Youth in focus: Calem Nieuwenhof
The A-League Men has a host of young talent currently playing substantial minutes and having a considerable effect on their respective sides. In this new series, Front Page Football will highlight some of the prospects in the league that are breaking ground and positively influencing the future of Australian football.
Calem Nieuwenhof warms up for the Wanderers. (WSW Facebook)
In terms of results, the Western Sydney Wanderers have underwhelmed in the past half-decade. Last season was particularly miserable as, once again, the Wanderers fell short of their top six aspirations under Carl Robinson after a heavy recruitment drive.
Those who watched them could link much of their underwhelming performances to a disjointed and unbalanced midfield that failed to manage a full 90 minutes of football. But the appointment of Marko Rudan and a significant squad overhaul in 2022/23 has resulted in the Wanderers joining Melbourne City at the top of the A-League Men.
One player in particular who has shone beyond all expectations is Calem Nieuwenhof. He has hit the ground running in the West. The 21-year-old has fit seamlessly into a midfield dedicated to progression and disruption in attacking and defensive phases. Upon signing for the Wanderers, Nieuwenhof highlighted his hunger for consistent minutes after missing most of the last 18 months through injury.
"In my first few games, I showed promise, and I never got to string a full season together," he told the club's website ahead of his debut season.
So far, Nieuwenhof has won 78% of his tackles, 63% of his duels, and completed five interceptions in 355 minutes. In attack, he has proved an outlet when progressing the ball, completing 82% of his passes and five successful dribbles in four appearances. Nieuwenhof can play as a pivot in a midfield capable of playing as a low-block in transition or as a more traditional box-to-box midfielder in a possession-based system. He has perhaps made Sydney FC regret letting him go earlier this year.
What is most impressive about the youngster is his instincts both defensively and in the attacking phases. He can telegraph the decisions of his direct opponent in midfield whilst expanding the Wanderers' attack with passes that demonstrate decision-making beyond his years. Rudan's team prides itself on suffocating its opposition in midfield and snuffing out any ball progression. Nieuwenhof looks surprisingly comfortable filling the middle of the park alongside A-League Men veteran Milos Ninkovic. He allows the Serbian to create through his dribbling and expanded passing range.
A particularly outstanding performance against Melbourne Victory in round two boosted Nieuwenhof's profile in the league. So far, he looks like one of the best signings this season as he stamps his place in the Wanderers midfield.
"He's got a really good head on his shoulders," Rudan said in his press conference following their 1-0 win over the Victory.
However, the manager understands that he must challenge players like Nieuwenhof every day to ensure proper development.
"There are still moments there where he (Nieuwenhof) has to understand how we do things, the little things as well," Rudan added.
Nieuwenhof's superb technical ability, energy up-and-down the pitch, and defensive talents are similar to great box-to-box midfielders we've previously seen in the league. Prime examples such as Matt McKay and Mitch Nicholls come to mind. His consistency at an A-League level has already been proven. Should he keep this form up, it shouldn't surprise anyone if, in 18 months, he is playing in a top league in Europe or Asia.
Stay tuned for another edition of the "Youth In Focus" series next week. If you would like to read more right now, though, click here to check out more Western Sydney Wanderers content!