A prolific week of top attacking performances, with not the slightest chance of getting them all on the list. So, among other things, I had to leave out a Manchester United player for a Liverpool player and a Liverpool player for a Manchester United player. Not exactly a recipe for a supportive comment section. In the end there were two each from United, Liverpool and Manchester City, and we’ll have to settle for that. Oh, and a little surprise for Sarah. It’s a 4-4-2:
Goalkeeper: Tom Heaton (Burnley)
I swear I’m not putting him on every week to embarrass Joe Hart. He’s just been that good. Actually, it was an ordinary week for keepers, but Heaton doesn’t do ordinary. The top save was an absolute corker, a one-handed stop of Solly March. Also made a couple tough saves look easy, and added two strong punches and a super deflection of a cross destined for Glenn Murray’s head.
Speaking of one-handed saves, let’s also mention Sergio Rico, who was beaten at the near post on Paul Pogba’s blast, but also leapt high to deny Phil Jones and then made a stunning one-hander from Alexis Sánchez.
Right-back: Jonjoe Kenny (Everton)
A strange week at this spot, where there were only two contenders, one with an erratic match and one with a really really erratic match. Kenny was the former. He pressed effectively and made several timely interventions, including two excellent blocked crosses, and shut down Gerard Deulofeu in the second half. He also gave the ball away twice in dangerous positions and had some difficulties with the same opponent in the first half. His technique isn’t all the way there: at one point he tried to play Deulofeu onto the weaker left foot and still wound up allowing a pass with the right. I think he could develop into a top-flight regular if he got the game time and the proper coaching. But he won’t displace Seamus Coleman at Everton.
The deluxe crazy match belonged to Ryan Fredericks of West Ham, who was so good at times against Wilfried Zaha that you had to check to see it wasn’t Aaron Wan-Bissaka against his own teammate. Five tackles, several in the watch-me-do-this class. A number of excellent clearances, too. He even got forward for a very good cross and tested Vincente Guaita with a hard shot. However, he also 1) played James McArthur onside for a sitter; 2) was clearly beaten by Zaha on Palace’s goal. Since Fredericks had made the list once early in the season, Kenny was the easier choice, but I think I’d have gone that way anyway.
Centre-half: Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Fulham aren’t the toughest opponents, but they have a guy named Aleksandar Mitrović, who is one mean mofo. At times it looked like a World Wrestling Federation bout, but Smalling did a fine marking job, winning most of the individual battles. Twice Mitrović got off headers in the area, but Smalling’s work meant neither was with power on target. Added some useful clearances and one key block of a potentially dangerous cutback. I’m sure he had to check his bruises afterwards, but United got the clean sheet. By the way, Phil Jones wasn’t bad either when he came up against Mitrović, although Smalling did more overall.
Centre-half: Adrian Mariappa (Watford)
Not just his first time ever on the list, his first time with even a mention. A very good performance against Everton, marking Cenk Tosun, going to his left to cover for Craig Cathcart, delivering a nice variety of tackles and clearances. Was caught out only once, when coming forward to mark. Over 40 caps for Jamaica at either centre-half or right-back, and I remember him not so fondly from when the Reggae Boyz upset the USA in the 2015 Gold Cup. He’s 32 and his career is winding down, but with the injuries in Watford’s defence he’s started half the matches, and done alright.
Ben Mee just missed out. He owned Glenn Murray both on the ground and in the air, and moved out left several times to break up play. On one of those occasions he also started the move for Burnley’s first goal. A couple of dangerously botched clearances marred an overall excellent showing. Elsewhere, Laurent Koscielny continues his wondrously inconsistent late-career play. He was superb at times against Huddersfield, with some spectacular clearances and fine play coming out of the back line. But he also badly took the bait a few times and was at fault on the Terriers’ goal.
Left-back: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
The best in an impressive week at this position. Attacked at will and defended where necessary. We usually judge full-backs for their crossing abilities, and Robertson is certainly good in that department, but he’s such a fine passer otherwise as well. An excellent instinct for where to send the ball and the technique to do it properly. The chipped assist for Georginio Wijnaldum was almost as good as the goal, and equally fine was a through ball for Roberto Firmino that didn’t get converted. Without any doubt the best left-back in the league.
Close behind was Aaron Cresswell, who has been an important part of West Ham’s successes this season. With Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha rarely getting back to defend, he had plenty of space against an isolated Wan-Bissaka. That meant several good passing combinations and a few dangerous crosses. At the other end he blocked a couple of crosses and made a crucial clearance in stoppage time. A couple of negatives: he was once beaten cleanly, and might have closed down a bit better at times. Would have made the list most weeks.
Elsewhere, Jonny was outstanding in the first half, with the beating of DeAndre Yedlin in both attack and defence. He could easily have had two assists as well. But someone opened the trap door at the interval, and he went largely missing afterwards. Charlie Taylor had a good defensive match for Burnley against Brighton, particularly strong in the first half.
