Every club has one. That vital cog that keeps the team wheels turning. With the season in its infancy, supporters up and down the land are still harbouring dreams of glory (or at the very least over achievement, given that short of a billionaire Sheikh turning up on your doorstep, thoughts of the title are confined to a privileged few these days).
Dreaming of what could be is the lifeblood of every football fan, but there are few things more likely to bring even the most optimistic notions crashing down than a season ending injury to your clubs most vital player; a scenario all the more worrying now that that transfer window has slammed firmly shut on the prospect of further re-enforcements until January.
There is a tendency to judge a players worth to their team using such obvious barometers as transfer value or goal scoring ability. In some instances this can be useful; however, the analogy can also be misleading. Teams are about balance and it is no good extolling the virtues of your 15 goal a season striker when losing the goalkeeper is the difference between ten clean sheets and two. Sure, you will miss those 15 goals, but football is after all a team game and it is often what you don’t see that you end up missing the most.
With this in mind let’s take a look at one player from each Premier League club that Managers would loath to be without in the remainder of the season:
Aston Villa: Brad Friedel
A strong case could also be made for the wing wizardry of Ashley Young, but ultimately Villa can create from other sources. James Milner is an excellent crosser of the ball and Agbonlahor can play anywhere across the front line. In Friedel, Villa possess one of the division’s finest and most consistent performers in recent memory. With only the relatively untested Brad Guzan and way past it Andy Marshall behind him, Friedel’s loss could spell disaster for the claret half of Birmingham.
Arsenal: Thomas Vermaelen
Perhaps a bit of a left field choice here but I’m going for the tall, dependable and most importantly no-nonsense Belgian recruited over the summer to shore up Arsenal’s worryingly leaky defence. Any team would miss the skills of Fabregas, but on the evidence of last season, the Gunners deficiencies are not in attacking areas, where they have more than enough personnel to compensate. That they failed to challenge last season is due mostly to the defence and the breaking up of a promising partnership with a freshly rejuvenated Gallas could once again give rise to uncertainty.
Birmingham City: Joe Hart
If they had a proven goal scorer, he would almost certainly win the vote. However, if the Blue’s are to survive this season I sense it will be more down to collective will than the efforts of any one player. Despite that, the player likely to be the busiest this season is loan signing Joe Hart. It is important to build from the back, especially for the newly promoted teams and in Hart, Birmingham have signed a proven commodity. His absence would be sorely missed.
Blackburn Rovers: Chris Samba
Let’s face it. Rovers style under Sam Allardyce this season is unlikely to be pretty. A colossus of a man, Samba is a threat at both ends of the pitch, giving opposition defenders and attackers alike more than their fair share of bumps and bruises. He’ll never win bonus points for style but he is undeniably effective.
Bolton Wanderers: Kevin Davies
The one man battering ram is an expression often applied to Kevin Davies; and with good reason. He may not score many but his hold up play and knock downs are essential for Bolton. Take out Davies and the team has no centrepiece. In an already struggling side, would you want to see Johan Elmander gamefully leading the line on his own for the rest of the season?
Burnley: Wade Elliot
More so than perhaps any other Premier League team, Burnley’s is a squad without an obvious star name. They embody the true essence of a team rather than a collection of individuals. That said, goals from midfield are highly prized in any team and in Wade Elliot, they have a player more than capable of producing the odd blockbuster (witness last season’s play-off final), as well as chipping in with his fair share of assists.
Chelsea: Frank Lampard
The obvious pick. How many games has Mr. Consistency missed in the past few seasons? Precious few is the answer and I very much doubt Chelsea would care to find out how well the midfield would fare in his absence. Yes, theirs is a squad brim full of stars, but Lampard is the heartbeat of the team. Replacing his energy let alone his goals would be a near impossible task for any manager.
Everton: Leighton Baines
There is a strong case that their most influential players in Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta are already on the treatment table. However, at the present time Everton look to have problems all over the pitch and none more so than in defence. One bright spark here has been the emergence of Leighton Baines. After an inauspicious start to life on Merseyside, Baines is finally justifying his price tag. Lethal from set pieces and a rampaging force on the left hand side, Everton can scarcely afford to lose his blend of attacking and defensive input.
Fulham: Danny Murphy
Despite looking the best part of forty for most of the past twenty years, Danny Murphy still seems to capture the fountain of youth on the football field. His game has never been about pace and quietly last season his precision passing and calmness in possession were the driving force behind Fulham’s impressive league finish. Quality ball players are at a premium and clubs like Fulham will find replacing a player of Murphy’s technical ability a particularly daunting prospect.
