*should this be the end of the season, here are my picks for several end-of-season awards in Europe’s Top Five Leagues
With European football being put on hiatus due to the Coronavirus outbreak, it seems like a good time to reflect on the season that was and highlight the players, managers, teams, and moments that captivated us throughout the season. Should this be the end of the 2019-2020 season, it would be a disappointing end but to a season full of highs and lows, and it seems fitting to highlight those here.
Player of the Season: Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich
His goalscoring record seemingly speaks for itself. 25 goals in 25 league games and 39 goals in all competitions, the Polish hitman was the sole point of consistency in a Bayern season that started rocky but has finished strongly. Adept at scoring with either foot and with an incredible attacking intelligence and sense of positioning, Lewandowski demonstrated this season why he is possibly the best number nine in Europe, if not the world, at the moment. He was maybe enjoying his best season as a professional, and he would have undoubtedly at least surpassed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s record for most goals in a single Bundesliga season by a non-German, before the season got cut off, and it would have been interesting to see what he could have done at the Euros. But under Hansi Flick, Bayern are seemingly perfectly set up for a challenge at the Champions League next season, if Lewandowski can repeat at least a fraction of this scintillating goalscoring form. For this abbreviated season, he is my player of the year.
Honorable Mention: Sadio Mané (Liverpool), Neymar (PSG), Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
Young Player of the Season: Erling Braut Håland, Borussia Dortmund
I mean, could it have been anyone else? The Norwegian wunderkind took the world by storm when he arrived at Borussia Dortmund, but his story actually began months earlier in Austria, playing for national power Red Bull Salzburg. Håland scored goals for fun for the Red Bulls, netting 28 goals in only 22 appearances. He famously recorded a hat trick in Salzburg’s 6-2 demolition of Genk in the Champions League, becoming the third-youngest player to score a hat trick in Europe’s biggest club competition. Still, Håland remained an enigma during his time in Austria, a player chatted about in hipster football circles and among hardcore junkies and followers of the sport, but his limited exposure in the Champions League had only started to put his name out in the mainstream football world. His move to Dortmund, and his subsequent debut hat trick against Augsburg, made him a near-household name for anyone who considers themselves a football fan. His clinical finishing followed him to Westphalia, where he would score 12 goals in just 11 appearances in a black and yellow shirt. He became the first ever player to win the Bundesliga’s Player of the Month and Rookie of the Month awards in the same season, doing so in the same month. He has truly exploded onto the scene, emerging as one of the brightest future stars in the world. Whether he chooses to stay at Dortmund for next season or not, it is clear his move to Germany has paid off.
Honorable Mention: Kylian Mbappé (PSG), Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Breakout Star of the Season: Federico Valverde, Real Madrid
I mean, we can’t give every award to Håland…
It says a lot about your rise to stardom when you are able to displace a former Ballon d’Or winner in the first team. Federico Valverde did exactly that. The young Uruguayan only arrived in Spain in 2016, but after a year with Real Madrid Castilla and a loan to Deportivo La Coruña, Zinedine Zidane had seen enough to give him a chance in the first team. Valverde took his chance, earning plaudits for his ability on the ball, passing range, and his high work rate and tenacity. He quickly became a favorite in Madrid, earning opportunities to feature over established star Luka Modric. His arrival in the spotlight was emphasized by a fantastic performance against PSG in the Champions League, where the Uruguayan ran himself to exhaustion and earned a loud ovation from the Madridistas who crowded into the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu that night. While he did hit some roadblocks, along with his team as a whole, he still enjoyed a fantastic debut senior season with Real Madrid, possibly changing the club’s transfer strategy in midfield.
Honorable Mention: Erling Braut Håland (Borussia Dortmund), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
Most Improved Player of the Season: Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich
Alphonso Davies was an exciting and dynamic winger in MLS, earning his move abroad with his ability on the ball and scintillating pace. His development seemed to sputter upon his arrival in Munich, with several in Germany suggesting that his best position would actually be as a fullback, rather than a winger. Fast forward about a year and a half, and Davies has emerged as a potentially world class left back. His defensive ability has grown dramatically, being capped off with two incredible defensive performances against Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig in the league this season, showing that he can deal with dynamic attacking teams and succeed positionally, as well as in one v. one scenarios. His main calling card, however, is his attacking ability, where he is able to use his breakneck pace and slick dribbling ability to terrorize opposing teams. His masterpiece performance came in Bayern’s demolition of Chelsea in the Champions League, where he silenced Chelsea’s wing attacks and terrorized poor Cesar Azpilicueta. He capped off that performance by beating three Chelsea players for pace and playing a perfect squared pass to Robert Lewandowski, who scored Bayern’s third and final goal of the evening. In a little over a year, Davies has transformed himself into a prototypical modern attacking fullback, and now joins the list of football’s future stars. He has successfully displaced Bayern stalwart David Alaba, and is set to enjoy a long a fruitful career in Bavaria and beyond.
