Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 31st October 2016 12:14


Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and ‘world class’
It was Alan Shearer on Match of the Day who damned the Premier League while praising Sergio Aguero: “He is the one genuine world-class player we have in our Premier League. When you look at his record, when you look at some of the goals that he can score, the goals that he has scored, he’s world class.”

The first reaction to that bold statement is to groan at the latest use of the term “world class”, that most vague of all the sporting descriptions. We can loosely define it as ‘among the world’s best’, but does that mean the top five? Top ten? Top 20? Top 1%, and therefore including many, many more? And, more importantly, who actually cares? (The unfortunate answer here seems to be very many people indeed).

Shearer’s assessment that Aguero is the best player in the Premier League is clearly an opinion, and can therefore not be disproved. As a former striker, he is likely to favour those in his position and Aguero is a breathtaking finisher when on form. Any suggestion of a goal drought was blown away by his brace at West Brom.

Yet the Premier League is not struggling for natural talent, whatever Shearer’s assessment. Kevin de Bruyne, Philippe Coutinho, Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Toby Alderweireld, David de Gea, Hugo Lloris, Mesut Ozil, Laurent Koscielny and Alexis Sanchez are just a selection of players who are prone to majestic form to accompany the magic moments of which every professional player is capable. It would seem particularly miserable to use Aguero’s performance at the Hawthorns as a stick to beat any of that list. And so to Hazard and Costa, and their own display of excellence at St Mary’s on Sunday.

One of the biggest limitations of describing any player as “world class” is that it reduces team sport to individual components. Arsene Wenger is a notorious critic of the Ballon D’Or’s celebration of the individual over the collective, and so too is raising a particular player above all others in the league. What of Ilkay Gundogan, who assisted Aguero’s opener? What of Raheem Sterling, who dragged away his defender to create space? What of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, who attract opposition players towards them and thus create a high line for Aguero to exploit? What of David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta at Chelsea, celebrating their fourth consecutive clean sheet?

Yet it’s impossible not to sit back in wonder when a player of Costa or Hazard’s quality hits top form. These are two of the Premier League’s poster boys, its gems. Rather than worrying about where they rank in an eternally subjective list, sit back and watch as Hazard roams freely from his new central position, creating chances from the left, scoring goals from the right and dribbling into the heart of the opposition defence from wherever he pleases.

If Hazard provided the body shots to soften Southampton, Costa delivered the upper cut that sent a couple of teeth tumbling to the canvas. His curling shot from outside the penalty area was the act of a striker in majestic form, out on his own again as the Premier League’s top scorer. If one of Chelsea’s attacking stars doesn’t get you, the other will.

Shearer is fully entitled to his Premier League pessimism, but it is difficult not to be impressed by the division’s stellar cast. Just because you haven’t got a Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar doesn’t mean we need to wring hands and shake heads at the players that do entertain and impress. Hazard’s and Costa’s form deserves and demands better than that.


Chelsea’s defence
Four clean sheets in a row in the Premier League for the first time since August 2010, and first time in the same season since November 2009. Beat Everton at home next week and Chelsea will head into the international break in the rudest of health.


David Luiz
Maybe he isn’t the liability that many people suggested he would be?


Ilkay Gundogan
It was Tim Sherwood who forgot the existence of Gundogan when discussing just why Michael Carrick would be moving to Manchester City in January.

“Michael Carrick is the first name on a Premier League team sheet in my opinion.

“Man City are crying out for a Michael Carrick. They play with Fernando or Fernandinho in there. They are good at what they do but they can’t do what he can do. They can’t link the play like Michael Carrick.”

In fact, Manchester City might already have a central midfielder who can do all that and more. With Fernandinho sitting in front of the defence (and doing a fine job at it) and David Silva as a No. 10, Gundogan was able to be the perfect link between midfield and attack. Even in the supposedly tough confines of the West Brom central midfield, Gundogan produced the complete midfield performance.

Two goals, four shots, four chances created (two more than any other player on the pitch), an assist, five crosses (more than double the amount of any teammate), a passing accuracy of 91.4%, no fouls conceded and possession gained on seven occasions (the second-highest of any player on the pitch). Don’t put money on that Carrick move just yet, Tim.

While Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne and Sterling continue to wow, if Manchester City win the league this season there should be one question on everyone’s lips: how did this midfielder join this club for only £20m?


Romelu Lukaku
Welcome to the ‘Romelu Lukaku’s 100th league goal’ party, as previously pre-warned, take a seat. There will be games later, but for now just chat among yourselves about just how good this striker is, and quite why he is so underrated.

A list of the age of a few players who sprung to mind when they scored their 100th league goal, for your perusal:

Michael Owen – 23 years, 4 months, 13 days
Lionel Messi – 23 years, 4 months, 27 days
*Romelu Lukaku – 23 years, 5 months, 18 days*
Fernando Torres – 23 years, 11 months, 15 days
Wayne Rooney – 24 years, 3 months, 8 days
Alan Shearer – 24 years, 7 months, 20 days
Zlatan Ibrahimovic – 26 years, 3 months, 11 days

Even judging Lukaku against strikers who peaked early in their careers (Rooney, Owen and Torres), Lukaku holds his own. Nobody knows quite what the effect of playing 340 senior career games by the age of 23 will do to the Belgian’s body, but he is due some patience should injury or poor form come along. On Sunday, Lukaku became the quickest Everton player since Bob Latchford 40 years ago to reach 50 league goals for the club.

