Premier League 2022-23 review: players of the season

Erling Haaland (Manchester City)

There aren’t many players ridiculous enough to mooch through their careers secure in the knowledge that any team in the world will take them any time they’re benevolent enough to deem them worthy. But Erling Haaland is one, a lab-created goalmonster sent from the future to destroy the present. Obviously there are the numbers – 36 goals, four hat-tricks – those alone tell us plenty. But football is about feelings not figures, and what’s special about Haaland is the fear he inspires in otherwise aggressive defenders and the joyful abandon that gives him, somehow apologetic and vicious at the same time – he knows it’s not fair but he’s glad it’s not fair, smile scrunching and expanding like a viking Les Dawson. Haaland isn’t the best at everything – there have been and still are defter and more imaginative centre-forwards. But the overall package of power and timing, of ravenousness and composure, are like nothing the game has ever seen – and he’s still getting better.

Erling Haaland celebrates with Jack Grealish after City beat Arsenal at the Emirates in February.

Lisandro Martínez (Manchester United)

After a tricky introduction to “our league”, Martínez has made a mockery of it and the experts who thought they knew better than the bloke who’d managed him for three years. He hasn’t been perfect – who has? – but he has been consistently brilliant. Nemanja Vidic once said “I love defending,” and there was an element of wahey in how he hurled himself about. Martínez, on the other hand, hates not defending, attacking tackles, headers and blocks like they just called his mum a rude word, every aspect of his art is a confrontation. But there’s more to it than that – much more. Wondering why Manchester United faltered towards the end of the season? Why the goals dried up and Casemiro’s form evaporated? Martínez’s injury is why and we’re barely even talking about his defending any more, rather his playmaking – whether strolling past the press into midfield, hitting teammates with booming diags, or firing hard, fast, clever Roy Keane passes to get things moving. The best centre-back in the country, going backwards and forwards.

Lisandro Martínez blocks off Michail Antonio during Manchester United’s 1-0 win against West Ham in October.

Martin Ødegaard (Arsenal)

When Martin Ødegaard first became known, he looked like the kind of kid who’s brilliant at keepy-uppy and five-a-side, but once it gets serious is easily knocked about by bigger opponents. So it wasn’t especially surprising when he proved incompatible with the now now now of Real Madrid, and even after a series of recuperative loans, in his first half-season at Arsenal he was decent but not definitive. Well, how do you like him now? Ødegaard will always have the touch and brain he was born with, able to alter his stride-pattern or intention at the last second to do things just before or just after opponents expect. But now, like the scrawny kid who hits puberty last, out of nowhere he’s developed into an ogre who imposes himself physically as a matter of course and is also a mature leader of intensity and poise, the man to whom teammates, manager and crowd look when Arsenal need something. If those around him shared his minerals, the title might have gone elsewhere.

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Rodri (Manchester City)

The internet spent a chunk of this season arguing about whether the league’s best holding midfielder is Casemiro or Thomas Partey, but now we’ve reached its end, the answer is clear: neither. Because unlike them – and unlike Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gündogan for that matter – Rodri assumed his standard in August and stayed faithful to it thereafter, which is why he, along with Erling Haaland, is never Guardiolad out of the team because of tactics; in a sense, he is tactics. It is Rodri’s passing that gets Manchester City going, Rodri whose positional discipline allows whatever else is happening to happen, and Rodri whose niggly fouls lie just beneath the yellow-card threshold. This is possible because he combines the classic Spanish midfield model – deft touches, superior intelligence, disquieting confidence – with more traditionally English qualities – brutish strength, exhibition commitment, set-piece headers – such that when it comes to picking the country’s best No 6, daylight is a worthy runner-up.

Rodri celebrates Manchester City’s 4-1 victory over Arsenal in April that gave them control of the title race.
Rodri celebrates Manchester City’s 4-1 victory over Arsenal in April that gave them control of the title race. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)

There’s not much on which football fans agree, but the elemental and essential loveliness of Bukayo Saka is one. But make no mistake, behind the chasmic smile and sage youthfulness lives an absolute killer. His excellence at left-back, left-wing and right-wing evidence a rare footballing intelligence, and had Arsenal succeeded in signing Raphinha, he might have spent the season in midfield. Instead, though, he remained out wide, where his ability to draw defenders in, turn them with a flick of the buttocks and streak away – all in a single movement – are turning him into a world star, a lesson in studied dynamism. Rio Ferdinand once said that Paul Scholes’s passes “tell you where to go” and Saka is similar, except where he goes tells you where to pass. And, over the last year or so, he’s added power to his package, able to laser shots with negligible backlift and ride heavy challenges from much bigger defenders. A total footballer, and the most complete in the league by far.