Premier League 2023-24 awards: MVP, best signing, best goal

As we say goodbye to a 2023-24 Premier League season filled with ups and downs, Luis Miguel Echegaray gives awards to the players and teams who delivered, as well as those who didn’t live up to the hype and failed to meet expectations.

Who was the MVP this season? Which team earned an A and which one earned an F for its performances? LME gives his analysis, grades and takes on all of it.

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Player of the season: Rodri

In football, the parameters we use to measure the value of a player are based on many factors, including goal contributions, leadership qualities and growth, to name a few. Statistics help paint a picture, but what happens when a player’s importance is multifaceted and subtly impactful that it sometimes gets unnoticed, even by the league itself?

Welcome to the game of Rodrigo Hernández Cascante, better known as Rodri, the best player in the world in his position and my winner of Player of the Season. With Manchester City having one hand on the trophy and looking for a historic fourth consecutive league title, Rodri’s presence in the midfield has been crucial to their success. Man City can win without striker Erling Haaland, but I don’t think you can say the same thing when they don’t have Rodri. It’s evident when you look at this season, where City’s three league losses (Wolves, Arsenal and Aston Villa) did not have the Spanish international due to suspension. He also has a record of 49 matches without featuring in a losing side in the Premier League.

If Pep Guardiola’s side is a Ferrari, Rodri is the engine. Guardiola has called him irreplaceable, someone who could play in any era. Rodri’s game is timeless, with no bells or whistles. He is an everlasting watch, making sure his side delivers without the need for attention.

This campaign, aside from his seven goals and nine assists in 33 league appearances, he has made 3,508 successful passes, the most in the league, and the best pass completion percentage (92%) out of any midfielder. In fact, in his position with that particular statistic, Rodri leads Europe’s top five leaves out of any midfielder who has played at least 25 matches.

Basically, Rodri keeps the team moving, but he is also their protector in front of the backline as well as a danger going forward. The only thing he doesn’t do is go in goal and, honestly, he’d probably do a great job if given the chance.

City look like they will win this Premier League title once again, and while their squad is full of magnificent talent, it’s Rodri — the no-nonsense, zero-attention-needed holding midfielder — who wins my vote for POTS. To borrow what former Spain and Real Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque once said of Sergio Busquets: If you watch the game, you don’t see Rodri. But if you watch Rodri, you see the whole game.

Runners-up: Declan Rice (a tremendous first season with Arsenal) and Ollie Watkins (tied-third for most goal contributions in the league with 32, helping Villa earn a Champions League spot).

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a stadium where I’ve seen an overhead kick that good … and I was there for Wayne Rooney’s against Manchester City,” reflected Gary Neville on Sky Sports right after seeing the 19-year-old’s audacious finish against Everton on Nov. 26 at Goodison Park.

The game was Everton’s first after the initial announcement of a 10-point deduction against the club, so it was only natural to hear a loud, defiant home crowd eager in pushing their team to a victory against the Red Devils. But inside the first three minutes, Garnacho turned the stadium into the quietest place on Merseyside.

United right-back Diogo Dalot crossed in a hopeful ball from the right wing into the box, and the Argentina international took a few steps back in order to find his angle and the ball. Not only did he find it, he obliterated it, releasing a breathtaking bicycle kick that rocketed over Jordan Pickford and into the top right corner. It was the football version of Picasso’s Guernica: fiery and beautiful at the same time.

Manchester United captain Bruno Fernandes called it “out of this world” after the game. We have seen bicycle kicks in the past, but this one was special because Garnacho had to track back, away from goal and meet a cross coming from the opposite direction.

“Probably he’s watching too many Cristiano clips! We all know that he’s a big fan,” said Fernandes.

A goal of the season winner and one that would undoubtedly make Ronaldo proud.

Best single-game performance: Phil Foden vs. Manchester United, March 3

Phil Foden was another close candidate in my vote for POTS due to his 17 league goals and eight assists so far, helping Man City push for a historic fourth consecutive title. The truly spectacular trajectory is mainly due to three factors: Foden’s incredible development (he’s still only 23), Guardiola’s belief in his abilities, thus turning him into a central midfielder and as a result, Foden taking on that role due to Kevin De Bruyne‘s absence in the first half of the season.

