In addition to previewing two teams from the Premier League each day until the beginning of season, we will name five players to watch at each position, goalkeeper through forward. The 2013-14 season begins Aug. 17, and for the first time, every game will be broadcast live in the United States on NBC Sports.
Any discussion of midfielders must define its scope. Particularly in a world where the 4-2-3-1 formation is so prevalent, the line between midfielder and outright attacker is easily blurred. Some players deployed in the line of three may be tasked a conventional midfielder’s responsibilities: moving to provide an outlet for play coming forward; linking to and creating chances for more advanced attackers; marking opposition in deeper areas of the opposing midfield. Other players are more outright attackers – wingers and forwards whose defensive responsibilities often lie along the opponent’s back line.
Today, we’re focusing on the first category – the players who play like midfielders. So even though a Gareth Bale or and Eden Hazard may vaguely play similar positions to players on this list, we’ve passed them on to tomorrow, when we’ll rank the Premier League’s five forwards. Today, we’re staying in the middle.
The former Villarreal and Malaga man may have cost Arsenal a record fee last summer, but with some of the prices we’ve seen paid for lesser talents this summer, £15 million is a steal for somebody of Cazorla’s talents. The 28-year-old Spanish international can function as a central playmaker, wide man, or somebody that can go get goals for Arsène Wenger’s team, versatility that was reflected in his 2012-13 output. In his first season with the Gunners, Cazorla posted 12 goals and 14 assists in all competitions, numbers which could improve with a year’s experience in the unique Premier League. Capable of playing any of Arsenal’s attacking midfield spots, you’re most likely to find Cazorla was Wenger’s No. 10 or wide right when his club hosts Aston Villa on Saturday.
Thanks to former manager David Moyes using the Belgian international behind his striker for chunks of the last two seasons, Fellaini began garnering attention that transcended Premier League diehards. For the first half of the 2012-13 campaign, he was part of the conversation for player of the year, and while that buzz eventually dissipated, broader respect for Fellaini’s game did not. Tall, strong, and sporting with an afro that’s often as talked about as his on-field contributions, Fellaini can play either as a supporting striker or in his preferred role: deep-lying midfielder. Under new manager Roberto Martínez, that versatility could prove vital to Everton’s chances of replicating last year’s success. Playing in a more fluid system, Fellaini could see more opportunities to leverage his versatility, his ability to couple goal scoring, target man’s prowess, physicality and defensive impact again making him one of the league’s top players.
Juan Mata, Chelsea
Since arriving from Valencia two years ago, Mata (pictured, at the top) has been the Premier League’s most prolific player. In 118 all competition appearances, the Spanish international has scored 32 goals and recorded 59 assists. So why is Mata rarely mentioned with Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez, and Robin van Persie as one of the best players in the Premier League? Because physically, there isn’t much to him. He’s just short of 5’9″. He isn’t particularly strong or fast. He’s yet to carve out a major role for his national team, and the two years he’s been at Stamford Bridge have been strange (if successful) ones for the club. Ultimately, however, the production speaks for itself. If you like watching players who create and score goals, Mata is as watchable as anybody in the Premier League.
Just under a month short of his 21st birthday, Oscar is already a starter for both Chelsea and the Brazilian national team, and although his in-league numbers weren’t particularly impressive (four goals, seven assists), his youth, all competition production (12 goals, 13 assists in all competitions), and skill demand a place on this list. With the talent to become one of the best creators in the league, Oscar’s numbers will certainly improve. Even if they don’t, his ability to make himself available for the ball and get it to Chelsea’s creators further up the field (Mata, Hazard, who combined for 60 assists) shouldn’t be overlooked, even if basic statistics do.
Two years ago, Touré was the league’s best player – an absolute beast, attacking and defending, during Manchester City’s first Premier League title. Last year, like the rest of his team, he waned. Whether that was because of natural regression, wear-and-tear, or his commitments at the African Cup of Nations, City will need the 30-year-old Ivorian to be the same, dominant player he was in 2011-12 if they’re to reclaim the title. If he plays at that level, Touré will not only provide a perfect complement to the newly purchased Fernandinho, he will again be one of the league’s best players. He has the strength and awareness to be the league’s top defensive midfielder (when played there). He also possesses the range and skill to fill the space behind City’s phalanx of forwards, allowing Fernandinho to sit and distribute while adding another goal-scoring threat to City’s attack.
Your mileage may vary, and in players like Manchester United’s Michael Carrick, Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, and Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye, there are certainly strong candidates to replace those on this list. In reality, there are far more than five midfielders to watch this season in the Premier League. But if you were going to focus on only five, we’d suggest Cazorla, Fellaini, Mata, Oscar, and Touré.