With the 2022/23 Premier League season drawing to a close, The Hard Tackle aims to pick out the Team of the Season.
After a long, winding, chaotic, and full of jaw-dropping surprises season, the end of the 2022/23 Premier League season nears a close, with reigning English champions Manchester City coming out on top as victors for the fifth time in six seasons following an exhilarating title race against Arsenal, which petered out in the months of April and May.
Arsenal set the pace at the top of the table for almost the entire campaign but came up short when it really mattered. Having enjoyed the view from the top for nearly 250 days, Arsenal’s title challenge collapsed in the face of a relentless, well-oiled winning machine that had been assembled and perfected over many years by Pep Guardiola.
While Arteta and his players dismissed the merciless internet talk of “bottling” the title race, for their supporters, there is a crushing sense of what could have been. In hindsight, though, this Arsenal season has undoubtedly been a success. Coming into the season, if you asked any Arsenal fan their expectations for this season, they would have told you to finish in the top four and have a good cup run.
However, the exciting young core and a clearly talented young manager made great strides and overachieved drastically, even though they were beaten to the crown by the beast that is Manchester City, who are on a different level as a footballing juggernaut right now.
However, Arsenal’s unprecedented progression was not the only surprise this season. To be fair, this PL season was quite fantastic, especially for neutrals. Champions League-elect Newcastle United, European football chasers Brighton & Hove Albion, and Aston Villa have all been quite successful in gatecrashing into the top six, while the usual suspects such as Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea have largely underperformed and slipped out.
Nevertheless, this is the time of year when you’re bound to see countless amounts of Team of the Season XIs. The Hard Tackle now sums up this season’s Premier League campaign by picking the best XI of the season.
Also, note that this team is picked by narrowing individual positions and zones; for example, right-backs and right wing-backs have been classified all the same, and the same goes for defensive midfielders and playmakers.
In short, the team of best players this season will be selected based upon factors such as the eye test, statistics, and the players’ influence on the success of the team rather than actual roles, so the team may not be well-balanced on paper despite our best efforts. To make it more interesting, we’re also not allowed to pick more than three players from a single team. So, let’s start without any fuss.
Goalkeeper: Nick Pope (Newcastle United)
Starting at the back, it’s Newcastle’s Nick Pope in goal. Signed for just £10 million from Burnley, Pope has proven to be a very shrewd piece of business for the north-east club and has become one of the safest pair of hands in the division. At the time of writing, Pope has accrued 13 clean sheets and is third on the clean sheet charts, behind Golden Glove winner David de Gea and Alisson Becker.
Speaking of Alisson, he will be the Newcastle number one’s fiercest contender for the sacred spot in the Team of the Season thanks to his exceptional post-shot expected goal (PSxG) of +10.1, meaning he has prevented 10 more goals than an average goalkeeper, whereas Pope’s PSxG is break-even at +0.3. However, judging who had a better season based on this single stat can be misleading. For example, Ederson’s PSxG is -5.1, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad keeper or has made many errors in between the sticks; it’s a reflection on how much a team leaves their keeper exposed.
In England’s top-flight, only one team has conceded fewer goals than Newcastle, so Pope’s influence on Eddie Howe’s idea of a ‘steady ship’ cannot be understated. In terms of everything you need from a goalkeeper—using your hands and reflexes, dominating the box, coming off the line to make match-saving interventions like a modern sweeper keeper, and spreading his towering figure in one-on-one situations—there isn’t a better goalkeeper in the league.
Advanced metrics underline how well Pope has performed since his summer move. Along with clean sheets, he also has impressive save percentage statistics (72.9%). The Toon ace also boasts an incredible sweeping ability and has proven to be the top flight’s best goalkeeper off his line. This has enabled Eddie Howe to deploy a higher defensive line to condense the pitch in order to apply suffocating pressure in prime positions.
Opposition teams are likewise aware of Pope’s qualities in the air. Crosses and set pieces are often played deeper in the box as a result, making defending set pieces extremely predictable and a walk in the park. Many people were concerned about Pope’s distribution.
However, that has been one of Newcastle’s strengths. By lumping the ball early, the tactic is to overcome the opposition’s press and enact your own counter-press by compressing the area of the pitch around where the ball will land.
All in all, Pope is a big part of Howe’s high-risk, high-reward strategy, and being the last line of second-best defence in the division, he is also responsible for organising the backline as well as barking orders.
