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After Luis Suárez’ coronation as the PFA Players’ and Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, thoughts turned to an honour more commonly reserved for junior football club awards ceremonies. Whilst the ‘Most Improved Player’ tribute suggests past failures, it undoubtedly conveys an appreciation of the individual’s rise in the previous 12 months.
A number of stars have presented a strong case to claim such an accolade in the Premier League this season and it must be said the converse is true for a plethora of faltering players. Ultimately though, only one man can be anointed as the ‘Most Improved Player’.
Despite his club enduring a torturous campaign, David de Gea can look back on it as a positive learning curve. After suffering a nervy start to his Manchester United career, he has proven himself as their deserved number one over the last two seasons and despite Iker Casillas’ current stranglehold on the Spanish starting spot, the 23-year old has a bright international future ahead of him. In comparison to most of his United team mates, De Gea thrived amidst adversity and will build upon his performances next season.
Meanwhile, at the Old Trafford club’s title rivals of yesteryear, a number of players have upped their performances this season. Despite being part of a side that shipped eighteen goals against the rest of the top four, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have developed a formidable centre-half pairing. With each one keeping club captain Thomas Vermaelen out of the team, they form the heart of the division’s fourth best defence.
Nevertheless, the duo is not alone in its improvement and Aaron Ramsey is beginning to look like the sort of player Arsène Wenger hoped he would develop in to. The 23 year old’s performances in 2013 would have made him Wales’ best player had it not been for Gareth Bale and, had he stayed fit for the duration of the campaign, Arsenal may well have been in contention for more than the FA Cup come May.
Across London, César Azpilicueta has gone from being a potential misfit to an integral component of José Mourinho’s Chelsea side. The ex-Marseille full-back has displaced Ashley Cole in the Blues’ XI, though he remains equally adept in his favoured right sided position. Embodying the defensive and attacking capabilities that are essential for all modern full-backs, Azpilicueta looks set for a long stay at Stamford Bridge and talks over a contract extension are said to be ongoing.
Another player whose performances this season have merited a new deal is Gareth Barry. Cast out and dejected at Manchester City, the 53 times capped midfielder looked unlikely to be in the reckoning for this summer’s World Cup. However a deadline-day loan move to Roberto Martínez’ Everton revitalised his prospects of a return to the England set-up. A homecoming to the Etihad Stadium is unlikely, but the 33 year old will have no shortage of contract offers.
In contrast to Barry, who has flourished on Merseyside, Jonjo Shelvey’s career seemed set to stagnate during his time in Liverpool. 12 months on, following a switch to South Wales, the midfielder has become a key element of Gary Monk’s team that has struggled during its third season in the top-flight. Despite Swansea’s broader travails, Shelvey has reclaimed his position as an exciting England prospect and will hope to add to his solitary cap in future.
Like Ramsey and Shelvey, who have started to deliver on the promise they showed as teenagers, Fabian Delph’s career trajectory is on the up. The ex-Leeds United youngster has arguably been Aston Villa’s leading light this season, particularly as Christian Benteke has failed to replicate the form which saw him touted as a £30m player last summer. Although Paul Lambert’s future at Villa Park is in jeopardy, Delph will probably be part of the Midlands side’s recovery.
A fellow northern-raised prospect who has excelled this campaign has been Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez. After enduring a somewhat difficult first Premier League season, the Burnley-born winger-come-striker developed in to one of the South Coast club’s crucial players before badly injuring his knee in April. Fifteen goals in thirty three league appearances put him in with a World Cup chance, so a call-up for Euro 2016 looks a distinct possibility.
Whilst it is clear that a plethora of individuals from across the Premier League could be in the running for the ‘Most Improved Player’ award, it is without doubt that one outfit has provided the most candidates. Liverpool’s meteoric rise has seen them mount their most impressive title challenge since they last secured British football’s top club prize in 1990, and although Suárez and Daniel Sturridge have been integral to this, four of their teammates stand out.
Signed in early 2013, Philippe Coutinho was one of a long list of Brazilian tricksters that had failed to live up to his billing after making the move in to Europe. However, this season he has made himself a mainstay of Brendan Rodger’s side along with fellow 1990s child Raheem Sterling. Though the SAS partnership has dominated the discussions of many football fans, Sterling’s part in the SSS has seen him not only become a key player on Merseyside but a potential starter for England’s opener in Manaus on June 14th.
Behind the five times European Champion’s forward players though, it could be argued that a pair of English central midfielders have most embodied the club’s unbelievable progress this season. Once a marauding, attacking midfield player, Steven Gerrard has adapted his game to become the Anfield side’s quarterback of sorts. Dictating play from a deeper position, Gerrard orchestrates many of Liverpool’s finest moves.
However, the so-called engine room would be nothing without the cogs and pistons which allow the fancier elements make things happen. Step forward Jordan Henderson, the Premier League’s ‘Most Improved Player’. Perennially lambasted before this season, the midfield water carrier has upped his game to a level few predicted he would reach. Despite not being the most technically proficient individual, Henderson reflects the value of hard work and intense application that so many players who fall by the wayside lack.
Although it has been Rodgers’ more advanced charges that have drawn the most plaudits, and rightly so in footballing terms, the 23-year old deserves recognition for his performances this season. Much like Fernandinho provides balance to a midfield which contains the swashbuckling Yaya Touré and defensively averse David Silva, Henderson has adapted his game to become a vital element of the Liverpool side. Their slip in the latter stages of the campaign coincided with Henderson’s 3-match ban and, had the Premier League trophy ended up at Anfield this season, it would have been in no small part down to this man.