If the Premier League had a U.S.-style draft before the 2013-14 season, who would be the No. 1 pick? Which player would be deemed the most valuable asset to a team seeking to win the title?
Some would go straight for the goals of Robin van Persie or Luis Suarez; others the dynamic attacking flair of a player like Gareth Bale, Wayne Rooney or Juan Mata. If you put defensive qualities first, how about a goalkeeper like Joe Hart or Petr Cech, a midfield enforcer like Yaya Toure or a dominant central defender in the mould of Vincent Kompany or Nemanja Vidic?
It's not an easy choice to make, but in this article I'm going to help you try to make it.
Let's start by breaking down the most influential players in the last 10 teams to win the Premier League title—leaning on the shortlists and winners of the respective PFA Player of the Year and FWA Player of the Year awards, and also the players picked in the PFA Team of the Season.
By doing this, hopefully a theme will emerge to point you toward where your draft pick would bring you the greatest return. The aim is to put a trophy in the cabinet; everything else (Wenger-esque long-term planning/sell-on profit/global marketing value etc.) is irrelevant.
DEFINING PLAYERS IN EPL TITLE-WINNING TEAMS—2002 through 2012
- 2002-03: Manchester United—Ruud van Nistelrooy
- 2003-04: Arsenal—Thierry Henry
- 2004-05: Chelsea—John Terry/Frank Lampard
- 2005-06: Chelsea—Frank Lampard
- 2006-07: Manchester United—Cristiano Ronaldo
- 2007-08: Manchester United—Cristiano Ronaldo
- 2008-09: Manchester United—Nemanja Vidic
- 2009-10: Chelsea—Didier Drogba
- 2010-11: Manchester United—Nemanja Vidic
- 2011-12: Manchester City—Vincent Kompany
Breaking it down, we can see that three strikers—van Nistelrooy, Henry and Drogba—feature in the list. There are also three midfielders, all of whom would be deemed attack-minded in the extreme. Lampard scored 20 goals in all competitions for Chelsea in the 2005-06 season, with Ronaldo helping himself to 23 in the 2006-07 campaign and a gluttonous 42 for the 2007-08 season.
Chelsea's 2004-05 season is too close to call between Terry and Lampard, who spilt the PFA and FWA awards and both played equally influential roles in the Blues' title success under Jose Mourinho.
Terry's fellow central defenders Vidic (twice) and Kompany make up the list, making for a fairly equal split between the three outfield areas of the pitch. If we break it down to 10 points, defenders and midfielders score 3.5, with strikers just behind on three.
That said, bearing in mind the nature of the midfielders you could argue that forward-minded players with an eye for goal are seen as having had the biggest impact to a title challenge over the last 10 seasons. For the purpose of our 2013-14 draft, that would lead us away from Vidic and Kompany, and perhaps Toure also.
Based on the evidence of the last decade, goalkeepers don't deserve to be in the conversation either—or at least are not recognised as being the most decisive factor in a title-winning team. Should you rule out Cech and Hart at this point? That's up to you.
But based on recent history the smartest No. 1 draft pick for 2013-14 would come down to a striker or a goal-scoring creative midfielder. I would suggest that brings us to a shortlist of van Persie, Suarez, Bale, Rooney and Mata.
You could certainly make an argument for Hazard, Arsenal's Santi Cazorla, Swansea's Michu and David Silva of Manchester City, but I can't see any of those being a realistic first pick.
With that in mind, let's take in some numbers.
Whoscored.com have Bale as the consistently best player in the Premier League this season, with an average rating of 7.93 out of 10 (as calculated using their complex performance-rating algorithm). Suarez is a close second (7.88), with van Persie (7.66) behind Cazorla in fourth and Rooney 10th (7.45). Mata is a long way down in 32nd (7.22).
If we award two points for a goal and one for an assist, Suarez and van Persie both have 46, while Bale has 37 and Rooney 33.
In terms of their passing credentials, Suarez leads the four emerging frontrunners with an average of 3.3 "key passes" a game in the Premier League season. Rooney has the most assists; Bale has sent over the most successful crosses.
Suarez is also the most likely to be seen beating his man. The Liverpool striker averages 2.8 successful take-ons a game, which is higher than Bale, but it should also be noted he has been dispossessed more often than every player bar Sergio Aguero and Charles N'Zogbia in England's top flight this season.
Now for some closing arguments.
"You can’t compare him, he is unique, he makes things look easy, his pace is frightening. Plus, he is very good technically."—Zinedine Zidane on Gareth Bale (Daily Mail).
"You take away Messi and Ronaldo and van Persie is probably the best player in the world,"—West Ham's Joe Cole on Manchester United's elegant assassin (Guardian).
"How much better can he get? I'm not sure, but it's a scary thought if he does improve on how he's been performing this season."—Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard hails Suarez (BBC).
And with that, I'll leave you to cast your vote. For the sake of transparency, my vote is torn between Bale and Suarez. If I was looking to build a team I'd pick Bale, but as we're talking about a pick to bring you a title that season, I'm edging towards Suarez.