As the 2017-18 Premier League season comes to an end, the races that could leave you wondering what’s left of your fingernails are few and far between.
Sure, the relegation battle is a perennial story that is always captivating, but beyond that, Manchester City capturing the title is a question of when and not if, Tottenham’s win over Chelsea on April 1 has brought certainty to the three other Champions League spots, and only Mohamed Salah’s recent groin injury against City gives Harry Kane an outside shot at cutting into the five-goal deficit he faces to win the Golden Boot award for a third straight time.
One question remains: Who is the league’s best player?
The aforementioned Salah has taken his game and Liverpool to heights unseen since the departure of Luis Suarez, and the manner in which the Egyptian has slalomed through defenders and finished or provided with his left foot this season has left some fans comparing him to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
Mo Salah breaks ankles on the way to his 25th Premier League goal for Liverpool this season.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 17, 2018
Kevin De Bruyne has gone about his business in a different yet just as effective manner, serving as the fulcrum to Manchester City’s offensive exploits to become the league-leader in assists, and he did most of his damage during his side’s record-breaking first half of the season.
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 17, 2017
The numbers so far
|Kevin De Bruyne
Note: xG = Expected goals (Read: goals player should have scored), xA = Expected assists. Courtesy: understat.com
The numbers show just how differently the two stars are relied upon. Salah’s goal related numbers are so impressive because he isn’t playing as a central striker. Like Messi, he primarily operates on the right side and drifts inward towards the goal. A key to Liverpool’s attack has been his interplay with Sadio Mane and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who have combined to assist on 10 of his goals.
With De Bruyne, his average of 75.65 passes per match shows just how heavily involved he is in everything that City does. Whether it’s leading a swift counter or helping Pep Guardiola’s side control the game in the middle of the park, De Bruyne’s ability to run with the ball, find space without it, and pass or shoot with either foot make him the complete midfielder.
There are three awards that can be won to determine who is the best player in the league. The PFA Players’ Player of the Year is arguably the biggest one for obvious reasons. The players themselves vote for the award, and there is perhaps no greater reward than the respect of one’s peers.
There is also the Premier League Player of the Season voted by members of football’s governing bodies, media and fans. Then there is the Football Writers’ Association (FWA) Footballer of the Year, which is self-explanatory and comprises of approximately 400 journalists across England.
What history tells us?
|Robin Van Persie
|Robin Van Persie
Interestingly, Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard are the only Belgians to have won any of the awards, while Riyad Mahrez became the first ever African to do so during Leicester City‘s fairy tale 2015-16 campaign in which he scored 17 goals and provided 11 assists.
Five of the past 10 years have resulted in unanimous selections across the board with three of them going to a player from the champion side. With the way the pair in question have performed, this year doesn’t figure to be one of them.
Winning the league clearly matters more to the PL voters than the PFA or FWA, since seven of their last 10 winners also added the league title to their resume. Wayne Rooney (26 goals, three assists), Gareth Bale (21 goals, four assists) and Luis Suarez (31 goals, 12 assists) are the exceptions.
The fact that the last three seasons have seen a player from the champion side come away with all three awards does suggest that De Bruyne is all but certain to come away with at least one of them, and as pointed out earlier, it will likely be the PL Player of the Year award.
For a hint of how the players are thinking, we can turn to Leicester City defender Danny Simpson, as well as De Bruyne himself:
My Team Of The Year pic.twitter.com/64Qs6qzwCf
— Danny Simpson (@dannysimpson) March 29, 2018
Simpson has selected Salah as his player of the year, but he also has the entire midfield trio of De Bruyne, Silva and Sane in his team of the year.
In an interview with BT Sport before Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final clash with City, De Bruyne also confirmed his vote went to Salah.
You’re probably wondering why Simpson and De Bruyne have already voted, and rightly so. It is indeed strange that the players vote for this award with seven matches to play, while the voting for the other two awards doesn’t occur for a few more weeks.
Based on the evidence so far, though, it appears the writers will be tasked with breaking the tie.
Do you go with the one man who has carried his team to exceed expectations or the best player on the best team?
One aspect that could go against De Bruyne is recent form. If looking at the last 10 Premier League games, the 25-year-old Salah takes the edge once again with 12 goals and four assists compared to a single goal and six assists for De Bruyne.
While the Champions League quarter-final first leg between Liverpool and City didn’t influence the players’ voting, it’s possible that Salah scoring and tallying an assist, and De Bruyne not having much of an impact on the biggest stage could play a role.
There is also the match the two sides played against each other on Jan. 14, when once again Salah was the catalyst with a goal and an assist. De Bruyne finished with neither to his name in a 4-3 defeat. City’s 5-0 win over Liverpool in which the 26-year-old Belgian was at his very best came on Sept. 9, a long, long time ago.
Over the course of the big games these two have played in the Premier League this season, it is Salah who stands out with seven goals and two assists in eight matches against City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal. De Bruyne has three goals and two assists to show for in seven matches against those same opponents.
Does De Bruyne have one final push left in him with City halfway out the door in the Champions League? Will Salah’s groin injury leave him out of action for long? With seven matches for the blue side of Manchester and six for Liverpool, there’s still a few weeks to tilt the scales.