Premier League Team of the Season: OptaJoe’s XI
The 2021-22 season has come to an end, with Manchester City winning the Premier League title for the sixth time in the last 11 seasons – four of those coming in the last five seasons.
Pep Guardiola has now won the title in 10 of his 13 seasons as a top-flight manager across spells in charge of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City, with Liverpool forced to contend with second place with the second-highest points tally to not win an English top-flight title (92).
With the curtain fully closed on the campaign, our data experts at OptaJoe have picked their Premier League best XI for 2021-22 based on the data.
José Sá – Wolves
Coming into the 2021-22 Premier League campaign, José Sá had big gloves to fill after Rui Patrício’s three-season stint with Wolves came to an end. Between, 2018-19 and 2020-21, Patrício kept 30 clean sheets in 112 Premier League appearances, and made 288 saves – a tally only three other goalkeepers could better.
Well, a new, bigger pair of gloves are in order as Sá defied all expectation and proved to be one of the signings of the season.
In conceding just 39 goals from shots worth an expected goals on target (xGOT) total of 47.5 (excluding own goals), Sá led the Premier League rankings for goals prevented (8.5) and proved to be a stubborn barrier for opposition strikers.
According to our xGOT model, José Sá prevented nearly six goals (5.7) more than the next best performing Premier League goalkeeper this season – David de Gea (2.8).
Wolves will be delighted with Sá’s heroics in between the sticks this season, with the Portuguese stopper (75%) posting the second highest save percentage ratio of any Premier League goalkeeper (min. 15 saves), behind only Liverpool’s Alisson (76%).
Joao Cancelo – Manchester City
Our left-back of choice is the right-footed João Cancelo; the Manchester City all-rounder who could probably slot in any position in both defence and midfield, once again in 2021-22 showing us how integral he is to the City machine.
In all competitions this season, Cancelo started in more games (51) and posted more minutes on the pitch (4622) than any other player at the club, the human oxymoron to the yielding axe that is Pep Roulette. In fact, across Guardiola’s managerial career, only three outfield players have started 50+ matches in the same season, with Cancelo joining Lionel Messi (57 in 2011-12) and Dani Alves (50 in 2010-11) as the other two to do so.
Cancelo’s importance stems from his known versatility; across his 36 Premier League appearances at full-back this season, the Portuguese international started 22 times on the left and 14 on the right, though it’s his venturing into midfield and attacking areas that highlights his ability best.
He had more touches in the Premier League this season than any other player both overall (3908), and in the opponent’s half (2461), attempted more dribbles (113) than any other listed defender, whilst only Aymeric Laporte and Declan Rice boasted more carries than Cancelo (716) in the division. On top of this, 62% of his direct goal involvements in the English top-flight came in 2021-22 (8/13), netting once and delivering seven assists.
Thiago Silva – Chelsea
Despite now being 37 years old, Thiago Silva proved once again this season why he’s an integral part of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea.
Only Antonio Rudiger (34 starts and 3035 mins) and Edouard Mendy (34 starts and 3060 mins) made more starts or played more minutes in the Premier League for the Blues this season than the Brazilian (28 and 2651), with him a pivotal part of a side shipping just 33 league goals this term – only Manchester City and Liverpool conceded fewer (both 26).
An experienced campaigner at the heart of their defence, it’s actually with the ball at his feet that Thiago Silva excelled for Chelsea in 2021-22. As part of a back five, he’s able to progress the ball – and his team – up the field, to which he’s done to great effect. Only Aymeric Laporte (257), Joel Matip (227) and Ruben Dias (166) had more progressive carries of 10 metres plus, amongst central defenders than he did (155), while no central defender started a sequence that ended in a shot more often than the veteran (33).
Thiago Silva was equally as good distributing the ball from the back, with only Joachim Anderson (7.8) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (6.4) making more successful long passes per 90 this season than him amongst defenders (5.8 – min. 1000 mins), while only Adam Webster (34.0) made more forward passes per 90 amongst central defenders than he did (31.4).
In what will be his 14th consecutive campaign in a big five European league, he’ll be a Chelsea player for at least one more season, after signing a one-year extension in January, as the Blues look to bridge the gap at the top in the next campaign.
Virgil van Dijk – Liverpool
It comes as no surprise that Liverpool’s upturn in 2021-22, following a disappointing last season, comes in tandem with the return to fitness of Virgil van Dijk, who missed the best part of 10 months after sustaining a knee injury in October 2020.
