Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Top 10 most improved Premier League players of 2010/11 so far...

It has thus far been one of the most unpredictable and captivating Premier League seasons to date. Yes, this league has its faults and is overrun with greed, but matters on the pitch remain jolly good viewing for the most part, with some standout performances. This article picks out a top 10 of the most improved players so far this season. To qualify, players have to have played in the Premier League before 2010/11 - because of the difficulty in comparing, say, Peter Odemwingie's form for West Brom this season with his form for Lokomotiv Moscow last term. So, here goes then, in ascending order...

10) Rafael, Manchester United 
This has been the season where Rafael has really made the step-up and claimed the United right-back slot as his own - sporadic Gary Neville horror-show cameos aside. A bustling, energetic presence up and down the flank, Rafael has been a huge factor in United's recent knack of picking up points while not playing brilliantly. Some naivety remains, as evidenced by his red card against Tottenham, but he's positionally better and stronger in the tackle than before. Imagine how good he'll be when the transformation is complete - not to mention if brother Fabio turns out to be a late bloomer...

9) Joey Barton, Newcastle United
It pains me somewhat to have to include Barton in this list. I cannot stand the guy and don't think football has a place for his brand of callous nastiness. Yet if I'd left him out, this wouldn't have been a credible list. He may have disgusted us all on numerous occasions with his behaviour, but he has been just as vital a component in Newcastle's recent success as the more widely heralded Andy Carroll. Finally, for perhaps the first time since Stuart Pearce's reign at Manchester City, we are seeing Barton's range of passing. His eye for a defence-splitting pass is up there with the best in the league, both from central and wide positions. He has flourished on Newcastle's right in a similar way that other tucked-in wide midfielders such as Mikel Arteta have done in previous seasons. 

8) Ben Foster, Birmingham City
I was guilty of moreorless writing Foster off as a goalkeeper with the potential to play for a Premier League club. My concerns began in March 2007 - during Foster's otherwise pretty impressive loan stint with Watford - when he allowed an 80-yard punt from Spurs keeper Paul Robinson to sail over his head and straight in. Since then he had looked shaky whenever he came into the Manchester United side, almost as if he found it hard to mentally prepare himself at short notice. But this season he's finally looking like the player people said he was. It wouldn't have been easy to follow in the footsteps of Joe Hart's superb loan spell at Birmingham last season, but Foster's managed it, and is the Blues' player of the season so far by some margin - even if you were to take into account his recent League Cup shocker against West Ham.

7) Matt Jarvis, Wolverhampton Wanderers
When Wolves came up into the Premier League, all the talk was of their bright, exciting young winger that was potentially going to terrorise a few opposition full-backs. They were talking about Michael Kightly, of course. But while Kightly has been blighted by injury, Jarvis has flourished away from the spotlight. Several decent performances last season played their part in helping Wolves to retain their Premier League status. But this season, with Kightly still nowhere to be seen, Jarvis has become Wolves' key man. Able to play on both sides, go either side of a player, cross, shoot and work his little socks off, Jarvis is the kind of player fans warm to. Random fact: both of his parents were professional table tennis players, don't you know.

6) Alex Song, Arsenal
Song and Arsenal are a perfect fit. It wouldn't be right if a side of Arsenal's daintiness had an out-and-out 'water carrier', ala Makelele, Tiote or Deschamps. I had a spell of observing Song regularly when I used to go and watch Charlton and he was on loan. You could see he had bags of ability, but he was prone to moments of dopiness or losses of concentration. Last season, with a prolonged run in the Arsenal team, he seemed to cut a lot of these out, with the one downside being that he stopped being remotely creative, settling on giving Arsenal some solidity in the centre. This season, growing in confidence, he's rediscovering his propensity to make inspirational bursts forward and give the team a kick up the backside when they begin to stagnate. Arsenal still have a tendency to be flakey, though perhaps less frequently as Song continues to bloom. 

5) Danny Welbeck, Sunderland (loan)
The sprightly Welbeck looked instantly promising the first couple of times we saw him in Manchester United shirt in 2008, even scoring on his Premier League debut. But back then he seemed to have a touch of Ian Wright about him - a striker with some swagger, a predator that would score some great goals. That's looking less accurate lately, as we see him blossom into a hard-working, dangerous player cutting inside from the wing. When Sunderland have played well in recent months, Welbeck has tended to stand out. When you've got workrate and goals in your locker, you'll always to be a hit with the fans. And Sunderland's will not want his loan spell to end. 

