The Top Five Improving EPL Players to Watch This Season

A DimondSenior Analyst IJuly 22, 2008

While every season we see more than a few players light up the Premiership with their outstanding performances, there are inevitably an equal number of players at the opposite end of the spectrum—those who disappoint with their woeful or non-existent contributions.

In this age where success must be immediate, a poor season is often enough to signal a player’s sale or their condemnation to the reserves until circumstances offer them a chance at salvation.

Similarly, a long-term injury can derail a player's career, leading to a long and arduous recovery with no guarantee of first team football at the end of it all.

However, sometimes such players find themselves with a second chance—another opportunity to prove they warrant first team football or are far better than previously thought.

Here are five players I believe will have improving performances this term, forcing fans and commentators alike to re-evaluate their opinion for the better.


1. Florent Malouda (Chelsea)

Did anyone do less to warrant their price tag last season than Malouda? Despite an initially promising start, the £13.5m signing from Lyons was extremely poor throughout the majority of the 07/08 campaign.

Defended and repeatedly picked by both Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant, the Frenchman was unable to repay the faith shown in him by either man.

Felipe Scolari will not be so forgiving.

Fortunately for the Brazilian manager, Chelsea should see more from Malouda this time out. The Premier League is notoriously difficult to adjust to; perhaps the 28-year-old just took a while to adapt to a different style of football.

With a year’s experience under his belt, he should be better prepared for the challenges ahead.

Last season, he was on record publicly complaining about life in London, hinting at the unsettled nature of his private life. Hopefully, with the summer break to gain some perspective, he may now be in a better frame of mind to play football.

His pedigree, on the continent at least, is undeniable—making his poor performances last season all the more disappointing.

Revered in France and throughout continental Europe, he is widely admired (Chelsea beat off Real Madrid and Liverpool, amongst others, for his signature).

With 41 international caps, he is also a stalwart of the French national team—keeping out highly rated youngsters like Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa. His performances for Les Bleus have more than warranted his selection.

Domestically, perhaps the arrival of Scolari will help Malouda flourish. With more tactical direction than given by Grant, and fewer defensive responsibilities than applied by Mourinho, maybe Malouda will be able to rediscover the form that saw him named French Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2007.

Scolari, a long time exponent of wingers in his tactics, should like the naturally left-sided player.

Alternatively, of course, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Frenchman will be sold before the transfer window closes. Such a move would surely be a mistake.

At 28, the player should be finding the form of his life. If he is now settled in London, there is no reason why that should not be at Stamford Bridge.


2. Eduardo (Arsenal)

Harsh, perhaps, to put Eduardo on this list but so was Martin Taylor’s tackle that ended the Croatian striker’s season. With 12 goals in 29 appearances for Arsenal, the 23-year-old was on the way to a great first season in England before the Birmingham defender ruthlessly cut him down.

Why then is he on this list? Because, before the injury, Eduardo was on the way to proving himself to be one of the Premier League’s most lethal strikers. This season, with more opportunities to shine, he will finally reach that level.

Recovering well from the horrific injury, the Brazilian-born player will be looking to pick up where he left off last time out. As long as he is not mentally scarred by the injury, he should be back amongst the goals in no time.

Eduardo’s strength is undoubtedly his finishing—he is a throwback to a bygone era in that he loves to pass the ball into the net.

Many of his goals come as a result of wrong footing the goalkeeper—he has the uncanny ability to strike the ball at the exact point the ‘keeper is least prepared to dive.

Technically, Eduardo is no slouch either. Blessed with sublime close control and quick feet (something that, ironically, contributed to his injury), he fits seamlessly into the Arsenal pass-and-move system.

Arsene Wenger, while apparently unwilling to sell Emmanuel Adebayor, must privately be content to let the Croatian lead the line if the Togolese striker moves on.

The player he signed for £8.5m in 2007 has already done enough to prove he can prosper in English football.

Once he has fully overcome his injury, expect Eduardo to score 20+ goals for Arsenal this term. If he does this, the transition from "promising forward" to "one of Europe’s finest" will be complete.


3. Wayne Routledge (Aston Villa)

Since leaving Crystal Palace for Tottenham, the career of Wayne Routledge has gone from... well, the opposite of strength to strength. A stark warning to John Bostock.

