Ask any knowledgeable football fan which teams they consider to be among the greatest sides of all times and chances are that the discussion will revolve around the greatest players on those teams. Whilst star players such as Zidane, Pele, and Maradona are spoken of with reverence among the fans, hardly do we ever attribute the success of great sides to the contributions of lesser known players. For example, the Czech national team’s success at the Euro 2004 is usually attributed to the team’s most skilled players.
With Petr Čech in goal, Koller and Baros leading the attack and Pabed Nedved in the center of midfield acting as the heartbeat of the team, players such as Rosicky and Poborsky were hardly recognized at the time despite the fact that it was their industry and hard work in the middle of the field that ensured that the team was never over-run in the middle thus ensuring possession. These unsung heroes were equally responsible for the brief reign the Czech football team had at Euro 2004 as they captured the attention of the football world with the beautiful attacking football.
This phenomenon rings true in the English Premier league and in this article, I aim to identify and discuss two candidates from the teams that finished in the top 6 in the just ended 2012/2013 EPL season that are deserving of their club’s Most Undervalued Player [MUP] award. Without these players’ contributions, their teams would most likely have missed out on a top 6 position. This article, the 2nd of a three-part series, discusses the MUP candidates for Arsenal F.C. [who finished 4th] and Chelsea F.C. [who finished 3rd]. And now ladies and gentlemen, I present your MUP candidates for the aforementioned clubs.
Candidate #1: Theo Walcott
The issue of whether he is best used as a striker or as a winger is irrelevant to our discussion. The simple fact is that he was the Gunner’s top creator-in-chief. His combined assists and goals for the season stands at 24 [14goals/10assists]. Compared to the Emirates stadium favorite Spaniard, Santi Cazorla who had 12 goals and 11 assists [23 in total], it makes you wonder just why the young Englishman is never talked about in the same breath as Carzola. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the media and fans had huge expectations for the then 17yr old who transferred to Arsenal in January 2006. His fate was sealed after the team’s talisman, Frenchman Thierry Henry left before the start of the 2008/09 season and he was assigned Henry’s now vacant number 14 shirt.
Walcott’s fatal flaw is that he never quite lived up to the legend he was destined to replace. I nominate him as his team’s leading MUP because for all his goals and offensive contributions, most Arsenal fans still regard the 24year old as their club’s worst player. Yes, his passing leaves a lot to be desired and his decision making in the offensive third has left many a Gooner pulling out their hair in sheer frustration. For a player to constantly perform under the pressure of being the next club legend and continually be unappreciated for his efforts, Walcott displays a strength of character that is not associated with him at first glance. He has been a first team member of the Arsenal team for 7 seasons now and whilst his potential and talent has not yet propelled the Gunners to the top of the EPL table in recent memory, it would be unfair and a shame to the beautiful game to deny Walcott his due. Arsenal has consistently been in the top 4 since the last time they won EPL title in the 2003/04 season.
Perhaps history will judge Walcott more favorably but that is a long way from now. Arsenal’s leading MUP candidate is 24yrs, young by football standards and he is approaching his peak as a player. To any Gooner out there, are you brave enough to continue to believe in the potential Walcott possesses?
Candidate #2: Mikel Arteta
Signed from Everton before the start of the 2011/12, the then 29yr old Spaniard’s transfer to Arsenal was a stark departure from the coach’s traditional transfer policy of signing talented, young footballers. Wenger’s decision to buy the rugged Spaniard left many confused as the team’s pressing need at the time was to replace arguably the EPL’s best attacking midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Oh, and did I mention that Fabregas was Arsenal’s captain for 3 seasons? It was always going to be a tall order for Arteta to make Gooners forget about their captain. In his 2 full seasons at Arsenal, there are some similarities between both players that have gone some way of relieving the pain of losing Fabregas.
As a defensive midfielder, Arteta’s crossing and passing is at par with the best players. In 34 appearances this season, he achieved a 91.5% passing success rate. From his defensive position, Arteta also managed to chip in 6 goals and 3 assists. He is also adept at holding on to the ball, a pre-requisite for a player of his trade. He led his teammates in interception and tackles with a total of 97 interceptions [2.9 per game] and 108 tackles [3.2 per game] this season. With a whopping 2750 passes completed, Arteta has been the engine and easily one of the influential players at the North-London club. His intelligent movement and ball interceptions closes down spaces opposition teams might attempt to exploit whiles his accurate crossing and killer passes allows the Arsenal midfield to launch attacks against the opposition’s defense.
This MUP candidate has been his team’s most consistent player throughout this season and though his role within the team has been understated [and arguably, undervalued] his presence in the team and composure on the ball was most vital in helping Arsene Wenger’s charges finish 4th in the 2012/13 EPL season.
