The Premier League prides itself on unpredictability. No side has retained the crown since Manchester United in 2008/09, while four different clubs have conquered it in the past five seasons. When it comes to the PFA Team of the Season, however, it’s not so varied.
Six Chelsea players made it in 2014/15, while the last two campaigns have featured eight players from just two clubs. Eyebrow-raising inclusions such as Nottingham Forest’s Steve Stone in 1995/96, Wigan’s Pascal Chimbonda in 2005/06 and Newcastle’s Fabricio Coloccini in 2011/12 are few and far between.
But as multiple big-name players underperform this term, while several others struggle for minutes, a few lesser names are shining. As 2017/18 approaches its halfway point, this is the league’s best team we can put together without just saying 'Manchester City 1-11' (which is clearly no fun).
GK: David de Gea (Man United)
Chief rival: Nick Pope (Burnley)
Is there any individual player in the Premier League who has won more points for his side this term? It’s arguable that Manchester City’s and Liverpool’s other attackers would have pulled them through even without Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah. It’s hard to imagine Manchester United being in the top four without their Ministerio de Defensa, though.
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De Gea has left Jese, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney and Joel Matip looking dumbfounded with incredible saves this season, while his performance at Arsenal was preposterous. He was the second-highest goalkeeper in FourFourTwo’s 100 best football players in the world 2017 list – but some may have him in top spot already.
RB: Kieran Trippier (Tottenham)
Chief rival: Kyle Walker (Man City)
There was only muted backlash from the Tottenham terraces when they sold one of their prized possessions to a team that finished eight points below them in 2016/17. The reason? Many Spurs fans felt they had an adequate replacement for Kyle Walker at the club already.
Trippier has underscored that sentiment with his energy, movement and crossing. Aside from an afternoon to forget at the Etihad Stadium in December, the former Burnley man has also been adept defensively, which makes Mauricio Pochettino’s inclination to rotate him with the more chaotic Serge Aurier frustrating.
CB: Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
Chief rival: Alfie Mawson (Swansea)
He may look like a choirboy, but even the toughest of Premier League forwards find the man from Pamplona too mean to master. Azpilicueta’s reading of the game is superb, he’s incredibly tough to get past and passes the ball like a midfielder.
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“As a centre-back he is one of the best of the world,” said Chelsea manager Antonio Conte this season. “He is very good with the ball and without it.” Blues fans just call him Dave, but a few strikers must have called him much worse after a frustrating 90 minutes in his pocket.
CB: James Tarkowski (Burnley)
Chief rival: Andreas Christensen (Chelsea)
Burnley narrowly escaped the trapdoor to the Championship in May. Then they sold England centre-back Michael Keane to Everton and didn’t replace him. They were tagged as second favourites for relegation behind Huddersfield, even before England goalkeeper Tom Heaton got injured shortly into the new season.
How on Earth, then, do the Clarets sit in sixth having conceded just 12 goals (the joint-best record in the league)? A big reason is towering defender Tarkowski, a throwback to no-nonsense English centre-backs of the 1980s.
“Defending is about defending and he’s immense at it,” said Sean Dyche of the Burnley No.5. Let’s hope Gareth Southgate took heed, or the Manchester-born player could be representing Poland and marking Harry Kane in the last 16 at Russia 2018.
Sead Kolasinac (Arsenal)
Chief rival: Ben Davies (Tottenham)
The Germany-born Bosnia and Herzegovina international lost his form in December and was duly dropped by Arsene Wenger, but he’s probably been the pick of a disappointing bunch of left-backs, just edging Ben Davies and Ashley Young.
Kolasinac is tough in the tackle, works tirelessly and provides a good outlet going forward. “He’s a monster physically and you’d hate to play against him,” said Jack Wilshere of his team-mate, who has been showered in praise by Wenger, Granit Xhaka and the notoriously hard-to-satisfy Alexis Sanchez.
Garth Crooks, the former Tottenham forward, was nevertheless the unlikely provider of Kolasinac’s most enchanting eulogy: “He is built like one of those north London brick toilets that withstood bombing raids during the Second World War.” Right.
MF: Nemanja Matic (Man United)
Chief rival: Fernandinho (Man City)
Victor Lindelof and Romelu Lukaku may not have set Old Trafford alight quite yet, but Manchester United’s other big summer signing has hit the ground running.
The Serbian’s steel and composure has enabled the more adventurous bodies around him to attack more freely, with Paul Pogba clearly a beneficiary when he’s played.
Matic has also made some decisive interceptions and enhanced United’s defending of set-pieces. “Matic, I cannot say that I had better guys than him in my career,” said Jose Mourinho. High praise indeed.
MF: Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
Chief rival: Abdoulaye Doucoure (Watford)
The odds-on favourite to be crowned PFA Player of the Year, KDB has been in the form of his life. The best passer and crosser in the Premier League, he’s possibly its best long-range shooter too.
Crucially, De Bruyne has also become the man for the big occasion. He destroyed Liverpool with two devilish assists. He got the game's only goal at Chelsea. He scored a similar effort – a one-two followed by a superb left-foot finish – against Arsenal. He thundered home a rocket and won a penalty against Tottenham.
Could the Belgian, fresh from finishing fifth in FourFourTwo's 100 best football players in the world 2017, be the man to break the Messi/Ronaldo duopoly on football’s major individual awards?
MF: David Silva (Man City)
Chief rival: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Who saw this coming? Many felt that Merlin’s place in Pep Guardiola’s first XI would come under threat from Bernardo Silva. Instead, at an age when he was expected to decline (Silva turns 32 in January), the Spaniard has discovered his finest form in years.
He unbuttons backlines and has now added goals to his game. “He's the best creative midfielder we've seen in this league. What a player,” said Thierry Henry of Silva, while Pep Guardiola called his No.21: “One of the very best players I’ve ever worked with.” And it's safe to say he’s worked with a few decent players.
FW: Mo Salah (Liverpool)
Chief rival: Raheem Sterling (Man City)
There was some pressure on the rapid Egyptian when he rocked up at Anfield. He’d failed to really make it at Chelsea, while Liverpool had paid £35m to ship him in from Rome. He also faced serious competition for places for the three most advanced positions on Liverpool's teamsheet.
Salah, however, has made a colossal impact at Anfield – the former Basel man has torn teams apart with his pace, direct dribbling and finishing. The newly crowned African Footballer of the Year 2017 was recently praised by Pele – but Salah is so good that we think he can handle even the millstone that is O Rei’s endorsement.
FW: Richarlison (Watford)
Chief rival: Leroy Sane (Man City)
Is he really a Brazilian? Richarlison is direct, great in the air, has a desire to get on the end of every cross and is tireless as well as fearless. Well, if you’ve had a gun pointed at your head – as Richarlison did in this youth – then playing against some of the finest defenders in the world seems a doddle, perhaps.
“He is an amazing talent,” said Marco Silva of his Watford attacker. Unfortunately, the Portuguese gaffer isn’t Richarlison’s only fan: Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham are all reportedly interested. How long will the former Fluminense player remain in Hertfordshire, as well as out of Tite’s Brazil squad?
FW: Harry Kane (Tottenham)
Chief rival: Alvaro Morata (Chelsea)
The Walthamstow native failed to break his much-analysed August hoodoo. Once he cracked his Wembley one, however, he’s been running riot.
Kane is deceptively quick and masterful at side-stepping his marker to wiggle his way into shooting positions. And once opponents see that right boot swing back, they know they’re in danger.
Tottenham's frontman has already scored five braces in the 2017/18 Premier League, with his performance in a 4-1 win against Liverpool the pick of the bunch.
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