Now at Aston Villa after unspectacular loan spells at Fulham and Portsmouth, the right-winger will be looking to get himself back on track. Under Martin O’Neill, he might be in just the right place to do this.

While his delivery needs a lot of work, Routledge is a very similar player to Ashley Young.

The former Watford winger, who occupies the left-wing slot at Villa Park, was one of the Premier League’s top performers last season—weighing in with crucial goals and assists for his team.

Routledge can make a similar impact on the other wing. But the London-born player has to prove he wants to do this—something he has failed to show in the past

What is different this season, however, is that perhaps now Routledge has the motivation to work his hardest.

As a result of the Bostock tribunal, Routledge has faced public criticism from Palace, citing his move to Tottenham as having a negative effect on his career, even if it had a positive effect on his bank balance.

The 23-year-old will be keen to prove that moving away from Selhurst was the right move for his career. If he puts his head down and works hard, O’Neill will surely give him the opportunity to make his case.


4. Anton Ferdinand (West Ham)

Another Englishman with attitude problems, questions surround Anton Ferdinand’s desire to fulfill his potential—or whether he would rather perform the Soulja Boi dance with teammates for YouTube videos, and take mid-season gambling trips to America.

Nevertheless, the West Ham defender has been frequently linked with moves to other Premier League teams, including Tottenham and Newcastle. This indicates that many within the game believe he has a lot of talent.

This is not an unreasonable conclusion. Being the brother of Rio Ferdinand, there is obviously a lot of footballing ability in the family genes.

Similarly, Anton has shown enough in his 161 appearances for the Upton Park outfit to suggest he could be an elite defender.

It is his attitude that needs work.

Whether or not Alan Curbishley is the man to change Ferdinand is questionable, but at 23, now is the time for him to show consistent quality.

At the same age, Rio had experienced Champions League football at Leeds (after an £18m transfer from the Hammers) and was on the verge of a £30m move to Manchester United.

At a crossroads in his career, only Anton can decide whether he wants similar glory. It is not beyond his reach.


5. Valeri Bojinov (Manchester City)

Another arguably unfair inclusion, as the Bulgarian was cruelly struck down by injury before he could even make an appearance for Manchester City. The damage to his knee ligaments prevented him from making a meaningful contribution throughout the 07/08 season.

However, this term should be different. Bojinov has impressive pedigree in Serie A, being able to count Fiorentina and Juventus (in a co-ownership deal) among his former clubs.

He was long regarded as an outstanding prospect in Italian football.

Behind Jo and Benjani at Eastlands, Bojinov will have to work hard to see first-team action—especially as Felipe Caicedo and Daniel Sturridge will also be competing for minutes.

Nevertheless the 22-year-old, as something of unknown quality in the Premier League, should make a great impact off the bench against tired defences unfamiliar with his game.

A forgotten man in Manchester, Bojinov should get more than a few Blues’ fans chanting his name this season.


Other Names to Watch Out For

Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham): The former Derby youngster has massive potential, which he has only managed to show in patches whilst at White Hart Lane. This season, under Ramos’ guidance, he could become crucial to the team.

Abou Diaby (Arsenal): With Flamini and Gilberto having moved elsewhere, there appears to be a shortage of centre midfielders at the Emirates. Diaby, so often used on the left, could fill the void. Tall and powerful, reminiscent of Patrick Vieira, he also has great control that could lead to him winning over his many critics.

Lassana Diarra (Portsmouth): Quite simply, Diarra has the potential to be one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. Don’t be surprised if his continued good performances for Pompey earn him another move, back to a Champions League side.

Afonso Alves (Middlesbrough): The £12m signing took a while to settle in last term. This season, with a bit more experience, we should see more spectacular appearances from the Brazilian—like the lethal finishing he showed against Manchester United at the Riverside.

Manuel Fernandes (Everton): Rescued from the disaster zone that was/is Valencia, Fernandes may well be this season’s Stephen Pienaar. Cousin Gelson Fernandes (at Man City) should also turn some heads.

Alvaro Arbeloa (Liverpool): Arbeloa looks likely to be crucial to Liverpool this season. The first-choice right back (unless Benitez opts to move Carragher into that position to accommodate Agger and Skrtel) will want to prove he is in the same class as Bacary Sagna—and help the Reds mount a realistic title challenge.


What do you think? Disagree with the players I have picked? Or do you think there is another player I have missed out? Let me know!


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