After each round of Premier League fixtures, ESPN FC brings you its Team of the Weekend. Our panel of experts carefully selects 11 star performers along with a manager.
Do you agree or disagree? You can have your say on those picked or overlooked in the comments section at the foot of the article or on Twitter using the hashtag #ESPNFCTOTW.
Goalkeeper: It has been a testing season for Everton but Jordan Pickford continues to show why they paid £30 million for his services back in the summer. Pickford’s immense potential was showcased once again in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with champions Chelsea as he produced a string of smart stops to keep the Blues at bay. “Chelsea pressured him all day,” noted Paul Mariner. “But everything they threw at him, he repelled.” Pickford provided the basis for another decent result for Sam Allardyce and he also made it into both Gab Marcotti and Steve Nicol’s teams as well. “Everton escaped with a point thanks to him,” said the former.
Defence: Defences were certainly on top at Goodison so it’s no wonder there’s more agreement at the back, with Mariner and Nicol both selecting Cesar Azpilicueta as part of a back three. The Spaniard is one of the most reliable defenders in the Premier League and he was at his studious best at Goodison, standing firm whenever the home side threatened to break through. “He’s the Steady Eddie of the division — one of the best in one vs. one situations,” said Mariner.
Defence: Pickford was one reason why the score remained goalless at Goodison. Phil Jagielka was another. The Everton man sensed danger in the first half and was in the right place at the right time to make not one but two superb goalline clearances in quick succession. Tiemoue Bakayoko and Willian were denied in the space of a few seconds, Jagielka coming to his side’s rescue to help preserve a point. “It was a fantastic piece of defending,” said Nicol, and Mariner also picked him for our XI. “Solid as a rock all day,” he said.
Defence: One of the smartest pieces of business from last summer? Definitely. Harry Maguire has slotted in seamlessly at Leicester following his transfer from Hull, displaying an impressive confidence on the ball as he brings it out of defence. Maguire was smart at the back and also helped pose problems further forward in Leicester’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United, netting a shock equaliser for the 10 men with virtually the last kick of the game. “It was an incredible end to the match — huge credit to Leicester and Maguire for going right until the end,” said Nicol.
Midfield: OK, yes, our XI is pretty top heavy in attack this week but it’s Christmas so let’s just go for it eh? Nicol and Mariner are both on the same page when it comes to the right of our four in this week’s 3-4-3 formation, selecting Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling following another attacking lesson in the champions-elect’s latest big win. Bournemouth were hammered 4-0 as City went 13 points clear at the top of the table, Sterling netting his 16th of the season to continue his supreme form under Pep Guardiola. “A constant threat and yet another goal — he’s fantastic in and out of possession,” said Mariner.
Midfield: There’s a lot of responsibility on Emre Can given the attacking riches in our XI but his performance for Liverpool in that remarkable 3-3 draw with Arsenal showed he is up to the task. With his contract up at the end of the season, Can can speak to foreign clubs in January about a move away but his showing at the Emirates must surely force Jurgen Klopp into trying to resolve the situation. Can laid the foundation for the attacking players to shine — much like he will have to do in our XI — and Mariner said: “He was superb in the middle of the park.” Nicol makes it two out of three.
Midfield: We were going to go for Stoke’s Eric Choupo-Moting as both Gab and Nicol selected him but Gab also went for the Cameroon ace’s teammate Joe Allen and that makes sense for us in the middle — and Can will be grateful for the extra defensive-minded body in there too. Allen was instrumental in Stoke’s 3-1 win over West Brom, handing Mark Hughes a reprieve just when he needed it most. “He scored one, made another and ensured it will be a happy holiday period for Sparky,” said Gab.
Midfield: David Moyes didn’t spread much cheer at Manchester United in 2013-14 — festive or otherwise — but landing Juan Mata in the January 2014 window will go down as his big success. Mata has been a hit at United and he has also become an important player for Jose Mourinho, despite many thinking he’d have it tough considering the Portuguese sold him to United during their spell together at Chelsea. Mata’s two strikes at Leicester — the second a stupendous free kick — should have been enough for victory but Mourinho’s defence let him and Mata down late on. Still, two fine goals is enough to make our team. Nicol was impressed with the quality of both strikes and Mariner said: “He was everywhere. Showed great feet for the first and what a free kick for the second.” Gab added: “Two goals and lots of quality. He has a perfect sense of when to speed up and when to slow down.”
Forward: There’s speculation he could leave but surely Manchester City will do all it takes to keep Sergio Aguero? His two headers helped City past Bournemouth and a further assist added gloss to a performance that the Cherries had no answer for. It’s now 17 wins in a row for City in the league and Mariner said: “Is Aguero not happy at City? Really, he is top drawer.” Gab added: “Maybe Mariner is right, maybe he is No.2 at City. But his goals and assist in this one reminded us that Pep Guardiola really does go out on a limb when he drops him.” Nicol makes it another full house.
Forward: With seven hat tricks in 2017, 21 for the 2017-18 season and 53 goals for club and country this year, it’s no wonder Harry Kane yet again makes our team. His three in Tottenham’s 3-0 win at Burnley took him to 36 so far in the top flight in 2017 — level with Alan Shearer’s 22-year-old Premier League record. “He’s doing it all,” said Mariner. All of our panel selected Kane, who is one away from matching Lionel Messi’s 2017 haul of 54 for club and country, ahead of Spurs’ clash with Southampton on Boxing Day. “This was another goal-scoring masterclass,” said Gab. Not bad for a one-season wonder, eh?
Forward: He may not be as heralded as the other members of the “Fab Four” but Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino plays a pivotal part in how they play. Witness his crucial role in the Reds’ second at Arsenal, bursting away from the Gunners’ midfield and finding a sensational pass to put Mohamed Salah in to make it 2-0. “He’s a lot better than I originally thought,” says an honest Mariner. “He was a focal point for the attack. Great work.” Nicol selects him too.
Manager: What a crucial win for Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez. With takeover talk proving a distraction and West Ham 1-0 up at the London Stadium, Benitez’s men found themselves in a real predicament. But he masterminded a comeback to win 3-2 and end a run of nine games without a win. And with that, he can lead our XI. “He was up against it but in the end it was a spectacular coaching job,” said Mariner. It’s another clean sweep for our panel and Gab said: “He’s waiting for the Staveley-Ashley staring contest to resolve itself but he got on with it here. This was three crucial points for a paper thin squad.”
Alex Shaw is General Editor at ESPN FC. Follow on Twitter: @AlexShawESPN.