Analysis

Rated! The best Premier League XI this season… without Big Six clubs

James Maddison Watford

The big boys get enough attention, so here's Alex Keble's finest XI without them – not that anyone would get in from Manchester United anyway...

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Goalkeeper: Ben Foster (Watford)

Ben Foster

What a difference having a reliable goalkeeper makes. The 35-year-old former England man might not be a better shot-stopper than his predecessor Heurelho Gomes, but he is a much safer pair of hands and projects a sense of calm onto his defence. There’s a causal relationship between Watford’s improved defensive record (they’ve conceded six fewer goals than this stage last season) and the fact that Foster tops the Premier League charts for ‘high claims’ (with 17) according to premierleague.com.

Foster is also a very good distributor of the ball. He’s had the third-most touches of any goalkeeper (533) and completed the fourth-most passes (416), just eight fewer than leader Joe Hart.

Runner-up: Mat Ryan (Brighton)

Right-back: Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Crystal Palace)

Aaron Wan-Bissaka

The Palace right-back has picked up where he left off towards the back end of last season with some excellent performances. The England U21 international has terrific athleticism, which helps to explain how he has made the third-most tackles (3.8 per game) and fourth-most interceptions (2.7 per game) in the Premier League this season.

But Wan-Bissaka, who came through the Palace academy as a winger, is also an excellent technician who has often launched counter-attacks via incisive through-balls this season. He has become an integral member of Roy Hodgson’s team in the space of just a few months.

Runner-up: Matt Doherty (Wolves)

Centre-back: Steve Cook (Bournemouth)

Steve Cook

Eddie Howe has moved Bournemouth towards a counter-attacking mentality this season, and the more conservative overall shape has helped his less mobile centre-back Cook. With a smaller space to cover, the 27-year-old looks more assured than ever, and is second in the Premier League charts for clearances (7.4 per match).

Cook also leads the way within the Cherries’ squad for aerial duels won (3.6 per game) and offsides won (0.8 per game), further reflecting why Howe’s new approach is benefiting an old-school centre-back who has worked his way up from League One.

Runner-up: Shane Duffy (Brighton)

Centre-back: Willy Boly

Willy Boly

Although five consecutive league matches without victory has taken the sheen off Wolves’s start to the campaign, their defensive record remains excellent. Before last weekend, only clubs currently in the top four had conceded fewer than Wolves’s 15, and Boly has led the way from the left side of their back three.

Setting aside his Diego Maradona impression against Manchester City, Boly has been exemplary in his debut Premier League season. He’s tasked with stepping out of defence to meet opposition attackers and then distribute the ball – explaining why he makes more interceptions (2.2 per match) than any other Wolves player, and is their third-highest passer (45.9 per match) behind Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves.

Runner-up: Fabian Balbuena (West Ham)

Left-back: Jose Holebas (Watford)

Jose Holebas

Watford’s narrow 4-2-2-2 formation wouldn’t be a success if it wasn’t for their excellent overlapping full-backs, and 34-year-old Holebas has been particularly effective – he’s already equalled his assist total (four) for each of the last two league seasons.

Most of the Greek’s attacking contributions came at the start of the campaign; he grabbed two assists in the 2-0 victory against Brighton on the opening day, scored the winning goal towards the end of August against Crystal Palace, and assisted twice in a 2-1 win against Spurs.

It’s been a little quieter since, save for his goal in early November’s 1-1 draw with Southampton, but overall his output so far has been terrific.

Runner-up: Lucas Digne (Everton)

Midfield: Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton)

Gylfi Sigurdsson

Who would have thought fielding Sigurdsson in his favoured No.10 position would make such a big difference to his form? Yep, that’s right – absolutely everybody.

The Iceland international has excelled under Marco Silva this season, scoring six goals and assisting two more in 14 appearances – already surpassing his total for 2017/18. Only Eden Hazard, Willian, Ryan Fraser and David Silva create more chances than Sigurdsson’s 2.4 per match, which has allowed the 29-year-old to strike up a productive partnership with Richarlison.

