Man Metropolis’s dominance, finest switch, worst switch, each crew’s MVP
The 2020-21 Premier League season isn’t going to go down as one of the most memorable, at least not on the pitch. There almost never were fans in the stands due to the world’s ongoing battle with the coronavirus, and that obviously dampened the match atmosphere. Plus, both the title race and relegation battles were over well in advance of the final matchday, which takes place Sunday.
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In addition to that, while much of the season was defined by upsets and unexpected charges from midsized clubs, it is looking increasingly likely that the same four heavyweights as last season — Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool — will qualify for the Champions League.
Teasing at chaos, only to deliver the same old, same old, is rather frustrating (unless you’re a fan of one of those four clubs, anyway). That said, over the course of almost 380 matches and 570 hours of action, you’re going to witness noteworthy subplots and memorable performances. Let’s commemorate them with a look back.
Jump to: Biggest storylines | Defining matches | Best transfers | Best loans | Worst signings | Best young players | Every team’s MVP
The five most interesting storylines of 2020-21
1. Pep Guardiola’s reinvention
With its fifth title in 10 seasons, City is further reinforcing its status as the hallmark club of the world’s hallmark league. But getting to this point required a unique journey.
As of Nov. 22, the day after a 2-0 loss to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur (hey, remember him?), City had won only three of eight matches and sat 13th in the table. They had scored only 10 goals. Guardiola had gotten just 380 minutes and two goals from forwards Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero due to injury (they would both miss time due to the coronavirus in December and January, too), and the resulting lineups — as proficient as ever in the passing department, but uncertain in the attacking third — were presenting a challenge he hadn’t really faced before.
Man City won the Premier League this season in a different manner to seasons past, proof of Guardiola’s adaptability. RUI VIEIRA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Kevin De Bruyne had taken by far the most shot attempts (25 shots, but with only one goal) while still taking on the major role in the creation department. Sparkly new attacker Ferran Torres (zero goals on 12 shots at that point) was still finding his way. City looked like it was in serious trouble.
Since then, City have generated 71 points from 29 matches. Manchester United (58) is the only other team with more than 49 in that span. Guardiola and his charges figured out how to both maintain some of their basic principles — extreme possession numbers, width and patience — while finding new ways to create superior numbers in the opponent’s penalty area.
They turned a disadvantage into an advantage.
In this span, seven different players have attempted between 32 and 53 shots, and six have scored at least six goals. (Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan has led the way with 13. Thirteen!) They sacrificed a little bit of defensive pressure and counter-pressing to assure that counterattacks were less effective against them than they were last season, and in this span of 29 matches City have scored by far the most goals (68) and allowed the fewest (21).
To be sure, there is the faint waft of “richest, most talented team finally figures out how to use its talent advantages” to this story. Guardiola didn’t exactly engineer a hot streak with the Wolves or Brighton roster here. But right around the time the 26th iteration of the forever-incorrect “Premier League has solved Guardiola Ball” narratives began percolating, Guardiola solved the Premier League again.
2. The most important goal of the season was scored by a goalkeeper
Getting to the aforementioned “same old, same old” status not only required a sky-blue reinvention, it also required one of the most miraculous goals in the history of one of Europe’s most storied clubs.
The first time Liverpool had played relegation-bound West Brom in 2020-21, it produced a stunning 1-1 draw that sent the Reds reeling. Heading into the post-Christmas festive period, the defending league champs were seven points up on the field; despite major injury problems in central defense, they hadn’t lost since Oct. 4, and with the rest of the league continuing to falter — Chelsea, second place at the time, would fire manager Frank Lampard within a month — it looked as if the Reds could run away with the league again. They totally dominated West Brom, but led only 1-0 when Semi Ajayi’s corner-kick header in the 82nd minute secured a point.
Liverpool would generate just 11 points from the next 13 matches, and while the Reds would rebound from there — they haven’t lost in league play since a 1-0 upset vs. Fulham on March 7 — it wasn’t going to be enough to get them back into Champions League contention unless they won each of their last three matches against West Brom on May 16, Burnley on May 19 and Crystal Palace on May 23.
It was 1-1 late — against West Brom once again — when goalkeeper Alisson, of all players, saved the day.
Football eh. 𝐁𝐞𝐚𝐮𝐭𝐢𝐟𝐮𝐥.
