Jack Grealish’s recent contract extension is the latest example of a growing trend in the Premier League. The Villa captain, along with a number of other very talented players, represents a certain type of maverick who can be found outside of the top six which, in theory, should make the league more competitive.
Given how the type of contracts these players are on (Grealish is on a reported £125k-per-week) and how much money they are worth to their clubs (think of Crystal Palace pricing Wilfried Zaha at around £100m), such talents aren’t as easily captured by those in the upper echelons of English football. In the past, we may have seen burgeoning talents such as Shaun Wright-Phillips, David Bentley and Ashley Young hoovered up by the big boys but, thanks to the influx of cash across the division, that looks to be a thing of the past - at least in the short-term.
Perhaps these players may not be as ruthlessly efficient as some of the seasoned-veterans spearheading title and European charges for the top six but isn’t football supposed to be fun? Sometimes good players delighting fans who aren’t lucky enough to march in trophy parades is a nice enough story without forcing them into a big move.
Still, a bit of competition is a good thing and with so much talent available amongst the other 14 clubs, here’s how these Premier League mavericks rank.
10) Pablo Hernandez
Pablo Hernandez’s return to the Premier League hasn’t really got going yet due to niggling injuries but, given how important he was to Leeds last season, it’s hard to ignore him. Back in the big time, the Whites have given both Liverpool and Manchester City great games with their relentlessly attacking style and the Spaniard will only make them better.
Having proven he can cut it at this level during his time with Swansea, the 35-year-old’s Indian Summer in the Championship saw him lead the way for the Whites in terms of key passes per game (2.3) and assists (9) should have fans licking their lips for when he gets back up to speed.
Able to conjure something up out of nothing, the fact he’s likely to make Leeds better is a mouth-watering prospect.
9) Moussa Djenepo
There were flashes of Moussa Djenepo’s brilliance for Southampton last season with his goals against Brighton and Sheffield United pointing to a player able to either dribble his way past a defence or simply force his way through before unleashing a powerful shot. Still, injuries got in the way and he eventually lost his place in what was otherwise a fairly settled starting XI.
This season, however, the Mali international looks to be giving the Saints a different dimension. Probably the most explosive player at the club, his 1.5 dribbles per game is only bettered by one player in red & white and, now he’s free from injury, could go some way into proving early comparisons with a certain Sadio Mane were not wide of the mark.
8) Matheus Pereira
West Brom may not have been given much of a chance this season by pundits but, even this early, Matheus Pereira looks like he belongs in the Premier League. A revelation in the Championship with 16 assists, the jump up doesn’t look to have dulled his ability to operate at this level, despite the fact the Baggies might be struggling as a whole.
He’s averaging over one key pass per game, already creating goals (2) and scored an absolutely delightful free-kick against Everton, suggesting he’s capable of playing in the Premier League whether it be with his current side or not.
7) Pablo Fornals
Fornals’ first season at West Ham may have been a fairly miserable experience but, alongside Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen, the Spaniard is helping form a front three capable of scoring past any one on their day.
Leicester and Wolves have recently fallen foul to West Ham’s new-look side and the Spanish U21 international is seemingly finally finding his form. One goal and two assists in four games so far suggest the kind of technical skill we saw during his leading role for La Roja’s U21 European Championship win is finally being paired up with end product and his touch against the Foxes in the weekend just gone before racing through speaks to a player of supreme quality.
West Ham have wasted a lot of money over the years but Fornals could prove to be a relative snip at a reported £24m if he keeps this up.
6) Daniel Podence
What must have made Diogo Jota’s move to Liverpool all the easier to swallow for Wolves fans was the presence of the excellent Daniel Podence. Signed in January 2020, the Portuguese has taken to his new starting role like a duck to water, registering two assists in his first two games of the season.
Podence was the second-fastest recorded Wolves player last season and, given his ability to assist his teammates seemingly growing this season (he didn’t register one in his first six months) looks to be an attacking option who can mirror another star at the club and a man we will soon mention.
5) Allan Saint-Maximin
Newcastle’s wildcard. Clearly, the Mike Ashley era has been miserable for pretty much everybody but perhaps the best move the Magpies have made in recent years has to have been the deal to bring this Gucci-headband-wearing winger to St. James’ Park.
He’s helped out at local food banks, responded to Sunderland fans on Twitter and, above all else, thrilled those on Tyneside. Granted, his goals and assists record (three and four in total) could do with some work but they don’t tell the whole story. While better reading, 4.7 dribbles per game don’t either.
What Newcastle fan can forget the mazy run that led to Matty Longstaff’s winner against Manchester United almost a year ago now? Or the almost single-handed destruction of West Ham United? Already this season, he’s taken Burnley apart.
A maverick in the truest sense of the world.
4) Adama Traore
Remember the Adama Traore of Aston Villa and Middlesbrough? A FIFA player’s dream, the former Barcelona academy graduate lacked the kind of end product necessary to help pull both of those teams out of the relegation mire.
Well, a combination of his natural skill, athleticism and some excellent coaching from Nuno Espirito Santo has seen Traore’s game sky-rocket to the point where he’s been linked with big money moves to the likes of Liverpool. The baby-oiled Spanish powerhouse lead the way in terms of dribbles per game last season (7.3) and saw his goal involvements rise significantly,
Able to operate as either a right-wing-back or a more natural wide man, Traore is a tactically versatile attacking weapon of ever-rising quality.
3) Jack Grealish
Jack Grealish is a joy to watch. An Aston Villa fan through and through, the club captain led the way in terms of goal contributions last season for the Midlands giants and, perhaps more impressively, also when it came to key passes, shots and dribbles per game. Indeed, he largely carried his boyhood charges at the highest level.
Now an England international and having recently helped destroy Liverpool, the fact Grealish is now surrounded by the likes of Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traore should - in theory - take the pressure off him to create everything and free him up somewhat.
As it proved on Sunday’s demolition of the English champions, that is a dangerous prospect for the rest of the league.
2) Wilfried Zaha
While last season wasn’t Zaha’s best at Palace following ill-fated transfer chases from Everton and Arsenal, the Ivory Coast international is looking back to his best this time around.
Maturing his game under Roy Hodgson, Zaha’s transition into a genuine line-leading-striker is helping the Eagles’ evolution. Of course, he’s certainly still capable of turning opposition full-backs inside and out but - a bit like Grealish up at Villa Park - now has a supporting cast to allow him to take his game to the next level.
Praised for his role as a central striker in the club’s win over Manchester United at Old Trafford a few weeks ago, the growing maturity only adds to his status as a maverick given he can now help dismantle teams from a number of positions.
1) James Rodriguez
Why did Real Madrid ever get rid of this man?
James Rodriguez is the poster boy of Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton revolution and has helped the Toffees climb atop the Premier League by creating four big chances already (behind only Harry Kane) and registering two assists along the way. Throw in his three goals and his debut season is certainly looking like it could go down in Premier League history should he keep up this production.
Clearly, there’s a lot of football still to be played but the Colombian is hardly an unknown entity who just happens to be hitting a purple patch. A seasoned star of the game, he’s won league titles in Portugal, Spain and Germany as well as the Champions League twice, so Everton know they’re getting the finished product. A maverick in that he’s neither really a right-winger or a No.10 and, as he proved against West Brom, someone who isn’t at all bothered in sprinting, his pedigree makes him the best the league has to offer outside of the top six despite the fact he’s only been playing in it for a number of weeks.
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