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The Debate: Who should win PFA Player of the Year?

As we approach the business end of the 2023/24 football season, we debate who should win the PFA Players' Player of the Year award.

The most prestigious individual award in English football, players up and down the country will soon be invited to cast their votes on which of their peers they feel has been the standout performer in the 2023/24 season.

The race for the PFA honour looks an open field this year with Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal all battling it out in what looks primed to be one of the most pulsating title races in Premier League history.

We have our say on who we think merits this individual recognition in the latest edition of The Debate...

PFA Player of the Year


The equation is simple: Rodri starts, Manchester City win (76% of the time).

When Rodri doesn’t start, Manchester City are not the domineering force that everyone has grown accustomed to in recent years.

It’s telling in their results.

Rodri has missed three Premier League fixtures so far this season, all due to suspension. In those matches, Manchester City tasted defeat in all three; beaten 2-1 by Wolves, defeated 1-0 by Arsenal and a 1-0 loss away at Aston Villa.

They’re the only defeats that the reigning champions have suffered in the Premier League this term. If ever you needed reminding of how integral Rodri is to Pep Guardiola’s masterful blueprint, then this is it.

He set a new player record in the Manchester derby for the longest individual unbeaten streak in Premier League history, which now stands at 60 following the Liverpool stalemate.

The likes of Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden will all take the plaudits for their brilliance but without Rodri, this Man City team cannot function as effectively; he is the foundation for their attacking forays and the protective layer to their defensive structure.

It’s no surprise that Rodri has enjoyed the most touches in the Premier League. Even in a period where possession is not the primary principle for Guardiola’s outfit, the 27-year-old continues to dictate.

Haaland’s phenomenal goalscoring heroics last term meant there was no other option for the PFA Player of the Year. While he’s on course for another 25+ haul, Man City demonstrated they could win matches without his presence.

The same can be said of De Bruyne. While his return was hailed as a defining moment in the title race after his match-winning cameo in the victory over Newcastle, injury niggles have been a persistent nuisance and he’s struggled to hit the heights of last season.

Foden has been exceptional this campaign but similarly to Haaland, Guardiola can adapt without him.

The picture is a lot bleaker if Rodri is unavailable.

Other contenders in the market are Declan Rice and Virgil van Dijk, whom both present credible arguments for the award but none like Rodri’s. There is no other player like him in the world; the Spaniard is the ultimate midfielder.

Defensive midfielders are often overlooked in the PFA Player of the Year debate; it takes one of supreme talent to be considered. The last one to claim the gong was N’Golo Kante for Chelsea in 2016-17, and you would have to go back another 17 years to unearth another winner from that position, with Roy Keane picking up the award whilst at Manchester United in 2000.

But if Manchester City are to go on and claim an unprecedented fourth consecutive Premier League title, it will be because Rodri has stayed fit and avoided suspension.

And who better to take the top individual award than the driving midfield force who has consistently been one of the best performers in the division?

Virgil van Dijk

Player of the match and scorer of the winning goal as Liverpool scooped the first piece of silverware on offer in English football in the League Cup final against Chelsea in February, Dutchman Virgil van Dijk is on the hunt for an unprecedented quadruple of trophies this season.

League Cup winners, FA Cup quarter-finalists, joint-top of the Premier League and on the cusp of the last eight of the Europa League, Liverpool are set for a dramatic end to the campaign as inspirational manager Jurgen Klopp prepares to wave goodbye to Anfield after eight memorable years in charge.

At the heart of Liverpool’s unexpected quadruple push is the man who was named the Reds’ new club captain at the start of the season – the colossal Virgil van Dijk.

A vital part of the Liverpool team that clinched the club’s sixth Champions League crown in 2019 and first ever Premier League title the year after, Van Dijk was previously universally heralded as the best defender in the world.

An ACL injury sustained in late 2020 led to the Dutchman appearing a yard slower and less assured upon his return to fitness, with question marks quickly mounting over the ex-Celtic centre-back’s ability to return to his previous levels.

