The idea that Tom Ince could somehow go under the radar would be comedic to many.
As a youngster, he was consistently linked with top teams in England and abroad. This season, he has been part of a newly promoted Huddersfield Town side that went undefeated in their opening three league fixtures.
And, in addition to all of that, his father, Paul, is a former Premier League star who made over 50 appearances for England and played at the highest level of the game.
However, the 25-year-old has continued to struggle for recognition this term, despite his role in the impressive results his team have accrued and the increasing media spotlight that has followed. He remains, at a crucial juncture in his career, widely viewed as much a consequence of intense early hype as a talent in his own right.
It was always going to be difficult to meet expectations. Paul Ince bossed Manchester United’s midfield for many years before becoming one of a raft of English exports to settle in the iconic climes of Serie A in the mid-1990s. The moment his son decided to follow his footsteps and be a professional footballer, he took on the unique burden of living up to an esteemed family name.
That name is still a weight today; it probably always will be. Fans may never stop wanting something more from Tom Ince simply because of his surname, as opposed to who he is. But so far this season he has shown he has what it takes to shoulder the weight of expectation and leave his own imprint on the Premier League.
PREMIER LEAGUE STRUGGLES
Ince came through Liverpool’s youth academy but had to drop down a division to obtain regular game time at senior level. Joining freshly relegated Blackpool with the aim of helping them back into the top tier, he instead stayed with the club in the Championship for the best part of three seasons.
The time at Bloomfield Road was well spent, however, as he established himself as one of the most exciting young attackers in England. Hitting 31 goals in 100 league outings for the club, he famously attracted attention from the likes of Inter Milan.
There may have been some sentiment attached to that particular rumour, given his father played for the Nerazzurri, but it nonetheless indicated the youngster’s direction of travel. When the Premier League came calling and he left for Crystal Palace on loan midway through 2013/14, few were surprised by his step up.
But what followed was strange. Rather than gradually acclimatise to the league, Ince seemed unable to assert himself. He left Selhurst Park at the end of his loan spell for a permanent deal with Hull City. There, he again failed to bookmark a starting berth, and went out on loan to Nottingham Forest.
Nine months, 15 appearances, one goal and two clubs on from his move to the Premier League, Ince was back in the Championship. And there he would stay for much of the following three years, re-finding his best form with Derby County.
His quality at the second rung of the ladder was not in doubt, but question marks only grew regarding whether he would ever make the grade above. Then, in the summer, Huddersfield came calling.
A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
On 4 July, Ince arrived at Huddersfield for a fee of just over £8million that ultimately made him the club’s second most expensive signing of the summer. His decision to join the club was one made easier by the experience of playing against them.
“They were by far the best team we played last year, for me being at Derby,” he said. “The way he (Huddersfield manager David Wagner) played suited me, I felt. It is not similar but along the same lines as how Steve McClaren played, that expansive attacking football, wanting his forward players to have the freedom to play and that’s what suits me down to the ground.
“When you get that opportunity from a manager who feels that you can bring something to the team, he wants to improve me as a player, I want to improve myself as a player. When you get a feeling like that from a manager, it automatically gives you confidence and that enthusiasm to go out there and play with no pressure.”
Wagner was equally thrilled about the move. “Everybody in England knows that Tom has high-quality,” he told Huddersfield’s official website. “He has been one of the best players in the Sky Bet Championship for many years now. He scores goals, creates them for others and is always a threat when he’s on the pitch, so I’m very happy to welcome him to the club.”
In the eyes of many, however, the initial excitement surrounding the transfer has not yet been met with performances on the pitch. While the team have thrilled with their refusal to bend on their ideals despite the enhanced quality of opposition they face, Ince has yet to deliver in the ways many traditionally expect.
An attacking midfielder in an attack-minded team, he has yet to register a single goal or assist in seven league appearances. Hence his flying under the radar, because, in spite of his lack of output in those specific areas, he has contributed positively.
Only two Huddersfield regulars have averaged more key passes than Ince, and only one completes more dribbles. In both categories, he has contributed one per game. He has also attempted more shots per game than any of his colleagues – 2.9 per game, to be exact. And, while some may point to that as highlighting his poor finishing, 57 per cent of his efforts have hit the target.
These statistics act as numerical indicators of the key role the 25-year-old plays in his team’s attacking play. Operating in a central attacking midfield position within a basic 4-2-3-1 shape, he is pivotal to the effectiveness of his side’s possession game.
Ince is given a good amount of freedom within Wagner’s system. He moves laterally to combine with the two wingers, and he also moves vertically to aid in the build-up and help Huddersfield progress the ball through the thirds. Showing good awareness, he combines well with team-mates and offers them penetrative forward passes.
His technique and creativity are what stands out, but he is also doing more than his fair share of defensive work. He supports the centre-forward, whether that be Steve Mounié or Laurent Depoitre, in instigating the press and defending from the front. His willingness and ability to break up opposition play is seen in his making 1.9 tackles per game.
These are the underlying metrics that may not be immediately visible to those watching Ince play. He is a true team player in all phases; while he may not possess searing pace or one-on-one specialism, he is showcasing the sort of holistic tactical understanding that defines many top attacking midfielders.
With all of this in mind, it is not a stretch to say that he will, at the third attempt, make his Premier League mark with Huddersfield, and that onlookers will soon forget his surname and admire him for his play. Further still, there is an argument to be made that he could help his country.
England are, according to some, going through a sort of creative crisis at this moment in time. Beyond Dele Alli and Adam Lallana, there is a serious shortage of true No.10s to link attacks. This could be an issue going into the 2018 World Cup, especially as national team boss Gareth Southgate has a clear preference for a 4-2-3-1.
While it’s early days as far as his time with Huddersfield is concerned, Ince may soon be called upon to provide solutions to this problem. Indeed, statistically, he is already close to Alli in terms of dribbles per game – one to 1.4 – and pass completion – 80.6 to 80.7 per cent.
The great intangible is the name. Nobody, outside of the few who have first-hand experience, really knows what it’s like to have their personal achievements overlooked or reduced due to some familial connection.
Ince does, but it isn’t holding him back. He has gone from prospect to star to reject to renewal. He has suffered the scrutiny of the public and refused to be shackled by it. His progression may not end Premier League football.