Experience 5 minutes 33 seconds of unbridled joy with every angle of @Alissonbecker’s goal… pic.twitter.com/QlgWJQ9QcA
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) May 16, 2021
Following a 3-0 win at Burnley on Wednesday, the Reds now have a 91% chance of qualifying for the Champions League, per FiveThirtyEight, heading into the final matchday. It likely would have been 40-50% at best without a header from the keeper.
3. The Tuchel turnaround
Granted, there’s just enough time for things to still fall apart for Chelsea — a loss at Aston Villa on Sunday, combined with a loss to Manchester City in the Champions League final, could result in a fifth-place finish and no Champions League next season — but it’s difficult to imagine that happening considering how well they have played for most of the past four months.
On Jan. 26, Chelsea were tied for ninth with Aston Villa and Southampton, having just hired Thomas Tuchel to replace Lampard. The fancy new pieces Chelsea had acquired in the offseason — Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech — hadn’t super-powered the attack, and the defensive structure was lacking. They had advanced to the Champions League knockout rounds, but the whole was far less than the sum of the parts.
Tuchel has not solved the team’s ongoing finishing issues — the Blues have generated just 24 goals from 32.9 expected goals (xG) since he took over, with Werner (5.4 xG, two goals) the biggest offender — but he has introduced a nearly perfect defensive structure, and intensity levels are through the roof. (Getting defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante back to perfect health obviously hasn’t hurt in this regard.)
Chelsea have allowed just 11 goals since Tuchel’s hire, easily the best in the league, and only City have generated more points. They have just about saved their Champions League hopes while indeed advancing past Atletico Madrid, Porto and Real Madrid into this year’s final. It was hard to see either one of those things happening with Lampard remaining in charge.
Bielsa has been a revelation since Leeds returned to the Premier League, playing fearless, attacking soccer and getting good results. Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images
4. Bielsa’s debut was worth the wait
Marcelo Bielsa is soccer’s Hal Mumme: an innovator, a walking soccer encyclopedia, an inspiration to countless successful managers … and someone whose own success has been muted compared to what you’d expect. The latest act in the 65-year-old’s career, however, might end up being both his most impactful and most successful.
Leeds’ story is a famous one of financial overextension and collapse. The Whites reached the Champions League semifinals in 2000 but found themselves relegated four years later and had been stuck in the second division (or worse) ever since. But owner Andrea Radrizzani (who took over in 2017) convinced Bielsa to bring his relentlessly optimistic, possession-friendly brand of ball to West Yorkshire in 2018, and after a late-season stumble prevented them from earning promotion in his first season, they ran away with the Championship title in his second.
Bielsa’s first Premier League season started with constant fireworks — wins and losses by a 4-3 margin, wins by 3-0 and 5-2, losses by 4-1, 4-1, 3-1 and 6-2 — but after a midwinter funk dropped them to 11th in the table, they have been rampant. Heading into a home finale against West Brom, they’ve generated 21 points from their last 10 matches, beating Manchester City and Spurs and drawing with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Bielsa’s expected return in 2021-22 could make Leeds the biggest wildcard in the league.
5. League depth: finally as good as fans and commentators always say it is
There’s no question that the coronavirus and its resulting fixture congestion created a unique landscape for European soccer in 2020-21. There were seemingly more injuries and key absences to deal with, and plenty of dominant powers have found the road a little bumpier than normal. Juve’s long Serie A title streak has come to an end, PSG’s Ligue 1 fate is in Lille’s hands — if Lille beats Angers on Sunday, Les Dogues win the title — and while Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga for a ninth straight season, they will end up with their lowest point total of that streak.
In that way, then, the lack of true dominance atop this year’s Premier League comes with some baked-in context. At most, we will see three teams top 70 points (third-place Chelsea has 67 with one match to play) when five teams did it in five of the past eight Premier League seasons. City’s 83 points are the second-lowest total for a champion in the past nine years.
Shaka Hislop explains why Man City’s Ruben Dias has been the outstanding Premier League player this season.
There is another factor, however, that is rather undeniable at this point: The Premier League has some capital-D Depth. Outside of England’s Big 6, quite a few clubs have crafted an identity around a high-level manager and exciting young talent. The list neither starts nor ends with Bielsa’s Leeds.
– At worst, Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, with its truckload of 24-and-under stars, will finish fifth, ahead of at least two of the “Big 6,” for the second straight year.
