I am a Liverpool supporter and hugely appreciative of Jordan Henderson. In fact, I wrote a piece on his value to the Reds more than a year ago. Well before he got to lift four trophies and made the Hendo-shuffle such an attractive proposition to kids everywhere. He’s an all-round good egg and as Adam Lallana highlighted this week in an emotional farewell interview, a captain who takes responsibility for the club in good times and bad. Given his backstory, there aren’t too many people who would begrudge him the accolades that have been coming his way in recent weeks.
I was still taken aback though when he was named the Football Writers Association’s Player of the Year. In my mind, he has not been the best player in his own team (that would be Sadio Mané), let alone the whole league. With Kevin De Bruyne the favourite for a lot of people this season, including me, it reopened a debate on whether the Cityzens are underrepresented at end-of-season awards in England.
On the face of it, the evidence looks damning. There are three major individual awards in England, namely the Professional Footballers Association Player of the Year, Premier League Player of the Season and the aforementioned FWA Player of the Year. A Manchester City player has won an award only twice this decade. Vincent Kompany won the Premier League honor, the least prestigious of the three, in the historic 2011-12 season for the club while Raheem Sterling took the writer’s award last season. City players have not fared well traditionally in the various fan awards either.
If one were to look for patterns in the way these honors have been awarded over the last couple of decades, there aren’t any. Scott Parker won the 2011 FWA award playing for a West Ham team that was relegated while Gareth Bale swept the board in 2013 even though Tottenham missed out on fourth place and the Champions League the following season. Poor Kevin Phillips scored 30 goals for Sunderland in 1999-2000 and still lost both big honors to Roy Keane. Every player who has hit that mark since has been rewarded though, which irks City no end since three of those occurrences have been in title winning seasons for their club. Virgil Van Dijk took the players’ and Premier League award last season for transforming Liverpool’s defence.
And therein lies the angst for City supporters. Their club have dominated the past decade with four league titles and the major individual awards for those years have gone to Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez, Mohamed Salah and Van Dijk respectively. It doesn’t help that in the three years preceding Guardiola’s record-breaking seasons, they have all gone to a player from the title winning team.
Is there a bias against City? It is hard to be definitive about it. I believe that it exists in the media and the establishment. However, the players’ award is voted for by the players themselves. Van Dijk went on record last season saying that he had voted for Raheem Sterling even though he ended up winning it himself. I would like to think that the process followed by the players would end up producing the most ideal result.
Sergio Aguero is the fourth-highest goal scorer in Premier League history and does not have an individual award to his name. David Silva will leave English shores this season with only one Premier League Player of the Month trophy. Given that these two players, along with Eden Hazard, Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany, have been the most influential figures in terms of success over the past decade, these are strange anomalies.
Perhaps the fact that City’s goals and assists are shared throughout the side goes against them. Aguero has been amongst the top five goal scorers every season save the 2012-13 campaign and the one which ended yesterday. The most he scored was in 2014-15 when he netted 26 times but there have been diminishing returns and appearances since. Similarly, David Silva’s 60 goals and 93 assists have been distributed along ten outstanding years with his fifteen-assist season the year City won its first Premier League title being the standout stat. In a strange way, the lack of individual awards is possibly the greatest compliment that can be bestowed on a collective that has produced some of the best football the league has seen.
The best way for an individual to win one of these awards might be by breaking or levelling a long-standing record. Kevin De Bruyne got his 20th assist against Norwich, levelling Thierry Henry’s record from the 2002-03 season. With thirteen goals to go with those assists, surely the players’ and Premier League awards are his for the taking? Unless they have been voted upon already, that should be an achievement that brooks no argument. Assists are harder to conjure up consistently than goals and only the Premier League’s greatest ever player had been able to breach the twenty-mark in all these years, and just the once at that.
Whatever the concerns about the club’s finances, and I share a few of them, Manchester City have been the most dominant club this past decade. Only Manchester United had more wins within a single decade (255 in the 2000s) than the 251 City notched up in the 2010s. A surfeit of United players won individual honours when they ruled the roost and it is understandable why Pep Guardiola gets so riled up when the topic is introduced. There could have been one or two more City players in these lists over the past few years and for me, De Bruyne should have taken the writer’s award this year.
Over the last couple of seasons, the writers have cited ‘intangibles’ outside of the field of play while arriving at their decisions. The players, ironically, ignored the City player the scribes picked last year and plumped for Van Dijk. They will hopefully redress the balance in their vote this year as well.