In football, we all love a comeback story.
It’s the dogged determination, the David-vs-Goliath narrative that has us in awe of fringe players who ignore the rational dictates of the pecking order and force their managers to take notice.
Every football club has a handful of outcasts, or back-up players to keep things PG(?); we often forget they’re there, cropping up occasionally to be met with the obligatory ‘they still play for us?’
Such first-teamers-turned-pariahs are pushed out of view for a number of reasons: either a big-money signing has come in, a long-term injury has scuppered their form, or the manager simply just doesn’t fancy them.
And yet every season there is a resurgence, whether borne out of necessity due to an unforeseen injury crisis, or a player has simply forced his way back to the foreground through good ol’ hard work. And this campaign is no exception.
Here are eight outcasts who have turned things around and played an important role this season.
1. Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal)
Mohamed Elneny followed an identical footpath to Egyptian comrade Mohamed Salah: Al Mokawloon, Basel, London. One went west to Chelsea. The other went north to Arsenal. Only their ensuing trajectories have been poles apart since.
Salah tore it up in Italy before guiding Liverpool to Champions League and Premier League success. Elneny, meanwhile, largely flattered to deceive at the Emirates and subsequently joined Besiktas on loan last season, where many thought that would be that.
Rarely does a Premier League ‘misfit’ return from the Turkish Super Lig and cement a first-team berth, not least at a ‘Big Six’ club where they just signed a £45m player in their very position. And yet Elneny has been regularly used by Mikel Arteta this term.
His slick showings have garnered praise from a difficult-to-please fanbase, and while the 28-year-old is unlikely to be seen as a long-term solution to Arteta’s woes, he will certainly offer a useful outlet in the absence of the once-again injured Thomas Partey.
2. Tanguy Ndombele (Spurs)
“I hope next season he can be fantastic because until now it is not enough,” the Spurs boss said when asked about Tanguy Ndombele’s performances as he hauled him off against Burnley at half-time back in March.
In truth, it felt as though Ndombele would be out of the door in the summer, having seemingly fallen victim to Jose Mourinho’s infamous cold shoulder routine.
However, if the Portuguese truly ‘hoped next season he can be fantastic’, then he has gotten his wish. The Frenchman has been the midfield fulcrum in Spurs’ rise, combining harmoniously and quite brilliantly with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Moussa Sissoko in the middle of the pitch.
He is one of the first names on the team sheet at the minute and simply a joy to watch. When he is in full motion, there are few players in the Premier League as in-sync with the ball or as graceful in possession as Ndombele, who is now starting to vindicate his lofty price tag.
3. Nampalys Mendy (Leicester)
Nampalys Mendy has emerged as a competent defensive midfielder to remedy Wilfred Ndidi’s injury-enforced absence. Signed as a replacement for N’Golo Kante in 2016, Mendy has been on the periphery for four years, but now there is talk of an international call-up by France or Senegal.
Before lockdown last season, Mendy only featured in four of Leicester’s 28 match-day Premier League squads. Now he has started every single game this season, only failing to complete the full 90 minutes on four occasions. An extraordinary turnaround and the Foxes are reaping the rewards, currently fourth in the table.
4. Fabian Balbuena (West Ham)
What looked an astute signing when Manuel Pellegrini lured the Paraguayan away from Corinthians in 2018 was backed up by a successful maiden campaign and had fans excited about their Chilean manager’s scope on South American football: who would be the next hidden gem from football’s continental goldmine?
In true West Ham fashion, though, the whole thing collapsed. Pellegrini was sacked, Balbuena’s pace (or lack thereof) was found wanting, and David Moyes just didn’t fancy him, instead deploying Issa Diop and Angelo Ogbonna in his original 4-2-3-1 upon his reappointment.
But, since his switch to a 3-4-2-1, Balbuena has not only found a home in Moyes’ back-three but played a fundamental role in transforming a once porous backline into a relatively watertight one, as well as forming a strong understanding with Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell in a rather disciplined defensive system.
5. Xherdan Shaqiri (Liverpool)
With Jurgen Klopp’s casualty list totting-up, he has naturally had to tinker with his tactics, personnel and man-management skills. That has meant a more prominent role for Xherdan Shaqiri, who produced a world-class assist for Diogo Jota to snatch the winner against West Ham in October.
Making only his third Premier League appearance of the calendar year, the Switzerland international turned super sub in stellar fashion to snatch the points in the closing minutes. There was talk of a move before deadline day passed, but he stayed put and has since helped alleviate Klopp’s concerning physio room.
6. Jairo Riedewald (Crystal Palace)
Academy education does not come much more prestigious than La Masia or Ajax, and it is at the latter where Jairo Riedewald hails from. So when Palace secured his services in 2017, which at the time did not seem like a wild punt but rather a calculated move from then-manager and former Ajax player-coach Frank de Boer, it looked a masterstroke.
However, Riedewald’s career until this season has largely resembled De Boer’s ill-fated stint at Selhurst Park: underwhelming to the nth degree. But under Roy Hodgson, the defender has been reinvented as a midfielder and featured in every game since the Manchester United win on matchday two, even scoring his first league goal.
7. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (Fulham)
Loaned out last season following Fulham’s relegation, it didn’t seem likely that Anguissa would be back in west London, even if the Cottagers secured promotion. However, following an exceptional campaign for Villarreal that, believe it or not, led to links with Real Madrid, Scott Parker has since used the midfield general regularly in his starting XI.
8. Nathaniel Phillips (Liverpool)
He was never going to supplant Virgil van Dijk, was he? Nor was he even expected to get a game. Klopp did omit him from his Champions League squad, after all. But with Anfield plagued by an injury crisis, Phillips has been thrust into action, making his Premier League debut in the aforementioned win over West Ham and expertly keeping a lid on Sebastien Haller (which some West Ham fans would argue is not a difficult task), while he also played the full 90 in the draw with Brighton and has elicited huge praise from Klopp himself, who described the 23-year-old as “a monster.” And in a good way.