Leeds would be entirely fucked without their most improved player and there are no prizes for guessing Manchester United’s.
We’ve also picked our biggest slumps.
Arsenal – Granit Xhaka
People say footballers are in their prime when they’re around 28. It’s the point where they have the most experience while their physical condition is still somewhere near its peak. But few get to 28 and reinvent themselves as Xhaka has done, to such an extent that he plays like a completely different footballer. Mikel Arteta has worked wonders with him, and yet may still opt to upgrade him.
Aston Villa – Leon Bailey
Bailey watched mainly from the sidelines in his debut season, as Steven Gerrard persisted with an admittedly strange system which saw Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins run around up front with no service. Gerrard eventually gave in and used his £30m winger, but Bailey waited for Unai Emery to repay Gerrard’s trust, scoring and assisting in the Spaniard’s first game in charge. The Jamaican has started eight of Emery’s nine top-flight games as Villa boss.
Brentford – Mathias Jensen
When I think of Brentford, I think of a player that looks like Mathias Jensen. I’m not necessarily picturing Jensen, it’s more a mix of him, Mads Roerslev and Christian Norgaard, but we probably shouldn’t be lumping the Danes in together. Anyway, Norgaard remains top of the Brentford Dane charts, but Jensen has closed the gap this season.
Brighton – Solly March
Five of the top six Brighton players last season according to the WhoScored ratings are no longer at the club, which is extraordinary given they’re now even better and that also provides plenty of room for improvement. March now tops those ratings having started every Premier League game for Brighton this term, already beating his number of appearances last season, with four goals and four assists to his name.
Chelsea – Kepa Arrizabalaga
Kepa is comfortably second in the post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed (PSxG+/-) stakes, which is essentially how likely the goalkeeper is to save the shot with the number of goals they actually concede subtracted. Alisson’s on +8.1, Kepa’s on +6.8, with Bernd Leno a distant next best on +3.3. Last season Kepa scored +1.2, in 2020-21 he got +1.2, and he finished 2019-20 with a truly incredible -11.3.
Crystal Palace – Michael Olise
One moment of brilliance shouldn’t secure a player’s place in this list, and Olise was also good last season, but without other obvious candidates his free-kick against Manchester United is enough to earn him a spot. He didn’t score a goal as good as that last season.
Everton – Jordan Pickford
Slim pickings at Everton but Pickford appears to have mellowed this season, which is no bad thing. His PSxG+/- has gone from -2.3 to +0.5.
Leeds – Rodrigo
Leeds would have been entirely f***ed without him this season. He’s scored in every game Leeds have won, and apart from the Chelsea game, in which he scored and assisted in the 3-0 win, Leeds would not have won any of those games without his goals. He also scored in two of Leeds’ three score draws. Leeds would have four points this season if Rodrigo hadn’t played.
Leicester – James Maddison
Maddison was probably also Leicester’s best player last season, but has taken his game up a level this term, which is no mean feat considering the significant dip in form for the rest of the team.
Liverpool – Roberto Firmino
Few would have predicted Firmino to be Liverpool’s top scorer in the Premier League. In fact you would probably have made him least likely of their five forwards (now six with Cody Gakpo) to top the scoring charts. Seven goals in 13 appearances before his injury is as good a goalscoring run as he’s experienced in his Liverpool career.
Manchester City – Riyad Mahrez
There is definitely some recency bias at play here, with Mahrez scored five and assisting three in his last six. And his place in this list has absolutely nothing to do with a rather outlandish pre-season prediction.
Manchester United – Marcus Rashford
In January last year, while working as a pundit, Steve McClaren said “somebody needs to give Rashford the tools to come out of the bad times because he doesn’t know how to and stays in it.” Perhaps we should be lauding McClaren, now back coaching at United, for helping Rashford to overcome his demons.
Newcastle – Miguel Almiron
He’s not scored in January, so if Jack Grealish could get p*ssed up and mock him again we’re sure the Newcastle fans would be grateful.
Southampton – James Ward-Prowse
He’s not really improved, but has claimed his spot by being the only Southampton player who hasn’t got worse.
Tottenham – Rodrigo Bentancur
The Uruguayan has been excellent since arriving at Spurs in January last year but has added goals to his game this term.
West Ham – Lukasz Fabianski
According to the WhoScored ratings, every West Ham player is worse this season than last. Lukasz Fabianksi is only slightly worse.
Wolves – Daniel Podence
Having been in and out of the Wolves team in the last two seasons, rotated with their abundance of other skilful but unthreatening wingers/inside forwards, Podence is now close to a stalwart having started 16 of their 20 games, top-scoring with five of their 12 Premier League goals.