10) Santi Cazorla (Arsenal)
Because nobody improves their reputation like a proficient Arsenal player with a long-term injury.
10) Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)
It feels like an age since Henderson suffered a foot injury in training. The initial prognosis in February was that the lack of broken bone would mean only a short absence, but more than two months later Jurgen Klopp is still admitting that his captain has not returned to training. That might be that for 2016/17.
Having been initially injured against Manchester City in December, Henderson has started only six matches in 2017. Between August and the turn of the year, he missed only two games as Liverpool lost twice in all competitions and threatened to compete for the title. For all Henderson’s flaws in an England shirt, this is not a coincidence; Liverpool are far better with their captain than without.
9) Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Has Paul Pogba been the best midfielder in the league? No. Has he yet justified his £89m fee? Probably not, although that is a question which has many different answers. Has he been a waste of money? No. Has he been awful? Absolutely not.
Manchester United did not buy Paul Pogba to be the ninth best central midfielder in the division, but to pour scorn on his performances is more than a little one-eyed. This is a young man at a new club in a new league under a new manager; his previous Manchester United experience is hardly relevant when most of the coaching and playing staff have changed.
And then there is the workload. Pogba played 49 matches for Juventus last season, and has played 47 games for Manchester United so far during this season. Add in international appearances, and Pogba has racked up 10,039 minutes of match action since the beginning of last season. So we will forgive him for looking a tad jaded.
8) Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea)
It may seem strange to include a midfielder who is not first choice at club level, but Fabregas is the most effective reserve in the Premier League. Antonio Conte’s switch to 3-4-3 removes the natural role for Fabregas in midfield, but he has hardly thrown his toys out of the pram in response.
Instead, Fabregas has simply boiled down what he does best to squeeze it into a smaller time-frame. He has created a thick syrup of Cesc essence, if you will. In 1,047 minutes he has scored four goals and assisted nine more. That is perhaps not the difference between Chelsea winning the league and falling short, but it certainly helps.
7) Oriol Romeu (Southampton)
Last week we looked back at Chelsea’s FA Youth Cup side of 2015, and concluded sadly that the only place they would get a shot at first-team football is Anywhere But Chelsea FC’. Yet it’s not just the homegrown kids: Chelsea’s last decade has been littered with the signing of young players who arrived, were loaned out and then left.
One of those is Romeu, who is finally flourishing almost two years after leaving Chelsea on a permanent deal. Following loan spells at Valencia and Stuttgart, Southampton signed the midfielder for £5m. He had to wait for his chance at St Mary’s, but the departure of Victor Wanyama afforded him an opportunity. It has been seized.
“I think he’s not far off N’Golo Kante,” Claude Puel said in a recent pre-match press conference. “He is very important for us. He recovers the ball so well and is a technical player.” That’s a helluva compliment.
6) Idrissa Gueye (Everton)
Just as Kante was only given his true dues after moving to Chelsea, so too might Idrissa Gueye only be truly appreciated were he to move to an elite club. The midfielder ranks first for tackles and seventh for interceptions in the Premier League this season, and has improved upon his excellent form in adversity for Aston Villa.
Just as with Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama at Tottenham, Gueye’s effectiveness easily goes unnoticed. We concentrate on Romelu Lukaku’s goals and Tom Davies’ driving runs forward, but both are made possible by the man standing in front of the unguarded door. Having a player like Gueye behind them gives attacking players the confidence to express themselves.
5) Adam Lallana (Liverpool)
The player on this list who most challenges the definition of central midfielder, but Lallana’s move from wide forward into a three-man midfield has been one of the most successful tactical decisions of the season.
Lallana has proved himself to be England’s best player and one of Liverpool’s most important. By pushing his brand of all-running, all-trying, all-dribbling football closer to his own goal, Klopp instantly gave Liverpool’s midfield an intensity that allows them to overpower even the best opponents.
“For me it was clear we had to try everything to keep a player like him. He is a very important player for us,” said Klopp in February. “I heard when I came in what a lot of people said about him before I came in but I actually only knew him from Southampton. Since I’ve been here he has been a really important player for all our development steps which we made – not only for him personally.”
He is talking about the perfect embodiment of his own plans; Mr Klopp if not Mr Liverpool.
4) Victor Wanyama (Tottenham)
In the top five and yet not even Tottenham’s highest-placed midfielder, and that is indicative of the house that Mauricio Pochettino built. While we marvel at the attacking contributions from Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Heung-min Son and Harry Kane, it is worth remembering that all are permitted to play with such freedom because Wanyama and Dembele are the wind beneath their wings.
Tottenham do a good line in transfers that look remarkably cheap in hindsight. You could get Eriksen, Alli, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Hugo Lloris for approximately the same price as John Stones, and Wanyama is the latest of this breed. No Spurs player has made more tackles and interceptions than a midfielder who cost Tottenham the same price from Southampton as he did Southampton from Celtic. He’s also still only 25, the third youngest player on this list.
3) Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
The shining light of Manchester United’s season. If the attack can be blamed for missing chances and the defence can be blamed for moments of individual and collective incompetence, United’s midfield deserves to remain unscathed. Apart from Marouane Fellaini. And those irregular Wayne Rooney sh*tshows.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that a technically proficient and passionate player who is happy to resort to the dark arts and walk disciplinary tightropes to get the job done has flourished since the arrival of Jose Mourinho. United’s manager has moved Herrera closer towards his own goal, but the Spaniard’s high energy means he can be useful in various areas of the midfield within the same game. He should be a cert for the club’s next captain.
2) Mousa Dembele (Tottenham)
Some people love watching brilliant goals. Some enjoy sprawling saves. Others like tackles, through balls, crosses or skills. Some of us would pay good money just to watch Dembele shield the ball from an increasing number of opponents, until the pitch is full of players fruitlessly trying to tackle the best midfielder in the country at retaining possession. Dembele has turned something relatively underappreciated into an art form.
Like Lallana at a similar age, there is a distinct sadness to Dembele’s advancing years. He will turn 30 in the summer, and has probably missed out on the truly massive transfer that his talent deserves. Yet Tottenham will not care a jot about that, and nor should we. If Kante is the reliable city runaround, Dembele is the Rolls Royce of Premier League central midfielders.
1) N’Golo Kante (Chelsea)
And so to the Premier League’s best central midfielder from this season and last, and officially the best player in the country according to his peers. Only two players from last season’s list remain on our countdown this year, and both Kante and Dembele occupy the same two positions in the same order as 12 months ago. Both are models of consistency.
Yet there is no doubt about who merits being in first place. Even if some of the love for Kante stems from under-appreciating the significance of his role in Leicester’s success, there is no doubt that he has improved again on that superb form. There is an argument for labelling his rise from Ligue 2 in 2014 to PFA Player of the Year in 2017 as the greatest individual improvement in sport over the last three years.