It’s safe to say these doubts have been fully extinguished this season.

Van Dijk has been in imperious form for Liverpool this term as the defensive bedrock of a team who have conceded the second least goals and kept the second most clean sheets in the Premier League this season behind fellow title challengers Arsenal.

A player who knows what it feels like to be ruled out of action himself, it is Van Dijk who has held this Liverpool team together amidst a barrage of injuries sustained at Anfield this season.

From a defensive standpoint, Liverpool have had to make do without first choice picks Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Ibrahima Konate at different stages of the season, with Van Dijk missing just two Premier League matches this term – both due to suspension.

Liverpool boss Klopp’s selection constraints have not been limited to just defence, either, with perennial injury issues preventing a settled midfield from taking shape and key forwards such as Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota spending time on the sidelines.

The one near constant has been the peerless Van Dijk, with the Liverpool skipper helping to drag the Reds to crucial victories regardless of the identity of his teammates around him, with untested youngsters such as Conor Bradley and Jarell Quansah having been thrust into first team action.

A complete defender, the 32-year-old has been far and away the most dominant player in the air in the Premier League this season – winning 84.3% of his aerial duels.

Van Dijk is also integral to Liverpool’s game in possession, with the Netherlands international in the top 5% of centre-backs in Europe’s top five leagues this season for touches, passes completed and progressive passing distance.

As Liverpool hunt down a possible quadruple, captain Van Dijk may be required to find some extra room in his trophy cabinet for an individual accolades.

Declan Rice

What a signing Declan Rice has been for Arsenal. Signing of the season, and no doubt player of the season.

You could’ve argued that the England man always stood an outside chance for the award, even in his West Ham days, such was his impact on their marked improvement from bottom half club to regular European competitors and Europa Conference League winners.

Awards like this however rely on players getting plenty of exposure, something Rice didn’t have the luxury of while playing for West Ham. However, Arsenal are once again mixing it with Manchester City and Liverpool and with that title fight comes exposure, by the boat load.

Seamlessly slotting into the heart of the Gunners’ midfield, it’s abundantly clear the improvement he has made on the team. Starting every game this season, Rice has added the balance and reliability to an Arsenal team that didn’t have enough to get over the line in 2022/23.

Not only has the former West Ham man added to the team though, he has added to his game, with this season being his best return on both the goals and assists front. The England international has seven goal involvements in his last five games, a fantastic return for someone that most would consider a ‘defensive’ midfielder, in the business end of the season.

In fact, without Declan Rice’s goals this season, Arsenal would be third, five points and two places worse off than they currently are, at the pinnacle or English football with 10 to play. Adding this to the covering he does just further highlights his importance to the Gunners - he holds an average WhoScored rating of 7.4 this season and has more tackles won (55) and interceptions made (35) than anyone else at Arsenal.

It’s not just his individual performance that has turned him into a contender for the PFA award either, he has allowed the team around him to flourish. Rice’s role is so important that both Saka and Odegaard, fantastic players in their own right, have been afforded additional freedom from the shackles of their defensive duties.

Both of those players can stake a claim for the award, but the reason Saka needs one goal and one assist from the final 10 games to better last season’s tally, and the reason Odegaard can sit deeper, dictate the tempo and still needs one assist to match last season, is because of Declan Rice.

Mikel Arteta loves an eccentric description of his players, but in amongst the hyperbole and metaphor he did sum Declan Rice up very well before they played Newcastle. Stating “If I had to describe him with a picture, it would be a lighthouse … he’s overlooking everything, bringing light and clarity and guidance for everybody”.

Declan Rice has always been a great football litmus test, you could see his ability despite him not necessarily backing it up with the numbers, but here we are with 10 to play. He has added the numbers, and if you still struggle to see his importance to Arsenal, try watching an Arsenal game, you might not see Rice, but if you watch Declan Rice, you will see the whole Arsenal game.

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