Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti, Liverpool’s Diogo Jota and Spurs duo Son Heung-min and Harry Kane stand out in various mid-season rankings. Illustration from ESPN
The match between Chelsea and Leicester City, which concluded on Tuesday, marked the halfway point of the 2020-21 Premier League season. With the threat of the coronavirus still present, it was a dangerous and largely desert affair that resulted in a fairly close race: Five teams are currently within five points of the lead, we’ve had nine different teams in the lead at times and ten teams are within five points of a Champions League spot. But if we remember what we’ve seen so far, we’re going to hand out a number of awards in the middle of the season, from the best players to the worst additions of the summer.
Pay attention: As teams played between 16 (Aston Villa) and 19 games (10 teams) due to postponements, the following information on a team’s ranking refers to the total number per game rather than the total number.
Indent: Best Player | Best Manager | Best Goal | Best Game | Disappointing XI | Worst New Signature | Best Young Player
Player of the Season
5. Son Heung-min, Tottenham Hotspur. You know it’s been a good year for the striker, as Son has 24 goals and 12 assists to his name…. As the second-leading scorer on his team… The fact that he scored 12 goals on only 34 shots is incredible: The other six players who have scored double-digit goals so far are averaging 57 shots.
4. Kevin de Bruyn, Manchester City. For now, we’ll take the 29-year-old Belgian for granted. His finishing touch was a little off – his 57 shots yielded 8.4 xG, but only three goals – but his assists are still good: He is second in the league with 10 assists and third with 51 goals (assists + assists, i.e. passes for a shot).
3. Jack Grealish, Aston Villa. While Son’s main contribution is to put the ball in the back of the net, Grealish excels at setting up shots for others. His 55 chances created are the most numerous in the league, and seven of them converted into assists. He also scored five points and won 62 percent of his tackles, which is the highest number of offensive players with more than 1,000 hits.
2. Bruno Fernandez, Manchester United. United presents itself as a legitimate competitor in January for the first time since 2013? Fernandez is the main reason. He has 22 goals and 14 assists under his belt and, although half of his goals have been scored on penalties, he remains the creative driving force behind the league’s third top scorer. Since signing at the end of January last year, United have lost just three times in the transfer window and have earned more points than any other club.
1. Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur. In recent seasons, it sometimes feels like Kane has been playing with extra weight on his back, as he gets more minutes and key parts that allow him to put more miles on the odometer. But the injury layoff, coupled with an outbreak of the coronavirus, seemed to give him his legs back. The 27-year-old has scored an incredible 24 goals and 22 assists this season; he has never thrown in more than seven assists in a season and now stands at 11. His partnership with Son has given the Spurs enough good results to keep them in the top five of the league, despite the lack of a stable Plan B.
Harry Kane has been sensational for Tottenham this season, even by his own standards. Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images
3. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United. United had a poor start to the Champions League season, losing three of their last four games. But despite these initial setbacks, Solskjaer found a good rapport with the team and led them in a great way: The Red Devils have grabbed 30 points from their last 12 league games to sit atop the standings.
2. Brendan Rodgers, Leicester City. An injury to defensive midfielder Wilfred Ndidi and the sale of defender Ben Chilwell to Chelsea prompted Rodgers to take a more cautious approach at the start of the season. But despite using more and more young players, the Foxes have won 20 points in their last nine games and remain in third place in the table, averaging two points per game. You don’t have to say it now, but Rodgers is a very, very good manager.
1. Carlo Ancelotti, Everton. Ancelotti has won the Champions League and managed some of the richest clubs in the world. Everton is not bad at all, but he has less talent advantage than before and he continues to produce.
The Toffees looked like a straw fire, winning their first four championship games and then just one of the next seven. But they beat Chelsea, Leicester City and Arsenal consecutively in December, and although James Rodriguez’s form has slipped somewhat after his initial brilliance, Everton continue to pick up points. They scored over 70 points for the first time since 2014.
