Welcome to The Triangle Starting XI, the British cousin of the Triangle All-Stars. With the season starting in two days, it’s a way for us to celebrate our favorite players in the English Premier League. This is completely biased, and there are absolutely no requirements beyond being on the roster of an EPL squad. Oh, and you won’t see any Manchester United players because Louis van Gaal’s team is boring as hell. Enjoy!
Keeper: Artur Boruc, AFC Bournemouth
Ryan O’Hanlon: This choice might say more about the state of the goalkpeer in 2015 than it does about the guy we actually chose. Now, don’t get me wrong, Boruc is an absolute maniac who would dead-lift your house into a volcano if the situation called for it, but there just aren’t many “fun” goalies around the top levels of the sport. I guess by “fun” I really mean “aggressively bad.” But René Higuita is not scorpion-kicking through that door anytime soon. And I haven’t seen a keeper try to eat a ball during a game since Jens Lehmann retired in 2011.
Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer is essentially a defensive midfielder in gloves, and Juventus’s Gianluigi Buffon has been around so long that he was recently reclassified as a “tree.” Those two are kings, but they’re the current exceptions. Most goalies at the top level move so efficiently, are so well-positioned, and are so good with their feet that it takes some effort to appreciate what elite goalies do. So instead, we’re going with “The Holy Goalie,” who is not necessarily very good, who looks like a weightlifter, and who used to incite sectarian riots by blessing himself with the sign of the cross before games when he played in Scotland. Everything in this video is a fact:
Right Back: Geoff Cameron, Stoke City
O’Hanlon: Does Cameron look like he walked into a Kingston, Rhode Island, Supercuts and said, “I want to be British”? Is he one of the most unique American players of all time? Is his languid mix of skill, size, and athleticism both legitimately elegant and occasionally beautiful? Has his versatility doomed him to the whims of erratic managers and prevented him from ever playing a consistent position for a consistent period of time? Did he actually do this in a World Cup game?
Yes to all of that, but there’s another reason Cameron’s here. Right now, at this exact moment, what matters for our purposes, which are to create a team unwilling to hide behind the cowardly facade of “stick to sports” and unafraid to acknowledge the often messy crossover of athletics and politics, is this now-deleted tweet:
Cameron’s been announcing EPL games for NBC Sports on a few of his off days, but c’mon. Someone get this dude an internship at the Pentagon.
Center Back: José Fonte, Southampton
Mike L. Goodman: First, let us all accept that we know nothing about who is and is not a good defender. If we did, Fonté would have never languished in the outer reaches of Portugal’s first division and the lower tiers of England for the better part of a decade. He never would’ve signed with Benfica and then eventually been loaned to Crystal Palace.1 It wouldn’t have taken 205 appearances into his Southampton career for him to finally be noticed for being a great defender. And Dejan Lovren, his one-time partner at Southampton, wouldn’t have been the center back being poached away by Liverpool for lots of money.
What the hell?
A year from now, the Fonté bandwagon might have some more legroom. This season, he’ll be playing without defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin in front of him and both right back Nathaniel Clyne and center back Toby Alderweireld beside him. Maybe this year we find out that all of those guys made him a lot better. Or maybe we see that the 31-year-old is the one who’s truly been holding the Southampton defense together. We’ll hope for the latter, but for now, let’s celebrate what a crazy-ass game soccer is: Jose Fonté, one of the best defenders in the Premier League, had to spend a decade being ignored before we all realized how good he actually was.
Center Back: Kurt Zouma, Chelsea
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Sorry for yelling, but this is what Zouma’s game is right now: critical moments of extreme emotion. This dude is 20, and he’s coming to take your lunch money. Highlight-reel tackles — how does he have this many? He’s only played for Chelsea 15 times! — aren’t necessarily the sign of a great defender, but tell that to this poor guy:
In our ideal world, Zouma, who’s still working on channeling that bull-rushing athleticism into some Jose Mourinho–approved consistency, is starting for Chelsea by season’s end, and then he and fellow Frenchman Paul Pogba, whose name would just be listed here 11 times in 96-point font were we to include all of Europe, make like Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber and trample over Germany in the final of the Euros next summer, thus establishing a new world soccer order. Don’t fight the future.
