It’s been four months since we did this. We’ve got six new entries…
10) Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Prior to the win over Fulham earlier this month, Roy Hodgson was coming to the conclusion that the Crystal Palace full-back was a machine: “He actually made a mistake in the 94th minute and I was relieved because I was starting to think he might be a robot.”
That’s a neat summary of Wan-Bissaka’s form this season, as is this from The Guardian: ‘He is the only player in England to boast 40 or more tackles, completed take-ons (40) and interceptions (57), and only seven opponents have successfully wriggled beyond him.’ Quite incredible for a 21-year-old who wanted to move to League Two on loan a year or so ago.
Now, the only moves linked with Wan-Bissaka are bloody big ones. Cheslea are reportedly keeping an especially close eye on the England Under-21 full-back, who was a winger until only very recently. But Palace fans will tell you they aren’t quite finished with him yet. He’s one of their own…
9) Declan Rice
The West Ham youngster was at pains to point out that just because he had opted to represent England rather than continue with the Republic of Ireland, there was no presumption of a call from Gareth Southgate. But sustaining the form he has shown since Manuel Pellegrini used the 20-year-old to firm up the base of his midfield earlier in the season will inevitably lead to a senior cap for the Three Lions sooner rather than later.
His international future was just one of the dilemmas weighing on Rice’s mind this season, with contract talks heaping more attention on the West Ham academy graduate. Not that he has looked distracted.
After opening with four consecutive defeats, it is probably no coincidence that West Ham got their season on track when Rice became a regular. Since the trip to Everton in mid-September, the centre-back-turned-midfielder has missed not a minute of Premier League football. He’s been so good that City, Liverpool and Man Utd are all said to be completely unmoved by the fact he has penned new terms with his boyhood club.
8) Paul Pogba
This one required some deliberation. How can we include a player who was wretched on the pitch for a full half-season while arguably being worse off it?
Since Pogba flicked his switch upon the dismissal of Jose Mourinho, the France midfielder has proved himself to be the player he – and a fair number of Manchester United supporters – knew he could be. Was Mourinho telling him not to run, fight, pass, dribble and shoot like he has for Ole Gunner Solskjaer? Of course not. But modern management is largely about motivating players to offer their best, no matter how much you might feel that crucial aspect of performance is down solely to the individual.
Since Solskjaer came in and fluffed up Pogba, the World Cup winner has been sensational – PSG aside. Eight goals and five assists in nine Premier League games is form too good to ignore and his contribution has been perhaps the biggest factor in United’s post-Mourinho resurgence.
7) Raheem Sterling
Pep’s a hard b*stard to please. “In the last games he didn’t score and he didn’t make a good performance but it’s normal,” the City boss said after Sterling led the demolition of Chelsea. “Ups and downs always happen with a lot of games but today he was incredible – not just for the goals but for the penalty and defensively he helped us a lot. Very good.”
Maybe the Newcastle defeat stuck in Guardiola’s mind, and Sterling was as poor – but no worse – as anyone else. But otherwise, the England forward has been good for a goal or an assist in every other game he’s started since December 30. In total, Sterling has 14 goals and 15 assists in 33 City appearances this season.
His productivity in front of goal is presumably down to some hard graft on his finishing. Last season, Sterling was shooting with an accuracy of 51%. This term, he’s up to 78%. Of Premier League forwards to have scored more than a single goal, only Anthony Martial is more accurate with his finishing.
6) Son Heung-min
No wonder the South Korean is on the verge of his second pay rise of the season. When Spurs found themselves dangling precariously over the sh*t following injuries to Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Son rushed back from the Asian Cup to pull them back from the edge just in the nick of time.
But it is unfair to suggest that Son waited until January to turn it on. After shining and scoring his first of the season in the win over Chelsea in November – the Blues’ first defeat of the campaign – the versatile attacker has netted 14 goals in 19 matches while weighing in with seven more assists.
After his international exploits, Son was presumably in the ‘red zone’ and, after his first game back, he looked absolutely knackered. But in the three Premier League matches since returning from Qatar, the 26-year-old has netted in the 80th, 83rd and 91st minutes to secure an equaliser, a winner and a game-sealer. This season, it’s simple: When Son scores, Spurs win.
