This article profiles a Best XI of players out of those plying their trade for clubs currently in the bottom half of the English Premier League.
While all players were considered for selection, I have gone with the 11 which I believe are the cream of the teams from 11 down to 20. Of these 10 sides, eight are represented in my "Best XI" with only Stoke City and Reading missing out.
While statistics and recent form have been the key factors in my assessment—meaning that I have spent a long time examining the ‘numbers’ which form the basis for the players’ contributions—I have also considered reputation and status to put together a complete picture of those selected.
As the Premier League enters its final phase and with almost all of the bottom half still brooding beneath the threat of relegation, look for some of these players to make the difference between survival and oblivion.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and opinions for my team and hearing suggestions on who might manage this eclectic collection of stars.
Now, it’s true that QPR have the third-worst goal difference in the Premier League, and it’s true that the West London side may have looked destined for the drop since their dreadful 5-0 defeat against Swansea on the opening day of the season, but things could have been so much worse.
Indeed, despite the inadequacies in front of him; despite Ryan Nelsen leaving the club for pastures new, despite Stephane Mbia often running around like he has no idea what this miraculous game of football constitutes, Julio Cesar has often been in sumptuous form, and at times has looked every bit the keeper who won the Champions League less than three years ago.
Despite their disappointing goal difference, QPR’s "goals against" column is not something for the Super Hoops to be ashamed of. At home, they have conceded only two goals more than Arsenal, and Swansea, Wigan, Villa and Reading have all conceded more. Away from home, their record is actually fairly impressive, and they have conceded as many as Liverpool, only three goals more than Spurs, and fewer than West Brom, Fulham, Southampton, Norwich, Newcastle, Villa and Reading.
Indeed, the Brazilian goalie has, at times, performed heroically in defence, fire-fighting and compensating for the defensive frailties ahead of him. His five clean sheets, when compared to Rob Green’s zero, may suggest that Harry Redknapp has made the right choice in pursuing with Cesar as his No. 1.
If QPR do manage the impossible and stay up, then Julio ought to be feted as a hero.
It remains to be seen how much Paolo Di Canio intends to shake things up as he attempts to keep the wolf from the door at the Stadium of Light. One thing he may need to address is the Black Cats’ defence. The side have only kept two clean sheets so far this season and have struggled to find any sense of cohesion and stability in the back line.
The long-term absence of Wes Brown might have alleviated the problems, while the recent season-ending injury suffered by Lee Cattermole threatens to leave the defence exposed against Premier League attackers.
One absence that has gone under the radar is that of Carlos Cuellar, present in two of Sunderland’s finest performances of the season—their 0-0 draw away at the Emirates Stadium, and their 1-0 defeat of City on Boxing Day.
Having established himself as a first-team regular almost instantly after arriving on a free transfer from Aston Villa, Cuellar emerged as one of the season’s finest defenders—averaging an impressive 3.1 tackles per game.
He has endured a frustrating few months of late, with a hamstring tear suffered against Bolton in early January derailing his season.
John O’Shea and Titus Bramble have struggled to impress in his absence, and Di Canio may be wise to reintegrate the Spaniard into the first-team picture as soon as possible. Experience, composure and the ability to "put a foot in" may be invaluable assets as the club seek to retain their Premier League status.
Like Cuellar, Bassong is another who had his impressive early-season form halted by injury.
In the first half of the '12-'13 season, the Cameroonian international was, in my opinion, the outstanding centre-back in the Premier League. He was a regular feature in my column, "The Best and Worst of Africa from the Premier League," and demonstrated all of the credentials required for a top quality central defender.
It was no coincidence that, with Bassong protecting the goal, Chris Hughton enjoyed such an encouraging start as Norwich City boss.
Since leaving Tottenham Hotspur, the West African has developed his reading of the game and his positioning ability—he wins almost 1 offside decision for his team every game, suggesting that he is adept at organising the defenders around him and able to negotiate the trickier, livelier forwards in the league.
