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An under-the-radar Premier League XI

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The Premier League’s international break invites reflection on both what we’ve seen so far and what’s to come.

For example, what if we left out the superstars?

For whatever reason, this one is recalling the state of mind of 2015-16, when we were digesting that Leicester City very much looked the part of Premier League champions.

[ MORE: Herrera on “intense” Zlatan ]

For a lot of us, that meant delving into statistics and seeing what matched the eye test. Many started Googling the name “N'Golo Kante“, the dynamic disruptor who’d move to Chelsea in August.

He’s a household name now, with some personalities even arguing that he should buck the trend of Ballon d’Or nominees including only major statistic producers (There was a time when names like Fabio Cannavaro and Matthias Sammer claimed the honor, you know).

For our purposes, we’ll use a pair of advanced stats sites and the good ol’ eye test. (Of the sites we’re using, Squawka seems to skew toward high attack scores, while WhoScored tilts a bit toward the back, so life is good if a player hits both sites’ Top 50).

Before getting into our team — we promise no 10-picture, click-to-reveal-next stuff — some stats that stood out.

— Three players have had outstanding “short” seasons for different reasons.

  • Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi took a short spell to adjust to the Premier League after arriving in January, but has been the Foxes’ most influential player in their recent turnaround).
  • Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake essentially was the Cherries’ first-half success before heading back to Chelsea where Antonio Conte won’t move him ahead of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses (and that’s actually understandable as you’ll see below).
  • Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas just doesn’t feature a ton for Conte, but in limited time his per-90 stats on Squawka trail only Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez.

— The following players have risen well above most of their teammates but fall short of the league Top 50 on either site: Ben Gibson (Boro), Michael Keane and Ben Mee (Burnley), Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), Joe Allen (Stoke City), Jose Holebas and Troy Deeney (Watford), Gareth McAuley (West Brom).

— Watford, as a side, is seemingly the choose to a sort of MVP. On WhoScored, not a single player rises above 7, but there are a host in the very high sixes.

— In very different systems, John Stones (91.8) and Adam Forshaw (89.2) are thriving in pass percentage.

Oriol Romeu of Southampton and Victor Wanyama of Tottenham Hotspur (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

— Southampton’s Oriel Romeu and Stoke’s Erik Pieters rank fourth and fifth respectively in tackles per game.

— In a team that has to intervene a ton, Hull City’s Curtis Davies the league with 3.8 interceptions per game.


Honorable mention

Goalkeeper: Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City)

Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (Manchester City), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Calum Chambers (Boro), Papy Djilobodji (Sunderland), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Ake, Victor Wanyama (Spurs), Willian (Chelsea), Juan Mata (Manchester United), Harry Winks (Spurs), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Jack Wilshere (Bournemouth).

Forwards: Joshua King (Bournemouth), Fernando Llorente (Swansea City), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace)


Goalkeeper

Ben Foster (West Brom) — With the highest performance score in the position on WhoScored, Foster has claimed all 95 balls he’s went up for and has a league-best 76 saves.

Defenders

Nicolas Otamendi (Man City, 7.49, 29.18) — One of few defenders to rate high in interceptions despite being on a team that doesn’t concede loads of chances or possession.

George Friend (Middlesbrough) — Just out of the upper echelon on the advanced stats site, he is in rarefield air in traditional stats interceptions and tackles.

Steve Cook (Bournemouth, 7.16, 22.76) — Jumps out of the advanced stats on a Cherries team which has faced plenty of attacking pressure.

Antonio Valencia (Manchester United, 7.28, 27.45) — There’s a reason Jose Mourinho rewarded him with an extension not long into the manager’s tenure at Old Trafford.

Midfielders

Ander Herrera (Manchester United, 7.44, 36.64) – Long-heralded at Athletic Bilbao, Herrera is finally showing what made him so sought. One odd stat that may be explained by his willingness to run to any situation: he’s very high in average times dribbled past.

Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton, 7.34, 20.57) – The best player in Aston Villa’s awful 2015-16, he’s been arguably as effective as N’Golo Kante. Seriously.

Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion) – Once the top player on a relegated QPR, Phillips is fifth in the Premier League in assists despite missing the last four matches with injury.

Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur, 7.41, 31.89) – Second in the PL in key passes, he doesn’t get the plaudits of English teammates Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The relationships are very symbiotic.

 

Forwards

Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 7.44) – On an under-achieving team, Zaha’s statistics are wild. He’s the most-fouled player in the league, and attempts/completes the most dribbles in the PL. He gives the ball away a lot, too, but that happens when you’re the focal point of everything your team does in the attacking third.

Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, 30.54) – The Nigerian turns 21 in May, and has four goals and seven assists across all competitions.

Manchester projects stutter along for Guardiola, Mourinho

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MANCHESTER — The struggle in Manchester is real.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

When Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho arrived last summer amid much fanfare the soccer world expected a rivalry rivaling Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in England’s northern powerhouse.

Yeah. About that…

[ MORE: Player ratings in City, United ]

Guardiola’s Manchester City sit in fourth place with five games to go, one place and one point ahead of Manchester United. They were dumped out of the UEFA Champions League and lost in the FA Cup semifinal to Arsenal at the weekend.

Pep’s “total football” approach has hit more than a few snags.

These two teams were supposed to challenge for the title this season but after spending a combined total of almost $400 million on new players they have one trophy between them (United won the EFL Cup) and are scrambling to qualify for the Champions League.

This isn’t how things were supposed to be.

Both managers are big enough names that they will be given plenty more time, and plenty more money, to solve their problems. But if they don’t start the 2017-18 season well then the pressure will mount quickly. Even for these two managerial heavyweights.

When it comes to Pep’s revolution at City he knows the teething problems have been present throughout the season. City have blown teams away when everything clicks but so often, especially at home, it hasn’t. City have drawn seven games at home this season and only United (9) have drawn more in front of their own fans.

Both managers are building bases tentatively but needed extra impetus to help the missing pieces of the jigsaw slot into place.

Speaking to the media after the game, Guardiola was downbeat despite his team seemingly in the driving seat for a top four finish ahead of their crosstown rivals.

“We have tried not just today but all of the season to monopolize the ball. Maybe it is a little bit of a Latin style. I don’t know what it is here in England but we tried to have the ball and attack,” Guardiola said. “Of course you can not expect against a team which is 23 games in a row unbeaten. That means they are good in defense and offensive and create not a thousand, million chances but 15 shots but not on target. It was not enough. We played to win the game. We tried. But again we are not able and we have to look why we were not able to win again. It is one point. The big fight will be until the Watford game.”

Between now and City’s final game of the season they will dominate possession in most, if not all, games but lacking that killer instinct has been their main problem. Gabriel Jesus‘ arrival at the end of this game provides Guardiola hope that the Brazilian teenager can provide a spark. City are arguably further along in their project than Untied but with fit again Vincent Kompany helping to improve Guardiola’s defense in recent weeks, in attack both have struggled.

City and United are the lowest scorers in the top six and United have scored just 50 times this season.

That said, the main problem for United in recent weeks has been injuries (Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo out for the season, joining Chris Smalling and Phil Jones on the sidelines) which have compounded their own ability to not finish teams off as a league-high 13 draws has Mourinho wondering what if.

United’s run to the Europa League semifinals has provided Mourinho with a “get out of jail free” card as they’re favorites to win Europe’s second-tier tournament and qualify for the UEFA Champions League through the backdoor. Fans of the Red Devils sing about Jose making them play “the United way” but the chant has become halfhearted and hollow recently.

United are 24 games unbeaten in the Premier League, the longest run in Europe’s top five leagues and they’ve equaled their longest ever unbeaten run in a top-flight campaign.

It doesn’t feel like it though.

Mourinho’s men recorded just 30.8 percent possession on Thursday, their lowest total since Opta started recording that metric in 2003. United are not a fun team to watch right now but they’re grinding out results until Mourinho can find a long-term solution to have them back among the elite. Until then he has the huge number of games they’ve played this season and their long injury list to blame.

