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Who is ‘good enough to play for Real Madrid’? – Garth Crooks’ team of the year

Who is 'good enough to play for Real Madrid'? - Garth Crooks' team of the year thumbnail

BBC

It has been another hugely entertaining year in the Premier League.

Manchester City reclaimed the title from Liverpool in impressive fashion last season, finishing 12 points ahead of Manchester United, and Pep Guardiola’s side are still sitting pretty at the summit.

This year has had a bit of everything: shock results, great signings and the return of fans to stadiums, although recent weeks have not been without Covid-19 issues.

Have a look at my team of the year and you can create your own at the bottom.

Garth's TOTY

Goalkeeper: Ederson (Manchester City)

Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson

Ederson: Winner of the Golden Glove in 2019-20 and 2020-21, Ederson is having another impressive season in goal for Manchester City – though three goals flew past him against Leicester.

With a galaxy of stars playing in front of him one can easily forget just how good Ederson actually is. I can’t see a better goalkeeper in the world with the ball at his feet, not to mention his saves between the sticks, and his extraordinary distribution.

The perfect goalkeeper for the modern game.

Did you know? Ederson has kept more Premier League clean sheets in 2021 than any other goalkeeper (23).

Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Ruben Dias (Manchester City), Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ruben Dias, Antonio Rudiger

Trent Alexander-Arnold: Liverpool conceded eight goals in four games during February and March 2020, but that didn’t stop them winning the title or Trent Alexander-Arnold getting into my team of the year.

The England full-back also became the focus of the ridiculous argument as to whether he is good enough for England’s starting line-up or not. Well there’s no doubt about that as far as I am concerned.

This kid is good enough to play for Real Madrid, never mind Liverpool, and he makes my team for the second consecutive year.

Did you know? Alexander-Arnold created 108 chances in the Premier League in 2021 – the only players in Europe’s big five leagues to create more were Eintracht Frankfurt’s Filip Kostic (123) and Thomas Muller of Bayern Munich (110).

Ruben Dias: Without doubt the best centre-half at Manchester City since Vincent Kompany. City have struggled to find a suitable replacement for their former captain, but have found a defender in Dias who possesses the same capacity to defend and a player who is much more comfortable on the ball.

Dias has brought desperately needed steel to the proceedings, which some of the other centre-backs lacked. John Stones and Nathan Ake can get bullied but not Dias.

Did you know? Dias was on the winning side in 32 Premier League matches in 2021, the joint-most of any outfield player along with team-mate Bernardo Silva.

Antonio Rudiger: The biggest mistake of Frank Lampard’s short managerial career at Chelsea was refusing to play Antonio Rudiger. The German international’s presence in a Chelsea shirt has proved to be invaluable since the arrival of Thomas Tuchel.

Rudiger was surplus to requirements under Lampard, but since the arrival of Tuchel the defender has gone on to win the Champions League and become one of the most sought-after defenders in the world. Well it sort of qualifies you when Paris St-Germain and Real Madrid want to sign you.

Did you know? No defender kept more clean sheets in the Premier League in 2021 than Rudiger (18).

Midfielders: Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Declan Rice (West Ham), Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City), Reece James (Chelsea)

Bernardo Silva, Declan Rice, Ilkay Gundogan, Reece James

Bernardo Silva: He makes my team of the year but he’s also my man of the season so far. This lad has been playing out of his skin. For two years Silva has been very much the junior partner in the firm De Bruyne, Gundogan & Co.

There was even some suggestion the Portugal international’s services were no longer required at City and he might leave. What changed was the injury to Gundogan having already lost De Bruyne.

Silva has been outstanding in their absence and continues to be during their return.

Did you know? Silva was directly involved in 16 Premier League goals in 2021 (nine goals, seven assists), his joint-most in a year in his top-flight career (also 16 in 2018 with Manchester City).

Declan Rice: The way this lad has been playing he’s destined for a bigger club. For such a young man he runs the midfield for West Ham quite brilliantly and he has been the perfect replacement for Mark Noble as captain.

Manager David Moyes has invested a lot in Rice. The player always delivers and is one of the reasons the Hammers have found themselves playing European football this season.

It wouldn’t surprise me if he was also the first selection on Gareth Southgate’s teamsheet.

Did you know? Rice progressed the ball 2,148 metres in the Premier League in 2021, the most of any midfielder.

Ilkay Gundogan: He carried the can exceptionally well when De Bruyne got injured and missed the best part of a season – and that was a very big can.

The German was excellent throughout their title-winning season and scored some memorable goals.

Gundogan’s goals always seemed to have a bit of the spectacular about them, but his role in Manchester City’s set-up proved to be far more influential than his scoring abilities.

