This article profiles 20 of the most improved players in world football over the 2012-13 season.
Many of these players have endured criticism in the past and been written off, with people questioning their ability, or application, or both. Today, they are prized assets for their sides, and many of them are the men to whom their teams turn when the challenges and pressure mount.
Some of these players haven’t endured sustained criticism, but they have progressed in their abilities, increased their capacities, or developed their role within their team or their reputation within the international footballing community.
For each of these entries I will attempt to paint a picture of where the player stood 12 months ago, before drawing a comparison with their recent performances and their current standing in the game.
Some of these stars are young players who have developed markedly over the last 12 months, whilst others are more experienced competitors who have previously been written off, only to demonstrate their worth once more.
A quick glace at the PSG team sheet is ostensibly reminiscent of Real Madrid circa 2003; both teams feature an anchor man or a water character amid a star-studded array of attacking firepower. As Claude Makelele held the fort, the likes of Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul Castro, Guti and Roberto Carlos burst forward in search of goals.
On first glance, Blaise Matuidi could play a similar role in Paris. Indeed, he has the discipline, the positional nous, and the anticipation to fulfill duties akin to those of Madrid’s great No. 24.
But anyone who watched St. Etienne between 2007 and 2011 would have noted that Matuidi brings different qualities to the table.
Carlo Ancelotti has realised this, and has given the combative midfielder license to move from a defensive role to a more dynamic, energetic, box-to-box contribution. This shift has not only allowed Matuidi to continue protecting the more attacking players in his side, but also to inject a Paris side previously too staid with a contagious energy and desire to get stuck into the action.
This new guise has seen Matuidi perform at the level of those considered the very best in his position.
It looks like he could be a mainstay in France’s midfield going forward, where the likes of Moussa Sissoko, Yohan Cabaye and Paul Pogba could provide complementary partners in the centre of the park.
While Dante has previously demonstrated his capacity to undergo drastic improvement in a season, the last 12 months have shown, once again, just how far the Brazilian centreback can go in the game.
Since leaving Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer, Dante has taken like a duck to water to the rarefied surroundings of Bayern Munich. While some players, arriving at the absolute top end of European competition so late in their 20s might struggle to prosper under the intense glare (see Paul Konchesky), the Brazilian has only upped his game to slot into the Bayern defence.
With a passing conversion rate of over 90 percent, married to power, strength, aerial prowess, and the tough tackling associated with some of the finest defenders, Dante’s current performances beg the question why it’s taken so long for him to reach the sport’s upper echelons.
Dante’s contributions are a key factor in Bayern’s march to the Bundesliga title this season, their first in three years, while the possibility of a World Cup on home soil next summer is a very tangible prospect.
Raphael Varane, another centre back, is a player who is enjoying a career trajectory totally different to that of Dante. With regard to age, a decade separates the two men, but both are currently in the midst of their first full season in the first XI of an elite club, and both will be glancing toward the horizon, and to possible World Cup glory in the starting line-ups of two of the tournament’s genuine contenders.
A year ago, Varane was another highly-rated prospect in a continent seemingly full of them; admittedly, he was one of the brightest out there, but few could have foreseen that already, even before leaving his teenage years, Varane would be one of the commanding figures in the Madrid defence, having delivered top-level performances against Manchester United, as well as a man-of-the-match showing in his first El Clasico.
Earlier this month, he made his France debut against Georgia and looks like being a mainstay in the heart of the side's defence for years to come. This elegant and technically proficient defender has, over the last season, transformed from wonderkid to top level defender. Expect further great things.
Malaga superstar Isco is another, like Raphael Varane, who has progressed immensely over the last 12 months. It is ironic that as the financial expansion of Malaga hit the rocks, and as some of the expensive superstars left for pastures new, it was a young Spanish boy who propelled Los Boquerones to the next level.
He is the key figure in this, arguably Malaga’s finest-ever season. Still alive in the Champions League, after topping their group and besting Porto in the round of 16, Manuel Pellegrini’s side now faces a two-legged bout against Dortmund, which will give Isco another opportunity to excel.
With wonderful ball-control, impressive resilience and a delightful range of passing, Isco has emerged over the season as one of the key players in La Liga—it is almost a transformation from the promising youngster who was let go by Valencia for a mere 6 million Euros. The midfielder plays with a maturity and a composure far beyond his slender 20 years, and, currently Malaga’s top scorer in La Liga. He is arguably the most exciting young Spaniard gracing the nation’s top division.