“We will fight until the end – today we lost two more players – Timothy Fosu-Mensah had an important injury in the last action of the game and Fellani is suspended,” Mourinho said. “We are going down in terms of the number of players. It is very difficult for us but the character is amazing and I’m very proud of the boys.”

The feel-good factor wasn’t there on both sides of the Manchester divide at the Etihad Stadium.

Despite their pedigree Guardiola and Mourinho have plenty to prove to both sets of supporters as the two most successful and talented managers of their generation are finding that Manchester is not their heaven.

Not yet anyway.

These projects are very much a work in progress and when they next meet in July in preseason in the USA both clubs will have new players, a fresh start and more sky-high targets to reach.

The managers of City and United will be the same next season but they’ll both be under that much more pressure after a stuttering start to life in what was supposed to be a new era of Manchester becoming the soccer Mecca of the world.

Guardiola and Mourinho leave close to each other and this week Guardiola revealed the duo say hello and share pleasantries when they meet on the street.

They shouldn’t expect the same niceties from the general public in Manchester for much longer if trophies and title challenges don’t materialize.

Guardiola “satisfied” with derby draw; “It’s not easy” to play United

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Manchester City control their own destiny in the Premier League’s race to finish inside the top-four this season.

With five games to go, Man City sit fourth in the league table — just a point back of third-place Liverpool (with a game in hand), and a point ahead of fifth-place Manchester United after the two sides drew 0-0 on Thursday — and that fact has had an unbelievable calming effect on first-year City boss Pep Guardiola.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking in his post-game television interview, Guardiola seemed much happier and looser than you might expect a manager to be when he’s only just left the field of a heated rivalry game, against his personal nemesis, and failed to convert in one of 19 shots (6 on target) into the game’s decisive goal.

“We can’t forget against which team we played today — [they’re] 23 games in a row without defeat. We created enough chances to score, we created two [clear-cut chances]. In terms of statistics and the way we played, especially the approach, I am so satisfied.”

“I am satisfied, because I know how difficult it is to play against Manchester United — how aggressive they are. It’s not easy when you face 10 players behind. It’s not easy, and you have to always be in a good position to avoid a counter-attack with (Anthony) Martial and (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan. … We have the talent, but sometimes it’s not easy against so many players there.”

“We all have tough games coming up now and we know it’s not an option to not win these games. Every game is important.”

[ MORE: Mourinho pins blame for Fellaini’s red card on Aguero ]

It’s true that City had the best only real chances throughout the game, but just think of the joy Guardiola might be experiencing right now had Sergio Aguero found pay dirt with just one of his eight shots on the night (two on target) to push his side third in the league table, four points clear of United in fifth.

Mourinho: Fellaini headbutt “a bit of a red card,” a bit of Aguero acting

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Following his side’s 0-0 draw away to Manchester City in the Manchester derby on Thursday, Jose Mourinho has done precisely what we would have expected of him — precisely what he’s done his entire career; precisely what a manager is supposed to do — with regards to Marouane Fellaini‘s red card for a headbutt on Sergio Aguero: he defended him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking in his post-game television interview, Mourinho said he wouldn’t comment on the incident, which left Manchester United with 10 players for the final six minutes of the game, because he hadn’t seen it on television. He then proceeded to comment on the incident, calling it “a bit of a red card and a bit of a very smart, very experienced Argentinian player.” As for the rest of United’s game plan, which left them wholly incapable of attacking throughout the game, well, they tried. They really tried…

“I don’t say, because I didn’t watch it on TV. I spoke with Marouane; he’s very disappointed, he feels it’s a red card because he’s Marouane Fellaini. I spoke with Martin [Atkinson]; Martin told him in his opinion it’s a red card. I didn’t watch, but I can guess it’s a bit of a red card, and a bit of a very smart, experienced Argentinian player” [smile]

“We wanted to do more in terms of attacking, we wanted to exploit more on the count-attack. We did that in the first half, we had very good control of the game in the first half. The second half was more difficult. In the end, we have one player less, [it was] even worse, so we had to make the right decision to fight hard to have a point.”

