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Bill ConnellyESPN Staff Writer
- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
The end of Tuesday’s Chelsea–Leicester City match on Tuesday marked the rough midway point of the 2020-21 Premier League season. With the coronavirus still looming large, it has been a fraught and mostly crowd-free affair, one that has produced a pretty tight race: five teams are currently within five points of the league lead, we’ve had nine different teams occupying first place at one time or another, and 10 are within five points of a Champions League slot. But to commemorate what we’ve seen so far, let’s hand out some midseason awards, from best player to worst summer signing.
Note: because teams have played anywhere between 16 (Aston Villa) and 19 games (10 teams) due to postponements, any mention below of what place a team is in reference to per-game totals, not overall totals.
Player of the season
5. Son Heung-Min, Tottenham Hotspur. You know it’s been a good year for attackers when Son can produce a pace of 24 goals and 12 assists … as the second-best attacker on his own team. That he’s scored 12 goals on just 34 shots is incredible: the other six players with double-digit goals so far have averaged 57 shots between them.
4. Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester City. We take the 29-year-old Belgian for granted at this point. His finishing touch has been a bit off — his 57 shots have produced 8.4 xG, but only three goals — but his passing is as good as ever: he’s second in the league with 10 assists and third with 51 chances created (assists + key passes, i.e., the pass before a shot attempt).
3. Jack Grealish, Aston Villa. While Son’s primary contribution has come in putting the ball in the net, Grealish has thrived at setting up shots for others. His 55 chances created are the most in the league, and seven of them have become assists. He’s also scored five times and is winning 62% of his duels, the most among attackers with 1,000-plus touches.
2. Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United. United look like legitimate contenders in January for the first time since what, 2013? Fernandes is the primary reason. He’s on pace for 22 goals and 14 assists, and while half of his goals are penalties, he’s still the creative engine of the third-best scoring unit in the league. Since signing him at the end of last year’s January transfer window, United have lost just three times in league play and have generated more points than anyone else.
1. Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur. At times in recent seasons, Kane looked like he was playing with an added weight on his back, the steady stream of minutes and key matches putting serious mileage on the odometer. But an injury layoff, combined with the coronavirus stoppage, seemed to give him back his legs. The 27-year old is on pace for an incredible 24 goals and 22 assists this season; he’d never dished more than seven assists in a season, and he’s already up to 11. His partnership with Son has given Spurs a two-man offense good enough to keep them in the league’s top five despite a lack of a steady Plan B.
Manager of the season
3. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United. United began the league season slowly and bombed out of the Champions League with three losses in its last four matches. But despite these early setbacks, Solskjaer has connected well with the squad and guided it on a hell of a run: the Red Devils have pulled 30 points from their last 12 league matches and reached the halfway point in first place.
2. Brendan Rodgers, Leicester City. An injury to defensive midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, plus the sale of fullback Ben Chilwell to Chelsea, prompted Rodgers to take a more cautious approach early this season. But despite young players playing increasing roles, the Foxes have taken 20 points from their last nine matches and remain a stubborn third overall, averaging two points per game. Not that it needs to be said at this point, but Rodgers is a really, really good manager.
1. Carlo Ancelotti, Everton. Ancelotti has won Champions Leagues and guided many of the richest clubs in the world. Everton is not poor by any means, but he’s dealing with fewer talent advantages than he’s used to, and he’s still producing.
The Toffees were seeming like a flash in the pan, winning their first four league matches, but then just one of their next seven. But they beat Chelsea, Leicester City and Arsenal consecutively in December, and despite star addition James Rodriguez‘s form sliding a bit from his early brilliance, Everton keeps cranking out points. They’re on pace for 70+ points for the first time since 2014.
Goal of the season
Is it recency bias? Maybe. But it’s hard to make a case for any other goal we’ve seen now that we’ve seen Tanguy Ndombele‘s utterly outlandish back-of-the-foot scoop against Sheffield United from this past weekend.
