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Premier League’s most Improved XI: from Pickford to Pedro, a Team on the up - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Jordan Pickford (Sunderland)

Last season, after returning from a loan stint at Preston, the young goalkeeper had to continue learning his trade by sitting on a bench and contemplating how he might displace Vito Mannone. On-field action was restricted to three appearances during which he conceded nine goals and although those goals were not his fault, he began this season still an understudy to the Italian. Mannone’s injury, however, has given the 22-year-old a steady run in the first team and he has grasped his opportunity as convincingly as he claims crosses. Despite committing a costly blunder against Southampton in his first outing of the season, he has been one of Sunderland’s most reliable performers even when left obscenely exposed by his defence. His saves were a big factor in his club’s first Premier League win of the season against Bournemouth and his performance at White Hart Lane in September, when Hugo Lloris hailed him as amazing, was the main reason Sunderland escaped with only a narrow defeat. At a time of gloom at the Stadium of Light, Pickford has managed to confirm he has a very bright future.

Victor Moses (Chelsea)

Chelsea awarded Moses a new contract in September 2015 but that seemed to be so that they could charge other clubs more for his services rather than play him themselves. Shortly after signing that deal he was loaned to West Ham, who had an option to buy him at the end of last season but decided not to. He would have been farmed out again if Antonio Conte had not thought his potential could finally be harnessed at Chelsea four years after the club originally signed him. In October the Italian switched formation and used Moses as a wing-back for the game against Hull City, giving the Nigeria international his first league start for Chelsea in 1,239 days. Moses performed brilliantly and has continued to do so, his raids down the right an important part of Chelsea’s transformation.

Stephen Ward (Burnley)

When Wolves flunked pitifully out of the Premier League in 2012, few people envisaged Ward returning to the top flight. Frankly it looked a level too far for him. Apparently Wolves’ new manager at the time, Kenny Jackett, did not even think he could help get the club out of the Championship again and so they offloaded him, first on loan to Brighton, where he did well, and then permanently to Burnley, where soon after his arrival he suffered a broken leg. After battling back to fitness he struggled to get into Burnley’s team and had not made a club start for over a year when he made a sensational return to international football by starting Ireland’s 1-0 win over Germany in October 2015. Two months later he finally broke into the Burnley side. And he has been there ever since, helping Sean Dyche’s side to promotion and being a notable part of their solidity so far. He turned 31 a week after the start of his latest Premier League season and his displays at left-back have suggested there is a place for him in the top flight, after all.

Joe Allen (Stoke City)

There was no clamour for the Welshman to be driven out of Anfield: he had done pretty well in his four years at Liverpool without securing a regular spot and he was a smooth cog in Wales’ glorious Euro 2016 campaign. So everyone knew he was good. But only Stoke City were smart enough to realise exactly how good he could be. Their £13m purchase of Allen has emerged as one of the shrewdest deals of the summer. In the early part of the season, when many of his team-mates seemed dazed and confused, his energy and passing in midfield limited Stoke’s embarrassment. Mark Hughes’s decision to shift Allen into a slightly more advanced role helped trigger the team’s improvement and enabled the player to hone his poaching skills, as he scored four goals in three matches to kickstart Stoke’s season.

Oriol Romeu (Southampton)

Last season he was a fringe player at Southampton, now he is the linchpin of the team, the player who, according to Claude Puel, “gives us our structure”. Puel has rotated his players throughout the season as Southampton combine domestic and European duties but Romeu has started all but one of the team’s Premier League and Europa League matches. And he has been excellent in them all. His intelligence and dynamism have enabled him to make the highest number of interceptions in the top flight, his passing is crucial to Southampton’s fluency and his will to win is inspirational, his rousing triple-block against Leicester City being one of the highlights of the season so far. Victor Wanyama, sold in the summer to Tottenham, has not been missed at St Mary’s.

Sam Clucas (Hull City)

It is always satisfying to see a player rise to each new challenge he meets. Clucas did that last season when he joined Hull from Chesterfield and played his part in the club’s promotion. And the 26-year-old began doing it from day one of this season, when he marked his first Premier League match with an excellent performance in midfield to help topple the champions, Leicester. He has continued to perform with exceptional dynamism and high technical proficiency since then even when more experienced team-mates lost form and left him to fend almost by himself in midfield.

Nordin Amrabat (Watford)

The only time that Clucas has looked out of place this season was when he was cast as a left wing-back for the trip to Watford by the Hull manager, Mike Phelan, and then treated as a rag doll by the home team’s winger Amrabat. The Morocco international only flickered last season after his arrival from Málaga in January but this term he has consistently shown how well suited he is to the Premier League. Exceptionally strong for a wide player, he can shoulder opponents out of the way – as James Milner discovered at Anfield before the international break – as well as run or trick his way past them. He has not yet added scoring to his repertoire but he has created several goals, most memorably in the draw at home to Bournemouth, when his flash of magic set up Troy Deeney.

Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)

Sterling is only 21 but he already knows what it is like to be vilified by thousands of strangers and a few national newspapers for seeking success, driving cars and getting his hair cut. The people who selectively dislike that sort of behaviour took great pleasure in mocking the youngster’s feeble displays at Euro 2016 on the back of a hit-and-miss first season at Manchester City. He has responded with class. Under Pep Guardiola he has become one of City’s most consistently dangerous players – strong, sharp, canny and daring. Only his finishing remains unconvincing but he has shown signs of improving even that, which is no surprise given his quality and strength of character.

Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

Speed is Walcott’s greatest asset but he doesn’t half go slow in reverse. His has been a backwards career: first came the acclaim, then the big transfer, the international recognition, the bumper new contract and then, finally, the consistently outstanding performances, albeit for only a couple of months so far. But he has been irrepressible in most of his 12 appearances this season, seemingly gaining in deadliness after accepting at last that he is best playing out wide and needed to work harder. “Maybe it should have hit me a few years ago but there’s been a change in my whole attitude,” he said in September. The use of “maybe” was remarkable and counsels against declaring him a talent fulfilled just yet, but so far this season’s Walcott has been an upgrade on previous versions.

Eden Hazard (Chelsea)

If there was one thing worse than Chelsea’s attempt to defend their title last season and José Mourinho’s weird unravelling, it was Eden Hazard’s fall from player of the year to waster of the year. The three things were probably related but, whatever was afoot, there were times last term when it was difficult to believe that Real Madrid courted Hazard and easy to imagine him being condemned for crimes against passion. But this season the Belgian is back – and better than ever. His performances, in particular since Antonio Conte adapted the formation to give him more creative freedom, have been often breathtaking, spawned new title ambitions at Stamford Bridge and given fresh life to claims that he could become a great player as opposed to a massive tease.

Pedro (Chelsea)

Like Hazard, Moses and even Diego Costa, the Spaniard has been reborn under Conte and is finally starting to show why there was such excitement when Chelsea signed him from Barcelona last year. His interplay with Hazard and Costa has been among the most effective and eye-catching aspects of Chelsea’s surge up the table over the last five matches. In the summer few Chelsea fans would have been bothered if Pedro had left the club, now no one can really argue against him starting ahead of last season’s player of the year, Willian.

The down side

Here are a team of players whose performances have been below previous levels:

Shay Given; Robert Huth, Lamine Koné, Chris Smalling; Wayne Routledge, Giannelli Imbula, Mark Noble, Cesc Fàbregas; Wayne Rooney, Odion Ighalo, Jamie Vardy

The Guardian Sport