It was one of those weeks where there were way too many top attacking performances, several from players new to the list, so plenty of very good ones had to be left out. Sincere apologies, but it’s the best league in the world, or so they say. Here’s a 4-1-4-1:
Goalkeeper: Adrián (West Ham United) It was a fantastic week for keepers, and the best of all was the Stopper from Seville, who delivered save after Hart-stopping save in the second half to keep West Ham in the match against Bournemouth. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, advanced stats have rated him very highly in the past, and at the moment he looks worthy of any stat you can dig up.
Elsewhere Heurelho Gomes had another strong match, including two excellent late saves (one on the line, one coming out to block) to preserve Watford’s win. Then there was Jonas Lössl, who was very good off his line and came up with a classic Goal Decision System save, reaching at the last second to keep the ball out by a couple of centimetres. Nick Pope seemed a bit nervous in spots, but showed with some fine catching, punching, and saving why he’s a very dark horse for the third England spot in Russia. Rob Elliot had some strong moments as well.
Right-back: Ashley Young (Manchester United) United get criticised for depending too much on Young in attack. Maybe so, but he’s without question one of the best full-backs in the league, and it’s no surprise when he puts in a strong performance. Besides the contributions going forward, made a couple of key clearances in the area. Has now been on the list three times, twice on the left and once on the right. Class. Trent Alexander-Arnold just missed out: he ran wild in the second half, but his overall defence was too inconsistent.
Centre-half: Kevin Long (Burnley) No central defender had a knock-your-socks-off performance, but Long came the closest. He marked Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford well, made several authoritative clearances, and won three of four aerial duels. He’s one of the quickest in the league: if you have the video, watch the 42nd minute when he gets out to block Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s shot, and the 65th where Lukaku seems to be a step ahead but he closes the distance with ease. My socks were two-thirds off when unfortunately he allowed Jesse Lingard to get in front of him for the first goal. So I slept warmer that night, but it still needed a remarkable finish by Lingard, and at worst Long gets in on the “one big mistake” rule. And how about this: he was credited with an assist on the Ashley Barnes melee goal, and the video suggests he deserved it.
Centre-half: Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur) After a couple of early semi-blips, settled in to have an assured performance, with a number of fine interventions. Also passed the ball well. I rate him equal to Azpilicueta and a bit above Alderweireld at this point. Unless I was imagining it, he seemed a tiny bit slower than usual, particularly in the second half. But still got the job done on a number of fronts.
Left-back: Adam Smith (Bournemouth) West Ham played 3-4-3, Bournemouth 4-2-3-1, which meant the Cherries had an extra man on the wings. So even playing left instead of his normal right, Smith and Ryan Fraser (see below) embarrassed Pablo Zabaleta and everyone else in their purview. Attack is always the best defence for Smith, and three tackles and three interceptions sounds solid enough – but in the 89th minute he lost Javier Hernández in the build-up to West Ham’s third goal. He too gets in on the OBM rule since he was so strong otherwise.
Deep Midfielder: Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town) For the first hour, his best performance of the season. Showed up everywhere on the pitch, harried, attacked, passed in all directions, and was at the heart of everything Terrier. Then someone pulled the plug, and with his side pushing for a winner, seemed just too tired to get it done. But still a clear choice at this spot.
Winger: Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth) Compact, direct and fast fast fast, he and Adam Smith annihilated West Ham’s right side. Contributed to innumerable attacks, was robbed of an assist by Adrián, and should have had another when his low cross teed up Josh King. Was fouled repeatedly, and left in the 86th minute after running himself halfway to the Earth’s core. He fits Bournemouth’s style much better than Jordon Ibe, who’s inclined to slow things down too much.
Attacking Midfielder: Joe Allen (Stoke City) Started the season at number 10, did well. Was moved deeper, didn’t do so well. Now back at number 10, doing well. Was really more of an all-rounder here, like Mooy, but unlike the Australian he started strong and got stronger in the final half hour. Added an excellent assist, driving forward and crossing with his left foot. Stoke eked out a draw, and he was the main reason why. Superb performance.
Attacking Midfielder: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur) I really didn’t want to include him, not because I don’t like him, but because 1) his two assists came with Southampton basically beaten, and 2) at one point he (egotistically?) kept the ball when aliens on Mars watching their very first football game saw he had to put Erik Lamela through. But the assists were still very fine indeed, and there was the goal when the game was still in the balance, and lots of good play otherwise, and… well, he’s here.
Winger: Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool) Makes it look so easy. When he leaves for Barcelona, I hope Jürgen Klopp gets some of the credit for making him who he is. Remember when he was maddeningly inconsistent, and took zillions of shots from outside the area? Not that this proves anything, but since Klopp arrived, he’s jumped 22 places in the Guardian’s world rankings, from 46th to 24th. Sounds about right.
With three top performances by newbies the tiebreaker meant I could choose only one of Coutinho, Son Heung-Min, and Roberto Firmino (as a second striker in a 4-1-3-2). Three very different kinds of players, all of whom had very fine games in their own particular styles. If that were not enough, all had been on the list exactly twice before. I went with Coutinho for two reasons: 1) He was the only one to go 90 minutes, so he had more time to do good stuff; 2) he may not be around much longer, and he deserved to be honored at least one more time.
A little bit further down the depth chart, Alexis Sanchez scored twice for Arsenal, the second very nicely taken, but Coutinho contributed more overall. Collin Quaner again made left-sided defenders quail, but despite the assist, his decision-making was poor – he keeps his head down too much, and needs to be more aware of who’s around him. And don’t forget J. Lingard, Scorer Of Big Goals. Except maybe Harry Kane or Sergio Aguero, is there anyone in the league you’d rather have when you need a crucial goal in an important match?
Striker: Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur) There was a famous baseball manager named Harry ‘The Hat’ Walker, and when Kane puts three past some unfortunate keeper, he’s Harry The Hat to me. As Daniel Storey pointed out on Tuesday, this particular Santa has his helpers. But you need to be in the right spot to score, and go to YouTube to watch his movement on the second goal. The finish on the third was simply exquisite. Besides, he does so much else. Please please please stay healthy for the World Cup.
I also did a Team of the Week for the weekend before Christmas just to keep my hand in, and for those interested, here are the thumbnail results:
GK: Jordan Pickford (fine saves against Chelsea)
RB: DeAndre Yedlin (not much defence, but plenty attack)
CB: Phil Jagielka (excellent all-around performance, blocked a lot of shots)
CB: James Tomkins (several crucial technically precise plays)
LB: Markus Suttner (got forward with good crosses, sound defence)
RW: Juan Mata (two goals, moved the ball forward well, lovely man)
CM: Henri Saivet (made up for early giveaway with free kick, brilliant defence)
CM: Morgan Schneiderlin (slow start but improved steadily, the crucial man in midfield)
LW: Max Choupo-Moting (goal and assist, led his side in touches, dribbles, shots, and tackles)
FW: Harry Kane (Harry the Hat)
FW: Sergio Aguero (two headed goals (!), super assist, general Aguerosity)