We kick off our Teams of the Season with a Pleasant Surprise XI. These players have performed significantly above what could have been expected of them. It shakes out as a 4-2-3-1:
Goalkeeper: Nick Pope (Burnley)
In a Team of the Week piece back in December, I referred to Pope as a ‘dark horse’ for a spot on the World Cup squad. The sub-editor (Daniel Storey, I believe) changed it to ‘very dark horse’. I’ll exact my revenge in due time, but I have no hesitation in stating that Nick Pope has had the best season of any English goalkeeper. It’s been suggested he’s been helped by Burnley’s conservative approach to defending, but in fact his shot-stopping numbers with xG fully taken into account place him second in the league behind only a Spaniard who plays for Manchester United. Pope also leaves fewer rebounds than Jordan Pickford. And as for coming off his line, when in form he’s a match for anyone in the league, even Thibaut Courtois, and looks remarkably graceful doing it. Let’s hope Gareth Southgate can see a priest on a mountain of sugar, as Rafa Benitez once put it.
Right-back: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Certainly not the finished article, but for a 19-year-old to claim a starting place on a top-four side, and perform as well as he has in so many matches, is pretty amazing. His attacking is already Champions League class, not only on crosses but penetrating runs and passes as well. Let’s hope he can progress defensively in a gegenpressing system.
Man of the Match performance from Trent Alexander-Arnold💪
Yep, still only 19🌟 pic.twitter.com/hURs8ne9BX
— Empire of the Kop (@empireofthekop) April 14, 2018
Moritz Bauer of Stoke City deserves a mention. A January transfer, the Austria international came from Rubin Kazan for £5m, which barely registers on the Richter scale these days. But he looks perfectly capable at Premier League level. He has decent pace, is useful going forward, and never stops working. Paul Lambert has played him both at full-back and in midfield, but wherever the Potters play next season, Bauer will probably replace Glen Johnson as the side’s regular right-back.
Centre-half: Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United)
He’s always been well regarded (Storey loves him), and his leadership qualities were being recognised even as Newcastle went down. But he’d only had ten Premier League starts before this season, and I don’t think anyone quite expected this. His overall play has been excellent, but even more remarkable has been his command of the back line. When he was out for a month around November, the defence collapsed. When he came back, the back four stabilised immediately. I don’t think you’d call him a ball-playing defender, but he marries old-school physical power with mobility and tactical awareness. Newcastle’s undisputed player of the year.
Centre-half: Ahmed Hegazi (West Bromwich Albion)
Arriving on loan from Al Ahly at the beginning of the season, his only experience outside Egypt had been three appearances for Fiorentina in Serie A, and ten for Perugia in Serie B. He established himself immediately as a first-choice defender for Albion, and has played all but 33 minutes of the season. He’s a bruiser, but by no means slow afoot, and has improved technically over the course of the year. Still can be caught napping on occasion, but belongs at this level. West Brom have signed him until 2022, and he should be a stalwart in the Championship. (By the way, that shot he aimed at Danny Ings this weekend was uncharacteristic. He’s had only three yellow cards the whole season.)
Nathan Aké was just behind. From a half-season last year where he was decent but with some flaws, he’s stepped up to be the key man in the back line for Bournemouth. Perhaps not as great a surprise as the others, but a definite jump in class. Also a mention for Shane Duffy, who has been the equal of his more highly regarded partner Lewis Dunk.
Left-back: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
An obvious choice. He came from Hull City with a reputation as an attacker, not a defender – a Glaswegian Alberto Moreno, if you will. But he’s proven to be fine at the back, and right now he’s the league’s best at his position. Elsewhere, it’s fair to say Ashley Young has been a nice surprise at this spot.
Deep Midfielder: Abdoulaye Doucouré (Watford)
Began to emerge late last season as a dynamic presence in central midfield. This year he’s been the dominant figure, playing a higher percentage of his side’s passes than anyone else in the league, and it’s not close. His style is a bit mad: he charges every which way on the pitch, and isn’t always in the right place to play defence. So Hornets managers have figured out that he’s best paired with a true holding midfielder. He leads the league in ball recoveries, which is an obscure but important statistic – it means he gets to loose balls and gets possession for his team. Is always looking to advance play, and has a great long-distance shot. He’s been linked with clubs higher up the table, and has been said to want a move. Might have to be more disciplined to succeed at a higher level, but will always be fun to watch.
