Which Premier League players are over-performing and under-performing this season? Who has been flattered by their assist tally and who is likely to push on under a new regime? Here are three players who could improve in 2019, plus three who could fall back.
Three who could thrive
Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City
By now, many expected Gabriel Jesus to have displaced Sergio Aguero as Manchester City’s first-choice striker. The Brazilian is younger and more adaptable, and Pep Guardiola therefore had the opportunity to mould him into precisely the type of striker he wanted.
Things haven’t quite gone as expected, though. Jesus had a difficult 2018, dominated by his disappointing performance at last summer’s World Cup, when he led the line but ended the tournament goalless. Meanwhile, Aguero has improved considerably under Guardiola, particularly in terms of his link-up play. Now, there’s no longer a question of Aguero’s place being up for grabs.
But Guardiola will probably need Jesus in the coming months. Aguero tends to encounter a couple of injury problems every season, and when he missed four league matches in December, Jesus came into the side to assist Riyad Mahrez’s goal against Watford, and then scored twice in a 2-1 victory over Everton.
He remains excellent at getting himself into goal-scoring positions, and while his finishing hasn’t quite matched his incredible conversion rate from his opening months, the underlying numbers suggest goals are coming.
Besides, City are still competing in four competitions this season. Aguero won’t be able to play all the time — and Guardiola has notably often removed the Argentine around the 65-minute mark this season to conserve his energy. After a slow start, Jesus could have a major impact down the stretch.
Paul Pogba, Manchester United
The transformation is obvious. It will be some time before we know the gory details, but it’s clear that Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba did not get along at Manchester United. The Frenchman — ranked No. 4 among the world’s central midfielders in the ESPN FC 100 — on the bench in recent weeks was the starkest demonstration of Mourinho’s inability to get the best from a very talented squad.
After Mourinho’s departure — and Pogba’s supposedly accidental Instagram reaction — the results are clear. Two assists in a 5-1 win over Cardiff, two goals in a 3-1 win over Huddersfield, two goals and an assist in a 4-1 win over Bournemouth. This is the Pogba we expected when he arrived at Old Trafford, bursting forward to provide decisive contributions in the final third, with the timing of his runs particularly impressive.
But forget about Mourinho. This is the first time that Pogba has been playing under a manager that isn’t Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Max Allegri or Didier Deschamps. We’ve never seen Pogba not playing under a strict tactician, and instead playing under a boss like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who seems content to give his players free rein. Pogba’s second half of this season could be spectacular.
James Ward-Prowse, Southampton
Pep Guardiola seems keen to praise Southampton players. After famously giving Nathan Redmond an on-field pep talk last season, he recently had warm words for James Ward-Prowse, describing him as the Premier League’s most dangerous set-piece taker.
Ward-Prowse hasn’t had much opportunity to showcase those talents this season. He was generally omitted from Southampton’s starting XI under Mark Hughes, sometimes not even making the bench. But he’s started the last two matches under new boss Ralph Hassenhuttl, and as a survivor from the days when Southampton pressed high up the pitch and played with great intensity, he knows precisely what his new manager wants.
Hassenhuttl is a methodical manager who has often devised clever set-piece plans, too, and if he’s looking to prosper from dead-ball situations, Ward-Prowse is his man. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out quite what he offers from open play, but Guardiola wasn’t lying about his delivery.
Those who might slide
Eden Hazard, Chelsea
Eden Hazard’s unquestionably brilliant season thus far is nevertheless interesting to examine from the “expected goals” and “expected assists” angle — essentially, how many goals a player would generally score from the position of his shots, and how many assists he would generally collect from the nature of his passes to teammates.
In real terms, Hazard — ranked at No. 4 among the world’s forward’s in the ESPN FC 100 — has 10 goals and nine assists. But in ‘expected’ terms, that figure falls to 7.5 goals and only 7.1 assists. The former statistic suggests Hazard’s finishing has been exceptional, but these things usually regress towards the “expected” figure. The latter statistic, meanwhile, suggests that Hazard’s assists partly owe to fantastic finishes from teammates rather than incisive passes himself.
Hazard still has a claim to being the Premier League’s best attacker so far — he remains the most prolific dribbler in the division, and his movement and trickery has been wonderful at times. But the numbers suggest his impact might dip after this busy Christmas period. Besides, as a player who has something of a habit of switching off when not motivated, if Hazard knows a move to Real Madrid is imminent, he might save himself for next season.
There’s a slight contradiction when it comes to skilful foreign players joining the Premier League. On one hand, they often need little time to settle. On the other, they often find the second half of their debut campaign difficult physically, because of the English football calendar’s gruelling winter schedule.
Over the last few years, players who have recorded impressive goals and assist tallies in the first half of their debut Premier League campaign have often slowed down after Christmas, essentially because of physical exhaustion.
Something similar might happen with Bernard, Everton’s diminutive, tricky winger who has looked bright down Everton’s left flank so far this season. He hasn’t missed a game since making his debut in mid-September — although a couple of appearances over Christmas were as a substitute — and burnout could be a factor. For all his dribbling ability, there remains a question about his end product, and Everton have lots of other attacking options which could lead to him falling out of the side.
Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal
After plenty of speculation about the future of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, the situation now seems decided: the Welshman is free to negotiate with other clubs about his destination this summer. Juventus, Bayern Munich and other major European clubs are interested, highlighting that Arsenal are on the verge of losing a seriously impressive all-round midfielder, and someone who has scored two FA Cup-winning goals for the Gunners. Sources have told ESPN FC that Ramsey is prepared to stay at Arsenal until his contract runs out at the end of the season and resist any offers of a move in January.
In raw terms, Ramsey’s statistical contribution this season has been immense, managing six assists from only 785 minutes on the pitch, effectively making him the most creative player in the Premier League. But look beyond the basic numbers and it becomes clear that Ramsey’s “expected assist” figure is just 1.5. In other words, Ramsey hasn’t constantly been supplying teammates with killer balls, he’s just happened to play passes that have been met with incredible finishes.
That shouldn’t detract from Ramsey’s positive contributions and his professionalism in a slightly awkward situation. But the numbers themselves are unsustainable, and with Unai Emery presumably looking towards building for the future, it’s difficult to see Ramsey exerting a consistent influence in the second half of the campaign.