Promotions

Erling Haaland, Declan Rice and GOAL’s Premier League Team of the 2023-24 Season so far

Team of the 2023-24

The first half of the 2023-24 campaign has thrown up plenty of surprises, sparking intense competition for the best combined XI

It’s fair to say that the Premier League now stands alone as the best top-flight division in European football, but it hasn’t been the most competitive in recent seasons. Manchester City have won the title in five of the last six seasons under Pep Guardiola, who also delivered an elusive Champions League trophy to the Etihad Stadium in 2022-23.

City have quite simply been an unstoppable winning machine, with world-class players occupying every position, a flawless tactical blueprint and a warrior mentality running through the dressing room. But some six months on from their treble-clinching victory over Inter Milan in the Champions League final, there are finally some clear signs that an era of unprecedented dominance could soon come to an end.

Arsenal led the table for a 248 days last term before a late collapse handed City the initiative, but that experience only seems to have strengthened their resolve, with Mikel Arteta’s men rising back to the summit in impressive fashion. Liverpool are also in the mix again after some shrewd summer business from Jurgen Klopp, with City currently languishing five points off the pace in fourth.

There is even a chance that a new name could be etched onto the trophy with former Arsenal boss Unai Emery masterminding a remarkable run for Aston Villa, silencing his critics in the process. Ange Postecoglou has made a similar impact at Tottenham, and the race for Champions League qualification also looks more open than ever before.

Plenty of household names have been firing on all cylinders, but new stars have also emerged amid a thrilling, unpredictable season that has the potential to go down as one of the best in the modern era. And so, without further ado, GOAL is on hand to bring you the Team of the Season so far, starting with a certain Italian shot-stopper…

Guglielmo Vicario

GK: Guglielmo Vicario (Tottenham)

Tottenham fans would be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed when Vicario was snapped up from Empoli in a £17 million ($22m) deal as the club’s new No.1 goalkeeper. The Italy international was not well-known to audiences outside his own country at the stage, and had the tough task of replacing World Cup winner Hugo Lloris, who unsuccessfully pushed for a move away from north London in the summer.

But Vicario instantly erased any doubts over his quality and experience, while proving to be an upgrade on Lloris, with his speed off his line allowing Spurs to play much higher up the pitch to maximise the effectiveness of Postecoglou’s attack-minded system. The 27-year-old hailing from Udine is cool, confident, and the epitome of a proper sweeper-keeper.

He also happens to boast outstanding reflexes, which have helped him produce a host of gravity-defying saves that have protected crucial points for Tottenham. It’s no exaggeration to say that Vicario’s presence could be the difference between Champions League and Europa League qualification for Spurs come May.

Ezri Konsa

RCB: Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa)

Since Villa’s return to the Premier League in 2019, Konsa has largely been seen as Tyrone Mings’ right-hand man. He was the foil for Mings rather than the leader, setting about his work in quiet fashion while his more experience team-mate embraced the spotlight.

However, when Mings was forced off in the first half of Villa’s season opener against Newcastle with a serious knee injury, Konsa had to step up. As the new elder statesman in the backline, Konsa was left shouldering more responsibility than ever before, but has risen to the challenge admirably.

The 26-year-old initially welcomed in Pau Torres as his new centre-back partner, before being shifted to right-back after an injury to Matty Cash, and has proven to be equally reliable in both positions. Konsa’s technical brilliance, speed and strength in the box have been vital during Villa’s unlikely ascent into the Premier League’s top four, and he’s deservedly now part of the England set-up, with a Euro 2024 place likely to be on the cards if he can keep up the same level in the second half of the season.

William Saliba

CB: William Saliba (Arsenal)

Saliba was unquestionably the best defender in the Premier League last season, until an untimely back-injury ruled him out of Arsenal’s crucial title run-in. The Gunners crumbled without the Frenchman, but he’s returned in even better shape, and looks determined to make certain the famous trophy comes back to Emirates Stadium this time around.

