Lots of good attacking performances this weekend, which meant I needed the usual tiebreaker, where players who haven’t been on the list get in over players who have. Also, one of my unwritten rules is always to include a true holding midfielder, to avoid the temptation to load up the side with attackers. But unwritten rules are made to be broken, and, as explained below, I just couldn’t find a suitable DM this time around. So it’s an attack-minded 4-4-2:
Keeper: Mat Ryan (Brighton & Hove Albion) Hugo Lloris made a number of very good saves, but also left a couple of rebounds he probably shouldn’t have, and could have done better on Raheem Sterling’s second goal. So the spot goes to Ryan for his literally game-saving efforts against Burnley. He notched a fine double save (third of the season!) against Scott Arfield, and then gave a clinic on coming out and staying big to deny Chris Wood. Also made a good save low to his left in the first half. Quite simply an excellent shot-stopper, and deserves more recognition.
Right-back: Phil Bardsley (Burnley) No, I’m not kidding. There is no better illustration of Sean Dyche’s defensive wizardry than Bardsley’s performances the last few matches. He’s been as solid as you could wish, and in the back line solid can mean very good. Like the rest of Burnley’s defenders, he doesn’t go for the tackle, but blocks the available lines. His positioning makes crosses harder to place precisely, as Solly March found out. He comes forward and marks closely where possible, otherwise stays put and clears what he sees. Good in the air too. In sum, not elegant, but quite effective. Was outmaneuvered a couple of times by Glenn Murray, and slipped against a counter-attack, but otherwise did everything right. Led the side in touches, and hit the highlights package with a not-at-all-easy clearance off the line.
Centre-half: Maya Yoshida (Southampton) No, I’m not kidding. Playing in the middle of a three, he had to face Eden Hazard as a false nine with Pedro/Willian slicing into the middle just to make things harder. And he was brilliant. Mostly he sat off to sweep or block, but also came out at just the right times to mark closely or win the ball. Against that kind of opposition he was never going to be flawless, and it’s a crying shame his one real mistake was cashed in on Marcos Alonso’s free-kick. But it’s not his fault that Fraser Forster is the human equivalent of an oak tree. Finished with three tackles, two interceptions, five clearances and four blocks. A stunning performance by a player who’s taken a lot of grief in his time, some of it from me. Chapeau.
Centre-half: Lewis Dunk (Brighton & Hove Albion) As I’ve noted before, Dunk is a talented defender with perhaps too much confidence in his ability to pull off a big play. He can look very good at a variety of tasks and then get caught out. Against Burnley he was very good in marking and clearing all game, and won his share of aerial duels – but at one point stepped forward at the wrong time and allowed Chris Wood a 1 v 1 with the keeper. Because he was overall quite good, he gets in on the ‘one big mistake’ rule. But I’d like to see him rein it in just a little bit. Ben Mee and Shane Duffy delivered their usual consistent performances in the same match, and Aaron Cresswell was the pick of the West Ham defenders.
Left-back: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool) An easy choice, with a strong and remarkably calm two-way game as everyone ran to and fro. Got forward consistently, kept attacks going, played the necessary defence. He’ll face tougher opponents, but that’s plenty for now. Erik Pieters had a strong 60 minutes (with the exception of one badly botched clearance) and had the good sense to get injured before the Stoke collapse. As for the penalty he supposedly gave away, that two-game suspension for Manuel Lanzini should be coming down any moment now.
Right Wing: Collin Quaner (Huddersfield Town) It’s the quail noncer himself crashing the party, and I do mean crashing. He has an upper body to die for, and against Watford did a pretty good impression of a charging rhino. More importantly, he showed some delicate touches, made intelligent runs, and played good technical defence, and the Hornets had no answer. With Elias Kachunga out long-term, looks to have the starting spot. As for Mo Salah, now that we know how great he is, anything less than breathtaking isn’t enough. A beautiful goal, but otherwise a regular day at the office, with some characteristically scary play and some spots where he should have done better.
Central Midfielder: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) Revenge is a dish best served whenever you happen to have a knife and fork handy, and it took KDB only a couple of minutes to get up from the Dele Alli leg-breaker and start devouring the entire Spurs XI. I hope I’m not being picky when I say that before the final 20 minutes, he was merely pretty good, not spectacular. But on the goal and after, he bestrode the narrow world like a colossus. It’s interesting to compare him with Eden Hazard and Mohamed Salah, the other stand-out attackers of the season. (I have Philippe Coutinho just a hair behind those three.) I think Hazard and Salah have been just as awesome, but they play further up the pitch, so De Bruyne, in the middle, seems to dominate more. Either way, he’s glorious. Oh, and he had his best defensive game of the season. And he is our player of 2017.
Central Midfielder: Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City) Yet another comeback this season from serious injury. Smooth, consistent, impressive play throughout, and at the moment has more hair than David Silva. Did something good with practically every touch, and his 90% pass completion was 17.7% better than that of one Kevin De Bruyne. The goal and assist were nice extras.
This would have been the spot for a defensive midfielder, but there were no candidates. James McArthur came the closest, but was just too erratic: several nice tackles and interceptions, but beaten cleanly several times and forced to foul a couple of others. Under those circumstances, Gundogan was too good to leave out.
But including Gundogan meant passing over several other fine attacking performances. Mesut Özil was equally worthy, creating several chances and scoring a wicked goal, but had made the list before and so lost out on the tiebreaker. A little lower on the totem pole, Aaron Mooy as usual was in the middle of everything for Huddersfield, and added a chested goal and PK for good measure. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did well in both attack and defence at his preferred central spot. Coutinho had a few fabulous moments, although wasn’t as consistent as at his best.
Left Wing: Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton) For the first hour of a drab match he was playing quietly well, with the little touches and moves you see when he’s in form. Then wham! and afterwards he continued right along, including a fine through ball that Dominic Calvert-Lewin failed to convert. Likely to continue the same steady play under one of the steadiest of managers.
If you think Leroy Sané belongs here I won’t disagree too vehemently, but although he was spectacular at times he also had several misplays, and for me Sigurdsson gets in on the standard tiebreaker. But Kieran Tripper won’t want to face Sané again any time soon.
On to strikers. After last week’s bumper of brilliancies, we hit a weekend with a lot of good performances but none clearly outstanding. Like Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino has set the bar pretty high, and overall I think he had a slightly better performance. I might have put him in had his late goal not actually been a bit offside. As it is, he loses out on the tiebreaker, and Wilfried Zaha the same after another all-action display that was exhausting even to watch. Marko Arnautovic had every chance in the universe and only scored one. So our two this week are:
Striker: Laurent Depoitre (Huddersfield Town) He’s one big Belgian, and at his best one good target man. He’s only average at creating space, but if you need a guy to win headers/chesters and bring teammates into play, he’s your man. Against Watford all his strengths were in evidence- – he’s also very useful clearing set-pieces – and he capped a fine afternoon with the neatest of strikes. He has surprising pace, and also drew a late penalty by simply getting to the ball first. Credited with one of the flukiest assists of this or any other year, but we won’t hold that against him.
Striker: Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace) Ed gave a good analysis of his performance in yesterday’s mailbox. His touch seemed a bit clumsy at times – I think the reason he didn’t get a penalty on Marc Albrighton’s tackle was that he’d already misplayed the ball. But he took his goal well, consistently got into dangerous positions, was robbed by Kasper Schmeichel once, and stayed strong to feed Zaha for the second goal. As others have noted, his play has been on the upswing. I’m still not convinced that he and Zaha can mesh consistently up top, but with Palace climbing the table there’s now some space to find out.