Many of the plaudits for Crystal Palace’s promotion to the Premier League may have gone to Wilfried Zaha and his extraordinary season in which he was capped by England and earned a £15 million move to Manchester United. Zaha is however, just one of a series of youngsters to graduate from Crystal Palace’s production line, an alumni that includes Nathaniel Clyne, Wayne Routledge, John Bostock and Victor Moses before him. The outlook after Zaha looks good at Selhurst Park too, with the emergence of 19 year old attacking midfielder Johnny Williams.
After joining Palace from a young age and receiving his footballing education at the brilliant academy facilities in south London, Williams signed his first professional contract in 2010 and went on to excel in the reserve and youth teams. His rise to prominence was such that he was given his debut by Dougie Freedman at the start of the 2011/2012 with a substitute appearance against Coventry City.
Despite only 17, his impressive displays in the youth sides generated a hype that Williams could have a big role to play in Palace’s 2011/2012 campaign, though unfortunately, the teenager suffered a broken fibula whilst on duty with Wales under-21s in November, ruling him out for a considerable while. However, Williams was to finish the season strongly, stepping up his rehabilitation from injury to end up with 18 league appearances for which he was rewarded with a new five-year deal to keep him at Palace until 2017.
Williams has gone from strength to strength this season, contributing to Palace’s promotion through the play-offs with 37 appearances in his usual role of an advanced play-maker in Ian Holloway’s midfield. His playing-style of close control and mercurial skill between the lines has earned him the nickname “Joniesta” from the Palace supporters, whilst his coach has likened his 5 ft 5 inch technician to Manchester City’s own Spanish schemer David Silva.
Not only has he enjoyed a great year for his club, but Williams has also been rewarded by his country with a senior-team debut against Scotland after he was bought on at half-time for Gareth Bale. He managed to play so well in Glasgow that Chris Coleman rewarded him with his first start against Croatia in Cardiff 3 days later. On the right side of a three-pronged attack with Craig Bellamy and Gareth Bale, Williams stole the limelight with the media and management alike, with Coleman answering questions post-match with this ringing endorsement “in the next couple of trips, you will be asking me about Johnny as much as you do about Gareth Bale”
Williams looks set to be the face of the next-generation of Welsh football alongside Bale, despite being born in England. “Even though I was born in England, I’ve never really got the call off them” he said, “it was always Wales that showed that, when I was 14, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it”. Williams qualifies for Wales through his grandfather and represented the country through every youth-category, from under-17s to under-21, where he became the second youngest player to represent them at that level, aged 17.
Strengths, Style and Weaknesses
It is slightly ironic that Williams’s emergence has come in the rough and tumble of lower-league domestic English football where the culture has shifted towards the more well-built player. Despite being only 5ft’ 5, the diminutive midfielder has remained unfazed by more imposing opponents. On the ball, he possesses an elegance of skill to glide past them whilst off it, he utilises a high energy and desire to press the ball intently to win it back. With him in the side, Palace can take advantage of his relentless work-rate to press high up the field and force opposition defences into mistakes with possession.
It is on the ball however, where Williams can show his true talents, in escaping from tightly-marked areas with nimble footwork and graceful balance. He is naturally left-footed, though he is equally adept on either foot, allowing for close control, a sublime first touch and gifted dribbling skills. In tandem with the gifted vision he possess for finding passes in the final third, there is definitely scope for comparing him to Barcelona’s magical play-maker, the inch-taller Iniesta.
Williams’s ability to use both feet has also made him a huge asset to Holloway in terms of his versatility, playing either out right, left or through the centre, where he is naturally housed. He has also been, to less success, at a deeper midfield position where he struggled in a game against Birmingham City. Williams is more effective when he is allowed to drift into areas of space, avoiding duels against players with more physical strength than him, so it clear why he is more at home in attacking positions.
There is a feeling that Williams has to add goals to his armoury if he is to become a complete attacking threat however, with only professional goal for Palace, against Wigan in the League Cup, to his name so far. He does boast a powerful shot but will need to work on his accuracy to provide more goals to a Palace side that struggled for strikes apart from Glenn Murray’s 31 goal haul over the last campaign. If Williams can work on his shooting and his ability to move into more goal-threatening positions, then he may be able to help ease the burden off Murray.
Palace stand in a good position regarding Williams in that he has another four years to run on his current deal at the club whilst the financial situation remains extremely strong at Selhurst Park following the sale of Wilfried Zaha and the lucrative promotion to the Premier League. Williams, possessing a down to earth, levelled personality, is in no rush to leave his boyhood club whilst Palace are in no rush to sell.
That news will disappoint the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester City and Liverpool who have all reportedly expressed an interest in the 20 year old midfielder. City have even been linked with a bid of up to £8 million for the player, though with Williams being able to ply his trade in the Premier League next season, it is likely that other clubs will have to wait patiently to eventually acquire this gifted, hard-working attacking midfielder.