So, when all is said and done and the log is locked at at the end of May, casual onlookers might ask themselves; what was it all for? Beyond personal pride and all those other sentimental associations we all have of the beautiful game, the answer is simple: money. And with how competitive the Premier League is, a little injection of cash can be the difference between a team slipping into the doldrums of the table, or acquiring the staff and players they need to achieve a top-half finish.
We’ve looked at the title aspirants already, but now we’re going to be assessing the top players at the clubs vying for the 5th and 6th spot that provide Europa League football; the cash injection Holy Grail for most clubs who suspect they may not be getting top 4.
West Ham – Dimitri Payet
The club’s big summer signing turned out to be an excellent buy at £14m, which may sound like pocket change for fans of the well-heeled clubs, but that’s a fortune for sides that aren’t winning trophies every season or playing in European competition that provides some more cash flow. The 28 year old Frenchman was signed from Marseille without too much fanfare from most football fans, but he’s adjusted to the Premier League almost immediately and has 5 goals and 3 assists to his name already, bagging that many goals is quite an achievement from a midfield position. His dribbling ability, creativity and experienced decision-making have seen West Ham create some fantastic runs of play that the Hammers have not been accustomed to recently. While his stats are great, he contributes to the overall attack in more subtle, difficult to explain ways, and helps the forwards click – it’s simply smoother when he’s playing. What is plain to see is that his inclusion adds a measure of quality to the team’s play that is usually only associated with the bigger clubs. Unfortunately he’s sustained a recent knee injury that is likely to sideline him for several months. West Ham will certainly miss his presence, but in Zarate and Lanzini they have options that can step up and hopefully deputize until Payet is fit again.
Southampton – Sadio Mané
Southampton are a club that has coped incredibly well with the phenomenon of promising players being poached by big clubs as soon as they have half a good season. They seem to smoothly replace externally and promote from within the team to adjust to frequent departures, and Sadio Mané is excellent proof of that. His arrival from Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg for a fee of around £12m in the 14/15 season has undoubtedly been one of Southampton’s best additions. In the modern game speed and the ability to counter attack are paramount, and Mané has speed in abundance, along with a strong frame and confident dribbling. He’s not just willing to do the hard running though, his crossing and finishing ability are both impressive and he tends to be quite successful at picking out Southampton’s towering Graziano Pelle with pinpoint crosses. Like West Ham, Southampton are also a club not
generally associated with the zenith of English football, but their smart transfer activity and energetic style means they’re capable of going toe to toe with the Premier League’s elite. At only 23 Mané is likely to be playing at the top level for quite some time for both club and country (Senegal), and his current good form may draw some attention from bigger clubs looking to bolster their attacking options – for a nominal fee, of course.
Crystal Palace – Yohan Cabaye
This was a difficult one, as Palace actually has an abundance of talent at their disposal. Jason Puncheon is one of the most underrated midfielders in the league, Wilfried Zaha is terrorising fullbacks on a weekly basis and Yannick Bolasie is one of the most promising wide players on the other flank. What seems to tie all the individual talent together though is the calm midfield presence of Yohan Cabaye. Formerly of Newcastle, and with a forgettable spell at PSG, he returned to the Premier League and was reunited with former manager Alan Pardew, where he has slotted straight back into the English game. He’s a central midfielder in the mould of Xavi Hernandez, Paul Scholes, or Andrea Pirlo; you might miss his contribution because it isn’t very flashy but you’ll definitely notice a change in the team if he’s absent. Blessed with a great passing range and an instinct that allows him to read the game, Cabaye is there mostly because he can dictate the tempo of his team’s play very well. When it’s prudent to keep the ball he’ll do so, and if it’s time to speed up the play and get it to the wings he’ll deliver. Palace have good quality in most areas of the pitch, and Cabaye’s presence elevates the performance of his teammates because he plays the passes that bring out the best in his fellow players. He doesn’t get too many headlines, but he’s definitely the brain behind Palace’s play.
Everton – Romelu Lukaku
Everton is another team that consists of a group of solid players across a number of positions, so it’s difficult to choose a single name that deserves more credit than his teammates. John Stones at center back, Ross Barkley in midfield and Arouna Koné on the wing have all performed admirably well this season. The reason that I would select Romelu Lukaku is because his nascent ability and physical stature allow for him to involve his fellow attackers and the midfield in the game more than a lot of forwards in the league can. In the Premier League an archetypal center forward needs to be able to finish well first and foremost, but coming a close second his the requirement that he can hold up the ball well and move it on to wingers or central midfielders at the correct time. In a league as physical as England’s you need the physical ability to protect possession; you earn the right to play the game that way. At the moment few center forwards exhibit Lukaku’s strength and presence on the ball, complemented by the fact that he possesses an astute touch considering his bulky 1.9m frame. He also has youth on his side, so his developmental ceiling could be quite high and he has every chance of posting stats that will add him to the upper echelon of Europe’s center forwards.
Liverpool – Philippe Coutinho
Liverpool has had to endure another upheaval after Brendan Rodgers was sacked and Jurgen Klopp introduced at the helm. Through injury and adaptation to the new manager’s style the players have struggled to find a consistent rhythm, with their performances suffering as a result. A few of the new signings have done well, particularly Christian Benteke, but Philippe Coutinho’s creativity has been Liverpool’s most consistent threat on opposition goal. Last season a few remarkable long shots rescued some crucial points for the team, and this season he’s continuing with that good form. His dribbling ability and acceleration allow him to easily float past markers and through the midfield into the final third, where his passing and shooting range usually allow him to either create a chance for a team mate or have an attempt on goal for himself. A lot of players can be allowed space from distance because their shooting accuracy just isn’t that great, but space from distance is a luxury team’s provide for Coutinho at their own peril. This season his best performance probably came against Chelsea, where his prodigious talents were on full display as he secured a brace for himself and all three points for his team. A very cool dummy and curling finish on his weaker foot showcasing his tendency to create and convert his own chances. Once the team are playing as Jurgen Klopp wants them to and both Sturridge and Benteke are fully fit, Coutinho will be assisting and scoring with abandon, and in all likelihood helping Liverpool legitimately compete for a Champions League berth.
We’ve had a look at some of the star players from the Europa League hopefuls, but several of the teams have had more than one among their number that has dug deep and tried to push his side further. Who is your shout as the golden boy for these clubs?