Skip to main content

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.

Alberto Moreno (Liverpool)

From Merino to Moreno, but more redemption than revelation. Alberto Moreno’s see-saw relationship with Jurgen Klopp is very much genial now thanks to the Spaniard’s impressive upturn in form.

Last season, Moreno did everything in his power to get dropped – and Klopp duly obliged, favouring James Milner instead. Often labelled as Liverpool’s liability at left-back, the 25-year-old has upped his game following the signing of Andy Robertson and is making up for lost time.

After starting just two Premier League games last season, Moreno has completed 90 minutes in the last four Liverpool matches and now finally looks at home in the Reds' defence (which doesn't necessarily say much for him, granted). Considering there were serious discussions about his exit in the summer, it’s quite the reversal of fortunes for a player who has been an Anfield punching bag for criticism.  

Ben Davies (Tottenham)

Spurs fans were genuinely dismayed when it was revealed that Davies would miss Saturday's win over Bournemouth – and possibly their midweek trip to Real Madrid – through illness. But it hasn't always been this way. 

Before 2017/18 the Welshman had spent most of his Spurs career playing second fiddle to Danny Rose, but a long-term injury to the England left-back gave Davies an opportunity he's seized this season. He has been among Tottenham's best performers haring down the left flank, managing two goals and another two assists in six Premier League matches so far. 

It will be genuinely interesting to see whether Davies keeps his place once he's returned to fitness, what with Rose – who lambasted his own club in an explosive August interview – coming back from injury imminently. 

Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)

Sterling has often swayed between excellence and episodes of mind-numbing wastefulness. However, under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, the 22-year-old has largely occupied the former.

What Sterling has always needed, more than anything, is nurturing – and he’s found the perfect manager in Guardiola. The young forward claims that Manuel Pellegrini stifled his natural tendency to dribble at defenders by focusing on two-touch exercises in training. However, under Guardiola he’s rediscovered his groove, notching seven goals already this season (he managed 10 in the whole of 2016/17) – including a late equaliser against Everton and 97th-minute winner against Bournemouth.  

Sterling seems to respond more to Guardiola’s unrepressed touchline theatrics than Pellegrini’s piercing yet strangely impassive stare and, with bolstered confidence and a detailed tactical briefing, he looks primed to play a starring role in what’s shaping up to be a blockbuster Manchester City season.

Shinji Okazaki (Leicester)

Leicester fans haven’t had much to shout about this season – but one positive is that they haven’t had to exclusively rely on Jamie Vardy for goals. Rather, they’ve had to rely on Vardy and his trusted lieutenant in the Foxes attack: Shinji Okazaki.



10 times footballers went AWOL (featuring paintballing, weddings and grandmas)

Why do so many footballers end up broke? FourFourTwo investigates

After the surviving the wreckage that was Leicester’s 2016/17 season, the Japan international has shown that there’s far more to him than just hard running and infectious smiles, scoring four goals in seven appearances already this season.

A hugely popular veteran of the Premier League triumph, Okazaki was always selected more for his unfettered enthusiasm than his ruthless edge, having managed only a dozen goals in the last two seasons. However, he's well on course to surpass his season-best tally in England of six.

His insatiable work ethic and selflessness have always endeared him to the neutral, but now Leicester's smiling assassin is managing even more reasons for cheer.  

New features you'd love on