Just one game to go with the title on the line, it will come as absolutely no surprise that the Premier League XI of the season is dominated by the duo vying for the gong on Sunday.
We tried but couldn’t separate Manchester City and Liverpool, with players from just three other sides forcing their way into a team awash with sky blue and red.
GK: Jose Sa (Wolves)
The Golden Glove will be decided on the final day with Ederson and Alisson locked on 20 clean sheets apiece; we’re lucky that Jose Sa was signed in the summer so we don’t have to separate the cool Brazilian pair.
The 29-year-old not only has comfortably the best save percentage in the Premier League with 79.7%, but has also made more saves (119) than all but Illan Meslier (135) and David de Gea (122). Post-Shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed is, first of all, a mouthful, but essentially shows a goalkeeper’s ability to save a shot. Positive numbers are good and Sa is way out in front on +9.7, with Alisson on +4.7 and Ederson on -0.8. Wolves would be in the bottom half without him.
RB: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Champions League, Super Cup, Club World Cup, Premier League, League Cup and now the FA Cup. This child has completed club football at the age of 23. He’s so good that you’ve got to wonder whether Liverpool would have won any of it without him. All those years of bridesmaiding and then as soon as Trent rocks up, Liverpool put on the veil and walk down the aisle. They’ve clung to the bouquet ever since.
Did Jurgen Klopp always plan to use full-backs as the primary creative outlets in his team? Or did he have a look at an academy training session, see Alexander-Arnold and think ‘bloody hell, that could work’. And boy, has it. Another 19 assists this season to take his career tally to 66. He’s a right-back, FFS.
CB: Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)
We all need a bit of crazy in our lives, and the Premier League will sadly be far saner without Chelsea’s galloping ball of energy. He’s become one of the very best centre-backs in the world in the last 18 months under Thomas Tuchel, who’s managed to harness the crazy.
The forward runs, the unnecessarily aggressive tackles, the blocks from nowhere, the shots from anywhere: they all serve to provide brilliant entertainment. You can keep your Thiago Silvas and Aymeric Laportes, we want a centre-back constantly on the verge of batsh*t who now always, but only just, manages to rein it in.
CB: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
Hardly a left-field selection; a bit boring possibly. But he’s the best defender in the Premier League, probably the best in the world, possibly the best ever to play for Liverpool, maybe (if we glue the recency bias goggles firmly to our faces) the best ever to play on these shores.
There’s that thing when you’re watching your team play against Liverpool and they beat the press, maybe it’s two against one, this could be the chance. Then you look more closely and see that Van Dijk is the one and think ‘what’s the f***ing point?’
LB: Joao Cancelo (Manchester City)
Left-backs must be left-footed, said the person who’s never seen Cancelo pass the ball with the outside of his right boot. We now appear to have moved on from the idea that a player can be too good to play at full-back.
Cancelo, Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and many more ludicrously talented Premier League full-backs absolutely could play in central midfield, but we have now accepted that actually having someone with wicked delivery and an eye for a pass is just as effective, if not more so, coming from a wider, deeper position rather than stuck in the congested central area. This, ladies and gents, is the age of the full-back.
Watching this Cancelo pass on repeat. 😍pic.twitter.com/wVMQIAVHs0
— 90min (@90min_Football) November 22, 2021
DM: Rodri (Manchester City)
Pass completion is one of those stats that leads to scoffing and eye-rolling. I’m sure many of us have looked at a Manchester City game and thought (unjustifiably) ‘I could get a 90% pass rate in that team’. Knocking the ball ten yards sideways and backwards, what’s the big deal?
First of all, it’s clearly harder than it looks, and secondly, Rodri’s 92.6% completion rate – comfortably the highest of any midfielder in the league – includes 7.65 passes per game into the final third (the fifth best in the division); he’s not keeping the ball for the sake of it. He’s the master of the probe and rarely needs to make a tackle as he’s invariably in the right place.
CM: Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
He had one foot out the Etihad door at the end of last season, before Pep Guardiola dragged his twinkle-toes back through. Silva has the turning circle of a puppy chasing its tail, seemingly taking three or four touches with every stride, with an eye on the body shape of his opponent, looking for the slightest inkling as to which way to turn next.
He’s in the prime of his career and there’s quite simply no-one like him. Keep those doors locked.
Bernardo Silva volley vs Aston Villa.
He has scored four goals in his last seven Premier League matches for Manchester City, as many as in his previous 55 in the league. pic.twitter.com/HpOQpGMT8Y
— Champions 2021-22 (@ElijahKyama) December 2, 2021
CM: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
He could find the bottom corner of a circle and force it into a square in the process. The combination of accuracy and power in everything he does is extraordinary, with an angular, unique style that suggests he should be nowhere near as good at football as he is.
19 goals is comfortably his best tally for a season, but only 13 assists? Come on, Kevin.
RW: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Despite it still being the metric by which pundits assess the quality of a striker, 20 goals a season is a real rarity these days. Barring some Harry Kane or Cristiano Ronaldo magic on the final day, only two will reach those heights in the Premier League this season. Salah has done it in four of his five Premier League seasons, scoring 19 in the 2019/20 anomaly.
His consistency is astonishing, as is the quality of many of those goals. And when you combine his brilliance with the fact that he’s almost never injured – he’s missed just five Liverpool games through injury in five years – the Egyptian has probably had the greatest influence of any player in the Premier League since he arrived from Roma.
LW: Son Heung-min (Tottenham)
The other guy to reach the 20-goal mark this season, Son is just one behind Salah in the race for the Golden Boot heading into the final day. And despite insisting ahead of the north London derby that it was all about the team, the kindest man in the village shook his head as he left the field, which we can only assume is akin to any other footballer throwing a hissy fit and calling Antonio Conte nasty names.
He plays in a team with Harry Kane and it’s not clear who the best finisher is. An outstanding footballer who would grace any team in world football.
ST: Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Mane will have played over 5000 minutes of football for club and country come the end of the season. If he plays 90 minutes on Sunday and 120 in the Champions League final, he will have played a full 90 minutes every four-and-a-half days. Has he ever looked tired? Has he f***.
And he could end the season winning literally every trophy available to him – the Quadruple and the Africa Cup of Nations – having also led Senegal to the World Cup in Qatar. Hello, yes, this is the Ballon d’Or calling.