Being accepted into the Football Writers’ Association last year was one of the proudest moments of my career. But partaking in its most prestigious honour, a vote for the FWA Player of the Year, created a niggling anxiety that has eaten away at me over the past few weeks. Forget Brexit, this has been the toughest vote of my lifetime.
The nub of the issue stems from how paradoxical this season has been in terms of individuality versus collective efforts. On an individual basis, Eden Hazard and Heung-min Son have shone brightest for me. Hazard has been carrying Chelsea on his back all season, generating the most goal involvements of any Premier League player, while Son has somehow proved himself to be an arguably equal alternative to Harry Kane – for my money, the best striker on the planet.
But patchiness and absences, albeit in the minds of some only aiding Son’s case by factoring in an obscene amount of air miles, corrode the South Korean’s credentials in my opinion, and for all of Hazard’s efforts he’ll end the campaign with, at very best, a Europa League title and place in the top four to show for it. For someone who has guided Chelsea to Premier League titles before, it just feels as though not enough success accompanies the Belgian this time around.
Indeed, the two teams at the top of the Premier League haven’t relied on talismanic entities in the manner we usually expect of title-chasing teams. Mohamed Salah hasn’t been as relentless as last season – in fact, Liverpool’s entire approach this term has been to drop down a gear but keep a consistent pace over the whole campaign – while Manchester City’s greatest talent, Kevin De Bruyne, has spent much of 2018/19 on the sidelines.
Other players have stepped up to help fill his void, as we’ll come onto shortly, but Liverpool and City’s title bids are both very much team efforts, a consequence of nearly all cogs working with impeccable consistency.
Thus, the FWA vote this season has become a battle of which players have embodied their sides the best. At Anfield, Virgil van Dijk represents and indeed instigated the drastic defensive improvements that have pulled Liverpool up from being the Premier League’s great entertainers to dependable victors. At Manchester City, meanwhile, Raheem Sterling has been arguably the greatest beneficiary of Pep Guardiola’s tutelage, transformed from a big-money flop and club-and-country scapegoat to one of the most feared attackers around.
Throw in how Sterling’s managed to change attitudes off the pitch as well, by highlighting the hypocrisies woven into the fabric of the British press, and his impressive performances for England, and the 24-year-old boasts a very strong case. But I’ve never been one to stick with the crowd – perhaps that’s outsiderism for the sake of outsiderism – and it’s a Manchester City team-mate who has grabbed my vote in Bernardo Silva.
In some ways, that’s because of factors that aren’t immediately obvious, even though we’re all aware of them. De Bruyne is such an incredible footballer, perhaps the best midfielder in the world, yet his absence through injury has barely been noticed this season – it’s only Match of the Day that has truly suffered, missing his weekly instalments of the stunningly spectacular – as City have soldiered on, still completely dominating teams.
That’s huge credit to everybody at the Etihad, filling De Bruyne’s shoes has been an undoubted collective effort, but for a side that rely so heavily on their midfield to control games and provide moments of killer ingenuity, the lion’s share must go to Bernardo. Namesake David, of course, has played his usual part, but for a 24-year-old to fill such an almighty void in just his second Premier League season is an impeccable feat.
Of course, Bernardo hasn’t spent the whole season playing in the centre, but that itself only highlights how tougher the job has been compared to De Bryune’s, whose role as a No.8 was set in stone for pretty much the whole of last term. The former Monaco man has been utilised as a right winger, a No.10 and even a deep-lying midfielder – but his performances have remained indiscriminately strong. He’s performed every duty asked of him by one of the most demanding managers in the world.
The numbers too, are mightily impressive and hint that Bernardo represents this City team more accurately than Sterling. His versatility encapsulates Guardiola’s tactical flexibility, just as his 2583 minutes played in the Premier League, only bested by Aymeric Laporte and goalkeeper Ederson, highlights how important a constant he’s been for the Premier League champions.
He ranks a solid fourth amongst City’s squad for both goals and assists in the top flight, as well as third for key passes per game and dribbles per game – two characteristics that very much define the fluidity and creativity of this City team – and perhaps most crucially of all, he’s attempted the most tackles of any City player in the Premier League, a whopping 90. That aspect of Bernardo’s game is emblematic of what we often forget about this City side – off the ball, they’re world-class as well – and showcases his most dramatic improvements since being a dazzling, diminutive playmaker at Monaco. He’s now a complete team player.
And it also harks back to the collective verdict on Bernardo back at the start of the season. Nobody doubted his ability after a solid first campaign in the Premier League and the David Silva successor narrative was already being discussed with every performance. But nobody expected him to make the third-most league starts of any City player, to make De Bruyne essentially a forgotten man and become so critical to the team that City’s win rate actually drops by 4% without him. He’s become Guardiola’s go-to man and throughout the entirety of world football, it’s tough to think of a much greater unofficial honour than that. Once upon a time, such a title belonged to the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
Hopefully the Football Writers’ Award can go some way to matching that privilege, and hopefully this year’s instalment goes to Bernardo. He may not have spent all season in at centre-stage, he may not match Sterling’s off-field impact or van Dijk’s sheer monolithic magnetism, but he has been the most unrelenting, unwavering constant of what could well be remembered as the greatest team in Premier League history. Surely for that, Bernardo deserves rightful recognition.