Ten Premier League teams who are better when their captain doesn’t actually play

Date published: Wednesday 19th October 2022 8:33 - Matthew Stead

Harry Maguire argues with Jordan Henderson

Some Premier League captains have a greater impact off the pitch than they do on it. Liverpool are clearly better when theirs doesn’t play.


10) Bournemouth (Lloyd Kelly)
Gary O’Neil described himself as “desperate” to have Lloyd Kelly back and available for selection, saying the Bournemouth captain was “massive for us”.

But the caretaker manager did acknowledge that Bournemouth’s form had not suffered for the absence of their defensive talisman. “On the other side of that, I’m really pleased with what I saw at Newcastle, when we had to respond without him.”

The Cherries have since picked up further draws with Brentford and Fulham, sandwiching a win over Leicester, all without the guidance of Kelly. Marcos Senesi has acclimatised to the challenge of partnering Chris Mepham in his place while Adam Smith operates – admirably and out of position – alongside him at left-back.

Bournemouth are perhaps not specifically better without Kelly, but recent results seem to suggest they are at least no worse.


9) Chelsea (Cesar Azpilicueta)
Up to his 10th Chelsea manager and still rising through the ranks of all-time Blues appearances, with sixth-placed Petr Cech (494 games) next in his sights, Cesar Azpilicueta (486) remains an important reference point for all new coaches at Stamford Bridge.

It is the Spaniard who presumably shows managers around both the stadium and Cobham training centre, guiding them through the trophy room, introducing Abdul Rahman Baba and letting them pick one thing to take from Ross Barkley’s abandoned locker.

But Azpilicueta has been increasingly and gradually phased out as a first-team starter. He remains a remarkably valuable squad player, a reassuring island in the trophy-laden sea of chaos and upheaval. But Chelsea have better options in all of the numerous positions Azpilicueta can play and with everyone fit, he is showing Graham Potter to his seat and asking if he’d like anything fetching.


8) Southampton (James Ward-Prowse)
As part of this control experiment to see just how many completely untested Manchester City academy graduates and players with double-barrelled surnames is too many, most would expect the experience of James Ward-Prowse to be crucial.

Yet there is a growing sense pervading the Southampton fanbase that their veteran 27-year-old needs, at the very least, a break from leading these ludicrous Saints on the pitch.

Ward-Prowse has not missed a Premier League minute since October 30 of last year and not losing 9-0 at all in that time has affected his form. It’s almost like such thrashings have become a system update of sorts for the midfielder, who is lagging and struggling without the firewall protection of either Oriol Romeu or Romeo Lavia.

The most stark change has been Ward-Prowse’s impotence at set-pieces. Those who believe he offers nothing besides a wonderful free-kick and precise corners are sorely mistaken but it is a crucial part of his game, of which almost every aspect is currently out of sorts.


7) Crystal Palace (Luka Milivojevic)
It is important to periodically remind ourselves that Sam Allardyce is the manager who brought Luka Milivojevic to the Premier League. Patrick Vieira has slowly withdrawn the Serbian midfielder from regular selection but he remains a safety net that the coach is prone to falling back on.

That much was evident in the goalless draw with Leicester, and the double substitution that started a dialogue between Crystal Palace supporters. Vieira probably shouldn’t be sacked for bringing on both Milivojevic and Jairo Riedewald before the hour mark of a winnable game but it might be worth a warning.

Milivojevic has not started in the Premier League since mid-May; his last seven appearances have all been from the bench. His presence in this fresh, exciting and progressive Palace team feels contradictory, although it would certainly help if Cheick Doucoure stopped picking up avoidable bookings.


6) Leicester City (Jonny Evans)
It was in that game against Crystal Palace that Leicester produced their best defensive performance of the season, which admittedly is similar to saying one tooth extraction was less excruciating than another.

Whether or not the absence of Jonny Evans was a contributing factor or mere coincidence will be discovered in due course. But it does say something that Leicester kept one clean sheet – against the only team lower than the Foxes in the table – in the nine games he played, before preserving another in the first game their captain missed this season.

The injury-prone nature of Evans will make it easier to gauge his impact. A defence of Wout Faes and Daniel Amartey does not transmit confidence but the ultimate answer might well be that Leicester could do with signing another centre-half when cashflow problems start to ease.


5) Everton (Seamus Coleman)
Frank Lampard might consider the Premier League’s longest-serving player to be “one of the best people I have ever met,” but even the Everton coach must accept that Seamus Coleman no longer cuts the mustard quite as consistently and reliably as an actual footballer.

The Irishman missed almost all of the Toffees’ unlikely unbeaten run, watching from the bench until his name was called to start the win over Southampton. He was fine in that game but in both the subsequent two – against Manchester United and Tottenham – he has been substituted a fair while before the end.

It is no insult to consider Coleman ever so slightly past his best at 34. Thrown in at the deep end in difficult circumstances, he has adjusted relatively well and certainly done his reputation no harm. But Nathan Patterson is the far superior player and Everton miss his energy and pace on the right.


4) Manchester United (Harry Maguire)
Harry Maguire is not as good as either Lisandro Martinez or Raphael Varane. He’s also not close to as bad as his critics would protest, but he is an established third in a Manchester United defensive pecking order which probably still has Phil Jones in fifth.

If you really want tangible, quantifiable proof then Maguire’s last five club starts in all competitions have all been defeats by an aggregate score of 12-1. Hope you’re happy.


3) Aston Villa (John McGinn)
The mini-revival of Tyrone Mings is officially over but at least Steven Gerrard’s decision on the Aston Villa captaincy cajoled a brief positive response from the previous incumbent. John McGinn has never really grown into the role and if anything the armband has been counter-productive, making him undroppable despite a poor run of form.

McGinn might only be a product of the haphazard, drifting team he was nominated to lead. Gerrard acknowledged in September that his call perhaps led to the midfielder “trying too desperately” to live up to the title but at no stage has the manager taken him out of the spotlight to cool down.

Gerrard’s approach has been largely the opposite: keep the Scot in the side until he proves himself worthy. McGinn remains the only Aston Villa player to start every Premier League game this season, the one man truly immune to the chopping and changing of an otherwise fluctuating mess of a team.


2) Liverpool (Jordan Henderson)
It is once again quite straightforward to suggest Liverpool are better off when their captain does not play. Jordan Henderson is an excellent if fading force but does not come close to Fabinho or Thiago in terms of ability or importance to Jurgen Klopp’s suddenly adaptable system.

In six Premier League starts this season, Henderson has been substituted before the hour in the defeat to Manchester United and draw with Brighton, completing the full 90 minutes against only Fulham (2-2) and Arsenal (2-3). He was taken off long before Fabio Carvalho’s stoppage-time winner versus Newcastle and only got to celebrate seven of the goals against Bournemouth on the pitch.

Between Henderson and James Milner, Liverpool generally have one of their main leaders present for battle. Their influence remains crucial but neither would expect to start regularly on the merit of their skill and expertise.


1) Newcastle (Jamaal Lascelles)
The only Premier League start Jamaal Lascelles has been afforded this season coincided with Newcastle’s solitary defeat so far. Fabian Schar and Sven Botman is not a partnership the Magpies captain will harbour realistic hopes of interrupting any time soon.

Dan Burn is most likely the next incredibly tall cab off that rank in any case. After being a relative mainstay under Steve Bruce and especially Rafa Benitez, Lascelles will know he belongs on the periphery of the meanest defence in England’s top flight at best.

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