Chris Smalling

BENJAMINWILLS’BLOG PREMIER LEAGUE TEAM OF THE SEASON SO FAR (2015/16)

We are barely at Christmas and the 2015-16 Premier League season has given us plenty of talking points already. From surprise table-toppers Leicester City to Chelsea – the holders who have fallen from grace – and, of course, a certain Jamie Vardy – but more on him later.

The winter festivities bring out many celebrations and, most enjoyably, an even more bumper football fixture list. It is also the time of the year we see people start to talk about the end-of-season awards – here is BenjaminWillsBlog’s pick of the top 11 men so far.

Goalkeeper: Jack Butland (Stoke City)

Even before this season Jack Butland was lauded as one for the future for the England team – his inclusion into the Euro 2012 squad at just 19 years of age proved that but recent performances could already have him pushing for a start at the next Euros.

Asmir Begovic’s switch to Chelsea in the summer paved the way for Butland to make the number one shirt at Stoke City his own and he has grabbed the opportunity, like most crosses he has faced, with both hands.

Butland has made 56 saves and kept seven clean sheets (second to Costel Pantilimon and Heurelho Gomes respectively), but he has an average save-per-game rating of 3.29 and a 98% success rate at claiming crosses.

JB

Honourable Mentions: Heurelho Gomes (Watford) and Petr Cech (Arsenal)

Right-Back: Cedric Soares (Southampton)

Perhaps an early surprise name on the team sheet ahead of Hector Bellerin and Kyle Walker – mainly due to Southampton failing to build on their seventh placed spot from 2014-15, but Cedric Soares has filled the Nathaniel Clyne-shaped hole in the Saints’ defence seamlessly.

The Portuguese full-back has won 38 tackles – more than Arsenal’s Bellerin and Walker of Tottenham having played a game less than the former and two less than the latter and he has made nine blocks – six more than Walker and seven more than Bellerin. He also has just one fewer clearance than the pair.

Soares also plays a role in the opposing half superbly. He has created 18 chances and made 17 key passes, yes, you guessed it, six more than Walker and eight more than Bellerin.

Cedric

Honourable Mentions: Hector Bellerin (Arsenal) and Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur)

Centre Back: Chris Smalling (Manchester United)

Even the most diehard Manchester United fan, in fact, especially the most diehard Manchester United fan, will tell you that the Red Devils have not been fun to watch this season – but Chris Smalling is one man who gives them reasons to be cheerful.

Louis van Gaal’s defensive tactics has stunted the normally attack-minded Manchester United in front of goal but on the flip side it makes them pretty sturdy at the back and Smalling is the finest example of that.

Smalling has had a hand in United having eight clean sheets from the 16 league matches where he has featured – the only one he missed was the humiliating 2-1 loss at AFC Bournemouth.

Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal

Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal for Manchester United

Centre Back: Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)

“Best defender in the Premier League” – those are the words of Rio Ferdinand and Thierry Henry, both esteemed pundits and football legends, high praise indeed – and Laurent Koscielny has justified it this season.

The mercurial Frenchman has been ‘le Roche’ at the back for the Gunners as they make their latest bid to win the title for the first time since the historic 2003-2004 “Invincibles” side.

Koscielny’s display in the recent 2-1 win over fellow title-chasers Manchester City was arguably his performance of the season with Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne and Wilfried Bony all failing to cause him much trouble – only a wonderful Yaya Toure goal prevented Arsenal from keeping their eighth clean sheet.

Under the Kos-h: Best defender in the league? Yes according to Ferdinand and Henry

Under the Kos-h: Best defender in the league? Yes according to Ferdinand and Henry

Honourable Mentions: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Cook (AFC Bournemouth), and John Stones (Everton)

Left-Back: Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)

Patience is a virtue, as is hard work, Nacho Monreal has both in abundance. Just two years ago you were more likely to see Monreal on the Arsenal bench while Kieran Gibbs occupied the left-back role, now roles have reversed and Monreal has even became one of the league’s finest in the position.