Everton seemed like an odd choice for Ancelotti given his pedigree, but he embarked on an ambitious project and the club improved. Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images
Goal for season
Is this a new twist? Maybe. But it’s hard to argue for any other goal after Tanguy Ndombele’s sensation against Sheffield United last weekend was absolutely insane.
None at all.
I’m not going to do that.
Tangy Ndombele… #THFC ⚪️ #COYS pic.twitter.com/5Qo6EMrtQK
– Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) January 17, 2021
What’s your favorite part? Was it the shooting itself, the perfect arc with the perfect weight that somehow, one on one, was a beautiful creative pass from Stephen Bergwein? The fact is, did Ndombele even think of trying for no reason to expect success? The fact is, in the final replay of the corner of the clip above, you see the Blades keeper, Aaron Ramsdale, clearly whispering the word that starts with F as he realises that the ball is clearly flying into his net and there is nothing he can do?
The correct answer, of course, is: all of the above. What a target!
With half of the 20 Premier League teams officially in the middle of their season, we’ve seen more than enough so far to spot the super positions by position.
DA: Nick Pope, Burnley. Keeper stats are so full of context that they’re hard to interpret, but try this one: Stats Perform’s Avoided Goals category compares kicks from goal xG to actual goals allowed. Pope currently leads the Championship with +6.4 and is on track for his best season since David de Gea’s +13.7 in 2017-18, but I doubt he’ll complain if his Burnley teammates give him a little less work.
RB: Kyle Walker-Peters, Southampton. In this XI, the 23-year-old is Cancelo’s ideal partner in the field. He doesn’t contribute much to the crime, but he thrives on Ralph Hasenhuttle’s dirty work: He is second in the league (minimum 1000 minutes) for recovered fouls (110), and he is first for tackles (57%) and fouls against him (26). Formerly lost to Tottenham Hotspur, now thriving in the south.
– ESPN FC daily broadcast on ESPN+ (US only)
– ESPN+ Watch Guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and above
CB: Yannick Westergaard, Southampton. Southampton need to catch up with Southampton in transition, because if the Saints got behind the ball in defence, they probably won’t want to score. Westergaard is just as responsible for this as anyone else: It won 68% of its battles and 72% of its aerial battles, which is probably no surprise given its height of 6 feet. He’s a willing sniper (but not too willing), and he’s added three targets. He was huge, literally and figuratively, for above-average Saints.
CB: Kurt Zuma, Chelsea. The Chelsea defense ranks sixth for number of shots allowed per game and third for xG. Zouma has played a decisive role in this area: he is one of only two central defenders (from 1,000 minutes) to have won at least 60% of their duels, 65% of duels and 70% of aerial duels. But he also leads the central defenders with four goals, all from corners. It’s a damn good combination, even if it doesn’t give him the security of being in a completely dangerous Chelsea team.
LB: Joao Cancelo, Manchester City. He played left and right. On the right wing, he scored five goals in two games. His travel map is one of the most complete, as you can see.
Pep Guardiola has massaged City’s identity a bit this year, trying to fix the weaknesses of the transition defence while varying the attack. Cancelo played a key role in both relationships.
CM: Mason Mount, Chelsea. Of the 27 mostly central midfielders who have played 1,000 minutes so far, Mount has created the most chances (48) and made the most crosses (33), with the second highest success rate (39 percent). He also has the second highest number of penalty kicks (10), although he takes most of his shots from outside the box. Despite all the money Chelsea have spent on attacking talent this season, much of their successful attack has come from this 22-year-old Holder/Southern Academy product.
CM: Kevin de Bruyn, Manchester City. Of course, De Bruyne plays most of his minutes in attacking midfield, but he’s just as dangerous in both – he averages 0.67 passes for 90 in attacking midfield, 0.63 in central midfield, and his success rate is higher than the latter. Then we’ll put it here. And anyway, this team is a lot more fun with him and Fernandez.
RW: Mo Sala, Liverpool. He wasn’t in the top five, but he was still the best right tackle in the league. Both he and the Reds are a little banged up, but still on pace to score 25 goals for the first time since 2017-18.
