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.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

On recent Football League dismissals...

I've written a guest blog for the good people over at twofootedtackle.com. With six managerial sackings already in the Football League this January, and a whole load more in December, I've looked into why this is happening. As part of this I spoke to League Managers Association chief executive Richard Bevan - probably the busiest man in football this week - on the changes the LMA are trying to implement with regard to educating club chairmen.

Please take a look at the piece. If you have a view on what's been a controversial time for the Football League, please leave your comments at the bottom of the article itself: "Sacking silly season in the Football League".