The 2018-19 EPL All-Star Team

It's time to hand out some imaginary and totally arbitrary honorofics!

The English Premier League does not have an All-Star game. The English Premier League probably should not have an All-Star game! (Although it definitely should have some kind of mid-season break.) However, a reader named Ido suggested I pick my own All-Star team, and he ended his email by saying, “[If] you don’t take my suggestion … I will hate-read your newsletters and pray Van Dijk and Mo Salah run smack into each other and both are out for the year.”

Does Ido have some sort of cosmic sway that he’ll use out of spite? How much would he pay to hate-read my newsletters? The latter is something I need to think about and add to a spreadsheet. The former is something I’m not willing to leave to chance.

So, in fear of Ido, and I guess in honor (?) of the NFL’s recently completed Pro Bowl (shout-out to Jamal Adams, the best fake-football player in the world) and the NBA’s soon-to-be-contested All-Star game (I’m hearing that Nikola Vucevic is good now?), here are my rules for my All-Star team:

  • We’re using a real formation. Get the hell out of here with those nine strikers, or the two attacking-midfielders you’re trying to convince me can play holding midfield, or the 5-foot-9 fullback who is apparently also capable of playing center back. The BBC’s Garth Crooks, who selects a Premier League team of the week … each week, is the absurdist master of said form. There are seven attackers, two center backs, and one fullback in this one:

    Image result for garth crooks formation

    If you’re gonna go that far, might as well put a field-player in goal. I dare you to do it, Garth!

  • Manchester City and Liverpool will each be allowed two players. (They are, clearly, the two best teams.) Everyone else will only be allowed one. (This is more fun than just picking the best players from the Top Six, which is what an All-Star team without restrictions would be! Inequality is rampant! Talent flows upward!) If you disagree with these parameters, I encourage you to start your own newsletter, make your own All-Star team, quit your job/drop out of school, and then attempt to drive me out of business.

OK, that’s it. There are only two rules. Now, the team …

Goalkeeper: Hugo Lloris, Tottenham

Keeper might be the easiest position to objectively judge for an All-Star team. Claiming crosses, being able to play out of the back with your feet, snuffing out long balls played over the top of the defenses — that’s all important! But those are all auxiliary benefits. What matters most is: Do you prevent the ball from going into the net?

All things being equal — with no imaginary restraints shackled upon myself, by myself — the edge would probably go to Liverpool’s Alisson, who’s saving a higher percentage of shots he’s faced than … any full-time Premier League keeper this decade. He’s not one of the two most important Liverpool players, though — that’s why they’re in first! — and so our starting keeper is the guy you, uh, might remember for doing this in the World Cup final:

Forget that! Lloris has been great for Tottenham this year. For starters, he’s second behind Alisson in save percentage. Of course, save percentage isn’t totally dependent on keeper skill or performance; some defenses concede difficult-to-save shots, while others force their opponents to resort to lots of low-probability long-range hit-and-hopes. Thankfully, numbers can solve that problem. You can see where a shot was taken from, where on the goal-frame the shooter placed said shot, and then calculate the likelihood that those factors leads to goal. Add all those shots up and compare it to the number of goals a keeper has actually conceded, and voila: a pretty clear indicator of how well that keeper has played. This is the top five, courtesy of Mark Thompson of Football Whispers:

Per those numbers, Lloris has saved 40 percent more shots than expected. No one else has saved more than 25 percent.

Right Back: Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Crystal Palace

There’s a decent chance Wan-Bissaka would be here, even if there were no restrictions on representatives per team. The 21 year old has done more defensive work … than ANY PLAYER IN EUROPE:

You, a faux-intellectual, might respond to that with “Good for him. He plays on a team that never has possession, so he gets to make a lot of tackles and interceptions”. I, a graph lord, would follow up by showing you this graph:

Of course, modern fullbacks have to, essentially, do the impossible job of defending and attacking an entire flank by themselves. AWB does that other part pretty well, too:

It’s rare that you get to see an elite fullback playing for a below-average team — they either get snapped up young or big clubs create them on their own by transitioning not-as-good attackers into fullbacks at a younger age — so go watch Crystal Palace if you get a chance. I can’t imagine Wan-Bissaka will be there next year.

