Shearer and Di Canio lead veteran excellence

By Nick Harris
Saturday 28 December 2002 01:00

In an outstanding season for veteran strikers, Alan Shearer and Paolo Di Canio are currently heading the Independent Index as the top-rated players in the Premiership along with Arsenal's talismanic French midfielder, Patrick Vieira. Shearer, the division's leading goalscorer, has been at the top since the start of the season, with Di Canio and Vieira climbing steadily throughout the season, which reached its halfway stage last weekend.

The Index provides an on-going assessment of every Premiership player. Our reporters award marks to every player in every league match based on fixed criteria. These range from one mark for the kind of truly awful showing that might be encountered only once or twice a season, through to 10 for an equally rare outstanding display.

Every player starts a match with five marks and this is increased or decreased accordingly. Players need to have featured for at least 15 minutes in at least a third of their side's League games for inclusion in the Index.

Shearer, Di Canio and Vieira all have averages of exactly seven – "a performance well above standard" according to the marking criteria. To have maintained this through every match is testament to their value. The same could be said for a third aging frontman, Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola (6.8), as well as his compatriot and team-mate, Carlo Cudicini (6.8), who is the leading goalkeeper. Vieira's team-mate and fellow Frenchman, Thierry Henry is on the same mark.

Good players in struggling teams have tended to perform well in the Index, perhaps better than equally good players in more successful teams. Di Canio could be a case in point for ailing West Ham, but nothing should be taken away from him or Charlton's Scott Parker (6.7) for their lofty rankings. Blackburn's Brad Friedel, Everton's Thomas Gravesen and Manchester City's Eyal Berkovic and Nicolas Anelka have all similarly proved valuable to their clubs' causes.

The nature of the rankings system has seen a fluid turnover of personnel in the 'rolling' team of the season, with Henry and the two Italians vying for the second striker's berth alongside Shearer. Boudewijn Zenden, Gary Speed and lately Lee Hendrie have been pushing for midfield inclusion. David Thompson of Blackburn had an excellent start to the season, but has slipped as Rovers have stuttered. An alternative view is that Rovers stuttered as Thompson's consistency dropped slightly below his previous high levels of consistency. Jamie Redknapp at Tottenham is another player whose form seems to be intertwined with his side's wider performance.

The 'rolling' defence has seen plenty of churn, with Gareth Southgate and Joseph Yobo most consistent. Southgate, along with Gravesen, Vieira and Henry, is one of only a few players to have spent the whole of last season and this season as near-automatic picks in their positions. Sami Hyypia and Rio Ferdinand, dominant last season, have been less convincing this term. But others, notably Charlton's Richard Rufus and Gary Rowett, have been prominent since August even as the Addicks struggled before their recent rally. The endeavours that were earning good marks are now earning points.

Among goalkeepers, Cudicini is pipping Brad Friedel for the No 1 shirt, but Southampton's Antti Niemi, Leeds' Paul Robinson, and West Bromwich Albion's Russell Hoult are all staking claims.

Robinson, Rufus, Southgate, Rowett, Speed, Hendrie, Parker and Shearer all make it into a British and Irish XI along with Blackburn's Damien Duff and Wayne Rooney of Everton. Our foreign XI has a strong French influence, not least in defence, where William Gallas, Marcel Desailly and Mickaël Silvestre all claim places.

The emergence of youth, perhaps through necessity in hard times, is one theme of the season, and our 21-and-under side highlights the promise of the likes of Chris Kirland, John O'Shea, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Rooney. It's the veterans who are really showing the value of age, however, as our 34-and-over side shows, with a line-up, spearheaded by Zola and Di Canio, who would trouble most opponents.

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