Best. Season. Ever. You’ve heard it since Christmas from pundits and fans alike. I have to disagree because of my allegiances (heartbreak for my two clubs, although for different reasons)…. but for the neutral, this was the year that old hegemonies were broken and glimpses of the Premier League’s new reality started to come to light. Here then is the first installment of my picks for each club’s best player in this remarkable season.
Aaron Ramsey (WAL) – Oh what could have been for the mighty Gunners this season. After a summer of selling Arsenal’s flotsam and jetsam without a single major signing, Arsène Wenger waited until the very end of the transfer window to bring in German and Real Madrid superstar Mesut Özil. The move turned heads amongst the media, the supporters and England’s other clubs. But it turns out Wenger’s best signing was one he made eight years ago, when he bought 16-year-old Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff City. Wenger never wanted to make a splashy buy, preferring his policy of youth development. If Aaron Ramsey didn’t have to deal with the ever-present spectre of injury that has marked his young career, he would vindicated his mentor this season. The Welshman scored 13 goals and provided seven assists before Christmas. After he went out, Arsenal slipped from the pile of title challengers, struggling to win the last Champions League spot. Let’s see if he can help Arsenal gain some consolation next weekend at Wembley.
Christian Benteke (BEL) – How bad are Aston Villa? Bad enough that three seasons of relegation escapes (16th, 15th and 15th) astound anyone who has a look at their threadbare squad. They can’t defend: Villa gave up 12 goals in their last four games, and only the relegated teams had a worse goals-against. Their offence was even worse… save for their young Belgian striker. Christian Benteke was the club’s highest scorer, despite missing the last six weeks of the season. He will likely be out until October with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Depending on how he recovers, this next season with Aston Villa will likely be his last.
Peter Whittingham (ENG) – Over six years, you’ve seen your side climb from the bottom half of the Championship to promotion into the Premier League. You found yourself at Wembley for two league finals. You’ve watched a rich foreign owner buy the club and then turn it on its head. You’ve watched as the man who kept his faith in you by signing you to a new contract, get turfed on the whim of said owner. You watch as the supporters turn against vilified Bond Villain Owner, as your team sinks back in the relegation mire. Yet even as you look around and think to yourself, “Bloody Hell”, you do your job as best you can… marshalling a midfield that is, well, middling.
Your name must be Peter Whittingham.
Eden Hazard (BEL) – When did José Mourinho go from megalomaniac to paranoid curmudgeon? The Special One turned on Eden Hazard after the winger publicly criticized his manager’s negative-to-the-umpteenth-degree tactics against Liverpool and Atlético Madrid. This season, Mourinho returned to his self-proclaimed home with the same propensity to pick internal squabbles as he did at Real Madrid. Mourinho fought with Juan Mata, he chastized his Inter Milan favourite Samuel Eto’o… and even benched long-time loyalist Ashley Cole. But to criticize a player like Eden Hazard — a winger who runs and swerves like he’s riding a motorcycle on its back wheel through the narrow streets of Brugge — is almost blasphemy. The Belgian outscored all Chelsea strikers and picked up the slack when Oscar started to slump. He rightly deserved the PFA Young Player of the Year, and he should be an absolute joy to watch in Brazil next month.
Jason Puncheon (ENG) – No one had more fun than Crystal Palace fans this season, and Jason Puncheon was part of the reason why. The Croyden native permanently returned to his boyhood club, after helping them get promoted last year. He then benefited from Palace’s hiring of Tony Pulis, whose second-half revival of the club from 18th to 11th was simply remarkable. Even Puncheon admits, after nine different clubs, he played the best football of his career this season. The Eagles may end up selling him, but would he even want to leave?
Up next: Everton to Manchester City