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With just over a third of the Premier League season remaining, the title race is almost won – congratulations to Manchester City. Our focus is on a top four race that apparently no one wants to win, a relegation battle that Newcastle is desperately trying to land in and the PFA awards races.
The table is something objective, it is difficult to argue with it when all is said and done. No asterisks, no footnotes. What makes award races fun is the subjectivity they bring …
Aside from an unconstituted criterion: individual awards must never go to defenders or goalkeepers.
I wrote about this in 2019 on 90 minutes old site (RIP) when Virgil van Dijk stepped onto the Ballon d’Or podium. But now Ruben Dias is being announced as the PFA players’ best player of the year, so I’m afraid my hand has been forced to score this point one more time.
Nobody especially grows up dreaming of being an advocate. Nobody looks at football because of how good defenders are. This sport belongs to the artists, and they are usually midfielders and attackers.
Professional footballers tend to be scrutinized for their technical qualities and are then moved further back on the field as they age. You hardly hear about goalkeepers and defenders coming up the field: Nicolás Pepe was a goalkeeper until he was 14 years old, which explains many things and emphasizes this point.
Obviously, Dias has been excellent for Manchester City since his £ 61.5 million transfer from Benfica in late September. No one doubts it: he and John Stones have looked as imperious as Football Manager games of recent years, and that’s a credit to Pep Guardiola who finally got his well-oiled machine tuned to stop leaking so many.
City are the best team and their prize will be lifting a big shiny trophy at the end of the season, but in their title-winning seasons under Guardiola, there has rarely been a standout player who has been worthy of Player of the Year (Kevin De Bruyne in 2017/18 is an exception, but Mohamed Salah literally scored 32 goals and received 10 assists).
The arguments for several City players to win the award in addition to Dias range from lukewarm to strong; Ilkay Gundogan has been playing with his butt on fire for two months, but only in that period of time; Raheem Sterling is back in shape after a relatively uneventful 2020; Phil Foden has taken a considerable leap; You would even say that Stones has been as good, if not better, than his Portuguese partner.
The parallels to Van Dijk’s impact on Liverpool are fair when looking at City as a collective, but none of its defenders have stood out from the crowd without a forced narrative. The competitive rivalry between the two clubs has been the motivation behind trying to find a direct comparison for the Dutchman.
Dias hasn’t even been the best Portuguese player in the Premier League this season, but the only one superior to him is the one who deserves the award. It is obviously Bruno Fernandes.
Look at his basic stats: 25 games so far, 15 goals, 10 assists. Let’s take the penalties: eight goals, 10 assists, a still amazing performance. Adjustment to statistics every 90 minutes: 0.77 goals and assists without penalty; only Harry Kane, Son Heung-min (who are in the middle of the table), and Edinson Cavani (whose numbers are inflated from their limited playtime) have more. Fernandes has been the most effective individual player on a good team.
Manchester United could only dream of qualifying for the Champions League upon arrival in January 2020, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appeared to be on his last strokes as a coach, and the team played without any real direction. Fernandes didn’t fix all of these problems on his own, but there are a handful of players across the planet who would have galvanized the club the way he has.
No player has been as good in the 2020/21 season as Fernandes, and his skill at the game (to put it nicely) has rivals trying to match other candidates. Some of the suggestions are acceptable at best, but Dias certainly isn’t.
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