– David Moyes’ West Ham United, with its lanky roster and counterpunching ability, will finish with, at worst, its second-best top-division point total since 1985-86.
– Everton, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, James Rodriguez and Champions League-winning manager Carlo Ancelotti, have beaten Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester, Spurs and Arsenal (twice) this season.
– Aston Villa narrowly survived relegation last season but have crafted a unique, dangerous attack around Jack Grealish, newcomer Ollie Watkins and company. They beat Liverpool and Arsenal by a combined 10-2 during a hot start.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves are still crafty and reactive, Sean Dyche’s Burnley remain stubborn and Burnley-esque despite adding almost nobody last offseason, and Southampton and Brighton, under Ralph Hasenhuttl and Graham Potter, have crafted respectable — and sometimes dangerous — possession games despite financial disadvantages. Of the league’s 14 non-superpowers, at least nine had legitimately interesting plans and managers and players capable of carrying them out this season. It’s an exciting thing to watch.
(It would be even more exciting, of course, if we didn’t end up with the same top four.)
Everton were a force earlier in the season and could challenge for top-four honors again if they keep their talented squad unified with manager Carlo Ancelotti. PETER POWELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The 14 matches that defined the season
Liverpool 4, Leeds United 3; Leeds United 4, Fulham 3 (Sept. 12, Sept. 19)
The season as a whole has seen slower, more cautious play among injuries and fixture congestion. But the early stage of the season was defined by Leeds’ pedal-to-the-metal act. Their first two matches produced 14 combined goals and thrilling end-to-end action. Nothing like making up for lost time.
Leicester City 5, Manchester City 2; Tottenham Hotspur 6, Manchester United 1; Aston Villa 7, Liverpool 2 (Sept. 27, Oct. 4)
That we could end up with a very predictable top four is a massive letdown after the series of stunning results we witnessed early in the season. After an almost nonexistent offseason, three powerful City, United and Liverpool teams all looked scattershot out of the gates, losing these matches by a combined 18-5. Leicester looked even better than the team that finished fifth last season, Spurs rolled to the top of the table and both Everton and Villa looked like they had the legs to threaten for the top four. Alas.
Manchester United 3, Everton 1 (Nov. 7)
After a sketchy start, United both kick-started a long unbeaten streak — they wouldn’t lose again until Jan. 27 — and handed Everton its third loss in a row to cool off the Toffees’ torrid start. New addition Edinson Cavani put the match away in stoppage time.
Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).
Liverpool 2, Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Dec. 16)
Despite an attack that really only had a Plan A — “create counterattacking opportunities and hope Harry Kane and/or Son Heung-Min do something amazing” — Mourinho’s Spurs were in first place after 12 matches. Liverpool took over first with Roberto Firmino’s 90th-minute goal, however; two months later, Spurs were in ninth. Mourinho was fired in April.
West Bromwich Albion 1, Liverpool 1 (Dec. 27)
Just as Liverpool was seizing control of the league, the Reds proceeded to face-plant.
Manchester City 4, Liverpool 1 (Feb. 7)
In just six weeks, Liverpool went from leading the league by seven points to trailing City by seven. This match had a last-gasp feel to it, then, and a pair of ghastly distribution errors from Alisson gifted City a pair of goals and all but handed the title to the Sky Blues.
Chelsea 0, Leeds United 0 (Mar. 13)
One of the most high-quality scoreless draws you’ll ever see, this one both proved Chelsea’s ridiculous defensive quality and reminded us of Leeds’ high ceiling. Both of those things came to define the two months that followed.
Alexander-Arnold’s late goal vs. Aston Villa helped keep Liverpool’s top-four hopes alive, part of a run of seven wins and two draws in their last nine league games. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Liverpool 2, Aston Villa 1 (Apr. 10)
After six losses in seven matches, Liverpool’s rally began with wins over Wolves and Arsenal, but they needed a stoppage-time goal from Trent Alexander-Arnold to make it three wins in a row and keep the good times rolling.
Newcastle 1, Liverpool 1 and Newcastle 4, Leicester City 2 (April 24, May 7)
Newcastle has played a unique role in determining who finishes in the top four — the Magpies scored deep into stoppage time to take two points off of Liverpool, then did the Reds a favor two weeks later by bolting to a stunning 4-0 lead over Leicester and holding on. If only one of those two results happened, the top four might already be decided.
Liverpool 2, West Brom 1 (May 16)
Alisson’s header saves the season.
