Reigning champions Manchester City end the year as hot favourites to win the Premier League again, but how many of Pep Guardiola’s players should make it into a team of the year?
Do any of the Manchester United players Gary Neville described as “whingebags” deserve a place in an elite XI? And is there a case to be made for any players from beyond the ‘big six’?
The answers to those questions are: a) five, by our estimations; b) yes; and c) yes.
Using Opta data, Stats Perform selected a dream team for 2021, packed with standout performers from the calendar year.
Safe hands? It has to be Mendy
Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy had a save percentage of 74.36, which put him fourth among goalkeepers with five or more Premier League appearances. Curiously, his Blues club-mate Kepa Arrizabalaga headed that list with an 81.82 per cent record, but he only played five Premier League games: the Spaniard’s previous inconsistency and propensity to make expensive errors cost him a regular place.
Mendy has demonstrated reliability and Chelsea’s upturn in form under Thomas Tuchel, highlighted by their Champions League triumph, owed a lot to the man at the back. He had 18 clean sheets in 38 Premier League games and in this team of the year he edges out the likes of Arsenal’s former Sheffield United shot-stopper Aaron Ramsdale, and Wolves’ outstanding Jose Sa (80.28 per cent save percentage in 18 games – a half-season wonder so far).
Risk-takers on the defensive flanks, no-nonsense in the middle
Top of the defenders’ league for assists (13) and ball recoveries (308), Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold remains a sensational presence at right-back. He is much closer to the bottom of the league when it comes to duel success (46.77 per cent), and being dribbled past by opposition players (34 incidences), but his strengths are such that Liverpool can put up with those figures. The playmaker at full-back might be prone to an occasional error, but his service from the flanks has often been a match-winning ingredient in the Reds’ mix.
Similar can be said for Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo, a first-class operator on either defensive flank. He has three goals and six assists in the league over the year and has created 39 chances from open play, putting him in the top five among defenders in the latter metric (Alexander-Arnold’s 67 leads the way). Cancelo has a healthy tackle success rate of 66.27 per cent, but he has also been dribbled past 53 times by opponents, more than any other defender and has made three errors leading to shots (Harry Maguire tops this list, with six errors). Cancelo is imperfect, but also often quite brilliant.
In the centre of defence, Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger might be in his last season at Stamford Bridge, amid speculation linking him with Real Madrid and others. He has been largely formidable, developing a strong alliance with Thiago Silva. Only three defenders with more than 20 Premier League appearances across the year managed to top 60 per cent for duel success (Rudiger: 63.75) and 70 per cent for tackle success (Rudiger: 73.08) while being dribbled past no more than 10 times (Rudiger: 10). Surprisingly, one of those was Newcastle’s Ciaran Clark. The others were Rudiger and Silva, and you could have either in a team of the year.
Ruben Dias has been the Rolls-Royce engine in Manchester City’s defence: powerful and classy, surely built to last. His passing accuracy of 93.28 per cent has been beaten only by one defender in the league – team-mate Aymeric Laporte (93.91) – with Dias also managing three goals and two assists in 2021, his first full year in English football. City are no longer crying out for a Vincent Kompany replacement: Dias, 24, could be the cornerstone of their defence for many seasons to come.
Midfield marvels… from Manchester
Is Bruno Fernandes a maestro or a “whingebag”? Neville used the latter description after Manchester United’s draw at Newcastle, but he would doubtless concur on the former too, given it has not been all shoulder shrugs and finger-pointing from the mercurial Portuguese this year. In 2020, Fernandes had 18 goals and 14 assists, alongside 60 open-play chances created. He has played more games this year (39, compared to 29 in 2021) and finished up with 13 goals, eight assists and 79 open-play chances created. His 21 goal involvements lead the way among midfielders, and even if those have dried up in recent weeks – he had just one goal and one assist in his final nine league games of the year – he had already done enough.
Across Manchester, Ilkay Gundogan was a revelation for City, particularly during a purple patch last season. He ends the year with 15 goals, the most of any midfielder, adding five assists from the 44 open-play chances he created, and had a princely passing accuracy in the opposition half of 90.09 per cent. Among Premier League players with more than 30 games, that accuracy was only beaten by Gundogan’s City team-mates Bernardo Silva (90.23) and Rodri (90.74).
Of course Bernardo Silva makes the team too, a flagrant example of recency bias after the Portuguese’s five goals in five league games from early November to early December. With his nine goals and seven assists across the Premier League year, and his determined dribbling (109 dribbling attempts – second only to Burnley’s Dwight McNeil among midfielders), the ever-elegant Bernardo just edges out Manchester City team-mate and previously perennial all-star Kevin De Bruyne.
What a year it has been for Phil Foden, another City star to make this team. Granted, it would have been better had City won the Champions League final on his 21st birthday, but the young man from Stockport has continued his growth at Premier League level, bagging 12 goals and seven assists and another title. Those goals have come at an average of 0.53 per 90 minutes, and the assists at one every 0.31 per 90. He is top five in both per-90 aspects among midfielders, but is Foden still truly a midfielder? The twinkle-toed local lad has been deployed in the frontline frequently, looking at home wherever Pep Guardiola decides he should be slotted.
Standout Salah, remarkable Raphinha
Where would Leeds United be without Raphinha? Rumours of Bayern Munich interest surfaced in December, and his numbers tell us why the German giants might fancy the Brazilian. His 20 goal involvements (12 goals, eight assists) put him joint-fifth among Premier League forwards, with only Mohamed Salah (35), Michail Antonio (24), Harry Kane (23) and Son Heung-min (22) ahead of Raphinha. The former Rennes player attempted 194 dribbles (only Adama Traore, 252, and Allan Saint-Maximin, 238, tried more) and he also played far more passes into the final third than any other forward (198 – Leandro Trossard second on this list with 136). Raphinha got stuck in too, making 50 tackles (only Jordan Ayew, with 60, attempted more among forwards).
Mohamed Salah became the first player to score 20 or more goals in five consecutive seasons for Liverpool in all competitions since Ian Rush from 1981-82 to 1986-87 (six in a row). That is the remarkable level he has reached, and with his own long-term future still somewhat in doubt, Liverpool will be making every effort to retain the Egyptian. In the year when Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the Premier League, the Portuguese was resoundingly outshone by Liverpool’s star forward. Salah had more touches in the opposition box than any other player in 2021 (383), and he made good use of those. He created 67 chances from open play, and the goals and assists hauls were both league-highs among forwards.
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