Forging A Team Of Champions Out Of The Premier League’s Relegation Candidates
Leicester’s 2016-17 campaign has been a bitter reminder to us all that even the most improbable of underdog stories must come to an end at some point. Claudio Ranieri’s side have gone from champions to relegation fodder this season, but would it be possible to achieve the same sequence of events in reverse?Here I’ll take the primary candidates for relegation from the Premier League – not including Leicester – this this season, namely Middlesbrough, Hull, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, and attempt to shape a team of potential title winners from their pool of players.
THE SYSTEM: 4-4-2
Go on, laugh. Quote Mike Bassett. But just remember: this system worked for Leicester last season. To be honest I toyed with a more niche 3-4-2-1 shape before reaching the conclusion that, while it has been effective for Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, such a complex system probably wouldn’t look quite so good without any of Chelsea’s players to choose from, or Antonio Conte to coach it.
Now this is where it gets interesting. But before we go on, a quick note on the rules. Players who are on loan at Middlesbrough, Hull, Crystal Palace and Sunderland cannot be included in this selection, as they don’t technically belong to the aforementioned clubs. As much as it pains this poor, beleaguered manager, the likes of Mamadou Sakho, Lazar Markovic and Alvaro Negredo must therefore be ignored.
Goalkeeper: Jordan Pickford (Sunderland)
For this team it would be possible to choose someone with 24 caps for France (Steve Mandanda) or a proactive shot-stopper who was a key member in arguably the greatest club side of all time (Victor Valdes). However, I’ve gone for Jordan Pickford. Goalkeepers are often the anointed saviours of relegation-threatened clubs for the simple reason that they are regularly called upon, and Pickford has no doubt benefitted from this. But he’s also obviously talented and, at 22 years of age, has real potential.
Right-back: Joel Ward (Crystal Palace)
There weren’t a huge amount of options for the right-back spot in this team. Antonio Barragan has done reasonably well in a solid Middlesbrough defence, but Joel Ward gets in ahead of him. Versatile, hard-working and defensively decent, he’d offer a bit of balance to this back four, allowing my chosen left-back (read on…) to bomb forward with greater freedom.
Centre-back: Harry Maguire (Hull)
This season, Harry Maguire has completed more tackles per 90 minutes than any other Premier League centre-back. In addition, he has played with intelligence and a level of composure on the ball not usually seen in defenders operating towards the bottom of the league. The 23-year-old has been linked to Everton, West Ham and Southampton, which is a sort of confirmation that he’s far too good for a relegation dogfight.
Centre-back: Ben Gibson (Middlesbrough)
While they struggle to score, defending certainly isn’t Middlesbrough’s problem—if the Premier League rankings were based on who conceded the least goals, Aitor Karanka’s side would be fourth in the table. Ben Gibson is a huge part of that, which explains why some say the 24-year-old deserves an England call-up. The sheer power and aerial presence of Lamine Kone would have been valuable, but Gibson – with a pass accuracy bettered by only five Premier League defenders – will start alongside Maguire at the heart of this back four.
Left-back: Patrick van Aanholt (Crystal Palace)
There are a number of possible attack-minded left-backs to choose from for this team.
Middlesbrough’s George Friend and Hull’s Andrew Robertson both offer plenty going forward, but for pure offensive threat Patrick van Aanholt deserves inclusion. Adventurous, fast and a good crosser, the Dutch international would add real attacking quality down the left wing.
Right wing: Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
Two similarly enticing players are available for selection in this position in Wilfried Zaha and Adama Traore. The latter has been superb for Middlesbrough at times, with his incisive forays causing havoc in opposition defences; indeed no other Premier League midfielder has completed more dribbles per 90 minutes than the Spaniard. Zaha is ranked just two places behind Traore in this respect, with Eden Hazard separating the pair, but the Ivorian winger’s zeal and consistency gives him the edge.
Central midfield: Tom Huddlestone (Hull)
Every team needs a bit of composure in the centre of midfield, and Tom Huddlestone is the obvious candidate to provide it here. His relaxation sometimes negatively affects the sharpness of his distribution from a deeper position, but it’s worth noting that only five Premier League midfielders average more interceptions than the 30-year-old.
Central midfield: Marten de Roon (Middlesbrough)
It feels like there’s a lot more to come from Marten de Roon in a Middlesbrough shirt. The Dutchman has not quite performed to expectations since his arrival from Atalanta last summer for a fee of £12 million, but at 25 he may still be adapting to English football. During his one season in Serie A he completed more tackles per game than any other player; if he can re-find that form in the Premier League he could be a real asset to the Boro, as well as my hypothetical XI.
Left wing: Kamil Grosicki (Hull)
Hull’s January dealings brought a number of strange loan signings, though the permanent capture of Polish international Kamil Grosicki for £7 million was a standout piece of transfer activity. Highly regarded in France after several seasons with Rennes and with two European Championship finals’ under his belt, the 28-year-old has brought relentless energy and pace to Marco Silva’s attack. Grosicki would also suit this team perfectly, with his proclivity for driving inside complementing van Aanholt’s desire to overlap. See, it all makes sense.
Striker: Jermain Defoe (Sunderland)
Jermain Defoe’s goals record for Sunderland is all the more remarkable considering the poor service he has received at the Stadium of Light. He continues to find space where others don’t and beat goalkeepers from the tightest of angles. The 34-year-old’s intelligent movement and clinical finishing would be a welcome addition to almost any Premier League side.
Striker: Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace)
The notion of playing Middlesbrough’s Gaston Ramirez behind Defoe as a second striker was considered, but ultimately the intimidating physical stature, aerial force and scoring record of Christian Benteke convinced me that a strike duet could work. The Belgian’s reputation has suffered a hit due to a poor season with Liverpool, but more noteworthy is that, at just 26 years old, he has found the net on a consistent basis for the best part of half a decade. This term he has been good in a poor Crystal Palace team, scoring nine goals and winning more aerial duels than all other Premier League strikers aside from Peter Crouch.
HOW WOULD THIS TEAM FARE?
With Pickford shielded by a solid centre-back partnership of Maguire and Gibson, goals would be hard to come by against this team. And, with all three in their early 20s, the future of the defence would be incredibly bright. However, with Ward to their right, van Aanholt’s attacking tendencies to their left, and Huddlestone’s occasional wayward passing in front of them, the central defence wouldn’t have great protection.
Fortunately, the vigour and skill of Zaha and Grosicki, the ceaseless work rate of de Roon and the potency of a Defoe-Benteke strike partnership should help to paper over any defensive cracks, and while a title challenge may be a step too far, a top six finish would not be out of the question.