“On the ball, he’s Champions League level,” Jon Dahl Tomasson stated following Adam Wharton’s decision to sign a new five-year contract with Blackburn Rovers in December.
Six weeks later and Wharton is embarking on a new chapter with Crystal Palace in the Premier League.
Tomasson handed Wharton his professional debut in the EFL Cup last term before integrating him into his first-team setup. Wharton soon established himself as an instrumental figure for Blackburn, enjoying a consistent run of games towards the conclusion of the 2022/23 season and maintaining his upward trajectory into the current campaign.
With reports of a transfer fee in excess of £20million, many Palace supporters may question such an expensive outlay for an unproven teenager and yet their acquisition of Wharton could prove to be one of the club’s smartest and shrewdest signings in years; even with the captures of Michael Olise and Ebere Eze in consideration.
With the mesmerising ability to glide around the football pitch and spray passes with the utmost precision, Wharton’s potential is unlimited.
So what exactly are Crystal Palace receiving? Read our profile of the midfielder below.
Observe any Blackburn game and Wharton immediately catches the eye before play has commenced with his socks sitting low around his shins.
The 19-year-old midfielder followed in the footsteps of his older brother Scott with his progression through Blackburn’s academy. Scott is seven years Adam’s senior and has been a mainstay in the Rovers backline in recent seasons.
When Scott had forged his way into Blackburn’s first-team after a series of loan spells at Lincoln, Bury and Northampton Town, his younger brother was meriting the attention of academy coaches at Brockhall.
Featuring for the U18 side at 16, Wharton was orchestrating victories in the FA Youth Cup and his inclusion in the U23 team only accelerated his development.
Adam's super strength is that he can land it on a sixpence to anyone with both feet. He's technically one of the best footballers I've ever worked with at Under-18s level, he really is.
Mike Kidd, Blackburn Rovers Under-18s head coach
At 17, former Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray gave him a scent of first-team football by including him on the bench against Wigan in the FA Cup and there was growing hysteria from those inside the Blackburn walls that the club had a generational talent on their hands.
He made his first competitive bow in the EFL Cup in August 2022 but it was Wharton’s Championship debut three weeks later where he announced himself.
Blackburn’s previous encounters with Blackpool at Bloomfield Road have frequently been intense affairs and yet Wharton was not fazed by the occasion. Oozing composure, Wharton displayed sublime technique in the creation of the game’s only goal but also exhibited an eagerness to win the ball back throughout the contest, executing a number of tackles and providing Blackburn with authority in the middle of the park.
It would have been easy for Wharton to get carried away by his seamless transition but Tomasson has nurtured him carefully, managing his exposure to the rigours of the Championship and the teenage sensation has prospered from it.
What often undermines young players making their breakthrough on the professional scene is a lack of intelligence but Wharton has a wonderful football IQ.
Constantly aware of his surroundings, he reads the game exceptionally well in both an attacking and defensive perspective.
His passing range is his greatest asset and while he revels in pulling the strings, he doesn’t shirk from his defensive duties and loves to get stuck in.
Wharton ranks in the top 8% of Championship midfielders for tackles and interceptions, averaging 4.23 per game so far this season.
His ability to break-up play has been pivotal to how Tomasson wants his team to function and Wharton has proven himself to be effective at retrieving possession in the opposition third; only Bristol City’s Jason Knight has completed more defensive actions that have led to a shot attempt. His goal in the 1-1 draw with Huddersfield Town was evidence of that, with Wharton intercepting the pass of Jonathan Hogg, bursting forward and finishing with aplomb.
Adam Wharton: Championship 2023/24
|Tackles per 90
|Shot-creating actions per 90
|Key passes per 90
|Progressive passes per 90
Statistics obtained from fbref.com
His elusive movement and nimble footwork make him a difficult figure to dispossess. Inviting defenders to engage, his weight of touch helps him to evade challenges and that's resulted in Wharton being fouled 1.43 times per game this season.
An excellent ball progresser, Wharton has a variety of passes in his locker, flaunting the vision to play through the lines and pick out any teammate.
Averaging 6.48 progressive passes per match, only Norwich City’s Gabriel Sara and Leeds United’s Georginio Rutter have completed more through balls than Wharton in the Championship in the season.
If he’s not dissecting opponents with his passing, he will stretch the opposition with forward runs between the lines and in-behind. In Blackburn’s defeat to Watford, Andrew Moran pulls the central defender out of position and Wharton exploits the space, collects the pass of Hayden Carter and rifles the ball home from a tight angle.
His wand of a left foot assisted his brother from a corner, with Wharton floating an inviting cross to the head of his sibling.
At 19, there are still elements of his game that require improvement, including his sometimes leisured approach to passes in the defensive third. Against a coherent press he has been caught out and he will need to eradicate those errors or risk being punished in the Premier League. There is also tendency for him to naively lunge into tackles, such is his eagerness to win the ball back.
Importantly, Wharton has demonstrated a willingness to learn from his errors. Managing to keep himself grounded, his mentality is impressive for someone so young and that bodes well for his future.
With an experienced head alongside him, Wharton has all the attributes to flourish at Selhurst Park.
Central midfield has been an area that Crystal Palace have needed to address and futureproof.
An Achilles injury to Cheick Doucouré has exposed their vulnerabilities in the middle of the park but it will be interesting to see whether Roy Hodgson will thrust Wharton into the spotlight or delicately phase him into the first-team fold.
Given the expectation that Hodgson will depart the club in the coming months, Palace will have proceeded with Wharton’s capture with their successor in mind.
In the short-term, his arrival could add some much-needed bite to a midfield that’s lacked invention in recent months. Palace have grown increasingly dependent on the creativity of key duo Eze and Olise, having suffered in their absence at stages this season.
Wharton’s presence would enable one of Will Hughes or Jefferson Lerma to focus on their defensive duties and while the 19-year-old will supplement their protection of the backline, he can also provide ammunition for their electric forward three.
Wharton has already demonstrated he can mix it with the big boys, winning more duels than any other player in an impressive performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the EFL Cup.
In the long-term, Palace have acquired a player they can build a team around. Supporters have been critical of the club’s hierarchy in recent weeks but the bold decision to sign Wharton suggests there’s a plan in motion to move the club forward.
Having represented England at U19 and U20 level, many in Lancashire have tipped Wharton to make the cut with the senior team.
If he continues to develop at Palace, there’s every chance he will be knocking on the door of the England senior team in the future.