Still only 26, Bassong has the potential to be one of the league’s elite centre-backs. I am confident that his resiliency will help to keep Norwich in the Premier League, and the Canaries can hope for a bright future with "Bass" marshalling the back line.
One of a swathe of signings made by Newcastle United in the January transfer window, Yanga-Mbiwa joined the ranks of raft of Francophone stars who inhabit the Newcastle dressing room. He may well be the cream of the crop.
Already a French international at the age of 23, the defender was born in the Central African Republic, and could also have represented the African nation. Instead, he looks to be the future of France’s defence, where a possible union with Raphael Varane or Mamadou Sakho could prove to be a world-class pairing for the Blues.
While the likes of Olivier Giroud and Younes Belhanda often stole the show as Montpellier romped to their maiden Ligue 1 triumph last term, besting the moneyed Paris Saint-Germain en route, Yanga-Mbiwa proved to be a top quality defensive prospect. His contributions were consistent and composed, despite his slender years, and I would argue that his displays were as important as the attacking flair the side demonstrated.
Now at Newcastle, he faces a different sort of battle, with the club still in the mire and attempting to preserve their Premier League status.
Early signs have been promising, and MYM has already featured 11 times for the Northeast club; seven times in the Premier League, and a further four times in the Europa League—where Newcastle are still in contention.
The Magpies’ recent demolition at the hands of Manchester City will have been cause for concern, and Yanga-Mbiwa and Steven Taylor occasionally looked lost amidst City’s aggressive attacking movement, but Toon fans can begin to take solace that within their ranks they have one of Europe’s finest young defensive talents.
Hello! My name is Mark Noble.
Mark Noble is one of my favourite players in the Premier League, and thus it is with great delight that I would invite him to play in this "Bottom Half Dream Team." However, my selection is not based on blind affection, this season, Noble’s return to the EPL, he has made a significant contribution to West Ham’s impressive season.
Noble’s delightful performances were recently highlighted by the EPL Index, who identified the stats that comprise his season. Writing on the 24th of March, the website noted how despite missing almost a sixth of the Hammers’ league games through injury, none of the team’s players had made more tackles than him. Similarly, no West Ham player has made as many successful tackles as him: 71 successes from 95 attempts.
Considering the league as a whole, Noble’s ball-winning feats are eclipsed only by Stoke’s Stephen N’Zonzi—the French-Congolese midfielder having started three more games and having won the ball 208 times to Noble’s 205.
Beyond the Albion’s Youssuf Mulumbu, no player wins the ball more frequently than the East London boy, who regains possession for West Ham on average every 10-and-a-half minutes.
The player is not simply a destroyer, however, and he has demonstrated a maturity when it comes to using the ball and developing the Hammers’ play. A valuable asset to the side, he would be a vital cog in my team’s midfield, and may even be a candidate for the captaincy.
“Genius or Jester?”
I asked the question back in late November and still haven’t quite received a definitive answer. QPR’s seemingly terminal malaise is threatening to be one of the greatest ever disappointments in the Premier League era, and the man who got them there, Adel Taarabt, is threatening to be one of its greatest mysteries.
Few can argue with his outrageous moments of skill and audacity, and the Moroccan remains an idol at Loftus Road, where fans are enthralled by his daring and trickery.
However, the suggestion that his ability doesn’t match his output is, to some extent, supported in the stats. Adel is the league’s finest dribbler, having achieved the best dribbles-per-game average of any of the Prem’s many stars.
While he may be able to take men on and beat them, this is not translating to enough substantial return for his side. For all those successful dribbles, would QPR not be looking for a little more than five assists and four goals?
Or when assessing Taarabt, should we consider the nature of the collection of players he finds himself a part of? His four goals must be considered within the context of QPR’s often dismal performances up front—the West London club have scored only 26 goals this season, 10 fewer than bottom-placed Reading.
