In 2009, a Manchester City fan emailed Professional Footballers Association (PFA) chief executive Gordon Taylor demanding to know how Ryan Giggs could have ended up on their shortlist of candidates for the player award. of the year.
A back-and-forth ensued, in which the City supporter pointed out how few games Giggs had started and Taylor responded by explaining that it was an entirely democratic process, based on the number of votes that the players had received from their professional colleagues.
“I can tell you the situation as it is,” Taylor replied. “If you’re not happy and consider yourself an expert on ballots, you might be better off going to Zimbabwe or Russia the next time they have an election and tell everyone how they should vote when they put their vote in the ballot box.”
But let’s not go there. Let’s talk about the latest PFA Player of the Year shortlist, which is sure to spark a lot of debate, especially among…Manchester City supporters.
The shortlist is as follows: Kevin De Bruyne (City), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United).
Any immediate thoughts upon seeing it?
Where the hell is Son Heung-min?
Where are Bernardo Silva and Rodri?
And if these players are not selected, then surely Joao Cancelo, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Declan Rice are more worthy candidates than Ronaldo and Kane?
These are only personal opinions and they are offered knowing that others have the right to shoot them down and call me ignorant. (You’re welcome.)
After all, Kane ended up scoring 27 goals in all competitions for Spurs this season and Ronaldo was just three of that tally in a terrible United side, netting 18 Premier League goals to Kane’s 17. players.
But the overwhelming impression, looking at this shortlist, is that the power of a player’s profile and status seems to weigh more heavily in these considerations than it should. And that professional footballers, when asked to vote for their player of the year, are more likely to opt for a legend of the game like Ronaldo than to vote en masse for someone like Rodri or Bernardo, whose week after week excellence on a champion team could have passed them by as they focused on their own team’s business.
This doesn’t just apply to the Male Player of the Year award.
A more stark illustration can be found in the PFA’s Young Women’s Player of the Year shortlist.
Chelsea’s Lauren James made the shortlist after a WSL campaign in which, due to injury, she was limited to six substitute appearances and no starts, playing a total of 113 minutes.
And that seems to go back to something that was said in an article last year about how players vote for these rewards.
“To be honest, if it weren’t for the stats or what you read on social media, I don’t think myself or many others would have any idea how anyone has been this season. in the league, except when you play against them,” one player said.
The same Championship player added last year that when it came to picking a Team of the Season for his division, he “would have no idea” about defenders. He offered Will Hughes, then from Watford, in midfield “but again it’s just because I think he’s a good player”. Above all, he said, “these will be names that you will just remember from previous years.”
And perhaps this candid explanation, reflecting a subconscious bias in favor of established big players – and a seeming indifference towards those in less glamorous roles – offers some kind of explanation as to why the likes of Rodri, Bernardo and Cancelo didn’t make the cut.
Salah beat De Bruyne for the Football Writers’ Association (FWA) Footballer of the Year award, announced last month, but West Ham’s Rice finished third. Thirty-one different players received votes, including nine from Liverpool and six from Manchester City. Like the PFA, the FWA asks its respondents to vote for a single player.
When Athleticism held its own ballot last week, it was a different voting system, with each reporter and editor nominating their top six in order. It was won by De Bruyne ahead of Salah – and it could be a fair bet that the PFA award will go the same way when announced on June 9.
The interesting thing about our vote is that Son came in third and Cancelo fourth, with the next four spots roughly even between Mane, Rodri, Bernardo and Alexander-Arnold. It was a clear top eight, followed by another group which included Van Dijk, Phil Foden, Thiago, Alisson, Rice and Jarrod Bowen.
That seems pretty reasonable to me.
In the interest of full disclosure, I went 1) De Bruyne, 2) Salah, 3) Bernardo, 4) Rodri, 5) Van Dijk, 6) Son.
In the interest of even greater disclosure, my Team of the Season was: Alisson; Alexandre-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Cancelo; De Bruyne, Rodri, Thiago; Salah, Son, Bernardo.
And for maximum disclosure, in hindsight I wish I had been with Mane rather than Thiago, leaving Bernardo in midfield.
Again, we’re talking about personal choices based on our own subjective assessments, but those preferences seem to reflect not only that City and Liverpool have been in a class of their own in the 2021-22 Premier League, but that, even position by position, their players have been nearly unmatched.
If I made a second XI it would include Kyle Walker, Andy Robertson and Foden alongside Jose Sa, Antonio Rudiger, Rice and Bowen.
City and Liverpool have really been on another level, way above and beyond everyone else, and they haven’t just done it by relying on one or two outstanding players. That’s why this shortlist of Players of the Year – De Bruyne, Van Dijk, Kane, Mane, Salah, Ronaldo – seems a bit… underwhelming.
The inclusion of a player who scores 17 or 18 Premier League goals can never be considered controversial, but it is certainly debatable when the level performers of Rodri, Bernardo and Cancelo are overlooked, not to mention the co-winner of the Golden Boot Son.
Maybe it just goes back to what this anonymous championship player said Athleticism last year: that many professional footballers are so focused on their own work that they don’t really spend too much time evaluating the performance of players from other teams, so they default to voting for those whose reputation precedes them .
Kane is more than a good player; he is closing in on England’s all-time goalscoring record and will go down as one of the greatest of the Premier League era. Ronaldo is one of the greatest to ever play the game. But it’s not easy to argue that either was among the top six players this past Premier League campaign; at Tottenham’s end-of-season awards, it was Son who swept the board.
Even while lamenting the choices of others, I continue to think for myself.
In the end, it looked like a toss-up between Salah, who played at such a fascinating level in the first half of the season, and De Bruyne, who did the same in the second. Had you run a poll even among City fans halfway through the campaign, it’s unlikely De Bruyne would have been in their top four.
The feeling that Salah’s best time of the season came not when Liverpool were playing so relentlessly in the final months, but in that autumn period when they were dropping the points that would ultimately leave them woefully short of City’s 93 points .
De Bruyne’s best period of the season did not come when City won 12 Premier League games in a row between early November and mid-January, but in recent months when some of his team-mates were working and he, time and again, was the one who, by his personality and his sublime skill, led them.
It seems like a contradiction, but maybe it says a lot about how we view individual performance in a team sport.
Liverpool were at their best when Salah wasn’t. City were at their best when De Bruyne was not. It was when both teams spat – and with these two sides, it’s very relatively telling – that the stars really came to the fore.
With De Bruyne, with Salah and Mane, with Ronaldo and Kane, there was no shortage of ‘clutch’ moments – with players summoning inspiration to save their team at times when the stakes were highest and the pressure most intense. Never underestimate the depth of admiration for a player who plays ‘in the clutch’, especially when it comes to someone like Ronaldo, who has done so with incredible frequency throughout. of his long career.
You could say Ronaldo has worn United at times this season. They only managed sixth with him. Many have asked where the hell they would have ended up without him. It’s certainly easy to see why he, and even Kane, would have garnered the votes of their fellow pros.
But more than Son? More than Rodri? More than Bernardo? More than Cancelo, Alexander-Arnold and Rice? It’s curious — and objections are inevitable — but that’s democracy in action. And if that means voting through a fuzzy memory of something you once believed in, so be it.
Minutes after the PFA’s announcement on Wednesday night, the dismay surrounding Son’s omission was nearly matched by protests on Rodri’s behalf.
But even City’s Player of the Season award process found no place for the Spaniard on the final list of three finalists.
And if neither his own club nor his professional colleagues will give him the recognition his performance deserves, one wonders who will.
(Top photos: Getty Images)