With the announcement that Liverpool‘s Mohamed Salah has been named the men’s Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, ESPN’s writers react.
Is he the right pick? If not, why not? And which players deserve recognition for a stellar season despite not getting nominated?
Did the right player win? Who would you have voted for / who did you vote for?
Mark Ogden: There’s usually a standout candidate to win the award by the time the votes are cast, but it’s been different this season. There have been plenty of top-class performers, and nobody who has been obviously the outstanding player. Salah and Manchester City‘s Kevin De Bruyne (who came second in the vote) have both enjoyed periods of top form and big performances, while City’s Bernardo Silva has also been impressive. But I voted for Virgil van Dijk because he has been so consistent and unflappable for Liverpool.
Let’s not forget that the centre-back suffered a cruciate ligament injury last season that kept him out of competitive football for 10 months, but he has returned with no ill effects of his time on the sidelines. Without Van Dijk last season, Liverpool almost missed out on Champions League qualification, but with him back at the heart of the defence, they are in with a shout of a Quadruple.
Salah is important to Liverpool, but they can win without him. I’m not sure that’s the same without Van Dijk.
James Olley: This has been one of the hardest seasons in recent memory to pick a clear candidate above the rest. That’s partly because there are two excellent teams vying for the Premier League title, possessing squads with so many significant contributors. In addition to selecting a player by “precept and example,” as suggested by the FWA, a key arbiter for me is usually identifying the man who makes the difference in the team that wins the trophy.
I left voting as late as possible for this reason and — in a sign of my ongoing confusion — although I still think Manchester City will win the league, I couldn’t find an individual in Pep Guardiola’s side to surpass Van Dijk or Salah. So, I opted for Salah because his individual match-winning ability is still unsurpassed.
Silva, Joao Cancelo and De Bruyne have excelled, but Salah’s hot streak in the early part of the campaign — 15 goals in his first 12 appearances (scoring in 11 of those matches) — is a devastating spell of form nobody else has equalled.
Julien Laurens: I found it surprisingly hard to answer. First, I thought Liverpool forward Sadio Mane deserved it more, especially since the turn of the year. Then, I was tempted to say De Bruyne for all the big goals and big moments for the Premier League leaders. But in the end, I think crowning Salah is right. There are the goals (22) and the assists (13), meaning he leads in both categories as things stand.
He would not be the first one to finish a Premier League season at the top of both rankings (Thierry Henry, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Andy Cole, Didier Drogba, Robin van Persie and Harry Kane have all done it before), but it would still be very special.
What wins it for me are the amazing moments of genius that Salah has provided all season long, even when he was scoring less (the goals against Watford and Man City; the assist against Man City; the dribbles, accelerations and swagger).
Rob Dawson: You can make strong arguments for lots of players — particularly Salah, Mane and De Bruyne, who have all been fantastic for the best two teams in the league. Then there are players like Van Dijk. As Mark said, just look at where Liverpool were last season without him and compare it to what they could achieve this season with him in the team.
Ultimately, though, it’s very hard to look beyond the numbers. For Salah to top the charts for goals and assists is an incredible feat. He’s been the focal point for a team that could end the season with four trophies and with that, would be confirmed as the greatest this country has ever seen. He would be a deserving winner.
Gab Marcotti: Salah is the top goal scorer in the Premier League (though, from open play, he has as many as Son Heung-Min, whom I’m guessing nobody voted for here), so I imagine that’s why he won. But look beyond that and he also leads the league in assists per 90 minutes (among players with more than 1,800 minutes) and is third in non-penalty goals per 90 minutes.
I think he has tailed off a bit in the second half of the season, and I’m not sure he’d make it based on a standard Player of the Year test (i.e. how much worse would the team be if he wasn’t there), but all told I think he’s a fine choice.
Which player has had a brilliant season but would never be up for such an award?
Ogden: Declan Rice (who came third in the vote), Diogo Jota and Kai Havertz have all taken their game to another level this season and been crucial figures for their clubs, but if we are talking about players who deserve recognition for something extraordinary, you can’t look beyond Christian Eriksen.
The Brentford midfielder suffered a cardiac arrest and briefly died on the pitch while playing for Denmark at Euro 2020, but thanks to the remarkable skills of first responders and his medical team, Eriksen was resuscitated and given a second chance at life.
When he collapsed last June, few would have contemplated the 30-year-old playing football again, but he has not only made a miraculous return to action after being released by Inter Milan, he has performed so well for Brentford that he is now attracting the interest of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Eriksen has shown incredible physical and mental strength to rebuild his life and career, and every time he pulls on a Brentford or Denmark shirt, it’s a testament to his determination and refusal to accept he would never play again.
Olley: Cancelo’s versatility and intelligence have been integral to City’s form this season. Possessing the intelligence and skill to drift into midfield, the full-back helps City create so many overloads that are essential to the way they overwhelm opponents.
Rice has driven West Ham United forward at home and in the Europa League, while Eriksen deserves a special mention for not just returning to competitive action following his cardiac arrest, but for playing such a key role in steering Brentford away from any potential relegation battle. Had he played a full season, rather than just seven games, Eriksen would have been a strong contender on the basis of providing a “precept and example” that serves as an inspirational story for all of us.
Conor Gallagher has also been superb for Crystal Palace on loan from Chelsea, helping Patrick Vieira install a fearsome pressing game and forcing his way into contention for a place in England’s World Cup squad.
Laurens: Cancelo would be my outside bet, without a doubt. Rice, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jarrod Bowen or Antonio Rudiger could also be in that category. Cancelo is a right-back who could also play No. 10, with a more dribbling style than the crossing of Alexander-Arnold.
His impact on Manchester City has been phenomenal this season. He brings so much creativity, flair and options on the ball. Defensively, he has improved too. He doesn’t have the lack of concentration (and the mistakes which go with it) anymore. And what is also striking is how fit he has been all season.
Dawson: Bernardo Silva. He doesn’t attract the same attention as Salah or De Bruyne, but he’s had an incredible season. He’s on course for his best season in terms of goals and has already scored more in the Premier League than in any other campaign since he arrived at the Etihad from Monaco in 2017. More than that, he brings an energy and work ethic to Guardiola’s team that few others can replicate. He’s already played 45 games this season and will almost certainly have topped 50 by the time it ends. He’s a vital cog in the City machine and still probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
Marcotti: Bowen is obviously not a realistic Player of the Year Award winner, but since that’s what we’re asking for, I’m going with him. There are nine players in the Premier League who rank in the top 20 in both non-penalty goals per 90 and assists per 90. Six of them play for “Big Six” clubs. The other three are Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis, Leicester City‘s James Maddison and West Ham forward Bowen. Except Dennis’ team is probably getting relegated, and Maddison’s team achieved less than Bowen’s. Plus, Bowen played more minutes than the other two.
In terms of scoring contribution, he’s the highest-ranked non “Big Six” player in the Premier League. That has to mean something. Plus, I like the fact that Bowen comes from the lower leagues (this is only his second season in the Premier League) and isn’t one of those guys who was destined for greatness from a young age, like, say, Mason Mount or Bukayo Saka. The man was rejected by Aston Villa and Cardiff City as a kid, and he came through the ranks at Hereford United before moving to that powerhouse known as Hull City. Respect.