The 10 Players Who Have Been Unexpectedly Disappointing This Season
Football doesn't always go to plan. You can set out what you think will happen, but there's every chance it'll be thrown back in your face.
For example, who foresaw Diego Costa's 2018-19 struggles given the year he put together ahead of that? Or that Roberto Firmino's effectiveness would diminish so drastically—just a few months removed from the season of his life?
We've picked out 10 players who have been unexpectedly disappointing this season in a sort of ying to the yang of our piece earlier this week, highlighting unexpected successes.
You'll notice a theme to our selections: Many of them enjoyed a brilliant FIFA World Cup over the summer in Russia and are, perhaps understandably, struggling to readjust to the rigmarole of week-to-week domestic football.
Others were superb in 2017-18, had higher expectations placed on their shoulders as a result and are struggling to play up to those.
This is a list of 10 players we expect much more from—whatever the circumstances. Perhaps they can pick it up following this final international break of the year and find their grooves?
Raphael Varane, 25, Real Madrid
Raphael Varane, world champion, was one of the best centre-backs at the World Cup and is regularly placed in the "best in the world" conversation. Surely players like this are impervious to dips in form?
You could nominate most of Real Madrid's XI for this list—Sergio Ramos, Thibaut Courtois and Gareth Bale chief among them—but Varane is the most surprising disappointing performer.
He's been error-prone and far from his usual commanding self, and that's hurt Los Blancos. They can usually embrace a bit of sloppiness from Ramos or Marcelo because Varane's there to tidy things up, but when he's off-colour as well, all hell breaks loose.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, 23, Lazio
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic enjoyed a breakthrough 2017-18 season, capturing the world's attention with a campaign filled with golazos and strong headers.
In Lazio's awesome, attacking 3-5-2 formation, he had the licence to push forward out of central midfield and either take up shooting positions or enter the box. From there, he was devastating, totalling 12 Serie A goals from 35 starts.
It forced the Biancocelesti to slap a monstrous price tag on him to deter Juventus, Manchester United and more. They landed on £130 million, per Corriere dello Sport (h/t TalkSport), and perhaps unsurprisingly, he wasn't sold.
Clubs who look back on that situation will breath a sigh of relief. He's totalled just one goal and one assist from 11 starts this term and has looked subpar on a number of occasions. Two of his three World Cup performances weren't great, either.
We're well within our rights to expect a lot more from the giant Serb.
Diego Costa, 30, Atletico Madrid
In January, Diego Costa started his second life at Atletico Madrid like a man possessed. He perhaps didn't score as many goals as he would have liked, but he put himself about magnificently, linking with Antoine Griezmann and helping the club to win the UEFA Europa League.
He carried that form into the World Cup, netting three times and playing reasonably well for Spain. Again, it wasn't perfect, but he was the least of their concerns during their time in Russia.
None of that's carried into 2018-19, which has been a nightmarish campaign for him. Since he netted a brace in the UEFA Super Cup in August, he's scored just once in 12 appearances and was substituted at half-time in Atleti's recent victory over Athletic Club Bilbao.
Goodness knows what's eating him, but Costa needs to figure things out—fast!
Roberto Firmino, 27, Liverpool
It just hasn't been Roberto Firmino's season.
Expected to build on a magnificent 27-goal, 17-assist campaign in 2017-18, Firmino hasn't had the same goalscoring instincts or creative flair.
Four goals and two assists from 17 appearances isn't awful, but it's not in line with what we've come to expect from the Brazil international. His link-up play has been off, and he's underperformed his xG rating (3.9) by close to two full goals.
In response, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has tinkered with the Reds' formation and played Firmino as a No. 10 to try to spark him back into life. So far, no luck.
Goncalo Guedes, 21, Valencia
Perhaps it's the malaise that has crept throughout this Valencia side. Perhaps it's the weight of a €40 million price tag.
Whatever it is, fans at Mestalla would be grateful if Goncalo Guedes could haul his form back on track and replicate last season's highs—not create new lows.
