They could have been named the Juan Cuadrado Awards, or the Fran Kirby All-Stars. There were plenty of worthy names out there.
Back in the 2020-21 season, we wanted to celebrate a group of Premier League players who were defying age to some degree -- players nearing the end of (or having already zoomed far past) their respective primes, but still accumulating skills and finding new heights to which they could raise their game. Yet we settled on the "Gundogan Awards" -- and expanded it beyond England's top division -- in honor of a player who was going to a particularly unique place.
Manchester City was in another one of its midseason, "Pep Guardiola homes in on the recipe that will win him another Premier League title" periods, and suddenly Ilkay Gundogan had gone from "ultra-steady midfielder" to "best goal scorer on the planet." From mid-December to mid-February, the 30-year-old scored 11 goals in 15 matches, and in those 15 matches, City dropped all of two points and took total charge of the league race.
Gundogan would score three more goals in March and once in May as City's more customary scorers got healthy and found their form. But his surge was one of the defining periods of a season that featured a domestic double and finished a single goal shy of City's long-sought treble.
Now, City have won their long-awaited Treble -- Premier League title, FA Cup title, Champions League title -- and they did so with Gundogan again doing increasingly impressive things. He recorded three braces in his final seven matches and scored one of the most purely awesome goals you'll ever see in the opening seconds of the FA Cup final on June 3.
He has perfectly set the table for the third annual Gundogan Awards, and I thank him for it.
Here are the first two Gundogan Award induction classes (prime inductees in bold):
Benjamin Andre (Lille), Casemiro (Real Madrid), Sebastian Coates (Sporting CP), Liam Cooper (Leeds United), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus), Andy Delort (Montpellier), Magnus Wolff Eikrem (Molde), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City), Fran Kirby (Chelsea), Sam Mewis (Manchester City), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Roma), Gerard Moreno (Villarreal), Willi Orban (RB Leipzig)
-- Lifetime achievement: Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Ciro Immobile (Lazio)
Giorgos Athanasiadis (Sheriff Tiraspol), Sofian Boufal (Angers), Antonio Candreva (Sampdoria), Diego and Yimmi Chara (Portland Timbers), Edin Dzeko (Inter), Sebastien Haller (Ajax), Kim Little (Arsenal), Joel Matip (Liverpool), Anthony Modeste (Koln), Iker Munain (Athletic Club), Dimitry Payet (Marseille), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Thiago Silva (Chelsea), Oscar Trejo (Rayo Vallecano), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage)
-- Lifetime achievement: the entire Real Madrid midfield
Now to this year's class.
Prime inductee: Antoine Griezmann, MF, Atletico Madrid
Somehow one of the more well-regarded players of the past decade snuck up on us this season.
Atletico Madrid reached November's World Cup break with almost nothing but a top-four finish left to play for. They finished last in a winnable Champions League group with Porto, Club Brugge and Bayer Leverkusen -- winning just one match and losing all three road games by a combined 6-1 -- which meant their European adventure was done for the season far earlier than normal. They were fifth in LaLiga, 13 points back of first-place Barcelona, and the annual "Is this it for Diego Simeone?" speculation had begun.
Griezmann had played reasonably well to that point. With his minutes carefully monitored to avoid triggering an obligatory buy clause in his loan deal with Barcelona, he'd scored the game winner against Porto, and with a permanent deal reached in October, he had scored game winners against Athletic Club and Real Betis away from home, too. As disappointing as the season had been, it would have been much worse without Griezmann.
The World Cup was evidently a transformative experience. Playing more in an attacking midfield role for a loaded French team, he attempted only six shots in 537 minutes but provided three assists from 22 chances created. He advanced the ball steadily, and in this surprising new role, he was one of the primary reasons France reached the World Cup final ...
... Then he went back to Madrid and became the best player in LaLiga.
Most combined goals and assists in LaLiga, post-World Cup
Karim Benzema, Real Madrid: 16
Robert Lewandowski, Barcelona: 13
Marco Asensio, Real Madrid: 12
There's Griezmann, producing 44% more goals and assists than the reigning Ballon d'Or winner and 77% more than Lewandowski, the guy who should have won the Ballon d'Or the year before. (Sorry, Lionel Messi, but you stole one.)
And there was Atletico Madrid, playing like the best team in Spain.
