The EPL's All-Overachieving Team
A few weeks ago I named 2011's All-Disappointing Team (ADT), but today I want to look on the bright side. Which means there will be nothing in this column about my beloved Gunners. This is about the flip side of the Arsenal coin -- those players of whom little was expected this season, yet who delivered big-time.
To select my All-Overachieving Team, I once again relied on a complicated soccer algorithm developed by the mixologists at Kinsale Tavern. But unlike the impossibly high standards for the ADT, the AOT had one simple criterion: Who performed like the opposite of Fernando Torres?
So get up off your feet for the 2011 AOT
GK -- Edwin van der Sar, Manchester United
Expectation: That the thin man from the lowlands could squeeze one more season out of his creaky body -- he missed nearly half of United's matches last year -- before going off to join his ex-teammate Johan Cruyff in the Total Football Retirement Home for Dutch Legends. OK, so it only seems he's been around that long, but he did begin his career in the 1980s and played for Holland in the 1994 World Cup, which makes him even older than Ryan Giggs.
Reality: While Sir Alex trolled the world looking for the next great shot-stopper -- and United seemingly has been linked with every keeper except Shep Messing -- Van der Sar showed everybody that the rumors of his fossilized demise had been greatly exaggerated. Although he got off to a wobbly start, he produced enough sprightly, kinetic performances en route to 14 clean sheets in 32 league games to keep United firmly on its championship track. His talent for marshaling his back four into a defensive fortress was unrivaled even though one of his most reliable defenders, Rio Ferdinand, missed significant stretches of action. Van der Sar survived back-line appearances by Jonny Evans, Gary Neville and John O'Shea to put in a strong claim as the EPL's top keeper, and he'll go out in the glare of the world's spotlight that he richly deserves, as his last match will be the Champions League final against Barca. Whoever comes in to follow the ectomorphic Dutchman will have a giant pair of gloves to fill.
DF -- Leighton Baines, Everton
Expectation: Baines was another in a long line of sure-footed, competent defenders that the penurious David Moyes could roll out on the cheap. From his station on the left flank, Baines was expected to continue his steady performances.
Reality: After his team's devastatingly woeful start to the season, Baines reeled off a string of Gareth Bale-style performances. He arguably outshone the photogenic Ashley Cole and put in a strong claim for an England berth should Cashley finally shoot one tawdry videophone clip too many. For one, there were Baines' 11 league assists, born from whipping crosses in for the likes of Louis Saha (seven league goals), Jermaine Beckford (seven goals) and Tim Cahill (nine). Add in Baines' five league goals, Roberto Carlos-worthy set-piece skills and durability in the Toffees' lineup (started in all 37 fixtures so far), and you hope that Everton doesn't pad its bank balance by letting Baines go next year. His last-minute strike against Chelsea in the FA Cup won him the Everton Goal of the Season Award, a prize that can sit nicely between both the club's and players' man of the season trophies.
DF -- Brede Hangeland, Fulham
Expectation: To keep the Cottagers' back line rock-solid and slightly more mobile than the Michael Jackson statue that sits outside the stadium.
Reality: The Houston-born Norwegian totem has turned into one of the Prem's top defenders, making it easy to see why Arsene Wenger has long coveted his blend of aerial dominance, surprising elegance on the ball and forceful leadership skill. Thanks to his pairing with Aaron Hughes and his six league goals -- unheard of for most defenders -- Fulham has enjoyed another cagey, competent season in the top half of the table on a budget so tiny it would make any WAG weep into her mimosa. More importantly, Hangeland's remarkable composure on the field for someone who resembles a mountain man -- only five yellows shown in an entire EPL season -- has helped to lead his side to the top of the UEFA fair play table, and if he continues to keep his studs down, Fulham will be allowed to return to its 2009 Europa field of dreams.
DF -- Pablo Zabaleta, Manchester City
Expectation: Keep the bench warm and Mario Balotelli out of trouble.
