Aaron Ramsey, Ross Barkley and the Best Young Premier League Midfielders
Aaron Ramsey will return to Arsenal’s squad for Sunday’s game against Everton following a long layoff with a thigh injury.
The Welshman is unlikely to start at Goodison Park, but it appears at some point he will square off against another player quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best young midfielders in the country—Ross Barkley.
With that clash in mind, we take a look at 20 of the most talented and promising Under-23 midfielders currently plying their trade at Premier League clubs.
Were it not for the injury he suffered in December, Aaron Ramsey would likely have been a viable contender with Luis Suarez for the various Premier League player of the season awards.
Arsenal, too, would likely be closer to the cut-and-thrust of the title race than they now are; The Gunners are still setting their sights on winning it all rather than ensuring they fend off Everton’s late charge for fourth.
After taking a number of seasons to get over the horrible leg break he suffered against Stoke in 2010, Ramsey started this season as a breathtaking force—providing eight goals and six assists before coming off in a Boxing Day game against West Ham.
The Welshman’s primary attribute, however, is his stamina—in the Champions League group stages he covered comfortably over 10 kilometres a match, a prodigious effort.
It is this capacity to cover ground, along with his commitment to defence and eye for the pass, that figures to make him one of the league’s very best all-round midfielders for many years to come.
Ramsey, much to Roy Hodgson’s mild frustration, will never be available to represent England, but Ross Barkley already has and will undoubtedly continue to as he develops.
The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has a huge admirer in his manager, Roberto Martinez, who has never failed to wax lyrical about the youngster's abilities and potential when given the forum.
Per Goal.com, Martinez recently told reporters:
He is as good an English talent as we've seen and that's going to alert teams competing to win the Champions League, never mind the Premier League. He's got the potential to achieve what Bale did.
The most impressive thing for me is his character. Nothing and no-one upsets him in a game, even if some opponents try to. We don't produce many players with that mental discipline, unfortunately. It's the biggest factor he has. I am reminded of [Andres] Iniesta and Xavi, players with that mentality and character.
Ross has got everything to be as good as he wants. He is the perfect fit for Everton and the perfect fit for what we want to do in the future. We want to build the team around him.
Barkley has a mix of technical and physical attributes rarely seen in the same player and, as Martinez seems to be most excited about, also appears to have the mentality to cope with everything that is thrown at him.
The youngster has a huge future for club and country.
If Ramsey was the young midfielder taking the majority of the plaudits in the early part of the season, then it is Jordan Henderson who has pushed his way to the fore the longer the season has gone on.
Like Ramsey, the former Sunderland youngster has a prodigious engine, and he has used that to become the glue in the Liverpool midfield—ensuring that Steven Gerrard, in the deep-lying role, is never isolated while rushing to provide support for the likes of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
His tangible returns have not been quite as impressive as Ramsey’s (four goals and seven assists in almost double the games), but his contributions in other areas have seen him power into England World Cup contention.
Another promising player who clearly has the unwavering support of Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard paid £14m to bring the Ireland international from his old club Wigan to his new side Everton in the summer.
McCarthy, after a slightly slow start, has impressed greatly in recent months—giving Everton a solid base in midfield alongside the more experienced Gareth Barry.
Martinez said in January, per Daily Mail's Dominic King:
The investment we made in James was a big investment but it was a safe investment because I knew his character inside out. The figure is what you are prepared to pay and how much other teams rate him and how much you can increase that value in the market.
The value of James McCarthy in the market is probably double that figure now if not more.
To continue the Merseyside love-in, Raheem Sterling is another young midfielder (he is probably more a midfielder than an out-and-out attacker) who has established himself as a star this season.
Initially used cautiously by manager Brendan Rodgers, in recent times the teenager has been increasingly relied upon by Liverpool—the youngster’s talent and tactical flexibility meaning he has been used on either flank and through the middle at points this term.
Another to have forced his way into the England reckoning, Sterling has a bright future to look forward to, especially if he continues to work under Rodgers.
"He's helped me massively," Sterling told the BBC recently. "Not only with my footballing game but if I need someone to talk to off the field he's there for me. I've got to really give credit to him and thank him a lot."
At 22, Wilshere is younger than his team-mate Ramsey, yet in many ways it feels like he has been around a lot longer—having made his Arsenal debut as an impudent 16-year-old.
The midfielder has progressed at an impressive rate ever since then, but this season has proved more difficult for him, as he has occasionally been the one forced out of position to accommodate Mesut Ozil and the much-improved Aaron Ramsey.
His ability is not in any question, but the biggest threat to his long-term prospects might be his fitness—he has already struggled with a number of injuries for someone at such an early stage of their career.
His left ankle appears to be a chronic problem that will always need an element of careful management, and only time will tell how much it hampers his progress.
Leaving Liverpool was undoubtedly a blow for the former Charlton trainee, but Jonjo Shelvey appears to have come on in many ways since arriving at the Liberty Stadium in pursuit of first-team football.
He has not always had it his own way—famously scoring and giving away goals in his first meeting with his old club—but has looked composed on the ball and has helped dictate the action, impressive for such a young player (even if the results have not been ideal).