Deep Midfielder: Jonathan Hogg (Huddersfield Town)
A quite wonderful performance in the loss to Arsenal. Playing at the base of a diamond, he read the game brilliantly, both sitting deep and pushing up to press. Precise in his distribution too. Committed an unnecessary foul or two, but also finished with five tackles, six interceptions and 86.7% completion. He may never get that Champions League medal, but he’s been one of Huddersfield’s steadiest performers in the great Premier League adventure. A tidy, intelligent player, and he’ll be missed.
I’m one of the few certified members of the Isaac Hayden Fan Club (although Pep Guardiola might be another after Newcastle beat Manchester City), and one reason I rate him is that he knows how to join the attack when appropriate. He did that very thing when he scored what should have been the winner against Wolves. Also anticipated well on defence and got into position for a couple of key clearances. Still only 23, so might yet make his mark. I think he could be a decent box-to-box midfielder too. Elsewhere, Idrissa Gana did his usual tackling job, and was also effective moving wide to help out Kenny. Joe Ralls had a steady match for Cardiff City, and intercepted the pass to start the move for the winning goal.
Attacking Midfielder: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
In the first half he was more or less man-marked by Calum Chambers, and aside from the goal (and what a goal it was), didn’t influence the match dramatically. But in the second half Claudio Ranieri, needing more attack than defence, called off the dog, and Pogba completely dominated the action. Simply glorious incisive play, with passes into the box from all angles. I’ve said this before, but it’s astonishing how often a player who supposedly wasn’t the kind to run the game, has run the game. Fact is, you never know what a player can do until he’s put in a particular system and coached by a particular manager. (See Sterling, R.) Almost forgot the penalty, very well placed.
And yes, I know Georginio Wijnaldum was fantastic. Given a rare attacking role, he glided into the area several times, played some excellent passing combinations, scored a beauty and lost an assist when Sadio Mané somehow failed to bury an unmarked header. But with two very strong striker performances and two full-backs as well, there was room for only one attacking midfielder. By the nature of Pogba’s role, he was more influential than Wijnaldum. But Liverpool fans are more than welcome to put their man on instead. Naby Keita also impressed, doing what he does best, moving the ball forward quickly. I’m guessing he’ll be a big contributor next year. Finally, Christian Eriksen notched a truly Eriksenian goal and assist, but otherwise seemed a bit off his game.
Winger: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
Last week barely slipped onto the list, but this time wrote his name at the top in Arial Rounded MT Bold. Hung Cesar Azpilicueta out to dry and added two powerful finishes. The first one was by no means easy, and his emphatic strike set the tone for the entire match. When he wasn’t scoring, he was driving forward with pace, combining on the wing and leading the counter. Lost an assist when Kepa saved from Gabriel Jesus. On pace to equal his best season in goals, and to break it in assists and pass completion percentage.
Winger: Mo Salah (Liverpool)
Against Bournemouth it looked like last year’s Liverpool, dazzling all over the pitch, and Salah was the chief dazzler. Not everything came off to perfection, but amazing creativity and movement into space. I love his crossfield balls to Robertson. He’s so much more than a scorer, and even so was a bit unlucky to get only one goal this time. Old Trafford up next – in the first fixture he was neutralised by Victor Lindelöf, but he was at central striker then. Playing wide, he’ll have a head start coming inside, both with and without the ball. Luke Shaw has played some good defence lately, and will be part of the drama as well. Very much looking forward to the match-up.
I hated to leave Anthony Martial off, because he repeatedly scorched Denis Odoi in the first half and scored a most special goal. But Odoi tightened the defence in the second half, and although Martial stayed lively, his contribution dropped. Most weeks he would have made it anyway, and as with Pogba, it’s thrilling to see a player set free.
Then there’s Bernardo Silva, who after the early onslaught (one lucky assist, one sure assist laughably squandered), had an understated but effective match. Cultured passing and some good defence against Eden Hazard. Finally, Sadio Mané excelled early with his goal and creative passing, and if he hadn’t missed that header, probably would have made the list.
Striker: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
What struck you most this time? For me it was 1) the way he made space for himself before walloping his first goal; 2) his excellent dribbling and combination play in the second half, even though the game had been well decided. Remember when Gabriel Jesus was going to take his place? Read some ridiculous stats.
Striker: Chris Wood (Burnley)
Five goals in the last seven matches, plus a sixth wrongly disallowed for offside. Against Brighton he produced two very different finishes, a smash and a precise placement, and added the pass that sprang Ashley Barnes to a penalty and Burnley’s third goal. His movement has always been excellent, and in recent weeks his partnership with Barnes has edged into Vulcan mind-meld territory. Go take a look at the first goal, where Barnes whacks it long with his weaker foot as Wood makes the run. Tom Heaton has rightly hit the headlines, but Wood and Barnes have been at their peak. (Ashley Westwood and academy product Dwight McNeil haven’t been bad either.)