Another interesting comparison is with Daniel Sturridge, now only two Premier League goals ahead of Lukaku. He’s played 14 more games too, and while Sturridge can also boast 16 assists, Lukaku can boast 25.

One of the accusations of Lukaku is that he’s guilty of wastefulness in front of goal, the Andy Cole-type reputation for missing three chances before scoring one. Of the 29 Premier League players to take at least 15 shots this season, Lukaku has the best accuracy. Of those same 29 players, only Diego Costa has a better shot conversion rate. Exactly as you’d expect from a player still only in his formative years, he’s getting better.

Thank you for bearing with me. Let the party games begin…


Liverpool’s attack
Below is a list of the most shots on target by Premier League clubs this season:

Liverpool – 69
Manchester City – 61
Chelsea – 61
Manchester United – 59
Tottenham – 59
Everton – 58
Southampton – 56
Arsenal – 54

The gap between Liverpool and Manchester City in second is bigger than between City and Arsenal in eighth.

Below is a list of the most chances created by Premier League clubs this season:

Liverpool – 148
Tottenham – 136
Manchester United – 133
Manchester City – 132
Chelsea – 129
Southampton – 121
Everton – 119
West Ham – 117

The gap between Liverpool and Tottenham in second is bigger than between Tottenham and Chelsea in fifth.

Keep those levels up, and it might not matter how Liverpool defend. They comfortably top both of these lists despite playing 60% of their games away from home and having faced four of last season’s top five. It’s on.


Arsenal’s efficiency
Those two tables above are remarkable not just for Liverpool’s potency, but Arsenal’s efficiency. It’s a significant change from previous years:

Arsenal rank second for shots on target and second for chances created. They score 1.86 goals per league game.

Arsenal rank second for shots on target and fourth for chances created. They score 1.71 goals per league game.

Arsenal rank eighth for shots on target and ninth for chances created. They are scoring at a rate of 2.3 goals per league game.

There are plenty of reasons for that shift (and a smallish sample size might be one), but it’s easy to hypothesise that the increased strength in depth has created a competition for places that has removed all elements of complacency in Arsenal’s attack. Suddenly, everyone is desperate to impress. Sarah Winterburn wrote on Saturday about falling in love with Arsenal all over again, and this spells it out. No longer the tippy-tappy machine that annoyed your dad and that guy down the pub, Arsenal are an efficient attacking machine.


Antonio Conte
Our early winner, for identifying and solving a problem rather than acting up and moaning about the quality of the players at his disposal.


Seventh. Seventh! And, as Watford fan and general nice man Michael Moruzzi tweeted, they’ve only played really well in two games. On Saturday they beat Hull without having a shot on target, which is nothing if not delectable banter.


Tom Heaton
A superb display to match that of Lee Grant of Stoke a few weeks earlier. But do we really have to do the whole ‘Should he be England No. 1?’ every time a non-Joe Hart English goalkeeper plays well? It’s really, really tiresome.


Aitor Karanka
Four points in eight days to change the mood in Middlesbrough. Having switched from a decidedly winger-less 4-2-3-1 to a winger-heavy 4-5-1 against Arsenal, Karanka opted for a happy medium against Bournemouth, with Gaston Ramirez moving into a No. 10 position and Stewart Downing recalled on the left. Both scored.


Olivier Giroud
Oh yes, he really does still exist. If that’s the potential of Giroud as an impact substitute, he might as well get used to the role.


Kieran Gibbs
Great to see him playing well when given a chance, sad because he gets the opportunity so infrequently.


Pep Guardiola
Top of the league and in charge of the Premier League’s most potent attack and third-best defence. Those fraud charges might be thrown out of court.


Sergio Aguero
The only fools are those who thought Aguero’s mini-drought might be more than a temporary issue.


Ross Barkley
Signs that the tough love doled out by his manager might just be working. It’s great to see Barkley staying high up the pitch, but also able to improve after an inauspicious first 30 minutes. Getting frustrated at his own flaws had become a Barkley party trick.




Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Since his last league goal, Ibrahimovic has had 42 shots. That is more shots than any other player has had during the whole season. Mourinho’s continued selection of the Swede without a rest or a spell out of the side is similar to Branislav Ivanovic for Chelsea last season, ploughing the same furrow come rain or shin. If next week doesn’t bring an attack of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata with Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench, I’m going to start swinging.


Jose Mourinho
Our early loser, and with good reason. Of course Manchester United should have beaten Burnley without any inspiration required from the manager, but the signs are growing that the wheels are starting to come loose on Mourinho’s wagon. With one FA charge already in the post and another one potentially to come, Manchester United’s manager has resorted to using his media friends to leak demands for added investment on his ‘poor defenders’.