Shelvey could perhaps learn better decision-making skills and become better in the tackle, but at 22, he has a reasonable amount of experience for his age and looks poised to make the next step in his career.
Jordan Mutch might just be the most in-demand player this summer, should Cardiff be relegated from the Premier League.
The 22-year-old has proved himself a productive performer from behind the strikers over the course of the campaign, chipping in with seven goals and six assists in a generally difficult campaign for the Bluebirds.
Despite his efforts, the club remain in need of a very strong finish to the season if they are to stay up—but even if that proves beyond them, Mutch is unlikely to have any shortage of admirers.
The Brazilian, 22, is established as a first-team regular for both Chelsea and Brazil—two fine indicators of his quality.
Brilliant on the ball and in the final third, what perhaps separates him from most other players of his ilk is his willingness to track back and put in the work defensively, a quality that perhaps ensured Juan Mata was cast aside by Jose Mourinho back in January.
Perhaps only the presence of Neymar in the national team prevents Oscar from carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders at the World Cup. Yet even if that was the case, the youngster seems preternaturally disposed to coping with that sort of pressure.
Touted in some quarters as the next coming of David Beckham, Ward-Prowse has struggled for regular appearances for Southampton this season—but that's as much a result of the club’s continued good results with more established senior players as anything the youngster has or has not done.
A regular presence for England Under-21s, Ward-Prowse is another emerging player with what pundits would call “a great engine”, while he also has a great talent for set-piece delivery that figures to enhance his career for many years.
The breakthrough star of the 2013-14 season, Januzaj surprised almost everyone with the manner in which he grasped his first-team opportunities at Manchester United and quickly established himself as a valuable squad member.
Having signed a long-term deal at Old Trafford, the youngster figures to go from strength-to-strength in the coming seasons—whoever he decides to represent at international level.
Arsene Wenger is a confirmed admirer of the midfielder, and with good reason—since returning from a long-term injury earlier this season, Oxlade-Chamberlain has impressed in both central and wide roles for the Gunners.
Wenger believes the ex-Southampton man’s long-term future lies more centrally, but one wonders how exactly that will work out, especially if the likes of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey remain at the club.
Nevertheless, “The Ox” figures to be a key player for club and country for many years to come.
Another whose future might be in some doubt in the summer, much to the chagrin of many Crystal Palace fans.
The Wales international is currently on loan at Championship side Ipswich Town, where he has been gaining plaudits for his all-action, intelligent displays from midfield.
Palace boss Tony Pulis decided that the midfielder—nicknamed “Joniesta” by Palace fans due to his similarities in playing style with the great Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta—needed more first-team experience this season. It remains to be seen whether that changes next season, but Williams, 20, does not instantly seem suited to Pulis’s preferred style of play.
Palace fans will hope he can make an exception for a beloved academy product. But if not, Williams will surely not be short of admirers.
His future at West Ham might be in some doubt, but Morrison is slowly rehabilitating his image to the point where it seems almost certain he will enjoy a long career in England’s top flight—some few would have confidently predicted when he left Manchester United as a teenager.
Morrison was one of the few bright spots in a dour West Ham campaign before rumours and counter-rumours saw him packed off to QPR on loan, where he has continued to impress individually at Championship level.
If he is sold this summer, he is another player who will surely command a number of suitors.
Perhaps it will transpire that Bentaleb was the only bright spot to come out of Tim Sherwood’s ill-fated reign as the club’s manager.
The young Frenchman is an all-action midfielder with an attitude and bite that too many of his team-mates lack and has acquitted himself well since Sherwood surprisingly threw him into the first-team fray.
He probably has a lot more developing to do than some of the names on this list, but still only 19, he has a few years in which to do that.
Catching the eye in difficult circumstances at Norwich (it is often harder for flair players to perform in relegation-threatened sides), Redmond has nevertheless shown enough skill on the flanks to suggest he has a long-term future in the Premier League.
One goal and three assists is a relatively meagre return on his season’s efforts, but at 20 and in his first full season in the top-flight, the Under-21 international still has plenty of time to continue to develop.
The 21-year-old has looked like a shrewd piece of business from Liverpool, proving to be a valuable addition every since his £8m move from Inter Milan last year.
Despite being somewhat lightweight, the Brazilian has adjusted impressively to the Premier League and, although his performances have perhaps been a touch inconsistent in recent months, his eye for a pass and fluidity in possession has undoubtedly helped refine Liverpool into the breathtaking attacking force they have been in recent months.
It remains to be seen whether the winger’s memorable period at the start of the season—where he was staring down the wing for his club, then made his England debut and effectively secured their place at the World Cup—will prove to be the peak of his career.
The Leytonstone-born wide player has had an up-and-down season; it started so brightly with recognition for club and country, but after an injury at the turn of the year, he has seen himself fall down the pecking order down both counts.
No one disputes that the 22-year-old has much work to do to refine his game, particularly his decision-making in dangerous areas, but his ability to run past players and create threats is one that will make him an interesting player to watch in coming seasons.