While he hasn’t been called into action that much during games thanks to Newcastle’s rigid defence, he has delivered with some astounding saves when it mattered the most throughout the season, notably the one to secure Champions League qualification against Leicester City recently.
Right-back: Kieran Trippier (Newcastle United)
Eyebrows were raised last January when the England defender swapped regular Champions League football at Atletico Madrid for a club in the thick of a relegation battle, but already it is looking to be a sound call. His return to English football has revolutionised the Magpies’ defence and raised standards straight away, not least with his leadership ability.
Taking on the pressure of the armband instantly with comfort, Trippier has been the blueprint for how to excel as the complete right-back in the modern game. Going forward, the La Liga winner, especially this season, has produced classy moments on a number of occasions.
Trippier has been a nuisance for defences with his wand of a right foot, whether it be his stunning free-kick against Manchester City or the sublime through-balls or clever flicks, combinations in the right-hand channels, or picking out Dan Burn with a precise inswinging cross. However, the poor finishing from Newcastle’s big men at the back stick throughout the season has prevented him from topping the PL assist charts.
And defensively, the England international has given some of the finest wingers in the division a tough time, as there have been no doubts about his ability to read plays and snuff out attacks. It’s no wonder that Almiron is having a super-productive season while playing most of the season in front of Trippier on the right flank.
In terms of chance creation, Newcastle’s creator-in-chief stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the league’s finest, with only Bruno Fernandes creating more chances than the Toon skipper. The Newcastle defender has created the most chances from set-piece situations (74), 33 more than the next-best James Ward Prowse (41).
Named Newcastle’s Player of the Season, he’s captained the Magpies into the Champions League and marshalls that backline with exceptional poise and calmness when his team’s under the cosh.
Among the outstanding talents shortlisted for the Player of the Season award, he is also the highest-scoring defender in Fantasy Premier League (FPL) this season, so it would be borderline foolish to leave him off of our Team of the Season (TOTS).
Centre-back: John Stones (Manchester City)
The competition for the best player in the right-sided centre-back role has been fierce this season. William Saliba, for one, has enjoyed a wonderful debut campaign in England after three loan spells away from France. His partnership with Gabriel Magalhaes was crucial to Arsenal’s trajectory to the top of the table in the first half of the season.
His importance to the team and Mikel Arteta’s style of play have been highlighted in recent months, with Arsenal losing their grip on the Premier League title race in his absence due to a back injury. Fabian Schar of Newcastle United is another strong contender, having undergone a dramatic transformation into a quality, ball-playing central defender under Eddie Howe.
However, in this modern era of ever-changing tactics, our pick for the position is none other than defender-turned-midfielder John Stones. The England international, a creative and calming genius, has been invaluable to City’s upturn in form since the World Cup, helping them maraud towards the 2022/23 Premier League title. He has made 32 appearances for the side across all competitions this season, with a positional tweak seeing him in a more advanced role under Pep Guardiola.
A centre-half by trade but capable of operating in a number of positions, it is his new hybrid position that allows him to move further up the pitch to form a formidable ‘box midfield’ alongside midfield metronome Rodri when City have possession, has frequently caught the eye as City have overrun opponents again and again while also creating an elite supply chain for striker Erling Haaland.
It’s a challenging, high-risk role that Stones has adapted seamlessly, for which Guardiola recently heaped praise on the England international for. In fact, it would not be wrong to say Stones transitions have changed the course of the season for City.
Before him, young right-back Rico Lewis was being deployed in this inverted role, and while he performed admirably, but there were instances when he lacked the experience, physicality, and positional sense to beat the opposition press.
Stones is technically gifted and incredibly calm on the ball for a centre-back and can pick apart defences with a defence-unlocking pass, but he also has underrated physical attributes like his aerial prowess and ground eating that have helped him settle into this new role without a flinch.
Centre-back: Sven Botman (Newcastle United)
There’s just something so aesthetically satisfying about a left-footed central defender. As for the right central defender role, there are several contenders in the race for the best left-sided centre-half position. For instance, Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez has silenced his critics, who said a 5ft 9ins tall centre-back wouldn’t be able to cope with the rigours of the Premier League when the Red Devils signed him from Ajax.
‘The Butcher’, as nicknamed by the United faithful for his aggression, the 25-year-old has been a revelation and a key part of United’s success this term. He plays with his heart on his sleeve and defends with absolutely everything he has. A monster in ground duels, the Argentinian World Cup winner is not afraid of competing against the centre-forwards, no matter how tall they are.
