Manchester United’s Paul Pogba leads list of seven most confusing players of Premier League season so far

Welcome to Benge’s Premier League Table. Every week James Benge ranks something, anything, in the Premier League, breaking down everything from the nerdiest tactics to the best kits, to the worst haircuts. This week, he’s looking at the most confusing player of the first half of the season.

It has been a curious Premier League season, one where the Premier League leaders have conceded just two fewer than a side stuck in the relegation zone and where the likes of Aston Villa and Everton could enter the mix for the top four, perhaps even more, if they win their games in hand. 

The strange nature of this season has been reflected in the performances of so many big names across the league. Some players with great numbers aren’t catching the eye on the field while others do everything right on the pitch without that necessarily being reflected in their team’s point tallies. With that in mind we’ve taken a look at seven of the most intriguing players in the English game so far this season in an attempt to shed some light on how they have really performed.

7. Dani Ceballos (Arsenal)

There would be few Arsenal fans mourning Ceballos’ departure if it ends up being two and done for the Real Madrid loanee. After ending his first season in north London as the key cog in Mikel Arteta’s midfield, he has been unable to nail down a regular starting spot even in Thomas Partey’s absence, largely because his on the pitch performances generally appear to be rather underwhelming.

What is curious is how his underlying numbers do not reflect such a disappointing performer. In possession he averages a comparable number of progressive passes per 90 minutes (7.26) as Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish, is creating more chances than last season and is seventh among players with more than 200 minutes for ball recoveries at 8.57 – more than Yves Bissouma, the Brighton midfielder who has caught the eye of Arsenal and Liverpool.

It is tempting to wonder how much of his creative qualities were going unfulfilled by a backfiring attack in front of him, that Ceballos was frequently progressing the ball up the pitch only for the Arsenal attack to stall out ahead of him. Perhaps a run in the team with Partey alongside him and Emile Smith Rowe ahead of him will tell us more.

6. James Justin (Leicester City)

Just to make emphatic the point that this is not about struggling players, enter James Justin, one of the wonderful curiosities of this season. He is a player in his second year of Premier League football who appears to have mastered half the positions available to him on the pitch.

In 26 appearances, eight more than he managed in his first year after moving from Luton Town to Leicester, he has played across the backline and on both flanks as full-back and wing-back, doing so with such efficacy that it is hard to know exactly which is his strongest spot on the pitch. Even he can’t quite nail down a position he’s happy to stick to, telling the Telegraph earlier this month: “[Brendan Rodgers] can put me anywhere and knows I can perform to a good level. Maybe I can play in midfield in the future when my legs go! I’d give goalkeeper a good shot but I might struggle because of my height.”

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Wherever you put him Justin attacks with intent and is a defensive tyro, top ten in the league for tackles made and crosses blocked. Such versatility will surely make him a tempting option for Gareth Southgate at this summer’s European Championships.

5. Timo Werner (Chelsea)

In recent months we have debated Werner’s woes in front of goal at great length and they certainly haven’t eased since just before Christmas, when Frank Lampard contended that it was more important that his new signing was getting into the position to miss chances than that he was missing them.

The Chelsea boss is still right, Werner is not a bad footballer so eventually his output will begin to gravitate back towards his expected goals (6.34, from which he has scored four goals, though it should be noted that figure would be higher but for all the times he fails to get a shot away when well placed).

Yet that process seems further away than ever before. Since Christmas, he has not been getting in good positions and shooting, he has had only one attempt with an xG higher than 0.1, and when he has his finishing has been wasteful in the extreme. The simplest explanation might be he is increasingly bereft of confidence but equally it is hard to say Lampard has designed a system that works well for him with the German stationed wide on the left in a team that look to dominate possession. As Werner’s former manager Ralph Hasenhuttl noted this week, the German needs a system built to his strengths. However he might just be worth it.

4. Aaron Ramsdale (Sheffield United)

We insisted this would not be a column just picking out underperforming players but equally we cannot ignore them entirely, particularly when so much of Ramsdale’s season has been so odd. Only Crystal Palace’s Vicente Guaita has a bigger negative discrepancy between the number of goals he has conceded and the post-shot expected goals value of the shots he has faced than the man in the Sheffield United goal, who has conceded 6.7 more than a league average goalkeeper would.

Opta metrics from last season would suggest Ramsdale was something akin to an adequate shot stopper in front of a porous Bournemouth defense that asked a lot of him. As a rookie it was fair to assume he would take a step forward in a second campaign against Premier League strikers. Instead he has regressed not just in his shot-stopping but his passing (more than half his efforts find opponents) and dealing with crosses.