4) Johan Elmander, Bolton Wanderers
Surely the most surprising entry in this list. If you'd had to pick 10 players that might appear in this list when the season started in August, you certainly wouldn't have gone for Elmander. For so long derided as a poor bit of (£8.2m) business by Gary Megson, the bulky Swede has found his feet under Owen Coyle - perhaps because Coyle's brand of football means that he receives the ball to said feet a little more frequently than under Megson. And those feet are pretty nifty at times. His what-the-heck-just-happened-there goal against Wolves this season is perhaps the best strike from inside the penalty area for several seasons in the Premier League. He now needs a second half of the season to match the first half, and Bolton could find themselves in Europe.

3) Luka Modric, Tottenham Hotspur
When Modric joined Spurs from Dinamo Zagreb in 2008, a lot of people were excited at the sort of impact that the stand-out star of Slaven Bilic's talented Croatia side might have in the Premier League. Perhaps the one reservation was whether a player so slight of build would be able to handle the energy and physicality of England's top flight. They needn't have worried - the inspirational midfielder has proved that he can mix it with the best of them, and buzzes around the field for the entire game, rarely tiring noticeably or needing to be withdrawn (at time of writing, he's completed 15 consecutive 90 minutes in the league). Much fanfare has been devoted to Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale for 'taking Spurs to the next level' this season. Modric deserves every bit as much credit as those two, he just doesn't score enough goals to hit the headlines as often. But Andrea Pirlo's record of a goal every nine games for Milan is only slightly better than Modric's one in 11 for Spurs - and that hasn't stopped people praising him to to hilt during his time at the San Siro. Plus, I've a sneaky feeling Modric might start to add a few more goals to his repertoire soon, as he takes advantage of teams doubling up on Bale and Van der Vaart. Then perhaps he'll get the widespread acclaim he fully deserves. 

2) Leighton Baines, Everton
I didn't see this one coming either, I must admit. If you'd been surveying me on my level of caring at the news of Baines' omission from the World Cup squad - in favour of Stephen Warnock, no less - I'd have taken my time deciding between "d) Only slightly" and "e) Not at all". Put bluntly, Baines did not cover himself in glory last season. For the most part he looked an ordinary left-back, prone to getting dragged out of position and leaving his centre backs exposed. This season he's significantly more solid at the back, and an absolute menace down the flank when Everton are in possession. His energy levels, hunger to receive possession and top-quality crossing have made him a rival to Ashley Cole as the league's best left-back this season. At times, Tim Cahill's had to do little more than keep his eye on the ball to score a headed goal, so peachy have Baines' deliveries been - seven Premier League assists and counting. The challenge for Baines now is to do this consistently, for the rest of his career.

1) Samir Nasri, Arsenal
Occasionally during Arsene Wenger's reign as Arsenal manager, a player that had been going about his job reasonably well will all of a sudden find a new level of performance. It's happened with Henry, Van Persie, Eduardo, Song, Gilberto Silva - and no doubt Wenger's banking on it happening with Theo Walcott as well - but Nasri's progression from one season to the next is arguably the most pronounced development seen by a player within a single season in Wenger's entire time at the club. Last season Nasri looked a tidy player, with a dash of guile and a penchant for the odd crucial goal. This season he's outshone even Cesc Fabregas in Arsenal's midfield to become the Gunners' key man in many games. Nine Premier League goals by New Year's Day indicate the contribution he has made - with six of those goals earning Arsenal extra points in the process. The only surprise is that he has just one assist to his name so far, perhaps because he is the one getting on the end of flowing moves, rather than setting others up. How many times have we seen Nasri burst into the penalty area this season to trap a through ball and get his shot away? Answer: plenty. And hopefully we'll see him do it a lot more in the second half of the season, because it's a fine sight to behold. 

Honorable mentionsChung-Yong Lee (Bolton), Anderson (Man Utd), Stewart Downing (Villa), Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Robert Huth (Stoke), Kevin Nolan (Newcastle) and Seamus Coleman (Everton) - as well as Gareth Bale (Tottenham), Nani (Man Utd) and Nemanja Vidic (Man Utd) who, while they've kicked on slightly, do not make this list on account of being so good last season too.


