Monday, 16 May 2011

SPL Team of the Season

An SPL campaign in which the actual football rarely hogged the headlines saw a departing Walter Smith lead his threadbare Rangers side to the title.  The eleven players below are predictably dominated by Old Firm players who once again were streets ahead of their rivals.  You may wonder, given the eventual champions, why there are five representatives from Celtic and only three from Rangers.  The answer is that Celtic played the better football throughout the course of the season.  Rangers ground out results a bit more, apart from towards the end of the season when they pretty much blew everyone away, and their play was overall more reactive than Celtic’s, although not exclusively so.

Before proceeding I should mention a few players that were unlucky to miss out.  There were two positions that were extremely difficult to decide upon – goalkeeper and striker.  Allan McGregor could just as easily been selected instead of Marian Kello.  His penalty save in the final Old Firm match of the season was a major factor in Rangers winning the title and he also saved his side on a number of other occasions.  Despite this, I have opted for Kello for the reasons given below.  The other player that was very difficult to leave out was Gary Hooper.  Nineteen league goals in twenty-five league matches is a fantastic return for his first season in the SPL, however, I feel that Nikica Jelavic’s overall contribution trumps that of Hooper, more on this below.

Some may also be disappointed not to see any Dundee United players represented.  They had a tremendous second half to the season after the return of Craig Conway and Danny Swanson from injury.  Although highly influential, these two did not quite perform consistently enough to warrant a place and the other candidates – David Goodwillie and the central midfield three – are worth a mention but unfortunately cannot be included at the expense of any of those selected.

Marian Kello, Heart of Midlothian

To keep Allan McGregor out of the side you must have had a tremendous season and that has certainly been the case for Marian Kello.  The Slovakian goalkeeper has faced up to three penalty saves this season and saved them all, including one in the 93rd minute of a match that ensured a 2-1 victory over Dundee United – an absolutely vital three points for Hearts in the end given th eventual difference in points between the two sides.

His stand-out performances include the 0-0 draw at Pittodrie as well as the 1-0 victory at home to Rangers, a match which saw him awarded the Clydesdale Bank SPL save of the season award for one of his many stops that day.

Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre, Celtic

Emilio Izaguirre was awarded both the SPL and the PFA player of the year awards this season and it is a given that the Honduran World Cup star finds his place in the best XI of the season.  His attacking prowess from left-back has seen him take up the position of a winger for large parts of matches and his delivery into the box is always dangerous.  He has been exposed defensively on a few occasions, including in the defeat that cost Celtic the title, however this should not detract from the high level of performance he has given throughout the season.

On the opposite side, Mark Wilson has finally managed a season of being relatively injury free and shown himself to be one of his side’s top performers.  There was a period in the season when he would also get forward at every opportunity but has become more and more reserved in his positioning as the season has drawn to a close.  Wilson is defensively solid, filled in at central defence for a short spell this season and has found himself a member of the most recent Scotland squads.

Marius Zaliukas, Heart of Midlothian

When his manager has been allowed to select him, Zaliukas has been vital to the defensive solidity Hearts have shown at times this season.  The Lithuanian international is prone to the odd horrific mistake but this aside he is one of the top central defenders in the country.

Zaliukas was frozen out at the start of the season due to a breakdown in contract negotiations and during that time Hearts struggled to keep clean sheets and, therefore, pick up points.  Hearts managed only one clean sheet in their opening seven matches without Zaliukas and it is no coincidence that they began a run of twelve wins in fourteen SPL matches, including eight clean sheets in nine matches, upon his return.

Charlie Mulgrew, Celtic

Bought under the pretence he could solve Celtic’s left-back problem, Mulgrew struggled in his early days at Parkhead and found himself out of favour before long, especially after the arrival of Izaguirre.  After multiple injuries in the centre of defence, Mulgrew found himself deployed as a makeshift centre-half and has since made the position his own.  The return of Majstorovic and other central defenders - Thomas Rogne and Glenn Loovens - from injury failed to oust Mulgrew and he must now be considered as a potential international in this position given the lack of quality Craig Levein has available there.

Finding himself at the heart of the defence with the best record in the SPL is an excellent achievement for Mulgrew and it will be interesting to see whether he remains in this position next season or whether Neil Lennon decides to strengthen and keep Mulgrew as back up.

