Jack Butland (Stoke)
Perhaps the easiest name on the team-sheet. There were times when Stoke looked rather shaky at the back in skipper Ryan Shawcross’ absence but Butland’s inspirational performances have shadowed these frailties. Quite astonishing to think that Butland has only just stepped into the shoes of being a Premier League number one following the sale of fan’s favourite Asmir Begovic yet he looks superior to his Bosnian counterpart in almost every way.
Hector Bellerin (Arsenal)
He’s come on leaps and bounds has the young full back. It appeared he would remain back-up to Mattieu Debuchy when the Frenchman arrived from Newcastle but his injury troubles have allowed Bellerin to grow and develop in the right back role. Bellerin now makes Debuchy appear amateurish when he takes up his birth on the right side of defence. The quality difference really is that great. The abysmal performances of Branislav Ivanovic and injury ravaged season for Pablo Zabaleta mean Bellerin now appears to be the league’s best in that position as things stand.
Craig Cathcart (Watford)
He came from Blackpool on a free transfer in their promotion campaign and the Hornets were so impressed with his performances they extended his initial contract after they achieved promotion. It’s safe to say he hasn’t disappointed at the highest level in English football. Many will rightly wax lyrically about the goals of Troy Deeney and Odion Igahlo yet he is a huge part of a defensive crux at the back for Watford, that provide solid foundations for the team to build on. Without this crux, the goals of Ighalo and Deeney would mean far less in terms of being point winners and salvages.
Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Much of the Old Trafford faithful has been disgruntled this season with their slow, possession based football. It hasn’t allowed too many players to express themselves. Though one player who has stood out for the English giants is Chris Smalling. No doubt he has been helped by Van Gaal’s insistence on not breaking out of shape and keeping a defensively solid structure but Smalling nonetheless has looked a very classy character at the back. Particularly impressive is the 85% passing accuracy, illustrating his impressive technical abilities, which is rare for a defender. He could certainly be regarded as one of the league’s best centre halves if he keeps his rapid development going.
Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham)
What a terrific signing this Belgian has been. I called it in an article in pre-season that Alderweireld would be a sound addition that would sure up the Spurs backline and boy has he been that. He oozes confidence on the ball which is in complete antithesis with Federico Fazio and Younes Kaboul of years gone by whose respective distributions were suspect to say the least. The diagonal to Deli Ali for his goal at West Brom captured his fine vision and passing ability for all to see.
Eric Dier (Tottenham)
Perhaps a slightly unconventional choice for the team but it’s difficult to argue with Dier’s importance to this Tottenham team. He provides a balance and a balance in any team is vital. If Mauricio Pochettino was to play with Ryan Mason and Moussa Dembele in the centre of midfield, he would have two players that like to rush forward, leaving his team open for the counter. Dier is pivotal. And what is the most impressive aspect is how he has manoeuvred himself to play in that holding midfield position, having been a centre half by trade for much of his young career.
Riyad Mahrez (Leicester)
He’s been immense for the Foxes this season – probably their best player. He truly has been an incredible find since his £400,000 move from Le Havre two seasons ago. His trickery on the ball is frighteningly good and his technical ability is equally so. Jamie Vardy has been stealing the headlines for much of this season but Mahrez is the true hero amongst all of this. He has been Vardy’s source of goals on more than one occasion. He has been the league’s second best player so far this campaign and those who argue he has been the best are well within their rights. He has been superb.
Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) *Player of the season (as it stands)*
Ozil has been remarkable this season. His ability has never been in doubt. It has been his consistency in delivering when it matters that has been the main qualm people have had with him. But for me, it’s much more difficult to fluke an assist, more so than a goal, when at times when you’re in that rich vein of form, you hit, you hope and it flies in. There are so many factors that are included in an assist such as whether the person is making the right run, what the weight of pass should be , whether the opponent will intercept and so on, making it very difficult to continually do it by accident or by luck. The fact Arsenal have been depleted with injuries makes his achievements all the more impressive for Joel Campbell is no Alexis Sanchez (with all due respect) and having to differentiate his style for both Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott has been equally impressive. Jamie Carragher claimed that David Silva remains superior because he “runs games” as opposed to the German that “turns games.” Yet surely one could argue Arsenal already have people to run the game (Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla etc.) and that Ozil’s ability to nothing into a point or a point into three makes him superior in the context of Arsenal. After all, if the player who runs the game is snuffed out, it comes down to the player who can change the game. Regardless, fifteen assists is quite astonishing and he is sure to break the twenty assist record laid down by Thierry Henry.
Dimitri Payet (West Ham)
Was on course to be the division’s best player with some superb performances which single headedly carried Slaven Bilic’s men high up the table. He was a huge hit for Marseille in Ligue 1 and so it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise when he carried his creativity into England. He had created more chances than any other Ligue 1 player last season and the way in which he created openings for the Hammers was delightful. He was running games for the London outfit, and teams were terrified of him. The fact he was no stranger to a goal made things worse. Defenders couldn’t lay off him and shut off runners off the ball for Payet had the ability to find the net from a variety of distances. As I’ve said, he would have been the season’s best player but for an unfortunate injury in early November which has kept him on the sidelines. Ironically, West Ham haven’t won in the league since his absence, and have struggled for goals (none in their last three matches). Payet really was running the show for them and without him, they really are a mediocre unit.
Who else? He is the record breaking favourite of almost all the supporters of football in England and around the world. Everyone loves a guy that has come from the very bottom to the top and he truly is reminiscent of this real-life fairytale. Scoring in eleven consecutive top-flight games having once played in the non-league is truly phenomenal. What has been particularly impressive is his desire and willingness to work tirelessly hard something that has no doubt contributed to his goal-scoring successes.
I’m surprised by the lack of acknowledgment that Ighalo has got regarding his heroics. Yes he may have been praised when the highlight reels have rolled in but very few pundits and punters have had him as one of their strikers of the season. Vardy has had his name strung up in neon lights while Romelu Lukaku has been receiving praise left, right and centre. Yet the latter has been getting two or three opportunities per game and with more precision, he could be surpassing Vardy’s goal count. Ighalo is playing in a team with feeders of lesser quality and ability but yet still finds himself on a handsome twelve goals thus far. He’s been immense and even has his own skill move that watchers have been eulogising over.