He also finds himself overlooked in the Spain squad with Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta of Barcelona and Chelsea respectively preferred over him but if he carries on like this he may get his deserved chance.

Arsenal, as ever, are impressing with their flair game of pass-and-move, which Monreal does contribute to too, but it is his work rate first and foremost that has endeared him to his fans.

Quite a Dish: He had to wait, but Nacho is proving to be a great starter

Quite a Dish: He had to wait, but Nacho is proving to be a great starter

Honourable Mentions: Nathan Ake (Watford) and Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)

Centre Midfielder: Ross Barkley (Everton)

What a yo-yo player Ross Barkley is proving to be – down, up, down, up…

Barkley properly burst onto the scene in 2013-14, three years after he broke his leg, and scored six goals in 34 games in his debut full season in the Premier League but last season he only scored two goals and registered two assists.

This campaign however he has truly blossomed, he already has six goals and six assists to his name, he has made 31 key passes and created 33 chances from the heart of the Everton midfield, pulling the strings like many expected of him at an even earlier age. France, here he comes.

RB

Centre Midfielder: N’Golo Kante (Leicester City)

Every good side needs a midfield enforcer and league leaders Leicester City (yes, really), have one in N’Golo Kante.

The previously relative unknown Kante was snapped up in the summer from Ligue 1’s SC Caen for £5.6 million, just one year after playing in France’s second tier for the same club and, for the time being at least, he finds himself top of the Premier League table.

Practically everyone in Leicester’s path have been outfoxed from August to December and, if Claudio Ranieri’s men keep up the story of the season, Kante could be commanding a higher transfer fee in six months time.

Unpredicted star: N'Golo Kante believe how well he has done but Caen can

Unpredicted star: N’Golo Kante believe how well he has done but Caen can

Honourable Mentions: Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur) and Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace)

Right Midfielder: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)

A Leicester player for Player of the Season? Only in 2015-16. Riyad Mahrez has been a star for the side many tipped for relegation before a ball was kicked.

Mahrez has been involved in 18 of Leicester’s 37 goals this season (11 goals, seven assists) which is more than any other player in the league.

He only scored three goals in the year Leicester got promoted to the Premier League from the Championship and netted a solitary one more last season. Keeping hold of the Algerian beyond January seems crucial if the Foxes want the fairytale to have a happy ever after.

Wing Wizard: Mahrez is Algeria's most dangerous export since petroleum

Wing Wizard: Mahrez is Algeria’s most dangerous export since petroleum

Honourable Mentions: Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace), Willian (Chelsea) and Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)

Centre Attacking Midfielder: Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)

Blink during an Arsenal match and you will probably miss an assist from Mesut Ozil. The 27-year-old German has set up 15 league goals already, as many as David Silva has in a single season and only five fewer than the Premier League record over an entire season held by Henry, also of Arsenal.

Ozil has found the back of the net of his own accord twice, made 52 key passes and created a whopping 67 chances for the rest of Arsene Wenger’s squad.

If the Gunners are going to win their first title in 12 years, the King of Assists is going to need to keep providing moments of magic as, at times, he completely runs the game almost single-handedly.

MO

Honourable Mentions: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) and Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)

Left Midfielder: Dmitri Payet (West Ham United)

West Ham United’s impending move to the Olympic Stadium is expected to attract some big names to east London, but that process began as early as this June when Dmitri Payet signed for the happy Hammers for around £12 million.

Payet recorded the fourth highest assist total in Europe last season for Marseille (17), only then Wolfsburg man de Bruyne (20), Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi (both 18) provided more.

He started in England how he finished in France too, he scored five goals, made three assists, created 46 chances and fashioned 43 key passes in just 12 games. Unfortunately, an ankle injury sustained in November stopped him in his tracks and it could rule him out for up to another two months.

