More than ever, this season’s Premier League has been about the big clubs. With high-profile managers and exciting top-of-the-table clashes, the “other 14” sides in the division have often been overlooked.
Collectively, that’s understandable. It’s difficult to identify many genuinely exciting bottom-half clubs, or find managers ready to make the step up and coach a Champions League side. There’s no equivalent of Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea or Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton from yesteryear but individually, there have been some outstanding performers.
Here are five players worthy of praise for lighting up the Premier League this season despite playing for teams outside the top six.
Pascal Gross, MF, Brighton & Hove Albion
Brighton deserve tremendous credit for their debut Premier League season, staying well clear of relegation trouble thanks largely to Chris Hughton’s tried-and-tested defensive system: two banks of four, largely remaining deep and narrow to frustrate opponents.
With the midfielders largely handed such defensive-minded tasks, however, Hughton required moments of inspiration from the two men playing further forward in this 4-4-1-1 system: centre-forward Glenn Murray and No. 10, Pascal Gross. They’ve responded in excellent fashion. Murray is the only centre-forward in the bottom half to have reached double figures in terms of goals while German playmaker Gross is, similarly, the best-of-the-rest in terms of chances created.
That’s precisely what Hughton wanted from Gross, who was signed on the back of outstanding creativity figures in the Bundesliga for Ingolstadt. Although capable of finding spaces between the lines and drifting laterally to cross from open play, he’s proven particularly effective from set-pieces. Only Burnley’s Robbie Brady and Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse have created more chances from corners.
Mohamed Salah has probably been the Premier League’s best player and therefore automatically takes the crown as the division’s best signing, but Gross might just be runner-up.
Abdoulaye Doucoure, MF, Watford
It feels a long time since Watford enjoyed a tremendous start to the campaign under then-manager Marco Silva, recording a memorable victory over Arsenal and coming close to shocking Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Since then they’ve tailed off, changed manager and will finish comfortably mid-table whereas they briefly seemed set to challenge for Europe.
Their key player throughout all of their fine early-season performances was Abdoulaye Doucoure, an outstanding midfielders who must be considered a true all-rounder: he’s capable of breaking up play front of the defence before skipping forward to provide some fantastic goals too. He’d reached seven goals by mid-January and while he hasn’t added to that figure since, he had two assists in Watford’s memorable 4-1 win over Chelsea in February.
It feels inevitable that Doucoure will be targeted by bigger clubs this summer. The problem, though, is that at teams who boast greater creativity in attacking positions, it feels like Doucourse would be fielded in a more defensive, constrained holding midfielder role where he’d be unable to showcase his attacking potential. Watford has proved a good fit and the first few months of this season might be as good as it gets for the Frenchman.
Xherdan Shaqiri, MF, Stoke City
It was obvious that Stoke were punching above their weight when they secured the signing of Shaqiri at the start of last season. This was a Champions League winner, a player who scored a hat-trick at the last World Cup, coming to Stoke to play alongside Charlie Adam and Stephen Ireland. That was when Stoke were a mid-table side. Now that they’re on course for relegation, Shaqiri feels even more out of place.
Of course, Shaqiri cannot be considered immune from criticism after an inconsistent season. But in a side lacking cohesion in deeper positions and lacking an identity in the final third given plenty of chopping and changing of personnel, Shaqiri has provided some moments of real magic.
In February, Shaqiri scored three times in three games: once with his right foot, one with his left foot, once with his head. The two scored with his feet were both struck from long-range: measured, curled strikes into the bottom corner. From those positions he’s elusive and less predictable than his reputation would suggest, and being stranded on the right in a Stoke side lacking creativity from elsewhere has probably been a mistake.
Shaqiri will likely be relegated this season but there’s no chance of him playing next year in the Championship.
Riyad Mahrez, MF, Leicester City
Mahrez is quite obviously on a different level to any other footballer not currently playing for the Premier League’s top six. A former Player of the Year who took his side to an incredible league title, it’s remarkable that Mahrez remains at Leicester City three transfer windows later. The Algeria international was evidently devastated that his proposed to Manchester City didn’t materialise though his subsequent sulk was less than edifying.
On the pitch, though, he remains a serious talent. He can play out wide, speeding down the outside or cutting inside on his left foot, from where he can shoot with his favoured left foot or play delicate through-balls to Jamie Vardy. His relationship with Vardy remains excellent even when Mahrez receives the ball in deeper positions: he knows he can knock long passes into the channels for Vardy’s runs.
Vardy’s volley against West Brom, today named Goal of the Month for March, was a perfect example. Mahrez is in the top 15 Premier League players for all of the three key metrics: goals, assists and dribbles, something only Mohamed Salah can match and therefore, the links with bigger clubs will continue.
Pep Guardiola is presumably still interested, with the possibility of Mahrez playing wide-right at Man City allowing Raheem Sterling to move up front and play as a centre-forward. But this counter-attacking Leicester side, with Mahrez allowed the freedom to remain in a position to launch quick breaks, has suited him perfectly. As much as Vardy or N’Golo Kante, the Leicester of the past few seasons has been about Mahrez.
Wilfried Zaha, FW, Crystal Palace
After his unhappy experience at Manchester United, Crystal Palace supporters will be desperately hoping their favourite son is dissuaded from joining a different “big club” this summer. Few other supporters have such a good relationship with a player: Zaha is genuinely hero-worshipped at Selhurst Park by the supporters who realise his consistency belies his reputation as a flashy trickster.
Zaha is Palace’s most threatening player in almost every game, whether fielded as a winger or in a more central position. His directness is perfect for a side largely playing on the break this season, and his statistics in terms of creativity would be more impressive had Christian Benteke endured one of the most underwhelming seasons for any centre-forward in recent memory, missing a string of chances.
Even when Zaha has been double-marked, he’s still found a route to goal. In Palace’s meeting with Watford at Selhurst Park in December, Marco Silva introduced Kiko Feminia as a second right-back to sit in front of Daryl Janmaat and provide an extra obstacle for Zaha. It didn’t work: Zaha received the ball on the left, twisted and turned past both right-backs and then set up the onrushing James McArthur for a tap-in.
Opponents know he’s the danger man, but they simply can’t stop him.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.