Now let’s shift gears to the players who defined 2020-21.
Best transfer signings
For clarity and transparency, we’ll take both price and quality/impact into account for this list.
1. Tomas Soucek, MF, West Ham United. West Ham finished 2019-20 with 12 points in seven matches, hinting at “Top 10” potential even before adding the Slavia Prague midfielder for £15 million in July. With him, they looked like a potential top-five team for much of the season. Despite playing a significant role in defense and leading the team in ball recoveries, Soucek has also contributed nine goals (tied for the team league) and 17 chances created.
2. Raphinha, FW, Leeds United. The last of a series of key additions, Raphinha joined from Rennes for £17 million on transfer deadline day in October and wow, what a difference he’s made. Playing mostly on the right wing, he leads the team with 60 chances created and eight assists (Manchester City loanee Jack Harrison has provided 59 and eight, respectively, from the left) and has scored six times as well. Other Leeds players dominate the ball, and then Raphinha shows up just in time to do something beautiful.
3. Ollie Watkins, FW, Aston Villa. After scoring 26 goals during Brentford’s near-promotion push last season, Watkins came to Birmingham for £28 million and immediately provided both a beautiful target for Grealish — he scored three times in the aforementioned 7-2 win over Liverpool, twice from Grealish assists — and a Plan B for building a sturdy attack when Grealish was either out or accounted for by opposing defenses.
Janusz Michallik compares two of the Premier League’s rising stars: Chelsea’s Mason Mount and Manchester City’s Phil Foden.
4. Ruben Dias, DF, Manchester City. You get what you pay for, apparently. Having just allowed five goals to Leicester in the second match of the season, City finally convinced Benfica to part with its 23-year old star for a cool £62.1 million in late-September. The defensive transformation was almost instantaneous. City both allow fewer counterattacks to begin, and they snuff them out at a far better rate than last season: Dias’ leadership and partnership with the resurgent John Stones are the primary reason for the latter.
5. Wesley Fofana, DF, Leicester City. Sell a star for £50+ million, replace him with two future stars. That’s been the Leicester way in the years following the Foxes’ 2015-16 title run, and it continues to produce. Leicester sent fullback Ben Chilwell to Chelsea and used those funds to bring in both fullback Timothy Castagne from Atalanta and Fofana, a center back, from Saint-Etienne. He has totally lived up to his £30 million price tag, both in the partnership he’s formed with Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu in the back, and with the passing ability he brings to Leicester’s build-up play.
Next five: DF Nelson Semedo (Wolves), MF Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Spurs), MF James Rodriguez (Everton), FW Matheus Pereira (West Brom), GK Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa)
Best loan signings
1. Jesse Lingard, MF, West Ham United (from Manchester United). The role model for all future midseason loan acquisitions (and a reason lowering team registration numbers to prevent big clubs from stashing serviceable players might actually help with parity). After rotting on the United bench for much of the past two seasons, Lingard has scored nine times for the Hammers, who surged to 22 points in their first nine matches and seriously threatened to steal a Champions League spot for a while.
Lingard, left, has been a revelation since getting out of Man United on loan this season. Where will he play next year? John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images
2. Jack Harrison, MF/FW, Leeds United (from Manchester City). Acquiring Raphinha was an inspired move for Leeds. Acquiring basically his mirror image (from a production standpoint) for the opposite side of the field made the move even more brilliant. Harrison is wrapping up his third season on a City-to-Leeds loan and if rumors are to be believed, it appears he might become a permanent member of the team soon.
3. Alphonse Areola, GK, Fulham (from PSG). Burnley’s Nick Pope is the Master of Goals Prevented (expected goals on targeted conceded minus actual goals conceded), but Areola damn near caught him this year. While Pope leads the league with 4.4 goals prevented, his most since exploding for +10.3 in 2017-18, Areola has prevented +7.1 since the fourth match of the season. With a replacement-level keeper, Fulham would have been far worse than 18th.
4. Gareth Bale, FW, Tottenham Hotspur (from Real Madrid). We had to wait a while, both for Bale to achieve the required fitness levels and for Mourinho to trust him. But he’s scored nine goals and created 18 chances in just 883 Premier League minutes this year, a pace that would translate to 25+ goals and 50+ chances with a starter-level workload. The 31-year-old still has a massive ceiling.
