Top ten best players outside the Premier League’s big six

Ian Watson

After looking last week at the worst players in the big six, now we turn to the best ones beyond the big boys. Only two per club allowed. Soz, Ben Chilwell…


10) Adama Traore
There may be some recency bias in the Wolves winger’s inclusion on this list, but Traore’s form of late suggests the former Barcelona academy graduate might fulfil his potential after all.

Traore looked like a fish out of water when he arrived in England in 2015 but most players would have struggled in that Aston Villa team. He found his way at Middlesbrough before joining Wolves in 2018. Despite being a record signing, he still flattered to deceive last season with dazzling attacking play too often being ruined by a poor end product.

But it must be remembered that Traore is still only 23 and this season he has blossomed into one of the Premier League’s most thrilling attacking players. Even on an off-day, he can light up a game with one of his explosive bursts, which so often can only be halted by foul means. So far this season, in all competitions, 26 players have received cautions for offences against Traore.


9) Lukasz Fabianski
Fabainski was hardly under-appreciated at West Ham – he was named their Hammer of the Year last season in his first year at the club – but his value has been thrust into even sharper focus in his absences.

West Ham started the season splendidly, losing only one of their opening seven matches – that defeat coming to the champions on the opening day – to take them to fifth in the table. Then Fabianski suffered a hip injury and it all went terribly wrong. Manuel Pellegrini placed his faith in Roberto, who it turns out isn’t fit to carry Fabianski’s gloves. By the time the Pole returned just after Christmas, the Hammers had slipped to fifth from bottom. He was missing again at Sheffield United on Friday night, when the only goal could be attributed to his stand-in David Martin.

Roberto’s wretchedness and Martin’s struggles emphasise the security Fabianski brings to the Irons’ box. No goalkeeper made more saves than the 34-year-old last season but just as important as that tangible contribution is the serenity he brings to a chaotic backline at the London Stadium; Fabianski has come a long way since the Flapianski days at Arsenal.


8) Abdoulaye Doucoure
In the modern game where midfielders must specialise going one particular way, Doucoure is a throw back to the box-to-boxers of old. Even Javi Gracia and Quique Sanchez Flores tried to pin him down to one particular speciality but Nigel Pearson has given the 27-year-old the freedom to cover every blade of grass.

He seemed to do just that at Bournemouth on Sunday in the process of trampling all over Jefferson Lerma and his Cherries team-mates. It was the kind of performance, despite not having trained all week, that highlights why Liverpool and Tottenham were said to be interested when Watford made him a club-record signing at £8m in 2016, and why it would take at least five times that figure to pry him away from the Hornets now.


7) Danny Ings
Brendan Rodgers led the ‘Ings for England’ calls at the weekend after watching his former player score one of the goals which condemned his Leicester side to a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of the team they thumped 9-0 a couple of months ago. Right now, Ings is certainly the hottest striker available to Gareth Southgate.

The 27-year-old has netted 10 goals in his last 10 Premier League starts and as well as scoring against Leicester, this season he’s also notched against Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham (home and away) and Arsenal. All that in this Southampton side…

Without Ings, Saints would be in the sh*t. His goals have been good for 13 points so far this season and his recent form has lifted Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side into mid-table. Any continuation of this form would make it impossible for Southgate to ignore Ings for the friendlies in March.


6) Lucas Digne
Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival could not have been better timed since it seemed entirely possible that Digne might seek a move away from Everton having grown sick of this sh*t. Lyon were said to be keen to take him back to France, and it doesn’t bear thinking about how much worse things might have been for the Toffees without their best player.

The left-back is certainly their most creative force. Only five players in the Premier League have created more chances for team-mates this season – Digne is only one behind James Maddison and four off Jack Grealish – while only eight in the whole of last term created more. One of those was Gylfi Sigurdsson, whom Ancelotti is supposedly ready to dump.

If only Everton had a centre-forward worthy of the title…


5) Wilfried Zaha
The Palace winger put himself in the shop window with a brilliant season which made Everton and Arsenal take notice and Chelsea too, even if the Blues were unable to act upon their urges. It has taken a few months, but it seems Zaha is now getting back to that form, having spent the start of the season in a funk over the Eagles’ refusal to let him fly the nest for a second time.

