Judging Markovic, Flanagan, Cleverley and more loanees

Date published: Thursday 27th April 2017 2:10

According to footballsquads.co.uk, there are currently 28 players on loan in the Premier League. Even an obsessive like me can’t name them all, and if your club isn’t involved you probably don’t worry about who is and who isn’t a temporary visitor. But loanees usually provide some of the most interesting stories in the league: where do they come from? Why are they on loan? Will they stay or go back? And so on.

Some of this year’s loans have for one reason or another had their share of publicity: Jack Wilshere, Alvaro Negredo, Adnan Januzaj, Oumar Niasse. But so many others have been just names on a squad list, unremarkable except to supporters of the clubs in question. So with a salute to loan players everywhere in the world, here’s an alphabetical look at eight seconded soldiers.

 

Tom Cleverley (Watford, on January loan from Everton)
In a line that deserves to be better known, analytics maven Mike L. Goodman once referred to Cleverley as “the embodiment of an awkward pause in a conversation”. Cleverley, for his part, once famously compared himself to Xavi and Iniesta, which didn’t help his cause any. But in fact he’s not a bad footballer at all, just one who had the misfortune to enter the Premier League at a level higher than where he belonged.

At Watford they think he’s just fine, although the Watford Observer overstated it a bit when they called him a ‘midfield maestro’. Playing mostly in the middle, he rarely does anything terribly wrong or terribly remarkable, and puts in a shift every time. Of players with more than ten appearances, he leads the club in key passes per 90 minutes, although that’s a bit misleading since about a third of those have come from set-pieces. From open play he’s only created one chance in the penalty area. But he keeps the ball moving with short passes, as he always has.

His defensive performance is similarly middle-of-the-pack. Fewer tackles than Valon Behrami, but more than Etienne Capoue or Abdoulaye Doucouré. He tends to sit back a bit, rather than go for the interception, and in a side that’s setting records for fouling, is one of the less aggressive players. He just goes out and does a job without any fuss.

In a way he’s the most successful player on this list. He’s started the last 12 games, and game number nine triggered an option to make the loan permanent. A little less than a month ago he signed a five-, that’s right, five-year deal. So he’s come full circle, since he was Watford’s Player of the Year in the Championship while on loan in 2009-10. If the club eventually have higher ambitions, he might not be what they need, but for now looks set to finish his career as a regular in mid- to lower-mid-table. Good for him.

 

Jason Denayer (Sunderland, on season-long loan from Manchester City)
A Belgium international (although that was under Marc Wilmots, so consider the source), Denayer is on his third consecutive season-long loan. Now 21, he has yet to play in a senior competitive fixture for his parent club, but he’s under contract until 2020, so someone must have liked what they saw.

Depending on your perspective, Sunderland was one of the best or worst places he could have gone this year. No problems breaking into the line-up: he’s started almost every game for which he’s been fit and eligible. But it’s been a bit of a s**tshow at the Stadium of Light, and that’s not an ideal frame for a developing player. His preferred position is centre-half, where he partnered Virgil van Dijk while on loan at Celtic. But he’s fast for a centre-half and good on the ball, so David Moyes tried him at right-back, then left-back, then for a long while in central midfield. It wasn’t until late January that he was used in his natural spot, but since then he’s been a regular either in a back three or four.

I wish I could say he’s blossomed there, but although he’s had a few decent games, he hasn’t particularly stood out. It says something that his best performances were against Crystal Palace and Burnley, where his strength and aerial ability could be used to their full effect. He’s an outstanding athlete, but still needs to learn how to read the game.

Manchester City are a club that want to win big trophies, and Denayer looks a long way from that level at the moment. But there’s one item on his CV that might give you pause: he assisted the winning goal for Galatasaray against Fenerbahçe in the 2016 Turkish Cup Final. So he’s not afraid of pressure. Get him in a more stable setting next year, and let’s see.

 

Jon Flanagan (Burnley, on season-long loan from Liverpool)
A fan favourite at Anfield, the local lad had his career derailed by serious knee surgery. Even so, Liverpool thought enough of him last year to sign him until 2019. Burnley was thought to be a good place for the versatile full-back to continue his climb back up.

It hasn’t happened. Matthew Lowton and Stephen Ward have kept him out of the line-up, and it’s no disrespect to them to say that’s a disappointment for a would-be Anfield regular. Although he’s been mostly fit since October, he’s only made four league appearances, starting twice. In his first start he played left-back against Crystal Palace, and was badly beaten by Wilfried Zaha in the build-up to a goal. Two weeks later against Stoke City the exact same outcome, only at right-back and by Marko Arnautovic. He hasn’t figured since.

At the moment it’s hard to see him breaking through at Liverpool. He certainly isn’t going to displace Nathaniel Clyne, and a club of that stature will probably find a quality left-back in the market. Another loan next year seems likely, and if he starts the summer fit, maybe he can become a regular.

 

Brendan Galloway (West Bromwich Albion, on season-long loan from Everton)
Another Merseyside full-back who hasn’t made the grade, although Tony Pulis has a habit of taking loan players that don’t really fit his style. Remember Serge Gnabry? Alex Pritchard? Galloway is tall and can play centre-half, which must have sounded ideal for West Brom’s troublesome left-back slot. But he’s not as physically strong as your usual Pulis player.

Still, he got his chance in week four at Bournemouth, and looked OK until the 79th minute, when he failed to get tight enough to Adam Smith, who crossed to Callum Wilson for the only goal of the game. The next week home to West Ham, the Baggies were cruising at 4-1 when he was beaten in the area by Dimitri Payet, who was brought down for a penalty. Galloway was yanked four minutes later, never to return.

