Scholes heads list of standout central midfield performances
Veteran Paul Scholes has come out of retirement to reinforce Man United's midfield
Man City's Yaya Toure has been the driving force behind the team's title push
Swansea's young playmaker Joe Allen has drawn rave reviews all season
Six of the most impressive central midfield performances of the Barclays Premier League season so far:
1. Paul Scholes, MAN UNITED 2-1 Liverpool, Feb. 11 2012
It is just Michael Carrick's luck that having been consistently good for the past few months, Paul Scholes should come back in to the Manchester United team and take the plaudits like the Fonz strolling in to Arnold's and stealing every fella's girl. Perhaps it was not quite so smooth -- one of the first things he did on emerging from retirement was to gift Manchester City a goal -- but Scholes' recent performance against Liverpool certainly had the "heyyy" factor.
Granted, showing Jay Spearing and Jordan Henderson up is not all that difficult, but there was an almost ethereal quality to the way that Scholes used the ball; so calm and meticulous in an atmosphere that might have tempted unnecessary urgency. He and Carrick exchanged passes that taunted Liverpool's pickles-in-the-middle. After half an hour he probably should have been able to direct his header further away from Pepe Reina, who saved on pure reflex, but the move itself was Scholes' influence in microcosm: from the quick, neat passes he exchanged with Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney on the edge of the penalty area to the dinked pass out to Ryan Giggs to set up the chance.
2. Scott Parker, SPURS 3-1 QPR, Oct. 30 2011
In truth Parker -- last season's Football Writers' Player of the Year -- has given a number of impressive performances so far this season, but it is not every day that you end up being compared by your manager to Dave Mackay. "You hate to mention anyone in the same breath as Mackay," said Harry Redknapp, after this resounding victory over Queen's Park Rangers, "but it was right up there with the best." He withdrew Parker five minutes before the end of the game so that he could enjoy a standing ovation.
If you look at a map of Parker's passing in that game you'll see a jumble of short, stubby little arrows; it's a game of fetch. Parker chased Rangers up and down the pitch cutting out passes, blocking shots, and pinching the ball to lay it off for Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart to trace longer arcs across the field. It's a role rather different to that which won his award (at West Ham United he surged forward himself, dragging his teammates with him), but one that is crucial to Tottenham's success this season. Particularly when executed so well as on this day.
3. Alex Song, ARSENAL 1-0 Everton, Dec. 10 2011
Song's reputation is never entirely certain -- he is not quite solid enough to be truly admired as a defensive midfielder, and not quite foxy enough going forward to claim to be anything more complex. Against Everton, however, he produced a fine box-to-box performance; Robin van Persie may have scored with that incredible volley, but if one player can claim to be the match winner, it is the man who provided the assist: Song.
He was tenacious in front of a reshuffled Arsenal defense (Everton had not a single shot on target that day, and Louis Saha found himself with fewer chances in front of goal than Thomas Vermaelen), but Song's efforts were not simply destructive. He seemed always to be looking for a forward pass, and with Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey often dropping deep, was one of Arsenal's most creative players. Setting up the winning goal Song hit the ball with all the refinement of a player clearing off his own goal line, yet produced a beautifully lofted pass that took Phil Jagielka out of the equation entirely and dropped plumb on to van Persie's left foot.
4. Yaya Toure, MAN CITY 5-1 Norwich City, Dec. 3 2011
This was the kind of match that makes teams dread facing Manchester City; to call it a mauling, as the Norwich manager Paul Lambert did, does not quite capture how much fun the league leaders had as they ran up the score. For the first, Sergio Aguero twisted and turned as if for his own amusement -- the Norwich defenders were not much impediment, either way -- before poking the ball through the legs of two of his opponents and into the goal.
At the center of it all was Yaya Toure, galumphing about as if he'd never heard of fatigue and attempting 124 passes -- enough to get the Opta people excited, since no one had attempted so many in the Premier League in almost three years (Xabi Alonso for Liverpool, 129, in case you're wondering). He completed 118 of them, setting up at least a couple of chances in the process. He also added Manchester City's third, neatly controlling a pass inside from David Silva as Bradley Johnson flew helplessly past him before curling the ball in at the far post.
5. Joe Allen, Liverpool 0-0 SWANSEA, Nov. 5 2011
In the final minutes of this match Michel Vorm had to produce two exceptional saves to prevent Luis Suarez or Glen Johnson giving Liverpool victory, but it would have been a sorely undeserved win if he had failed. Swansea had struggled away from home (a point earned at Molineux the only reward from the team's first five trips out of Wales), but played so well at Anfield that those corny references to "Swansea-lona" inevitably re-emerged. The Liverpool supporters applauded them off the field -- no doubt to send a message to Kenny Dalglish, whose side looked in little danger of comparisons to Barcelona, but for more generous reasons, too.
This was before Lucas Leiva's season-ending injury took the snap out of Liverpool's midfield, but the Brazilian struggled to keep tabs on Allen and it was no coincidence that the young playmaker was the most-fouled player in the game. Just before half time he turned his marker to buy space on the edge of the area and curled a shot just wide of the post. The liveliness and occasional audacity of Allen's performance surprised no one who had traveled from Swansea, but this was probably the first time the rest of the league took notice -- Allen was on Liverpool's January wishlist.
6. Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, NEWCASTLE UNITED 3-0 Man United, Jan. 4 2012
Yes, yes, this was supposed to be about individual performances, but rare are the occasions on which Manchester United are so thoroughly harassed by the opposition that they end up putting the ball into their own net. Would you fancy separating these two? It would not be so easy as they made carving through Carrick and Giggs look that night.
Tiote showed off not only strength and determination but also a fine nose for the whiff of opportunity -- he stole in on a Manchester United pass just as often as Cabaye. All right, his early long-range shot was not up to much, but as Newcastle weathered the inevitable rousing of Manchester United's spirits in the second half, he did well to charge toward Anders Lindegaard's goal and earn Newcastle a corner and a breather.
He and Cabaye batted the ball about between them as if entirely untroubled by any sense of occasion, and Cabaye seemed to know exactly when to hang back and look out trouble, and when to go and make mischief of his own. The free kick he scored to put his team 2-0 up just after halftime was inch-perfect and gave Newcastle the comfort and confidence to swat away Manchester United's efforts to get back in to the game.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-author of Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold its Soul.
SI Now: Should NCAA Student Athletes be treated as pros?
SI Now: What role will Tim Tebow fill for the Patriots?