Ranking European Football's 20 Most Improved Players This Season

Allan JiangTransfers CorrespondentMarch 11, 2013

Ranking European Football's 20 Most Improved Players This Season

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    In previous seasons, the likes of Andrea Barzagli, Peter Odemwingie, Michu, Dante and Morgan Amalfitano have surprised football pundits with their drastic improvement.  Each of these players could be considered exceptional European football athletes.

    Here are European football’s 20 most improved players this season.  Please feel free to comment below with your own examples of most improved players this season.

20. Patrick Ebert, RAM, Real Valladolid

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    With crosses resembling that of Sebastian Deisler and moments of genius like Marcelinho—Hertha Berlin supporters are wondering why Patrick Ebert didn't play like this for them?

    The Real Valladolid wide-attacking midfielder only lasted 30 minutes against Real Madrid where he had the advantageous matchup against an inexperienced and nervy Nacho.

    Ebert sent in an assist and looked like he was going to announce himself to the mainstream audience with an assertive showing.

    Alas, a hamstring injury cut-short his game (per Tom Conn at Inside Spanish Football).

    Patrick pushed himself to return to the field as soon as possible.

    Thirty-six days later, he reminded La Liga football fans of his extraordinary ability with two well-taken goals and an assist versus Mallorca.

    A week after his triumphant comeback, his body broke down (from Deutsche Presse-Agentur via The New Age).

    From redemption to misery to respite to depression—talk about an emotional roller coaster. 

    What will hurt Ebert's psyche is that this injury may have sunk a potential move to Atlético Madrid (from Football Espana) in the summer.

     

     

    Frio y lluvia,pero a Zorrilla a animar al #pucela y a Patrick Ebert :) twitter.com/ma_carretero31…

    — Miguel A Carretero (@ma_carretero31) January 20, 2013

19. Carl Jenkinson, RB, Arsenal

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    By dithering on the decision to offer Bacary Sagna an improved contract, Arsenal derailed Carl Jenkinson's progression, and he regressed with a red card in the 1-0 win over Sunderland.

    He needs to understand that a contract should always be given to a player based on what he can do for the club in the future as opposed to what he did for the club.

    By not upping Sagna's contract and extending Carl's tenure by five years (via The Telegraph), Arsène Wenger is telling everyone that Jenkinson is Arsenal's next starting right-back.

    He has come a long way since his dreadful first season and I echo the sentiments of Gary Neville (from Alex Varney at talkSPORT):

    It was very difficult for him [Carl Jenkinson] at the start of his Arsenal career last year because of the changes in the defence—there was never a settled defence for him to perform in.

    He has improved immeasurably over the last 12 months.

    You look at the way he’s performing now and he’s been magnificent for Arsenal in the early stages of the season.

     

    If Carl Jenkinson keeps developing and improving he can have a great career with #afc. Reckon Sagna is gone in the Summer. #afc

    — TheGoldCannon (@TheGoldCannon) March 7, 2013

18. Adam Szalai, CF, Mainz

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    Ádám Szalai's 4.0 shots per league goal is substantially more efficient than Edin Džeko (5.3); Bafétimbi Gomis (6.3); Wayne Rooney (6.5); Christian Benteke (6.8); Sergio Agüero (7.9) and Olivier Giroud (9.8).

    Szalai is strong in the air, leads the line well, and the way he beats centre-backs in the box is reminiscent of Džeko at Wolfsburg (nowadays the Bosnian hardly ever dribbles for Manchester City; 0.3 dribbles per league game).

    He can have a Mario Mandzukić-like influence for a major club.

    Even if Mainz miss out on a UEFA Champions League spot (two points behind fourth place Schalke), as long they qualify for the UEFA Europa League, Szalai shouldn't think about leaving Thomas Tuchel's project.

    If the former Real Madrid Castilla forward doesn't succeed in the UEL, then he would have answered his own question regarding if he's ready to play for a big club again.

17. Andrea Ranocchia, CB, Inter Milan

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    Andrea Ranocchia's shockingly bad outings last season in a 3-1 loss to Novara and a 3-0 defeat to Bologna were a complete contradiction to the Ranocchia, who had built a reputation as a future pillar of the Italian back line.

    Even the season before last, he was calamitous in a 5-2 humiliation to Schalke, and didn't exude the presence Inter Milan management expected from him. 

    This season, he has been a ball-hawk (winning back the ball 7.3 times per Serie A game) and at times, unbeatable in the air.

    Individually, you can't fault him but there are still questions lingering over his leadership.

    How bad have Inter Milan defended at times this season?

    Some blame belongs to Andrea as an organiser at the back given the defensive breakdowns and the miscommunication in defence exhibited by some of his teammates.

