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U23 Team of the Season – Premier League

The Premier League Team of the Season, as put together with my colleague Vincent Greene, was certainly difficult to agree upon. There were plenty of great players who suffered the fate of having elite players in their positions. However, together we decided to take some of the young stars of the game, as well as highlight another manager, and comprise an Under-23 (U23) Team of the Season.

For this list, each position is comprised of players under the age of 23 at the start of the campaign. Some of the players have already well established themselves as stars. Others had breakout seasons and are set for big moves to bigger clubs. All in all, the Sports Obsessive Premier League U23 Team of the Season is an exciting group of top performers.

Goalkeeper Star of the Season: Dean Henderson

Dean Henderson Goalkeeper Sheffield United U23 Team of the Season
Dean Henderson celebrates another clean sheet and a United win

Goalkeeper: Dean Henderson

As will be discussed later in the article, Sheffield United had a surprise season, finishing 9th as a newly promoted team. A lot is owed to the incredible talent of Dean Henderson. The Blades’ keeper during their promotion season from the Championship, “Deano” has established himself as one of England’s best. He was called into the England squad when Tom Heaton was injured, and most likely won’t look back. He has also turned the heads of Manchester United fans, his parent club. With David DeGea’s precipitous drop in form, Henderson will return from loan at Sheffield United to challenge for the Red Devils’ number one spot.

What has led to Henderson’s rise to the top is an excellent command of the penalty area and great reflexes. In particular, his triple-save against Norwich in a 1-0 win preserved a clean sheet–a stat he finished tied for third–and showed everyone what he could do. His overall numbers put him in the top five of all consistent starting keepers in the Premier League. The kicker is he is five years younger than the next youngest in that group. While this Blades fan is massively sad he probably won’t be in South Yorkshire again, it is massively exciting to see where he goes from here.

Right Back: Aaron Wan-Bissaka

It was not Wan-Bissaka’s first season in the Premier League, but it was his first at Manchester United. After moving from Crystal Palace in the summer, it was thought that he would compete with Portuguese defender Diogo Dalot for time. However, Dalot struggled to keep up against Premier League wingers and was often left flat-footed. Wan-Bissaka, on the other hand, is incredibly quick and excels as a defensive fullback. A string of great performances solidified him as the starter and at the age of 22, he looks to be a long-term staple for the Red Devils.

The English international led all right-backs in interceptions and tackles; solid evidence of his defensive capabilities. Unlike some of his counterparts among the top six, Bissaka is a shutdown fullback. In both games against cross-town rival Manchester City, he negated Sterling’s pace and dribbling on the left-wing. His dominance against Sterling garnered him Man of the Match in both fixtures of the Manchester Derby.

Center Back: Issa Diop

The first of two West Ham players on this list, Issa Diop’s growth is an exciting prospect for the East London side. No central defender under the age of 24 made more appearances for their side than the Frenchman. This may not seem like a big deal, but there are very few young center-backs starting consistently in the Premier League. The demands of top-flight center-backs take years of discipline, growth, and consistency to meet. Diop is one of the few who have managed to balance all three.

In addition to his solid defensive positional play, Diop loves to play out of the back. He does well with both feet and has a decent passing percentage of 78. Growth is needed with his passing but the improvement is evident. His potential tips him as France’s center-back of the future since Laporte is out of favor with Deschamps. Likewise, he has been linked with Spurs and PSG recently. This coming Premier League campaign will be critical for his international and club prospects.

Center Back: Joe Gomez

It was a given Virgil Van Dijk would be in Vincent’s Premier League Team of the Season. His most consistent center-back partner also deserves a shout, though. Joe Gomez developed immensely this season and Klopp’s commitment to him partnering with Van Dijk is a testament to his growth. The demands of Liverpool’s tactical system suits Gomez’s strong presence on the ball. Like Van Dijk, he is efficient with an 88% passing rate; a higher rate than Milner, Henderson, and Fabinho. Likewise, he averaged 71 passes per game, a rate only bested by Van Dijk. His defensive game is still in progress, but he lacks a real weakness in his game and it looks to only improve. Even though Diop played more games, Gomez gets the tip as the defensive star of the U23 Team of the Season.

