An alternative Premier League Team of the Season

The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a temporary halt to football, but what it hasn’t stopped is Twenty3’s hunger to digest data.

Many have used this downtime period as an opportunity to put together their ‘Team of the Year’ for the season so far, but we wanted to do something a little bit different.

Let’s be honest, any Premier League XI would largely be made up of Liverpool and Manchester City players, but we wanted to diversify and look at a broader range of top-performing players.

Here’s our criteria:

  • Maximum of one player allowed per club
  • We’re hiring a manager, but he can’t come from the same team as any of the players selected
  • There must be some statistical reasoning for selection
  • The players and manager must fit the style of play we want to implement (more below)
  • This must be a functional rather than purely fantasy XI
  • When we reference a statistic per 90 minutes, we are only including players who have played a minimum of 900 minutes this season – the equivalent of ten full matches – to avoid any flash-in-the-pan cases.

Style of play: One word, attacking

We want our team to have the ability to play a possession-based game but also be lethal on the counter-attack. Whilst it may have not been the explicit intention of Michael Caine, we actually do want to blow the bloody doors off.

Ideally we wouldn’t concede, but playing on the front foot is our primary objective here.

Manager: Graham Potter

As such, our manager must be tactically nimble and fluid with his choice of formation. Enter, Brighton’s Graham Potter.

Goalkeeper: Vicente Guaita

No, this isn’t our unique way of spelling Alisson Becker. Yes, we know the handsome Liverpool shot-stopper has the most clean sheets per 90 (0.52) and the best save percentage (80.4 per cent), but we’ve used an advanced metric which better illustrates a goalkeeper’s performance. 

When looking at post-shot xGA, which takes into account where a shot lands, and compares it to actual goals against, we can see how many goals a keeper has prevented or not.

Crystal Palace’s Guaita has conceded 28, but importantly prevented 9.6 – the most of any keeper in the Premier League. The headline statistic – save percentage – ranks his 74.8 below Alisson’s 80.4 per cent, but the Brazilian has actually conceded 1.3 more goals than he should have.

The shot placement map below shows that 42 per cent of shots on Crystal Palace’s goal have been fired in the corners, yet only 25 per cent have hit the back of the net, which further suggests that Guaita has performed impressively.

Right-back: Trent Alexander-Arnold

We’re not going to waste any time with this one. We’re looking for a right-back who oozes creativity but can also do a bit of everything. When it comes to the creative stakes, Alexander-Arnold is in a world of his own.

For assists, the Liverpool star unsurprisingly ranks first amongst right-backs with 0.42 per 90 ahead of Everton’s Djibril Sidibé with 0.22. He’s unrivalled for chances created too, with 2.65 per 90, while only six players in the league – all midfielders or attackers – have managed more.

It’s true that the 21-year-old is a set-piece master, so a proportion of these numbers come directly from corners and free-kicks, yet even when you look at his open-play expected assists (xA) – a metric which measures the quality of chances provided in open-play – Alexander-Arnold is still top of the right-back pile with 0.21 xA per 90.

Oh, and he can take corners quickly too.

Centre-back: Fabian Schär

“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” Those are the wise words of Italy and AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini, undoubtedly one of the greatest defenders of all-time, and we couldn’t agree more. 

Now, we’re not saying for one second that Newcastle United’s Fabian Schär is anything like Paolo Maldini. What he is though is a calm, cool and collected figure who reads the game well, plays on the front foot and seeks to extinguish danger before it becomes a problem, reducing the need for tackling.

The Swiss international leads the Premier League’s central defenders for interceptions (2.45 per 90) and also completes 20.48 forward passes per 90, which represents 51.3 per cent of his total passes. Schär sniffs out opposition attacks and then gets his team moving up the pitch.

He also loves to score a golazo from time to time. A quick Google search for his thunderbolt against Burnley or fine solo run and finish against Cardiff, both from last season, will show you that.

Centre-back: James Tarkowski

Effective central defences need to be balanced. So, to partner Schär, we’ve gone for more of a ‘defender’s defender’ in James Tarkowski. Let’s be honest, there’s no better place to master the craft of defending than under the strict orders of Burnley manager Sean Dyche.

The twice-capped England international is dominant in the air, averaging the third-most aerial duel wins of any defender (4.97 per 90) and the most in total (144) – that’s one more than Liverpool colossus Virgil van Dijk. His 76 per cent aerial duel win-rate is mightily impressive too, especially when compared with two of the league’s most competent players in the air, again van Dijk (75 per cent) and Manchester United’s Harry Maguire (72 per cent).

Tarkowski’s true tackle win-rate – a better gauge of one’s ability to win the ball than sheer quantity of tackles (which we’ve already said is not for us) – of 56 per cent is not to be scoffed at.

It’s easy to forget that Tarkowski is also adept on the ball and, in a more forward-thinking side (like ours), he’d be given the freedom to express himself more.

Left-back: Bukayo Saka 

He wasn’t even a left-back at the start of the season, however, given we’ve made it clear that our full-backs should be proficient going forward, Bukayo Saka is an easy inclusion.

When compared to fellow left-backs, the Arsenal youngster ranks highly across the board. His 0.38 Big Chances created per 90 is the most, his 0.23 assists are second only to Andy Robertson, he is unrivalled for touches in the opposition’s box (3.37) and only West Ham’s dribbling guru Arthur Masuaku completes more dribbles than his 1.99.

