We’ve made it to Christmas early in the Premier League schedule this year, but there has still been plenty of time for players and teams to impress and indeed underwhelm us. In a season full of surprises, here are 10 surprise packages so far, in terms of overachieving and underachieving.
A handful of teams have surpassed expectations, with Leicester, Everton and Southampton all sitting above Manchester City. However, there are two other teams whose places in the top half of the table are even more surprising given that they were expected to be involved in the relegation battle.
The first is Aston Villa, who are ninth in the table despite having two games in hand on most of their competitors. In fact, Dean Smith’s side are within two wins of second place. They made some shrewd signings in the summer so it is no surprise to see them doing well but, having finished last season one point above the drop just a few months ago, their subsequent progress has been hugely impressive.
Villa have attempted the most shots per game in the Premier League this season, while also creating the most chances per game too. Perhaps more impressive has been their defensive record. Villa conceded the most shots in the league last season (16 per game) but now only only five teams are conceding fewer. Summer signing Emi Martínez has kept the most clean sheets in the league, with seven – five of which have come on the road after Villa failed to keep a single clean sheet away from home last season.
While Aston Villa’s transfer dealings before the season looked promising, the same could not be said of West Ham, whose inactivity in the market led many to back them for the drop. To be in the top half of the table at this stage of the campaign, even after a 3-0 defeat to rivals Chelsea on Monday, is some achievement for David Moyes and his players.
Following their abject home defeat to Newcastle on the opening weekend of the season, which only served to strengthen the claims of their critics, West Ham have picked up 19 of a possible 21 points against teams outside the “big six”. That’s despite being without their post-lockdown star Michail Antonio for some time and having only seen fleeting glimpses of late arrival Saïd Benrahma.
As far as individual surprise packages are concerned, Jack Grealish is the first Englishman to top our Premier League ratings at Christmas since Wayne Rooney did it in 2011. While the Villa captain’s rise has undoubtedly caught the eye, his emergence as a genuine Premier League star is perhaps not altogether surprising. A number of less heralded players have really stepped up this season, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin an obvious candidate. While the striker’s form had picked up following Marco Silva’s departure last season, few could have predicted how prolific the striker would become.
Previously renowned for his workrate in leading the line, it’s the 23-year-old’s aerial threat in the box that now sets him apart. He has focused his game to play between the lines of the 18-yard-box under Carlo Ancelotti and is reaping the benefits. Joint second to Mo Salah in the scoring charts (11 goals) as well as shots on target (24), he looks like the natural replacement for Harry Kane in the England set-up and is one of the league’s most improved players.
Fabinho deserves an honourable mention too, not just because his form has been superb but because his performance levels have arguably improved in covering for Virgil van Dijk at centre-back. There were question marks around the Brazilian’s mobility in deputising for the Dutchman but he has more than stood up to the task, defending one-on-one situations with ease and adapting seamlessly to become an even more pivotal player than before.
Perhaps the most surprising player of the season, however, is Patrick Bamford. His performances have silenced critics even within his own fanbase. Many would have expected the striker to play second fiddle to record signing Rodrigo this season but the Spain international has often played from a deeper position given Bamford’s form.
The only player to have at least one shot on target in all of his appearances this season, Bamford’s ability to get into goalscoring positions has rarely been questioned. However, the fact he is second only to Harry Kane for shots and level with the England captain on goals scored, with nine, has come as a shock to those that believed the Championship was “his level”.
As far as underachievers are concerned, Manchester City would be the obvious candidate in any other season but the collapse at Arsenal is unavoidable. The Gunners are closer to the relegation zone (four points) than the top half (seven) after 14 games of the season and the reins are surely slipping from Mikel Arteta’s grasp. Their 4-1 defeat to Manchester City in the League Cup quarter-finals was just their latest catastrophe, with manager Mikel Arteta admitting they are in “big trouble”.
Things seemed to be improving for Arsenal when they beat Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford in early November but they have not won in the league since, picking up just two points from their last available 21. The football is stale and bordering on passive at times, ranking 15th for shots (10.4) and 19th for tackles (11.5) per game. The 19-year-old Bukayo Saka has been their strongest player by some distance as the senior members of the squad have wilted under the increasing pressure.
There have been a number of guilty culprits – too many to name – but in terms of a drop off from previous levels, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been a shadow of his former self. The captain has shown very little by way of leadership qualities and, as the goals have dried up – albeit partly due to a lack of creativity – just what he offers to the side has become increasingly unclear. He is outside the top 30 for shots per game this season and his tally of three goals is inferior to Kurt Zouma, among 28 other players.
On the subject of Chelsea, much has been made about the impact of their big summer signings. Their record signing, Kai Havertz, has struggled. The German is still very young, but finding a place in the team that brings the best from his undeniable talents has proven to be a problem for Frank Lampard. The 21-year-old has played in a midfield three, as a No 10 and off the right flank, yet he has not really convinced anywhere. He has completed the full 90 minutes in just three of his 10 starts, averaging less than one for shots, key passes and dribbles per game. It’s far too soon to write him off, but it’s also fair to expect more from a £70m player, regardless of age. He is, after all, a full international with plenty of experience in the Bundesliga and in Europe.
In general, it’s the attacking players who have under-performed this season, and Anthony Martial is another among them. Despite two encouraging performances over the last week, the Frenchman still looks a few levels below the standard he had set in the second half of last season. He returned after the lockdown rejuvenated and full of confidence, but inconsistency in front of goal has crept back in. He is still missing chances you would expect him to take.
With one relatively fortunate goal to his name in the league, his strike rate is way down on last season, when he scored 17 league goals – his best return in his career. Scott McTominay scored more league goals in three minutes on Sunday than Martial has done all season. At times he has looked uninterested, with just one tackle and not a single interception to his name. One might argue that is not his job, but Martial has hardly led the charge from the front for a United side that, until this weekend, had started matches slowly this season.
Our final underachiever is Adama Traoré, whose blistering form early last season in particular is becoming something of a distant memory. The departure of Diogo Jota could have increased the responsibility on Traore’s industrial-strength shoulders but instead he has been the man sacrificed in the starting XI more often than not. Even in the absence of star striker Raúl Jiménez there has been no place in a makeshift attack for Traoré, who is without a goal or assist this season, having had a direct hand in 13 of Wolves’ goals last season.