    Is he fool's gold?

     

    Amateur defending by the vastly overrated Andrea Ranocchia #CiaoInter #Straccioni

    — Matteo Bonetti (@TheMilanGuy) February 17, 2013

16. Romelu Lukaku, CF, West Bromwich Albion (Chelsea Loanee)

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    If West Bromwich Albion ever need a favour, Chelsea should give back (with no strings attached) taking into consideration that the Baggies have just nurtured Romelu Lukaku into a solid Premier League forward.

    When the Blues sent the Belgian to WBA, he was short on confidence and had virtually no match fitness, following the club's decision to let Lukaku go sightseeing in London for a season.

    Why CFC didn't immediately loan him back to Anderlecht after signing him is a question most Chelsea supporters have pondered. 

    Then again, this is Chelsea FC, a club known for its administrative blunders.

    Have you seen Lukaku's interview with Tom Lenaerts at De Kruifabriek?

    Here are snippets from Lukaku's conversation with Lenaerts and others (via YouTube):

    During some games, I had five open chances and missed them all. Then I arrive home and my dad said: 'Dude, what's going on with you?'

    ...

    If I have to go back to Chelsea and they say: "Romelu, baby... he still has time."

    I think to myself: 'I almost played 200 games at the highest level.'

    ...

    Lenaerts: England is the land of the tabloids. We noticed you never appear in them. How come?

    Lukaku: I am always back at home.

    Lenaerts: Are you serious?

    Lukaku: Yes, really. I wake up at 8 a.m. The first thing I do is pray. Then I  call my mom to ask if everything is OK. I ask her if she needs something. Then I call my dad.

    Lenaerts: (interjects) who then says: 'You are not doing well'

    Lukaku: ... and then I go training. I finish, go home and call my parents again.

    *Lukaku repeatedly says no when pressed on exploring the nightlife in England and Belgium*

    Lenaerts: Isn't that a boring life, Romelu?

    Lukaku: Yes, but I have always done it like that.

    I still remember when we were national champions with Anderlecht (and the next day I had school).

    I said: 'Dad, can I go to the disco?'

    He looked at me with a look... I thought: 'Nope!'

    ...

    You have little children looking up to you. You are an example toward the young.

    I don't want to spend all my time focusing on going out, girls...

    I have a younger brother [Jordan; Anderlecht player and Belgium youth international], who also looks up at me.

    ...

    I don't want to be Romelu, the guy who leaves the nightclub and sprays champagne over everyone.

15. Szabolcs Huszti, LW, Hannover

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    The most appropriate word to describe Hannover's playing style is kamikaze.

    Szabolcs Huszti embodies the club's quick, incisive and high-risk attacking football.

    He has nine assists in league-play, but he has given away the ball 146 times in 21 Bundesliga games.

    Huszti can score (nine league goals; two more than Fernando Torres), and he's an underrated ball-winner (won back possession 91 times; 47 times more than Javi García).

    If he was six years younger, he would be an ideal transfer target for Barcelona.

     

14. Ilkay Gundogan, DM, Borussia Dortmund

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    When İlkay Gündogan receives the ball, he makes a crisp pass, and gets himself into a position to get the ball again—rinse and repeat.

    Passing isn't his problem; it's his defending which has raised questions about his worth to Borussia Dortmund in the past.

    For example, he was one of the BVB players schooled by Mathieu Valbuena when the Frenchman scored an 87th minute winner.

    Since then, Gündogan's successful tackling percentage (76) is solid, and he's kept his starting role even with Nuri Sahin in the squad.

     

    Tell you who is seriously underrated - Gündogan, nobody even remembers Sahin there anymore.

    — ♛ DANNY ♛ (@DannyDoes) October 3, 2012

13. Kossi Agassa, GK, Stade Reims

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    Last season, Bastia's Macedo Novaes took out the Ligue 2 Goalkeeper of the Year award but it's night and day in terms of quality between Kossi Agassa and him.

    Novaes has been the Pepe Reina of Ligue 1—mistake, mistake and mistake. 

    By no means has Kossi been flawless, but he has kept Stade Reims in so many games with remarkable saves.

    Agassa wasn't incredible in the recent match versus Paris Saint-Germain, but he did his job as Reims incredible held on to a gritty 1-0 win with 10 men.

    He imitated Macedo in the 4-2 loss to Troyes—perhaps, the worst goalkeeping display I've seen this season—and is no longer ranked in L'Équipe's top five Ligue 1 GKs.

    Hopefully, this doesn't derail Kossi's season.

12. Rafael, RB, Manchester United

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    Rafael is one of the top Premier League right-backs.