For a player not nominally the figurehead of the attack, it is perhaps quite an achievement to have scored 15 percent of his team’s goals, and to have created a quarter of them. Indeed, perhaps Taarabt’s returns would be far greater if he found himself in a stronger team with more players to put away the chances he creates and players with whom he could share the creative burden.
The fact that only David Silva and provide more key passes-per-game than Taarabt suggests that he was meant for better things than being in 19th place in the Premier League—he would certainly be a valuable asset to my "Bottom Half Best XI."
Having only played eight Premier League games since his January move from Toulouse to Newcastle, Moussa Sissoko doesn’t yet have the depth of statistics required to comprehensively compare him to the league’s other midfielders. However, the early signs are good and suggest that the French international is poised to deliver on his immense promise.
Already, Sissoko finds himself positioned among the finest dribblers in the league. Of players who have played six or more times for their club this season, only six, including the likes of Jack Wilshere, Luis Suarez and the aforementioned Taarabt, have completed more successful dribbles per game.
Sissoko was regarded as one of the finest examples of an all-round midfielder that Ligue 1 had to offer, and this is being borne out in his early forays into the Prem. Three goals in his first eight appearances suggest that Newcastle have a player who will contribute offensively throughout the season, but his presence and strength will doubtlessly help to stabilise Newcastle’s midfield.
If the Magpies stay up, fans can be thoroughly excited about the prospect of a midfield triad featuring Yohan Cabaye, Cheick Tiote and Sissoko next season.
Mo Diame has been considered an impressive, competent Premier League player since his arrival at Wigan Athletic back in 2009, however, this year with West Ham United, his performances have gone to the next level.
Wigan’s acquisition of the player from Rayo Vallecano was something of a coup, particularly with clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Arsenal reportedly showing interest. After almost 100 games for the Latics he was snapped up by West Ham on a free transfer, and the big clubs have begun circling once again.
While his (and West Ham’s) intensity might have tailed off in the second half of the season, Diame was one of the league’s top performers before the New Year. He particularly caught the eye in the Hammers’ 3-1 victory over Chelsea in early December, before an injury sustained a week later stymied his progress.
A much-rumoured transfer window move never came to pass, but it remains to be seen how long West Ham can keep hold of this talented star—particularly if his elite performances continue.
For the time being, Diame remains a valuable component of the Iron’s midfield.
His pass accuracy of 83.7% is admirable and puts him in company with the likes of Theo Walcott, Cheik Tiote and Wayne Rooney, while only five regular Premier League stars have registered a better tackle-per-game ratio than the Senegalese midfielder. His dribbling is also of note, and only Adel Taarabt, Jack Wilshere, Luis Suarez and Santi Cazorla complete more successful dribbles per game than Diame.
Christian Benteke was a shoo-in for this article, and indeed, few players in the bottom half of the Premier League have impressed more than him this season, despite Aston Villa’s torrid year.
Amidst all of his scoring feats and exhilarating displays of attacking prowess, it is often forgotten that this is Benteke’s first season in the EPL. None of this "taking time to adapt" malarkey for him, he arrived, he began throwing his weight around, and he has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water.
Demonstrating explosive pace, top physicality and the agility of a much smaller man, Benteke has all the tools to be a top-quality striker. The fact he has an eye for goal as well makes him an exciting prospect, if one likely to strike fear into the hearts of opposition defenders.
As Aston Villa continue to labour down in the relegation zone, the Belgian is one of the few silver linings still evident at the club. It doesn’t bear thinking about where the Villains might be without his considerable influence—by the beginning of March, he had scored 11 of Villa’s 26 team goals, as well as contributing four assists. It may be Tottenham and Liverpool who are accused of being one-man teams, but realistically, no club relies on one player more than Villa and their frontman.
Regardless of whether Villa remain in the league or not, expect a summer rife with speculation as to the future of this powerhouse.
