Premier League Most Improved Player XI
It has thus far been one of the most unpredictable and captivating Premier League seasons to date. Yes, this league has its faults and is overrun with greed, but matters on the pitch remain jolly good viewing for the most part, with some standout performances.
Every season you get a handful of players that surprise everyone. Previously known as horribly inconsistent, failing to fulfil their potential or just downright useless, certain players prove everyone wrong and shine. Obviously any lists on the most improved players are going to be subjective, so any other suggestions are more than welcome. Some players in this team have made the leap from bad to good, or from good to great. Here are my Top XI most improved players in the Premier League so far this season (all stats are Premiership appearances and goals only).
This article picks out a top 10 of the most improved players so far this season. To qualify, players have to have played in the Premier League before 2010/11 - because of the difficulty in comparing, say, Peter Odemwingie's form for West Brom this season with his form for Lokomotiv Moscow last term. So, here goes then, in ascending order...
GK: Craig Gordon, Sunderland
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What a transformation. The bungling Scotland International must have been considering his future at Stadium of Light after a series of high profile gaffs but Steve Bruce worked his man management magic on the former Hearts man who turned in great performance after great performance. After arriving for a record-breaking fee of £10m, Gordon put in some mixed work during his first few seasons. Breaking his arm in the summer, it was confirmed he would miss the start of the Premier League season. Now his return has spurned Sunderland to challenge for Europe.
LB: Leighton Baines, Everton
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I didn't see this one coming either, I must admit. If you'd been surveying me on my level of caring at the news of Baines' omission from the World Cup squad - in favour of Stephen Warnock, no less - I'd have taken my time deciding between "d) Only slightly" and "e) Not at all". Put bluntly, Baines did not cover himself in glory last season. For the most part he looked an ordinary left-back, prone to getting dragged out of position and leaving his centre backs exposed. This season he's significantly more solid at the back, and an absolute menace down the flank when Everton are in possession. His energy levels, hunger to receive possession and top-quality crossing have made him a rival to Ashley Cole as the league's best left-back this season. At times, Tim Cahill's had to do little more than keep his eye on the ball to score a headed goal, so peachy have Baines' deliveries been - seven Premier League assists and counting. The challenge for Baines now is to do this consistently, for the rest of his career.
RB: Rafael Da Silva, Manchester United
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This has been the season where Rafael has really made the step-up and claimed the United right-back slot as his own - sporadic Gary Neville horror-show cameos aside. A bustling, energetic presence up and down the flank, Rafael has been a huge factor in United's recent knack of picking up points while not playing brilliantly. Some naivety remains, as evidenced by his red card against Tottenham, but he's positionally better and stronger in the tackle than before. Imagine how good he'll be when the transformation is complete - not to mention if brother Fabio turns out to be a late bloomer...
CB: Robert Huth, Stoke City
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Robert Huth or "The Berlin Wall" has put some workman like performances, and even earning comparison to Manchester United's defensive rock Nemanja Vidic. A towering height of 6'3, a massive build, and possessing great leadership abilites, the German has made a strong partnership with teammate Ryan Shawcross. He spent most of the previous campaign under the scrutiny of the English FA because of his behavior, but now he finally found place in the heart of the Stoke City defence. Stoke City sit pretty in the League Standings, and a tidy defence also helps having kept several clean sheets and conceded so much fewer than last season.
CB: Younes Kaboul, Tottenham
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Younes Kaboul not only put in masterful displays, but has also scored important goals for Spurs even against rivals Arsenal. Spurs’ third shut-out of the season was the first since Harry Redknapp was deprived of his preferred centre-back pairing of Ledley King and Michael Dawson, following the latter’s knee injury during England’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria.Four combinations later, and a groin injury to King, Spurs were left without two captains, and a defensive partnership that will have sent shivers down Spurs fans’ spines.Step forward Younes Kaboul, a defender who, having been deemed "surplus to requirements" and subsequently sold to Portsmouth, was subsequently re-signed by Redknapp. Alongside the experienced Gallas, Kaboul is blossoming into a dominating, yet composed defender – in much the same way that Dawson grew under the guidance of King.
LM: Samir Nasri, Arsenal
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Occasionally during Arsene Wenger's reign as Arsenal manager, a player that had been going about his job reasonably well will all of a sudden find a new level of performance. It's happened with Henry, Van Persie, Arshavin, Vermalean, Song, Gilberto Silva - and no doubt Wenger's banking on it happening with Theo Walcott as well - but Nasri's progression from one season to the next is arguably the most pronounced development seen by a player within a single season in Wenger's entire time at the club. Last season Nasri looked a tidy player, with a dash of guile and a penchant for the odd crucial goal. This season he's outshone even Cesc Fabregas in Arsenal's midfield to become the Gunners' key man in many games. Nine Premier League goals by New Year's Day indicate the contribution he has made - with six of those goals earning Arsenal extra points in the process. The only surprise is that he has just one assist to his name so far, perhaps because he is the one getting on the end of flowing moves, rather than setting others up. How many times have we seen Nasri burst into the penalty area this season to trap a through ball and get his shot away? Answer: plenty. And hopefully we'll see him do it a lot more in the second half of the season, because it's a fine sight to behold.
