10) Yaya Toure (Manchester City)
It would have been easy to overlook Toure altogether, after such an obvious and well-publicised fall from grace. He featured highly on a previous list of fading stars and would likely win at a canter were we to rank the players to have fallen furthest this season.
Still, having said all of that, are there ten or more better central midfielders in the Premier League? Even as this pale shadow of his former self, Toure has contributed eight goals to City’s cause this season, more than any other midfielder who regularly plays as part of a deeper-lying two. He has also made more passes per game than any other player in the league.
However, rather than eulogise too much about the Ivorian, let’s remember the real story here: Toure has gone from being arguably the best in his position in the entire league to us seriously questioning whether he should be squeezed into this list of the top ten.
9) Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
He would almost certainly be higher in this list were it not for Louis van Gaal taking so long to abandon his experiment of playing Wayne Rooney in midfield, but Herrera still goes down as a definite success in his first Premier League season.
He has, as is generally expected of foreign players in their maiden campaign on these shores, struggled with the pace of the game at times, while the team in general suffered from Van Gaal’s stubbornness in sticking with 3-5-2 earlier in the season. But Herrera broke into the team in late November and has played a crucial role in the form which has seen Manchester United almost certainly secure a return to the Champions League.
He has provided more expansive, forward passing – many players in this position opt to play it endlessly safe – while five goals and four assists from 17 Premier League starts is a more-than-acceptable tally for a player that has on occasion been asked to play as the deepest of United’s midfielders. That only Antonio Valencia in the squad has made more tackles per game highlights Herrera’s all-round ability.
Expect the Spaniard to feature much more highly on such lists this time next season…
8) Steven N’Zonzi (Stoke City)
Coming from a Stoke season ticket holder, you may decide to ignore the following as the ramblings of a biased man, but consider this: N’Zonzi is the only player to start every Premier League game this season for a side currently in ninth, needing only a point to better their record points tally despite being beset by injury problems.
N’Zonzi is a shoo-in for the Potters’ Player of the Season award, having finally found the consistency he has sought since his days at Blackburn. He has always showed flashes of his quality, but a failure to dominate midfield on a regular basis has so far prevented him from earning a move to the sort of top club he has previously been linked with. However, set to enter the final 12 months of his contract at the Britannia Stadium, his form this season will undoubtedly have the Stoke hierarchy sweating ahead of talks this summer.
Good in the tackle, energetic and hard-working – he has covered the third most ground of any player in the Premier League this season – but also a classy dribbler and tidy passer, there is more than one club in the top six that would benefit from having N’Zonzi in their midfield, not least Tottenham, who the Frenchman starred against on Saturday. Where he plays his football next season will heavily affect Stoke’s chances of continuing their progress under Mark Hughes.
7) Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)
He still does not dominate games regularly enough to truly warrant the comparisons to Steven Gerrard, but Henderson has had another solid season and is one of the two outstanding candidates for Liverpool’s Player of the Year award, according to Kolo Toure. The other, incidentally, is Philippe Coutinho, who we will consider when we rank the league’s best attacking midfielders next week.
“He is a perfect replacement for [Gerrard] because the boy takes responsibility and that’s what you need,” Toure said of Henderson. He’s right. It was not long ago that the 24-year-old was viewed as the water carrier for Gerrard, but now he has taken over as their chief midfield playmaker, making more passes per game than any other Liverpool player this season.
He has an end product too, contributing a squad-best eight assists and a second-best six goals. He has been transformed from something of a joke figure, to a functional member of the team, to one of their most important players. He still has to do it on a more regular basis until we can label him Liverpool’s new talisman, but his constant progression suggests he will get there sooner or later.
6) Francis Coquelin (Arsenal)
It must be tempting for those associated with Arsenal to wonder how much closer they would be to Chelsea right now had Coquelin been in their midfield since the start of the season.
The Frenchman was loaned out to Charlton in November and only recalled because of an injury crisis the following month, but his impact since then has been arguably greater than any player at any Premier League club. It should certainly not be viewed as a coincidence that Arsenal have won 16 and lost just three of the 21 league games Coquelin has played.
Still, Coquelin’s record of 3.4 tackles per game is bettered by only Lucas Leiva, Morgan Schneiderlin and Nemanja Matic, while 3.7 interceptions per game is matched by nobody, setting him out as statistically the best player in the league at breaking up opponents’ attacks.
Arsene Wenger said earlier this season that “it’s easy to defend” but, before the integration of Coquelin, that was not always the case for the Gunners. Now, they finally have a player happy to do and capable of doing the ‘easy’ stuff, and finally they look like a fully functional team.
5) Michael Carrick (Manchester United)
Sometimes, the stats really do speak for themselves. Of the eight Premier League defeats United have suffered this season, only one of them have come with Carrick in the starting line-up. In fact, their record in the 16 games he has started reads 12 wins, three draws and just one defeat.
