We’re pretty sure fans of these players’ clubs are all too aware of how significant their assorted absences have been this season, but for assorted reasons it might not be so obvious to those on the outside.
Maybe it’s because they’re the sort of quietly efficient footballer whose key qualities can go unnoticed or because they got injured so very early in the season everyone else has forgotten about them, or because they’re not that good but far better than the alternative (in some cases, no alternative)…
Rodrigo Bentancur (Tottenham)
Spurs haven’t got much right over the last year or two, but snaffling the Uruguay midfielder and Dejan Kulusevski from Juventus last January definitely qualifies. Kulusevski has reverted to the mean a little this season but before his injury Bentancur was exceptional in an understaffed two-man midfield. Quite how exceptional is becoming clearer with every game he misses through injury. Not only did he quietly and unfussily get through the work of two players, but he also made Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg look much, much better too. So really he was worth two-and-a-half players.
Harry Kane’s absurd goalscoring record in a drab and guileless team remains the primary reason Spurs’ league season isn’t a Chelsea-style catastrophe, but Bentancur’s quiet mastery of midfield was adding further significant buoyancy and they are drowning without it. No stretch to say, given the struggles of others, that if Bentancur had stayed fit then Spurs would be comfortably if still quite bafflingly in the top four right now.
Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
The temptation was always to just sort of shrug and go “Oh well, they have lots of attacking players, it’s not a problem” but his return in recent weeks has highlighted that Firmino is not only better than those other attacking players but also offers something different. Coming on the back of Sadio Mane’s departure, the loss of Firmino served to fully dismantle the front three that had been so terrifying and surely goes at least some way to explaining Mo Salah’s relative funk this season.
With Firmino off for good this summer, it remains something Liverpool need to address: they will not be short of numbers without him, but they will be short of something.
Tyler Adams (Leeds)
The USA midfielder is but one man and can do only so much, with Leeds often deeply shambolic when he has been around. But the numbers when he’s not there shielding a confused and fragile back four are stark. In the 24 Premier League games he’s started, Leeds have conceded a not great but not terrible 36 goals. In the seven games he’s missed, they’ve conceded 24.
Chuck in the whopping 79 goals Leeds shipped last season before signing the American, and it’s fair to conclude he makes quite a bit of difference to the stability and solidity of a team that is catastrophically bad at defending.
We strongly suspect this is one of those ‘surprisingly important’ absences that is only any kind of surprise to those of us on the outside and that Leeds fans knew very well how badly he would be missed and the near-impossible job he was doing.
Armando Broja (Chelsea)
Let’s not pretend that either a) things were going swimmingly or b) he was an integral player before his season-ending cruciate injury, but it seems certain that Chelsea’ increasingly comical failure to include a striker in their January trolley dash would have been at least somewhat mitigated by Broja’s availability. He would have been useful, at the very least.
They probably still wouldn’t have beaten Real Madrid, but they might be in the top half at least. And might not have condemned themselves to the eternity of piss-taking that the Great Return of Frank Lampard has brought down upon them. So there’s that.
Andros Townsend (Everton)
Is he the best player in the world? No. Would he have offered something compelling this season for an Everton side that has tended inexorably toward the drab? Definitely yes.
The latest update on his ACL recovery was a month ago, when Sean Dyche admitted the winger was “not close” to a return; with his contract up this summer it appears likely he’s played his last game for Everton.
And after a year out with an ACL injury the wrong side of 30 it’ll be a brave club that takes a punt on him. Townsend himself is well aware that planning for his future is now necessary; he’s doing his coaching badges and has dabbled in the punditry world. But he’s also eyeing up a more Cantona route.
“Well I am currently thinking: ‘Right, what else is there? What else can I do?’” he said recently. “Maybe it could be football agent work or setting up football training academies. Or even I’ve been thinking something ridiculous about getting acting lessons!”
Sasa Kalajdzic (Wolves)
Not so much that he’s been missed more than expected as we simply have no idea how much he’s been missed. Our hunch is ‘quite a lot’ after the unspeakable cruelty of suffering a cruciate ligament injury on Wolves debut that ended his first season in England before it had really begun.
All the usual caveats about adapting to Our League apply in spades to the unnecessarily tall Austrian, but 22 goals and 11 assists in 51 Bundesliga games for Stuttgart suggests he would have been quite a handy player to have around for a team that has outscored only Southampton, Nottingham Forest and Everton this season and remains on the fringes of an admittedly crystallising relegation picture.