“They started slow, the pushed us hard, they pressed higher. At the same time, we were not able to have the ball and move the ball well. … I prefer to say that the qualities of the players on the pitch, especially in the midfield, we missed a little bit of that quality, to have the ball, to start moving the ball, to connect with the attacking players.”

[ MORE: Guardiola “satisfied” with draw; “It’s not easy” to play United ]

Aguero’s embellishment is quite clear if you watch the above video, but the fact remains there would have been nothing to embellish if Fellaini hadn’t headbutted him. On second thought, that didn’t stop Alexis Sanchez, so perhaps he still would have wound up on the ground, clutching his face.

Player ratings from Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — A tight Manchester Derby saw City and United settle for a 0-0 draw with the home side wasting several glorious chances.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ] 

Both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will be relatively pleased with the point which leaves the top four race wide-open with five games to go.

Here’s how each player marked out of 10.


MANCHESTER CITY

Claudio Bravo – 5 – Subbed off late on with a calf injury. Made a mess of a first half cross and didn’t have much else to do.

Pablo Zabaleta – 6 – Did okay defensively but a few loose balls in attack stopped City building up attacks.

Vincent Kompany – 8 – Superb display as he came through three games in 10 days. Held City’s backline together, once again.

Nicolas Otamendi – 6 – Struggled to cope with Rashford’s pace initially but recovered well. Gave away plenty of fouls.

Aleksandar Kolarov – 5 – Like Otamendi, struggled with pace of Rashford and was loose with the ball at his feet.

Fernandinho – 6 – Typically combative display in the heart of midfield from the Brazilian.

Raheem Sterling – 6 – Drifted in and out of the game and couldn’t get the better of Darmian.

Yaya Toure – 6 – Had little time on the ball in a congested midfield. Showed plenty of fighting spirit against Herrera.

Kevin De Bruyne – 7 – Always had that extra bit of quality to frighten United. Great ball in but Aguero hit the post and hit another just wide.

Leroy Sane – 6 – A rare off night for Sane as he was subbed out in the second half. The German winger never quite got going

Sergio Aguero – 6 – Had so many chances to score and wasn’t clinical. Drilled so many efforts over the bar and should’ve scored early.

Subs
Willy Caballero on for Claudio Bravo – 6 – Had little to do.
Jesus Navas on for Leroy Sane – 6 – Some good deliveries from wide areas late on.
Gabriel Jesus on for Raheem Sterling – 7 – Looked lively in his late cameo and thought he’d scored a late winner with a fine finish.


MANCHESTER UNITED

David De Gea – 6 – Made one good stop from Aguero early on but wasn’t troubled apart from that.

Antonio Valencia – 6 – Fine in defense but offered little in attack.

Eric Bailly – 7 – Stood up to the task of marking Aguero and made a fine sliding tackle in the first half. Held things together. Just.

Daley Blind – 6 – Didn’t have much to do but defended well when he had to.

Matteo Darmian – 5 – Was given a tough time by Sterling, De Bruyne and Navas.

Michael Carrick – 6 – Solid in midfield as he tried to get attacks going but space was clogged up.

Anthony Martial – 6 – Worked hard out wide but had little chance to spring counters. Steady.

Ander Herrera – 7 – A typical terrier-like display in midfield. Stopped Yaya Toure marauding forward.

Marouane Fellaini – 4 – Couldn’t influence the game other than stupidly hacking down Aguero and then headbutting him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 5 – Hardly had a kick and couldn’t troubled City’s defense on the break. Not his type of game.

Marcus Rashford – 8 – Standout player on the pitch in the first half. His raw pace frightened the life out of City.

Subs
Jesse Lingard on for Anthony Martial – 5 – Just sat in and helped out defensively.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah on for Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 5 – Helped out defensively when it was needed late on.
Ashley Young on for Marcus Rashford – N/A – Used as a time-wasting tactic.