Enzo Maresca keeps Will Alves close as important Leicester City decision beckons

Will Alves in action for Leicester City Under-21s in their Premier League Cup tie against Brentford
Uncertain future... Will Alves -Credit:Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

On the same night Leicester City sealed promotion to the Premier League, their under-21s earned perhaps their best win of the season.

Because attention was naturally focused on events at Loftus Road and how Leeds would fare at QPR, the development squad’s 3-1 success at West Ham was somewhat overlooked. But it was a very good way for them to wrap up their campaign.

City were already confirmed to finish outside the top 16 and therefore miss out on the play-offs in the new Premier League 2 format, so there was little riding on the fixture. But against the Hammers, sitting second and having only lost three of their previous 19 games, City grabbed the victory.

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Take a closer look at the team sheets and maybe it’s understandable. City had Ben Nelson and Wanya Marcal in the side, the pair promoted to the first team this season, and they had Will Alves and Sammy Braybrooke in the team too.

The latter pair, two of the club’s most promising talents, had been missing for the majority of the season as they recovered from ACL tears suffered the previous winter. Alves made a quicker recovery, but picked up muscle injuries here and there to stop him putting a run of games together. Braybrooke took longer to return, but was able to finish the campaign with a consistent run of games.

In all, there were just three matches where both Alves and Braybrooke were on the pitch at the same time. The first was against Manchester City, and Leicester were drawing 1-1 when Alves went off at the interval. They eventually lost 3-1. Then there were the final two games, a 3-0 victory over Stoke before the win at West Ham.

The duo were at the heart of those successes, particularly Alves. Against Stoke, he set up the first by weaving around defenders to get into the box and to the byline before cutting back to Oli Ewing. Then he made a run into the box to receive Silko Thomas’s pass and cross for Ewing to score again.

Against West Ham, he did it all himself. Receiving the ball midway inside West Ham’s half, he carried the ball around one man, jinked inside another and then fired in from the edge of the box. It’s what Alves is all about: dribbling with speed and close control and then making it count in the final third.

The next morning, he was celebrating with the first-team squad at Seagrave, and it wasn’t a one-off. Alves’s proximity to the senior team over the final week of the campaign suggests Enzo Maresca sees him as part of the group, even if he did not manage to get a game this term. Alves walked out with the squad to receive a medal against Blackburn, and then jetted off to Monte Carlo with the rest of the first-teamers for a short victory holiday courtesy of the chairman.

It didn’t take long for Maresca to spot Alves’s talent. Back in October, when Alves first started training again, the manager had a knowing smile on his face as he said the teenager had “something special”.

The question now is when he’s going to show it for a senior team, and for which team that will be. Alves’s lack of senior exposure so far means it’s unknown what his level is.

Maresca clearly feels he has potential, but does he have the ability to make appearances as in the Premier League next season? It feels extremely unlikely that he’s going to be a prominent player in the top flight.

Then the decision has to be whether his development is best served making the odd appearance here and there and learning directly from Maresca, or by spending a season out on loan and getting more senior game-time. It’s a tricky decision, made more difficult by not knowing quite where Alves is at.

With very little first-team experience, it’s difficult to place his ability in a senior context. If City are going to loan him out, they don’t want to send him to a club where he’s not going to play every week, but equally they’ll want him to be challenged so that he progresses more quickly.

City’s academy is doing great work right now. To have so many local lads contribute to their Championship title success, including the star of the team in Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, should not be taken for granted. But the right decisions have to be taken along the way so that their talent can be nurtured. If City get those calls right, they can make Alves a star of the team too.

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