Almost a year to the day since Talking Points’ inaugural Premier League end-of-season awards ceremony, celebrating the upper echelons of the revolutionary English Premier League in what this year will be its 25th anniversary, I am forced by GCSE revision commitment to unveil my 2016/17 season award winners a week prior to the season’s close. While this may be my last blog for the foreseeable next five weeks, I am determined to harness the opportunity for self-indulgence to its fullest extent, and as such, a dedication to perhaps the least ethically reasonable or redeemable organisation in football’s sullied yet spasmodic topography seems befitting of such an honour – hardly. Nevertheless, it is the passion such sparsely-located hundreds of millions, if not over a billion global viewers, hold for the much-debated Premier League that cause the 1992-splinter division to be so decisive in the overall complexion of the sport, and as a viewer, I will contribute my analysis of this yet-concluded season – one which has, to date, witnessed the demise of North-East counterparts Sunderland and Middlesbrough to the Championship from whence the latter were delivered in 2015/16, and the now-confirmed triumph of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. In the comparatively mediocre nine months succeeding Leicester City’s title-winning forays of 2015/16, now acclaimed a more astounding an intoxicant with the benefit of such a period’s hindsight and events, there have been managerial controversies at both ends of the table, notable contract disputes for an array of the league’s utmost entertainers, heroic arrivals, acrimonious departures and, classically, more than a fair share of unexpected isolated results. The star performers and most notable incidents from such a traumatic and stupendous term? Read on for my perception…
Team of the Season – Formation 3-4-3
Goalkeeper: Tom Heaton – Burnley
In assuring lucrative Premier League survival for not only the smallest urban area present in the division in terms of population, but the club with the second lowest expenditure in terms of seasonal squad wage totals, Sean Dyche – mimicked by many, yet unparalleled in his ability for resource management – cannot be underestimated at the forefront of England’s current managerial crop. The pinnacle, arguably, of Dyche’s modestly industrial philosophy, in both playing style and financial supervision, is the Cheshire-derived monument of goalkeeping fortitude, Mr Dependable to pan a cliché-ravaged commentary – Tom Heaton. A free signing from the relegated Bristol City in 2013, the Manchester United academy product has ascended from the perennial loanee and unremarkable Championship shot-stopper to a Premier League-leading testament to the success of perspiration and determination for all those rejected by the ruthless youth production lines of Manchester, Liverpool and London, without mentioning his national service – a duo of caps to his name as a reward for toil behind Joe Hart, Fraser Forster and Jack Butland in the ranks. At 31, he has peaked at the perfect period for the Clarets, delivering a scarcely-conceivable 40 points and 10 clean sheets alongside his mainly-homegrown teammates, a key incorporation of which is a back four of Ben Mee, Michael Keane, Matthew Lowton and Stephen Ward, costing Dyche and predecessors a mere £3.9 million, and each worthy of a place in this side if not for the exploits of individuals further up the table.
With an equal clean sheet record to Liverpool and West Ham amongst others, Heaton can point to his league-leading 135 saves, mere three absences through injury (in which Paul Robinson conceded seven goals of the side’s current total of 51) and Fantasy Premier League record 21 bonus points and 146 total points for 2016/17 as markers of his consistency. With the third fewest goals conceded outside of the current top eight in the division, belying his side’s financial output, Heaton stacks up, for me, the greatest sentry of the hallowed net, especially with a home record fundamental to the season-defining Turf Moor form, of 16 goals conceded in 17 matches to date.
Centre Back: David Luiz – Chelsea
As many have mentioned over the course of what has become a season of utter contempt for opposition never close to their standard, Chelsea have their tactical reinvention under Conte to thank for their triumph, and in no area more critical than their defensive third. Great sides such as Barcelona and Real Madrid may have gained reputations for annihilating opposition through a multitude of crisply-crafted chances, but as any well-travelled connoisseur would impart upon you, it is defences that win you titles. Returning to Stamford Bridge for £34 million last August, Luiz – who departed for a place at the heart of a Paris St Germain defence in the wake of his questionable 2014 home World Cup performances – has, perhaps surprisingly, displayed a maturity and control that had previously been decidedly lacking from his obvious skillset, allowing an intensely creative attacking plethora of widely-sourced talent to flourish. On the left of a three-man set-up, his role has demanded the nous of the Italians Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci who Conte previously had at his disposal at club and national level, in addition to the passing vision of only a Brazilian to speed up play in a Premier League demanding flowing counter attacking football. Though trailing Cesar Azpilicueta (first) and Gary Cahill (21st) in the passing tables, Luiz, 44th with almost 1,500 passes completed, has been the aggressor of the trio in breaking apart opposing forays, and visibly, in the paltry 28 goals conceded over 36 games to date, his presence has been an unbridled success, developing significantly under Conte’s tutelage, and perhaps the crowning glory of the Italian’s season-defining rethink of the Blues’ back line.
