The Alternative Premier League Team of the Season – So Far
With the current Premier League season reaching its halfway point, it’s become easier to judge which players have met the grade in this campaign. Jack Donnelly takes a look at who’s been performing the best from teams outside of the Premier League’s Big Six.
It’s been a wild season, to say the very least. There’s been fantastic performances, unexpected results and more drama than any other season before. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaped this season into one unlike any other, with fan presence muted and, in some cases, completely non-existent. With all that said, we are only halfway through the 38-game season and some players are already being tipped to be named in the eventual Premier League Team of the Season. The likes of Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah and Heung-Min Son have all unsurprisingly been named as potential candidates and at the halfway point in the season, their performances would warrant almost automatic inclusion.
Not in this team, however.
I am going to be exploring the talent that resides in squads outside of the Premier League’s Big Six – with that, there will be no players from Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal or either of the Manchester clubs in this team. That way, the exploits of some of the league’s highest performing players will not go unrecognised.
Goalkeeper – Illan Meslier (Leeds)
There were two main contenders for the starting goalkeeper in this team – while Emiliano Martinez has been fantastic for Aston Villa since joining the club from Arsenal in the summer, he has been helped out by a more solid and consistent backline. Put simply, the defence sitting in front of this team’s goalkeeper has been nothing short of calamitous, which makes his six clean sheets and 67 saves even more impressive – Illan Meslier gets the nod for me.
Leeds currently sit 12th in the table, having shipped the second-most goals (34) in the division, with only West Brom having conceded more. Without Meslier’s efforts, Leeds could potentially have found themselves in a relegation battle. With eye-catching reflexes and impressive athleticism, the 20-year-old has the makings of a top keeper but at such a young age, he’s got plenty of room to grow. Nothing like 19 more games in a ridiculous Premier League season to advance his development, though!
Honourable Mention – Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa)
Right Back – James Justin (Leicester)
Again, there were couple of names considered for this position. Matty Cash has taken to life in the Premier League like a duck to water, while Kyle Walker-Peters continues to stand out in a competent Southampton back line, but James Justin of Leicester stands out above the competition for me.
After Ricardo Pereira suffered a cruciate ligament injury last season, Justin was the automatic replacement for the Portugal international and since that 1-1 draw with Watford in the first week of Project Restart, Justin has been ever-present in Brendan Rodgers’ team, playing in all 19 Premier League games so far this season.
Able to play a variety of positions, Justin is strong in the tackle, comfortable on the ball and excels at pushing high up the field on the right flank to provide an attacking threat.
There is slight concern for Justin, however, as Ricardo Pereira is reportedly very close to returning to full fitness and those that saw the Portuguese play last season know just how good he can be. Despite that, Justin’s ability to play in either full back role could help him lock down a spot on the opposite flank, which would be no less than deserved.
Honourable Mention – Kyle Walker-Peters (Southampton)
Centre Back – Wesley Fofana (Leicester)
The centre backs for this team were a bit easier to whittle down, as there haven’t been a massive number of standouts in central defence this season. However, those who have stood out have been absolutely fantastic and although both Jan Bednarek and Jannick Vestergaard are unlucky to miss out on a spot in this 11, both of my choices won’t need an awful lot of explanation. That being said – let me tell you about Wesley Fofana.
In simple terms, the Leicester defender has exceeded all expectations since joining the club from Saint Etienne in the summer. Though predicted to have a slow and steady introduction to English football, Fofana found himself thrust into the limelight, after an injury crisis began to plague the Leicester defence. Caglar Soyuncu and Wilfried Ndidi were both side-lined for significant spells of time and with that, Fofana became a first team regular almost overnight.
The 20-year-old has made 14 appearances in the Premier League thus far, most regularly playing alongside the experienced Jonny Evans. This partnership benefits Fofana – and indirectly, Leicester – massively, as Evans’ lack of mobility allows the Frenchman to repeatedly showcase his confidence in regaining possession, strolling out of defence and distributing the ball into Leicester’s midfield. Simultaneously, Fofana has been able to improve his defensive capabilities by playing alongside Evans, who was often regarded as the “tidier” of the two when playing alongside Soyuncu last season.
