For those that love to defend, as the English say…
Welcome to our Team of the Season series, as we look to round up a very weird year of European football by giving you our team of the season for Europe’s Top Five leagues. We will devote one week to each league, releasing each team in four parts: the defense, the midfield, the attack, and the honorable mentions bench. I will go a little more in depth with each choice, looking at how the statistics and the “eye test” make them the best player in their position in the league. Every team for every league will be set up in a 4-3-3 formation, with the “honorable mentions” being a somewhat even grouping of all three positions but not really intended to be fully broken down by position. All statistics listed in these articles are not final, as the season has yet to conclude, but there is enough there for us to get a representation of the player’s season relative to the rest of the league.
This week, we start with the one that you all certainly have your own opinions on: the Premier League.
You might see one team’s name more often than any others.
Goalkeeper: Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa)
This was one of the few very tough decisions in this team. Initially, I had Ederson in this position. I changed my mind quite a bit. This is not a knock on Ederson as a player, but if we are thinking about the actual traits, skills, and abilities as a goalkeeper, and who is best at doing the actual things needed to be a good goalkeeper, has there really been a better keeper in the league this season than Emi Martínez?
No, there absolutely has not.
Martínez’s story is wonderful, being a perennial back up for Arsenal before becoming a star following Bernd Leno’s injury. Arsenal chose to sell him instead of keeping him for whatever reason, and in his first season as a full-time starting goalkeeper in the Premier League, he was probably the best number one in the league. He was undoubtedly the best shot-stopper in the league, amassing the highest save percentage of any goalkeeper in the league while having to make the fourth-highest amount of saves. It has been his acrobatic saves that have quite often kept Aston Villa in games, and I would genuinely consider him Villa’s player of the season, even more so than the also-phenomenal Jack Grealish.
The main argument for Ederson statistically is how few goals he has conceded. Ederson leads or is near the top of the league in most goals allowed statistics, but to at least play devil’s advocate, it does help that basically all of Man City’s defense is also on this “Team of the Season” list. Villa’s defense is not terrible, and Matty Cash and Ezri Konsa in particular are quality players, but it is obviously not Man City’s stone wall defense. Even then, Martínez is tied for second among all Premier League goalkeepers in clean sheets, only two behind Ederson, and he has the fourth lowest Goals Against per 90 mins of any starting Premier League goalkeeper despite playing for the team that currently sits in 11th. That is remarkably impressive.
As a cherry on top, Martínez is capable with the ball at his feet. He is not the ball-playing goalkeeper that Ederson is, and Ederson has actually registered an assist this season, but Martínez is still closer to a more modern goalkeeper than many really realize. He has been great, but it was not until I really looked at the stats that I realized just how good he really was. It might be controversial, but I really do think he makes the most compelling argument for being the best goalkeeper in the league this season.
Right Back: João Cancelo (Manchester City)
Ok so here is the difficult thing about these next four entries. It is hard to quantify how good a defensive player is at defending. Not many logical stats exist to express that. So these entries will be sparse in the statistical support, but I do insist that (almost) all of these four choices are no-brainers.
João Cancelo being the right back might also be controversial due to how much time he spent at left back this season. But on the day of me writing this, he has played more at right back this season than at left back, so he is our right back. Trust me, I made sure to get that right.
Cancelo might very well be the best right back in the world at the moment, or at least is the one that offers the most compelling argument against Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is still very capable despite struggling this season. He was always known as a strong attacking player, coming through as a winger at Benfica and Valencia before being pushed further back into this defensive role. He was always a strong attacking fullback, but he has improved remarkably as a defensive player since arriving in Manchester. He seems to perfectly fit as the ideal Guardiola fullback, very comfortable with the ball at his feet and able to operate in possession as well as on the counter bombing down the wings.
He is a fantastic crosser of the ball, despite only registering three league assists this season. He has even fit in very well in the “inverted” role as a left back, able to cut inside and play more centrally than the traditional fullback would. His ability to be malleable enough to fit on either side has helped alleviate one of Man City’s few weaknesses and helped solidify him as a Guardiola favorite.
This is a pretty easy choice. Cancelo has become the complete package of a fullback, and I do not think there has been a right back that comes close to how good the Portuguese has been this season.
Center Back: Rúben Dias (Manchester City)
Yeah, that looks like an ideal Guardiola center back, huh?