Centre Back: Gary Cahill – Chelsea
Another pinnacle of the three-man system that has ushered in a new era of domestic dominance – encouraging Arsenal, Spurs, West Ham and even Gareth Southgate’s England to now operate under, and take enthusiastically to, similar formations – Cahill, as aforementioned, has complemented the styles of fellow centre-backs Luiz and Azpilicueta seamlessly. A more sedate crux to Luiz’s periodically all-action approach and defensive shield to Azpilicueta’s potentially vulnerable passing range, the Englishman has flourished under the pressure of leadership – thrust upon him as vice-captain in the wake of John Terry’s age-demanded occupation of the bench – and has assumed many of the Chelsea legend’s qualities in a more mobile guise. Dependable at both ends of the pitch – preventing chances that would’ve added considerably to his side’s goals conceded tally, and contributing a vital six goals that draw him equal in the goal scoring charts with Riyad Mahrez, Marco Arnautovic and Wilfried Zaha – his aptitude at club level is on another level to his often-unremarkable manifestations in an England shirt, where his all-too sedate style can place the likes of Hart in danger. Having risen to the challenge of keeping prodigious duo Kurt Zouma and Nathan Ake at bay for his place in the side, Cahill is effectively the first name in the Blues’ defence – a true testament to his rarely-acknowledged translation of dependability from Aston Villa and Bolton to a consistently Premier League-leading outfit. Fitting, then, you could argue it is that he will be the first Blues player to lift the newly-inscribed trophy in honour of their sustained consistency.
Centre Back: Toby Alderweireld – Tottenham Hotspur
Jan Vertonghen could well have taken this slot, as could Azpilicueta, but for me, there is a steely, unfettered demeanour that sets Alderweireld apart from his defensive counterpart, while selecting all three Chelsea defenders would’ve just been discourteous to the challengers who have lined the Blues’ achievement with some credibility. Although Vertonghen has two years over his almost career-long partner, it has only been since Alderweireld’s arrival at White Hart Lane that he has appeared settled as an unopposed regular, practically faultless alongside a telepathic colleague. Spurs, seemingly, can do no wrong under the guidance of Mauricio Pochettino, boasting a persistently infuriating ability to assume any tactical guise the Argentine opts for, with the required character and freedom that comes with an extended period of settled co-existence in spades. While the true stars of the purring Tottenham engine lie in the final third, it is the long-range vision and pinpoint ability to carry out sweeping 30-yard through balls that sets Spurs’ defence apart from all others – most notably from the more ambitious Alderweireld – and allow the front four of the Lilywhites to dazzle. Only absent for six league games all season, it is worth mentioning that, without his presence, Pochettino’s XI conceded in all but two of those matches – a 5-0 thrashing of Swansea and their 0-0 stalemate with Bournemouth – with a goals conceded per game average of exactly one, admirable, but incomparable with the mean of 0.57 from the 30 games he has started. Quite simply, a fundamental aspect to the surely trophy-destined North Londoners’ furniture.
