honestly, we are running out of things to call Haaland. He’s on this list only to demonstrate that he’s not been forgotten, because he would be on every list right now: best young players, best players overall, best strikers, best finishers, best ponytail, best everything.
He is the list.
He has 14 goals in 10 games in all competitions, ridiculous figures, ludicrous statistics for an absurd player. And he’s barely 22-years-old.
No one runs like this young gun. And no one is catching him either.
It's a privilege to watch the inexorable rise of such a flawless finisher.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author. He has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and written 26 books.
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