EPL

Salah and Foden, but no De Bruyne or Ronaldo: Who deserves a place in the Premier League team of the year?

By Sports Desk December 31, 2021

Reigning champions Manchester City end the year as hot favourites to win the Premier League again, but how many of Pep Guardiola's players should make it into a team of the year?

Do any of the Manchester United players Gary Neville described as "whingebags" deserve a place in an elite XI? And is there a case to be made for any players from beyond the 'big six'?

The answers to those questions are: a) five, by our estimations; b) yes; and c) yes.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform selected a dream team for 2021, packed with standout performers from the calendar year.

Safe hands? It has to be Mendy

Chelsea's Edouard Mendy had a save percentage of 74.36, which put him fourth among goalkeepers with five or more Premier League appearances. Curiously, his Blues club-mate Kepa Arrizabalaga headed that list with an 81.82 per cent record, but he only played five Premier League games: the Spaniard's previous inconsistency and propensity to make expensive errors cost him a regular place.

Mendy has demonstrated reliability and Chelsea's upturn in form under Thomas Tuchel, highlighted by their Champions League triumph, owed a lot to the man at the back. He had 18 clean sheets in 38 Premier League games and in this team of the year he edges out the likes of Arsenal's former Sheffield United shot-stopper Aaron Ramsdale, and Wolves' outstanding Jose Sa (80.28 per cent save percentage in 18 games – a half-season wonder so far).

Risk-takers on the defensive flanks, no-nonsense in the middle

Top of the defenders' league for assists (13) and ball recoveries (308), Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold remains a sensational presence at right-back. He is much closer to the bottom of the league when it comes to duel success (46.77 per cent), and being dribbled past by opposition players (34 incidences), but his strengths are such that Liverpool can put up with those figures. The playmaker at full-back might be prone to an occasional error, but his service from the flanks has often been a match-winning ingredient in the Reds' mix.

Similar can be said for Manchester City's Joao Cancelo, a first-class operator on either defensive flank. He has three goals and six assists in the league over the year and has created 39 chances from open play, putting him in the top five among defenders in the latter metric (Alexander-Arnold's 67 leads the way). Cancelo has a healthy tackle success rate of 66.27 per cent, but he has also been dribbled past 53 times by opponents, more than any other defender and has made three errors leading to shots (Harry Maguire tops this list, with six errors). Cancelo is imperfect, but also often quite brilliant.

In the centre of defence, Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger might be in his last season at Stamford Bridge, amid speculation linking him with Real Madrid and others. He has been largely formidable, developing a strong alliance with Thiago Silva. Only three defenders with more than 20 Premier League appearances across the year managed to top 60 per cent for duel success (Rudiger: 63.75) and 70 per cent for tackle success (Rudiger: 73.08) while being dribbled past no more than 10 times (Rudiger: 10). Surprisingly, one of those was Newcastle's Ciaran Clark. The others were Rudiger and Silva, and you could have either in a team of the year.

Ruben Dias has been the Rolls-Royce engine in Manchester City's defence: powerful and classy, surely built to last. His passing accuracy of 93.28 per cent has been beaten only by one defender in the league – team-mate Aymeric Laporte (93.91) – with Dias also managing three goals and two assists in 2021, his first full year in English football. City are no longer crying out for a Vincent Kompany replacement: Dias, 24, could be the cornerstone of their defence for many seasons to come.

Midfield marvels... from Manchester

Is Bruno Fernandes a maestro or a "whingebag"? Neville used the latter description after Manchester United's draw at Newcastle, but he would doubtless concur on the former too, given it has not been all shoulder shrugs and finger-pointing from the mercurial Portuguese this year. In 2020, Fernandes had 18 goals and 14 assists, alongside 60 open-play chances created. He has played more games this year (39, compared to 29 in 2021) and finished up with 13 goals, eight assists and 79 open-play chances created. His 21 goal involvements lead the way among midfielders, and even if those have dried up in recent weeks – he had just one goal and one assist in his final nine league games of the year – he had already done enough.

Across Manchester, Ilkay Gundogan was a revelation for City, particularly during a purple patch last season. He ends the year with 15 goals, the most of any midfielder, adding five assists from the 44 open-play chances he created, and had a princely passing accuracy in the opposition half of 90.09 per cent. Among Premier League players with more than 30 games, that accuracy was only beaten by Gundogan's City team-mates Bernardo Silva (90.23) and Rodri (90.74).

Of course Bernardo Silva makes the team too, a flagrant example of recency bias after the Portuguese's five goals in five league games from early November to early December. With his nine goals and seven assists across the Premier League year, and his determined dribbling (109 dribbling attempts - second only to Burnley's Dwight McNeil among midfielders), the ever-elegant Bernardo just edges out Manchester City team-mate and previously perennial all-star Kevin De Bruyne.

