Best of the Premier League 2018-19: Starting XI and Reserves

Chops May 15, 2019 1310 Reads

Welcome to the first High Press Soccer Premier League XI.

At the end of each season, we’ll take a look at major domestic leagues / cups and parse through the data, player voting, and weigh it against the general context of the year to determine the best XI and reserves. This year will only be the EPL and Champions League, but we’ll expand next year to cover La Liga, Bundesliga, and Serie A (we’ll just copy+paste PGS’s line-up for Ligue 1).

How the 2018-19 Premier League starting XI was determined

The XI (and reserves, 18 total) were determined based on:

  • Statistical output: Analytics and data matter.
  • Importance to team performance: Analytics and data don’t measure context. Did Lukasz Fabianski change West Ham’s season more than Alisson Becker did for Liverpool? Was their degree of difficulty the same?
  • PFA voting: While the pros definitely got a few spots wrong (mostly due to recency bias on a few streaking players), in general it’s easier to provide weight to their opinions since, you know, they actually play the game against these guys. That’s important.
  • Overall player value: A free market is a good indicator on something or someone’s overall value. It often doesn’t account for factors such as injuries, but it serves as a good measure for who is worth the most at their respective positions.

To those bullets, here are the points we mostly used as reference.

Transfermarkt Value: As stated above, a free market is usually a solid indicator of a player’s value, no? The one issue here is it doesn’t account for injuries that limited playing time (Harry Kane) or someone having a down year due to a new coach casting him in a ill-fitting role (N’Golo Kante).

Regardless, here’s transfermarkt’s top XI:

Mostly looks good, although it’s hard to argue that David de Gea would attract more interest today than Alisson Becker or Ederson.

Soccer Analytics: For this, we’re using WhoScored. Overall captures most of the key data points need to paint a full picture of a player’s season. As written above though, it doesn’t provide context. We’ll dive into the specifics of that point once we get to the selections.

PFA Voting: Again, players know. They always know. However, a few selections show recency bias from the time when voting took place. Raheem Sterling (who had an awesome year) and Paul Pogba were peaking at the time of the voting. Mo Salah was slumping. Over the course of a full season, and particularly at the close, was Sterling better than Salah? Was Pogba better than Hazard?

HPS Starting XI and Reserves

With all of that out of the way, here’s our first Premier League seasonal team. In the coming years, we’ll continue to refine the methodology and team selection.

To keep things simple, we use a 4-3-3 formation. Since the starting XI is made up entirely of Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea players, they get a blended red/blue kit.

Let’s start between the sticks.

Goalkeeper: Alisson. Won the Golden Glove award as he led the Premier League with 21 clean sheets. Statistically, West Ham’s Lukasz Fabianski rated as the league’s best goalkeeper, but this is where context comes into play. Alisson was the final piece that turned Liverpool into a rollercoastery offensive juggernaut to one of the most well-balanced teams in the world. He faced and saved less shots than Fabianski, but he made huge saves all year when it mattered most. He did so without missing a minute of Premier League play and while shouldering the pressures of a Champions League Finals fun. It was close, but Alisson gets the edge.

Right-Back: Trent Alexander-Arnold. This came down to splitting hairs between the best defensive right-back (break-out Crystal Palace youngster Aaron Wan-Bissaka) and an offensive juggernaut in TAA. Wan-Bissaka
was second in the EPL in successful tackles and crosses blocked. TAA was third in the Premier League in assists (12) and first on his team. He also improved defensively as the year progressed. Again, context here. TAA and his left-wingback partner Andy Robertson were often the fulcrums of Liverpool’s attack. With a lack of attacking midfielders, they provided the spark that ignites the Reds’ frontline trio.

Center-Back: Virgil van Dijk. Easiest selection on the board. VVD was a monster all year and won the PFA vote as well. A constant stable presence that anchored the league’s best overall backline.

Center-Back: Aymeric Laporte. Anchored the league’s second best defense (only 1 goal conceded more than Liverpool). A fantastic passer (92.3% success rate) who chipped in three domestic goals and assists this year. At 24, still has room to improve. When VVD ages out in a few years, Laporte will be the league’s best center-back.

