F365’s early winner: The anomaly that is Dwight McNeil

Date published: Saturday 22nd February 2020 6:03

It is a rarity for any player to go under the radar for too long in the modern day. In a world where knowledge is power and a sport where power is retweets, most have grainy YouTube highlight reels dedicated to them by their first appearance, are established as indispensable commodities on FIFA or Football Manager even before then, and become gossip column fodder soon after.

That effect is exacerbated further by a number of different factors. A Premier League player is automatically of higher value to a certain group of teams. A Premier League starter even more so. A 20-year-old Premier League starter is the sort courted by the elite, if they are not already a member.

English, too, and in an attacking position? The world stage beckons.

Dwight McNeil is the anomaly. He is the best, most consistent performer for a team with more Premier League wins than Manchester United this season. He has the most minutes of any player aged 20 or under across Europe’s top five leagues this campaign. He is the youngest player since Raheem Sterling to reach ten Premier League assists, accompanying his fifth goal in England’s top flight in a commanding performance against Bournemouth. Yet interest in him is conspicuous by its absence.

There is no secret to his relative anonymity. Sean Dyche is often self-defeatingly insulated when it comes to criticism of his approach or unflattering assessments of the opposition, but even he will attest that being associated Burnley can impact perceptions.

“Possibly,” he said last month when asked if McNeil would get more respect higher up the Premier League ladder. “But on the other hand, he’s getting a lot of football, which at a bigger club he might not, so there’s a balance to that.”

And that is pertinent. It must have had a profound effect on McNeil to be released by United at 14. Standing at a crossroads littered with wasted potential and careers spent in the lower-leagues, he has forged an entirely different path towards the top.

He is a Burnley player in name alone. His through ball to Matej Vydra for the first goal was delightful, his shot that struck Aaron Ramsdale’s post from outside the area sublime, and his ability to carry the ball 30 yards or so before righting that wrong soon after and scoring the third was almost ostentatious.

For a club that prides itself on defensive resolve and being difficult to beat, it was strikingly different.

That caricature of Burnley – as the agricultural lumps carved out of slabs of meat and granite – has always been exaggerated. They play to their strengths, that much is true, but they are more advanced than they are given credit for. This was a resounding if fortuitous victory spearheaded not by Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, but achieved through the deft ingenuity of Vydra and Jay Rodriguez. They had as many shots on target as Chelsea and Tottenham managed between them at Stamford Bridge.

Both sides would benefit for a player of McNeil’s talents. So too would United, whose recent young, hungry and British venture focused on him ever so fleetingly. Even Liverpool and Manchester City could happily accommodate such a unique player.

But McNeil will know that Burnley offer him a platform he might not be afforded elsewhere. He has played European football, battled relegation, threatened the top half and earned international recognition in little over 18 months at Turf Moor. Much like Burnley have quietly embarked on another push towards the Europa League, their biggest talent might prefer whispered praise.

Matt Stead

 

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