Football is a team game, but it’s amazing how much of an effect one individual can have on his ten team-mates. Witness Jimmy Bullard’s match-winning performance for Fulham against Aston Villa at Craven Cottage yesterday afternoon. His return from a long-term injury has lifted everyone at the club; it’s no coincidence that Fulham struggled in Bullard’s absence.
Bullard is a talismanic player who makes his team-mates play better. Every team has one, although not all clubs are lucky enough to have a charming, talented player like Jimmy, whose love of the game shines through in everything he does. Below, I pick just one player from each Premier League club who fulfils the Bullard role. Here are my picks for the most valuable players at each Prem club:
Arsenal – Cesc Fabregas
Young, foreign and gifted, Fabregas defines Arsenal in the 21st century. Cesc’s recent emergence as one of the most talented playmaking midfielders in Europe has greatly diminished the negative impact of Thierry Henry’s departure to Spain. When he plays well, Arsenal play well.
Aston Villa – Gareth Barry
I’m not convinced that Barry will ever be fashionable enough to hold down a regular place for England, but his immense worth to Villa can’t be disputed. He’s loyal to the club, admirably professional and, above all, a damn fine midfielder.
Birmingham City – Damien Johnson
Like Barry, Johnson is his club’s captain, and with good reason – he’s fiercely committed and hard as nails. And like Barry, Johnson is often unsung, probably because he’s an old-fashioned pro with limited appeal to tabloid sport editors.
Blackburn Rovers – Brad Friedel
The tank-like Yank is one of the best keepers in the history of the Premier League. I’ve lost count of the number of points he has earned for Rovers over the years.
Bolton Wanderers – Jussi JÃ¤Ã¤skelÃ¤inen
What I said about Brad Friedel applies equally to the big Finn – reliable, world-class goalkeepers are priceless. How Jussi never ended up at Man Utd or Liverpool is beyond me.
Chelsea – Michael Essien
Chelsea have several potential MVPs in their expensive squad â€“ captain John Terry, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Petr Cech all come to mind â€“ but for my cash, Essien is the most valuable of them all. As the Ghanaian is currently showing at the Africa Cup of Nations, he’s a born leader, more in terms of pure performance than anything else. Is there a more complete footballer in the world? I don’t think so.
Derby County – Darren Moore
In the context of the Premier League, I’m not sure that Derby have any valuable players. I’ll give the nod to Moore, who is a stalwart defender and one of the most decent guys in football to boot.
Everton – Mikel Arteta/Tim Cahill
I can’t separate these two so they can share the honours. I suspect that Everton fans have a softer spot for Arteta, who is routinely their best player by a mile. But Cahill is a remarkable player in a different way – he’s mentally as tough as they come (translation: he irritates the hell out of opposition players and fans alike) and never backs down.
Fulham – Jimmy Bullard
There wasn’t much doubt that I’d choose Bullard, was there? As long as he can remain fit for the rest of the season, Fulham will stay up – that’s how valuable he is.
Liverpool – Fernando Torres
As good as Steven Gerrard is, I sometimes think he has a negative effect on Liverpool – he forces Rafa Benitez to play the Gerrard way, all action but not much guile. This season, it’s clear that Torres has been Liverpool’s MVP. Benitez has to build a team around Torres, not Gerrard. That’s the only way they will challenge the likes of Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Man City – Martin Petrov
Petrov has been City’s most impressive performer this season. Richard Dunne comes a close second, but the Bulgarian winger gets the nod. Elano, Michael Johnson, Stephen Ireland and Micah Richards have all enjoyed purple patches, but Petrov has done it consistently. His crosses are a thing of beauty.
Man Utd – Cristiano Ronaldo
I could be different for the sake of difference and choose Rio Ferdinand, who has been immense so far this season. But let’s face itâ€¦ Ronaldo isn’t just United’s MVP, he’s the Premier League’s MVP, by some distance.
Middlesbrough – Emanuel Pogatetz
Poggie is a world-class exponent of ugly football. It speaks volumes for the regard in which he’s held on Teeside that Gareth Southgate was willing to sell Jonathan Woodgate to Spurs. Steve McClaren said it best (for once), when he said of the hard-headed Austrian: ‘He never, ever, gives less than 300% in performance.’ Well, maths never was Steve’s strong point.
Newcastle Utd – Charles N’Zogbia
Zog is the most skilful young player at the club, and he’s already proved that he can play almost anywhere on the pitch. When he signed a five-year deal to keep him on the Tyne until 2012, Newcastle fans were rightly delighted.
Portsmouth – Niko Kranjcar
The Croatian playmaker took a while to adjust to the Premier League, but it was always clear that he had all the gifts to succeed in England. He’s a lovely player to watch, too. Can Pompey hang on to him, or is he Chelsea-bound in the summer?
Reading – Stephen Hunt
Reading are really struggling this season, but Hunt continues to put in solid, committed performances.
Sunderland – Kenwyne Jones
Jones has been an unqualified success at the Stadium of Light and must rate as Roy Keane’s best signing. He scores goals, and his unselfish play sets them up as well. He’s also one of the finest natural athletes in the league.
Tottenham – Robbie Keane
The more I see of Keane, who is in the prime of his career, the more I think that he is underrated by so many fans. He’s one of the most talented Irish players of the last 25 years. I used to think he was a bit of a cocky whinger, but he’s grown up a lot in the last two seasons and is now the key man in Tottenham’s team.
West Ham – Mark Noble
Having a terrific season and plays with a maturity beyond his 20 years. Wears his heart on his sleeve, and West Ham fans don’t want much more than that.
Wigan Athletic – Emile Heskey
Without Heskey, Wigan don’t score points. With him, they do. Simple as that. What a shame for both parties that Heskey has been injured so much this season.