Premier League player of the year: Harry Kane
An unimaginative choice perhaps, but the sheer undeviating consistency of Kane’s no-frills excellence marks him out as the calendar year’s most impressive performer. That he is the talisman of the Premier League's most heartening team – who continue to bother the elite despite not having access to anywhere near the same reservoirs of cash – certainly helps.
That he is a likeable, unremarkable, un-glitzy character does too. But what truly elevates Kane above the rest is his ability to make the extraordinary look completely routine. The majority of his goals are not the product of otherworldly technique, just smart shots struck well into exactly the right spot.
Kane does not have the aesthetic appeal of David Silva, the cyborg-like brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne or the impudence of Paul Pogba – but he is the year’s best player for that very reason. He appears to have less natural advantage than any of the above, and yet continues to produce unnatural quantities of output. Exactly a goal a game, to be precise.
Honourable mentions: Kevin De Bruyne, who would take the title at a canter had he hit his current level at the start of the year rather than the start of the season. Also Wilfried Zaha, who has proven himself to be head and shoulders above any other player outside the top half of the table.
English football's manager of the year: Sean Dyche
Burnley were among the favourites to get relegated at the start of last season, yet they've never looked like doing so. At the time of writing they sit sixth, two points off the Champions League places and worth every point they’ve accrued.
As we all know by now, Burnley have a resplendent defence, but Dyche’s coaching goes further than that: those who have watched them this term will tell you that they’re a more progressive side than they were last term, with the canny introduction of Jack Cork central to that. James Tarkowski, Robbie Brady and Johann Gudmundsson also populate the growing list of previously unremarkable journeymen who have thrived under Dyche’s tutelage. Would he do better with more resources? We don’t know – but there’s nothing we’ve seen so far to suggest he wouldn’t.
Honourable mention: Danny Cowley, who – in partnership with his brother Nicky – took Lincoln City to the National League title (they joined a club that finished 13th the previous season), an FA Cup quarter-final and, at the time of writing, sixth place in League Two. Hats off.
Team of the year: Monaco
True, they were hardly put together on a shoestring. True, their subsequent dismantling epitomised everything wrong and craven about the modern game. But for a time, Leonardo Jardim’s tyros thrilled the continent with pedal-to-the-metal football packed with pace, verve and vitality. To beat PSG, a club effectively funded by a Gulf state, to the league title is one thing. To do it by eight points, and with the gloriously Keeganesque brand of football they did, is quite another. Bravo.
Honourable mention: Burnley, who don’t just keep defying gravity but continue making it look easy.
Goal of the year: Andy Carroll vs Crystal Palace
The have been more unusual goals this year, more visionary ones and certainly a fair few defter ones. But there have been none as eye-poppingly visceral as Carroll’s thumping scissor-kick back in January. It was the perfect blend of ferocity and finesse: a man of herculean size performing dexterous mid-air acrobatics in order to bludgeon the ball home with barbarous brutality. Glorious.
Honourable mentions:Radamel Falcao vs Manchester City: not since Philippe Albert has a player located the net with such a pleasing trajectory. Mario Mandzukic vs Real Madrid: a goal whose eventual irrelevance will see it lost in the annals of time, but which otherwise fulfilled every category of an all-time great: occasion, opposition, build-up and finish.
Performance of the year: England U17s (vs Spain)
An England team, at a major tournament, outplaying the high priests of possession football. Coming back from two goals down with fierce resilience. Playing with exuberance, freedom and flair. Scoring five goals. Literally winning the World Cup.
Yep, it all happened, and while all the usual caveats about age group football still apply, none of that detracts from what was a truly sensational feat from England’s teenagers. In an ideal world it will be one step on the path to senior success; but whatever happens from now on, they can take that achievement to their graves. A spectacular success.
Honourable mention: Tottenham (vs Real Madrid): Spurs’ greatest display under the Premier League’s most impressive coach proved yet again that Mauricio Pochettino has single-handedly redefined ‘Spursy’ to mean tenacity, fearlessness and youthful audacity.
Own goal of the year: Adrien Gulfo
The most meticulously composed and perfectly executed own goal since Jamie Pollock’s.
Honourable mention:Jose Angel’s inch-perfect Lee Dixon tribute against Schalke.
Premier League signing of the year: Gabriel Jesus
Joined Manchester City on January 19, made his debut on the 21st and has played 41 times since, losing just once – in a dead rubber against Shakhtar Donetsk. He is also well on his way to displacing the Premier League’s most high-pedigree striker at the spearhead of Europe’s most well-stocked attack. Not bad for a player who doesn’t turn 21 for another four months.
Honourable mention: Mamadou Sakho. Yet to truly make an impression this term but performed bona fide heroics at the back for Crystal Palace during last season’s escape from the jaws of doom.
Short-lived transformation of the year: Crystal Palace
When Sam Allardyce left Palace in the summer after his sterling rescue job, eyes turned to the bigger picture. Sure, Big Sam had dug them out of a ditch. But what would prevent Palace from falling back in was a grander plan; a sustainable vision and above all, a more possession-oriented, continental style of football. Enter Frank de Boer, veteran of Ajax and Barcelona, disciple of Cruyff and Van Gaal. A man, in other words, who knows how to build a dynasty.
Ten weeks and four league defeats later he was clearing his desk, Palace’s grand vision put on ice as Roy Hogdson zoomed heroically towards the Bat-Signal arising from Selhurst Park.
Miss of the year: Dennis van Duinen
As far as your classic point-blank howler goes, it’s hard to beat Divock Origi’s effort against Leipzig. But that had nothing on Dennis van Duinen, who takes the cake for the Berbatovian blase he displays in stroking the ball miles over the bar of a gaping goal.
