With the Premier League season entering its final stages, players and writers will now be casting their votes for individual awards to be handed out at the end of April. The voting process is famously flawed and comes at a bad time, the season being far from over, but the winner is usually the correct one regardless. The contenders for this year’s awards are pretty obvious, but here are the ten(ish) I would consider to have had the best campaigns at this moment in time.
The Premier League’s top scorer, top assister and standout individual performer, Suárez will inevitably take every individual gong going, and all despite missing the first six games of the 2013-14 campaign due to suspension. His reputation will always be tarnished by his previous transgressions – even commentators here in South America refer to him as ‘El Caníbal’ – but his striking improvement over the last two seasons has seen him reach stratospheric heights and win over almost all of his critics.
Brendan Rodgers deserves a lot of credit: Suárez has been the biggest beneficiary of the manager’s more progressive style of football and his coaching staff’s methods. Under Kenny Dalglish in 2011-12, Súarez scored 11 goals from 128 shots: this season he has 24 from 127. He now gets 55% of his shots on target, up from 37% two years ago.
Most encouragingly of all, he now makes the right decision about when to pass and when to shoot, most probably a function of growing trust in his teammates – his combinations with the much-improved Jordan Henderson in particular have been a joy to watch. All in all, a stellar campaign: one that will end in individual glory and Liverpool’s return to the Champions League.
Another attacker who has taken obvious talent and turned it into exceptional productivity, Hazard has spearheaded Chelsea’s transformation from title-challenge also-rans to quickly disappearing frontrunners. The Belgian’s 13 goals, 7 assists and 79 chances created show him to be by far the Blues’ most consistently threatening player. Always capable of making the sublime look easy, he is now doing it on a regular basis and delivering on the rich promise shown at Lille.
It was said by most observers that Oscar was the biggest winner when José Mourinho froze Juan Mata out of the team but Hazard has arguably benefitted to an even greater degree, taking the swoon-inducing Spaniard’s role as primary playmaker and fearlessly rising to the challenge. If Chelsea take the title it will be primarily down to Hazard’s development this season – the ultimate proof that Mourinho was right to cut Mata loose.
I wrote in October that Manchester City’s ponderous build-up tactics were in danger of wasting the outrageous gifts of their best striker. It is obvious that asking Agüero to play a supporting role to inferior number nines, thus limiting him to two or fewer shots per game, is never going to see him post the goal tallies he is capable of producing.
Evidently Manuel Pellegrini shared those misgivings, reshaping City to play a gung-ho 4-4-2 that encourages both strikers to shoot on sight. Since then, Kun has been on fire. Only Luis Suárez has taken more shots per game than Agüero’s 4.1 and the Argentine’s goal tally has skyrocketed in the process. He now has 15 goals from 15 starts and would surely have been a contender the golden boot had a hamstring injury at the end of January not ruled him out for six weeks.
Suárez now has nine more goals going into the final furlongs and seems certain to finish as the Premier League’s top scorer, although Agüero would gladly trade that individual award to win his second league championship with City, as he may well do. In any case, it has been a delight to see City’s number sixteen back to his best – it had been far too long.
Another player freed up by Pellegrini’s ultra-attacking tactics, the towering Ivorian has a personal-best 13 league goals to his name this season, but it is not just the quantity that has been impressive: the quality, too, has been remarkable. To his already lengthy list of attributes he has added a Beckhamesque ability from free-kicks, scoring beauties against Fulham, Norwich and Wigan, while the simultaneously delicate and mighty curler from distance in the Carling Cup Final victory over Sunderland ranked in Touré’s mind as his best goal ever.
It has not all been positive, however: his lax attitude towards his defensive responsibilities has seen him come under fire at times and City’s lack of numbers at the back when he goes forward has on a few occasions been their undoing this season. The feeling remains that if they are to go further in Europe they will have to refine their style of play and producing something more controlling.
That said, Pellegrini will choose to accentuate the positive side of Touré’s partnership with Fernandinho and correctly argue that while conventional wisdom says a two-man midfield cannot win anything in modern football, the two dominated the majority of their league games and created a platform for the likes of David Silva, Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo to play their best football.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny
While the arrival of Mesut Özil was widely credited with the revival of Arsenal’s fortunes, at least until the kindness of their early fixture list caught up with them in February and March, more praise was due to the Gunners’ central defenders than to their infinitely more glamorous record signing. Aside from the opening day aberration against Aston Villa, they were absolutely flawless.
Mertesacker and Koscielny have been first choice for eighteen months now and in that time Arsenal have lost just two league games when they have played the full 90 minutes. The perfection of their partnership – the obvious balance of attributes, complementary styles of play and a refined, intuitive understanding – basically makes them one player, hence their inclusion together in this list.