Only Alisson started more games (36) and played more minutes (3240) in the competition this season than Van Dijk (34 and 3060), whose return to regular action, along with Joel Matip, helped sure up Liverpool’s defence this season.
Off the back of a campaign that saw the Reds concede 42 times in the Premier League, this season the defence was breached just 26 times, the joint-best record alongside Man City, with Van Dijk helping his side keep 21 clean sheets, again a joint-high with the Citizens.
Van Dijk return was a huge part of that upturn, winning a bigger proportion of his duels (74% – min. 100 duels) and aerial duels (77% – min. 80 aerial duels) than any other defender in the competition this season.
The Dutchman’s return also helped the Reds in an attacking sense, with only Joachim Anderson (253), Trent Alexander-Arnold (203) and Thiago Silva (171) playing more successful long passes than Van Dijk this season (165), while the only centre-back with more goal build-up involvements than Van Dijk (18) was Antonio Rudiger (19).
This season also saw Van Dijk set a new Premier League record of 64 home league games for Liverpool without losing (W55 D9), as both he and the Reds showed they were back to their best.
Trent Alexander-Arnold – Liverpool
Trent Alexander-Arnold must be one of the most nailed-on choices for this year’s team of the season. The ‘right-back’ provided another 12 assists in the Premier League this campaign – he is now responsible for three of the four occasions that a defender has assisted 12+ goals in a single season in the competition (Andy Robertson in 2019-20, the other).
And he could arguably have had more. His expected assists total was 13.0 – one higher than the assist total he ended up with, while 9.9 of that was from open play, again more than his nine open play assists. Unsurprisingly, his overall and open play xA figures were by far the best in the Premier League this season.
Alexander-Arnold also created more chances (90) than any other player this campaign, and completed 203 long passes, the most of any outfield player.
“But he can’t defend” you cry. Think again. He won possession more times than any Liverpool player in the Premier League this season (235 times), while only Joel Matip (78) had more possession-winning tackles and interceptions combined than the right-back (66) for the Reds in 2021-22.
Rodri – Manchester City
Rodri was Manchester City’s most consistent player this season. The central cog in the most efficiently run team in the league.
When he was signed almost three years ago he served only as a reminder of how irreplaceable Fernandinho was. He was too slow on the turn. He took too long to pick his passes. He just didn’t have that dawg in him.
But now he’s flipped that conversation on its head. The Fernandinho succession plan is an issue of the past, now more accurately described as the Rodri understudy plan. His position is secure within the Manchester City XI for years to come.
A pivote in a Pep Guardiola team has nowhere to hide – all your inadequacies are on display. But Rodri no longer has any. Or at least he doesn’t let you see them.
Is he a good enough passer of the ball? He completed 91.8% of his passes in the Premier League this season, while based on the difficulty of his pass attempts, he was only expected to have completed 87% of them. His passer impact score, which accumulatively measures his passes above expectation, was 135 for the campaign. No other player in the division reached three figures.
Can he defend, and cover the space left by the myriad attack-minded players that circle him? He made 17 ball recoveries per 1000 opposition touches this season, next best was Kalvin Phillips with 12.8.
What about the physical demands of the Premier League, is he athletic enough? Well, 164 players featured for at least 2,000 minutes this season – of that group, Rodri ranked fifth for distance covered per 90 minutes (11.7 kilometres). His aerial win percentage of 72% was the highest of any midfielder to contest at least 50 aerial duels. In fact, he’s the only midfielder to rank inside the top 17 places league-wide for aerial win rate.
And then there were the big moments, the moments that can win titles. It wouldn’t be an issue if Rodri didn’t score a single goal this season, it’s not relevant to his job description. But he scored seven, four of them coming in the final six games of the season, stepping up during an intense title run in.
It was Rodri who surged into the Arsenal box after 93 minutes back in January to squeeze in a last-minute winner. And true to form for Manchester City’s unsung hero, it was Rodri who scored the goal which is bound to be the least remembered of the Aston Villa game on the final day, deftly passing the ball out of Robin Olsen’s reach to continue the momentum instigated by İlkay Gündoğan minutes earlier.
His contributions often go unnoticed, but they matter all the same.
