The All-Prem Team, 2011-12
A superb Premier League XI that could beat Barcelona -- possibly
With just four games left in a madcap Premier League season, it's time to re-evaluate the EPL's best XI. Because despite the fact that the title, the final Champions League spot and the relegation trio have yet to be determined (my picks: United, Chelsea and Wolves/Blackburn/Spurs; sorry, QPR), we all know you don't get selected to the All-Prem team on the back of one good month. Otherwise, Andy Carroll might have made the cut.
No, to qualify for this highest of high honors -- for a spot on my heavily biased-toward-Arsenal list of the Prem's best -- you must turn in nine months of RvP-esque excellence, which might explain why so many new faces emerged from our midseason XI.
Gone is Yakubu -- just four goals in 2012 -- along with David Silva (seriously, one assist since mid-January? Who does he think he is, Stewart Downing?). Also, there's no room on this squad for Joe Hart, given City's slow erosion from presumptive champion to the second-best team in Manchester. Yet again.
And my apologies to the great Wayne Rooney, transcendent and newly hirsute for most of the season but strangely lackadaisical down the stretch. Or, as Sir Alex Ferguson put it: "When the game gets causal, Wayne gets casual faster than the rest."
Again, I'd remind you that civility in sharing your opinions is the key here. You don't have to agree with me -- I'd be disappointed if you did -- but you should remember that punching my mustache on your computer screen will hurt you more than it hurts me. Cheers!
GK: Tim Krul, Newcastle United
Highlights: 13 clean sheets in 33 Prem games, third-best in 2011-12. Single-handedly reviving the Shaun Cassidy blow-dried look
It's hard to render the great Shay Given an afterthought. England's No. 1, Joe Hart, did it at Manchester City, but far more praise (don't expect any from Robin van Persie, though, Tim) should be heaped on the Netherlands' third-choice goalie for what he does between the posts at St. James' Park. After all, the exploits of the Demba Duo means little without solidity at the back, and Krul is responsible for preserving some valuable points in the Magpies' remarkable hunt for fourth place: eight saves in a 2-0 win at Swansea, six in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa, six in a 1-0 win against QPR, and five in a 1-1 away draw at Manchester United. In short: When the pressure's cranked to 11, Krul is arguably at his finest.
Not bad for a guy who was on loan to SPL minnows Falkirk and third-tier Carlisle a few years ago.
DF: Bacary Sagna, Arsenal
Highlights: Scored the goal that ignited the Gunners' 5-2 comeback vs. Spurs. Runner-up in the Silliest Hairdo of any North London Full Back contest (please claim your prize at the desk, Benoit Assou-Ekotto)
Despite missing three months with a broken leg, the quiet French right back has been a multihued and braided model of consistency for five years, as bold in attack as he is composed when penned deep in his defensive third. The Prem is lacking in great right backs -- the last person Glen Johnson truly frightened was the cashier at that toilet seat shop -- but Sagna's place on this list is based on merit rather than my usual Arsenal bias.
He's also pulled off the almost impossible stunt of making Theo Walcott occasionally appear dangerous. Sagna's presence as an overlapping second winger gives the Arsenal attack another dimension, creating space for Theo to sometimes find the head of one of his teammates with a cross (while monkeys type Shakespeare).
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Moreover, Sagna's return to the lineup in late January coincided with the start of the Gunners' surge up the Prem table: nine wins from 12 with him in the lineup and Johan Djourou mercifully back in the Wenger gulag. But it was his thumping header with Arsenal down 2-0 to their then-in-form neighbors that is widely considered the tipping point of both the Gunners' and Spurs' seasons. Magnifique!
DF: John Terry, Chelsea
Highlights: Has stayed away from all current teammates' WAGs
Oh, I'll burn in Gooner hell for this, but you have to hand it to the Chelsea skipper (yes, he kept that title). A more self-aware human being would have buckled under the weight of the relentless derision, racial abuse charges and crippling injuries he's endured this season, but ol' Braveheart has shown impressive resilience to lead (and co-manage) the Blues to a cup final and within an eyelash of a May date in Germany. Either that, or EBJT is so utterly oblivious and self-absorbed that he hasn't really noticed the media circus, or his looming July day in court with Anton Ferdinand. If Terry isn't the epitome of good old-fashioned English stoicism, who is?
DF: Vincent Kompany, Manchester City
Highlights: Hasn't burned down his bathroom or disappeared on an Argentine golf vacation. Can tear a phone book in half with one hand. Cost only $10 million
To measure his value, note how City just isn't City in the absence of Vincent's company. In January, a suspension caused Vinny K to miss four games, during which time the Sky Blues were dumped from two domestic cup competitions. Then another five-game vacation in March birthed a Europa Cup humbling by Sporting Lisbon, a tepid 1-1 at Stoke and defeat away to Prem rookies Swansea.
