Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday or Tuesday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …
The Premier League season is winding down. To be fair, it has been for a few weeks now. Its conclusion has been strung out by Manchester City’s dominance. But here we are. Monday of Week 38. Three hundred and sixty-four of 380 games have been played. And that means we have 364 of 380 games to reflect on.
So that’s what we’re going to do this Monday and next. We began our DARTS season review last week with a look at the bottom of the league. We’ll truly dive in today with end-of-year superlatives. And next week’s grand finale will look back on the season as a whole; on what we’ll remember; on what we learned.
But first, a quick note: Thank you.
To every single one of you read a word of DARTS this season, thank you. By next Monday, there will have been 32 Monday Premier League columns. They were the first 32 I have ever written. And they would have been non-existent without you.
I certainly learned along the way. Hopefully you did as well. That, after all, is the goal here: To further understanding and contribute to reasoned discussion of the most entertaining soccer league in the world.
But before I try to do that for the second-to-last time until August, I want to hear from you. Tell me what you liked and didn’t like. Tell me what you read too much of, or not enough of. Tell me what you’d want to read that you didn’t get at all.
And please, don’t be shy. The “D” in DARTS, the discussion, will be better if it’s a two-way street. My contact info is below. Use it.
Oh, and maybe keep on reading, too. Here’s a look at the best of the best in the Prem this year:
1. Player of the year: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
There are two correct picks for player of the year. And to be completely honest, I have no idea which one I’d choose.
For months, I argued that Kevin De Bruyne was the runaway winner; that, provided Manchester City’s Belgian midfielder stayed healthy and consistently excellent, nothing could sway my mind. His influence on every game was just that comprehensive.
Every once in a while, you’ll hear someone call De Bruyne the “best two-way player” in the Prem. You hear it all the time in basketball, especially in the past with regard to Kawhi Leonard. It implies that someone else is the actual “best player.” And that’s just silly. Soccer and basketball are both two-way sports. The best two-way player is the best player. And for a good chunk of the season, if not all of it, that was De Bruyne.
But Mohamed Salah, for five full months, was just so irrepressibly good. He was beating up on plebes and deciding big matches. He met every surely this can’t continue thought with another standout performance, another mind-blowing goal.
In the end, I think the PFA got it right. I actually think I would pick De Bruyne. But I think I’d be wrong. Which makes no sense. So, yeah … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
2. There is a third pick that wouldn’t be incorrect
There is no trusted method for comparing goalkeepers across eras. Likewise, however, there is no other way to succinctly sum up David De Gea‘s 2017-18 season: Manchester United’s No. 1 had one of the best shot-stopping seasons in Premier League history.
He was the main reason United conceded just 28 goals, second-fewest in the league, on over 42 Expected Goals. He is the reason United will finish second. He passed the eye test with dizzying displays, highlighted by his 14 saves in a 3-1 victory over Arsenal. He won games almost singlehandedly, which not many keepers can do.
It is extremely difficult to gage the size of a goalkeeper’s impact, so it would be difficult to crown De Gea ahead of De Bruyne or Salah. No keeper has won the PFA award since Peter Shilton in 1978, nor the Premier League’s prize since Peter Schmeichel in 1996. But if there weren’t two other clear options this year? And if United had put up a title fight? De Gea would absolutely be in the mix.
Instead, he’ll have to settle for an undisputed spot in the team of the year.
3. Team of the year: Defenders
De Gea is the goalkeeper. In front of him, in a 4-3-3, Kyle Walker edges out Cesar Azpilicueta as our right back. Walker met the high expectations that accompanied his $68 million move to Man City. He cleaned up the defensive side of his game. He was flexible. He led all EPL defenders in Expected Assists and most other measures of chance creation or attacking contribution. He might have been the best defender in England, period – regardless of position across the back line.
Nicolas Otamendi was the best center back. He, like Walker, was solid without the ball, and contributed so much to City’s soon-to-be record-breaking attack. He and Walker ranked sixth and third in the league, respectively, in xG Buildup, a stat that measures involvement in chance creation before the final pass. The Argentine completed more passes than anybody else in the Prem. And although that’s a fairly meaningless stat in a vacuum, his ability to break the lines was vital for City.
Alongisde Otamendi in the middle is Jan Vertonghen, by a hair over Burnley’s James Tarkowski. Tarkowski exceeded expectations by a wider margin, and was better value for money, but Vertonghen was and is flat-out better. The Belgian is Mr. Consistency. He played all but one Premier League game for Spurs, and excelled in multiple positions. You might not have heard his name much; but that’s a good thing.
And finally, Marcos Alonso is the left back, because, well, there just aren’t many other options. Alonso was a mainstay in a good defensive team, and chipped in with six goals – joint-third for Chelsea.
4. Team of the year: Midfielders
De Bruyne is the obvious choice. After him, any two of three are acceptable. Fernandinho was City’s midfield anchor and pace-setter. But he, unlike N’Golo Kante, had structure and eons of talent around him. Kante, the 2016-17 player of the season, is only getting overlooked for end-of-year awards because the rest of Chelsea’ midfield and attack was a mess.
Finally, David Silva had his best attacking season since 2014-15, and quite possibly the best defensive season of his career. He was simply outstanding.
If we were picking a three-man midfield to win us an actual soccer match, we’d stick with City’s three. But since we’re not quite doing that, we’ll give Kante, an indefatigable one-man wrecking crew, the nod over Fernandinho, a very capable and important cog in a finely-tuned machine.
5. Team of the year: Forwards
Salah is on the right. Harry Kane, despite falling off a cliff since rushing to return from an ankle injury, is up top. And most fans and pundits would probably stick Leroy Sane on the left, no questions asked.
But this one I feel strongly about: Raheem Sterling absolutely deserves that spot over Sane. He might not be more talented. He might not have a more promising future. But he was so, so pivotal for City, especially over the first half of the campaign. He’s the Premier League’s most dangerous attacker without the ball at his feet. His 28 combined goals and assists – in just 77 percent of available minutes – rank second only to Salah. He also accumulated them alternating between wide and central positions. Sterling was one of City’s most influential players. Just because he misses the odd guilt-edged chance doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the three best forwards in England.
6. Team of the year: Reserves
Ederson, especially when considering his kicking, was easily the second-best keeper. Azpilicueta has a case for TOTY first-11 inclusion at either right back or center back. Tarkowski gets the other defender spot on the bench. Fernandinho gets the defensive midfield spot.
Further forward, Christian Eriksen was once again wonderful for Tottenham. Sane will be in many first 11s. And Roberto Firmino – slightly ahead of Sergio Aguero – gets the backup striker role for his versatility and all-around contributions at Liverpool. He isn’t just a goalscorer. He’s essentially a false 9, and also the torch-bearer for the most vaunted press in Europe.
7. The biggest snub
Eden Hazard absolutely belongs among the best 18 players in the Premier League … which highlights the difficulty of picking a team of the year. Hazard is undoubtedly world-class. Because he was asked to play out of position, and with teammates who were underperforming, he hasn’t been at his best. Is that his fault? No – for the most part. But did his output suffer as a result of a poor situation? Yep. And in the end, team of the year is about what a player has done over 38 games, not what he is.
8. The underappreciated, unfairly maligned five-a-side squad
This is for players who don’t get the respect they deserve from the ridiculous, at times racist, at times xenophobic sectors of the British media. This year’s squad comprises Dele Alli, whose goalscoring declined, but only because he expertly transitioned into a more supplementary role; Sterling, whom we’ve already discussed; Paul Pogba, who needs to spend less damn time worrying about his hai—*slaps self in face*; Sadio Mane, who contributed just as much to Liverpool’s attack as he did last season, this time in fewer minutes; and of course Mesut Ozil, who remains a wizard surrounded by mediocrity.
9. The Other 14 team of the year
OK, this one is not at all a real formation, it’s just three defenders, four midfielders and three attackers:
Nick Pope (Burnley); Tarkowski, Ben Mee (Burnley), Harry Maguire (Leicester); Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Luka Milivojevic (Crystal Palace), Abdoulaye Doucoure (Watford), Pascal Gross (Brighton); Riyad Mahrez (Leicester), Marko Arnautovic (West Ham), Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace).
The no-doubters here are Pope, Tarkowski, Gross, Mahrez and Zaha. The biggest snubs are probably Southampton’s fullbacks, Jack Cork, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Jamie Vardy.
10. Young player of the season: Raheem Sterling
It’s Sterling over Sane by a slim margin, as discussed above. And the fact that it’s between those two is a testament to …
11. Manager of the season: Pep Guardiola
Don’t give me that Sean Dyche BS. Sure, Dyche would be second on the list. Rafael Benitez, David Wagner and Jurgen Klopp would probably round out the top five. But Pep Guardiola is the runaway winner. Because this award shouldn’t just be about exceeding expectations; raising expectations matters, too. Guardiola, by improving the club on so many levels – by developing individual players, by systematizing day-to-day operations, and so on – has raised the bar. And then he lifted City above it. His team will go down as the best in Premier League history. He will probably go down as one of the best managers ever. That we already knew that before this season shouldn’t diminish Guardiola’s brilliance.
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