Monday Morning Football Christmas Day special: A definitive analysis of the Premier League season so far

Shkodran Mustafi - 2017 Getty Images
Shkodran Mustafi - 2017 Getty Images

With this weekend’s run of fixtures taking us beyond the halfway point of the campaign, Monday Morning Footballhas decided to offer up a festive treat of our own: a definitive analysis of the Premier League season so far.

Who has quietly impressed? Who will be looking for redemption in 2018? And which strike is currently the leading contender for goal of the season?

All this, and much more, in your festive round-up of all the Premier League action since August.

Hidden stars of the season

Forget Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, dismiss Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane. Essentially, forget the swashbuckling, unstoppable Manchester City juggernaut. Pep Guardiola’s side have rightly received enough plaudits this season, and don’t need any more now.

Instead, let us celebrate some of the lower-profile names who have impressed this season. Starting with…

Abdoulaye Doucoure

Until suspension ruled him out of their Boxing Day trip to Brighton, Doucoure had played every single minute of Watford’s Premier League season.

Alongside winger Richarlison, he has been comfortably Marco Silva’s best player in a campaign that started so memorably but has drifted in recent weeks.

Doucoure has impressed for Watford - Credit: PA
Doucoure has impressed for Watford Credit: PA

Such is Doucoure’s energy and power in midfield that comparisons have been drawn with Patrick Vieira, and his return of six goals this season, from just nine shots on target, makes him Watford’s top scorer.

As well as the box-to-box running, the tackling and the goals, Doucoure has also been the composed presence at the heart of the Watford midfield, and before his suspension had completed more passes than any player outside of the ‘Big Six’ Premier League clubs.

Roberto Firmino

It may feel strange to describe any member of Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ as unheralded, considering the level of praise that is consistently lavished upon the attacking quartet, yet still Firmino seems to operate away from the spotlight.

He may not be as graceful as Philippe Coutinho, as deadly as Mohamed Salah or as quick as Sadio Mane, but the first half of this season has only reinforced the view that it is Firmino who lays the groundwork for the other three to succeed.

Firmino is closely marked by Brighton defenders - Credit: Reuters
Firmino is closely marked by Brighton defenders Credit: Reuters

The Brazilian has 14 goals and 8 assists in all competitions this season, and is Liverpool’s second highest scorer behind Salah. Already, that is two more goals than he managed in the whole of last season.

Perhaps the relative lack of attention paid to Firmino is to do with style, rather than substance. He is not what one might describe as a ‘YouTube’ player. There are flourishes, sure, and moments of outrageous skill, but his qualities do not lie in stepovers or slaloming runs. His value can instead be found in his awareness, timing and energy. These are less spectacular qualities, but they are just as important.

Chris Smalling

Gareth Southgate's decision to drop Chris Smalling from the England squad for his supposed inability to play the ball out from the back was one of the England manager's more curious moments of the year.

It felt hasty, and not only because the World Cup remains a long way away and an international manager can never predict who may or may not be ruled out through injury.

Smalling has played well since Southgate dropped him from the England squad - Credit: Reuters
Smalling has played well since Southgate dropped him from the England squad Credit: Reuters

Smalling’s reaction to this quite brutal dismissal of his abilities has been exemplary, assuming his uneven performance at Leicester on Saturday was an aberration, and he has now reached the stage where United are approaching this festive run of fixtures with the 28-year-old as their first-choice centre-back.

BrieJose Mourinho said earlier this month that Smalling is “playing amazingly well”, and Smalling himself has issued a comprehensive rebuttal to Southgate. “You don’t play for one of the biggest clubs in the world for as long as I have and won every trophy bar the Champions League without being able to do everything a top defender needs to do, be it playing or defending," he said, with some justification.

Mamadou Sakho

To pick out a Crystal Palace defender for specific praise may feel bizarre given their atrocious start to the season, but it was Sakho, as much as anyone, who was behind their subsequent revival under Roy Hodgson.

Having moved to south London from Liverpool on a permanent basis at the end of the summer transfer window, Sakho had a difficult start to the season: in his first two league games, Palace lost 4-0 and 5-0 to Manchester City and Manchester United.

Sakho holds off West Brom's Salomon Rondon - Credit: Reuters
Sakho holds off West Brom's Salomon Rondon Credit: Reuters

Yet he slowly found his feet as the Palace defence solidified around him. Before his injury earlier this month, Sakho had been the key defensive figure in a run of five games without defeat.

In 0-0 draws with Brighton and West Bromwich Albion, in particular, Sakho was magnificent as his side struggled against waves of pressure. His return cannot come soon enough.

Vicente Iborra

“He is good with the ball. He is a good technical player and he gives us the possibility to start with the ball, use it simply and organise the play. He is a crucial player in our team.”

Those were the words of Leicester manager Claude Puel, who surely cannot have expected Iborra to emerge so quickly as one of his side’s most important players upon taking the job following Craig Shakespeare’s sacking.

Iborra celebrates after scoring at Stoke - Credit: Getty
Iborra celebrates after scoring at Stoke Credit: Getty

Leicester’s impressive form since Puel joined the club has been rightly pinned on the resurgence of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy in attack, but the graft of Iborra and Wilfred Ndidi behind them has laid the sort of midfield foundation which Leicester have been missing since the title-winning partnership of Danny Drinkwater was broken up.

The mid-season strugglers

Troy Deeney

Deeney’s rant on live television after Watford had defeated Arsenal in October will undoubtedly go down as one of the highlights of the season. Such chutzpah, and such a damning assessment of Arsenal’s lack of “cojones”.