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) January 17, 2021
What’s your favorite part? Is it the shot itself, a perfect arc with perfect weight that somehow one-upped what had been a lovely, creative pass from Steven Bergwijn? Is it the fact that Ndombele thought to attempt the shot at all, with no reason to expect success? Is it the fact that, in the last replay angle in the clip above, you can see Blades keeper Aaron Ramsdale clearly mutter a word that starts with “F” as he realizes the ball is clearly arcing into his net and there’s nothing he can do about it?
The correct answer, of course: all of the above. What a goal.
With half of the Premier League’s 20 teams officially at the midpoint of their campaigns, we’ve seen more than enough to pick out the superlatives, position by position, so far.
GK: Nick Pope, Burnley. Goalkeeper stats are so loaded with context that it’s hard to know what to make of them, but try this one out: Stats Perform’s Goals Prevented category compares the xG of the shots on your goal to the actual goals you allow. Pope easily leads the league at +6.4 at the moment; he’s on pace for the best season in this regard since David de Gea‘s +13.7 in 2017-18, but I doubt he’d complain if his Burnley teammates gave him a little less work to do.
RB: Kyle Walker-Peters, Southampton. In this XI, the 23-year-old is the perfect partner for the roaming Cancelo. He’s not heavily involved in attack, but he thrives doing Ralph Hasenhuttl’s dirty work: he’s second among league full-backs (min. 1000 minutes) with 110 ball recoveries, and he’s first in both tackle success rate (57%) and fouls committed against him (26). Lost in the shuffle a bit at Tottenham Hotspur in the past, he’s thriving down south.
CB: Jannik Vestergaard, Southampton. You have to catch Southampton in transition because you probably aren’t going to score once the Saints have settled in behind the ball on defense. Vestergaard is as responsible for that as anyone: he’s won 68% of his duels and 72% of aerials, which, considering he’s 6-foot-6, probably isn’t a surprise. He’s a willing (but not too willing) tackler, and he’s added three set-piece goals to boot. He’s been huge, literally and metaphorically, for the overachieving Saints.
CB: Kurt Zouma, Chelsea. Chelsea’s defense ranks sixth in shots allowed per possession and third in xG per shot, and Zouma has played a major role in that — he’s one of only two central defenders (min. 1,000 minutes) to win at least 60% of his tackles, 65% of his duels and 70% of his aerials. But he also leads central defenders with four goals, all from corners. That’s a hell of a combination, even if it doesn’t consistently assure him a spot in an altogether unsure Chelsea lineup.
LB: Joao Cancelo, Manchester City. He’s played left back and right back. He generated five scoring chances in two matches on the right wing. His pass map is one of the most … comprehensive you’ll see.
Pep Guardiola has massaged City’s identity a bit this year, attempting to shore up weaknesses in transition defense while varying its attack. Cancelo has been key in both regards.
CM: Mason Mount, Chelsea. Of the 27 primarily “central” midfielders who have played 1000 minutes thus far, Mount has created by far the most chances (48) and has completed the most crosses (33) with the second-highest completion rate (39%). He also has the second-most shots on target (10) despite taking most of his shots outside the box. Despite all the money Chelsea spent on attacking talent this offseason, a good portion of their more successful attacks have gone through this 22-year old holdover/youth academy product.
CM: Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester City. Sure, De Bruyne plays a majority of his minutes in more of an attacking midfield role, but he’s equally dangerous in both — he has averaged 0.67 assists per 90 in attacking midfield and 0.63 in central midfield, and his pass completion rate is higher from the latter role. So we’re squeezing him in here. And anyway, this team’s a lot more fun with both him and Fernandes in it.
RW: Mo Salah, Liverpool. He didn’t quite fit into the top five players list above, but he’s still been the best right-winger in the league. He and the Reds’ attack have fallen into a bit of a funk, but he’s still on pace to top 25 goals for the first time since 2017-18.
CAM: Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United. United is close to the league lead, and Fernandes leads United in touches, chances, assists, crosses attempted and completed, goals, shots and ball recoveries in the attacking third. He is the United attack.
LW: Jack Grealish, Aston Villa. It’s really pick-your-flavor here. If you want more of a creator, it’s Grealish. If you need maybe a bit more finishing with a team that already features Mount, de Bruyne and Fernandes, then maybe you go with Son. Can’t go wrong either way.
