Man City man gets the award nobody wants in Premier League’s top 10 most-improved players
If you played for a team as a youngster, you wanted to avoid being named Most Improved Player at the end-of-season awards. It was an insult. It basically said: ‘You were shit, now you are a little less shit. Well done.’
Now, the jump from playing on a Sunday morning to playing in the Premier League is quite big, but the feeling as a player is probably quite similar, although you do not get an official award, only a theoretical one made up by journalists with nothing better to do.
Arsenal and Newcastle are flying, so they have a couple of representatives in our ranking of the top ten most-improved players in the Premier League this season.
10) Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)
It is amazing what a competent football manager can do for footballers, isn’t it? Under Steven Gerrard during the majority of last season and the first 11 games of this, Ollie Watkins scored ten goals in 39 appearances, falling out of the England squad in the process.
Now with Unai Emery at the helm, the 27-year-old is on fire. Not only scoring more goals, but influencing the whole team as the focal point of the Aston Villa attack. His hold-up play has come on leaps and bounds and a return to the Three Lions set-up is inevitable. Gareth Southgate was in attendance last month to see Watkins run the show against high-flying Newcastle; that can’t have done his chances any harm.
Watkins is only taking 0.32 shots more per game this season in comparison to 2021/22, but his shots-on-target percentage has jumped up, his goals-per-shot rate is much better and he is contributing a lot more defensively. The Spanish manager is clearly asking less of Watkins in terms of being a playmaking striker and Watkins is delivering.
9) Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Man Utd)
There have never been any doubts over the defensive ability of Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Well, one-on-one defending that is. He has always been a bit dodgy when it comes to defending his back post properly. The slide-tackling spiderman has clearly benefitted from the appointment of Erik ten Hag, even if it didn’t seem that way when the Dutchman was first appointed. The 25-year-old played four Premier League minutes before the World Cup break and a January move seemed inevitable. But a Diogo Dalot injury meant Ten Hag would call upon Wan-Bissaka, who absolutely took his chance.
Wan-Bissaka has always been a good defender but had never delivered enough offensively since United paid £50million to sign him from Crystal Palace. From looking like a fish riding a bike whenever the ball was at his feet to channelling his inner Neymar once every game, Wan-Bissaka’s improvement going forward has been…surprising. Only the other weekend he was shutting down Kaoru Mitoma and going on mazy dribbles himself. What the hell happened? You can only assume Erik ten Hag happened.
A summer transfer should still be the player’s priority, though. He has done enough to prove he is good enough to start for a Premier League team, and that team probably isn’t Man Utd. A move back to Crystal Palace makes sense for all parties. The Red Devils need to cash in while his stock is high. £25-30m should do the trick.
8) Joe Willock (Newcastle)
It is a shame that Joe Willock never made it at Arsenal. Thankfully for him, he’s at a club with an equally exciting project. At the time of his £25m move to Newcastle, it seemed like a good deal for everyone involved. Fast-forward a couple of years and the thought of Willock playing in this current Arsenal midfield – in the Granit Xhaka role to be exact – is a mouth-watering proposition. If the Gunners have a buyback clause, it might not be a bad idea to exercise it…
Willock’s goals played a huge part in keeping Newcastle up in 20/21. Had they gone down to the Championship, would they have been bought by those filthy-rich Saudis? Is Joe Willock the reason Newcastle United are mint? That is a conversation for another day.
After that outstanding loan spell, there were high hopes for Willock. But his 21/22 campaign was not great, and some questions were asked about whether he was a one-season wonder. Two goal contributions in a whole season after netting in seven consecutive games the campaign before was less than ideal.
This year has been a different story completely. Willock has matured and has shown he is not a one-trick pony. Eddie Howe is bringing the best out of him and he is clearly someone who can thrive in the Champions League next season. His ball-carrying, playmaking and defensive contribution have improved a ludicrous amount and it is a joy to see. That assist against Spurs, by the way. Wow.
Assist of the season from Joe Willock?
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) April 24, 2023
7) Nathan Ake (Man City)
Last summer, Chelsea seemed pretty close to re-signing Nathan Ake for around £40m. This was a bit of a random one. The fact he is left-footed probably had something to do with it. Maybe Todd Boehly saw something stupid casuals like myself didn’t? That can’t be it.
Signed in 2020 as a whatever-choice centre-back under Pep Guardiola, Ake has slowly but surely become a very integral part of the Spaniard’s system. Used as a central defender or a left-back, the Dutch international is enjoying a fine season – one not many saw coming.
When you compare Ake to other centre-backs in Europe’s top five leagues this season, he ranks top of the following statistics: passes completed, passes attempted, pass completion rate, total passing distance, progressive passing distance, passes completed, attempted, attempted rate (short and medium length), passes into the final third, live-ball passes, number of times dribbled past (this is a good thing, by the way), touches (defensive and midfield third), successful take-ons, passes received and times dispossessed. If you got bored reading that, that says all you need to know. For what it’s worth, he ranked top of the following statistics last season: passes completed (short length) and goals. That is it.