Bruno Fernandez has been the driving force behind Man United, while Solskjaer is still undecided on the right balance and attacking personnel. Mark Atkins/Getty Images
CAM: Bruno Fernandez, Manchester United. Fernandez is near the top of the league. He leads United in touchdowns, chances, assists, tries and goals scored, bases, shots and recoveries in the offensive third. It’s the United attack.
LW: Jack Grealish, Aston Villa. That’s where your taste really comes out. If you want more spoons, it’s Greek. If you need maybe a little more to finish with a team that already has Mount, de Bruyne and Fernandes, then maybe you should go with Son. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
CF: Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we have a full, injury-free season from Kane and Son, just to see what numbers they can produce. So far: 24 goals and 17 assists in just 18 games. It’s crazy.
Second XI/Hormonal References
DA: Alphonse Areola, Fulham RB: Aaron Van Bissack, Manchester United CB: John Stones, Manchester City BC: 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…
Few early seasons end with a perfect preview of everything to come, but that’s exactly what Liverpool 4-3 Leeds United does. Liverpool’s Sala has worked his way into the current points lead. Liverpool FC suffered a series of incredible defensive failures that marked the beginning of the season for virtually every heavyweight and counter-attacking team in the sport.
Above all, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds have proved that they are ready to give many chances to win themselves. They then won 4-3 over Fulham, scoring over 5 goals twice and staying over 4 times. Their knife-footed style of play could help them secure a place in the Europa League at the end of the season….. Or it could lead to a months-long slump that leaves them with relegation anxiety. In any case, it’s hard to take your eyes off them, and has been since the beginning.
Very disappointing XI
Mark Ogden looks at ESPN FC’s list of worst transfers this season.
Of course, not everything can be perfect and live up to expectations, so we also have to address some of the disappointing performances in the league.
DA: Jordan Pickford, Everton. England’s first team has recovered from a poor start, but that start is still affecting their performance this season. These objectives have prevented the above-mentioned measures? Nine games into the season, he was at minus 4.1. (Since then it has been 2.8).
RB: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool. Again, it’s about expectations. TAA still has the third highest chance of recovering by mistake in the entire game (24) and the fourth highest chance of recovering by mistake (98). Sure, he’s still pretty good, but he can’t get past the bar he set for himself last year: The number of shots dropped from an average of 2.5 chances created to 90 to 1.7. He’s going to recover, but Liverpool want it to be quick.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is having a good season at Liverpool, but given his importance to the Reds, he needs to find his form quickly if he is to defend his league title. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
CB: John Egan, Sheffield United. The Blades’ disastrous start (19 games, 5 points) was largely due to a total inability to score. But even when they struggled in this department last season, they had a solid defense. This year, not so much. Egan went from 63% of his jumps to 55%, from 42% of his tackles to 34%, and from 61% of his tackles to 53%. Opponents are the third most hits per possession, and Egan doesn’t prevent that.
CB: Branislav Ivanovic, West Bromwich Albion. The 36-year-old former Chelsea star was recruited to keep the back line tight and organised. If expectations weren’t very high, wherever the bar is, he wouldn’t exceed it.
LB: Ben Davies, Tottenham Hotspur. Davis was arguably the league’s best defensive player in 2017-18, with two goals and six assists on 47 converted chances. But he’s been looking to his past since returning from a serious ankle injury this time last year. In the last calendar year, he created 14 chances and did not score a goal. Overall, it defends well and is generally good, but good is disappointing compared to two or three years ago.
CM: Mateo Kovacic, Chelsea. In his first two seasons with Chelsea, the Croatian midfielder created an average of 1.3 scoring chances and scored 7.0 goals per 90 minutes. Although Mount has done his job well, Kovacic is struggling to find his place in the new team with an average of just 0.9 luck and 5.0 balls on the ground. It’s a little over.
