10) Sadio Mane (Southampton)
There was some argument over these last two slots. Sarah Winterburn felt that Willian had done more to earn the nod, while Matt Stead wouldn’t stop talking about Scott Sinclair and his “constant effort through adversity”. Sadio Mane, Marko Arnautovic and Yannick Bolasie were also contenders, while I considered disobeying my leader by including Ross Barkley. In the end I put it to a Twitter vote; I don’t want to see my head on a spike outside Leeds train station.
And so we are left with Mane, who may well be the beneficiary of availability heuristic bias, whereby people subconsciously place greater importance on more recent events. That hat-trick against Manchester City is sticking in the minds.
In fairness to Mane, he has been excellent for large periods of this season. He is Southampton’s joint top scorer in the league, and has also increased his work-rate noticeably from last season. However, it’s the dribbling that is key. Mane has completed 75 in the league this season; Southampton’s next best is Dusan Tadic with 36.
9) Willian (Chelsea)
And so to our next vote winner, with blue coming out on top like it’s May 2015 all over again. Who said I can’t do award-winning political satire? Oh, all of you.
There’s no doubt that Willian has tailed off slightly since Christmas, but the Brazilian deserved the rest after carrying Chelsea through the first half of the season. It would have been a bizarre thought before the season began, but it really was only Willian’s determination and flashes of creativity that kept Chelsea away from a relegation battle before Guus Hiddink’s arrival.
Willian has contributed 11 goals and seven assists in all competitions, but it’s those free-kicks that people remember most. In November, he was being hailed as the best in Europe. Enter Dimitri Payet…
8) Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
You might think that it was a difficult choice between Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, but you’d be wrong. Not when I picked out Firmino as the signing of the season in our pre-season predictions and have a reputation hanging by a single thread.
Given that Firmino and Coutinho have played almost exactly the same number of Premier League minutes (1,891 vs 1,913), the comparisons are easy to draw (Firmino’s figures stated first):
Goals: 10 vs 8
Shot accuracy: 57% vs 43%
Shot conversion rate: 23% vs 12%
Assists: 7 vs 5
Chances created: 47 vs 45
Dribbles completed: 41 vs 47
Tackles: 61 vs 33
It is that tackling statistic that is perhaps most interesting, for it demonstrates Firmino’s ability to adapt to Jurgen Klopp’s all-tackling, all-pressing system. Having been played out of position by Brendan Rodgers, the Brazilian has got better and better since. Next season, he could be bloody fantastic.
7) Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City)
There may be better attacking players in the Premier League, but there can be few (Jermain Defoe, perhaps?) who are more important to the performance of their team than Sigurdsson.
Don’t believe me? Have a look where Sigurdsson ranks at Swansea this season according to the following statistics:
Chances created: 1st
Shot conversion: 2nd
Shooting accuracy: 3rd
Shots on target: 1st
Sigurdsson has played on the left wing, he’s played in central midfield, he’s played as a No. 10 and he’s played up front. He’s also the most unheralded player on this list, and one who deserves far, far more credit. I’m pleading Gylfi.
6) Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)
Despite costing a quarter of the price of Mesut Ozil and less than Dimitri Payet despite being five years his junior, Eriksen has still managed to be slightly overlooked during this magnificent Tottenham season. As Sarah Winterburn wrote excellently (creep) here, he pays the price for being a thinker amongst the doers.
Still, when Mauricio Pochettino thinks you are “the complete player”, things can’t have gone too badly. Eriksen has transformed from a lightweight creator under Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood into a an all-action midfielder. He is the opposite to Chris Waddle’s mullet: Party at the front, business at the back.
Most impressive of all is Eriksen’s consistency of form and fitness. He’s played a part in 72 of Tottenham’s 75 league games since the beginning of last season, and 109 for club and country. Chapeau to that.
5) Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were sweets and nuts it would be Christmas every day, as a weird old relative used to say to me. Yet it’s impossible not to wonder just how successful Manchester City’s league season would have been had De Bruyne stayed fit throughout the campaign.
Put it this way, Riyad Mahrez won the PFA Player of the Year award after contributing 17 goals and 11 assists in 36 league games. De Bruyne has only managed 40 across all competitions before and after niggling injury, yet still contributed 16 goals and 12 assists.
Since the turn of the year, City’s league record with and without De Bruyne is a bit silly. With him playing they have taken 2.1 points per game, without him 1.1 points per game. Since the Belgian arrived in England on August 30 last year, the only league games City have won when De Bruyne hasn’t played were against Sunderland, Aston Villa and Stoke.
4) Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)
I’m suddenly starting to feel very sorry for Ozil, which is an odd thing for a middling football writer to feel for an international footballer reportedly earning £130,000 a week. After consideration, he’ll probably just about be okay.
Alex Ferguson’s line about no player being bigger than a club might still ring true, but the important question with Ozil and Arsenal was whether he would drag the club up, or the club drag him down. For the first half of this season, the former was clearly true. Since then, I’m not so sure.
Ozil joined Arsenal not to win FA Cups, but titles. He has been bafflingly brilliant for most of this season, yet let down – again – by the incompetence and inconsistency of those around him. Fail to buy him a proper striker (and by that I mean significantly better than Olivier Giroud) and Arsenal should risk losing their jewel next summer.
3) Dimitri Payet (West Ham)
He might be an international footballer bought for a sizeable fee from a big European club, but there is an element of the everyman in Dimitri Payet. Maybe it’s the way he only came onto the English radar at the age of 28. Maybe it’s because the average quality of his goals this season have been close to Matthew Le Tissier’s glorious benchmark. Maybe it’s because he plays for a non-elite club, representative of the new order whereby stars can play for other teams. Maybe it because he looks to be carrying slightly more timber than the usual Premier League star.
Whatever the reason, we’re all smitten. Payet was the only outfield player from outside the current three included in the PFA Team of the Year, beating Mesut Ozil to a spot in the team and a place on the podium in this countdown. Two things to tell the grandkids.
2) Dele Alli (Tottenham)
If Leicester have enjoyed the greatest communal rise of this season, Dele Alli wins the individual award. In June 2015, Alli was denying rumours that we would be leaving Tottenham on loan for the season. By July 2015 he was expressing hopes of breaking into the first team. By May 2016 he’s discussing dreams of winning Euro 2016 with England. No chill, as the kids might say.
‘However, given that the two central midfield positions are occupied by Mason and Bentaleb with Christian Eriksen usually ahead in midfield, it’s been questioned whether Alli will be loaned out,’ wrote FourFourTwo in a pre-season interview with Tottenham’s midfielder, and that reflected the mood.
The last nine months have given us a chance to get used to Alli as a fixture in Tottenham’s team, but it doesn’t change the startling nature of his adaptation to the top flight. Of the 317 players to start ten or more Premier League games this season, he is the youngest.
1) Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
It is the ultimate test of a footballer, the proof of whether you are world class. No, not the Ballon D’Or, winning multiple European Cups or earning 100 international caps. If Arsene Wenger says he came close to signing you, you are a man, my son.
Mahrez is not quite there yet, but close. “I didn’t know him honestly, he played in the second division in France,” Wenger said in February. “He has developed extremely well; today he is one of the dominant players in the Premier League.”
“If I sign a player for £400,000 before he plays people will say, ‘What is that, that is not serious for Arsenal’,” he continued. Yeah, “people”, it’s your fault because you’d have teased Wenger for signing him. Instead, the rumours are that Wenger will try and sign him for £20m this summer instead. Clever.