English Premier League: Team of the Year 2011
Who have been the best players in the English Premier League during 2011? We all know there have been a number of outstanding individual displays over the past year ranging from Wayne Rooney's wonderful performance against Manchester City last February to Yakubu's four-goal haul against Swansea in December to any number of performances by Newcastle's goalkeeper extraordinaire Tim Krul, who has been outstanding since the beginning of the current season.
However, when all is said and done, the cream always rises to the top, although picking a Premiership XI is no easy task. There are numerous factors to consider when putting together any list, particularly one as divisive as best team of the year, so in gathering together my XI, I have considered consistency, general all-around play, whether the player has improved over the last 12 months significantly and last but not least his skill level.
So without further adieu, the EPL 2011 Team of the Year...
Goalkeeper: Joe Hart (Manchester City)
No other 'keeper has impressed as much as Manchester City's net-minder Joe Hart over the past 12 months. Since City made him first choice ahead of Shay Given, a move many pundits questioned the wisdom of, he has grown into being the definitive England No.1 as well as being the most consistently-brilliant shot stopper in the Premier League.
Given, no pun intended, the level of maturity in Hart's performances over the past 12 months, it is hard to believe that the youngster is still only 24 and that he yet to hit his peak and that realistically he still has another 10 to 12 years left at the highest level.
It says much that at this very moment he is probably the most underrated player at the Eastlands. Admittedly, he does play behind one of the league's best defences and is the beneficiary of having the outstanding Vincent Kompany organise his back four, but Hart never shirks his duty and has developed into his country's best 'keeper since David Seaman...
Runner-Up: Ali Al-Habsi (Wigan Athletic)
Right Back: Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur)
Kyle Walker, Tottenham Hotspur's 21-year-old flying fullback, seems to have come from nowhere during the last 12 months. At the moment he is rightly regarded as one of Fabio Capello's best options for the vacant right full position when England travel to Ukraine for Euro 2012 next June.
The youngster was initially signed for Spurs as part of a double deal for £10 million involving Kyle Naughton in July 2009 but was immediately sent back on loan to Sheffield United in the championship. The following season he went back to the championship again, but this time it was to promotion-chasing QPR where he quickly established himself as one of the best players in England's second tier.
Such was the phenomenal level of his performances that as soon as the QPR deal ended, Aston Villa took him on loan for the rest of last season, and it is here that he really began to make people take notice. Walker's impact at Villa Park was immediate as he offered attacking penetration and defensive positioning to such a high degree that he was called into the England squad in February and March to face Wales and Ghana, respectively, although he never made it onto the pitch.
This term his form has gone up another notch again, and he has been instrumental in helping turn Spurs into outside-bet title challengers. Harry Redknapp has brought the best out of Walker and has improved upon his player's defensive duties to such an extent that Walker has played in England's last two internationals against Spain and Sweden. Incidentally, England won both games 1-0.
Runner-Up: Micah Richards (Manchester City)
Centre Half: Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)
It is no exaggeration to say that Kompany is now probably the best defender plying his trade in the Premier League today.
Initially signed as a central midfielder in 2008 from Hamburg, Kompany has really developed into a top-class defender over the last three years.
He is powerfully built, reads the game superbly, is a fantastic man marker and has become the leader that Manchester City needs as they look to become a superpower of European football. Last season was without doubt Kompany's best, as he played in 50 games in all competitions including 37 appearances in the Premier League. He also won his first trophy with City as they claimed the FA Cup in May with a 1-0 win over Stoke City.
He was then named in the PFA Team of the Season and was also named Manchester City's Player of the Season.
This year he has started up where he left off in terms of level of performance with one significant difference. He is now club captain after Roberto Mancini stripped Carlos Tevez of the honour.
The Belgian international has become ultra-important to the title-chasing Citizens and marshals their defense brilliantly as the true leader in the City team.
Runner-Up: Phil Jones (Manchester United)
Centre Half: Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)
If there is any player, other than Wayne Rooney, who is an automatic choice for Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, it is his captain Nemanja Vidic.