Pundits have been singing Fofana’s praises in recent weeks and Paul Scholes has gone so far as to say that Manchester United should make the Frenchman their top priority in this transfer window, although it seems highly unlikely that Leicester would part ways after just a few months. What does seem likely though, is that Fofana will continue to be heavily involved in Leicester’s charge for Champions League football.
Honourable Mention – Jannick Vestergaard (Southampton)
Centre Back – Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa)
With two members of Aston Villa’s defence narrowly missing out on a spot in this team, it would only be fair to have one representative from Villa Park in my back line. While Konsa has excelled, Tyrone Mings just edges his teammate for me.
In a Villa side that has continually impressed this season, Mings has stood out as a crucial component of their winning formula. While Villa’s solid defensive record may see summer signing Emi Martinez reaping a vast harvest of praise, Mings has been putting in a series of performances that deserve to yield the same level of credit. The 27-year-old boasts a 75% success rate in the tackle this season, while also winning 69% of his duels in the air. Vocal, strong and the more comfortable of Villa’s centre back pairing with the ball at his feet (averaging 46.7 passes-per-game compared to Konsa’s 30.3), Mings boasts a tremendous set of skills for the modern centre back.
His presence has also been noticed in attacking phases, often the one to move the ball out to the marauding Matty Cash and Matt Targett or distributing centrally through the industrious John McGinn. The England international has chipped in with two goals and a solitary assist this season, showing that he holds value at the other end of the pitch.
Despite some disciplinary issues, Mings has impressed this season and with places in England’s back line for the Euros seemingly up for grabs, Mings’ form in the second half of the season could well see him included in Gareth Southgate’s squad for this summer’s tournament.
Honourable Mention – Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa)
Left Back – Aaron Cresswell (West Ham)
I was sure I had my left back pick completely assured. I wasn’t convinced that any left back outside the Big Six had done anything too impressive to put them ahead of my pick. However, despite Lucas Digne’s contributions to Everton’s early season charge to the top of the table, Aaron Cresswell has emerged as a much more consistent and capable choice for this team.
West Ham are a team on the rise, with David Moyes’ side unbeaten since Christmas, keeping four clean sheets in those six games, with Cresswell putting in solid showings in these games, as well as the rest of the season so far. After some notable struggles during his time at the club, Cresswell looks like he’s finally in a team who have hit a groove and he is flourishing as a result.
Cresswell has become one of West Ham’s most potent weapons in transitioning from defence to attack, as the left back has confidence and capability to blitz up the left flank before putting in a cross to his awaiting or arriving teammates – he’s become used to this, having put in 117 crosses so far this season.
With his abundance of attempts, Cresswell has registered four assists in the Premier League this season, including a double against Leicester in a 3-0 win back in October. The England international, while not scoring thus far in the 2020/21 season, certainly has the capability – his 25-yard free kick against Manchester United last season proves as much.
To be completely honest, this may be the best season that we see from Cresswell. At 31-years-old and in a physically demanding position, especially with the attacking role that Moyes’ football demands of its full backs, Cresswell may fade into the background sooner rather than later. However, he currently shows no sign of slowing down, so we can enjoy the attacking prowess he brings to West Ham until at least the end of the season and, hopefully, beyond.
Honourable Mention – Lucas Digne (Everton)
Centre Mid – Tomas Soucek (West Ham)
There’s something about a tall, powerful, deep-lying midfielder that David Moyes loves – and for good reason. As he was once successful with Marouane Fellaini at Everton, Moyes has found fantastic success with Tomas Soucek this season, with the Czech at the heart of everything West Ham are doing this season.
Soucek joined West Ham for the remainder of the 2019/20 season last January. His combative and committed defensive capabilities, coupled with his six-foot-four frame being particularly useful at corners and set-pieces ensured that Soucek became immensely popular at the London Stadium. West Ham secured his services permanently in July 2020, midway through Project Restart – both parties have not looked back once.
Soucek gives West Ham something they’ve been sorely lacking since Mark Noble’s hay-day – a defensively resilient box-to-box midfielder, with an engine efficient enough to keep him going for a full 90 minutes. Furthermore, the big Czech has been irreplaceable from set pieces, scoring five goals so far this season, and showing dominance in the opposition box even without the final goalscoring touch.