    Sir Alex Ferguson was blunt about the Brazilian's rashness in the past (per Manutd.com):

    He has always shown himself as a defender with ability and great enthusiasm, but not always with great decision making, especially in European football, giving him—and us—some scary moments.

    Ferguson added that Rafael was without doubt the club's most improved player.

    Most players struggle against Cristiano Ronaldo, the second player in the world, and Rafael was no different.

    It's a learning curve for the 22-year-old, who has the potential to be the best RB in the world.

     

    Manchester United's Brazilian > all of Chelsea's Brazilians combined. #Rafael

    — Red (@ThatBoyGiggsy) March 10, 2013

11. Jackson Martinez, CF, Porto

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    What were Porto scouts doing in Japan and Mexico?

    Those were two countries Hulk and Jackson Martínez resided in prior to their moves to Porto.

    Hulk scored goals for fun in Japan whilst Jackson was a standout  forward for Jaguares.

    In a Q&A with South American football expert Tim Vickery, a question about Martínez pre-Porto, popped up (via BBC Sport):

    Q) In the English media there are suggestions of interest from Liverpool in Jackson Martinez, a Colombian striker who plays for Jaguares in Mexico.

    Do you think he's got the necessary attributes both as a professional and as a personality to achieve success in the Premier League or elsewhere in Europe?

    A) He's an out-and-out goalscorer, a front-to-goal centre-forward who can finish off both feet, and with excellent spring that makes him a threat in the air.

    Something of a late developer, he burst into life three years ago when he broke scoring records in Colombia with Medellin, and has since carried that form into Mexican football.

    The Premier League is a step up, though.

    His touch and general approach play are not great, and the worry would be that he might not build up a head of steam to feel confident about his game.

    There's no doubt that Martínez built up a head of steam in his  first few games with Porto, which propelled him into a mindset akin to that of Mário Jardel, hence why Jackson has the Portuguese Primeira Liga Golden Boot in the bag.

    English Premier League clubs need to study how Porto and Benfica buy low and sell high.

10. David Alaba, LB, Bayern Munich

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    David Alaba only started 46.7 percent of his league games last season.

    It's risen to 94.1 percent in this campaign, where Philipp Lahm has moved to right-back, thus giving Alaba the left-back role.

    LB contender Diego Contento is a good player, but he doesn't have the all-round package David possesses.

    For Alaba to go from utility player to integral member of Europe's best back-line is praiseworthy.

    When the club moves on from Franck Ribéry, I can see David playing a role as a left-attacking midfielder.

    So much untapped potential going forward for the 20-year-old Austrian.

     

    1 - David Alaba is the first Austrian player to score a brace for Bayern München in the Bundesliga history. Locomotive

    — OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 9, 2013

9. Graziano Pelle, CF, Feyenoord

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    Graziano Pellè was a run-of-the-mill forward at AZ (14 league goals in 68 games).

    He made up the numbers at Parma and didn't assert himself in Serie B with Sampdoria.

    What did Feyenoord see in Graziano?       

    They liked the fact he was strong in the air and comfortable with the ball being played to his feet.

    Management projected that if Ronald Koeman built the team around Pellè, the Italian would score as prolifically as Pelé—20 goals in 22 Eredivisie games and counting.

     

    Seriously, Graziano Pelle scores every Sunday....

    — 101 Great Goals (@101greatgoals) March 10, 2013

8. Kieran Gibbs, LB, Arsenal

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    Kieran Gibbs spent his childhood creating goals (from Arsenal.com): "I was just a midfielder, the assists man," so he was always up against the odds when he switched to left-back.

    Finally, he now looks like a left-back.                                                                                               

    He leads the team in interceptions per game (3.2), is one of the cleanest tacklers at Arsenal (0.7 fouls per game) and was the most assured player of the back four prior to a thigh injury (per BBC Sport).

    The Gunners didn't bring in Nacho Monreal, who was the second best La Liga LB behind Filipe Luís, as a temporary fill-in—Nacho could end up being the Gunners' permanent left-back, which would be so harsh on Gibbs.

7. Matija Nastasic, CB, Manchester City

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    Matija Nastasić isn’t a prolific tackler (1.6 tackles per league game) but he completes 93 percent of his tackles.

    That stat is concurrent with the growing perception that he is Manchester City’s best defender this season.

    To think this is the same CB that was Stefan Savić-like for Fiorentina in a 5-0 loss to Juventus and 3-0 defeats to Napoli and Roma.

     

    If Matija Nastasic isn't one of the front runners for young player of the year the world's gone mad.

