At the start of the month, I made a video on seven footballers who flopped this season. Last weekend, I did a video on seven breakout stars this season, and today, I’m taking this little three-part series to its natural conclusion, with a look at 7 players who have rediscovered their form so far this season.
To be clear, anyone who featured in last weekend’s video or were honourable mentions is unlikely to feature here, since this is a seven reserved exclusively for players whose career trajectories in recent times, if plotted on a line graph, would look similar to a circumzenithal arc. That is to say, they were flying, they had a lesser season or seasons, but they’ve got back to their best this season.
Here are 7 players who have rediscovered their form this season:
7. Paulo Dybala
Paulo Dybala is a footballer who has been touted for greatness since a very young age. He was an instant success at Palermo, having arrived as a teenager from Argentina’s second tier. Versatile, tremendous on the ball and equally capable of scoring and creating goals, Dybala did his best work playing just off a centre-forward. Following an excellent 2014-15 season, he was among the most sought after young players in world football.
It was Juventus who won the race for his signature, forking out €32 million up front and a potential €40 million. Dybala immediately proved his class, topping Juve’s scoring charts as the Old Lady won the treble in his debut campaign. A decent second season was followed by an excellent third, as the Argentinian bagged 26 goals whilst playing in a withdrawn role. Last season though, Dybala scored just ten goals, and only five in the league.
It’s worth noting that his role changed last season with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, and those who claimed he had a bad season purely based on the numbers were a little misguided. The fact remained that Dybala was a player who, now aged 26, was coming into his prime, and it was hoped that he would firmly belong to the world class category by that stage. I’m not sure if that was the case last season, but it has been this season. He has become a hybrid of his 2017-18 and 2018-19 self, now averaging the most key passes and the most dribbles in the Juve squad, whilst also bringing goals back into his game. Dybala has already scored more goals in 29 games this season than he did in 42 games last season, and those two factors combined earn him a place in this seven.
6. Toni Kroos
Mr Consistent for so long with all three of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and the German national team, there was a time in which it seemed as though Toni Kroos was unrelenting in his brilliance. He proved he was not infallible last season though, suffering, like the majority of the Real Madrid squad, his worst season for some time. Los Blancos had a wretched campaign by their standards, finishing third in La Liga and getting dumped out of the Champions League by Ajax in the round of sixteen.
Kroos’ form for both club and country was called into question more than most, with former Real boss and German great Bernd Schuster publicly describing him as a ‘diesel tractor’. The 2014 World Cup winner was being pretty heavily linked with a move away from the Bernabeu, even after Zinedine Zidane’s return, but the 30-year-old stuck around in the summer.
As much as he was a valid target for criticism during Real’s struggles, he has been a key cog in their revival. Having scored just one goal and made only six assists in 43 appearances last season, Kroos has already scored four goals and made eight assists in just 29 appearances so far this season. He once again leads the way in terms of both key passes and pass completion rate at Real Madrid, making him more deserving than most of a place in this seven.
Whilst Real Madrid have bounced back from a rubbish 2018-19 season so far this season, Manchester United have arguably got even worse. Following a 6th place finish last term, they currently occupy 8th place in the Premier League, having won only one game more than they have lost. Despite their lacklustre displays as a collective, there is one man who I think has come on leaps and bounds in the Manchester United team this season.
When Fred joined Manchester United from Shakhtar Donetsk for £52 million, it seemed as though the Red Devils weren’t quite sure what they had signed. He wasn’t really a midfield enforcer, anchor or creator, and to put it bluntly, he looked like yet another tremendous waste of money. So, in fairness, Fred was coming into this season from a pretty low base.
Nevertheless, particularly since November, he has arguably been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s best player. The 26-year-old has a terrific engine, he’s good on the ball, and his decision making has come on leaps and bounds. In terms of Manchester United regulars this season, Fred leads the way in terms of pass completion and key passes, and he has often been able to drive the team forward from deep. Whether he is a £52 million player is another question entirely, but following a dreadful debut campaign, Fred now looks like one of Manchester United’s better players.
4. Thomas Muller
Thomas Muller has had a staggeringly brilliant career for someone who isn’t the quickest, strongest or most technically gifted footballer in the world. At his most prolific, in the 2015-16 season, Muller scored 32 goals in 49 games. A little bit like Paulo Dybala, although Muller’s goal scoring output was lower than usual last season, he didn’t have a bad season. The Germany legend scored 9 goals in all competitions, but still recorded an impressive 16 assists in all competitions in 45 games.
This season, Muller has already scored as many goals as last season and has made 15 assists in 30 games, putting him on course for around 15 goals and 22 assists by the end of the season. Jadon Sancho is the only player with more assists than Muller in the Bundesliga this season, and the 30-year-old has well and truly banished any talk of him regressing as a player. Arguably no player has been more important in Bayern’s battle to get back to the top of the Bundesliga table under Hans Flick, and if there were any doubts about whether Bayern would offer Muller a new deal, I suspect they’ve been silenced now.
