F365’s top ten surprise disappointments

Daniel Storey

NB – This is not about players who have necesarily been awful, but those who we expected big things from and now feel a little short-changed by…


10) Andre Gray (Burnley)
While the gap between the Premier League and Championship continues to grow thanks to an increasing financial imbalance, strikers promoted from the Football League have often still managed to succeed in the top flight. Jamie Vardy, Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo, Charlie Austin and Rickie Lambert have all impressed in their first seasons in the top flight in the last five years, while the signs looked good for Callum Wilson last season before and after serious injury.

Andre Gray seemed well placed to replicate that success, having scored 41 goals in his previous two Championship seasons. Some idiots even backed him as an outside bet for top scorer in a list of tips that look seismically bad in hindsight.

Instead, Gray has scored a single league goal (against Liverpool in August), been banned for historic (but still abhorrent) social media comments about homosexuality and been dropped in favour of Sam Vokes for four of Burnley’s last five matches. 


9) Fraser Forster (Southampton)
Simple one, this. Last season, 27 goalkeepers played ten or more Premier League games. Of those 27, Forster registered the third highest save percentage with 74.63%. He conceded only 17 goals in those 18 games.

So far this season, 18 goalkeepers have played ten or more Premier League games. Of those 18, Forster has registered the lowest save percentage with 57.14%. Even forgetting the abject mistake against Crystal Palace, Forster’s form has declined badly at a time when the England goalkeeping spot could have been up for grabs. Jack Butland is injured and Joe Hart under pressure, but Forster has not, erm, forced the issue.


8) John Stones (Manchester City)
To what extent Pep Guardiola’s tactics and team selection are to blame for Stones’ troubles is open to interpretation, as is just how difficult it is to settle at a new club with a new manager as a young player with the pressure of a massive fee hanging around your neck.

Still, there’s no doubt that we expected better from Stones, and no doubt too that he shouldn’t be above scrutiny just because England so wants him to be the answer to several defensive questions. Having spoken in 2015 of a desire to prove himself as a complete defender capable of brawn as well as beauty, Stones has simply not done either well enough to justify praise.

We knew it wouldn’t be easy. We knew that Stones wouldn’t be the instant solution for Manchester City just as Manchester City wouldn’t be the instant solution for Stones. But we didn’t think it would take quite this long for the wretched backpasses and foolish dwelling on the ball to be eradicated. Everyone who decided that David Luiz was the class clown and Stones the new king before a ball had been kicked might like to question that hasty judgement.


7) Granit Xhaka (Arsenal)
Let’s start with a compliment, for Xhaka has not been poor by any means. Arsenal are yet to lose a game that he’s started, and the absence of Santi Cazorla means that Arsene Wenger has not been able to ease Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny out of the first-team picture and make his new signing the key man alongside a lovely Spaniard.

Even so, I wanted more from a central midfielder costing north of £30m. I wanted the firefighter Arsenal needed, haring around the pitch making tackles to thwart danger before instantly transforming defence into attack. What I, and Arsenal supporters, didn’t want is a continuation of his ill-discipline and a performance level that hardly represents an improvement on Coquelin so far. There’s plenty of time for Xhaka to settle and succeed in English football, but I won’t apologise for wanting more. So there.


6) Dele Alli (Tottenham)
It’s not just the PFA Player of the Year who is struggling for form but the Young Player of the Year too. Expecting Alli to improve on last season’s form with added Champions League commitments and after a tournament summer was optimistic, but he has tailed off badly.

Last season, Alli was the embodiment of Tottenham’s energy, youth and high-intensity football. This season he’s the personification of a team struggling to recapture that glorious style. Too often the drive has been lacking, replaced by an infuriating tendency to prioritise aesthetics over substance.

This may well only be a brief blip in Alli’s education, an inevitable hurdle. Yet when Christian Eriksen creates more chances, Heung-min Son provides more attacking threat and Erik Lamela offers more running and tackling in the final third, your place in the team should no longer be sacrosanct.


