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Premier League Starting XI – 2013-2014

Luis_Suarez_Liverpool-377452

Many pints have been bought/drunk/spilled while friends/strangers/adversaries debate the Premier League’s best players.  In my list, I’ve tried to avoid hype and reputation… but that’s not to say it’s all about the stats.  I’ve also been liberal with the positions, using a 4-1-3-2 but frankly putting players in to fit.   For example, Steven Gerrard was praised for his reinvention as a defensive midfielder, but let’s face it, he mostly played the same as he always has… he just had farther to run.

Here then are my Starting XI:

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone (SUN) – There was a reason for Vito Mannone’s switch from the bright lights of the Emirates to the ironically-named Stadium of Light.   Like almost every other professional athlete, he probably expected to start.  So it must have been disappointing when Paolo di Canio went with Keiran Westwood, a man who had spent most of his career in the lower leagues.  The Black Cats’ start to the season was dismal — going  2-1-6 — with Westwood letting in almost one out of every two shots on goal.  Mannone got his chance when Westwood got injured, and the Mackems improved, finishing a stronger 10-7-11 with 11 of those games finishing in a clean sheet for Sunderland.  In fact, Mannone faced more shots on goal than any other keeper in the league, despite missing a quarter of the season.  Quite rightly, he was named Sunderland’s Player of the Season.

Bench: Petr Cech (CHE), Tim Howard (EVE)

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Fullbacks
(LB) Leighton Baines, (RB) Seamus Coleman (EVE) – The Toffees seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the fullback position.  Under Roberto Martinez, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman act as virtual wingers in an already offence-friendly side.  The pair fly in with crosses, complementing the Mirallas/Barkley/Osman contingent on the wings.  That leaves the two centre backs, along with a resurgent Gareth Barry and GK Tim Howard, to worry about any defensive issues.  It seemed to work: Everton had the third-best defensive record in the Prem, while the Scouser and the Irishman both scored as many goals as their colleagues in midfield.

Bench – Patrice Evra (LB), Bacary Sagna (RB)

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Centrebacks
Martin Skrtel (LIV), Laurent Koscielny (ARS) – I can hear the howls of protests already.  Why not players from Chelsea or City or even Everton? How can you pick one player who set a record for own goals in a season, and another with a propensity to self-destruct?  Because the game-in, game-out stats tell a different story.  In a league where goals are up across the board, both players were on sides built to throw everything forward in attractive — but dangerous — football.  Martin Skrtel led the league in clearances and was tied for fourth in block shots.  Think back to the images of him racing back to clear the ball, because Brendan Rodgers had his team playing such a high line.  (Don’t forget Skrtel scored seven goals… he’s a centre back!).  Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny was in the league’s top ten for both interceptions and offsides won, and he was in the top 20 for blocked shots.

Bench – John Terry (CHE), Per Mertesacker (ARS)

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Defensive Midfield
Mile Jedinak (CRY) – Crikey! Mile Jedinak has maintained the fearsome reputation of Aussie footballers in the Premier League — Messrs. Emerton, Neill and Cahill come to mind (like a prog-rock band! Ha!).  The Palace player led the league in interceptions per game, and was 2nd in tackles per game.  That’s all the more impressive when you realize he started every single game.  A big reason why the Eagles had the league’s sixth-best Goals-Against.

On the bench – Gareth Barry (EVE)

Ramsey was one of the league's best midfielders, despite injuries

Ramsey was one of the league’s best midfielders, despite injuries

Right Wing
Aaron Ramsey (ARS) – Mr. Arsenal this season, Aaron Ramsey set the league on fire in the season’s first half, before he was twice sidelined by injury. He was Arsenal’s second-biggest goal-scorer in the league, and tied for third in assists, despite playing in only 60% of the Gunners’ matches.

On the bench – David Silva (MNC)

Yaya holds his birthday cake that's coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Yaya holds his birthday cake that’s coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Central Midfield
Yaya Touré (MNC) – What hasn’t already been said about Yaya Touré’s season?  The first midfielder since Frank Lampard to score 20 goals in a season, tied for fifth in assists, the Ivorian was Citeh’s talisman (an overused cliché, but in this case, true) and led the Citizens to their second title in three years.

On the bench – Steven Gerrard (LIV)

"Oh my God, I can't believe I made ATR's Starting XI!"

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I made ATR’s Starting XI!”

Left Wing
Eden Hazard (CHE) – José Mourinho had a rough relationship with his forwards this season, and sometimes played without a striker.  Enter the Belgian, Eden Hazard.  The attacking midfielder led his team in goals and assists, and was one of the league’s best passers.  An incredible player to watch (unless you’re a ball boy), Hazard will be a key part of Marc Wilmot’s plans in Brazil.