Outside Shot: Kieran Gibbs
As this is Arsenal I am discussing, it is only fair that the outside candidate represents the values that have come to embody Wenger’s tenure as coach of the North-London club. In a team brimming with talent, the decision was made easier by the fact that as this stated in the first article of this 3-part series, this discussion is focusing on players that are undervalued. In the 23yr old Kieran Gibbs, Wenger has unearthed a left-back with a high potential season. In what has been his full-fledge campaign, he featured 23 times with 4 substitute appearances. In his position as a left-back, the young Englishman has been able to chip in with 3 assists.
He is fast and developing a knack for crossing the ball as he bombards forward to join in the attack. Gibbs is second only to Arteta when it comes to tackling [76 tackles all season] and is third among his teammates when it comes to intercepting the ball, standing at 2.4 per game. Nacho Monreal was signed during the January transfer window to provide competition for the young left-back. He is unlikely to start as many games as he did this season as Wenger is more likely to defer to Monreal’s experience but he if this season is anything to go by, this young Gooner should be filed under ‘one-to-watch’.
Candidate #1: Frank Lampard
In a season where many pundits and newspapers were expecting Lampard to go ‘retire’ in the MLS, the old dog showed that he had life in him as he continued his enviable record of scoring 10+ goals every season as a midfielder. Simply, Lampard is good for ar LEAST 10 goals every season. His past performances justify that assertion and if his 2012/2013 season outing is anything to go by, Lampard can continue to provide valuable leadership and experience so long as new ‘old’ manager, Mourinho effectively manages his minutes for next season. He is one of the few Chelsea players whose appeal transcend club loyalties. His free-kicks are as good as any of the world bests and his trademark long range shot were bettered only by C.Ronaldo and Paul Scholes and until recently Gareth Bale. Not a bad group to belong to if you ask me.
In the era where clubs reward their longest serving players with backroom positions such as Director of football [See Zidane at Real Madrid], Lampard is arguably the most deserving among current players. John Terry, the only other viable option has too much baggage with him and will be a controversial choice. It is entirely possible that this is Lampard’s last season. What is for certain is that he is his clubs most underrated player and the 10+ goals that he will score next season will be further testament to his value.
Candidate #2: David Luiz
Whiles credit has to be given to Rafa Benitez for moving the Brazilian center-back up-field to play as a defensive midfielder, the player himself showed initiative to take advantage of his coach’s new system. The shaggy-haired defender has come a long way from Gary Neville’s ‘Playstation jibe’ during his debuts. Just to refresh your memory, SkyTV pundit Gary Neville surmised that Luiz runs around as if he is being controlled by a 10year old with a Playstation controller. He has made significant strides since then as he has adjusted to the pace of the EPL.
This season, he made 8 appearances in the defensive midfield position and his performances have been spectacular to say the least. Freed from defensive responsibilities as a DCM [defensive central midfielder], David Luis chipped in 2 goals and 2 assists last season. And all Blue fans will remember those goals. Luiz’s goals are more often than not spectacular and usually cap of one of his marauding run from the back. He averaged 1.5 tackles per game last season and was responsible for 2.4 interceptions.
With club Captain John Terry not playing for much of the season and Gary Cahill not finding form for most of the season, Luiz practically marshalled the defense and one could argue he filled the symbolic role J.T. filled as Captain Chelsea. Expect Luiz to be made Chelsea captain within the next 5years should he maintain his form AND stay at Stamford Bridge. He still has some ways to go, he committed a total of 41 fouls and as the clubs premier central defender, Luiz is of no use if he gets himself suspended for important games. For his consistency and show of passion on the field when lining up for Chelsea, Luiz deserves his spot as Chelsea’s 2nd candidate for the Most Undervalued Player.
Outside Shot: Rafa Benitez
WAIT! HEAR ME OUT!!!
It has been an obvious goal of the Chelsea Russian owner to have team play beautiful attractive football but most importantly, to dominate Europe. Roberto Di Mateo delivered on both accounts but Abromovic was ruthless in firing him when he failed to come good this season. Leading the past European champions to crash out of the Champions league was reason enough to see Di Matoe packing. In comes probably the most hated ‘interim-manager’ in the history of football. Rafa was never given a chance at Chelsea—He never had the support of the fans, players or the owner.
But somehow, he led Chelsea to a top 4 finish, managed to capture a trophy and most importantly got Chelsea to stop leaking goals. He also has to be credited for Lampard’s late resurgent of form and his decision to move the defender who plays like he is controlled by a 5-yr old on a play station [paraphrasing Gary Neville] upfield where he was quite an accomplished defensive midfielder.
With Mourino finally back at Stamford Bridge, rest assured his brief tenure will be relegated to the footnotes of Chelsea history. Most Blue’s fans are attempting to forget he ever managed them, perhaps this MUP award is an opportunity to recognize the solid foundation Benitez managed to establish and reward him for stabilizing the Blue ship that the Special One has now returned to take command of. For a man who accepted a doomed position where he was set up to fail, with no support and never received encouragement or thanks from the fans, players or the owner, an MUP award might go some way to reward his efforts.
Make sure to leave your comments and suggestions for players that you would have nominated. Keep reading SoccerSoul as I continue the countdown looking at the Manchester Clubs most underrated players.