This is impossible.
We tried to construct an XI based on the best individual Premier League campaigns of the 21st century.
We set ourselves the restriction of a 4-3-3 formation with at least a semi-realistic balance and then went through each position and debated which player/season combination was superior.
After many discussions (arguments), we’re relatively happy with the end result.
But we can’t stress enough how difficult this was; there are a lot of contenders and some marginal calls that make VAR offside rulings look blatant.
Let’s get into it…
KEEPER: David De Gea (2017/18)
The obvious choice is Petr Cech (2004/05), when the Czech international kept 24 clean sheets.
While Cech was undoubtedly world-class that season, Chelsea’s defensive record was very much a team effort with John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho providing considerable protection… not to mention Claude Makelele.
In 2017/18, David De Gea was left to fend for himself,
The Spaniard didn’t have Terry and Carvalho, he had Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
Using xG, OPTA reckon De Gea prevented 14 goals above what would have been expected of an average Premier League keeper in 2017/18.
For comparison, Ederson, Thibaut Courtois and Hugo Lloris all prevented fewer than three goals using the same measure.
De Gea’s record-breaking 14-save performance against Arsenal is the stuff of Premier League legend and there can be little doubt his efforts helped Man United to an unexpected second-place finish at the expense of Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea.
RIGHT-BACK: Trent Alexander-Arnold (2018/19)
The Liverpool wonderkid set a new Premier League record for most assists in a season by a defender in 2018/19.
Modern tactics have emphasised the attacking attributes of full-backs and Alexander-Arnold is the prime example.
We considered the best years of Branislav Ivanovic after deciding Gary Neville’s peak came before the turn of the century.
The fact is, in 2018/19, TAA was part of the league’s best defence and provided more assists than the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Paul Pogba.
CENTRE-BACKS: John Terry (2004/05) & Nemanja Vidic (2008/09)
Lots of competition here, not least Virgil van Dijk’s immense 2018/19 that meant he was named runner-up in the most recent Ballon d’Or — though Liverpool’s success in Europe was undoubtedly the primary factor.
Ultimately, we went with John Terry for his leadership of the best defensive season in Premier League history – the Blues conceded just six goals at home all season (15 overall) – and the best season of Nemanja Vidic.
The ruthless Serbian was twice named Premier League Player of the Season (2008/09 and 2010/11); we went with the former when he scooped Man United’s individual awards despite being up against prime Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sol Campbell, Vincent Kompany and Rio Ferdinand all had notable peak seasons and are unlikely to miss out.
LEFT-BACK: Ashley Cole (2010/11)
Andrew Robertson (2018/19) was certainly a contender but for the sake of variation we opted for a masterful defensive campaign.
Ashley Cole’s unwavering consistency peaked in 2010/11 when he flawlessly featured in all 38 of Chelsea’s league games.
The Blues had the joint-best defence that season and their genuinely world-class left-back was voted as the club’s Players’ Player of the Year.
Cole was the best left-back in the world at the time and that’s good enough reason for us.
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD: N’Golo Kante (2015/16)
Often an understated position, central defensive midfield was made cool again by N’Golo Kante the season Leicester won the title.
His unrelenting omnipresence was the heart of the Foxes’ miracle — a feat that still defies belief.
The Frenchman was in a league of his own in terms of tackles, making 175 over the course of the season.
By way of comparison, no player has made over 145 tackles in any of the three full seasons since.
In terms of competition, Makelele (2004/05) and Patrick Vieira (2000/01) push their compatriot close.
We disqualified Roy Keane (1999/00) because half the campaign occurred before the 21st century.
MIDFIELDERS: Yaya Toure (2013/14) & Frank Lampard (2009/10)
Needless to say, there was a fierce competition for places here.
Ultimately, we felt the only two 20+ goal campaigns in Premier League history from midfielders deserved recognition.
Of course the likes of Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and David Silva have enjoyed sustained success but we felt those three icons never had a standout season to the extent of Yaya Toure (2013/14).
The Ivorian was unplayable, scoring 20% of his total club goals in a single season — his career is 18 seasons long and counting.
Incredibly, Toure’s 20 goals in 2013/14 isn’t even the most goals scored by a midfielder in Prem history, that honour belongs to Frank Lampard.
