Picking up right where we left off in the predictions, the midfield comes next. With the recent announcement of the official nominees, it should be easier and more self-explanatory when going through the choices. In light of FIFA’s release of the list of nominees, the previous predictions were almost shot down, with only three players mentioned in the article even showing up on the list, two of them being keepers. Also Important to note, these are predictions of who will get chosen and a possible explanation for the selection rather than being a totally opinionated team.
Honorable Mention: Bruno Fernandes, CAM (Manchester United)
About as hard as the honorable mention pick for the defense, Bruno Fernandes is my honorable mention for the 2021 Team of the Year’s midfield. The Portuguese maestro made the team last season, displaying world-class form and performances with very little drop in his production. Over the past year, Fernandes surpassed his expected assists clip of 0.34 with about 0.4 assists per 90 mins., as well as ranking in the 94th percentile in progressive passes per 90 mins. among all attacking midfielders and wingers. His defensive work rate is above average for all attacking players as well, averaging about 1.02 clearances and 20.5 pressures per 90 mins.. Finishing the season with an impressive 18 league goals and 12 league assists, the elephant in the room is quite clearly how he got his goals. Fernandes’ non-penalty goal-scoring has been a major criticism of his game since moving to United, averaging about 0.22 non-penalty expected goals per 90 mins which about matches his expected clip of 0.21 per 90 mins.. The gripe with his goal-scoring is quite trivial given just how much he scores, making it hard to really get at him for the penalties, especially when he puts them all way. Fernandes definitely has the durability of a TOTY player, but a tremendous drop in Manchester United’s form will perhaps play into recency bias for voters, especially since neither United nor Portugal have performed particularly well in the past six months.
CM: Kevin De Bruyne, CM/CAM (Manchester City)
Beating out his cross-city rival, De Bruyne is my first pick for midfield in anticipation of the voters’ criteria. The most glaring hole in the Belgian’s case is the amount of games missed throughout the year. De Bruyne played only 25 league games for City last season due to injury and also missed heavy minutes towards the end of their Champions League run where they lost to Chelsea in the finals. Even through all of this though, the veteran midfielder put up perhaps the most ridiculous line of per 90 mins. stats in the last year. De Bruyne ranked in the 99th percentile in all attacking statistics in the past 365 days expect for assists, where he’s in the 91st percentile. His distribution and progressive play was also among the world’s best, averaging 7.1 progressive passes and 8.5 progressive carries per 90 mins., showcasing his elite production whenever he was healthy and playing, even given the heavy volume of progressive passes received at 6.9 per 90 mins.. To add on to his individual masterclass, he was also a major part in Manchester CIty’s league, domestic cup and continental run even with consistent absences which definitely helps pad a players case. Belgium’s average Euros run will most likely not have a huge sway on De Bruyne’s TOTY case as he was inconsistent in his game time and their mediocre play without him on the field presents a positive for him coupled with losing to the champions which no doubt softens the blow.
CM: N’Golo Kante, CM/CDM (Chelsea)
Perhaps the best midfielder of the past year, N’Golo Kante has the strongest case to make the TOTY and should be the safest pick of the three chosen. As with KDB, Kante had lingering injury issues throughout the year which led to many missed matches but unlike De Bruyne, he remained a crucial part of the team in the bigger games. Kante is, of course, one of the biggest factors in Chelsea’s Champions League run, winning Man of the Match in the title clinching game in Porto. Even with constant absences, he played the 6th most minutes in the Premier League among all Chelsea outfield players while displaying amazing performances for the Blues domestically. In the past year, Kante has really redefined himself as a player, moving out of the more traditional center defensive-midfielder role into a progressive box-to-box playmaker. Over the past 365 days, Kante has ranked in the 98th percentile in dribbles completed per 90 mins. among all midfielders along with 5.96 progressive passes and 6.23 progressive carries per 90 mins.. His defensive output wasn’t sacrificed during his attacking surge, averaging 2.2 blocks, 2.6 interceptions and 3.2 tackles per 90 mins., a clip that would be elite for defenders, let alone midfielders. A Champions League and UEFA Super Cup alongside his countless domestic and continental Man of the Match accolades stack up to one of the strongest TOTY cases in the team. The only catch to it all is obviously France’s lackluster Euro 2020 performance but it may be excused due to the team’s general underperformance, a saving grace for more players in this team than just Kante.
CM: Jorginho, CM/CDM (Chelsea)
Probably the most obvious, yet controversial, choice in the TOTY, Jorginho rounds out the midfield for 2021’s outstanding performers. There isn’t much of a case to be made with the Italian midfielder in numbers due to an underwhelming spread of per 90 mins. stats and of course the glaring amount of penalties he converts. It may seem quite hypocritical to use a mass amount of penalties against Fernandes and not Jorginho but while I don’t agree with the Chelsea playmaker to even be mentioned with the other three names, his case is quite obvious for voters here.
Jorginho racked up four trophies in 2021, each one bigger than the next on both club and country level, boosting him up in rankings. He seems to be this year’s beneficiary of the “Common Denominator” bias voters seem to have, where they gravitate towards a player that is mixed into every successful side of the past year. This bias can weigh heavily and did this year, landing Jorginho 3rd place in the Ballon D’Or ranking and it was a big factor in Luka Modric’s 1st place finish three years ago. This is not to negate Jorginho’s impact which definitely goes beyond numbers and his constant appearances and starts for Chelsea and Italy in the past 365 days is quite remarkable. The choice makes sense with the precedent set in these awards but overall, Jorginho is not as outstanding as the others on the list, even some who weren’t mentioned at all.