The 10 most improved Premier League players of 2015/16
1. Dejan Lovren (Liverpool)
This season, however, the Croatian has learned from his mistakes and looks a completely different defender. Owing his improvement to a greater understanding under Jurgen Klopp, Lovren has formed a more formidable pairing with Mamadou Sakho in the Merseysiders' back four.
It's not been enough to get him into Croatia's Euro 2016 squad – mainly because of a row with coach Ante Cacic – but this season has helped him back onto his feet.
2. Jack Butland (Stoke)
Butland had improved so much that he was legitimately staking a claim to Joe Hart’s England spot
Filling in for the departed Asmir Begovic was always going to be a tough task, and despite a difficult start to the campaign, Butland has really come into his own this season.
With 10 clean sheets in 24 games since the start of October – which included man-of-the-match performances against West Ham and Newcastle – it's with little wonder that Stoke finally decided to give him their No.1 shirt after four loan spells in the Championship from 2013/14 onwards.
Butland had improved so much that he was legitimately staking a claim for Joe Hart’s England spot, but a fractured ankle suffered in the friendly against Germany in March ruled him out for the rest of the season – and the Euros. If he keeps this up, though, a starting berth at the 2018 World Cup won't be be farfetched.
3. Chris Smalling (Man United)
The England international is a big reason why United currently boast the best defensive record in the league
While this has been a season to forget for Manchester United fans, Smalling's performances have been rare positives.
The former Fulham defender has been one of the few constants in an injury-ravaged campaign for Louis van Gaal, having made 33 league appearances and displaying consistency and solidity at the back.
The England international is a big reason why United currently boast the best defensive record in the league, and hopes will be hanging on him this summer in what looks like a suspect positional area for England.
4. Riyad Mahrez (Leicester)
Simply, the Algerian has reached another level this season with his mesmerising dribbling, goals and overall play. It says a lot that last season's numbers from standout player Eden Hazard – 14 goals and nine assists – were surpassed by Mahrez in early February. The 25-year-old finished up with 17 goals and 11 assists in 37 games. Leicester’s task now is to retain him.
5. Eric Dier (Tottenham)
If he was only a utility player in his first season for Spurs, Dier solidified himself in the starting XI this season.
Originally a right-back who played as a central defender, Mauricio Pochettino converted Dier into a holding midfielder with stunning results. Providing extra cover to what is already a solid defensive back four, Dier has grown into his role, displaying superb positional discipline and becoming a rock in midfield for Spurs.
The 22-year-old – yes, he's that young – can expect to play a prominent role for England in Euro 2016.
6. Danny Drinkwater (Leicester)
Drinkwater’s tenacity, tackling and passing abilities have seen him form a strong midfield partnership with the hardworking N’Golo Kante.
After struggling to get into the Leicester side that battled relegation last season, Drinkwater became an essential member of Claudio Ranieri’s side that won the top-flight title for the first time in club history.
The ex-Manchester United trainee's tenacity, tackling and passing abilities helped him form a strong midfield partnership with the similarly industrious N’Golo Kante.
It’s testament to Drinkwater that not only has he improved so much, but that the high-profile replacement for Esteban Cambiasso – Gokhan Inler – has barely seen any game time for the Foxes. Drinkwater’s form has been justifiably rewarded with a place in Roy Hodgson's preliminary 26-man England squad for Euro 2016.
7. Erik Lamela
LAMELA'S SEASON STATS
- 2013/14 - 1 goal, 0 assists
- 2014/15 - 2 goals, 7 assists
- 2015/16 - 5 goals, 9 assists
The Argentine was in no man’s land for the good part of two years, following his signing in 2013 when he was expected to help replace the goals and guile of Gareth Bale.
However, under Mauricio Pochettino, Lamela has rediscovered the form that got Europe’s top clubs noticing him in the first place, displaying the full potential of his talent that meant he became virtually undroppable for Spurs.
- READ THIS There’s so much more to Erik Lamela than meets the eye – and you won’t see it in YouTube compilations
Their season ended disappointingly but the future is still very bright, especially for the former Roma man. With five goals and nine assists this campaign, he'll be looking to do even better next season.
8. Jamie Vardy (Leicester)
Vardy was always energetic and full of pace, but this season he has taken his game to another level in front of goal.
Leicester’s main outlet throughout their historic title-winning season, the 29-year-old broke Ruud van Nistelrooy's record by scoring in 11 consecutive league games, finishing the season with a mightily impressive 24 league goals in 35 games – 19 goals more than he managed the previous campaign.
A true late bloomer, Vardy will now hope his club performances translate on the international stage and beyond.
9. Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
Once the second-choice left-back for Arsenal and perenially linked with a move back to Spain, Monreal is now one of the most pivotal members of Arsene Wenger’s team.
The former Malaga man had a shaky start to life in north London but has slowly become one of the most consistent players in the Premier League, let alone Arsenal. Such has been his form that Kieran Gibbs has been resigned to appearances off the bench, his Spanish team-mate having started 36 out of 38 league games this season for the Gunners.
10. Wes Morgan (Leicester)
Morgan was part of the Leicester side that conceded 55 goals last season, so for the same defender to captain a relegation-threatened team to the Premier League title the very next season is some improvement.
Leicester only conceded 36 times this season, and the battling Morgan was an integral part of the Foxes’ triumph. He played every minute of the league campaign – only the third title-winning player to do so – and demonstrated more than physicality, with intelligent reading of the game alongside Robert Huth. He also made 41 blocks – only two players managed more in the Premier League.
The 32-year-old defied all of his doubters, not least after Leicester's late 2-1 loss to Arsenal when they kept seven clean sheets in their next nine games to grind their way towards to the title.