Left Back: Alberto Moreno, Liverpool
O’Hanlon: Let me help you be great.
Are you a dog or a cat person?2
If this is the last you hear from me, here’s why.
You, of course, said dog: Do you enjoy soccer?
You, of course, said yes: Then meet Alberto Moreno.
Our man is a corgi who appears to be the love child of Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso and also happens to play for Liverpool. Seriously, his game is straight-up canine: all unbridled energy, struggling for focus. After coming over from Sevilla last summer, his first season in England was, well … fine. He’s still working on the “defending” part of being a defender, but there was this:
He’s also the first professional athlete I’ve felt comfortable calling “absolutely fucking adorable.” I mean …
Three Pictures of Alberto Moreno That Are So Cute You’ll Briefly Forget That Liverpool Hasn’t Won the League in 25 Years:
Now, Moreno might not even start for Liverpool this Sunday, and that will be a damn shame: A world in which Alberto Moreno gets the weekly opportunity to let his tongue wag while he runs around a beautiful grass field for 90 minutes? That’s the world I want to live in.
Defensive Midfield: Nemanja Matic, Chelsea
This guy plays Helm’s Deep (midfield) for Chelsea, providing a shield for the Blues’ back four. At 6-foot-4, 180-some pounds, he might be a moving skyscraper that knows how to pass. Mourinho has a habit of finding someone to play this position — be it Michael Essien, Esteban Cambiasso, Claude Makelele, or Sami Khedira — and then he starts winning all the trophies. Matic was one of the major reasons Chelsea walked away with the Premier League last season, with 17 clean sheets kept and only 32 league goals allowed.
Defensive midfielders can be a bit anonymous. If you notice them it’s because they’ve just slid in, two-footed an opponent, and are now moping off the field after a red card. Matic is different — he is the anti-highlight highlight reel. He stops cool stuff from happening and makes it look cool in the process. Don’t believe me? Just watch him dismantle the consensus best midfielder in the world:
No wonder Mourinho calls him a “monster.”
Center Midfield: Ki Sung-yueng, Swansea City
Goodman: You may remember Ki from notable goals such as this one, which upset Manchester United.
Or this one, which also came against Manchester United.
If you’re familar with the Premier League, you might think Ki is an attacking midfielder whose timely goals serve as the focal point of his game. You’d be wrong. No, Ki is a remarkably versatile central midfielder who has paired with everybody from the slight Tom Carroll to the insane Jonjo Shelvey to the “I can’t take more than two steps in any direction” Leon Britton — and he’s effortlessly adapted his game to fill in whatever gaps his partner leaves. From scoring to defending to creating, Ki excels at doing what’s needed when it’s needed. He’s a player with a subtle game who too often gets appreciated for his least subtle moments. So forget the goals; we love you for all of those tackles you make after Jonjo goes wandering off to god knows where or when Leon turns into a statue. This team needs a glue guy, and Ki’s the best kind of spackle you can find.
Center Midfield: Jack Grealish, Aston Villa
O’Hanlon: Let’s just allow the Daily Mail headlines to take this one:
• June 14: “Jack Grealish pictured sprawled on the road surrounded by packs of cigarettes as Aston Villa star holidays in Tenerife”
• June 15: “Jack Grealish must know he risks throwing it all away… disgraced Aston Villa teenager is allowed a holiday but he has gone too far after ‘drunken’ snaps in Tenerife”
• June 22: “Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish faces fresh questions after being pictured with £1,000 bottle of Ciroc Vodka in Marbella”
• July 14: “Jack Grealish will only fulfill his potential at Aston Villa if he lives ‘like a monk’, insists assistant manager Ray Wilkins”
• August 5: “Jack Grealish is a very talented boy… you’ve got to make mistakes to learn from them, insists Aston Villa captain Micah Richards”
Jack Grealish is 19 and could one day be a very good soccer player. The English media is dope.
