Paul Pogba makes our first post-Mourinho Team of the Week

Date published: Monday 24th December 2018 9:09 - Matthew Stead

It was quite possibly the best weekend for strikers since this feature began. No fewer than five clearly worthy performances, and although we can only pick two, all five will get a proper salute. Three winning teams get a pair of listers apiece, in a 4-4-2:


Goalkeeper: Asmir Begovic (Bournemouth)
It was an impressive weekend for keepers, with 12 out of 20 making at least one outstanding stop. The pick of the pack was by Lukasz Fabianski, who made an almost unbelievable reaction save, tipping Abdoulaye Doucouré’s close-range blast over the bar. But the best overall performance goes to the Bournemouth keeper (his second time on the list), for a fine near-post block on Yves Bissouma, followed by low dives to the left to stop Jürgen Locadia and Lewis Dunk. And not a rebound in sight – are you watching, Mr. Pickford? Just behind was Rui Patricio, who had a roughly equal collection of saves, blocking Mo Salah twice and Adam Lallana once. He also came way off his line twice to sweep away danger. But his poor punch from a cross led to a corner, which led to Liverpool’s second goal.


Right-back: Ricardo Pereira (Leicester City)
When we last looked in on the Portugal international, he was recording 23 interventions as Leicester held off a Watford onslaught to pick up all three points. This past weekend at Stamford Bridge…I bet you can fill in the rest. It was another astonishing defensive performance (six tackles, five interceptions, 11 clearances, one block – add them up), including a number of flat stymies on Eden Hazard. He also drove forward to start the sequence for Leicester’s goal. At first I thought he had made a huge mistake when Marcos Alonso got through alone and hit the post late, but while Pereira might have gone out too far to challenge Pedro, it was Marc Albrighton’s job to follow the wing-back. Claude Puel may be perpetually only two games from the sack, but let’s give him credit for signing one of the two best right-backs in the league.

The other is Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who was absolutely brilliant at times against Manchester City. He moves so quickly to the ball and tackles so securely. He also executed a super run and cross on the sequence leading to Palace’s penalty. At the same time, his inexperience was on show: twice he hesitated when decisiveness was called for, and he made a couple of wrong choices under pressure. Plus he doesn’t always get back quick enough after getting forward – not out of laziness, of course, more a failure to recognise the danger. Let’s face it, though: he’s a remarkable player already, and will only get better as he matures. Considering the opposition, his performance would have made the list maybe eight out of 10 times.


Centre-half: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
Normally a central defender has to be more thoroughly tested to make this list, but Van Dijk was so overwhelmingly good that only a pedant would keep him off. Besides, thwarting Adama Traoré twice is like stopping anyone else about twenty times. Does he have a weakness? Maybe, just maybe (as analytics guy Mark Thompson has pointed out) he’s not always 100% aware of attackers around him. If you’ve got the video, note how in the 89th minute Raúl Jiménez slips in front of him on a near-post run. But Van Dijk reacts well, and it would have needed a perfect cross and brilliant strike to beat him. Right now he’s at the top of his game, and as worthy as anyone of the coveted Player Of The Half Season gong.


Centre-half: James Tomkins (Crystal Palace)
One of my personal favourites – competent and versatile. With Palace holding on against Manchester City, he was mainly called upon to clear everything in sight, and did so with exclamation points attached. Ten clearances in the second half alone, every one of them authoritative, and to top it off the block on İlkay Gündoğan to save the match. One possible black mark: he slipped while marking Aymeric Laporte on a late corner kick, which might have been disastrous. But he might have been shoved – earlier Laporte had climbed all over him on another corner – and at worst that puts him in the ‘one big mistake’ category. So he’d get in anyway, because…

His only competition for this spot was Jannik Vestergaard, who had one big mistake in his output as well. The ex-Hoffenheim/Bremen/Mönchengladbach defender dropped from sight under Mark Hughes, but it seems all he needed was a Bundesliga manager. Under Ralph Hasenhüttl he’s back and back in form, doing what he does best, which is head the ball out of danger. Against Huddersfield he added capable marking and some long-legged interventions for an overall very fine showing, marred only by losing Zanka at a corner, rescued by a great save from Alex McCarthy.


Left-back: José Holebas (Watford)
In an unremarkable week at this position, a solid two-way performance does the job. He was matched up against Robert Snodgrass, which meant he wasn’t challenged for pace and often got forward unmarked. It was his neat pass to Roberto Pereyra that started the move leading to Watford’s penalty, and he was useful in a wide variety of defensive plays. His 76 touches led all comers, too. He even passed the ultimate Premier League full-back test, winning a back-post header against Andy Carroll. (Carroll won one a few minutes later, though.) Still plugging away at the age of 34.

Very close was Sead Kolasinač, who has returned from oblivion to be Arsenal’s regular left-back. As we’ve said before, he’s a heck of an attacker, and if Burnley are your opponents you might as well let him rip. He notched a glorious assist and was part of the build-up for the second goal – and if he’d put the cross in the right spot for Alexandre Lacazette in the 66th minute, he’d have a second assist, and the spot ahead of Holebas.

Let’s also give a call to Bernardo, who had an excellent/inexperienced match like Wan-Bissaka, and is starting to look like a real asset for Brighton. He defended mostly well, and although the Seagulls don’t rely much on full-backs to push the attack, against Bournemouth he showed he can get forward with menace. Also showed we can be a decent centre-half when his side went down to ten men.


Central midfielder: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
No, I’m not just picking the big names – you know Team of the Week better than that. After a slow start, the man that mattered the most. Made the left side of the pitch the centre of everything with 111 touches, far more than anyone else in the match. Mostly let his teammates provide the danger, while he provided the providers. Still managed to pick up a late assist, and was robbed by Neil Etheridge of a goal of his own. I kind of think he was enjoying himself. Elsewhere, Fabinho shook off his early giveaway to have an understated good match, and the way he ran to the line and provided the cutback for Mo Salah was revelatory.


