Premier League team of the season
It is that time of year again, when more than 34,000 minutes of Premier League action has to be mentally sifted for gems and the season's best performers picked. In some cases, statistics bear out your feeling that one player deserves recognition over another; in others, a less scientific cocktail of impact, awe and admiration sways the decision. Somewhat inevitably, many of the names below represent teams in the top five, but I've "shown my working out" in recognition of the quality of some of the candidates.
Retiring Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has, rightly, taken a lot of plaudits this season, but no one -- not even Wigan's Ali Al Habsi -- has faced more shots on goal (682) than Foster, who has been Birmingham's player of the match on several occasions by maintaining an admirable 75 percent save rate. Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart had a marginally better rate (there's less than half a percent in it), but was far less exposed by his back four.
Signs for next season: Hart has to be the leading contender, though Chelsea's Petr Cech remains consistent.
There was no shortage of candidates here -- Brede Hangeland and Robert Huth, the league's top-scoring defenders with six goals each, might consider themselves unlucky to miss out on honors; Fulham and Stoke City would both be five points worse off without them. Gary Cahill (Bolton), Christopher Samba (Blackburn) and Spurs' Michael Dawson have all had solid campaigns.
Vidic, in his first season as United captain, has been a towering presence, and an essential part of the club's title-winning performances. He may be guilty of the occasional poor tackle, but his strength and aerial prowess are second to none. Singled out for praise by his manager last week, Kompany has been just as big a part of City's third-place finish, which leaned heavily on its defense with four 0-0 draws and six 1-0 wins.
Signs for next season: We'll have seen more of David Luiz (Chelsea) this time next year.
There has not really been a standout performer at right back (Chelsea's candidate, Branislav Ivanovic, has been moved around the back four), but Sagna has been consistent for Arsenal despite everything and attracted attention from all over Europe, including scouts from Bayern Munich. Had we seen more than 14 appearances from Aston Villa's Kyle Walker, or Liverpool's Martin Kelly, who looked irrepressible at times, it might have been a tighter decision.
It was a close call at left back, where both Baines and Newcastle United's Jose Enrique have been superb. Each has made a real impact on their clubs' seasons but the Everton man gets the nod for his remarkable stats: as well as scoring five goals (not one of Enrique's strong points) Baines, who has the benefit of an excellent relationship with a top-quality header of the ball, Tim Cahill, has notched up 11 assists.
Signs for next season: Manchester United's Rafael and Fabio da Silva promise a great deal. Danny Rose has looked accomplished since coming in to Tottenham's back line.
The easiest area of the pitch to fill and thus the hardest decisions to make; Blackpool was relegated yet might have filled two spots, given how well Charlie Adam and David Vaughan have played. Adam seemed to struggle to maintain his own high standards in the second half of the season, however, as did Samir Nasri, who had looked a dead cert in the early stages of Arsenal's campaign but faded once shifted outside. Conversely if Chelsea's Ramires had started better, he could have been in the reckoning.
Manchester City also had good candidates in Nigel de Jong, Yaya Toure and David Silva, while Newcastle's Cheik Tiote and Kevin Nolan deserve a mention, along with Liverpool's Lucas Leiva. Arsenal's Jack Wilshere has shown remarkable skill and composure for a 19 year old, and before being injured, Stuart Holden helped improved Bolton's play through the middle. But Parker is a truly multifaceted, box-to-box midfielder capable of replicating his performances this season in far better teams than West Ham.
Despite the attention lavished on Gareth Bale (arguably the most exciting midfielder to play this season, but not yet consistently effective) and Rafael van der Vaart (another player hit by injury and fatigue), Modric can claim a huge chunk of credit for Tottenham's season. If he doesn't always match Silva for artistry, he has been more effective in a roaming role behind the forwards.
A number of teams have benefited from strong individual performances in wide areas: Clint Dempsey finished the season Fulham's top scorer, and Stewart Downing provided Aston Villa's fizz from the wings while Matt Jarvis did the same for Wolves. Stoke challenged popular ideas about their play thanks to Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant. Joey Barton was one of Newcastle's most consistent players, despite being out of position on the right. Charles N'Zogbia's late season form was critical to Wigan's survival and Dirk Kuyt's form under Kenny Dalglish since January caught the eye.
Over the course of the whole season, though, Nani has been the best out-and-out winger, even if there was a hint that the return of Antonio Valencia might nudge him back to the sidelines, where he'd spent his first couple of seasons in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo. As well as scoring nine goals, he provided an incredible 18 assists in the Premier League.
Signs for next season: If a full season under Kenny Dalglish is anything like as good as half of one has been, it would be a surprise not to find at least one candidate from Liverpool.
First let's deal with the big omission: Dimitar Berbatov. Though it's not necessarily the case that scoring a quarter of your goals against a terrible Blackburn Rovers side diminishes the achievement (a third of Wayne Rooney's last season were scored against relegated sides Portsmouth and Hull), Berbatov hasn't even been starting for United since Hernandez started working his magic. The £6 million ($9.6M) striker may not have such deftness of touch, but his adaptability, work rate and accuracy make him more deadly.
There's also no starting place for Darren Bent, who finished the season as top scorer at Sunderland (equal with Asamoah Gyan) and Aston Villa, or Robin van Persie, whose form since recovering from injury has been exceptional (18 goals since January 1). Instead West Brom's Odemwingie, another Premier League debutant, gets the nod after 15 pivotal goals that showcased great technique and vision -- and 13 of them were point-winners.
Finally, though Roberto Mancini's side has learned to cope better in his absence, City can lack drive, focus and venom without Tevez -- perhaps it's just sheer bloody mindedness, but without that quality up front City's assault on the top of the table would have sputtered out before the end of the season. His trickery opened up Stoke last week in the game that edged City ahead of Arsenal in to third place.
Signs for next season: Liverpool forward Luis Suarez will surely figure here, and on the evidence of his loan spell at Bolton, Daniel Sturridge ought to be a contender if he plays regularly.
Stoke City boss Tony Pulis made a strong claim for this spot by leading his side to the FA Cup final and thus, despite defeat, in to the Europa League, and it was tempting to put Sir Alex Ferguson in charge after he led Manchester United to its 19th league title and took his personal tally to 12. But this -- the least predictable season in the Premier League era -- has to go down as Holloway's year.
His anecdotes are quirky, his news conferences a journalist's dream, but far beyond that, he took Blackpool -- a club whose entire squad earns about the same as Yaya Toure and Wayne Rooney pocket each week -- to within half an hour of surviving in a league designed for big spenders. And fans the world over would have thanked him for it had they held on.