United’s recent loss of form can certainly be attributed to the loss of Carrick, who understands when to slow down and when to speed up the tempo of a game. His ability to dictate games from deeper positions continues to set him apart from other English midfielders. Approaching 34, Louis van Gaal has already spoken of the need to sign a player this season capable of performing the same role in the future.
Although it is a blow to have lost Carrick just when it looked as though United could challenge for third or even second place, Van Gaal must also be thanking his lucky stars the blow was not suffered earlier; there is simply no other player in his squad capable of performing the same role.
Had it not been for injuries this season, Carrick may well have featured even higher on this list. And, who knows, United may well have been even higher up the league table…
4) Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton)
Alongside Mile Jedinak (a player who some might feel is unfortunate not to make this list), Schneiderlin is one of the most statistically impressive midfielders in the league. He has made more tackles per game than any other and also features highly in terms of interceptions but, crucially, unlike the Crystal Palace star, he impresses on the ball as well as off it.
While Jedinak makes less than 40 passes per game with an accuracy of only 66%, Schneiderlin makes an average of 61 passes each match at an accuracy of 89%. Both statistics are the best of any Southampton player and also well superior to Coquelin (45 passes per game – 84%). He has also provided four goals and assists to the cause unlike Coquelin, who has managed none. Despite the latter’s superb impact for Arsenal, it is unlikely Arsene Wenger will have ended his interest in Schneiderlin.
Strong in the air, imperious in the tackle, hard working, and comfortable on the ball, the Frenchman has firmly established himself as the best midfielder outside of the top five. Do not expect him to stay outside of those upper echelons for long…
3) Santi Cazorla (Arsenal)
Few people, least of all Cazorla, would have expected the Spaniard to feature in this list rather than next week’s look at the league’s attacking midfielders, but the 30-year-old has proven a huge success in a deeper role for Arsenal this season.
He is by no means a defensive midfielder, but he has made the same amount of tackles and clearances per game in his appearances than Mikel Arteta. And he’s made more interceptions. His energy, meanwhile, remains exceptional; he could never be described as a luxury player.
It is carrying the ball out of deep areas up the pitch, though, where Cazorla has really excelled. He has showed, dare we say it, Jack Wilshere how that midfield link role should be played. Only two Arsenal players have made more passes per game; only three have completed a higher percentage of them. Nine assists, a squad high and the fourth most in the Premier League, is testament to his use of the ball. Furthermore, despite the restrictions that can come away from the No.10 or 11 role he is more accustomed to, only two players have completed more dribbles per game than Cazorla.
Players cannot effectively be judged on statistics, of course, but add to the above the fact that the former Villarreal star has also contributed seven goals, and you begin to get a picture of a player that is the master of several different midfield trades. Whether he can continue in such an all-action role heading into the latter part of his career remains to be seen, but he has undoubtedly been one of the midfield stars of this season.
2) Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea)
Having recorded his 18th Premier League assist of the season in Sunday’s draw against Liverpool, Fabregas now needs only two more in the final two games to match Thierry Henry’s post-1992 record of 20. Even accounting for goals from set pieces, it is a hugely impressive tally, some eight more than his closest challengers. Imagine how many more he could have claimed were it not for Diego Costa’s injury problems.
Suffice to say, Fabregas has justified Jose Mourinho’s decision to bring him back to England from Barcelona. In an era when midfielders are becoming more and more judged by their numbers, Fabregas has well and truly delivered. Yes, he has faded somewhat in the second half of the season, no doubt owning in no small part to Jose Mourinho’s heavy demands of his key players, but it remains impossible to ignore the enormous contribution he has made to Chelsea’s title success.
To look unfavourably on him for failing to maintain the super-human form he showed in the first half of the campaign would be churlish. He has still been among Chelsea’s best players, and has still been among the most effective midfielders in the league. He undoubtedly hasn’t been quite as eye-catching in the closing stages of the season as in the early part, but that could be said of Chelsea in general.
They may have performed with slightly less pizazz, but Chelsea have still been imperious since the turn of the year. By and large, despite the hype, so too has Fabregas.
1) Nemanja Matic (Chelsea)
Like his midfield team-mate, Matic’s form has not been quite as exceptional in the second half of the season as it was during the first. But, like his team-mate, the fact that Chelsea have made so few slip-ups on their way to the title in that time tells you everything you need to know about how well he has continued to do the job asked of him.
Chelsea have been so superior to their rivals this season that their players are judged by different rules. While the majority on this list are afforded the odd quiet game, so high are the standards that Jose Mourinho’s side sets that even one below-par performance leads to questions. Such is life.
Matic, however, stands behind only John Terry and Eden Hazard as the key contributors to the Blues’ success this season. It says everything you need to know about the Serb that he is so highly rated despite playing in a position where credit is notoriously difficult to achieve. He can tackle as well as Schneiderlin, position himself as well as Carrick and pass it as well as Cazorla. In his position, he is peerless.
Matic has established himself as one of the best defensive midfielders not just in the Premier League but in the world.
Mark Holmes – he’s on Twitter.