On the bench – Adam Lallana (SOU)

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Strikers
Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge (LIV) – The picking of these two players was almost a no-brainer… almost.  Luis Suarez tied the Premier League record for goals in a 38-game season, despite missing the first five matches.  He was also second in the league for assists — just behind team mate Steven Gerrard — so it’s not like he was being selfish.  Love him or hate him, he had a brilliant season and propelled Liverpool into the most exciting title run in almost two decades.

Sergio Agüero was almost equally brilliant, scoring 17 in 23 appearances.  But injuries hampered an otherwise brilliant season, and young(ish) Daniel Sturridge found his own touch, scoring 21 of his own.   That’s why he would start in my XI.

On the bench – Sergio Aguero (MNC), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

Brent P. Lanthier

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A World Cup Without Them

zlatanWe are now 164 days away from the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and with almost every league hunkered down for a Christmas break (with the exception of the Barmy Brits… but that’s a discussion for another post), we can start to look towards June in what should be an epic tournament.

Why epic? When you look at the teams that have qualified for Brazil 2014, there isn’t a nation that makes you think, “They shouldn’t be there”.  Conversely, I can’t think of a team that, based on recent form, has been hard done by not qualifying.   That means that all the past champions will be going, all the heavy hitters and nearly men (Dutchies, I’m looking at you).

I was recently reminded that, despite appearing in three World Cups, the great Zico had never won the thing.  That’s gotta hurt, but he’s not alone.  In fact, the list of players who have never lifted the Jules Rimet trophy is extensive.  Think about it: Sindelar, Puskas, Di Stefano, Fontaine, Eusebio, Cruyff, Platini, Stoichkov, Baggio, Maldini, Figo… none of them have ever won the biggest tournament on the planet.   It’s probably as good as any argument that football is won and lost as a team, at least internationally.

But you can’t win the Coupe du Monde if you don’t get to go in the first place.  Some major marquee players won’t be appearing in Brazil because they and their compatriots couldn’t get it done.  Here are the top 10 players staying home in June:

Alaba: still only 21

Alaba: still only 21

10) David Alaba (AUT) — Is he a fullback? Is he a midfielder? All we know is that the Austrian wunderkind will be off the pitch, while  just about every other one of his Bayern Munich teammates will be in Brazil (except for Claudio Pizarro).  Austria actually held their own in qualifying , but were done in by double losses to Germany and then to Sweden on the penultimate match day.  No worries though, as Austria’s youngest-ever Player of the Year is only 21 years old, so he’ll have a few more shots at it.

Serbs have to sit out

Serbs have to sit out

9) Branislav Ivanovic (SER) — Speaking of fullbacks, pundits are calling Ivanovic the best right back in the world right now.   His is the first name on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team sheet, and he is a menace in attack and defence.  But after starting with a 1-1-3 record in qualifying, the Serbians were pretty much doomed, even though ultra-rivals Croatia finished with two losses.  The Croats went through, which has to sting more than a little.

Ta ra, Turan...

Ta ra, Turan…

8) Arda Turan (TUR) — There was a time when Turkey’s national football team was filled with German-born Bundesliga players who were considered too much Türken and not enough Deutsch.  The DFB has become far more progressive — look at Germany’s multicultural line-up now — and Turkish football has come into its own, with Turkish-born players staying in the Superlig.  The one notable exception is Arda Turan, the tough winger who has helped put Atlético Madrid in the running for its first Liga title in 18 years.  The good news for the Atleti?  Turan will be able to rest up this summer before they sell him off to a bigger club.  Hooray.

Trying to read the name on his kit…

7) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (GAB) — Like many African players, Aubameyang was born in France, but decided to represent the nation of his parents.   Too bad.  The young Gabonese had a high enough profile at St. Etienne, before lighting up the Bundesliga with Dortmund this season, to find a place on a troubled French squad.  Instead, he has become the African version of Dimitar Berbatov playing for Bulgaria, a great player on a team that will do nothing.   It’s just as well: that name is a nightmare for the kit makers.

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

6) Petr Cech (CZE) — Oh how the strong and steady goalkeeper must pine for the days of Koller, Baroš and Nedved, when his countrymen were qualifying for European semi-finals and actually appearing at the World Cup.  Alas, the veteran netminder (a 31-year-old who has looked 50 since he was 20) will have to settle for glory at Chelsea, where he and his club have won every major European and English title.

Hamsik

“Oh Mamma Mia, let me go!”

5) Marek Hamsik (SLO) — Slovakia did alright at South Africa 2010, their first major tournament since they split from the Czechs.  Hamsik captained his side to the Group of 16 by shocking the Italians 3-2, before losing to eventual finalists, Netherlands.  But when they tried to qualify for Brazil, they were outdone by a lack of adventure: only once did the Slovaks score more than one goal from open play.  Too bad… because Hamsik’s Mohawk/Kid n’ Play fade looks awesome streaking up the pitch.

Wales v Scotland

Air guitar…

4) Aaron Ramsey (WAL) — This one will elicit the most groans as undeserving,  but the young Taffy has been a revelation this season.  Arsene Wenger has kept faith in his midfielder, who has had trouble keeping off the treatment table.  But he has been Arsenal’s best player since August and has overshadowed teammates who are offensive threats in their own right.

"Will not let you go!"

“Will not let you go!”

3) Robert Lewandowski (POL) — Poland’s failure to qualify for even the playoffs is a case of a team’s parts being better than the team itself.  The squad has some great talent (with tricky names): Blaszczykowski, Piszczek, Boruc, Szczesny, and Dortmund’s highest scorer over the last three seasons, Lewandowski.  Last year, he was a goal away from the Bundesliga scoring title, and two away from being the Champions League’s top marksman.  He is among the top 10 strikers in the world, but unfortunately he will not be able to play with his peers in Brazil.

Bale hearts Wales... which means no World Cup

Bale hearts Wales… which means no World Cup

2) Gareth Bale (WAL) — Surely the world’s biggest tournament should feature the world’s most expensive player.  When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid for €100M, most people thought that the whole affair was ridiculous.  But the spectacle of the transaction should not take away from a player who is starting to reach the height of his powers.  Nine goals in fifteen games for Madrid: he’s no Ronaldo, but he doesn’t need to be.  Unfortunately, he plays for a nation that has never fully embraced association football and may not qualify for a major tournament for some time.

1) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE) — You could hear the collective groans around the soccer world when Sweden was paired with Portugal in the qualifying play-offs.  We knew that either Christiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be playing in this summer’s tournament.   That’s a shame because if there is ever a place for massive egos, it is the World Cup… and they don’t get much bigger than CR7 or Ibra.   In the end, it was a battle between two huge talents on otherwise mediocre teams.  After a tight first leg, it was left to the big striker to tie everything up on aggregate. Unfortunately for the Scandanavians, Ronaldo showed why he is better than everyone else… include Kung Fu Zlatan.  Still, we will miss the sound bites, the temper tantrums, and the awesome, awesome goals.  Ibra’s take on the loss: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”

Brent Lanthier

No Ibra means none of this...

No Ibra means none of this…

... or this...

… or this…

... or this.

… or this.

 

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The Falcao Final

Skittish Colombian…

Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was billed as an all-Spanish affair between two teams that live off the scraps of La Liga’s big dogs.  Their kits are almost identical, as are their names.  Both have Argentinian coaches and both teams have been hovering around each other in the league table for some time now.

The similarities end there.

A look at the Bilbao team sheet showed a side that was unabashedly Basque.  Even the sole player born outside Spain is named after a Basque town.  Contrast that with Atlético, who took to the pitch with only four Spaniards, only two of whom were native madrileños.  In fact, no member of the starting XI had taken part in the team’s victorious Europa League campaign two years earlier.

So even though one team was full of young giant killers playing for ethnic pride (remember that Bilbao took out a full-strength Manchester United), they faced a side of able-bodied “mercenaries”.  In particular, they were forced to defend against a man who has put a definitive stamp on European nights.  This night was no different for Radamel Falcao.   The Colombian tormented Bilbao’s back eight throughout the match, and needed just seven minutes to find the net, switching feet to find space in the box before unleashing an absolutely lovely effort .  His second came from inside, more of what we have come to expect from the man who has lifted two Europa League trophies over the last 12 months, breaking scoring records in the process.

Heroes, old and new…

It remains to be seen how long he remains at Atlético Madrid.  Despite Falcao arriving only last year from Porto, the man who turned his club’s fortunes around — coach  Diego Simeone — may have a tough time convincing the board not to cash in on the player, even if the continental giants come calling.

But tonight, Falcao remains a Rojiblanco, as yet another trophy begins another year residing in the Spanish capital.

A couple of side bars:

– Atlético captain Diego Godín must be riding high.  Not only has he won the Europa League, but he is coming off a calendar year where he won the Copa America with his native Uruguay, as well as a semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup.  At 26, the central defender is coming into prime time.

