Jordan Rhodes and Nick Powell: A glimpse of future Premier League players
When Jordan Rhodes netted Huddersfield Town’s first goal at the Stadium: MK on Saturday, Sky commentator Alan Parry called him “the hottest property in the Football League”. Among 72 clubs, it would be a bold move to single out any one player above his peers. But when you go one step further and put a League One player on that pedestal above any from the division above, it is quite a statement. Rhodes was one of two Football League forwards with huge potential upon whom the spotlight was shone this weekend.
The other, Nick Powell of Crewe Alexandra, only turned 18 two months ago. At 22, Rhodes is well-established by comparison. Powell’s Crewe took on Southend United in their League Two play-off semi-final first leg just hours after Rhodes had set the standard in Buckinghamshire.
Huddersfield had largely struggled to impose themselves on the Milton Keynes defence until the first chance of the afternoon arrived for Rhodes. Strike partner Lee Novak swung in an inviting ball from the left and Rhodes ghosted past the static Dean Lewington to glance a pinpoint header into the corner of the net. Attempting to nullify the prolific attacker must have figured prominently in Milton Keynes manager Karl Robinson’s gameplan, but this was probably based more around cutting off the supply line rather than the level of attention paid to marking him. At League One level, even the most intense concentration can fail when faced with such a deadly marksman. Novak was afforded space to provide the ammunition and the finish was perfect.
In the stands, Terriers chairman Dean Hoyle lifted a finger into the air. It didn’t take a professional lip-reader to make out the words: “One chance”. In tight play-off games, finishing of this quality is priceless and Hoyle’s firm stance on the potential sale of Rhodes in the January transfer window shows all the signs of paying off. The game swung in the visitors’ favour from that moment onwards with right-back Jack Hunt adding a vital second goal late on. Rhodes was quiet around the penalty area in the second period but still managed to supply a golden chance for Novak, which was fired narrowly wide of David Martin’s far post, to return the favour and was also wrongly flagged offside when played clear through on goal from just inside the home side’s half.
When Huddersfield manager Simon Grayson substituted Rhodes less than ten minutes from the end of normal time, there was an element of “job done” about proceedings. While there is still room for a turnaround at the Galpharm, Robinson must be fearful that Rhodes can finish the job with one strike up in Yorkshire.
Over to Powell, who is a very different prospect to Rhodes. His name has been on the radar for a while due to England youth international honours, often alongside his Crewe team-mate Max Clayton who was a late substitute this weekend, and he has long been linked with the usual host of top Premier League clubs.
Crewe, unbeaten in 16 games going into the play-offs, have been credited with adding a physical element to their game which had previously been technical to the point of softness. On this evidence, much of the neat play has been retained but there is also now a hard edge despite their youth. They dealt well with a Southend side that went within a point of automatic promotion, denied by a single second half goal scored by Crawley Town at Accrington on the final day. There were strong performances from the likes of AJ Leitch-Smith, a livewire 22-year-old striker, and 24-year-old centre-back Adam Dugdale, who headed the only goal from an acute angle after the break. But despite a wealth of talent to admire, the focus from clubs further up the pyramid would still largely have related to Powell’s ability on the slightly bigger stage that the play-off setup provides.
Southend defended deep and in numbers during an uneventful first half, Powell finding little space to create for team-mates or pose problems for United goalkeeper Cameron Belford other than a well-executed cross from the left. In the second half, he rose high to win a header which gave Leitch-Smith a sight of goal and showed good awareness to play in Matt Tootle who was unfortunate not to force a shot on goal. In the 91st minute, Powell drifted in from the left and played a clever one-two with Clayton but his shot was blocked when an important second goal looked almost inevitable. Crewe can only hope that missed opportunity won’t be looked back upon with regret.
There is no escaping the fact that this was a quiet game for an impressive talent, but the versatile nature of Powell’s game still shone through. While Rhodes is a natural finisher who shows tremendous movement off the ball, Powell looks to be a more complete footballer in his ability to drift deep, act as a targetman and dribble past opponents. Against Southend, he showed excellent workrate to track back and augment the central midfield area when needed. In this sense, the pair would arguably make a fine strike force in tandem given their different positional preferences. They also share qualities, perhaps most of all robust upper body strength despite not being overly well-built. Both shrugged off the attention of defenders en route to goal for their respective sides on Saturday.
While the play-offs can be a great opportunity for players to make themselves heroes, they are also unquestionably a useful showcase for curious supporters of clubs in higher divisions. While the most that the majority of neutrals will have seen of Powell in particular can only be on television highlights shows, here we saw enough to justify some of the hype. The play-offs mean we can judge Powell as more than just the teenager who scored one of the best goals in the Football League this season at Gillingham. The biggest clubs in the country already know all about both Jordan Rhodes and Nick Powell. There was evidence here to show why they are paying such close attention.
Want to see for yourself?
Tuesday 15th May, 7.45pm: Huddersfield Town v Milton Keynes (Sky Sports 1)
Wednesday 16th May, 7.45pm: Southend United v Crewe Alexandra (Sky Sports 1)