Rolando Aarons has pace to burn
Preseason is often cited as the ideal opportunity for young talent to make an impression at first-team level. Yet, for all its reputation as a period of renewal and introspection, it remains true that very few players are able to force their way into a manager's plans in the space of just a few weeks. With fitness levels low and games often disrupted by mass substitutions and unfamiliar selections, it is a difficult environment in which to truly display your full potential.
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It can be done, though, and each season across the Premier League there are a handful of players who do enough in July and August to force their way into the wider plans of a manager for the season ahead. This year, players such as Tyler Blackett at Manchester United, Liverpool's Jordon Ibe and Spurs' Ryan Mason have perhaps been such beneficiaries. Yet it is largely unknown Newcastle United winger Rolando Aarons who can surely claim to be the big youth beneficiary of the past fortnight.
Jamaican by birth, but eligible for England, Aarons joined the north-east side from Bristol City in 2012 and went largely under the radar until earlier this year, when he stood out for the Magpies in the FA Youth Cup and earned himself a professional contract at the club. By the end of the campaign there were mutterings of a first-team introduction, but even among the club's support it was young forward Adam Armstrong who was seen as the youngster most likely to make an impact at first-team level this year. Assigned the No. 16 shirt, Aarons would now appear to be leading the way, and his manager is among those enamoured.
"Rolando's the sort of player the fans will love; he's obviously very quick," Pardew said of the young winger recently. "He plays left side and gets crosses in, which is something we haven't got in the group. He enjoys playing that role. We've had a couple of left-footed players who don't actually like playing that side, but he has the pace to trouble any full-back." The Newcastle manager would later go on to describe Aarons as "the highlight of preseason" following his starring role in a friendly success away to Schalke.
It was that tie in the Veltins Arena that has made people sit up and take note of Aarons' development. A burst down the left flank, turning his defender inside out in the process, and inch-perfect cross saw Emmanuel Riviere give Newcastle the lead in their 3-1 win before Aarons later added his name to the scoresheet with a chipped finish from a similar burst down the wing. It was a cross gone wrong, or so most observers will have seen it, but Aarons has since claimed intent.
Regardless of whether the goal was intentional, the 18-year-old deserves great credit for the way he has approached the summer and burst into Pardew's first-team plans. The Daily Mail has reported that manager Pardew and assistant John Carver have been shocked by the player's physical development over the offseason, while ChronicleLive's Lee Ryder cites one teammate as commenting last month: "Honestly, I don't know what he's done over the summer but he is absolutely flying. He could be in for a season to remember you know." Aarons must also be applauded for his dedication in ensuring he arrived back for preseason ready to make a significant impact.
"I worked so hard offseason. I wasn't expecting to be pushing for the first team, so I'm surprised," the Daily Mail quote Aarons as saying. "I'm happy with what I did offseason -- it gave me the opportunity to do what I'm doing here." It now appears that the youngster can look forward to at least some involvement early this campaign, in spite of a raft of attacking signings at St James' Park. Remy Cabella, Siem de Jong and Riviere will take some shifting from first-team berths but as Pardew attests, Newcastle have nobody else quite like Aarons in their ranks.
The powerful Aarons has the ability to beat players with his impressive close control before accelerating clear. Throughout his appearances in preseason and for the club's under-18 side last campaign, he has consistently looked to hit the byline before crossing into the area. Given the prevalence of inverted wingers in the modern game, his presence offers Newcastle an interesting alternative. While not overly reliant on trickery, with his pace and balance often enough to beat an opponent, Aarons also has enough technical quality to give full-backs a tough time if they get too tight. Back off, meanwhile, and his pace becomes a major threat.
Given his Jamaican origins, comparisons with Liverpool's Raheem Sterling are inevitable, but Aarons is more of a typical wide player than the versatile QPR academy product. Aarons, though, has a similar physique and natural balance on the ball. The Newcastle player has much to prove before any such similarities are to be taken as more than a cursory note and, as he himself noted following the encounter with Schalke, he remains entirely unproven as a first-team player.
An important season awaits, but Newcastle will be desperate to see one of the club's young players advance following disappointments of recent years. Aarons will hope that impact begins against Manchester City next weekend, in what is the toughest of openings that Pardew could have asked for. However, it is on such occasions that many young talents have previously announced their arrival on the big stage. Aarons will hope that this time around it can be his time to impress and build upon his hard work over the summer months.