Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
Of course scoring goals shouldn’t really matter much to a central defender’s reputation, at least not more than competent defending. But when there is enormous pressure on your performance after a record-breaking transfer fee, scoring the winner in the Merseyside derby on your debut really will help.
There has been plenty written about Van Dijk’s transfer fee as we collectively struggle with the new norm (or perhaps the new reality that there is no norm), but it is clear that the Dutchman will now be placed under a microscope. Every goal that Liverpool concede with him in the team will be judged as a setback for him individually as well as the collective. With that in mind, quick wins are very welcome.
There was something wonderful in watching Van Dijk’s late winner on Friday. Liverpool supporters celebrated the goal wildly, but then you detected another wave of celebration as they realised the identity of the goalscorer. Like a Virgil, he scored for the very first time.
Jacob Murphy (Newcastle United)
A transfer fee of £12.5m might not sound much in the current climate (it is £2.5m less than a 2016 Jordon Ibe, after all), but Murphy is the fifth-most expensive signing in Newcastle’s history. Michael Owen (2005), Alan Shearer (1996), Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic are the four above him. This club is committed to placing a ceiling upon its own potential with its meagre transfer spend.
With Mike Ashley generally refusing to loosen the purse strings (Newcastle’s net spend in the summer following promotion was £20m), Murphy’s transfer fee therefore invited a good deal of unwanted, and unfair, pressure upon a 22-year-old winger who had never previously made a top-flight appearance.
It looked as if Murphy would flounder. In his early months at Newcastle, his slight frame made him too easy to knock off the ball and he admits that he was trying too hard to impress. “I was just dying to play,” Murphy said. “And when I was coming on, I was putting pressure on myself, trying to do things that I don’t normally do, because I was trying to catch the eye, get fans off their seats and stuff.”
Now more at home after making nine league starts since November, Murphy is revelling in the added responsibility. With Christian Atsu, Matt Ritchie and Murphy, the wings are just about the only place in Newcastle’s squad with meaningful competition. Being his team’s best player on Saturday, even against League Two Luton Town, matters.
Gareth McAuley (West Brom)
When Gareth McAuley signed a new deal at West Brom at the age of 37, he might have expected that he would not play every game. Yet the Northern Irishman must be a little peeved that he has fallen so far out of favour. Since Alan Pardew replaced Tony Pulis, McAuley has not played a minute in the Premier League.
A trip to Exeter might not have been McAuley’s ideal mission, but he remains professional and committed. The Express and Star gave McAuley the highest rating of any West Brom player, pointing out that (yes, against a League Two team) he was ‘confident in possession’ and ‘his decision-making was spot on’. Given that West Brom haven’t won in 20 league games, why not trust their old pro in the league too?
Danny Williams (Huddersfield Town)
Premier League clubs making multiple changes for the FA Cup only becomes a story when those teams falter. And yet managers are never praised for giving fringe players an opportunity which they take with both hands. Sometimes it’s a tough lot being a football manager.
Take Huddersfield Town and David Wagner, for example. Wagner chose to make a number of changes for the trip to Championship Bolton, not playing a team of kids but certainly rotating after the Christmas period. Huddersfield dominated possession, restricted the home team to two shots on target and two corners, and marched into round four.
The big winner was Danny Williams, who joined from Reading in the summer but faces strong competition for his Premier League place. Wagner has Williams, Aaron Mooy, Philip Billing and Jonathan Hogg fighting for two positions.
Against Bolton, Williams was superb. His goal took a massive deflection, but he was the link between attack and defence in the absence of the absolute Mooy. Managers remember such displays.
Ben Brereton (Nottingham Forest)
Ok, ok, just give me my moment. I have woken up with a severe case of FA Cup fever on Monday morning, which is like a hangover but with more tin foil and cardboard. But there’s nothing quite like your constantly infuriating football club producing their best performance in years on the big stage and using six academy graduates in the process.
The standout performance came from the youngest of those graduates, 18-year-old Ben Brereton. He ran Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding ragged, continually able to hold up the ball and either draw fouls or beat his man. Brereton scored a penalty and could easily have scored one or two more goals, but it was his work outside the penalty area and with back to goal that was most effective.
After the win, caretaker manager Gary Brazil was keen to point out that Brereton now needs to produce these performance every week. It’s true that he has lacked some consistency (although, to repeat, he is 18), but Brereton has also been farmed out on the wing. With Arsenal and Liverpool both enquiring about a £10m move last summer, that interest may well be followed up.