Sadly, the end of the Premier League season is now upon us, and writers everywhere are picking their teams of the season, so I thought I’ll do the same. The problem I have with many of these teams is that they often pick themselves, and as a result don’t vary much from writer to writer. That’s not very interesting to me; I’m sure none of you reading need me to tell you how good a season Robin van Persie’s had, or how Vincent Kompany has been a rock at the back for Manchester City, or how David Silva can pick a pass better than anyone else in the league.
So I try and do things a little differently. I pick my team solely out of players who had never played a single Premier League game before this season. It is known that the Premier League can be a particularly tough league for players to adapt to, and may excellent players have tried and failed to do so in the past. This makes it all the more impressive, in my opinion, when a player can come into a new league and produce their best in their first season.
As this is a team of the season, I don’t include players who arrived in January, as they have not played a full season. So, there is no room in my team for Papiss Demba Cisse, Nikica Jelavic or Pavel Pogrebnyak, despite their excellent play since their arrival.
So here’s my Premier League newcomers team of the season 2011/12 (in a 4-3-3 formation).
GK: Michel Vorm (Swansea City): Vorm has been one of the outstanding keepers in the Premier League this season and was an absolute bargain at a reported fee of only £1.5m. On his debut, a 4-0 loss to Manchester City, Vorm made an incredible eleven saves, which was more than any keeper had managed in a single game the previous season. With Vorm in goal, Swansea have kept 13 clean sheets so far this season, more than Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton. Vorm is an excellent shot-stopper and has put in many eye-catching performances this season.
LB: Neil Taylor (Swansea City): In the summer transfer window, Taylor was the man who Newcastle wanted as a replacement Jose Enrique. Swansea managed to persuade Taylor that regular first team football with them was a better option than sitting on the bench at Newcastle, and it has paid off for both Swansea and Taylor. Taylor is already one of the Premier League’s most consistent fullbacks and his steady improvement as the season has progressed suggests he could develop into one of the best in a few seasons time. He has also become a regular at international level for Wales. Not bad when you consider that two seasons ago, Taylor was playing non-league football for Wrexham.
CB: Ashley Williams (Swansea City): At the start of the season many, myself included, expected Swansea to struggle badly this season. As with many promoted clubs, I was wondering how their defence would cope with the increased ability of the attacking players they would face this season. Being a Wales fan, I knew about Ashley Williams before this season, but didn’t expect him to do quite as well as he has. Williams has the attributes of a very good centre back, he is strong and has good positional strength and should only improve with further experience. He is also incredibly comfortable on the ball, and at the time of writing, led the Premier League in the number of passes made this season.
CB: Gareth McAuley (West Brom): McAuley’s a man who has made it to the Premier League the hard way, starting his career in his native Northern Ireland while working as a draughtsman, then moving to the bottom division of English football before starting his slow rise to the top. There aren’t many players who make their Premier League debut at the age of 31, so it testament to McAuley’s persistence that he has made it. McAuley is a bit of an old-school, no-nonsense defender who is strong in the tackle and that is exactly what West Brom needed. He has managed to form an effective partnership with Jonas Olsson and that has been one of the reasons behind West Brom’s solid season.
RB: Billy Jones (West Brom): It’s actually not been to bad of a year for new right-backs in the Premier League. Kyle Naughton, a Spurs player who has been on loan at Norwich, has looked promising, but he’s played once for Spurs (for only about 30 seconds too!) in the Premier League a few seasons ago, so that excludes him from my team. That only left Angel Rangel, Russell Martin and Billy Jones that I could think of, and as Martin isn’t even the best right back in his own team, he’s out and I didn’t really want to put another Swansea defender in, so I’ve gone for Jones. Jones reminds me of his namesake (and fellow former Crewe right-back), the former Liverpool player Rob Jones (which is a big compliment), in that he isn’t particularly quick, but reads the game extremely well and is tenacious in the tackle. Billy Jones also looks far better going forward than Rob ever did. Injury restricted his appearances this season but he should be a good Premier League player for years to come.
MF: James McClean (Sunderland): McClean arrived at Sunderland from Irish football last summer but it wasn’t until Martin O’Neill took charge of Sunderland that he got his chance in the first team. McClean has not looked back, and his blistering pace coupled with ability to cross the ball have made him both a devastating winger an integral part of the Sunderland team. He also has the ability to score goals as well as create them for his teammates. McClean’s excellent performances this season have earned him a call-up to the Republic of Ireland squad for EURO2012.