What a year it has been for Phil Foden, another City star to make this team. Granted, it would have been better had City won the Champions League final on his 21st birthday, but the young man from Stockport has continued his growth at Premier League level, bagging 12 goals and seven assists and another title. Those goals have come at an average of 0.53 per 90 minutes, and the assists at one every 0.31 per 90. He is top five in both per-90 aspects among midfielders, but is Foden still truly a midfielder? The twinkle-toed local lad has been deployed in the frontline frequently, looking at home wherever Pep Guardiola decides he should be slotted.

Standout Salah, remarkable Raphinha

Where would Leeds United be without Raphinha? Rumours of Bayern Munich interest surfaced in December, and his numbers tell us why the German giants might fancy the Brazilian. His 20 goal involvements (12 goals, eight assists) put him joint-fifth among Premier League forwards, with only Mohamed Salah (35), Michail Antonio (24), Harry Kane (23) and Son Heung-min (22) ahead of Raphinha. The former Rennes player attempted 194 dribbles (only Adama Traore, 252, and Allan Saint-Maximin, 238, tried more) and he also played far more passes into the final third than any other forward (198 – Leandro Trossard second on this list with 136). Raphinha got stuck in too, making 50 tackles (only Jordan Ayew, with 60, attempted more among forwards).

Mohamed Salah became the first player to score 20 or more goals in five consecutive seasons for Liverpool in all competitions since Ian Rush from 1981-82 to 1986-87 (six in a row). That is the remarkable level he has reached, and with his own long-term future still somewhat in doubt, Liverpool will be making every effort to retain the Egyptian. In the year when Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the Premier League, the Portuguese was resoundingly outshone by Liverpool's star forward. Salah had more touches in the opposition box than any other player in 2021 (383), and he made good use of those. He created 67 chances from open play, and the goals and assists hauls were both league-highs among forwards.

Related items

  • Europa League final: Eintracht shootout win makes for the 'best day' of Trapp's career Europa League final: Eintracht shootout win makes for the 'best day' of Trapp's career

    An elated Kevin Trapp declared Wednesday the best day of his career, after Eintracht Frankfurt defeated Rangers in the Europa League final.

    The Eagles had to come from a goal down after Joe Aribo's 57th minute opener, equalising through Rafael Borre to force extra-time before winning 5-4 in the penalty shootout.

    After winning everything domestically in France over three seasons with Paris Saint-Germain, this is Trapp's first silverware with Eintracht Frankfurt over two stints at the club, only returning after their DFB Pokal win in 2018.

    The 31-year-old was named player of the match and could not hide his joy, helping the German club win their first European trophy since 1980.

    "I don’t have any words for that," Trapp said post-match. "I've tried to find them but it's impossible. We can present the trophy tomorrow in Frankfurt after 42 years. This is the best day of my career, truly. I'm so proud of our team.

    "We were down and a lot of players had cramps. As I said, I have no words to describe this. We won a big international title – I thought I would cry. That didn’t happen, probably because it seems so unrealistic we're going home with a trophy. But for German football, I think we made everyone proud."

    Trapp was a critical figure for Eintracht at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, spectacularly denying Ryan Kent from close range in the 118th minute, before then denying Aaron Ramsey to set up Borre's deciding penalty in the shootout.

    The Kent save was palpably important with penalties looming, denying Rangers from scoring in what was their best chance of the match despite Aribo's opening goal.

    Trapp believes he was fortunate to make that save, but it gave him the necessary psychological boost coming into the penalty shootout.

    After Eintracht lost to Chelsea on penalties in the 2018-19 semi-final, he was confident they would not suffer from the spot again.

    "It would have been awful to concede in that situation but that’s why I'm there, to help team when they need," Trapp said. "I try that, to make myself as big as possible, but I was lucky. He could’ve shot higher, but that's all I can do.

    "If you survive such a situation you do have the feeling you can win, and I had that feeling because the players felt we had to win this one. We lost dramatically to Chelsea on penalties, and this year we said we deserved it. We put so much work in – we had to win it, and this is why we did win it in the end."

  • Europa League final: Glasner says there 'is no next level' for Eintracht Frankfurt Europa League final: Glasner says there 'is no next level' for Eintracht Frankfurt

    Eintracht Frankfurt boss Oliver Glasner believes his side cannot reach a higher level, despite their Europa League final win over Rangers on Wednesday ensuring Champions League football next season.

    Glasner was full of praise for his side, who battled from a goal down following Joe Aribo's 57th minute opener for Rangers to equalise via Rafael Borre and force extra-time at 1-1, before claiming a 5-4 penalty shootout win.

