Manchester United's Most Improved Players of 2012
It would be fair to say that 2012 has been a mixed year for Manchester United.
Triumph turned into heartbreak in the blink of an eye on the final day of the 2011/12 Premier League season, with the club pipped to the domestic trophy by its own city rivals.
In some ways, this term has started far more convincingly than the last one ended, with the Red Devils currently sitting atop the table.
With December winding down, now is as good a time as any to reflect upon the previous 12 months, and to dish out plenty of praise where praise is due.
Here are United's most improved players in 2012, based on their progression and increasing importance to the team.
5. Javier Hernandez
Javier Hernandez may have seen his playing time at Manchester United take a hit following the club's acquisition of Robin van Persie, but when he has been called upon to make an impact, he has rarely disappointed.
The Mexican striker's barnstorming first 12 months at Old Trafford were followed by an underwhelming sophomore year in which he scored eight fewer goals in all competitions.
But perhaps the most improved part of his all-around game has been his first touch and awareness in tight situations.
I'm sure I'm not the only United fan who hopes that Hernandez earns more of a role in the team in 2013.
4. Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney was already fairly decent, but this year he has added a whole new arsenal to his locker and become more of a complete footballer.
His transition from forward to playmaker started off a little patchy, but in recent months he has developed into one of the elite players of his position in world football.
When van Persie made the controversial move from the Emirates to Old Trafford in the summer, it was thought by some that Rooney's position at the club would become marginalised.
But the Englishman has adapted his game and found a new leash on life playing in a deeper holding midfield role for the Red Devils.
With Rooney capable of fulfilling a dual purpose—that of the goal-scoring forward and the creative passer—Manchester United have undoubtedly become a better team.
Brazilian right-back Rafael has developed into a key performer for United this season, making the position his own with some enterprising football.
Sir Alex Ferguson himself remarked this week that he "is our most improved player this season with a couple of goals a reflection of his eagerness to lend a hand up front.
"The truly eye-catching improvement this season so far for me is the maturity that young Rafa has added to his game." (via ManUtd.com)
Though I only have him as the third-most improved United player of 2012, let that not be a reflection of the massive strides he has taken since this time last season.
If he can improve his defensive awareness and marking, he may quickly develop into the finest player of his position in the Premier League.
2. David De Gea
After a rather rocky first few months in Manchester, David de Gea is finally beginning to look every penny the £20 million man he is supposed to be.
The Spanish goalkeeper said himself last week, "I feel very much at home in the Premier League and, of course, with my team-mates here at the club. I'm enjoying life here and I feel I've settled well." (via Sky Sports)
The eradication of de Gea's homesickness is paying dividends on the field, with the shot-stopper having had some fine performances in the latter parts of this year.
He is no longer the erratic butterfingers, but the keeper who fuses a new found confidence in aerial situations with superhero reflexes.
There can be little doubt that Sir Alex is no longer rotating the position, having settled on de Gea as his No. 1 choice between the sticks.
1. Jonny Evans
But the most improved Manchester United player of 2012 has to be central defender Jonny Evans.
The real nadir of Evans' career came in late 2011, in the 6-1 defeat to rivals Manchester City.
A needless tug of Mario Balotelli's arm and the ensuing red card made him an easy target for the anger that emanated from the shocking result, with some saying he should never play for the club again.
Following a crippling injury to captain Nemanja Vidic, the Northern Irishman bounced back tremendously in 2012, making a home for himself in the team's back line.
His positioning has improved, as has his aerial prowess and defensive positioning. But most importantly, he has ironed out the mistakes from his game that so plagued his burgeoning days in red.
Who do you think were the five most improved United players of 2012? Who might make this list in 2013?