CF: Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur. Fingers crossed that we get a full, injury-free season from Kane and Son, just to see the numbers they’re capable of producing. So far: 24 goals and 17 assists combined in just 18 matches. Crazy.
Second XI/Honorable Mentions
GK: Alphonse Areola, Fulham RB: Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Manchester United CB: John Stones, Manchester City CB: Harry Maguire, Manchester United LB: Ben Chilwell, Chelsea DM: Wilfred Ndidi, Leicester City CM: James Ward-Prowse, Southampton CM: Ilkay Gundogan, Manchester City RW: James Rodriguez, Everton CF: Jamie Vardy, Leicester City LW: Son Heung-Min, Tottenham Hotspur
Match of the season
Few season debuts end up being a perfectly accurate preview of everything to come, but that’s exactly what Liverpool 4-3 Leeds United was. Liverpool’s Salah netted a hat trick, paving the way for his current scoring lead. Liverpool suffered a couple of mind-blowing defensive glitches, which defined the early season for basically every heavy-possession, vulnerable-to-counter-attacks-rich-team in the sport.
Most of all, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds proved willing to allow lots of scoring chances in the name of creating lots of their own. They followed this match with a 4-3 win over Fulham, and they’ve both scored 5+ goals twice and allowed 4+ four times. Their knife’s-edge style could make them a threat to steal a Europa League slot late in the season… or it could lead to a month-long slump that gives them relegation anxiety. Either way, it’s hard to take your eyes off of them, and that’s been true from the opening kick.
Most disappointing XI
Mark Ogden looks at ESPN FC’s list of the worst Premier League transfers so far this season.
Not everything can be wonderful and perfectly live up to expectations, of course, so we should probably cover some of the more disappointing performances in the league as well.
GK: Jordan Pickford, Everton. England‘s first-choice keeper has rebounded from a woeful start, but said start is still affecting his season-long numbers. That Goals Prevented measure referenced above? He was at minus-4.1 nine matches into the season. (He’s at plus-2.8 since.)
RB: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool. Again, this is about expectations. TAA has still produced the third-most chances of any fullback (24) and the fourth-most ball recoveries (98). He’s still quite good, obviously, but he’s failing to clear the bar he set for himself last year: his shooting stats are down, and he’s gone from averaging 2.5 chances created per 90 to 1.7. He’ll bounce back, but Liverpool would very much appreciate it if that happened quickly.
CB: John Egan, Sheffield United. The Blades’ woeful start (19 matches, five points) has been driven primarily by a total inability to score. But even as they struggled in that department last season, they still had a sturdy defense to rely on. This year, not so much. Egan has gone from winning 63% of his aerials to 55%, from 42% of his tackles to 34% and from 61% of his duels down to 53%. Opponents are taking the third-most shots per possession, and Egan’s not preventing as many of them.
CB: Branislav Ivanovic, West Bromwich Albion. The 36-year-old former Chelsea star was brought in to help keep the back line sturdy and organized, and while expectations weren’t high, wherever the bar was he’s not clearing it.
LB: Ben Davies, Tottenham Hotspur. Davies was maybe the best fullback in the league in 2017-18, producing two goals and six assists among 47 chances created. But he’s been searching for his past self since returning this time last year from a serious ankle injury. In the last calendar year, he’s created 14 chances and no goals. He’s mostly fine defensively and mostly fine overall, but “fine” is disappointing compared to two or three years ago.
CM: Mateo Kovacic, Chelsea. In his first two seasons in Chelsea blue, the Croatian midfielder averaged 1.3 chances created and 7.0 ball recoveries per 90. While Mount has done well, Kovacic has struggled to find his place in this new lineup and is averaging just 0.9 chances and 5.0 ball recoveries. He’s blending into the scenery a bit.
CM: Joao Moutinho, Wolves. Moutinho has been so important to the identity of Nuno Espirito Santo’s squad as it carved out a niche in the upper half of the Premier League, and it’s hard to think of him in terms of disappointment. But his production has trailed off dramatically this season: after averaging 81 chances created and 256 ball recoveries in his first two seasons in Wolverhampton, the 34-year old is on pace for only 40 chances and about 170 ball recoveries this year.
