Before our top 10 begins, we have some honourable mentions to honourably mention. Firstly, Jorginho just missed out. The Italian is a passing machine, but he contributes less than he could at both ends and, oddly, misplaces a higher percentage of passes than Chelsea’s less conservative midfielders. It’s also debatable as to whether N’Golo Kante really needed this new licence to attack.
At the three promoted clubs – don’t worry, Wolves fans, your boys will appear again later – plaudits go to Josh Murphy (ambitious and direct, making him invaluable to Cardiff as Junior Hoilett declines), Jean Michael Seri (one of the few players showing his worth at Fulham, with the second-most key passes of any central midfielder in the Premier League after David Silva) and Joao Moutinho (the fourth-most, plus a very high rate of tackles).
There have also been success stories among the array of new goalkeepers, with 12 of the 26 used in the league having been bought or loaned this summer. We’ve seen decent starts from recent stars (Kepa Arrizabalaga, Alisson, Bernd Leno’s feet) and old hands making light work: Lukasz Fabianski and Ben Foster, both relegated last term, have been reliable upgrades at West Ham and Watford, with Foster in particular exceeding low-to-middling expectations at 35 years of age and a fee of £2.5 million.
As for the 10 names who did make the cut, they’re a juxtaposition of big-money buys justifying their price tags and relatively low-key arrivals faring better than expected. It’s one of the latter who kicks off our countdown…
10. Bernard (Everton)
The Toffees’ transfers have been successful, with loanee Kurt Zouma also impressing at Goodison, and Bernard has adapted surprisingly well for a titchy winger (he’s a shade under 5ft 5in) with zero experience in a major league.
Those factors, coupled with Bernard having been around the block for some time – he was only 21 when he played 90 minutes in Brazil’s infamous 7-1 defeat to Germany – resulted in his free transfer resembling that Football Manager signing which never works in real life. Yet his quick feet and tenacity have made the pocket rocket a hit on Merseyside, especially after an excellent display in his first league start, a 2-1 win at Leicester.
“We weren’t sure what Bernard would offer, but he has shown he’s just the type of player we need,” says Everton legend Leon Osman. In fact, the Brazilian has combined so well with Lucas Digne – another contender for this list – down the left, that the man Everton actually bought to play in Bernard’s position has instead thrived up front. More on him later.
9. Jefferson Lerma (Bournemouth)
With 16 bookings in 25 La Liga appearances last term, Lerma was always going to make an impact of some kind. The question, as Bournemouth spent a club record £25m to bring him in from Levante, was whether a midfielder who has reached double figures for yellow cards in five of his six seasons as a pro (in league fixtures alone) can be relied upon in the hustle and bustle of English football.
The answer was yes. Lerma’s midfield bite has given his team-mates freedom to roam, which is just what Bournemouth needed; indeed, the Colombian’s presence is one reason why their 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 setup is working better than ever.
Furthermore, he knows where the line is. Yes, Bournemouth’s new midfield enforcer has picked up four bookings in nine Premier League games, and if we’re being picky then yes, he has technically made more fouls than tackles. But if a career record of 206 appearances, 73 bookings and just three red cards has shown us anything, it is this: he’s a fast Lerma.
We’re so sorry.
8. Felipe Anderson (West Ham)
The West Ham faithful have experienced what Lazio fans could have told them to expect: Felipe Anderson to blow hot and cold, only for the hots to be incandescent.
There’s consistency aplenty in this top 10, but while Anderson is yet to offer that trait, his peaks are as high as anyone’s. The Brazilian was mesmerising against Manchester United (and put in seven tackles), ran amok against Burnley and scored a beaut of an equaliser at the weekend – he made the move himself with a clever take-on and exquisite through-ball, then, faced with an xG of 0.06, drilled a half-volley home with no fewer than seven Huddersfield players between him and the goal.
West Ham intended to make a statement when they paid £36m, rising to £46m, for Anderson’s services. More often than not, he’s helping them to do that.
7. Jonny (Wolves)
Away from the Moutinhos, the Jotas and the Neveseseses that come with buddying up to Gestifute, Wolves have made a few excellent signings in recent years that slipped under the radar at the time. Jonny Castro Otto, loaned to Wolves by Atletico Madrid immediately after they’d bought him from Celta Vigo, is one of them.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s men have impressed across the park, but their wing-backs have merited more praise than most. Watching Matt Doherty fly down the right flank and Jonny down the left, FFT can hardly believe we were puzzled in July by Wolves’s decision to sell Barry Douglas, after the wing-back contributed five goals and 14 assists in 39 Championship appearances. Jonny doesn’t have the Scot’s set-piece prowess but he has more than matched Douglas in open play.
Consistent club performances earned Jonny a first cap in October. Ironically, his Spain debut came just a few months after he’d left Spanish football behind, following 200 first-team appearances in six years with Celta. He’s only 24.
6. Issa Diop (West Ham)
When one of your centre-backs is playing club football outside of South America for the first time, what you really need is a wise old head alongside him to read from the manual of Premier League life. West Ham, however, partnered Fabian Balbuena with 21-year-old Diop – yet they’re beginning to resemble a functioning defensive unit.