Arsenal fans on Twitter are fond of holding up Koscielny as the best centre-back in the Premier League – Mertesacker’s lack of pace automatically disqualifies him, for some reason – but the fact is he is not the same player without the towering German alongside him. Really, the two should take to the field with ‘Mertescielny’ or ‘Kosacker’ on the back of their shirts.
Perhaps the most telling measure of Ramsey’s contribution this season is that news of his new contract, which pays him upwards of £100k per week, was not greeted by pitchfork-wielding mobs outside the Emirates demanding Arsène Wenger’s head on a plate. If in July you had told most Arsenal fans that by the end of the season Ramsey would be their best performer by some distance and deservedly one of the club’s top earners, they would have had you committed to a psychiatric hospital.
The transformation has been remarkable: for years he was a walking punchline, an undoubtedly promising player but one whose selection was used to illustrate how far behind their rivals Arsenal had slipped. For a long time after that injury, it seemed like his development had stalled for good. To his credit, he has recovered step by step and his 2013-14 has surpassed all expectations.
Despite a string of commendable performances towards the end of last season, the consistency and decisiveness of his contribution in this campaign has been arresting. He has become the most productive box-to-box midfielder in the division, his incredible stamina and concentration allowing him to press with constant intensity, make great decisions on the ball and arrive in the position to finish with aplomb time and time again. It is a shame that injury took him away and robbed Arsenal of their most potent weapon just as the title race was getting interesting.
Given the popularity of players like Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones, it is a bit bizarre that Sturridge, a superior footballer to all three, is not adored by the British public. Admittedly, his development has been slower than theirs and he does not have a particularly fan-friendly style of play (i.e. he does not charge around like a headless chicken showing loads of ‘passion’), but it seems harsh to permanently exclude from adulation a talented player because of unverifiable notions of arrogance based on an apparently annoying goal celebration.
The fact is that Daniel Sturridge is one of the best strikers in the Premier League and if he continues this form he will have to be considered as one of the best in the world. As this article on StatsBomb.com shows, he is posting figures which rank him up there with and even above players most would scoff at comparing him to. Again, Brendan Rodgers has to be applauded for taking a gamble on popularly distrusted potential and turning it into ruthlessly consistent productivity.
Given the consistency of his performances this season, it is incredible that Sturridge is still not guaranteed a starting place in England’s World Cup campaign, with the considerably inferior Wayne Rooney still trusted with the keys to the kingdom in Roy Hodgson’s grand masterplan for international humiliation. Hodgson has taken a lot of unwarranted criticism but if he shunts Sturridge out wide or leaves him out entirely just to include Rooney, he can have no-one else to blame when he finds himself on the plane home after three miserable matches.
Coleman is not the most naturally talented footballer – he chose to pursue a professional career in the game at the relatively late age of 18, having originally played Gaelic football and hockey – but the combination of his athleticism and determination and the progressive system favoured by his manager have made him a standout performer in this season’s Premier League. Arguably, no player better illustrates the evolution of Everton under Roberto Martínez.
Under David Moyes, Coleman was originally used as a right-sided midfielder, his swashbuckling style and tactical discipline making him the perfect complement to the positionally unadventurous but defensively solid Tony Hibbert behind him. Nowadays, Coleman is more or less the Irish Dani Alves, a positionally aggressive wing-back whose attacking impact is comparable to his defensive contribution.
While the majority of Everton’s play continues to come down the flank of ‘90s indie-rock star Leighton Baines – 40% on the left compared to 33% on the right – Coleman has been the more productive, scoring five goals from open play to Baines’ zero, registering the same amount of assists (one), while taking more shots and making more dribbles, interceptions and clearances. Now that Baines is tied to a long-term contract, the Toffees face a battle to keep hold of the guy on the other flank.
Always touted as a major talent by those with their finger on the pulse of football on England’s south coast, this season has seen Southampton’s home-grown captain come to the fore on a national scale. He has scored seven goals and made five assists, created 54 goalscoring chances at a rate of 1.9 per game and showed uncommon ball-retention skills for an English player of his type, all while playing an important role in the Premier League’s most advanced pressing system.
While I do like to cite empirical evidence wherever possible, above all else it has been his creative style of play and tactical discipline that have set him apart from his peers. Finally: an English third-band-attacker who plays a twenty-first-century style of football. It cannot be denied that Lallana is riding the crest of a journalistic-hype wave right now, but it would be more down to his performances than favourable press were he not only in England’s World Cup squad but also in their starting eleven for the tournament.
He still cannot control a football with fewer than three touches and he has played like an absolute moron since November, but despite these obvious drawbacks the biggest club in England has decided to pay him the best part of £16m per year until June 2019. Goodness knows how Rooney and his agent, Paul Stretford, managed to convince Manchester United to do it, but Henry Kissinger would be proud of that kind of negotiating ability.
Plus it is a World Cup year, so no ‘Players of the Year’ list would be complete without England’s great white hope. Roar! Passion! Etc, etc, etc.