The best eleven
Picking a quality Premier League XI following an unforgettable season
To change an old football cliché slightly, this was a season of two halves. The likes of Demba Ba and Jose Enrique were superb before Christmas but then faded badly, while Papiss Cisse and Paul Scholes had a superb impact but played only in the second half of the campaign. Then there are players like Lucas Leiva and Alejandro Faurlin, who excelled early on but saw their seasons end prematurely due to injury.
This season, more than any other, highlighted the importance of consistency. With that being a crucial consideration, here is a Premier League team of the season, complete with two backups at each position.
Joe Hart, Manchester City
The league-winning goalkeeper by the narrowest of margins, Hart was ultimately the most consistent across the course of the season. Hart is a good all-round goalkeeper -- excellent in positional terms, good at dealing with crosses and great reflexes. His incredible man-of-the-match display at Anfield in November was probably his best performance, though the individual highlight was his repeatedly shouting "Don't wait for me!" as Scott Sinclair lined up a penalty kick, having worked out the Swansea winger's tendency to wait for the goalkeeper to move. Sinclair did wait, Hart saved and then restated his warning in jubilant fashion.
Kyle Walker, Tottenham Hotspur
In his first full season at Tottenham after a successful loan spell at Aston Villa last season, Walker is a classic modern full back -- a superb athlete and capable of relentless attacking down the right flank. Defensively, there's still work to do, and while Walker's pace gets him out of difficult situations now, he will need to improve his positional sense. Still, his continued drive going forward, combined with his penchant for a spectacular long-range strike, means he gets a place in arguably the weakest position on this team.
Leighton Baines, Everton
Not as many goals and assists as in previous campaigns, and Everton can be exposed when a forward moves into the channel behind him -- as Luis Suarez showed in the FA Cup semifinal. But Baines remains technically excellent with the ball at his feet, able to play direct passes to forward players or whip fast, accurate crosses toward the back post. Factor in one of the more reliable set-piece deliveries in the league, and he has probably been the best left back in the league.
Bacary Sagna is probably the league's best right back but missed a long spell through injury, while Pablo Zabaleta was superb in City's run-in but started less than half his side's matches. Full back isn't currently blessed with great strength in depth on either side. Ashley Cole remains a very good player despite a shaky spell under Andre Villas-Boas, while Benoit Assou-Ekotto deserves more recognition for his consistency.
Martin Skrtel, Liverpool
Liverpool's player of the season. According to teammate Stewart Downing, there was no doubt about it. "Martin Skrtel has got to be the player of the season so far. He's always in the right place at the right time, a real unsung hero ... I can't remember him having a bad game," Downing says. "He'll head anything, block anything; all the lads are saying he's getting better and better." Skrtel was always a superb physical force, but he's become better in positional terms and more confident on the ball -- probably only Robin van Persie got the better of him over the course of 90 minutes this season.
Vincent Kompany, Manchester City
Solid and commanding at the back throughout the Premier League season, the Belgian also managed to come up with the winner in the season's key EPL encounter: City's 1-0 win over Manchester United at the Etihad. His aerial dominance has always been evident, but now he's more adept at moving out from the back to close down a forward dropping deep. Equally important has been his leadership -- this time last year, let's not forget, Carlos Tevez was City's captain. Kompany is far more deserving of the armband.
Other star center backs have included Fabricio Coloccini of Newcastle and Tottenham's Younes Kaboul, largely for their aerial ability, while less physical defenders like Laurent Koscielny and Jonny Evans have matured into fine players, highly respected by their set of fans.
Mikel Arteta, Arsenal
A panic buy on the final day of the transfer window, Arteta seemed to sum up Arsenal's desperation at the time -- he was an older, less dynamic Barcelona youth product when Arsenal was struggling to replace Cesc Fabregas. But Arteta's impact has been superb -- no player passed the ball more often per game, with the Spaniard constantly controlling the tempo, directing the point of attack and dropping deep to allow Alex Song to move forward into attacking positions. His dipping drive against Manchester City highlighted his attacking quality, and it took Arsenal until the final game of the season to win without him.
Yaya Toure, Manchester City
Arguably the best all-round player in the league. An immense physical force yet also possessing quick feet and a sudden bust of pace, Toure is one of the few players in the league who genuinely seems to overawe opponents when going in for 50/50 challenges. He also makes important contributions in front of the goal -- after his FA Cup final winner last season, his two goals at Newcastle meant the title race remained in City's hands going into the final day. Even when limping and about to be substituted, he still managed to tee up Pablo Zabaleta for the opening goal in Sunday's win over QPR.
