Which Premier League players are over-performing and under-performing this season? Who has been flattered by their assist tally and who is likely to push on under a new regime? Here are three players who could improve in 2019, plus three who could fall back.
Three who could thrive
Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City
By now, many expected Gabriel Jesus to have displaced Sergio Aguero as Manchester City’s first-choice striker. The Brazilian is younger and more adaptable, and Pep Guardiola therefore had the opportunity to mould him into precisely the type of striker he wanted.
Things haven’t quite gone as expected, though. Jesus had a difficult 2018, dominated by his disappointing performance at last summer’s World Cup, when he led the line but ended the tournament goalless. Meanwhile, Aguero has improved considerably under Guardiola, particularly in terms of his link-up play. Now, there’s no longer a question of Aguero’s place being up for grabs.
But Guardiola will probably need Jesus in the coming months. Aguero tends to encounter a couple of injury problems every season, and when he missed four league matches in December, Jesus came into the side to assist Riyad Mahrez’s goal against Watford, and then scored twice in a 2-1 victory over Everton.
He remains excellent at getting himself into goal-scoring positions, and while his finishing hasn’t quite matched his incredible conversion rate from his opening months, the underlying numbers suggest goals are coming.
Besides, City are still competing in four competitions this season. Aguero won’t be able to play all the time — and Guardiola has notably often removed the Argentine around the 65-minute mark this season to conserve his energy. After a slow start, Jesus could have a major impact down the stretch.
Paul Pogba, Manchester United
The transformation is obvious. It will be some time before we know the gory details, but it’s clear that Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba did not get along at Manchester United. The Frenchman — ranked No. 4 among the world’s central midfielders in the ESPN FC 100 — on the bench in recent weeks was the starkest demonstration of Mourinho’s inability to get the best from a very talented squad.
After Mourinho’s departure — and Pogba’s supposedly accidental Instagram reaction — the results are clear. Two assists in a 5-1 win over Cardiff, two goals in a 3-1 win over Huddersfield, two goals and an assist in a 4-1 win over Bournemouth. This is the Pogba we expected when he arrived at Old Trafford, bursting forward to provide decisive contributions in the final third, with the timing of his runs particularly impressive.
But forget about Mourinho. This is the first time that Pogba has been playing under a manager that isn’t Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Max Allegri or Didier Deschamps. We’ve never seen Pogba not playing under a strict tactician, and instead playing under a boss like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who seems content to give his players free rein. Pogba’s second half of this season could be spectacular.
Eden Hazard, Chelsea
Eden Hazard’s unquestionably brilliant season thus far is nevertheless interesting to examine from the “expected goals” and “expected assists” angle — essentially, how many goals a player would generally score from the position of his shots, and how many assists he would generally collect from the nature of his passes to teammates.
In real terms, Hazard — ranked at No. 4 among the world’s forward’s in the ESPN FC 100 — has 10 goals and nine assists. But in ‘expected’ terms, that figure falls to 7.5 goals and only 7.1 assists. The former statistic suggests Hazard’s finishing has been exceptional, but these things usually regress towards the “expected” figure. The latter statistic, meanwhile, suggests that Hazard’s assists partly owe to fantastic finishes from teammates rather than incisive passes himself.
Hazard still has a claim to being the Premier League’s best attacker so far — he remains the most prolific dribbler in the division, and his movement and trickery has been wonderful at times. But the numbers suggest his impact might dip after this busy Christmas period. Besides, as a player who has something of a habit of switching off when not motivated, if Hazard knows a move to Real Madrid is imminent, he might save himself for next season.