He's not alone with regard to concerning form; Santi Mina, Michy Batshuayi and Rodrigo Moreno haven't been able to hit the requisite levels consistently, either.
But Guedes has yet to score for the club since he made his loan move permanent in the summer. Had you predicted we would be pushing December and he would still be goalless back when he held the shirt aloft, you would have been laughed out of the room.
Nemanja Matic, 30, Manchester United
There are usually two distinct phases to Nemanja Matic's season. In the first half, he's a midfield monster, intercepting, tackling and setting the tone; in the second half, he slows down physically and gets bypassed quite easily by nifty opponents.
In 2018-19, things have changed. He's skipped straight to phase two, starting the season poorly and barely threatening to pick things up. Physically, he's looked off the pace, both in terms of strength and agility, and that's had a knock-on effect with regard to his defensive work.
Perhaps in this scenario, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho would usually be tempted to consider other options, but summer signing Fred hasn't looked capable of carrying the load, either.
Hakan Calhanoglu, 24, AC Milan
This looked ready to be a standard-setting season for Hakan Calhanoglu. With things going so well for him the term before and a bond with AC Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso in place, we braced ourselves for the Turkey international to hit new levels.
Instead, fans and neutrals alike have been left disappointed by what he's conjured.
Given his talent level, set-piece ability and creativeness, you would expect more than zero goals and two assists in Serie A play. You might also expect a little more personality out of him and for him to take the lead more and fade less.
It's not a make-or-break season for Calhanoglu, but he is edging closer to that bucket of players who never realised their obscene potential. He can take a few steps away from that reality if he perks up soon.
Duje Caleta-Car, 22, Marseille
Duje Caleta-Car played 210 minutes of football against Marseille last season in the Europa League semi-finals while with RB Salzburg. Presumably, they liked what they saw because a few months later they parted with €19 million to make him one of their own.
Sadly, any qualities they may have appreciated during their tussle in May have disappeared since the Croatia international set foot on French soil.
Minor injury issues acknowledged, he's put in a series of poor performances at the Stade Velodrome, leading manager Rudi Garcia to feel much happier to go with the Adil Rami-Luiz Gustavo pairing of 2017-18.
Caleta-Car has yet to win a game that he's started for Marseille in any competition, recording four losses and one draw—the latter result coming against Apollon Limassol. His clumsy, silly red card against Lyon in September neatly summed up a hapless three months.
Manuel Neuer, 32, Bayern Munich
It was perhaps expected that Manuel Neuer would look subpar at the World Cup. Given he missed virtually all of the 2017-18 campaign because of a fractured foot, parachuting him in for the finals felt like a bad idea and proved to be exactly that.
But with those World Cup reps in, plus some pre-season work, Neuer was expected to be a lot better in 2018-19. There was to be a return of the sweeper-keeper king, bolstering Bayern Munich's formidable squad and enhancing their chances of going a step further and winning the Champions League.
But that's not what's happened.
Obviously Neuer isn't solely to blame for Bayern's struggles—it's been a team-wide thing that touches most areas—but he hasn't looked great.
The German conceded eight goals from eight successive shots on target through early November, and he finally made a save against Borussia Dortmund before the international break. Sadly, he complemented that feat with a penalty concession the Neuer of old probably wouldn't have given away.
Overall, he's looked slow to move—either sweeping or shifting over to save—and has made few of the god-like reflex stops we've become accustomed to. Is it time to accept Neuer just isn't what he was?
Marco Asensio, 22, Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo's summer departure was supposed to clear the path to Real Madrid's first team for Marco Asensio and elevate him from super-sub to super-starter. But in response, the Spaniard has let his level dip, and he's failing to make this golden chance count.
With just one goal, one assist and nowhere near enough influence on games, he's at the point where Lucas Vazquez is stealing minutes from him. Vinicius Junior's emergence should cause concern too, as his optimal position is where Asensio has tended to play.
The 22-year-old looked primed to step into Ronaldo's shoes, but at this stage, somehow, it's arguable he finds himself in a worse position than last season.
All statistics via WhoScored.com.