Most points in LaLiga, post-World Cup
Atletico Madrid 53 (+30 goal differential)
Barcelona 51 (+22)
Real Sociedad 45 (+14)
Real Madrid 43 (+20)
Despite the minutes limitations and merely decent start, Griezmann finished the season with 16 goals and 18 assists; it was his best assists total ever and his most combined goals and assists since his magical 2017-18 season (29 goals, 13 assists). After a frustrating two-year stretch at Barcelona and a slow start in his return to Madrid, Griezmann, now 32, has been reborn as a facilitator -- albeit one with plenty of still-solid goal-scoring prowess. That's what the Gundogan Awards are all about.
Kieran Trippier, DF, Newcastle
Here's a full list of Premier League players who recorded at least 100 chances created and 250 ball recoveries in 2022-23:
1. Kieran Trippier
That's it. That's the list.
Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes was the only other player with triple-digit chances created; in fact, only six players had even 75 of them. Meanwhile, of the six other players with at least 250 ball recoveries, only Everton's Alex Iwobi could top even 40 chances created.
Trippier is a damn unicorn, one of England's best when it comes to both the offensive and defensive duties of a modern fullback. Already successful and proven enough to have recorded 41 caps for England, the 32-year old found new peaks in terms of both ball distribution and defensive hustle. He led a top-four team in minutes, touches (he had 900 more than anyone else on the team), pass completions, assists and, yes, chances and ball recoveries.
The 32-year old returned to the Premier League early in January 2022 after 2.5 seasons at Atletico Madrid; along with a huge paycheck, he also took on enormous risk, joining a Newcastle team that was in 19th place, having won just one match all year. He had to trust that the club's immensely rich new owners would acquire enough talent in the January transfer window to pull themselves to safety. They did so, to say the least, playing at a top-four level from the moment Trippier joined. They finished 11th in 2021-22, then surged all the way to fourth in 2022-23.
To recap: a Premier League team built itself around the skills of a guy in his early 30s, and it made the Champions League doing so.
Alex Morgan, FW, San Diego Wave
Morgan is already one of the most decorated players ever for the most decorated national team in women's soccer. She's won two World Cups, she's won an Olympic Gold, she's won ESPYs, she's won Golden Boots, she's won a Champions League (Lyon, 2017), she's won titles in three leagues (NWSL and WPS in America, Division 1 Feminine in France), she's been in a Maroon Five video. And in 2022, she put together easily her best club performance to date.
For the expansion Wave, Morgan -- who, lest we forget, had a child three years ago and will turn 34 in July -- scored 16 goals in 19 matches last season. Portland's brilliant Sophia Smith was the only other player with more than 12, and she scored one fewer goal on 41 more shot attempts. Morgan has also contributed six goals and three assists from 13 chances created over her past 14 matches for the national team (dating back to last July), and she scored five goals in her first nine NWSL matches of 2023, too.
With the 2023 World Cup approaching, national team coach Vlatko Andonovski has had to toe a difficult line in roster construction, balancing between the old guard responsible for back-to-back World Cup titles and a wave of tantalizing younger talent. He still has plenty of difficult decisions to make, but Morgan's form makes the question "Who should I start at center forward?" pretty easy.
Rani Khedira, MF, Union Berlin
There is value in zigging when everyone else is zagging. In a Bundesliga built around attacking, pressing and fielding young, high-upside talent, Union Berlin enjoyed their greatest ever season -- fourth place in the league and a first-ever Champions League berth, plus a run to the Europa League round of 16 -- by leaning on extreme experience.
Wingbacks Christopher Trimmel (36 years old) and Niko Giesselmann (31), defender Robin Knoche (31), midfielder Janik Haberer (29) and forwards Sheraldo Becker (28), Kevin Behrens (32) and Sven Michel (32) all played key roles for Eisern Union this season. And after joining from Augsburg in 2021 and enjoying a solid first season in Berlin, the 29-year-old Khedira began to thrive as the integral pivot in Union's vertical, counter-heavy attack. He improved his pass volume and pass completion rate, and he became more reliable in terms of both aerial success and defensive intervention.
While he didn't quite make Germany's final 26-man World Cup squad, he was on the provisional roster. He came up in the shadow of star brother Sami, but he continues to improve and inch closer to a national team cap.
Pascal Gross, MF, Brighton & Hove Albion
Brighton just completed their best season in their 121-year history, finishing sixth in the Premier League in 2022-23. The Seagulls have quickly become renowned for their talent-identification abilities and the way they have so consistently been able to replace high-level outgoing talent -- Marc Cucurella, Leandro Trossard, Yves Bissouma, Ben White -- with younger and equally high-level talent. But not all of their high-level players leave.
