We use the excuse of an international break to pick the Most Valuable Player from each of the Premier League’s 20 clubs, using data to back up our choices.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, it can also absolutely ruin a football team’s season.
As the Premier League schedule gets busier and busier with Christmas on the horizon, squads up and down the country are being decimated by injuries. It is often only when a team is without a key player that you truly realise just how important they are, and there are a fair few teams who have found out the hard way already this season.
There are other key men who simply never miss a match – or even a minute – because their manager doesn’t want to risk playing for a moment without them. Here, we name those key men by picking out one player each of the Premier League’s 20 teams cannot do without and, data being very much our ball game at Opta Analyst, we have also backed up our selections with some numbers.
Arsenal – Martin Ødegaard
It was a close call for Arsenal between captain Martin Ødegaard, goalscorer and creator-in-chief Bukayo Saka, and key centre-back William Saliba,but the Norwegian just gets the nod. So much of what Mikel Arteta’s side do well both with and without the ball goes through Ødegaard, who knits their play together and instigates their press, often appearing as the highest player up the pitch, chasing down lost causes and forcing the opposition into mistakes and misplaced passes.
Between the start of last season and playing his most recent Premier League game (the 2-2 draw at Chelsea) before sustaining an injury that has ruled him out of a run of recent matches, he played 3,933 of a possible 4,230 minutes in the league – meaning he was on the pitch for a quite incredible 93.0% of the time. Since he picked up his knock, Arsenal have played five games in all competitions without him, and have lost two of them (40% loss rate). They had lost just one of their 12 games with Ødegaard starting before that this season (8.3% loss rate). Arteta will be hoping to have his captain back before long.
Aston Villa – John McGinn
Talking of left-footed central midfielders who barely ever get a rest, John McGinn has been integral to Aston Villa’s revival under Unai Emery. In truth, he is one of a large handful of players that are immovable parts in this team.
So far this season, eight different Villa players have started all 12 of their Premier League games, which is unsurprisingly more than any other team. There were therefore a few Villa players we could have picked, but in a crowded field, McGinn stood out for a couple of reasons.
First of all, of those 12 players, he is one of only two – along with Lucas Digne – to have also started all four of Villa’s Europa Conference League group stage games this season, while he also started Villa’s EFL Cup third-round defeat to Everton… at left-back.
He already has five goals to his name this season, and has put in remarkably consistent performances despite constantly being moved around the pitch by Emery. He has played in seven different positions this season, but is reliable wherever he fills in.
Bournemouth – Dominic Solanke
Without Dominic Solanke, Bournemouth would be in a lot more trouble than they already are. He is in the Premier League’s top six scorers this season, with six goals, despite playing for a team averaging fewer than a goal a game (11 goals in 12 games). More often than not, he is the player finishing off Bournemouth’s chances, with his total tally accounting for a Premier League high 55% of his team’s goals.
Take his goals away and Bournemouth would be five points worse off already and bottom of the league. Solanke’s two goals against Newcastle on Saturday brought a crucial second Premier League victory of the season, and what could be a vital confidence boost, too.
Brentford – Bryan Mbeumo
In a season when it was feared Brentford could struggle without the suspended Ivan Toney up front, Bryan Mbeumo has been key in reassuring Thomas Frank that the rest of his squad is good enough to manage without last season’s top scorer. Mbeumo’s performances will have also given his manager belief that Brentford would be able to survive if they eventually sell Toney – something that seems a very real possibility as he is soon to enter the final 18 months of his contract.
Mbeumo provides great threat in attack for Brentford. He has six Premier League goals to his name this season, while only three players (Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah and Nicolas Jackson) have accrued more expected goals (xG) than him (7.2), showing just how often he gets into good goalscoring positions despite playing for a team that averages just 47.6% possession (Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea all average more than 58% possession). Mbeumo also ranks third in the division for expected assists (3.6) behind only Bruno Fernandes and Kieran Trippier (both 3.8).
The Cameroon international really can do it all, so there’s an argument it should be him rather than Toney that Brentford should be worried about losing. Given they will be without him briefly for the Africa Cup of Nations in January-February next year, we will soon find out how they fare without him.