Steven Davis, Rangers

Steven Davis may not have made the best start to the current SPL campaign but the Northern Ireland international has improved as the season has progressed and is another one of the reasons why Rangers finished as champions.  Davis, more often than not, formed a central midfield pairing with Maurice Edu who has a tendency to underperform and go hiding in matches.  Despite this, Davis has controlled and dictated the midfield area, be it coming deep to collect the ball from his defence, his tremendous range of passing, or through his driving runs from deep positions.  His dominance in matches is even more impressive when considered that he and Edu often faced up to a central midfield three yet did not find themselves overrun.

Beram Kayal, Celtic

Beram Kayal was almost everyone’s choice as the man unlucky to miss out on a player of the year nomination.  Some even touted him as the actual player of the year.  Bought for a modest sum of £1m, the Israeli, along with Izaguirre, shows just how effective the Celtic scouting system has been over the past year.

Kayal is the full package.  He takes up the position of a deep-lying or holding midfielder, he is tenacious in the tackle, presses his opponents hard and can also dictate play.  He usually keeps it simple, playing sideways passes but can also hit a killer pass when the opportunity arises.

Alexei Eremenko, Kilmarnock

The signing of the season.  Mixu Paatelainen took over a side that avoided relegation on the final day of last season and immediately used his contacts to seek out some reinforcements.  His fellow countryman Alexei Eremenko was signed on loan from Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv and deployed in the ‘number 10’ role, a position few in Scotland posses the attributes to play effectively.

Even though he didn’t score many goals during the course of the season, it was his link up play and the assists he provided where he was most valuable.  Flicks, tricks and always at the heart of Kilmarnock’s good passing moves, he has been a joy to watch and it is a shame that he won’t be around for us to enjoy again next season.

Steven Naismith, Rangers

I have to say that out of all the nominees for the PFA player of the year I found the inclusion of Steven Naismith the most surprising.  Up to that point he had had a great season, however, it seemed that at no point up until then had he even been the best player in the Rangers side.

Since then it is like he has been out to prove all his doubters, or maybe just me, wrong.  Another player who struggled with injury for spells during the season, his return saw him fielded in a few different roles until Walter Smith settled him into a right-midfield/right-wing role.  During matches, Naismith likes to drift inside, playing just behind the striker(s), allowing right-back Steven Whittaker space to overlap and providing Rangers with an extra man in central areas.

Naismith has scored ten goals this season, the most notable of which was this spectacular effort in the recent hammering of Motherwell.

Kris Commons, Celtic

Even though Kris Commons only signed for Celtic in January, it is difficult to look past him for a place in the team of the season.  The English-born Scotland international almost signed for Rangers and up until a few weeks ago, looked as though he might be the difference between which side won the league.
Commons opened up his scoring account for Celtic minutes into his debut and has managed eleven league goals, fourteen in all competitions since, some stunning goals at that (check this one out too).  He has scored nine goals in his last nine matches.  All very impressive for a winger.

Deployed as a wide player, at least in terms of his starting position, like Naismith, Commons has a tendency to drift inside and allow the full-back, in this case Izaguirre, to overlap.  He is usually deployed on the left of Lennon’s lopsided midfield four, which, along with its many variations, has probably been the most interesting tactical feature of the season.

Nikica Jelavic, Rangers

As mentioned in the intro, this was a very difficult position to decide.  It could just as easily have been given to Gary Hooper and that is not even to mention the likes of David Goodwillie of Dundee United and Conor Sammon, formerly of Kilmarnock.

But Nikica Jelavic it is.  The Croatian international has shown himself to be a more complete player than Hooper, evidenced in his ability to play either up front on his own or else as part of a front two - towards the end of the season he has formed a devastating partnership with Kyle Lafferty.  His ability to come deep and link play is better than any other in the league and his goalscoring ability, with his feet and in the air, is again unmatched in the SPL.  He was awarded goal of the season for his expertly taken overhead kick against Aberdeen.  What made this goal even better is that it came in a 1-0 victory and not when his side were already cruising to victory.

Jelavic suffered from a bad injury towards the start of the season and has grown stronger and stronger as the season has progressed.  We can only wonder what his goal and assist tally would be had he been fully fit for the entire season.

SPL Young Team of the Season

Here's my (undescribed) SPL young team of the season also.  Honourble mentions go to Johnny Russell of Dundee United and Gregg Wylde of Rangers who both narrowly missed out.

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