The Premier League’s key players

Ian Darke thinks it’s probable that Chelsea will relieve tensions with Diego Costa and continue unscathed.

With four months of the Premier League season remaining, there’s everything to play for at both ends of the table: a single point separates the bottom four, and six sides are still in the running for the four Champions League places.

Who will be each side’s decisive player between now and May? Here’s our pick for every team.

Chelsea: Diego Costa has dominated the headlines for both positive and negative reasons, but Eden Hazard has been absolutely magnificent this season. Few other Premier League players are as capable of both running matches and providing crucial contributions in the final third as the Belgian, who has managed nine goals and three assists this season. Since Hazard’s arrival in the Premier League in 2012, he has been among the division’s best performers in four of his five Chelsea campaigns.

Tottenham: Mauricio Pochettino’s game plan is all about pressing, hard work and heavy running, but it’s the player who provides the alternative that Tottenham really can’t afford to use. Christian Eriksen has been in superb form recently. His spatial appreciation and invention in possession are among the best in the Premier League, and while Alli and Harry Kane are more prolific in front of goal, Eriksen has become better at timing his runs from midfield and chipping in with goals too.

Liverpool: You can make cases for Philippe Coutinho or Jordan Henderson, who has excelled in his new deep-lying midfield role. But it’s Roberto Firmino who epitomises Liverpool’s approach both with and without possession. He’s excellent at starting the defensive pressure, encouraging Liverpool to counter-press quickly and box in opponents while also offering quick, calm decision-making inside the opposition third. Liverpool are best with Firmino in a central role, though injuries to others have hampered his ability to play this role effectively.

Arsenal: He might have been shifted wide because of Olivier Giroud’s fine run of form, but regardless of his positioning, Alexis Sanchez is Arsenal’s most dangerous attacker. He’s both Arsenal’s most prolific goal scorer and Arsenal’s most prolific assist-maker, and much like Hazard, he’s capable of playing almost any role in the final third. He can shoot, pass and dribble, play left, right or centre, link play or sprint in behind. Also a leader in terms of his work rate, Arsenal can’t afford to lose the Chilean at any price.

Manchester City: Among Pep Guardiola’s constantly changing starting XI and various formations, it has been slightly difficult to get a grip of his favourites this season. Sergio Aguero has been as capable as ever of brilliant moments and quiet matches, while Fernandinho has let himself down in terms of discipline. It’s Kevin De Bruyne, then, who seems to be City’s key player. He started in a relatively deep midfield role and has been shifted around the pitch rather too much, but the Belgian still drives City forward.

Manchester United: After a slow start this season, Paul Pogba has been in outstanding form recently. Freed from his deep midfield role and allowed to burst forward regularly to support United’s other key arrival in the summer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Pogba’s driving runs and intelligent use of possession underline why United paid quite so much money for him. His weekend performance against Liverpool was unquestionably poor, but Pogba will be United’s main man for years to come.

Romelu Lukaku’s goals keep Everton competing near the top of the table while their defence and midfield stutter.

Everton: They’ve been shaky defensively and inconsistent in midfield, but their star centre-forward has constantly bailed them out of trouble. Romelu Lukaku receives a peculiar amount of criticism for the supposed weaknesses in his game — movement and link play are most frequently cast as areas in which he must improve — but he has banged in 12 Premier League goals this season, four times as many as any teammates, and he is Everton’s joint top assist creator, with four. He’s one of the few constants in a slightly unpredictable outfit.

West Brom: Having suffered relegation in his previous two attempts at the Premier League with Blackpool and QPR, Matt Phillips‘ summer move to West Brom understandably received little attention. But after he took a while to settle, Phillips has been in outstanding form the past couple months, providing a much-needed counter-attacking threat and firing in some wicked set pieces too. He was outstanding against both Southampton and Hull either side of the new year, managing three assists and a goal. In a team that thrives on set pieces, this dead ball specialist is inevitably crucial.

Stoke: It’s been something of a forgettable season so far, with Mark Hughes chopping and changing his system and struggling to find the right balance in the final third. But one of the few success stories has been Dutch centre-back Bruno Martins Indi, on loan from Porto. A towering aerial presence alongside Ryan Shawcross, his positioning has improved dramatically the past couple of seasons, and he is also one of Stoke’s most reliable users of the ball. A permanent transfer seems likely in the summer if a bigger club doesn’t pounce.

Burnley: Sean Dyche’s side are the overachievers of the season so far, finding themselves in 10th place. This is almost entirely because of their home form: They’ve collected the third-most points in the division but managed only one away from home. But many of their victories owed much to the fine work of Tom Heaton in goal. It’s notable that Burnley have allowed the opposition more shots than any other side, and while that’s partly because they defend extremely deep, it’s also because they have counted upon one of the Premier League’s best shot-stoppers this season.

