10) Aaron Cresswell (West Ham)
When West Ham paid an initial fee of around £3.5m for Cresswell, even they could not have predicted the impact he would have. The left-back is one of three ever-present Premier League outfield players this season, with rumours of £20m summer bids from Manchester City and Chelsea on their way.
Cresswell’s consistency is verging on ridiculous, starting 209 of a possible 219 league games on his ascent from Tranmere Rovers in League One to the Premier League. His performance level doesn’t appear to be dropping either.
“What makes players like him attractive to big clubs is that he is home-grown and squads must have eight of those in the Premier League,” said Sam Allardyce last month, ignoring Cresswell’s excellent form. Allardyce understandably thinks the 25-year-old should stay put, but the full-back seems confident enough to make the next step up. An England call can’t be far away.
9) Phil Jones (Manchester United)
That Manchester United have lost seven of the 21 matches Phil Jones has missed is a testament to the paucity of other options at Old Trafford as much as his own excellence, but there is no doubt that Jones is Louis van Gaal’s first-choice central defender.
It’s also easy to forget that Jones only turned 23 in February, the youngest member of this list and the third youngest United player to start ten or more games this season. Jones has been forced to learn on the job and used in a myriad of different positions at a time when United themselves have been going through great change.
Comparisons with Duncan Edwards by Bobby Charlton were both hasty and unhelpful, but Jones could still be Manchester United’s next captain and the leader of their defence. What he needs is an injury-free run and a steady, reliable central defensive partner. This summer may see that second issue resolved.
8) Ashley Williams (Swansea)
“He’s a great guy and he’s his own man,” says Rio Ferdinand of Ashley Williams. “Thirty is when experience kicks in and starts telling. He plays with his head rather than just his heart.”
Swansea’s central defender has now reached 30, and his chance for a move to a top four club may well have passed. But that should not dampen the achievements of a player who worked part-time as a waiter and a fairground assistant before getting a break with Stockport County. He didn’t make his league debut until he was close to turning 20, and had never played higher than the third tier until joining Swansea.
Williams’ reputation suffered slightly last season, but he has improved to play the best football of his career under Garry Monk. Composed and ever-reliable, Williams’ physical fitness bears repeating. Since August 2008, he has missed 638 minutes of league football out of a possible 26,100.
7) Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City)
It’s a measure of Zabaleta’s excellence that even in an off-season he has still been the second best right-back in the division. Back in January we named Zaba as the ninth-best Premier League player of 2014, but there is no doubt his performances have dropped slightly. He’s not alone at the Etihad in that regard – Yaya Toure was No. 5 on that list.
Still, this hasn’t been a disaster for the Argentinean. He has still contributed four assists and still marauds forward with an intensity which acts as a façade for his quality and composure in the final third. Occasionally Zabaleta has been given a difficult time by a quick winger, but he has also had to cover for the regular deficiencies in City’s central defence.
Plus he’s just so bloody likeable. You get the sense that defeats hurt Zabaleta more than any other City player, and we like that. We really like that.
6) Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)
For so long it seemed as if Bertrand would be the most difficult answer to the quiz question ‘Name the 12 current English players to have started in a Champions League final’. He has broken free from that trivia cage in style.
Whenever a young English player is being considered for a move, Southampton is the first club to jump into our minds. They play good football, give youth a chance and seem to bring out potential when it is matched with hard work. Jack Rodwell? Get him to St. Mary’s. Andros Townsend? Get him to St. Mary’s. Raheem Sterling? Yeah, they probably can’t afford him.
Bertrand is the perfect example of that. Permitted to leave Chelsea after nine years at Stamford Bridge, he has proved that failing to make the grade at the top doesn’t have to debilitate a career. “If you are a Chelsea player, that means you have good quality but he missed playing regular games,” says Ronald Koeman. “He has shown his qualities from the first day but I expected this kind of quality. All he needed was to play every weekend and now he’s doing that it makes him stronger and more confident.”
Exactly that, Ronald.
5) Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton)
Roy Hodgson has told him that he is England’s best right-back, which can be filed under ‘damning with faint praise’ and immediately forgotten. Becoming England’s best right-back might well be considerably easier than finding somebody who thinks otherwise (who is not related to Kyle Walker). We imagine that Gary Neville finds working with the industrious Clyne a little less frustrating than the gaffe-prone Walker.
What is more encouraging is Clyne’s improvement this season – from 2.2 tackles per game last season to 3.4 and from 1.1 interceptions to 1.9 – under Ronald Koeman, who said in September that “Clyne is one of the best right full-backs that I’ve had in my teams during the last 15 years”. Combative, quick and blessed with a wonderful engine, no wonder Manchester United are looking on with envy as Antonio Valencia does a vaguely passable impression of a full-back.
4) Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
“For technical defending, not making a mistake, not being in the wrong position, not getting caught out…I don’t see him making a mistake. When I watch him, he’s as near to perfect as possible when it comes to defending; he’s immaculate.” The words of Gary Neville confirm the notion that Azpilicueta is a defender’s defender. In an age when players in his position are judged on crossing accuracy and the ability to go byline to byline, Chelsea have won the league with a full-back with emphasis on both the ‘full’ and the ‘back’.
As with John Terry, Azpilicueta would not fit into every manager’s system, but his fear of crossing the half-way line dovetails with Eden Hazard’s phobia of coming back the other way, while his lack of attacking ambition helps cover for Terry’s lack of pace. For this system and this manager, there is no better left-back than a selfless and disciplined Spanish right-back.
3) Jose Fonte (Southampton)
Our love for Jose Fonte is well-documented. In January 2010 he joined a team in 14th place in League One; now he is the defensive lynchpin and captain of a side that has conceded just 28 goals in 35 Premier League games. What’s more astonishing? That at 31 he has only recently become a Portuguese international, or that even Maya Yoshida looks vaguely like a top-flight footballer when Fonte is directing defensive operations?
Incoming Southampton boss Ronald Koeman said on July 13 that it was too early to make a decision on the contract situation of Fonte; by August 8, a new deal was signed. Koeman needed only a few weeks on the training pitch to realise that Fonte – whose decision-making has improved immeasurably during his three seasons in the top flight – is a class act. Dejan? Never heard of him.
2) Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)
As recently as last week, Arsene Wenger was bemoaning the fact that injuries saw Arsenal take on Stoke at the Britannia Stadium in December with a young defence. For ‘young defence’ read ‘defence without Laurent Koscielny’. The Gunners lost 3-2 that day, one of three defeats suffered this season in the absence of the Frenchman. It’s hardly a surprise – since August 2013, Arsenal have a win percentage of 73% in Premier League games Koscielny has completed, compared to just 39% without him.
“I think Koscielny is one of the best centre-backs in the league. I really like him, I really rate him,” says Jamie Carragher, a man who knows a thing or two about central defenders. “There are very few players like him in the world,” says his teammate Santi Cazorla. A quick centre-half with excellent timing in the tackle? We’re not sure about the whole world, but we can’t think of another of his calibre in the Premier League.
1) John Terry (Chelsea)
“I wouldn’t say it’s been easy for John Terry,” said Graeme Le Saux on Monday. “But having Nemanja Matic has certainly made his job easier.” That’s the inevitable caveat to Terry’s revitalisation under Jose Mourinho, a manager who recognised that an ageing Terry needs a) protection b) a defensive-minded left-back c) a quicker central defensive partner and d) a deep defensive line. Terry looked tired and exposed under previous managers because he was tired and exposed; Jose has built a team that showcases Terry’s strengths of physicality and anticipation and hides his lack of pace.
Would he still look so impressive under another manager or at another club? Does it matter when he has looked imperious in a Chelsea side that has marched unchallenged to the title while conceding just 27 goals? Does it balls. Jose and Johnny…sitting in a tree…W-I-N-N-I-N-G.
Daniel Storey and Sarah Winterburn
10) Aaron Cresswell (West Ham)