Premier Class: The 10 best Irish players in this season’s top flight

Emmet Malone ranks the top Premier League performers before the shutdown for coronavirus

 Matt Doherty celebrates scoring Wolves’ third goal during the Premier League game against  Manchester City at Molineux. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Matt Doherty celebrates scoring Wolves’ third goal during the Premier League game against Manchester City at Molineux. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

 

10 Aaron Connolly (Brighton)

Age: 20
League games this season (started/came on): 9/8
Minutes: 831
Goals: 2

Brighton’s Aaron Connolly celebrates scoring his second goal against Tottenham Hotspur during the Premier League game at the Amex Stadium in October. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images
Brighton’s Aaron Connolly celebrates scoring his second goal against Tottenham Hotspur during the Premier League game at the Amex Stadium in October. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images

By comparison with Shane Duffy, Connolly is an obvious beneficiary of the Graham Potter appointment, although the player himself might contend that his time had simply arrived.

It certainly felt that way back in October when he scored twice on his full Premier League debut. The confidence he showed against Tottenham that day was remarkable and the excitement he generated helped propel him into an international team that was finding it very hard to rustle up goals.

He has found it harder most of the time since although Potter has continued to put faith in him at key moments. Still, he makes it into this list ahead of more established internationals like Shane Long (who has battled his way back in at Southampton) and Conor Hourihane (who has had some very fine games for Villa) largely on the basis of the basis of his breakthrough status and the obvious potential for the future he displayed.

9 Shane Duffy (Brighton)

Age: 28
League games this season (started/came on): 11/4
Minutes: 1,071
Goals: 1

Shane Duffy scores Brighton’s second goal during the Premier League match against Norwich City. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
Shane Duffy scores Brighton’s second goal during the Premier League match against Norwich City. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Having attracted a great deal of praise for his partnership at the heart of Brighton’s defence with Lewis Dunk, Duffy has been something of a victim of the new approach adopted under new manager Graham Potter with a change in formation contributing to the loss of his status as an automatic starter.

He did feature in the team’s opening games of the campaign but gradually ceded ground to Adam Webster after a 2-0 defeat by Southampton. Duffy’s strengths – aerial prowess and last ditch defending – are well known but Webster brings other attributes, including somewhat better distribution, to a team now looking to keep the ball more and defend, when it has to, further up the pitch.

Still, it has been far from a write-off for the Derryman who has featured in more than half of the club’s league games and played 90 minutes in the drawn matches against both Sheffield United and Watford in February. He will be disappointed after having been so central under Chris Hughton but there is a lot scope to reverse the slide.

8 James McCarthy (Crystal Palace)

Age: 29
League games this season (started/came on): 12/12
Minutes: 1,190
Goals: 0

Crystal Palace’s James McCarthy tackles Yves Bissouma of Brighton. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Crystal Palace’s James McCarthy tackles Yves Bissouma of Brighton. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Mick McCarthy was clearly frustrated by his namesake’s attitude since the summer with the midfielder preferring to get a club career that had come badly off the rails after a long-term injury at Everton back on track before worrying too much again about international football.

Whether he might have done more to help Ireland is a moot point at this stage but he had certainly recovered quite a bit of momentum at club level before the Premier League was put into cold storage. It has not been earth-shattering stuff but he has started the club’s last 10 Premier league games and looked solid in the space between central defence and midfield that he was most often asked to occupy.

The club’s results during that time have been mixed but three wins in a row immediately before the break has left them safe and McCarthy looking as though he has put his injury and other troubles behind him. That will do him for now.

7 Ciaran Clark (Newcastle)

Age: 30
League games this season (started/came on): 14/0
Minutes: 1,188
Goals: 2

Ciaran Clark celebrates scoring Newcastle United’s first goal against West Ham United. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images
Ciaran Clark celebrates scoring Newcastle United’s first goal against West Ham United. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

The former Villa defender has waged a seemingly endless battle with injuries over the years and featured so little for Newcastle last season that his time would most likely have been up at the club if Steve Bruce had found an alternative last summer to provide cover in central defence.

As it was, he started the season on the bench and didn’t feature until game eight when his contribution in a 1-0 win over Manchester United was just the sort of thing to endear an out of favour player to an already under pressure manager.

He generally did well from then until an ankle ligament injury in mid-February required surgery and looked to have ended his season. There were glimpses along the way of the timing in tackles and confidence with the ball at his feet that caught the eye when he first broke through.

There was also an Ireland return and having been ruled out until the summer, he will hopefully be fit enough now to feature again before the club campaign is concluded.

6 Séamus Coleman (Everton)

Age: 31
League games this season (started/came on): 14/4
Minutes: 1,193
Goals: 0

Everton’s Séamus Coleman controls the ball during the Premier League match against Crystal Palace at Goodison Park. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
Everton’s Séamus Coleman controls the ball during the Premier League match against Crystal Palace at Goodison Park. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

After three or four years as Ireland’s best player in the top flight and a solid enough return from such a serious injury last season, this has been a frustrating campaign for Coleman who has started just under half of Everton’s top-flight games since the summer.

The Donegalman has not looked capable of posing quite the same attacking threat in recent times but the season did start quite well with Coleman not only a regular at right back but also captain of the team. A suspension picked up for two bookings against Burnley in October, however, opened the door to Djibril Sidibé, who initially grabbed his opportunity by playing exceptionally well.

