We’ve approached the approximate midway point of the 2021-22 English Premier League season. Despite a rampant run of COVID-19 postponements, nine of 20 teams have now played half of their 38 matches, and others will hit that mark soon enough.
Manchester City were the title favourites at the beginning of the season and remain so. In August, FiveThirtyEight gave City a 40% chance of winning the league, with Liverpool coming in at 21% and the rest of the field at 16% or lower. Now, City (77%) has swallowed up the rest of the field with Liverpool (19%) the only other team higher than 4%. The race isn’t over, but the overwhelming favourite is clear.
What else has changed? Arsenal‘s odds of snaring the fourth Champions League spot have improved from 27% in August to 45% now, primarily at Manchester United‘s expense — the Red Devils have plummeted from 50% to 19%. The relegation hierarchy has also taken shape: Norwich City are 92% likely to go down after the season, with Newcastle United at 76% (and preparing to spend big to change its odds) and Watford (44%), Burnley (34%) and, surprisingly, Leeds United (23%) the most likely teams to occupy the third spot.
There are still plenty of questions to answer in the coming months, and most of the current storylines are (justifiably) focused on the league trying to power its way through the latest coronavirus outbreak and its effects. But now’s as good a time as any to pause and reflect on the teams, players and matches that have defined the season to date.
Player of the season
You might find a slight red-and-sky-blue theme to this list. But it’s hard to argue with, isn’t it?
5. MF Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
This year’s winner of the Gundogan award, the 27-year-old has gone from having an uncertain spot in City’s first team to becoming the only player in the league to have combined at least seven goals with at least 700 pass attempts and a completion rate of at least 89%. City has used him everywhere on the pitch, and to say the least, it’s worked out nicely.
4. LB Joao Cancelo (Manchester City)
Long used as a jack-of-all-trades by Pep Guardiola, Cancelo has stuck mostly to the left flank this year, where he’s teamed beautifully with summer signing Jack Grealish. In the team with the most passes in the Premier League this season, the Portugal international leads in touches and pass attempts. He’s beyond sturdy in defence, and he’s second on the team in assists and ball recoveries.
3. RB Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
One of the league’s best players for three years running, Alexander-Arnold has raised his game across the board this season.
Last three PL seasons:
0.33 assists per 90
0.25 xA per 90
0.07 goals per 90
78% pass completion rate
80% in the final third
6.7 ball recoveries per 90
This season: 0.48 assists per 90
0.48 xA per 90
0.12 goals per 90
80% pass completion rate
84% in the final third
7.8 ball recoveries per 90
2. DM Rodri (Manchester City)
The 25-year-old needed a couple of seasons to truly ignite in Guardiola’s system, but ignite he has. He’s easily led the team in ball recoveries from his defensive midfield position, he’s won 57% of his duels (64% of aerials), and he’s completed 93% of his passes into the attacking third. And while City has allowed just eight goals in 16 matches with him on the pitch, they’ve allowed six in the four matches without him. He might be the most valuable player on the most valuable team.
1. RW Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Only one player has topped 13 combined goals and assists in league play thus far: Salah, who has 24. He leads in both categories — his 15 goals are five more than anyone else, and his nine assists top even Alexander-Arnold’s eight. He has only once topped 22 goals, and he’s never topped 10 assists, and he’s on pace for 30 and 18, respectively. Best player in the world at the moment.
Manager of the season
Sure, you could always make a case for Guardiola or Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp — turning great talent into great results is never a given. But it is in no way surprising that City and Liverpool are doing what they’re doing, and while Chelsea‘s Thomas Tuchel has done well in juggling a lineup with lots of absences, the Blues are still super-rich. Let’s branch out a bit.
3. Patrick Vieira (Crystal Palace)
The former Arsenal captain and Nice manager was taking a risk when he came to London: he was inheriting an aging and tired roster, and FiveThirtyEight gave Palace the third-highest relegation odds at the beginning of the season. But he’s leaned on younger players like centre-back Marc Guehi (21), full-back Tyrick Mitchell (22) and prolific Chelsea loanee Conor Gallagher (21) and turned Palace into a team that is rather unlucky to be in 10th place. Palace’s +4.5 xG differential is fourth-best in the league, and only a string of three straight one-goal losses in November and early December is keeping them from being contenders for Europe at the moment.
