A Year in Review – Players of the Season, Pt. 1

Who loves a good roller coaster? There is not a better analogy for the 2021-22 Tottneham Hotspur season than that of a roller coaster, and I am here to guide you through the roller coaster that was this season. My name is Dustin Gentile, and I am here to give you my take on the 2021-22 Tottenham Hotspur season. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will be bringing you my take on the best goals, most exhilarating games, the biggest moments, and brightest stars from the season that was 2021-22. 

Here are the countdowns from the previous weeks:

Week 1 – Goals of the Season – Part 1Part 2

Week 2 – Matches of the Season – Part 1Part 2

Week 3 – Moments of the Season – Part 1Part 2

Without much further ado, let’s look at this week’s list…

Players of the Season (#10-6)

When looking at the top players, there are a few standout candidates for the best of the season. When compiling this list, I looked at four components: statistics, consistency, impact on the season, and classic moments. When compiling this list, I went back and forth on a lot of these players. This was definitely the toughest countdown to create. 

I’d also like to take a second and thank some of the resources where I was able to gather my information for this week’s list. First, I want to give a shout to Cody Mac on Twitter. He is responsible for all of the heat maps that I used throughout this week’s list. Be sure to check him out on Twitter for some great Spurs content. Second, I would also like to give a shoutout to Tottenham Clips on YouTube for some great compilation work. Be sure to go and subscribe to their channel. Lastly, thank you to FotMob for their extensive database. If you do not have the FotMob App, I would highly recommend you check it out for all your updates on your favorite clubs and players.

Before we dive into our countdown, here are a few honorable mentions …

Ryan Sessegnon

It was really tough for me to leave Sess off the top ten list because I think we are finally getting to see the Ryan Sessegnon we bought from Fulham at the start of the 2019-20 season. As I mentioned during last week’s countdown, I believe we are seeing him thrive because Antonio Conte has finally found him a stable position on the pitch. While I think there may come a time where the England international may make the move to the left wing position, Conte’s commitment to playing him at left wingback has been crucial to Sessegnon’s development. I think there is a very good chance that my guy will crack next year’s top ten list. 

Emerson Royal

Our second wingback to claim an honorable mention spot is the Barcelona transfer, Emerson Royal. While it did take some time for the Brazilian to adjust to the right wingback position, I really think we were able to generate a string of consistently positive performance from Emerson. People also have to consider that the transition from rightback to right wingback is much more difficult than the other way around because of the emphasis on attacking. As a rightback, Emerson was solid all season and very dependable on defense. 

Matt Doherty

I think I am as shocked as you all are that Matt Doherty has ended anywhere near this list, but here we are. It took quite a bit of time, but the statistics clearly show that Conte’s presence had begun to elevate the levels of the Irishmen. In Doherty’s last 10 appearances that went at least 45 minutes, he scored two goals and netted four assists while compiling an average player rating of 7.6 out of 10. Had it not been for an untimely knee injury against Aston Villa, I believe Doherty would have continued with his recent run of performances. I also believe that Matt Doherty may have played his way into a longer tenure in North London.

Onto the Top 10 List…

#10 – Oliver Skipp

I would like to start this list with one of my personal favorites, Oliver Skipp. Had it not been for injuries, I believe that the England international would have finished much higher on this list. It is amazing to me how much his 2020-21 loan to Championship winning side Norwich prepared the academy graduate. In 2018-19, we were treated to our first glimpses of the midfielder midway through the season as he was thrust into his first Premier League start against visiting Burnley. While you could see the potential for him to be a world class player, he was in desperate need of consistent playing to become a more polished player, which is exactly what he received during his move to Norwich. The midfielder would be a fixture in the man of the match voting for the Canaries before he was eventually named one of the top three Norwich players of the season. This would be a huge step forward for the man known as Skippy.

In his return to the squad list for Spurs, the 20 year old would make 28 appearances and 22 starts before a lower-body ended his season at the end of January. The beauty of Skipp’s game lies in his ability to win the ball in the midfield and recycle possession. His stats may not always signify his value, but watching him play on a consistent basis really makes you appreciate his abilities. I also think it says a lot that Skipp was named to the starting XI in the season opener against Manchester City. Once he settled in, he put on a great show. That day showed one of the strongest sides of Skipp’s game as he completed 89% of his passes, which was critical as Manchester City would dominate possession on the afternoon making it imperative for Spurs to hold on to the ball whenever they were able to possess it.  For the season, the midfielder would complete 89.5% of all of his passes including 93.2% of his short passes and 92.5% of his mid range passes. 

