As most football fans will observe, every season there emerge some players who were hitherto considered nothing extraordinary. And suddenly, they are in the limelight for producing some eye-catching performances consistently that might not be exactly match-winning displays on their own, but add to the overall team effort immensely.
Here, we will assemble a lineup of those Premier League players who have shown the highest amount of improvement in their performances this season. Players who have made their league debut for their respective clubs this season or plying their trade for the first time in the Premier League have been excluded, since this will be a breakthrough season for them. Unfortunately, it means that most players from Norwich City and Swansea City (both secured promotion last season) will be excluded from the lineup on account of no previous experience in the top flight, despite having impressed one and all with their performances.
So here we look at some of the contenders for the Premier League’s Most Improved XI of the 2011-12 season -
There isn’t really much competition in this department and among the players who have shown the maximum improvement, there are just two. Newcastle United’s Tim Krul has emerged as a confident young goalkeeper and helped the Geordies stay in the hunt for a Champions League spot by producing strong performances consistently throughout this season. And his displays have been rewarded with a Netherlands national team cap during the course of the season, making him a strong contender to make it to the Euro 2012 squad this summer.
Wojciech Szczesny has made a good start to his Arsenal career. After his debut last season, he has followed it up with assuring displays this whole season. The 22-year-old’s performances between the posts have resulted in him being compared to former Arsenal greats like David Seaman and Jens Lehmann.
Michel Vorm has been a revelation in goal for Swansea City while David de Gea has gone from strength to strength after having a ‘dodgy’ start to his Manchester United career, but both narrowly miss out on being considered because of the ‘breakthrough season’ rule.
When Manchester United skipper Nemanja Vidic was ruled out for the entire season on account of injury in December, most people thought it would leave the United defence vulnerable for the rest of the season. But Jonathan Evans had something else in mind. He, along with Rio Ferdinand, forged a formidable centre-back pairing and have provided the Red Devils with much needed solidarity at the back. Not only that, Evans has also enhanced the attacking side of his game, scoring 1 goal and providing 3 assists so far this season.
This season’s biggest success story has been Newcastle United (sorry Swansea) without a doubt, and one of the biggest reasons behind their upsurge has been the presence of Fabricio Coloccini at the back. The Argentine has been a rock in central defence and his performances for the Magpies have been inspirational ever since he was handed the captain’s armband. His ball-playing ability is an added bonus for a team that has successfully tried to play a possession-based game this season.
Joleon Lescott has finally looked like the player that made Mark Hughes splurge millions to sign him from Everton. Having been used rather sparingly in the previous seasons, he finally got his opportunity to play alongside skipper Vincent Kompany in the absence of Kolo Toure and has proved himself worthy of a place in the starting lineup. Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny is another player who has steadily made progress since making the move to the North London club in summer 2010. His mobility and well-timed tackles (major improvement in the latter) have been his biggest assets this season, making him one of the frontrunners to force his way into the MI lineup.
Former England manager Fabio Capello might not have rated him highly, but Micah Richards has been one of Manchester City’s best players this season. He’s been a force to reckon with at right back, combating opposition wingers and bombarding crosses into the box when going forward. With a goal and 8 assists to show for, and age on his side, he’s very much in the running for a place in the England squad for the Euros.
Danny Simpson has been ever-present at right back for Newcastle this season. And not only at right back, he has been ever-present on the goal line – making last-ditch clearances off the line to deny the opposition time and again throughout the season. Kyle Walker, who won this season’s PFA Young Player of the Year award, has been a consistent performer for Spurs but honestly, there are better right backs in the league than him.
One of the more prudent signings by Liverpool last summer, Jose Enrique, has been by far their most consistent performer and arguably the best left back in the league this season. The Spaniard has featured in 32 of their 36 league games and almost all their domestic cup ties, which highlights his level of fitness. He has worked hard on the defensive side of his game, having a reassuring presence at the back.
The central midfield is the department where we have got the maximum contenders. Among all, Alex Song stands out purely on the impact he’s had on Arsenal this season. His marshalling of the midfield and providing cover to the back four has been nothing short of outstanding this season. It also liberates the likes of Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky to control the game. Add to that the 14 assists so far this season, and that tells you how good he has been going forward.
