10) Jesse Lingard (Manchester United)
I’ll hold my hands up: I got it wrong. I thought that Lingard was a decent player, but not one who would ever become a fixture in Manchester United’s first team and certainly not a starter for England.
Bu this season, Lingard has come on leaps and bounds. Despite competition from Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan for a starting place during this season, Lingard has managed 1,700 league minutes and is Manchester United’s third top league goalscorer. Only Pogba and Romelu Lukaku have more assists. And your Dad hates him enjoying himself.
9) Heung-Min Son (Tottenham)
It was a genuine toss-up between Son and Dele Alli, and I’m perfectly aware that whichever one of the two I chose was going to be the wrong answer. Alli has 19 league goals and assists to Son’s 17, but it would be hard to argue his case against the South Korean in terms of who has had the more positive season. That’s partly down to Alli’s majestic 2016/17, but even so.
Son makes the grade because of his versatility. He is an excellent attacking outlet on the left, but also filled in as a false nine during Harry Kane’s injury absence. You’d struggle to argue that he is a striker, but Son is basically a manager’s dream. Pop him anywhere, including the bench, and he will do his best.
Son will end this season having made only a couple more league starts this season than last, but his importance to Tottenham’s attack has certainly increased. “He’s showing he’s more mature than last season and his performances are helping the team a lot,” as Pochettino said in March. Everyone can see that he’s on more of a level, the belief and confidence that show in every game is fantastic.”
8) Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
The other big decision of the list, but it’s Hazard who holds onto his place as Chelsea’s representative over the vastly improved Willian.
For evidence, look to Chelsea’s semi-final display against Southampton at Wembley. Hazard scored neither goal and provided one assist, but it is his latent threat that requires an opposition manager to assign two or three players to close him down and prevent him getting into full stride. Hazard is regularly fouled, but it is the space he creates for other players – Willian included – that is most useful.
Not that Hazard has shirked his goalscoring responsibilities. He has scored 16 goals in all competitions, one more than £55m centre forward Alvaro Morata. It is this responsibility to do everything in the attacking third that creates sympathy for Hazard given the revolving door of managers.
7) Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Is Mane the lesser of Liverpool’s magnificent front three? Yes. Has he been quite as vital to their success as last season? No. But neither of those answers should dilute his excellence. Comparing most attacking players to Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino would make them look sub-par.
Mane has not hit his heights of last season, but he’s hardly let anyone down. Nineteen goals in the Premier League and Champions League speaks for itself, but the quality of the opponents against whom Mane has scored adds further persuasive evidence: Manchester City (twice), Roma (twice), Arsenal, Sevilla and Porto.
Mane does retain that Raheem Sterling-like ability to fluff a chance or pass two minutes after doing something brilliantly, but the overall impression is of a player refining his game under a brilliant coach.
6) Pascal Gross (Brighton)
Already ranked highly in our signings of the season, and makes the grade again here. The mystery remains why no Bundesliga club made a significant move to sign a player who created more chances than any other player in the division last season, and why no European club bigger than Brighton bullied their way to the front of the queue.
In August, if you had been told that Brighton would survive relegation with Anthony Knockaert creating only 28 chances all season, that would be hard to believe. But Gross has thrived where Knockaert has struggled. Even Glenn Murray’s goals will not see him named the club’s Player of the Season. And, for the umpteenth time, he cost £2.5m.
5) Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
There are better Premier League players than Zaha, but so very few who are simultaneously so important to their team’s performances and have such an affiliation with their local community.
It is this affinity with Croydon and its people that makes Zaha’s future so difficult to predict. Were this any other player at any other club, his transfer to a top-six Premier League club this summer would be predictable. With Zaha, it is a little different. His last big club move worked out so badly, and he has responded so well back at Selhurst Park, that there is good reason to think that the winger will never play better than he does for Palace.
Of course modern football demands that Zaha and his agent must push for the stars, and it’s impossible to ignore the potential benefits of Champions League football. But this summer (and potential interest from Tottenham and Arsenal that would allow Zaha to stay in London) will give Palace and their star player plenty of thinking time. I won’t pretend not to desperately hope that he stays put.
4) Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)
Since the start of 2015/16, only one Premier League player has created more chances than Christian Eriksen, and only one has more assists. That Eriksen has made 60 more tackles than one of those players and scored more goals than both indicates the all-round nature of his game. Were you looking to create an entire attack made of up of multiple copies of a single Premier League player, Kevin de Bruyne would surely win the contest. But Eriksen might well come second.
Yet the most astonishing aspect of Eriksen is his resilience. He is hardly a physically intimidating presence, but looks can be deceiving. In the last three seasons only one attacking player has played more Premier League minutes, and Eriksen has played 155 of Tottenham’s last 161 league games. At the age of 26, he has played 463 career matches. Plenty of professionals don’t manage that in a career.
3) Leroy Sane (Manchester City)
The best pure winger in world football on current form? Perhaps. In a world of wide forwards and wing-backs, there is less call for a player whose pace and guile assists in the aim of getting to the touchline and pulling the ball back for a teammate to finish. Even ‘normal’ wingers, like Andros Townsend, are increasingly used on the opposite side in order to cut in and shoot rather than cross.
Sane is the honourable exception, a left-footer playing on the left who has been an integral part of Manchester City’s success this season and won the PFA Young Player of the Year award. There is a slight irony to Guardiola, one of the most tactically inventive coaches in the game, keeping the winger dream alive.
2) Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
We love him, we love him, we love him, we love him and we love him. Perhaps football writers are not supposed to have favourites, but when a young black guy has been pillories by a tabloid media for a shared failure, been labelled as both a spoilt brat and a spendthrift in stories that reek of racial slurring and still comes out on top, you’re allowed to root for him.
This has been a two-year battle for Sterling, made the scapegoat for England’s Euro 2016 exit and told by many that he would soon be moved on by Pep Guardiola. If Guardiola has revitalised a winger, turning him into a six-yard-box poacher and false nine, coming up with the idea was the easy part. By all accounts, few work harder than a 23-year-old who is already closing in on 200 Premier League games at top-four clubs.
All that is left is for Sterling to shine in Russia, sticking two fingers up at those who told him he would fail in that task. Actually, he seems a shy lad. Leave that to us, Raheem.
1) Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
There may have been better players in Premier League history, and there may have been better goalscorers. But never has a player hit the ground running so soon after signing for a Premier League team, and never has a player produced such an unexpected period of goalscoring in the short-ish history of this league. You can argue that Salah is a striker if you must, but he would only top that list too.
Even Jurgen Klopp, who wanted Liverpool to part with £35m for Salah last summer, is happy to admit that he didn’t see this coming. “The record is remarkable and the goals themselves are remarkable as well,” he said in January. “I’d like to show you all the scouting footage we had from the games we saw. The second goal against Leicester – a goal like this was not involved. He is so physically strong.
Klopp has played a role in this extended run of form, reducing Salah’s defensive workload by asking Firmino to cover for him. But the most credit lies with the player himself. Lead Liverpool to Champions League final success – and there are signs of slight fatigue – and he will be a strong candidate for the Ballon D’Or.