EPL Best XI Who Improved the Most This Season
The Premier League is drawing to a close, with issues at both ends of the table rapidly resolving themselves. The PFA Player of the Year awards will soon be doled out too, to those who have impressed the most during the campaign.
But there is another group of players who deserve recognition, even if they have not necessarily been among the best four or five of the entire division; that is the group of players who have impressed the most during the current campaign in respect to their performances last year.
In other words, the most improved players in the league.
To be eligible for selection in this team, players must have played in the English top flight last season and, of course, be significantly better or more consistent in their performances during the present campaign.
Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan
Aston Villa have had a difficult time of things this season and, with just a small handful of matches remaining, are still struggling to avoid relegation.
One of their most impressive performers for the campaign has been American goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who has consistently repelled the opposition to keep Villa in matches, especially earlier in the season, when they otherwise would have been out of sight.
His efforts might yet be in vain, but on a personal level, it will be seen as a vastly improved campaign to last year when he sat on the bench all year behind Shay Given.
Just edging out Everton's Seamus Coleman is Manchester United's Rafael at right-back.
The young Brazilian enjoyed an up-and-down campaign last year, mixing some exciting, attack-minded performances with some which displayed his naivety and reckless youth—but this term has seen him perform responsibly at the back, and arguably with even more threat in the final third.
United's future in this position is secure for the long term, with Rafael heading the queue of young defenders who provide excellence at both ends of the pitch.
Centre-Back: Gareth McAuley
A centre-back partnership now, with West Brom's Gareth McAuley first.
He has forged a good partnership at club level, and his rugged approach to defending, yet with an air of composure and control on the ball, has been the foundation for an impressive season for his team.
West Brom have defended better, conceded less goals, lost fewer games and are in a much better league position than last season with McAuley at the heart of their side.
Centre-Back: Jonas Olsson
And alongside McAuley, his teammate Jonas Olsson.
It takes two players to make a good defensive partnership, and the duo have jelled well, complement each other's play and have a good understanding in terms of both positional play and being on the ball.
Olsson is a tough-tackling defender, is strong in the air and is a very good communicator, making him an indispensable member of their side.
Left-Back: Danny Rose
Over on the left side of defence, Tottenham's on-loan Danny Rose has impressed over the course of the season while at Sunderland.
Last term, Rose struggled to have significant impact for his team, drifting in and out of squads and featuring irregularly in midfield or at full-back, but this season, he has proved his top-flight credentials with a regular place in the team.
He will likely return to Spurs in summer, where he will hope to get an opportunity to feature in their league squad—but if he leaves White Hart Lane, he'll no doubt have no shortage of takers ready to give him a starting role.
Right Wing: Andi Weimann
Another of Aston Villa's side now and a youngster who has come of age somewhat this season.
Andi Weimann has operated somewhere between a forward and a wide midfielder for Villa, bringing pace and a good work ethic in support of front man Christian Benteke. Weimann featured mainly from the bench last season for Aston Villa after a series of loan moves, but this season has established himself as a regular starter.
Weimann has hit six league goals for Villa this season.
Holding Central Midfield: Michael Carrick
Michael Carrick has gone from strength to strength over the past couple of seasons, but this year he has given masterclass after masterclass in how to control a league game, both when in possession and without the ball.
His passing is controlled, measured and efficient, and if he does not contribute heavily in the final third, it is safe to say that he allows his teammates to do so. Carrick sits, at times letting five or six of his more adventurous club mates push on, safe in the knowledge that he can drop into a defensive role or else win back possession in the middle.
Which is handy, because the rest of this midfield is definitely attack-minded.
Attacking Central Midfield: Juan Mata
Making a nice diamond shape, Juan Mata slots into an advanced central midfield role, a position he has been enjoying this term for Chelsea.
While he impressed in his debut campaign, mainly from the right of the attack, this year Mata has been given more freedom at times in a roving central role—though he has certainly played in all three of the attacking midfield positions behind the striker.
Mata has hit 10 goals and claimed 12 assists in the Premier League, proving himself one of the genuine stars of the division.
Left Wing: Gareth Bale
The final midfield place goes to another Player of the Year contender, and one who has really noticeably stepped up his level of performance this season—Tottenham's Gareth Bale.
Though he started the season in his usual wide midfield role, Bale has featured on both flanks, in a central attacking role and even as a second forward this year, as Andre Villas-Boas seeks to make the absolute most of his physical and technical attributes.
Bale continues to improve and remains the biggest threat in his team.
Forward: Luis Suarez
The two forwards now, and one of the Premier League's top scorers for the season.
Luis Suarez might divide opinion among fans of the top flight, but there is no doubting his ability, his work rate or his importance to his team. While Suarez was sublime last season already, he was criticised in certain quarters for his lack of consistency in front of goal.
Having hit 30 in all competitions this season, it is fair to say he has seen off that problem quite nicely.
Suarez continues to show he is one of the best players anywhere in Europe, let alone just the Premier League, and he has even improved immeasurably this term from last year's top performances.
Forward: Romelu Lukaku
A third West Brom player now, albeit one on loan from Chelsea, as Romelu Lukaku completes the lineup.
The Belgian striker was hardly even a bit-part player for his parent club last season as he sat on the periphery of the squad, irregularly getting minutes in his first season in England.
This year he managed to arrange a loan move—to the immense benefit of all. Lukaku has still featured from the bench a number of times, but constantly being involved with, and important to, the team has shown his promise and potential, with 13 league goals being the tangible reward.
It's been a great campaign for Lukaku, who has plenty to build on going forward as he continues to improve.