B/R Football Ranks: The 10 Most Improved Players This Season

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterNovember 4, 2019

AS Roma's English defender Chris Smalling gestures during the UEFA Europa League Group J football match AS Roma vs Borussia Moenchengladbach on October 24, 2019 at the Olympic stadium in Rome. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)

Part of football's beauty lays in its unpredictability. You can never really know what will transpire on any given matchday—let alone an entire season—which is what makes it such a thrilling, all-consuming ride.

Sometimes players you expect to explode do so, but sometimes they don't. Conversely, plenty who are written off en masse can bounce back and surprise you, and it's this heartwarming theme that this week's B/R Football Ranks delves into.

We've picked out the 10 most improved players, judging their performances from the 2018-19 season against the ones they're turning in this term.

Only Europe's top five leagues were assessed, and we've tried to steer clear of players who have simply returned from injury (such as Goncalo Paciencia of Eintracht Frankfurt) so that true cases of hard work and improvement can be celebrated.

10. Domenico Berardi, 25, Forward, Sassuolo

REGGIO NELL'EMILIA, ITALY - APRIL 04: Domenico Berardi of Sassuolo celebrates after scoring the 4-0 goal during the Serie A match between US Sassuolo and Chievo at Mapei Stadium - Citta' del Tricolore on April 4, 2019 in Reggio nell'Emilia, Italy.  (Photo
Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Had you told Sassuolo fans back in 2015 that they'd enjoy another five years of Berardi, they wouldn't have believed you. The forward had just scored 15-plus Serie A goals for the second straight season and seemed nailed on to move to one of Italy's biggest sides.

But his form tailed off dramatically in the years to come, his production dipping. That saw potential suitors drop away like flies, and Berardi has actually gone about his business quite quietly for years, his name rarely mentioned by the transfer rumour mill.

But 2019-20's been different; this season he's looked a lot like his old self. With seven goals and two assists from nine Serie A starts, he's certainly producing like his old self, and it wouldn't surprise if interest in him picked up again.

He broke through extremely young, so he still has plenty of time on his side. If he sustains this kind of form all season long, he'll regenerate all of that old interest and perhaps even challenge for the Capocannoniere (Italy's top goalscorer award).


9. Scott McTominay, 22, Central Midfielder, Manchester United

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 02: Scott McTominay of Manchester United in action during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Manchester United at Vitality Stadium on November 02, 2019 in Bournemouth, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mike Hewitt
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

McTominay has been Manchester United's best central midfielder so far this season and is perhaps deserving of a mention when talking about their best performers regardless of position.

That's quite the step forward for the Scot, whose role in the Red Devils' XI was (understandably) questioned last season. Jose Mourinho swore by him, but others weren't sold.

Well, not for the first time, Mourinho's judgement looks bang on: McTominay brings a physical presence, a steel, to a midfield that falls limp without him, has chipped in with a few goals, has improved his passing and technique and has generally enchanted the fans with his passionate on-field displays.

His performances in big games, against the better sides in the Premier League, have become one of the few things United fans can cherish this term.


8. Serge Gnabry, 24, Forward, Bayern Munich

BOCHUM, GERMANY - OCTOBER 29: Serge Gnabry of FC Bayern Muenchen controls the ball during the DFB Cup second round match between VfL Bochum and Bayern Muenchen at Vonovia Ruhrstadion on October 29, 2019 in Bochum, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images
TF-Images/Getty Images

Gnabry's 2019 has been amazing; his performances have completely changed the regard in which he's held, and his name is on the precipice when you compile a list of the world's best wingers in your head.

Not bad for a young player who, just four years ago, was deemed not good enough to play for Tony Pulis' West Bromwich Albion.

His performances at the back end of last season were very good, but he's taken another step this term, making global headlines by scoring four against Tottenham and frequently impressing for his nation, too. He scored in the Bundesliga, the Champions League, the DFB-Pokal and for Germany in October, a feat that is impressive but also par for the course for him nowadays.

He's so productive in front of goal.


7. Breel Embolo, 22, Forward, Borussia Monchengladbach

Moenchengladbach's Swiss forward Breel Embolo reacts during the German First division Bundesliga football match between Borussia Moenchengladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt, on October 27, 2019 in Moenchengladbach. (Photo by INA FASSBENDER / AFP) / DFL REGUL

You could take your pick of Borussia Monchengladbach players for this list, given how exceptionally they've been playing under Marco Rose. But one, in particular, has taken a big leap in performance levels: Breel Embolo.

He and his former club, Schalke 04, simply did not click. A €20 million-plus price brought pressure, and the teenager struggled with the expectations, never finding his feet in three years there.

He moved to Gladbach last summer for half as much, €10 million, in a move that was seen as an attempt to salvage his potential—and you might argue it's already paying off.

His speed and energy have proved a perfect fit for Gladbach's pacey, aggressive style, and though there's still plenty more work to be done on his finishing, that's also on the up.

Schalke 04 will be watching these performances and lamenting the fact they couldn't unlock them themselves.


