Thiago has concluded a difficult season in fine form for Liverpool. Some players will hope to overcome similar obstacles next campaign.
10) Ryan Fraser (Newcastle)
When Ryan Fraser invited the ire of Keith, 54, Hull by honouring the terms of his Bournemouth contract and subsequently deciding to protect his future employment prospects by not signing a short-term deal to play through a global pandemic, he surely expected the outcome to outweigh the anger. But three separate injury issues later, the winger must be contemplating whether some form of south coast karmic curse has befallen him.
Fraser has started nine Premier League games for Newcastle this season, across no fewer than five different positions: central midfield, left wing, attacking midfielder, second striker and centre-forward. He has been on the winning side just once, and if given the opportunity to guess that match most people would correctly identify Everton at Goodison Park as the exception to the rule of disappointing draws and demoralising defeats. Steve Bruce has given more minutes to Paul Dummett this campaign and Fraser is sliding slowly down the Scotland ladder, but he will hopefully recover from groin surgery well enough to shoulder some of that Allan Saint-Maximin burden in due course.
9) Donny van de Beek (Manchester United)
It seems surreal to think that Donny van de Beek scored Manchester United’s first goal of the season. The Dutchman has not had a single shot in the Premier League since his forlorn strike against Crystal Palace in September, spending the ensuing months sticking pins into his Bruno Fernandes voodoo doll and prank-calling Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at three in the morning but forgetting to withhold his number.
The manager was not particularly impressed when Gary Neville and Patrice Evra started picking holes in what seemed to be a sensible £35m signing from Ajax last summer. But Solskjaer has seemed reticent to actually trust Van de Beek beyond when his hand is forced. The 24-year-old has made as many starts in the Premier League as the League Cup (three), with more in European competition and the FA Cup (both four). The answer, thus far, is irrefutably yes.
8) Jean-Philippe Gbamin (Everton)
‘The first half especially saw Gbamin show off his talents in that holding role, but there is clearly still more to come from the 23-year-old,’ was the Liverpool Echo assessment of Everton’s new £25m midfielder on his first Premier League start. That was in August 2019 and the wait for his second goes on. The score between his different injuries and his appearances for the Toffees in all competitions is tied at 3-3, with quadriceps and Achilles equalising after the latter took an early 2-0 lead, only for knee to level things up almost immediately after a substitute cameo against Crystal Palace in April.
Marco Silva signed him and both Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan have arrived for £20m or so each since, with James Rodriguez further bolstering Everton’s midfield. But Gbamin remains an intriguing prospect whose reputation has been enhanced with each setback. He is gifted enough to meet anticipation and expectation and just needs a not-so-literal break.
7) Gareth Bale (Tottenham)
There are a few sticking points worth considering, among those the managerial futures of Real Madrid and Tottenham, as well as the final whereabouts of Harry Kane. But when the dust settles ahead of next season it seems likely that Gareth Bale will still be enjoying himself in north London.
The only thing stopping his bridge to Madrid being completely burned is the sheer volume of water that has gathered underneath. Recent reports suggest Zinedine Zidane might be stepping down but in many respects it matters not who the coach is; Bale is an enemy of the media and his remarkable achievements in Spain have done nothing to change that. The Welshman is revered in Tottenham and when the Euros is no longer dominating his mind, he might even manage to score against someone currently higher than 13th in the table.
6) Thomas Partey (Arsenal)
The deck was stacked against him to begin with. Thomas Partey joined Arsenal on the last day of the summer transfer window, already four games into the season. His debut came at Manchester City, his next match was against Leicester and the midfielder’s only other Premier League appearances before succumbing to a hip injury in December were against Manchester United, Aston Villa and Tottenham. In these unique times those circumstances would be difficult enough, but the Ghanaian was regularly asked to perform the midfield roles of two players in a troubled team.
If Arsenal wish to get the Partey started then they need to develop a better structure around him. There have been times when he has not helped himself – and Mikel Arteta should probably impose a fine of six months’ wages for shooting from distance – but the midfielder thrived at Atletico Madrid because he was part of a unit that offered constant symbiotic support. Bring in Yves Bissouma and watch them fly.
5) Fabio Silva (Wolves)
It was through no fault of his own that apprentice was thrust into the role of master roughly a year too soon. Fabio Silva was the crown jewel of a Wolves transfer revolution focused on the future, the £35.6m prodigy who was brought in alongside two teenagers in Ki-Jana Hoever and Rayan Ait-Nouri, as well as 20-year-old Vitinha, by a forward-thinking Nuno. That young quartet has played 92 games between them, with Silva accounting for 34 (36.9%) alone.
