It is with some regret that we must announce that the PFA have, once again, approached the question of the Team of the Year in as unambitious a fashion as possible. Like last year, they've voted for the players that they think have played the best, with no consideration for the fact that when it comes to football, the actual question of good and bad is, well, just a little bit boring. Every year we put them straight, and every year they ignore us.
But we go again. (This does not slip.) As ever, there's only one rule: If you were in the actual PFA Team of the Year, you can't be in this one. So, sorry to David de Gea, Hector Bellerin, Toby Alderweireld, Wes Morgan, Danny Rose, Riyad Mahrez, Dele Alli, N'Golo Kante, Dimitri Payet, Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane. But if it's any consolation, we wouldn't have picked most of you anyway.
Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea
Of all the attributes that go into making a great goalkeeper, perhaps the most mysterious is anticipation. Being tall, being nimble, being able to point and shout well ... these are all mundane qualities, albeit often taken to extraordinary extremes. But anticipation can often seem almost preternatural, as if the 'keeper knows what's going to happen even before the rest of the protagonists have made up their minds. So we should salute Thibaut Courtois, who realised in the very first game of the season that Chelsea were about to turn in the worst title defence for at least a generation, got himself sent off and spent the rest of the year with his mind on more important things.
Michail Antonio, West Ham
The players in the Alternative Team of the Year aren't generally chosen in direct response to those in the Actual Team of the Year, but sometimes they are. So where Hector Bellerin's route to the top has been, more or less, precisely that a young footballing aristocrat should take: first Barcelona, then Arsenal. If he were a politician, he'd have met all the right people, shaken all the right hands and be sitting in on all the right meetings.
Michail Antonio, by contrast, didn't go to Tottenham's academy because his mother wouldn't let him. Instead he found his way to the Premier League via Tooting & Mitcham United, Cheltenham Town, Colchester United and a few Championship clubs. We're not saying that such a path is necessarily better than Bellerin's, or even more difficult. (Playing piggy-in-the-middle every day for eight hours from the age of 11 sounds exhausting.) But it's certainly more interesting. Also he's far too attacking for a right back but nobody cares, least of all his manager, he scores goals, and he celebrated like Homer Simpson once. Player of the year.
Joleon Lescott, Aston Villa
Lescott has not been very good this season. But he has been very appropriate. As Villa finally gave in to the rot that had been eating up the club for the last few seasons, so too did Lescott -- a title-winning international who may never have been great but was certainly, for a time, very good -- succumb to the inevitable march of time. A dilapidated country house of a footballer, perfectly matched to his dilapidated country house of a club. With a nice new car parked outside, obviously.
John Stones, Everton
While we're on the subject of symbolic central defenders, spare a thought for poor John Stones. Began the season hoping for a big money move to a team managed by one of the finest defensive managers in the world, then spent most of it wearing the same expression as a small child on a beach, watching in confused horror as the sea consumes another delicate sandcastle. Nothing wrong with teams trying to hang on to their players, of course, but there is literally no point keeping an exciting young defender around while Roberto Martinez is in charge. Whoever they are, however promising they might be, they all end up playing like Antolin Alcaraz. That's just his thing. Might as well take the money.
Luke Shaw, Manchester United
"It shall be the season of Luke Shaw," promised Louis van Gaal, and he was absolutely right. For Manchester United's season was seriously knocked off course when Shaw had his leg broken in September, and this tells us two things. One, Manchester United's season was already in a vulnerable state, since a side that gets derailed by an injury to its left back is a side that was barely on the rails to start with. And two, Shaw was playing really, really well.
Florian Thauvin, Newcastle United (briefly)
In the race for Worst Signing of the Season, we're tempted to go with Thauvin for three reasons. One, he was named in L'Equipe's 'worst team of the year' last season, yet Newcastle were happy to splurge £13m, apparently on the basis of scouting that had taken place in January 2013. Two, he was so uninspiring during his time in England that even Steve McClaren in his most desperate moments could barely contemplate picking him. And finally, three, he was so exercised by his experience on Tyneside that he marked his return to Marseille with a calamitous red card in his first game back. Some hidden tension to be worked out there, we suspect.