Child's Play: Payet has made Premier League defences look like dummies

Child’s Play: Payet has made Premier League defences look like dummies

Honourable Mentions: Gerard Deulofeu (Everton) and Sadio Mane (Southampton)

Striker: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)

Where do you start with Jamie Vardy? His story? Only naturally. Non-league Halifax Town to Premier League Golden Boot via Fleetwood in four years is literally film worthy if the DailyMail are to be believed. In fairness, his rise has been something more akin to Hollywood film sets rather than English football pitches.

Vardy only scored five goals throughout last season as Leicester narrowly stayed up but the Sheffield-born striker has 15 in 17 currently, with 13 of them coming in 11 consecutive games – overthrowing Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of adding to the score-sheet for ten games on the trot.

While Wayne Rooney continues to struggle for United, England could may well have a trick up their sleeve in Vardy to lead the line at next summer’s European Championships in France.

Jamie Vardy's having a party: The Leicester man can't stop scoring

Jamie Vardy’s having a party: The Leicester man can’t stop scoring

Honourable Mentions: Odion Ighalo (Watford) and Romelu Lukaku (Everton)

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Scotland 1-3 England (Robertson ’83, Oxlade-Chamberlain ’32, Rooney ’47, 85)

Scotland’s wait for a win over arch rivals England stretched to 15 years as two goals propels Wayne Rooney to third in England’s all-time top goal scorer list.

Goals number 45 and 46 for Rooney, coming after 101 caps, leapfrog the England captain ahead of Jimmy Greaves and he is now four away from overtaking Bobby Charlton’s record amount of 49.

His first made it two-nil two minutes into the second half following Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s opener with a low, stooping header inside the six yard box after Luke Shaw’s shot from the outside of the area was blocked before deflecting off Andy Robertson into the path of Rooney who was never going to miss.

Number two came five minutes before the end after James Milner’s pass from the right hand side of the area was cut back by half-time substitute Adam Lallana into the feet of Rooney to tap home.

Oxlade-Chamberlain initially opened the scoring with a guided header 32 minutes in.

It was a goal made in Arsenal with Oxlade-Chamberlain glancing in Jack Wilshere’s floated cross from the left.

Robertson went some way to atoning for his error that led to England’s second by scoring himself with seven minutes to go, capping off a one-two with Johnny Russell.

England were worthy of their win, dominating the display from start to finish with Chris Smalling heading over a Stewart Downing corner before Danny Welbeck was denied by David Marshall with a low drive inside the first five minutes of the match.

Scotland: Marshall (Gordon ’45), Whittaker, Robertson, R. Martin, Hanley (May ’66), Maloney (Russell ’81), Mulgrew, Brown (Fletcher ’45), C. Martin (Morrison ’45), Naismith, Anya (Bannan ’61)

Subs not used: Bryson, Berra, Dorrans, Greer, Burke, Gilks, Macleod, Forsyth, Paterson

Yellow Cards: Mulgrew ‘46

Red Cards: None

England: Forster, Clyne, Shaw (Gibbs ’66), Milner, Cahill (Jagielka ’45), Smalling, Wilshere (Barkley ’87), Downing (Lallana ’45), Welbeck (Sterling ’66), Rooney, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Lambert ’79)

Subs not used: Chambers, Foster, Henderson, Walcott, Berahino

Yellow Cards: None

Red Cards: None

West Bromwich Albion 2-2 Manchester United

A late Daley Blind strike rescued a point for Champions League chasing Manchester United at the Hawthorns as the Red Devils dropped to sixth in the table.

Blind’s effort, coming in the 87th minute, denied West Bromwich Albion a famous win over Louis Van Gaal’s side with a curling shot from the edge of the box after the Baggies’ back line failed to efficiently clear a cross from the right.

West Brom twice took the lead, firstly when Stephane Sessegnon blasted home with a strike that flew into the top corner giving David De Gea no chance in the Manchester United goal just eight minutes into the match.