The other thing that I love about Skipp’s game is his box-to-box presence. In the graphic above, you can find the England international lives in the midfield area as his heat map is bright red in the middle third of the pitch. With Spurs’ playing their brand of counter attacking football, we need a midfielder with the ability to win the ball back in the midfield. According to fbref.com, 67% of Skipp’s tackles saw us win possession. That is definitely the kind of production the team needs from its midfielders. Couple that with 25 blocks, 21 interceptions, and 14 clearances, and Spurs have themselves a solid midfielder for the foreseeable future. 

#9 – Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

Coming in at number nine on the list is everyone’s favorite Viking, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. Earlier this season, Podspur’s own Matt Kerwin wrote a piece on how we needed the PEH we saw at Euro 2020. We needed less destroyer and more creative force. If you have not read this piece, you can find the article at this link. While the goal contributions may not have told the tale, I do believe we saw the creative side of the viking on a consistent basis. PEH would finish the season having appeared in 47 matches with 43 starts, scoring three goals and adding four assists in 3989 minutes across all competitions. It’s crazy to think that Hojbjerg actually played fewer minutes than he did the year before. 

To truly appreciate the game of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, I think you have to look at his consistency. In his 36 appearances in the Premier League this season (all of which were starts), the Denmark international would have exactly two matches where he received a match rating below a 7.0 out of 10 (according to FotMob). Additionally 21 of those 36 matches saw the Dane post a match rating above 7.5 out of 10. Add that to a passing percentage of 89.4% across all competitions (a career high for the midfielder), 84 tackles, 73 blocks, 80 interceptions, and 63 clearances, and it is a very strong season for PEH. The one thing that does not always show up in the stats is his ability to clog up the midfield. The Dane has an uncanny ability to win the ball back in those midfield areas. There is a reason why he is referred to as the Danish Destroyer. The graphic below perfectly illustrates what I mean with a look at the midfielder’s heat map.

While Hojbjerg is week in and week out one of the most consistent players in our squad, I believe we really got to appreciate how good he truly was with the January signing of Rodrigo Bentancur. Our midfield pivot was absolutely rock solid once those two were paired together on a weekly basis beginning in February. The ability for those two to feed off each other was a sight, and it was not a matter of one of the two leading the break and the other sitting back in the destroyer role. There was a tremendous amount of fluidity between the Dane and the Uruguayan. Both could lead the break with a perfectly picked pass. Both could break down an oncoming attack with a daring tackle. Those two showed that the Tottenham midfield has potential to be rock solid for years to come as both players (and the injured Oliver Skipp) have not even reached the prime years of their career. There is potential to see the combination of PEH and Hot Rod to mirror the levels of Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama in 2016-17.

#8 – Ben Davies

I would like to start out by saying that I feel really bad putting Ben Davies at number eight on my list. As someone that many people wanted out of the club to start the season, I think we all need to personally apologize for doubting Daddy Davies’ ability and quality. The switch to a back three under Antonio Conte really allowed Davies to shine as our club’s go-to left centerback. Over the course of the season, Davies would make 41 appearances with 39 starts while racking up 3619 minutes played, the most in his professional career. The stat that I find most intriguing is Antonio Conte’s dependence on him at the left side of the backline. The Wales international would start 27 of the 28 Premier League matches with Conte in charge. I know for a fact that Conte would not have consistently picked Davies if his performance did not warrant it. 

While Davies achieved a career high in minutes, this would not be the only statistical category where he would achieve a career best. The Welshman would set career highs in passing efficiency, interceptions, blocked shots, and aerial duels won. It all amounted to a turnaround season for Davies as he was a force on the left side of Spurs’ defense. Let’s just take a few minutes and enjoy some of his work from this season courtesy of Tottenham Clips.

The two moments that perfectly depict just how good Ben Davies has been this season are two incredible tackles made by the Welshman to prevent sure-fire goals. The first block came at Leeds when Spurs captain Hugo Lloris’s attempt to gather the ball went array leaving attacking midfielder Stuart Dallas all alone on goal. Even with Spurs up 3-0, Davies got on his horse and preserved a clean sheet for this team with a perfectly timed tackle. The second tackle came in a huge team performance at Anfield in a game that points were desperately needed for a Tottenham side battling for a Champions League berth. Mohamed Salah gathered a pass at the top of the 18-yard box and seemed to break free of Rodrigo Bentancur for a fantastic look at goal. As the ball left his foot, it seemed destined for the upper 90, but Ben Davies’ diving tackle would the shot away from goal and preserve Spurs’ 1-0 lead late in the contest. That kind of confidence has been desperately lacking from the defender’s game over the past few seasons, and it was a most welcome sight to see him operating at a high level. That confidence is what boosts Ben Davies into our top ten players of the season.