    — James Halfpenny (@JamesHalfpenny) March 4, 2013

6. Stephan El Shaarawy, LF, AC Milan

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    Stephan El Shaarawy showed glimpses of promise last season, but there wasn’t enough goals or assists to justify the hype.

    He was never going to develop by playing nine minutes in the Derby della Madonnina, warming the bench in a 0-0 draw versus Napoli and playing a few minutes against Genoa.

    El Shaarawy needed an extended run in the starting XI.

    With AC Milan cutting their wage bill and punting on precocious talent, SES received the opportunity he was waiting for, and has scored 16 times in Serie A this season.

     

    Why Stephan El Shaarawy is Ibra's successor at Milan: bit.ly/Z1XHfJ

    — Matteo Bonetti (@TheMilanGuy) March 4, 2013

5. Marquinhos, CB, Roma

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    If Corinthians believed Marquinhos would be as good as Vasco da Gama’s Dedé, Roma wouldn’t have gotten Marquinhos on a loan with a buyout clause of €3 million (via Football Italia).

    One of the craziest statistics in European football right now is Marquinhos, who is a proactive centre-back, winning back the ball 99 times in 20 league games (he was a sub on three occasions) whilst having a 93 tackling completion percentage.

    Since we’re on the topic of Roma, his teammate Erik Lamela has also increased his productivity.

4. David De Gea, GK, Manchester United

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    David de Gea 2011-12 summary: mentally fragile; flails at crosses; liability against long-shots; error-prone; failed to live up to transfer fee.

    If you're objective, you can't level that kind of criticism to him this season—he’s shutting the critics up.

    Some tough loving from Sir Alex Ferguson and De Gea rising to the occasion has seen the Spaniard avoid the dreaded “flop” tag—for the time being.

    It remains to be seen if he’s the Spanish Fabien Barthez, who would be world-class for a month and then Massimo Taibi-like the next.

    Speaking about goalies, Eintracht Frankfurt's Kevin Trapp—who went from kicker's worst rated goalkeeper to their best keeper—was the last player cut in the final revision.

3. Jeremie Aliadiere, CF, Lorient

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    I never understood what Arsène Wenger saw in Jérémie Aliadière, who was the antithesis of a Wenger player.

    Instead of making the smart decision, Aliadière would find a way to screw himself out of a goal or an assist. 

    This Lorient Aliadière, a footballer that makes incisive pass after another, and is deadly in front of goal—is the version Arsène wanted at Arsenal.

     

    League Only G SPG A SCPG
    Jérémie Aliadière 11 6.8 9 1.7
    Olivier Giroud 9 9.8 2 0.9

     

    G = goal/s; SPG = shots per goal; A = assist/s; SCPG = shots created per game

     

    When Aliadière left, Niall Manley of Cork said (per Arsenal.com):

    I have always been a Jérémie Aliadière fan despite his lack of success.

    I remember always trying to convince friends that he was going to be great if he ever got a proper chance. Hopefully he can still fulfill his potential elsewhere.

    Better late than never, Niall.

    Aliadière looked like he was never going to be a star player, but it's changed at Lorient (his boyhood club).

2. Gareth Bale, DLF, Tottenham Hotspur

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    In 25 Premier League games, Gareth Bale has scored 16 goals, a feat that took him 66 games in the previous two campaigns.

    Having been a two-time EPL PFA Team of the Year member whilst also winning the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award, it’s not shocking that Bale has taken a step up.

    He doesn’t have a set-position because he’s allowed to roam around, which has been a big factor in him becoming a prolific scorer. 

    If he improves his shots per goal average, he could net 30 league goals next season.

     

    Gareth Bale needs to be careful now his reputation for diving has spread into Europe - Graham Poll bit.ly/VQnOqb

    — Graham Poll (@MAIL_GPoll) March 8, 2013

1. Daley Blind, LB, Ajax

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    In the past, Daley Blind’s last name (he’s the son of Ajax legend Danny) shouted out nepotism.

    Blind went from nervy footballer to a confident left-back, who was included in the last two Voetbal International Team of the Month.  

    Dutch football writer Mohamed Moallim documented Daley’s improvement (per La Croqueta):

    in the past Blind fluctuated between half-decent performances and something bordering unsatisfactory, the confidence ingrained by De Boer—who let's not forget is one of two world class left-backs Dutch football has produced—saw Blind start steadily turning 4/10 into something pushing 7/10. He's kicked on this season. 'The penny finally dropped,' De Boer, pleased with his constant improvement, stated.

     

    Daley Blind, fair to say, has stepped out of his father's shadow. Fd Boer: 'He was very good again, constantly makes the right choices.'

    — Mohamed Moallim (@jouracule) March 10, 2013

     

     

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    Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, EPLIndex.com and Squawka.com.