Chelsea target Luke Shaw and three other young Saints to watch

Chelsea are reportedly lining up a £4m bid for Luke Shaw

Chelsea are reportedly lining up a £4m bid for Luke Shaw

There has been no shortage of top class talent coming through the Southampton academy in recent years, with Arsenal & England wingers Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tottenham’s former PFA player of the year Gareth Bale and former Chelsea full back Wayne Bridge developing their game on the South Coast. It’s no surprise then that Champions League winners Chelsea have been strongly linked with Southampton’s latest wonderkid Luke Shaw.

The national press are linking Chelsea with a £4million bid for Shaw, and Manchester City and Arsenal have also reportedly expressed an interest, but it will take something special for Southampton to relinquish one of their brightest young talents. Manager Nigel Adkins and chairman Nicola Cortese have insisted that he is not for sale and, as one of the richest clubs in English football following a takeover by the late Swiss billionaire Markus Liebherr in 2009, there is no pressure for the club to sell – especially as they are back in the Premier League after seven years outside the top flight.

But can the 16-year-old attacking left back be the next Gareth Bale or make the same sort if impact that Alex Chamberlain did at Arsenal 12 months on? Here is a lowdown on Shaw’s star potential and three other Southampton youth players to watch out or over the next few seasons.

Luke Shaw

There is no doubt that 16-year-old Luke Shaw is the most sought-after player in Southampton’s latest generation of talented players at the moment. And, despite only making one senior appearance for Saints last season, it is clear to see why the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City want to snap him up now before he bursts on to the professional scene with a string of first team games.

He has been a regular in Jason Dodd’s Under-18 side since the age of 15, and his rapid progression through the youth ranks was rewarded with two call ups to the England Under-16’s team in 2011. He is now a regular in the Under-17’s international team, having made 8 appearances.

Shaw is an attacking full back with bundles of pace, good set piece delivery and an eye for goal, having scored three times from left back in Southampton’s successful Under-18 side, and he’s been promoted to the first team squad ahead of Saints’ comeback season in the Premier League.

He featured in the Saints squad in Cup matches against Coventry, Preston North End and Millwall last season and he will undoubtedly want to follow in the footsteps of Tottenham star Gareth Bale and former England international Wayne Bridge by making a name for himself on the left side of Southampton’s defence.

James Ward-Prowse

James Ward-Prowse

James Ward-Prowse

Arguably Southampton most impressive academy graduate of the 2011-12 campaign was 17-year-old central midfielder James Ward-Prowse, who was subsequently awarded Young Player of the Year at the club’s end of season celebrations.  Also an England Under-17 international, Ward-Prowse made two starts for the senior team and he impressed on both occasions. Despite Saints being defeated in the last 16 of the Carling Cup, thanks to two late goals from Crystal Palace, Ward-Prowse earned praise from Southampton boss Nigel Adkins for his composed performance in the middle of the park. He scored his first senior goal in a 2-1 win over Coventry in the FA Cup and featured on the bench on a few occasions.

He’s quite small I stature, but he makes up for it with great energy and a superb passing range. His composure and ability to recycle possession certainly helps him fit in to Southampton’s style of play, and he is probably the most likely academy player to break in to the first team frequently this season.

Calum Chambers

Calum Chambers

Calum Chambers

Along with Shaw, Ward-Prowse and former Plymouth youngster Jack Stephens, Calum Chambers was also promoted to the first team squad after Saints gained promotion to the Premier League in April.

He’s another exciting talent, and another player who features in the England Under-17 set up, but he still seems to have crept in to Nigel Adkins’ long-term first team plans under the radar, as he is the only academy graduate in Saints’ first team who didn’t feature in the first team last season.

He’s a tall and talented winger who offers great creativity and a quality final product going forward. He featured regularly in Southampton’s Under-18’s team that finished ahead of the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Premier League Academy Group A and contributed seven goals from out wide. He also scored the only goal in England Under-17’s 1-0 win over Ukraine in March, and has added a further two goals in just 6 appearances for the side.

