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    Ronaldo and Kane but no Son – trying to understand the PFA Player of the Year shortlist

    In 2009, a Manchester City fan emailed Professional Footballers Association (PFA) chief executive Gordon Taylor, demanding to know how Ryan Giggs could possibly have ended up on their shortlist of candidates for the Player of the Year award.

    A back-and-forth followed, in which the City supporter pointed out how few matches Giggs had started and Taylor responded by explaining this was an entirely democratic process, based on the number of votes players had received from their fellow professionals.

    “I can tell you the situation as it is,” Taylor answered. “If you’re not happy and consider yourself such an expert on ballots, perhaps you had better go to Zimbabwe or Russia the next time they have elections and tell everybody how they should vote as they put their votes in the ballot box.”

    But let’s not go there. Let’s talk about the PFA’s latest Player of the Year shortlist, which is certain to arouse plenty of debate — not least among… Manchester City supporters.

    The shortlist is as follows: Kevin De Bruyne (City), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United).

    Immediate thoughts on seeing it?

    Where on earth is Son Heung-min?

    Where are Bernardo Silva and Rodri?

    And if those players don’t make the cut, then surely Joao Cancelo, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Declan Rice are more worthy candidates than Ronaldo and Kane?

    Those are just personal opinions and they are offered in the certain knowledge that others are entitled to shoot them down and call me clueless. (You’re welcome.)

    After all, Kane ended up scoring 27 goals in all competitions for Spurs this season and Ronaldo was only three short of that total in a dreadful United team, scoring 18 Premier League goals to Kane’s 17. There is clearly a case to be made for both players.

    But the overwhelming impression, looking at that shortlist, is that the power of a player’s profile and status seems to weigh more heavily in these considerations than it should. And that professional footballers, when asked to vote for their Player of the Year, are more likely to go for a legend of the game such as Ronaldo than to vote en masse for someone like Rodri or Bernardo, whose week-in-week-out excellence in a title-winning team might have passed them by as they concentrated on their own team’s affairs.

    That doesn’t just apply to the men’s Player of the Year award.

    A more stark illustration is to be found in the PFA Women’s Young Player of the Year shortlist.

    Chelsea’s Lauren James made the six-strong shortlist after a WSL campaign in which, due to injury, she was restricted to six substitute appearances and no starts, playing a total of 113 minutes.

    And it seems to come back to something that was said in an article last year about how players vote on these awards.

    “To be honest, if it wasn’t for stats or what you read on social media, I don’t think myself or many others would have a clue how anyone has been this season in the Championship, other than when you play against them,” one player said.

    The same Championship player added last year that, when it came to picking a team of the season for his division, he “wouldn’t have a clue” about defenders. He proposed Will Hughes, then of Watford, in midfield “but again, that’s just because I think he’s a good player”. Above all, he said, “it will be names that you just remember from previous years”.

    And maybe that candid explanation, reflecting a subconscious bias in favour of established, big-name players — and apparent indifference to those in less glamorous roles — offers some kind of explanation for why the likes of Rodri, Bernardo and Cancelo have not make the cut.

    Salah beat De Bruyne to the Football Writers’ Association (FWA) Footballer of the Year award, announced last month, but Rice of West Ham was third. Thirty-one different players received votes, including nine from Liverpool and six from Manchester City. Like the PFA, the FWA asks its respondents to vote for one player only.

    When The Athletic held its own awards ballot last week, it was a different voting system, with each journalist and editor naming their top six in order. It was won by De Bruyne ahead of Salah — and it might be a reasonable bet that the PFA award goes the same way when it is announced on June 9. 

    The interesting thing in our vote is that Son came third and Cancelo fourth, with the next four places pretty much level-pegging between Mane, Rodri, Bernardo and Alexander-Arnold. That was a clear top eight, followed by another cluster that included Van Dijk, Phil Foden, Thiago, Alisson, Rice and Jarrod Bowen.

    That sounds pretty reasonable to me.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I went 1) De Bruyne, 2) Salah, 3) Bernardo, 4) Rodri, 5) Van Dijk, 6) Son.

