Nunez, Antony, Mullin: The infuriating XI of players you simply hate to love

Football is much more than a game of kicking the ball in the goal, it’s pantomime. And what villains are to pantomime, sh*thouses are to football. We need those infuriating figures.

Be it intentionally being a master of the dark arts or simply just being an insufferable player to watch for a plethora of reasons, football throws up some pretty polarising stars across the pitch.

The defender who takes no nonsense. The wind-up merchant. The winger who does nothing but lose possession but will chuck a worldie into the top corner. The striker that appears to thrive off stamping on defenders’ toes and throwing themselves to the floor, if all else fails.

You know exactly the calibre of player. You hate that you love them. We all do. It’s what makes them infuriating but special in a way that the usual crop simply cannot grasp. They’re entertainers in their own way.

But what would happen if we chucked them all into the same XI? Unfortunately, we’ll likely never get to see such a beautiful thing in person, but we certainly can play it out and wonder ‘What if?’

GK: Emiliano Martinez

From zero to hero, Martinez has made sure to live every minute like it’s his last since rising to stardom.

The man won the Golden Glove at the World Cup and celebrated in front of officials in Qatar by thrusting the award from his hips. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

There’s the dancing, the penalty saves, the faces and the comments. He is a wind-up merchant in every sense of the word and while it is frustrating to no end for opposition fans, you can see how he’s become such a hero so quickly at Aston Villa.

RB: Luke Ayling

A dark horse in the realm of polarising footballers, Ayling is undoubtedly a hero among the Leeds faithful but has seen his powers fade in recent years.

That has resulted in him cutting a somewhat polarising figure, both in the Leeds bubble and outside of it.

At his best, though, he exudes passion, never shirks a tackle, is good for a goal and will do anything for a win.

Combine that with an enviously strong hairline and that man bun, and it makes it incredibly easy to dislike him, but also be jealous of him.

When you have those looks and a smile as good as his, you can get away with anything. See also: his infamous ‘Ayling flop‘ foul winner. Annoyingly genius.

CB: Yerry Mina

The towering Colombian has been largely hit and miss at Everton, but one of his best traits is being an absolute b*stard.

When not committing petty fouls, starting scraps or throwing his giant frame into the air to get on the end of high crosses, Mina is doing everything he can to rip up the rulebook.

It’s often landed him in hot water and coincided with a horrendous time for Everton on the pitch as consistent underachievers, but when it works he’s looked every bit a world-class wind-up merchant.

Hate having to come up against him. Same thing every time. Absolute ratter. But you’ve got to respect it.

CB: Cristian Romero

Simply put, Romero is an absolute nutter. In every way imaginable.

In an already unstable Tottenham outfit that are seemingly incapable of winning a trophy, the Argentine simply tips them over the edge and plunges them into chaos with hilarious regularity.

Every team needs a resident loose cannon who is committed to a two-footed challenge like nothing else, but maybe not Spurs. Just not right now.

Regardless, Romero is absolutely box office. Not when he’s snapping the ankles of your favourite forward, but mostly box office. A dying breed of player.

LB: Luke O’Nien

Dropping into England’s second tier, there exists a man named Luke O’Nien, who is quietly climbing the ladder in the world of football sh*thousery.

O’Nien is annoying to absolutely no end. Seriously. A jack of all trades, master of none type player, he thrives on the one thing he is good at – slowing down others.

Be it celebrating his own crunching tackles, making more tactical fouls than anyone else in the league or finding a way to avoid further punishment with his jovial manner, he’s mastered his craft.

DM: Granit Xhaka

You can’t craft an XI like this and not include Xhaka. Thems the rules.

A near-perfect villain to hero arc, Xhaka has seemingly matured with age and rediscovered his best form for Arsenal in their pursuit of a Premier League title. But part of what sets his game apart is knowing he’s got that dawg in him.

Sure, Mikel Arteta might have transformed him. Made him all refined and better at football. But a sensible Xhaka is a boring one.

We can appreciate it, but we much prefer it knowing he’s got an absolutely horrendous challenge and subsequent meltdown in his locker at all times.

DM: Casemiro

It was all going so well for Casemiro since arriving in England from Real Madrid, until the referees found him out.

The all-action midfield destroyer is elite in every sense, but developed a particular knack in Spain for being able to commit blatant fouls and consistently avoid bookings.

He managed that at the beginning for United, but has since found himself suspended more often than he’s been available. That human element has made him feel a little more loveable.

RW: Richarlison

Also known as ‘Richy lad’ by the Everton faithful once upon a time, the Brazilian broke hearts when he swapped Merseyside for north London.

It’s a testament to his status in the Premier League. He works hard, he can score goals, and he can be an absolute handful, for both his teammates and the opposition.

Perhaps the least Brazilian winger you’ll ever lay eyes on, Richarlison has made a career out of being endlessly annoying at the perfect times, and occasionally mixing in a few important goals when he feels like it.

Took his status as a ‘hate to love him’ kind of player a step further at the 2022 World Cup when, donning the famous number 9 shirt for Brazil, he bagged a goal against South Korea and celebrated with manager Tite pretending to be a pigeon.

Oh, and how could we forget famed coach driver Richard Arlison? The winger jumped on a viral story that saw Liverpool fans stranded by a fake coach driver booking on the eve of the 2022 Champions League final, tweeting a photoshopped image of him as a bus driver.

Absolutely brilliant.

AM: Antony

In a hotly contested spot, Antony just edges out English football’s favourite party animal Jack Grealish, who is simply too loveable when not driving Pep Guardiola to distraction.

But Antony – dubbed a human fidget spinner by many this season – has made a serious splash upon arriving in the Premier League.

Not only is the jury out on him from fans outside of the United bubble, but inside United, among supporters, he’s caused civil war on several occasions already.

The Brazilian has an endless book of tricks, uses them often at the wrong times, and can go from playing a 10/10 to a 1/10 in a matter of minutes through a game.

Oh, he’s also very hot-headed and when not throwing himself to the floor, is starting scuffles that probably don’t need to happen. He’s got the tools to become an all-timer in this category.

LW: Darwin Nunez

He runs around like he’s trying to escape a missile, he sometimes scores wonder goals and other times leaves you speechless with glaring missed chances, looks devilishly handsome and has the temper to go with it all; Nunez is the complete package.

A young South American who is clearly very rough around the edges in footballing terms, that rawness to his game is what makes ‘Darwizzy’ so special right now.

The Uruguayan bursts about the place like a headless chicken, throws himself to the floor to win his team anything he can, and will scrap at any given opportunity.

When he finds that scoring touch, he’ll be truly insufferable.

ST: Paul Mullin

A League One level footballer dropping out of the EFL and down two divisions to sign for a Hollywood-backed non-league outfit, before then going on an unrelenting scoring tear to endear himself to his new fans and mega-famous bosses and fire the club back into the EFL.

Mullin is the perfect anti-hero; fitting considering one of his bosses is literally Deadpool.

It’s very easy for fans of fellow non-league clubs to dislike Mullin considering his career trajectory, and even fans of the clubs Wrexham will encounter in League Two, but you’ve got to respect it and respect his commitment to it. Mullin went down there and didn’t hold back.

Became a legend at Wrexham in the process and incredibly hated just about everywhere else. Commendable.

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