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Five Premier League players with something to prove in 2021/22

For every Premier League footballer a new season is a blank page; a do-over.

If they have an elite mentality then even a brilliant return from 2020/21 won’t matter a jot now. It’s gone, in the past. Instead of self-congratulation there will only be a burning need to prove themselves all over again.

Think of Roy Keane, at the height of his and Manchester United’s powers, scowling at team-mates as they celebrated another title win. For him, all that mattered was starting over afresh.

Similarly, an underwhelming campaign need not define a player because here comes another one; an opportunity to immediately correct some wrongs and show the doubters that last term was merely a blip.

Fairly or otherwise, the five players below were considered flops last year, their reputations tainted. They will be desperate to put that right in the months to come.

Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea)

The Moroccan international was expected to tear into the Premier League when Chelsea shelled out £40m for the winger last year. Potentially, probably even, they had an absolute diamond.

That’s because at Ajax, the 28-year-old had consistently been an assist king, racking up formidable numbers in the Eredivisie, so it was a surprise when Ziyech flattered to deceive with just six goals and four assists in his 39 appearances to date in blue.

Injuries played a part, preventing the star from stringing together a run of games while it also felt like the player needed to get the measure of a different country before wreaking all manner of damage down his favoured right flank. Chelsea fans kept the faith, believing that the best was yet to come and furthermore, it would be worth waiting for.

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It was a mighty cruel blow then when Ziyech struggled off the pitch with a shoulder injury during last week’s Super Cup clash against Villarreal. Just a few minutes earlier he had netted Chelsea’s opener and throughout pre-season the attacker voted the 29th best player in the world as recently as two years ago, looked sharp and dangerous.

Chelsea supporters need to keep the faith all over again.

Donny van de Beek (Manchester United)

The Dutch midfielder’s struggle to make any form of impact at Old Trafford since his £40m move from Ajax needs to be put in context because otherwise, frankly, it’s a head-scratcher.

Firstly, and most fundamentally, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has clearly preferred Fred and Scott McTominay stationed in his centre-circle and a manager favouring one player over another is a story as old as the hills. In that regard, it is irrelevant – to an extent – how well or poorly Van de Beek performs because he will be on the bench the following game regardless.

Does this excuse the 24-year-old? Only partly, because admittedly the player has not done himself justice in the scant game-time he’s been given, looking ineffective and a shadow of the confident box-to-boxer he was in Holland.

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Even so, it remains baffling why Solskjaer okayed Van de Beek’s costly transfer – making him United’s marquee signing last summer and having to deal with all the pressure and scrutiny that comes with that tag – if he doesn’t rate him accordingly.

Context then still eludes us though a possible clue emerged last season when striking legend Marco Van Basten claimed his countryman was ‘big-headed’ and simply assumed he would ‘make it’ in the Premier League. 

For Van de Beek to turn things around he must first be given sufficient chance to do so. Talk of a change of tactics from Solskjaer will give the Dutchman hope that he can finally prove his worth.

Nathan Ake (Manchester City)

The third consecutive ‘flop’ with a Dutch connection, Ake was a Rolls Royce of a defender for Bournemouth who tended to reserve his best games for the biggest occasions so inevitably several leading clubs showed an interest when the Cherries were relegated.

In the event, Man City snagged him in the summer of 2020 for just shy of £41m as Pep Guardiola hoped to overhaul a defence that had undermined his side’s artistic merits once too often the season before.

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When viewed from any angle this was a move that made sense for both parties but a nervy outing against Leicester, as the Foxes accrued a 5-2 away win, hurt his cause from the off and if Ake can be ‘blamed’ for that what came next was beyond his control.

First Ruben Dias arrived, immediately installing himself as team leader and a pivotal figure for the champions-elect. Dias later became the first defender since 1989 to win the FWA Footballer of the Year award. Soon after, John Stones rediscovered the imperious form that prompted City to sign him from Everton in Guardiola’s first window.

It’s left Ake on the periphery, considered a potential liability in comparison to his peers. He is much better than that.

Matt Doherty (Tottenham)

The flying right wing-back was consistently impressive for Wolves, as he thrived under the stewardship of Nuno Espirito Santo. Week after week, the Irishman put in solid showings, quickly gaining a reputation for being one of the most under-rated players in the top-flight while cementing his position in the national side to boot. Just 18 months back, the Guardian described the Dubliner as Wolves’ best player of the 21st century.

Regrettably, that high regard has dipped quite substantially since moving to North London. A bout of Covid has hardly helped matters but neither has a series of performances that pale to the Doherty of old. Offensively impotent and too often easily beaten, at times he has been unrecognizable.

No player then must have celebrated the arrival of Nuno to Spurs this summer more than Doherty. Under a manager who knows him inside-out, there can be no more excuses and a resurgence beckons.

Thiago Alcantara (Liverpool)

The classy Spanish international was supposed to be the final piece in Jurgen Klopp’s midfield jigsaw when he joined from Bayern Munich for a cut-price £25m in September last year. To the surprise of many, however, he just didn’t seem like a neat fit.

After testing positive for Covid with his velvet boots barely through the doors at Melwood, things exacerbated quickly when a horror tackle by Richarlison in a tempestuous derby left him out of action for two months.

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On his return, the 30-year-old’s involvement in seven defeats across seven miserable weeks had some damning the silky schemer as a curse and with his costly fouls and even – most shocking of all – misplaced passes factored in too, it began to feel like the four-time La Liga winner was a vanity purchase.

Yet, while his struggles were widely reported, a distinct improvement towards the tail-end of the campaign went relatively unnoticed and with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson back alongside him in the centre we can surely expect that renaissance to continue.

Read – Second time’s the charm – Five players who returned to their boyhood clubs with a point to prove

Read Also – Our writers’ Premier League predictions for the 2021/22 season

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