Attacking midfielder: Nathan Redmond (Southampton)
As one of maybe five people who have kept the faith with Redmond since his days at Norwich City, I’m thrilled to see him thriving under the new regime. He played three different positions in this match: attacking midfielder in a 3-4-2-1, winger and striker. We’re used to seeing him on the wing, but he’s looking suitable in an inside role where he can play pass-and-move in more space. Against Huddersfield he didn’t take full advantage of every situation, but he was a big reason the situations were there in the first place. Combined very well with Stuart Armstrong (a very intelligent one-touch passer, by the way), scored a beauty to give Saints the lead, and assisted Michael Obafemi for the decisive goal.

Elsewhere, Dele Alli was romping against Everton’s ‘press’, and had a good chance to make the list until his injury. Mesut Özil drifted in and out against Burnley, but when he was in he was very, very in. My heart would break to see him leave, and I still think he could play a significant role in this Arsenal side. I won’t consider him gone until he’s really gone. James Maddison remains a super playmaker – you just knew he’d put the ball right on Vardy’s foot for the big chance.


Winger: Andros Townsend (Crystal Palace)
The wonder goal, as you might imagine, but much more. He also hit the post leading to the penalty, and just as importantly was excellent in defence, particularly impressive in the second half. He always gives you the effort, and every once in a while delivers something extra special.


Winger: Jesse Lingard (Manchester United)
I could get used to watching this United side. Both Lingard and Anthony Martial turned up the excitement meter, with Lingard edging ahead on the late goal. (Very cool to round the keeper – how many players would have hit it first time?) Also won and converted a penalty, and assisted Martial’s goal. I just love his simple slashing runs, always looking to create something. Cardiff gave him all the space he needed, particularly in the second half; I don’t think Huddersfield will be as accommodating on Wednesday. But I hope he gets another start.

David Brooks’ brace made him equally worthy, although he missed out on the newbie tiebreaker. It wasn’t a typical Brooks game: he was less secure on the ball than usual, and didn’t create much. But what finishes! The second was my favourite goal of the week. He makes the textbook run and puts his hand up to signal Ryan Fraser, who looks up a tiny bit late and sees him. The cross is excellent, but the shooting angle isn’t optimal anymore – and then that amazing header. I think even Brooks was a bit surprised.

Elsewhere, Roberto Pereyra was part of some superb passing combinations, picked up an assist and won a penalty. Sadio Mané was involved in most of the good attacking moves for Liverpool, and with a little luck might have had two assists.

And now we move to striker, and five superb performances, all quite different, providing a thorough course in how to play the position. Fortunately, two of the five hadn’t made the list yet this season. Let’s start with…


Striker: Gerard Deulofeu (Watford)
Against West Ham, he reminded us that there’s still such a thing as a support striker. Paired with Troy Deeney, who stayed more central, he roamed the pitch looking to send teammates through. It was his pass that found Pereyra in the area to win the penalty. He put Deeney through alone twice, and watched his partner shoot weakly both times. So finally he decided to do it himself, exchanging passes with Pereyra before a perfect finish. Out of absolutely nowhere he’s become one of the tactically sharpest attackers in the league. Just barely missed out last week, and here he takes pride of place. Then there’s…


Striker: Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur)
I’m frankly stunned he hadn’t made the list yet. When he’s on the pitch, you know the drill: fast and straight ahead, again and again. Everton pressed suicidally high, and it was off to the races. We can laugh all day about the Pickford/Zouma mix-up on the first goal, but how many strikers would have nipped in so cleanly and finished with such consummate ease? A bit later, his hard shot on the run produced the rebound that Dele Alli converted. The second goal was simple get-behind-the-defence stuff, hardly worth mentioning. Then came the pièce de resistance, that PERFECT PERFECT NOW I CAN DIE HAPPY cross to Harry Kane on the counter for goal number six. If Arthur Conan Doyle were around today, Sherlock Holmes would be mainlining Son highlights – attack in its purest form.

We’ve got three more standouts to look at, so let’s go chronologically, starting on Friday with Mo Salah. The previous week at Old Trafford he’d been static and uninspired, easily marshalled by Victor Lindelöf. Maybe Jürgen had a word, because this was lone-striker action at its best. He repeatedly dropped off his markers to receive the ball and either exchange passes or attack on his own. In the second half, with Wolves chasing the game, he stayed on the shoulder in an inside-right position, looking to race behind the defence on the counter. In the end his brilliantly casual goal and assist came through different means, which tells you something about his versatility.

On Saturday it was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Unlike Salah, he had an equal partner up front, which meant the freedom to go pretty much anywhere in search of an advantage. Using his considerable pace, he went regularly to both wings, yet repeatedly arrived in front of goal for opportunities. The first goal was the kind of arrogant finish only the greats can produce, and the second was classic technique-plus-power.

Finally it’s Sunday’s child, Harry Kane. If Son is a laser beam, Kane is a kaleidoscope. Now a target man, now a support striker, now on the shoulder, now shooting from long range. In the first half he got into good positions, but his shots were just a tiny bit off target. Then came the classic poach on an off-the-post rebound – lucky maybe, but he was watching the ball all the way. The second goal, from Son’s cross on the counter, was truly magnificent, every bit as classy as Aubameyang’s first. More difficult, too, since it was at pace. He misses out on the newbie tiebreaker as well, but he’s still Harry Unbelievable Kane.

Finally, let’s mention Marcus Rashford, who dialed his intensity level to 11, and would deserve another sentence or two had he not decided that the upper arm was mightier than the sword.

Peter Goldstein



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