In 2021, Eberechi Eze suffered a serious Achilles injury on the day he was included in a provisional England squad. Now he’s back and could make his Three Lions debut on Friday.
Tuesday, 18 May, 2021 was anything but a normal day at Crystal Palace’s Beckenham training ground. Roy Hodgson announced he was to leave his post at the end of the 2021-22 season, ushering in a new era, and it was also a momentous day for Eberechi Eze.
The talented attacking midfielder was approaching the end of a very promising first season at Selhurst Park having joined from QPR in August 2020. He was among the first-team players preparing for what had just been confirmed as Hodgson’s final home match, with Arsenal set to visit on the Wednesday.
Inside, unbeknownst to Eze at the time, a message had been sent to his phone. It was joyous news; he’d been called up to the senior England squad for the first time, included in the provisional 30-man selection ahead of the delayed Euro 2020.
But there was a gutting twist of fate. Eze didn’t see the message until he asked Palace’s Player Liaison Officer to fetch his phone so he could let his parents know he’d suffered a serious injury.
“I’d just received the ball and went to push off and it felt like someone had kicked me as hard as they could in the back of my Achilles,” he told Palace’s website a few months later. “I looked around and no one’s there, so I’m like: ‘Yeah, I know this is bad.’”
Eze didn’t play again in the Premier League until late November, and Palace were careful about getting him back up to speed, so he only managed one more top-flight appearance before the end of 2021. Then, by the conclusion of the 2021-22 season, just six of his 13 league outings had been as a starter.
Now, however, he’s back in the England setup. No “provisional” squad this time, the real deal. A debut potentially awaits against Malta on Friday, and given his journey to this point, the occasion will be sweeter for him than anyone else.
By Eze’s own admission, he was in tears before he’d even made his way back inside after suffering the injury. That made Hodgson’s suggestion Palace would “assess” him ahead of the Arsenal game look a little optimistic.
Perhaps Hodgson was a little caught up in the furore of his own announcement? We can forgive him a moment of self-indulgence.
But the reality was a long road back began that day for Eze, and in terms of his England career, it was no means a guarantee he’d ever return to the path he was on. There was always the possibility of other younger – potentially even more talented – players emerging while he was simply trying to rehabilitate. It’s also worth remembering, an Achilles rupture can be a career-ending injury for an athlete.
Then-teammate Andros Townsend was fully aware of the severity, later reflecting on it being the “one of the saddest days of my career” due to the combination of his friend’s agony and Hodgson’s impending exit.
Hodgson was convinced it was an obstacle Eze – who is also eligible to represent Nigeria – would overcome, however, saying a few days later: “One is then concerned that is going to have a catastrophic effect on the player himself. [But] I’ve been very impressed by his resilience and mental approach. He will recover and will recover faster than is normally possible to recover. In the meantime, he’s going to have to accept that these tests of his mental capacity are part and parcel of football. He’s learnt so early on and he has a bright future, this young man. He will get over it.”
He wasn’t wrong, but Eze’s still had to overcome challenges and difficulty. Quite recently, actually.
He did go on to play in every one of Palace’s 38 Premier League games in 2022-23, but he lost his place in the starting XI in mid-January and spent most of the following two months coming off the bench.
In Patrick Vieira’s final 10 league matches in charge, Eze played more than 45 minutes just twice. When you consider most would identify the 24-year-old as one of Palace’s most talented players and that the team were being steadily sucked into a relegation battle, Vieira’s ostracisation of Eze looked puzzling from the outside. They won none of those 10 games.
When Eze did play under Vieira this season, he was often urged to operate towards the left. The graphic below shows where his touches of the ball took place on the pitch this season under the Frenchman and then after Hodgson’s return. The difference is stark.
Hodgson has deployed him more centrally, but generally the change in manager led to an improvement in the squad’s mood. There’s a greater sense of freedom, whereas Vieira was considered to be fairly strict.
“I think [Hodgson] has just given us the confidence in what we’re good at,” Eze said in April. “We know what we can do. We know what we’re capable of, and he’s given us the licence to go and do that. We’re playing with a lot more freedom, more energy, and we’re so much more positive, which is a huge credit to the gaffer coming in and helping us with that.”
It’s fair to say one of the most notable results of Palace’s changes has been Eze’s form. Had Vieira remained in charge for the rest of the season, the chances of Eze breaking into the England squad would’ve been remote.
But it’s not even an exaggeration to say he arguably finished the season as one of the Premier League’s form players. Having scored just four times in 27 top-flight games under Vieira this term, he netted six in 10 as Hodgson comfortably guided the Eagles to safety. Only five players scored more over the same period.
Hodgson using Eze in a more central role didn’t make him significantly more involved on a base level – his touches per 90 minutes only increased slightly from 57.5 to 58.9. But his touches in the opposition’s box nearly doubled (2.5 to 4.8), and as such Palace enjoyed more tangible results from him having the ball, hence Eze’s expected goals (xG) increasing over the two periods from 3.25 (27 games) to 3.96 (10 games).
Eze finished the season with 10 goals in total. Those translated to 11 points won, a figure only six players could better, and more than half of his output in this metric came in the final 10 games of the campaign. He netted both goals in each of the 2-0 wins over Southampton and Bournemouth; he also converted the penalty that was the difference in the 4-3 defeat of West Ham.
The goals he’s scored have shown a real variety, too. There were delicate back-post headers against Wolves and Brentford; a poacher’s finish under pressure in the 5-1 demolition of Leeds; a first-time left-footed sweep into the far side of the net against Bournemouth to cap off a 25-pass move, which was the third-longest goal-ending sequence in the Premier League this season.
But it was his other goal against Bournemouth, his second at Southampton, and his effort at home to Leeds way back in October that showcased the kind of quality that sets Eze apart and will hopefully be on display for England soon.
For each of those goals in question Eze’s balance and confidence on the ball shone through, either shrugging off or dribbling past at least one defender. His two goals directly following a take-on was bettered only by Miguel Almirón this season, while no one could match his 73 successful dribbles past an opponent.
In fact, Eze’s technical brilliance as a dribbler is probably best evidenced by the fact Martin Ødegaard was the sole player of the 49 to attempt at least 70 dribbles and record a better success rate, though the difference was negligible (63.0% to 62.9%).
Simply put, Eze’s an elegant, aesthetically pleasing footballer. Confident carrying the ball and brave enough to test defenders in decisive areas, he brings genuine quality to the England setup. It could be argued that consistency has eluded him to this point, and that should be one of his next areas of focus now Hodgson has seemingly identified to everyone where he’s best utilised.
But for now, Eze has every right to sit back and reflect on a testing journey from rock-bottom back to square one: England duty.