While Saka may not be deemed the most defensively solid option, a 60 per cent true tackle win rate (slightly better than Robertson’s 59 per cent), shows the 18-year-old is no pushover, while his lightning recovery speed could prove useful in extinguishing any threatening counter-attacks.

Finally, Saka’s ability to win the ball back in the final third – ranking fourth with 0.46 per 90, only behind Robertson and Manchester City pair Oleksandr Zinchenko and Benjamin Mendy – will also prove useful in our high press.

Centre-midfielder: Kevin De Bruyne

This selection really doesn’t require much explaining. Kevin De Bruyne has provided 16 assists or 0.67 per 90 (both unsurprisingly the most in the league), 0.96 Big Chances created per 90 (most), 4.01 chances created per 90 (most) and 0.40 open-play expected assists per 90 (most).

City’s Belgian supremo has also chipped in with eight goals – the joint-most when compared to his midfield peers. To say the prospect of De Bruyne and Alexander-Arnold terrorising that right side of the pitch is mouthwatering would be the understatement of the year.

De Bruyne isn’t afraid to get stuck in defensively, do the dirty work and break up attacks either – he’s actually committed more fouls per 90 (0.96) than famed destroyer Fernandinho (0.95) and İlkay Gündoğan (0.74).

Defensive-midfielder: Wilfred Ndidi

He may have missed five of Leicester’s nine games in 2020 with a knee injury, but over the course of the season Ndidi has been at his reliable best. The Nigerian international is arguably the best No.6 in the Premier League.

He leads his midfield peers for interceptions per 90 (2.90), is second for tackles (4.33) and is third for duels won (8.61) with a 56 per cent success rate.

His true tackle win rate of 60 per cent is better than that of Jordan Henderson (57 per cent), Jorginho (47 per cent) and Fabinho (45 per cent). 84 per cent of his passes find a team-mate successfully, demonstrating that Ndidi is not only a mobile destroyer but also a no-nonsense, reliable passer.

A quick glance at Leicester’s results in the five games without Ndidi in 2020 tells you all you need to know. No wins, two draws and three defeats. For context, across their other 24 Premier League games this season they’ve only drawn three and lost five.

Centre-midfielder: Fred

Any team of the season including Fred would have been laughed out of town in the 2018/19 campaign, as the Brazilian midfielder struggled to get to grips with life at Manchester United following a £52million move from Shakhtar Donetsk. 

His inclusion this time out might still raise a few eyebrows, though once you scratch beneath the surface it becomes clear to see why Fred is an increasingly influential and popular figure at Old Trafford.

The United No.17 wins the ball back in the middle third 5.24 times per 90, (third overall), manages 9.81 ball recoveries (fifth in the league), makes 27 per cent of his passes forward and is successful with 87 per cent of his total passes. 

Fred doesn’t dwell on the ball or take too many touches, attempting 68.15 passes from just 89.82 touches per game. Get it, give it, repeat. 

We’ve got our destroyer (Ndidi), we’ve got our creator (KDB plus full-backs), now we need a selfless workaholic. Fred offers the perfect balance to this midfield.

Right-wing: Heung-min Son

Pace, power, work-rate, Son has it all. The South Korea international is also one of the most two-footed players in the league and is as selfless as they get – a manager’s dream.

While he has predominantly operated on the left or through the middle for Spurs, Son clearly has the skills to play anywhere across the front line, and, in one of the few games he’s played on the right this season – in Spurs’ miraculous 2-0 win against Manchester City – he scored. Given that we already have Alexander-Arnold and De Bruyne – who love roaming that right flank – Son will have licence to thrill infield, offering an extra threat through the middle and importantly, vacating that space for our most creative players to thrive.

Statistically, you don’t have to look far to see how effective Son is. His 0.82 goals contribution per 90 (goals+assists) is better than the likes of Raheem Sterling (0.53), team-mate Harry Kane (0.66) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (0.70), to name but a few. 

The Spurs No.7 isn’t too far off Mohamed Salah’s 0.88 goals and assists per 90, which shows just how effective South Korea’s iconic captain is.

Centre-forward: Raúl Jiménez

Jiménez is the perfect modern-day striker, as our friends at Football Whispers recently stated.

He can hold the ball up, bring others into play, score goals, provide assists, win aerial duels and is deceptively quick. The Wolves forward may not quite be at the same level as Roberto Firmino, but he shares a footballing intelligence that few Premier League strikers do with the Brazilian.

Jiménez has registered 13 goals and six assists so far this season, while his total expected goals contribution – which measures how many goals and assists he should have – is 16.27, a figure only bettered by Salah and Sterling across the entire league. His 42 chances created is more than any centre-forward in the division.

In layman’s terms, the Mexican regularly puts himself in the right goalscoring positions as well as creating good quality chances for his team-mates.

Left-wing: Jack Grealish

Without Jack Grealish, Aston Villa would almost certainly be sentenced to relegation. Of the club’s 34 Premier League goals in 2019/20, their captain has directly contributed to 13, or 38 per cent.

The 24-year-old ranks third amongst forwards for chances created with 2.70 per 90 and splits his goals (0.27) and assists (0.23) fairly evenly. 

But to suggest that all the socks-round-the-ankle star offers is creativity would be doing him a disservice. Grealish works just as hard tracking back and defending as he does going forward, as his 3.08 possessions won in the defensive third per 90 – which is third among forwards – demonstrates.

With Saka galloping down the left flank, and Grealish cutting inside on that cultured right foot, we’ll have the perfect balance of pace and guile.