Right Wing: Alexis Sánchez, Arsenal
Ryan: I’ve recently heard a theory that the Premier League has a lot of very good players, but no great ones. Over the last few summers, stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Luis Suárez have all left to try out life in Spain. Five years ago, it would be a given that a talent like Pogba, Arturo Vidal, or even Marco Reus would take their careers to the next level by playing in England. For whatever reasons, they haven’t done that. Spain and Germany are rivaling England as destinations.
Sánchez is the exception to that rule. Arsenal, for the first time since Thierry Henry, have a world-class forward,3 and he might just win them the league this season. He is a Tasmanian devil who can play across the front three, seems to get stronger with physical contact, loves taking people off the dribble, and can split double-teams, pass, and finish. You want set pieces? He’s got that in his toolbox too:
Robin van Persie was too hurt, too often.
Sanchez had 16 goals and eight assists in 34 league games last season. He’s coming off a summer when his Chile team won the Copa America on its home turf. You want to see greatness? Watch him.
Center Forward: Sergio Agüero, Manchester City
Goodman: Agüero is the best attacking player in England, and somehow he’s underrated. Every year, Suárez or Bale or Harry Kane comes rocketing up the league, hogging all the column inches and highlights. And every year, Agüero is just hanging out, wearing his gloves,4 banging in goal after goal after goal. Nobody takes a ball at an angle and just blasts it with nuclear power across goal the way Agüero does. They say everybody’s got a game plan until they get punched in the mouth, right? Well, every keeper’s got his angles covered until the ball blazes into the upper corner at roughly 9 million mph. Don’t believe me? Just fast-forward to the top goal below. Or, you know, watch nine other awesome goals first.
It’s OK, Sergio. You’re so good you can wear gloves all summer long if you want.
Left Wing: Patrick Bamford, Crystal Palace
Goodman: Isn’t it weird that there’s a 21-year-old English striker starting for a top-half-of-the-table team, and you probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup?5 Like, since when was England so overrun with attacking talent that a kid could drop 17 goals in 39 appearances for a Championship club while on loan from Chelsea, then come back the next year and go out on loan to a pretty darn good Crystal Palace team while nobody really notices? Say hello to Patrick “Bambi Legs” Bamford.
This isn’t a Harry Kane joke. He’s 22.
At 6-foot-1, he’s big, and he can operate as a target man — even if he tends to use his height like he just discovered he grew three inches overnight. He’s fast in just about the most ungainly, rumbling, bumbling, stumbling, “Can you believe these are actually my legs and when did they get this long?” way possible. But you know what else? He scores goals, and he’s playing on an improbably fun Crystal Palace team that Alan Pardew will have no problem unleashing on the world.
Super-Sub: Troy Deeney, Watford
Ryan: Deeney is a 27-year-old Premier League debutant who scored one of the most electrifying last-second goals in recent memory, when Watford beat Leicester to earn a Championship playoff berth in 2014.
Watford fell short of making the top flight that season but earned auto-promotion in 2015, and Deeney’s 21 goals were a big reason for their success. This guy is a bull — basically a bargain-bin Chelsea no. 9 — who specializes in flying-kick follow-up strikes that resemble Danny McBride practicing karate or Eric Cantona practicing crowd control. Watch out for this guy. Some find Watford’s international men of moneyball recruitment philosophy a bit off-putting, but they are characters — Deeney chief among them. He has an incredible story, and he is, in his own words, intent on being “a pain in the ass.”
Manager: Slaven Bilic, West Ham
O’Hanlon: I bet you thought we were gonna pick Mourinho, didn’t you? But let me ask you another question: Can he shred? CAN HE SHRED LIKE SLAVEN BILIC?
WHERE YOU AT BOB DYLAN?
Back in 2007, when he was managing Croatia, Bilic & Co. beat England, 3-2, at Wembley and prevented the Three Lions from qualifying for the 2008 European Championships. Guess where they play the FA Cup final? Wembley. I can see it now, and I’ll dream about it until it happens: On May 21, 2016, West Ham are celebrating their win over Arsenal, but no one knows where the manager is. Then, all of a sudden, that undeniable Gibson Explorer twang comes over the stadium P.A. Everyone’s confused for a second, but then it’s obvious: It’s him. That’s Slaven Bilic’s music.