These end-of-season top 10s used to be much more straightforward. You did the top 10 midfielders and then the top 10 strikers and everyone knew exactly where they stood. Then the foreigns came over with their fluid tactics and their inverted wingers and their irrational hatred of a good old-fashioned proper 4-4-2 and everything changed. There are hardly any strikers left these days, so we have to do a top 10 of ‘attacking midfielders’ and another one of ‘forwards’ with often entirely arbitrary and very, very subjective lines drawn between the two.
What we’re saying here is that if you’re angry about someone missing from this list, it’s possible they’ll turn up in the other one. It’s either that or we’ve left them out simply because we are massively biased against your club…
10) Emile Smith Rowe (Arsenal)
Faded quite badly after a really bright start to the season, which is understandable and fair enough really for a player still young and inexperienced and playing for a team as unpredictable and flaky as Arsenal still undoubtedly are. But when he was good he was very, very good and showcased a finishing ability that sets him apart among players in his position and highlights how exciting his future could be.
While a sense remains that Arteta doesn’t quite trust Smith Rowe’s all-round game, an attacking midfielder who is scoring 10 Premier League goals from 31 shots has something few others possess. Maybe it’s a misleading stat in a one-off season from a relatively small sample size, but it’s a chance conversion rate that puts him alongside Jamie Vardy and Son Heung-min at the very top table and some way clear of most other forwards and pretty much all other midfielders. By way of comparison to Smith Rowe’s 32% chance conversion rate, Salah and Ronaldo both registered 23% this season and Harry Kane just 18.
9) Christian Eriksen (Brentford)
Bit of a sentimental one but we make no apology for including Eriksen. Frankly, the feelgood story of the season would have been enough in and of itself in These Troubled Times. Just seeing Eriksen back on the football pitch would have been so thoroughly joyous and life-affirming that we’d bump De Bruyne out of the list if needed. But imagine if he’d come back, at a Brentford side that was just starting to hit a bit of a downturn after the initial post-promotion glow carried them through the early weeks of the season, and been crap? Imagine if he’d just been an absolute shadow of the player he once was? We’d have convinced ourselves it was just lovely to see him back, but watching him be genuinely very good was just a brilliant thing.
If his raw contribution of one goal and four assists is in the ‘good not great’ camp, his overall effect and impact would arguably be enough to get him in this list even without sentiment and vibes. His debut came from the bench in a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle, Brentford’s eighth loss in nine Premier League games. They then won seven of their last 11 games, with Eriksen missing one of the three defeats.
8) Phil Foden (Manchester City)
We sometimes get accused of going overboard with Foden. Lots of people don’t seem to think he’s all that. Lots of people seem to think that anyone could look good playing for Pep’s City. Lots of people don’t seem to look at Foden and see anything particularly special. Nine goals and five assists from 28 Premier League appearances for the best team in the country suggests that even the cold, hard yet strangely reassuring certainty one can draw from numbers doesn’t really make a compelling case either way but we still think he has the most compelling skillset of all England’s assorted brilliant and exciting young attackers. And that’s that.
7) Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City)
Says a bit about how the two clear standout sides in England go about their work that Manchester City dominate this list and Liverpool the one for forwards. Even with the murky, subjective nature of the increasingly blurred distinction between forward and attacking midfielder, there’s no doubt that City’s collection of clever, tricky little buggers feels much more midfieldy than Liverpool’s. Doesn’t matter if they often technically play in the same position: Mo Salah is a forward and Phil Foden or Riyad Mahrez just… aren’t. Don’t ask us to explain it, we’ve spent several hours already today trying to come up with something coherent but it really does just boil down to vibes. And, if we’re entirely honest, which list we were having trouble filling.
Mahrez is a striking example of the absurd depth City possess in Attacking Players Who Aren’t Really Forwards, though. He’s a squad player, really. He started only 15 Premier League games and was subbed on in a further 13. But when he’s on the pitch, he nearly always looks incredible. Easily done in this City team with all the elite help around you perhaps, but still. Eleven goals and five assists – a goal contribution every 93 minutes despite only playing 90 minutes in successive games twice all season – is mighty impressive. Chuck in another 13 goals across 18 appearances in the assorted cup competitions (seven in 12 Champions League games particularly notable) and you’ve got a fine body of work packed into a season that didn’t even crack the 3000-minute mark.
6) James Maddison (Leicester)
It’s been a long and difficult season for Leicester, a 53-game slog that saw their league form collapse and a Europa League campaign turn into a Europa Conference League campaign that ended in semi-final disappointment. But it’s also been the best season of Maddison’s career, one that saw him grow from mercurial and frustrating to Brendan Rodgers’ key man. The 18 goals and 12 assists across all competition tell their own story but Maddison’s development this season has been about far more than that. Fairly or unfairly, he is a player tarnished with a reputation for arrogance and foolishness. He has certainly done some daft things at daft moments in his career, but by the same token other players don’t seem to suffer anywhere near so harshly as the Leicester man for his indiscretions.
As Leicester – at last released from the relentless Thursday-Sunday schedule that European football brings – ended the season with a flourish by taking 10 points and scoring 13 goals in their final four games, Maddison was instrumental. He scored in all four of those games and added three assists for good measure. That even that particularly impressive end to a fine season saw him end it outside Gareth Southgate’s England squad seems particularly harsh on a player still apparently battling preconceptions.
5) Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
After a pretty lengthy but very understandable period of adjustment and acceptance following the harrowing end to the Euros, Saka was back to his brilliant best. Whether or not it’s a particularly healthy thing for a player so young to be so unquestionably the talisman for a club of Arsenal’s stature is a valid question, but it’s also a pretty huge reminder of just how good starboy is and can be. He is by a distance the most important player for a club that finished fifth in the Premier League with 69 points and will still not be able to buy a drink on the club’s pre-season US tour.
His season mirrored Arsenal’s almost perfectly: a slow, unsteady start and an exhausted, disappointing finish but with some pretty brilliant stuff going on in between. Ten of his 11 Premier League goals and four of his seven assists came in 21 games between November and April. Imagine how different things might have been if Mikel Arteta had ever been able to give him any kind of rest. Imagine how much harder things could be if he still can’t do so next year when Arsenal have European football back at the Emirates and will certainly expect to remain in the FA Cup beyond the third round.
4) Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
A season so brilliant that even when it was bad it was good, as memorably pointed out by an extremely refreshed Jack Grealish during City’s parade as he noted that Bernardo being “miles off it” allowed for his 70th-minute substitution and the introduction of match-and-title-winner Ilkay Gundogan. Whatever the truth of his performance against Villa on the final day – and while it wasn’t very good he was far from alone on that score for a weirdly nervous and uncertain City – he was undoubtedly a key reason why they were in position to win a fourth title in five years. It’s been an incredible turnaround for a player who relatively recently appeared to be heading for the Etihad exit but has now become just about the most important and trusted member of Pep Guardiola’s squad. Only Ederson and Joao Cancelo made more Premier League appearances for City this season; and of their assorted attacking option, only Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne got within five of Bernardo’s 35 games.
3) Dejan Kulusevski (Tottenham)
The only question mark here was whether Kulusevski ended up in the forwards or attacking midfielder list after his transformative impact on Spurs in the second half of the season. Five goals (two more than any Tottenham player not called Son or Kane managed all season) and eight assists (the same number as De Bruyne) despite not making his league debut until the middle of February marked a hugely successful introduction to English football for the Juventus loanee. Easy to forget as well, especially given his cerebral and technically-minded approach to the game, that he is also still nauseatingly young at 22.
There were 16 games left in the season when Kulusevski made his debut; Spurs won 11 of them. Spurs scored 28 games in 22 pre-Kulusevski games and 41 in those final 16. They very obviously would not be in the Champions League without him. Our justification for putting him in here rather than the forwards list, by the way, is that there is an inherently and unmistakably midfieldy air to him and also more specifically because, in his own way, he does what no Spurs player has really managed to do since Eriksen by linking the rest of the team to Son and Kane. The Mourinho era and the Nuno interregnum and even the early days of Conte felt like they comprised mainly of lots of players defending while hoping that somehow Kane and/or Son would pull something out of their arse, which quite often they would. Kulusevski has knitted the whole thing together into a far more compelling, coherent and effective whole. Which is a pretty neat trick to pull off in little more than three months.
2) Mason Mount (Chelsea)
A quirk of Chelsea’s season in which they finished third in the league with the third highest number of goals scored is that there are relatively few of their attacking players who make a compelling case for either the attacking midfield or forwards top 10. Admittedly, that’s probably not the thing Chelsea’s 2021/22 will be best remembered for, but still. Kai Havertz is perhaps unlucky not to have made our list of forwards, but he’d be the only one in there with a Premier League goals tally in single figures and didn’t really play as an attacking midfielder this season, in part due to the struggles of Chelsea’s actual strikers Romelu Lukaku and everyone’s favourite industrious and inexplicably unlucky German goal-misser Timo Werner.
The goals were shared around at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea had nine players score four or more while Spurs, who finished fourth in both the regular and goals scored table, had only three players with more than three. But Mason Mount cannot be ignored; he was one of only three players to hit double figures for both goals and assists. Only 13 players scored more Premier League goals than Mount this season, and only two had more assists. Remember when Thomas Tuchel was appointed and everyone (and by everyone here we mainly mean ‘newspaper journalists’) acted like he probably wouldn’t pick Mount due to some dastardly yet inexplicable German plot against Frank Lampard’s brilliant boy? That was weird, eh.
1) Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
Definitely the best AM in the league, quite probably the best player in the league and undoubtedly the man around which the best team in the league is built. Deciding to just score four goals in a game against Wolves was a nice touch for a man still better known for his creating than his goalscoring, while his vision and technique still makes him a frequent provider of ‘assists to the assist’ as well as actual assists and also actual goals.
Joins Harry Kane in a team of world-class elite footballers who just don’t somehow look like world-class elite footballers and that’s now a feature we’re quite keen to put together just as soon as we’ve decided a) what a world-class elite right-back looks like and b) which world-class elite right-back doesn’t look like that. Pavard maybe? Is he elite? We’re thinking aloud now and well off topic. Let’s get back to it: Kevin De Bruyne is very good indeed at football. Think we salvaged that.