You perhaps can’t blame Zaha for seeing his arse with Palace. The 27-year-old felt he had earned the opportunity for another crack at the big time and he owed his boyhood club nothing, especially since they stood to make a fortune on their academy product. But Palace stood firm in their valuation of Zaha and it seems likely the Ivory Coast star will have to wait until next summer for his belated move.

Zaha would still be an asset to any of the big six. Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal are all sniffing, and Mikel Arteta has explained why Zaha is so in demand: “I think the impact he’s had in the last few years in the Premier League has been phenomenal. His ability to create chances on his own is unique.”

If Palace had a forward fit-for-purpose to finish off those chances, then who knows where Palace might have been.


4) Jamie Vardy
The Leicester striker’s window for a big move has probably closed but that’s fine. Would he have thrived in a big six side in the same way he has at Leicester?

It would be fascinating to find out the answer but that should not take away from Vardy’s achievements as a Leicester player. Firing the Foxes to an astonishing Premier League title in 2016 was remarkable. Reinventing himself to help Leicester lead the pursuit of Liverpool in 2020 is almost as impressive.

As the Premier League’s most potent Fox in the box, Vardy is three clear in the race for the Golden Boot despite having played at least a game less than his main competitors. If he maintains the pace he has set so far the former non-league striker is on course to break the 30-goal mark. Not bad for a Skittles vodka-supping 33-year-old.


3) Joao Moutinho
The Wolves midfielder may or may not be the best player on this list. But with his 121 Portugal caps, the European Championship winner is certainly the most experienced. And though Vardy from non-league for £1million is similarly shrewd, Moutinho’s credentials make the £5million Wolves paid Monaco the best bit of business here too.

It was presumed by some that Moutinho was moving to Molineux to wind down his career with the Premier League new boys, but the 33-year-old is still pulling strings as flawlessly as he ever did.

From his deep-lying midfield role, only five players have created more chances than Moutinho and only six have laid on more assists for team-mates. Defensively, only two midfielders – Wilfred Ndidi and Declan Rice – have made and won more tackles. Wolves’ links with Jorge Mendes certainly helped but a few clubs in the big six missed a huge opportunity when Moutinho was up for grabs.


2) James Maddison
Maddison’s was an incredible maiden season in the Premier League. The Leicester midfielder, a £22million purchase from Norwich, created more chances than any other player in the league. Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s creative force bought by Real Madrid for £100million, was two behind.

Not that everyone was convinced. Southgate seemed particularly wary of the playmaker, keeping him at arm’s length from his squad for 10 months after his initial call-up in October 2018. Maddison had to wait until last August, having been made to play with the Under-21s during the summer rather than with the seniors at the Nations League, but after withdrawing through illness, he was then pictured in a casino.

Southgate has warned Maddison of the blend he needs to perfect.”You want to be high-performance, low-maintenance,” said the England manager and even he can’t dispute that Maddison meets the first criteria. And a large part of the reason for excelling so quickly in the Premier League is his self-belief. It may sometimes manifest itself in a superficial manner and offer the perception of Maddison as your typical, arrogant Premier League superstar, but it is unreasonable to condemn the 23-year-old for the same thing which makes him stand out at the highest level.

It doesn’t help Maddison that he excels in a position Southgate prefers to play without. But still the England boss knows he can no longer ignore the Leicester star.


1) Jack Grealish
To think that some doubted whether Grealish could hack it in the Premier League. The Championship’s best player took less than half a season to become one of the best in the Premier League and one that would not look out of place in any of the big six sides.

Grealish has grown up since his early days in the Villa first team and is now the undisputed leader of the team. This season, only Kevin De Bruyne has created more chances for team-mates from open play, while the City star is the only midfielder to outscore the Villa captain. Grealish cops plenty of flak for going to ground too easily, but he’s either harshly judged or very good at it, since no player has been fouled more. Wilf Zaha is the second most fouled player, 20 behind having played two games more.

There is a wonderful maturity about Grealish’s game now. Creating chances and scoring goals is wonderful but almost as crucial for Villa is his ability to drag his side up the pitch and earn some respite for his defence. That diligence is reflected off the pitch, where Grealish does his homework on each opponent: “I know in advance the player I’m coming up against in the next game, whether they will be strong, fast, easy to get at, technically good or bad,” he told The Athletic. “If I’m up against a fast, strong player, I change my game. I move it quicker and play one-twos to get around him.”

How Manchester United could do with a player as gifted and sedulous as Grealish. But it seems they’ll have to go for the cheaper, more readily-available option.


Ian Watson