Couple all this with his excellent distribution, and he has well and truly caught the attention of a wider audience. At the same time, his side has been on the wrong end of some pathetic thrashings, especially at the start of the season and the infamous 7-0 defeat against Liverpool, which we have to take into account. For that reason, we’ve opted for Newcastle’s Sven Botman instead.
The Magpies pulled off an absolute masterstroke when they signed Botman from LOSC Lille for £35 million last summer, with the 23-year-old already looking like an elite-level centre-back, having won the Ligue 1 title a couple of seasons ago.
And so far, he has proven to be worth every penny. He is part of the Premier League’s meanest defence, but for Manchester City, and has settled into life on Tyneside with ease. Not only has he been a rock at the back, but he also helps his team attack by playing line-breaking passes, cross-field balls, and pin-point through balls.
The Dutchman is as elegant as his nickname, ‘Rolls Royce,’ and is equally adept at digging in and putting his body on the line. Standing at 6ft 4in tall, he has given Newcastle that added stature and presence in the backline. He’s also very good at making clean tackles and snuffing out danger at the source, ranking in the top 2% of defenders for percentage of dribbler tackles amongst his positional peers in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
At 23, he has the potential and capacity to get even better. Time is on his side, and the sky is the limit for the exciting Toon defender.
Left-back: Oleksandr Zinchenko (Arsenal)
Full-backs have grown in prominence in the Premier League in recent years. Whereas in the past those on the left side of the back four would primarily be expected to defend, they are now used in varying roles: some are required to offer an attacking threat, others invert to help out in build-up—just look at Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. But who is the best of the current crop of left-backs?
Well, there are many candidates in the running. Brighton & Hove Albion’s Pervis Estupinian, Newcastle’s Dan Burn, and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw are great shouts, albeit the trio play very different roles for their respective teams.
Shaw, for one, has been outstanding for Manchester United lately but has recorded some low points during the season. Nevertheless, we’re going for arguably one of the best signings of the Premier League this past season in Oleksandr Zinchenko, who has had a transformative effect on Arsenal’s style of play and mindset this season.
Had Zinchenko been playing for almost any other team in the Premier League over the last few years, we would have already been well aware of the extent of his brilliance. However, he is only just receiving the respect he deserves following his move to Arsenal.
He was used rarely at the Etihad Stadium, but his leadership and experience mean he has quickly become a key player for Mikel Arteta’s Gunners as they drastically transitioned from a team battling out for the top four to title contenders.
Zinchenko’s output of one goal and two assists in 29 games may lead you to assume he has had little influence. But you’d be foolish to think so. Although he starts out wide, he is a left-back in name only. The Ukrainian international often drifts inward and joins the midfield pivot to affect games from the middle of the park, enabling Granit Xhaka to push upfield.
His impeccable and precise ball-playing skills have been vital to Arsenal’s success this season. Zinchenko has won over fans with his incredible technical ability and game intelligence, and he has been one of the most influential players in Arsenal’s dressing room this term.
Midfielder: Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
Kevin De Bruyne may not have been his usual self in the months just after the World Cup break, but he has still been the best midfielder in the Premier League this season. He is certainly one of the more influential stars in the Manchester City squad and that’s due to his consistency of performance over the years at the top.
It’s a testament to the incredibly high standards he’s set for himself that there were suggestions he’s not been up to par at the start of this season, despite his record of 7 goals and 18 assists in 31 Premier League appearances. He’s still well within reach of surpassing the Premier League record for assists in a single season, which he already shares with Thierry Henry (20).
The Citizens outlasted Arsenal in a hard-fought title battle, and De Bruyne was, once again, a crucial cog in their total dominance in the business end of the season. A volume creator, he plays a high-risk game, rarely turning down an opportunity to progress play at speed, and always searching for space behind the opposition backline. This has enabled him to strike up a deadly partnership with ruthless record-breaker Erling Haaland.
While he has always been a big game player, the Belgian maestro is also showing his clutch gene in full flow this season, notably bagging a well-taken brace and an assist against title-contenders the Gunners in April, and a stunning long-range strike in the Champions League semifinal first-leg against Real Madrid. City will look to De Bruyne to keep his clutch play going as they look to achieve a historic treble this season.
