We're a third of the way through the Premier League season, and the heat is rising after a week that included the first managerial casualties of the campaign .
As we head into a busy schedule before the festive period, here's a quick look at 10 players who have impressed, without fanfare, so far this season.
It was impossible to fit every name in—apologies to Claudio Yacob, Kevin Mirallas and Winston Reid—but hopefully the players listed will create some debate.
1.Youssuf Mulumbu (West Brom)
West Brom’s flying start to the season has surprised many, but the fact that Mulumbu has been at the heart of it should confound no one.
The 25-year-old has established himself as the creative force to all that is good about the Baggies, starting every game this term as they’ve risen to third.
The Conogolese is the multi-dimensional midfielder that the top clubs crave. He is calm on the ball and has a snap in the pass to ensure that when he finds space, he makes the opposition pay.
He has benefited from the arrival of summer signing Claudio Yacob. Yacob has ably busied himself with the non-glamorous mopping-up jobs in midfield, allowing Mulumbu his license to thrill.
Baggies fans have certainly been entertained, although for just how much longer remains to be seen: the likes of Manchester United are apparently circling.
Mulumbu would immediately service their need for an all-action midfielder with Paul Scholes almost certainly in his last season.
2. Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)
It is arguable whether a player whom Manchester United paid £14 million for could be underrated, but such is the lack of fanfare for Valencia that he deserves mention here.
When United won the title two years ago, it was on the back of some breathless displays from the former Wigan man.
In the two years since, he has remained Sir Alex Ferguson’s most trusted and consistent performer.
While the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Rio Ferdinand grab the headlines, Valencia has quietly gone about becoming the one player Ferguson dare not be without in the big games.
In times of a defensive crisis, Valencia has been cast into a full-back role, always filling in ably. But it is when he is allowed to stretch his legs further up the pitch that he becomes a match-winner.
Put simply, there is no better crosser of the ball in the Premier League. Full-backs can ill afford to sit off him for fear of his delivery, but his searing pace and trickery means getting too close is equally fraught.
He is the full package, yet no one outside of Old Trafford seems to notice.
3. Ali Al-Habsi (Wigan)
For all the glitz and pomp of the Premier League, there are some roles that remain untouched by fame.
Being the Wigan goalkeeper is one.
The Latics’ list of stoppers since making it to the Premier League eight years ago hardly reads as a who’s who—anyone remember John Filan?—while the well-travelled 40-year-old Mike Pollitt remains on their books.
So it was an uncertain leap of faith into the exotic when Al-Habsi—a former fireman at Muscat airport who was born in rural Oman—arrived at the DW stadium a couple of seasons ago.
But Al-Habsi won the club’s Player of the Year award while on loan from Bolton and, since signing permanently has established himself as the bedrock on which Wigan’s annual great escapes are built.
He does so with unassuming brilliance based on a towering gymnastic presence rather than a Peter Schmeichel-style teammate-abusing charisma. In both respects, Al-Habsi’s defenders are thankful.
4. Nathan Dyer (Swansea)
If you passed Nathan Dyer on the street, you would never pick him out as a Premier League footballer.
Pint-sized and thin-limbed, Dyer looks like he would be more at home on a Grand National winner than the biggest domestic football stage.
The 24-year-old has, however, personified Swansea’s defiance as he proves that lightweight is not makeweight in a league famed for its physicality.
The Swans—with their pass-and-move agenda—were not expected to make a mark on the EPL in their first season last year. But they have led a changing perception in England that pretty can be effective.
Dyer has epitomised that with his quick feet, wafer-thin frame and eye for a pass lulling more than one defender into a false sense of security. He netted six times last season.
The test was whether he could repeat this term. A third of the way through the season, Dyer already has half of his goal count from last year, while the Swans sit in the top half of the table.
5. Jonas Olsson (West Brom)
West Brom have had plenty of reason for joy this season, including signing their vice-captain to a new four-year contract last month.
Olsson looked set to head out of the Hawthorns last season after he publicly admitted he would willingly court offers from other clubs.
