Even by the standard, football’s not in a great place, a grubby, grasping mess that reflects our society. To change that we have no choice other than to engage with it, but we shouldn’t forget to appreciate its better aspects. Accordingly, here’s a Premier League Likable XI.
Goalkeeper: Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa)
Given that goalkeeping’s overriding function is to stymie happiness with elongated limbs and heating-mat hands, not much about it is intrinsically likeable. So Martínez is the pick, partly because he’s not been around long enough to aggravate anyone but mainly because of his endearing desire to catch any shot, however unlikely.
Right-back: Tariq Lamptey (Brighton)
There are certain players whose competitive charisma infuses and suffuses not just their performance but that of their teammates, allowing them to refocus a game featuring 21 others so that it is solely about them. Lamptey is one such, joining Brighton an unknown and immediately refreshing the club in a moving, contagious celebration of youthfulness.
Centre-back: Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa)
Almost didn’t make it in the game and underestimates neither his luck in being good at it, nor its inherent triviality. Whether coaching kids, fighting racism or helping the homeless, he offers thoughtful, powerful and compelling leadership that refuses to extol itself in the traditional manner.
Centre-back: Kieran Tierney (Arsenal)
All sport is an expression of self but Tierney reveals more of his than most, sweating menschlichkeit with such zealous truthfulness that his “KT” moniker can be forgiven. The archetypal but apocryphal “nice, normal bloke”, his interactions with fans bespeak delight in the unifying, transcendent wonders of football and kindness, his presence in the world encouraging us to feel better about our presence in it with him. Would gladly play out of position for the good of the team.
That’s exactly what it stood for my man! U legend... get in touch I will send u my shirt from tonight. Keep fighting ❤️
— Kieran Tierney (@kierantierney1) July 18, 2020
Left-back: Danny Rose (Tottenham)
A hotly contested position secured by Rose for his selfless righteousness in brutally proclaiming his own pain, so that others might be spared it in the future. We shouldn’t have needed it but we absolutely needed it.
Midfield: Hamza Choudhury (Leicester)
Certain players are freighted with meaning whether they want to be or not, and as a British Asian Muslim, Choudhury is a rarity in an English game that still struggles to welcome difference – his in particular. Nevertheless he wears his identity with love and pride, while hurtling into tackles with alacritous abandon. The old supporter’s cliche – if I was lucky enough to wear the shirt, I’d fight like mad in every game – is an obvious nonsense to anyone familiar with themselves, never mind others. But Choudhury embodies all of that, fully meriting his spectacularly perfect eyebrows.
Midfield: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
Mortifyingly, affirmingly brilliant – not just at football in every position, but at basketball, schoolwork and generally being sound – Saka also owns one of the great smiles, and rightly so. Footballers get a lot of grief from people who forget that they, like most of us, were complete morons in their youth, without the aggravating factors of talent, money and adulation. But Saka handles his with the same deft intelligence he displays on the pitch, his zest, composure and cheek the absolute height of London. He loves it, we love him loving it, and love ourselves for loving him loving it.
Midfield: Juan Mata (Manchester United)
A cute little bundle of kindness and charm, Mata looks like the protagonist in a kids’ TV show who accidentally wanders into the big boys’ game to find that he understands it better than they do. Approaching football like a favourite jigsaw puzzle, he applies skill and intelligence sedately enough for the rest of us to snuggle along with him; even his hair situation is subtle. And if that were not enough, his pioneering Common Goal initiative helps him put back into the world all the love he earns from it, which is a lot.
Right wing: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
First, he decided that only one person has authority to decide where he works – him – staying true to his feelings despite the opinions of those who are not him. Then, he wore the racism the press directed at him with dignity before speaking out with beauty and power when he decided the time was right, playing brilliantly all the while. And now, he intends to repurpose that success for the benefit of others, launching a foundation to help children failed by the system. One of the most important players of this or any generation.
Centre-forward: Dr Marcus Rashford MBE (Manchester United, captain)
This space could just as easily be left blank as contain a dissertation, because describing Rashford is beyond words yet at the same time demands all of the words. On the pitch, he plays with flair and discipline, with innocence and savvy, with power and grace, an explosion of everything that’s best about everything. But off it he is even better, brilliantly distilling the entirety of political discourse into a single question – are we happy with our children going hungry? – making clear that such circumstance is a choice before shaming Boris Johnson into doing the right thing, a stupefying triumph previously beyond any resident of our planet. Subsequently, he has refused to be bought off with a bauble and maintained pressure with impeccable integrity and an irrefutable mix of experience, focus and facts. All of this was beautifully encapsulated by last week’s ridiculous behaviour: holding PSG to account on Tuesday night then holding the government to account on Wednesday morning, the dazzling response to which underlined that this is no longer a campaign but a movement. We’d be proud if he was our friend and it feels like he is, but even though he isn’t we can still be proud because he’s our species. If you wouldn’t rather be Marcus Rashford, you’re living your life wrong.
Left wing: Sadio Mané (Liverpool)
Mané is the perfect combination of killer and cute, evidenced by his free-scoring ruthlessness and celebration-copying suggestibility. As a teenager he absconded from home to realise his dream of becoming a footballer, and as a footballer he returns home to realise other teenagers’ dreams of becoming whatever they can be. He has built a school, is in the process of building a hospital, and at Ramadan sends money to every family in his village. But he is about more than signing cheques: whether bowling about Bambali or cleaning the bogs at his Toxteth mosque, those in his ambit get everything he’s got. If he is not a lovely man, there are no lovely men.
Patrick van Aanholt (Crystal Palace); Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal); Ben Mee (Burnley); Allan Saint-Maximin (Newcastle United); Adama Traoré (Wolves); Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur); Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton)
Manager: Emma Hayes MBE (Chelsea Women)
We’re breaking our own rules here but having scanned the list of Premier League managers more times than is healthy, it is impossible to get past the overriding sense of … Premier League. So Emma Hayes is appointed for her unparalleled wisdom, knowhow, charisma and perspective; those selected would surely feel privileged to play for her.