Most improved player: Raheem Sterling
Players of Sterling’s undoubted promise generally hit the big time eventually, but they rarely do so with such startling speed. Of all the players who have clearly benefited from Pep Guardiola’s training ground genius, Sterling has been the most obvious, transforming in the space of a year – or even a summer – from nippy winger with little end product and a propensity to hurtle down cul-de-sacs, to deadly inside-forward who can’t stop scoring.
Technically, Sterling’s limitations haven’t really changed – he’s still fairly one-footed and his shooting remains a weak spot. Instead his progress is testament to his intelligence, maturity and ability to think his way towards improvement.
Steepest decline: Robert Snodgrass
Timing is everything. Snodgrass’s purple patch at the back end of last year was enough to ignite a three-way scramble between West Ham, Middlesbrough and Burnley for his signature, The former won the fight to part with £10m for his services. Fifteen games and zero goals later, he was packed off to Aston Villa for a season in the second tier.
Pundit of the year: Ian Wright
Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher remain the must-see forensic act of the week, but for sheer infectious enjoyment – and no little eloquence and insight – there’s no beating Ian Wright. Like his Match of the Day colleague Alan Shearer, Wright is unrecognisable from his early punditry days, and fuses wit and wisdom to Saturday night perfection.
Newcomer of the year: Kylian Mbappe
The best teenager since Messi? Almost certainly. If his defection to PSG in the summer was the ugly product of yet more financial strong-arming in the French capital, his displays since joining have rarely been anything but beautiful. Before 2017, Mbappe had appeared in a grand total of 28 senior club fixtures, scoring seven times. In the 12 months since he has scored 31 goals in 51 games, and becoming the highest-scoring teenager in Champions League history.
Conspiracy theorist of the year: Richard Keys
The one-man meme machine outdid himself in December by positing the hypothesis that Jose Mourinho’s repeated use of the word “diversity” in explaining the Old Trafford tunnel fracas was, in fact, an underhand accusation of theatrics from Manchester City players. Diversity. Diver City. Get it? Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left! The truth is out there, Keysey. And England’s loss is most certainly Qatar’s gain.
Trend of the year: three at the back
Last season’s Premier League was billed as the battle of the coaches – never before had so many of management’s great and forward-thinking minds assembled in one division at a time. Surely we were set to witness a clash of ideas – an overload of innovation – like never before. Odd, then, that as soon as one of them began playing a vaguely different formation, as Antonio Conte did with his reshuffled defence towards the end of 2016, that the idea would soon be appropriated by almost every manager in the division.
By April, even Arsene Wenger had given up fighting the tide to make his team the 17th in the top flight to adopt the formation. In October, Gareth Southgate committed to the set-up for England’s World Cup mission. Innovation indeed.
Most depressing moment of the year: PSG’s double
PSG’s two-pronged, £363m summer swoop for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe – the sort of financial intervention that leaves you in absolutely no doubt as to where the next decade’s worth of trophies will be heading and why.
You could argue that signing Neymar from Barcelona was an act of transfer market audacity. But to snatch the star player from the only team threatening to make Ligue 1 into anything other than a one-horse race was the shameless act of playground bully; the sort of naked elimination of competition that makes the sport poorer for everyone.
Honourable mention: Wayne Shaw’s touchline snack at Sutton: a stunt – concocted by the virtuous pairing of bookmaker and tabloid newspaper – which made a mug of him, gave publicity to them, and grubbily tarnished an otherwise heartening underdog story.
Comeback of the year: Barcelona 6-1 PSG
Arguably the comeback of the century. Barcelona's absurd, exhilarating, gut-busting revival in March was blighted only by fact after the event – i.e. that they promptly went out of the tournament in the following round. Like Liverpool’s against Borussia Dortmund a year earlier, that will deny it a place in one of history’s grander storylines.
But as a standalone act of resilience, perseverance and cool-headed courage, there’s a good chance that Barcelona’s performance will never be beaten. 4-0 down from the first leg and even pegged back to a three-goal deficit on the hour mark, the game unfolded with the sort of operatic majesty that marks out sport’s once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Failure of the year: Italy
Daniele De Rossi’s face said it all. Asked to prepare for action as a turgid Italy side trailed Sweden, a place in the World Cup at stake, the midfielder jabbed a finger in the direction of Lorenzo Insigne and barked: “Why the hell should I go on? We don’t need to draw, we need to win!”
Giampiero Ventura's declination to involve Insigne, scorer of 20 goals for Napoli last term, was only one facet of Italian football’s extraordinarily wide-ranging failure to make Russia 2018. It takes in tactics, team selections, coaching, funding and even fixture scheduling. But ultimately it boiled down to one game, and the need to score one goal, against a desperately limited team. Not only did they fail to do so, they failed to ever look likely to.
Honourable mention: Holland, who completed their fall from grace by finishing third in a six-team group. Their latest failure is a reflection of the country’s inability to replace the Sneijder-Robben-Van Persie generation with anything like a similar cohort.
Red card of the year: Andy Carroll vs Burnley
It was as if Carroll had embarked on some sort of cosmic evening-up mission. Having begun the year by producing a moment of clear-minded balletic genius, the Geordie produced the polar opposite 10 months later.
At Burnley he earned himself a booking by clattered into a defender elbow-first and got a stern lecture from a lenient referee about how to avoid making that card a red one.
His response? To gallop into a carbon copy aerial challenge – precisely 99 seconds later. Cue 21,000 disbelieving chuckles as Carroll trudged from the field, leaving his team-mates and seething, soon-to-be-sacked manager to see out the final hour a man short. They conceded an 85th-minute equaliser.
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