We’re now nearly 20% of the way through the 2017/18 football season – how fast has that gone? – and already we can form some pretty strong opinions as to how the campaign is set to pan out.
The Manchester sides are tipped for a titanic title dispute, with the rest of the big boys merely playing for third and fourth place. At the other end of the table, the relegation trapdoor is just starting to creak open for those anchored towards the rear end of proceedings.
All of the hype and hysteria of the summer transfer window has been laid bare too, so who has lived up to expectation and who has underwhelmed on a major scale?
The Best Signings (So Far)
When you flick open the newspapers on a Sunday morning, you’ll notice that the vast majority of headlines are dedicated to those players who have netted winning goals – that’s because goals are the only currency that truly matter in football. They are the tangible output of the 90 minutes of action, and as such much easier for the casual fan to understand than, say, the under-the-radar work of a defensive midfielder.
Goals win football matches, and points mean prizes, so proven goal-getters tend to be sold at premium prices. That is the beautiful game’s own law of economics.
So while eyebrows will have been raised at the transfer fees of both Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata at £75m and £58m respectively, the truth is that these two frontmen could make Manchester United and Chelsea plenty of cash of their own this season.
There are some that claim that Lukaku is a flat track bully, and use statistics that show a goal return of one-in-two games against sides outside of the ‘big six’ – as opposed to one-in-four against the elite outfits – as some kind of confirmation that he is overrated and overpriced.
But draw up a list of players that have scored 15 or more Premier League goals in each of the last three seasons and your pen won’t be running out of ink any time soon: the list comprises just Lukaku, Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero alone.
What kind of fees do you think Kane and Aguero would command in the current market? It would certainly be far in excess of £75m, and so by that measure Manchester United have landed a real bargain in the 24-year-old, who has already repaid Jose Mourinho’s faith with seven league goals in just eight starts.
The fact that Morata has taken to life in the English top flight like a duck to water is perhaps a little more surprising. The Spaniard has lined up for some of the continent’s finest outfits, including Real Madrid and Juventus, but never quite made the grade at either: featuring more as an impact substitute rather than somebody considered to have the ability to make a difference from the start.
But he has hit the ground running for the Blues, netting six times in as many Premier League starts, and as such Morata has to be shortlisted as a signing of the season (so far) candidate – regardless of his lofty price tag. Where would Chelsea be without his goals at this moment in time?
There are a number of other candidates for the best signing category, and many are located at the clubs that generally have the cash to splash on premium performers. But what about a player who has transformed the fortunes of one of the Premier League’s perennial ‘punching above their weight’ merchants?
Grzegorz Krychowiak has won the Europa League with Sevilla and played Champions League football for PSG in recent seasons, so his decision to join West Brom on loan raised more than a few eyebrows.
An intelligent, combative midfielder, Krychowiak has been a vital cog in the Baggies’ outstanding start to the campaign. The Pole ranks first in the division for interceptions made – averaging more per 90 minutes than even the perceptive powers of N’Golo Kante can muster.
He also ranks thirteenth for successful tackles, boasts a pass completion rate of 81% and even finds time to connect three long passes per game on average – crucial to Tony Pulis’ style of play.
As we know, defensive midfielders like Krychowiak very rarely own the spotlight, but as a vital cog in a West Brom side that currently sits in tenth place – just three points behind Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, we must recognise his stellar input into a magnificent example of overachieving personified.
And the Worst Signings So Far
For the vast majority of us, the closest we get to elite football management is via our fictional efforts on computer games, and so we have to assume that we know less about the beautiful game than those employed as managers at the top level.
So when we question a player like Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, we have to remember that two respected managers in Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp clearly see something in him. The Ox has now played for two of the biggest clubs in the land, and has a bunch of England caps to look back on.
He is a top player then, surely?
Perhaps he is, but to the layman it is difficult to see how Klopp can justify his £40 million outlay on the midfielder. His game is peppered with awful decision making in the final third of the pitch, and the kind of end product that would drive a Sunday League manager to tears; let alone one with designs on continental domination.
Starting out as a central midfielder, it is always apparent when a player is lacking something when they get pigeonholed into different positions – the Ox has played left wing back, right wing back and on either flank in the past few seasons, but very rarely gets a run-out in his favoured central role. Why? Because he simply can’t be trusted to control matches due to his wayward passing.
Before this turns into a hatchet job, we must stress that Liverpool should be applauded for taking a chance on a young English talent, but the £40m outlay on a player who will be a million miles from the first team once Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane return from injury is an indictment of the fact that there is simply too much spare money sloshing about in the game.
For his part, the Ox should have gone and played for a side who will let him learn his craft in the middle of the park – as Jack Wilshere did in his time at Bournemouth. As it stands, he’s likely to fade into obscurity as so many young Englishmen with dreams of riches at the big clubs have in the past.
The other main candidate for this (dis)honour is more of a reflection on the manager that purchased him rather than the player himself.
When Ronald Koeman paid £45 million for Gylfi Sigurdsson, he must have been rubbing his hands together in glee. Many had suggested the Icelander was overpriced for a 28-year-old, but a player that has assisted 33 Premier League goals – more than anyone else of the modern era – is worth their weight in gold.
Sigurdsson’s best work has come in two spells at Swansea, where he has provided ample ammunition for burly frontmen such as Wilfried Bony and Fernando Llorente; the former firing the Swans to an eighth-place finish in 2014/15, and the latter keeping them up last season.
So a Sigurdsson-Lukaku link-up was the stuff of dreams for Everton fans….but by the time he had captured the creator, Koeman had already sold Lukaku to Manchester United.
All of which means the Dutchman is left with an ageing asset that is rapidly decreasing in value, as Sigurdsson is now tasked with creating goals for a band of attacking players at Everton that includes the slow (Wayne Rooney), the inexperienced (Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Sandro Ramirez) and the unknown (Davy Klaasen).
Sigurdsson’s tag as worst signing of the season is more Koeman’s doing than the player’s. He’s the right man, just in the wrong place.