The youngster made his debut for Spain earlier this year in a friendly victory over Uruguay. He looks set to have a bright future with La Roja.
Victor Moses has long been on the cusp of being a top-level performer. His early showings in the Premier League, with Wigan, were characterised by a desire to run and work hard on the wing, but he often failed to show any tangible product from his endeavour.
As he adapted to the league, he began to offer more, and the profligate finishing and wasteful passing were replaced by an incisiveness and a measured approach. His man-of-the-match performance against Chelsea eventually precipitated a move to the West London side in the summer of 2012.
While the youngster has gently grown into the Blues’ first team, commending himself with dashing displays and match-winning performances against Manchester United, and Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, it has been his performances for Nigeria which truly formed the basis for his inclusion.
Eighteen months ago, Moses’ switch of nationality to play for Nigeria was yet to be ratified. Today, he is the nation’s darling—the burgeoning superstar of the African champions. The recent Cup of Nations was a watershed moment for the young man, he not only brought his dazzling dribbling and devastating pace to the continental high table, but against the Ivory Coast and Mali in the knockout stages, he demonstrated his capacity to both rise to the big occasion, but also play the part of innovative architect.
His role in the build-up to Elderson Echiejile’s semifinal opener is well worth a second look.
One of the unsung heroes in Borussia Dortmund’s recent rise, Ilkay Gundogan has gently developed into one of Europe’s finest central midfielders.
The man’s remit is very simple: He sits in the middle of the park and keeps the cogs in Dortmund’s machine well-oiled. He receives the ball and recycles possession, remaining composed and in control throughout, ensuring that the initiative remains with his side. His anticipation and awareness, allied to his delightful passing ability, means that Gundogan rarely gives the ball away, and is constantly in a position to find his teammates with incisive ballwork.
He can also defend, and regain the ball when lost by others—a tackle success rate of nearly 80 percent demonstrates a decent return.
The biggest commendation of Gundogan’s improvement comes when considering his dovetailing relationship with another player of Turkish origin, Nuri Sahin. Charged with replacing the Dortmund icon upon his departure for Real Madrid back in the summer of 2011, Gundogan initially struggled to replicate the all-action midfielder.
He has grown and progressed, however, and has emerged as a cornerstone of Dortmund’s approach—the fact he has kept Sahin out of the team in the second half of this season is testament to his vast improvement.
While he still might have his occasional lapses, Rafael Pereira da Silva has gone from suspected weak link to arguably the Premier League’s finest right back. In the past, the Brazilian’s foibles have been scrutinised and laid bare for all to see. Sir Alex Ferguson was once incredibly candid about the fullback’s shortcomings, suggesting that he lacked the maturity, the decision-making and the composure to be considered as an elite European fullback.
This season, Rafael hasn’t lost the vitality, energy and dynamism of his game, but he has managed to iron out some of the issues that so riled Fergie.
His naïve performances against Cristiano Ronaldo demonstrated that there is work to be done, but we are looking at one of the Premier League’s most-improved players, and a character who has the potential to go on to be one of the globe’s finest fullbacks.
Another United star to have made dramatic improvements over the last season is goalkeeper, David de Gea. It seemed at times last season, that there was a bandwagon driving around the EPL, and everyone was on it.
It was the de Gea-bashing bandwagon, the young Spaniard coming in for criticism from all quarters. For a goalkeeper, this kind of situation can often be self-perpetuating; the keeper makes one mistake, and everyone ups the scrutiny on him. Defenders lose their confidence in him and are more prone to blunders, and strikers believe they see a cheap route to goal, and try their luck more frequently—leading to more shots, and potentially more errors. It is potentially a vicious downward spiral, from which only the strongest will prosper.
At times, de Gea was guilty of the lot: poor positioning, poor handling, poor footwork, weakness at crosses, fragility of mind, over-priced…the kid received a tough time, and could perhaps have been forgiven for regretting his move to Manchester.
But he seems to be made of sterner stuff, and has improved dramatically this season.
Despite facing competition from Andreas Lindegaard again early on in the year, and after coming in for criticism from both Sir Alex Ferguson and Gary Neville, de Gea has emerged as one of the EPL’s finest stoppers.
De Gea’s revival this season has led to his name being linked to the soon-to-be-vacant goalkeeping berth at Barcelona. The stopper insists he’s settled in Manchester for the long-term, but the association indicates the high esteem the young man is held in.
It looked like Stewart Downing’s days at Anfield were done. One of a triad of over-priced, underwhelming English imports brought into the club during Kenny Dalglish’s ill-fated reign, Downing, like Henderson and Carroll all appeared to struggle under the pressure at Anfield, failing to justify their transfer fees.
