Kain Watson looks at three of this unusual season’s unsung heroes
Once heralded as England’s best central defender and seen as an integral part of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City set-up, John Stones’ prospects at the club seemed to be almost non-existent at the start of the current campaign. Successive years of lacklustre performances and injury problems had dampened his reputation, whilst the ensuing big-money signings of defensive additions Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake seemed to indicate that his time in Manchester was coming to an end.
However, a shaky start to the season for Manchester City saw them on a below-par points tally of 12 points from their opening 8 fixtures, with only 2 clean sheets and 11 goals conceded along the way. After performing well in the Champions League and being ever-present in three successive clean sheets, John Stones was reinstated into the first team and has subsequently grasped the opportunity with both hands. Since his reintroduction, he has formed a calming and formidable relationship with Ruben Dias on the way to shoring up the fragile Manchester City defence, with The Citizens conceding only a solitary goal in the 7 league fixtures he has featured in.
Moreover, he currently boasts the best points-per-game return of all players in the Premier League, with Manchester City earning a staggering 2.78 points for every game John Stones has played in. The only blemish on this record is a goalless draw with rivals Manchester United, whilst Stones’ record in all competitions this year reads: 14 appearances, 13 wins, 1 draw, and only 2 goals against. On a personal level, Stones – per 90 minutes – currently has the second-most interceptions (1.3), clearances (2.6) and blocks (0.6) whilst also averaging the most passes (87.1) of all Manchester City players. Indeed, after playing the full 90 minutes in each of Manchester City’s last 7 Premier League games, he appears to have usurped Aymeric Laporte of his position in the team that previously seemed untenable. In doing so, it can be argued that the Englishman has been the catalyst to Manchester City’s season and sharp upturn in form, justifying the gamble that Guardiola took on him and silencing a few of his previous detractors along the way.
André-Frank Zambo Anguissa
Originally signing for Fulham in their ill-fated 2018/19 season, the Cameroonian international came to Craven Cottage with an impressive reputation after featuring heavily for Europa League finalists Marseille in the preceding campaign. However, he featured in less than half of all of the available Premier League minutes in his debut season in England on the way to a disappointing relegation which was confirmed some time before the curtain was officially drawn. Rather than staying with The Cottagers in their bid to escape the Championship, the 25 year old was loaned out to Spanish club Villarreal the following year. In this loan deal, he played in 36 of the 38 La Liga games and was a key player in their Europa League qualification, prompting a £22.5m bid to make the transfer permanent. Fulham, however, foresaw a successful future for the Zambo Anguissa in the English game, and rejected the offer in favour of including them in their 2020/21 squad to aid in their efforts of successfully beating the drop at the second attempt.
A shaky start to the season by the London club in which they tried to embed a practically whole new first-11 had many consigning them to relegation and declaring them as the whipping boys of the division after little over a month. However, they’ve put together a run of only 1 defeat in their last 7 games, picking up points against each of Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City in that time to put them within reach of safety with games in hand. A key figure to this upturn in form has been André-Frank Zambo Anguissa.
Playing in an archetypal box-to-box role, it’s difficult to find many like-for-like comparisons with Zambo Anguissa given that central midfielders tend to be categorised as either an attacking midfielder or a defensive midfielder, primarily. Despite this, the Squawka comparison matrix above shows that the Fulham player excels in metrics at both ends of the pitch when compared with the selected opposition. Whilst it’s expected that he would have a greater propensity for defensive contributions such as tackles and interceptions given Fulham’s overall objective quality in comparison with their opponents, it’s his percentage stats that show him to be an accomplished player. Ranking 2nd in both aerial and ground duel success percentage, he displays those typical characteristics one would expect of a purely defensive midfielder. Where he shines, however, is in his ball-carrying ability. He ranks second in the entire league for successful dribbles per game (3.5), marginally behind joint leaders and perennial dribbling kings Adama Traore and Allan Saint-Maximin (3.6). Moreover, his dribble success rate (71.8%) is strikingly similar to that of Adama Traore (72.1%) and far above Saint-Maximin’s (65.9%).