Vidic signed with United for just £7 million in 2006 and will surely go down as one of Ferguson's best-ever buys when the Scot does eventually retire. The giant Serbian defender has been the defensive rock that has provided all the foundations Manchester United have needed in recent years to win the Premier League four times, the FA Cup three times and appear in the Champions League final three times, taking the trophy with the big ears home in 2008.
To say that Vidic is a great defender is to do the centre half a huge disservice. Since joining United he has featured in the EPL Team of the Season every year and has been named EPL Player of the Season twice.
Like Kompany, Vidic is a superb man marker, is brilliant in the air, reads the game beautifully and is also incredibly strong in the tackle. However, in terms of greatness, Vidic is a notch or two above his Manchester City counterpart when all is said and done.
Tragedy struck in Manchester United's shock Champions League defeat to Basel in December when Vidic basically ruptured every ligament possible in his knee. He recently underwent an operation to repair the injury, but he is expected to be sidelined until the start of next season at the earliest.
His absence in Ferguson's defence will be a huge factor in where the title goes this season, as not only is Vidic an incredible defender he also has an uncanny ability at bringing the very best out of his fellow defenders.
He will be badly missed...
Runner-Up: John Terry (Chelsea)
Left Back: Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Tottenham Hotspur)
Benoit Assou-Ekotto is without doubt the most interesting professional footballer plying his trade in the Premier League today. The candid left-sided defender may not actually be the best left-sided defender in the EPL today, but in terms of consistency and improvement over the last year no one comes close.
When Harry Redknapp took over Spurs in October 2008, the two players in most danger of being shipped out of White Hart Lane were Assou-Ekotto and Gareth Bale. Today, both are automatic choices for 'Arry and have improved by leaps and bounds almost every single season since 2008.
Defensively, the Cameroonian international still has some way to go if he is to be regarded as one of the best defenders in his position. He is still prone to the odd lapse in concentration, but where those lapses used to happen in every single game they now only happen in fits and bursts. He has gone from being regarded as a Premier League level player to a top-six player due to his constant improvement.
Going forward, Assou-Ekotto offers an out ball every single time for his defensive colleagues and provides added width and backup that Gareth Bale welcomes every week. If he can keep growing, Spurs will have the two best full backs in the Premier League. In a game where fullbacks are more important than ever, this will be of huge advantage to the Lilywhites.
Runner-Up: Leighton Baines (Everton)
Centre Midfield: Scott Parker (Tottenham Hotspur)
To say that Scott Parker has been a revelation for Spurs this season is something of an understatement.
The all-action midfielder is a throwback to the days of old where players in his position were expected to be jacks-of-all-trades. In the last 12 months he has shown an incredible level of performance and maturity that few other players are capable of.
The Football Writers Player of the Year last season was languishing in the Championship with West Ham following their relegation, with no apparent suitors interested in obtaining his signature. In came Spurs with a miserly £5 million bid, and all of a sudden Harry Redknapp had signed the most influential central midfielder in the country for a song.
This term Parker has been simply incredible, but his greatest influence is probably seen off the pitch. In every respect Parker is Spurs' captain. He sets the tone on and off the field of play. He cajoles players in training, demands nothing but the very best in every situation, sets the tone with his high level of performance and has helped instill a healthy fear of defeat that has seen Spurs come from nowhere to being title challengers.
Runner-Up: Yaya Toure (Manchester City)
Centre Midfield: David Silva (Manchester City)
The little Spanish maestro is the epicentre of all that is good about Manchester City. He dictates Roberto Mancini's style of play from defence to attack and shows up in virtually every sector of the pitch to dictate the ebb and flow of every game he plays in.
Always a creative player with incredible vision, Silva's game has gone up a level in the last year, and it is no mere coincidence that the rise in his game has seen City go from top-four contenders to title chasers in just one season.