The Downing situation came as a surprise to some, having arrived for a reported £20 million there was optimism surrounding Liverpool’s acquisition of an English talent who had impressed at Aston Villa. Unfortunately, Downing’s first season on Merseyside ended with a demoralising league return of zero assists and zero goals.
There was speculation before the season began that suggested that incoming boss Brendan Rodgers would dispense with the misfiring Downing. As the youngsters Suso and Raheem Sterling began to monopolise the wide positions on the pitch, it looked like Downing was edging toward the exit door.
Competent stints at leftback earned him the renewed respect of Rodgers, and Downing has begun to turn his season around. At the end of December he contributed a goal and an assist in a 4-0 battering of Fulham, whilst March has been a particularly fruitful month; Downing has scored a couple of goals as Liverpool have finally found their feet under the new boss.
It looks like 28-year-old Downing might have a productive career at Anfield after all, the versatility he has displayed, particularly when linking with Glen Johnson down the right flank, has led to Rodgers suggesting that the Middlesbrough-native is considered as an important member of the team.
Aurelien Chedjou has long had all of the tools to be one of Europe’s finest defenders, but this season his stats and his performances are threatening to take him to the next level.
Despite the cavalcade of stars that have departed from Lille in recent times, the squad still have enough about them to remain in contention for European qualification this season. One of the key reasons for this is Chedjou, who, with the invaluable protection of Rio Mavuba ahead of him, is displaying the consistency and quality to suggest he ought to be considered among the finest centrebacks on the continent.
Approaching his late-20s, Chedjou is in his prime—expect some bigger clubs to be circling come the summer.
It’s remarkable that despite boasting defensive talent of the calibre of Stephane Mbia, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Nicky Nkoulou, Alex Song, Joel Matip and Chedjou himself, Cameroon have struggled so desperately in recent times.
Last year Stephan El Shaarawy demonstrated that he offered the kind of promise that few of Europe’s young forwards could propose. Despite this, he was clearly very raw, and lacked the composure and the consistency to truly assert himself in the Milan side.
The clearing out of the dead wood at the club—the veterans, the crooked and the unwanted—has resulted in addition by subtraction, as some of the club’s younger, less-established stars have managed to grasp the limelight and revel in some much-needed game time.
El Shaarawy is one such example, and this season, his stock has risen dramatically to the point where he is considered one of the country's and the league’s finest strikers.
Milan have emerged from sales that would have crippled other clubs in a startlingly positive position; the Rossoneri boast one of the most vibrant attacking stables in Europe, with El Shaarawy fighting it out for a place alongside the likes of Mario Balotelli, M'Baye Niang, Robinho, Giampaolo Pazzini and Bojan Krkic.
Il Faraone is the jewel in the crown, and with 16 Serie A goals this season to date, has become a vital asset for his club side. He was recently listed 52nd in the Guardian’s list of 100 Best Footballers in the World, just one example of the high regard world football experts are holding him in. It’s been an incredible year of improvement for the young Italian international, and if his development continues, we could be looking at one of the world’s finest strikers.
Before our eyes, David Alaba has emerged as one of Europe’s brightest left backs, although even this high praise perhaps doesn’t do the youngster justice. Emerging onto the scene as a versatile midfielder, there were initial doubts as to where and how Alaba would find his niche, particularly at Bayern Munich, where the Bavarians enjoy a roster stacked with top midfield players.
Both Louis van Gaal and Jupp Heynckes have employed Alaba as a left back, and the youngster has taken to this position effortlessly. In hindsight, the player seems destined always to have been a defender, his tackling is firm, yet well-directed, whilst he reads the game like a man many years his senior. Opta recorded the player as having a 75 percent tackle success rate in the first 10 months of 2012, whilst he has kicked on as the season has progressed.
Alaba has improved dramatically over the last 12 months, going from bright young star to accomplished Bayern regular, seemingly in the blink of an eye.
I, for one, am excited to see how Alaba’s career progresses from here.
In all the euphoria surrounding Tottenham’s latest convincing assault on England’s Champions League spots, the criticism most often leveled at the team is that they rely too much on the heart-stopping abilities of Gareth Bale. Too often, critics say, Tottenham’s mediocrity is masked by Bale’s plethora of attacking qualities.