CM: Joao Moutinho, Wolves. Moutinho was so important to the personality of Nuno Espirito Santo’s team that he earned a place in the first half of the Premier League, and it’s hard to think of a disappointment in his place. But this season, its production has dropped dramatically. In his first two seasons at Wolverhampton, he averaged 81 chances and 256 clearances. This year, the 34-year-old created just 40 chances and scored around 170 clearances.
CM: Kai Havertz, Chelsea. Chelsea’s most expensive signing last season was also the most confusing. The Blues had already added Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyeh to their offensive line when they called on the 21-year-old Havertz. Frank Lampard had him going back and forth between central midfielder, attacking midfielder and right wing to find a role for him. And after scoring 17 goals in the Bundesliga last year, he scored just one after 19 league games.
RW: Nicolas Pepe, Arsenal. After scoring 22 goals and 11 assists for Lille in 2018/19, he managed just five and six for the Gunners last season. He also failed to gain the confidence of Mikel Arteta, and a year after coming to London for $88 million, he scored two unsupported goals in less than 500 minutes.
Kai Havertz (left) and Timo Werner have failed to make the grade since transferring to Chelsea FC last summer, which is worrying given the high expectations. Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
CF: Timo Werner, Chelsea. The 24-year-old scored 28 goals in the 53 chances created for RB Leipzig last season, helping the club reach the Champions League semi-finals. The fact that Chelsea could acquire it for less than $60 million amounted to stealing it. But Lampard mostly used him as a left-back – in his best seasons at RBL he was a centre-forward – and like most of Chelsea’s attacks, that didn’t really work. He only has four goals and four assists this year.
LW: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal. The good news is that the 31-year-old is currently enjoying his best performance of the season, scoring a brace in the 3-0 win over Newcastle. The bad news: He had only three targets for that. After scoring 22 goals in each of the last two seasons, he has barely hit double figures this season after joining the club. Still, it’s better than its right-wing counterpart.
Lowest performing season
5. Jamal Lewis, Newcastle. The Magpies have spent a large part of their transfer budget on the former Norwich City defender, but the 22-year-old has yet to find his place – he has to find a small role in attack, but also struggles to cause problems in defence.
4. Timo Werner, Chelsea. He is still at the beginning of his stay in London, and his course is too solid not to adapt and eventually succeed. But he hasn’t yet.
3. Donny van de Beek, Manchester United. Solskjaer still hasn’t figured out what to do with the $42 million signing. The 23-year-old has averaged nine league goals and 44 scoring chances in his last three seasons with Ajax, but has been used mostly in the cup, converting one goal and two chances in 251 minutes.
2. Rhian Brewster, Sheffield United. United have spent a record $28.6 million on Liverpool Ave. So far they have given them 657 minutes, 10 shots and zero league goals.
1. Kai Havertz, Chelsea. Again: We do this because we can sign for Chelsea, and Lampard didn’t know how or where to put the kid.
Now back to the positive aspects!
5. Ollie Watkins, Aston Villa. After a monstrous 2019-20 season for Brentford (26 goals in 49 league games, including the promotion play-offs), Watkins is the first choice for Villa’s balanced attack. He’s averaging 0.21 xG per shot and although he’s only scored six goals with 9.1 xG so far, (a) he can still score in double figures and (b) there’s nothing in his record to suggest he’ll finish poorly. Conversion rates are expected to improve soon.
4. Kyle Walker-Peters, Southampton. Southampton acquired one of the league’s best young defenders for $14.6 million. You can’t beat this deal.
3. Diogo Jota, Liverpool. Sometimes your value is most apparent in your absence. Jota almost felt like a luxury product when he was acquired by Wolves, but in all competitions this year Liverpool averaged more goals and points when Jota played than when he didn’t. The injury limited him to 501 game minutes, but in that time he scored five goals and created six chances. Unsurprisingly, the Reds’ drought – one league goal since the 7-0 win over Crystal Palace in mid-December – has coincided with the Portuguese striker’s latest injury.