CM: Kai Havertz, Chelsea. The most expensive signing of Chelsea’s prolific offseason was also the most confusing. The Blues had already added Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech to their deep set of attackers when they brought the 21-year old Havertz in, and Frank Lampard has bounced him between central midfield, attacking midfield and the right wing in an attempt to find a role for him. And after scoring 17 goals in the Bundesliga last year, he has just one after 19 league games.
RW: Nicolas Pepe, Arsenal. It’s been a double-disappointment of sorts for the 25-year old — after producing 22 goals and 11 assists for Lille in 2018-19, he managed only five and six for the Gunners last season. He’s also failed to in any way earn Mikel Arteta’s trust, and a year after coming to London for an $88 million transfer fee, he’s scored twice with no assists in under 500 minutes.
CF: Timo Werner, Chelsea. The 24-year-old scored 28 goals with 53 chances created for RB Leipzig last season, helping to lead the club to the Champions League semifinals. That Chelsea was able to acquire him for under $60 million felt like a steal. But Lampard has deployed him primarily as a left winger — he was a centre-forward during his best RBL seasons — and as with much of the Chelsea attack, things haven’t really clicked yet. He’s got just four goals and four assists this year.
LW: PIerre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal. The good news: the 31-year-old is coming off of his best performance of the season producing a brace in a 3-0 win over Newcastle. The bad news: he had only three goals before that. After scoring 22 goals in each of the last two seasons, he’s just barely on pace for double digits after re-signing with the club this offseason. He’s still doing better than his counterpart on the right, however.
Worst signings of the season
5. Jamal Lewis, Newcastle. The Magpies spent a good chunk of their transfer budget on this former Norwich City fullback, but the 22-year-old has yet to find his niche — he’s found little role in attack, but he has struggled to create disruption on defense either.
4. Timo Werner, Chelsea. It’s early in his London tenure, and his track record is too strong for him not to eventually adapt and thrive. But he hasn’t yet.
3. Donny van de Beek, Manchester United. Solskjaer has yet to figure out what to do with the $42 million signing. The 23-year-old averaged nine league goals and 44 chances over his last three seasons at Ajax, but he’s been relegated primarily to cup play so far and has produced a single goal and two chances created in 251 league minutes to date.
2. Rhian Brewster, Sheffield United. United spent a club-record $28.6 million on the Liverpool prospect. So far, it’s bought them 657 minutes, 10 shot attempts and zero league goals.
1. Kai Havertz, Chelsea. Again, this felt very much like a “We’ll do it because we can” signing for Chelsea, and Lampard has in no way figured out how or where to deploy the youngster.
Best signings of the season
Now back to positive things!
5. Ollie Watkins, Aston Villa. After a monstrous 2019-20 campaign for Brentford (26 goals, albeit in 49 league matches including the promotion playoff), Watkins has filled in well up top for a balanced Villa attack. He’s averaging 0.21 xG per shot, and while he’s been unlucky to put only six balls in the net from 9.1 xG so far, (a) he’s still on pace for double-digit goals and (b) nothing in his track record suggests he’s a poor finisher. His conversion numbers will likely improve soon.
4. Kyle Walker-Peters, Southampton. Southampton acquired one of the best young fullbacks in the league for $14.6 million. Can’t beat that piece of business.
3. Diogo Jota, Liverpool. Sometimes your value is presented most clearly in your absence. Jota felt almost like a luxury item when acquired from Wolves, but in all competitions this year, Liverpool have averaged more goals and more points when Jota plays than when he doesn’t. Injury has limited him to just 501 league minutes, but he scored five times and created six chances in that span. It’s no surprise that the Reds’ drought (one league goal since beating Crystal Palace 7-0 in mid-December) has coincided with the Portugal attacker’s latest injury.
2. Tomas Soucek, West Ham United. After a solid loan audition last year, West Ham knew what it was getting from Slavia Prague: a sure aerials and duels winner and chaos creator in defensive midfield (6.8 ball recoveries per 90) and an occasional offensive presence as well (five goals, seven chances) with great passing touch (71% long pass completion rate). West Ham are a really annoying team to play this season, and 25-year-old Soucek has probably been their best player.