    With the Europa League triumph, Eintracht will play in Europe's premier cup competition for the first time since 1960 - where they eventually lost 7-3 in the final to Real Madrid – despite finishing 11th in the Bundesliga this season.

    According to Glasner however, his side's mentality is already that of a top team and as a result, he did not have to provide much instruction during intervals as the match progressed.

    "No, there is next level, it's impossible," Glasner said post-match. "I have to say a bit more about that. This year started difficult, but the players kept believing in themselves, what we told them, what we trained.

    "That shows the character, mentality they have. The spirit developed, today we had players who weren’t eligible for Europe but they were never negative, they were not selfish, they did everything for success. That's why I wasn’t surprised that even when it was difficult, our fans were louder than Rangers' and they pushed us forward."

    "I told the players the most important thing is that the referee doesn’t stress us, we have to control rhythm and I said just go do your thing like we've done so far, and that's it."

    After an intense first half, Eintracht started to see more of the ball as the game slowed down but it did not translate into substantial opportunities and Aribo's opener could have further deflated their play.

    The Eagles maintained in approach and eventually restored parity through Borre, beating Calvin Bassey to the ball and direct Filip Kostic's cross home in the 69th minute.

    Glasner also singled out the 26-year-old Colombian, who scored the equaliser and winning penalty after Aaron Ramsey's attempt in the shootout was saved by Kevin Trapp, claiming the performance and outcome is reflective of the work he puts in.

    "Rafa is incredibly important, not only the goals but he works hard even defensively and at half-time we showed the players some situations from the first half," Glasner said. "We didn’t have the intensity in attack and Rangers defended that well.

    "We had to invest everything, attack the front post and he did that very well. He ran and then had a really good chance. He fought really hard – he deserved it. He was great. He really helps us and is also a leader."

  • Europa League final: Van Bronckhorst stands by Ramsey substitution after Rangers' shootout loss Europa League final: Van Bronckhorst stands by Ramsey substitution after Rangers' shootout loss

    Rangers boss Giovanni van Bronckhorst stood by his decision to bring Kemar Roofe and Aaron Ramsey on as late substitutes following their penalties loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in Wednesday's Europa League final.

    With scores locked at 1-1 after 90 minutes, Van Bronckhorst brought the two on in the 117th minute with penalties in mind. Ramsey was the only player to not convert his penalty, Kevin Trapp saving with his feet at 3-3, before Rafael Borre followed Roofe's spot-kick to secure a 5-4 shootout win for Eintracht.

    It was the Gers' second Europa League final loss in as many appearances, following 2008's 2-0 loss to Zenit in Manchester.

    According to Van Bronckhorst, despite evident disappointment in the changing rooms afterwards, his final list of penalty takers was impacted by a combination of factors including Borna Barisic's inability to take one of the penalties, and pre-match preparation.

    "It was tough, physically, but the players gave everything and gave all their effort on the pitch," Van Bronckhorst said post-match. "I subbed some players because they were struggling physically, but I cannot complain. They gave everything and that's all you can ask as a coach.

    "Borna had to go out and he's one of the first penalty kickers in the game. We trained in penalty kicks, because some players are comfortable taking them. We had a good feel of players who wanted to take a penalty and players who didn't. In the end we had our list and we had to adjust it because of the subs.

    "You could see it after the game straight away, it's never a nice feeling. Everyone is very disappointed and you can sense that in the locker room. I think it's normal, so soon after the game, but Aaron took responsibility to take the penalty. Unfortunately he didn't make it, but you want players who are comfortable and who are ready to take them."

    Rangers created sporadic opportunities, with Joe Aribo's 57th minute opener at the top of the penalty area one of their only four shots in the box.

    The game petered after Borre's equaliser in the 69th, but Ryan Kent had the best chance to win the match in extra-time, only to be denied by Trapp from close range under pressure from Kristijan Jakic.

    Ultimately, Van Bronckhorst asserted he could not fault the effort of his players, and understands their post-match predicament more than most.

    "Especially in those minutes near the end of the game, it's decisive," he said. "It's a big chance for us, but Ryan did everything he can to score the goal. In the end, you know when you have chances you have to take them."

    "If you play a final in Europe and you lose, it's going to hurt, because if you play a final you will do everything you can to win it. In the end, with penalties, it's a lottery and tonight we weren't on the good side.

    "But I can't complain with everything my players gave and in the games before tonight. In the end, I think it was a really tight game. Went all the way to penalties and, you know, we lost. A big disappointment because we were so close to winning a trophy. I lost a World Cup final, the biggest game there is, also a huge disappointment but you have to move on."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.