Every midfield, to be effective, needs an engine room. That is the midfielder who has inexhaustible amounts of stamina, ‘works his arse off’ chasing opposition players and winning the ball back. And Ramires has been sensational this season in that role. Apart from that, his ability to make those darting runs from the centre of the park into the box reminds one of the fact that he’s Brazilian after all.
Michael Carrick is definitely one of the most underrated midfielders in the Premier League, given the manner he ensures that Manchester United keep possession of the ball for as long as possible with his range of passes and timely interceptions. And after a rough couple of seasons, he’s finally looking like the Carrick of old, if not better. Another outstanding player has been Mark Davies of Bolton Wanderers – a workhorse who has been one of the few bright sparks in an otherwise disastrous season for the Trotters.
There is actually no competition for the left wing – Tottenham Hotspur’s Gareth Bale takes the honours by a mile. With 12 goals and 16 assists so far, he has only improved after arriving on the European stage last season. His increasing importance to his team can only be underlined by Spurs’ recent slump coinciding with the Welshman’s indifferent form of late.
The right wing springs a few genuine contenders for that spot. Wigan Athletic might have shown signs of recovery only in recent weeks but Victor Moses has emerged shining brightly despite his club spending maximum time in the relegation zone. With 6 goals and an equal number of assists so far, the 21-year-old has started to deliver on his promise and is attracting attention from the bigger English clubs.
Blackburn Rovers may be fighting for survival in the Premier League, but stats show that they are jointly the highest goal-scoring side outside the top six with 47 goals scored in 36 games. And it is so thanks to the exploits of their attacking duo of striker Aiyegbeni Yakubu and winger Junior Hoilett. The Canadian has racked up 7 goals and 8 assists, which contributes to almost a third of their tally. And it is no surprise that he is being linked to other English clubs for a summer transfer move.
One may suggest Manchester United’s Luis Antonio Valencia to be another contender for the right wing, given his swashbuckling form since his comeback from injury. But the Ecuadorian has always been an important player for the Red Devils and has delivered the goods whenever he’s played.
Two summers ago, a certain pint-sized footballer arrived in England to join cash rich Manchester City. And so David Silva, who had a slow start to his time in the Premier League, finally announced his arrival as one of the best players in the league this season. Ask any Manchester United fan who was the architect of their team’s 6-1 demolition at the hands of City earlier this season and he will give you only one answer – David Silva. The Spaniard has been a class apart from the rest, unlocking opposition teams with defence-splitting passes and exquisite dribbling ability. And his impressive stats (8 goals and 20 assists) only add more gloss to that.
Stephane Sessegnon’s importance to Sunderland cannot be underestimated in any way since his arrival from Paris Saint-Germain. Despite a horrendous start to the team’s fortunes this season, the midfielder kept the Wearside club out of the relegation spots almost single-handedly, often playing out of position as a lone striker. His 8 goals and 12 assists are testament to the impact that Sessegnon has had throughout the season.
Clint Dempsey might not have made it to the PFA XI, but his contribution to Fulham’s attacking style of play has not been ignored by this columnist. Selling Bobby Zamora in January was probably the best thing Martin Jol did as it allowed Dempsey to play a far more central role, behind the lone striker. The shift in position has resulted in 20 league goals and 7 assists, most of which have come in a flurry in the latter half of the season.
He usually makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons but this season it’s not been so all the time. Italian wonderkid Mario Balotellihas lived up to his reputation of a troublemaker as Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini might concur, but he ensured that the goals didn’t stop coming when Carlos Tevez decided to go on a five-month sabbatical in Argentina. Though he has blown hot and cold throughout the course of the season, his tally of 17 goals is more than decent for a young striker like him. And his ability to play across the forward line has only gone up a notch this season, making him as lethal a striker can get.
Then we have the two Daniels of England – both Daniel Welbeck (Manchester United) and Daniel Sturridge(Chelsea) have been the standout young players of their respective clubs. While both have had their share of inconsistency, it is obvious that they are blessed with natural talent. However, Welbeck scores over Sturridge not only on the basis of stats but also because of a more team-oriented style of play.
After having considered all the possibilities, the Premier League’s Most Improved XI goes as under –
And the substitutesare –
Szceszny, Koscielny, Simpson, Carrick, Hoilett, Sessegnon, Welbeck.
So that’s the lineup I had in mind. Think I missed out on someone? Let us know with your comments below.