Honorable Mention: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton), Danny Ings (Southampton), Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
Most Underrated Player of the Season: Jordan Henderson, Liverpool
I will admit, it’s hard to use the phrase “overrated” with Jordan Henderson after this season, especially when he has gotten legitimate backing to win PFA Player of the Season. Going into this season, however, it was clear that Henderson did not receive the backing that he should have outside of support from Liverpool fans. Now, let us put this into context. Should he win PFA Player of the Year? No, definitely not, it is a fight between Sadio Mane and Kevin De Bruyne for that honor. However, he has had a very good season, and he brings a sense of solidity and stability to a talented Liverpool midfield. His role and importance may have been best demonstrated by the difference in Liverpool’s midfield between the first and second leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid. Henderson carried a knock into the first leg, eventually being subbed off due to injury, and Liverpool largely looked pedestrian and error prone, especially in midfield against an Atleti midfield full of aggression and energy. He was fit in time for the second leg, and he spearheaded a Liverpool midfield that looked night-and-day different from the one that played in Spain. Now, it’s hard to avoid the “intangibles” discussion when talking about Henderson, and he is admittedly a great leader who has admirably filled the role of captain vacated by Steven Gerrard. He works and fights hard for his team, and his influence as a teammate and leader is felt by his teammates. The reason why he is in this category, however, is that he is also a very good holding midfielder. He is strong in the tackle, calm on the ball, and has a solid enough passing ability to tie the midfield together and help transition the team forward. The reason why he has not been displaced from the starting XI under Klopp is because he is talented and fills a midfield role needed in Klopp’s system. This has easily been the best season since his arrival at Liverpool, and he will probably enjoy the moment when he gets to lift the Premier League trophy.
Honorable Mention: Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich), Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad), Casemiro (Real Madrid),
Manager of the Season: Chris Wilder, Sheffield United
Chris Wilder came into the Premier League with a slight bit of a disadvantage: his nationality. When Sheffield United were promoted to the Premier League, Wilder was grouped into discussions with other prominent English managers, possibly by people who never watched the Blades during their promotion season, as a manager who is able to inspire his team through grit and determination, earning points through defending and tenacity. Many called Sheffield United’s style of play “basic” and “uninteresting”, believing they would struggle to stay in the top flight. Well, they were quite wrong, weren’t they? Upon cessation of the Premier League, the Blades were sat in seventh, on the brink of qualifying for European football in their first season back in the top flight. Their “overlapping center backs” were considered wild and unnecessary when they came up, but it was a strategy that worked wonders at times, forcing overloads that the opposition could not deal with. He got the most of the talent on his team, with Lys Mousset, John Egan, John Lundstram, and Dean Henderson specifically starring this season. He also inspired some traditional English resiliency in his team, which helped them string together consistent performances and carry them up the table. Wilder’s tactical genius, combined with his leadership as a manager, helped guide Sheffield United to where they are now. Also, he negotiated the arrival of Norwegian wunderkind Sander Berge to the Midlands, which was unthinkable mere months ago. What a job he has done, something that I am not sure he is still getting enough credit for.
Honorable Mention: Jürgen Klopp (Liverpool), Imanol Alguacil (Real Sociedad), Simone Inzaghi (Lazio)
Team of the Season: Bayern Munich
Prior to the cessation of football in Europe, Bayern were arguably the best team on the continent and the likely favorites to win the Champions League. Following some early season struggles under Niko Kovac, the Bavarians roared into life under interim manager Hansi Flick, demonstrating a level of attractive, vibrant attacking football that had not been seen since Pep Guardiola’s time in Germany. Robert Lewandowski was arguably the best player in Europe this season, and easily the best player in Europe not named Messi or Ronaldo. His incredible goalscoring ability was on display throughout the season, but it was the rapid growth of Serge Gnabry and Alphonso Davies, as well as the rejuvenation of midfielder Thomas Müller, that really elevated Bayern to the elite level they ended the season on. Their only real weakness was seemingly their center backs, which had to be rotated regularly due to injury and fitness concerns, but a successful transfer window could fix any issues in depth. Bayern ended the season incredible form, clawing their way back to the top of the Bundesliga and in strong position to repeat as champions, as well as coming off of a dominant win over Chelsea in the Champions League. Flick rightfully was named permanent manager, and if Bayern have a strong transfer window, with Leroy Sane and Dayot Upamecano among the names linked, they could enter next season as favorites to win the Champions League.
