Best player: Sadio Mané, Liverpool
Jordan Henderson’s influence deserves acclaim but Sadio Mané is remarkably consistent and reaches heights that his captain cannot. The temptation for players who can do it all is to overdo it, but Mané is too smart for that. He is the purest epitome of this Liverpool team because he is supremely efficient. Sometimes that means doing something as simple as running on to a long pass by Virgil van Dijk and slotting the ball past the keeper in the way he did for the winning goal against Bournemouth in Liverpool’s last domestic game before the suspension of the Premier League; and sometimes it means producing supernatural flourishes like his stoppage-time headed winning goal at Aston Villa or the touch that enabled him to take down a pass by Henderson while pirouetting past a defender before ramming the ball into the net against Norwich. Having the athleticism and skill to play as he does is rare; having the presence of mind to use those gifts with such effectively and selflessly is rarer still.
Best young player: Adama Traoré, Wolves
Although he was only 23 when the season started, lots of people had abandoned hope of this Spaniard becoming a reliable presence in the Premier League. But now he is its most thrilling player, getting viewers out of their seats as often as he puts opponents on their backsides. His improvement has been a joy to watch. He used to be accused of being rash with his crosses and tactically clueless, but now he is a regular supplier of clever passes and goals and can torment opponents from any of the three positions in which Nuno Espírito Santo has played him this season. From being a player who looked to be going nowhere extremely fast, he has matured into an unstoppable force.
Best goal: Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City
Kevin De Bruyne wields his right foot like a mean judge wields his gavel – when he draws it back, you know a pitiless sentence is about to be imposed. The Belgian was never likely to be lenient when a headed clearance fell towards him at the edge of Newcastle’s area in November and, sure enough, he chested it down and leapt to lash the bouncing ball into the net via the underside of the bar with a strike so pure it felt like justice even though Manchester City had not put up much of a case for their title defence before that.
Best manager: Chris Wilder, Sheffield United
Without diminishing Jürgen Klopp’s inspirational work at Anfield, it is fair to say that no manager has surpassed expectations this season as much as Wilder, whose team were almost universally tipped to stay stuck to the bottom of the table like a schoolboy’s chewing gum. Instead Sheffield United are challenging for European qualification, teaching a lesson to everyone who dismissed them before the start of the campaign. Even opponents who have studied them closely have struggled to find a way of disrupting a slick, remorseless and inventive team filled mostly with players who had previously failed to make the grade at this level. Top marks.
Best signing: Danny Ings, Southampton
Bruno Fernandes looks set to become a hero for Manchester United but has played only five league matches since arriving at the club in January. Wolves’ Pedro Neto and Watford’s Ismaïla Sarr are exciting youngsters who have been spectacular in patches and can be expected to make even bigger splashes next season, as can Allan Saint-Maximin at Newcastle. Raúl Jiménez has proved to be one of the best strikers in the world at Wolves but it took no great insight to know that would be the case, since he had thrived there on loan before making his deal permanent last summer. Danny Ings, by contrast, was beset by injuries after joining Southampton on loan in 2018 so there was a degree of risk in spending nearly £20m to tie him to the club last summer. But the striker has proven to be an excellent acquisition, scoring 43% of his team’s league goals and orchestrating their attacks.
Biggest flop: Tottenham Hotspur
Last season Spurs were Champions League finalists, had a beautiful new stadium and one of the brightest managers around. Less than a year later they are out of realistic contention for European qualification, have jilted Mauricio Pochettino and most of the people in their lovely home seem unhappy, including their new manager, who, among other woes, seems to be struggling to figure out how to inspire the club’s record signing, Tanguy Ndombele. It has been unseemly dwindling by anyone’s standards. Except maybe Danny Drinkwater’s.
Best match: Wolves 3-2 Manchester City
It was a Friday night under the Molineux floodlights and you could have got drunk on the atmosphere alone. But that was no excuse for Ederson, who got himself sent off after 12 minutes for clattering into Diogo Jota outside the area. At the other end Rui Patrício saved Raheem Sterling’s penalty – twice, owing to intervention by VAR – but could not stop the forward from putting City in front from the rebound. In a contest of exhilarating intensity and rarefied quality Sterling put City 2-0 up with a cute dink. Then Wolves, for whom Traoré was phenomenal, came storming back, with Matt Doherty plundering a rousing victory in the 89th minute and effectively ending City’s title defence.