Robin van Persie romping to the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award last season was as inevitable as yet another aggressive North Korean political statement. Two seasons ago, meanwhile, it was difficult to truly stake a claim for anyone in a year devoid of consistent individual brilliance; epitomised by the fact that it was Gareth Bale who received the nod from his peers despite failing to translate his sensational Champions League displays against Inter Milan to the Premier League on a consistent basis.
This season, the prolific Dutchman and the vastly improved Welshman go head-to-head in the most intriguing battle for the coveted end-of-season awards since Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney enjoyed almost inseparably brilliant campaigns in 2009-10. However, in typically maverick fashion, Luis Suarez is also in the frame to comprise a fabulous trio that have each illuminated an otherwise slightly declining league (at least in comparison to Germany and Spain). Regardless, if Lionel Messi was slightly less good at football, there would likely be a similar debate over the Argentinian, Cristiano Ronaldo and Radamel Falcao in Spain, too.
In many ways, Suarez, Bale and van Persie respectively represent an uncannily similar trio of terrifyingly talented attacking talents. Suarez is a uniquely tricky and increasingly prolific deep-lying forward that excels in tight areas with the ball at his feet; Bale is a direct winger-cum-forward that combines his outlandish physical and technical assets to devastating effect; and van Persie is a supremely gifted, often effortless, striker that, like Falcao, now specialises in efficiency in front of goal—and often when it truly matters, too.
Thus the debate—and, indeed, outcome of the awards—will largely hinge on which style of play is considered most alluring and/or effective. The former is entirely subjective; the latter is excruciatingly difficult to determine, especially with the most important quarter of the season left, due to the three players’ similar goal/assist tallies, and talismanic contributions to their clubs’ varyingly successful campaigns.
The latter may be a factor that favours van Persie and, to a lesser extent, Bale, as their sides currently look likely to win the title and finish in the top four respectively. Suarez, however, despite Liverpool’s good form since the turn of the year, looks set to miss out on Champions League football with the Reds once more. Thus his contribution, however astonishing, ultimately looks like counting for less, something which may come into voters’ thinking. After all, this award should always judge the elite level of English football; it’s all relative, but van Persie’s winner against Manchester City in a battle for the title appears more momentous than, for example, Bale’s opener against Arsenal in a battle for 4th or (in an alternate universe where it correctly stood) Suarez’s versus Everton in a battle for 6th. Such moments, taking place at the very top of the league after a gruelling title race last season, last longer in voters’ minds.
However, if anything, the way Bale and, in particular, Suarez are playing – and the amount of goals they are scoring – despite playing for weaker sides should further strengthen what fabulous players they are. The last player to score 25+ league goals in a single campaign for a club outside the Champions League spots, for example, was Kevin Phillips in 1999-2000; Suarez is now only three goals away from achieving this, should of course Liverpool finish outside the top four as appears likely. Bale, meanwhile, largely operated from the left-wing until January, before his move behind the striker sparked a dramatic upturn in form and goals return.
It must also be considered that, whilst van Persie and Bale are hardly shining beacons of morality on the field, Suarez is almost universally disliked. There is little doubt that he has himself to blame for some of his – we all know his past offences by now – but as the PFA Chief, Gordon Taylor, stated, the award is “simply the view of the fellow professionals on which player has had an outstanding season.” Unfortunately, there is little forcing impartiality on players voting other than how seriously they wish to take it. Was Ryan Giggs the best player in the league in 2008-09? Not even close, but a long-standing glowing reputation and favourable media coverage helped him beat more deserving winners such as Nemanja Vidic and Steven Gerrard to the PFA award. Suarez, it is fair to say, is at the other end of the spectrum to Giggs, and thus his chances will undoubtedly be seriously harmed.
Giggs, incidentally, also had his best spell of the season around the time of voting for the PFA award: February/March. It is undoubtedly detrimental to the award that players have to vote with the most crucial quarter of the season still left to play – and a major reason why the aforementioned writers’ award, provided nearer the end of the season, is generally a more reliable representation of the player of the season – but that is how it has always been, and thus it is only fair that we, too, debate this particular award whilst ballot boxes are frantically being submitted across the country.
It could also count against van Persie, who only has one goal in his last seven league games since the 20th January, in stark contrast to Suarez and Bale who have both averaged a goal a game in the same time span. (Though, equally, it could count for him should his – and their – current form continue.)
Van Persie’s nineteen league goals also represent a lower proportion of his club’s overall tally: 28%, compared to 31% for Bale’s sixteen, and 38% for Suarez’s twenty-two. Yet if you use the (admittedly hypothetical and slightly flawed) method of removing each player’s goals from existence, United would have twenty-three fewer points on the board, compared to Tottenham losing eighteen and Liverpool losing ten. Admittedly, United have gained more points, and therefore his tally stands an instant chance of being higher, but clearly his goals have frequently arrived in the most significant moments: none more so than that aforementioned last-gasp winner against Manchester City, which symbolised his decisive effect in swinging the title momentum back in United’s favour this season.
That is why I feel, if the season were to end right now (which in a sense it nearly has in terms of this award), Robin van Persie probably should follow in Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo’s footsteps to win the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award for a second consecutive season. Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez are fantastic players both enjoying sublime seasons; they are also arguably more entertaining to watch than the Dutchman, causing frequent nightmares for opposition defenders with their devastating – albeit very different – styles from slightly deeper, more varying positions. Both have also taken their game to another level since the turn of the year, and this may count in their favour (particularly Bale’s due to Suarez’s issues) as well as making them more likely than van Persie to win the equally prestigious writers’ award in May if the current momentum continues.
Yet van Persie remains a titan of efficiency, requiring significantly fewer touches to provide lethal damage to the opposition. Lest we forget, while Bale and Suarez may have had a change in management to deal with, van Persie seamlessly switched clubs last summer in an almost unprecedented manner, continuing his remarkable goal-scoring form from the previous eighteen months at Arsenal. He swiftly overhauled Wayne Rooney, no less, as Manchester United’s main man; more significantly, however, his countless crucial goals – and overall presence in a side that many believed didn’t need another striker – have undoubtedly provided the necessary catalyst to displace Manchester City as the best side in England once more, and subsequently surely deliver title number twenty to Old Trafford.