Anonymous said...

It's wrong to say Baines didn't play well last season. I think what you mean is, you never saw him play well in any games that were on TV. But since he was so good v Sunderland and Man City, you've wrongly assumed he's improved a great deal this season, when anyone who sees him often would say he was almost this good last year and is only slightly better this year.

tikabooson said...

Nice list. For me Samir Nasri and Johan Elmandar are the most improved players, though I'm still expecting a baron run from Elmandar soon.

I'm surprised that Andy Carroll doesn't get a mention, 19 goals last season granted, but there were questions as to whether he could step up, and Newcastle relied heavily on goals from midfield in 09/10, if Kevin Nolan gets an honorable mention then surely AC should.

Think it's worth mentioning Tim Cahill as well, perhaps doesn't fit into your list as he's been around a while, but I for one was wondering if TCs stock was on the wain but I'd say this is his best season in an Everton shirt, without him the Blues would really be struggling.

Michael said...

After becoming something of a running joke among commentators in our relegation season, Coloccini has been immense this season. Surprised Andy Carroll doesn't get a mention. He scored 19 goals in the Championship last year but few people expected him to do so well this season.

Jamie said...

Baines may have put in a few stand-out performances this season but ask majority of Evertonians and they'll tell you that overall Baines form was much better last year. His England performances are not fairly indicative of his usual play. Against Mexico he was "helped" by Gerrards performance on the left-side of midfield which basically left the entire flank to be guarded by Baines.

I love Baines but he's not improved a great deal this season, it's just that his performaces are now getting noticed. However for anyone not going to Goodison week-in week-out it's going to be hard to note this so it's hard to criticise. But ask any Everton fan and they'll tell you that he has been doing this consistantly since he broke into the squad, he's been our most consistant performer throughout the last few years and his reliability means he's often overlooked for names like Cahill and Arteta instead.

One name I would personally throw at as a improved performer would be Ivanavic. He's continued to make the right-back slot his own and has now started to add crucial goals to his game as well.

Narrow The Angle said...

Jamie, thanks for that. A few people have said to me that Baines was better last season than I've given him credit for.

As for Ivanovic, he does seem to have emerged as a key player, though I think he did his best work at right back last season. This season it's been at centre back that he's caught the eye - particular in the opposition penalty area, where he's been a absolute pain for defending teams.

Kevin Coleman said...

Solid list. I've been impressed by Rafael this season, despite his petulance. He has a lot to learn.

Can't argue with #1, Nasri has been a revelation this season - really coming into his own and proving he was worth the hype a few years ago while in France. He's got a big career ahead of him.

Tom said...

Good list - no arguing Nasri as the most improved.

Do take a slight issue with Elmander though. Throughout his career he's always been inconsistent - 5 goals in 5 goals then nothing for a dozen matches. Wouldn't be surprised if you can count the number of goals he scores for the rest of the season on one hand. His goal against Wolves was out of this world though so kudos for that.

Carroll should certainly be there, I think and maybe Song a little higher.

Kevin Coleman said...

Don't know about Carroll Tom, didn't he score about 18 goals last season in the C'ship? He'd be in the best new arrivals list!

Brian Cowen said...

Wouldn't have Carroll in there as he shouldn't be considered as 'improved'. To me, improved would be someone who has had a season or two (or quite a few more in Bartons case) in the Premier League and has found form better than any other season. Carrolls only previous Premier League action was mainly from the bench.

Benoit Assou Ekotto would be a decent shout for the list. Made the left back slot his own at Spurs this season and has a great understanding with Bale.

José Enrique is another. didn't set the world alight before Newcastles relegation, but now he is definately one of the best left backs in the league. He is stronger and more confident than ever.

Nani has become a very importan part of Manchester Uniteds strongest side, I, along with many others, would have had serious doubts about him over the past few seasons but this season he looks the real deal.

Anonymous said...

Djorou of Arsenal has improved massivly. However im suprised Bale was left out of this list.

Anonymous said...

i dont think rafael should be there sorry just dont rate him, raul merelies has improved this year compared to 2010, bale would be number 1 for me and nasri number 2.

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