Success doesn’t come easy even to the most talented up-and-comers. The weight of expectation can cause unfortunate setbacks and a host of what-if scenarios.
A combination of injuries and inconsistency denied these 20-somethings a chance to grow in 2017-18. But the pre-season is a blank slate, and with the right confidence, this septet can rediscover the potential that made it such a special group of players just a couple of years ago.
Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich)
Sanches’ brief stay at Swansea City was an unmitigated disaster. Former manager Paul Clement, who brought Sanches to the Liberty Stadium, suggested that the 20-year-old had suffered from a bit of stage fright. A hamstring injury also wrought havoc on the Euro 2016 Young Player of the Tournament.
But some of it was self-inflicted. Sanches struggled to maintain possession and failed to string together a sequence of passes. He left supporters disappointed and angry by the end, tweeting about an emoji of his likeness just hours after Swansea was relegated.
Sanches made 12 Premier League appearances in all – the last of which came in January – before heading back to parent club Bayern Munich.
Newly appointed Bayern boss Niko Kovac quickly put his arm around the Portuguese, and it has paid early dividends. Sanches started and scored a free-kick in Saturday’s 3-1 friendly win versus Paris Saint-Germain.
Andre Silva (AC Milan)
AC Milan dropped €38 million to sign Silva last summer, the second-biggest investment of the club’s massive spending spree. Hailed as Cristiano Ronaldo’s natural heir on the international stage, Silva was supposed to lead the Rossoneri into a new era. Instead, he found himself on the bench, watching as academy graduate Patrick Cutrone scored the goals. Most of Silva’s opportunities came in the Europa League.
Despite his clear admiration for the 22-year-old, manager Gennaro Gattuso wanted to see more of an effort in training. The lack of drive, coupled with a case of culture shock, hindered Silva’s progress.
It’s unclear whether he will remain at Milan this season. What’s unquestionable, however, is the striker’s quality. He uses the entire pitch and picks the right passes. He just struggles to be the main reference point in attack.
Ross Barkley (Chelsea)
Barkley ended a quiet first half-season at Chelsea with just two Premier League starts to his name. Antonio Conte didn’t seem all that interested in the English midfielder. Barkley was left on the bench even when he was fit, which wasn’t that often anyway. It was hardly a surprise to see the 24-year-old left off England’s World Cup squad.
A change of manager and a summer of rest should give Barkley a shot at redemption. With Maurizio Sarri set to field a midfield three in multiple competitions, Barkley should have more opportunities to rotate into the lineup. He also has the ball-playing ability and forward drive that Sarri likes to see from his midfielders.
Andrea Belotti (Torino)
Torino president Urbano Cairo would probably take the €100 million now.
Cairo drove a hard bargain when clubs came calling for Belotti last summer. Scoring 26 goals in 35 appearances through the 2016-17 season, Belotti showed a viciousness in the penalty area that several top teams coveted. Milan was incessantly linked with the Italian international, but Cairo’s asking price proved to be prohibitive.
Flash forward to the current day and it’s hard to see Belotti going anywhere for even half that amount. He has looked nothing like the dominant player who brushed off defenders in 2016-17. Belotti struggled with the effects of a knee injury over the past 12 months, and eventually finished the most recent campaign with a modest return of 10 goals.
Provided Belotti is healthy, the upcoming term will determine whether he’s the real deal or a one-season wonder.
Luke Shaw (Manchester United)
Jose Mourinho did everything in his power to marginalise Shaw in his first two years as Manchester United manager. Shaw’s weight and lack of commitment were the biggest reasons for his perpetual exile. Mourinho’s treatment of Shaw reportedly led some of his teammates to believe he was being “bullied” by the Portuguese boss.
However, the 23-year-old has an opportunity this month and next to prove his fitness. With Ashley Young, United’s first-choice left-back, away on vacation, Shaw is determined to prove to Mourinho that he’s deserving of more regular minutes.
“When everyone comes back, I still want to be the first name on the teamsheet,” Shaw said. “It’s time for me to show him I can be in the team.”
Andre Gomes (Barcelona)
The boos raining down from the upper tiers of the Camp Nou destroyed Gomes’ confidence. He openly spoke about his “hell” at Barcelona in a candid interview with Panenka magazine, the pressure becoming so great that he feared leaving his house.
That honesty was met with applause. The supporters showed incredible warmth toward Gomes in a 3-0 win over Chelsea that could help restore his career. It may not happen at Barcelona – Gomes is continually linked with a move away – but the 24-year-old has too many good characteristics to fade into irrelevance. He’s a strong passer that links defence and attack, and without any of that crushing anxiety, he can play some beautiful football.
Patrik Schick (AS Roma)
The first few months at Roma didn’t go according to plan. Schick was in and out of the infirmary, treating a nagging hamstring problem and a series of muscular issues. When he returned to the pitch, the 22-year-old striker could only find playing time on the wing. Roma’s club-record signing finished his first season in the Italian capital with just two league goals.
As long as Edin Dzeko is healthy and scoring, Schick will have a difficult time playing up top on a consistent basis. But that doesn’t mean he won’t come good. The Czech international has drawn comparisons to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dennis Bergkamp for his strong stature and elegant touch. He’s also very young. There’s a lot more time for Schick to deliver – especially on a team that seems to be ever-changing.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)