ESPN FC brings you its Premier League Team of the Year for 2013.
Goalkeeper: The difficulties associated with changing clubs are often underestimated, and this is one of the reasons for Simon Mignolet's inclusion between the sticks in ESPN FC's Team of the Year. Mignolet was superb for Sunderland last season, form that persuaded Liverpool to get rid of Pepe Reina and shell out 9 million pounds for the Belgian. Paul Mariner thinks he made a “smooth transition” into Reina's “big shoes,” while Gabriele Marcotti said he “moved to Liverpool without missing a beat.”
Right-back: As we all know, there is a point when players regarded as underrated become overrated because so many people call them underrated. Or just simply "rated." If that makes sense. Pablo Zabaleta is just such a player, but that doesn't stop us recognising his excellence over 2013. The very model of consistency for Manchester City, Marcotti calls him "Mr Dependable" and Steve Nicol notes he is “as effective at the back as he is going forwards.” There are plenty of quicker, stronger and more skilful players in the Premier League, but not many that you would rely on more in a tight spot. A team with 11 Zabaletas would be in some trouble, but every team could use at least one.
Centre-back: An “example of how brains and technique make up for lack of athleticism” is how Marcotti assesses Jan Vertonghen, Tottenham's Belgian renaissance man. Indeed, his adaptability has often been a curse, with Vertonghen playing at left-back more often than he'd like (“Villas-Boas should've kept him at centre-back” is Nicol's advice), but when he does play in his favoured position, he is exceptional. “With Vidic on the wane, he is a natural left-footed defender and helps the balance of this side,” Mariner says.
Centre-back: Completing the all-Belgian central defensive pairing is Vincent Kompany. While the claims of some that he is the best in his position in the world might be a little extravagant, his importance to the Manchester City side can be quite easily seen when he is absent. A “powerhouse in both boxes,” Mariner says, while Nicol insists he's the “first name on any team sheet.” An honourable mention goes to Marcotti's choice of Sylvain Distin, a “model professional who barely makes a mistake.”
Left-back: While Patrice Evra's form has undoubtedly improved in 2013, after a year or so when it looked like he would be given his gold watch and gently ushered out the door, there is a fairly obvious choice for the best left-back in the Premier League. The man seemingly earmarked to replace Evra at Old Trafford, Leighton Baines, has carried on last season's superb form for Everton into this, meaning January is likely to see more rumours about David Moyes bringing him to Manchester United, even if Roberto Martinez insists he's going nowhere. Indeed, with Ashley Cole currently spending most of his time on Chelsea's bench, there's a more than decent chance he'll be Roy Hodgson's No. 3 in Brazil.
Midfield: Basically the perfect midfielder, Yaya Toure is the man who, when on form, you would want to build a team around. Over to our judges: “He is the box-to-box midfielder that all coaches wish they had in their team,” Mariner says; “A monster in the midfield,” according to Nicol; “Size, strength, creativity, technique all rolled into one. Dominates games single-handedly,” Marcotti notes.
Midfield: If you'd asked most Arsenal fans a year ago, they would have been quite happy to get rid of Aaron Ramsey. And with good reason too, for the young Welshman looked a shadow of the enormously promising midfielder that arrived from Cardiff in 2008 -- the mental scars from his horrific injury presumably taking longer to heal than the physical ones. However, his 2013 has been a revelation, with Ramsey maturing incredibly and scoring the goals that really make everyone sit up and notice. “Came into his own in March and never looked back,” Marcotti says. “It's as if someone flipped a switch.”
Midfield: Only one member of our team is no longer in the Premier League, and it won't take you long to figure out who it is. Gareth Bale may be gone, but it is impossible not to include him in any appreciation of 2013 after everything he did at Spurs. It wasn't just the number of goals he scored (17 in 25 games after the turn of the year) but the importance of them -- all but three of his strikes in 2013 made a positive difference to a Spurs result, and one of those was the goal that killed off Manchester City in the latter stages of the season. Mariner calls him “unstoppable” and Nicol reckons that “without him Villas-Boas may have gone last season.” It's tricky to argue with either assessment.
Forward: While talk of redemption for his previous actions through brilliant performances may be a little strong, there is little doubt that Luis Suarez's form -- particularly since returning from his ban -- has been magnificent. As Mariner points out, he “never stops working for the team,” something that has improved notably in the last year. Before, Suarez's first instinct was to shoot, but now he assesses which is the best option for his side. “He's a one-man wrecking crew,” Marcotti says.
Forward: If Manchester City are to win the title again, it will have a lot to do with the burgeoning partnership between Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero. While the former brings power, the latter has finesse, and it's that which makes the Argentinean forward one of the finest in the world. “He can score simple and incredible goals; works hard for the team; teams cannot mark him out of games,” Mariner says. Quite so, Paul, quite so.
Forward: In an age when genuine centre-forwards are, if not rare, certainly not relied upon for a team's goals as much as in previous years, Robin van Persie bucks that trend. It might be stretching things a little to say that without him Manchester United would not have won the Premier League last season, but it would have been a much closer race. As Mariner notes, as well as his goals, his “hold up play in the middle third is a joy and he is the platform for the wave of attacks that took United to the Premier League.”