The Blues legend bagged 22 goals in 2009/10 which is remarkable even for a midfielder who reached double figures for goals in ten consecutive top-flight campaigns.
Kevin De Bruyne (2017/18) is notable individual campaign to narrowly miss out — once again, this process was stressful.
RIGHT WINGER/FORWARD: Cristiano Ronaldo (2007/08)
Of all the marginal decisions, Cristiano Ronaldo (2007/08) versus Mohamed Salah (2017/18) was the tightest.
The former scored 31 goals in 34 games as he announced himself as the world’s best player for the first time — he won the first of his five Ballon d’Or trophies in 2008.
The latter scored a record-breaking 32 goals in 36 games in what must surely be the best debut Premier League season ever.
It seems ludicrous to overlook Salah but, conscious of recency bias, we opted for Ronaldo’s breathtaking effort… but it really was a coin flip.
Shout out to Riyad Mahrez (2015/16) too.
LEFT WINGER/FORWARD: Thierry Henry (2002/03)
The Frenchman’s biggest competition is himself in this category.
The obvious answer is Thierry Henry (2003/04) – the Invincibles season – but we believe he was even more impressive the season before.
In 2002/03, he scored 24 goals (six fewer than Invincible Henry) but he also became the first player in Premier League history to provide 20 assists in a single season, a record that still stands today.
For context, the next best creator, Ryan Giggs, provided ten assists in 2002/03 — Henry’s tally was double that of his closest rival.
Taking assists into account, Henry racked up 44 Prem goal involvements in 2002/03 compared to 36 the following season.
So while Arsenal were unquestionably superior in 2003/04, we reckon Henry’s previous campaign just edged it from an individual perspective.
Gareth Bale (2012/13), Sadio Mane 2018/19, and a couple of Eden Hazard efforts make up the other nominees.
CENTRE FORWARD: Luis Suarez (2013/14)
The final spot was hotly contested.
England’s top flight has played host to dozens of elite strikers since 1992 and so we thought it was best to start by eliminating some traditional big names.
Alan Shearer’s best seasons came before the turn of the century.
Each of Sergio Aguero’s last six seasons are relatively even in terms of goals scored and impressiveness — no season stands out as a defining campaign.
But what about the main contenders?
Robin van Persie had two standout seasons in 2011/12 (Arsenal) and 2012/13 (Man United) that are memorable.
Fernando Torres lit up the Premier League in 2007/08.
We eventually settled on Luis Suarez’s jaw-dropping 2013/14 campaign.
Such was the Uruguayan’s brilliance, he nearly guided a flawed Liverpool team to their first Premier League crown.
He cruised to the Golden Boot with 31 goals in 33 games and he provided the second-most assists (12) in the league as well.
The Reds may have slipped up but that shouldn’t detract from Suarez’s phenomenal solo campaign.
While it’s obviously unrealistic to get this to a point of unanimity, we feel there is sufficient justification for each of our selections.
Here’s a selection of some notable nominees:
- Petr Cech (2004/05)
- Edwin Van der Sar (2008/09)
- Pablo Zabaleta (2012/13)
- Nemanja Vidic (2010/11)
- Rio Ferdinand (2007/08)
- Sol Campbell (2003/04)
- Vincent Kompany (2011/12)
- Virgil van Dijk (2018/19)
- Andrew Robertson (2018/19)
- Claude Makelele (2004/05)
- Patrick Vieira (2000/01)
- Scott Parker (2010/11)
- Paul Scholes (2002/03)
- David Silva (2011/12)
- Cesc Fabregas (2009/10)
- Kevin De Bruyne (2017/18)
- Steven Gerrard (2005/06 & 2008/09)
- Frank Lampard (2004/05)
- Dele Alli (2016/17)
- Samir Nasri (2010/11)
- Riyad Mahrez (2015/16)
- Dmitri Payet (2015/16)
- Robert Pires (2001/02)
- Eden Hazard (2014/15 & 2018/19)
- Thierry Henry (2003/04)
- Didier Drogba (2009/10)
- Robin van Persie (2011/12 & 2012/13)
- Wayne Rooney (2009/10)
- Mohamed Salah (2017/18)
- Gareth Bale (2012/13)
- Sadio Mane (2018/19)
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