Center Backs: Aymeric Laporte, Manchester City; Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool

The two most-expensive center backs in the history of the sport play for the two best defenses in the Premier League! It’s, of course, not that simple, but van Dijk and Laporte changed the way I think about center backs more than any two players. Prior to both of them arriving at City and Liverpool, I was becoming more and more convinced that center backs were just products of their systems. You looked great if you played in a conservative set-up — see: Atletico Madrid and Juventus — where everyone dropped behind the ball and forced the opposition to launch crosses into the box. “Lots of crosses” equals “lots of chances for center backs to head the ball away and look good in the process!” Meanwhile, if you played in a system where the team pressured the ball high up the field and left a ton of space behind the defenders — say, Liverpool, or City, or Bayern Munich, or Barcelona — those central defenders often looked comically unprofessional.

Judging center backs is still really difficult — I know of at least one club that used FIFA ratings to help with their scouting! — but I feel confident in this nuanced assessment of Laporte and Van Dijk: they’re both really freaking good. Laporte’s the best passing center back in the league — I can’t get this to embed, so just go look at it. His passes bypass more opponents with passes than any other CB, and he’s the hub of City’s league-best attack.

Meanwhile, van Dijk is the betting favorite for Premier League player of the year, and he’s helped turn Liverpool’s fatal flaw into its bedrock strength.

I would trust van Dijk to catch a baby falling out of a skyscraper, to land a commercial airplane inside of a volcano, to convince the global population that if we radically shift the focus of the economy toward saving the planet we could also reduce inequality in the process — you name it. My favorite van Dijk stat so far this year: In the Premier League, not a single player has dribbled past him.

Left Back: Jose Holebas, Watford

Is Jose Holebas, né Jose Lloyd Cholevas, the best left back in the Premier League? Absolutely not, but he’s probably had the best season so far. There’s way more for a fullback to do than just create goals and score them, but Holebas has done enough of both things that as long as he’s not a total black hole on the defense end, he gets the spot. Watford’s defense is tied for eight in the Premier League in goals conceded (32) and their underlying numbers match up with that pretty much exactly, so, presumably, a black hole he is not.

On the other end, Holebas has three goals (tied for second-most among defenders) and six assists (first). So, we’ll say that he’s contributed to nine goals so far; no other defender has had a hand in more than five.

Do I expect Holebas to keep doing this? Nope! He’s only got 0.48 expected goals and 3.99 expected assists. However — and I definitely won’t die on this hill, but I’ll at least meekly defend it — we shouldn’t hand out awards based on what a player should have done. Holebas has been involved in 28 percent of his team’s goals this season. From a defender, that’s incredibly valuable.

Defensive Midfield: Idrissa Gueye, Everton

The January transfer window is nearing a close — you can figure out when it shuts without my help — and Everton have a decision to make: Sell our best player? Or … don’t sell our best player?

Everton’s best player: Gylfi Sigurdsson. Just kidding! He’s almost 30 and not that good and Everton paid more for him than Liverpool paid for Mohamed Salah and this is rude so I’ll stop. No, Everton’s best player is Idrissa Gueye, who’s been arguably the best defensive midfielder in the league this season. He doesn’t do much on the attacking side, but he’s made more tackles+interceptions than any player in the Premier League since the start of last season, and he’s second behind AWB this year. (As the legendary Italian defender Paolo Maldini once said, “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake. So, raw interception and tackle numbers aren’t that useful — unless they’re so outsize and outlying, like the two guys on this team.) Here’s how Statsbomb’s Mike Goodman described Gueye’s importance to Everton back in December:

This is the Everton gamble. They’re a high wire act. They get tons of bodies forward, and position themselves high up the field, but rather than work collectively to pressure the ball, they rely on an elite midfielder to win the ball back for them. Without Gueye the entire system would collapse.

Sounds like a guy you probably don’t wanna sell, right? Well, there are four complicating factors: 1) He’s 29, 2) Paris Saint-Germain want him, 3) He wants to leave, and 4) Everton … aren’t going anywhere. So: 1) He’s probably not going to have another season like this, 2) The Qataris pay well, 3) There’s gotta be some value in doing right by your players, and 4) The club, which has some nice young players but also currently has a plus-1 goal differential and is about as average as can be, isn’t likely to achieve anything this year or next. Everton have declined PSG’s most recent bid (£21.5 million), but it’d probably be best for everyone if they said “yes” before the 31st.