Left Wing-Back: Marcos Alonso – Chelsea
A broken record I may be, but Alonso has, for me, been the surprise of the season. Only able to point to a PL pedigree with Bolton and Sunderland, the powerful Spaniard has made 31 key league appearances – equalling his domestic record for a season, set in 2015/16 with Fiorentina – in a rapid and inconceivable rise from second-choice left-back to undisputed king of the left wing. It may have been Conte’s lack of options that both ushered his signature and his ascendancy into the limelight of a transformative new formation, yet he has returned the profits not of a man for whom it could have been easy to crumble in readjusting to the British Isles and assuming a playing role more critical than ever previously posed. Victor Moses, his symbiotically attack-minded partner on the right, may have tailed off in terms of impact in the wake of his contract extension, yet Alonso has only raised his levels in 2017, and has reaped the rewards on the late stretch of the season. Having delivered more crosses than Zaha, Michael Antonio and Raheem Sterling, exacted more tackles than Ashley Williams, Eric Bailly and Shkodran Mustafi, fizzed more shots than Troy Deeney, Anthony Martial and Olivier Giroud and laid more passes than Alli, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick, there is no doubting his stamina and persistence – vital factors to the position for Conte, not to mention technique. Six goals – five with fell swoops of his lethal left boot – and three assists fit the bill of his responsibility, yet whether he will maintain both a starting berth and such ominous form next term will be fascinating to observe.
Central Midfielder: N’Golo Kante – Chelsea
Considering all that has foregone my wrap-up of the season, there is scarce left unsaid about this mercurial Frenchman, once doubted by some in the Leicester scouting department and again in the step up to one of Europe’s biggest clubs at the start of this season. Hailed as the worth of two players in one by some plaudits and the best player in the league by others, none other can match the irrepressible force of Kante in such fluent and diligent midfield service, critical to feeding possession from opposition sieges to Pedro, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa’s rampages, nor in his timid, endlessly admirable humility.
It is rare to witness the same player hoist consecutive Premier League titles - 43 have, unsurprisingly, achieved it at Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, with the only others a select 14 at Chelsea in the mid-2000’s. It is even less common an occurrence for an individual to attain a medal for their efforts in triumphant campaigns with two different clubs; Henning Berg famously the first, followed by Ashley Cole, Carlos Tevez, Gaël Clichy, Robert Huth, Nicolas Anelka and Kolo Toure. But to be the recipient of consecutive titles with different sides? No figurehead has been so feverishly form-ridden to yet achieve that feat, an exacting accolade to the expendability of the dream player for any team at any level, and perhaps the peculiar coincidence of a duo of blessed Italian managers’ confidence in the Parisian. Toppled from the top of the tackling charts only by the booking-flushed Idrissa Gana Gueye, his focus has adapted from that at underdogs Leicester to comprise a more comfortable game at a side inherently dominant in possession – playing the seventh most passes in the league (more than Mesut Özil, David Silva and Christian Eriksen) and the same number of through balls (seven) as Yaya Toure and Manuel Lanzini, evidence of an invaluable contribution to his defence and attack alike that has deservedly earned him a spot in the record books.
Central Midfielder: Dele Alli – Tottenham Hotspur
Similarly to Kante, translating a season of outstanding form has presented no mean task for Dele Alli, having burst onto the Premier League scene aged just 19 last season with bravado and guile incomparable for an Englishman perhaps since Wayne Rooney or David Beckham. Despite only possessing passing statistics for the season that rank him 82nd – below the likes of Andrew Surman, Joel Ward and Glenn Whelan – his impression on the team-leading 34 Premier League matches and 47 total appearances has been insurmountably significant. 17 goals, five assists and a passing accuracy just over 80% make him, on paper, the most proficient midfielder in the division, all at the age of 21, with Sigurdsson, Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen, the latter duo 25 years old with over 50 international caps each and the former 27 years with 49 Icelandic appearances, his nearest challengers in the number 10 role. The vital component, however, to such a role is not personal accounts, but the ability to fuse a front four and the ball-winning midfield behind them, and as Alli works in tandem with Eriksen in the position, he has mastered both this requirement and the threat of a winger in turn. Elegant, audacious and, on his day, absolutely unstoppable, Alli is a diamond with edges ever-sharpened by his exposure to the pressure and quality of the Premier League – Real Madrid will not be his calling come August, but one day, it may well be a possibility.