Declan Rice – West Ham
In his fourth season as an undisputed starter for West Ham, Declan Rice made further strides in rounding out his game as a central midfielder. At the conclusion of the 2021-22 campaign, there is little doubting that the 23-year-old is now among the best of the best in the Premier League in his position.
One might remember Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville suggesting, in the earlier part of Rice’s career, that he saw a centre-back playing in midfield. It was a fair assertion at the time, and Rice would agree with him in an interview done earlier this year. Since then, however, both have aligned towards his best use being in the centre of midfield, owing to the year-on-year progress he has made since 2017.
Rice’s growing authority as a midfielder this season was most clearly visible in how he ran with the ball. Alongside his natural defensive qualities and neat passing, the West Ham man added a real drive to his game in 2021-22, featuring frequent bursts though the centre of the pitch.
Among defensive/central midfielders who played 1000+ minutes in the Premier League this season, Rice carried the ball further than any other player, averaging 256.7 metres of carry distance per 90. In the same pool of players, Rice also averaged the most progressive carries over 10 metres per 90 (5.5), highlighting his ability to drive forward over longer distances.
In-keeping with his driving style of play, the West Ham captain played 93% of all possible minutes in the Premier League this season. He has been the engine of the team in many senses. And in the absence of becoming a regular goal contributor – which isn’t a necessity for his role – the West Ham captain is now swiftly running out of boxes to tick.
Son Heung-Min – Spurs
Son Heung-min capped off a wonderful individual campaign for Tottenham Hotspur by netting twice on the final day to jointly-clinch the Premier League Golden Boot award (shared with Mohamed Salah). In fact, Son Heung-Min became the first Asian player to achieve this feat, with the attacker netting 23 goals in 2021-22.
To further highlight Son’s impressive goalscoring form this term, none of his 23 goals came from the penalty spot – the most goals a Spurs player has scored in a Premier League campaign without netting a penalty, overtaking Gareth Bale’s previous record in 2012-13 (21).
Son Heung-min was a man possessed in front of goal in the 2021-22 league campaign, scoring 23 goals from an expected goals total of just 15.8 – only Kevin De Bruyne (+8.8) outperformed his xG total by a larger differential than the Spurs forward (+7.2).
Son was also a creative force for Tottenham in the Premier League this term, creating more goalscoring chances (72) than any other player at the club.
With seven assists to go along with his 23 goals, Son became just the fourth different Tottenham player to reach 30+ goal involvements in a single Premier League campaign after Harry Kane, Teddy Sheringham and Jürgen Klinsmann.
Kevin De Bruyne – Manchester City
Kevin De Bruyne was named the Premier League Player of the Season the day before his Manchester City side came from 2-0 down to win the title, and it was Belgian maestro who set up the winning goal with a typically precise ball across the box, leaving just a tap in required from İlkay Gündoğan.
He’s now won the POTS award twice in the last three seasons (also in 2019-20), becoming the first player to do so since Nemanja Vidic between 2008-09 and 2010-11 (twice).
De Bruyne’s creativity is hardly a secret but stopping him affecting matches has once again proved almost impossible, with his high intensity pressing off the ball just as essential to Man City’s team – he certainly has the knack of grabbing matches by the scruff of the neck and driving his team to victory. He’s the only player to average over three shots and over three chances created per 90 minutes this season in the Premier League.
Up until Leeds travelled to Man City in mid-December, De Bruyne had managed two goals and no assists in the Premier League, though he had only started five matches. After doubling his tally in a 7-0 drubbing of the Whites, he would go on to net 15 times in total, his best tally in a top-flight campaign, with only Sadio Mane (16), Mo Salah (18) and Son Heung-Min (23) scoring more non-penalty league goals than the Belgian (15).
Leading on from that Leeds match, De Bruyne only failed to score or assist in six of his 20 league appearances, whilst he either did net (eight goals) or set-up a teammate (six assists) in eight of his final 10 games in the division, proving to be the catalyst in a title race that went down to the final minutes of the campaign.
One of those matches was City’s 5-1 win at Wolves on May 11, when the Belgian netted the third earliest hat-trick in Premier League history after just 24 minutes – all of which came with his weaker left-foot – before adding a fourth with his right in the second half, meaning Man City became just the third side to see two players score 4+ goals in a Premier League game in a single season (also Gabriel Jesus), after Man Utd in 1999-00 (Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) and Spurs in 2009-10 (Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe).
A Complete Footballer.
Bernardo Silva – Manchester City
Bernardo Silva might be the most versatile player in the Premier League.
