With just over a third of the Premier League season remaining, the title race is already all but won – congratulations to Manchester City. Our attention turns to a race for the top four which seemingly no one wants to win, a relegation battle that Newcastle are desperately trying to land themselves in, and the PFA awards races.
The table is something that’s objective, it’s hard to argue with it when all is said and done. No asterisks, no footnotes. What makes the award races fun is the subjectivity it brings…
Apart from one un-constituted criterion: individual awards should never go to defenders or goalkeepers.
I wrote about this in 2019 on 90min’s old site (RIP) when Virgil van Dijk was on the podium for the Ballon d’Or. But now Ruben Dias is being heralded as a PFA Players’ Player of the Year frontrunner, so I’m afraid my hand has been forced to hammer home this point once again.
No one grows up particularly dreaming of being a defender. No one watches football for how good the defenders are. This sport belongs to artists, and they’re usually midfielders and attackers.
Professional footballers tend to be scouted for their technical qualities and are then moved further back down the pitch as they grow older. You scarcely hear of keepers and defenders moving up the pitch – Nicolas Pepe was a goalie until he was 14, which explains a lot and hammers this point home.
Dias has obviously been great for Manchester City since his £61.5m transfer from Benfica at the end of September. No one’s doubting that – he and John Stones have looked as imperious as Football Manager games of recent years made them out to be, and that’s a credit to Pep Guardiola finally tuning his well oiled machine to stop being so leaky.
City are the best team and their prize will be lifting a big shiny trophy come the end of the season, but in their title-winning seasons under Guardiola, there’s rarely been a standout player who’s been Player of the Year-worthy (Kevin De Bruyne in 2017/18 is an exception, but Mohamed Salah literally scored 32 goals and grabbed 10 assists).
The arguments for a number of City players to win the award besides Dias range from tepid to strong; Ilkay Gundogan has been playing with his arse on fire for two months, but only in that timeframe; Raheem Sterling has returned to form after a relatively quiet 2020; Phil Foden has made a considerable leap; you’d even say that Stones has been as good if not better than his Portuguese partner.
Parallels with Van Dijk’s impact on Liverpool are fair when looking at City as a collective, but none of their defenders have stood out from the crowd without a narrative being forced. 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 deserving of the award. It’s obviously Bruno Fernandes.
Look at his basic stats: 25 games so far, 15 goals, 10 assists. Let’s take out penalties: eight goals, 10 assists, still amazing output. Adjust to stats per 90 minutes: 0.77 non-penalty goals and assists – only Harry Kane, Son Heung-min (who are in mid-table) and Edinson Cavani (whose numbers are inflated by his limited playing time) have more. Fernandes has been the most effective single player on a good team.
Manchester United could only really dream of qualifying for the Champions League upon his arrival in January 2020, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked to be on his last knockings as the manager, and the team were playing without any real direction. Fernandes didn’t fix all of these problems singlehandedly, but there are a handful of players on the entire planet who would have galvanised the club the way he has.
No single player has been as good consistently across the 2020/21 season as Fernandes, and his gamesmanship (to put it kindly) has rivals trying to shoehorn in other candidates. Some of the suggestions are acceptable at best – but Dias certainly isn’t.