Only Leno makes Team of the Week from Arsenal v Man Utd

Date published: Monday 11th March 2019 9:03

A simply unbelievable weekend for attacking performances, and by the way at left-back too. If I were Garth Crooks, I’d definitely include eight attackers and three left backs. I’m not. So a vast number of very worthy players are on the bench. That’s bad enough for me, and for you it’s even worse: since I have to mention them all, anyone who reads the whole thing will miss lunch and dinner. But I’ve tried to keep it concise. A 4-3-3:

 

Goalkeeper: Bernd Leno (Arsenal)
A middling week. Lukasz Fabianski’s double save from Oumar Niasse and Victor Camarasa was the high point, but he could have done better on Cardiff’s second goal. Ben Foster was very good coming off his line, and added a couple of fine stops, but looked bad on Raheem Sterling’s third. The spot came down to Leno and Rui Patricio. If the Wolves keeper gets to Hazard’s game-winning shot, he’s the man. But in the end it’s the Gunner: two excellent stops from Romelu Lukaku (the claw and the block), a timely sweep to prevent a Lukaku breakaway, and a smother at the feet of Marcus Rashford. Not to suggest a narrative or anything, but the match could have gone either way, and on another day maybe the keepers’ fortunes are reversed? We suggested as much in 16 Conclusions.

 

Right-back: Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Crystal Palace)
With Bernardo excelling at left-back for Brighton (see below), Wan-Bissaka was only vaguely on my radar. A decent day at the office, maybe, nothing special for him. Then I checked his stats – eight tackles?! – and took a closer look. He didn’t go to ground as often as usual, but reduced Alireza Jahanbakhsh to a cipher. It barely registers these days. The best AWB to come out of the UK since Average White Band. Pick up the pieces!

 

Centre-half: Lewis Dunk (Brighton & Hove Albion)
Brighton block a lot of shots, and Dunk as ever is among the league leaders. But he outdid himself in the derby against Crystal Palace, with four spectacular blocks that brought back the combined ghosts of John Terry and Gary Cahill. He added several key clearances as the Seagulls held off the Eagles’ onslaught. Add in consistently solid marking, and you have the best performance of the week at this position. Got the assist on Glenn Murray’s super strike, too.

 

Centre-half: Jan Bednarek (Southampton)
Like the rest of Southampton’s defence, started out nervously against Spurs, in his case coming forward uncertainly a few times. Settled down after the first 15 minutes and was the Saints’ man of the match. The whole package, with a number of remarkable plays, including a 91st-minute block on Mousa Sissoko. Inconsistent passing a bit of a blemish, but he was under a lot of pressure. Style points for his Tardellian celebration at the final whistle. Didn’t make our team of the week until week 22, but among centre-halves only Virgil van Dijk has now made it more this season.

Nathan Aké was a decent shout as well, for a no-frills all-around match against Huddersfield. Despite the early wobbles, I went with Bednarek because his play was more spectacular and the opposition was much tougher. But the Dutchman continues to prove his worth. Finally, Chris Smalling played well against Arsenal, particularly important because Victor Lindelöf didn’t.

 

Left-back: Joe Bryan (Fulham)
Perhaps the most unexpected performance of the entire season. He spent most of the afternoon making Demarai Gray look like a Sunday league player, defending superbly both sitting back and pushing up to press. Made a key block in the first half, and got in the way of a million passes. He did commit a foul, and got a card for his troubles, but it was in the opposition half. As the match progressed he needed to get forward more in attack, and among other things put a cross right on the head of Aleksandar Mitrovič, requiring a fine save from Kasper Schmeichel. In the best week for left-backs since this feature began, he still stood out. Has spent almost all his career below the top flight, and looks to be headed there again, but his agent might want to send the DVD to a few scouts. Sensational.

Just behind were the opponents at the Emirates. Sead Kolasinač got forward repeatedly and wondered why no one was on the end of his crosses. Was more disciplined in defence than usual, and a starting role in such a big game shows he has Unai Emery’s confidence. Luke Shaw had a wonderful first half, dominating Ainsley Maitland-Niles, combining well with Paul Pogba, sending in a gorgeous cross ofromwhich Romelu Lukaku hit the bar. Not as effective after the interval.

Bernardo of Brighton was excellent as well, with a flawless first-half performance against Wan-Bissaka and Andros Townsend. Marked closely and blocked no fewer than five (!) crosses. In the second half somewhat erratic, partly because he found himself up against Wilfried Zaha. Finally, Lucas Digne’s performance was overshadowed by the Newcastle comeback, but he was again one of the best players on the pitch, combining with Bernard on the wing and getting an assist from yet another perfect cross.

 

Deep Midfielder: Dale Stephens (Brighton & Hove Albion)
He’s not really a holding midfielder – more a regista – but since Brighton do a fair amount of defending, he averages about five or six interventions per match. Against Palace he had 16. Was in the middle of everything, and refused to be beaten. Didn’t just sit deep either, with tackles all over his half of the pitch. Got a freebie assist when Anthony Knockaert scored the winner, but Knockaert got the ball in space from one of Stephens’ patented long balls to the wing.

Not far behind was Jefferson Lerma. Lerma really is a holding midfielder, and against Huddersfield he did what holding midfielders do. Bournemouth’s system plays him fairly deep, so he gets fewer tackles than any other DM in the league (and more clearances than all but Étienne Capoue), but this weekend he was much more proactive, while still getting back when necessary. Also was effective starting the counter-attack with simple, short passes.