2. Thomas Frank (Brentford)
In their first top-division season in 74 years, Frank’s Brentford are nearly as close to the top five (11 points back with two games in hand) as they are to the relegation zone (nine points up). After a bright start, they lost four straight games in October and early November, but they steadied the ship with a run of eight points in five matches. The Bees play aggressive and optimistic football, taking risks and creating high-quality scoring chances, and it will take a massive reversal of fortune for them to end up back in the Championship next season.
1. David Moyes (West Ham United)
Coming off of their first top-six finish of the 21st century, Moyes’ Hammers added European football to their slate, and despite not exactly loading up on depth over the summer, they continue to thrive with their lanky, counter-attacking approach. They rolled through their Europa League group in first place, and despite some rickety recent play — they pulled just five points from a seven-match stretch in late November and December — they righted the ship with a 4-1 win over Watford on Tuesday, and they’re fifth in the table. West Ham have been anything but consistent for much of their history, but it’s quickly getting to the point where we expect quality play from them, and Moyes is as much of a reason for that as anyone.
Since our top five players of the season play five different positions, you already know about half of what I deem the best lineup of the season. But let’s walk through the rest.
It’s really hard to separate the performance of this new signing and another, that of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale. We’ll give Sa the slightest of edges because, while the two basically split the difference in the major ball-stopping categories — save percentage (Sa 80.3%, Ramsdale 79.7%), StatsPerform’s goals prevented measure (Ramsdale 5.1, Sa 4.4), etc. — Sa is asked to take a few more chances in terms of ball possession (32 ball recoveries to Ramsdale’s 12, three chances created to Ramsdale’s two). Either way, these are two of the best transfers of the season, and they’re the class of the league.
Full-backs: Cancelo (left) and Alexander-Arnold (right)
They have raised their games to different levels, and in completely different ways.
A fixture in European top-flight football since joining AC Milan in 2009, Silva has started the last two Champions League finals and has somehow found another gear at age 37. He’s a reliable ball distributor and one of the ultimate “snuff things out before they become dangerous (and therefore don’t really rack up any intervention stats)” guys.
Then there’s the young dude, the merely 30-year-old Van Dijk, one of the best aerial presences in the game and a player whose value was illustrated clearly by his injury absence in 2020-21. Now healthy again, both Van Dijk and Joel Matip have transformed Liverpool’s back line from one of the most vulnerable in the league last season to one of the steadiest (notwithstanding the counter-attacking goal they conceded to Leicester on Tuesday).
Defensive midfield: Rodri
The Premier League is blessed with strong DMs, from Rodri to West Ham’s Declan Rice to, when healthy, Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante. But Rodri has presented the best combination of ball distribution, attack prevention and plain old availability this year.
Central midfield: Bernardo Silva and Conor Gallagher (Crystal Palace)
Silva’s unique scoring contributions are well-documented, but his midfield partner here has an even more unique story this season.
Only three players have combined more than five goals with more than 30 chances created: forwards Salah and Michail Antonio (West Ham) … and Gallagher, a midfielder and four-time member of the Chelsea Loan Army. Gallagher has basically served as an extra forward in Vieira’s attack and a DM in defence — his 105 ball recoveries are more than Salah’s and Antonio’s combined. One could easily make a case for Chelsea’s Mason Mount, Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan, Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe (who splits time between centre and left) or Aston Villa‘s John McGinn here, among others, but Gallagher’s unique contributions and development route give him the nod.
While Salah easily gets the nod on the right, the spot on the left is up for debate.
Liverpool’s Sadio Mane has found his best form again and is on pace for 14 goals, City’s Grealish is again among the leading chance-creators in the league despite having played only 978 minutes thus far, Palace’s Wilfried Zaha is on pace for double-digit goals and 40-plus chances created, and City’s Raheem Sterling has scored seven goals from all over the pitch. But we’ll go with the stalwart Son, who has, despite both his team’s and Harry Kane‘s issues early this season, put together eight goals and 30 chances created. He remains one of the most accurate finishers in the world, and he’s one of the best at receiving progressive passes as well.
