Welcome to Benge's Premier League Table. Every week James Benge will be ranking something, anything, in the Premier League as he breaks down everything from the nerdiest tactics to the best kits, to the worst haircuts. This week, he assesses the most likely winners of individual awards come the end of the season.
A new year means award season is upon us. Whilst the Oscars, Grammys and Brits might be awarded long before the prizes for the best players in the Premier League, the festive period can often be the moment where a season's brightest stars are defined. As the top of the Premier League becomes clearer we know who is carrying their sides higher up the table.
With that in mind now seems as good a time as any to identify the frontrunners for this year's player of the year prizes, dolled out by the Professional Footballers' Association (the union of footballers) and the Football Writers Association. It's never too soon to speculate who might claim the individual prizes, so let's have at it now.
1. Heung-min Son
Remarkably bookmakers do not have him at the upper echelon of player of the year contenders despite him being one of only two players, alongside his Tottenham team-mate Harry Kane, that sit among the league's top 10 for goals and assists. Advanced metrics rarely come into the discussion when it comes to individual prizes but even the PFA voters cannot fail to notice how much Son has made of relatively little.
After 15 games he has scored 11 goals. Son's expected goals (xG) tally, a metric that assesses the likelihood of any chance being converted, is just 4.23. It has been a consistent tale throughout his time in the Premier League where he has just chances worth 41.86xG into 64 goals.
In no small part that is a function of his two-footedness, Son's shots on his weaker side are scarcely less effective than those of his nominally stronger right foot. But equally there is a killer instinct to the South Korean international that is apparent when he faces the biggest chances, take his breakaway goal against Liverpool or his brilliant quartet of goals at Southampton. He scores decisive goals at decisive moments and if Tottenham's season gets back on track it is fair to assume that a lot of the credit will belong to Son.
Whether he gets it will be another matter.
Son has been consistently underappreciated by his peers when it comes to individual accolades. Three player of the month prizes in the past four years puts him in exalted company among the likes of Sadio Mane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Gareth Bale but not once has it translated to a place in the PFA Team of the Year. Admittedly with the likes of Eden Hazard, Mane and Mohamed Salah to rival him it has been a hard task but Son undoubtedly deserves greater recognition than he has got.
Key stat: The 28-year-old converted 42.3 percent of his shots over the first 15 games into goals. His nearest rival in that category, Newcastle's Callum Wilson, scored with just over 30 percent of his.
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2. Bruno Fernandes
Put together a list of the most transformative signings in the Premier League in recent memory and perhaps only Virgil van Dijk and/or Alisson would lie ahead of Bruno Fernandes. From the day he arrived from Sporting Lisbon the 26-year-old has taken on a huge attacking burden for Manchester United. For the most part he has worn the weight of expectations incredibly lightly.
There is a sense of inevitability to Fernandes - opponents simply cannot keep him out of the game for the full 90 minutes. Even if it is just a contentious late penalty that he inevitably converts, he will have his say on proceedings.
It is both a blessing and a curse for United, their reliance on Fernandes. In their draw with Leicester City the Portuguese playmaker was crowded out by a combination of Wilfred Ndidi and James Justin and without him Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side looked far more bereft in an attacking sense than their two goal tally might suggest.
If others can replicate the Foxes success then United's problems will be far greater than whether Fernandes wins individual awards between now and the end of the season.
Key stat: Fernandes has the highest combined tally of expected goals and expected assists per 90 minutes - 0.96 - of any player in the league.
3. Mohamed Salah
Almost without anyone noticing Salah claimed the lead in the Golden Boot race in December, scoring 13 goals in his first 14 games with an additional three assists to boot. Were he to hold on to the lead he would draw level with Alan Shearer with three Premier League scoring titles to his name, needing only one more to match Thierry Henry's record.
If the season approaches its denouement with Salah the top scorer in the title favorites he will inevitably rank among the top vote getters among the PFA. The only thing that might stand against him is that he has been so consistently excellent ever since joining Liverpool that he might inspire voter fatigue from a season where he has been brilliant without necessarily having the gasp-inducing moments of his early campaigns in English football.
Key stat: After 14 games Salah was averaging more goals per 90 than his Player of the Year season (1.00 as opposed to 0.99) from 0.5 fewer shots per game.
It is worth casting one's mind back to just how calamitous the pair of major injuries suffered by Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez seemed to be for Liverpool when the latter damaged his knee on international duty with England in early November. For both the best case scenario was that they might return for the final weeks of the season; losing their starting center backs seemed to be the death knell for Jurgen Klopp's title defense.
Yet in the 10 Premier League games since losing Van Dijk Liverpool have conceded just seven goals and never more than one in a game. For the most part that has been down to the composure with which Fabinho has taken to his new defensive position. He replicates the passing range of Van Dijk and while he lacks the recovery pace of Gomez, his vision for the game honed at the base of midfield means he rarely needs to break into so much as a sprint.
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Diogo Jota's signing this season means that the front three can be rested with greater frequency and the emergence of Curtis Jones and addition of Thiago adds to the depth in midfield. Take Fabinho out of this team, however, and Liverpool would be in great trouble.
Key stat: No center back has recovered the ball more frequently this season than Fabinho, who has won it back on 107 occasions.