Jake Sinclair

Jake Sinclair

Jake Sinclair

Every good team needs a clinical goal scorer, and the Southampton Under-18s talisman last season was 17-year-old forward Jake Sinclair. Brother of Swansea striker Scott Sinclair, Jake banged in 25 goals in 29 appearances last term – an impressive record at any level. Much like his brother, he’s got pace to burn, he’s tricky, likes to run with the ball and is a clinical finisher. There are Premier League goals in his family already, and Jake has the potential to follow in his brother’s footsteps and score goals at a high level.

He’s not gained the same sort of recognition at international level as his academy team-mates Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse and Calum Chambers, but a strong season with the academy and Under-21 development squad could encourage Saints boss Adkins to call on the pacey forward for cup matches in the upcoming campaign.

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End of a new beginning? Why this season is vital for the English Iniesta

Jack Wilshere: A future England captain according to Cesc Fabregas

Jack Wilshere: A future England captain according to Cesc Fabregas

This time last year, England fans were whetting their appetite of the prospect of the having an intricate artist of Tiki-Taka football emerging on their shores. He made a huge impact for a title-challenging side and produced a man-of-the-match display as his side stunned the pass-masters Barcelona in the Champions League.

Wind the clock twelve months forward though, and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere hasn’t played a competitive game in over a year, and all that promise and magnificent talent seems all too distant at the moment. An ankle injury forced him to watch the entire 2011-2012 season from the sidelines, and a knee injury flared up to provide a further setback to his recovery.

He is now a doubt to start the 2012/13 campaign, and many Arsenal and England supporters will be hoping for a return to the level that saw him labelled as England’s next big star.

Wilshere was always touted for a successful career during his academy days, starring in reserve games, scoring fantastic goals and orchestrating play in the middle of the park. After a successful loan spell at Bolton Wanderers in the 2009/10 campaign, he toughened up and showed his outstanding ability to control games as a box-to-box midfielder and playmaker.

What followed would wow lovers of the English game and give them a new ray of hope amongst a great deal of criticism that followed a dismal 2010 World Cup campaign. Wilshere made more senior appearances than any other Arsenal midfielder in the 2010/11 season, earned the PFA Young Player of the Year award and proved instrumental in a Gunners side that looked to be challenging for three trophies until a bitterly disappointing Carling Cup Final defeat at the hands of Birmingham City.

His ability to retain the ball under intense pressure, find killer passes and make play flow with clever one-twos and slide rule passes was the closest many had seen to a replacement for former England international Paul Scholes, and perhaps the closest England had to a Xavi or Andres Iniesta-like player who can dominate games with the famous Spanish brand of ‘Tiki-Taka’ football.

Wilshere broke in to the English international team, making five appearances and looking fit to wear the shirt, but the real acid test came against Barcelona, where he played alongside soon-to-be Catalan player Cesc Fabregas in midfield, and was under massive pressure to stand his own against the most dominant midfield in world football.

Thinking big: Wilshere broke in to the England team last year

Thinking big: Wilshere broke in to the England team last year

Just 19 at the time and playing in his first Champions League knockout phase, you could forgive the prodigious talent for feeling the nerves of the occasion. But, despite Barcelona taking the early initiative and going 1-0 up with a David Villa strike, WIlshere wasn’t just going to lie down. He took the game by the scruff of the neck and, even though he had a World Cup winning playmaker alongside him, it was Wilshere himself who took the game to Barcelona, proved pivotal in Arsenal turning the match around and turned the most heads in a fine 2-1 victory at the Emirates. If there wasn’t any doubt already, a star was born.

If he does get back to his best this season, he will surely get even better and develop into a future England captain – a man who can inspire this transitional crop of England internationals to try and challenge for top honours and compete with the world’s big boys.

Even Cesc Fabregas claimed that Wilshere was a future England captain, and this was something that slightly softened the blow of his departure from the North Londoners last summer.

He’s a unique player, as far as English football goes. While the current England team are grinding out results and proving doubters wrong in this summer’s Euro 2012, Roy Hodgson’s side do seem to miss a player who can control the ball in midfield, boost possession and take the game to opponents frequently. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker have been fantastic in this year’s European Championships, but they are both over 30 and players like Jack Wilshere will be called upon in the near future.