5. Okay Yokuslu, MF, West Brom (from Celta de Vigo). The 27-year-old midfielder moved from Turkish club Trabzonspor to Celta de Vigo in 2018, but fell out of favor there and, as it turned out, fit right into Sam Allardyce’s squad. He recorded 110 ball recoveries in 14 matches while winning 60% of his duels and 59% of his aerials. He couldn’t save West Brom from relegation, but that was going to be a nearly impossible task either way.
Worst transfer signings
It bears mentioning that this list is based on one year of performance. Most of these players are young enough to still deliver value over time.
1. Rhian Brewster, FW, Sheffield United. It was a big deal when United, fresh off of a top-half performance last season, laid out around £24 million for the 20-year-old Liverpool prospect who scored 11 goals on loan for Swansea last season. It was a signal of intent, and it didn’t even slightly pay off. Brewster has attempted just 21 shots in 1,089 minutes; only seven of them have ended up on goal, and none have gone in the net. The Blades, meanwhile, didn’t win a match until January and have long since locked up relegation.
Brewster’s year at Sheffield United has not been one to remember, though at 21 he’s still got plenty of time and growth to find the form that tempted the Blades to make a move. MICHAEL REGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
2. Thomas Partey, MF, Arsenal. Instead of putting together the pieces of a youth movement, Arsenal overspent on veterans. The Gunners laid out £45 million for the Atletico Madrid defensive midfielder, who battled muscle, hip and hamstring injuries and has created just 12 chances in 1,365 minutes. He’s still a physical presence both on the ground and in the air, but acquiring Partey was a sign that Arsenal thought it was much closer to contending than it actually was.
3. Nathan Ake, DF, Manchester City. It is a luxury that only the richest clubs have. Before acquiring the game-changing Dias, City also laid out £40 million for Ake, a work-in-progress from Bournemouth. He battled hamstring issues for most of this season, and given more of a run with City’s title all but locked up in recent weeks, he has been inconsistent. His price tag and lack of production would have been devastating for most teams; for City, it was no problem whatsoever.
4. Kai Havertz, MF/FW, Chelsea. Speaking of lofty price tags, Chelsea spent £72 million for the 21-year-old Bayer Leverkusen star despite almost openly having no plan for him. If that isn’t luxury, I don’t know what is. They snatched him up just in case he eventually lived up to his obvious potential, and to his credit he’s begun to do just that. While he has generated only four goals and three assists in EPL play, three and one respectively have come in his past four appearances. He was also key to Chelsea’s defeat of Real Madrid in the Champions League semis.
5. Fabio Silva, FW, Wolves. Credit Nuno Espirito Santo for this: he’s shown massive patience. Wolves paid Porto a club-record £35 million for the 18-year old, and while the patience could eventually pay off, it’s produced only four goals and two assists in 30 appearances this season. This is another move that could eventually pay off handsomely, but you generally hope for more when you spend more on a player than your club ever has before.
Best young player of the season
This list is about players currently under 23 years old, and it’s based not on long-term potential but solely on how they performed this season.
1. Mason Mount, MF, Chelsea. For a team that is on pace for a top-four finish and potential Champions League crown, Mount has the most minutes, the most touches, twice as many chances created as anyone else and the second-most goals (the most since Tuchel took over) and assists. It’s almost impossible to ask for more from a midfielder. And he’s 22.
2. Phil Foden, MF, Manchester City. Along with the tactical changes Guardiola engineered, one other reason City ignited is that Foden found his best form. Through City’s first 15 matches, Foden was averaging about 0.45 goals and assists per 90 minutes. Since: 0.94. He was the primary beneficiary of Alisson’s two huge errors in the 3-1 win over Liverpool, and he’s been nearly untouchable ever since.
3. Illan Meslier, GK, Leeds United. After a 10-match loan trial last year, Leeds paid Lorient what was rumored to be around £5 million, and his rapid development has been as important as anything else to Leeds’ late-season surge. A little too willing to simply bat balls away earlier in the year, he’s actually securing them now, and his work in buildup play has been key for Bielsa’s build-from-the-back approach.
4. Wesley Fofana, DF, Leicester City. The Foxes laid out a lot of money for, and put a lot of faith in, the 20-year-old from Saint-Etienne, and thus far he’s backed up every penny.