Honorable Mention: Liverpool, Atalanta, RB Leipzig
Biggest Disappointment: Tottenham
Coming off of an appearance in the Champions League Final last season, you would think that Mauricio Pochettino’s team would have kicked on and become a contender, or at least a consistent top four team right? Wrong. Things started at least somewhat well, but following a humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich, their league form sputtered. Many key players were performing under their usual standards, and it was clear that the several players nearing the end of their contracts were beginning to look for greener pastures elsewhere. Spurs were outside of the top four, eventually hovering around mid-table in November, leading to club chairman Daniel Levy choosing to part ways with Poch. Jose Mourinho was quickly brought in to replace him, and a bump in form soon followed, but there were still issues in the team, especially defensively. Injury issues, namely to star forwards Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, led to another period of rough form. They still found themselves in the hunt for the European places upon cessation of the league, but it is unclear whether they would have finished in a European place had the league continued. This was a significant fall from grace for last season’s Champions League runners-up, and with the future of several key players unclear, including the aforementioned Manchester United-linked Kane, it is hard to see where Spurs will go once football returns. It seems their championship window, to use an American phrase, has closed.
Honorable Mention: Antoine Griezmann, Premier League “Title Race”, Atletico Madrid
Signing of the Season: Romelu Lukaku, Manchester United to Inter
Romelu Lukaku was a hot commodity following his final season at Everton, but his time at Manchester United was, to say the least, difficult. While he did score goals and was a good player during his time in Manchester, he did not quite meet the expectations that were heaped onto him upon his arrival, and there were several unfair perceptions leveled onto him. People thought he did not show up in big matches, or that he was poor on the ball and a poor finisher, or the infamous social media statement that he played like he was wearing Timbs. It was in his, and United’s, best interest for the player and club to part ways during the summer of 2019. Antonio Conte identified him as his number one transfer target, the talismanic striker needed to lead the line of the new Inter. He took to his new team quickly, forming a strong partnership with wunderkind forward Lautaro Martinez to form arguably Europe’s most deadly strike partnership. With 23 goals in 35 appearances in all competitions, including goals in both Milan Derbies this season, he reestablished himself as one of Europe’s premier strikers. While the second half of Inter’s season was more disappointing, and they did play their way out of the Scudetto race, Lukaku was one of the best forwards in the league, and he will be a key player for the Nerazzurri in their title challenge next season.
Honorable Mention: Martin Ødegaard (Real Madrid to Real Sociedad), Bruno Fernandes (Sporting to Manchester United), Wissam Ben Yedder (Sevilla to Monaco)
Game of the Season: Inter 4-2 AC Milan
I will establish my personal bias right now. I have a deeply held belief that the Milan Derby is the biggest derby in European football. They are two of the most iconic clubs in the world playing in, arguably, the world’s most iconic stadium. The color, pageantry, passion, and atmosphere found in the Derby della Madonnina is unmatched by derbies throughout Europe. It is a match that I long to attend, hopefully before the end of their time at the San Siro. However, speaking purely in the football sense, this was an incredible match that had major implications. Milan were somewhat resurgent, having welcomed back striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, arriving on a free transfer a month earlier. Inter were in a dogfight with Juventus and Lazio at the top of the league, and they needed to win to keep pace with the reigning champions. The match itself was the true definition of a tale of two halves. Milan dominated in the first half, with Zlatan starring, responsible for both Milan goals. Ismaël Bennacer put on another star performance in midfield, and it looked like it was going to be a landmark win for a rebuilding Milan team. The second half was a completely different story, as an awakened Inter team clawed back from 2-0 down to win the match 4-2. Two rapid goals from Marcelo Brozovic and Mathias Vecino sent the San Siro into delirium. The match was back and forth constantly, with the announcers trying to find time to catch their breath. Zlatan and Hakan Calhanoglu both had chances to retake the lead for Milan, and Christian Eriksen came on in his first Milan Derby and nearly scored an audacious free kick. Milan fans, with rather poor timing, set off red smoke flares that coated the pitch in smoke for several minutes following Inter’s goals. Once the smoke cleared, the mania continued, set to a soundtrack of Inter fans bouncing and chanting “those who don’t jump are Rossonero“. Stefan De Vrij’s header fired Inter into the lead, remarkably, on 70 minutes. Romelu Lukaku rounded out the victory in added time, sending Inter away with a famous derby comeback victory and sending the Nerazzurri top of the league.
Honorable Mention: Liverpool 2-3 Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen 4-3 Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool 5-5 Arsenal
Goal of the Season: Radja Nainggolan, Cagliari vs. SPAL
There is not much to say apart from this is an absolute rocket. Nainggolan has the ability to hit them, and this is a clear example of that. Go watch it on Youtube. In fact, go watch all of these goals. They are all fantastic in their own ways.
Honorable Mention: Paulo Dybala (Juventus vs. Atletico Madrid), Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao vs. Barcelona), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Brighton vs. Chelsea)