Arsenal's 5 Most Improved Players This Season

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2013

Arsenal's 5 Most Improved Players This Season

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    Arsenal's most improved players during a season of inconsistency include a pair of international centre-backs. One was unfairly chided since his arrival at the club last summer.

    The other has recovered from an early season slump, to begin proving this author wrong. A third defender also makes the list.

    The young full-back has made significant strides, following some high-profile struggles in 2011. There's also room for two forwards who continue to divide opinion among Gunners fans.

Honourable Mention: Aaron Ramsey

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    Although he just missed the cut, Aaron Ramsey's improved form hasn't gone unnoticed. Slowly but surely, the young Welsh ace is beginning to consistently show his value to the team.

    Ramsey has become the ultimate utility man this season. He has operated on both flanks in the front three, as well as at right-back.

    Recently, the ex-Cardiff City prodigy has occupied a deeper central midfield role. Whatever he's been asked to do, Ramsey has approached his job with maximum effort.

    Few players in the Arsenal squad put in the running that Ramsey does. He appears to be rediscovering the appetite for the tackle that's been missing since his comeback from a broken leg.

    However, it isn't just tenacity that is defining Ramsey's improvement. He is also showcasing some evidence that his creative flair, once central to his game, is close to returning.

    An intelligent player with a natural feel for the game, Ramsey's passing is steadily becoming more confident. So is his off-the-ball movement, demonstrated by a brilliant run to set up Arsenal's second goal against West Bromwich Albion.

    Ramsey misses the list simply because the confidence isn't all back yet. Against the Baggies, he also misplaced several passes due to hesitancy.

    Hopefully, the player who received disgusting treatment from many of his own fans, despite nearly having his career ended battling for the Arsenal cause, will soon be back to his best.

5. Gervinho

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    Confidence is a key factor in top-level football. For Gervinho, confidence is everything. Since his buoyancy returned, the often frustrating forward has reminded everyone of his considerable talent.

    Gervinho has been dominant in Arsenal's last two league matches. He obliterated Reading at the Emirates Stadium, sparking a 4-1 triumph with a goal and two assists.

    Gervinho followed that with an equally lively performance at the Hawthornes. He tormented the West Brom defence and provided the first of Tomas Rosicky's two goals.

    In his last three appearances, Gervinho can claim two goals and three assists. Contrast that with the player who failed to tap into an empty net against Bradford City in December 2012.

    What fans are seeing from Gervinho is what's possible when his spirits are high. He is the one member of Arsenal's front three who can beat defenders with trickery and ball skills.

    The former Lille star also displays the most varied movement of any Arsenal attacker. Maintaining his confidence and ensuring his freedom to roam the forward line is the challenge with Gervinho.

    At the start of this season he showed his undoubted potential to be a threatening attacking force. After a barren spell, the once-forlorn striker is smiling again and proving his worth.

    The next step has got to be putting it all together for an entire season. Over to you Arsene Wenger.

4. Carl Jenkinson

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    Transfer rumors often frustrate a lot of fans. It's easy to understand why when so many rumors consistently link Arsenal with a new right-back, despite the presence of Carl Jenkinson (h/t Damien Mannion of talkSPORT).

    The youngster has made significant improvement from his debut season with the Gunners. That first year was defined by Jenkinson's miserable performance in Arsenal's 8-2 defeat against Manchester United in August 2011.

    The 2012/13 version of Jenkinson barely resembles that player. He has become more solid positionally and tougher in the tackle.

    The catalyst has been a more measured approach to defending. Jenkinson has successfully eradicated many of the rash habits that have gotten him into trouble in the past.

    While he's still not the most confident in possession, Jenkinson has worked hard to become more efficient in forward areas. He notably provided an assist for the winning goal against Montpellier in this season's UEFA Champions League.

    Jenkinson's overall game still needs refining. However, the 21-year-old no longer looks out of place in the English Premier League.

    If Bacary Sagna does depart this summer, his replacement is already in place (h/t John Cross of the Mirror).

3. Laurent Koscielny

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    As one of the fiercest critics of Laurent Koscielny, this author is being made to look a fool by the Frenchman's recent performances. After an early season plagued by own goals and clumsy challenges, Koscielny has come back even stronger.

    Since entering the team for the correctly dropped Thomas Vermaelen in mid-February, Koscielny has solidified Arsenal's defence. With the former FC Lorient stopper in the middle, Arsenal have conceded a mere two goals in four matches.

    More important than the recent numbers, Arsenal don't look so open with Koscielny in the back four. His assured displays have produced real confidence in the defence.

    Koscielny is timing his tackles very well, something that's always been a strength. However, his recovery speed has been his most impressive attribute.

    Koscielny is quickly seeing off balls and runs in behind the Gunners' back line. These nifty reactions are crucial alongside the slower Per Mertesacker.

    Like Gervinho, Koscielny has often hinted at the potential to be dominant at this position. Both players also share the need to put it all together on a consistent basis.

    He still needs to assert himself in aerial duels and efficiently combat direct pace.  However, nobody can dispute the positive effect Koscielny is currently having on Arsenal's defence.

2. Theo Walcott

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    It was hard to decide if Theo Walcott’s form has improved this season, or what we are seeing is simply what he is capable of when he bothers. Either way, his string of match-winning performances during this campaign certainly merit a place on this list.

    Rather than just glimpses of potential sandwiched between lazy performances, Walcott has been a decisive contributor. He was a match-winner in that unforgettable comeback against Reading in the Capital One Cup, in October 2012.

    He was the dominant force in the League against Newcastle United and has consistently been a goal-getter this season. Finding the net 18 times comfortably represents Walcott's best scoring campaign.

    His role has also evolved during the season. He still occupies the right flank more often than not, but there has finally been more fluidity of movement from Walcott this term.

    Some games through the middle at the turn of the year helped. However, since moving back to the right flank, Walcott has stayed flexible enough to drift off the wing more often.

    He now plays a hybrid forward role, where he often hovers in areas behind central striker Olivier Giroud. No matter where he starts, Walcott is showcasing a greater range of off-the ball runs.

    As stated many times, if the run is right, Walcott will finish. His technique in front of goal is now as good as any forward in world football.

    Gervinho and Santi Cazorla are both playing very well on the edges of Arsenal's front three. However, the Gunners need Walcott back in the forward line to secure a top-four finish.

1. Per Mertesacker

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    After the brilliant Santi Cazorla, towering centre-back Per Mertesacker has been Arsenal's best player this season. Not even a red card against West Brom can blight Mertesacker's improvement during the 2012/13 campaign.

    He muddled his way through most of his debut season with the Gunners, often being unfairly criticized. Time has shown that Mertesacker is anything but the weak link in Arsenal's back four.

    The positives in Arsenal's defence this season have been largely due to Mertesacker's intelligent and commanding performances. He is steadily adapting to the intense psyche and frenetic pace of the Premier League.

    Yes, the Germany international still takes the best part of a day to turn in the box. However, Mertesacker is mastering the art of compensating for his lack of quickness and agility.

    Most of the time he is relying on sudden actions in short areas. He is anticipating the direction and actions of forward players, and stepping in to break up attacks.

    Usually that involves an interception or a precise tackle that wins the ball and regains possession. If Wenger is intent on boosting his defence, as he should be, he'll find the right partner for Mertesacker.

    That player must have the strength and speed to defend a little deeper and react to anything that gets behind the cerebral former Werder Bremen skipper.

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