All these components pointed in the direction of making Foden into a world class player. It’s why Guardiola said at the beginning of the season that he can “play anywhere,” and why after the 3-1 victory over Manchester United back in March, has won my vote for best single-game performance of the season.

Foden was everywhere in that game, and despite initially trailing 1-0 after Marcus Rashford‘s stunning goal, the “Stockport Iniesta” took over, creating chance after chance, before scoring a brace (the first one being a beauty) to help City win the derby.

Foden is an Englishman disguised as a Brazilian midfielder of the 1970s. He doesn’t dribble with the ball; he dances with it, evading danger with undoubted ease. But that has always been part of his game. Now, he is a danger in front of goal and just like Pep said, he can play anywhere across the front line.

*In order to be eligible as a “rookie” for these awards, a player has to be 23 or under and have completed his first season in the Premier League with at least 1500 minutes.*

It’s a shame his season ended in April because of surgery, but that should not be a reason to ignore Udogie’s remarkable rookie campaign in the Premier League. His development has been a fantastic project from Tottenham, who first loaned him back to Udinese after immediately purchasing his services back in 2022. The time of growth in Serie A was essential for the Italian international, who finished his first season in the league by becoming one of the most important players for manager Ange Postecoglou. In fact, a major reason why Spurs fumbled at the end of the season is Udogie’s absence.

In Big Ange’s stubborn but entertaining system, full-backs are important because they have three jobs: to attack ferociously; to defend with quick, reactionary instincts and physicality; and sometimes, when in possession, to forget they’re full-backs all together and join the midfield. Spurs have two great players who can do this when healthy. They are Pedro Porro and Udogie, who only turned 21 in November and made 30 appearances in all competitions for the club. He also scored two goals and grabbed three assists. To provide this much in a first campaign is very impressive.

Sadly, the surgery to his left quadriceps ruled him out from April 21, but the good news is that he should be expected to join the squad this summer for preseason.

I expect big things from Udogie in 2024-25 and for Spurs to fight even harder for that Champions League spot.

Best signing of the season: Cole Palmer

Simple question: Where would have Chelsea ended in the table without Cole Palmer? Answer: nowhere near a top six finish, which is where they’re looking to be if they win against Bournemouth on Sunday, and potentially fifth place if Tottenham lose. And almost all the credit, at least offensively, should go to the magnificent attacker, who scored 21 goals (six less than Erling Haaland**) and earned 10 assists, making him an undoubted Player of the Season candidate.

Palmer was electric this season and delivered mesmerizing performances for Mauricio Pochettino’s team. There were games when he single-handedly took over, which is exactly what this inconsistent Chelsea team needed.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: It seems counterintuitive to give an award for best signing to a club that spends money more frivolously than a Met Gala dress budget, but in a campaign where multiple Chelsea players failed to live up to their price tag, at least consistently, Palmer showed why he was not only worth every single penny of £42.5 million, but at still only 22 years old, he was an absolute bargain. At least Chelsea got one signing correct this year.

Most improved player of the year: Dominic Solanke

Last season, Solanke failed to live up to his potential. After scoring 29 goals in 2021-22 and helping Bournemouth gain promotion from the Championship, his 2022-23 top flight campaign was underwhelming as he only scored six goals. It was a poor run of form from the former Chelsea academy player, whose low numbers last campaign included a league-goal drought of nearly 20 hours.

And then, Andoni Iraola came to his rescue.

Thanks to the Basque manager (nominated by the Premier League for Manager of the Season) and his aggressive, high-octane style, Bournemouth are on the cusp of a top-half finish, and Solanke truly delivered by becoming a menacing No. 9. His 19 goals turned him into the highest scoring Premier League scorer in the history of Bournemouth, passing Joshua King‘s 16 goals in 2016-2017. With the Cherries’ newfound energetic philosophy, Solanke is a far more dangerous striker. He doesn’t just want to score goals, he hunts for them like a lion to prey.

Were it not for the avalanche of English center-forward talent, which includes starter Harry Kane and Watkins, I think Solanke’s presence in England‘s squad for this summer’s Euros would hardly be in doubt. But ultimately, it’s up to manager Gareth Southgate and his preference on how many strikers he’ll want to take.