5. Trent Alexander-Arnold, DF, Liverpool. Liverpool’s spring redemption was also TAA’s. The renowned (and still 22-year-old) fullback found himself exposed a bit this season. Without stalwart central defenders Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez, both of whom were lost to long-term injury early in the season, Alexander-Arnold struggled to find the balance between offensive initiative and tracking back on defense. But since this nine-match unbeaten streak began, he has looked like his old self, leading the team with 29 chances created and four assists and scoring a huge stoppage-time game-winner against Aston Villa. If he was a big reason for Liverpool’s funk, he’s also been the biggest reason for the resurgence.
Next 10, because there are a lot of exciting young players in this league: FW Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), FW Pedro Neto (Wolves), FW Mason Greenwood (Manchester United), MF Declan Rice (West Ham United), DF Reece James (Chelsea), MF Emile Smith Rowe (Arsenal), FW Ferran Torres (Manchester City), MF Dwight McNeil (Burnley), FW Eberechi Eze (Crystal Palace), FW Tyrick Mitchell (Crystal Palace)
Each team’s most valuable player
Arsenal: midfielder Granit Xhaka. As I wrote earlier in May, Xhaka did a lot of things for the Gunners — accurate long passing, loads of ball recoveries and success in duels and aerials — that it didn’t get nearly enough of from any of his teammates. Xhaka probably isn’t part of the Gunners’ long-term future, but the short-term would have been even worse without him.
Aston Villa: winger Jack Grealish. Grealish has missed 12 matches this year, but still ranks third in the Premier League in chances created (76) and fourth in assists (10). When he plays, Villa averages 1.54 points per game and 1.58 goals per match. When he doesn’t: 1.0 and 1.0, respectively. The definition of “valuable.”
Grealish has continued to be a sneaky good playmaker for Aston Villa and they get points when he plays. It’s that simple. RICHARD HEATHCOTE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Brighton: wingback Solly March. Typically only high-budget teams have the pieces to pull off a sturdy transition game, but Brighton both advances and possesses the ball as well as almost anyone in the league. March’s steadiness in ball progression, his stout play in duels and his ability to quickly head off counterattacks in transition have been key to all of Brighton’s good qualities.
Burnley: goalkeeper Nick Pope. Only four teams have scored fewer than 35 goals this season: the three relegated teams and Burnley. But the Clarets avoided relegation with relative ease in part because of sturdy, conservative principles and in part because Pope might be the best pure shot-stopper in England. He’s been between the posts for 19 wins and draws this season, keeping a clean sheet in 11 of them.
Chelsea: midfielder Mason Mount. It was tempting to name N’Golo Kante here — when healthy, his work rate in defense has been utterly infectious, especially since Tuchel took over. But Mount has been required to lift boulders in both ball progression and in actually putting the ball in the net, and he’s done both.
Crystal Palace: midfielder Eberechi Eze. Palace saved the 22-year-old from QPR this offseason, and while Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke have continued to provide most of the (sometimes meek) goal-scoring punch, Eze’s done heavy lifting to get them opportunities: He leads the team in not only chances created and assists, but also ball recoveries.
Everton: forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The 24-year-old is not yet an all-around forward in the mold of Harry Kane or others, needing others to do a lot of the grunt work in creating chances. But his production has been vital to Everton’s success — he’s averaging 0.71 goals per 90 in wins, 0.50 in draws and 0.30 in losses. They average 1.6 points when he plays and 1.0 when he doesn’t.
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THURSDAY, MAY 20
• Genk v Antwerp (12.25 p.m. ET)
• Tranmere v Morecambe (12.55 p.m. ET)
• Chelsea v Everton (1.55 p.m. ET)
• Anderlecht v Club Brugge (2.50 p.m. ET)
• Kilmarnock v Dundee (3.10 p.m. ET)
Fulham: midfielder André-Frank Zambo Anguissa. You could make an awfully strong case for winger Ademola Lookman, who led the relegated Cottagers in chances created and assists and was second in goals scored (albeit with only four). But we’ll go with the big 25-year-old from Cameroon. Zambo Anguissa was second to Lookman in assists and distance gained through ball carries, and he was the major reason Fulham’s midfield didn’t get mowed over — he led the team in both ball recoveries and ground duels won and won 62% of his aerials. He was a physical presence for a team desperate for just that.
Leeds United: midfielder Raphinha. The last player added to the squad also became the model for the tireless, relentless style Bielsa espouses. He has been revelatory.
