Allan Saint-Maximin (Newcastle)
When Newcastle signed Allan Saint-Maximin on a six-year deal two seasons ago, the perceived wisdom was that they had made a mistake in offering such a long contract to a young winger rumoured to be high maintenance, capable of extreme petulance and a potentially malign dressing-room influence. The 24-year-old has proved nothing of the sort and is one of very few players to have provided grounds for optimism in yet another season of gloomy disillusionment for perennially disgruntled Newcastle fans.
A guaranteed crowd-pleaser who would have fans out of their seats had they been allowed to sit in them this season, Saint-Maximin has no shortage of tricks in his locker and his absence was keenly felt when he was sidelined for almost two months either side of Christmas by a particularly nasty dose of Covid. Newcastle’s prospects of staying up looked bleak when he was again sidelined through injury, but it is no surprise the mercurial winger’s return coincided with a run of results that left Newcastle safe with several games to spare.
N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea)
Few players have epitomised Chelsea’s rejuvenation under Thomas Tuchel in the wake of the Frank Lampard Experiment more than their energetic, pint-sized, midfield dynamo whose general game intelligence is so acute it can seem like there are three or four of him on the pitch at any one time. “‘He does everything, he runs everywhere, he’s such a great player so I’d probably say he’s my toughest opponent I’ve played against,” said Phil Foden, who despite having a stellar season, had to be removed from the Frenchman’s pocket following Manchester City’s FA Cup semi-final defeat.
Humble, selfless and hard-working, Kanté has returned to his imperious best under Tuchel after indifferent spells punctuated by injury under Lampard and his predecessor Maurizio Sarri, who played him too far forward or back, in positions he didn’t find comfortable. Back in the role in which he excelled during Leicester’s title-winning season and under Antonio Conte’s stewardship of Chelsea, his recent displays in the Champions League are those of a decorated player who has just one major tournament left to conquer and will do everything in his considerable powers to complete the set.
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
It is a measure of just how impressive the title-winning collective have been in the second half of the season that this five-man list could be entirely comprised of Manchester City players and fans of Pep Guardiola’s team would still be justified in carping about the omission of others who didn’t make the cut. Defensive bedrock Rúben Dias was a thoroughly deserving winner of the Football Writers’ Association player of the year award, one of a record-breaking nine City players to receive votes from the members of the Fourth Estate.
The hat-tip here, however, is going to Kevin De Bruyne, whose breathtaking levels of consistency continue to astound, whether linking up the play or pinging those trademark dipping passes with laser-like precision. Described as “almost irreplaceable with the qualities he has” by Guardiola just before an enforced spell on the sidelines back in January, the Belgian midfielder famously negotiated his own contract extension by presenting his employers with statistical evidence proving just how much he brings to the party. It was enough to convince them he is worth keeping sweet for another four years and hand him a 30% pay rise. A smart bit of business for both sides.
Tomas Soucek (West Ham)
Signed for a total of £19m from Slavia Prague last summer on the back of a successful loan spell for the Covid-interrupted second half of last season, Tomas Soucek has proved a very shrewd investment indeed. He has been one of the key figures for West Ham in a season they began as perceived relegation contenders and finished with Europa League qualification. While the heartwarming rejuvenation of Jesse Lingard has eclipsed the contributions of some of his teammates, the efforts of Soucek, a lanky, old school box-to-box midfielder, should not be understated.
An intelligent reader of the game who is as diligent as he is solid in his defensive duties, Soucek has apparently bottomless reserves of energy and is a potent attacking force who can start and finish attacks. Not just a scorer of goals, the Czech international is a scorer of very important goals: 10 of his 11 top-flight strikes this season have come in games where West Ham have either won or drawn, helping them to hoover up no fewer than 20 Premier League points they might otherwise have dropped.
Kalvin Phillips (Leeds United)
Not including a representative from Marcelo Bielsa’s great entertainers in this list would be little short of a gross dereliction of journalistic duty, at the end of a season in which no shortage of players from the Argentinian’s hyper-energetic, swashbuckling side have impressed. No Leeds player has swashed their buckle more than Kalvin Phillips, whose performances earned him a call-up to an England side in which he is unlikely to look out of place at Euro 2020, should Jordan Henderson lose his fitness battle in the run-up to the tournament.
Phillips has been on the pitch in games where Leeds have conceded three or more goals on five occasions this season, but they are a conspicuously poorer side in the absence of their defensive midfielder with the astounding passing range. With him in their side, they averaged 1.83 Premier League points per game – compared to 0.66 in the nine games he has missed. Having adapted to Premier League life with his boyhood club with ease, the future could scarcely look rosier for this likable 24-year-old Leeds linchpin. He injured his shoulder on the final day of the season but Bielsa backed him to recover in time for the Euros. “He has the recourses to recover quickly,” the manager said.