There seems to be a pattern emerging in recent times with the development of talented English footballers. It all begins with a realisation that a certain individual has the potential to be a top player, followed by either a big-money move or a significant contract being offered and signed by that potential star.
Once the contract is signed, the English player often gives a handful of excellent performances for his club and is subsequently called into the national side where they show a lot of promise in friendly games or tournament qualifiers.
Then the media hype and scrutiny increases as does fan expectation and, in many recent cases, that young promising English player goes through a plateau in his career that can make or break his future in the game. Take, for example, two players from United’s city rivals: John Stones and Raheem Sterling.
Both players burst onto the scene at their former clubs (Everton and Liverpool respectively) and were subjected to enormous hype before they were transferred to Manchester City for a combined fee of around £100 million.
Stones, having been touted by former players in the media as England’s most promising and talented footballing centre-back for a number of years, has regressed to the point where he looks uncomfortable on the ball and is consistently making errors on the pitch that are costing his team. If you were to compare Stones to some WinTingo real scratch off tickets, he’s been the equivalent so far this season to winning £1 every few scratch cards – the return just hasn’t been there.
Sterling has also stalled in his career and is in danger of slipping into the list of talented English players who started brightly but failed to make the grade at the very top level.
Ross Barkley is another name worth highlighting as a player with, as yet, unfulfilled potential. Having been given the mantle, which ultimately translates to a curse, of being England’s new Paul Gascoigne or Wayne Rooney, Barkley has struggled to hit the heights that many had predicted for him.
United have two such players currently in their squad who are suffering, or have suffered, the same fate as the players mentioned above.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were both brought to Old Trafford with burgeoning reputations in 2010 and 2011 respectively, with Smalling arriving from Fulham for a fee believed to be around the £10 million mark and Jones costing roughly £17 million. Just like going on to Wintingo online casino for a few spins, it looked like United had gambled correctly on a superb pair of defensive prospects.
Both players had been performing well for their former clubs and were quickly snapped-up by Alex Ferguson who had identified them as players who would serve United well in the future once the defensive partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand had run out of steam.
Jones, who arrived to United at the age of 18, has been put under immense pressure since his move, with Ferguson in 2012 stating that Jones could be a future United captain, while club legend Bobby Charlton also added to the hype by making a comparison between Jones and Duncan Edwards.
Sadly, the Preston-born centre-back is yet to fulfil his potential as he enters into his sixth year at Old Trafford.
This can be put down to a number of factors, one of these being the possibility that he might not have the footballing ability to become better than he is already, but there are other reasons to consider.
Jones has suffered a number of injuries throughout his career and has only recently managed to overcome these problems. In spite of the injuries, Jones has become a key part of Jose Mourinho’s back four since he made his return back in November 2016 after almost ten months.
The United No.4 has also suffered because of his versatility as a player. Jones has played at right-back, centre-back, defensive-midfield and central-midfield for both club and country and this is certainly a contributing factor to Jones’ lack of development in his career so far.
At just 24 and with him finally getting a run of games in one position, it is hoped that he can continue his good form and progress and develop into a trustworthy United performer. While Phil Jones has gone from regressing in his career to finally beginning to progress, Smalling has taken the opposite road.
After a standout season for the club in 2015-16, it was widely expected that the 27 year-old would go on to cement his place as a consistent performer for United this season.
Under Louis van Gaal, Smalling flourished and had his best season for the club since he arrived in 2010 from Fulham.
This season, however, has not gone to plan and it is clear that he is struggling for form.
In the EFL Cup semi-final against Hull on Thursday, United were poor but Chris Smalling’s below average performance stood out amongst the others. Wayward passes, panicked clearances and poor defending were the order of the day for Smalling who last season looked assured in possession and cool under pressure.
It would not be unfair to suggest that United are in need of at least one centre-back in the summer window and this could mean that there are too many players for two positions, meaning that there is a possibility, considering the resurgence in form of both Jones and Rojo, that Smalling could be frozen out.
Smalling took a giant step forwards last season, but has taken at least four or five steps back this year leaving him a lot of work to do to get back to the standards he set himself in the previous season. Jones and Smalling are currently heading in different directions at United, with Jones currently progressing under Mourinho and Smalling seemingly going backwards.
The pressure and expectation placed upon United players is enormous and the fact that they are both English means that there is increased scrutiny in the Premier League. Smalling in particular must strive for the form that he was in last season, if he is unable to find it then his United future looks bleak.
Jones must continue on in his upward trajectory and aim higher to push himself towards that potential that Ferguson and Charlton once saw in him, ignoring the hype and working on his own game.
English players will always come under scrutiny and will forever be subjected to over-the-top criticism (just ask Wayne Rooney), but these individuals have to find a way to ignore it and to progress as players to silence the doubters. Jones and Smalling are not the only ones.