While Sir Alex works on his latest comedy routines ("Jonny Evans is the best defender in the EPL" is almost certainly destined to become a cult classic, along with other winners like "Ashley Young stays on his feet like a man" and "Dimitar Berbatov has a role to play on this club"), the ox-like Belgian center back/City captain is, head and shoulders, the best center back in the Prem. Sorry, Nemanja Vidic, but there's a new "murderer" in town.
For all of City's attacking prowess, the richest team on earth is nothing without Kompany's composure and confidence at the back. Marauders like Yaya Toure are unable to romp. David Silva shuts down. Mario Balotelli is human (actually, scratch that -- Mario Balotelli isn't human, but rather a slightly defective alien approximation). Even Roberto Mancini's scarves lack their usual Italian panache when Vinny isn't around.
DF: Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Tottenham Hotspur
Highlights: Doesn't use them. His crazy, copious coif is au naturel
Nowadays, the Cameroonian left back looks like the love child of Carlos Valderrama and Questlove but patrols the flanks with a languid ease that suggests he's listening to cool jazz as he fires off 30-yard screamers on goal (see his surface-to-air missile against Everton in January). That's because BAE is one of the few Prem players who sees the modern game for what it is: more of a job rather than as the apotheosis of a childhood calling. Counterintuitively, this philosophy may well be why there's an effervescence to his play that radiates beyond the three-foot radius of his magnificent penumbra of hair.
Assou-Ekotto's greatest contribution is the one almost everybody has forgotten, for it was his emergence as a defender that forced 'Arry Redknapp to move a certain Welshman forward and unleash the unholy terror that is Gareth Bale. It worked out well for both Spurs players, as the North London choke artists now have the most powerful left flank outside of Venezuela's parliament.
With age probably the leading contributor to the regression in both Ashley Cole's and Leighton Baines's skills, while Patrice Evra has a had a season more about race than pace, BAE is now the best left back in the Prem -- at least until Jose Enrique grows out his hairdo.
MF: Paul Scholes, Manchester United
Highlights: Helped mastermind United's comeback from 3-0 down at Chelsea as a second-half sub. Orchestrated wins at Spurs (3-1) and Norwich (2-1). Has led United to a 12-1-1 Prem record since rejoining
After putting away his pipe and slippers, Sir Alex's favorite son returned to his Old Trafford playpen to:
A. Rescue United's season.
B. Show the world that an un-retiring, reticent 37-year-old ginger ninja is better than almost any wildly overpriced January transfer buy in the last decade.
All Scholes has done since being coaxed into duty after alarming back-to-back United performances against Blackburn and Newcastle is make Mancini wonder whether he could talk Patrick Vieira into returning to the fray. Nani, Antonio Valencia and even Rooney require a calming anchor in the middle to allow them to flourish, and given Scholes' neat, incisive play -- completing a Barca-worthy 92 percent of his passes and scoring three goals of his own from deep midfield -- the redheaded Dorian Gray is the rock against which his younger, more erratic teammates, like the raw Danny Welbeck, can eddy.
Can we please just put Scholes in the heart of the England Euro Cup side now? They're still not going to win, but at least they'll crash out with a bit of verve.
MF: Juan Mata, Chelsea
Highlights: 9 goals and 11 assists in his first Prem season, while outlasting his doppelganger at Stamford Bridge, Andre Villas-Boas. Brings Spanish flair (ole!) as he whiffs defensively
The stubbly Spaniard makes the list for transitioning so smoothly to the Prem; the EPL is traditionally hard to adjust to, but Mata has been consistently thriving for one of the league's more combustible, drama-laden teams. When all the turmoil with their Portuguese wunderkind-turned-washout faded and the Terry-Anton Ferdinand contretemps threatened to decimate the Blues, there was Mata, calmly distributing above the fray, dispensing assists like Nurse Jackie in a dysentery ward and bamboozling defenders with acute passes better suited to Barcelona than the Bridge.
Where Chelsea have for so long relied on muscle and brute force to bludgeon opponents, Mata brings an artist's touch to their workmanlike midfield, a serene creative foil amid the chaos. And despite a down season overall for the Blues -- seriously, lose 5-3 to Arsenal? Cough up a 3-0 halftime lead to United? -- Mata's emergence as a midfield maestro should give their next overpriced part-time manager something solid to build around.
MF: Clint Dempsey, Fulham
Highlights: 16 goals and five assists in 33 Prem games. Best body art in the league
Go ahead and snicker. Call us chest-puffing, flag-waving and hot dog-munching American homers. But before you do, name another player who deserves to be on this list more than Deuce. Gareth Bale? A down year for the Welshman, who has faltered like Spurs toward the end of the season. Plus, his ears are scarily large.
Dempsey has become what U.S. Soccer has been praying for: a field player who has earned the right to be called "excellent" first and "American" second. The uber-tatted Nightmare of Nacogdoches has blown away all myths that Americans don't have the technical skills required to be game-changers in the Prem, increasing both his goals and nearly doubling his assists every year since joining the Cottagers for $4 million in 2007.