2. Thomas Sucek, West Ham United. After last year’s trial, West Ham knew what they were getting from Slavia Prague: an assured winner in the air and in the duels and a creator of chaos in the defensive midfield (6.8 ball recoveries for 90), as well as an occasional presence in attack (five goals, seven chances) with excellent passing (71% long passes). West Ham are a really mean team to play against this season and Sauk, 25, was probably his best player.
Rodriguez in blue is welcome in the Premier League. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
1. James Rodriguez, Everton. In five Championship games of his career with Everton, James scored three goals and created 15 chances with three assists. This has not proven to be sustainable, but it remains a catalyst. Despite missing five games, he still leads the team in terms of chances created, assists and balls, and has the second highest number of fouls in his record.
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 this season.
The Premier League is not the most youth-friendly league in the world, but there are still many players who are in their 21st season.
10. Illan Meslier, Leeds. Meslier is the most exciting goalie in the league. The 20-year-old former Lorient keeper is active on the ball and has the best record of any regular keeper, both on long passes and in general. It also has a fairly low catch rate (68%) and seems to constantly parry the ball rather than hold it. But he is also only 20 years old!
9. Ferran Torres, Manchester City. The 20-year-old striker, who joined Valencia last season, is a little restless at times, but he has scored three goals in 590 league appearances and does an excellent job of passing and taking possession in the attacking third.
8. Curtis Jones, Liverpool. Jones is one of only two young players lucky enough to play in the EPL midfield this season due to injury. He makes 91% of his passes in the opposing third and has nine attempts combined on seven chances created. It also scores well on the Panache scale, which is always helpful.
7. Wesley Fofana, Leicester. Brendan Rodgers deserves a lot of credit for leading Leicester’s largely young team, but the club’s management are always looking for talented young players to add to the squad. It’s like building a real football manager. The burly 1.80m player, who left Saint-Etienne in October, is the latest in a string of new arrivals.
Fofana, on the left, is arguably one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League this season and is a key reason Leicester are in the running for the title. MICHAEL REGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
6. Tariq Lamptey, Brighton. The 20-year-old Chelsea academy product is on the right side of Brighton’s midfield moving the ball well beyond the third defence and occasionally contributing to the attack (one goal, 10 chances).
5. Callum Hudson-Odoi, Chelsea. Chelsea have too many wingers, so the 20-year-old has only played 413 minutes in the Championship. But he created more chances (90) than anyone else on the team, with the exception of Mount, who scored more goals than any other striker who is not in midfield and has the best passing speed of any third striker. He should play more.
4. Phil Foden, Manchester City. It is true, Foden is only 20 years old. The midfielder remains an assured and prodigious flat passer, although he hasn’t been as active this season. (He made up for it with two goals for England this season).
3. Bukayo Saka, Arsenal. Arsenal spent a lot of money on players over 30 this season, but their best player was a teenager. Saka, 19, plays in left midfield between Aubameyang and Kieran Tierney, but he’s all over the place, combining for four league goals (third on the team) with 21 passes created (second) and 2.6 expected passes (first). Saka and 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe give the Gunners optimism during a disappointing season.
2. Reece James, Chelsea. Given the number of excellent left backs in the Premier League, playing as a right back is a pretty risky position. However, for the most part, the 21-year-old academy product played well, showing the necessary speed and winning 72% of his aerial duels and 55% of his tackles. He also scored a goal and converted 17 offensive chances. Very, very round.
1. Pedro Neto, Wolves. Striker Raul Jimenez remains on the sidelines after suffering a fractured skull (Fu) in November, Joao Moutinho is suddenly showing his age, and precious young transfer Fabio Silva is as inconsistent as one would expect from an 18-year-old. But at Neto, the wolves have a fucking star on their left wing. He leads the team in percentage of passes (89%), chances created (37), passes (3), assists (123) and attempted passes in the offensive third (279) … As well as goals (four) and shots (35). Within the league, only the Grealists have created more opportunities from the left wing, and only the Grealists and Raheem Sterling of Manchester City have more expected attendances.
Oh, and he scored for his debut in Portugal in November! And he won’t be 21 for another month and a half!