The reasons for inclusion and omission during PFA award season
The PFA’s end of season award ceremony takes place this Sunday, April 28, and the association’s Player and Young Player of the Year will be announced. However, there are a number of men in both categories who can feel aggrieved to have missed out on recognition. Players at clubs other than the top sides are given a slim chance to compete for the main prize, while issues have arisen about the lucidity of the guidelines that decide the league’s best “young” player.
The battle for the main award has been billed as Virgil Van Dijk of Liverpool versus Raheem Sterling of Manchester City, a battle Van Dijk has reportedly won to be officially announced as Player’s Player of the Year at the end of the week. The Dutchman will be the first defender since John Terry in 2005 to win the award, but both this and the Young Player award are dominated by members of the top two sides battling for the title.
The domination of the season’s two outstanding sides can primarily be attributed to the significant gap in quality between themselves and the rest, as the main award’s inevitable objective is to decide the best player from the team (or teams) realistically competing for the title at this stage of the season. This season there is more of an even split because of Liverpool’s challenge to Manchester City – last season, such a challenge was absent, and Mohamed Salah won in abnormal circumstances. In 2019, City have three nominees, while Liverpool have two. The only exception to nominees from the two title challengers is Eden Hazard, who is more than deserving: without him Chelsea would probably be languishing in mid-table.
If, in an alternate universe, the nomination for Player of the Year candidates considered a variety of factors outside of simply playing for the league’s best teams, who would have a fair shout at recognition?
After falling away from what was at one stage being considered a title challenge, Tottenham’s dismissal from both domestic cup competitions coincided with the absence of Son Heung-min. The forward competed at the Asian Cup and hit the ground running immediately on return.
The South Korean consistently filled the Harry Kane shaped void when necessary in 2018/2019, scoring a succession of important late goals in February. He has been Spurs’ talisman since the turn of the year and arguably his side’s best player over the course of the campaign, despite being absent for the majority of January. However, bare statistics don’t seem to match up with his importance to his side. While he has scored 12 and assisted a further six in the Premier League in just 21 starts, he has been at the heart of everything good Spurs have done this season. For Son, perhaps his side’s inability to maintain a title challenge hampered his chances of being in the running for the award’s six nominees, although he must have been very close.
Elsewhere, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have paired well and posted good goalscoring returns, enabling their side to maintain a top four challenge. In fact, in a similar vein to Hazard for Chelsea, the forwards have been the driving forces behind Arsenal’s ability to contend for Champions League qualification.
Outside the top six altogether, notable performances at lower league sides are worthy of recognition. Wilfred Zaha has been as dynamic as ever, with this increasingly looking like it may be his last season at wildly inconsistent Crystal Palace. At Bournemouth, Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson have been excellent. With seven and 12 goals to their name respectively, they have provided a constant goal threat alongside fellow cherry David Brooks, who did receive nomination for the Young Player award. However, for Fraser in particular, his 12 assists so far can be bettered only by Hazard. To be frank, the reason the Scot has been overlooked is because he plays for Bournemouth. Fraser’s numbers have been superb – better than those of Bernardo Silva – one of the three Manchester City nominees for the main award.
As for the Young Player of the Year award, the very wording of this category is problematic. What is the definition of “young?” Since last week’s announcement, the inclusion of Silva along with Raheem Sterling (both 24 years old) as young players has been called into question. To avoid such debate, the title of the Young Player of the Year award should be changed, both for clarity and so that it makes more sense. It doesn’t sit right with many that Silva in particular, who turns 25 before next season’s kick off, can win an award celebrating the success of a young prospect.
There are two standout performers who can count themselves as unlucky in this regard. Firstly, James Maddison received his first call-up to the senior England squad in October, having consistently excited after a strong start to the season which saw him score or assist in five of his first seven Premier League games. He has carried this form forward, thriving under Brendan Rodgers and given the freedom to express himself, further impressing the England management staff.
In March, Aaron Wan-Bissaka became the first player in Europe to have made 100 league tackles, and during his rise to prominence he has shown excellent speed and agility going forward as well as numerous displays of tenacious defending. The young full-back was called up to the England U21 squad for the first time in September and subsequently made his debut; he is probably the unluckiest to miss out on inclusion for this particular award.
For the young player’s prize, there is more scope for the inclusion of players from so-called lesser clubs, such as Fraser and Wilson’s Bournemouth teammate Brooks. While the guidelines regarding the definition of a young player are mystifying to say the least, it should be changed to “breakthrough player of the year;” with only players aged 21 or younger at the start of the season eligible for nomination. By this logic, all of the nominees for the award bar Silva and Sterling would have been eligible. Maddison and Wan-Bissaka would have taken their places, making it a more competitive, logical and frankly meaningful achievement for the winner that fans could have no complaints acknowledging as a young talent.
There have always been problems regarding the nature of the PFA’s shortlisting for end of season awards, usually questioning whether or not the vote is done too early. This season, the loose use of the term “young” has lost its meaning and reached a tipping point for many. For players at clubs outside of the top six, the lack of recognition of their work for the main award is unlikely to change, such is the limit of six players and the depth of talent at the top of the league. Despite this, by my reckoning, Son should have been included in the top six nominees for the main award, while Maddison and Wan-Bissaka’s exclusions from the younger players’ shortlist were inexplicable.