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Gone are the episodes of Roy Keane knocking blokes’ teeth out mid-game. Buh-bye Luis Suárez and your wicked savagery. The sweat-inducing nightmare of Vinnie Jones unleashing a post-game, parking lot pummeling a la nearly all of his film roles – poof, vanished up in smoke just like his acting career. While quick-tempered players aren’t resorting to mortal combat, we’re in the midst of a new era of the Premier League villain, with a scrappy cast of skullduggerous baddies ready to wage an insidious war on the pitch that’s equal parts physical and mental. These are the top antagonists currently headlining the Premier League.
The Big Bads – Jamie Vardy
Jamie Vardy is about as close to a true villain as it comes in the Prem. He can be a loose cannon on the pitch and lives for the limelight. Whether he’s yelling in your face or making aggressive tackles, the prolific English striker can both talk the talk and walk the walk. Even his Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers has encouraged him to model his career after Luis Suárez, the lethal Uruguayan forward who, for all his brilliant play, literally bit an opponent in the middle of a game not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions. Vardy's take-no-prisoners mentality adds up to an ever-present threat for Leicester.
The Beast-ie Boys – Conor Gallagher, Kalidou Koulibaly, Kai Havertz
Chelsea have a trio that, at least in the early going of this season, may make opposing fans' "most hated" lists. (And let's face it, hating Chelsea players is a treasured past time in many corners of Premier League fandom.) Last year, midfielder Conor Gallagher’s one card per 230 minutes ranked fourth for the highest rate of cards for players who’ve spent 1000 minutes on the pitch. He also conceded the most fouls last season with 65.
Newly imported center back Kalidou Koulibaly, a highly experienced pro who dominated Serie A for upwards of a decade, had his own "bad boy" turn on Sunday against Leeds, being sent off with his second yellow for some inexcusable fouls. (Perhaps he was overly amped up after seeing his coach Thomas Tuchel's fracas with Tottenham manager Antonio Conte the previous weekend.)
The third leg of the tripod, forward Kai Havertz, is ranked first with the most fouls so far this season, standing at eight.
The Fearless Overlords – Kalvin Phillips, Joelinton, Emmanuel Dennis, John McGinn
These guys have one speed, and that’s full throttle. Last season, Manchester City's Kalvin Phillips relished coming in at fifth for the highest rate of cards at every 243 minutes. Joelinton has emerged as an elite enforcer for Newcastle, tying Crystal Palace's Jordan Ayew for the third most fouls this season. His sheer physicality makes him a nightmare of an opponent. Notingham’s Emmanuel Dennis and Astin Villa’s John McGinn are absolutely dauntless when it comes speedily chasing down the ball, especially McGinn who the most tackles at 64.
The New Menace – Darwin Nunez
Coming in at 6’2’’, Darwin Nunez's formidable frame makes him imposing from the jump. Liverpool’s star forward has both a deadly shot and wicked speed, but perhaps what makes him the most dangerous is his temper. Though he was provoked by Crystal Palace’s Danish warrior Joachim Andersen, Nunez’s rage caused him to lose control of his emotions and head butt Anderson during their Aug. 15 match. His subsequent red card has been costly for The Reds, making him unavailable until the Merseyside Derby away at Everton. That’s a shame, but on the flip side, his outburst showed the Premier League that he won’t ever back down from a fight, so wily veterans beware!
In light of his very public complaints with his squad, Manchester United’s ever-polarizing superstar Cristiano Ronaldo deserves an honorable mention. Despite all of his scoring accolades, the Portuguese striker is known for his cocky yet ferocious play on attack. He’s like guard dog ready to sink its teeth into the enemy whenever the opportunity presents itself. Now, with his detailed unhappiness at Old Trafford, all he seems to want to do is cut and run, so whether he'll be on any list of Premier League baddies going forward remains to be seen.
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