EPL 100: Ranking Premier League's Most Improved Players This Season
From one season to the next, Premier League football changes drastically. Leicester City's route of narrowly avoiding relegation (2014-15) to league champions (2015-16) to also-rans (2016-17) is the ultimate illustration of this.
The swings are violent, unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable. They're also not limited to teams, as players also experience serious ups and downs, hitting fine veins of form and catching fire—or getting bogged down and swallowed up by the footballing machine.
Here, we celebrate those who are trending the right way, selecting the 20 most improved Premier League players this season, based on a comparison of their performances from last term to this one.
To be eligible, the player must have played Premier League football this season and last (there are too many variables otherwise), and we've strayed away from players who made no impact last season due to a lack of appearances (example: Nick Pope, Burnley).
20. Christian Kabasele, CB, Watford
There were high hopes in Hertfordshire for Kabasele when he signed in the summer of 2016, but Watford have had to wait until now to see the best from him. In an ever-changing XI riddled with injuries, he's been a constant, steady figure.
19. Jack Wilshere, CM, Arsenal
He's had to wait patiently, but Aaron Ramsey's injury has given Wilshere the chance to play Premier League football regularly for Arsenal once again. Not only has he impressed and looked sharp from the off, but his body has held up nicely in the face of constant game time, too.
18. Ben Mee, CB, Burnley
Burnley fans won't be shocked by Mee's superb performances this season; he flashed glimpses in 2016-17 but was overshadowed by Michael Keane. Now he's the leader and has been consistently excellent, dealing with all manner of strikers comfortably.
17. Matthew Lowton, RB, Burnley
Lowton's performances this season have been the best of his career by far, eclipsing anything he's mustered in the Premier League before, be it for Burnley or Aston Villa. A killer crosser and an adept defender, he's essentially a less-talked-about Kieran Trippier.
16. Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Wing, Burnley
Gudmundsson's second-year leap at Burnley has been incredible. No longer just a "part," he's now a key cog in this attack, and the Clarets' best attacks of late have originated from him.
15. Aaron Ramsey, CM, Arsenal
Bouncing back from something of a down year, Ramsey's exquisite passing and knack for a goal were key to Arsenal's play in the first half of the season. That his momentum was, quite predictably, stymied by an injury just before Christmas is a real shame.
14. Jack Cork, CM, Burnley
Cork's move from Swansea City to Burnley last summer is starting to look a smart one. Clarets manager Sean Dyche has installed him as a key figure, is allowing him to play the way he knows best and is being rewarded with consistently strong showings.
13. Alberto Moreno, LB, Liverpool
Moreno's November injury cruelly curtailed what was looking suspiciously like a turnaround season for the Spaniard. Admittedly, the bar was pretty low given how he performed in his first two campaigns, but it would now be incorrect to suggest he's a "defensive liability" or a "headless chicken," because he's really not.
12. Wilfried Zaha, Wing/ST, Crystal Palace
Zaha was impressive last season so his good performances this term have not shocked anyone, but what we have witnessed is a real maturation in him as a player and as a leader.
The talisman of a struggling club, he took more responsibility than ever before upon his return from injury in October and has, at times, single-handedly earned Palace vital points.
11. Joe Gomez, CB/RB, Liverpool
No Nathaniel Clyne? No problem, it seems.
Liverpool were expected to miss their starting right-back dearly after he picked up a long-term injury before the start of the season, but Gomez's aggressiveness, good passing and occasionally decent crossing have been some of the best features in the Reds' play.
10. Cesc Fabregas, CM, Chelsea
Without context, Cesc Fabregas' statistical haul last season (five goals, 12 assists) paints the picture of a crucial figure in Chelsea's Premier League title run, but that was far from the case.
Most of his production came late in games as a substitute or against the weakest teams when he was allowed to start. Otherwise, it was Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante who ruled the midfield roost, leaving the Spaniard marginalised for long periods.
This season, though, he's worked his way back into contention, earning his manager's trust, playing more regularly and featuring against the stronger teams. No longer perceived as a "weak defensive link" when playing, this represents a personal turnaround for Fabregas.
9. Phil Jones, CB, Manchester United
It's fair to say Phil Jones probably wasn't part of the Manchester United plan this season; to his credit, though, he has forced a change in direction.
Selected to start the first game of the season against West Ham United, he dominated thanks to a blend of physicality in advanced areas and great tracking of runs. Since then, only an injury-enforced absence has blocked his path to the first team.
With Eric Bailly having undergone surgery, Victor Lindelof still being drip-fed minutes and Chris Smalling experiencing injury troubles himself, Jones stands to continue as a key man for the rest of the season.