For the sake of the beautiful game, and the English game, it will be a huge shame if Wilshere suffers further setbacks and doesn’t fully recover from a blip in what has been an extremely promising start of his career. On the flipside, if he gets back to match fitness, he will be mentally stronger for this experience, and he could yet be England’s next Andres Iniesta. Sure, it’s unlikely that England will ever emulate Spain’s incredible wealth of talent or style of play, but a fully fit Jack Wilshere could be just the man to take this country forward.

This piece was written for the Own Goal Podcast. Click here for the link.

It’s also been published by online magazine Sabotage Times. Click here to read more.

Tri-Pole Trouble: Dortmund lease of life for Euro 2012 hosts

Pole Position: Dortmund star Robert Lewandowski leads the line for Poland

Pole Position: Dortmund star Robert Lewandowski leads the line for Poland

Nothing quite compares to the euphoria and the excitement that gathers as a nation unites in patriotic pride when a major football tournament comes around. Often, this can be the birthing pool of national heroes that make a name for themselves, and often it can be the scene of a great underdog story as the hosts exceed all expectations – punching above their weight against the heavyweight champions fighting for the title on their home turf.

This summer, Poland and Ukraine go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite in their own respective backyards as joint-hosts of Euro 2012. Despite the disappointment for co-hosts Austria and Switzerland four years earlier, the home teams generally have a strong record of progressing to the knockout stages – and it could be the Poles who axe some of the favourites this time round.

Poland are only competing in their second European championship – a surprise considering a golden era in the 70s and 80s for the country, which resulted in third place finishes at the 1974 and 1982 World Cups respectively  – so they’re enjoying their best years as a footballing nation for a couple of decades. They have made it to three of the last four major tournaments, including this summer’s European Championships, but this will be their best chance of progression to the knockout stages yet.

The nucleus of Poland’s squad has developed considerably since failing to make it past the group stages four years ago. With the safe-hands of Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny and a trio of Bundesliga-winning Borussia Dortmund players, Franciszek Smuda’s men have the ability to cause a surprise or two. A recent 0-0 draw against Portugal and a win over Latvia suggest that they come in to the tournament with a bit of form as well.

Number One: Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny has been in fine form this term

Number One: Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny has been in fine form this term

While Szczęsny and Polish compatriot and second choice keeper Łukasz Fabiański have plied their trade in the Premier League for a few seasons now, it is their Bundesliga-based trio who have made the biggest stir this season.

Dortmund, under the guidance of charismatic boss Jürgen Klopp, pipped Champions League finalists Bayern Munich to the league title for the second consecutive season and defeated Bayern 5-2 in the German Cup Final to round off a great season. Much of their success has been down to the influence of their Polish contingent, despite plenty of top German talent at their disposal.

Robert Lewandowski, who is being linked with a big money move to Manchester United this summer, scored 30 goals to fire Dortmund to glory, and he could well be an outside contender for the Euro 2012 Golden boot. Poland’s captain, Jakub Błaszczykowski, made two assists in the German Cup final and has been a regular in the side since 2007 and Łukasz Piszczek, has been a key part of the Dortmund defence this term.

Not only are they top class players, but they come in with crucial confidence that could reflect in strong performances on the pitch. German giants Dortmund had been dormant for the best part of a decade before their 2011 title success, and it is testament to the quality of the three Polish players that they won the league again – despite star midfielder Nuri Sahin leaving for Real Madrid and German wonderkid Mario Götze being ruled out with a hip injury for a large period of the season.

Lewandowski is the hosts’ star man, and undoubtedly they will be expecting great things of him, but the whole squad will have a passionate home crowd on their side and that could inspire them to progression from their group. Poland have been drawn against Czech Republic, Greece and Russia in arguably the weakest group of the tournament and – as we saw when Ghana had the whole of Africa on their side at the 2010 World Cup, home favourites are capable of building up a real head of steam and performing well above their expectations.

Of course there are a lot of very strong European teams that Poland will have to face if they are to upset the odds and progress to the latter stages of the tournament, but there is always a possibility of a dark horse in a major tournament like this. Ghana were agonisingly close to the World Cup semi-finals two years ago, and Poland’s Group A opposition Greece shocked everyone by going all the way in Euro 2004. Who knows, maybe this could be another one of those special years when the form guide goes well and truly out of the window.