Comfortable in virtually any position across midfield, Silva has the uncanny ability to bring the very best out of his fellow players, but most importantly he is unselfish in that he doesn't mind them looking better than he does.
While Silva may not score too many goals nor claim that many assists, his initial pass is usually the one that either starts off the move or sets up the assist. He is now incredibly important for Roberto Mancini, and it speaks volumes of how his game has improved that a superb player and international of the class of Samir Nasri has been reduced to little more than cover for the Spanish star this term.
Runner-Up: Charlie Adam (Liverpool)
Centre Midfield: Luka Modric (Tottenham Hotspur)
To put it simply, the little Croatian genius from Zadar is one of the best players in his position in the world today. He would grace any midfield from Barcelona to Real Madrid to Manchester United to Chelsea, but for the moment Tottenham Hotspur's fans are enjoying his every move.
As far as the Premier League is concerned, Modric is unparallelled in terms of passing, vision, control and dictating a game. When he releases the ball, it is always to a player in space, and when he takes the ball in, it is always with the confidence of a man who knows exactly where it is going to next. He is never afraid to take on responsibility in tight situations, and as a result every Spurs player knows he has an out-ball to Modric regardless of pressure.
Again, like many of his contemporaries in the final XI, Modric's game has improved yet again. This despite interest from Chelsea that upset Spurs preparations at the start of the season. It says much about the man and the player that Modric has helped propel Spurs to such high levels this year.
The problems may come in the summer, though, when Modric is expected to leave. With no shortage of suitors Spurs may be in a position to get themselves a trade which could elevate the club even higher.
Runner-Up: Clint Dempsey (Fulham)
Left Midfield: Gareth Bale (Tottenham Hotspur)
The flying Welshman has been one of the Premier League's most outstanding players over the past 24 months.
The converted left back has enjoyed being pushed into left midfield, and with his incredible athleticism he has gone on to terrorise right backs right across Europe.
Without doubt, Bale is easily the best left-sided player in the Premier League today. Physically and athletically he is virtually perfect, and performance-wise, he is improving with every game. So far this season he has even eclipsed Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of creating chances. With goals starting to come his way, Spurs possess the most exciting 22-year-old in the Premier League today.
Runner-Up: Matthew Etherington (Stoke City)
Right Midfield: Luis Nani (Manchester United)
Many expected Luis Nani to fade into the shadows and move on from Old Trafford following Cristiano Ronaldo's £80 million transfer to Real Madrid. But if anything, he has gone from strength to strength without his Portuguese compatriot.
Last season was Nani's best ever in a red shirt. He waded in with nine goals and 18 assists and was many people's Player of the Year ahead of Scott Parker. He was the one creative spark in a United midfield that has continued to struggle this term, and he has continued the same high level of performances so far.
He has pace to burn and is comfortable with the ball on either foot. His delivery from wide positions is improving all the time, but he really needs help from a static midfield.
With half the season gone, he has scored a healthy six goals and has contributed with eight assists, but he will never reach the levels he is capable of unless Sir Alex Ferguson adds a central midfielder of the highest caliber.
Runner-Up: Rafael van der Vaart (Tottenham Hotspur)
Centre Forward: Robin Van Persie (Arsenal)
As far as centre forward is concerned, there can be only one: none other than Arsenal's Robin van Persie.
The Arsenal hitman has been in the form of his life over the past 12 months and has firmly established himself as the best striker in Britain today.
As a player, van Persie is technically superb, deceptively fast, positionally brilliant and has vision that most midfielders would die for. He single-highhandedly guided Arsenal into the top four last season and into top-four contention this season. Without him one can only wonder how far down the Gunners would finish.
Over the last year Robin van Persie has scored 44 goals in 54 matches across all competitions for club and country. With his injury problems of old seemingly behind him, his game has shot to another level completely, and comparisons with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are not without merit.
The problem that Arsene Wenger faces with his mesmeric Dutchman is that he is out of contract next summer and has refused to enter negotiations with Arsenal until then.
Runner-Up: Demba Ba (Newcastle United)