Early Premier League player of the year contenders – Van Dijk, Rice… but no Haaland – The Athletic

By The Athletic UK StaffFeb 28, 2024

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Will the Premier League’s player of the year come from one of the three teams vying for the title?

Or could there be a surprise winner like Ollie Watkins?

Declan Rice has been influential for Arsenal since his big move from West Ham, while Virgil van Dijk is key to Liverpool’s hopes of a league title in Jurgen Klopp’s final season at the club.

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On Monday in The Briefing, Nick Miller asked is Rice already the Player of the Year? It was a cogent argument that also stirred debate and here eight more of our writers pick a player they think should be in the running to be crowned player of the year — and there’s no room for Erling Haaland…

The City forward scored five in the FA Cup against Luton last night and could yet be back in the running by the time Premier League players cast their votes later this year.

For now, we’re considering the early frontrunners.

First is Nick’s original argument followed by those of his colleagues — let us know who you think is right or offer your alternative take in the comments.

Declan Rice (Arsenal)

Maybe the biggest compliment you could pay Declan Rice is that his excellence isn’t remarkable anymore. It’s just expected now and he’s been that way from the moment he joined Arsenal, proving once more that if it’s possible to be a bargain at £105million, he very much has been.

For a while, he was just thought of as a holding midfielder, but like many of the world’s best tend to do, he’s become a couple of players rolled into one, fulfilling those ‘holding’ duties while also being able to control games and attack. He became that player in his latter days at West Ham but is doing so at a higher level now.

(Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

He’s been superb when playing on his own at the base of Arsenal’s midfield or when he has a partner. Last season, when Thomas Partey was absent, Arsenal looked flimsy and without much direction in midfield: this season, he’s been mostly out of the picture and it’s barely been noticeable because of Rice.

There are many other candidates to be player of the year, but there are few for whom weekly excellence is now just taken as the standard and there aren’t many who have completed their teams quite as much as Rice.

Nick Miller

Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)

Despite the goals of Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, and Darwin Nunez, if Liverpool go on to win the Premier League title, captain Virgil van Dijk will have been their fulcrum.

Player of the year competitions cannot become like the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award (MVP), where only certain positions have a realistic chance of winning leading individual awards. There are similarities with the 2020-21 season, where there was no outstanding individual goalscorer and Manchester City’s Ruben Dias walked away holding the crown.

William Saliba has been outstanding — Arsenal currently have the most clean sheets in the league — but Van Dijk is arguably more central to his side, the lodestone in Liverpool’s wall.

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

For Liverpool, initially at least, this season was about evolution — the integration of an entirely new midfield, the development of several talented young players. Amid defensive injuries, Jarell Quansah and Conor Bradley have stepped in alongside Van Dijk and performed immaculately. The captain is the calming presence which gives them the confidence to play. Despite injuries to Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Joel Matip, Liverpool still have the league’s second-meanest defence.

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Liverpool’s resurgence, of course, starts with Jurgen Klopp’s arrival in 2015, but all five of those major trophies have come after Van Dijk’s arrival in January 2018. Four days after his arrival, he scored the winner in the Merseyside derby and Sunday’s Carabao Cup final shows Van Dijk’s proclivity, like Vincent Kompany at City, to pop up with big moments in the most important games.

This may be Van Dijk’s final season at Anfield — with less than 18 months on his contract, he does not know if he will be part of a Liverpool project without Klopp. His achievements this season make it one of his best.

Jacob Whitehead

Phil Foden (Manchester City)

There is plenty of noise (and deservedly so) right now about the talents of Arsenal and Liverpool, but many of us still have the view, deep down, that Manchester City may well last the course more effectively than their two rivals in the run-in for the Premier League title.

If they do, they will have endured extended periods without Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland, but one man who has almost always been present this season is Phil Foden.

(Clive Rose/Getty Images)

It is starting to feel as though Foden has been around forever, but he is still only 23 years of age and has 16 goals from midfield, which is already matching his career-best club tally for a season.

He’s also making a useful habit in the second half of this season of scoring big goals away from home for his team and if he maintains this form and can hit mid-20s by way of a goal return, then he must be in the conversation.

Adam Crafton

Rodri (Manchester City)

There’s a great contradiction about this season. We’re seeing more goals than ever before in the Premier League but the players who have made the strongest impression on me are two defensive(ish) midfielders and a central defender: Rodri, Declan Rice and Virgil van Dijk.

I could happily make a case for any of those three as player of the season — and I would have spoken up for Van Dijk before yesterday’s heroics at Wembley, even when people were panning him after the defeat at Arsenal a fortnight ago — but Rodri edges my vote because it has looked like Manchester City’s title challenge would have crumbled without him.

(Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

You can ask where Pep Guardiola’s team would be this season without Erling Haaland’s 17 goals, but the far more pertinent question is where they would be without Rodri’s intelligence, leadership, resilience, perceptive passing and, yes, his goals as well.

Manchester City have played 26 Premier League this season. They are unbeaten in the 23 games he has appeared in. The three he missed? They’ve lost them all. Arsenal and Liverpool fans will be praying he picks up an injury or suspension in the coming weeks.

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He never gets a look-in for these awards, but to my mind, he has been top three in the Premier League for the past four years. His influence is that great. If I was picking a World XI, he would be one of the first names on the teamsheet.

Oliver Kay

Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)

As the figurehead of Aston Villa, the side threatening to upset the apple cart and break the ceiling of the top four, Ollie Watkins’ case for Premier League’s player of the year is increasingly robust.

Watkins’ is a player transformed under Unai Emery. Told to stay primarily between the posts and avoid going out wide, Emery showed the 28-year-old clips of Edinson Cavani and Carlos Bacca, strikers he had previously worked with, and explained the key movements needed to increase his goal output.

(Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The results have been striking: only two other Villa players — Gabriel Agbonlahor (74) and Dwight Yorke (60) — have scored more than 50 Premier League goals. It is only Yorke (27) who had been involved in more Premier League goals than Watkins in a single season. With a third of the season left, Watkins has been involved in 24 goals, scoring 11 and assisting 10 — the joint most of any player in the league, alongside Kieran Trippier and Pascal Gross.

Since November 2022, Emery’s first game in charge, only Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah have scored more Premier League goals than Watkins. In that time, he ranks in the top five per cent of forwards from Europe’s top five leagues for goal-creating actions (0.64 per 90 minutes).

The England international has scored 53 of his 54 goals in the Premier League from inside the penalty area, including 14 out of 14 this season, as illustrated below. Only Haaland and Dominic Solanke have generated a higher non-penalty xG this season.

Watkins is now a bona fide scorer, transformed under Emery and with a robust claim to be the second-best No 9 in the league, behind Haaland. On the evidence of this season, he could well be the most important.

Jacob Tanswell

Gabriel (Arsenal)

Playing next to a Rolls Royce, Gabriel Magalhaes is often harshly viewed as the uglier sister of Arsenal’s centre-back partnership.

This season, though, he has been just as imperious as William Saliba.

Both are strong candidates. Saliba’s recovery pace and his calmness on the ball make a mockery of his age — he’s just 22.

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Sometimes, you see some of the league’s top athletes decide that taking him on is a lost cause. Not many players shackle Erling Halaand the way he has either.

Saliba is the sweeper but he has had less and less to tidy up as Gabriel has been so dominant when attacking any forward pass.

(Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

He has eradicated the errors that undermined his game and has vastly improved his decision-making on the ball.

Gabriel is the aggressor in the best defence in the league and the foundation of Arsenal’s suffocating press. Whether it’s on the ground or in the air, the Brazilian has bullied countless strikers this season.

His five goals from set pieces — not counting the other time he has won the initial header — and that attacking prowess has become a big weapon, too. He may not be as pretty on the eye, but he is the epitome of the modern defender who thrives in one-on-one duels and his high-pitched shouts prove he is also the leader at the back.

Jordan Campbell

Pascal Gross (Brighton)

Earlier this season, Brighton & Hove Albion head coach Roberto De Zerbi said Pascal Gross “is one of the best players I have had in my career”. He added that Gross “can play everywhere, is clever, and understands different tactical situations — I am lucky to have him in my team”.

With 10 assists in the first 26 games of the season — the first German to hit double digits since Leroy Sane in 2018-19 — no player has set up more Premier League goals than Gross this season. That is all the more impressive when you consider his versatility, playing as an advanced midfielder, in the double pivot with Billy Gilmour, and as a full-back/wing-back. He can play the final pass, the pass before that, or be involved in the build-up.

(Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

His crossing ability, off both feet, is among the best in the league and his assists have bailed Brighton out of possible home defeats against Burnley, Sheffield United and, most recently, Everton. His back-post crosses, off-ball runs into the channels, and spatial awareness have been essential to unpick the low blocks Brighton regularly face.

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He has played the most minutes of any Brighton player in the Premier League this season, with over twice as many shot-creating actions as any of his team-mates. He is partially helped by injuries that have limited James Maddison, Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah’s availability, with those names often found at the top of assist charts.

Liam Tharme

Cole Palmer (Chelsea)

Lots of people laughed when Chelsea signed Cole Palmer from Manchester City last summer for £40million. They failed to prise Michael Olise out of Crystal Palace and Palmer felt like a desperate roll of the dice on a backup option, another expensive punt on potential. The attacking midfielder won the Under-21 European Championship with England in July, but his experience at senior level was limited to 41 appearances for Man City, mainly scattered across cup competitions as a substitute.

Nobody could have predicted how quickly Palmer would become one of the most important players in Mauricio Pochettino’s starting XI. The 21-year-old has scored 10 goals and provided six assists in 21 top-flight appearances and created the joint-most chances (32) for Chelsea with Conor Gallagher. He is elegant on the ball and adept at chipping it over the leg of a defender or poking it through their legs before driving up the pitch.

(Chris Lee – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Palmer should have scored in the League Cup final, but he still outshone team-mates with bigger reputations and price tags. Chelsea have endured a difficult season, stuck in mid-table a long way from the Champions League spots, but things would have been even worse without their talented playmaker.

Jay Harris

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)

In the same way Kevin De Bruyne has never won a Premier League player of the month award, there appears to be an element of “fan fatigue” around Mohamed Salah’s consistency at the elite level.

Salah has been Liverpool’s top Premier League goalscorer in every season since he joined the club and only trails the robot-finishing Erling Haaland by two goals in this campaign.

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We have grown accustomed to him posting such ridiculous numbers from his wide role, but it is worth stopping to recognise how impressive that feat is. There is a reason why most Premier League records start with “only Mohamed Salah has…”.

The 31-year-old is relentless.

(Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

With a rotating cast of forwards in Liverpool’s front line, Salah has been the constant this season. If not for his hamstring injury acquired on international duty, you would strongly suspect that he would have added to his tally of 15 league goals. The fact Salah rushed himself back to play against Brentford shows the desperation he has to help continue Liverpool’s title charge — and they are going to need him.

An aggravation of that hamstring injury has meant a return to the sidelines, but his goal and assist in just 45 minutes in west London was a shot in the arm to remind fans of the instant world-class quality that he brings.

The Egyptian has been ubiquitous since he joined Liverpool and perhaps his recent short-term absence was enough to remind us just how much he deserves to be recognised.

Mark Carey

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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