Brighton – Kaoru Mitoma
After winning five of their first six games of 2023-24, scoring 18 goals in the process, as recently as late September, Brighton were third in the table. In those first six matches, Kaoru Mitoma scored three goals and got three assists. At that point, he was one of the Premier League’s most in-form players.
Since the 3-1 win over Bournemouth in which Mitoma scored twice, though, he hasn’t made a single direct contribution to a goal in a league game. Brighton have won none of their six games in that time and have slipped down the table to eighth. Looking at the Premier League table for the time since Mitoma’s last goal contribution – covering each team’s last six games – Brighton are in the bottom three.
Manager Roberto De Zerbi rotates his team constantly – only three of his players have started at least 10 of their 12 games so far – and in attacking positions in particular he likes to switch things up to try and find a different winning formula for each specific opponent.
He started Mitoma on the bench for Sunday’s draw with Sheffield United, but did turn to him at half time as he persists with trying to play the Japan international into form, perhaps in part because he can make something happen out of nothing. He ranks second in the league for both carries ending with a shot (11) and carries ending with a chance created (9).
Burnley – Lyle Foster
It’s been a tough season so far for Burnley. Rooted to the foot of the table with four points from a possible 36, their chances of survival look slim. In fact, in the Opta supercomputer’s latest 10,000 simulations of the rest of the 2023-24 campaign, Burnley were relegated 86.9% of the time, finishing bottom of the pile more often than any other team.
Lyle Foster has played a key role so far this season, having either scored (three) or assisted (two) five of their nine goals, meaning he has played a decisive role in 55.6%, including a goal in their only win of the season – a single-goal victory over Luton – and an assist in their only draw. In other words, without his contributions, they wouldn’t have a single point.
Now without Foster, who is taking an indefinite break from the game due to mental health issues, Burnley will need to find another source of both goals and creativity.
Chelsea – Thiago Silva
When Chelsea signed Thiago Silva on a one-year contract in the summer of 2020, few could have predicted that come November 2023, he’d be one of Chelsea’s most important players.
But right now, he is one of only 10 outfielders to have played every minute in the Premier League this season. He is also the only Chelsea player to do so, at 39 years old.
In an otherwise youthful Chelsea squad, Silva sticks out. He is more than twice the age of some of his teammates, but his name is also ahead of every single one of them on the teamsheet. He brings tonnes of experience to the team and a calm head in a turbulent time at Stamford Bridge, and he also heads forward for every corner to add to the team’s attacking threat at set-pieces. On Sunday, he became the fourth player to score a Premier League goal after their 39th birthday, alongside Teddy Sheringham, Ryan Giggs and Dean Windass. Maybe age really is just a number.
Crystal Palace – Eberechi Eze
Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace are a completely different side without Eberechi Eze in the side. They have had to make do without him for a good chunk of time recently and, whenever he is out, they are hit hard by his absence.
Since the start of last season, Palace have won 36.8% of their Premier League games in which Eze has started, compared to just 8.3% when he hasn’t. That’s just one win in the 12 games he has missed, in which time they have scored only eight goals.
That is because he does such a huge proportion of their attacking work. Despite starting only eight of their 12 Premier League games so far this season, Eze has created at least 10 more chances (21) than any other Palace teammate and is also miles clear for expected assists (1.81), while only Odsonne Édouard (31) has had more shots than him (29). Now they have him back, they desperately need to keep him fit.
Everton – Dominic Calvert-Lewin
In the early part of the season, Everton struggled terribly in front of goal. It took three matches and 47 shots before midfielder Abdoulaye Doucouré finally scored their first goal of the season, with first Neal Maupay and then summer signing Beto failing to find the net up front.
It took until Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s return from injury for Everton to finally win a match, and they haven’t looked back since.
They have won four of the nine Premier League games that Calvert-Lewin has played a part in this season, and won none of the three he has missed, scoring 1.3 goals per game when he plays compared to 0.7 per game when he is absent.
Survival all of a sudden looks a probability rather than a possibility, and much of that is down their fit-again forward.
Fulham – João Palhinha
João Palhinha has missed nearly a quarter of the 2023-24 season so far, having started nine of Fulham’s 12 games and been on the pitch for just over 76% of the available minutes, and yet he stands clear in first place in the league for tackles made. His total of 52 tackles is at least 13 more than any other player in the entire top flight.