1. James Rodriguez, Everton. Five league matches into his Everton career, James had scored three goals and created 15 chances with three assists. That proved unsustainable, but he remains a catalyst. Despite missing five matches, he still leads the team in chances created, expected assists and through balls, and he’s drawn the second-most fouls.
Not bad for a free transfer.
Young players of the season
Mark Ogden reacts to ESPN FC’s best young players in the Premier League so far this season.
The Premier League isn’t the most youngster-friendly league in the world, but there are still quite a few 21-and-under players who are more than holding their own.
10. Illan Meslier, Leeds. Meslier is the most fascinating goalkeeping prospect in the league. The 20-year-old former Lorient keeper is heavily involved in the possession game and has the best completion rate of any starting keeper, both on long passes and overall. He also has a pretty low save percentage (68%) and seemingly chooses to parry the ball away all the time instead of holding onto it. But he’s also only 20!
9. Ferran Torres, Manchester City. Acquired from Valencia this past offseason, the 20-year-old striker is a bit of a face in the crowd at times, but he has three goals in 590 league minutes and does a solid job of passing and maintaining possession in the attacking third.
8. Curtis Jones, Liverpool. Thrust into midfield action due to injuries, Jones is one of perhaps only two teenagers to hold their own in the EPL this season. He completes 91% of his passes in the attacking third and has combined nine shot attempts with seven chances created. He also grades well on the panache scale, which always helps.
7. Wesley Fofana, Leicester. Brendan Rodgers deserves massive credit for his guidance of a mostly young Leicester roster, but the club’s front office keeps unearthing excellent youngsters to add to the mix. It’s like a real-life Football Manager build. The sturdy, 6-foot-3 Fofana, added from Saint-Etienne in October, is the latest of the bunch.
6. Tariq Lamptey, Brighton. The Chelsea academy product, 20, is busy on the right side of Brighton’s midfield, transitioning the ball well from the defensive third upfield and occasionally getting involved in attack, too (one goal, 10 chances created).
5. Callum Hudson-Odoi, Chelsea. Chelsea has too many wingers, and the 20-year-old only has 413 league minutes because of it. But he’s created more chances per 90 than anyone on the team but Mount, he’s scored more frequently than any non-centre-forward, and he’s got the best pass completion rate of any attacker in the attacking third. He should be playing more.
4. Phil Foden, Manchester City. That’s right, Foden is still only 20. The midfielder continues to be a safe passer and wonderfully accurate level-to-level passer, though he hasn’t been quite as involved in the attacking phase this season. (He’s made up for it by scoring twice for England this season.)
3. Bukayo Saka, Arsenal. Arsenal spent a lot of money on players over 30 this offseason, but their best player has been a teenager. The 19-year old Saka roams the left midfield between Aubameyang and Kieran Tierney, but he’s been everywhere in the box, combining four league goals (third on the team) with 21 chances created (second) and 2.6 expected assists (first). Saka and 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe are providing a smidgen of optimism for the Gunners in a frustrating season.
2. Reece James, Chelsea. Considering how many outstanding left-wingers there are in the Premier League, playing right-back is a pretty fraught position. Yet the 21-year-old academy product has played it mostly well, showing the speed to keep up while winning 72% of his aerials and 55% of his duels. He’s also contributed a goal and 17 chances in attack. Very, very well-rounded.
1. Pedro Neto, Wolves. Attacker Raul Jimenez remains out after suffering a fractured skull in November (yikes), Joao Moutinho is suddenly showing his age, and expensive young transfer Fabio Silva has been as inconsistent as you’d expect an 18-year-old to be. But in Neto, Wolves have a dang star on the left wing. He leads the team in pass completion rate (89%), chances created (37), assists (3), crosses (123), pass attempts in the attacking third (279) … and also goals (four) and shot attempts (35). Within the league, only Grealish has created more chances from the left wing, and only Grealish and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling have more expected assists.
Oh, and he scored on his Portugal debut in November, too! And he doesn’t turn 21 for another month-and-a-half!