– Chelsea will be both excited and relieved at the efforts of their goalkeeping protégé, Thibaut Courtois.  The Belgian has been on-loan to Atlético all season.  After a shaky start, Courtois — like many of his teammates — seems to have settled down with Simeone’s arrival mid-season.   He wasn’t tested much in the final because of excellent Madrid defending.  But Courtois did make some impressive saves in a major European final, despite not turning 20 until Friday.  Ladies and gentlemen, the heir apparent to Petr Cech…

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Premier League: Starting XI

It was a big year for the big Serb

Manchester United’s record-breaking 19th league title is a testament to their manager. Sir Alex Ferguson did not have the same calibre of players as in the past. But the old gaffer leads his teams to trophies… and he would not be denied an opportunity to overtake his Merseyside nemeses. While they did not dominate, United players produced some fine individual efforts, along with their rivals Citeh and Chelsea.

Here are my starting XI for the 2011:

MIghty bright future for young Joe

GOALKEEPER
Joe Hart (Manchester City) — For some, the verdict is still out on the young Englishman. Playing for McLeish’s Birmingham and then Mancini’s Citeh means he had the benefit of great defences in front of him. But he made more saves than any other EPL keeper, except for his England understudies Ben Foster and Robert Green. The future looks bright for Old Blighty: Joe Hart is only 24.

On the bench: Petr Cech (Chelsea), Edwin Van der Sar (Manchester United)

Hot cross Baines...

LEFT BACK
Leighton Baines (Everton) — Why wouldn’t Miroslav Klose want to come to Goodison Park, where he could have Baines send over cross after cross after cross? Baines started every single game for Everton… netting seven goals and providing 12 assists. Ashley Cole’s perpetual presence on England’s left may be in jeopardy.

On the bench: Ashley Cole (Chelsea)

CENTRE BACKS
Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) — The big Serb won Barclay’s Player of the Year, and rightly so. Vidic terrorized defences as he marshalled United to the title. If Old Trafford was a fortress this year, than Vidic was its mighty rook.

Kompany's calling...

Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) — It wasn’t easy to score goals on the other side of Manchester either.  Vincent Kompany was a consistent leader in a back eight that tied Chelsea for stingiest defense. At only £6.7 million, he was a steal… especially compared to what Citeh paid for his teammates.

On the bench:  John Terry (Chelsea), Brede Hangeland (Fulham)

Calm down, son, calm down!

RIGHT BACK
Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea) — One of the most fouling — and carded — players in the Prem, Ivanovic is one of those sought after backs that scores, yet still plays defence. A genuine pest whose temper could get away from him, Ivanovic made it onto almost every one of Ancelotti’s team sheets.

On the bench: Bacary Sagna (Arsenal)

Arsenal's Song... and prayer

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER
Alex Song (Arsenal) — The Gunners didn’t lose because a lack of firepower… they lost because of the glaring holes in the centre back and goalkeeping positions. That should be reason enough for Gooners to thank Cheebus for Alex Song. The Cameroonian is a bruising DM who has embraced the old-school English philosophy of getting stuck in. Now if Arsene Wenger decides to go and buy himself a couple of solid defencemen, silver and joy might actually start to seep back into the red side of Norf London.

On the bench: Michael Essien (Chelsea)

You'd be smiling as well...

LEFT WING
Florent Malouda (Chelsea) — Crosses, runs, goals… what more do you want from a winger on a team that plays with three strikers named Drogba, Torres, Anelka? Fantastic, fantastic player.

On the bench: Ashley Young (Aston Villa)

Citeh certainly got their Yaya out...

ATTACKING MIDFIELDER
Yaya Toure (Manchester City) — Reportedly the highest-paid player in the league, Toure is a box-to-box midfielder who was all over the park. The only Citeh player who scored more Prem goals than him is Tevez, who’s goal count pipped Toure for the squad’s Player of the Year.

On the bench: Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United)

"Stop... or I will stare at you a second time..."

RIGHT WING
Nani (Manchester United) — This season has been a revelation for the Portguese winger. (Ed Note: I know he also played a lot on the left. I just wanted to put him on the team.)  Last year, he was whingy, ineffective and prone to giving away the ball. This season, Nani was still whingy — mimicking another one of his countrymen who played for United — but at least he found the net, and helped others to do the same. Nani led the league in assists while scoring 10 of his own. His on-field antics are probably the only thing from getting named as POY.

