Garth Crooks Team of the Week: Pickford, Ake, Van Dijk, Rodri, Keita, Jesus, Son
Manchester City and Liverpool both won as they continue to jostle for the Premier League title, while Burnley and Everton also picked up victories to bolster their hopes of avoiding relegation.
Who made my team of the week? Check it out below, then make your own selections at the bottom of the article.
Goalkeeper – Jordan Pickford (Everton)
Pickford kept his clean sheet but I don’t know how he did it. The Everton keeper made two of the most remarkable saves to secure a vital victory for the Toffees. He was forced to sprint across his goal line before diving to make the most miraculous doubles save I’ve seen since Gordon Banks saved Pele’s header at the 1970 World Cup.
Pickford, now on fire, extended in order to block a shot that nearly knocked him unconscious and would have put other mere mortals in the Royal Infirmary. It was a performance inspired by the English number one. Everton would have been in a perilous position had they lost to Chelsea and Pickford gave Toffees boss Frank Lampard a lifeline.
Did you know? In the two Premier League meetings between Everton and Chelsea this season, Toffees keeper Pickford has made 14 saves and conceded just one goal.
Defenders – Nathan Ake (Manchester City), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Cristian Romero (Tottenham)
Ake: It wasn’t so much Nathan Ake’s goal that impressed me as the way the Manchester City defender held Pascal Struijk at bay with his right arm before finishing with confidence. Ake refusing to allow the Leeds defender back into the game once he found him on the wrong side.
Ake found the situation quite difficult against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final – particularly in the first half. However, it was a different City and a different Ake against a Leeds side who are going to have to find some extra gear if they are to survive in the Premier League this season.
Did you know? Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Ake has scored 10 Premier League goals from corners. Only Chris Wood (11) has more such goals in the same time frame.
Van Dijk: Another clean sheet and another enjoyable day at the office for Van Dijk. I thought it was an extraordinary performance from Liverpool. Having faced Villareal in the Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night, traveling to Newcastle for a 12.30pm kick-off at St James Park three days later and coming away with a win – keeping form in mind which Newcastle was – was exceptional.
As for Van Dijk, you can read in ‘Crooks of the Matter’ why I think the Football Writers’ Association selected the wrong Liverpool player for their prestigious Footballer of the Year award.
Did you know? Of the players to have played 100 or more aerial duels in the Premier League this season, Van Dijk has the best success rate (77%).
Romero: For Spurs’ important second goal against Leicester, the Argentina defender’s first tackle went through Patson Daka like a knife through butter while his second challenge left Caglar Soyuncu reeling on the ground without even an ounce of sympathy from referee Jon Moss .
Both of Romero’s tackles were pretty brilliant, totally legit and straight out of a 1980s coaching manual. The challenges got Son his first goal. The South Korean didn’t need any help with his second. Just when you thought the art of tackling was leaving the English game for good, Romero, with help from Moss, gave us hope.
Did you know? Romero is averaging 4.8 combined tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season, the most of any Spurs player with 900 minutes played.
Midfielders – Anthony Gordon (Everton), Naby Keita (Liverpool), Rodri (Manchester City), Josh Brownhill (Burnley)
Gordon: It was a huge win for Everton and they pretty much deserved it. One of their most brilliant contributors was Anthony Gordon. He was unlucky not to make my squad last week against Liverpool, but after another impressive performance in the extraordinary win over Chelsea, Gordon could no longer be overlooked.
For Everton to find themselves in this position is one thing but if they can win their game in hand and keep their cool then anything is possible now.
Did you know? Only Richarlison (five) has scored more Premier League goals for Everton at Goodison Park this season than Anthony Gordon (four).
Keita: James Milner’s challenge for the ball with Newcastle defender Fabian Schar led to Naby Keita’s superb goal which took the Reds back to the top of the table for a short while.
There was no doubt in my mind, or in Andre Marriner’s mind for that matter, that Milner was first to the ball. It was a clean tackle and perfectly judged by the referee. Keita found himself sharing the defensive midfield role with Thiago who has also been playing particularly well lately. It looks like both men can be counted on to do what is necessary to get a result when it counts.
Did you know? Keita has averaged 3.8 tackles for 90 in the Premier League this season, the most of any Liverpool player with at least 900 minutes played.
Rodri: Phil Foden’s ball into the box for Manchester City’s first goal at Leeds was absolutely delicious. Foden found Rodri, who seems to be finding the net with monotonous regularity these days.