Abdoulaye Doucoure of Watford is a must sign for Arsenal. 25 years of age and already a top quality player. Strength, dribbling through a tight space, shooting, long balls and interceptions. Very interesting player. Can be used as a DM/CM depending on requirement. Get him Arsenal pic.twitter.com/0Wpim4nuj0
— LTArsenal™ (@ltarsenal) April 19, 2018
Deep Midfielder: Mo Diamé (Newcastle United)
Here’s a guy whose top-flight career seemed to be, if not finished, then unlikely ever to thrive again. Although he was vital to the squad that won the Championship title, he started only three of Newcastle’s first 16 matches this season. But since then he’s been superb, forming a remarkable central midfield partnership with Jonjo Shelvey. He plays precise football, usually while sitting back but pressing effectively when required. He also has the best pass completion percentage in the squad. He’s 30 years old, so he may not be able to sustain this level for long, but all praise to him for a most unexpected revival. Shelvey deserves recognition here too.
Luka Milivojevic is the Nathan Aké of this position, a player who showed enough last season that his outstanding work this year was less of a surprise. A definite honourable mention, though. Let’s also give a shout out to Lewis Cook, who has made the jump from youth World Cup winner to Premier League starter without missing a beat.
Winger: Mo Salah (Liverpool)
A great goalscorer, a great artist. I actually debated whether to put Salah on the team, since he came with a high reputation. Then I said to myself, ‘Are you crazy?’ One of my two favourite Salah stats is that he’s scored in a Premier League record 23 different games. So it doesn’t matter if he misses a few chances: he’ll just keep coming at you, and eventually it’s in the back of the net. The other stat is that he has a better conversion rate with his right foot than with his left, which means he knows how to get in spots where he can use it. A truly magnificent season.
Winger: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
It’s all been said about Raheem, so I won’t go over his strengths and weaknesses in detail. But he really has improved enormously under Pep, and I don’t think anybody saw him threatening to score 20 goals this year. Let’s also give him credit for weathering the torrent of criticism, from the fair to the ridiculous.
Raheem Sterling has contributed 31 goals and assists ( 18 goals/13 assists ) in 31 premier league appearances yet still didn't win any individual awards or make the TOTY, can you remember an English player doing more and getting as little recognition ? #TouchlineFracas
— #TouchlineFracas (@touchlinefracas) April 23, 2018
Johann Berg Gudmundsson showed some potential early last season, but injuries pretty much wrecked his campaign. This year, with Robbie Brady injured halfway through the season, Gudmundsson has become the key creative force for Burnley. He’s a fine crosser, and gets into the penalty area more often than you’d think. Just a good player.
Attacking Midfielder: Jesse Lingard (Manchester United)
Has always had his share of starts (19 two years ago, 18 last year), but never this consistent level of performance. Stats may not always tell the story, but in this case they do. He has more goals this year than in all his other Premier League seasons combined. He has more assists this year than in all his other Premier League seasons combined. His ball control numbers are their best ever. He’s drawing more fouls than ever before. His name appears in the Wikipedia article ‘Dab’. What more could you want?
Kevin De Bruyne fans (in which group I include myself): we knew he was that good, or at least had that potential. Elsewhere, had Will Hughes of Watford not been injured for so long, he would have been an excellent candidate. Definitely one to watch for next year. Brighton supporters may be a bit peeved not to see Pascal Gross on this list, but as we’ve all heard many times, last season he led the Bundesliga in chances created, for a team that got relegated. Brighton just figured this out quicker than everybody else. He’s been fantastic, but I’d argue not that big of a surprise. But maybe Seagulls fans will be happier to see the final entry…
Striker: Glenn Murray (Brighton & Hove Albion)
His scoring record isn’t quite as remarkable as it looks – four of his 12 goals have come from the penalty spot – but before this season he was regarded as a Championship striker and no more. Oh, and he’s also 34. He’ll finish the season with more minutes than in all of his other top-flight seasons combined. His value to the team goes well beyond scoring: his aerial ability and hold-up play help provide a platform for the skill players to do their thing. A big bravo to Murray for his hard work, and to Chris Hughton for finding a system where he can thrive.
Marko Arnautovic gets a call here as well. Always a good attacking player, has unexpectedly turned out to be a very worthy striker. One more: Jordan Ayew has improved significantly under Carlos Carvalhal.
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