8 unlikely Premier League heroes from the season so far – featuring Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton stars
1. Victor Moses (Chelsea)
His opportunity may have come about more through accident than design, but that doesn’t make Moses’s performances any less impressive
When Moses signed a four-year contract at Chelsea last September, it was to a soundtrack of knowing chuckles rather than cheers of jubilation. At that stage the Nigerian was on loan at West Ham and struggling to get a game in his third temporary spell away from Stamford Bridge in as many seasons, each more nondescript than the last. As he crept into his mid-20s, a promising youngster was threatening to become a forgettable journeyman; the consensus was that Chelsea’s offer of a new deal was little more than a ruse to maximise his sell-on value.
A little over a year later, Moses has established himself as a vital cog in the league's most smooth-running machine. His opportunity, as a wing-back in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system, may have come about more through accident than design (a central reason for the Italian's reluctance to use the system in the first place was arguably the fact he was missing a right-wing-back), but that doesn’t make Moses’s performances any less impressive.
2. Idrissa Gueye (Everton)
Most onlookers were too stunned by the sheer abject misery of Villa to notice there was a midfielder in their ranks who wasn’t entirely disgracing himself
If you were an upwardly mobile Premier League club looking to improve your starting XI in the summer, it’s unlikely that Aston Villa would have been your first port of call. Or your second. Or any port of call at all. The Villans were little short of a disgrace last term, finishing an absurd 17 points adrift of their nearest rivals at the foot of the table after a campaign of such wretchedness that the top-level careers of players like Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott were damaged beyond repair.
Most onlookers were too stunned by the sheer abject misery of Villa to notice there was a midfielder in their ranks who wasn’t entirely disgracing himself and who, whisper it, was even playing quite well. Steve Walsh was one of the few people on whom this fact wasn’t lost; the recruitment guru’s first move after joining Everton from Leicester was to flip open his laptop, scour Gueye’s statistics and recommend a move for the Senegalese.
The comparisons with N’Golo Kanté may seem glib but, given how the pair were signed at a knock-down price by the same man in consecutive summers, it’s hard not to look at Gueye’s performances this year – indefatigable running, acutely intelligent positional play, consistently tidy use of the ball – and not at least see shades of last year’s standout midfielder. Perhaps those stats nerds do know something after all.
3. Victor Anichebe (Sunderland)
It’s little exaggeration to say that Sunderland’s acquisition of Anichebe in early September seemed more an act of wild-eyed desperation than transfer-market shrewdness. The striker, 28 and perennially injury-prone, had been without a club since parting company with West Brom earlier that summer. A quick glance at his goalscoring record in the top flight – 24 in 186 appearances over the years – provided ample explanation for his lack of suitors.
And as Sunderland quickly sunk to the foot of the table, with Anichebe struggling for fitness and nowhere to be seen, the suspicions about his Premier League pedigree – and that of his manager – seemed all but confirmed. And then came Bournemouth: Anichebe’s first start for his new club and a genuinely heroic centre-forward performance that garnered numerous bruises, one sumptuous goal and a hard-earned man-of-the-match award. Since then, his four starts have brought three wins, three goals and a comprehensive turnaround for a side that looked nailed-on for the drop a few weeks ago.
His display down on the south coast last month wasn’t just one of the individual performances of the season: given that it catalysed the pivotal game in Sunderland’s possible revival, it may prove the most important. All sports fans love an underdog story and Anichebe – built more like Rocky Balboa than Rocky Rocastle – could well be on his way to writing one.
4. David Luiz and 5. Marcos Alonso (Chelsea)
David Luiz’s commanding physicality and Alonso’s buzzard-like flank play have been equally vital to Chelsea’s revival
To bracket two high-pedigree players signed for a combined £57m as ‘unlikely heroes’ may seem a stretch, but Luiz and Alonso make this list because neither was anywhere near the top of Conte’s list of targets in the summer.
The former was a signing borne of exasperation, Conte only turning to the Brazilian once moves for Leonardo Bonucci, Kalidou Koulibaly and Alessio Romagnoli had hit the wall. Nikola Maksimovic and Aymen Abdennour were other centre-backs whose names had been doing the rounds in connection with Chelsea before the floppy-haired 29-year-old showed up at Cobham on deadline day. Alonso joined at the same time, that deal also coming amid whispers that ‘top targets’ had been missed out on.
That both now sit atop the table as key members of the league’s meanest defence – Luiz’s commanding physicality and Alonso’s buzzard-like flank play equally vital to Chelsea’s revival – is proof that football management is less a matter of putting together a precise, finely tuned plan and more a test of doing the best you can on the hoof with the tools that come your way. Or, as a wise man once said, “like trying to build an aircraft while it's in flight”. Conte and Chelsea are soaring.
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