3. Danny Ings
A strong case could be made for Danny Ings making last weekend seven looking at seven breakout stars this season, given that this current campaign is by far Ings’ best at this level. Ings scored 26 goals in Burnley’s promotion season, and 11 in his first season in the Premier League. A transfer to Liverpool followed, where Ings had injury problems and scored only four goals in 25 games.
He joined Southampton in the summer of 2018, and scored 8 goals in 25 games in his first season at St Mary’s. This season though, the 27-year-old has just exploded into life. The former non-league man has scored 17 in 29 in all competitions and 14 in 25 in the Premier League, a career best for him at this level already. Only Jamie Vardy and Sergio Aguero have scored more Premier League goals than Ings this season, who sits joint third in the race for the Golden Boot, alongside Mohamed Salah, Marcus Rashford, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Ings is tough, industrious, and accurate in front of goal, and ironically enough, now that he is back to his best, he would actually make for an excellent backup to Roberto Firmino at Liverpool. The Englishman only needs one goal to better Roberto Firmino’s best ever Premier League campaign, in addition to having made two assists this season. There aren’t many players who have been as resurgent as Danny Ings this season, despite playing for a bottom half team, so he takes third place.
2. Romelu Lukaku
Comparing Romelu Lukaku this season vs Romelu Lukaku of last season is like comparing chalk and cheese. The big Belgian has gone from an overweight out of position mess on the left flank at Manchester United, to a fit, sharp and relentless single-minded goal getter through the middle at Inter Milan. Lukaku previously played his best football for Everton between 2015 and 2017, when he was quick, lean and really mobile. He was already strong, but he built up his upper body strength a lot at Manchester United, and he appeared to have lost some of that speed and dynamism.
I think one of the key factors to his turnaround at Inter Milan has been that change of his body shape and getting back to what he knows best. The Nerazzurri are also playing to Lukaku’s strengths in a way that Manchester United didn’t, at least not in his final season with the club. The former Chelsea man was often lambasted for his touch at Old Trafford, but Antonio Conte didn’t sign Lukaku to light up the San Siro with flair or invention.
Inter have Lautaro Martinez for that job, meanwhile Lukaku is tasked with putting the ball in the back of the net. As he has always shown at international level, he has no problem doing that. Having scored 15 goals in 45 games last season with Manchester United, Lukaku has already scored 21 goals in 30 games for Inter Milan. Only Ciro Immobile and Cristiano Ronaldo sit ahead of him in the Serie A scoring charts, and whilst Lukaku’s sensational season isn’t wholly surprising, it’s still a resurgent comeback following last season and is worthy of second place.
0. Honourable Mentions
Just to answer questions surrounding a few players that might otherwise crop up in the comments, Ciro Immobile is someone who I just mentioned, and he has scored a remarkable 28 goals in 30 games this season. That is some jump from 19 in 46 last season, and is more reminiscent of his 2017-18 form in which he scored 41 in 47. A case could be made for his inclusion, but Immobile was still very good last season, so I felt there were better candidates. Similarly, Jamie Vardy is having a superb campaign despite an injury setback, and although he has been better than last season, he has actually been consistently excellent and fairly prolific for the last five seasons.
Players who came close to featuring included Dele Alli, who looks to have recovered from his slump in form as I always suspected he would, although I wouldn’t say he is yet fully back to his best, Joselu, who was utterly hopeless at Newcastle last season but has scored 6 in 13 for Alaves this season, and Kieran Trippier, who has bounced back from a weak final season with Tottenham and has had a really impressive debut campaign with Atletico Madrid.
Those are just a few honourable mentions, feel free to subscribe and leave your suggestions in the comments, but now for top spot…
1. Thibaut Courtois
Football fans are notoriously fickle, and Thibaut Courtois went from being the best goalkeeper in the world following the 2018 World Cup to completely useless in some people’s eyes just a few months later as he struggled at Real Madrid. In truth, Courtois was never the best goalkeeper in the world, nor was he ever useless. The 27-year-old is among the top ten goalkeepers in the world, but not the top three, and long-term subscribers will know that I wasn’t particularly surprised by his early difficulties at the Bernabeu.
Keylor Navas did an excellent job in the Spanish capital, and Courtois would have to hit the ground running to fill that void. He didn’t, and following a woeful 3-0 defeat to Eibar in November 2018, Courtois was being described as Real’s worst signing of all time by some supporters. At the start of this season, Zinedine Zidane dropped Courtois and gave Alphonse Areola a run in the side, and that appeared to light a fire in Courtois belly.
He has been utterly transformed ever since, with his revival being rewarded in the form of a La Liga Player of the Month award for January. Having averaged 1.33 goals conceded per game last season, Courtois has averaged just 0.55 goals conceded per game this season. Of course, Real’s all-round improvement has played a role in that, but Courtois is having the best season of his career off the back of his worst. Perhaps there is no greater measure of his improvement than the fact that he is now very much in the running to win the Zamora Trophy, having conceded only 11 goals in 20 league games. The award has been won by Jan Oblak for four consecutive seasons, and it’s a mark of Courtois resurgence that he could nick it this season.