Top ten best players outside The Big Three so far this season

Matt Stead
Emmanuel Dennis celebrates after scoring

As the highest-placed club outside the Premier League title chasers, West Ham obviously have the most representation. Jamie Vardy is constant.


10) Michail Antonio (West Ham)
The Premier League Player of the Month for August. The scorer of the first proper goal in Europe for West Ham this millennium. The all-time most prolific marksman in the club’s Premier League history. The proud owner of a cardboard cutout of himself. David Sullivan forked out six figures earlier this month to charter a private jet and fly Michail Antonio back from international duty early for one reason: he was so thrilled to have an actual reliable forward and not a Simone Zaza or Benni McCarthy that he simply could not bear to be without him for any longer than was absolutely necessary.

It just so happens that West Ham have lost the two league games since, with Antonio’s personal goal drought stretching into a fifth match. But only four players have scored more often and nine have registered more assists than the 31-year-old – with Mo Salah alone in beating Antonio on both counts – which is testament to a brilliance that must not be normalised. The Jamaican has been pretty barren in terms of output since late October yet remains in touch with the very best in the division.


9) Raphinha (Leeds)
It is one of the most enviable roles in the sport: that of big maverick fish – preferably of South American heritage – in relatively smaller pond. Praised by neutrals who fall for the quicksilver brilliance and mercurial skill of a throwback talent; coveted by rival supporters who are charmed through flattering highlight reels; hoarded by home fans who are blind to any deficiencies in their desperation to hold on for as long as possible. Raphinha has it good at Leeds and he bloody well knows it.

No player in Europe’s top five leagues has more nutmegs (eight) than the man who also ranks second for shots outside the box (24). There is no-one else at Leeds able to conjure something from nothing, to nurture a spark into a flame and to overcome Second Season Syndrome quite like Raphinha, who has more than twice as many goals this season as his closest teammate. The Brazilian could undoubtedly parlay such form into a move elsewhere but there is no guarantee the water is any clearer away from Elland Road.


8) David de Gea (Manchester United)
Is it more damning for Manchester United that their sole representative is the goalkeeper than it would have been if they made no appearance at all? The Spaniard has already declared on separate occasions this season that “we don’t know what to do with the ball” (post-Watford), “we play like kids – I feel the pain of our supporters” (post-Liverpool) and “I was feeling danger for nearly the whole game” (post-Chelsea), so he cannot and has not protested ignorance as to the club’s plight.

He has been as influential on the pitch as he has forthright and outspoken. De Gea has not been without fault, with a line of pundits queuing up to flog him for being beaten at his near post by Bernardo Silva in this month’s Manchester derby humbling. But there has been a 2017/18 feel to him markedly raising his game while the quality of the defence ahead of him collapses. Only four keepers are outperforming their xG against by two goals or more: Edouard Mendy (+3.6) is not available for inclusion and both Jose Sa (+3.1) and Aaron Ramsdale (+2.7) can count themselves unfortunate not to have the narrative of De Gea (+2.9) in their favour.


7) Jamie Vardy (Leicester)
The list of players Jamie Vardy has overtaken in terms of all-time Premier League top scorers already this season is quite something. Steven Gerrard was dispatched within the opening month, while Dwight Yorke fell soon after. Those two goals against Watford lifted him above Nicolas Anelka and beyond Robbie Keane, level with Roy Keane versus Jamie Carragher referee Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on 127. Another Dutchman would be next, and while Robin van Persie is sitting pretty in 13th on 144, few would bet against Vardy catching him eventually.

The Leicester forward needs four more before January 11 to add another illustrious award to his collection: most Premier League goals at the age of 34. Vardy has netted against the fourth and fifth best defences in the top flight, scoring a greater proportion of his team’s goals (45%) than any other player bar Teemu Pukki (57%). The feet with which he has scored also read like an old-school console cheat when put in order: L, R, L, R, L, R, R, R, before the header which activates blood splatter and unlimited health, both possible side effects of washing skittle vodka down with ham, cheese and port omelettes every night.