West Ham currently sit seventh in the table and have been producing some excellent results this season, thanks in no small part to Soucek. It might seem unlikely to see West Ham advance much further than this point, but should they maintain or improve on their current position, it will be easy to predict that Soucek will be at the heart and soul of it all.
Honourable Mention – John McGinn (Aston Villa)
Centre Mid – James Ward-Prowse (Southampton)
Having contemplated including Southampton players in this team already, it would make sense for one of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Saints to make an appearance. With that in mind, who better to start in midfield than one of the league’s finest dead ball specialists, James Ward-Prowse?
In yet another season where Southampton have impressively bounced back from a complete trouncing (I’m not going to mention it), JWP has been at the centre of it all. Typically deployed in a midfield pairing alongside either Oriol Romeu or new recruit Ibrahima Diallo in Hassenhuttl’s 4-2-2-2 formation, the 26-year-old has acted as Southampton’s metronome, while his partner handles the bulk of the dirty work. JWP currently ranks eighth in the Premier League in terms of completed passes, with 1,224 of his attempts finding a teammate. As he has done for many years in Southampton’s midfield, the England international looks composed, calm under pressure but this season, there seems to be something extra to his game – a heightened physical presence, coupled with a tireless engine, JWP has taken his game up a level this season.
Speaking of levels, the midfielder is still levels above anyone else in the Premier League when it comes to set pieces. Many believe that JWP is the best dead ball specialist in England since David Beckham and with three free kicks scored this season alone – the only player to score more than one direct attempt – it’s a hard statement to argue against. He’s grabbed one other goal on top of his free kicks, while also chipping in with four assists, thus showing the influence he can have from deep.
Southampton are in an admirable position going into the second half of the season and with James Ward-Prowse entering the prime of his career after 10 years at the club, things look bright on the south coast. Should Southampton continue their season in the same vein, much of the credit will lie with their long-serving playmaker.
Honourable Mention – Mateusz Klich (Leeds)
Attacking Mid – James Maddison (Leicester)
Not so long ago, James Maddison was on the losing side of an argument over which attacking midfielders Gareth Southgate should be taking to the Euros – Mason Mount and Jack Grealish were leading the conversation but based on this season, I’d have Maddison in the England squad without a doubt.
I am confident in making this statement, even though the playmaker has missed out on several matches this season due to a reoccurring injury. Despite his occasional absence from Brendan Rodgers’ team, Maddison has been massively influential as the Foxes mount a serious challenge to Liverpool’s crown. Maddison has already equalled his goal tally of six from last season, while also assisting twice.
Aside from his numbers, Maddison has matured into a player that is able to really control a game. In Leicester’s 2-0 win over Chelsea, everything that Leicester attempted in the match went through Maddison, who went on to admit that it was the most “complete team performance” of their season so far. That result in particular lifted Leicester to the top of the Premier League table for a short time, but Maddison downplayed this fact by explaining that they got to that point by not thinking too hard about getting there, avoiding overcomplication as a result. This has shown Maddison’s maturity off the pitch, coupled with his with his maturity on the pitch.
There’s no guarantee that Leicester – or anyone for that matter – will win the Premier League this season. Even without capturing English football’s greatest prize come May, Maddison should be able to look back on this season positively, as he has proven himself to have true quality as a creative midfielder – hopefully it will be enough to see him competing at this summer’s Euros.
Honourable Mention – James Rodriguez (Everton)
Right Wing – Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
Yes, I’m aware that Wilfried Zaha doesn’t play on the right wing very often, either playing on the left or through the middle for Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace. However, Zaha’s contributions to the South London club would mean that exclusion from this team would be entirely unwarranted – thus, he takes up a spot on the right flank.
Zaha has had an… interesting career at Crystal Palace. After re-joining the club permanently in 2015, Zaha has been Palace’s best player, which has unsurprisingly brought about interest from the likes of Arsenal, who seem eager to sign the forward every summer. However, Zaha’s focus remains with Palace where, this season, he’s been playing like a free man.