On the bench: Stewart Downing (Aston Villa)

FORWARDS
Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United) — The debate rages: is he a precision finisher… or just a cherry picker? Spurs fans spit his name, calling him lazy and opportunistic. But he did end the season with 20 goals, enough to share the league’s Golden Boot… albeit almost all of them were at Old Trafford. Check out Berba’s second goal in their 3-0 defeat of Liverpool… and then make up your mind.

Adios Tevez

Carlos Tevez (Manchester City) — Despite his tally of 23 goals (which would have likely been higher, had he not been injured), Tevez is in danger of doing something even more impressive: pissing off both sides of Manchester. He wanted to stay at United but SAF decided to sell. Yet after only two seasons, the captain of the “People’s Club” says he wants to move on. It may be an ideal time for the club to sell him… but what a shame for the supporters.

On the bench: Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Darren Bent (Aston Villa)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nemanja Vidic

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Starting XI

Brent Lanthier

After one of the closest seasons in years, the EPL produced some breakout superstars, as well as some familiar faces who are almost guaranteed to perform.  Here is my dream team for 2009-10.


Brent’s choice for Player of the Year. Sorry, Wayne…

GK: Joe Hart (Birmingham City)
Despite facing the third most shots in the League, Hart still had the second best save percentage, and starting every game in his loan to Birmingham. At 23, he is simply a better keeper than Shay Given, which says a lot. Look for Man City to tighten up at the back as Hart returns to Lancashire.

On the bench: Brad Friedel (Aston Villa), Petr Cech (Chelsea)

LB: Patrice Evra (Manchester United)
France’s newly crowned capitaine, Evra is a left-back who is a pure defender. Fierce and fiery, the Senegalese-born defender has disrupted the attack of many a right winger this season, and turned play around quickly on the counter-attack.

On the bench: Leighton Baines (Everton)

CB: Richard Dunne (Aston Villa)
One of Martin O’Neill’s most important pieces of business last year was the purchase of Manchester City’s former captain, Richard Dunne. The mighty Irishman is simply scary, but he’s also a leader on the pitch and proved invaluable in Villa’s drive for European football.

CB: John Terry (Chelsea)
Despite all of Captain Schtupping’s off-field problems, Terry eventually regained his composure to captain Chelsea to the rare double. Despite the unfortunate game against Everton, despite the sending off against Tottenham, and despite the poor showing against Inter Milan, Terry is still the bedrock of one of the best defences in the Premier League.

On the bench: Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Jody Craddock (Wolverhampton)

RB: Carlos Cuellar (Aston Villa)
The Spanish defender is a centre-half-cum-right-back, a common occurance in a league that seems to have little regard for the position. Picked up by Villa from Glasgow Rangers, Cuellar is the only member of Martin O’Neill’s preferred starting XI to not have been capped by his country. Villa will likely buy a natural RB after South Africa, but Cuellar has done an admirable job out of position.

On the bench: Bacary Sagna (Arsenal)

LW: Florent Malouda (Chelsea)
This Frenchman experienced a rebirth under Carlo Ancelotti. He was utilized as defensive midfielder — and even a left back — under Avram Grant and Big Phil Scolari. But this season, he had 14 goals and 10 assists, and was an important part of Chelsea’s double-winning season.

On the bench: Ashley Young (Aston Villa)

CM: Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
Twenty-two goals and 14 assists, Lampard is the complete player, year in and year out. He’s the engine of HMS Chelsea.

CM: Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal)
Arsenal’s captain and best player at only 23 years old, the Gunners suffered when he got injured. Arsene Wenger needs to hang on to the Catalan in order to maintain his club’s Champions League spot.

On the bench: James Milner (Aston Villa), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

RW: Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)
This Ecuadorian had a bit of a slow start, but he came round once the season began to pick up.  The mirror image of Ryan Giggs on the right side, Valencia is a playmaker, spraying the ball with lethal accuracy, while picking up a smattering of goals along the way.  Wayne Rooney has said that Valencia is the reason why he scored so many goals this year. Shades of a posh former United player….

On the bench: Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool)

F: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
What else can be said about the Scouser in Manc clothing? He runs at defenders, he never gives up, he finds ways to score. One of the best players in the world.

F: Didier Drogba (Chelsea)
His World Cup-ending injury is a loss to football fans everywhere. This year’s Golden Boot winner simply wills his way into the box. His humanitarian efforts alone would make him easy to cheer for, if he didn’t pout so much, or engage in so many false theatrics.

On the bench: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Carlos Tevez (Manchester City)

That’s it for the Prem until next month. We’ll see how the trades play out over the summer. Enjoy the World Cup!

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