The 10 Players Who Have Been Unexpectedly Brilliant This Season

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterNovember 20, 2018

The 10 Players Who Have Been Unexpectedly Brilliant This Season

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    If everything panned out as expected, football wouldn't be much fun at all. The beauty of the sport lies in its unpredictability.

    We'd have no surprise stories, no Leicester City fairy tales, no moments to shock and awe you or ones that take your breath away.

    Fortunately, the nature of the game lends itself to all these things, and 2018-19 has been no different. We've highlighted 10 players who have been major factors in some of the biggest storylines of the season; 10 who have been unexpectedly brilliant, playing to a level we didn't see coming.

    Be aware, this type of list is naturally quite subjective, so it's in part a reflection on what this writer anticipated back in August. There's every chance yours is different because your expectations were different, and that's fine.

Luka Jovic, 20, Eintracht Frankfurt (on Loan from Benfica)

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    Luka Jovic has been a star in the making for some time, making headlines as early as 16 (while still in Serbia) by becoming Red Star Belgrade's youngest-ever player and youngest-ever participant in the Eternal Derby (vs. Partizan Belgrade).

    What has followed since can only be described as a peculiar career path: He went from Red Star Belgrade to Benfica, where he made almost no impact, and then joined Eintracht Frankfurt on a two-year loan last summer.

    It's this second year of his loan spell where he's really coming to life: Installed as a starter alongside the giant Sebastien Haller up front, Jovic has already surpassed last season's goal tally (eight) with nine in six league starts.

    That haul includes five in one game against Fortuna Dusseldorf in October, but it doesn't take into account the three he's bagged in the UEFA Europa League.

    Finally, Jovic is realising that potential.

Mario Hermoso, 23, Espanyol

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    While Luka Jovic provides compelling evidence for how quickly careers can turn in the space of two years, Mario Hermoso takes things a little further.

    He has illustrated how you can propel yourself from nowhere to stardom during that timeframe.

    Allowed to join Espanyol from Real Madrid for next to nothing nearly 18 months ago, he's now batting away rumours of a return to the reigning European champions following his international debut for Spain, per Cadena Ser (h/t Football Espana).

    He's been arguably the most impressive performer in an Espanyol side that have been great from back to front this term. They occupy fifth place in La Liga—one point and one spot ahead of Real Madrid.

Nicolas Pepe, 23, Lille

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    Among the myriad Ligue 1 storylines ignored in the wake of Paris Saint-Germain's 13-game winning streak, Lille's rise to second in the table is arguably the most impressive one.

    Central to this unexpected success has been Nicolas Pepe's tremendous form from the wing, where he has registered an eyebrow-raising eight goals and five assists—an average of one or the other per game played.

    Granted, several of those strikes have come from the spot (though he's really honed his penalty-taking in the process), but the way he attacks space, driving positively, has contributed heavily towards Lille becoming a dangerous counter-attacking unit.

    He was good last season, but not this good—not good enough to attract the likes of Arsenal, Sevilla and Lyon, as L'Equipe (h/t the Mirror) reported earlier this season.

Joe Gomez, 21, Liverpool

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    We saw flashes of Joe Gomez's ability in 2017-18, but when playing out of position at right-back even his good performances were hindered by regular positional errors. When he lost his place to Trent Alexander-Arnold—a natural in that role—people weren't particularly surprised.

    This season, though, he's been moved into the position we all knew he'd end up at: centre-back. His performances still aren't perfect, but he's upped his level considerably and has formed a rock-solid axis with Virgil van Dijk.

    The Reds have conceded just five league goals in 12 games, and Gomez, who has played in 11 of those matches, has been an influential figure. He's put a wretched injury behind him and is now forcing people to ask the question: How good can be actually become?

Jadon Sancho, 18, Borussia Dortmund

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    Jadon Sancho's natural talent and potential have been obvious for several years; it was just as evident back when he was running riot for Manchester City's academy sides and England's youth teams as it is right now.