It’s no coincidence that Diop was absent when Manuel Pellegrini’s Hammers defended so poorly in their first two league games. They’ve steadily improved since Diop took Angelo Ogbonna’s place and revealed a combination, rare in young defenders, of technical, mental and physical attributes.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, of course – the Frenchman was a club-record signing and had already made 75 Ligue 1 appearances. Even so, his ability and willingness to step up with or without the ball, impose himself on strikers and complete 88.5% of his passes has come as a welcome relief to West Ham fans used to a diet of James Collins, Winston Reid and Jose Fonte.
5. David Brooks (Bournemouth)
There’s no way that Brooks should already be this comfortable, this at home, in the Premier League.
It’s not just his waif-like figure which prompts that reaction, nor his face of a 14-year-old boy; Brooks is a creative, elfin man-child of a footballer, flitting around in a physical league on the back of just nine Football League starts – a figure he’s already surpassed in the top flight. Surely, it would take time.
But Wales knew, and Bournemouth knew. At only 21 years of age, 5ft 8in and 10 stone wet-through, Brooks has quickly become a key figure for both teams. The former Sheffield United sprite has shone on the wing and glimmered as a No.10; although he’s yet to make that position truly his own, at a club that generally prefers two forwards at the front of their 4-4-1-1, his vision, ambition and fearlessness on the ball have worried opposition centre-halves just as they have worried full-backs.
4. James Maddison (Leicester)
Right away, Maddison did more than just get the measure of Premier League matches – he shaped them. The 21-year-old wasn’t fazed by making his debut at Old Trafford and made some eye-catching passes, before running the game against upwardly-mobile Wolves a week later.
Leicester had faith when they spent an eyebrow-raising £20m on this Championship midfielder that they were getting a game-changer in the present, not mere potential for the future. Maddison had quantifiably made the biggest impact of any player in the second tier last season, his goals and assists for Norwich being worth a division-high 26 points, and he took those numbers into the Premier League.
The Foxes playmaker contributed directly to five goals in his first seven appearances and won an international call-up after creating the most chances of any Englishman.
3. Lucas Torreira (Arsenal)
Torreira wouldn’t be the first player to be all-too-hastily declared as the solution to Arsenal’s midfield problems, but the early signs are very positive.
Although it was odd that Unai Emery made the Uruguayan wait for his first Premier League start, as he did with Bernd Leno until Petr Cech nobly sustained an injury to end the awkwardness, Torreira did benefit from appearing as a substitute in each of Arsenal’s first five games. It allowed the 22-year-old to learn the speed of the English game – a luxury that wasn’t afforded to Matteo Guendouzi, 19 – and that’s key when your own defensive game is geared around interceptions rather than tackles, as is the case for Torreira and Arsenal alike.
Torreira is already improving Arsenal’s transitions. Having won the ball, he moves it forward and rarely loses possession. Torreira’s pass success rate of 89.5% is one of the best in the division, and no midfielder has been fouled more regularly – in fact, he’s being hacked down at the same rate as Wilfried Zaha, who may as well have a target painted on him. Torreira could be the real deal.
2. Rui Patricio (Wolves)
If Patricio has a claim to be one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers, his performances this season are admissible evidence. Only the current top four have conceded fewer goals than Wolves, and he’s the only goalkeeper in the top five for save percentage (76%) who isn’t at a top-five club.
Patricio’s importance should not be underestimated. Against Manchester City, he produced an incredible save to palm Raheem Sterling’s shot onto the crossbar. Against Manchester United, he produced an almost-as-incredible save to palm Fred’s free-kick onto the crossbar. Both matches finished 1-1. Wolves are one of only two teams to take points off City, the other being second-placed Liverpool.
Then there was Patricio’s quick-thinking double save away at Crystal Palace, in a match Wolves won 1-0, and away at West Ham he made two excellent stops, charging down Marko Arnautovic and stretching to claw a Michail Antonio header off the line. Wolves won that game 1-0, too. Where would they be without the Euro 2016 winner in goal?
Although the 30-year-old joined Wolves as an astonishingly good free transfer due to Sporting’s unique situation, the two clubs have since settled on a fee of £15.8m. He’s been worth every penny.
1. Richarlison (Everton)
Much was made of the hefty transfer fee commanded by Richarlison when he followed Marco Silva from Watford to Everton, but the Toffees’ outlay of £40m (potentially rising to £50m) would have turned fewer heads had it come in January rather than July.
In 2017/18, Richarlison was superb up to December, when Watford were destabilised by Everton’s pursuit of Silva and Richarlison’s own magic touch eluded him. Incredibly, he contributed nary a goal nor assist after December 12, having netted five and set up four before then, and when he left Watford it was after failing to score with any of his final 53 shots for the club.
But his underlying numbers had remained impressive throughout the season, his first outside Brazil. A total xG of 12 is very encouraging for a winger who was just 20 at the time; in scoring only five goals, he was let down by his finishing and the occasional bit of bad luck, yet he was nonetheless getting into excellent positions. He excelled in that rare combination of skills: dribbling and heading. And he was the most-fouled player in the Premier League, which is handy when fellow £40m+ man Gylfi Sigurdsson is available to take free-kicks.
With all that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising to see Silva turn his former Watford charge into a striker at Everton. Richarlison has embraced the challenge, turning his xG differential on its head by scoring six goals in his first 10 games from a total xG of only 3.4. His brace against Brighton comprised a fine first-time finish to conclude a glorious counter-attack, then a ruthlessly composed exploitation of a defensive error.
Now he must continue that form. This season, you wouldn’t bet against him doing it.