#7 – Cristian Romero

We now arrive at our first new signing to make our list, Cristian Romero. The Argentinian defender came to Hotspur Way with a lot of expectation. The reigning Serie A Defender of the Year seemed to check all the boxes of a top notch Premier League centerback, and it was just a matter of if his skill set would translate to England’s top league. While it was a bit of a slow start for Cuti between an early injury and an international appearance gone wrong (we will just leave that alone), the money spent to bring in the defender was completely worth it, especially once Antonio Conte took over as manager in November. His physicality, aggressiveness, and keen passing ability proved that the best defender in Italy had all the tools to be an elite defender in England.

As you can see from the heat map above, Romero was not a centerback who had to be constrained to the back line. Heck, he even was not constrained to the right side of Spurs’ back three. That fluidity and willingness to progress the ball was one of the things that Spurs had been missing since the days of Jan Vertonghen. The Argentinian completed 87.4% of all of his passes, including an impressive 94.4% of his passes that traveled between 15 and 30 yards. From a defensive standpoint, Cuti’s tackles won possession of the ball a staggering 58.1% of the time. While the stats paint a lovely picture of how good Cristian Romero was this past season, the best quality about the centerback is his mentality. This guy does not care who has the ball. If you have possession and you are not wearing a Spurs shirt, he is going to body you off the ball and let you know he did it. This has definitely gotten him in trouble a time or two, but you could tell Conte’s magic was working as the number of fouls and yellow cards decreased and the stellar performances continued. 

As the 21-22 season becomes the 22-23 season and Romero officially becomes a permanent member of Tottenham Hotspur, there is no doubt that the right side of Conte’s back three is in good hands. Even better news, he is only 24 years old. That should mean nothing but strong performances for quite some time. It is very easy to see why Spurs made him their number one transfer target. For those of you who think this rating is low, you have to remember that Romero only made 28 appearances on this list. His story is similar to that of Olly Skipp. Good health will only improve his place among our squad rankings.

#6 – Rodrigo Bentancur

We now move from one new signing to the next as Rodrigo Bentancur finds his place at number six on our list. Now I know I justified Romero’s position at number seven due to his lengthy injury spells, and now I am ranking a January transfer ahead of him. I understand that, but I truly believe that the insertion of Hot Rod into our lineup is one of the reasons the club was able to claim a spot in next season’s Champions League. I mean, the song says it all: “he’s the reason we’re playing on Wednesday next season; he came with his mate from Sweden; it’s BEN-TAN-CUR!”

So why such a high ranking? With a season ending injury to Oliver Skipp, Spurs were in desperate need of a solid replacement in the squad. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Harry Winks play a little too similar role to be our go to midfield pivot, and the likes of Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso were out on loan. This is where the Uruguayan midfielder enters the conversation. His box-to-box presence is what made his partnership so effective. Either player could sit back and play the destroyer role while the other would progress the ball through the midfield. Hojbjerg was strong on the left side while Bentancur was an anchor down the right. On top of that, they could invert and play on opposite sides, which is indicated by the sea of red in the heat map below. You can even see a nice blot of red in the middle of Spurs’ defending area, which shows that Bentancur is not afraid to sit deeper and defend with the backline when it is needed.

In short, Hot Rod is a complete midfielder. He can defend well, he can win the ball back, and he can progress the ball forward. The most impressive stat from his time at Spurs has to be his effectiveness in the passing game. While his passing efficiencies in the short and mid range areas are right on par with what you would expect (93.2% and 92.4%, respectively), his long range passing efficiency is incredibly impressive. While he did only play 18 matches for the club this season, Bentancur completed a staggering 81.9% of his long range passes (passes traveling over 30 yards). That was good enough to land the Uruguayan at the number 12 spot among the league leaders in long range passing efficiency ahead of names like Virgil van Dijk, Ngolo Kante, Paul Pogba, and Yves Bissouma. If only one of those names would make a move to North London in the summer of 2022. Sorry, that is a story for another time. My favorite moment from Hot Rod this season had to come in the season finale at Norwich with an incredible interception to set up Harry Kane for a diving tap-in. In that moment, he showed a quick step, aggressiveness, and a killer instinct that has been lacking at times from the squad since the team’s run to the Champions League final in 2018-19. Just in case you forgot, “he’s the reason we’re playing on Wednesday next season; he came with his mate from Sweden; it’s BEN-TAN-CUR!”

This brings us to the end of part one. Be sure to check back in on Thursday as I unveil my top players of the 2021-22 season, which promises to be full of national team captains and players who were rock solid all season.

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to follow me on Twitter, you can do so by clicking here. Let me know your thoughts in the comments. COME ON YOU SPURS!

-Dustin Gentile

Published by dgentile25

Follower of Christ. Husband. WKU Alum. Teacher/Asst. Athletic Director. Let's Go Preds. Go Tops. Go Blue. Come on You Spurs. Let’s Go Reds. Psalm 105:4

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