Silva is building his team around the Icelandic playmaker, which is exactly what this confidence player needs to thrive: Sigurdsson is taking more shots (2.5 per game) than at any point since his debut half-season at Swansea in 2011/12.

Runner-up: Idrissa Gueye (Everton)

Midfield: Joao Moutinho (Wolves)

Joao Moutinho

It’s testament to the Moutinho-Neves partnership that Wolves can maintain such a strong defensive record despite fielding just two central midfielders in a wide 3-4-3 formation. Neves drew a lot of plaudits early in the season (for his long-range shots, more than anything else) but it’s his more experienced partner who holds everything together.

Statistically, Moutinho is Wolves’s best creator (2.0 key passes per game) and best defender (3.2 tackles per game); the 32-year-old runs midfield with a grace and assurance that’s highly unusual for a debut season in the Premier League. The experienced Portugal international is also crucial from wide positions, with his crossing from open play (and set-pieces) often proving to be Wolves’s best source of attack.

Runner-up: Declan Rice (West Ham)

Midfield: James Maddison (Leicester)

James Maddison

Leicester’s 22-year-old playmaker has understandably faded a little as the season has worn, but he made a huge impact in the first couple of the months by scoring or assisting in five of his first seven Premier League matches. His confidence on the ball, quick feet and intelligent movement have added a dynamism that has been mostly absent since Claude Puel took charge.

Maddison ranks ninth for chances created this season (2.1 per match) and is the sixth-most fouled player in the division, reflecting his ability to weave through a congested midfield. It’s a quality that Gareth Southgate’s England sorely lack – and scoring a fine second goal in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Watford can’t have hurt his chances of winning a first cap in 2019.

Runner-up: Etienne Capoue (Watford)

Forward: Roberto Pereyra (Watford)

Ricardo Pereyra

Left-winger Pereyra has already matched his personal best with five Premier League goals in the first third of the season, but it isn’t just finishing chances that makes the Argentine such an important player for Javi Gracia’s side. His directness has filled the gap left by Richarlison.

Pereyra is another player whose form has tailed off a little over the last month, but those crucial goals in August and September – winning Watford five points – earn him a place in this list. Gracia’s strikers have struggled to find the net this season, and Watford’s campaign would look very difficult without Pereyra’s individual excellence in tight games against Brighton, Crystal Palace and Wolves.

Runner-up: Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)

Forward: Richarlison (Everton)

Richarlison

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A lot of people predicted that Richarlison would flop at Everton following his £50 million move last summer, but many of the Brazilian’s detractors failed to appreciate the reason why his form dropped off in the second half of 2017/18. Having arrived at Watford midway through the Brazilian season, the 21-year-old was simply burned out.

Reunited with Marco Silva, he looks worth every penny. Richarlison has scored six goals already for his new club – many of them conjured out of nothing – but more importantly has quickly taken to a new centre-forward role at Goodison Park. His form has also earned him six caps and three goals for Brazil this season.

Richarlison has all the attributes to be a top-class striker, and Silva deserves credit for spotting that potential; together, they have the ability to take the Toffees to another level.

Runner-up: Callum Wilson (Bournemouth)

Forward: Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth)

Ryan Fraser

Saving the best until last: Fraser has terrorised opposition defenders this season from the left wing, and is arguably the chief beneficiary of Howe’s move to a counter-attacking system. Suddenly the Scot has huge spaces to gallop into, allowing him to build up steam before taking on full-backs; the 24-year-old creates 2.5 chances per match, the fourth most in the Premier League.

He also leads the way with Raheem Sterling for assists (six) and has scored three times – including a brace in September’s 4-2 victory over Leicester. Consistency has always been a problem for Fraser, but so far in 2018/19 he has maintained a steady flow of assists and already amassed more than in any other season for the Cherries.

Runner-up: Anthony Knockaert (Brighton)

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