But this oft-trotted out assessment misses several key features of the unit forged by Andre Villas-Boas. Certainly, I could write a whole article about Spurs’ tactical nuances under the current boss, but the one aspect I will focus on here is the central midfield—where Moussa Dembélé has emerged as a key component of Tottenham’s new direction.
Following the departures of Luka Modric, and to a lesser extent, Rafael Van der Vaart, there were concerns as to the style and the quality of Tottenham’s midfield play. The departure of these two creative pass-masters left a void, which, in the eyes of many, Spurs would be unable to fill.
Now while Bale has taken some of the creative burden from these two, and while a supporting cast including the likes of Aaron Lennon, Clint Dempsey, Gylfi Sigurdsson and latterly, Lewis Holtby, have contributed in their own individual ways, the contribution of Dembélé has been marked.
Beyond the long-range belters, such as the stunning late winner against Lyon, Dembélé has contributed to the style and approach of this new Tottenham outfit. His robust style is ideal for picking up the ball and driving Spurs’ attacks through the middle of the park. His dribbling is often awesome, while his pass conversion rate of over 90 percent is impressive.
Crucially, the strength and dynamism of Dembélé’s partnership with Sandro earlier in the season negated the need to play a third midfielder, allowing Spurs to operate with two men up front. The Belgian offers the kind of power and presence that Modric couldn’t muster, while also demonstrating his ability to use the ball intelligently and effectively.
The former striker was already an established individual before this season, and indeed was often on stunning form during his spell with Fulham, but his improvement this season has been eye-opening, and Dembélé has emboldened his burgeoning reputation.
Ezequiel Garay, like Martin Caceres and Dmyro Chygrynskiy, was in danger of becoming a defender famous for not having made it at one of Spain’s big two, rather than a top stopper, successful at another of Europe’s big clubs. While Chygrynskiy limped back to Shakhtar, and Caceres is reinventing himself at Juventus, Garay is quietly emerging as one of Europe’s top central defenders.
After impressing for Racing de Santander, Garay was signed by Real Madrid in May of 2008. He struggled to convince for long periods at the capital, and under Jose Mourinho two seasons ago, he found himself way down the pecking order at the club.
It was clear a new horizon was needed, and Benfica acquiesced, purchasing the Argentine for €5.5 million in July 2011.
Since the step away from the spotlight at Madrid, Garay has developed into a terrific defender. He has all the tools required of a top-level centreback, and I’d argue his all-round game surpasses that of Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho and Raul Albiol.
His improvement has led to strong suggestions that he will be making a move to the Premier League, and to Manchester United, in the summer. Watch this space.
I had reservations about including Romelu Lukaku in this list. Certainly he has improved this season compared to last, but perhaps we should be considering last year as the anomaly and this year as the expected, anticipated, next step in this talented superstar’s upward trajectory.
Lukaku is a name that has long been whispered around Europe. People had heard rumours of this man-boy pillaging his way through the Belgian League, chomping at the bit to be released into the wild and to take on the defences on Europe’s more exalted stages.
There were also the parallels with Didier Drogba, which, once begun, never ceased. The two share a physical resemblance, and are both giant men with pace to burn and the physique and touch to trouble any class of defender.
Chelsea clearly heard the rumours and purchased Lukaku for over €20 million back in the summer of 2011. With Drogba soon for the scrapheap, the intended continuity was hard to miss, or to ignore.
But things didn’t quite work out that way, and despite a promising start, once Chelsea began to struggle, and as soon as Andre Villas-Boas was shown the door, the West London side reverted back to the tried and the tested, deserting their raw young superstars and turning to the old guard.
A year ago, Lukaku was competing with reserve sides across the country, and perhaps beginning to long for the competitive action back in the Jupiler.
A summer loan switch to West Bromwich Albion appears to be exactly what the doctor ordered, and the move has been a win-win situation for all parties. The Albion get one of Europe’s finest young forwards for a season, Lukaku has begun to adapt to the pace and physicality of the EPL, and Chelsea are looking forward to receiving a more polished and prepared forward in the summer.
Currently WBA’s top scorer, with 13 goals in 27 games, the Belgian frontman has come a long way from sitting on the Chelsea bench watching Torres labour on. The roles may well be reversed next season.
Like Lukaku, Daniel Sturridge is another player enjoying a renewal after departing Stamford Bridge. Also like the Belgian, the former City man was given the chance to prosper under Villas-Boas, and actually impressed during the first half of last season—being one of Chelsea’s more convincing performers despite the underwhelming results at the club. For a while it looked as though Sturridge and Torres could be on the brink of forging an exciting, dynamic partnership.
