Defenders dominated most of the action throughout Week 14 of the 2019-20 Premier League season. It was fitting Virgil van Dijk led the way, since the Liverpool man is the best center-back in the division.
Van Dijk was in imperious form helping the Reds survive more than a few scares to hold on and beat Brighton 2-1 at Anfield on Saturday. His efforts were aided by Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool’s assist-making right-back who helped Van Dijk turn into a goal machine against the Seagulls.
Chelsea had been deep among the goals recently, but the Blues found themselves blunted by an uncharacteristically solid West Ham. The Hammers left Stamford Bridge with a memorable 1-0 win thanks in no small part to the rugged stubborn streak of central defender Fabian Balbuena.
Crystal Palace also kept a commendable clean sheet away from home, blanking Burnley 2-0 at Turf Moor. Wilfried Zaha sparked the Eagles’ attack, while Vicente Guaita stood tall in the Palace goal.
Find out who else joins them in the latest team of the week:Goalkeeper: Vicente Guaita, Crystal Palace
Palace were resolute defensively from the off against the Clarets, but Guaita still delivered whenever he was called into action. The Spaniard produced a smart stop early on to deny Burnley winger Dwight McNeill.
Guaita was also quick off his line to force Chris Wood into an errant finish when the burly striker was through on goal two minutes before the hour mark. Wood was the man left frustrated again when Guaita showcased outstanding reflexes to turn away his telling touch with five minutes left.
Keeping a goalie the quality of Wales international Wayne Hennessey on the bench speaks to Guaita’s talent and growing authority.Defender: Aaron Cresswell, West Ham
Injuries have stymied Aaron Cresswell’s development at key times during his career. Without them there is little doubt the Hammers’ left-back would be an England regular.
Cresswell was brilliant in every phase of the game against Chelsea. His raiding runs forward helped nullify the attacking threat of winger Pedro and also added a useful outlet for the visitors in the final third.
This outlet proved West Ham’s best route to goal when Cresswell shifted the ball onto his right foot and clipped a shot just out of the reach of Kepa Arrizabalaga. It was the signature moment of an excellent attacking display from the 29-year-old.
Cresswell also proved an asset defensively by making timely tackles and winning more than a few duels in the air. He supplemented the efforts of Balbuena superbly.
West Ham are usually anything but secure at the back, but Cresswell’s display gives Manuel Pellegrini’s men hope of keeping more clean sheets on their travels.Defender: Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool
Van Dijk normally reserves his dominance for keeping opposing attackers at bay. Yet the Dutchman subjected the Seagulls to his underrated mettle as an attacking force.
His two successful headers in six first-half minutes ultimately proved enough to see the leaders over the line. They also helped Van Dijk to achieve a distinctive feat from the early portion of the season:
Van Dijk wouldn’t be a strong candidate for the Ballon d’Or if his game was just about attacking set pieces. The former Celtic and Southampton ace also thwarted Brighton attacks with his pace across the deck and aggression in one-on-one duels.
Those qualities proved crucial once Liverpool were reduced to 10 men after goalkeeper Alisson Becker was shown a red card for handball outside the area.
The Reds aren’t keeping clean sheets, but Van Dijk remains the league’s standout defensive presence.Defender: Fabian Balbuena, West Ham
Keeping a clean sheet for the first time in any competition since September required many heroes at the back for West Ham. Balbuena stood out among those who left the Blues frustrated.
The Paraguay international had a variety of threats to deal with along Chelsea’s versatile forward line. He refused to be bullied by Olivier Giroud’s height and strength in the air, nor did he allow spaces for the pace and perceptive movement of Christian Pulisic and Pedro.
Chelsea were set up for Giroud to play with his back to goal and release runners behind him with headers down and flick-ons. Yet whenever Balbuena needed to win a header, he did. Whenever he needed to block a shot or intercept a through pass, he did.
West Ham’s defense has faltered this season because players like Issa Diop have performed below their talent level. Those problems will soon be a thing of the past if Balbuena can establish some consistency.Defender: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool
Full-backs are defined more by what they do going forward in the modern game. Even by those standards, Alexander-Arnold’s attacking numbers demand respect.