Left Back: Kieran Tierney

The Scottish national team has a wonderful problem on their hands. Two top-quality Scottish left-backs play in the Premier League. Unfortunately for Kieran Tierney, right now he remains in the shadow of Andy Robertson. The hope for the young Scot is, what with Mikel Arteta now helming Arsenal, that his chances will grow. Tierney is an ideal fit for a Pep Guardiola-style system and he has been preferred to Sead Kolasinac. Tierney will likely develop even more under Arteta and find himself jockeying with Robertson for time on the national team.

Similar to Wan-Bissaka, Tierney is a defence-first left-back. He is not quite of the same mold as the elite attacking, pin-point crossing fullbacks like the aforementioned Robertson, Benjamin Mendy, or  Marcos Alonso. His performances have stood out because of his ability to effectively negate counterattacks and run with teams’ right-wingers. He garnered a lot of praise for shutting down Mohamed Salah in Arsenal’s late-season win against Liverpool. Not an easy prospect for even the best and most seasoned of defenders and a good sign for Arsenal moving forward.

Defensive Star of the Season: Joe Gomez

Joe Gomez Tackling U23 Premier League Team of the Season
Joe Gomez goes in for a tackle while TAA looks on

Midfield: Ruben Neves

Picking Neves was a bit of a struggle. Statistically, he doesn’t look very impressive. He appeared in every game for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 2019-20 Premier League season, but only scored two goals and had two assists. He doesn’t lead Wolves in any major offensive category, nor does he even beat out fellow defensive midfielder Romain Saiss. By all regular measures, Neves hasn’t been great or even worth mentioning.

However, Neves is critical to Nuno Espírito Santo’s tactical setup and a major reason Wolves have jockeyed for a top 6 finish in two straight seasons. As the pivot to Nuno’s 3-4-3, his positional awareness functions as the crucial piece in defensively covering the middle. When the ball is won back, his central role and awareness allow him to distribute to Moutinho in the middle or to the waiting wingbacks. Another important part of Nuno’s game is the longball. Neves boasts pinpoint longball accuracy and if you get a chance to watch a Wolves game, you will see it in action. His distribution on the ground and in the air make him integral to Wolves setup and why he is in this starting XI.

Midfield: Wilfred Ndidi

Not enough people are talking about Wilfred Ndidi. When Vincent and I were putting together this list, he came up as more of an afterthought in the last moments. It shouldn’t be this way. The young Nigerian is already a consistent, steady presence for Leicester City. With little fanfare, Ndidi established himself as the successor to former Fox N’Golo Kante.

Ndidi’s defensive presence in the midfield complements the attack-minded James Maddison and Youri Tielemans. Leicester relies on Ndidi to be a ball-winner and cut out the opposition’s midfield buildup play. His 2.5 interceptions per game are second in the Premier League and highest among midfielders. Also, he loves a good, strong tackle. Averaging four completed tackles a game, another statistic he leads for all midfielders, he is like having another center-back in the middle of the pitch.

Having completed his third full season as a Leicester player, there is not much left for Ndidi to prove. With Europa League football on the horizon this coming season, it is a chance for Ndidi to show he is among the elite not only in England but all of Europe. Will more people may talk about how great he is then? Let’s hope so. In the meantime, he is the midfield star of the U23 Team of the Season.

Midfield: Declan Rice

He may not be statistically as prolific as Ndidi or pivotal as Neves, but there is no one more exciting than Declan Rice. Starting the season as a twenty-year-old, Rice quickly became arguably West Ham United’s most important player. Defensively he led the midfield, much like Ndidi, and offensively he began to mature into a Neves-like positional role. He started every game for the Hammers, the only player to do so, and led the team in minutes played by over 700. West Ham managers did not release him into a more creative role on par with the elite defensive midfielders. Yet, if the rumors around a move to Chelsea are true, he should feature in the attack more prominently. I don’t think he will be long for a U23 Team of the Season list if he does move. He is quite a young talent.

