These players did not start the season as regular first teamers, but they have recently emerged as important figures for their respective sides.
The injury-enforced absence of Joel Matip is enough to render any Liverpool fan a quivering wreck, but it turns out the club have a decent replacement. And it turns out that decent replacement is an actual centre-half, not just the square peg of Lucas Leiva being shoved into a round hole.
Ragnar Klavan was not greeted at Anfield with gleeful supporters demanding his autograph when he joined the club in the summer. Here was a 30-year-old centre-half signed for around £4million. In a transfer window where Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Alex Manninger arrived, he was the decidedly unsexy acquisition.
But the Estonian has proved to be precisely what Liverpool needed. He started the first two games of the season, with the Reds conceding five goals in that time. He then made just one Premier League start from September to December, but Liverpool have not conceded in the league since he came on as a substitute against West Ham in this month’s 2-2 draw. That is two-and-a-half games of crunching tackles, towering headers and generally looking a bit scary.
Klavan outstanding tonight, especially first half. That tackle he made on Lukaku was massive.
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) December 19, 2016
Remember when not a week would pass by when Jose Mourinho was not planning a clearout of his Manchester United squad? It was back when they were struggling for form, and the Portuguese ensured that the standard of the players he was left, not his management, was to blame.
As late as November, the Daily Telegraph published one such story. Among the players listed in the eight that Mourinho was ‘ready to axe’ were the names of Phil Jones, Matteo Darmian and Michael Carrick. But the most unexpected renaissance at Old Trafford belongs to Marcos Rojo, the two-footed tackling, ball-playing, defence-improving b*stard.
The Argentinean did not even make the matchday squad for four out of the club’s opening five Premier League games. His first league appearance came as a substitute in the 4-0 thrashing by Chelsea. He has started every game since, playing the full 90 minutes in each, and United have conceded just five goals in those eight games. They had conceded 12 in the nine he had not started. With Rojo in the side, they have not conceded more than one goal in any game.
David Moyes will be justifiably frustrated with the news that Sunderland have no money to spend in January, but the Scot has already proven that he can find a bargain. The arrival of free agent Victor Anichebe was hardly the deadline day deal fans had in mind, but the Nigerian has made as big an impact as any other player in the club’s bid for survival.
It was not by chance that Sunderland’s first Premier League win of the season coincided with Anichebe’s first start. The 28-year-old scored and assisted a goal in the 3-1 win over Bournemouth in November, before following up with two goals in the win over Hull. He needs just three more goals to match his best haul in England’s top flight.
Ask a Liverpool fan about Darren Randolph, and they would thank him for his tribute to Loris Karius in dropping the ball into Divock Origi in the 2-2 draw earlier this season. Ask a Tottenham fan, and they will fondly recall their dramatic 3-2 victory over the Hammers at White Hart Lane, in which Randolph made his first Premier League start of the season. Ask an Arsenal fan, and a single tear will drip down their fact as they remember Alexis Sanchez’s London Stadium hat-trick.
Ask a Manchester United fan about Darren Randolph, and they will curse him name into the December wind as memories of his performance at Old Trafford in November come flooding back. The Irishman made seven saves in that fixture, and was named man of the match. He also produced a marvellous save from Jordan Henderson against Liverpool with the score at 2-2, and has kept clean sheets in his last two matches. West Ham have won eight points in six games with Randolph starting; they won 11 in the previous 11.
A lot of pundits saying that this from Darren Randolph is the Save of the Season so far pic.twitter.com/Y2ia25Pl6j
— West Ham News (@WHUFC_News) December 11, 2016
Just under three months separated Cesc Fabregas’ first Premier League start of the season from his next one. The Spaniard found himself on the periphery under Antonio Conte, but was afforded an opportunity against former side Arsenal in September. That opportunity ended when he was substituted 55 minutes into a 3-0 defeat.
It was a long way back for Fabregas, but he has established himself as yet another option in this multi-pronged Chelsea side. His next start came in December, with his remarkable assist for Diego Costa setting the groundwork for a vital victory over Manchester City. His goal in the win over Sunderland helped maintain Chelsea’s unbeaten run; he might not be a regular starter, but he still has plenty to offer.