2008-09 Player of the Year Contenders
With the international weekend upon us and all matters quiet on the domestic front, it seems a good time to write something of an all encompassing football article, rather than one with an exclusively Arsenal flavour. Currently, Professional Footballers and Sports Writers are being asked to cast their votes for Player of the Season. There are of course pitfalls to voting this early, leading candidates may well become subject to a colossal loss of form whilst other contenders sitting quietly in the background might succumb to 'Freddie Ljungberg syndrome` (i.e. being quite average for most of the season until a completely one off burst of form in the spring catapults you onto the podium). Still, since I have yet to receive my invitation to cast my vote as a Sports Writer, I thought I might as well publish my top ten candidates here. I will stress that these are solely my choices, so feel free to argue away, highlight any glaring omissions or just rage in general at my stultifying ignorance.
10- Jose REINA (Liverpool)- This season has been conspicuous by the fact that defences are largely producing a good innings. With Torres perma crocked, Henry and Horseface having said hasta manana to see out the autumn of their careers in Spain, the dominant twenty goal striker seems to be largely missing. (Kevin Davies is joint third highest scorer in the league!) In a league that appears to be similarly deprived of charismatic custodians, Reina has been the model of consistency, making crucial saves, organising his back four, rarely given to error and his swift distribution has been the source of many a Liverpool counter attack this year. Whilst van der Sar can claim that his clean sheet record earns him a place in my top ten, I would argue those in front of him protected him unswervingly, Reina I believe to be the finest keeper in the league right now. Plus, van der Sar looks a little bit like Pinocchio and I am not having that. Not in my top ten.
9- Titus BRAMBLE (Wigan Athletic)- A brief glance at the league table tells you that Wigan are sitting very pretty in seventh place, but if you glance a few columns further along, you will also see they have conceded 28 goals this season. That`s only one more than Arsenal have conceded to date. Whilst Steve Bruce continues to work miracles at a club that by rights, should have imploded with the sales of Heskey and Palacios in January, the Latics continue to chug along and make a mockery of their balance sheet. Whilst most of the focus has been drawn to the aforementioned and Luis Antonio Valencia, the form of Titus Bramble has been the real talk of Lancashire. The man formerly connected with the phrase "you know when you`ve been Brambled" has emerged as a calming influence at the back for Wigan and shushed many of his naysayers, myself included. Alongside Paul Scharner, Bramble has matured into a sturdy, leadership figure in Wigan`s rarely penetrated defence and its all due credit to him considering the brickbats that have been sent his way for many a year. Talk of an England call up is not so far fetched at all. The humble pie is cooling softly on the window sill, go grab yourself a slice. After me of course.
8- Robin van PERSIE (Arsenal)- Gooners have long salivated at over the prospect of a fully fit van Persie and this season we are seeing exactly why- to the tune of sixteen goals and ten assists. Whilst match winning cameos at Stamford Bridge and against Porto as well as a stunning effort against Liverpool have showed Robin has what it takes to make the difference against big opponents, the fact that he currently leads the way in the Premiership assists chart is worthy of equal recognition. One of his more offbeat stats shows he has struck woodwork fifteen times this campaign, but that shows you how often the mercurial Dutchman makes something happen in the vital areas. Robin has gone some way to dispelling two major doubts this season; firstly that he can string more than five games together. Secondly, that he could ever mature into any kind of team player (I definitely doubted that one), but ten assists shows that, though it`s been a long time coming at nearly 26, van Persie is finally maturing. Premiership defences might not be getting the upper hand much longer.
7- Ashley YOUNG (Aston Villa)- Had my vote been cast pre Christmas, Young would likely be troubling the top three, though a lack of squad depth at Villa Park has pushed Young into overkill. However, Young remains one of the league`s most exciting players, his crossing and set piece delivery rank amongst the finest in the league, while his ability to turn full backs inside and out from the left and the right mark Young out as the kind of player that wins matches (ask Everton!). Zokora was recently substituted after half an hour of facing Young for Spurs, whilst even Bacary Sagna wasn`t spared a torrid afternoon when Villa consummately outplayed Arsenal back in November, both goals coming from Young crosses. Many baulked when Martin O`Neil paid £9m for his services; that sum now looks a relative bargain for a player who will only get better so long as he preserves his attitude.
6- Tim CAHILL (Everton)- As David Moyes continues to work wonders on a shoestring with Everton, one of the great mysteries of Everton`s success has been "why the hell haven`t Premiership defences sussed Tim Cahill yet?!" Hardly the league`s most strapping physical presence, yet he still manages to find space in the penalty area in a manner unrivalled in this country since Martin 'The Ghost` Peters. Everton found themselves in a real conundrum pre January with all of their strikers injured, so Cahill was appointed chief front man. This role seldom works for goal scoring midfielders who prefer to make their runs from deep, yet Cahill had the intelligence to excel. When Cahill was injured at the start of the campaign, Everton were in the lower reaches of the table, yet his return to fitness has coincided with a charge towards the Champions League. It is for that reason he makes the list ahead of his impressive team mates Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta.