6) Miguel Almiron (Newcastle)
You might think that sixth place is pretty harsh on Miguel Almiron, but his stellar goalscoring form is beginning to look more like a purple patch than the curious case of a player mocked by Jack Grealish becoming one of the best wingers in the league.
Almiron has 11 Premier League goals in 29 appearances this season, which is obviously fantastic, but two goals since the turn of the year obviously is not. The Paraguayan international is a dream for any manager. He has an incredible engine, is clearly clued up tactically, and even when he wasn’t scoring goals for fun, was a pain in the ass for any defender.
When you compare Almiron’s passing statistics this season to last, it is simply mind-boggling. A lot of this can be attributed to how much better Newcastle are, but he is completing A LOT more passes. In comparison to 21/22, Almiron is attempting eight more passes a game, while completing them at a higher percentage, performing close to double the number of progressive passes and is clearly much more of a goal threat.
5) Gabriel Martinelli (Arsenal)
Newcastle and Arsenal have arguably improved more than any other team this season (although Man Utd fans might disagree), which obviously means they will each have at least one representative in this top ten.
One of the Gunners’ biggest success stories this term is Gabriel Martinelli, who only became a regular starter under Mikel Arteta last season. The young winger has been in fine goalscoring form this term and managed to earn a place in Brazil’s World Cup squad. Having scored six in 29 top-flight encounters last season, Martinelli currently has 15 with five games remaining.
As someone who has watched Martinelli more than anyone else on this list, it is easy to see how much he has matured in the space of a year. Arteta has a ludicrously impressive track record developing wingers, which he was able to display during his time as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Man City. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling reaped the benefits of working under the Spaniard, and now the same is happening for Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, who are often the best two players on the park whenever the Gunners play.
From how they receive the ball to their decision-making, Saka and Martinelli are blossoming into world-class talents and are two of the main reasons why this season’s title challenge will not be a one-off.
4) Gabriel Magalhaes (Arsenal)
Another one of Arteta’s success stories at The Emirates, Brazilian centre-back Gabriel Magalhaes has gone from being inconsistent and rash to an absolute monster at the back. Admittedly, the past few weeks have not been his best, but having to play next to Rob Holding would make anyone look a bit sh*t. No offence, Rob.
As Arsenal are dominating more games than they were last term, Gabriel is seeing a lot more of the ball and it is clear to see his development in that aspect of his game. He is passing more progressively, but it is defensively that Gabriel’s improvement is more evident.
Clearly a lot more reliable, Gabriel has formed a wonderful partnership with William Saliba. They complement each other very well and the addition of the Frenchman to Arteta’s starting XI has certainly benefitted the former Lille man. He is more disciplined, averaging 0.14 yellow cards per game, when it was 0.24 last season. He is also committing fewer fouls and has not received a red card this term.
If there is one thing Gabriel can improve on, it is his ability in the air. He loses over 40% of his aerial duels, which is less than ideal for a central defender.
3) Solly March (Brighton)
Roberto De Zerbi has worked wonders with quite a few Brighton players during his short time on the south coast. None more so than Solly March. There cannot have been many people who saw this coming. Having struggled to get fans off their seat very often in five Premier League seasons, March has done so on multiple occasions this time around. Seven goals and seven assists in 31 appearances in the top flight have helped Brighton in their pursuit of European football.
Obviously, goal contributions are not everything, so it is important to emphasise the rest of March’s solid work under the guidance of De Zerbi. The 28-year-old is greatly trusted by the Italian boss when it comes to going forward and back. He is tackling more, blocking more passes, blocking more shots and being taken on less often. If there is one word you can use to describe Solly March it would be ‘reliable’. Will he get in the England squad in June? We do not see why not.
2) Marcus Rashford (Man Utd)
Scoring more goals is not the only criteria for getting into this top ten, we promise. Having scored four goals in 25 league matches last season, Marcus Rashford MBE has an outrageous 16 in 31 this term – meaning his total across all competitions is 29 in 51. He has also made 11 assists. Not too shabby.
It is amazing what a bit of confidence can do. A decent manager and some stability don’t tend to hurt either.
1) Jack Grealish (Man City)
A combination of confidence and finally being settled in has helped Jack Grealish become one of the best players in the Premier League. Moving to Man City can be very testing for the best of players – although Erling Haaland certainly bucks that trend – due to Guardiola’s intense regime and extremely meticulous tactics. After providing six goal contributions in the league during a difficult maiden campaign at The Etihad, Grealish currently has 11 and his performances have made him undroppable. Which is bad news for Phil Foden.
Grealish initially looked like just another body in Guardiola’s system. People said he was in the wrong team as he couldn’t express himself as he did at Aston Villa. It turns out he just needed a bit of time to adapt – which few afforded him after costing Man City a whopping £100m.
Obviously, a lot of Grealish’s improvement is down to the player himself, but the change in system and dropping of Joao Cancelo has been massively beneficial. Guardiola’s left-back has played more like a left-back than another attacking midfielder/winger with the aforementioned Ake taking on that role, allowing Grealish to operate in the spaces he thrives in.
READ MORE: Premier League finishers: Harry Kane drops behind Gabriel Martinelli as Haaland streaks away
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