Manchester City have almost half the field in terms of the Premier League’s best players of 2021. But the winner could only ever be one man
10) Youri Tielemans (Leicester)
A year bookended by goalscoring wins against Newcastle to sandwich an FA Cup thronker for the ages worthy of winning any trophy. There have been dips and troughs in 2021 for Youri Tielemans but the enduring feeling remains one of confusion as to how Leicester never did face competition for his signature.
The Belgian started on January 3 with the winning strike in a Premier League game at St James’ Park and by December he was helping revitalise his club’s stuttering season by scoring twice against the same opponent at the King Power Stadium. Tielemans also pulled the strings in famous wins over Liverpool and Manchester United at the back end of last season, before sinking Chelsea at Wembley and quietly impressing in the Leicester engine room this campaign. While the defence has stuttered and Kelechi Iheanacho has matched Jamie Vardy for goal output, Tielemans has been the one source of consistent quality under Brendan Rodgers.
9) Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
It felt as though a fair few people forgot just how imperious Bernardo Silva was for Manchester City in the 2018/19 season. A PFA Team of the Year member and Manchester City’s Player of the Season, only Virgil van Dijk prevented the Portuguese from adding an individual PFA award to his Premier League winner’s medal two years ago. Bernardo not only filled in for the injured Kevin de Bruyne but enhanced the role with his energy, tenacity and movement.
That player was underestimated to the extent that Tottenham were mentioned as genuine suitors in the summer and Pep Guardiola seemed to have abandoned any hope of keeping his 2018 promise. But the coach shined up his precious jewel and placed it carefully back in the Manchester City crown, using Bernardo’s versatility as an able right winger, a supreme central midfielder, a gifted attacking midfielder and a thrilling false nine to build his latest title challengers. Bernardo seems to have caught a few onlookers off guard with his recent output and impact but many are not surprised that the Premier League’s most uniquely exceptional player has proved himself to be precisely that.
8) Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Barring any unforeseen mid-season catastrophe, this year should end considerably better than it started for Trent Alexander-Arnold. Away at Southampton on January 4, the right-back gave the ball away 38 times, was at fault for the only goal and had to be substituted for James Milner after 77 minutes of what Jurgen Klopp described as “obviously not his best game”. But the 23-year-old recovered from that, the loss of his England place and the bitter blow of missing out on Euro 2020 to scale somewhere close to his previous heights; ten assists in 17 games this season ain’t half bad.
Real Madrid showed that Alexander-Arnold’s position – if not the player himself – can still be targeted by opponents to great success. But he remains a potent and distinctive weapon for Liverpool, with match-winning turns against Tottenham, Arsenal and Aston Villa. He also joined an elite group alongside Jlloyd Samuel, Sylvain Distin and Erik Pieters as the only players to officially assist a keeper’s Premier League goal.
7) Joao Cancelo (Manchester City)
“Last season he struggled a little bit with a new club and new ideas but now he has had more time and helps us to do something we need,” said Pep Guardiola of Joao Cancelo in January. The Portuguese would score his first Premier League goal later that month, growing in stature and importance for Manchester City to the point he was put in the PFA Team of the Year and could transition seamlessly from right to left-back and a spot as roaming central midfielder in between.
The clue that Guardiola has taken a liking to Cancelo came in the Spaniard’s most recent assessment of the 27-year-old, who he believes “can do better” and must “improve in some aspects”. The Nathan Redmond treatment is reserved only for the manager’s fondest projects, of which an ultra-creative yet stable defender that can do it all must be among the favourites.
6) Edouard Mendy (Chelsea)
Ederson has kept more Premier League clean sheets, Alisson has scored more Premier League goals and Ben Foster has more Premier League assists. But the goalkeeping MVP of 2021 was the European champion, successor to the Petr Cech throne, saver of Panenkas that is Edouard Mendy. He stopped Spurs in January, mastered Manchester United in February and did other respective alliterative synonyms for beat or overcame to Liverpool in March, West Ham in April, Manchester City in May, Arsenal in August, Aston Villa in September, Brentford in October – you laugh but that was genuinely the most impressive performance – Leicester in November and, well, no-one in December yet because Chelsea can’t defend anymore.
Keeping a clean sheet in half of your Premier League games of an entire calendar year requires a certain balance and poise; Mendy has delivered both to a position that sorely needed it at Stamford Bridge before his arrival. It has not been without fault: Arthur Masuaku showed him up somewhat and West Brom took 90 minutes to score one-fifth of the goals Mendy has allowed in the league over the past 12 months. But his reputation has undeniably been boosted regardless, to the extent that Sadio Mane’s six-year reign as Senegal’s Player of the Year was unceremoniously ended by a goalkeeper who received more than three times as many votes in his favour.
