Five fans’ players of the year underrated elsewhere

Date published: Tuesday 2nd April 2019 10:18

Salomon Rondon (Newcastle United)
The circumstances which brought Rondon to St James’ Park count against him. He was an economy loan deal, mandated by Mike Ashley’s habit of throwing pound coins around like manhole covers, so it doesn’t really fit for him to be a success. Given what he produced last season, as a part of West Brom’s Good Ship Pardew, it didn’t seem particularly likely either.

Maybe he’s someone to watch in person? On television, he’s just another mid-level forward: not quick enough, not equipped with a good enough touch, and not quite economic enough in front of goal. In three-dimensional form, though, he’s absolutely the alpha male centre-forward that Newcastle have needed. His body shape and the way he uses that strength has meant that, for long periods of games, Rafael Benitez has been able to leave him alone at the top of the pitch, secure in the knowledge that the Venezuelan can handle two (or sometimes three) defenders around at the same time.

And his goals have been really important. He’s scored just nine, but all of them have come in wins or draws and, as such, have been vital to what looks like being another successful survival. For a true measure of his value, just wait until Ashley refuses to make the loan deal permanent on account of his age; wait and see what Newcastle look like then.


Ben Foster (Watford)
At the beginning of March, Foster actually won Goalkeeper Of The Year at the London Football Awards. It passed without notice, though, and that’s really typical of the space his occupies. To Watford supporters, this has probably be one of the finest years of his career and yet, to fans of other clubs, he remains a sort of talented liability – someone capable of making terrific saves, but who can never quite escape the shadow of that awkward period at Manchester United.

One of the reasons why, of course, is because Watford’s evolution hasn’t taken place in front of a large audience. Week to week, it hasn’t played out on Sky Sports or BT, meaning that many of their players remain harshly undervalued – the cat’s out of the bag with Abdoulaye Doucoure, who is obviously special, and even Spurs fans would acknowledge that Etienne Capoue is having another good year, but Foster is still tainted. He’s the ‘keeper who can’t kick or will always fumble a cross eventually. To rival supporters, he remains one of the finest time-wasters in the division, but that’s about it.

But he’s really enjoying an Indian Summer. We made him one of our signings of the season. Yes, we understand that goalkeeping is ‘not just about aerial pyrotechnics and reaction speeds’ and – yes – we also know that decision-making, penalty-box command and all the other boring bits are more fundamental, but his catalogue of saves is one of the reasons why Watford are placed where they are. Think of his readjustment to deny Dan Gosling at Dean Court, for instance, or his save from Callum Wilson in the reverse fixture at Vicarage Road. Or his performances against Huddersfield, Manchester City or Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. It’s really quite a long list now.

He has his flaws, nobody would argue that, but he’s also been the cornerstone of a Watford side who are arguably now the best outside the top six.


Raul Jimenez (Wolves)
I can’t be alone here: no matter how many times I watch Raul Jimenez play, I still don’t know if he’s any good. Even when he scores, there’s something slightly unconvincing about his shooting technique which makes it seem as though – even when ball ends up in the net – it wasn’t quite what he intended.

It prompts one of the summer’s most intriguing (less boring) sub-plots: Wolves will have to pay just under £20m to make Raul’s loan move permanent and, at the same time, that seems both a mighty risk and an absolute given. Nuno Espirito Santo has been asked about this time after time in press conferences and, every time, he sounds as conflicted as everyone else. And it is conflicting: Jimenez has scored 12 times in his first Premier League season having never even reached double figures before in Europe, either in his one season with Atletico Madrid, or his three years in Portugal with Benfica.

Is he Wolves Player Of The Season in the truest sense? No, probably not. Ruben Neves has been great, Joao Moutinho has been as advertised and Willy Boly has made a name for himself. Conor Coady is also in the England conversation for good reason. But oddity that he may be, Jimenez has been fundamental. The great challenge facing any newly-promoted side is scoring goals and having returned twice as many as anyone else in that squad, Jimenez’s contribution is really hard to argue with. It put him in our top ten signings of the season.


Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal)

Perception-wise, Lacazette’s real enemy is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. They actually combine together nicely at times, but in any beauty contest there’s only one winner. Aubameyang is a former African Player Of The Year whose ego and charisma make him an obvious leading light. There’s a Batman and Robin dynamic in that relationship and Lacazette is clearly the support act.

But maybe he’s the better player – or, at least, perhaps he’s the more useful and dependable of the two? Arsenal certainly look like a better side when Lacazette is on the pitch but, beyond the intangibles, he’s also been more productive in the biggest games. Aubameyang has just one league goal against top-six opposition from open play this season (plus two penalties against Manchester United and Tottenham), Lacazette has three.

At the time of writing, the latter has also either scored or assisted in eight of his last nine Premier League games and has inarguably been fundamental to Arsenal’s drive towards one of the remaining top-four places. While nobody would argue that Aubameyang is a fabulously gifted player with more spectacular attributes, Lacazette has probably been the more important of the two – at the least, he has provided the more reliable contribution.


Lukasz Fabianksi (West Ham)
A very similar case to Ben Foster: Fabianski began his career by making high-profile errors at a big club and he’s been carrying that baggage ever since.

He’s been in recovery for some time, though. Despite the chaos in front of him, he was frequently outstanding at Swansea, even during that final, hopeless season, and now at West Ham he’s been by far the most impressive of the summer signings. Issa Diop has certainly had good moments and Felipe Anderson can be spectacular, but in a team defined by inconsistency – West Ham haven’t won back-to-back Premier League games since December – he’s been the steadiest pulse.

His value isn’t derived from any one attribute. He isn’t the most commanding in the air or the most spectacular goalkeeper, but – ironically given his prior reputation – his worth in his dependability. More often than not, he’s been seven, or eight-out-of-ten ‘good’, and for a side with West Ham’s aspirations that’s an excellent return. He’s Flapianski no more and, actually, he’s had a far better season than Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris or Chelsea’s Kepa, goalkeepers who are presumed to be his superior.

Seb Stafford-Bloor


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