8. Jesse Lingard, AM/Wing, Manchester United
Jesse Lingard has catapulted himself into Manchester United's starting XI and is now a clear starter. No longer just a "big-moment" player suited to cup finals, he's an all-purpose player who delivers on a weekly basis.
His tally of seven goals and four assists from 924 Premier League minutes is ridiculous, and while it's probably unsustainable over the course of an entire season, it does speak to how impactful he's been since breaking into the team.
His combined 11 goals and assists eclipse his total tally from the past two campaigns (eight).
7. John Stones, CB, Manchester City
Much was expected of a John Stones-Pep Guardiola relationship, and in 2017-18 we're seeing the fruits of it. It just took a little longer than expected, that's all.
The best English distributor from the back by far, the 23-year-old's greatest strength has been refined and sculpted by a top coach and turned into a genuine weapon.
His recovery defending has also improved, comfortable high up because he's confident he can match forwards for speed in behind and dispossess them.
There were signs Stones was starting to "get it" under Guardiola towards the end of last season; now there can be no doubt, and he stands as one of the best centre-backs in the division.
6. Riyad Mahrez, Wing/AM, Leicester City
The 2017-18 season has been a nice bounce-back year for Riyad Mahrez.
There have been games where he's looked the clear best player on the park, dancing through midfield with ease, and his production (seven goals, seven assists) has already surpassed his entire 2016-17 effort (six goals, three assists).
No one's expecting him to hit the heights of two years ago, when he helped Leicester to the Premier League title and was crowned PFA Player of the Year, but a return to form was required after last term's severe drop.
5. Paul Pogba, CM, Manchester United
Paul Pogba's transfer fee weighed heavily on him last season. His performances weren't bad, but because of the natural expectation created by his price tag, he was held to a high standard and didn't reach it.
What a difference a year makes.
Nowadays you're more likely to find fans saying Pogba's £89 million fee was a bargain. Millstone removed and with a new midfield partner (Nemanja Matic) who allows him to express himself, the France international has been stunning at times.
The way he sweeps across the pitch—darting around markers and caressing passes into runners is an incredible watch—is unlike any other. Adding more goals and assists to his performances has helped people to see that.
4. Steven Defour, CM, Burnley
Steven Defour has been one of the best central midfielders in the Premier League this season, starting all 22 of Burnley's games and forming a brilliant partnership with Jack Cork.
That he's so heavily involved is the first area of stark improvement. This is a player who struggled from a physical standpoint last term and barely managed 90 minutes in one sitting. This time around, he's second in the team for minutes played (1,829).
Increased fitness has allowed him to display a rabid work ethic, chasing and closing down in accordance with Dyche's workmanlike tactical approach, but he has also offered surging, positive runs forward and moments of ingenuity in attack.
3. Nicolas Otamendi, CB, Manchester City
No central defender—not even Stones—has made bigger strides in his game this season than Nicolas Otamendi.
He's still far from the perfect player, as the occasional mistake or rash moment still permeates his performances, but it would be wrong to label him as the error-prone, brutish defender he used to be.
Not only has he ironed the majority of those wild actions out of his game, but his use of the ball has improved exponentially, too. Breaking lines with firm, direct passes into forward areas, he's now an attack-starter, rather than just a ball-circulator at the back.
From scoring at set pieces with regularity (he has five goals this season) to acrobatic, goal-line clearances at the other end, he is a prominent factor in all three phases of the game for Manchester City.
2. Fabian Delph, LB, Manchester City
Who saw this coming?
Fabian Delph has been a knight in shining armour for Guardiola and Manchester City this season, stepping in at left-back to fill in for the injured Benjamin Mendy and performing extremely well.
It's not his natural position—not by a long shot. He played sparingly at left-back for Aston Villa, largely for 20-minute spells at the end of games, and was never asked to play such an expansive, technical part from that area of the pitch.
The only reason Guardiola will have tried Delph there is because he's left-footed, and Danilo's wrong-footed work on that flank caused structural harm to City's play early on, but sometimes when you spin the wheel, you hit the jackpot.
Credit to Delph for biding his time, learning and working hard, and then taking his chance.
1. Raheem Sterling, Wing/AM, Manchester City
Perhaps in seasons past, picking a single most improved player would be difficult, but in 2017-18 there can be no argument: Raheem Sterling is the choice.
Fourteen goals from 16 Premier League starts is an absurd output any striker would be proud of, and he's managed it largely from the wing.
The quantity is one thing, but the sheer importance of some of those strikes elevates him to a new level. Starting with the 96th-minute winner at Bournemouth in August, he's made the difference at crucial moments for City a number of times.
Whichever manager harnessed his dynamism properly and then added a cutting edge was always going to see drastic improvement; is anyone surprised Guardiola was the man to do it?
All statistics via WhoScored.com