Central Midfielder: Fernandinho, Manchester City

Now, imagine someone with all the defensive activity of Idrissa Gueye and the downfield passing of a Bix XII quarterback and the indestructible longevity of a Galapagos tortoise. That image you now have in your head is a to-scale mental model of Manchester City’s Fernandinho.

There aren’t any gaudy interception or tackle stats for Fernandinho because his team has more possession (63.9 percent) than any other team in Europe’s big five leagues. But if you adjust the numbers for the amount of possession a team has, he’s a top-notch defender whenever he has to be. On top of that, he’s one of the best in the world at moving the ball into the final third. (Deep progressions are defined as “Passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third per 90 minutes”.)

You can count the players who combine Fernandinho’s passing and defensive activity on one, maybe two, hands. And yet, he’s been doing it for five and a half years. I’m telling you that Everton should sell Gueye because he’s 29; Fernandinho didn’t even get Manchester until he was 29! The guy has played at least 2,200 minutes for City every year he’s been with the club, and he’s paired it with elite two-way play. He’s one of the more — perhaps most? — underappreciated players of his generation, but I doubt his employer feels that way. When City lost two games in a row on both sides of Christmas, Fernandinho didn’t play a single minute in either match.

Central Midfielder: Paul Pogba, Manchester United

He has 15 goals+assists. That’s seven more than the second-best center mid. Next!

Right Winger: Mohamed Salah, Liverpool

He has 24 goals+assists. That’s four more than the second-best player at any position. Next!

Left Winger: Eden Hazard, Chelsea

He has 10 goals and 10 assists. Over the past four seasons, a player has hit 10-and-10 seven total times. Hazard’s only started 19 matches, there are 15 games left in the season, and he’s already there. Next!

Striker: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal

This is perhaps due to the one-player-per-team-without-a-realistic-chance-at-winning-the-title restrictions, but Aubameyang would also have a legit claim to this spot were this list written by someone from the Cato Institute.

Now, I think it was probably a mistake for Arsenal to sign Aubameyang last January. They already had Alexandre Lacazette at the same position, who is two years younger and roughly just as good. The team needed to get younger and it needed to reinforce its defense; spending on Aubamyeang ensured neither of those things happened. The team couldn’t really afford to mis-allocate its resources because, according to a recent report by the The Guardian’s David Hytner, Arsenal just don’t have much money to spend:

This month Arsenal cannot compete with any club for any permanent signing because, quite simply, the money is not there. It will be a loan or two, at best – perhaps, with a built-in option to buy in the summer, when the new sponsorship arrangements with Emirates and Adidas kick in – and there is bewilderment, to say the least, among some fans.

The defense is still a major issue (32 goals conceded, tied for eight in the league), but Aubameyang’s performance hasn’t been a problem. He’s tied with Salah for the league-lead in non-penalty goals, and he’s only behind Salah, Hazard, and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane when you throw in assists. Aubameyang fluffs a lot of easy-looking chances, but we’ve been over this: there’s almost no better indicator of a great goal-scorer than a robust “big chances missed” tally.

Reserves:
Goalkeeper: Martin Dubravka, Newscastle
Center Back: Harry Maguire, Leicester City
Anywhere on the Field: Felipe Anderson, West Ham
Central Midfield: Ruben Neves, Wolverhampton
Winger: Ryan Fraser, Bournemouth
Striker: Aleksandar Mitrovic, Fulham

Dubravka’s played every minute of every game, and his team is in 17th, but they’re over-performing on the defensive end and he has the fifth-most shutouts in the league. Maguire is the best defender on the fifth-best defense in the league. Felipe Anderson is James Harden. Ruben Neves attempts the highest-degree-of-difficulty shot or pass every time he gets the ball, and it often works. Ryan Fraser is built like an Airstream trailer; he’s also first in the league in expected assists (second in actual assists!). And Mitro’s eight goals are the only thing separating Fulham from “assured relegation”.

My apologies to fans of teams without a player on this list. Please send me hate-mail.

Manager: Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool

Let’s not over-think this. The coach of the best team gets to coach the All-Star team.

I’m curious who you guys would pick, so if you’re bored/inspired, send me your teams.

As I said last time, and now say every time: If you enjoyed this, please subscribe! And please pass on the word to anyone you know who might be interested. Call your boyfriend. Tell your girlfriend. Inform your mortal enemy. Everyone is welcome … unless you’re a fascist — in which case, get the hell outta here! Thanks, as always, to all you non-fascists for reading along.