    In the interests of even greater disclosure, my team of the season was: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Cancelo; De Bruyne, Rodri, Thiago; Salah, Son, Bernardo.

    And for maximum disclosure, with hindsight I wish I had gone with Mane rather than Thiago, dropping Bernardo back into midfield.

    Again, we are talking about personal choices based on our own subjective evaluations, but those preferences seem to reflect not just that City and Liverpool have been in a class of their own in the 2021-22 Premier League but that, even position by position, their players have been almost unrivalled.

    If I was doing a second XI, it would include Kyle Walker, Andy Robertson and Foden alongside the likes of Jose Sa, Antonio Rudiger, Rice and Bowen.

    City and Liverpool really have been on another level, far above and beyond everyone else, and they have not just done that by relying on one or two outstanding players. That is why that star-studded Player of the Year shortlist — De Bruyne, Van Dijk, Kane, Mane, Salah, Ronaldo — seems a little… disappointing.

    The inclusion of a player who scores 17 or 18 Premier League goals can never be seen as controversial, but it is certainly questionable when performers of the standard of Rodri, Bernardo and Cancelo are overlooked, not to mention co-Golden Boot winner Son.

    Maybe it just comes back to what that unnamed Championship player told The Athletic last year: that many professional footballers are so focused on their own job they don’t really spend too much time assessing the performances of players in other teams, so they default to voting for the ones whose reputations go before them.

    Kane is more than a good player; he is closing in on England’s all-time goalscoring record and will go down as one of the greats of the Premier League era. Ronaldo is one of the greatest to have ever played the game. But it is not easy to argue that either of them was among the top six performers in this last Premier League campaign; at Tottenham’s end-of-season awards, it was Son who swept the board.

    Even while bemoaning others’ choices, though, I keep reflecting on my own.

    In the end, it felt like a toss-up between Salah, who performed to such a mesmerising standard in the first half of the season, and De Bruyne, who did likewise in the second. Had you held a poll even among City fans at the halfway stage of the campaign, it is doubtful De Bruyne would have been in their top four.

    The feeling nags that Salah’s best period of the season came not when Liverpool were performing so relentlessly in the final months but in that autumn period when they were dropping the points that would ultimately leave them agonisingly short of City’s 93 points.

    De Bruyne’s best period of the season came not when City were winning 12 Premier League games in a row between early November and mid-January but in the final months, when some of his team-mates were toiling and he, time and again, was the one who — through personality and sublime skill — dragged them through.

    It seems like a contradiction, but maybe it says something about the way we perceive individual performance in a team sport.

    Liverpool were at their best when Salah was not. City were at the best when De Bruyne was not. It was when both teams were spluttering — and with these two sides, it’s very much relatively speaking — that the star performers really came to the fore. 

    With De Bruyne, with Salah and Mane, with Ronaldo and Kane, there was no shortage of “clutch” moments — players summoning the inspiration to save their team in the moments when the stakes were highest and the pressure most intense. Never underestimate the depth of admiration for a player who performs “in the clutch”, particularly when it comes to someone like Ronaldo, who has done it with such incredible frequency throughout his long career.

    Ronaldo could be said to have carried United at times this season. They only managed sixth with him. Many have asked where on earth they would have finished without him. It is certainly easy to understand why he, and indeed Kane, would have picked up votes from their fellow professionals.

    But more than Son? More than Rodri? More than Bernardo? More than Cancelo, Alexander-Arnold and Rice? It is curious — and objections are inevitable — but it is democracy in action. And if that means voting through a hazy recollection of something you once believed in, so be it.

    Within minutes of the PFA’s announcement on Wednesday evening, the dismay surrounding Son’s omission was almost matched by the protests on behalf of Rodri.

    But even City’s own player of the season award process found no space for the Spaniard on the final three-man shortlist.

    And if neither his own club nor his fellow professionals will give him the recognition his performances merit, you wonder who will.

    (Top photos: Getty Images)



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