Can anyone else play as a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box number eight, a right winger, and as a false nine, all at the top level? How many can be used as a pressing demon in a front two when defending, while also possessing the composure and press resistance to collect the ball from their goalkeeper in their own box?
Bernardo Silva is all of those things, but he’s so much more too. He covered 12 kilometres per 90 minutes this season in the Premier League, the most of any player. When looking at the 20 highest single-game distance covered totals by Manchester City players this season, 14 belong to Bernardo.
That level of industry remains high whether he’s in possession of the ball or not. Bernardo led all Manchester City players for pressures applied to opponents this season, while the only midfielder across the league with more progressive carries was Declan Rice. He even made the most runs into the box of any midfielder in the league this season – no matter where you look, his boundless energy makes him stand out.
He’s not the masterful creator that Manchester City fans may have originally hoped he’d be when David Silva’s career at the club was drawing to a close, but he still manages to be a highly effective player in contributing to dangerous attacks.
Among the Manchester City squad, he finished the season second only to Kevin De Bruyne (87) for chances created in the league (59), and there’s no shame in that, but where he stands out is for how often he passes to the player who then goes on to create a goal scoring opportunity.
We call this a secondary chance created, and he led the entire league for such instances in 2021-22 with 44, with seven of those resulting in an assist for the player he passed to. There is of course some noise in those numbers, and intention can’t always be measured, but to finish top for that statistic across a full campaign is no accident.
Manchester City can go through phases of benefitting from the form of one high level player at a time, riding the wave for a few months until another star steps up to prove their worth.
For the second half of 2020-21 that player was İlkay Gündoğan. For the second half of 2021-22 that player was De Bruyne. But don’t let recency bias gloss over Bernardo’s equally important performances in between those two phases.
From the start of the season up until the first week of December, Bernardo was City’s top scorer with seven goals, which was more than double that of any teammate at the time. If De Bruyne got Man City across the finish line, it was Bernardo Silva who started the engine.
Mohamed Salah – Liverpool
It was a stellar season for the FWA Footballer of the Year. Mohamed Salah notched 23 goals and 13 assists in 35 Premier League appearances in 2021-22 – over a goal involvement per game.
The Egyptian scored or assisted a goal every 77 minutes he played in the Premier League this season, by far the best ratio of any player to play at least 300 minutes this term.
Indeed, that rate was the best by a Premier League player to play at least 2,000 minutes in a campaign since Salah himself in 2017-18 (one every 70).
There it is again. Only Mo Salah.
Salah became the fourth player to finish a Premier League season top (or joint-top) for both goals (23) and assists (13), after Andy Cole (1993-94), Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (1998-99) & Harry Kane (2020-21). He shared the Golden Boot with Son Heung-min, the third time he has won that award in the Premier League (also 2017-18 and 2018-19), a tally only bettered by Thierry Henry (four times).
And it wasn’t just goals and assists he led the way in. Salah topped the rankings for shots (139), non-penalty expected goals (19.0) and touches in the opposition’s box (337). He was even in the top three for open play chances created (62), big chances created (18) and expected assists (7.4) in the Premier League this season. All that despite missing a chunk of the campaign to help Egypt to the Africa Cup of Nations final.
He spent the majority of his season as the right-sided wide forward in a three-man attack for Liverpool. You’ll no doubt notice that we’ve got him as our lone striker in our team of the season, but that’s because he’s so good we can play him anywhere along the front-line.
Pep Guardiola – Manchester City
Manchester City – in the second tier at the turn of the century – became Premier League champions for the sixth time in 2021-22, moving outright second for most titles behind only Manchester United (13). Four of the last five titles have been won under Pep Guardiola’s leadership, with the Spaniard now the non-British manager with the most English top-flight titles in history.
From what was initially looking like a cakewalk – Man City were 13 points clear in mid-January – the 2021-22 title race eventually went down to the final day. And even then, Guardiola’s side decided to go the long way round, going 2-0 down at home to Aston Villa before three goals in just over five minutes secure them the crown.
Man City finished the season with the best attacking figures (99 goals) and joint-best defensive record (26 goals conceded, 21 clean sheets), with their goal difference of 73 the second highest ever in a single top-flight campaign.
It will come as no surprise that the only team to better it are Pep Guardiola’s City side themselves, finishing with a difference of 79 in 2017-18.
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