By Shane Thomas
As already stated in my end of season review, the bar may have been lowered in the Premier League but there were some players who shone in England's top flight over the past ten months. In the following 4-2-3-1 formation, here are the Premier League's finest:
* - denotes my player of the season
Edwin Van Der Sar (Manchester United)
In my preview of this season, I said Manchester United would pay the price for letting the Dutchman go on for a season too long. I could not have been more wrong. Bar a howler in a game against West Brom and a less than impressive display in the Champions League final, Van Der Sar has been an indomitable presence in goal all season. And as he leaves the game behind, he also leaves a gaping hole as United's last line of defence.
Special Mentions: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Tim Krul (Newcastle), Paul Robinson (Blackburn), Robert Green (West Ham)
Bacary Sagna (Arsenal)
Suffered like the rest of his team after losing the Carling Cup Final, and failed to reach the high standards he displayed for most of 2010. But his immaculate consistency up to then combined with a lack of viable alternatives for this position make Sagna the best of an average to good bunch. Still the most reliable right-back in the division.
Special Mentions: Micah Richards (Manchester City), Martin Kelly (Liverpool), Kyle Walker (Aston Villa)
Leighton Baines (Everton)
After being left out of England's World Cup squad for being perceived to lack the right mentality, this has been a season of maturation for Baines. More solid defensively, without losing his ability to supplement the attack with threatening crosses from the left. And whether it's a corner kick, free kick or penalty, Baines showed himself to be the finest exponent of a dead ball in the Premier League, borne out by his 11 assists - an incredible tally for a defender. After regaining his place in the England squad, fans of the national team no longer have reason to fear in the event of Ashley Cole being injured.
Special Mentions: Jose Enrique (Newcastle)
Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)*
Mark Hughes deserves great credit for acquiring the Belgian back in January of 2009. Since being moved into his more natural position of central defence by Roberto Mancini, Kompany has shown he's worth every penny of the £6 million spent on him. Anchoring the City defence, he's been consistent, unflappable, dependable, all the while leading with a quiet authority; Kompany has been his club's player of the season. And for all those reasons, he's my footballer of the season as well.
Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)
The captain of the champions. Vidic's constant bending of the rules can be wearying, and his supposed immunity from the referee's red card can be maddening. But in numerous important matches this season, Vidic has been his team's star man. And with United's attack misfiring until February, he had to be. A absolute rock against Arsenal & Manchester City in the first-half of the season, he's fast become indispensable to Sir Alex Ferguson.
Special Mentions: Johan Djourou (Arsenal), Brede Hangelaand (Fulham), Gary Cahill (Bolton)
Scott Parker (West Ham)
There were a few eyebrows raised - and justifiably so - when he was awarded Footballer Of The Year. But we shouldn't underestimate how well Parker performed, especially when so few of his teammates followed suit. At times Parker kept West Ham from being cut adrift from the relegation fight single-handed, with an injury to his achilles no less. For the uninitiated, an achilles injury isn't the kind of thing you can just "run off". So Parker's endurance to play with such an affliction shows the remarkable character of the man. It's no coincidence that when Parker finally succumbed to the injury, West Ham looked lost without him and were relegated ignominiously.
Luka Modric (Tottenham)
Many journalists agreed with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, when he felt that Modric would not be suited to playing in England. His technical ability was never in question, but Wenger said the little Croatian would be unable to cope with the Premier League's physicality. And initially it looked as if the Frenchman would be proved right. Until this season. Modric has teemed his impish incisiveness with a tough competitive streak. Forget Gareth Bale or Rafa Van Der Vaart, Modric was far & away Spurs's star man this campaign. He is the cog that gets his team going, and gave arguably the best individual performance of the season in the thrilling 3-3 in the North London derby back in April. The only thing that prevents him being my player of the season is his lack of goals. But there's few players in this league who I'd rather watch.
Special Mentions: Ryan Giggs (Manchester United), Nigel De Jong (Manchester City), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), Lucas Leiva (Liverpool), Cheik Tiote (Newcastle), Stuart Holden (Bolton), Craig Gardner (Birmingham), Charlie Adam & David Vaughan (both Blackpool)
Nani (Manchester United)
While Sir Alex chose to use Nani only as an impact sub the closing games of the season, Nani was fantastically consistent up to that point. No player set up more goals in the league than the Portugese. He hasn't fully filled the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo, and his propensity for simulation can frustrate. But he's been an ever improving force in English football, and I'd expect him to continue to be one of the division's best game-breakers next time around as well.
Special Mentions: Raul Meireles (Liverpool), Seamus Coleman (Everton), Stewart Downing (Aston Villa), Joey Barton (Newcastle), Jermaine Pennant (Stoke), Charles N'Zogbia (Wigan)
Yaya Toure (Manchester City)
First off, a message to all those people who complained about Manchester City breaking the bank on a defensive midfielder. I'll say this for the last time. City don't play with three defensive midfielders. Yaya Toure plays in the second striker position, and on occasion occupies a place even further up the pitch. Roberto Mancini astutely spotted that Toure is capable of playing in any outfield position down the centre of the pitch. And once he got used to the style of English football, it was like firing a weapon from a catapult. Toure is the equivalent of Jonah Lomu on a football pitch, barreling his way past opponents like a force of nature. He may not be the most pleasing aesthetically, but after his winning goals in both the semi-final & final of the FA Cup, he's become a cult hero at Eastlands.
Special Mentions: Rafael Van Der Vaart (Tottenham), Luis Suarez (Liverpool), Clint Demspey (Fulham), Ashley Young (Aston Villa), Chris Brunt (West Brom), Daniel Sturridge (Bolton), James McCarthy (Wigan)
Samir Nasri (Arsenal)
Was unable to recapture his best form after picking up a hamstring injury in an FA Cup game against Huddersfield (which he never even should have played in). But up to that point, he was probably on to be the Premier League's star man. Dangerous when passing, shooting or dribbling, Nasri looked unplayable at times. It will be a busy summer for Arsene Wenger, but his first port of call should be ensuring Nasri signs a new contract. He will be harder to replace than Cesc Fabregas.
Special Mentions: David Silva (Manchester City), Gareth Bale (Tottenham), Jerome Thomas (West Brom), Matthew Etherington (Stoke)
Carlos Tevez (Manchester City)
For all his off-pitch problems, capricious agent, and his confrontational relationship with Mancini, Tevez remains the most talismanic figure at Eastlands. There is a streak of competitiveness that runs through the man's very core, which means that Tevez can never be accused of not pulling his weight on the pitch. He was the joint top scorer in the division and gave us one of the moments of the season with his astonishing free kick against Stoke mere days after the cup final - one in which he played while unfit.
Special Mentions: Javier Hernandez (Manchester United), Robin Van Persie (Arsenal), Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), Darren Bent (Aston Villa), Peter Odemwingie (West Brom), DJ Campbell (Blackpool)
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