He does an important job in breaking up opposition attacks, and his ball-winning ability will be a key part of the reason that only six Premier League teams have allowed their opponents fewer shots this season than Fulham (149).
Fulham don’t have an exceptional defensive record but with 20 goals conceded they have let in fewer goals than Brighton (21) and West Ham (22), who are both in the top half of the table. If Palhinha keeps doing his job and his attacking teammates show some improvement in front of goal, they should start creeping up the table.
Liverpool – Mohamed Salah
Mo Salah basically never misses a game. In truth, he plays a frankly ludicrous amount of football. Since he moved to Liverpool in 2017, only five players have played more Premier League minutes than him (19,241) and all of them are goalkeepers or centre-backs, who do a lot more standing still than him.
Even in more recent seasons, and now the wrong side of 30, he is incredibly fit and is just about always available. He has started 49 of Liverpool’s last 50 league games, and he came off the bench in the other one. That kind of availability is just so valuable, particularly for a player who both scores and creates goals in the volumes that Salah does. His double against Brentford at the weekend took him to 200 goals in English football.
The thing about Salah being totally indispensable to Liverpool is that they don’t need to worry about how they would manage without him. They barely ever need to.
Luton – Thomas Kaminski
The cold hard truth for a newly promoted Premier League side is that your goalkeeper is going to be busy. Survival can therefore depend heavily on how good a goalkeeper you have. Luton’s fate might rest on how effectively Thomas Kaminski can continue to keep the ball out of his net.
Luton have conceded 22 goals so far, giving them the fourth-worst defensive record in the Premier League, but it might be much, much worse. According to our expected goals on target model – which measures the likelihood of a shot on target going in based on factors such as the distance/angle the shot is taken from – Kaminski has prevented 5.7 goals with his saves. That’s 1.8 more than any other goalkeeper, with only two other Premier League goalkeepers having prevented as many as three goals.
There is no sign of Luton shoring things up at the back, and shots will keep raining down on their goal. Kaminski’s shot-stopping between now and the end of the season will make a big difference to his team’s chances of staying up.
Manchester City – Rodri
Events in recent weeks suggest Rodri might be the most important player to his team in the entire Premier League.
He missed three games following the red card he received against Nottingham Forest, and City lost all three of them. They have won 13 and drawn three of their other 16 matches this season.
Essentially, Rodri’s suspension threw the title race open, and the chances of us having a three-team battle for the title for the first time in a very long time are much, much higher after that poor run (luckily for City’s own title chances, one of the games he missed was in the EFL Cup). Whether that remains the case will probably depend on Rodri keeping his cool and avoiding any more suspensions. Having picked up four yellow cards, he is one caution away from another one-game ban.
Manchester United – Bruno Fernandes
Given how much money has been spent on creative midfielders at Old Trafford in recent years, it really is astounding just how much they still rely on Bruno Fernandes. As well as being their captain, Fernandes is also the team’s joint-top scorer this season and their leading assist-maker.
He has also created chances worth 4.01 expected goals this season – the second-highest tally in the entire Premier League behind Mohamed Salah (4.77). However, Fernandes’ total accounts for a higher proportion of his team’s xG assisted than any other player; he alone accounts for almost a quarter of United’s total.
They aren’t quite a one-man team, but they are in many ways – this one in particular – more reliant on one player than any other side in the entire Premier League. One of the biggest jobs on Erik ten Hag’s hands is spreading the burden in attack.
Newcastle – Kieran Trippier
Injuries are threatening to derail Newcastle’s season, but one player they have been able to rely on is Kieran Trippier, and they are all the better for it.
As the above graphic in the Man Utd section shows, Newcastle’s right-back is their most creative player, having assisted chances worth 3.92 xG – the third-highest xG assisted total in the top flight – while also being, well, a defender. Pervis Estupiñán is his nearest challenger of defenders, with 2.76 xG assisted, creating 13.7% of Brighton’s expected goals, compared to 18.5% for Trippier.
Newcastle rely on him for leadership and defensive solidity as well as creativity, and he has very quickly become a very, very important player for a team hoping to become regulars in the Champions League. Crucial at both ends of the pitch, Trippier will be key to Newcastle getting through their current injury crisis.