It’s scary how well Saliba reads the game given the fact he’s still just 22 years old, and it’s almost impossible for opposition forwards to get past him because of his imposing physical stature. He’s also excellent on the ball and capable of turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye, while his natural leadership skills help to raise the level of those around him.

There is a very real possibility of Arsenal finishing up as champions of England for the first time in 20 years if Saliba stays fit. He is the most important member of the squad and there is no ceiling to his talent, which has been managed expertly by Mikel Arteta so far.

Virgil van Dijk

LCB: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)

The 2022-23 season was a miserable one for Van Dijk. Like most of Liverpool’s key players, he suffered a hangover from their unsuccessful quadruple chase, and seemed to have lost a yard of pace.

But reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. The Dutchman has enjoyed a new lease of life as Jurgen Klopp has overseen a rapid rebuild, with the Reds re-establishing themselves as title contenders despite having to juggle Premier League commitments alongside Thursday nights in the Europa League.

Van Dijk has benefitted from regular rests in cup competition – with Liverpool also making progress to the latter stages of the Carabao Cup – recording more clearances, tackles and interceptions than ever before in his Anfield career.

It won’t be easy for the 32-year-old to maintain those high standards all the way through to the end of the campaign, but if he does, a second top-flight winners’ medal could well be added to his mantlepiece.

Bukayo Saka

RM: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)

The reigning PFA Young Player of the Year has picked up from where he left off in the opening months of the new season, racking up 11 goal contributions in 16 Premier League appearances for Arsenal. Saka is a constant threat on the right-flank and his decision-making seems to be improving with each passing game, which has helped the Gunners find a way in behind deep opposition defences.

It has been suggested that Arteta is overworking Saka, but Arsenal have not been the same side going forward on the rare occasions he has been rested or absent through injury. “Bukayo is a special guy, we have him with us hopefully for many years to come,” the Gunners boss said before Saka’s 200th appearance for the club against Luton Town on December 5. “He hasn’t got any limits and has coaches, staff and a club that wants to push him to become better.”

It’s easy to forget that Saka is still just 22 given the maturity and class he exudes on the pitch. Arsenal know they have a diamond on their hands, and they need only sharpen a few of Saka’s edges in order for him to reach the very top of the game.

Declan Rice

CM: Declan Rice (Arsenal)

Arsenal smashed their transfer record to bring Rice to the Emirates from West Ham in the summer, and the biggest compliment we can pay the 24-year-old is that his £105m ($133m) fee is already looking like something of a steal.

Rice turned down the chance to join Guardiola’s midfield rotation at City in favour of taking on a leading role with the Gunners, and he’s quickly established himself as a cult hero among supporters because of his exceptional work rate.

Vital late goals against Manchester United, Chelsea and Luton have also played a part, but Rice’s ability to protect the back four and build attacks with his passing and dribbling is what really makes him special. The England international has been a transformative signing for Arsenal and also knows exactly what it takes to get over the line in the biggest matches, having played in a European Championship final and West Ham’s Europa Conference League showpiece triumph, which could prove invaluable at the business end of the season.

Douglas Luiz

CM: Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa)

Luiz got a second chance in the Premier League at Villa after failing to make the grade at City, and has gradually carved out a reputation as one of the most complete midfielders on English shores. Emery has been able to unlock the 25-year-old’s full potential this term and he’s now spearheading their charge for a top-four finish.

Villa’s disciplined, fearless group is held together by Luiz, who is equally adapt at shutting down attacks as he is pushing the team forward with his progressive style on the ball. He makes Villa tick, and has also chipped in with five goals and three assists while showing off his impressive range from set-pieces.

It’s certainly no surprise that clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United are now said to be lining up a move for Luiz. He would, however, be well advised to stay at Villa, where he could at the very least achieve a Champions League dream, and possibly even become a Premier League winner.

