Roy Hodgson is turning to a 19-year-old to help boost his midfield. Can Adam Wharton give Crystal Palace what they have been missing in the middle in recent games?
It has been a very quiet January transfer window, especially in the Premier League.
We certainly didn’t think one of the more exciting deals of the window would involve Crystal Palace buying someone from Blackburn Rovers, but here we are.
England Under-20 international Adam Wharton is on his way to south London for a reported fee of up to £22 million with add-ons.
It has been an underwhelming season for Palace so far, summarised by the travelling fans during the recent 5-0 thrashing at Arsenal holding up banners reading: “Wasted potential on and off the pitch. Weak decisions. Taking us backwards.” This was presumably aimed at the ownership, but it was a sad image seeing manager Roy Hodgson gazing at the away fans holding up the scathing words after his team had been well beaten.
Things must have felt even worse when Ben Brereton Díaz gave bottom-placed Sheffield United the lead at Selhurst Park on Tuesday after just 20 seconds, only for Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise to combine to turn things around for a much-needed 3-2 win.
There is little arguing that the Palace squad could do with some boosting, though.
They have the worst tackle success in the Premier League (55.2%) and only five teams average lower than their 42.7% possession this season, so more steel and control in midfield would be most welcome, especially having been without Cheick Doucouré since November.
The Mali international has been out with an Achilles tendon issue and won’t be back any time soon, so it always seemed likely that Palace would look for a deep-lying midfielder in this transfer window.
That could be why they have turned to one of the most exciting prospects in the Championship.
Palace have had some joy signing players from England’s second tier. Eze and Olise are the star players at Selhurst Park having arrived from Queens Park Rangers and Reading respectively. They were responsible for all three of Palace’s goals against Sheffield United on Tuesday (two goals for Eze; a goal and two assists for Olise). How they could do with someone else stepping up to match their impact, though.
Wharton has more than stepped up since coming into the senior side at Blackburn. Having come through the youth setup at his local club, the 19-year-old won their young player of the year award last season and is now fully ensconced as a first-team regular.
Only Callum Brittain (27) has featured in more Championship games for Blackburn this season than Wharton (26), while only four Rovers teammates have accrued more minutes played than his 1,960.
He has two goals and three assists despite playing predominantly as a defensive midfielder. In the main, Wharton has partnered Sondre Tronstad in a midfield two for Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side, though he has also occasionally featured in more attacking midfield roles, including on the left wing.
His off-the-ball work has previously been questioned but only 12 midfielders in the Championship (minimum of 10 starts) have averaged more tackles per game than Wharton’s 2.8 this season, while only 22 have made more recoveries. Only Tronstad can match his overall number of tackles (60), no-one has competed in as many as his 245 duels (49.8% success) and only centre-back Hayden Carter (35) has made more than his 32 interceptions.
It is his work on the ball that gets the most attention, though. Among his Blackburn teammates this season, only Andrew Moran (6) has more assists than Wharton while no-one has created as many chances as his 35. Only six midfielders in the Championship have made more than his 109 progressive passes this season.
As you can see below, he takes most of his touches at the base of midfield, but doesn’t limit himself to that area of the pitch too much.
Comparing his numbers to his potential future teammates at Crystal Palace, Wharton stacks up fairly well, albeit in the division below. He averages far more passes per 90 minutes (55.2) than any Palace midfielder this season, though the difference in style of play between Blackburn and the Eagles must be taken into account. His overall passing accuracy of 84.6% is bettered by Doucouré (87.2%), Will Hughes (86.5%) and Eze (85.3%) but his average of 1.6 chances created per 90 is only behind Eze (2.6).
From a defensive viewpoint, Wharton’s rates of interceptions (1.5) and recoveries (6.6) per 90 are only behind Doucouré (1.9 interceptions, 7.2 recoveries). He tackles slightly less than Doucouré (3.3) and Hughes (2.9) but again, that could mostly be due to Palace being a more defence-focused team than Blackburn.
As you can see from the two graphics below, he has also started influencing games across a greater area of the pitch. Last season the majority of his forward passes went down Blackburn’s left side, whereas this season his contributions have been a lot more spread out.
In December, former Milan striker Tomasson heaped praise on the youngster, saying of Wharton: “On the ball, he’s Champions League level, I’ve said that many times. I’ve played there and coached enough at Champions League level and I should know that.” The Blackburn boss did also acknowledge that the player still has plenty to learn.
Wharton clearly has a calm and sensible head on his shoulders, though. In an interview with Scouted last month, he cited notable names from the game as inspirations.
“Obviously I love watching Lionel Messi but I’m sure everyone does. Frenkie de Jong too, I really like how he plays,” he said. “Sergio Busquets manages to make everything look so simple with one or two touches but it’s so effective – I think Rodri at Manchester City would probably be a more current comparison.
“More casual watchers of the game probably won’t realise how much players like Busquets or Rodri affect the game, or how valuable they are. That’s why I like to take different bits from lots of top players, but I’m my own player in my own way – and that’s just as important.”
With a shaven head and low-hanging socks, Wharton might not look like your typical Premier League superstar. But if he can continue to build on the foundations his time at Blackburn has given him, there’s no reason he can’t soar with the Eagles over the next few years.