10) Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)
Southampton’s 2017/18 season is what happens when a club that has succeeded in doing things the right way takes its eye off the ball, and it is likely to end in Premier League relegation. There are very few players at St Re-OrderMary’s who deserve to remain untainted by this collective failure, and fewer still that deserve a move to a top-half Premier League club this summer. Bertrand is one.
Bertrand has not been at his best; no Southampton player has. But he remains a consistent performer who could have established himself as England’s first-choice left-back for the World Cup had he not withdrawn from the games against Netherlands and Italy with a back injury. Is he still in front of Danny Rose in the queue?
9) Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
It’s about this time that you realise the paucity of options for this list below the top six. Bertrand is the only player included whose club is below seventh in the current Premier League table, but just look at the other options. Does anyone from Everton, Leicester City, Newcastle, West Ham or Bournemouth merit making the grade? Are we really sweating on the choice between Charlie Daniels and Paul Dummett? Can Fabian Delph really be included when he’s a) played 16 matches at left-back, and b) basically played as a midfielder in that position? This has truly been the season of underwhelming full-backing.
And so we reach the conclusion that Alexander-Arnold, he of only 15 Premier League starts this season, breaks into the top nine. Still, at least the 19-year-old is a breath of fresh air, has taken to life in Liverpool’s first team as if it were his destiny and will become the youngest ever English player in the history of the Champions League semi-finals. If this epiphany had happened six months earlier, he would be going to Russia with England.
8) Marcos Alonso (Chelsea)
If the extreme version of the modern full-back is a player who regularly scores and creates chances without you ever being sure if he’s a good defender, Alonso is the perfect example. Playing as a wing-back next to Antonio Conte’s three-man central defence clearly reduces his defensive responsiblities. Like Victor Moses on the right, you’re not only certain that defending is a secondary priority; you suspect he does not care that much at all.
Even as I type this, I’m confused about Alonso. Do I only notice and therefore remember him because he shoots an awful lot and takes a mean free-kick? And if that’s true, does that really merit him being included here? And then I realise it isn’t worth the quasi-existential crisis, and put him at No. 8.
7) Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)
“Matteo is a right-sided full back with the versatility of also being able to play on the left,” said Louis van Gaal in July 2015. “He is a strong defender and has the ability to go forward in the attacking positions which is a fantastic attribute to have and much needed in the fast rhythm of the Premier League.”
Unfortunately, Darmian does not have the stamina of a long distance runner, the strength of an ox with a gym addiction and the commitment of an ascetic monk. Which are only three reasons why Valencia has retained his first-team place while Darmian is linked with a summer move to Juventus.
This hasn’t even been Valencia’s best season as a United player, but his consistency makes him a shoo-in for this list. When Michael Carrick moves from semi-retirement to total retirement this summer, the Ecuadorian will become Manchester United’s longest-serving player. You’d have got good money on that when he joined as a winger from Wigan Athletic.
6) Stephen Ward (Burnley)
Ward would actually be included even higher up this list if he had played in more than 23 of Burnley’s 33 league matches, but you cannot doubt the record. In the ten matches Ward has missed this season, Burnley have drawn five and lost five. In the 23 league games he has played, Burnley have won 14 and drawn five. Extend that points-per-game record across the whole season, and Burnley would be level with Tottenham.
It is an extraordinary achievement for a 32-year-old full-back who must have thought that his top-flight career was over when he was loaned by Championship Wolves to Championship Brighton for the season at the age of 28. A move to Burnley came after their promotion in 2014, but the Irishman played just 623 Premier League minutes that season. Now he’s an indispensable member of a team that will surely play Europa League football next season.
5) Ashley Young (Manchester United)
And so to another 32-year-old Manchester United winger-turned-full-back. For all the shoddy treatment of Luke Shaw this season by Jose Mourinho (and I do believe that repeatedly praising a young player with confidence issues before dropping him is a shitty thing to do), it’s hard to argue that Shaw merits a place over Young. Like Valencia, he was once a make-do solution who now merits greater praise.
And yet, while Valencia has held onto his full-back place on the right, Young is likely to be less fortunate. Mourinho has avoided specifics when discussing United’s transfer plans this summer, but numerous left-backs have been linked with a move to Old Trafford: Danny Rose, Kieran Tierney and Alex Sandro are three. The chances are that Young will be thanked for his service, and then plonked onto the bench.
4) Ben Davies (Tottenham)
Mauricio Pochettino’s strength of personality to prove to Danny Rose that he was not indispensable at Tottenham is exactly why he has been successful in creating a team greater than the sum of its individual parts, but it would not have been possible without the excellence of Davies.
The Welshman entered pre-season aware that Rose’s injury would give him a chance to earn a regular first-team place, but also that he had Pochettino’s goodwill. He has repaid that in full, creating chances at a quicker rate than Rose last season and offering greater defensive security than Rose. Suddenly, England’s first-choice left-back is scratching around for a summer move while his agent desperately tries to convince suitors that he is worth £50m.
3) Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
If it seems ludicrous that a player who has only taken part in 59% of his club’s league games could be considered the best player in his position in the division this season, then deal with it. Several first-choice left-backs have either under-performed or been injured this season, and Robertson’s rise has indeed been ludicrous.
The then-23-year-old started only two league games before December, but was afforded a chance by Alberto Moreno’s ankle injury. Since then, Robertson has mocked Klopp’s initial decision to favour Moreno. He has surged forward, created chances, hassled opposition full-backs and tracked back to cover – Liverpool’s Duracell bunny.
‘Do Liverpool finally have a proper left-back?’ we asked in early January, when Robertson had been in the side for a month. ‘Yes they bloody do’ we answer in April. And we wish he was English too.
2) Kieran Trippier (Tottenham)
The section on Ben Davies could be used again here. The great strength of Pochettino’s management at Tottenham is that he creates a mentality and morale within the squad which dictates that everybody must either be with him or against him – there is no middle ground.
So when Kyle Walker made it clear towards the end of last season that he was interested in a move to Manchester City, Pochettino did not bother to beg him to stay. Why would he, when he had Trippier knocking on the door of the first team? Rather than cry over spilt milk, Pochettino would instead focus on improving Trippier as he had improved Walker. That’s exactly what he has done, and exactly why elite clubs in need of a long-term manager should be falling over themselves to whisper sweet nothings in Pochettino’s ear.
1) Kyle Walker (Manchester City)
And yet you really can find greener grass than in north London. Especially when that grass is cut to a specific length under the instruction of Pep Guardiola.
When Walker moved to Manchester, the transfer fee was headline news. A few bemoaned the end of football as we knew it, but plenty of others quite reasonably wondered whether Walker would justify the outlay. Just like every other player at City, Walker has improved.
He’s changed, too. Despite Manchester City enjoying far more possession and doing far more attacking than Tottenham last season, Walker plays a reduced role. He has created chances, completed dribbles and attempted crosses from open play far less often than last season. Instead, with a marauding band of attacking brilliance in front of him, Guardiola has made Walker a true defender. Enough to make Gareth Southgate pick him in central defence.
There is no argument that Guardiola buys players at premium prices, but no argument too that he turns them into premium players. There are plenty of other managers at elite clubs across Europe who fail in that second test.