Published On: Sat, Apr 21st, 2018

De Bruyne or Salah? The cases for the PFA Player of the Year favourites

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With all due respect to the other nominees for the 2018 PFA Player of the Year award, there are really just two candidates with a legitimate claim. Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah have, in different ways, inspired their respective outfits with brilliant passages of play.

Manchester City wouldn’t have navigated the Premier League so easily without its Belgian compass, and Liverpool‘s renowned counter-attack would lack punch without Salah delivering the final blow.

Here, theScore’s Anthony Lopopolo and Daniel Rouse debate the merits of the two favourites for the annual honour.

Anthony Lopopolo: In the simplest terms, De Bruyne is the best player on the best team in England. For that alone, he deserves the utmost praise.

But a deeper look at the 26-year-old’s season shows just how influential he has been. His work off the ball is tireless – he’s often logging the most kilometres of any player on the pitch – and his overall understanding of his surroundings is preternatural. His long, defence-splitting passes have won City points, and even his switches of play have kept opposing teams on their toes.

With his head constantly on a swivel, surveying openings on the pitch, De Bruyne has the intelligence to free himself up and receive the ball in advantageous positions. The basic stats don’t tell the full story.

Daniel Rouse: If we’re stepping away from basic statistics, there is an argument that Fernandinho is Manchester City’s most important player. However, that doesn’t satisfy the modern fan’s growing appetite for quantitative data.

And Salah’s numbers are remarkable, especially for a player in his debut campaign with a club. He’s become only the third player to be involved in 40-plus goals in a 38-game Premier League season (31 conversions, nine assists). On Saturday, he levelled the 31-goal record held by Alan Shearer, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Luis Suarez across a 38-match term with three matches to spare; if he nets against Brighton & Hove Albion on the final day, only two clubs will have kept him off the scoresheet this season.

There hasn’t been a more enjoyable player to watch in the 2017-18 campaign.

AL: The difference here is that De Bruyne has set an important benchmark. The Premier League has witnessed inventive midfielders before, but none quite in his mould: The Belgian’s essentially a No. 10 playing the role of the No. 8, an all-action midfielder doing much more than a typically creative player would. He makes tackles like a defensive midfielder, runs box to box, and picks up the ball deep in City’s half of the pitch. It’s been marvellous to watch.

Not only that, he’s practically invincible. How many tackles has he escaped unscathed? De Bruyne somehow emerged from Jason Puncheon‘s scything challenge on New Year’s Eve despite fears he would miss several weeks. In fact, Puncheon was the one ruled out for the remainder of the campaign.

It’s all down to De Bruyne’s fearlessness on and off the ball. He’s set an example for his own teammates, and perhaps inspired the next wave of players in City’s academy and across the country. That matters.

DR: Again, the biggest inspiration to senior colleagues and youth-team players could be a different player in Guardiola’s throng: David Silva. There are so many protagonists in City’s ease to the title – it’s been a real team effort – and it’s for that reason De Bruyne’s case for the award has waned in the latter half of this term. He hasn’t greatly outshone Silva, Fernandinho, Ederson, or others.

That’s not to say Liverpool isn’t a team – Jurgen Klopp’s players hunt in packs, and his attacking triumvirate has an impeccable understanding – but Salah has a similar tale to De Bruyne, albeit with an arguably more spectacular rise. The Egyptian, like De Bruyne, was undervalued at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and therefore jettisoned to continental Europe, but the impact upon his return has been instantaneous. Not only are his aforementioned statistics unprecedented for a newcomer at a Premier League club, his footwork and pace are of a player who not only walks to PFA recognition but also threatens to upset Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi‘s shared Ballon d’Or monopoly.

AL: De Bruyne has been no less integral to City’s style of play. If the goal is to keep possession, he’s the man who not only hustles to recover the ball but also drives forward, creating space for his teammates and supplying the killer pass. And he’s not limited this kind of thing to once every three matches; he’s executed week in, week out. That’s how he’s risen above Guardiola’s expectations, and the Spaniard himself has tipped De Bruyne to break the Ronaldo-Messi axis one day.

De Bruyne has also brought a directness to City that’s made its sequences more dynamic and less “tiki-taka”. (Guardiola has always hated that term, seeing it as something of a critique of meaningless passing football.) De Bruyne’s vertical play has kept City from falling into sleepy spells of possession, and that’s an important distinction to make when considering his role.

Salah’s goalscoring cannot be denied, but De Bruyne’s overall importance to City’s approach – lauded across Europe as revolutionary – cannot be underestimated.

DR: Salah’s overall importance to Liverpool cannot be downplayed either, especially when it comes to the big matches.

In four clashes with City this season, he has scored three times and assisted twice, and left Nicolas Otamendi resembling a drunk staggering down Manchester’s Oxford Road before Sadio Mane was sent off in the first fixture. De Bruyne, meanwhile, got just one assist against that 10-man Liverpool, before failing to significantly influence the other three meetings.

While Salah has been influential against minnows and giants alike, his goalscoring has also been remarkably consistent. His longest run of league matches without ruffling the onion bag this season? Two – and Liverpool drew both, further underlining the 25-year-old’s overall importance.

Salah has to pick up the Player of the Year gong.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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