5) Mo Salah
The question on many people’s lips back in the autumn: what’s wrong with Mo Salah? There is no doubt that the Liverpool star wasn’t quite his usual predatory self. Was it fatigue? Is he just a one-season wonder? ‘Probably’ and ‘f*ck no’ are the resounding answers the Golden Boot holder has offered to those questions through the winter.
It was only after his hat-trick at Bournemouth that it seemed like Salah had his swagger back, but even through his struggles during the early weeks of the season, the Egyptian was still scoring. Seven of his 17 Premier League goals came in his first 13 games, of which Salah started all but one. It may have been a lean spell by Salah’s standards, but we need to remind ourselves how ridiculously high those standards are.
Still, Jurgen Klopp will be hoping Salah can improve his record against Liverpool’s main rivals as the Reds approach the home stretch. The 26-year-old hasn’t managed a goal or an assist in six of the seven games his side have played against the rest of the Big Six. Salah can right that minor wrong this weekend at Old Trafford.
4) Sergio Aguero
Remember when Aguero wasn’t Guardiola’s first-choice centre-forward? It feels like a bloody long time ago when the Argentine looked likely to leave City just to get a regular game.
Now, a season and a half later, Aguero has adapted to meet Pep’s needs and the 30-year-old is thriving because of it. This term, he is neck and neck with Mo Salah in the race for the Golden Boot, despite having played 529 minutes fewer than the Liverpool star.
Of course, it helps that six of those goals have come in City’s last two home games, and though Aguero certainly likes his home comforts, he is no flat-track bully. Just under half of his 17 goals have come against City’s Big Six rivals, which is no fluke.
3) Bernardo Silva
‘Bernardo Silva’s form has been enough to keep Leroy Sane sat on the bench for much of the season. Even when Sane started against Fulham, Silva moved into the middle and turned in a man-of-the-match performance.’ We wrote that when Silva was included at No.8 in our Top 10 Premier League players of the season so far back in October. Fast forward another third of the campaign, and Silva has not only maintained those standards, he’s got even better.
The 24-year-old saved his best performance of the season for the biggest game of the season. City could have dropped ten points behind Liverpool at the start of last month but Silva was relentless against the Reds, running further than anyone else in any game this season, clocking up 13.7 kilometres (8.5 miles) to improve on the benchmark he set at Tottenham in October.
Silva is a manager’s dream. He prefers to play off the right flank but the former Monaco star has spent two-thirds of the campaign through the middle, mostly covering for Kevin De Bruyne. The fact the Belgium star has not been badly missed tells its own story about Silva’s contribution to City’s season.
2) Eden Hazard
The Chelsea star was our player of the season so far back in October, having scored seven goals in eight Premier League games. It seemed like the Belgian was determined to make the most of what was looking likely to be his final year at Stamford Bridge. Since then, with five goals in 17 games as an illustration, Hazard hasn’t quite been able to maintain those incredible standards. That is not a criticism and – even if it was – there are good reasons.
Hazard has had to spend much of his time since the opening weeks of the season covering for his team-mates’ deficiencies. Maurizio Sarri decided that he didn’t have a centre-forward fit for purpose, so the Belgian was used through the middle as a false nine. The balance between goals and assists lurched towards Hazard playing more as a creator than a scorer but, despite his sacrifice, Sarri still doesn’t have his best player down as a leader.
Sarri’s words towards Hazard appear to have become more terse with each passing day that the player doesn’t sign a new Chelsea contract. You cannot blame the manager for wanting some clarity on Hazard’s plans, though right now he is probably more preoccupied with his own.
1) Virgil van Dijk
Liverpool’s record signing could prove to be the difference in the title race, according to Jamie Carragher: “We talk about the attacking players City have at the other end, Liverpool can almost match them I would say, but in terms of Van Dijk, Liverpool have the best defender. Liverpool could actually win the league that way.”
Van Dijk is easily the best defender in the league. The Dutchman is comfortable in possession and can pass out from the back just as anyone would expect of a Liverpool centre-back. But, when it comes to the old-school defensive principles – too many of which are no longer prioritised while we look to churn out a long line of Franz Beckenbauer-style ball-players – Van Dijk is head and shoulders above anyone else at the moment.
You want proof? Van Dijk has yet to be dribbled past in the Premier League this season. We’re deep into February, for f*ck’s sake.