The term ‘unsung hero’ is one of the trickier phrases in a footballing lexicon rife with oxymorons and meaningless sentiments. But, at the end of the day – when all’s said and done – the act of dubbing a player an ‘unsung hero’ is essentially in and around the area of singing their praises.
Nevertheless, in a unique 11-month slog of a season where so many things have changed, a number of players have once again ploughed through the campaign perhaps without the recognition they deserve. Until now…
Less than two years after making his professional debut, Max Aarons produced an impressive first Premier League season. No Canaries player has featured in more Premier League minutes than the 20-year-old, he carries the ball out from defence and is a creative outlet.
How long Norwich will be able to call him their player at all – let alone their unsung hero – remains to be seen.
Will Hughes finally found his best position under Nigel Pearson, as one of the double pivots in a 4-2-3-1. The English midfielder broke up play and applied pressure to the opposition even if his efforts proved unable to keep the Hornets up.
Several of Bournemouth’s high-profile stars have been tipped for a move in the summer, but the Cherries can be grateful that the 27-year-old left-back Diego Rico is not one of them.
The fact that his four league assists is a team high points towards his quality as much as Bournemouth’s troubles. Eddie Howe left Rico on the bench for ten matches with unwanted repercussions – Bournemouth’s points per game tally more than doubled with the Spaniard on the pitch.
Jack Grealish laps up all the accolades which are pushed Aston Villa’s way, but his midfield colleague Conor Hourihane has proven to be a menacing creative force himself.
Hourihane finished the campaign with the third best expected assists per 90 minutes rate in the division (among players with more than 900 minutes). A staggering return for a player in their first top flight season.
After a tough start to life in east London, Pablo Fornals began to find his form at the turn of the year. The 24-year-old has particularly flourished after nailing down a consistent position on the left-hand side of a 4-2-3-1, diligently tracking back to support the defence as West Ham went unbeaten in their final four games.
Alongside all-action captain Lewis Dunk, Adam Webster has slotted seamlessly into Brighton’s backline, hurling himself in front off any ball with almost as much disregard for his personal well-being as his skipper.
James McArthur is the prototypical ‘unsung hero’. He plays in a side dominated by one standout talent, his selfless work hounding down the opposition and generally disrupting play can easily go unnoticed – and even his name can get lost in a squad which also boasts a James McCarthy.
Allan Saint-Maximin is almost certainly going to hoard the acclaim at most clubs he plays at. However, Federico Fernández’s cool head at the back and durability has been crucial for a side so cruelly blighted by injures this season – particularly in defence.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison score the goals, Lucas Digne sets them up and Mason Holgate – at times – looks like the only one trying to prevent them. Carlo Ancelotti’s emphatic response of ‘zero possibility’ when describing the likelihood of Holgate’s Goodison Park departure shows that at least the Italian is well aware of his defender’s quality.
Stuart Armstrong’s varied skill set makes him perfectly suited for one of the wide roles in Ralph Hasenhüttl’s 4-2-2-2. The Scotland international has formed a promising partnership down the right-flank with Kyle Walker-Peters, drifting inside for the full-back to overlap as the Saints enjoyed a resurgent end to the campaign.
20-year-old Dwight McNeil may be considered the sole creative hub in an otherwise well-drilled Burnley side, but Ashley Westwood can point to an identical record (two goals and six assists) with fewer minutes played.
The set-piece maestro also snaps into a tackle and joins in with the press as an all-round central midfielder.
By December Lys Mousset had scored five goals and laid on three assists (teeing up each goal in a 3-0 win over Burnley) as the Blades climbed as high as fifth.
A lack of game time in 2020 should not diminish the vital contributions Mousset provided in the first half of Sheffield United’s extraordinary season.
Nine months after storming down the tunnel to boos from his own fans, Granit Xhaka has been one of Mikel Arteta’s most promising success stories during his embryonic managerial tenure as the Swiss international’s defensive discipline and progressive passing have risen to the fore.
Jonny – Jonny Castro Otto if you’re being formal – and his near perpetual motion are the glue which holds Wolverhampton Wanderers together. He sits atop the team’s defensive standings and is a picture of consistency, selflessly ploughing up and down that left flank.
Whether the manager is Mauricio Pochettino or José Mourinho, whether it’s in central or defensive midfield, on the flank or even at right-back, Moussa Sissoko has been key, driving Spurs up the pitch and stopping those coming the other way.
Harvey Barnes struggled to rediscover his electric form pre-lockdown, netting five goals in seven games despite Leicester’s slump. But this has been wonderful individual campaign for the bustling 22-year-old, who ends the season with five more assists than his much-vaunted teammate James Maddison (in 500 fewer minutes).
Even with the influx of academy talent in Chelsea’s squad this season, 31-year-old Willian has largely kept his place in the team and reinforced his influence.
Nine goals and seven assists make the Brazilian Chelsea’s second top scorer and best creator of the season. However, Frank Lampard has been keen to also highlight his ‘outstanding’ work off-the-ball.
In just his second season as a Premier League starter, and his first at Manchester United, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has continued to excel at the defensive side of the game and tentatively improved going forward.
In a squad bristling with as much attacking potency as Manchester City’s, Ilkay Gundogan’s two goals and single assist don’t exactly leap off the page.
However, the German midfielder is instrumental to Pep Guardiola’s approach, providing balance and organising attacks with rapid – often simple – one touch passes. Gundogan’s versatility (capable as either the side’s deepest midfielder or a ‘free eight’) only strengthens his importance.
Liverpool’s emphatic title win was a collective triumph rather than one defined by a single player.
Jordan Henderson, Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mané, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alisson were all pivotal to this success. And each was recognised for their efforts with a vote in the FWA Player of the Year award.
One notable admission from this list is Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian forward is the team’s top scorer with 19 Premier League goals and only the club’s ludicrously creative fullbacks can better his ten assists. Salah’s underlying statistics support his position among the division’s best attackers.
For any other player this return (or worse *cough* Mané) would garner widespread acclaim. Yet, Salah seems to be (unfairly) suffering from his otherworldly debut Liverpool campaign which saw him break the Premier League scoring record for a 38-game season.