Nottingham Forest – Morgan Gibbs-White
The player who inspired Forest to Premier League survival in 2022-23 has become slightly less relied upon this season, but he is still their most important player. He is the only member of the squad to have played some part in all 12 of their league games this season – starting 11 of them – and he is key to everything they do with the ball.
His goal and assist numbers are down this term – he has just one goal involvement in 12 appearances, compared to 13 in 35 last season – but most of Forest’s moves still go through him. He has played a part in 43 shot-ending sequences this season, which is at least nine more than any other Forest teammate.
Having lost just five of their 12 games so far this season, Forest look good value to prolong their stay in the top flight and make a decent go of establishing themselves as a Premier League side. Gibbs-White will be integral to whether they manage that.
Sheffield United – Oliver Norwood
The cool head who smashed home the 100th-minute penalty that gave Sheffield United their only win of the season so far, Oliver Norwood has already had a big impact on his team’s chances of survival.
His team don’t have much of the ball – they have averaged just 38.7% possession this season, the second-lowest in the division – so when they do get it, they have to make good use of it. From the heart of midfield, Norwood is key to getting the ball into dangerous areas.
He has both attempted (535) and completed (396) at least 70 more passes than any other teammate, and has also played almost twice as many passes into the final third (114) as any other Sheffield United player, with Gus Hamer next (59). Goals are proving hard to come by, but if they keep getting the ball to Norwood, their chances of scoring will only go up.
Tottenham – James Maddison
Once dubbed ‘the Harry Kane team’ by Pep Guardiola, it is now Kane’s replacement in the number 10 shirt who Tottenham are relying heavily on.
James Maddison has been a revelation since moving to north London, but an ankle injury that has ruled him out until the new year has crystalised just how important he has become to Ange Postecgolou’s team. Having crashed out of the EFL Cup at Fulham when Maddison was given a rest, since his injury, they have fallen apart against Chelsea and lost to Wolves.
The team’s main creator with five assists – plus three goals to boot – Maddison is involved in everything Spurs do with the ball. He drops deep to help with the bold build-up play Postecoglou asks of his teams, and he often gets on the ball in the final third, making a telling impact. As well as ranking well for chances created in open play, Maddison stands out for playing the pass before the pass that creates the chance – or secondary chances created. His total of 48 chances and secondary chances created is comfortably the highest in the Premier League this season.
West Ham – Jarrod Bowen
Of Premier League forwards this season, only Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo, who has not missed a second of action, has played more minutes than Jarrod Bowen (1,079 of a possible 1,080). The one occasion manager David Moyes considered it safe to take Bowen off was in second-half injury time when 2-0 up at home to then bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.
He carries their biggest attacking threat, and with eight Premier League goals, he has scored five more this season than any other West Ham player. He ranks 10th overall in the league for touches in the opposition box (71), with his tally accounting for 24.4% of West Ham’s total. In other words, one in every four times any West Ham player touches the ball close to the opposition’s goal, Bowen is on the ball or, as we saw at the weekend, rising above defenders far bigger than him to head in a corner. He also made history recently by becoming the first player in Premier League history to score in his first six away games of a season.
With another European campaign to manage, Moyes may have to start managing Bowen’s game time to keep him fit and firing. We might even finally find out what West Ham look like when Bowen isn’t playing.
Wolves – Pedro Neto
The remarkable comeback win over Tottenham last weekend will have allayed fears among the Wolves supporters that Pedro Neto’s injury might disrupt their team’s impressive progress under Gary O’Neil. It wasn’t quite as convincing as some of their other positive results this season, though; the Spurs win was the longest any team has ever trailed for continuously (87 minutes) in a Premier League match they eventually won.
But there is no doubting that Wolves are far worse off without Neto. Still top of the Premier League’s assist chart (seven) for 2023-24 despite missing the last two games, the winger is a constant creative threat both in open play and at set-pieces. He also carries the ball up the pitch extremely effectively, with only three players (each on five) having had more shots from fast breaks this season than him (four).
It’s not clear just yet how long he will be out for, and Wolves will be much stronger if they can get him back soon after the international break.