5- Xabi ALONSO (Liverpool)- At this point I was very tempted to put Gareth Barry at number five, but as far as defensive midfield anchors go, Alonso just pips him and Denilson. Alonso and Barry`s fates seem to be inextricably intertwined since last summer`s ongoing transfer saga involving the two, but like Barry, Alonso has shown commendable character to put that behind him and find a new lease of life in this Liverpool side. Much of the talk centres around Gerrard and Torres, but Alonso is the anchor that gives Gerrard license to soar. After very nearly joining Arsenal in the summer, Xabi has used his summer success with Spain to spur an already gifted footballer to new heights. His calm authority and economy with the ball perfectly compliments his team`s style and he has made himself simply undroppable for Benitez. I think Alonso is the player Denilson will eventually become.
4- Brede HANGELAND (Fulham)- One of the more inspired signings in Premiership history. When Roy Hodgson bought him to West London last January, Hangeland would have been preparing for life in the Championship. But after facilitating an unlikely escape, Hangeland has become the lynchpin of Fulham`s astronomic rise to mid table obscurity. Another look at the goals against column shows Fulham have conceded 26, one less than Arsenal. I rather doubt that that is predominantly down to John Pantsill! Hangeland is the big, strapping presence that was required in a Fulham team that had become far too nice, he offers leadership and has bought the best out of his previously inconsistent partner Aaron Hughes. The best defenders bring the best out of those around and Cottagers would attest that Hangeland has done that.
3- Steven GERRARD (Liverpool)- Regular readers will know I am one of Gerrard`s biggest detractors, but you simply cannot deny that Benitez has finally cracked how to get the best out of Gerrard. Too undisciplined and not nearly altruistic enough to play in central midfield, Benitez has utilised two of the game`s best spoilers in Mascherano and Alonso to push Gerrard further forward, where his buccaneering, Roy of the Rovers style is much more suited. It also means Liverpool do not have to suffer the site of Gerrard sitting deep and punting sixty yard Hollywood passes all over the shop. Dovetailing with Torres, Gerrard offers goals, assists and a range of shooting that is the envy of the Premiership. The number ten position is characterised down the years by ego driven players who are capable of moments of genius and Gerrard fits that profile perfectly. Whilst he has scored the same amount of domestic goals as Ronaldo this season, the fact that he leads the goal scoring charts in the Champions League is an undeniable insight into how good Gerrard can be in the last third of the pitch.
2- Nemanja VIDIC (Manchester United)- The reason there is only one United player featured in the list despite what looks to be another season of dominance, has been Ferguson`s utilisation of his whole squad. But one of the constants has been Vidic, whose form was the predominant reason United shattered a Premiership record for consecutive clean sheets. Ferdinand has been in worthy form too, but Vidic has been the glue that has held United`s backline together. No consistent right back, Evra has also been in and out, O`Shea has been asked to plug gaps, yet still van der Sar has found himself under deployed. A no nonsense, blood and guts centre half but with also the intelligence to read the game, Vidic is a dream defender. The only thing that counts against him is his lack of pace on the turn, which ahs seen him sent off for three professional fouls this season, whilst he was lucky not to see red for similar offences at St. James Park and the Emirates.
1-Frank LAMPARD (Chelsea)- A very deep breath in for this one and not because of Lampard`s waistline (had to get that one in). The current Chelsea side is as average and uninspiring as it has ever been in the Abramovic era, with Ballack looking less interested than ever, Mikel proving to be no kind of replacement for Makelele (we get it Jon Obi, you can rugby tackle) and Essien missing for much of the season, Scolari lamenting the lack of genuine class wingers in his squad and with Terry, Cech and Drogba not showing anything close to the form which bagged them two league titles in 2005 and 2006, Lampard has been one of the few Chelsea players to emerge with his reputation growing, let alone in tact. A shock sacking for a World Cup winning manager and an owner looking increasingly apathetic, Chelsea should be a club with implosion written all over it. Yet they are in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League, the Semi Finals of the F.A. Cup and remain on the coat tails of the title race. There has to be some reason? Well there is and its predominantly Lampard, playing the best football of his career, at 31 he still manages the box to box shifts which marked his kid twenties, but he has become more intelligent with his appreciation of his team mates in scoring positions, as well as his own ability to arrive in the box unmarked. Watch Anelka`s goal at Villa Park again and you`ll see Lampard dodge two tackles and lay off a defence splitting pass all in one movement. His goal scoring touch has not deserted him, his ability to create goals remains undiminished but now he actually seems capable of running a midfield, which he never managed before his thirties. The dignity with which he accepted his laughable red card at Anfield suggests he has grown up a great deal. Not the most talented player but one of the most dedicated.
Manager of the Year- STEVE BRUCE (Wigan Athletic)- Ferguson continues to build teams with the perfect blend of youth, flair, experience and graft to dominate the game, David Moyes yet again defies all logic by making Everton into a side to be feared whilst Martin O`Neil appears to be building a real dynasty at Aston Villa. But I simply cannot look beyond Steve Bruce as manager of the year. Wigan`s pre Christmas ascent into the top half of the table might have been construed as a purple patch, but since then, his credentials have been tested by the asset stripping of his squad. Bruce had put such an enticing side together, that the vultures circled and creamed his finest players from the top of his crop. But more shrewd moves in the market, such as the £1.5m signing of Ben Watson, have allayed any suggestion of freefall. Bruce has constructed a squad of waifs and strays, but he also seems to have the gift of imbuing confidence into players who had previously lost their way. Luis Antonio Valencia was considered hot property in Spain but lost his way, Emile Heskey and Titus Bramble`s careers seemed to be on a downward trajectory until Bruce arrived. He also refuses to blame referees for defeat, which probably goes some way to explaining his side`s resolute character.LD.