Look how that one turned out!
As for the decline, see Lukaku previously; AVB departed, Roberto Di Matteo took charge, and Sturridge was one of the key casualties, the Italian persevering with Drogba and Torres rather than incorporate the young Midlander. It was a great personal shame for the player that he was an unused substitute in both the FA Cup final, and the final, crucial, three games of Chelsea’s famous Champions League run.
This January, the inevitable happened, and Sturridge left the Bridge, signing for Liverpool in a £12 million deal.
Despite injuries hampering his integration into the new club, the early signs have been positive, and Sturridge is beginning to show, once again, glimpses of the characteristics—the strength, pace, and finishing ability—that made him such a bright prospect in the past.
This may be a season in transition for the Merseysiders, but the potential of a forward line containing Sturridge, Suarez and Coutinho is mouth-watering.
I would consider Leonardo Bonucci among Europe’s elite defenders. He has emerged as a mainstay of the backlines of both the current successful Juventus side, and the Italy team that went all the way to the Euro 2012 final, and will be one of the favourites at the 2014 World Cup. Alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, the Azzuri can be sure of remaining tight at the back and guaranteeing that only the very best teams will manage to get any joy against them.
Bonucci is more than just a defensive wall, however, and is perfectly capable of playing the ball out from defence and launching attacks himself. Whilst Juventus and Italy have one of the world’s finest playmakers in Andrea Pirlo, they both enjoy the passing qualities of Bonucci, profiting from his desire to precipitate attacking moves.
This is all a far cry from the Bonucci of yesteryear, who had a torrid reputation for being terminally error-prone and occasionally lacking the polished concentration needed of truly elite defenders. He can safely say that those dark days are behind him.
While Christian Benteke has so often stolen the show for Aston Villa this season, forward Andreas Weimann has been a useful foil for the giant Belgian, and I would suggest that both men are central to Villa’s attempt to remain in the Premier League.
Last season, under Alex McLeish, Weimann was a bit-part player. His year was punctured by loan deals to Watford, but when back in Birmingham, he only made five EPL starts, and also contributed to Villa’s lacklustre year as a substitute on nine occasions.
This term however, the Austrian has emerged as a crucial cog in Paul Lambert’s youthful Villa XI. His tally of 11 goals is more than respectable, while some of his best work has been when in support of Benteke—forging an impressive relationship with the former-Genk man.
The esteem with which this season’s performances have placed the fan favourite in is evidenced by the clubs he has been linked with in recent times. Premier League or no Premier League, Aston Villa may face a fight to keep their man over the summer—particularly with the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool and Dortmund coveting him so fiercely.
Weimann is about to enter the final year of his contract, having discontinued contract talks with Villa, expect him to be continuing on his impressive trajectory soon.
Another Italian defender, another drastic improvement.
Some in Milan still shudder at the memory of Andrea Ranocchia’s performances last season. Against Bologna and Novara, to select just two performances, he was one of the chief culprits in devastatingly bad Inter showings. The team shipped six goals across the two games against markedly inferior opposition, it was clear that a change of direction was in order.
Whilst still not the most vocal of competitors, it seems like a new Ranocchia has emerged at the San Siro this season—he appears to be imperious in the air, and occasionally takes the initiative in defence—on average, he was won the ball over seven times per game in Serie A this season (4.2 tackles and 3.1 interceptions).
He was arguably the side’s best player in the first half of this campaign, and even though Inter are worryingly off the pace in Serie A (currently 18 points off the leaders), in Ranocchia they might have a defensive cornerstone for years to come.
Gareth Bale has been developing and progressing nicely for a few years now, but this season has seen the young Welshman go from being an exciting and occasionally devastating talent to a genuinely world class competitor.
The player has produced a litany of extraordinary moments and made a handful of contributions which have dazzled and delighted Tottenham fans.
After his initial breakthrough, in the Champions League, when he burst so electrically onto the continental stage, Bale suffered a slight dip in form. I remember one game against Everton, when he was marked out of the contest so comprehensively by Phil Neville that began to wonder and began to question whether he was the real deal, or whether he was another flash in the pan.
This season’s endeavours have answered those doubters once and for all. With 16 goals, he is Tottenham’s top performer, and has carried his side to victory on several occasions. In the space of a few days, breathtaking free kicks against Lyon and Newcastle confirmed that Bale was entering a stage of his development when he could begin to consistently take command of games and secure victories for the Spurs.
Could Bale’s improvement be the key factor in the North London giants eventually returning to the Champions League?