Football Features

Players who proved us wrong across Europe’s top five leagues this season

By Ben Green

Premier League surprise packages 2019/20 most improved

Published: 13:27, 25 March 2020

There is nothing sweeter than redemption. Or should that be revenge? Either way, there are few greater joys in football than a comeback story.

When the chips are down, fans are on your back and the manager has seemingly lost faith, it is easy for a player to rest on his laurels and fall into oblivion.

But there are those who simply crave the spotlight and will allow no obstacle – age, injury or otherwise – to hinder their pursuit of perfection.

Just look at Jamie Vardy. Many thought the former England international peaked in 2015/16. But the Leicester marksman has proven the doubters wrong and is currently enjoying the form of his life, all at the ripe old age of 33.

Those lightning legs are still operating at full tilt, and giving fellow pace merchant Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a run for his money in the Golden Boot race.

Some may have foreseen Vardy’s goalscoring brilliance this term, though. He did, after all, net 10 goals in his last 11 Premier League appearances last campaign. He’s simply picked up from where he left off. But, there are a number of would-be write-offs in the summer who have achieved a level of performance few saw coming. Here we look at those players, the ones we had already cast aside and held little hope for. Oh, how they have proven us all wrong!

1. Nemanja Matic

When Man Utd snapped up Matic from Chelsea in 2017, it was seen as an act of self-sabotage from the west London club. Many felt the towering Serb would take up Michael Carrick’s ‘quarter-back’ throne at Old Trafford and transform Jose Mourinho’s midfield.

And the two-time Premier League winner did initially show glimmers of his midfield supremacy. It’s just it soon became apparent he was simply too slow to operate as an effective launch pad for his new team, particularly when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the reins. The Norwegian espouses a high-pace, counterattacking brand, which is almost diametrically at odds with Matic’s more languid style.

In the absence of both Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay this term, that all changed. The 31-year-old has proven his worth and has been almost revolutionary alongside Fred.

Matic’s contract was due to expire this summer, but such has been his influence this campaign that the club have since triggered a one-year extension.

2. Chris Smalling

It has been quite the year for Man United castaways. Smalling, the foremost example, was expected to slide into obscurity after having been shown the door at Old Trafford in the summer.

On the contrary, the Roma loanee has excelled in Serie A this season, acclimatising almost seamlessly to Italian football and proving indispensable to Paulo Fonseca’s backline as the Giallorossi chase a top-four finish.

Such has been Smalling’s renaissance in Rome that England manager Gareth Southgate recently floated the prospect of an England recall. Elite clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal back home have been linked with his signature, too.

3. Riyad Mahrez

More often than not, big-money transfers backfire. Whether it’s the burden of expectation, the weight of a hefty price tag or simply a failure to adapt to new surroundings, there are a number of factors that can stifle a player’s progress.

When Pep Guardiola lured Mahrez to the Etihad for a club-record fee last season, there was an expectation the Algerian would do nothing but flourish under such a revered tactician. Then that penalty miss against Liverpool happened, something his maiden campaign will largely be remembered for, and went on to make just 14 Premier League starts. With the extreme depth of talent otherwise available to Guardiola, Mahrez looked destined for a spot at the back of the pecking order.

But he has really come into his own this campaign. With the waning form of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane’s long-term absence, Mahrez has stepped up and injected new life into Guardiola’s starting XI. He is now one of the first names on the team sheet. Having set up eight top-flight goals, only Kevin De Bruyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold has more Premier League assists this season.

4. Adama Traore

Traore was always one of those players who seemed to have bags of potential he wasn’t quite capable of expressing on a regular basis, instead offering fans a modicum of his talent one week before firing a blank the next. That is certainly not the case now.

He has transformed from a ‘FIFA 20 player’ – someone who ranks high in the speed charts – according to Jamie Redknapp to an “unplayable” forward, as described by Jurgen Klopp.

The unique Wolves winger has gone from just one league goal and one assist last campaign, to 11 direct contributions this time round (four goals, seven assists). He is now starting to realise his La Masia potential and is no longer considered a forward with no end product.

5. Caglar Soyuncu

Vardy has been the goalscoring phenom, James Maddison has been the creative catalyst and Kasper Schmeichel has been the safe pair of hands in Leicester’s incredible season, but arguably the fulcrum of Brendan Rodgers’ entire operation is Soyuncu.

It wasn’t exactly plain sailing for Soyuncu last season following his £19m switch from SC Freiburg, with a combination of injury complications and work permit issues culminating in what the 23-year-old has since described as an “unlucky situation”.