Reality: As perhaps the least flashy member of the Eastlands moneybags, Zabaleta's best work came in a season when nothing was expected of him. With so many needy high-profile figures around him, the Argentine defender's place was never assured, but did he care? Adopting a monklike ethos, Zabaleta did whatever Roberto Mancini asked of him, spot-starting for Aleksandar Kolarov on the left, filling in for the injury-plagued Micah Richards and partnering Vincent Kompany in the heart of defense.
Zabaleta's understated, unselfish contributions around the field made him oddly essential for a team and fan base I love to mock for having more dollars than sense. Of course, he might well be dumped unceremoniously this summer for someone more brand-conscious, but his role in City's clinching of a precious Champions League berth and its first major trophy since 1976 can't be ignored. Not to mention that his Argie kinship with teammate Carlos Tevez could be the only thing that might keep the exit-seeking striker firmly embedded in Sheikh Mansour's master plan for world domination.
MF -- Nani, Manchester United
Expectation: All the Ronaldo histrionics but none of his game-changing ability.
Reality: Just when it looked as though Nani's time at Old Trafford would be remembered more for petulant theatrics than twinkle-toed performances, we discovered that buried deep within his ballet shoes was a lethal, cutthroat winger just waiting to emerge. Thrust into a starting role on his unfavored right flank because of a long-term injury to Antonio Valencia, he was a nightmare to defend against, particularly during United's rough start to the season when he was forced to carry the attack while Wayne Rooney's World Cup pity party was still in full swing and Dimitar Berbatov was his usual feast-or-famine self.
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Granted, Nani isn't entirely reborn; since Valencia's return, he regressed to his old swan-diving self combined with an increased tendency to launch preposterous shots (133 so far this season) rather than passing to an open teammate. But his 14 assists and nine goals offer abundant proof that he's evolved from Ronaldo Lite to become a key offensive weapon in United's championship juggernaut. Nani's drama-queen style doesn't lend itself to winning any sportsmanship awards, but as long as the Red Devils can keep stuffing silverware in the cabinet, you think United supporters will care?
MF -- Joey Barton, Newcastle United
Expectation: Prison time
Reality: I've never been a big fan of guys who put out lit cigarettes in a teammate's eye or beat 15-year-olds into a bloody pulp just for the hell of it, but that was the old Joey Barton. The new one emerged this season just in time for Newcastle's return to the Prem, and he's been a revelation. Oh sure, there was that sneaky rabbit punch to the chest of Blackburn's Morten Gamst Pedersen, but otherwise, Barton has shown amazing restraint for a player who is provoked more than Sean Penn at a paparazzi convention. In the process, he has become a running, passing and tackling advertisement for second -- OK, third, fourth and fifth -- chances. Shifted out wide on the right, where he can launch long, searching balls into the box, Barton has racked up nine assists and four goals in the league, including two in that game against Arsenal, to put himself back in the frame for the English national team. Joey Barton, role model? Not quite. But at least he's no longer a parole model.
MF -- Gareth Bale, Tottenham Hotspur
Expectation: That Spurs might finally win a match with the Welshman on the field, given that his first 24 appearances for the North London side failed to yield a single victory. Harry Redknapp, displaying his usual tactical sophistication, finally freed Bale of his more limited role last season so that he could, in the Cockney manager's charming parlance, "just #$%#^# run about."
Reality: The new Ryan Giggs was an attacking sensation during Spurs' magical Championship League run, whooshing pell-mell past whatever Europe could throw at him and reducing world-class fullbacks such as Inter Milan's Maicon to a quivering heap on the floor of the San Siro. Like with many great thoroughbreds, leg injuries curtailed Bale's dream season, but what a year he had. The only thing that left people more breathless than his electrifying gallops down the flank were the daily tabloid rumors of $60-, $70- and $80 million bids from what seemed to be every big club in the world except Barcelona. From squad player to Next Big Thing in less than nine months. Not even David Beckham's sons could hope for such a career trajectory.