Centre-forward: Diogo Jota (Liverpool)
Again, there are plenty of candidates. Antonio is brilliant, Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis and Brentford’s Ivan Toney have been great surprises, Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo remains Cristiano Ronaldo (though he’s been far more Ronaldo-esque in the Champions League) and Leicester City‘s Jamie Vardy remains Jamie Vardy. But Jota is the only one among that group to have scored double-digit goals — and he’s done so despite Salah snarfing up 15 goals himself — and he’s created as many chances for others (23) as Vardy and Ronaldo combined.
GK: Aaron Ramsdale, Arsenal
LB: Charlie Taylor, Burnley
CB: Joel Matip, Liverpool
CB: Shane Duffy, Brighton & Hove Albion
RB: Reece James, Chelsea
DM: Declan Rice, West Ham
CM: Mason Mount, Chelsea
CM: Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal
LW: Jack Grealish, Manchester City
RW: Raphinha, Leeds United
CF: Michael Antonio, West Ham
Matches of the season
Look, a 0-0 draw, like a brooding arthouse movie, can be intense and high-quality. Of course it can. But sometimes you just want a popcorn flick with big, dumb explosions and weird plot twists. City’s win over Leicester on Sunday featured four straight City goals, then three Leicester goals in 10 minutes, then two late set-piece goals with which City put the match away. All the explosions you could possibly want.
The match itself, the opener of the Premier League season, was fine — Brentford scored in the 22nd minute, gave all the possession and shots to the visiting Gunners, then put the match away on a long-throw goal in the 73rd minute. But this one was worth it for the postmatch scenes alone. Full crowds back in the stands, first top-flight win in over 70 years, old people crying, “Hey Jude” … goosebumps.
The Hammers had pulled just one point from their previous three matches when the European champions came from across town, but they rallied twice, from down 1-0 and 2-1, tied the match thanks to Jarrod Bowen in the 56th minute, then won it in the 87th when Arthur Masuaku wrong-footed Edouard Mendy with, um, what sure looked like a mishit cross. It went in, which means it was a gorgeous shot instead!
A popcorn flick with a more even outcome. The Brentford Community Stadium produced another joyous atmosphere, and the Bees overcame one-goal deficits twice in the last 30 minutes — first when Vitaly Janelt made it 2-2 in the 63rd, then when Yoane Wissa made it 3-3 in the 82nd — to steal a point.
To the extent that we’ve still got a title race on our hands, it’s because Liverpool pulled a point out of this battle at Anfield. But three points would have been a lot more useful. City dominated a scoreless first half, and Liverpool was lucky not to lose James Milner to a red card, but on two different second-half occasions the hosts went ahead only to have the visitors strike back quickly. Phil Foden scored 10 minutes after Mane to make it 1-1, then Kevin De Bruyne scored five minutes after Salah’s goal-of-the season contender to make it 2-2. “It was great, really great,” Pep Guardiola told the media afterward. Indeed.
Best signings of the season
In the next two sections, we’ll focus only on actual transfers, not loans. Apologies to the Ademola Lookmans (good on loan at Leicester) and Saul Niguezes (bad at Chelsea) of this world.
Also, the fee matters, so players doing brilliantly well after a cheaper transfer reflect a more savvy and successful move. Grealish has been increasingly awesome for Manchester City, but for $129 million, he better be. Demarai Gray contributing five goals and 20 chances for Everton at the cost of $2.2m is a steal (all fees per Transfermarkt).
5. RB Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal, $20.5m)
After overspending on past-their-prime attackers in the 2020 transfer window, Arsenal wised up, spending about $180m on six players, all 23 years old and under, this past summer. Beyond defender Ben White, however, it was unclear what kind of potential we were talking about here. But Tomiyasu has quickly proven his worth: The 23-year-old averaged 13 chances created and 3.0 xG+xA in two seasons for Serie A’s Bologna, but he’s already up to 11 chances and 1.4 xG+xA in 15 matches with the Gunners. He’s a safe passer and a solid interventionist when he has to be.
4. LW Demarai Gray (Everton, $2.2m)
Imagine, too, where Everton would be without Gray, the 25-year-old Birmingham City youth product who never topped four goals in any of five seasons with Leicester City and who lasted just six months at Bayer Leverkusen. But he’s already scored five times for the Toffees, who have pulled 10 points from the five matches in which he contributed to the scoreline (and nine from the other 12).
