With the 2019/20 Premier League now just past its halfway point and a busy Christmas programme almost done, it’s time to hand out some imaginary mid-season awards.
And we promise not to mention the VAR!
With Liverpool so utterly dominant this season, a case could be made for a host of their stars, a not-so-shortlist that includes marauding full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, defensive colossus Virgil van Dijk, the underrated Roberto Firmino, and goal machine Mohamed Salah.
However, their Mane (sorry) man since August has been Sadio Mane, the Senegalese striker scoring a host of vital goals at pivotal moments and providing a number of assists to put Liverpool firmly in command of the title race.
Jamie Vardy deserves an honourable mention. His goals, 17 and counting, won’t propel Leicester to a repeat of their fairytale title triumph but his efforts may well be rewarded with the Golden Boot, an award he missed out on by a single goal when the Foxes won the title in that unforgettable 2015/16 campaign.
The surprising paucity of great team goals this season makes this a weaker category than usual but there have been some cracking thunderbolts.
And, as goals always look that bit more spectacular when they go in via the underside of the crossbar, Kevin De Bruyne’s power-packed half-volley in Manchester City’s 2-2 draw at Newcastle in November has to be right up there.
However, Harvey Barnes thunderous half-volley in Leicester City’s 2-1 win at Sheffield United in August tops it, his fearsome strike flying into the roof of the net at 72 miles an hour. A rocket if ever there was one.
With Liverpool surging clear at the top of the table and Watford rock bottom, their clash at Anfield last month screamed home banker.
A lacklustre Liverpool ultimately got the job done but things might have been different had Ismaila Sarr not completely mishit a gilt-edged chance to bring Watford level just before half-time.
But, as bad as that miss was, Marcus Rashford’s howler in Manchester United’s 3-1 win over Brighton last month was even worse.
Shortly after blasting home United’s third goal, Daniel James provided Rashford with a chance that looked as unmissable as it gets. However, just six yards out and with the goal at his mercy, the striker somehow fired wide.
It says everything about how woeful Arsenal have been this season that Bernd Leno has been their most reliable performer (at least until last Sunday).
And the German goalkeeper was at his very best in the 2-2 draw at Norwich at the start of last month, producing a host of fine saves, the pick of which was a brilliant effort to turn a goalbound Kenny McLean effort on to the post.
As good as that was, it wasn’t as impressive as Ederson’s flying leap to prevent a header from Christian Benteke from finding the net in Manchester City’s 2-0 win at Crystal Palace in October.
Benteke couldn’t have met the ball any sweeter but Ederson’s right hand stretched just far enough to turn the ball on to the crossbar. Astonishing stuff.
Football’s enduring appeal lies in its ability to make you go: ‘Did you see that?’ One such moment took place when Tottenham visited West Ham for the first match of the Jose Mourinho era.
Dele Alli’s underwhelming form had contributed to the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino but he was back to his best at the London Stadium, a superb display highlighted by an outrageous piece of skill in the build-up to Spurs’ second goal.
The move looked destined to breakdown when Alli was wrong-footed by a pass played behind him on the touchline but, having lost his footing, he improvised brilliantly to flick the ball to Son Heung-min, who teed up Lucas Moura for a superb goal.
Manchester City have lacked the consistency of previous seasons but, as the likes of Watford (thrashed 8-0 in September) and Burnley (hammered 4-1 last month) discovered, when they’ve been good, they’ve been very, very good.
It’s impossible to look past Leicester’s record-breaking 9-0 win away to Southampton in October, though. Jamie Vardy and Ayoze Perez helped themselves to hat-tricks with Ben Chilwell, Youri Tielemans, and James Maddison also finding the net on a night the Foxes proved they were serious top-four contenders.
Ironically, Leicester were on the receiving end of the obvious alternative option, being thrashed 4-0 by a rampant Liverpool just days after the runaway leaders had returned to England having looked somewhat jaded in winning the Club World Cup in Qatar.
It unquestionably helped his case that Arsenal allowed him the freedom of the Emirates Stadium but how could you look past Kevin De Bruyne’s majestic display in Manchester City’s 3-0 win in north London last month?
Little over a minute had elapsed when De Bruyne opened the scoring with a beautifully controlled volley with his right foot. Thirteen minutes later, the presence of three Arsenal players couldn’t stop the Belgian from putting a goal on a plate for Raheem Sterling.
A brilliantly taken left-foot strike made it 3-0 and only the brilliance of Bernd Leno denied him a first-half hat-trick as he palmed another breathtaking effort from distance onto the post.
With the damage well and truly done, he eased off in the second half but, if you weren’t an Arsenal fan, it was a display to salivate over.
The north London derby rarely disappoints and September’s clash at the Emirates was an absolute cracker.
A rare Bernd Leno error gifted Christian Eriksen an early opener before Spurs doubled their advantage through a Harry Kane penalty after a crazy foul by Granit Xhaka on Son Heung-min.
But, in an all-too-rare display of defiance, Alexandre Lacazette gave Arsenal a lifeline on the stroke of half-time to set up a pulsating second half that saw a Kane rocket hit the Arsenal post and stay out before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hauled Arsenal level.
The Gunners thought they had won it when Sokratis found the net late on but his effort was correctly chalked off for offside and they might have lost it had referee Martin Atkinson been taken in by Kane’s attempt to engineer a second penalty after a tussle with the Greek defender, a controversial finale to a cracking encounter.
A strong category this with the pacey and direct Daniel James quickly establishing himself as one of Manchester United’s most potent weapons. Brighton’s Neal Maupay, a summer recruit from Brentford, has taken the step up to Premier League level in his stride, as has Norwich striker Teemu Pukki.
On more limited evidence, Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli looks a player too.
The newbie who has stood out most is Caglar Soyuncu, a Turkish defender who has filled the Harry Maguire-shaped hole in the centre of Leicester’s defence so brilliantly that he looks an upgrade on Manchester United’s standout summer recruit. Not bad for a man who only cost €19m.
He looks that rarest of things in the modern game: A defender whose primary focus is on defending.
Given the size of his fee, it’s hard to look past Arsenal attacker Nicolas Pepe.
Two league goals, one of which came from a penalty, and a handful of assists can only be politely described as a modest return from a player who looks completely one-footed.
It seems £72m (€84m) doesn’t buy a club much these days.
Not one, not two, but three outstanding candidates in the shape of Jurgen Klopp, Brendan Rodgers, and Chris Wilder.
In any normal season, it would be hard to look past Rodgers’ achievement in having Leicester second going into the new year or Wilder’s in having newly promoted Sheffield United in the mix for a place in Europe.
But how can you look beyond a man who oversaw 18 wins in his first 19 games this season? The answer is you can’t. It has to be Klopp.
Given Ireland’s lack of offensive options, Aaron Connolly’s emergence at Brighton is probably the single most positive Irish-related development this season.
However,he hasn’t played enough football for this award and that being the case; the man who stands out is Enda Stevens, an ever-present down the left in a heavily Irish-driven Sheffield United side that have taken the Premier League by storm.
With the 2019/20 Premier League now just past its halfway point and a busy Christmas programme almost done, Darren Norris doles out some imaginary mid-season awards. And a promise not to mention the VAR!