It has been a year of two halves in the Premier League, with Chelsea and Manchester City dominating either side of the summer break. Manchester United have become title challengers again, with Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal also showing signs of progress. So who makes the Premier League Best XI of 2017?
Goalkeeper: David De Gea
The Man United goalkeeper has established himself as the best and most consistent in the Premier League, with his match-winning performance at Arsenal at the beginning of December showcasing his value to Jose Mourinho’s team. At some point, United are likely to face renewed interest from Real Madrid in the Spain No. 1, but the longer De Gea remains at Old Trafford, the more important he becomes. The 27-year-old edges out Thibaut Courtois as the year’s best keeper.
Right-back: Kyle Walker
Walker faced an uncertain future at Tottenham last season when he lost his place to Kieran Trippier, but has now re-established himself as the Premier League’s top right-back following his £50 million move to Manchester City. Walker’s pace, strength and power have given City a new dimension down the right and his presence is crucial to Pep Guardiola’s game plan. Only Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia came close to the level reached by Walker in 2017.
Centre-back: Toby Alderweireld
The Belgian centre-half has been troubled by injuries in recent months but, when fit, is arguably the best and most reliable defender in the Premier League. The 28-year-old is strong in the air, physically commanding, quick and reads the game well. His partnership with Jan Vertonghen is the best in the division and the true measure of Alderweireld’s importance to Mauricio Pochettino’s team is how much Spurs miss him when he isn’t there, as has been the case in recent weeks.
Centre-back: John Stones
The Manchester City defender endured a difficult first season at the Etihad last year following his £47.5m transfer from Everton, but Stones has developed into one of the outstanding centre-halves in the Premier League under Pep Guardiola. A recent hamstring injury has checked his progress, but Stones has established himself as regular starter and become a key figure in England’s World Cup plans.
Left-back: Marcos Alonso
It has not been a great year for left-backs, with no outstanding candidate in this position. Danny Rose has been in and out of the Tottenham team, while Benjamin Mendy was struck down by injury at Man City and Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno remains a defensive liability. As for Luke Shaw at Man United, he has had another awful year but, at Chelsea, Marcos Alonso played a key role in the club’s title success. This season has been tougher but he is still Antonio Conte’s first choice.
The Brazilian midfielder often goes unnoticed at Man City due to the attacking talent in front of him, but Fernandinho is central to the success currently being enjoyed by Pep Guardiola’s team. The former Shakhtar Donetsk player is almost the perfect holding midfielder: Neat in possession, tough in the tackle, full of energy, but also capable of getting forward and contributing goals.
Midfielder: Paul Pogba
The Manchester United midfielder continues to divide opinion as to his true quality — many observers are uncertain as to what he does best — yet his recent absence has exposed just how much Jose Mourinho’s team rely on him. Pogba’s boundless energy and ability to stretch the game, swiftly turning defence into attack, is crucial. He has also added goals and assists to his game this year and is growing into the player many believe he can become.
Forward: Kevin De Bruyne
Man City possess arguably the best midfielder in the league in De Bruyne, who has taken his game to another level this season. At 26, he is approaching his peak and his performances have been key to City’s surge to the top of the table. If he continues to produce at his current level, De Bruyne has the credentials to claim a place alongside the likes of Roy Keane, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Patrick Vieira in the Premier League’s midfield Hall of Fame.
Forward: Eden Hazard
Chelsea No. 10 Hazard just edges out Man City’s David Silva in the playmaker role because he scores more goals and, as in his club’s title success last season, produces match-winning performances when they matter most. Silva is a magician among superstars at City, but Hazard is now head and shoulders above his Stamford Bridge teammates, who rely on him far more. But it is a close call and both are world-class.
Forward: Leroy Sane
The Germany winger spent the summer recovering from an operation to resolve a nasal problem that affected his breathing and the surgery has clearly done the trick, with the Man City player enjoying a stunning start to the campaign. Sane just edges out his City teammate Raheem Sterling due to his greater quality and awareness; his pace and power down the left have earned comparisons to a young Gareth Bale.
Striker: Harry Kane
Even when the Tottenham and England centre-forward goes through a dry spell in front of goal, he contributes for his team with work rate and movement. Plus, such is Kane’s consistency that barren runs do not last long. At 24, he is three years on from being billed a “one-season wonder” and has produced in the Champions League as well as at home. England will be desperately hoping he can take his game to another level during the World Cup in Russia next summer.
Manager: Antonio Conte
Pep Guardiola may be on course to create history following Man City’s sensational start to the 2017-18 season but, over the calendar year, he cannot compete with Conte. The Italian won the Premier League in his first campaign and also reached the FA Cup Final, two milestones Guardiola would love to have achieved in his first year at City. Jose Mourinho deserves an honourable mention for winning the EFL Cup and Europa League with Manchester United, but 2017 has to be Conte’s year.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_