Another weekend at the shooting gallery – you’ll note that there are no players from the Manchester clubs on the list. So lock and load. It’s a 3-4-2-1:
Goalkeeper: Fraser Forster (Southampton) The penalty save, but also two other fine stops, and he nearly denied Stoke at the death. On one save he even got down low to his right, where he hasn’t been at his best lately. Back in the World Cup reckoning? Elsewhere, Lukasz Fabianski was the Polish Braveheart against Andy Carroll, and made one superb leaping save; Kasper Schmeichel did a little bit of everything; Ederson had his moments.
Centre-Half: James Tarkowski (Burnley) I really like this guy. His style is unusual, and has obviously been coached: he prefers to stand a little off his man and react, knowing he’s got back-up if necessary. But he’s capable of stepping out of the line to win the ball as well, and if necessary can cover lots of ground. (Note, though, that his one mistake was when he came out to challenge Gylfi Sigurdsson and was beaten by a pass in behind.) He’s superb in the air and sends a reliable aerial ball himself. Most surprising of all in such an inexperienced player is that he seems absolutely unruffled no matter what’s happening. Fittingly, he made the last two clearances of the match.
Centre-Half: Jose Fonte (West Ham) One of the many players I’ve been wrong about lately (see Simon Francis, below). A nearly impeccable performance. With the exception of one mediocre clearance, did everything precisely: covering, tackling, cutting out passes, winning aerial duels. Was effective bodying up to Tammy Abraham and keeping him out of the penalty area. Most impressive was a variety of headed clearances, at times smashing the ball forward, but where necessary directing it to the sides to avoid trouble. He also sent some neat long balls in Andy Carroll’s direction.
Centre-Half: Simon Francis (Bournemouth) This spot could just as easily have gone to Nathan Aké, who also sparkled against Leicester City. But the Dutchman has already made the list once, and I’ve slated Francis several times, so here he is to prove me an idiot. Dominated in the air, and even more remarkably, almost neutralised Jamie Vardy on the counter-attack. Leicester had obviously targeted him, sending Vardy flying to the inside left channel, but with one or two exceptions, Francis shut him down.
Top defensive performances are like London buses, and this week there seemed to be one every match, so lots had to be left out, including Aké. Jamal Lascelles turned in his best all-round effort of the season against Liverpool. John Stones was as cool as you like against Chelsea, although not as often challenged as the others. Alfie Mawson may have had his steadiest ever outing for Swansea, except once when Carroll got free and missed scoring by the width of a man bun.
And then there was the Prodigal Son, Virgil van Dijk, returning with the best individual performance by a central defender so far this season – if you leave out two massive mistakes. One was coming way too far out on Saido Berahino, leaving a huge space and nearly costing a goal. The other was tripping Berahino, conceding a penalty and nearly etc. etc.
Right Wing-Back: Pablo Zabaleta (West Ham) Cédric was more spectacular, particularly in attack, and probably would have been the choice if he hadn’t let Max Choupo-Moting get by him in stoppage time, leading to Stoke’s winning goal. Zabaleta just gave a quiet, classy performance. When he played for Manchester City, I used to think of him as a great attacker and mediocre defender. But that was totally wrong; the system just had him bombing forward a lot more. When called upon mainly to defend, he’s very good indeed. Mame Biram Diouf had one of his better two-way games, and chipped in with a set-piece goal.
Central Midfield: Grzegorz Krychowiak (West Bromwich Albion) A fascinating player. He roams far and wide, much more than you’d expect from a Tony Pulis deep midfielder. He can be very good hunting down whoever has the ball, but can also get exposed when the game opens up, as evidenced once by André Carrillo in the second half. But when in form, as he was most of the afternoon against Watford, his anticipation is excellent, he’s rough and ready in the tackle, and he’s fantastic springing men on the counter-attack.
Central Midfield: Oriol Romeu (Southampton) “Tidy” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think of Romeu, but that’s what he’s become under Mauricio Pellegrino. Good positioning and economical movement in defence, the simple pass when switching to attack. Once had to pull Xherdan Shaqiri back, and tired in the final minutes, but overall a fine performance.
You’re more than welcome to shoot me for leaving Marouane Fellaini off the list. Two goals, the first one excellent. Maybe he’s really the deepest-lying centre-forward in world football – in which case he definitely deserves a spot. But at least nominally he’s a midfielder, and this list prioritises strong overall performances in the player’s primary position. Elsewhere, Lewis Cook showed enough for Bournemouth to suggest he’ll get a few more starts.
Left Wing-Back: Stephen Ward (Burnley) Clarets fans will probably know better, but I rated this his best top-flight match in Burnley colors. Didn’t put a foot wrong in defence, did well in the air, got forward several times to deliver dangerous crosses. Charlie Daniels attacked with his usual vim, but his vigour wasn’t tested much in defence.
Attacking Midfielder: Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth) One of the first names on my teamsheet, but while writing his entry I checked his stats. WTdoubleF? So I watched the whole game again (bliss), and reached the same conclusion. Sent innumerable good passes forward to Josh King, Jermaine Defoe and anyone else in black and red. No key passes? Just about every time he touched the ball Bournemouth got into a significantly better position, but since he played most of the game on the wing, it never resulted in an immediate shot, although it should have a few times. Ten unsuccessful crosses? Most were well-delivered corners and free-kicks where no-one could get on the end. It’s enough to make me give up stats.
For ten minutes.
Attacking Midfielder: Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) I’ll catch hell for picking him over Kevin de Bruyne, but I watched both games over carefully, and Sanchez gets the call, although it’s very close. Both players had one moment of stunning brilliance in the midst of a good but otherwise not special performance. Both faced a packed defence, Sanchez more so than De Bruyne, but of course De Bruyne had the tougher opponents. The deciding factor was that De Bruyne was working with a team full of resourceful attackers, whereas Sanchez had almost no creative help from the rest of the side. So in the second half he took absolute command of the fleet, and for about a 15-minute period added a new chapter to the manual on How To Break Open A Packed Defence. Through balls, dribbles, and of course that off-the-scale backheel. De Bruyne deserves all the credit for his play. But for me it’s Sanchez by a whisker.
Striker: Harry Kane (Tottenham) So – is he solar-system class? And what exactly do we mean by solar-system class?