Liverpool’s defence
More errors leading to goals than any other Premier League club, but the biggest concern for Jurgen Klopp is that their poor defensive record could still get worse. Only Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton and Southampton have allowed fewer shots on target than Liverpool this season, yet Klopp’s side have conceded at least three more goals than each of those clubs.

Liverpool’s 13 goals conceded have come from just 30 shots on target faced. That’s indicative of chances being afforded in extremely presentable situations through individual error (the first goal against Crystal Palace), poor marking (the second goal) and a goalkeeping situation in which neither Simon Mignolet nor Loris Karius has truly impressed. Karius flying out of his goal and actually making himself smaller rather than bigger for the first goal will not have impressed his manager.


Crystal Palace
In creating a table of Liverpool’s position in the Premier League since Jurgen Klopp took over, you notice that Alan Pardew’s Palace are bottom of that table. Yes, even below Sunderland.


David Moyes
“When you’ve had 450-500 games in the Premier League, you keep doing what you’ve always done,” said David Moyes after Sunderland’s latest defeat. “You keep doing what you think is right.”

That’s the spirit, Davey. Keep doing the same things as ever. They’re working so well after all.


Tottenham won’t be the first team for whom an ‘unbeaten’ tag is a thin veil over disappointment, but Mauricio Pochettino will be frustrated with his players. Lose the north London derby at the Emirates next weekend and the only unbeaten team in the Premier League quickly becomes a side who have gone four games without a league win.


Tony Pulis
“No, this is the point that we’ve all agreed on. The football club has got to find a way of getting into that top ten,” said Pulis last week. “We want to give the supporters the chance to see the club grow within a framework that is not ridiculous where there’s hundred of millions being spent. And you can do that. Even if it’s just less than a hundred million. It’s important that we’re doing it in a proper way.”

Pulis’ insistence that he could get West Brom into the top ten by spending less than £100m (they finished eighth 18 months before he arrived) is an indication that the sale of the club has put pressure upon his position. New owners are notoriously keen to see sexy football, however unfair that is, and Pulis is as likely to provide that as he is to headbutt one of his naked playe…actually, that doesn’t work.

Pulis’ problem is that he isn’t even hitting his own targets. The 4-0 defeat to Manchester City left West Brom in 15th position, with ten points from ten games. The 4-2 victory over West Ham is their only league win since the opening day. Six of their ten league games have been against the teams currently in 10th, 12th, 14th, 16th, 17th and 20th.

Supporters have grown increasingly tired of Pulis’ eye-bleeding football, so are liable to turn the moment he stops even making West Brom resilient. Both they and the owners are unlikely to look at a Premier League table in which two promoted clubs sit above West Brom and be happy for long. Lose away at Leicester next weekend and there may be some soul-searching done during the international week in the Black Country.


West Brom

You’ve been Pulised.


Darren Fletcher
Booed off the pitch by some of the home crowd after another dismal display. That’s an unfair way to treat a fine servant, but it must be time for Pulis to try something new. Playing in central midfield for 51 minutes, Fletcher attempted only 13 passes and misplaced five of those.


Charlie Austin
Austin is certainly en vogue after his start to the season, with Sam Wallace of the Daily Telegraph writing on Saturday that ‘Austin, 27, acquired for just over £3 million last January while others waited for him to be a free agent in the summer, could fetch around £20 million now from a team desperate for a goalscorer.’

There is no doubt that Austin was a bargain, but no doubt too that he can frustrate you intensely. While the best strikers in the division boast a conversion rate between 25-35%, Austin’s stands at 18.1%. While the best strikers in the division have a shot accuracy of between 55-75%, Austin’s is down at 45.5%. By both of those measures, the player directly above him in the list is Michail Antonio.

Against Chelsea, Austin had three shots. All were from 15 yards or fewer, and all were reasonable opportunities to at least test Thibaut Courtois. All were sent off target.

These things happen, but Austin will always be judged on his finishing. He is not a centre-forward but a striker, evidenced by the fact that Austin has only created two chances for teammates in the league this season. That’s astonishing given that a) he has played 541 minutes and b) 12 Southampton players have created more. Fraser Forster is only one behind.

Austin is rightly praised when he scores, but must take the rough with the smooth. Having been publicly criticised by Claude Puel after the draw against Leicester, this was another setback. Missing three chances against Chelsea is the difference between having a chance of a point, and getting nothing at all.


Simone Zaza
Bad. I mean seismically bad. Zaza was only given 20 minutes at Goodison on Sunday, but his is the type of awful that makes you burst into laughter. Now over two months into his Premier League career, the potential saviour of West Ham’s attack has had one shot on target in 431 minutes. That’s fewer than the also appalling Arouna Kone has managed at Everton in less than 10% of the time.


Michail Antonio
Two games as a striker. One game as a left winger. Three games as a right winger in a 4-2-3-1. Two games on the right of a midfield four. One game as a right wing-back. One game as a right-back.

It’s no wonder that Antonio looked confused on Sunday. The poor kid doesn’t know whether he’s coming (back to the defend) or going (up front).


Daniel Storey

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