The Spain international’s movement was superb, especially the way he attacked the ball, leaving Kalvin Philips totally exposed. Leeds, on the other hand, are in a relegation tussle with Burnley and Everton. They no longer have that fearlessness they had under former manager Marcelo Bielsa, when they burst onto the Premier League scene and scared off the then-champions at Anfield on opening day of the season.
It’s a Leeds United who have to play with their heads and not their hearts and that’s proving difficult.
Did you know? Rodri has scored five goals in 29 Premier League appearances for City this season, as many as he scored in his first two campaigns in the competition (five in 69 games).
Brown Hill: The way Burnley midfielder Brownhill scored in the dying minutes of the game against Watford – and with so much at stake – was breathtaking. I haven’t seen Burnley play like this since they came to the Premier League.
I really don’t want to rain on Sean Dyche’s parade but something has happened to the Clarets since he left. There is a freshness to their game and a confidence among their players that I have never seen before. Burnley now has momentum. The way Burnley play, they might survive this flirtation with relegation.
Did you know? Brownhill has been directly involved in three goals in his last three Premier League games – one goal and two assists – as many as in his first 71 appearances in the competition combined.
Forwards – Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)
Son: Two goals from Son Heung-min may have put Spurs back in the top four momentarily, but if they don’t stay there, speculation will inevitably return to the future of Antonio Conte and Harry Kane.
Tottenham’s refusal this summer to ‘take the money and run’ is starting to look like bad business. Son is fully capable of picking up the baton from Kane, the question is how long can Spurs keep Conte around as he is constantly linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. The top four is vital if Spurs are to keep the Italian. As for Son, he’s not going anywhere.
Did you know? Spurs striker Son Heung-min has scored 11 left-footed goals this season in the Premier League; the only player to score more goals in a single season in the competition with his weaker foot is Robin van Persie (12 right-footed goals in 2011-12).
Jesus: I consider Pep Guardiola to be one of the best managers in the world, but he has to see that he has to keep playing against Gabriel Jesus for the rest of the season and not persist with that horrible fake number nine formation.
Apart from anything else, Jesus is the club’s only real striker. Ever since the manager put the centre-forward back in his starting line-up and given him a more central role, he’s been scoring goals for fun.
Jesus’ first touch, not to mention the finish against Leeds, was adamant. Everyone can see that the player is happy again and it’s crucial that Guardiola doesn’t sacrifice the striker again for even more creativity in the team. Surely he’s had enough.
Did you know? Jesus has scored in three consecutive appearances for Manchester City for the first time since November 2020, while the Brazilian has scored six goals in those last three games.
Watkins: The way the Aston Villa striker handled the ball, created space and then smashed it past Norwich keeper Tim Krul was nothing short of first class.
Watkins has stuck to his task for Villa all season. I can never fault Watkins’ work rate – occasionally his finishing might need a little tweaking, but certainly not on this occasion. It was Watkins’ slide tackled by Brandon Williams in the Norwich half that created Danny Ings’ goal. This sealed the points for Villa and secured Norwich’s return to the Championship.
Did you know? Watkins scored his 25th goal for Aston Villa in all competitions, at least 11 more than any other player for the club since making his debut for them in September 2020.
Choose your XI from our list and share it with your friends.
The material crooks
It’s not often that I disagree with the prestigious Football Writers’ Association’s choice, but I was rather surprised by their decision to award Mohamed Salah this year’s Footballer of the Year. The Liverpool striker is a superstar – there’s no doubt about it – and he’s had an impressive goalscoring season.
However, Liverpool’s best player and, in my opinion, the Reds’ player of the season, is Virgil van Dijk. He should have won the prize. Regular readers won’t be surprised by my choice as the Liverpool defender is in my squad almost every week.
That’s because Van Dijk is unquestionably the best defender in the world but he doesn’t attract the same attention as Salah because it’s the Egyptian who scores the goals. I appreciate goalscorers better than anyone – my team of the week is often full of them. However, this year the Football Writers’ Association went for the popular vote, but not the correct one.
Defenders rarely raise this prestigious award. The last time a Liverpool defender won was Emlyn Hughes. He wasn’t so much a great defender as an incredible competitor. However, he was not in Van Dijk’s class.
Another great Liverpool player that football writers let slip through their fingers was Alan Hansen, who was the closest player I’ve seen to captaining the Netherlands in terms of pace, quality and vision.
Salah is very capable of winning the Champions League title for Liverpool but he will need Van Dijk to make the squad.