Serge Aurier of Tottenham scores past Aaron Ramsdale in Spurs’ win over Sheffield United
Getty Images

The latter was something of a strength for Ramsdale last season, not once did he drop a delivery from wide in a Bournemouth shirt. This season he has already dropped six crosses into the Sheffield United box. He looks some way from the potential England No.1 he was talked up as a year ago.

3. Neal Maupay (Brighton)

You could pick any one of plenty of Brighton players with the Seagulls having been one of this season’s most curious sides. In terms of expected goals they have the Premier League’s eighth best attack and its sixth best defense. Unfortunately the metric that counts most looks rather less favorably on Graham Potter’s side, currently 16th in the table.

Maupay typifies a team that is not quite capitalizing on their own quality. Chances are being created for him in abundance, of center forwards with over 500 minutes played in the Premier League this season he has the second-highest expected goals per 90 behind Jamie Vardy. Remove penalties from the equation he is still 11th, level with the Leicester City striker.

Yet, away from the penalty spot he has converted only four goals and has done so in fits and starts: a couple in late September and early October, a pair around the festive period. He himself has admitted he is struggling and yet to watch him in Brighton’s battling 3-3 draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers is to see a player of real intensity and quality, forcing penalties with sharp movement and deft control. As is the case across this Brighton side, there is real quality there. It just has not been unlocked quite often enough.

2. Ashley Westwood (Burnley)

Grealish. Bruno Fernandes. De Bruyne. Westwood. James Rodriguez. The Premier League’s top five in terms of Opta’s expected assists metric and one of them that sticks out like a sore thumb. And reader, your guess is as good as mine to explain why Burnley’s midfield metronome is rated so highly.

He has created a fair few chances, with 25 this season he is level with Luke Shaw and just behind the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Five of those have been big chances, the joint-12th best in the Premier League, whilst 36.8 percent of Burnley attacking sequences that end in a shot go through Westwood.

You might assume that this being Burnley the reason he is so high on expected assists is he is putting lots of crosses into the box. Yet his tally of 84 is not especially high – the 13th most in the league – and it is not the case that they are all dangerous set piece deliveries either.

Opta’s expected assist model rate every pass on its likelihood of leading to a goal so it is possible that Westwood is putting in a lot of deliveries that commentators might say are “entitled to have someone attacking them”. Perhaps that is the explanation, perhaps not. Football would be no fun if we could explain everything.

1. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

And what a joyous confusion he is proving to be. Midway through a season where he has developed a knack of winning tough games for United through moments of individual brilliance, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems only to have just formulated a vision for how best to deploy Pogba.

Exploiting the World Cup winner to the best of his considerable abilities has been a challenge throughout his time at Old Trafford and it seemed only a few months ago that the conundrum would go unanswered with agent Mino Raiola stating late last year that his client would be looking to depart. Who knows if this is the final year of the Pogba-United union but it would be appropriate of such a curious union if it were to end just as things have seemed to click.

Against lesser opponents such as Burnley and Fulham the Frenchman can play a freer role behind Bruno Fernandes, not the heart of the team but more its subtle embellishment. When the opposition necessitates more steel in the engine room then Solskjaer has moved Pogba into the front three with a berth wide on the left looking like a spot where the 27-year-old can do particular damage.

It is working even if statistics do not scream out in Pogba’s favor. There are few metrics in which he stands out. Among Premier League players with over 500 minutes he is 111th for chances created per 90 and 66th in take-ons without an assist to his name. He does not profile as a creator nor as a midfield metronome considering he is 60th for passes completed, 130th for accuracy and 175th for the proportion of his passes that go forward. Nor is he much of a destroyer either. One of the notable categories in which he stands out is passes into the attacking third, where he is 12th among his top flight contemporaries.

But then the numbers only count for so much when Pogba is having such a decisive impact in individual moments. His superb goals to beat obdurate Burnley and Fulham have been the crowning examples of that but United’s recent run has been pockmarked by moments of brilliance, take your pick for a favorite but it is hard to beat his sumptuous assist for Anthony Martial in the 3-2 win over Sheffield United last month. When Solskjaer needs something magical it is invariably Pogba who produces.

To look at his statistics one would assume Pogba has had a disappointing season by his own exceptional standards yet when it matters most there are few players who deliver in such style.

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