The problem, Deeney must now be realising, is that it was the clear high-point of his season, as it has been a dramatic downhill slide for the Watford captain since then.

Deeney clashes with Joe Allen - Credit: DIGITAL/EROTEME.CO.UK
Deeney clashes with Joe Allen Credit: DIGITAL/EROTEME.CO.UK

Since the “cojones” jibe, Deeney has been banned for three games for seemingly trying to throttle Joe Allen, and then banned for a further four after unsuccessfully appealing a straight red card in a 4-1 defeat by Huddersfield.

As he sits on the sidelines, his team-mates have struggled spectacularly without him, losing five of their last six games and sliding down the table at an alarming rate.

Manolo Gabbiadini

Cast your mind back, if you will, to February, and to the arrival of Gabbiadini in English football. The start to his Southampton career was outstanding, with the Italian scoring six goals in his first four games for the club.

Then, almost immediately, the form disappeared, and he scored just once more all season. This year, as Southampton continue to struggle for goals, he has unfortunately picked up where he left off.

It has been a difficult season for Gabbiadini - Credit: Results
It has been a difficult season for Gabbiadini Credit: Results

In 21 appearances, he has scored just three goals. For a £14m signing, that return is a major disappointment. There are of course deeper-lying reasons behind Southampton’s lack of goals, but Gabbiadini certainly appears to be part of the problem rather than the solution.

Joe Hart

On paper, it was hard to find a flaw in Hart’s loan move from Manchester City to West Ham. In a World Cup year, Hart desperately needs to play and, ideally, it would be for an ambitious Premier  League club which produces exciting football on a regular basis.

In reality, West Ham started the season worse than anyone could really have expected, and Slaven Bilic, the man who had placed his faith in Hart, was shown the door. In came David Moyes and Hart now finds himself on the bench and without a League appearance since November.

Hart's England place is under threat - Credit: Getty Images
Hart's England place is under threat Credit: Getty Images

This is not to suggest Hart is a victim. Rather, he was part of the defensive instability under Bilic, with too many errors slipping into his game behind an admittedly wobbly defence.

Hart now has a monumental second half of the season ahead of him. If he can’t force his way back into the team, he will surely lose his place as England’s first-choice goalkeeper for the World Cup. Moyes, meanwhile, has no intention of letting him cancel his loan deal from Manchester City, which would allow him to find another club.

Danny Rose

This time last year, Rose was hailed by many as one of the best left-backs in Europe. Now, he’s not even seen as the best left-back at Tottenham Hotspur.

Injuries have not helped, of course, but the more damaging move was surely the interview he gave in which he criticised the club’s wage structure. That seems to have been the major problem, as well as the impressive form of Ben Davies in Rose’s absence.

Rose has fallen behind Ben Davies in the Tottenham pecking order - Credit: Getty Images
Rose has fallen behind Ben Davies in the Tottenham pecking order Credit: Getty Images

The 27-year-old has made just 10 appearances this season, and it would not be a major surprise to see him leave Tottenham in January. If he did jump ship, it would be hard to blame him. The World Cup is looming on the horizon and, as it stands, Rose is facing an uphill battle to make Gareth Southgate’s starting line-up.

Shkodran Mustafi

Arsene Wenger's decision to play young midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left-back against Liverpool was justifiably seen as a telling indictment of Sead Kolasinac, who clearly cannot be trusted despite his greater experience and a career spent in that position.

However it also showed how far Mustafi has fallen in the Arsenal manager's eyes. The German defender was on the bench, while Nacho Monreal - who could easily have been pushed into his usual left-back position - was partnering Laurent Koscielny at centre-back.

Mustafi challenges West Brom's Jay Rodriguez - Credit: Reuters
Mustafi challenges West Brom's Jay Rodriguez Credit: Reuters

It seems an error and subsequent injury (for which Wenger had no explanation for afterwards) against Manchester United was the final straw for the Arsenal manager, and it feels like it has hardly been mentioned that Mustafi is a World Cup winner who cost Arsenal more than £35m. Time is running out to justify that fee.

Goal of the season contenders

Manchester City have scored some magnificent team goals this season, and you can pretty much take your pick from any of their goals in that 7-2 drubbing of Stoke City. That’s if a slick, fluid team goal floats your boat, anyway.

A shout-out, too, to Jermain Defoe’s magnificent lobbed volley for Bournemouth against Crystal Palace, and Sofiane Boufal’s solo effort for Southampton against West Brom.

But none of these strikes showed the same power and technique that Wayne Rooney displayed with the missile he launched deep within his own half against West Ham United at the end of November. A proper "ping" that will take some beating in the second half of the season.

Who's showing the most cards?

How is the table looking?

Race for the Golden Boot 

What's coming up next?

What's on TV this week?  

Boxing Day:  Tottenham Hotspur v Southampton, Premier League, Sky Sports, 12.30pm; Liverpool v Swansea, Premier League, Sky Sports, 12.30pm

Wednesday 27:  Newcastle United v Manchester City, Premier League, Sky Sports, 7.45pm

Thursday 28: Crystal Palace v Arsenal, Premier League, Sky Sports, 8pm

Saturday 30:  Manchester United v Southampton, Premier League, BT Sport, 5.30pm

Sunday 31: Crystal Palace v Manchester City, Premier League, BT Sport, 12pm; West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal, Premier League, Sky Sports, 4.30pm