6. Gerard Moreno, 27, Forward, Villarreal

PAMPLONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 05: Gerard Moreno of Villarreal CF reacts during the Liga match between CA Osasuna and Villarreal CF at El Sadar Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Pamplona, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

There's bouncing back from a disappointing season, and then there's what Gerard Moreno is doing. He's already bagged eight goals in La Liga this season, matching his tally from 2018-19 in fewer than half the games.

He's converted promise, potential and a fluttering of good showings into something far more consistent, reliable and dangerous.

His impact in front of goal has had a wondrous effect on Villarreal's league position: They spent last term fighting relegation, but they're fighting for a European spot this time.


5. Lautaro Martinez, 22, Forward, Inter Milan

BRESCIA, ITALY - OCTOBER 29:  Lautaro Martinez of FC Internazionale celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between Brescia Calcio and FC Internazionale at Stadio Mario Rigamonti on October 29, 2019 in Brescia, Italy.  (Photo by
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

There was some disappointment last season as Lautaro Martinez struggled to live up to the hype generated by his move to Inter Milan. The step up to Serie A was a big one, and the club's implosive season hardly helped him settle into a rhythm.

A year of learning under his belt, though, and he's flying. Partnering with Romelu Lukaku up top to great effect, the Argentine is showcasing all the qualities that caused such excitement around 15 months ago: incisive movement, slick link-up play, effective finishing and a work ethic that would make compatriot Carlos Tevez proud.

Antonio Conte has undoubtedly been key to unlocking the extra level or two in his game, putting him in a good position to succeed, but he's also making the most of his chances, becoming a forward the Nerazzurri can depend upon in any situation, no matter the opponent.


4. Thomas Partey, 26, Central Midfielder, Atletico Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22: Thomas Partey of Atletico de Madrid in action during the UEFA Champions League group D match between Atletico de Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen at Wanda Metropolitano on October 22, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport I
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Thomas is an absolute triumph of coaching.

He's been at Atletico Madrid since 2012, biding his time and working hard on his game under the tutelage of Diego Simeone. He's sat and watched the likes of Gabi, Rodri, Augusto Fernandez and more command hugely important roles in midfield ahead of him, and now, in 2019-20, he's finally the main man.

A technically sweet midfielder, his touch and range of passing is now relied upon in Atleti's midfield. His ability to switch the point of attack and bring full-backs into play on the run is impressive.

These are things he's added to his game over time to complement the physicality, the defensive awareness and, of course, the Cholo-style grit he's always had.

Perhaps he would have broken through at an earlier age elsewhere had he left Madrid years ago. But it's also probable he wouldn't feel like this complete a player in return.


3. Kieran Trippier, 29, Defender, Atletico Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 26: Kieran Trippier of Atletico Madrid during the La Liga Santander  match between Atletico Madrid v Athletic de Bilbao at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano on October 26, 2019 in Madrid Spain (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Trippier's post-World Cup slump lasted a full year, his 2018-19 season with Tottenham a regrettable one. Teams targeted him, and he struggled defensively, creating a consistent weak point on the right flank.

He's admitted he should have done a lot better while also revealing he played through numerous injuries, per Matt Law of the Telegraph, and he opted for a fresh start in Spain last summer as he secured a move to Atletico Madrid.  

The early evidence suggests that's exactly what he needed; his performance levels have risen sharply as he's re-found his dangerous, whipped cross, and he's sharpened up defensively under the teachings of Diego Simeone.

Atletico felt like a rogue destination for the 29-year-old, and many were in disbelief the deal happened. But right now, he looks like he belongs.


2. Chris Smalling, 29, Central Defender, Roma (on loan from Manchester United)

GENOA, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: Chris Smalling of AS Roma during the Serie A match between UC Sampdoria and AS Roma at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on October 20, 2019 in Genoa, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images)
Paolo Rattini/Getty Images

Last summer, Smalling became the latest in a growing line of British players willing to try something a little different. He traded Manchester for Rome in search of consistent playing time and has seemingly chosen his destination extremely well.

His aggressive, defensive play is turning heads in Italy for the right reasons, and he capped an excellent start to the season with a goal in a 4-0 win over Udinese last week.

A perfect fit for Paulo Fonseca's system, given he has the ability and speed to duel strikers when the ball is sent over the top, this loan move already has all the momentum required to fuel talk of a permanent one.

Smalling, in the prime age bracket of his career, looks better than ever and is sustaining a strong patch of form better than he did in years at England's top level.


1. Amine Harit, 22, Forward, Schalke 04

Schalke's French midfielder Amine Harit reacts after scoring during the German first division Bundesliga football match between FC Augsburg and FC Schalke 04 on November 3, 2019 in Augsburg, southern Germany. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP) / DFL REGULAT

Schalke's decision to appoint David Wagner as manager during the summer was questioned in some quarters, but the immediate impact he's made—accruing 18 points from 10 games—has thrust them among a thick pack of top-four chasers early on.

Key to this turnaround in form has been Wagner's ability to revive the talented Amine Harit, who boasts incredible, game-breaking talent that previous managers had failed to harness properly.

A weaving runner and mazy dribbler, he's been an incredibly entertaining watch this season and has backed aesthetically pleasing performances with production, grabbing five goals and two assists in the league.

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