RM: Matt Jarvis, Wolverhampton Wanderers
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When Wolves came up into the Premier League, all the talk was of their bright, exciting young winger that was potentially going to terrorise a few opposition full-backs. They were talking about Michael Kightly, of course. But while Kightly has been blighted by injury, Jarvis has flourished away from the spotlight. Several decent performances last season played their part in helping Wolves to retain their Premier League status. But this season, with Kightly still nowhere to be seen, Jarvis has become Wolves' key man. Able to play on both sides, go either side of a player, cross, shoot and work his little socks off, Jarvis is the kind of player fans warm to. Random fact: both of his parents were professional table tennis players, don't you know.
CM: Luka Modric
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When Modric joined Spurs from Dinamo Zagreb in 2008, a lot of people were excited at the sort of impact that the stand-out star of Slaven Bilic's talented Croatia side might have in the Premier League. Perhaps the one reservation was whether a player so slight of build would be able to handle the energy and physicality of England's top flight. They needn't have worried - the inspirational midfielder has proved that he can mix it with the best of them, and buzzes around the field for the entire game, rarely tiring noticeably or needing to be withdrawn (at time of writing, he's completed 15 consecutive 90 minutes in the league). Much fanfare has been devoted to Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale for 'taking Spurs to the next level' this season. Modric deserves every bit as much credit as those two, he just doesn't score enough goals to hit the headlines as often. But Andrea Pirlo's record of a goal every nine games for Milan is only slightly better than Modric's one in 11 for Spurs - and that hasn't stopped people praising him to to hilt during his time at the San Siro. Plus, I've a sneaky feeling Modric might start to add a few more goals to his repertoire soon, as he takes advantage of teams doubling up on Bale and Van der Vaart. Then perhaps he'll get the widespread acclaim he fully deserves.
CM: Alex Song, Arsenal
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Song and Arsenal are a perfect fit. It wouldn't be right if a side of Arsenal's daintiness had an out-and-out 'water carrier', ala Makelele, Tiote or Deschamps. I had a spell of observing Song regularly when I used to go and watch Charlton and he was on loan. You could see he had bags of ability, but he was prone to moments of dopiness or losses of concentration. Last season, with a prolonged run in the Arsenal team, he seemed to cut a lot of these out, with the one downside being that he stopped being remotely creative, settling on giving Arsenal some solidity in the centre. This season, growing in confidence, he's rediscovering his propensity to make inspirational bursts forward and give the team a kick up the backside when they begin to stagnate. Arsenal still have a tendency to be flakey, though perhaps less frequently as Song continues to bloom.
CM: John Obi Mikel, Chelsea
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It’s not been the smoothest of rides for Obi Mikel (or is it Mikel Obi? ) since he joined Chelsea back in 2006. Last season, with Essien out long-term, Mikel ended his comparisons to Makelele, and made himself a figure in the Chelsea midfield getting the nod over Deco, Joe Cole, and Michael Ballack. It has blown hot and cold for Chelsea this season, as they fell from a 5-point lead over the pack, down to 5th place in a few months, but for individual performances, Mikel is starting to demonstrate a self confidence in his own strength on the ball repeatedly over the past month, receiving the ball in close quarters in his own half, hold off two opposition players, emerge with the ball and move it forwards on to a blue shirt making the holding role his own. According to the stats, he has made an astonishing 4,598 passes (over 1,000 more than Scholes – just think about how many that actually is). He is the beating heart of this Chelsea team, moving the ball with metronomic precision.
ST: Dimitar Berbatov, Manchester United
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Incredible. Quite possibly the biggest improvement of the lot. Gone from being something of a collective joke to being a genuine contender for a Golden Boot. The Bulgarian initially joined Manchester United in a blockbuster transfer that saw him move from Spurs to the Red Devils in a deal worth around £30 million. After two seasons of poor showing, Berbatov was labeled as a flop. But constant backing from manager Sir Alex Ferguson has enabled him to ovecome comparisons with another United flop Diego Forlan and hit back at his critics, as the 30-year-old has now scored several goals for an Invincible United team.
His imagination and beautiful touch are assets any manager would love, yet he is an example of the policy that now applies at Old Trafford. There is little, if any, money to be recouped on a player who had turned 28 before the end of his first season with United. It is odd now to think, too, that Sir Alex Ferguson was being asked last summer if he would off-load Berbatov. "No, no definitely not," said the manager. "He's a fantastic player." I also hear he has a thing for mayonaise-filled gloves and carpeted vans.
Joey Barton, Newcastle United
Ben Foster, Birmingham City
Matt Jarvis, Wolverhampton Wanderers
Danny Welbeck, Sunderland (loan)
Johan Elmander, Bolton Wanderers
Chung-Yong Lee, Bolton Wanderers
Anderson, Manchester United
Stewart Downing, Aston Villa
Gareth Bale, Tottenham
Nani, Manchester United
Salomon Kalou, Chelsea
Seamus Coleman, Everton
While they've kicked on slightly, do not make this list on account of being so good last season too.