MF -- Lucas Leiva, Liverpool
Expectation: Anfield's favorite object of scorn during the past four years, Lucas was seen as the anti-Xabi Alonso. If the Spaniard was a Picasso in the middle of the park, the Brazilian was the guy who painted by numbers. With Roy Hodgson taking over as manager at the beginning of the season, it seemed just a matter of time before Lucas was on his way back to Gremio (which I used to think was Portuguese for "gremlin").
Reality: He's been Liverpool's best player this season. So what if he's the only Brazilian in captivity who can't score or do any ball tricks -- hell, I think even Gisele Bundchen can pull off a nifty backheel -- he somehow managed to rise above the mediocrity inspired by Hodgson the Hapless. Although the old guard of Steven Gerrard and Torres were out of form, Lucas was a silent samba of steadiness and stealth. If Luis Suarez and Maxi Rodriguez are the goal-scoring darlings of the Reds' second-half resurgence, it's Lucas who has been their most faithful retainer. He's anchored the midfield, closed opponents down and sprayed intelligent passes all over the field. Lucas' work rate is Dirk Kuyt-esque, as evidenced by Sunday's well-timed tackle that ended a streaker's dash across the Anfield turf.
FW, DJ Campbell, Blackpool
Expectation: To show up on time for all 38 matches and make sure his shirt is tucked in.
Reality: His 13 goals in 30 league games -- just his second double-digit season since escaping amateur soccer in 2004 -- are almost certainly a dozen more than anybody outside the Campbell household would have predicted. Going into the season, about the only thing anyone knew of the second-division journeyman with two neck tats was what they read in the police blotter, and it wasn't pretty: He was fresh off assault charges stemming from a nightclub fracas. But once the judge set him free, Campbell became a menace on the field instead. His delicate shin-first finish against Bolton helped the Tangerines secure an improbable, possibly EPL-lifesaving 4-3 victory heading into the final weekend. And with game-winning goals against Spurs, Liverpool and Stoke, Campbell's prolific output is every bit as astonishing as Torres' existential malaise.
FW -- Javier Hernandez, Manchester United
Expectation: After a promising multigoal 2010 World Cup, Chicharito was brought in as relatively cheap practice-squad fodder and to provide cover while Rooney recovered from his ankle and ego injuries.
Reality: Rather than having to keep Berbatov's locker stocked with Gauloises, his 13 league goals in 27 appearances were arguably the single biggest surprise of the season. And at $9 million -- a mere $70 million less than Chelsea paid for Torres -- he's also the biggest bargain since I picked up Jack Wilshere in my Prem fantasy league for a dollar. Not even the most fanatical Mancunian could have augured the Mexican's speedy adaptation to the EPL.
Chicharito's performances constantly bailed out a United side that spent much of the fall sleepwalking through large chunks of games: The opening-minute tally against Chelsea that crushed the Blues' spirits -- along with crucial goals against Blackpool, Everton, West Ham and Stoke -- kept the Red Devils on course for No. 19. When other players faded, Hernandez's pace and movement did not, and with Berbatov and Rooney still wearing red, Chicharito's enterprise and unflagging effort have guaranteed Sir Alex plenty of tough lineup decisions for years to come.
FW -- Peter Odemwingie, West Brom
Expectation: Who? From where? Pronounced how?
Reality: After escaping the racial taunting that accompanied his playing days for Lokomotiv Moscow in the Russian Premier League, the Uzbek-born Nigerian sprung full bloom into one of the EPL's most lethal predators. Signed by former Baggies manager Roberto di Matteo for a paltry $1 million, he became the first player in West Brom history to score in double digits. His 15-goal haul was a huge factor in ending the Baggies' dizzying yo-yoing between the EPL and Championship leagues. Without it, West Brom would be 17 points worse off and heading back to the second tier instead of almost finishing in the top half of the Prem. In keeping with his cult status, Odemwingie seems to have adjusted seamlessly to the behavior of a 21st-century EPL star: He was recently benched for upcoming Nigeria games because of hostile Twitter rants against his national team coach.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."