3. CF Emmanuel Dennis (Watford, $4.4m)
The 24-year-old came to Watford from Club Brugge, where he had scored four Champions League goals in two seasons. He’s a pressing machine, but in a half-season audition for FC Cologne last term he scored just once in 10 matches. Watford couldn’t have known they were getting a guy capable of scoring eight goals with five assists in his PL debut season. The Hornets have only about a 50/50 chance of staying up this season, but imagine where they’d be without Dennis.
2-1. GKs Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal, $30.8m) and Jose Sa (Wolverhampton Wanderers, $8.8m)
Once again, it’s a pick-your-flavour thing between these two. We’ll give Sa the nod because he was cheaper to sign from Olympiakos than Ramsdale was from Sheffield United, but both have dramatically exceeded expectations. Wolves’ paltry attack has required heroics from Sa and the defence to keep them in eighth, and even if Ramsdale is still learning his way in terms of interventions and ball retention, he has quickly proven himself as one of the more athletic and acrobatic shot-stoppers in the league. Both were brilliant pickups.
Most disappointing signings of the season
5. Nikola Vlasic (West Ham United, $33m)
It was tempting to put Tottenham’s Bryan Gil here — the 20-year-old who moved for a $27.5m fee has seen just 84 minutes of league play thus far. But at 20 and stuck behind Son, among others, he’s got plenty of time to find himself, especially after what appears to be a semi-likely winter loan. Plus, he’s created chances in each of his last two (brief) appearances.
Vlasic, on the other hand, is 24 and was the primary addition to West Ham’s attack in this past transfer window. He cost $33m, but he’s played 197 league minutes and didn’t score his first goal until Tuesday. There’s plenty of time left in the season, but he hasn’t set the world alight out of the gate.
4. Daniel James (Leeds United, $32m)
It’s not necessarily that the 24-year-old has been bad — he’s got one goal and one assist among 13 chances created in 16 matches. It’s just that, with Patrick Bamford hurt (and with the entire squad going through an injury crisis, for that matter), Leeds has desperately needed someone else to step up in attack alongside Raphinha, and James has basically been the exact same player as he was in the last two seasons at Manchester United: 1.0 chances per 90, 0.27 xA+xG per 90, etc. This would have been a great time for a breakthrough, especially for the price tag.
After blazing through the Championship last season, Norwich loaded up on volume, spending more than $60m on seven players and bringing in four loans. The loanees, led by midfielder Mathias Normann, have been decent. The permanent additions, led by this trio of attackers, have bombed. For nearly $40m, Rashica, Tzolis and the United States international Sargent have combined for zero goals and one assist. For all of their acquisitions, Norwich has eight total goals (five from veteran Teemu Pukki) and 10 points in 19 matches. And after going down with Werder Bremen last season, Raschia and Sargent are both looking at a second relegation in two years.
On paper, it was the perfect Football Manager-style move: Sell your star (in this case, Grealish) for big bucks, then replace him with a plethora of proven (and preferably young) entities. Villa parlayed the Grealish sale into bids for Norwich’s 25-year-old Buendia, Bayer Leverkusen’s 24-year-old Bailey and Southampton‘s steely-eyed veteran, Ings. What have they got for their investment? Ings scored twice in August but only once since and has recently battled a hamstring injury. Bailey scored once in September but has managed only nine appearances and has been hurt for most of December. Buendia, the most expensive signing of the bunch ($42.2m) has stayed healthier than the other two but has scored just once with two assists in 971 league minutes. Obviously there’s been some poor luck with injuries here, and they’ve still got time to prove themselves. Plus, Villa’s overall fortunes have quickly turned around since replacing manager Dean Smith with Steven Gerrard. But the trio of Grealish replacements have combined to produce fewer xG (2.2) and fewer chances created (26) than the one guy who left (4.2 xG, 31 chances).
1. Jadon Sancho (Manchester United, $93.5m)
Was there any other possible answer? Everyone on this list still has time to turn their fortunes around, but after years of pining for the Borussia Dortmund star, United finally signed the 21-year-old star this summer and proceeded to find out their manager had no idea what to do with him. In 12 league matches before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s firing on Nov. 21, Sancho had played just 433 minutes (equivalent to 4.8 90s) with no goals, no assists and 10 chances created. He was playing in more narrow confines than those in which he had thrived in the Bundesliga, and while he needed time to get his bearings, he wasn’t getting a ton of minutes.
Since Solskjaer’s firing, Sancho has played 325 minutes in five matches under caretaker Michael Carrick and interim manager Ralf Rangnick. He scored as a centre-forward against Chelsea, and he’s already created nearly as many chances (nine) in 88 fewer minutes. His numbers are still dramatically inferior to what he produced in the Bundesliga: he averaged 0.66 xA+xG and 0.5 assists among 2.9 chances created per 90 last season, while he’s at 0.33, 0.0 and 2.3, respectively this year. Some of that shift is to be expected in his going from a more attack-friendly league to the PL, but this is certainly a dropoff.
Still, he’s 21 and now taking lessons from his fifth manager in 18 months. One assumes he will begin to thrive at some point, but he certainly hasn’t yet, and for the money United spent, that means he tops this list at the midway point.
Best 21-and-under XI
The Premier League isn’t the most youth-friendly league in the world, but let’s attempt to craft a starting XI out of the best performers aged 21 and under in the league this season.
Goalkeeper: Illan Meslier (Leeds United)
Meslier has been under siege this season, tasked with stopping loads of great shots and doing rather poorly with them. StatsPerform’s Goals Prevented measure, which subtracts the xG of shots on target conceded from actual goals conceded, suggests Meslier has allowed 5.7 more goals than he should have. Why’s he here, then? Because he’s 21! No other keeper qualified. Luckily there are more options the further up the pitch we go.
Livramento has been almost ever-present for Southampton this season while on loan from Chelsea, starting all but one of their 19 league games. He has proven excellent at obstructing passing lanes, and he’s contributed a goal and 13 chances created on the attacking end. Williams, on loan from Manchester United, hasn’t contributed much in the attacking department but, like Livramento, has proven capable in the defensive part of his job.
Centre-backs: Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace’s) and Ozan Kabak (Norwich City)
As evidenced by two thirty-somethings occupying the First XI above, centre-back is a veteran’s job more often than not. Kabak has been inconsistent but willing, both for Liverpool last year and Norwich this year, but Guehi is the real deal. He’s played every minute for Palace, he’s scored twice (in open play, no less), and he’s won two-thirds of his duels with 90 ball recoveries, fourth overall among 21-and-unders.
Midfielders: Billy Gilmour (Norwich City), Emile Smith Rowe (Arsenal’s) and Conor Gallagher (Crystal Palace)
That Gilmour, on loan from Chelsea, is Norwich’s third player on the list certainly hints at one of their primary deficiencies this year — experience! But the 20-year-old Scotsman is heavily involved in ball progression, and his 17 chances are only two fewer than Sancho’s despite his role generally being far further back on the pitch. He’s the closest thing to a DM on this list. Smith Rowe and Gallagher, meanwhile, have simply been among the best midfielders in the league, combining for 14 goals, five assists and 12.3 xG+xA in 2,670 minutes. Lovely production.
Wingers: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal, right) and Phil Foden (Manchester City, left)
Foden missed the first month or so of the season with a foot injury and has logged just 921 minutes thus far. But he’s still managed eight combined goals and assists (fourth among 21-and-unders) with 6.8 xG+xA (second). He’s still Phil Foden. Saka, meanwhile, weathered a slow start and has erupted of late. He’s scored four goals since Nov. 27, and his nine combined goals and assists are second among 21-and-unders, behind only Smith Rowe’s 10. England‘s depth of young talent in the attacking midfield and/or wing roles is immense.
Centre-forward: Mason Greenwood (Manchester United)
It’s a bit of a square peg/round hole issue in the centre. Only 291 of Greenwood’s 895 minutes (and two of his four goals) have come at the centre-forward position this year. But he’s played there plenty through the years, and in terms of 2021-22 production, it’s either Greenwood or Southampton’s Armando Broja, with his four goals in 721 minutes. We’ll go with Greenwood, who has a longer track record.