Let’s be frank; football is no longer a game simply about eleven men. With the huge squads currently being deployed by Europe’s biggest clubs, it’s often stated that it’s a “squad game” and so often, teams have up to 30 top players at their disposal at any one time (even discounting youth players), particularly if they’re involved in a long-winded European tournament like the Champions League or Europa League.
Unfortunately though, this trend of large squads has also caused a negative – the stockpiling of players around a handful of elite clubs, and in turn that invariably leads to some players being misused or frozen out, forced into a permanent spot on the bench or worse, in the reserves.
The reasons can be myriad – a managerial change, or a formation change perhaps – but the bottom line is that great players are often criminally misused. Here are five of the best and most recent examples.
#1 Nathaniel Chalobah
Tipped as a future full England international from a very young age, Nathaniel Chalobah has been plying his trade at Chelsea since moving there from Fulham as a schoolboy in 2005.
He’s one of the most capped England youth players in history, having represented the under-16’s, under-17’s, under-19’s and under-21’s and he most recently starred in England’s run to the U21 European Championship semi-finals.
A versatile player, Chalobah’s best position is probably as a holding midfielder, but he’s also been used as a central defender and a sweeper at times. England manager Gareth Southgate has even spoken of him breaking into the senior squad soon. The only issue holding him back? Chelsea just simply don’t seem to want to use him.
As with many of Chelsea’s youth team stars, Chalobah has seen a string of loans in his career – he’s been at Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading and even Napoli for a short stint – but he’s now approaching 23 and he needs first team football.
At Chelsea though, that seems impossible. Despite fans and fellow professionals alike rating him highly, he only appeared ten times in the Premier League last season and started just once – in a win over Watford after the league had already been won.
With Nemanja Matic apparently moving to Manchester United, you’d have been forgiven for thinking Chelsea were finally planning to deploy Chalobah properly – but instead they’re signing Monaco’s defensive midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko – meaning he’ll continue to be misused unless he decides to change clubs.
#2 Daniel Sturridge
Top pundits often claim that Daniel Sturridge is the most natural finisher currently operating in the Premier League, and his form for Liverpool in 2013/14 seemed to suggest that was the truth, as he hit 24 goals in 33 games in all competitions and formed one of the league’s deadliest strike-forces alongside Luis Suarez.
He was also one of the few England players to come away from the disastrous 2014 World Cup campaign with any credit.
Unfortunately, a mix of Sturridge being somewhat injury-prone and seemingly not fitting in with the ideas of Jurgen Klopp – who arrived at Liverpool in October 2015 – has seen him go from probably the top English striker in the league to a forgotten man.
Klopp’s first season in charge saw Sturridge appear just 14 times in the Premier League and while a lot of that was down to injury, Klopp also hinted at times that he felt some of Sturridge’s injuries were down to his mental game.
Last season was perhaps even worse for the striker. He played only 769 minutes in the league and was named on the bench in 20 of Liverpool’s 38 games. It isn’t like Liverpool have a recognised, world-class striker either – attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho was their top scorer with 13.
Current rumours have Klopp refusing to sell Sturridge as he’d rather keep him around as a backup option than allow him to move to a potential rival, which hardly helps the situation. He’s likely to remain one of the Premier League’s most misused talents.
#3 Renato Sanches
2016/17 was supposed to be the season that Renato Sanches really shined. The Portuguese youngster – still only 19 years old – starred for Benfica as they won the Portuguese league in 2015/16 and then went on to represent Portugal at Euro 2016.
Despite some early stutters, Portugal ended up winning the tournament and Sanches was arguably the standout player, scoring a stunning goal against Poland and winning the Young Player of the Tournament award.
He was linked with practically every big club in Europe following these exploits and chose to make a mega-money move to Bayern Munich, the total of which remains somewhat of a mystery. But since his move to the Allianz Arena things haven’t gone to plan at all.
Sanches endured a miserable time in Germany, only starting six league games, and he didn’t register a single goal or assist.
With Sanches’s talent clear based on his performances for Benfica and Portugal, you have to wonder what’s gone wrong. Perhaps it’s a case of new Bayern manager Carlo Ancelotti not rating the youngster – we’ve seen cases in the past before where a club has bought an expensive new signing not necessarily wanted by the manager.
Regardless of the reason, it’s largely a criminal misuse of a player who clearly has a tremendous amount of talent. With Manchester United currently being linked with the Portuguese star, hopefully Sanches can move away from Munich and live up to the promise he initially showed, rather than continue to be misused.
#4 James Rodriguez
Arguably the best player in the 2014 World Cup, Colombia’s Rodriguez was a name on everyone’s lips and it was no surprise that summer when he was signed by Real Madrid to be their latest Galactico. Initially, the move appeared to work out as he starred in numerous performances for his new club and seemed to be settling in nicely.
It’s been largely since the appointment of French legend Zinedine Zidane in January 2016 that things have gone sour for James. In even the first few months of Zidane’s reign, James only played 393 minutes of a possible 1170, and going forward his playing time seems to have reduced even more and more.
He made just 22 La Liga appearances in 2016/17 and barely featured in the Champions League, appearing just six times.
Granted Real are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the attacking department. Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Isco and Toni Kroos are hardly easy players to edge out of a starting line-up, but when a youngster like Marco Asensio – who is clearly talented, but hasn’t proven as much as Rodriguez – can get in ahead of the Colombian you know something’s up.
Considering how good he looked at the World Cup and in his early days at Real Madrid, Zidane’s continual misuse of the Colombian is borderline insane. Hopefully he can move this summer to a club who might better appreciate his talents.
#5 Chris Smalling
One of the few plus points of Louis van Gaal’s time in charge of Manchester United was the development of Chris Smalling. Signed by United in 2010, Smalling’s career appeared to be stalling prior to the arrival of the legendary Dutch manager – one pundit described his playing style as “casually sloppy” – but under Van Gaal, he developed into one of the Premier League’s toughest defenders.
Smalling featured in 35 of United’s 38 league games in 2015/16 and was also blossoming into a promising defender for England too, but all that has changed since the arrival of Jose Mourinho. For reasons unknown to basically anyone but Mourinho himself, Smalling has been largely frozen out of United’s starting line-up.
He only featured 18 times in the league last season and saw 18 other players get more playing time than him.
With Mourinho also signing Eric Bailly and now Victor Lindelof, it’s quite clear that he doesn’t rate Smalling at all. In fact, for the majority of the time the Portuguese manager has preferred the likes of Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and even youngster Axel Tuanzebe over him. The way back to United’s starting line-up seems painfully blocked.
Given Smalling’s form in 2015/16 you can’t call it anything but misuse. Smalling isn’t a perfect central defender but he was arguably United’s standout player in Van Gaal’s last season and he was certainly their most improved.
For Mourinho to freeze him out in this way is baffling, and unfortunately for him, he doesn’t appear to have many suitors, meaning he could be stuck at Old Trafford in the shadows.