    But it's fair to say few expected him to manage so much so soon and to be making such an impact for club and country at this early stage.

    Now a first-choice starter for BVB, keeping a list of players that includes Christian Pulisic and Shinji Kagawa out of the XI at times, he played 90 minutes in Der Klassiker vs. Bayern Munich this month, underlining his importance.

    He's now made his full England bow too, nabbing an assist against Pulisic's USA, and was sent on by Gareth Southgate while in search of a goal against Croatia on Sunday (ahead of Callum Wilson), illustrating the trust held in him.

    Things are moving very fast for the teenager. The scary thing is he's only just getting started.

Declan Rice, 19, West Ham United

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    Declan Rice's name is no secret to Premier League fans. He played fairly consistently during the second half of the 2017-18 campaign, but as a result of him featuring for a dysfunctional West Ham United side that was never quite sure what it wanted to be, attention paid to him was sparing.

    He was also playing out of position—at centre-back more often than not, and tucked into a back three—making his contributions less obvious.

    This term things have changed.

    He's a key performer at the base of midfield, with the Hammers now struggling to assert themselves in games that he doesn't boss. He's also the latest promising talent to become embroiled in an international loyalty tug-of-war, with England and Ireland vying for his services in a manner reminiscent of the time the nations went head-to-head for Jack Grealish.

    His contract is up at the end of the campaign, and his brilliant performances have attracted admiring glances from a host of top teams including Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, per the Daily Star Sunday (h/t the Express).

    Not even the most ardent West Ham fans would have believed this would transpire had you foretold it back in March.

Moussa Diaby, 19, Paris Saint-Germain

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    After Paris Saint-Germain's pre-season tour, it was USA forward Timothy Weah who looked likely to emerge as the club's breakout star. The 18-year-old received plenty of hype both because of his potential and his surname, so a path to the first team was expected to carve itself out.

    Instead it's been fellow teenager Moussa Diaby who has been awarded minutes by manager Thomas Tuchel, and what he's done with them has been impressive.

    In Ligue 1, Diaby's managed a two goals and five assists in just 358 minutes. There's a caveat to state in that a lot of this production has come off the bench against teams exhausted from chasing Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Co. around, but he's also started matches against Stade de Reims and Monaco, collecting three assists in those two games alone.

    It's Diaby making a name for himself as the rotation guy for PSG, not Weah—something not too many saw coming.

Krzysztof Piatek, 23, Genoa

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    Krzysztof Piatek has already scored 14 goals this season in all competitions, making a mockery of his £4 million summer transfer fee.

    Transferring from Cracovia Krakow to Genoa, the truth is very few—if any—outside of Poland really knew much about him.

    He scored four on his debut against Lecce, starting an almighty hot streak, and while things have gone a little dry since—Juventus holding him at bay in October started a five-game goalless run—he still falls comfortably into the category of unexpectedly brilliant.

Jesus Navas, 32, Sevilla

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    Jesus Navas' revival at Sevilla, his boyhood club, has been a heartwarming story.

    It's taken a year, a particular manager (Pablo Machin) and a certain system (3-4-3) to unlock his best. However, the way he's playing right now, there are few right-siders on the planet who are more involved and crucial to their team's chance creation than him.

    He's one of three ever-presents for Los Rojiblancos in La Liga this term, continually working angles and playing dangerous balls into the box for his strikers to finish off. 

    He takes that captain's armband seriously.

Paco Alcacer, 25, Borussia Dortmund

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    Few players have seen their stock transform so drastically this season than Paco Alcacer.

    In watching him step off the bench and make the difference with such frequency for the Bundesliga leaders, Borussia Dortmund, it can be easy to forget his fortunes were at a low ebb midway through the summer.

    But he's gone from a proposed loan to Watford (per the Watford Observer) to starring for BVB and netting for Spain against England.

    There's an element of Moussa Diaby's success to him—he's doing a lot of damage against tired defences and rarely starting games—but in terms of sheer unexpectedness, Alcacer's personal renaissance ranks highly indeed.


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