Few argued with the logic of his choice. Olsson had seemingly outgrown the club, where he had broken into the Sweden first XI. With his 30th birthday fast approaching, it was hard to begrudge him a move to a bigger club.
Fast-forward 12 months and the Baggies have proven they can be as good to him as he has been to them.
6. Phil Jagielka (Everton)
Jagielka is one of the players ensuring that Everton have remained one of the Premier League’s heavy hitters on the pitch, despite their lack of funds off it.
Everton paid just £4 million for him from Sheffield United five years ago. Since then, he has deservedly become a regular in England squads.
With Rio Ferdinand and John Terry now out of the international picture, Jagielka has stepped up this season to stake his claim as the man to be relied upon in their absence.
The 30-year-old has arguably been the best central defender in the Premier League this term.
He was a rock in the opening win over Manchester United, but it is his ability to spot danger and then snuff it out that has set him apart.
With defensive partner Sylvain Distin starting to show the signs of age, Jagielka has been a behemoth at the back, cutting out the sorts of goals that have previously undermined Everton’s early-season form.
7. Asmir Begovic (Stoke City)
Stoke boss Tony Pulis has previously admitted that he expects to lose Begovic to a bigger club in the future.
The only surprise is that it has not yet happened.
At 25 years old, the Bosnian remains a relative novice in goalkeeping terms. However, he has already started stacking up numbers to suggest he is bound for bigger things.
This season he has a Premier League-best six clean sheets, allowing a midfield in transition the time that it needs to knit into a more certain combination.
Begovic has had to do it the hard way. He lost his spot to Thomas Sorensen last season after a horror show at Bolton which left him apologising to fans.
Since winning back his place, he has gone from strength to strength to justify Pulis’ belief in him.
8. Wes Hoolahan (Norwich)
The Irishman has won fans wherever he plays, but only recently has he proven that he can play with the best in the Premier League.
Hoolahan, 30, was named in the Team of the Year in three of his five seasons of lower-league football, as he helped Blackpool and Norwich to promotions.
Since earning his place in the top flight, Hoolahan has become the understated creative influence behind Norwich.
While he lacks pace, his ability to find the gaps behind the striker and deliver a pass—Grant Holt thrived off his service last term—have been key.
This season has been his best so far—highlighted by a man-of-the-match performance in the win against Manchester United in which he ran Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs ragged—and has resulted in Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni belatedly bringing him into his squad.
9. Davide Santon (Newcastle)
Jose Mourinho dubbed Santon “a phenomenon” when he managed the young Italian at Inter Milan, but since then a knee injury has muddied his path to the top.
Three years ago, Santon tore the ligaments in his right knee. After failing to impress on his return, he was shipped out to Newcastle on a cut-price deal.
A first season on Tyneside last term was steady rather than spectacular, as the club rode all the way to fifth place in the Premier League.
Santon’s knee injury continued to plague him. Mourinho's glowing praise was seeping away in the cold English winter that aided his ailment.
This season, however, Magpies fans have seen what Mourinho was talking about. Newcastle have failed miserably to replicate the displays of last season, but Santon has stood out as a shining light.
10. Shaun Maloney (Wigan)
The difference between the best and worst of Maloney has put clubs off the Scotland international in the past and also resulted in his departure from Aston Villa.
But since returning to England with Wigan, he has shown the high-level consistency of a player who finally understands his game.
Niggling injuries hampered the 29-year-old in the first half of last season. It was no coincidence that when he established himself in Wigan’s first team, they went on the stunning late-season surge that secured their top-flight safety.
Maloney was mesmeric at the height of Wigan’s run as he scored the winner against Manchester United—jolting the Red Devils’ title bid off-course—before producing a man-of-the-match display as the Latics out-passed Arsenal en route to a 2-1 win at the Emirates.
The former Celtic man has proved that last season was no flash in the pan. His connection with summer buy Arouna Kone and Franco Di Santo has Wigan fans believing they have the firepower to keep the bottom three at arm’s length this time around.
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