It’s that time of the year when we sit down and discuss who all had a big year in Football, whether Ronaldo and Messi have got tired in their pursuit of happiness, or whether Joey Barton has moved on to Mueller from Nietzsche. What generally is the focus of everyone’s attention is which teams came back from the dead to have a great year, which teams are down and out, and which players have had a renaissance in terms of their career, a Cinderella Man story of their own, if you will.
When you give it some thought, it takes a lot of effort choosing a handful of players from all of those who have had a great season so far, and it is always going to get polarized opinions. All one can do is clench up, and brace oneself. So here goes.
In part one, we deal with the bottom half of the 10 most improved players.
From being a Manchester United reject to a goal scoring machine, Diouf has experienced it all in the last year. A total of 15 appearances and 2 goals speak volumes, as Diouf could not make the grade at United. A January move to Hannover 96 has rekindled the fire in him. The past year, he has scored 20 goals for Hannover in 32 games, and his goals have helped Hannover perform competitively in both the Bundesliga and the Europa league. A blistering turn of pace, coupled with great instincts in the box, Diouf has proven his critics wrong comprehensively. If he continues to perform with this level of consistency, the sky’s the limit, and it might just be a matter of time before he makes a move to a big club again.
Probably the most ridiculous choice, but then, Henrikh Mkhitaryan deserves to be recognized for the performances he has been putting in for Shakhtar Donetsk. A gifted attacking midfielder, he has really turned the screws for Shakhtar this year, propelling them to the knockout phase of the Champions league and helping them maintain themselves at the top of the Ukranian league. His composure, vision around the goal and finishing are all top notch, and so are skills he has honed after enduring a difficult start to his Shakhtar career, when he was kept out of the team by Jadson. This season has seen him score 20 goals and assist 8 goals in just 26 matches, incredible statistics for an attacking midfielder. The time will come soon for Mkhitaryan to make a move to one of the big clubs in Europe, and it sure is going to be a long list of clubs who make a beeline for him. Armenia have a very good, developing football team, and Mkhitaryan is going to be the one to put them on the map.
A new term for powerhouse in midfield: Wanyama. The Kenyan is proving to be one of the best signings ever in the history of Celtic. Exactly the sort of midfielder teams across Europe are struggling to produce/buy, Wanyama has redefined the term engine room. Comparisons with Vidal and Yaya Toure are completely justified, as he has raised his game to that level. His positional understanding is impeccable, and offers the team a balance in terms of defence and attack. His defensive anchoring has been crucial in Celtic’s push for a good Champions league, helping them set out their stall, and rely on swift counter attacks and set pieces. The younger brother of Mcdonald Mariga, the Inter midfielder, Wanyama has seen his stock rise rapidly, from playing for Beerschot in Belgium to becoming one of the most sought after defensive midfielders in the world.
Tagged for fame at the age of 16 can be tough. Coutinho can vouch for that. Bought by Internazionale in 2008 at the age of 16, the Brazilian finally joined them in 2010 after he turned 18. Unlike most players coming out of Brazil, he didn’t have the pressure of being tagged as the next Pele or Ronaldo. Playing football in an alien country in a team that gave him the freedom to show his full range of play, that was easy. What was not was the pressure thrust onto him just as he was getting acclimatized to a foreign land and new team mates. The next couple of seasons saw him being reduced to a bit-part role, with sporadic appearances off the bench. And then it all turned. A loan spell at Espanyol followed, which saw him score 5 times and helped his self confidence. This season, he has been a joy to watch, with his constant running at defenders, mazy dribbling skills and snap shooting coming to the fore. Coutinho this season has shown himself to be a genuine attacking threat. Given a free reign to operate, his creative skills have come to the fore, and he has been very involved in Inter’s games so far, and long may it continue.
His versatility is what has helped him become an important member of the Blaugrana squad. The ability to play either flank in both defense and midfield, and in the centre, of both defense and midfield, has helped him carve out a place for himself in the squad. Adriano has had to work himself into a position of merit, and now he more often than not commands a position in the line up either at right back (instead of the increasingly erratic Dani Alves) or on the wing. The fact that both Pedro and Alexis are not performing to their levels has been offset by the direct running, shooting and crossing of Adriano. He is greatly appreciated in the Barcelona squad for re-inventing himself. This season and the second half of last season, he has been exemplary playing at centre back, where he has shown great passing skills in bringing the ball out of defense. Tito Vilanova has shown great trust in abilities and Adriano has paid back his trust in kind. And yes, he is the only La Liga player to make the list (considering the lopsidedness of La Liga).