Son Heung-min

LM: Son Heung-min (Tottenham)

Son’s status as a Premier League legend has long been secure. He’s certainly the best Asian import in the competition’s history, and has reached the 10-goal mark in all but one of his nine seasons in England. But by his own admission, the 2022-23 campaign was a huge disappointment. Son’s performances dipped as Spurs fell to eighth in the table, and he looked to be in need of a fresh start.

The combination of Postecoglou’s arrival and the departure of long-term strike partner Harry Kane has given Son exactly that, with the South Korean rediscovering his best form after being shifted into a No.9 role. Son is already in the hunt for his second Golden Boot, and might even fancy his chances of winning the Premier League for the first time with Spurs within reach of the leaders and still awaiting the return of a number of key players.

They definitely have a shot with Son leading the line, as he remains peerless when it comes to the art of finishing and tends to save his very best displays for the biggest matches. Even at the ripe old age of 31, the best may still be yet to come from Tottenham’s main man.

Mohamed Salah

RW: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)

The Premier League’s Hall of Fame is bursting with legends already, including the likes of Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard; players that truly put English football on the map with their genius and consistency.

But as he approaches the half-way point of his seventh season at Liverpool, Salah has a strong case to be considered as the greatest player the Premier League has ever seen. Anfield’s Egyptian King is a three-time Golden Boot winner and has been the driving force behind the Reds’ success under Klopp with his clinical touch in front of goal and imagination in possession.

A second title triumph would cement Salah’s legacy, and he’s doing everything possible to make it happen. He’s scored 12 and set up another seven so far in 2023-24, helping Liverpool to within a point of top spot, and yet it still feels as though he doesn’t quite get the credit he deserves.

Salah may only be fully appreciated when he’s gone, which could be as early as next summer with transfer suitors from Saudi Arabia refusing to go away, but his value has never been lost on Klopp, who continues to trust him to make the difference when Liverpool are most in need of inspiration.

Erling Haaland

ST: Erling Haaland (Manchester City)

How do you top a record-breaking debut season that ended with three winners’ medals and a PFA Player of the Year nod? That’s the question Haaland was facing in August, and City’s Norwegian terminator has done his utmost to provide a conclusive answer.

Haaland might not surpass the insane 36-goal total he managed following his £50m ($63m) move from Borussia Dortmund, but he’s still setting the Premier League benchmark with 14 to his name this season. The 23-year-old also became the quickest player to reach 50 top-flight goals after netting in a 1-1 draw with Liverpool, and it won’t be a surprise if records continue to tumble around him.

Critics who often highlight the striker’s lack of involvement in general play had their knives out after he endured a lean spell in early October, but inevitably, it didn’t last. For the most part, Premier League defences have yet to figure out a way to stop Haaland from scoring.

His movement is as sharp as ever and his instincts in the box remain unrivalled, which is why it would be foolish for anyone to write City out of the title race after their dismal recent run. Haaland is the ultimate weapon, an unstoppable force of nature with an insatiable hunger for goals, and his presence alone means that the champions must still be considered favourites to retain their crown.

Ollie Watkins

LW: Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)

Watkins has always been a reliable source of goals for Villa, but is now developing into a truly elite Premier League forward under the stewardship of Emery. The 27-year-old has found the net nine times already this term and needs only six more goals to equal his final total from last season, having added a new ruthless streak to his game.

Villa can also rely on Watkins to provide killer passes in the final third, and his formidable partnership with club record signing Moussa Diaby has given Emery’s side a vital X-factor. They look every inch a Champions League team right now, with Watkins leading their press off the ball as well as their attacks on it.

It will be a huge ask for Villa to stay in the title picture while also competing in the Europa Conference League, but they can’t be ruled out as long as Watkins can stay fit. The former Brentford man is hitting his peak and there are few more explosive players to watch in European football right now, with a regular England spot likely to follow if he stays on his current trajectory.