8 Premier League players shining unexpectedly this season
Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United)
The Belgian bulldozer, a one-time Old Trafford outcast lambasted by his own supporters and hopelessly at odds with his own flailing limbs, has been the surprisingly effective weapon in Jose Mourinho’s armoury this season.
Widely tipped to leave in the summer, the footballing equivalent of a Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tubeman has instead outlasted Wayne Rooney to live (and jab his elbow awkwardly) another day.
Only this season, it’s not as awkward. Fellaini appears to have extinguished that defining habit of going from reviled to revered. The 29-year-old is enjoying his finest chapter in a tumultuous United career, having scored four goals of a distinctly Fellainian flavour (two from Ashley Young crosses and a couple of close-range nudges over the line).
Fellaini’s contributions have been such that irate United fans have directed their ill-feeling at Belgium manager Roberto Martinez, who played the midfielder in a dead-rubber World Cup qualifier despite already carrying a knock. A couple of years ago they would have cheered sarcastically at his subsequent injury absence – but the tide has turned.
Arthur Masuaku (West Ham)
After flopping in his first season, it looked for all the world that this surefire Paul Merson tongue-twister would stutter anonymously toward the West Ham exit along with Simone Zaza and Jonathan Calleri. But while that duo headed for pastures new, Slaven Bilic kept his faith in Masuaku, a £6m signing from Olympiakos. Slowly but surely, it looks as though the Congolese left-back is ready to repay his manager.
He may have started the season ignominiously – grasping at Romelu Lukaku’s shadow in the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United – but the speedy 23-year-old has redeemed himself admirably with a couple of exhilarating cameos that have shaped the Hammers’ fortunes in recent weeks. That included setting up Diafra Sakho’s 90th-minute winner against Swansea to clinch a much-needed win, leading some to suggest that he could be a surprise source of inspiration.
Masuaku, fleet of foot and sharp on the turn, looks reborn. Expect to see him scampering up West Ham’s wing more often as the season goes on.
James Tarkowski (Burnley)
If Sean Dyche were in Blade Runner 2049 (and sometimes it’s fun to imagine him as a megalomaniac sci-fi villain), James Tarkowski would be his ideal proto-Dychian creation: a muscular presence at the back programmed to defend, defend and defend some more.
In recent weeks, he’s essentially mastered the craft, and tops the Premier League charts outright for both clearances (76) and blocks (16). His performances for the Clarets in recent weeks have filled the void left by Michael Keane’s departure to Everton, and sent pinging noises to the radar of England manager Gareth Southgate.
Burnley have been the surprise package of this season (they’re level on points with Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool after eight games) and Tarkowski has been instrumental, commanding the backline and throwing himself in front of anything and everything.
Mikel Merino (Newcastle)
Merino, a tidy operator in central midfield, has only been on Tyneside for three months but has already developed into a firm favourite – so much so that Newcastle have already turned his loan deal from Borussia Dortmund permanent.
Having played a part in every Premier League game bar the opener, the 21-year-old Spaniard has been a revelation with his blend of vision, positional discipline and incisive passing.
Merino continued his impressive international form over the recent international break, scoring one and setting up another for Spain U21s as they swatted away Slovakia 4-1.
For all the murmurings of discontent at St James’ Park following a supposedly dismal summer transfer window, the Magpies look to have found a gem to twinkle alongside Jonjo Shelvey.