He works hard, generally stays out of trouble, plays anywhere he's asked and is always a threat in Martin Jol's free-for-all attacking lineups (he scored twice against Wolves as a left winger in March in a 4-4-2, then twice against Bolton as lone striker in a 4-4-1-1). And he does it all with a swagger, a scowl and more facial stubble than Jason Statham after rolling in a mound of Clint Eastwood's beard trimmings. No wonder that no less a soccer snob and ageist than Arsene Wenger lies awake at nights, fantasizing about having the 29-year-old American partner Jack Wilshere in Arsenal's midfield next season.
Americans are always jealous of classy stuff from across the pond -- "Downton Abbey," Keira Knightley, Guinness. Finally, there's a classy American for the Brits to covet.
FW: Grant Holt, Norwich City
Highlights: 13 EPL goals, the second-highest English scorer in league. Broadest jawline behind Wayne Rooney. Inducted into Norwich City Hall of Fame after just two seasons. Can fix the flat on the team bus
How often is it you see a pub league clogger transform into an EPL superhero in something other than a very special episode of "Mr. Belvedere"? It's not unheard of for a small-market player to light up the Prem scoring charts -- James Beattie scored 23 for Southampton in 2002-03, while Andy Johnson bagged 21 for Crystal Palace in 2004-05 -- but this former tire fitter has certainly let the air out of the belief that every goal must be measured in FernandyCarroll millions or RvP athleticism.
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Unlike his grease monkey origins, there's nothing slippery about the Norwich No. 9. His bulky frame (think Gary Lineker plus 50 pounds and 50 inches) and grit have led to his 13 league goals, including impressive efforts against the big boys (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea). What makes Holt so intriguing is that he embodies the English version of the American dream: Work hard, get lucky, become rich and famous. Can an England callup be far behind?
Highlights: 26 goals in 38 combined games. Hat tricks against Blackburn and Stoke (Ba). Eight goals in last five Prem games (Cisse)
The last time someone combined two Dembas in the Premier League, it didn't work out so well. Anyone else remember Sir Alex's great Eric Djemba-Djemba experiment at Old Trafford?
But whoever decided it was smart to save money on shirt printing over at St James' "Until We Rename It Something Odiously Corporate" Park certainly struck post-Andy Carroll gold, as the Senegalese duo have led Newcastle to being absurdly on the verge of a Champions League spot. While they probably won't manage that trick -- after all, Alan Pardew is still in charge -- no team has spent its big-club-overpays-for-transfer-target windfall better.
Papiss Demba Cisse, Ba's teammate at Senegal who signed in January from the Bundesliga, picked up when his countryman began to flag by scoring 10 times in just nine Prem appearances. The pair have galvanized the Geordie crazies and seem poised to keep the Tynesiders far above Carroll's new club for many years to come.
The only question I have is: Considering how cheap and brilliant they've been, why didn't Arsenal find them first?
*Two Dembas is better than one Djemba
FW: Robin van Persie, Arsenal
Highlights: All 27 goals and 10 assists from 34 Prem games
Hail Wenger, full of grace
Our RvP is among thee.
Blessed is he among strikers,
And blessed is his agent who keeps him away from City.
Manager: Paul Lambert, Norwich City
Highlights: Took third division team to the top flight in two years and presides over the best of the promoted sides. Never met a collar he couldn't pop
Any man given the task of stopping Zinedine Zidane in a CL final, as Lambert did for Borussia Dortmund over 15 years ago, has more guts than sense. Pulling off the trick successfully suggests a level of self-belief that few get to witness outside of a Donald Trump news conference. In the first game of the 2009-10 League One season, Lambert's Colchester squad marched into Norwich and slipped by the recently demoted side 7-1. Norwich's response -- hiring the Scotsman immediately -- began one of the most dizzying ascents to the top since Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone decided to ditch all the extra names and devour showbiz like a tarantula versus a wounded fly.
Along the way, he's gathered young and hungry lower-leaguers (Steve Morison, Anthony Pilkington, Elliott Bennett, Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson) to create a crafty, compelling and relentlessly attacking side that is as capable of dominating Spurs at the Lane as losing to Manchester City by around a dozen goals. Lambert's players reflect his steadfast nature and drink at the altar of his pragmatic, game-by-game approach to tactics, formation and preparation.
Imagine the kind of team he could assemble if he had, say, King Kenny's budget. But then again, if Lambert had spent ludicrous amounts of money on mediocre players (Jimmy Bullard, anyone?), he wouldn't have gotten to where he is -- best manager in the Prem this season.
Honorable mentions: Michel Vorm, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Leon Britton, Swansea City; Martin Skrtel, Liverpool; David Silva, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, Manchester City; Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney, Manchester United; Scott Parker, Tottenham Hotspur
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."