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Why the winner of the PFA Player of the Year Award is inevitable

Richard O’ Donovan examines the cases for each PFA Player of the Year nominee, and believes that one candidate sticks out above all others.

The announcement of the PFA Award winners is nearly upon us. During yesterday’s article, I pointed out that the PFA Player of the Year Award isn’t always about being the best player over the course of a season. In certain years it can become more Prom King than MVP.

Anyway, without further adieu, let’s see who’s in the running for best in show in English football this year?

Quick note; Any stats mentioned below are correct as of ESPN FC stats. As always the definition of an assist in football is open to interpretation by other sources.

The “Lucky to be here” nominees

Let’s start off with the two most eye-catching inclusions for the player’s top award, Man United’s Michael Carrick and Eden Hazard of Chelsea.


For whatever reason, Michael Carrick has been applauded this season for producing a body of work which is largely similar to previous seasons when he was derided. For the record, Carrick has scored a single league goal this year, and chipped in with 4 assists. His pass completion percentage is actually marginally down on last year at a still excellent 88%.

However, the source of the wider change of heart on Carrick appears to be coming then from less traditional metrics. According to Squawka, Carrick leads all European leagues in terms of “forward passes” completed this season. The previous season’s data wasn’t available to investigate Carrick’s progression, but at the very least we can say that “forward passes” is a highly subjective stat that may or may not mean very much at all (Bayern Munich centre half Dante is fourth on the list). After all, United dominate possession in almost every domestic league game they play, and Carrick operates almost exclusively from a very deep “launchpad” role, rarely venturing beyond the ball with any attacking purpose. This at least to me would seem to be an ideal cocktail for a great many “forward passes”, important or otherwise.

But back to the main point, personally, I’ve tended to be somewhat in the middle on Carrick as a player. I believe Carrick to be far above average defensively, showing great awareness and underrated athleticism in his ability to track runs and anticipate the play. However as an attacking player his skills are now overrated. His range of passing can at times be wonderful yes, and he is adept at retaining possession, however, his ability to really knit the play together is handicapped by a lack of fleetness of foot that other great midfield players possess. In addition, Carrick rarely ventures beyond his central midfield zone to arrive in the opposition’s box, and a once promising shooting range has evaporated. All in all Carrick is a better player than he has been given credit for down the years, but that doesn’t mean we should be over compensating this year and claiming he is top six!


Hazard enjoyed a wonderful beginning to premier league life, announcing himself with a flurry of tricks, flicks and goals while Roberto Di Matteo was still patrolling the Stamford Bridge touchline back in the Autumn. Hazard however soon cooled off, and has not produced consistently for the blues in any great regard since. The Belgian has scored 9 premier league goals (14 in total) and provided 9 assists (18 in total) in 60 appearances to date of a manic first season for the Blues.

This is an impressive haul, especially for a player who at 22 is still eligible for the young player award. But his age alone is not a reason to overstate Hazard’s influence on Chelsea. Juan Mata has been Chelsea’s best player this season and they may not yet finish fourth. The league position, as well as failures in two cup semi-finals and an ugly defence of their European title means that Chelsea simply do not deserve two nominations for the main player award.
That Hazard now infamously punted a ball-boy during the season doesn’t help his case here either.

The disqualified from consideration/Mike Tyson tribute nominees.

Up until the last week’s events I had this season’s best player narrowing down towards a two-horse race – a certain Dutch thoroughbred beginning to slip off the frantic pace.

But then Sunday happened.

Luis Suarez has scored 23 goals in 33 appearances in the Premier League this season, while also chipping in with 5 assists. In 11 other Liverpool appearances he has chipped in with a further 7 goals this season, a remarkable return. But the goals don’t even begin to describe the way that the Uruguayan illuminated the league this season. Suarez’s subtlety and creativity on the ball simply gave meaning and vindication to the overhaul Brendan Rodgers was trying to perform in his debut season. The new Liverpool would be about skill and guile, personified by Suarez and would move away from the brutish long ball mentality that the purchase of the likes of Andy Carroll had suggested. The fans were on board.