His replacement in that game was Allan Nyom – now there’s a Pulis player. Tall and powerful, he may be right-footed but plays left-back naturally. He’s a steady performer and soon became a popular figure among the fans. There was no way back for Galloway.

Maybe it’s just my bias – I rate Galloway more than I rated Flanagan when he started out – but I think he has a chance at Everton. Ashley Williams, Phil Jagielka, and Leighton Baines are no longer young, so despite the loan failure he may very well get the opportunity to prove himself. And it’s not such a black mark to fall short for Tony Pulis: Serge Gnabry is scoring at will for Werder Bremen and Alex Pritchard looks different class at Norwich City.

 

Lazar Markovič (Hull City, on January loan from Liverpool)
Three in a row from the Capital of Pop, although it just turned out that way alphabetically. Markovič seems to have been on loan forever, although it’s just his second full season. A £20m acquisition back when that number meant something, his pace and dribbling ability certainly make him a natural winger. But not only did he fail to impress at Liverpool, he wasn’t much loved at Fenerbahçe or Sporting CP either.

Enter Hull City, where he’s become an important part of the side, making ten starts in a variety of attacking positions. At times he’s almost been the definition of ‘flattering to deceive’, most often when he tries to go it alone and then shoot instead of pass. He has fewer key passes per 90 minutes than Ahmed Elmohamady, who overall has played farther back.

And yet he’s still worth having in the line-up. He’s the best dribbler in the side, and you can’t teach pace. His defensive work was spotty to start with, but has definitely improved over time, and he’s effective when City press. There’s no question about his drive or commitment, and his follow-up for the opening goal against Watford last week was a fine instinctive response. He may never make it at Liverpool, but if Hull survive, Markovič will rightfully be included in the roster of heroes.

 

Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke City, on season-long loan from Porto)
A huge success for the Potters. He got his first start in week four, and has played all but four minutes of Stoke’s season since then. He’s marked both Romelu Lukaku and Diego Costa completely out of games. A left-sided centre-half, he’s smooth on the ball, passes well both short and long, and generally keeps a calm head.

At the moment he has two weaknesses. First, he can get caught out by following a forward away from the box, leaving space behind. That’s the sort of thing that hopefully will diminish with time. Second, and harder to cure, he’s poor in the air, and always has been. Porto fans regularly complained about that side of his game, and in England so far he’s won only 44% of his headed duels, worst in the league among full-season regulars.

Even so, he’s clearly the club’s best centre-half, well ahead of Ryan Shawcross at this point. Back in March, Mark Hughes was quoted as saying a deal had been agreed with Porto, and it was just a question of agreeing terms with the player. But we’re more than a month on now, and fans and media are understandably getting a bit antsy. Martins Indi has said he wants to stay, but of course the devil is in the numbers. Stoke City need him, and would be foolish not to pay a bit over the odds if necessary.

 

M’Baye Niang (Watford, on January loan from AC Milan)
If you don’t know much about Niang, blame big-club bias from the media. His off-field antics are as colourful as Mario Balotelli’s (his Wikipedia page has a nice summary – my favourite is the plunge off his roof into the swimming pool), and his raw talent may be in that class as well. He’s powerful and pacy, a constant threat to drive past his man and do something remarkable.

Like Cleverley, he’s been a part of the starting line-up at Watford for every game since the end of January, playing on the wing, on the right at first but now on the left. He has two goals and two assists so far, and if you want a taste of his talent, watch the highlights of Watford’s win over Burnley. He shoots from outside the area too often, and not surprisingly isn’t the best defender, but at 22 he has plenty of time to learn.

So far he seems to have been well-behaved off the pitch, and Milan are happy to get rid. Watford have a £13.5m option to sign him to a permanent contract, and everyone seems happy with the idea. In the sort of statement probably first heard from Romulus in his days with FC Tiber, Niang offered: “Now I’d like to think I am a bit more mature, a bit wiser, and I understand more about life and the way things work. These days, I can fall back on my experiences to help me. I can learn from those mistakes.” (It sounds better in Italian.)

Leopards aren’t known for changing their spots, so he may still have some silliness in store, but if he continues to play as well as he has, Watford won’t mind the occasional high dive.

 

Andrea Ranocchia (Hull City, on January loan from Inter Milan)
Another outcast from Italy, but of a very different kind. Ranocchia is your classic veteran defender at 29 years of age. He’s played for five different clubs in Italy, under such diverse managers as Antonio Conte and Claudio Ranieri. He has 129 appearances for Inter, and in 2014/15, he replaced none other than Javier Zanetti as captain when the ageless wonder retired. But in recent months his star had seriously dimmed at the San Siro, both with management and fans.

Hull City, even in a relegation fight, will always be less pressure than Inter, and Ranocchia adapted to the Premier League very quickly. His power and heading ability are just right for English football, and he’s not afraid to go in hard on an opposing striker when challenging for the ball. His aerial prowess also came in handy when he scored the winner from a corner against West Ham in early April. He doesn’t cover as much ground as Harry Maguire, and can be vulnerable when you’re running right at him, but he looks like a player who deserved his eight competitive caps for Italy.

He’s played every minute since the first week in February, and the fans love him. Hull are using more loan players than anyone else in the league right now, but in a recent online poll he got 68% of the vote as the one they’d most like to keep. Even if Hull stay up, though, that may be too much to ask. Although he probably won’t start for Inter again, if he’s in form he’ll have a variety of suitors, and many will be able to pay a higher fee and/or salary. The Tigers will likely have only the memories, but they look to be good ones indeed.

Peter Goldstein

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