With just six league starts in 2018/19 Soyuncu was struggling to adapt to the King Power, but following the departure of Harry Maguire he has flourished in the heart of Leicester’s defence and is now one of the most sought-after centre-backs across Europe.

6. Lys Mousset

When Sheffield United spent £10m to pry Mousset away from Bournemouth, for whom he scored just three league goals across over 50 games, it was considered a gamble. What seems a relatively fee for the Premier League was actually a club record amount for the Blades at the time, after all. But that bit of business has since proven a masterstroke from Chris Wilder and left egg on the face of Eddie Howe & Co.

As joint-top scorer for this season’s biggest surprise package in the Premier League, the Frenchman has enjoyed a stellar campaign at Bramall Lane so far and become an invaluable cog in Wilder’s well-drilled machine. Meanwhile, the Cherries have struggled for options up front, owing largely to injury problems, and are currently circling the Premier League drain.

7. Robert Snodgrass

When West Ham signed Pablo Fornals in the summer to add to the creative names of Manuel Lanzini, Andriy Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson, Snodgrass looked like he would be a spare part in Manuel Pellegrini’s squad.

However, where the above quartet have floundered, Snodgrass has flourished, proving indispensable to Pellegrini during his ill-fated second season and now invaluable to David Moyes. He plays with his heart on his sleeve and is a strong favourite to clinch the club’s Hammer of the Year award.

8. Danny Ings

Ings was always expected to find his feet at Southampton after a torrid time at Anfield, but he has truly amazed and surpassed expectations on the South Coast this campaign. Only Sergio Aguero, Mohamed Salah, Aubameyang and Vardy have netted more than his 15 goals in the Premier League.

In fact, he is directly responsible for 42.9 per cent of the Saints’ league goals this season. Without his contributions in the final third, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side would be in a much more precarious position than 14th.

9. Renato Sanches

When Swansea landed to former Golden Boy recipient on loan from Bayern Munich in 2017/18, it looked like the signing of the season. Of course, the Portugal international completely flopped in Wales, mistook an advertising board for a teammate and has since admitted he was “forced” to join the club.

So, when Bayern severed ties in the summer and Sanches relocated to Lille, it was either going to be a case of the 22-year-old resurrecting his career, or fading further into irrelevance. Fortunately for football it has been the former this term. Sanches is reinvigorated and playing a key part as Les Dogues’ chase a top four finish in Ligue 1.

10. Martin Odegaard

The Norwegian enjoyed loan spells away from Real Madrid in the Netherlands with both Heerenveen and Vitesse, but when he joined Real Sociedad in the summer there were always question marks as to whether he could do it in one of Europe’s top five leagues.

The 21-year-old has answered those questions emphatically by becoming a creative wizard in Imanol Alguacil’s Real Sociedad side, who currently occupy fourth spot in La Liga. Heck, he even scored in Sociedad’s famous 4-3 win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu earlier this season. 

11. Thibaut Courtois

The former Chelsea goalkeeper endured a difficult debut season at Real, with whom his reputation took a battering after a number of high-profile blunders. The result was a decline in popularity among the hyper-critical Bernabeu terraces. However, this season he has rediscovered his Stamford Bridge spark and is proving vital to Zinedine Zidane, who recently described the Belgian as the “best in the world”. On recent showings, that assessment isn’t far from the truth.

12. Ashley Young

It would be easy to think that, at 34, this would have been one of Young’s last seasons at the very peak of football, with a move to MLS, West Ham or the Far East on the horizon.

Those destinations can wait, it now seems. The versatile full-back left Old Trafford and secured a regular staring berth in Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan. Such has been the immediate impression he’s imprinted at the San Siro that the club have already activated a one-year extension in his contract.

13. Mason Holgate

Holgate has admitted that his time at Everton prior to this season had been “a bit up and down”, but he is now indispensable to Carlo Ancelotti and there has even been talk of an England call-up. Having been sent out on loan to West Brom last campaign, it was looking increasingly likely that Holgate’s future was away from Goodison Park. But having shone in the West Midlands, he has returned to Everton a different beast altogether.

“I did not know Mason before I came here and I was surprised by him,” Ancelotti told Everton’s club site just this month. “He is a complete defender.”

14. Dominic Calvert-Lewin

Just like Holgate, Calvert-Lewin has really come into his own this term and has taken to Ancelotti’s tactics like a duck to water. The 23-year-old has always been a hard-worker but that is now starting to translate to goals as well. A new, improved contract followed his 13 strikes in the league this season so far and an England call-up isn’t entirely out of the question for the Sheffield-born marksman, who is now looking like a prolific goalscorer rather than a forward who blows hot and cold in the final third.