Marouane Fellaini pulled United level three minutes after the half time break, smashing an unstoppable shot past stand in Goalkeeper Boaz Myhill.

Saido Berahino regained West Brom’s lead with 24 minutes left on the clock after substitute Fellaini’s equaliser, Chris Brunt’s intelligent through ball picked out this season’s top English scorer in the Premier League so far and he calmly slotted the ball past De Gea after losing his marker Phil Jones.

Robin Van Persie came closest without scoring for the visitors when his rasping volley hit the inside of the post, bouncing out to deny the Dutchman a place on the score sheet.

The hosts only fashioned eight shots on goal (two on target) during the 90 minutes compared to United’s 22 (seven on target) but will be proud of their display, especially given their 2-1 defeat at Anfield before the international break.

West Bromwich Albion: Myhill, Wisdom, Dawson, Lescott, Pocognoli, Gardner, Morrison, Sessegnon (Mulumbu ’86), Dorrans, Brunt, Berahino

Subs not used: Daniels, Gamboa, McAuley, Blanco, Ideye, Anichebe

Man United:  De Gea, Rafael, Rojo, Jones, Shaw, Blind, Herrera (Fellaini ’45), Di Maria (Young ’76), Mata (Falcao ’72), Van Persie, Januzaj

Subs not used: Lindegaard, Smalling, Fletcher, Carrick

Manchester United 1-2 Swansea City

Swansea City earned a shock 1-2 victory over Manchester United in Louis Van Gaal’s first game in charge to deny him a positive start to life at Old Trafford.

Returning fan favourite from Tottenham Gylfi Sigurdsson won the game for the visitors when he turned in Wayne Routledge’s miscued volley with 72 minutes on the clock.

Ki Sung-Yeung initially swept the Swans in front after 28 minutes following Sigurdsson’s pass across the edge of the box.

Wilfried Bony blocked Phil Jones in an off the ball incident which prevented Ki from being closed down but referee Mike Dean ruled that there was no malice in the challenge.

Manchester United’s new captain Wayne Rooney leveled the scores after 53 minutes when he acrobatically turned in Jones’ headed knock on from a corner.

He almost doubled his tally 25 minutes from time but his free-kick clipped the outside of the post before going out for a goal kick.

Neither team were dominant in what was a match that involved very few clear cut chances.

Super Sigurdsson: Swansea's new signing celebrates winner on his return

Super Sigurdsson: Swansea’s new signing celebrates winner on his return

It was Manchester United who came closest without scoring in the first half in fortunate circumstances when Jones’ cross needed tipping over the bar by Lukasz Fabianski.

Rooney also had a tame headed effort saved easily.

Jesse Lingard had his Premier League bow cut tragically short when he was substituted on 24 minutes due to injury.

The second half was a similar story, Swansea limited the pre kick off favourites to limited opportunities while Manchester United’s weak back line was too easily exploited.

Van Gaal’s coveted 3-5-2 system was dealt with comfortably by Swansea. The pace from the likes of Nathan Dyer, Wayne Routledge and substitute Jefferson Montero was too hard to deal with for inexperienced wing backs Ashley Young and Adnan Januzaj while Bony and Sigurdsson caused problems for Jones, Chris Smalling and youth graduate Tyler Blackett.

Manchester United: De Gea, Jones, Smalling, Blackett, Lingard (Januzaj ’24), Fletcher, Herrera (Fellaini ’67), Young, Mata, Rooney, Hernandez (Nani ’45)

Subs not used: Amos, James, M Keane, Kagawa

Swansea City: Fabianski, Rangel, Amat, Williams, Taylor (Tiendalli ’53) Ki, Shelvey, Dyer (Montero ’67), Sigurdsson, Routledge, Bony (Gomis ’77)

Subs not used: Tremmel, Bartley, Richards, Sheehan

Man of the match: Ashley Williams