Midfielder: Martin Ødegaard (Arsenal)
When Martin Odegaard first arrived at the Emirates, some pundits raised eyebrows about whether he was too lightweight for the Premier League.
He was seen as a bit of a luxury player who would drift in and out of games, especially away from home. Still, Arteta kept faith in him, and after signing him on a permanent basis handed him the captain’s armband in the summer, with many questioning whether he was the right type of player to lead a team in the Premier League, especially after they failed to secure a top-four spot last season.
But Odegaard has made a mockery of those criticisms this season. His performances and numbers speak for themselves. The Gunners captain has been excellent this campaign and a huge part of their unlikely Premier League title challenge, which has ultimately fallen short.
The Norwegian has put on some incredible performances and has scored 15 league goals in 36 appearances, while also providing seven assists as he proved a consistent threat.
Press-resistant, calm and composed, he treats every possession like it could be his last, and he combines all of that with a genuinely impressive defensive work rate. He’s somewhat of a cross between David Silva and Bernardo Silva, sharing many of their individual attributes in terms of movement, his quick feet and his vision, though not quite topping either for anything specifically.
His forward-thinking while in possession is exceptional as he takes every possible opportunity to attempt to progress play by breaking lines with incisive passing, and so he regularly cuts opponents out of the game with delightful flicks and through balls.
He has been the standout performer for Mikel Arteta’s side this season, and deserves his inclusion in the Team of the season. Still very young, the Emirates faithful would hope he continues to dazzle them for many years to come, and maybe perhaps captaining them to a title success in future years.
Right-Midfielder: Moises Caicedo (Brighton & Hove Albion)
While we could have gone with the well-trodden path of picking up Arsenal wonderkid Bukayo Saka for this position, particularly with the Englishman coming off the back of a tremendous season with 24-goal contributions for the Gunners, we’ve gone for a more left-field and a bit more defensive option to also bring more attention to the magical season Brighton & Hove Albion have had.
The Seagulls are currently in sixth place and, under Roberto De Zerbi, have become a force to reckon with. The team’s rise can be attributed to various things, but one of the most important is their impressive canny recruitment strategy and scouting network, which have helped the clubs identify quality players brought in for a low fee over the years.
And by far, their most remarkable addition has been Moises Caicedo, a man who is now arguably the hottest properties in world football at the moment. Caicedo has become an integral part of Brighton’s midfield this season.
Playing in a central midfield position, Caicedo is an energetic, box-to-box midfielder and controller-in-chief. He loves a tackle and has strong defensive qualities, but he is not necessarily a defensive midfielder. He has operated best at Brighton when given the freedom to charge around the pitch as an all-over-the-pitch ball-winner.
From a technical perspective, Caicedo is impressing and progressing forward all the time. His touch is sure, his short-range passing is exemplary when given time on the ball, and then, of course, there are his defensive tendencies.
Over the season, he has developed into an incredibly well-rounded midfielder who can adapt well to the specific role he is given. When he first burst onto the scene, he impressed as a ball-winning midfielder who could support their frantic press from midfield, retrieve possession, and progress it effectively.
His ball-carrying was initially the foremost way he could break opposition lines and move the ball forwards, but as time has gone on his passing has become increasingly incisive, while his versatility has shone through as well, with De Zerbi utilizing him in the marauding right wing-back role lately.
The Ecuadorian enforcer has dealt with the change in role seamlessly, and in fact, that’s one of the big reasons why we’ve picked him for this right-sided midfielder position to provide some defensive assurance, with our other two central midfielders are essentially two attacking midfielders.
In total, the 30-cap Ecuador international has racked up 35 Premier League appearances this term, and his underlying figures are impressive. He ranks in the top 15% of midfielders across Europe’s big five leagues for tackles (2.97) and interceptions (1.53) and in the top 5% for pass success rate per 90 minutes (88.7%), according to FBref, showing that he is a versatile option in the middle of the park.
It’s no wonder big clubs are sniffing around him, and are ready to pay over £75 million to lure him away from Brighton this summer after his stunning season.
Left-Midfielder/ Left-Winger: Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
Nominated for the Premier League Player of the Season award thanks to his sublime performances this term, Marcus Rashford had a difficult 2021/22 campaign, and was shot of confidence with the Red Devils, but he has been nothing short of exceptional over the course of the current season.
