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13 Nov 2015 00:00
Mesut Özil: Better than ever. (Julian Finney/Getty)
David de Gea (Manchester United)
Outwitting Real Madrid and convincing De Gea to sign a new contract might just be Manchester United’s greatest triumph so far in the post-Ferguson era. The farcical sight of the young Spaniard sitting alongside Víctor Valdés and Anders Lindegaard to watch Sergio Romero play seems a hazy memory now, and De Gea has demonstrated his mental fortitude by putting all that ballyhoo behind him and immediately responding with top-class performances.
He has made the extraordinary routine.
Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal)
Another young Spaniard about whom there were once questions over Premier League suitability. It is less than a year since Bellerín was “abandoned” by Per Mertesacker to endure a gruelling ordeal in a bruising Arsenal defeat by Stoke at the Britannia Stadium. Bellerín has gone on not only to prove he can cut it in the Premier League but also that he is a cut above most other defenders. And he contributes plenty in attack, too, thanks to blinding speed and smart choices.
Virgil van Dijk (Southampton)
The centre-back might have made a calamitous start to his international career but his first steps in the Premier League have been immaculate. He has played every minute of every Southampton league match since arriving in September, almost effortlessly forming a solid partnership with the excellent José Fonte. Commanding in the air, tough in the tackle and composed on the ball, he has been both an effective blocker and an able builder from the back. He has also been a menace at the other end from corners and can take a mean free kick.
Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Back in the summer, most people saw problems ahead for Manchester United’s supposedly dodgy defence but Smalling saw an opportunity and has seized it decisively. The 25-year-old has matured into a highly accomplished defender. He remains dominant in duels, his positioning and reading of matches have evolved enormously and his consistency is now exemplary. De Gea is not the only reason United have the best defensive record in the league so far.
Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
When it comes to left-backs, we should recall the promising start made to the season by Luke Shaw before that unfortunate injury, and also note the unsurprisingly excellent form by Ryan Bertrand since his return from injury, but most of all we should acknowledge the quiet efficiency with which Monreal has secured the position at Arsenal, where he was once considered second-choice behind Kieran Gibbs. He has played every minute of every league game so far this season and has seemed tougher, more confident and more reliable than ever.
Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
Even the sun gets eclipsed sometimes. Mahrez was withdrawn at half-time after failing to shine at Bournemouth and he was blotted out completely for the trip to Norwich. But he has lit up practically every other Leicester match. Blessed with rare close control and a far-out imagination, the Algerian is a magician who does more than entertain – he also decides matches, his transformation of the game against Aston Villa, in which Leicester were 2-0 down and emerged as 3-2 victors, being one example of many. He scores goals, creates goals and works unselfishly for his team, while making it all look wonderful fun.
Fernandinho (Manchester City)
If one of the themes of the season so far has been the diminished form of established stars such as Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa, another has been the blooming of players who took time to take root in England. Fernandinho has been radiant this season; more dynamic and powerful than ever but also showing the panache that has seldom been seen from him at Manchester City. Last season his offensive contribution pretty much amounted to providing a platform for Yaya Touré; this term his surges into the box have become a thrilling additional feature of his and City’s play.
Mesut Özil (Arsenal)
Özil was brilliant when he first arrived at Arsenal and then he seemed to shrivel up and disappear. He is back. And he may be better than ever. He says bulking up has helped withstand attempts to bash him off his stride. What is clear is that he is now a much more regular influence on matches, with his vision and precision integral to Arsenal. He has forged a particularly delightful understanding with Alexis Sánchez, as memorably showcased in the destruction of Manchester United, but even when the Chilean has been below par, Özil has kept probing and prising opponents apart.
Dimitri Payet (West Ham)
One of the low points of the season has been the tackle that has put this Frenchman out of action for around three months. That will distort West Ham’s campaign and detract from our enjoyment of their matches, as Payet’s skills and incision have been among the highlights of the season so far. He is one of those players whose repertoire manages to convey simultaneously impish cheek and high-brow sophistication, his feint and dink against Crystal Palace being a beautiful case in point. His sidefooter into the top corner against Newcastle was also evidence that he sees things differently to average players.
Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
You can’t argue with 12 goals in 12 games. All types of goals, too. And much more besides. Defending against the Leicester forward must be like having workmen using a pneumatic drill outside your bedroom window all night, not a moment’s respite, a royal pain in the head. Vardy’s speed, endeavour and sharpness help make Leicester lethal on the counterattack, and the same qualities, plus his canny link-up play, also enable them to prosper from initiating attacks.
Graziano Pellè (Southampton)
There is no better exponent of the one-man frontline role than this Italian. His power and mobility enable him to bully several defenders in a single game, as various members of Manchester United’s and Chelsea’s backlines have memorably found out this season. He also has the technique – including a chest-passing repertoire that even Marouane Fellaini may envy – and wisdom to serve as the ideal fulcrum for attacks. He is a perfect target for Dusan Tadic’s crosses and a deft pivot for Sadio Mané and the widely underrated Steven Davis.
Jack Butland (Stoke City), Allan Nyom (Watford), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Danny Drinkwater (Leicester City), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur) and Odion Ighalo (Watford).
Claudio Ranieri (Leicester City)
The Italian has kept the spirit of last season burning, usually got his team selections right, made decisive in-play switches and presided over exhilarating performances while achieving results that few would have predicted. So far he looks to have been an inspired appointment, and all those preseason sceptics who said he was the wrong man to replace Nigel Pearson should go bury their heads in the sand in shame. – © Guardian News & Media, 2015
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