Did you know? Gundogan was Manchester City’s leading scorer in the Premier League in 2021 with 15 goals.

Reece James: Arguably the most improved Premier League player this year. Strong, beautifully balanced and can strike the ball brilliantly with both feet. He’s also quick and tremendously competitive.

If he can raise his level of consistency there is no telling where this kid could end up. That said, under Tuchel and at a club as big as Chelsea there’s no reason for the player to go anywhere.

Did you know? In 2021, only Mason Mount created more chances (80) and assisted more goals (seven) for Chelsea in the Premier League than James (created 56 chances, assisted five goals).

Forwards: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Michail Antonio (West Ham)

Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Michail Antonio

Bukayo Saka: He’s handled the disappointment of his penalty miss in the Euro 2020 final brilliantly. This was helped, of course, by the support Saka received from fans all over the country whenever he appeared for the Gunners.

The Arsenal star has been consistently outstanding throughout the year and has easily been the Gunners’ best player. His two goals at Norwich were testament to why Arsenal have put an amazing run together and find themselves sitting comfortably in the top four.

He’s still only 20 and sadly too young to take the captain’s armband, but it’s only a matter of time.

Did you know? Saka played the most minutes (2,798) and provided the most assists (six) of any Arsenal player in the Premier League in 2021.

Phil Foden: For someone so young he has been a revelation in a Manchester City shirt. As for the Champions League it seemed as though he was made for the competition.

Calm and seldom ruffled, the youngster looks very comfortable in the City line-up. However, I detect a flaw. He plays for a manager who has extraordinarily high standards and Foden appears to like the nightlife much to Pep Guardiola’s disapproval.

Foden found himself back in City’s starting line-up against Brentford having been dropped for the game against Newcastle for being in a nightclub during the festive period and the most demanding fixture schedule in the football calendar. If Foden is to become a part of Guardiola’s future with City he will need to adjust his lifestyle.

Did you know? Foden was involved in more Premier League goals in 2021 than any other player currently aged 21 or younger (19), scoring 12 goals and assisting seven.

Michail Antonio: He may have gone off the boil recently, but it’s hardly surprising the amount of energy he puts into a game. Watching him lift a life-size cardboard cut-out of himself earlier this season having equalled Paolo di Canio’s goalscoring record at West Ham said it all really.

The Jamaica international terrorises defences and has continued to add to his goalscoring tally this season.

Antonio was instrumental in West Ham’s 4-1 win at Watford having lost three games on the spin. West Ham look a different team with him in the side and to have written yourself into the club’s record books alongside the likes of Di Canio is to his enormous credit.

Did you know? Antonio was the only West Ham player to reach double figures for both goals (14) and assists (10) in the Premier League in 2021.

Pick your XI from our list and share with your friends.

The Crooks of the Matter

Regular readers will be well aware of how highly I rate Thomas Tuchel as a coach.

However, outside a football club, I don’t think I would let him run my bath! How on earth can he, or any other coach with the resources he has at his disposal, even suggest that the Premier League Christmas schedule is “not fair” and that his side “are struggling” after sustaining more injuries.

This is a club which has arguably the best squad in the league. Chelsea are one of the few clubs who can afford to have someone like £97m striker Romelu Lukaku sat on the bench, bring him on and smash the living daylights out of Aston Villa away from home – and Tuchel expects the rest of the country to feel sorry for him.

Tuchel knew about our Christmas schedule before he took the job. The pandemic has clearly exacerbated matters, but it has for everyone. What’s more the Premier League rules are quite explicit. If you have 13 fit players and an extra goalkeeper then you play – and quite rightly.

Also Jordan Henderson made a plea advocating the need for greater player welfare.

Meanwhile, Guardiola and Manchester City, who incidentally beat Leicester 6-3 at the weekend, only to see the Foxes bounce back to beat Liverpool 48 hours later, suggested the possibility of strike action by players if something wasn’t done to protect player well-being.

I can’t see why – players have never had it so good. If that wasn’t alarming enough, to hear Antonio Conte adding to the drama by stating that talking to the Premier League about this issue was like talking to a brick wall was not helpful.

Only to then go on to choreograph Tottenham’s 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace in what was probably their best performance of the season, followed by a point at Southampton where VAR robbed them of victory having outplayed the home side, making his comments look utterly ridiculous.

What is clear is that clubs fighting for domestic and international honours or even a top-four place feel their impressive squads are at breaking point. With their resources now stretched clubs want to retain the advantage their deep pockets have afforded them by dictating the schedule to suit their needs.

The Premier League should stick to their guns. The clubs sold the schedule to the broadcasters a long time ago and had no problem taking the television money then.

Now they must keep their part of the bargain and fulfil their fixtures, even in difficult circumstances.

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