Michael Carrick took a few weeks to force his way into the Manchester United lineup but was never dropped because of his outstanding consistency, while Leon Britton recorded a better pass-completion rate than any player in the league in his first top-flight season. Luka Modric enjoyed another excellent season for Tottenham, while Yohan Cabaye has also been superb -- he's made more tackles than any other player and has a fine eye for a killer pass.
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Antonio Valencia, Manchester UnitedA natural winger who does the things the old-fashioned way -- getting the ball, roaring past the opposing left back and firing a cross into the box. Always hugging the touchline and stretching the play rather than crowding the centre of the pitch, Valencia also offers great protection for his full back. Thirteen assists in 22 starts is an excellent record, and when United appeared to be struggling -- away at Blackburn, away at Arsenal -- he came up with key contributions. Sir Alex Ferguson might regret not starting him in the crucial game at Manchester City.
David Silva, Manchester CityFor the first few months Silva was sensational. His ability to find pockets of space between the lines of defense is remarkable, as is his ability to control the ball on the move and then thread a pass between two defenders before he's been closed down. The home game against Everton back in September was extraordinary -- David Moyes instructed Jack Rodwell to man-mark Silva all over the pitch, but Rodwell picked up a yellow card after 20 minutes. Moyes then decided to put Phil Neville on Silva instead -- and Neville barely managed two minutes before he was booked. Silva was causing the entire Everton side problems. His volleyed pass for Edin Dzeko in City's 6-1 win at Manchester United was one of the highlights of the season, while the utter confusion of Bolton's Paul Robinson about how to mark Silva summed up his intelligent positional play. It's just a shame his form dipped after Christmas.
Ramires has become a key player at Chelsea and seems to have become a right-sided midfielder, too. Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson also enjoyed a good campaign, scoring more free kicks than any other player. Juan Mata adapted superbly to the league but declined at roughly the same point Silva did, while Clint Dempsey came fourth in the Football Writers' Player of the Year award and may get a move to a bigger club.
Sergio Aguero, Manchester City
Had the Argentine not scored the winner on Sunday, this spot would have gone to Wayne Rooney, who would have effectively won United its 20th league title with a poacher's effort at Sunderland. An overreaction to one small event? Perhaps, but Aguero provided the decisive moment on the most exciting day in Premier League history, and the value of that contribution cannot be overestimated. Besides, Aguero was going all season long -- with Mario Balotelli's disciplinary problems, Carlos Tevez going AWOL and Edin Dzeko dropping out of form, Aguero scored within eight minutes of his first touch in Premier League football, then finished the season as the Sky Blues' hero. There's more to come, but this was an undeniably impressive first campaign.
Robin van Persie, Arsenal
Many had faith that van Persie would become a world-class player despite his continued injury struggles, but few thought it would be as an out-and-out striker. He is now a great goal scorer but still a scorer of great goals -- as his volleys against Everton and Liverpool demonstrate. There were hat tricks, chipped penalties and, perhaps, most importantly, no fitness problems; RvP played in all 38 league games. Both the players' and football writers' Player of the Year, the Dutch forward has set a great example to the rest of the Arsenal squad in his first season as club captain.
Wayne Rooney scored 27 goals in a consistent if unspectacular campaign, while Luis Suarez made headlines for the wrong reasons but was occasionally impossible to defend. Emmanuel Adebayor was the only player to get into double figures for both goals and assists, while Grant Holt scored 15 goals in 24 starts for a bottom-half club, bullying defenders and consistently making superb runs.
Alan Pardew, Newcastle
Fifth place seemed like something of an anticlimax after the Magpies' superb season -- but considering that few predicted Newcastle would finish any higher than midtable, it was a superb effort. Pardew started the season playing with a structured, square shape that focused upon good defensive play and Demba Ba's one-touch finishes -- but then adjusted to the signing of Papiss Cisse and went with a 4-3-3 that brought out the best of both Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa. Graham Carr deserves great credit for his scouting, but Pardew is a fine tactician and Newcastle was unquestionably the overachiever of the season.
Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert were a breath of fresh air -- despite different soccer philosophies, both have a positive approach, and their sides (Swansea City and Norwich City) were never in danger of relegation.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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