The Portuguese did not start in the Premier League until December 12 against Aston Villa: the second match after Raul Jimenez fractured his skull. Wolves have used six different players in the centre-forward position since, from loan signing Willian Jose to loan returnee Morgan Gibbs-White. Silva has deputised on more occasions than most and will be better for the experience, although his true ability will be unlocked as foil to an accomplished striker after what must have been a chastening year.
4) Thiago (Liverpool)
As a player who delights in maintaining control, Thiago has understandably struggled as a result of his inability to exert authority over outside forces at Liverpool. His debut was predictably exaggerated as many fawned over his brilliance against a ten-man Chelsea side coached by Frank Lampard before coronavirus delayed his progress. The midfielder returned for the Merseyside derby and thrived but a late tackle from Richarlison sidelined him for 16 games with a knee injury. By the time Thiago returned, Liverpool were cycling through central defensive partnerships with unerring consistency and the 30-year-old had no stable platform upon which to dominate.
Player and club have settled simultaneously. Thiago has been impeccable in recent games and it is no coincidence that Liverpool have a more established team around him, from the inexperienced but compatible pairing of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams to the midfield glue that is Fabinho. That was the obvious solution but it has made it no less effective in this Liverpool revival. Thiago should be even better when battle-hardened by this utter nonsense of a season.
3) Tariq Lamptey (Brighton)
It is no reflection on the 20-year-old to suggest he has disappointed but the immense promise that typified the start to Tariq Lamptey’s campaign was crushed within a couple of months to give way to fears of potential long-term injury issues. The right-back started Brighton’s first nine games, served a one-match suspension, returned for as long before sustaining a thigh problem, came back for another appearance and has been sidelined since with a hamstring complaint that has required surgery and the consultation of a specialist.
Graham Potter confirmed in April that Lamptey is expected back for pre-season training this summer but the hope is that this campaign has not caused any lasting damage, either physical or psychological. England beckons if not. Brighton have managed in his absence and must be patient. It might simply be that such a talented and explosive player needs to be treated with care and precision.
2) Kai Havertz (Chelsea)
Chelsea have a number of players who could benefit from a bout of second-season syndrome. Timo Werner has taken on the mantle of Blues forward whose scrappy goal every four months prompts questions of whether he is back or not, while Hakim Ziyech can hopefully overcome knee and hip problems to show the sort of form that brought him to Stamford Bridge in the first place. Billy Gilmour might even emerge from his teenage years to assume more responsibility under Thomas Tuchel. But Kai Havertz seems most likely to benefit from a difficult transition to England.
The 21-year-old has started half of Chelsea’s Premier League games, most of which were at the confused behest of Frank Lampard. The tactical deployment of Havertz was cited as a specific reason behind the manager’s downfall in January and it never did feel as though there was clarity as to how best to use him. The German international, it should be said, was hit “very hard” after testing positive for Covid but has shown more than a few glimpses of his ability as a centre-forward in Tuchel’s system. Chelsea should at least give him a fair crack before reverting to type and solving a nuanced problem with more money.
1) Ferran Torres (Manchester City)
There was the post-match interview during which Pep Guardiola praised Ferran Torres – slayer of Newcastle with a fine hat-trick – for his “movement” and instincts as a striker, suggesting the Spaniard might help replace Sergio Aguero. “The smell, the strikers know, intuitively where it will arrive,” the manager added, his excitement at Torres potentially possessing that knack visibly washing over him.
A few days later, Guardiola was afforded time to offer some more considered and less emotional thoughts on the player he signed for £20m from Valencia. “The players, like teams, are not a stable situation,” he said. “There is up and down with all players. Ferran was in an incredible mood when he arrived [then] in one period sad, upset with the world, with many situations and that’s why he didn’t play well. When he changed his mind and he was open and he started to smile again – always he played good.”
Guardiola continued discussing the importance of “mood” and “confidence” with Torres, who has seven goals in his last eight games for club and country. If a player can score 12 goals and provide two assists in 23 starts while struggling with his disposition in a uniquely challenging first year not only outside his home country but away from the boyhood club he joined at the age of six, it is frightening to consider what he might achieve when totally settled. And it is also probably worth redefining ‘disappointment’.