Under Carlo Ancelotti, there has been some tactical tinkering and both players have been accommodated at times. When it has been one or the other, Coleman has actually edged it but without seeming any more like the starting spot is his by right. Still, he shows his class at times with the defensive side of his game having gotten better with experience.

5 Jeff Hendrick (Burnley)

Age: 28
League games this season (started/came on): 22/2
Minutes: 1,935
Goals: 2

Jeff Hendrick scores a goal which was then disallowed following a VAR review during the Premier League match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Jeff Hendrick scores a goal which was then disallowed following a VAR review during the Premier League match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Hendrick seems to be the victim of the general perception of his own potential, with those occasions on which he stands out and so appears to fulfil it, whether for club or country, only serving to strengthen the feeling that he is underperforming a lot of the time.

The Dubliner has developed into a pretty solid Premier League performer, though, with his versatility enabling him to hold down his place in a Burnley team that has undergone a fair bit of change in what was looking, up until mid-January, like a tough season.

He didn’t actually begin the campaign in the starting 11 but since coming on at Brighton to score an injury-time equaliser from 20 yards, he has started almost every game, featuring at one point or another, in pretty much every midfield role imaginable.

He did sit out two of the team’s run of four straight defeats around the turn of the year – one due to suspension – but he was at the heart of things as Burnley went on a run of seven undefeated that has made sure of their top-flight status for another season.

4 David McGoldrick (Sheffield United)

Age: 32
League games this season (started/came on): 16/5
Minutes: 1,360
Goals: 0

Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick battles for possession with Sam Byram of Norwich City. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images
Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick battles for possession with Sam Byram of Norwich City. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

On the face of it the lack of goals should be a huge issue for McGoldrick who got 15 last season as Sheffield United won promotion from the Championship. It does not take long watching them now though to see why the Ireland striker not only keeps getting his game but has actually become more popular this year among the fans despite his ongoing struggle to find the net.

The team’s approach starts with its two strikers putting pressure on opposition defences and McGoldrick combines that with a willingness to drop deep so as to win the ball in midfield. It is when United have the ball that he really excels, showing a combination of great technique and vision that puts him at the heart of so many of the team’s better attacking moves.

It remains a pity that he does not finish more of them off but the team’s approach has served it well and were it not for groin and foot injuries in September and January respectively, McGoldrick would have played even more games.

3 John Egan (Sheffield United)

Age: 27
League games this season (started/came on): 27/0
Minutes: 2,149
Goals: 0

Sheffield United’s John Egan celebrates a Crystal Palace own goal. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images
Sheffield United’s John Egan celebrates a Crystal Palace own goal. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Like Enda Stevens, Egan is a player who might serve as a role model to the countless young professionals who suffer early setbacks in their careers in England. Here is a perfect example of how to patiently work your way back to the top.

He has also played a key part in United’s remarkable first campaign back in the Premier League. The team defend from the front when they don’t have the ball but Egan, Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham have been forged into an impressive last line for a side who do not sit seventh in the table because of all the goals they score.

Egan is steady under pressure, strong in the air and a solid passer when the team is looking to play its way out of defence. On top of having a good club season he also established himself as one of Ireland’s first-choice centre backs towards the tail-end of Mick McCarthy’s time as manager.

2 Enda Stevens (Sheffield United)

Age: 29
League games this season (started/came on): 28/0
Minutes: 2,446
Goals: 1

Enda Stevens celebrates scoring Sheffield United’s first goal during the Premier League match against Norwich City. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images
Enda Stevens celebrates scoring Sheffield United’s first goal during the Premier League match against Norwich City. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

It seems like a very long time now since the former St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers left back made such a difficult start to his Premier League career with Aston Villa; long enough, anyway, for the Dubliner to drop down the divisions, develop as a player and come back as a really high-calibre wing back.

The effort he put in was always impressive but when playing in a flat back four, Stevens’s defensive weaknesses looked to be a real issue and seemed at times to play on his own mind. He has been liberated by being pushed forward and after emerging as a really key player as Sheffield United were promoted last season he has looked very much at home now that he is back at the highest level.

Stevens is an important instrument of Chris Wilder’s tactical approach, one of the players whose work-rate is key to the team’s pressing game and someone who then, when the ball is won, provides critically important width. He has produced some really eye-catching moments on the ball and along the way, he has got into the habit of making more ball-winning tackles than any of his team mates.

1 Matt Doherty (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

Age: 28
League games this season (started/came on): 24/3
Minutes: 2,149
Goals: 4

Matt Doherty scores Wolves’ first goal past Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga during the Premier League match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Matt Doherty scores Wolves’ first goal past Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga during the Premier League match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After a spectacular first campaign back in the Premier League, the Dubliner is having another outstanding run in a Wolves side that, far from falling foul of second-season syndrome, has become a little bit better in both attack and defence.

Defensively, Doherty is a pretty good right back despite being prone to the odd lapse. It’s the attacking side of his game – his ability to run at and beyond opponents, to make a key pass or present himself as an option to team-mates looking to make one, as well as his ability in the air – that completes the all-round package and is only consistently bettered really by a couple of Premier League players in the position.

Over the portion of the season played, he failed to feature in just two games – both lost – with one of those the defeat at Anfield that came a couple of days after the remarkable defeat of Manchester City in which he scored. His goal against Spurs more recently also put the team on course for a 3-2 win.

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