Released by Arsenal, Fulham, Reading and Millwall while still in his teenage years, Eberechi Eze endured failed trials and questions over his languid attitude. Over the weekend, Roy Hodgson gave the 22-year-old playmaker his first Premier League start for new club Crystal Palace and judging by how he’s handled adversity in the past, it’s likely the first of many to come.
Late last year, I planned a big feature piece on Eze and how he wouldn’t be in the Championship much longer. I’ve watched him multiple times live since and that belief was increasingly clear.
The most recent memory was during QPR’s surprise 1-0 win over Leeds in mid-January.
He completed a game-high six dribbles, one big chance created and was their best player besides goalkeeper Liam Kelly, who saved a second-half penalty.
At the time in preparation for this piece, I wrote:
“Whether it’s his brilliant close-control dribbling, the languid way he manipulates the ball or showcases an under-rated passing range to devastating effect, 21-year-old Eze is bound for the top.
It’s remarkable to think that just two seasons ago, he was featuring on-loan at Wycombe Wanderers – who were then in League Two.
His rapid progression just reinforces the danger of knee-jerk decisions surrounding player development in the 14-20 age-group at academy level.”
Fast forward to present day: he made his first top-flight start this past weekend in Palace’s 2-1 defeat by Carlo Ancelotti’s quietly impressive Everton side.
Eze vs Everton:
75 minutes played
Joint game-high three interceptions
Completed three dribbles, one key pass with 78.6% pass accuracy (33 successful passes)
It wasn’t a vintage individual display, but instead is an important foundation to build upon for the weeks and months that follow. After all, he sealed a £16m move from QPR just last month.
During a Sky feature published a month before his 22nd birthday, his then head coach Mark Warburton didn’t mince words when describing what a talent Eze is.
“I honestly believe that he’s a top-six Premier League player, all day long. I’ve watched how he is before games – he just can’t wait to go and play.
He’s relaxed, looking forward to it. You watch players who are a bag of nerves before games but not Ebs.”
However, Palace came calling and were happy to pay for his services – staying relatively close to home in south London. Judging by his first interview, feeling delighted is an understatement.
Perhaps the most telling part of the video was him detailing the aforementioned journey to the Premier League, which might have felt like a pipe dream just three years ago.
“Started at Arsenal from 8-13. Fulham from 13-16, then to Reading for half a year, Millwall for my scholar then on trial to a few places…
Went to Sunderland, Bristol, didn’t get in. Thankfully to Paul Hall and Andrew Imps at QPR, they gave me a contract and it went from there.”
Importantly, he didn’t let criticism or those persistent questions get him down. As quoted by talkSPORT, Eze said:
“It’s people’s perceptions. Everyone’s going to have their opinions. It’s football, people have different opinions and see things differently.
It was never something I took personally, it was more just keeping my head down, working hard and trying to prove to everyone that I can do it at a high level and perform consistently.
The journey makes his success even sweeter. Palace agreed a five-year contract, having sold him on a long-term plan which will best suit his playing style and preferred role going forward.
Palace’s business proves they’re moving in right direction
For a side without a piece of silverware for 29 years (and counting), who regularly sell their best players and usually finish mid-table or too close to a relegation battle every year, that’s progress.
Tyrick Mitchell (21), summer signing Nathan Ferguson (19) and Eze are three youngsters bedding their way into the first-team picture.
Meanwhile, playmaker Nya Kirby (20) and striker Alfie Matthews (18, free transfer from Arsenal) are among the notable names waiting patiently with the under-23s.
Brentford’s wantaway winger Said Benrahma remains a target for the Eagles, who look to close the gap on top-half teams and maintain consistency all season long – easier said than done.
Signing players like Eze go a long way to retaining Wilfried Zaha, their talisman who hasn’t been shy about angling for a big-money switch to a Champions League club in previous seasons.
A lot has been discussed about the potential Eze-Zaha partnership in the final third, the pair dovetailing with one another in transition. For opposition defences, that’s a worrying thought.
Now, imagine adding Benrahma into the mix. Two of last season’s top Championship creators in a Palace side that scored just 31 goals last term? Only bottom side Norwich had less (26).
Eze (EE) and Benrahma (SB) in the Championship, 2019-20
EE: 14 goals, eight assists – 3 successful dribbles (61%), 1.8 key passes, 1.2 tackles per game
SB: 17 goals, eight assists – 3.1 dribbles (55%), 2.1 key passes and 1.1 tackles PG
Benrahma was playing in a Brentford side that were 30 minutes away from the Premier League, while Eze proved the shining light in an underwhelming campaign for QPR.
Palace isn’t exactly a sexy destination but the lure of regular minutes and a platform to express himself could prove key long-term for Eze, who aims for consistency among better opposition.
It’s something that players like Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey are already reaping the rewards of, having departed Chelsea’s academy blanket for regular Premier League football in January.
QPR’s director of football Les Ferdinand said he may be in line for an England call-up if he sustains his high levels, though he’s also courting interest from Nigeria and in no rush to decide.
Although he’s had a steady start, he’ll only grow in confidence with more minutes under his belt as Palace look to exceed expectations in what could be another unpredictable league campaign.
New teammate Cheikhou Kouyate perhaps said it best on Saturday.
“This kid is so special. Now we need to give him a little bit of time. The Premier League are going to enjoy him because he has a good mentality, he plays well and we are happy to have this boy here.”
Palace have a gem on their hands and judging by reactions to his arrival, they don’t need telling.
Pictures’ source: CPFC, Getty — stats’ source: SofaScore, WhoScored