But again, then Sunday happened.

Having taken time to digest what actually took place on the field Sunday; my decision to remove Suarez from my fake ballad is not simply about the disgusting rabidness of the bite which Branislav Ivanovic suffered at the hands of the wretched striker. It is at least partially for footballing reasons also.

It is the same argument I would make against any player (particularly a team’s best player) who gets sent off in a game for selfish or stupid reasons (which obviously senselessly biting someone is). Going down to ten men is an incredibly difficult position to play from in the Premier League, a position that almost inevitably leads to defeat. The suspension that goes with the sending off can be just as damaging if as I said, it is to a team’s best player.

Now I know Suarez was not sent off Sunday, but that was simply a product of luck. He should have been sent off, and he will not play again for Liverpool this season. These are simply damaging outcomes for Liverpool as a team. As a player if you are going to bring that amount of negativity over the course of a season, then you need to produce a lot of goals to make up for this damage when you do play. When you throw in other Suarez minuses (such as gifting Chelsea a penalty on Sunday) he simply hasn’t done enough to be considered the league’s best player.

The undersized over-talented nominees

Juan Mata

Third place on my hypothetical ballad goes to the diminutive Spaniard, who has already assumed the role of my favourite Premier League player, in just two short years in the English game. In a sporting world that increasingly emphasises size, speed and power, Mata is a torchbearer for what makes the game of football so unique. Coming in at a shade under 5ft 6in and only cracking 10 stone when soaking wet and wearing dumbbells, Mata reminds us week after week that no amount of time in the gym can replicate what he has in his feet and between his ears.

Over the course of Chelsea’s never-ending season, Mata has chipped in with 10 goals and 12 assists in 30 league games as well as another 8 goals and 14 assists in a further 26 appearances in the domestic cups and Europe. But stats don’t even begin to tell the story of the little man’s performances. Standing out amongst Chelsea’s trio of attacking amigos (Oscar and Eden Hazard as companions) isn’t easy, but Mata has been the focal point of every good Chelsea display this season, mixing clever link up play, with mazy dribbles and terrific set pieces.

If the vote was for most entertaining Mata would be my choice, unfortunately for the Spaniard, there are two others players who have been just that little bit better this season.

The Thoroughbred Nominees

In a year where on the surface, at least four players could make compelling cases as the year’s best, further examination left two players to fight it out for the title of league’s best; the two most recent winners of the PFA awards, Tottenham’s Gareth Bale and Man United’s Robin Van Persie.

As usual the stats in football only tell part of the story, but for sake of completeness let’s run through them anyway;

Gareth Bale – 40 Appearances (27 League), 23 goals (18) and 10 assists (4).
Robin Van Persie – 44 Appearances (34 league), 28 goals (24) and 8 assists (8).

Certainly not enough in either of those lines to immediately pronounce a winner, we’ll have to dig a little further.
But in doing so, let’s just get straight to the upset, in second place and as a great shock to the me of a couple of days ago –

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale has truly gone to another level as a player this year. Under the tutelage of Andres Villas-Boas, Bale has been awarded the rare distinction of moving beyond a position on the field. We may still imagine Bale as a left winger but in truth he is now following the prototype started by Ronaldo of the superior athlete with free reign to wreck havoc on the opposition from wherever he so pleases. Often even drifting to the parts of the pitch (in typical Ronaldo fashion) from which he can best exploit his physical superiority in a one-on-one match up. Bale has embraced the responsibility of being Spurs undoubted best player, scoring a string of critical goals, including goals in the wins at Old Trafford, and at home to Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City. He’s also carried Spurs in some less glamorous fixtures, scoring both in a 2-1 win over Newcastle, showing a continued penchant for the spectacular in securing a point against Norwich and repeating the trick while scoring 2 in a 3-2 win over West Ham.