Bournemouth: Two high-profile loanees, Nathan Ake and Jack Wilshere, have been among Bournemouth’s best performers this season, but with Ake returning to Chelsea and Wilshere not contributing enough in the final third, it’s central midfielder Harry Arter who epitomises their intelligent, methodical possession play. A good player in a positional sense, calm with the ball and hugely impressive in terms of stamina, the Irish international is probably the one player they can’t afford to lose.

Stewart Robson joins the FC boys to discuss Alexis Sanchez’s mood swings at Arsenal and why he’ll be leaving the Gunners.

West Ham: With Dimitri Payet unhappy and potentially on the verge of leaving the club, Michail Antonio suddenly finds himself West Ham’s main man. He has had a peculiar season. Although impressive with his ability to make far post runs and convert crosses from the opposite flank, he was constantly used at right-back by Slaven Bilic, which didn’t suit his game and probably upset his confidence to boot. He has looked much happier in a more advanced position, contributing eight goals (twice as many as anyone else in the side) and recording a hat trick of assists in the 3-0 weekend victory over Crystal Palace.

Southampton: It has been a peculiar season. Only Sunderland have scored fewer goals, and while their defence has been relatively secure, Saints have looked more organised in previous campaigns. Oriol Romeu has been their most impressive performer in his extremely solid, physical defensive midfield role. He remains solidly in front of the defence and distributes play effectively. In a side without many star performers this season, he is constantly impressed.

Watford: If you sign Heurelho Gomes to play in goal, you know you’re set for some heart-in-mouth moments over the course of a season. But the Brazilian is also capable of brilliant performances. A fine shot-stopper particularly adept at saving penalties, it seems he’ll be particularly crucial the next few months for a side that haven’t won in their past six matches and could get dragged into a relegation scrap.

Leicester City: No one expected them to repeat last season’s heroics, but few expected them to fare quite so badly. In 2015-16, you could pick out various star performers; this time, it’s tough to find any. Therefore, it might seem strange to say it, but new signing Wilfred Ndidi is perhaps the key player for the rest of the campaign. He contributed little on debut against Chelsea, but Leicester are still desperately missing the industry of N’Golo Kante and Ndidi is the man tasked with providing that drive, energy and the odd surging run.

Robert Snodgrass is superb from set pieces. If Hull are to stay up, it’ll be down to the superb Scot.

Middlesbrough: Adam Forshaw is precisely the type of player more suited to the Premier League than the Championship. His calm, methodical and intelligent distribution is perfect for a more technically advanced league. Although some of his colleagues have struggled with the step up in quality, Forshaw looks perfectly at home and has often been Middlesbrough’s outstanding performer, dictating the play and providing good service to the wide players. With a pass completion rate above 90 percent, he’s one of the most reliable users of the ball in the Premier League.

Crystal Palace: They’ve lacked a reliable centre-forward the past few years, but in Christian Benteke, they now boast a striker with a hugely impressive minutes-per-goal ratio in his Premier League career and a set of very obvious strengths. Benteke is tall, strong and brilliant in the air, and eight goals is a decent return on a misfiring team. Clearly, he needs service — Wilfred Zaha’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked — but Benteke is the man who provides the finishing touches while also winning more aerial duels than anyone else in the league.

Hull City: It remains to be seen whether Marco Silva can rescue them, but if he does, it will almost certainly be because of Robert Snodgrass. He is Hull’s top goal scorer and top assist-maker this season, and at times, this has appeared to be a one-man team. Snodgrass can run the game by drifting inside from the flank. He also provides counter-attacking pace, creates chances and is arguably the best direct free-kick taker in the league. Silva needs to base his side around the Scottish winger if they’re to have any chance of survival.

Sunderland: In a chaotic season, Sunderland’s two performers have been at either end of the pitch. Jermain Defoe has smashed in 12 goals, remaining absolutely prolific in the penalty area, but survival is also about preventing the opposition from scoring. Behind a leaky defence, Jordan Pickford has been superb between the posts, and he received an international call-up in October to replace the injured Tom Heaton. Pickford is out injured for the next few weeks because of a knee injury, and with Vito Mannone an unconvincing deputy, Sunderland need him back soon.

Swansea City: They’ve had three managers, a succession of centre-backs and a complete question mark about their optimum approach in the final third this season, but luckily, they have among the most exciting attacking midfielders in the league. Although sometimes deployed as a false nine, Gylfi Sigurdsson is much better at breaking forward from deep. He has managed six assists and five goals this season and remains a huge threat from set pieces. Although Swansea are renowned for their possession play, dead balls might be crucial if they are to haul themselves off the bottom of the league.

Michael Cox is the editor of Zonal Marking and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.

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