By that, I mean that Zaha is no longer solely responsible for the team’s creative output – the signing of Ebere Eze in the summer has given Palace another creative outlet in which they can source goals and assists, meaning that Zaha no longer has to carry this burden on his own. Zaha has had a real focus on goals this season, with Palace talisman on track for his best ever goalscoring season, having scored eight in 16 appearances. These goals account for 36% of Palace’s league tally so far – without Zaha, Palace would be in real trouble.
Lightning quick with superb technical ability, Zaha continues to shine as the big fish in a little pond. Regardless of whether he moves on from Palace or not, the club will be much worse off without him and will need him to carry on firing goals in if they are to finish in an admirable position come the end of the season.
Honourable Mention – Pedro Neto (Wolves)
Left Wing – Jack Grealish (Aston Villa)
This was by far the easiest choice I had to make when putting this team together. One of the most dangerous attacking players in the league, with exceptional technical ability and the captain of his club, Jack Grealish would make this team even with the Big Six options factored in.
Grealish’s ability was identified last season in Villa’s first season back in the top-flight, with neutral fans claiming that the Birmingham club only survived the relegation fight because of Grealish and Grealish alone. In all honesty, they weren’t far off, with the club captain scoring eight and assisted five in ensuring Premier League survival – one of those eight scored came on the final day, so the headlines were able to declare that Grealish had saved Villa after all.
At the halfway stage, while also playing in a much-improved team, Grealish has scored five goals and assisted eight in 17 games, so it seems more than likely that the attacking midfielder will improve on last season’s contributions. Grealish doesn’t make it into this team on numbers alone, however – he possesses intangible qualities that not only make him a star of Aston Villa, but the Premier League as a whole.
Grealish possesses the mercurial ability to be able to take control of a game whenever he wants to and change things to best suit him. One such player to share this quality with Grealish is recent Premier League departure, Eden Hazard. The significant difference between the two is that Hazard played in a myriad of different teams to those Grealish has played in – this actually highlights Grealish’s quality even further, as he has been able to standout and mix with the best in a lower-quality team.
Look, it doesn’t take a genius to see how good Grealish is. He’s a top player who is about to enter the prime years of his career and is part of a national team set up with plenty of promise. Plus – it’s just fun to watch him play. You’ll already be paying attention, so don’t switch off in the second half of the season – Grealish thrives when people switch off.
Honourable Mention – Harvey Barnes (Leicester)
Striker – Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton)
Leaving out the league’s top scoring striker in Jamie Vardy is tough. Really tough. I wanted to include Vardy but thought about who would cripple their team more if they were to get injured. While not the most glamorous replacement, Kelechi Iheanacho could thrive off of service from James Maddison and Harvey Barnes. Dominic Calvert-Lewin makes this team because without him, Everton would have to rely on Cenk Tosun to score their goals. Cenk Tosun.
While this is a sizeable contributing factor, DCL makes this team for more than his sorry replacements. He has been one of the best number nines in the league since Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival on Merseyside in December 2019. His start to the 2020/21 season was absolutely unbelievable, as he scored seven goals in Everton’s first five matches, while also scoring a hattrick in the Carabao Cup against West Ham and netting his first England goal on his debut. To put it simply, the striker had leapt into the spotlight and was more than willing to put on a show.
And leap he did! The 23-year-old has been highly commended for his aerial presence and at 6 foot 2, he has absolutely no problem contesting for the ball with the biggest and burliest defenders that the Premier League has to offer. Furthermore, he is a very sharp and decisive player, with some very decent awareness. All of this coupled with a very decent eye for goal, it’s no wonder that Ancelotti has predicted that DCL is going to be “at the top in England and in Europe.”
The trouble for Everton’s talisman now is making sure to keep that run going. His last appearance came on New Year’s Day, with a hamstring injury keeping him sidelined until further notice. With two games in hand on the teams above them in the table, Everton could end up in fourth at the expense of city rivals Liverpool – but they’ll need DCL’s scoring touch to get them there. The show must go on either way, but the Toffees will be much better off with their leading man.
Honourable Mention – Jamie Vardy (Leicester)