The England international has registered a stunning 40 goal contributions from 53 outings (29 goals, 11 assists). Out of those, 21 have come in the top-flight to boost United’s top-four pursuit. He has won thrice as many Premier League Player of the Month accolades this season (3) as he had in his previous seven seasons combined (1), a stat courtesy of ESPN.
The speedster was in blistering form for the Red Devils following the World Cup with 16 goals from 17 outings. While his form has dipped in recent months, netting only five times in his next 17 games for the club, his explosive pace, ability to run with the ball at speed, and attract defenders means he plays a big role at creating more chances and space for his teammates to pounce on.
To be fair, he has at times carried the United attack single-handedly on his shoulders, scoring crucial goals and leading his team to victory. If Rashford scores just once more this season, he would become the first United player to reach 30 goals in all competitions since Robin van Persie in 2012/13, which would be a remarkable comeback after a dismal season last time out.
The 25-year-old is still yet to enter his prime years as a footballer and his development this season under Ten Hag has been astounding. He is certainly a player who is nearing the ‘world-class’ level if he can maintain this consistency over the next season or so.
Striker: Erling Haaland (Manchester City)
Death, taxes, and Erling Haaland breaking goalscoring records. The Norwegian striker has scored goals for fun since moving to the Etihad Stadium and is the overwhelming favourite to win the PFA’s Player of the Season award.
50 goals in 52 competitive appearances is a genuinely outrageous feat, let alone for a 22-year-old, let alone for a player in his first season, let alone for a club playing in the Premier League and Champions League. Records have been smashed, but the amount of silverware remains to be determined.
The Norwegian striker has plundered goals left, right, and centre and has taken City to the verge of becoming the first side to do the treble of Premier League, Champions League, and FA Cup since rivals Manchester United in 1999.
His goal tally also includes four hat-tricks, which leaves him two away from breaking the current record for most hat-tricks scored in a Premier League season, held by Alan Shearer with five. He has already set the record for the most goals in a Premier League season.
He has also surpassed Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mohamed Salah, who each netted 44 goals, as the players with the most goals in all competitions during a season in the Premier League era, and he still has Dixie Dean’s all-competitions record of 60 in his sights. Haaland is a tremendous talent, and he will surely win the Ballon d’Or in the near future at this rate.
Striker: Harry Kane
Don’t be surprised to see the back-to-basics Sam Allardyce, and Sean Dyche’s archetypal 4-4-2 formation dominate the Team of the Season XI’s all across the board, with people trying to fit both Kane and Haaland into the same lineup.
And rightly so, Kane would get the Golden Boot nine times out of ten for the goal-scoring stats he has produced this season. But not when a certain Erling Haaland also resides in the same league.
The England captain finds himself at something of a career crossroads despite another superb season on a personal note. Indeed, the 29-year-old has scored 30 goals across all competitions and became the club’s all-time leading scorer in the process, as well as overtaking Wayne Rooney as England’s all-time top goalscorer.
Yet for Spurs, it’s been another tale of woe for the football club as a whole, and it seems inconceivable to think that Kane has played out of his skin in a Tottenham side that has continued to buy into the term ‘Spursy’ and has wasted all of his incredible goal-scoring feats.
He has no major trophies to show for despite being one of the league’s deadliest forwards for pretty much his entire top-flight career so far. And it’s safe to say, without the England skipper Spurs would have been struggling like a bang average lower mid-table team like Chelsea this season.
Spurs have fallen off massively in recent weeks, currently sitting in eighth place in the table. Indeed, it seems Kane is now a big fish in a small pond and a summer move to a bigger side would make sense, and allow him to contribute to a winning side. It remains to be seen what the future holds for Kane.
Honourable mentions (The bench):
Goalkeepers: Bernd Leno (Fulham), Alisson (Liverpool), Neto (Bournemouth), and Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal).
Defenders: William Saliba (Arsenal), Fabian Schar (Newcastle United), Dan Burn (Newcastle United), Pervis Estupinian (Brighton & Hove Albion), Lewis Dunk (Brighton & Hove Albion), Like Shaw (Manchester United) and Lisandro Martinez (Manchester United).
Midfielders: Bruno Guimaraes (Newcastle United), Casemiro (Manchester United), Alexis Mac Allister (Brighton & Hove Albion), and Joao Palhinha (Fulham), Kaoru Mitoma (Brighton & Hove Albion), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal).
Strikers: Callum Wilson (Newcastle United), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Ivan Toney (Brentford), and Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa).