English Premier League End of Season Awards
Well, it’s the end of the year, and the time when the obligatory awards are given out by blogs. I thought it might be worth coming up with a few of my own. After a long season of tactical analyses (most of which predate this blog), I think it’s time we relax and indulge in a more general approach.
There have been a whole range of excellent games this Premier League season. Everton’s late leveller to make it 3-3 with Manchester United, Newcastle’s 5-1 demolition of Sunderland, United’s even more thorough 7-1 destruction of Blackburn, Ciaran Clark levelling minutes after John Terry thought he’d won the game in Chelsea’s 3-3 draw with Aston Villa and Everton’s frantic 5-3 win over Blackpool all make it onto the list. However, I don’t think anyone would argue with my selection. I chose one of the most remarkable games in Premier League history, Newcastle’s 4-4 draw with Arsenal at St James’ Park.
It had everything: Theo Walcott setting Arsenal on the way to a 3-0 lead in the first ten minutes with a 44th second goal, with Johan Djourou’s head and Robin van Persie’s foot finishing the other two. Van Persie nodded in their fourth, and Arsenal were cruising. The whole game dynamic was changed, however, with Diaby’s sending off shaking Arsenal to the core. A Joey Barton penalty began the comeback, before Leon Best’s goal and another Barton penalty hauled them firmly back into the game. With three minutes of normal time left, Newcastle’s outstanding midfield warrior, Chiek Tiote, collected the ball and leathered it into the net from long range, sparking wild celebrations and capping one of the most amazing games in English football.
Again, there are many contenders this season. The most obvious are the ones that hang long in the memory: Wayne Rooney’s marvellous overhead kick against Manchester City of all people would probably have won the award in any other season. City’s talisman Carlos Tevez, too, has had his fair share of spectacular goals, his long range freekick against Stoke a particular highlight. Speaking of freekicks, Blackpool’s surprise package Charlie Adam’s well-placed curler against Blackburn was another excellently taken goal.
Raul Meireles and Johan Elmander also get shouts for an excellent long range dipping volley and tricky feet respectively getting them both goals against Wolves. Luke Varney’s dipping long ranger and Berbatov’s overhead kick versus Liverpool, Samir Nasri’s dribble then shot against Fulham, Chiek Tiote’s aforementioned long range equaliser against Arsenal; the list goes on.
The tactician in me wants me to pick a team goal – Dimitar Berbatov’s hat trick goal against Blackburn was started and finished by him, with some breathtaking fluid movement by United to create it in between. Likewise, Mark Davies’ goal against Blackpool was came after an astounding sequence of flicks from his Bolton teammates. However, I think it would be hard to deny Gareth Bale the award this season. With Tottenham coming forward against Stoke City, a deep cross was hit behind and above Bale. Somehow, the explosive Welshman contorted his body, twisted his left foot to slam a curling, scarcely believable shot inside Thomas Sorensen’s post.
Petr Cech has enjoyed a fine renaissance this season, producing some vintage form and some of the best saves of his career behind an occasionally shaky Chelsea defence in the middle of the season. Joe Hart, too, has carried on his excellent Birmingham form to become one of the most composed ‘keepers in the Premiership. The usual suspects are still around of course: Pepe Reina continues his solidity for Liverpool, Tim Howard was consistent for Everton, Brad Friedel did well with a disorganised defence in front of him, and Mark Schwarzer was a rock for Fulham. Ben Foster was more of a surprise, finally showing consistent excellence between the sticks for Birmingham, and Matt Gilks and Ali Al-Habsi enhanced their reputations behind defences that left a lot to be desired.
However, in his final season after an illustrious career, it would be cruel to deny Edwin Van Der Sar the award after he has been truly excellent for Manchester United throughout the season. With the benefit of an excellent defence in front of him he has been rarely called on, but when he has the big Dutchman has hardly put a foot wrong. Almost absurdly composed at times, Van Der Sar’s influence cannot be overestimated in helping shepherd bright young defensive talents such as Chris Smalling and the Da Silva twins into the United squad proper.+
Whilst Arsenal’s defensive travails continue (at set-pieces, anyway) the ever consistent Bacary Sagna has continued to impress on the right flank with his energy and technical quality. Sagna is a proven Premier League performer, and the likes of Chris Samba, Brede Hangeland, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Ashley Cole, and Rio Ferdinand have continued to perform at the highest level. Equal credit must go, however, to those stepping up their performances, with Vincent Kompany probably the most marked example. The Belgian has gone from utility defender to first-choice centre-back for Manchester City, and is one of the best and most consistent in the league. Likewise Gary Cahill has won himself an England spot, and Johan Djourou has come back from injury an improved player. Luis Enrique, Newcastle’s Spanish full-back, is now being chased by major clubs after his consistent solid performances and Leighton Baines is now a major threat to any side with his excellent set-pieces and left-sided width.
I am, of course, leaving out one particular person, who is my deserved recipient of the ‘Best Defender’ award. Nemanja Vidic has been a rock for Manchester United all season, the new captain thriving under the responsibility of leading the team. Chipping in with vital goals at one end of the pitch and throwing himself in front of every ball and man in the box at the other, Vidic has had his best ever season and helped lead United to a record-breaking 19th title.
Nowadays, with players increasingly blurring the line between attack and midfield, it is increasingly difficult to tell which is which is which. As such, I will categorise players according to their nominal position – Wayne Rooney, for example, has played in an advanced midfield position for United this season, but he is undoubtedly a forward.
There have been a whole range of excellent midfield performances this year. Luka Modric continued in excellent creative form for Spurs this year, and the likes of Chiek Tiote, Rafael van der Vaart, Yaya Toure and David Silva came into the league and have settled in well. Gareth Bale, Samir Nasri, Charlie Adam, Scott Parker, Jack Wilshere and many others like Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden all excelled, whilst for someone who supposedly had a ‘bad season’ Cesc Fabregas did well. Stewart Downing has improved his all-round game to become a feared winger, whilst Nani stepped up from being an occasionally brilliant but inconsistent winger to nearly taking the award.
For the best midfield performer of the year, however, I am going to pick a rather left-field choice, immeasurably helped by his sheer consistency. Lucas has been exceptional for Liverpool this season, finally putting to rest criticism of him. He’s developing into a excellent footballer, and the Brazilian should take pride in performing equally well in the dark days of Roy Hodgson’s reign as well as the renaissance under Kenny Dalglish. What Lucas does is simple, but he does it extremely well; win the ball, lay it off. He has the skill to play longer passes too, and possesses a fierce enough shot to trouble any keeper from range. All in all, he is a good all-round player, and can be the base on which Liverpool build their midfield for years to come.
And we come to what many people regard as the most interesting part of the regular end of season awards, the category for ‘Best Forward’. Wayne Rooney, who would have been favourite last season, this time round recovered from bad early season form to come rocketing back into the forefront of Premier League strikers. His strike partner, Javier Hernandez, has also made an instant impact with the young Mexican bagging 13 league goals in his debut season. Carlos Tevez remains Manchester City’s spearhead and attacking fulcrum, whilst West Brom’s Peter Odemwingie won his side many points with his clinical finishing. Andy Carroll’s goalscoring form for Newcastle was such that Liverpool made him one of the most expensive footballers ever, and his new partner Luis Suarez has ripped the Premiership apart since joining in January. A final thought must go to Robin Van Persie, who returned from injury to score a remarkable 18 goals in 19 league games, an incredible record that would have won him the award had it not been the sheer consistency of another man…
My pick may be biased, I admit, but Darren Bent has been in fine goalscoring fettle all season. He started the season as Sunderland’s spearhead, pushing Steve Bruce’s side well up the table, before moving to Aston Villa. At Villa, his goalscoring prowess once again came to the fore as his goals kept Villa clear of the relegation zone before a late charge moved them into the top ten. Before now he was considered a tunnel-visioned poacher, a quick, excellent finisher who came alive in the penalty area and nothing else. This season he has diversified, running channels well and improving his hold-up skills. Aston Villa’s 1-0 win against Manchester City summed up the ‘new’ Bent: one goalscoring chance put away with the composure of old, before an excellent display of harrying and hold-up play for the rest of the game. In the Premier League, there are few better at what they do than Darren Bent, and the predatory frontman will look to continue this form into next season.
Roberto Mancini has overseen a vastly successful Manchester City season, taking home their first silverware for decades and winning themselves an automatic Champions League spot. Kenny Dalglish, too, has done extremely well in turning round the fortunes of a Liverpool side that has become demoralised and predictable under Roy Hodgson. Mark Hughes also deserves credit for leading Fulham to a highly-respectable 8th place, and Tony Pulis for guiding his side to an FA Cup final.
This is all disregarding one outstanding candidate, of course. It is extremely obvious and boring to say Sir Alex Ferguson, but it’d take a brave man to choose someone else. The legendary Scot has inspired what is widely thought to be a relatively sub-standard Manchester United team to a 19th league title and a Champions League final this season, which is tribute enough to his skills.
I’m going to go with Jack Wilshere. Last year, a promising Arsenal reserve who was loaned out to Bolton to toughen up, this year an Arsenal and England regular. It has been a meteoric rise for the young playmaker, but highlights such as running the midfield at the Emirates against Barcelona and making his full England debut suggest a player of immense talent who will only get better under the expert tutelage of Arsene Wenger.
Wilshere’s talents are such that he looks as if he could be comfortable anywhere in midfield: he has brilliant creative skills, combining pinpoint passing with that most mercurial of attributes, vision. Unlike some other midfield deep-lying playmakers, he also has the drive and energy to get truly stuck in as well (something which he enjoys if anything too much). At risk of sounding fawning, Wilshere combines the fabled ‘grit’ of an English player with the culture and skill of a Spaniard. Between he and another Arsenal midfield gem, Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal fans can rest assured that whether Cesc Fabregas stays or goes, their midfield is set for a decade.
Signing of the season
Had you going there for a bit, didn’t I? No? I wonder why…
A well-contested category, I ended up giving it to Peter Odemwingie ahead of Cheik Tiote, Darren Bent, Luis Suarez, Javier Hernandez and David Silva. Whilst most of the other five are incontestably better players, with a reported fee of under £2 million, Odemwingie’s value for money gives him an unassailable advantage.
Goals, as the adage goes, wins games, and Odemwingie’s are the ones of a traditional poacher. His method of getting 15 goals (and as a result a nice hamper of chocolate) is simple, using his pace and excellent off the ball movement to get himself into one on ones with the ‘keeper, which he finishes with consummate ease. Whilst his methods of goal-getting are simple, the way he approaches build up play is completely different, equally happy to stay central or run the channels in order to keep defenders guessing. Most of all, his best weapon is his intelligence, and his awareness on the pitch is exceptional. With these attributes he helped keep Albion up, and hopefully they can retain his services for next season.
Team(s) of the season
Any blog awards wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory ‘Dream Team’ Team of the Season. This being D&C, however, I think it would be wise if we looked at this is in a more tactical manner. As such, my team doesn’t pack the best 11 players onto the pitch, but rather looks to find a balance between good players and a tactically viable team. The shape is a fairly basic 4-2-3-1: two attacking full-backs support two inside forwards who in turn support a prima punta. The midfield three has its destroyer (Lucas), passer (Modric), creator (Toure) triangle, though as the last two are multitalented they can easily switch roles. In that sense, you could argue this formation is a 4-3-3.
Edwin Van Der Sar – My goalkeeper of the season would lend his exceptional calmness and mental strength to the back four.
Bacary Sagna – Sagna will look to get forward on the right, using his energy to complement his winger.
Nemanja Vidic – The dominant stopper is a big, strong centre-back and will do his job simply and effectively.
Vincent Kompany – City’s rock will look to cover behind Vidic intelligently and bring the ball out of defence.
Leighton Baines – With a narrow forward in front of him, Baines is tasked with delivering most of the left-sided width with his pace, stamina and crossing ability.
Lucas Leiva – The Liverpool ball-winner does his usual job of winning the ball and laying it off to a more creative teammate, in this case…
Luka Modric – Playmaker extraordinaire, Modric has license to create from deep or higher up the pitch.
Yaya Toure – The towering Ivorian complements his power with technical ability and an eye for goal, having carved himself a new position for City. Also offers defensive solidity high up the pitch.
David Silva – Silva’s trickery and creativity allows him to be given a free, narrow role on the left from which to roam.
Nani – More of a natural winger than Silva, his two-footedness keeps the opposition defenders guessing.
Darren Bent – The predatory striker will run the channels and hang on the shoulder of the defender.
I found I wasn’t satisfied with just one eleven, and as a result had to come up with a Shadow XI. This team, whilst laid out in what is ostensibly the same formation as the previous one, actually differs drastically tactically. A lopsided formation, this 4-2-3-1 relies on the ‘False Nine’ effect as Robin van Persie drops deep and Carlos Tevez becomes the furthest forward player whilst Stewart Downing keeps the width on the right. As Branislav Ivanovic is comfortable at centre-back, the entire defence can pivot to allow Jose Enrique far up the field to provide left-sided width without compromising the defence too much. In contrast to the previous formation, this is most definitely a 4-2-3-1, as Rafael van der Vaart is a classic trequartista and both Tiote and Wilshere exceptional deep-lying players.
Petr Cech – An excellent shot-stopper, and organises his defence well. Quick off his line too, and distributive skills that are second to none.
Branislav Ivanovic – The big Serb is more at home at centre-back, but fills in well at full-back too. Allows the left full-back to get further up the field.
Brede Hangeland – An excellent tackler and marker, the Norwegian truly comes into his own in the air.
Christopher Samba – Making up the other half of a formidable centre-back pairing, Samba has proved a rock in defence and a decent bet for a goal at set-pieces.
Jose Enrique – With Tevez extremely narrow and Ivanovic comfortable shuffling across to form a midfield three, Enrique’s tendency to get forward helps this side greatly.
Cheik Tiote – Big, powerful, and packing a fiery shot, Tiote has proved a revelation in the Premiership this year. Combines ball-winning ability with no little technique.
Jack Wilshere – A wonderfully versatile player, the superb Wilshere has been at his best in the Arsenal double pivot alongside Alex Song. Here, he recreates that role, given license to break from deep.
Rafael van der Vaart – The man at the tip of the triangle, Van der Vaart’s excellent touch and vision complement an eye for goal and a good reading of the game.
Stewart Downing – Providing much of the natural width in the formation, Downing’s crossing, passing and improved ability with both feet keeps the full-back guessing.
Carlos Tevez – The City striker is capable on the wing, and in this formation would move central and ahead of Van Persie to bring his lethal finishing into play.
Robin van Persie – Van Persie is the pivot around which the Arsenal attack functions, and is here too. The complete package, Van Persie is a brilliant striker in any situation.