MF: Leon Britton (Swansea City): Leon Britton is another player who has had a slow rise to the Premier League. He has played in every division of English football for Swansea. This season Britton has established himself as one of the best, if not the best, passers of the ball in the Premier League. His ability to get into space to receive a pass and then retain possession is incredible. It’s not just simple passes backwards he plays either; he likes to start attacks from deep. Against Fulham in March, he passes the ball 100 times, with 96 of those passes successful. At one stage this season, Britton was officially the most accurate passer in European football. Britton is also remarkably composed on the ball and despite playing just in front of the back four, he very rarely has to resort to playing a long clearance or just getting rid of the ball.
MF: Yohan Cabaye (Newcastle United): At a transfer fee that was reported to be less than £5m, Cabaye was probably the best bit of business any club did last summer. Cabaye is a player who combines flair and creativity with the ability to pick a killer pass and to both score and assist goals. With four goals and nine assists so far this season, Cabaye has been one of the main reasons behind Newcastle’s challenge for a top-4 place this season. Cabaye is more than a flair player though, he doesn’t shy away from a tackle and hasn’t had any problems adapting to the physicality of the Premier League.
FW: Juan Mata (Chelsea): Mata has been by far and away Chelsea’s best player this season. He is an incredibly creative player, who can also score goals, which has been vital for Chelsea as their strikers have largely struggled all season. Mata is currently second in the Premier League assist list with 13, one behind David Silva. He was one of the success stories of Andre Villas-Boas’ time in charge, and since his departure Mata’s performances have tailed off a little. Tiredness may well be a reason, as Chelsea’s up-and-down season has meant they haven’t been able to rotate as much as they’d have liked to, but since Di Matteo took over, Chelsea have switched formation and Mata has been played more as a trequartista, which has left him less space in which to receive the ball.
FW: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City): It didn’t take Aguero long to make an impact on the Premier League as he scored twice and made an assist in the 30 minutes he played on City’s opening game of the season. 22 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League this season tell their own story. Often players suffer in the cold winters in England and their performances decline until the weather warms up again. That doesn’t seem to have been the case for Aguero, who has managed to maintain a consistent level of performance right through the season.
FW: Grant Holt (Norwich City): Holt is the antithesis of Aguero, in that he isn’t a player who uses guile or subtlety to succeed, but is a stereotypically English footballer in that he uses his large physique to devastating effect and will work hard for his team all day. There is more to Holt’s game than that though. He combines being a physically imposing player with a deft touch; one commentator likened him to a buffalo with the feet of a ballerina. Holt has managed 14 goals in the Premier League, and Wayne Rooney is the only English player to have scored more goals this season. Ten years ago, Holt was playing for Barrow in the Northern Premier League, the seventh tier of English football and has worked his way up to the top. In the last 4 seasons, Holt has played in League Two with Shrewsbury, then League One, the Championship and the Premier League with Norwich. Now, Holt is in with a good chance of being picked for England this summer, and he probably deserves to be after his performances this season. Who would have thought that at the start of the season?
David De Gea (Manchester United): It’s fair to say that De Gea got off to a rocky start for Manchester United and it wasn’t until the second half of the season that he was able to cement his place as first-choice goalkeeper. De Gea did well to shake off the initial criticism that came his way and has vastly improved as the season went on.
Joe Allen (Swansea City): Allen is one of the most versatile midfielders in the Premier League, in that he is equally comfortable playing in a holding role (he is an excellent tackler) or as a deep-lying or advanced playmaker. He has very good ball control, technique and intelligence on the pitch, which has made some of the bigger clubs in the league sit up and take notice of him.
Anthony Pilkington (Norwich City): Pilkington has had an excellent season for Norwich. He is an attacking player generally who can play on both wings, as well as in the middle, but he has played most of his games on the left for Norwich, scoring 8 goals so far this season.
Angel Rangel (Swansea City): Rangel has had a good, solid season for Swansea. He is good on the ball and a composed passer, but has run into trouble a few times after being caught out of position and he doesn’t possess the pace to recover.
Nathan Dyer (Swansea City): Dyer has been excellent all season for Swansea. He is a tricky, elusive player who combines speed with great agility. It is somewhat surprising considering he is usually a big part of Swansea’s attacks that he only has three assists to go with his five goals this season, but I don’t think that will stop some of the Premier League’s big boys putting a bid in this summer.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal): Oxlade-Chamberlain is the most exciting attacking prospect England have had since Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene. He’s extremely quick, but he’s also very skilful and tactically aware, especially so for an 18-year-old. His name has come up as a possibility for the England squad this summer, but I think it’s too early for him, though should England qualify for the next World Cup, he’ll probably be involved.
Jamie Mackie (QPR): Mackie missed the start of the season as he was recovering from a horrific broken leg the season before. Mackie’s return breathed life into what looked to be a pretty lethargic forward line at the start of the season. Mackie is an extremely direct, bustling kind of player, who is often used as an impact substitute to great effect by Mark Hughes. Mackie has scored 6 goals this season, including the winner when QPR overturned a two-goal deficit to beat Liverpool.