Right Wing-Back: Christian Eriksen – Tottenham Hotspur
Forgive me if I am playing a monotonous tune by this point, but this is how slick both Chelsea and Spurs have been this season, that I have to fit players of the quality of Eriksen into positions that could easily be occupied by the stars of sides outside of the title reckoning. This slot certainly punished my thinking – Coutinho, Sigurdsson, Antonio Valencia, Kyle Walker and Moses have all returned performances of great vindication – yet for his ever-optimistic output, punishing ability and tactical awareness, Eriksen had an incorrigible charm. Laying on 12 assists, mainly for Harry Kane and Alli, and chipping in with eight goals, his confidence seems to have finally returned from what was, ultimately, a less fruitful season prior, proven by the ambitious and league-leading 129 shots, subsequent five woodwork-striking efforts and fifth highest number of crosses – 226. Translating, on average, to 5.375 shots and 6.65 crosses every game, with shots and crosses every 17 and 14 minutes respectively, the Dane has the canny knack for unlocking a defence and creating the space to spread havoc in an 18-yard box that, in a side that play so heavily on the front foot as Spurs, is a key attribute to personal survival and collective victory.
Right Striker: Romelu Lukaku – Everton
The titanic Belgian has reached the very peaks of his majestic game in fits this season – a Golden Boot-destined 24 goals proves as much. As injecting as he can be on leaky defences, he is undeniably prone to lean spells where either service doesn’t click or his game is restricted by stricter opponents – prevailing, especially, on his meagre away form, the Toffees’ travels having delivered just eight goals and a solitary assist for him, with a goal arriving just once every 198 minutes. Contrast that with the 16 finishes (one every 100 minutes) and five assists at Goodison Park he has garnered, and a worrying trend is obvious; something is astray once he sets foot on the team coach. Ultimately, this is why he feels he should remedy the issue with a move to greener pastures – Manchester United and a Chelsea return both linked, yet improbable at this stage – and with a goal scoring record, at least at home, as enviable as his, there would be no shortage of suitors. Plainly, his stage is above simply seventh place in the Premier League and an unlikely shot at cup glory, with the Champions League deserving of his blessed pace, power and control of the two. In such a context, with support from Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley as opposed to Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne at national level, for example, his feat is outstanding, and truly worthy of a position in our team of the season.
Central Striker: Harry Kane – Tottenham Hotspur
A third year running of 20+ goals for the scintillating North Londoner then, with preconceptions and records again sent tumbling in his illustrious wake. Injuries have played their part in his limited appearances, but he has more than made up for lost time otherwise, with 21 goals from just 26 PL matches and six assists to boot sustaining, if not increasing, his worth at the pinnacle of Premier League striking stardom. Multifaceted in his attributes, it appears that whenever a ball connects with his laces, his medial cuneiform or his sizeable forehead, space appears and an effort seems destined for the back of the net – ever the inflammatory signature of a lethal striking proposition. As with Lukaku, away form is a cause for tempered concern, as his quintet of efforts from a dozen travels have been counterbalanced by an extraordinary 16 goals from 14 home matches, but in a team as talented as Spurs, it is not just his goals that are relied upon anymore to carry the weight of the entire squad – not that it matters to Kane, who relishes the opportunity to exact punishment upon those who have the audacity to prevent his scoring.
Left Striker: Eden Hazard – Chelsea
An appropriate note upon which to conclude our XI, Hazard has set Stamford Bridge alight in a manner reminiscent especially of the title-winning 2014/15 season and perhaps to a degree unprecedented personally in English football. Providing an enlightenment to how his collapse in form led the Blues to a tumultuous 10th-placed title defence last season, his comeback in the form of a personal-best 15 PL goals and five assists – despite adapting to an unnatural position more based on the principles of a striker rather than an out-and-out winger – has been a trailblazing factor in Conte’s inspiration of West London to again produce PL trophies. Reinvigorated with the daring skill, the explosive pace and the untameable shooting prowess of seasons past, the glint in his eye and the affection to torment defences is recouped, only for the price of Conte’s arrival. Without a shadow of a doubt, Hazard is back to his glorious best as one of the top three PL talents – Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero, for me, the others – and for that alone, we should be intensely grateful to Conte.