Hull City: Jozy Altidore
In many ways a crazy choice given that he has played less than sixty minutes of Premier League football thus far, but bare with me. To survive this season Hull need goals; plain and simple. They will concede, of that there is no doubt. Altidore arrives on loan from Villarreal with a burgeoning reputation as one of North America’s hottest young striking prospects and given the dearth of viable options in Hull’s attack (Cousin, Folan et al), there could be an enormous burden upon his shoulders as the season wears on. Early signs also look good with a lively display and valuable assist in the win against Bolton.
Liverpool: Fernando Torres
A close call this between the big two of Torres and Gerrard. Although, on closer inspection of the paucity of options in the final third (come on, does anyone really believe Voronin is a footballer?), the edge has to go to the diminutive Spaniard. Torres at his best is possibly the most instinctive natural finisher currently playing the game and so to expect a like for like replacement is absurd. Liverpool’s biggest problem lies in the fact that they don’t seem to have even a serviceable alternative. An injury to Torres and the drop off in quality will be immense.
Manchester City: Shay Given
I very nearly went for Stephen Ireland here, who brings similar levels of energy and passion to the city midfield as Frank Lampard at Chelsea, but the nod has to go to Shay Given. I was the first to question the need to sign Given last season with such a promising keeper as Hart on the books, but my word has Mark Hughes been proven right on this one. In my view Given stands head and shoulders as the best keeper in the Premier league at present and his classy performances week in week out bring a whole new level of confidence to the players in front of him.
Manchester United: Wayne Rooney
Probably the most predictable and yet obvious choice of any Premier League team. Without Ronaldo, an injury to Rooney would be unthinkable for United’s title chances. He has become their talisman and the majority of the attacking play moves through him. Less for his goal scoring than his lung bursting energy, commitment and all around movement off the ball will he missed if a long term injury setback strikes.
Portsmouth: Frédéric Piquionne
Despite a catalogue of signings in recent days the Pompey squad looks horribly threadbare. Solid but most definitely unspectacular sums up Portsmouth and as of now it is difficult to see where goals are going to come from or how they will stopped at the other end. Goals will have to come from somewhere though and loan signing Piquionne has at least shown some promise and plenty of willing so far; and with so little to back him up, needs to stay fit to give his team even a fighting chance.
Stoke City: Ryan Shawcross
Stoke will surprise no-one this season and yet they will surely beat many. They are what they are. Big and physical, with plenty of high balls into the box and crunching challenges. Plenty of teams will leave the Britannia this season with more bruises than points to show for their efforts. Ryan Shawcross has come a long way since his days as a Manchester United reserve and offers Stoke not only a towering presence in defence but also a handy option in attack, where he has already chipped in with vital goals.
Sunderland: Lee Cattermole
Much has been made of the front two of Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones and with good reason. However, both are capable of leading the line and so an injury to one or the other becomes slightly less important. Sunderland’s promising start has been built as much upon their new midfield engine room, dominated by Cattermole and Cana. Win the important battles first and then score the goals. Cattermole may not be pretty but he is effective.
Tottenham Hotspur: Wilson Palacios
After Wayne Rooney, to my mind this is the safest pick. Palacios has turned Tottenham from a collection of talented individuals into a team with his box to box energy and whole hearted tackling. He is so much more than simply a holding midfield player, but this is his most important virtue to the Spurs team. His steely contribution allows the flair players to perform. Take him out of the line up and watch the difference.
West Ham United: Carlton Cole
Carlton Cole has transformed a career in reverse to one in which he’s dreaming of a place in next year’s World Cup squad. The Hammers are not exactly blessed with attacking options (though the Diamanti signing should help). Cole’s goals would be missed but it is his link up play which means most to West Ham. Cole has developed into a true top class players in this regard.
Wigan Athletic: Paul Scharner
Wigan have already lost a host of key players this summer and must be relieved that the transfer window has finally closed without further departures. One big player staying put is Paul Scharner. Scharner has been a steady and commanding influence for Wigan and, always a threat in the opposition box, he has been prone to popping up with the odd valuable goal. Wigan need some constants in a season of change and keeping Scharner fit and interested is a must for them.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Michael Mancienne
One thing Wolves cannot afford to do is ship a hatful of goals this season as they are unlikely to out-score too many teams in a shoot out. They do have perhaps the best attacking options of the promoted teams with the likes of Ebanks-Blake (once fit) and Doyle, however, as Stoke proved last season, a solid defence should be the starting point. In this regard the re-signing on loan of the highly promising Mancienne appears a master stroke. Mancienne brings pace and assurance to an on–paper seemingly fragile defence.