6) Shane Duffy (Brighton)
Those Brighton fans booing at the end of the goalless draw with Leeds were patently misunderstood; it was clear to see they were simply airing their frustrations at Shane Duffy not being introduced from the bench. The centre-half has twice as many Premier League career goals as Jurgen Locadia so it genuinely might not have been the worst idea to throw him on instead.

Duffy will not mind warming a bench or two when needed, such has been his sudden return to relevance on the south coast. After a difficult spell with Celtic, the 29-year-old has come back into the Brighton fold and ably filled a £50m gap left by Benjamin White. As well as shackling Cristiano Ronaldo at international level, Duffy looks revitalised in a progressive Premier League team that seemed to have outgrown him.


5) Gabriel Magalhaes (Arsenal)
The eye-catching form of Ramsdale has perhaps distracted from an overall improvement in the Arsenal defence. White has looked susceptible on occasion but is developing into a fine player, while Takehiro Tomiyasu remains quite unfairly disregarded outside the Emirates. An intriguing battle is forming between Nuno Tavares and Kieran Tierney. But Gabriel Magalhaes is the rough jewel in an uncharacteristically durable crown.

Even against Liverpool, when heads were lost and reputations shredded, the Brazilian never really wavered. He has become a reliable source of composure on and off the ball, a trusted leader around whom Arsenal can build their defence. And he might just have single-handedly convinced Edu that buying from Lille need not be completely and indefinitely ruled out, which is handy. Jose Fonte to north London, anyone?


4) Maxwel Cornet (Burnley)
In terms of the absolutely unpolarising subject of xG, no player is surpassing theirs quite as effectively as Maxwel Cornet. His five Burnley goals have been scored from positions and situations in which 1.4 might ordinarily have been anticipated. Ben Mee (+1.1) and Matt Lowton (+0.5) are the only other Clarets exceeding such expectations, albeit at nothing close to the same rate as their new teammate.

It is no disservice or offence to Burnley to suggest that Cornet is not one of their typical players. Instead, he brings a different dimension, a completely new element to their style. Sean Dyche rarely gets to spend eight figures in the transfer market, and almost never invests any sort of money into signings who are not either British or Irish, or those like Chris Wood, Matej Vydra and Erik Pieters who could quite easily be mistaken for being British or Irish. Cornet could change that.


3) Emmanuel Dennis (Watford)
There’s that ‘only Mo Salah’ qualifier again: Emmanuel Dennis might usually expect to be alone in having at least five goals and assists each after 13 games, yet there goes Liverpool’s Egyptian king with 11 and eight respectively. The Watford forward can at least lay claim to that achievement while playing for a newly-promoted club that has changed managers and is battling relegation, all in the first Premier League season of his career.

It is unlikely to be his last. Either Dennis helps fire Watford to survival or his proficiency catches enough top-flight eyes to trigger a summer auction. The fact he has the most bookings of any Premier League player so far this season, with more yellow cards (six) than either goals or assists, somehow adds to the appeal.


2) Conor Gallagher (Crystal Palace)

“I am not surprised the national coach loves him because I loved him from day one. Humble, nice, smile on his face and all the time ready to give everything, want to learn and improve. As a teammate I would have loved to play with him. It is a pleasure to know him; I am super happy that it has worked out so well.”

It doesn’t half read like a quote about Mason Mount, which is no bad thing whatsoever for a young Chelsea and England midfielder impressing on loan under a legendary Premier League midfielder turned prodigious coach. Frank Lampard helped mould Mount at Derby County, but it is clear to see Patrick Vieira’s impact on Conor Gallagher’s game as an energetic engine, committed in the tackle and incisive going forward. He has been the best player so far for one of the league’s most intriguing teams.


1) Declan Rice (West Ham)
A player that is both constantly improving and is fully aware of it. Declan Rice knows he’s “got too much ability to be playing at the back”. Declan Rice realises “I’m not just a holding midfielder anymore”. Declan Rice is “never stepping on the pitch not confident that I am going to be the best player” – and it really does show. It turns out this £100m-rated, European Championship final-starting 22-year-old who has taken to every new level at West Ham with consummate ease and is being courted by Champions League clubs almost constantly, is actually quite good.