West Ham defender Reece Oxford is seen as the next big star in the making for many West Ham fans, but despite signing a new contract last month, the 18 year old has had a tougher time of it recently.
This season has been interrupted by an ankle injury he picked up in late October but before that he had yet to make a single appearance in a Premier League match despite starting two Europa League qualifiers and making the bench for six of the first nine league games of the season. It seems as though Slaven Bilic was not entirely convinced by Oxford that he could step it up to become a first team player quite yet.
Now returning to fitness after a long injury lay off, the centre back has made the bench for the last three games, and with the season ending knee injury to Angelo Ogbonna, the England Under 19 international could be in the running for more game time.
Perhaps a more important development though is the arrival of Jose Fonte from Southampton. The 33 year old will certainly be ahead of Oxford in the pecking order for starts, and some may say this is a setback for the young defender; to be relegated behind a centre back who is close to the end of his career. If I was Oxford though, I would see it as an opportunity rather than a snub.
Fonte has had an interesting career to say the least. After making his way through six different clubs in Portugal in the first five years of his professional career, his switch to England on a loan spell at Crystal Palace proved to be a turning point. After impressing on loan, he moved permanently to Palace in 2008, establishing himself as a no-nonsense centre back.
Despite being a regular for the Championship side, he moved to League One side Southampton under Alan Pardew in 2010. It looked to be another step backwards but it turned out to be an inspired move. Six years later, he would be playing in the Premier League, qualifying for the Europa League and winning the European Championships with Portugal after only making his debut for his country at the age of 30.
Fonte is by no means a similar style of player to Oxford but his playing experience at all levels of the game is second to none. He knows how to deal with pressure from high balls. You don’t excel in League One without excellent aerial ability! He is also very good organiser on the pitch, leading by example and allowing more talented players around him to express themselves.
His partnership with Virgil van Dijk is something worth mentioning. After arriving from Celtic in 2015, the Dutchman was not necessarily the most consistent player but over the last year or so, performing alongside Fonte, the 25 year old has become one of the league’s most sought after properties.
Oxford has a long way to go to even be at the level van Dijk was when he arrived at Southampton but I have no doubt that Fonte’s all round game and experience will help the young defender if and when he plays alongside him. Although it may be the case that Winston Reid starts with Fonte for the majority of matches, if Oxford does get a chance to play alongside the Portuguese international, it will help his game to go the next level.
Portugal’s triumph at the Euros last summer was testament to a stubborn defence rather than an attack blessed with a huge amounts of flair and ability, Cristiano Ronaldo apart, and Fonte was the cornerstone in that Portugal backline. His ability should not be underestimated by anybody and even though he is coming to the end of his career, he could yet play a key role in helping a player like Oxford develop.
The defensive know-how: the ability to mark players out of the game, where to position yourself in the backline, when to tackle and when to stand your ground, come through playing matches but if you have a man like Fonte alongside, that learning curve will be a lot easier, and progress will come a lot faster because of it.