Leicester: midfielder Youri Tielemans. Leicester’s chances of finishing in the top four have taken a massive hit with losses of form for both James Maddison and Jamie Vardy, who had combined for 20 goals and 10 assists through February but have managed just one and four, respectively, since. But Tielemans and forward Kelechi Iheanacho have done just enough to keep hope alive. Iheanacho has scored 11 goals since March 1, and Tielemans has created 26 chances while winning 58% of his duels and 69% of his aerials. Plus, he scored a wonder goal in the FA Cup final.
Liverpool: winger Mohamed Salah. It says something about Salah’s potential that he has gone through about three different perceived “scoring funks” this season and is still tied for the league lead with 22 goals. His scoring has been even more important than normal, too — batterymates Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have been mired in a season-long finishing slump (27.3 xG but only 17 actual goals).
Manchester City: fullback (among other things) Joao Cancelo. Really, you could make the case for just about any of City’s regulars. The last line of defense improved dramatically when Dias showed up. De Bruyne is still the best creator in the league. Gundogan became the go-to goal-scorer. Riyad Mahrez and Foden have been devastating at times. If you prefer one of those players, then pretend I named that guy instead, but Cancelo has been the glue that has held everything together. He has played just about every role besides goalkeeper or centre forward, and his touches map is … comprehensive.
He’s first on the team in interceptions and successful tackles, he’s second in ball recoveries, take-on attempts and even chances created. He’s been everywhere, and he’s a joy to watch.
Manchester United: attacking midfielder Bruno Fernandes. First on the team in touches (2,849), chances created (94, most in the league), assists (12, ditto) and goals (18). United’s attack relies a little too heavily on him, but damned if he doesn’t live up to the responsibility.
Newcastle: forward Callum Wilson. My heart says this should go to Allan Saint-Maximin, who almost single-handedly makes Newcastle worth watching, but he disappears at times — he has just three goals and four assists in 24 matches. Instead, Wilson has been the steadiest attacker on the roster, leading the team in both goals and assists.
Sheffield United: centre back Chris Basham. The Blades are getting sent down primarily because they’re averaging barely half a goal per match. The attack has been nonexistent, but the defense has at least had its moments. A lot of those were provided by the steady Basham, who has won 56% of duels and easily leads the team in defensive interventions. That he’s HAD to make so many is a problem, but he’s done his job.
Southampton: midfielder James Ward-Prowse. Injuries to forward Danny Ings and fullback Kyle Walker-Peters (among others) have laid waste to Southampton’s promising season — on Jan. 5, they were tied with Manchester City in fourth place but have generated just 14 points in the 20 matches since. Ward-Prowse, however, has logged more than 3,300 minutes, hasn’t missed a match and leads the team in touches, pass attempts, chances created and assists. He’s also third in goals. He’s carried as much of the load as one possibly can.
Tottenham Hotspur: forward Harry Kane. If this is indeed his last season in North London — he just informed the team that he would like a transfer — he has gone out in style. He is not only tied with Salah for the most goals in the league (22), but he’s also first in assists (13). His partnership with Son (12 goals, five assists) went to a new level this year, and he’s reminded all of England (and any number of potential suitors) that (a) he’s still only 27 years old and (b) when he’s fully healthy, he’s as good as well-rounded as anyone on the planet up front.
– MORE: Harry Kane’s transfer options
West Bromwich Albion: midfielder Matheus Pereira. While on loan, the 25-year-old Pereira was West Brom’s best player during last season’s promotion push; added full-time this season, he was again head of the class … even if the class wasn’t all that impressive. He created twice as many chances as anyone else on the roster, and if anything creative took place while West Brom had the ball — admittedly a rarity — the ball was probably at his feet.
West Ham United: midfielder Tomas Soucek. He’s got the aerial presence of a big centre-back, but he’s also ninth in the league in ball recoveries and first on his team in goals scored. West Ham clearly thought they were getting something good when it wooed him from Prague, but it’s hard to imagine they knew they were getting this.
Wolves: midfielder Ruben Neves. It’s been a disappointing season in Wolverhampton: after seventh-place finishes in both seasons since their most recent promotion, they will finish, at best, nine points behind last year’s pace. They have regressed almost equally on offense and defense, but you can’t blame Neves in either case — he’s led the team in pass attempts, shot attempts, goals … and also ball recoveries and overall defensive interventions. He’s basically a forward and a defensive midfielder at the same time.