In the Fulham squad, no outfield player has played as many minutes as the Cameroonian. He also sits atop the rankings for tackles, interceptions, dribbles, through balls and places second for number of assists. A WhoScored average rating of 7.28 comfortably makes him Fulham’s highest rated player this season and, even more impressively, ranks him 15th of all players in the Premier League. The 25 year old appears to be relishing his second opportunity in England’s top tier, slowly cementing himself as an elite talent that is going unrecognised by many.
Truthfully, any number of Aston Villa players could feature here, such has been the transformation that Dean Smith’s squad have undergone in the last 6 months. Near-flawless recruitment coupled with an attacking philosophy has seen Aston Villa implement an attractive brand of football that has yielded results. The footballing Holy Grail. Whilst the likes of Jack Grealish, Emi Martinez and Ollie Watkins have rightly drawn praise, they have been a little too widely acknowledged to be ‘unsung’. On the other hand, Anwar El Ghazi, Trezeguet and Bertrand Traore have featured brilliantly, albeit in a rotational role that can’t quite justify labelling them as ‘heroes’ of Villa’s season.
Matty Cash was one of the aforementioned summer signings for Dean Smith after an impressive Championship season with Nottingham Forest. He was named as the club’s Player of the Season and reportedly rejected January interest from the likes of Manchester City and AC Milan in order to help Forest’s promotion charge. Though it wasn’t to be for Nottingham Forest, the 23 year old has taken to the challenge of regular Premier League football like a duck to water, justifying the reported £16m fee it took to acquire his services and adding a bit of quality to the Aston Villa back line. It can be argued that his effect on the Aston Villa team hasn’t widely been acknowledged because his style of play doesn’t fit the ‘attacking wing back’ role that is in vogue. Nonetheless, he has been a key component to the success of this years’ surprise package club.
Rather than being an attacking outlet, Cash is a defender first. When compared to more recognised, leading right backs in the above Squawka comparison matrix, he comes out top in the number of duels contested per 90mins, such is his combative nature and willingness to be involved in play. Given his primarily-defensive role when compared to his counterparts above, it’s no surprise to see him with almost double the number of clearances and interceptions per 90, and only around half of the number of dribbles and crosses per 90. However, as with most comparisons, it’s the proportional success which best allows for fairer conclusions to be drawn. Whilst he does rank the lowest for number of dribbles and crosses, he actually ranks as the most successful dribbler and the second-most successful crosser of the above players. Additionally, he wins fouls more often than any other player above and loses possession at a lower frequency than all but one. In short, the 23 year old shows incredibly high, consistent levels of economy and efficiency that have been a vital cog to the Aston Villa cause in keeping them defensively tight whilst not sacrificing attacking prowess. As such, WhoScored ratings place Matthew Cash as the statistically-rated best right back in the Premier League this season with a 7.19 rating.
When comparing with his team-mates who have featured in at least half of the available Premier League minutes this season, Cash ranks as follows: 1st for tackles, 1st for interceptions, 2nd for crosses, 3rd for clearances, 3rd for assists and 4th for key passes. The Englishman has been a revelation and has already nailed down the spot as his own as he looks to aid the Midlands club in an unlikely charge for European qualification.
Perhaps unlucky to have not come onto the main stage a year or two earlier earlier, Matty Cash is making a real case for an England call up in an era where the country is spoilt for choice in that position – with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka appearing to be ahead of him in the pecking order. Tariq Lamptey and Kyle Walker-Peters have also done their chances no harm with impressive, consistent performances, whilst the likes of Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier offer experience at major international tournaments. Nonetheless, Cash may still feature at the European Championships this summer regardless as he qualifies to play for Poland due to eligibility on his maternal grandparent’s side.