Van Persie on the double to keep the Gunners fighting

Robin Van Persie displayed his class with a vital double

Robin Van Persie displayed his class with a vital double

A THREE-MINUTE double-salvo from Robin Van Persie stunned league leaders Chelsea to keep Arsenal’s wilting title hopes alive after a rollercoaster month for Arsene Wenger’s young side.

With the critics continually writing off their title chances and just half an hour to recover a 1-0 deficit against a Chelsea side comfortably on top at the fortress that is Stamford Bridge, Van Persie struck a definitive and highly controversial blow to keep the Premier League ambitions flickering for Wenger’s men.

The striker looked at least a metre offside as he was threaded through by Denilson before rifling the ball into the top corner for an equaliser out of nothing. The comeback was completed when Van Persie (pictured, above) slotted Adebayor’s flick on header brilliantly inside Petr Cech’s far post. The victory summed up a remarkable month for Arsenal and left them seven points behind the Blues at the end of November, with Liverpool and Manchester United also to be caught.

Having beaten Chelsea and the reigning Champions Manchester United on their own patch, it suggests that they have what it takes to compete with the best in the country. But a woeful spell, which saw them concede seven unanswered goals and lose to Aston Villa and Manchester City, has left them with five league defeats against their name already.

While they have been formidable against teams who come to play pretty football, they have been outmuscled and outwitted against teams who have come with a game plan to combat their style. At times this is unbelievable to watch. Teams such as Stoke and Hull, who both inflicted 2-1 defeats on the Gunners, have shown that if they hustle and harry and remain well-disciplined, much of Arsenal’s threat can be extinguished.

So what has gone wrong? After coming within four points of the title last season, Arsenal seem to lack the strength and solidity in the midfield that counteracted many of the more physical sides last season. The key summer departures of Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva have taken away some of the vital steel that supported Arsenal’s lethal attacking armoury. The team have become more reliant on the genius of Cesc Fabregas and youngsters such as Denilson and Alexandre Song Billong packing the midfield. There is a general lack of experience in (the midfield) this area, unlike the other teams in the “Big Four”, Chelsea can boast Frank Lampard; Liverpool have Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes is still on tap at Manchester United.

William Gallas looks dejected after Birmingham disappointment

William Gallas looks dejected after Birmingham disappointment

The leadership in the dressing room at the Emirates has also been well documented. Arsene Wenger stripped William Gallas (pictured above) of his captaincy after an angry outburst at his team mates, questioning the team’s bravery. He quickly appointed 21-year-old Fabregas as the new club captain. There seems to be renewed spirit within the dressing room, and while Gallas took the punishment professionally and played with passion against Chelsea, the unrest may well be one of the contributing factors to several points dropped already this season.

Perhaps under the new leadership, there will become a new sense of direction and A revitalised title challenge. The appointment of the Spaniard Fabregas typifies Wenger’s policy of developing young players into the first team – a system that has worked brilliantly in the Carling Cup.

The young guns, with a combined age of just 19 in their Carling Cup fourth round tie against Wigan, have impressed the country and totally outclassed two very decent opponents, having thrashed Championship side Sheffield United 6-0 in the previous round.

But, with the exceptional young talent being continually drafted into the team, this means that Wenger’s men are lacking the experienced heads and leaders on the pitch that their Big Four rivals have in abundance. There are also questions over the squad’s depth and the stubbornness of Wenger to spend big during the transfer windows.

This fine victory over Chelsea may spark a revival but surely it won’t be too long before Wenger will have to strengthen. The January transfer window could be crucial for their title chances. While the team have prevailed against Manchester United and Chelsea, they continue to slip up against many of the lower ranked “physical” outfits in the Division – with another slip up likely to end any realistic title hopes for another year.

There is little doubt that the Gunners have got one of the most exciting production line of young talent in Europe, but the fans are getting restless, the team continues to drop valuable points and an unthinkable fourth trophyless season could well and truly be on the cards.