His pinpoint crossing, enviable technique and unerring eye for a pass are essential tools in how the champions elect create and score goals. Two superb deliveries, one from a free-kick, the other from a corner, put Van Dijk’s name on the scoresheet twice.
They also set the 21-year-old defender apart in terms of creativity among those who play at the back:
Finding ways to blunt Alexander-Arnold’s influence is as important as planning to keep Mohamed Salah quiet when preparing to stop the Reds.Midfielder: Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City
Kevin De Bruyne was one of the few bright spots during a difficult November for Manchester City. The Belgian has refused to lose, powering his team forward and peppering opposing teams with eye-of-the-needle passes and rasping shots.
De Bruyne found his range early during Saturday’s 2-2 draw away to Newcastle. He was never shy about taking on shots from distance, eventually scoring a cracker from distance, one ultimately enough to earn the Citizens a point.
The terrific goal also snapped a lengthy barren run away from the Etihad Stadium for City’s creator-in-chief:
City won just twice in the month, but it should make Pep Guardiola shudder to think where the squad would be without De Bruyne’s industry and artistry.Midfielder: Dele Alli, Tottenham
Dele Alli’s Jose Mourinho-inspired revival continued apace when Tottenham beat Bournemouth 3-2 on Saturday. Alli bagged a brace in north London to add to his burgeoning tally since Mourinho succeeded Mauricio Pochettino in the dugout.
Those numbers should be par for the course for a player with Alli’s talent. His core qualities have been freed by Mourinho adding more structure and coherence in forward areas.
He’s relied on a front four with plenty of pace and endeavor ahead of Alli. Heung-Min Son, Harry Kane and Lucas Moura are creating spaces for Alli, who has greater freedom to probe for openings and make runs in behind.
His form is the central reason Mourinho has made a fast start to life with Spurs.Midfielder: Jonjo Shelvey, Newcastle
Jonjo Shelvey can match the quality of De Bruyne on his best day. Fortunately for Liverpool, the 27-year-old decided to have one of his better days to deliver a huge blow to City in the title race.
Shelvey tormented the Citizens’ threadbare defense with his varied range of passes and powerful, long-range shots. The best of the latter yielded the Magpies’ equalizer two minutes from time.
He doesn’t always act like the talisman his talent makes him, but Shelvey can still turn on the style when in the mood. His ingenuity at the heart of the engine room can keep Newcastle comfortably above the bottom three and capable of beating a few more big names before this season draws to a close.Midfielder: Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace
Like Shelvey, Zaha can be a little selective about when he clicks into high gear. He was in peak form in Lancashire, dragging Burnley defenders out of position and fashioning chances through trickery and cheeky improvisation.
Zaha’s goal – a swift, unexpected, near-post shot that caught Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope cold – showed the winger is firmly back among the goals:
Matching regular end product with his natural wizardry has always been the key to Zaha finally breaking into the bracket of the game’s elite players. The way he’s thriving under Palace boss Roy Hodgson suggests Zaha won’t stay on the fringes for long.Striker: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal
If Freddie Ljungberg succeeds in the Arsenal hotseat he’ll have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to thank. The prolific striker continues to shoulder the goalscoring load for the Gunners after finding the net twice during Sunday’s 2-2 draw away to Norwich.
Nobody is keeping pace with Aubameyang since he arrived in north London from Borussia Dortmund in the winter of 2018:
Aubameyang is the reason Arsenal aren’t being dragged into a relegation dogfight, such has been the extent of the Gunners’ fall this season. Getting others around him to chip in with goals is the only way Ljungberg can keep his team’s flickering top-four hopes alive.Striker: Teemu Pukki, Norwich
Aubameyang didn’t earn Arsenal all three points because of the way Teemu Pukki bullied a wafer-thin defense. He twisted, turned and outpaced Shkodran Mustafi at will, dragging the German into risky positions and routinely fashioning chances to shoot.
When Pukki did forge an opportunity he was decisive and direct. The Finn’s 21st-minute shot cannoned off Mustafi and went in to snap Pukki’s eight-match barren run.
Pukki’s mix of bullish power, determination and a ruthless eye for goal has enabled him to take the top flight by storm. His goals are still the Canaries’ best means of beating the drop.