His influence might not be quite as marked as Benteke at Villa, but Arouna Kone looks to be the man most likely to spearhead Wigan’s traditional late-season resurgence this time around. Latics fans can certainly foster some quiet optimism that the Ivorian’s goals will separate them from the assortment of teams thrashing around them.
Of the club’s first 32 goals scored, Kone contributed eight of them, as well as setting up his teammates on five further occasions. As well as finding the net with assuring regularity, the forward is also capable of stretching the opposition with his incisive running, this keeps defenders alert and focusing on him, often allowing another player to profit from their distraction.
The last month has seen the forward find the net on two more occasions, and they may be two goals as important as any Wigan have scored in recent years. Against Newcastle he found the net in the 90th minute, giving his side the three points late on, whilst against Norwich last weekend, he broke the deadlock with an 81st minute strike.
While he almost single-handedly transformed two points into six, the pair of late winners will doubtlessly give the side a confidence and a genuine conviction that they can beat the drop.
An alchemist if ever there was one, Arouna Kone is invaluable for Roberto Martinez's men.
For the teams under pressure in the Premier League, a regular, competent goalscorer can be worth his weight in gold. As I have demonstrated, Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic will be pinning their hopes of survival on two prolific frontmen, but one forward in the bottom half of the league who rivals both of them is Southampton’s Rickie Lambert.
Currently the Premier League’s joint fifth top scorer along with Benteke on 14 goals, Lambert is the top-scoring Englishman in the league, and only sitting three behind Gareth Bale, the only Brit to have scored more than the Saints forward in '12-'13.
Lambert is currently one of the deadliest men in the Prem—evidenced by his average of 2.5 shots per game. This puts him lower than any other player among the league’s 12 top scorers, suggesting that while others require a handful of shots before finding the net, Lambert is more likely to finish the opportunities given.
His delightful match-winning free kick against Chelsea on Saturday pushed Saints up to 12th place and putting daylight between them and the dreaded relegation zone. It was also evidence of the forward’s oft-neglected technical ability; despite his lower league pedigree, here is a forward born to play in the top flight.
Tim Krul, Newcastle
The Dutch keeper has struggled to maintain the class he showed last season and has had to contend with injuries. Newcastle have struggled in his absence and will benefit hugely from his imminent return to the first XI.
Mathieu Debuchy, Newcastle
French international right-back, another who has arrived at St. James Park as part of Newcastle’s Francophone revolution. A genuine class act in the fullback berth, he has yet to show his best form but could well become finest in his position in the league.
Morgan Schneiderlin, Southampton
Alsacien defensive midfielder who has taken to the Premier League with ease. Possibly the unsung hero in Southampton’s midfield, he offers defensive solidarity and dynamism in the middle of the park. Makes more average interceptions-per-game than any other player in the league and stands only behind Liverpool’s Lucas in the tackling stakes.
Yohan Cabaye, Newcastle
Classy French midfielder who was central to Newcastle’s fifth-place finish last term. Fine technical ability and a delightful range of passing but has suffered second-season syndrome and fallen into a depression. International player who performed at Euro 2012.
Steve N’Zonzi, Stoke City
French-Congolese midfielder–dynamic and aggressive. Struggled against Everton at the weekend but an emerging talent in the Premier League. Stoke may face competition for his services this summer.
Andy Carroll, West Ham
Not quite-England striker and not quite-£35 million man who is enjoying a spell on loan at West Ham having endured a difficult time at Liverpool. Demonstrated his immense ability this weekend with two fine goals as the Hammers bested West Bromwich Albion. May herald an England recall.
Dimitar Berbatov, Fulham
Stylish Fulham forward who has thrived after taking a step down from Manchester United last summer. Enjoying life alongside Bryan Ruiz on the banks of the Thames and hasn’t lost his goal-scoring form—11 in 24 this season and deadly when he wants to be.