Again, it is normally very hard to quantify how good defensive players are, and it feels like that is especially the case for Manchester City’s Rúben Dias. If you look at his defensive stats, you would wonder what all he actually does as a player. He does not put in as many tackles compared to his counterparts, and his number of blocks is also low relative to other center backs in the league. But I promise you, he is actually very, very good.
It sort of goes back to the whole wildly attributed Paolo Maldini quote, where he allegedly said something about if he had to make a tackle, he already made a mistake. Dias obviously benefits from playing for a team like Man City, who often control games and do not have to do much defending, but he is just a very solid and mostly faultless player. His positional sense is incredible, he is most often in the right place at the right time, and his ability to use his physicality in a smart way as a partner for his mental skills allows him to win many of his defensive duels without having to make a tackle or interception. Many thought City’s defense was the weakest part of their team last season, something that was bordering on crisis without stalwart Aymeric Laporte. Dias came in and suddenly fixed everything and made everyone forget about the towering Frenchman, who many considered the second best center back in the league prior to his major injury last season.
On top of this defensive ability, he is the typical modern center back, something that Guardiola loves. Those stats that I included are very good for a center back, and his ability to be everything Guardiola wants in one package is truly remarkable. And he is only 23. City have a special player on their hands.
Center Back: John Stones (Manchester City)
I will not lie, this was another of the toughest positions to pick. There were a few capable choices that could have filled this position, but I really do not think anyone deserves it more than good ol’ ex-Everton center back John Stones.
Stones has had a career year, one that I do not think anyone saw coming. Dias may have been the center back that made City fans forget about Aymeric Laporte, but Stones is the one that forced Laporte to spend more time than he may have hoped sitting on the bench. We were even getting to the point where maybe City were going to look into selling Stones, but now he is seemingly undroppable.
How has he done this? By basically being faultless. Stones’ biggest negative mark against his game in the past was his judgment and positioning, which often led to him making mistakes both with and without the ball at his feet. He was slowly but surely improving at City, but potentially not at the pace that he needed to. This season, however, he has been fantastic. While, again, not having to rely on blocking and tackling as much as other defenders, he has been able to use a matured sense of positioning and defensive intelligence to be exactly where he needs to be. He has shown an improved physicality in his game, winning a very respectable number of defensive duels while becoming a threat from set pieces, scoring the second most amount of goals among all defenders in the Premier League this season. It takes a lot to displace a player as talented as Laporte, but Stones has done everything necessary to earn that starting spot for City.
This has been the best season of John Stones’ career, and it probably is not close. He will likely round out this season with at least two winners’ medals added to his collection, and he has the potential to contend for Champions League honors with City and will probably be starting for England at the Euros. And it is all deserved. Stones has been fantastic in many ways, the second best center back in the league this season.
Left Back: Luke Shaw (Manchester United)
As surprising, if not more surprising, than Stones’ career year was the revival and renaissance of Luke Shaw. United even spent all of that money on Alex Telles in the summer just to have him ride the bench behind the guy they already had. And that is not for nothing, either. Luke Shaw has been incredible this season. I would not have devoted an entire article to him if he was not doing something special.
Shaw was always known as a prodigal attacking fullback, even dating back to his time at Southampton. He has shown that he still has that in him this season, quietly being one of Man United’s best attacking and creative players, and that is saying something when your teammates are Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. His crossing has been fantastic. He has built up great chemistry with Marcus Rashford, knowing when to overlap the dynamic winger and knowing when to move inside of him. He has also not been a slouch defensively either, even though that was considered to be his most glaring and significant weakness before the season. Yes, he was caught out a few times early on, especially in the 6-1 loss against Tottenham, but he really revolutionized himself as a defensive player as the season progressed. This was best illustrated by United’s trip to Anfield back in January, where Shaw basically silenced another player who may or may not appear in this Team of the Season, which is for sure no small feat. He has been equally as impressive defensively in many of United’s other big matches this season.
This has been by far Shaw’s best season in a United shirt, and this is probably the best he has been as a professional footballer since his breakout Premier League season at Southampton. He may not be the top tier when it comes to creative players in the Premier League this season, and he may not put up the impressive defensive numbers that his fullback partner Aaron Wan-Bissaka does, but I do not think there is a left back in the league that has combined attacking and defending prowess better than Shaw has this season. There are other contenders for this position, sure, but I do not think it should be controversial to put Shaw here.
And there you have it, the back four and goalkeeper for our Premier League Team of the Season is set. Tomorrow, we will be revealing our midfield trio.
Agree with my choices? Feel that someone has been left out? Let me know in the comments of this article.
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