With his struggles with defensive concentration now mostly behind him given the advancement in his new role, the only things really handicapping Bale’s candidacy at this point are the overall success of his team and his susceptibility to injuries (which seem to cost him time every season).
Fair or unfair, the game’s greatest players are so because they are rarely injured. League titles are not won on a once off basis but rather over 38 games. To maximise the value you provide to the team, you need to be on the pitch contributing throughout that time. Bale has missed 6 league games and Spurs are far from certain of securing a Champions League place. That is not all Bale’s fault, clearly he doesn’t have the same calibre of teammates at his disposal as our winner, but Van Persie has been available throughout United’s campaign, Bale hasn’t been available for all of Tottenham’s.

Amidst the sensational headlines that came Bale’s way this season were the comparisons to Ronaldo. While the talent levels may in fact be closer than we might have realised, the production and success will not come close to matching until Bale puts together injury free seasons in the manner that Ronaldo has done. It took RVP nearly a whole career to figure out how to stay healthy, hopefully Bale gets to that place a bit sooner.

Robin Van Persie

Which leaves us with our winner, Man United’s newly crowned league Champion, Robin Van Persie.
To properly appreciate Van Persie’s season, we must start with the transfer that changed the face of United’s revenge season before it had even begun.

Blatantly aware that his trophy winning clock was ticking ever faster (marooned as he was in Arsenal’s seemingly never ending silverware drought) RVP made the difficult decision to ostracise himself from the Arsenal faithful and move to a bitter rival.

The move in itself created a heavy pressure for Van Persie to deliver as well as a deep desire for the Dutchman to fall on his face from aggrieved Arsenal fans as well as snubbed City ones. The United faithful themselves were on edge having capitulated to City a few months previously, and now saw the arriving Van Persie as their route back to intercity dominance.

Under the circumstances therefore, one could have expected Van Persie to take time to settle and to forge a partnership and understanding with reigning United centrepiece Wayne Rooney. Instead RVP flew out of the gates with a memorable goal against Fulham. In the ensuing few months RVP never slowed down, firing a hat-trick in the 3-2 comeback win at Southampton as well as winners at Anfield, and at the Etihad and more goals in other crucial fixtures such as away to Chelsea, and home to Liverpool and Arsenal.

To date in his United career, RVP has also stood out as the consummate professional who is deeply dedicated to his craft. This is ultimately a large part of the reason why he has usurped Rooney as the King of Old Trafford in the fans eyes, and possibly even made Rooney expandable in the eyes of Fergie.

Again it hasn’t just been the goals that Van Persie has provided, after all as a team United are not scoring any more goals this season then they did last year, but the all-round contribution that makes RVP so indispensible. A header off his own line against Aston Villa on Monday wasn’t the first time Van Persie performed this trick, again only emphasising the contribution he has made in a wonderful all round debut season.

When it comes down to deciding between two seemingly equally matched players, Van Persie’s ever presence, as well as his League Winners medal sway my vote.

But if I had needed one more swaying factor to go against Bale, it is the fact that he already possesses one PFA award that his performances didn’t merit. Two awards when he borderline deserves one seems a bit much.

Back in 2011 these were the season lines of two players:

Player A – 50 appearances (33 league), 10 goals (9), 15 assists (14) and a league winners medal
Player B – 39 appearances (30 league), 11 goals (7), 3 asissts (1) no silverware or Champions League qualification but a gaudy hat trick against Inter Milan.

Player B should be obvious, PFA player of the year Gareth Bale. Player A?


Yes the same Nani who now finds himself on the periphery at Old Trafford, seemingly destined for the exit door. But in that season, Nani was one of United’s most important players. He still wasn’t worthy of player of the year, but he was more so than Gareth Bale.
And you thought I was exaggerating the players’ ability to get things wrong?

Unfortunately for RVP, I expect that Monday’s hat trick in the title clinching win at home to Villa may have come a shade too late for his fellow professionals to stand up and take notice.

But if that is indeed the case then I doubt Van Persie will be worried. After all he left behind individual awards with Arsenal, for a shot at team titles with United. I’d guess he’s happy with how things are turning out.

Sport Is Everything. Richard O’ Donovan.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.