Isaac Hayden came strongly to the fore in the second half, playing a part in all three Newcastle goals, two of them legal. On and off a little defensively, but still won possession several times. Granit Xhaka delivered in crucial moments at both ends of the pitch, and to no one’s surprise advanced the ball well. Aaron Ramsey had one of his best defensive matches. Finally, it was a shame that Fred gave away the penalty (very soft, but geez, don’t put your arm on a striker’s back), because I thought otherwise he had a decent two-way match, maybe his best so far.

 

Attacking Midfielder: James Maddison (Leicester City)
Last week I noted he had only three assists from open play. Afterwards I checked his expected assists, and they too were very low for a playmaker. They’re higher now. Against Fulham he was the chief provider for Jamie Vardy (see below), getting one assist and barely missing out on two others. I was very disappointed that not one match report used the word ‘defence-splitting.’ Consider it used.

 

Attacking Midfielder: David Silva (Manchester City)
Call him Tiny Dancer, and he danced his way through Elton John’s club, leaving broken hearts aplenty. Given the slightest edge – the initial goal – he cut Watford apart. Watch his moves to set up the second, and the defence-splitting pass for the third. Finished the match (and I do mean finished – he went the full 90 for the third game in a row) with 96.9% pass completion. He might be slowing down a very little, but not enough for the rest of the league.

There were so many other fine performances in this position. Ayoze Pérez just missed out, getting credit for only one of his two goals. The second was clearly offside. But he was brilliant in the final half-hour, including a wonderful assist for Salomón Rondón. Shot too close to the keeper when through in the first half. Dele Alli was excellent on his comeback, energetic and incisive, and most unlucky not to get at least one assist.

Elsewhere, Victor Camarasa, fit after a long and controversial lay-off, was at the heart of Cardiff’s win over West Ham, directing the attack, scoring one, helping with the other, and denied a second of his own by Fabianski’s gem. But he had to leave early, and the Bluebirds will need him to survive. Adam Lallana! Let’s hope he can keep it going, because Liverpool may need him to win the title. Finally, Alex Pritchard had a very fine match for Huddersfield, but (although Aaron Mooy helped out a bit), the side just didn’t have enough attacking talent to support him.

 

Winger: Sadio Mané (Liverpool)
He missed from very short range, but the first goal was lovely and the second sealed the win. Has now scored eight goals in his last eight matches. One of his best performances for link-up play as well. Passing isn’t exactly his forte, but to have 31 key passes and only one assist is just a bit unlucky. Either way, simply too much for Phil Bardsley.

 

Winger: Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth)
Bournemouth’s counter-attack almost ran Huddersfield back to the Championship in one afternoon, and Fraser as ever was the main man. Incisive passing, irresistible direct running, scaring the pants off everyone in his way. Picked up a goal and assist, lost another assist on a good save from Jonas Lössl, and almost casually flicked a mind-boggling 88th minute weaker-foot cross that Josh King couldn’t convert. I rated it one of his best defensive matches as well. You simply can’t say enough about him.

Hey, wait a minute – wasn’t there a guy who scored a hat-trick this weekend? Bought a house once? Surely he’s not…no, he’s not. And here’s why. First, as Pep Guardiola himself said, he didn’t play terribly well in the first half. Second, he’s only getting credit for two of the three goals. The first goal was lucky – but that’s not the only reason. You can get a lucky goal by being in the right position. But Sterling got a lucky goal because he was in the wrong position. He put himself well offside, and the defender, trying to defuse the threat, played the ball, and the goal resulted. (It probably shouldn’t have counted anyway, but that’s a separate question.) So for the list it’s a basic two-goal performance: very good, and obviously crucial for the three points, but not enough in this week of weeks. I suspect he’ll cope.

As with attacking midfielders, there were several very fine winger performances left out. David Brooks was also crucial to the Bournemouth counter, and was headed for consideration before an injury forced him out early. Junior Hoilett was outstanding for Cardiff, storming through the first 15 minutes, scoring the opener and sending a beautiful through ball for Oumar Niasse. Later he helped build a second, and even tracked back effectively when necessary. Josh Murphy was a bit less involved overall, but still found time to assist one goal, nearly assist the second, and set up a great chance for a third. Mo Salah never got on the board, but did a boatload of useful passing and creating.

Still going. Harvey Barnes of Leicester looks better every week, an inside-out winger with no fear. Some excellent one-touch passing, and the assist on the final goal. Finally, Bernard of Everton was brilliant in the first half, particularly when teaming up with Digne – their combination for the first goal was a classic.

 

Striker: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
Played on the shoulder all afternoon, and left defenders in the dust. Two goals, two more opportunities lost from last-ditch tackles. A throwback to the title season. Brendan Rodgers will suit him far more than Claude Puel, but he won’t get to play Fulham again for a while.

It was a toss-up between Roberto Firmino as a second striker and David Silva as the second attacking midfielder. I went with Silva because Firmino still isn’t quite as sharp as he could be. But I had it as one of his better recent performances. Both goals were of the right-place-right-time variety, and that’s fine. Callum Wilson spearheaded the Bournemouth counter, teaming with Fraser for a goal and assist of his own.

One last paragraph, three more players. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who really should be starting every week for Everton, had a lively match, scoring the first, playing a role in the second, and defending well from the front. Salomón Rondón was a bit lucky on his goal, which was deflected, and on his assist, which was offside, but like the rest of the side was rampant in the last half hour. Last but not least, Romelu Lukaku looked ready to do great things, but just couldn’t make it happen, and faded in the final half hour.

Peter Goldstein

 

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