One thing is for sure: Solanke is not a finished product, and there surely will be more to come from the English forward. That’s bittersweet news for Bournemouth, who know that bigger clubs with larger budgets will be circling around this summer. But if they can hold on to him, Iraola’s Bournemouth could climb higher in the table, with Solanke as the protagonist.

Which team earned an A? Arsenal

Let’s make one thing clear. In the Premier League’s title race, if your club has pushed Manchester City to the final day of the season, then it has done a spectacular job. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal delivered a magnificent run, having achieved more wins (27) than the famous Invincibles campaign.

With one game to spare, they earned the most victories in their Premier League history. The two times they have done better were back in 1970-71 (29) and 1930-31 (28). Offensively, they are currently on 89 goals, which is better than last season’s total (88), while defensively, they almost halved the goals they conceded (28) compared to 2022-23 (43) mainly thanks to the formidable defensive duo of William Saliba and Gabriel.

It seems that City will indeed take the crown once again, but I think it’s crucial to remember that Arteta’s project is amazingly still ahead of schedule. The Basque manager took over from Unai Emery in January 2019 so his first full campaign was not long ago, in 2020-21. That season, Arsenal ended eighth. Arteta called for patience and luckily he got it, because the positive trajectory is clear.

In 2021-22 the Gunners finished fifth, and last season, when they had the youngest squad in the entire league, they finished second. This time around, their fate will depend on Sunday’s results, but I have to reiterate just how difficult it is to do this against City, whose reign under Guardiola is unrivaled in modern football.

Arsenal were aesthetically wonderful to watch this season, too. Now, the project continues to elevate under Arteta, and title or not, they deserve the best grade possible.



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Which team earned an F? Manchester United

Let me just begin by stating that not all of this is manager Erik ten Hag’s fault, who had a strong debut season with Man United in 2022-23 after finishing third. It’s not to say he isn’t one of the main reasons for their poor campaign. Of course he is. He is the manager after all. But the club’s downfall, which will see them without European football next season unless they either win the FA Cup or finish seventh, is multifaceted, and in order to give a fair grade, you have to look at everything.

With United, it begins with the planning before a ball has even been kicked. The summer arrivals did not impact the squad in a major way (aside from goalkeeper André Onana, who has eight clean sheets, tied for fifth most in the league) and as a result, many areas have been exposed. Rasmus Højlund is talented, but he is not the finished product, which is evident after only getting nine league goals.

Meanwhile, it’s fair to say Real Madrid exercised foresight when they allowed Casemiro‘s exit because his engine is running low, exacerbating United’s issues in midfield. And defensively? The injuries didn’t help — especially to Lisandro Martínez — but it’s not like any replacement was strong enough to put together a good run. Ten Hag changed his center-back pairings 14 times this season. That to me says vulnerability.

Lastly, Man United are currently set to finish the season with a minus-3 goal difference, which will be a first for the club since the start of the Premier League, having last finished with a negative goal difference in 1989-90.

All of these facts force me to give Man United a poor grade for 2023-24, and it should come to no one’s surprise.

Manager of the season: Unai Emery

How’s this for impressive: Emery’s Aston Villa achieved Champions League qualification for the first time in Premier League history since the competition allowed qualification to three/four teams. It’s the first time they will be in the top European tournament in more than 40 years.

This season, they also achieved more Premier League points than any other Aston Villa side since the calendar was reduced to 38 games. They also delivered some impressive victories, including the double over Arsenal and perhaps the best performance of the season back in early December, when they didn’t just beat Man City but outclassed them in almost every statistical department.

All of this and more was done in Emery’s first full season with the club as he only joined in October 2022. To add more context, the Basque manager did it with a depleted squad as he had to deal with two ACL injuries for the entire season (Tyrone Mings, Emiliano Buendía) — plus a third ACL injury in February (Boubacar Kamara) — and other major absences from key players including a two-month spell for Pau Torres and a stop-start season for Jacob Ramsey.

In fact, for the entire campaign, at least three key players were always missing. But Emery’s mantra of zero excuses permeated throughout the training ground, thus energizing them to a record-breaking journey. When it comes to helping a player understand his role, how to best utilize it, and do it in rapid speed, there might not be a better manager in the Premier League right now than Emery, who is also a master at in-game tactics, which is one of the hardest things to do in modern football. Now, thanks to his leadership, the Champions League beckons.

Runner-up: Mikel Arteta, Pep Guardiola