When Michael Owen this week publicly declared what he considered to be his Premier League team of the year, the former England striker unsurprisingly stoked the ire of a number of dissenters – largely with club allegiance at the root of their consternation.
In fact, the eleven players selected include a healthy proportion of names which leave little room for debate. Leighton Baines, Gareth Bale, Juan Mata, Luis Suarez and Robin Van Persie have all been in exceptional form for their respective clubs.
The major talking point, and a pick which speaks highly for the range of talent throughout England’s top division, was Owen’s choice of Swansea City’s Wayne Routledge on the right side of his ideal attack.
In a season which has lacked the drama of a year ago at the pinnacle of the league, there has remained plenty to fascinate. The League Cup triumph of Routledge’s club, and the progress in the same competition of vanquished finalists, League Two side Bradford City have been inspiring tales.
The F.A. Cup and Champions League have provided compelling stories and spectacles, while the respective battles to secure Champions League football and avoid relegation out of the top-flight promise to thrill until the final whistle blows on this campaign.
Another major facet to have enriched the season has been the invariably eminent displays of a glut of hitherto less celebrated individuals.
Owen’s identification of Routledge as one such performer is particularly pertinent. After his exciting emergence with Crystal Palace during which he was an integral part of the Eagles’ 2004 promotion to the Premier League, the then youngster departed for the greener grass of Tottenham Hotspur in 2005.
From that moment, a promising career ground to a halt and didn’t look destined for its expected heights. The winger drifted from club to club, taking in another six homes – including loan spells – before South Wales became his latest stop in 2011.
In common with the comparably nomadic Scott Sinclair, Routledge has not only produced his best football at the Liberty Stadium, but he appears to be entirely settled and unmistakably buoyed by the trust of his manager.
Brendan Rodgers’ faith in his skilled attacker last term has been replicated by current Swans manager Michael Laudrup, to the extent that Routledge has been rewarded for his enduringly direct, intelligent, and adaptable displays with an extra two-and-a-half years on a contract which had 18 months to run.
While Sinclair finds himself consigned to a seat behind Roberto Mancini at Manchester City, the club he left behind last summer can boast of more than just Routledge in their ranks as an individual to have captured the imagination this year.
The sublime Spaniard Michu has deservedly attracted a great deal of the attention placed on Swansea, and his £2m catch from Rayo Vallecano becomes no less astonishing as time passes. 16 goals in twenty-nine league outings only informs of one element of the 27 year-old’s on-field contribution, which is defined by a magnificent touch that suitably complements his phenomenal vision and awareness.
Sparkling on the opposite wing to Sinclair last term was Nathan Dyer. A man who was unable to break into a Southampton team destined for relegation from the Championship in 2008, the 25 year-old must surely now be pressing for an England call. Dyer flourished in the charge of Rodgers, and has trained-on under Laudrup. Raw pace and hard running are now accompanied by reliability in his decision making and a dependable end-product.
Soon to be deposed champions Manchester City’s 2011/2012 Player-Of-The-Year award was a keenly contested affair. In this more erratic season for his team, Pablo Zabaleta – another player recognised by Owen – has stood alone in maintaining a high-octane and high-class weekly level.
In a squad which has more than a sprinkling of footballers considered as world class, the Argentine has stood out for his rugged and determined defending, and relentless and exciting marauding forward play.
Seamus Coleman and Nathaniel Clyne, at Everton and Southampton respectively, are capturing the imagination with their swashbuckling and indefatigable style, but Zabaleta is the right-back to whose standards they must aspire.
Another player singled out by Owen is Tottenham’s majestic defender Jan Vertonghen. The Belgian’s presence in England, along with that of his fellow pre-season acquired compatriots Eden Hazard at Chelsea and Kevin Mirallas of Everton, has added definite additional class to our league.
The biggest compliment to Vertonghen is that his versatility, assuredness, and defensive wit are the match of his national centre-half partner, Vincent Kompany.
With his boyhood tinted-Everton glasses on, Owen considered Phil Jagielka as his second outstanding central defender for the year – while also affording a nod to Sylvain Distin. Both men have enjoyed fine seasons – indeed, Distin’s perennial athleticism and astute reading of the game is astonishing.
What Sky TV’s premier football commentator Martin Tyler has christened the ‘League of Late Goals’, has latterly transformed into simply the ‘League of Goals’. The division’s remarkable strike-rate, combined with the reported paucity of English centre-backs available for the most recent internationals, might lead to the assumption that that this is a position in which the Premier League is short on excellence. Not so.
The transition of David Luiz from eccentric risk-taker into a reliable ball-playing member of Chelsea’s rearguard has been a revelation. Michael Dawson has re-emerged under Andre Villas-Boas as a potential international player, while Rio Ferdinand is possibly peaking at a time when in many quarters he had been written off. Matija Nastasic has been the sole success of Mancini’s haphazard post-title recruitment at the Etihad Stadium.