Midfield Star of the Season: Wilfred Ndidi

Wilfred Ndidi Leicester City Goal
Wilfred Ndidi brings the ball back after scoring

Attacker: Gabriel Jesus

The attacking options at Manchester City are a limitless well. Long-serving veterans like Aguero, Sterling, and DeBruyne bolster big-time signings Mahrez, Bernardo, and youngsters Phil Foden and newcomer Ferran Torres. The steady presence of Gabriel Jesus often is lost in this mix of talent. Under Pep Guardiola, his potential is blossoming and he looks to be an ideal replacement in the next year or two for the legendary Aguero. Not only does he fit the mold of a predatory striker needed for a big club, but he is also great at holding up play and creating chances for other attacking teammates.

In the Premier League, he lagged one goal behind Tammy Abraham but chipped in six more assists. Beyond his assist total, his creativity and dribbling consistently opened space for the wingers and attacking midfielders to exploit. His importance to City’s attack comes from this utilization of his skill set and seems to be the influence of Guardiola. Both he and Raheem Sterling are essential for their national teams in stretching out the opposing side to set up other players. Manchester City are well set up with Jesus in attack and with more starts, his goal tally is set to increase. He might not have had a prolific goal scoring season, yet, but it’s coming. Of all the attacking options, Jesus is the U23 Team of the Season star.

Attacker: Tammy Abraham

The narrative surrounding Chelsea at the beginning of the season was of youth and rebuilding. Tammy Abraham was at the forefront of this transfer-ban-imposed youth movement, and just as he did on loan at Aston Villa, he delivered. A torrid run of seven goals in three games put the England international top of the scoring charts in September. Despite cooling off a bit and Frank Lampard integrating veteran Olivier Giroud into his tactical setups, Abraham started 25 games and appeared in 34 of Chelsea’s 38 games. His goal tally of 15 was second among players under 23 and top of the heap for Chelsea. How he fares with more competition in front of him remains to be seen. I would love to see him loaned out or move on to continue to score goals if he will be beaten out by the incoming Timo Werner.

Attacker: Mason Greenwood

Anyone who pays attention to the Premier League knew something of Mason Greenwood’s promise. Manchester United fans were chomping at the bit to get the youngster out on to the field and a part of their attack. In the first part of the season, Greenwood showed flashes of promise. After Project Restart, he was absolutely on fire. His nose for the ball in the final third, combined with his deadly precision finishing, was vital to Man United’s late-season surge into the Champions League places. He was particularly important in a run of three fixtures in late-June/early-July, where he notched four goals and an assist. At only 18-years-old there is a ton of promise to him, but it already seems to have come due. The hope is his ceiling is more like Marcus Rashford and less like Jesse Lingard.

Attacking Star of the Season: Gabriel Jesus

Gabriel Jesus Penalty
Gabriel Jesus waits to take a penalty

 

Chris Wilder Premier League
Chris Wilder celebrates Sheffield United’s 3-1 victory over Spurs

Manager: Chris Wilder

Four years ago, Chris Wilder took over at Sheffield United after finishing a disappointing 11th place in League One. The Sheffield-born former Blades captain Wilder took them back to the Championship in the first time of asking. Two seasons later, the South Yorkshire club outlast Leeds United for 2nd, win promotion, and Wilder wins the LMA Manager of the Year, beating out Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp. United fans, including me, were in dreamland.

Fast forward to this season and the results continue for Wilder, amazingly, with practically the same squad he fielded in League One. In the early part of the season, pundits picked Sheffield United for relegation and to finish in 20th. Wilder maintained his previous tactics with his tight-knit group, adjusted when needed, and nicked points from the Big 6. His defence finished behind only the top 3 in goals conceded. If Wilder can find an elite attacker, another top-half finish is in store for Wilder and the Blades. He is a perfect fit for the U23 Team of the Season.

Final Thoughts:

There are so many young, exciting players in the Premier League that it can be difficult to include everyone. Every player, both in the starting XI and on the bench, rightly deserve a place. The decision-making process is not based on potential or bursts of excitement, but who had the most impact. Consequently, some of the young players you might believe deserve to make the list didn’t make it.

I would love to see your best Premier League U23 Team of the Season. Or send along some of the players you think should be starting or on the bench. Leave your team or players in the comments section or tweet at Sports Obsessive or me with your thoughts. I’m sure in seasons to come we will be talking about both the players on this list and your list.

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Written by Joshua Crabb

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