In his sixth season with the club, the 31-year-old Gross put in minutes everywhere from left back to right wing to defensive midfield to centre-forward, setting or tying his career Premier League highs in minutes (3,245), touches (2,674), pass completion rate (86.0%), assists (eight) and goals (nine), while nearly setting highs in chances created (80) and ball recoveries (140).
It's pretty easy for new, younger players to integrate and thrive when there are veterans around them doing a little bit of everything. Lucky for Brighton, that's Gross' specialty.
Amir Rrahmani, DF, and Mario Rui, DF, Napoli
Napoli's best season in ages -- they won their first Serie A title in 33 years and reached the Champions League quarterfinals -- came about in similar fashion to Brighton's, with bright young stars and new players thriving next to veteran water carriers.
Rrahmani, 29, went to Napoli (his seventh club in nine seasons) from Hellas Verona in 2020. Left-back Rui, 32, has been around since joining from Roma in 2017. Neither were marquee names this season on a team that featured players such as Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, but it's hard to imagine Napoli playing at the same level without Rrahmani's incredibly steady work -- 62% aerial win rate, 60% overall duel success rate, 162 ball recoveries, 91% pass completion rate -- and Rui's outstanding crosses and the chances that came from them.
In just 1,760 minutes, Rui ranked 12th in the league in assists (six), 13th in crosses completed (13th) and 26th in both chances created (46) and crosses in open play (64). And despite his advanced positioning, he was a solid interventionist as well, blocking seven crosses and making 34 tackles.
Rachel Daly, FW, and Kenza Dali, MF, Aston Villa Women
It's difficult to climb the ladder in the English Women's Super League at the moment, with the top four of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City all investing well and thriving. The best club of the rest this year? Aston Villa.
After earning promotion to the first division in 2020 and finishing 10th in 2020-21 and ninth in 2021-22, Villa pulled 25 points from their last 13 matches this season to surge to fifth, seven points ahead of everyone outside of the Big Four. The main reasons for Villa's success: an attacking trio of 24-year-old Kirsty Hanson with a pair of veterans: the 30-year-old Daly and the 31-year-old Dali.
Daly had proved to be a solid scorer for the NWSL's Houston Dash -- 37 goals in 101 matches over parts of six seasons -- but she erupted after moving to Villa, leading the team with 22 goals and six assists in 22 league matches. She was already a relentless presser, and now she's added "WSL Golden Boot winner" to her resume.
Dali, meanwhile, came over from Everton last summer and teamed beautifully with Daly and Hanson, ranking third on the team in goals (five), second in assists (eight) and first in both passes into the attacking third (104) and passes into the penalty area (38).
Remy Cabella, MF, Lille
Once given the EU's "Capital of Culture" designation, Lille has plenty to offer in terms of arts, scenery, education and, occasionally, air pollution. It also apparently has access to the Fountain of Youth. Two years after winning a shock Ligue 11 title with major help from 35-year-old forward Burak Yilmaz, Lille jumped back to fifth in 2022-23 thanks to a huge contribution from the 33-year-old Cabella.
Since producing 19 combined goals and assists for Montpellier in 2013-14, Cabella had averaged 8.1 (4.8 goals, 3.3 assists) in the following eight seasons for Newcastle, Marseille, Saint-Etienne and Russia's Krasnodar. But playing mostly from a central attacking midfield role for Lille, he scored seven goals with 10 assists (third in the league) from 101 chances created (first).
In short, he was the best string-puller in the league not named Leo Messi.
Niclas Fullkrug, FW, Werder Bremen
Granted, the bar was a bit lower than normal. Bayern's Robert Lewandowski averaged 32.2 goals per season while leading the Bundesliga in scoring for five straight years, and in his first year at Barcelona, no one topped 16 Bundesliga goals. Both RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku and Bayern's Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting would have topped that mark if they'd better avoided injury.
At age 30, Fullkrug tied Nkunku for the lead at 16 (despite also missing some matches), setting a top-division career high in the process. He had scored 14 for Hannover 96 at a much more spry age of 25, and after a bright run in the fall, he earned a World Cup call-up to Germany's national team, becoming its oldest debutant in 20 years. While Die Mannschaft disappointed in Qatar, exiting during the group stage, Fullkrug sure didn't, scoring two goals in just 66 minutes off the bench.