Ben Foster – West Bromwich Albion
Antonio Valencia – Manchester United
Cesar Azpilicueta – Chelsea
Leroy Sané – Manchester City
Gylfi Sigurdsson – Swansea City
Philippe Coutinho – Liverpool
Zlatan Ibrahimović – Manchester United
Seven players who could not ignored for their contribution to a compelling, aggravating and spirited season, my bench comprises the best of the rest – Foster, for his protruding influence on the potential club PL record 46 goals the Baggies have conceded this season under Tony Pulis’ expert stewardship, Valencia for his comfortable assumption of a right-back role Jose Mourinho had no right thrusting upon him and Azpilicueta, as aforementioned, for his involvement as the ever-present passing outlet in a supreme defensive trio. Sané earns a spot for his impact since bursting onto the picture at Pep Guardiola’s busy shop at Manchester City – seriously impressing with the encapsulation of his trademark blink-and-you-miss-it run and lashing finish – Sigurdsson, akin to Lukaku and Jermaine Defoe’s situations, for salvaging hope with astounding returns from what would otherwise be doomed operations, Coutinho narrowly ahead of compatriot Roberto Firmino for his leading of the Liverpudlian line - no mean feat under Jurgen Klopp’s demanding 4-3-3 formation - 10 goals and six assists, and finally Ibrahimović for taking to the PL many feared he would struggle with like an aged duck to choppy waters amongst a discontented Mancunian ship; 17 goals from 115 shots the figures of a striker still in the world-class category.
Jordan Pickford, Hugo Lloris, Eldin Jakupovic, Thibaut Courtois, David De Gea; Jan Vertonghen, Gareth McAuley, Harry Maguire, Ben Gibson, Michael Keane, Eric Bailly; Kyle Walker, Victor Moses, Danny Rose, Seamus Coleman, Nathaniel Clyne; Nemanja Matic, Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama, Nemanja Matic, Emre Can, Joe Allen; Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Kevin De Bruyne, Pedro, Wilfried Zaha, Alexis Sanchez, Josh King; Jermaine Defoe, Diego Costa, Christian Benteke, Fernando Llorente
Manager of the Season
As much as I would love to hand Antonio Conte the gong on this count – securing a league triumph in his first English season a significant achievement, especially in reinventing a side whose inspiration had dissipated almost totally the season prior, and for piecing together an unforgettable 13-match winning run in which time only four goals were conceded – I believe the lack of a continental diversion counts against him. He has had, at his disposal, arguably the best (or second best, regarding Pep Guardiola’s at City) squad in the Premier League, and it is now, whether you believe it a fallacy or truism, a widely-held belief that with fewer games comes superior league performance.
For outstanding achievement, then, I would hand the prize to Tony Pulis for his completely unpredicted maximising of potential at West Brom, where a squad I felt too thin in quality and numbers alike has remained largely fit throughout the season, with distinctive performances from Matt Phillips, Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley, Craig Dawson, Ben Foster and Salomon Rondon along the way delivering them the proud declaration as the best of the rest in the Premier League pack – outside of the resources of the established big four, in addition to Man City, Spurs and Everton, yet having bravely competed with these sides nonetheless. Obviously, set-pieces have been the oft-highlighted aspect to Pulis’ approach, and while it has been a key focus in exploiting the poor organisations of many sides at corners and free kicks, there is far more to the Baggies than one-dimensional far-post headers, otherwise they would be far from a highly credible eighth position.
Goal of the Season
Jeff Hendrick vs Bournemouth, 10th December 2016
A sumptuous 20-yard pass, initially, from Matt Lowton in response to Nathan Ake’s defensive header set cult hero Hendrick free of Steve Cook’s attention. The first touch, extending his right boot at waist height to halt the ball into control, was elegant enough for the unheralded Irishman’s usual standards, yet was superseded by the second, allowing the ball to bounce up and onto his thigh for a final hammer blow; a 20-yard screaming half-volley, under Cook’s pressure five yards right of the D, that arced in the Lancastrian air and past a full-stretch Artur Boruc into the top right corner. Gaston Ramirez and Andros Townsend’s solo efforts against Bournemouth and West Brom respectively garnered my attention, but Hendrick, whose season has since trailed off to relatively mediocre standards, gains my award here.
Match of the Season
Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool, August 2016
Hark back to the very first weekend of the season, as honestly, I cannot remember any such displays of competitive astonishment since. Spectacular goals, changes of the lead and a tense finish each unparalleled, for my money, ever since. Uninspired, I know, but little else sticks out in my mind, certainly in comparison with last season’s unpredictability. Let’s hope for better next year…?
*All statistics correct as of 12/05/2017
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!