7 Premier League players facing a make-or-break end to the seasonIn an unforgiving league, these players from Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and beyond have their careers on a knife-edge. For the next six weeks theyre on an audition they dare not fail
Fabian Delph (Manchester City)
Delph’s prolonged lay-offs have been particularly cruel given their atrocious timing.
Despite two excellent seasons with Aston Villa, the now-27-year-old’s contentious move to City was widely viewed as a pragmatic one on the club’s part, a compromise resulting from Financial Fair Play and a need to fulfil their home-grown quota.
So being denied the opportunity to prove his detractors wrong must have made the long months of rehabilitation all the more frustrating, as the midfielder became a peripheral figure at the Etihad with just eight league starts to his name since July 2015.
Yet a surprise recent recall against Chelsea prompted sincere appreciation from Pep Guardiola and, better still, this was swiftly followed by a commanding display at home to Hull. As reminders go, it’s been timely indeed. Delph’s aim now is a strong end to the season to prove that he belongs in Guardiola’s plans for the next one.
Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)
Two point-blank wonder-saves away at Stoke further established the Belgian’s credentials as Liverpool’s No.1 in the coming weeks – but in truth his ability to pull off such agile stops has never been the problem.
A failure to consistently perform the basics, combined with jittery distribution that spreads panic across the backline, were reasons enough for Jurgen Klopp to spend £4.7m on Loris Karius last May. However, Klopp’s fellow countryman showed similar frailties in a sorry sideshow that briefly threatened to derail the Reds.
Mignolet may well have won the battle of 2016/17, but his redemption is still far from complete. With Klopp insisting he will be sticking with his flawed duo next term, expect the war for the jersey to continue. If Mignolet can consistently keep up his form from the weekend, he’ll go into next season firmly in the driving seat. But a return to old failings and his chances of ever being Liverpool’s settled first-choice keeper suffer a big setback.
Ahmed Musa (Leicester)
Should a support group ever be set up for overseas players who’ve failed to adapt to the frenetic demands of the Premier League, it would be standing room only no matter the size of the church hall. Barring an extraordinary turnaround to a so-far-disappointing debut season, you would expect the 24-year-old Nigerian to be in that number.
Just seven league starts and four goals across all competitions is a woeful return for a club record signing, who arrived with high expectations following several impressive performances for CSKA Moscow against English opposition in Europe.
Being deprived of his preferred central role hasn’t helped matters, while finding your feet in a struggling side is always a doubly difficult task. What’s of far greater concern is that two short cameos from the bench are the sum total of Musa’s contribution to the Foxes resurgence under Craig Shakespeare. If Leicester do continue to rest and rotate players around their Champions League quarter-final, it’s crucial that Musa impresses in whatever opportunity he gets – or he risks becoming a permanent member of that support group.
Jordon Ibe (Bournemouth)
It’s unimaginable pressure faced by an unproven youngster, who’s been signed for a club-record record fee and is intended to represent the second phase of Bournemouth’s progress in the Premier League.
Jamie Redknapp should have taken this into consideration when he squeaked up before the ink was barely dry on Ibe’s move from Anfield and added further, rather unnecessary, expectation on the then-20-year-old. “I think he has more natural ability than Raheem Sterling. Anything Raheem Sterling struggles with, Jordon Ibe can do.” Thanks for that, Jamie.
A promising start soon gave way to toil and ineffectiveness, with Ibe’s need to exhibit individuality conflicting with Bournemouth’s one-for-all team ethic. With Ryan Fraser and the hard-working Marc Pugh having now nailed down the wide positions, Ibe seems consigned to the bench for the moment.
However, there’s potentially good news in the fixture list. After Bournemouth's tough task against Tottenham, they face a series of potentially winnable fixtures (Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Stoke, Burnley and Leicester) to finish off the season. In the quest for wins, Eddie Howe may turn to Ibe more regularly. So he may yet get a chance to turn around his slow first season and score his first goal for the Cherries.
Daley Blind (Manchester United)
On taking charge of a club still in post-Fergie turmoil three years after his retirement, Jose Mourinho inherited a hotchpotch squad made up of signings made by three different predecessors. There’s no question that Blind is very much a Louis van Gaal man. Safe in possession, blessed with astute game intelligence but somewhat lacking in dynamism, the Dutchman has been limited to 16 league appearances this season.
He’s also been employed in no fewer than four positions, once again showing a versatility that seems destined to forever condemn him as a utility player.
Strangely, his most prominent role has been at left-back, the one position guaranteed to expose his shortage of pace – and it is presently anyone’s guess where his future lies. Will he be sold on this summer and ultimately be deemed a failure, or carve out a reputation as United’s new Phil Neville?
He has six weeks of Europa and Premier League football to sway Mourinho’s mind one way or another.
Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)
Beset by yet more injuries, the Welsh midfielder has once again missed chunks of the season at a time when the Gunners really could have benefitted from his stylish probing. The question must now be raised: at what point does Arsene Wenger’s patience run out?
The answer leans towards sooner rather than later, judging by the speculation surrounding a summer bid for Schalke’s Leon Goretzka that’s growing all the time in credence. Should Ramsey find himself usurped after eight years at the Emirates, he can have few complaints. The stats are damning, with just the single league assist this season and no Premier League goal in over a year.
A defining six weeks lies ahead for an undoubtedly major talent who is presently in danger of becoming a faded force.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton)
When the Saints shelled out just shy of £13m for the young Dane last July, many pundits were quick to label it a prized capture – even potentially the signing of the season. Who could blame them? Here was a finely tuned midfielder with Bayern Munich pedigree, who Pep Guardiola had once earmarked to be his Bundesliga Busquets. Granted, he was still a work in progress, but Hojbjerg’s blend of power and finesse made him a possible superstar in the making.
A club player of the month award last August prompted further excitement, but since then the 21-year-old’s trajectory has levelled out; a victim of Claude Puel’s rotation and fitness issues that result in him visibly waning after the 70-minute mark.
A debate over his best position has also accompanied his recent stalling, with many Southampton fans insisting he is most effective when sitting deep in a holding role that Oriol Romeu has locked down at St Mary’s.
However, with Romeu currently suspended, Hojbjerg came into the starting line-up for the 1-0 win against West Brom and could keep his place for the weekend’s match against Manchester City. The Saints’ final seven games should offer intriguing clues as to whether their prince of Denmark is ready to take his throne any time soon.