What a final act this could become: In 2023-24, after back-to-back campaigns serving as the best player on a relegated team, the 33-year-old Joselu will serve a season-long loan with Europe's record champion, Real Madrid.
Joselu was the leading scorer for Real Madrid Castilla (their reserve team) in 2010-11, and he scored in his lone appearance for the senior club that season, subbing in for Karim Benzema and putting in a header against Almeria. Since then it's been a journey -- Hoffenheim to Eintracht Frankfurt to Hannover 96 to Stoke City to Deportivo La Coruna to Newcastle to Deportivo Alaves to Espanyol -- but amid all the change, he has slowly grown more prolific.
He scored 14 for Alaves in 2021-22, then topped his career high with 16 goals for Espanyol. Now he'll be subbing in for Benzema in a different way; Benzema, Marco Asensio and Mariano are all leaving Los Blancos, and Joselu will be asked to put some more shots in the net in Madrid.
German Cano, FW, Fluminense
Just call Cano the "South American Joselu." Known for being a career journeyman, the 35-year-old showed major promise for Independiente Medellin a decade ago, scoring 42 league goals over two seasons in Colombia. He struggled for a few seasons in Mexico before returning to post 66 league goals in two more seasons in Medellin.
Is he a one-league star? Nope! He scored 14 goals for Brazil's Vasco da Gama in 2020 and in 2022 made a big move up to Brazilian heavyweight Fluminense, for whom he's posted Medellin-esque numbers.
It's safe to say that Fluminense have gotten more than they expected from this free transfer. In 80 matches with the club over the past 16 months -- 47 in Serie A, 12 in the Copa do Brasil, eight in two Carioca seasons, seven in the Copa Libertadores and six in the Copa Sudamericana -- Cano has scored 55 goals. He basically does one thing increasingly well: create high-value chances in the box. That's a good skill to have, no matter your age.
Yes, the whole team. The concept of aging stars thriving in Turkey is in no way new, but Galatasaray took it to a new level in 2022-23, winning the Super Lig title behind an incredible array of "Oh, right, that guy!" guys: forward Mauro Icardi (30, on loan from PSG), midfielders Dries Mertens (36, arriving after a decade at Napoli) and Sergio Oliveira (31, formerly of Porto and Roma) and goalkeeper Fernando Muslera (36) were key players, with Juan Mata (35, arriving after eight seasons at Manchester United) and Patrick van Aanholt (32) coming off the bench. (Van Aanholt was loaned to PSV Eindhoven in the winter window.)
Four Galatasaray players scored more than five league goals, and three are at least 30: Icardi, Mertens and 37-year-old onetime Lyon star Bafetimbi Gomis.
After finishing a shocking 13th in 2021-22 -- and after finishing in the top five just once in the past three seasons -- the Turkish heavyweights surged back to the top of the table with this group of old folks, ripping off 14 straight wins from October to April and clinching their first title since 2019 with two games to spare.
Enner Valencia, FW, Fenerbahce
Icardi was second in the Super Lig in goals during his loan from France. The only player more prolific: the 33-year-old Valencia, who, like so many others on this list, continues to age gracefully.
The well-traveled Ecuadorian star scored 13 goals in parts of four seasons with the Premier League's West Ham United and Everton, and it appeared he had found his level: He scored 34 goals in three seasons with Liga MX's Tigres, then 26 in his first two years with Fenerbahce. There was no way to predict what was coming next: In 2022-23, he scored 29 league goals with five assists, throwing in three Europa League goals and scoring three of Ecuador's four goals in the World Cup as well.
Nothing like putting together by far your best season 13 years into your pro career.
Lifetime achievement: Ilkay Gundogan!
Seriously, though, watch it again.
On Saturday in Istanbul, City became just the second ever English treble winner, fulfilling everything the club wanted to achieve when it hired Pep Guardiola in 2016 (and when the Abu Dhabi United Group acquired the club in 2008). They don't do it without the standout goal-scoring abilities of Erling Haaland or the extreme brains and creativity provided by players like Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish. This is a ridiculously talented and well-monied team.
Amid all of these skilled pieces, however, Gundogan continued to serve as the glue. He finished second on the team in ball recoveries this season (250 in all competitions), second in throughballs (21), fourth in chances created (62), fourth in touches (3,174), fifth in goals (11), sixth in shots on goal (31) and seventh in assists (six). He was whatever City needed him to be in a given sequence, match and season, and I'm very happy we made him the namesake for this piece.