5) Declan Rice (West Ham)
The time might have come to simply accept that Declan Rice is good at his chosen vocation. There still exists an element of the public that insists he is not up to much but their numbers are dwindling by the week and drowned out by the noise of rival supporters begging their sporting directors of football to throw nine figures in the general direction of West Ham.
David Moyes, the owners and the fans know how good Rice is, although his ceiling of potential is not yet obvious. By mid-January he will have turned just 23 yet has already imposed himself on a major international tournament final, is regularly dominating more experienced Premier League midfields, has taken to European club football impeccably and is enticing enough for Frank Lampard to risk unemployment over his signing.
Declan Rice is an absolute joke.
— RisingHammers (@RisingHammers) December 12, 2021
4) Ruben Dias (Manchester City)
Before Ruben Dias was even a glint in Manchester City’s eye, their defensive record was great rather than brilliant. They conceded 0.79 goals per Premier League game in 2019, 0.84 in 2018 and 0.75 in 2017, compared to 0.72 in 2021. In fact, one would have to go back to pre-Premier League times for the last full calendar year in which the Citizens had a sterner rearguard, to a time when numbers didn’t even exist. The difference might not sound substantial but over the course of a season that might be the ultimate disparity between a title and nothing.
That slight improvement cannot be solely credited to Dias but there is no doubt that his transformative effect on the team since joining last October has carried well into the subsequent year. From club trophies to individual honours, the captaincy and a lovely couple of crucial goals in slender victories against claret and blue opposition – a headed opener at home to West Ham in February and that sublime effort at Aston Villa in December – Dias has grown into a phenomenal player.
3) Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)
Thomas Tuchel has used 30 different players in his brief yet bounteous spell as Chelsea manager. They range from Tino Anjorin’s solitary appearance in an FA Cup cameo, to the indefatigable Mason Mount and incredible Reece James, who have played 47 games each for the German. A step behind them is the key figure of this Stamford Bridge formation, a defender who was out of the picture this time last year but is centre of frame a year later.
Antonio Rudiger did not play a Premier League game last season until late November, being given a handful more opportunities by Lampard until the Chelsea manager’s inevitable demise. Upon Tuchel’s appointment clean slates were issued and Rudiger was first in line to receive one; he has not looked back since, using his second life to strengthen that bargaining position to a ludicrous degree. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are sniffing around a 28-year-old with six months left on his contract, and his general performance levels have done nothing to undermine the suggestion of a £400,000 wage demand for a free agent with a Champions League medal. Rudiger, as ever, is in control of the situation.
2) Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City)
Guardiola would not have devised his title-winning alternative approach without a player he could not only trust but depend on completely. A strikerless formation with floating forwards still required a fixed point and Ilkay Gundogan was on hand to drift into whatever role was needed. The nominal holding midfielder suddenly became an incisive instigator and chief goal threat for the country’s most productive attack. His 14 goals in 2021 is the third-highest of any Premier League player and at least four more than any teammate.
There was no great variation in the majority of his strikes, most of which were down to penalty-area instincts hardly associated with the German. Some, such as his effort against Crystal Palace in January, did still stand out. But the most impressive aspect of his sudden productivity was the lack of regard for the standard of opposition. The only team missing from his Big Six set was Manchester United, who managed to escape the wrath and rampage of Gundogan, as Arsenal and Chelsea, but most notably Liverpool and Tottenham, all fell. The ease with which he has stepped back into a more typical reserved role is quite something.
1) Mo Salah (Liverpool)
Only Mo Salah appeared on the list for both this year and last. Only Mo Salah has exceeded 15 Premier League goals in 2021, with his 23 in 38 games putting the combined efforts of Fulham and Norwich (22 in 39) to shame. ‘Only Mo Salah’ is the phrase FSG should have considered trying to trademark instead of ‘Liverpool’, so often are those three words uttered in relation to the statistical brilliance of another player who is performing exquisitely yet still not quite as well as the peerless Egyptian.
It would be interesting to place Salah if his year was reversed and the 21 goals and nine assists in 22 games so far this season were swapped with the 15 goals and two assists in 28 games from January to May last campaign. As far as he and Liverpool were off their respective usual paces early in the year, Salah is lapping the chasing pack with a dashing smile. While the Africa Cup of Nations will put him at a natural disadvantage in this race next year, it is not difficult to see him eviscerating that head start if such commanding form continues.