The end of the club season means that individual awards currently dominate the discourse in European football. Well, if you can’t beat them, join them.
Rather than just browsing through the usual categories highlighting best player and best manager – although we do that too – why not focus on some alternative awards?
The NBA Awards provide a blueprint, rewarding superstars alongside breakout artists, recovering veterans and valuable bench players.
Relying heavily on data from Opta, we’ll avoid team honors – a blow to Wout Weghorst, whose eight blocks (leading all forwards in Europe’s top five leagues) could have carved out a spot at the top of the first All-Defensive team – but there is still a lot to do…
Most Valuable Player
Only one player had more goal involvements than Karim Benzema (39) in the top five leagues this season, and Real Madrid really prefer not to talk about the man at the top of the rankings. This other top French striker has contributed to 45 goals, but the value of Benzema’s contributions to a La Liga triumph separates him from the rest.
Benzema’s goalscoring commitments were worth 29 points during the season, the most of any player, with Kylian Mbappe, of course, second on 28. Just considering Benzema’s 27 goals, it was 20 points – behind Dusan Vlahovic (22 points) alone.
Forced to perform repeated life-saving actions in the Champions League as well, Madrid’s number nine has played just 2,596 minutes in La Liga, or 75.9% of the full season. He was therefore involved in a goal every 67 minutes, narrowly second in this respect behind Erling Haaland (66 minutes) among those to play 1,000 minutes or more across Europe.
Coach of the year
Was it the NBA, Carlo Ancelotti would surely also qualify for the Lifetime Achievement Award. Guiding Benzema and Madrid to the LaLiga title, the Italian became the first manager to win each of Europe’s top five leagues, following successes in Serie A with Milan, Premier League with Chelsea, Ligue 1 with Paris Saint -Germain and in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich.
Ancelotti, also La Liga’s oldest winning manager at 62, gained just two points more than Zinedine Zidane by finishing second the previous season, but Madrid maintained that high standard despite losing their two senior centre-backs. ahead of the campaign as they seemingly saved for Mbappe’s failed pursuit.
Meanwhile, Everton, the side Ancelotti left for his second spell at Madrid, finished 20 points off their 2020-21 tally, spending the season battling relegation rather than chasing Europe. and perhaps to put his work at Goodison Park into context.
Rookie of the Year
Given the differences between the NBA and Europe’s top five leagues, it’s difficult to quantify exactly how many players can be considered “rookies”, let alone identify the best among them. Someone like Luis Diaz, for example, played his first minutes in the top five leagues this season, but he had already scored goals in the Champions League and Copa America, so that surely doesn’t fit the bill.
On the other hand, Hugo Ekitike certainly does.
Of the nine players who were teenagers at the start of the season and finished with 10 or more goals, only Ekitike had never started a game in Europe’s top five leagues. His 13 appearances in 2021-22 (10 goals, three assists) have come every 98 minutes on average, the best pace in this group and 18th best overall – just behind Neymar (also 98 min) and ahead of Son Heung- mins (101 mins).
The 19-year-old Reims striker, who turned down a move to Newcastle United in January before picking up a thigh injury, has scored with an astonishing 32.3% of his shots – second only to Wissam Ben Yedder (34.7%) among players with 20 or more attempts – and has been linked with moves to PSG and Borussia Dortmund, as well as St James’ Park.
Defensive Player of the Year
As elsewhere, many of these awards focus on attacking talent, so there’s a dedicated category for the best defender – and there really could only be one winner this year.
Limited injury Virgil van Dijk at 371 minutes in 2019-20, and Liverpool have missed him badly in their title defense as they have conceded 42 Premier League goals – their most since shipping the same number the season before the defender arrived central in 2018.
With Van Dijk back to form this season and only missing four games, the Reds have conceded the fewest goals in the top five leagues (26, tied with Manchester City). No defender has played a role in more clean sheets (21).
These numbers show the impact Van Dijk had on the team as a whole, but his performances in individual battles were just as impressive. The Liverpool man has won 73.5% of his duels and 77.5% of his aerial duels – the two highest marks for defenders for making 30 or more appearances in the top five leagues.
Returning Player of the Year
Okay, so the NBA is no longer highlighting a Comeback Player of the Year, but the NFL continues to identify an individual who overcame adversity in the previous campaign, allowing us to recognize one of the stories of the season.
Of course, for the reasons outlined above, Van Dijk could have claimed the award any other year, but this time he is beaten by a player who actually won Serie A in 2020-21.
A few weeks after the triumph of this title, Christian Erikson suffered a cardiac arrest at Euro 2020, raising fears for his life and then, even after his recovery, his career.
But Eriksen was fitted with an ICD, left Inter, joined Brentford in January and quickly won each of the first five Premier League games he started for the relegation-threatened Bees. Finishing with seven wins from 10 starts, only nine players from the top five leagues have created more chances in that span than Eriksen (29, including four assists).
Most Improved Player
There was no shortage of players showing signs of significant improvement in 2021-22. Five-goal Euro 2020 striker Patrik Schick finally played on the club scene, Newcastle forward-turned-midfielder Joelinton enjoyed a resurgence and Vinicius Junior was outstanding as a foil to Benzema, but Christophe Nkunku stood head and shoulders above the rest as he quickly established himself among Europe’s elite.
Nkunku had scored just six goals and assisted the same number for RB Leipzig in the 2020-21 Bundesliga, but those goalscoring involvements have increased significantly from 12 to 33 this season, ranking fifth in Europe’s top five leagues and third excluding penalties (32). With 20 goals in total and 13 assists, the newly capped France international was one of 12 players to reach double in both categories.
Among players who have played at least 20 games in each of the last two campaigns, only Moussa Dembele (20) and Schick (15) have improved their goal tally season after season by a greater margin than Nkunku (14); Dembele alone (24) showed greater improvement in goal involvement (21).
In a season in which Leipzig recovered from a slow start to claim a top-four finish by just one point, Nkunku’s contributions have been vital. He contributed to 45.8% of their Bundesliga goals and 50.8% of those he was on the pitch for.
Twelfth Man of the Year
The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year is recognized as the most impactful bench player of the season, which seems like a nice addition here.
If it were a long-standing European football award, it might have been renamed after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who scored 17 goals in 84 Premier League substitute appearances – an all the average 88 minutes. Given that Rodrygo Goes and Eduardo Camavinga have largely reserved their heroics for the Champions League, the 2021-22 equivalent in the top five leagues could be Matheus Cunha.
Ben Yedder has scored the most goals from the bench this season, but those seven counted for 25 in total as he also started 29 games. Cunha was limited to just eight starts for Atletico Madrid, but he scored three goals and assisted four in 21 outings as a substitute, leveling Ben Yedder and Ignacio Pussetto with a European record seven goals.
Atletico’s man when needed, Cunha has also contributed to vital goals. He was one of only two players to score and assist in the same game as a substitute on more than one occasion (also Arnaud Nordin), with the second of those two performances seeing the Brazilian striker featured against Valencia with his team 2-0 down; Cunha scored seven minutes into his introduction and then kicked off the winner in a 3-2 win, vindicating his role as a super-sub all season.