5. Kevin De Bruyne
For all that Manchester City have underwhelmed this season De Bruyne has lit up the league. It's just that those around him have not been quite as able to reach the heights they once did. That has led to the Belgian's own feats going under the radar as they have not been carried out in the pursuit of trophies, at least not yet.
In terms of raw output 2020 has been De Bruyne's best calendar year in a City shirt with 32 goals in which he had a direct hand, 11 scored and 21 assisted, across 41 games, a slight per game uptick on the previous year. As 2021 beckons he has a chance to make that impact where it counts the most.
With at least a game in hand on most of those above them City are far from out of the title race and are building a solid platform around De Bruyne, Pep Guardiola is increasingly using a 4-2-3-1 formation that places the Belgian at the number 10 position rather than as a creative eight alongside the now departed David Silva.
That means more responsibility for De Bruyne but if City mount a major title challenge next year it should also mean more accolades for perhaps the Premier League's outstanding forward-minded player.
Key stat: De Bruyne has created the most big chances in the Premier League this season with 11 to his name.
6. Harry Kane
Has any elite-level player changed their game quite as drastically in the space of a few months as Kane did at the start of the season? The archetypal No.9 unleashed creative instincts that had been bubbling away under the surface for some time; though some believed he could play a greater facilitating role few imagined that after six Premier League games he would have laid on eight assists for team-mates.
Inevitably that rate has slowed down somewhat but he is still registering top flight assists at a rate that if continued would see him beat the single season record of 20 set by Thierry Henry and Kevin De Bruyne. Kane's newly minted creative side hasn't lessened his coring either, with a hefty return for himself of nine goals in his first 15 games.
Much like his Tottenham team-mate Son there were deciding goals aplenty: the opening goal at home to Brighton, a winner at West Bromwich Albion, the second that killed the game against Arsenal. Indeed there is a possibility that both Kane and Son split the vote, freeing a lane for a non-Spurs candidate to win the prize even if Jose Mourinho's side return to their early season form.
Key stat: Kane's 10 assists so far this season already comfortably better his previous best for a Premier League campaign, seven in 2016-17.
7. Jack Grealish
There may be no player in the Premier League quite as beloved by neutrals as Grealish. With his undersized shin pads, socks down to his ankles to show off his bulging calves and that fighter pilot haircut, he is the maverick footballer for the 2020s. Indeed, as some can attest, most notably Mason Mount, the simple act of not being Grealish is enough to earn the opprobrium of England fans.
Not for nothing does he draw comparisons with Paul Gascoigne, ones that he himself embraces: "I love the way he played football with all the freedom and all the joy... I want to entertain people but I always want to be effective on the pitch like Gazza was too."
If he delights his fellow countrymen, then for Aston Villa fans he is more like a deity. It would be unfair on the numerous other excellent players in Dean Smith's well-drilled side to portray this team as the Grealish All-Stars but he is the man who makes those around him sing. After over a decade in the relative doldrums, Villa are back on the path to the upper echelons of the English game with a local lad at the vanguard.
Key stat: Grealish has the highest expected assists tally of anyone in the Premier League this season (4.26). His nearest rival Bruno Fernandes has 3.72.
8. Jamie Vardy
As he approaches his 34th birthday there is no sign that Vardy is about to hit a veteran wall. He remains as explosive as ever and as razor sharp in front of goal, with 11 to his name after his first 15 games. There have been numerous other exceptional performers for Leicester this season but no-one epitomizes their fearless, ferocious attack on the summit of English football quite like 2016 title winner Vardy.
Key stat: In 70 games against the Premier League 'big six' Vardy has an exceptional return of 42 goals and 13 assists.
9. Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Frankly we have now moved past the stage where we are discussing realistic propositions for the PFA Player of the Year prize, though that is not to say there is not a scenario where Calvert-Lewin can be in the mix or even win the prize, it'll just take a remarkable parlay. If his goal scoring form continues and proves to be enough to carry Everton to a top four finish many voters may be tempted to reward the England international.
Instead, however, consider this a pitch for another award, a Premier League version of the Most Improved Player that the NBA hands out every year. Though Calvert-Lewin's upswing began last season when he netted 13 goals, it is only over recent games that he has established himself as a seriously formidable force in the division and after only 15 games he is two short of matching that tally.
You can put him down as a strong contender to win the young player of the year prize but handing that to a striker into his fourth season as a regular and his prime years rather seems to defy the point of the title.
Calvert-Lewin isn't a young player anymore. What he is is the most improved player in the Premier League this season.
Key stat: Calvert-Lewin has scored four headers this season, more than any other player in the league.
10. Hakim Ziyech
In all likelihood Ziyech will have missed too many games to be in contention for major awards. Of Chelsea's first 16 league games the Moroccan started just five but when he did Frank Lampard's side looked like the sum of their parts, if not more.
Drifting infield off the right he was able to carry the creative burden that weighs heavily on Kai Havertz, to deliver dangerous back post crosses to Tammy Abraham and Timo Werner (whose best scoring form notably dovetails with Ziyech's availability) and unleash an overlapping Reece James.
If Ziyech's return were to propel Chelsea up the table once more then he might just about enter consideration for top individual prizes. Otherwise, wait to see what he can achieve in 2021-22.
Key stat: With Ziyech in the side Chelsea's Premier League record is 4-3-0 with two of the draws coming against Manchester United and Tottenham. Without him Lampard's men were 3-2-4.