5) Ashley Williams (Everton)
The conventional wisdom, and indeed my wisdom too, is that Williams merited his move away from Swansea. Having been a lynchpin in their rise from League One to the Premier League (and in their League Cup victory), Williams wanted to try his hand further up the league. Arsenal and Liverpool had previously been mentioned, but it was Everton who signed Williams as a replacement for the aforementioned Stones.

It has not gone well. The logic that reliable defender would improve a previously unreliable defence has not played out, with Everton’s brand of defensive uncertainty taking another victim. Williams has regularly been caught out of position and slack with marking at set pieces. After Southampton’s solidity last season, it’s enough to make Ronald Koeman scratch his head.


4) Anthony Martial (Manchester United)
Add together Jose Mourinho’s demand for his wingers to help out defensively and his accused lack of faith in young players, and plenty will say that we should have seen Martial’s struggles coming. Yet such was the Frenchman’s form under Louis van Gaal’s stifling system that we hoped for different from UEFA’s latest Golden Boy.

The thing is, you can’t really blame Mourinho for this one. Martial has not been dire, but nor has he maintained his 2015/16 form under the new manager. Six shots on target and ten chances created in 540 minutes is not enough for a wide forward in a team that dominates possession and territory. By November, Mourinho had reportedly expressed concerns about Martial’s state of mind.

For balance, it’s important to note that the Frenchman has endured a busy private life since last summer, splitting up with his wife and mother of his child (that’s the same person, by the way. You can hang up on Jeremy Kyle). Reports claimed that his mother has recently moved to England to try and help her son regain last season’s joie de vivre. We’re crossing our fingers that it does the trick.


3) Andros Townsend (Crystal Palace)
It was the most logical purchase of the summer. Townsend had missed out on a place in England’s Euro 2016 squad (cut from the original longlist), but had done more for his reputation in four months at Newcastle than in seven years at Tottenham. The winger was the only player to survive the Steve McClaren doom, and flourished under Rafa Benitez.

Paying £12m to save Townsend from the Championship was a no brainer even before Everton paid £30m for Yannick Bolasie and Alan Pardew persuaded Christian Benteke that Selhurst Park was the best place to recover from his Liverpool nightmare.

It hasn’t really worked out that way. While Wilfried Zaha has embraced the departure of Bolasie, Townsend has regularly struggled to justify a place in Palace’s team. Having started the season brightly his form tailed off badly, leading to him being benched twice in Palace’s last six league games. A record of 35 shots with only seven on target indicates that the lesson has not been learnt about cutting inside before shooting high and wide.


2) Wilfried Bony (Stoke City)
Stoke badly needed a centre forward and Bony badly needed a new club, so there wasn’t much to dislike about Mark Hughes’ decision to give the striker a weekly wage of £120,000 and agree to a £2m loan fee. Yet if Hughes was expecting the Wilfried Bony who was the Premier League’s top goalscorer in all of 2014, he will be as disappointed as the rest of us. September brought a lack of goals, October a lack of shots on target and November accusations of a poor attitude in training. By December, Bony was relegated to the Stoke bench and Hughes was talking up a move to China.

Bony has scored two league goals (both against former club Swansea), but managed just five shots on target in total in the Premier League. That’s one for every 137 minutes played and comes in at around £400,000 a pop.


1) Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
Of course we were all warned about the Player of the Year curse when Eden Hazard suddenly couldn’t score a goal last season, but the thing about that curse is that it’s obviously nonsense. Players of the Year don’t suddenly become poor overnight and Hazard was the exception, not rule.

We could envisage Leicester struggling this season, but not that Mahrez would be one of their worst culprits so soon after inspiring them to title victory. The Algerian clawed back some goodwill with his display against Manchester City on Saturday, but before that he had a single assist and three penalties to show for his league season. Is someone eyeing a move outside the East Midlands?


Daniel Storey