Left-Back: Andrew Robertson. Same dilemma as with right-back. Lucas Digne was sensational all year for Everton. Robertson though was a non-stop motor for Liverpool who, along with TAA, provided their potent attack from the back. Robbo had 11 assists for the year (Digne tallied 4 goals and 4 assists). He outpaced Digne in tackles, interceptions, and dribbles per game as well. The clincher, fairly or unfairly, was how Robertson compared directly to established “world’s greatest left-back” Jordi Alba in the Champions League semis. Robertson was more effective overall, particularly in Leg 2. Advantage, Robbo.

Right-Mid: Paul Pogba. Admittedly, this is the one we went back and forth with the most. Christian Eriksen and Bernardo Silva (and the always underrated Son Heung-min) got consideration for this spot, but advanced stats and player voting liked Pogba’s uneven season. He tallied 13 goals, 50 created chances and 21 xG-xA. United were at their best when Pogba was at his–and they would’ve likely fallen out of the top 6 if not for his mid-season resurgence. Bernardo Silva was just a tick less productive in fewer minutes (and games) played. This is Pogba, barely, in the hardest spot we had to fill.

Center-Mid: Fernandinho. Similarly to Pogba, City were at their best when
the 34 year-old Fernandinho was on the pitch. They only dropped 8 points in the 29 games he played. Players and analytics agreed he was among the best XI for the year on arguably the best assembled squad of all time.

Left-Mid: Eden Hazard. We’re not sure whether or not PFA voting was some sort of meta-game on Hazard (“if we don’t vote for him and he thinks we don’t respect him, maybe he’ll leave…”). What we know with certainty is, when fit, Hazard is unarguably one of the three best players in England. WhoScored ranked him #1 this year. He tallied the most combined goals and assist in the league with 31 (16 goals, 15 assists). His likely departure will set Chelsea back for some time. Players like Hazard don’t come around often.

Left-Forward: Mohamed Salah. Terrible year. Golden Boot winner. Second in the EPL in goals+assists. First in EPL in team points created from goals. Second highest seasonal player rating on WhoScored in EPL. Just a terrible, awful year. Orrrrrr…Salah finished fewer of his opportunities than his record-setting 2017-18 campaign, but was Liverpool’s most important offensive players and, along with Hazard, a massive glaring oversight in the PFA voting. Along with Harry Kane, Kevin de Bruyne, and Eden Hazard, he carries the highest transfermarkt price tag in the league. Salah is among the global elite.

Center-Forward: Sergio Aguero. Unless you’re a [bandwagon] City fan, nobody is as terrifying around the ball as Aguero in the Premier League. He’s always a threat, always finds the angle, and finishes at an elite goals/minute clip (best in the Premier League among regular starters). With Kane injured much of the year, there’s not much to debate on this one.

Right-Forward: Raheem Sterling. This was the second most difficult decision. Choosing Sterling means no Sadio Mane. It’s impossible to ignore what the co-Golden Boot winner Mane meant to the Liverpool attack (particularly when Salah was in poor form, Mane stepped up). However, Sterling’s advanced stats were better, he finished second in voting among his peers for the PFA award, and he tallied more goals+assists than Mane (27 to 23) on one of England’s all-time best offensive teams.

Reserves:

Lukasz Fabianski, Sadio Mane, Lucas Digne, Fabian Schar, Christian Eriksen, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bernardo Silva

Near misses: Son Heung-min and Leroy Sane were tough to overlook and will likely at least make the reserves by next year. Felipe Anderson also considered.

Just a few words on the reserves:

  • Lukasz Fabianski: Best analytically between the sticks.
  • Sadio Mane: A handful more assists he would’ve edged Sterling. Felt like he got stronger and faster as the year progressed.
  • Lucas Digne: A complete LB.
  • Fabian Schar: Crazy good value on this Newcastle player. Expect teams like Manchester United to be all over him next year.
  • Christian Eriksen: Almost immediately regretting putting Pogba in over him. Pogba’s numbers just better.
  • Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: Co-Golden Boot winner and really shined for Arsenal in Europa League.
  • Bernardo Silva: Will be in the XI next year.
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