Because somebody has to celebrate the players at other end of the table (and Burnley, too).
Earlier this week, the Premier League announced its team of the year, and as always it was littered with stars from the top six. But what about those players who have quietly had phenomenal seasons at the other end of the table? Those that have almost single-handedly ensured their club’s Premier League survival, or led their team to comfortable mid-table obscurity? This is a celebration of the players and teams who don’t always steal the headlines, but who are just as worthy of praise. Set up in an ultra-attacking (probably unbalanced 343), this team would give the “actual” PFA team of the hell of a game.
Manager: Sean Dyche
What Sean Dyche has achieved with Burnley this season is nothing short of sensational. With one of the league’s tiniest budgets, he has built a formidable Premier League side who are worthy of the 7th place they current find themselves sitting in. If Pep Guardiola’s City wasn’t annihilating the entire league this season, Dyche would be a worthy winner of manager of the year.
Goalkeeper: Nick Pope
Since being called upon to step in for the injured Tom Heaton, Pope has been a revelation. He hadn’t played a minute of Premier League football before being thrust into the lineup in September of last year but since then, he has conceded only 25 goals in 30 games– 1 fewer than PFA Goalkeeper of the year David De Gea (26 goals allowed in 34 games). Pope had a thoroughly deserved England call-up in March, and it would be no surprise to see him go to the World Cup this summer as England’s third choice behind Pickford and Butland.
Center Back: Harry Maguire
At a time when top quality defenders are rare and expensive (See Virgil van Dijk), Maguire has been one of the league’s best this season and came at an affordable price. Leicester snapped him up last summer for a pittance at £12 million pounds, and if rumors are to be believed, he could go to a Champions League side this coming summer for triple that.
Center Back: Alfie Mawson
Swansea looked as good as down this season before manager Carlos Carvahal arrived, and Mawson has been at the heart of the revival. He is, a good old-fashioned center half–strong, relatively quick and pops up with the occasional goal. Gareth Southgate included him in the last England squad in March, and as the rest of England’s options at center back are either aging or injury prone it wouldn’t be a massive surprise to see him make the final squad for the World Cup.
Center Back: James Tarkowski
After Michael Keane left Burnley to join Everton last summer, many were worried Burnley would struggle at the back. Step forward James Tarkowski. The towering, ball playing center back has replaced Keane for both club and country, and despite a somewhat nervy England debut in March, may find himself pushing for an England starting spot in Russia– especially if he has a strong end to the season with the Clarets.
Left Midfield: Marco Arnautović
Before this season, Arnautović was the ultimate enigma. Brilliant on his day, but more often than not, frustrating and not living up to his potential. This season, however, he has been terrific for West Ham, even in the most turbulent of seasons as the club has endured poor performances on the pitch and demonstrations both on and off it. At the age of 29, it would be hard to say that Arnautovic’s best years lie ahead of him, but West Ham fans will be hoping he is just a late bloomer, and can carry this form into next season and beyond.
Central Midfield: Abdoulae Doucore
Abdoulae Doucore has been tremendous in the middle of the park for Watford this season, and is arguably the main reason why they are not further down the table. He tends to sit deep and provide protection for the back four, but he can also drive forward and is the club’s top goalscorer this season with seven goals, including strikes against Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United. He recently announced it was his “dream” to play in European competitions, so Watford will do well to keep him at Vicarage Road this coming summer.
Central Midfield: Pascal Gross
Under manager Chris Houghton, Brighton have had a strong first season in the Premier League. More attention has been paid to the collection of seasoned Premier League teams scrabbling around at the bottom of the table, but Brighton find themselves in a very respectable 13th, with 4 games to play. With 6 goals and 8 assists, Pascal Gross has been a consistent thorn in the sides of many a Premier League defense this season, but like his club his performances have gone largely under the radar. His versatility in midfield (he can play right behind the striker, or sit slightly deeper in a traditional central midfield role), and set-piece delivery have been crucial for Brighton this season.
Right Midfield: Xherdan Shaqiri
Simply put, Xherdan Shaqiri is far, far too good for Stoke. In a season where Stoke have struggled for goals and invention, the Swiss forward has been the only player capable of delivering anything approaching a consistent basis. Stoke could still stay up, and it will be in large part down to his quality. He will no doubt be snapped up by another side much further up the table if/when Stoke go down.
Left Wing: Jordan Ayew
Jordan Ayew, playing alongside January acquisition brother Andre, is one of the main reasons why Swansea City find themselves floating above the relegation zone and not rooted to the bottom of it. His pace, work-rate, and goals have been vital to Swansea’s charge up the table since parting ways with Paul Clement in December 2017. They are not guaranteed safety yet, but if the brothers Ayew (Jordan in particular) can keep up their form since the turn of the year, it will be no surprise to see Swansea flying again next season.
Center Forward: Jamie Vardy
Quietly, but consistently, Vardy has had a very good season. After suffering alongside his teammates in last season’s collective hangover from the highs of winning the title in 2016, the 31-year-old has returned to form this year scoring 17 goals– making him the top goalscorer outside the top six. Though he won’t unseat Harry Kane as the starting forward for England in Russia this summer, he is a terrific option off the bench.
Right Wing: Wilfred Zaha
It is no coincidence that Crystal Palace’s upturn in form coincided with Zaha’s return from a lengthy injury lay off. This season, Zaha has developed into arguably the best player outside the top six, and has been delivering and driving his team forward on a consistent basis. Where he used to be profligate, he is now clinical, and it is no wonder that the vultures from the top clubs in the league are beginning to circle.