Francis Coquelin, Arsenal
Over the last few seasons Arsenal the football club have slowly been supplanted in the national consciousness by Arsenal the ongoing argument. What happens on the pitch is now almost entirely subservient to what happens off it; the events of each game serve only to fuel one point of view or the other in the great Wenger In/Out war, and the players only exist inasmuch as they are positions to be attacked or defended, evidence to damn or deify the manager. And Coquelin, in this context, is the ultimate utility player, simultaneously evidence that Wenger is right to trust in his methods and his chosen players and a fool for not reinforcing further, at once a key squad member that balances the team and a passenger that holds his side back. Sometimes he's all these things at once, and if he didn't exist, it would be necessary for Arsenal to invent him. In fact, thinking about it, is there any evidence that they didn't?
Eric Dier, Tottenham Hotspur
Those of you that enjoy the tactical, cerebral side of football can take Dier's presence here as being a reward for the ease with which he's slipped into Tottenham's defensive midfielder/third centre-back role, and in doing so proved himself to be an exceptionally talented footballer, given a young side the balance they need to mount an unlikely title challenge, and played his way into the England squad. (Those of you that don't can rest assured that he's actually been included for his extraordinary contribution to that game against Chelsea, as perfect an exhibition of losing one's head and getting away with it as the Premier League has seen all season.)
Jeffrey Schlupp, Leicester City
Best name in the Premier League bar none. Schlupp! "Schlupp." Schlupp. Delicious, and only improved by the fact that he plays alongside Drinkwater. (That joke's nicked, but we forget where from. If it was you, thank you.)
Sergio Aguero, Manchester City
Scored 24 league goals in a mere 30 games, which were played in front of a midfield variously affected by injury, age and that weird sense of ennui that settled over City once it became clear that this season was, on the whole, a waste of everybody's time. Will presumably do much, much better next season, if he stays fit and Pep Guardiola doesn't try to reinvent him as an inverted ball boy. In short, he's just really, really good.
And yet despite this, and despite having scored 102 goals in 150 league games since arriving in England, he's never made it into the PFA Team of the Year. You might be tempted to put this down to bad luck or, perhaps, some kind of anti-City agenda, but there's something deeper at work here. Remember, this team is voted by his fellow professionals. By those who know him better than anybody else. His persistent absence, therefore, can only be put down to the fact that he is, secretly, a massive arsehole who enjoys taunting the poor, setting fire to nuns and kicking ducks.
Jermain Defoe, Sunderland
Like the moon, Sam Allardyce moves in phases: he waxes, he wanes and he drives human beings to the point of madness and beyond. In the downward stage of the cycle -- Allardyce Descending -- he is a rumbling, splenetic presence, all barbs and snipes and ill-informed rants against the terrible influence of the foreign and the other and the not-Sam.
But Allardyce Rising is an extraordinary, terrifying thing. When he's at the right club, and he's got the players all playing his way and the results start to come, then there is nothing like him. He swells. He glows. He basks. He wallows so comfortably and assuredly in his own self-evident magnificence that it's almost impossible not to be overwhelmed. It rolls off him in almost tangible waves, and if you're not careful you can catch yourself thinking: Yes, this man should be England manager. Or: Yes, this man should be king of England. Or, in the darker moments: Yes, if I had even a fraction of this belief in myself I could have finished that novel/saved my marriage/not spent so much of my life feeling crushed by the enormity of the universe in which I have found myself, floating and stranded, entirely alone, while Sam Allardyce laughs in my face, sets fire to my novel and runs away with my wife.
So, er, yeah. Nice one, Jermain. Thanks. Thanks loads.
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