JACK BUTLAND: It is fair to say that there have been little surprises in the goalkeeping department this season. Simon Mignolet still looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights with the ball at his feet; Petr Cech is still a quality keeper and proving to be the missing ingredient in Wenger’s title charge, whilst over at Aston Villa, Jonjo Shelvey’s twin brother, poor old Brad Guzan looks more forlorn than ever before.
Yet amidst these facts of life, a new figure has risen to the fore, a new being paces between the posts, finally a goalkeeper who we can trust… Jack Butland. To fans of Birmingham City, Butland’s quality is no surprise, for in 2012-13 his was the first name on their team sheet. Since then, loan spells at Barnsley, Leeds and Derby may not have been eye catching, yet they provided invaluable experience to a young goalkeeper learning his trade. Now, at the tender age of 22 he is first choice for Stoke City of the Premier League.
No that’s not a misprint; he really is just 22 years of age. Surely this young man would crumble, not only under the weight of expectation, but also the skill, physicality and fast paced nature of one of the world’s best leagues? Eleven games in and not only is he the finest goalkeeper in the league, his 46 saves put him amongst Europe’s best. Tall, strong, athletic, Butland commands the goalmouth with the savviness of a far wiser head.
He will strain every muscle to perform miraculous saves, even coming close to preventing a Coutinho special on the opening day of the season. Up until now, Butland has been exposed by a weakened Stoke back four but with the return of captain Ryan Shawcross, teams playing the Potters will struggle in their efforts. In chopping their way through Shawcross wood they find Butland Mountain towering above them. The best thing about this guy is that although a surprise this year, he will undoubtedly get better. Something all England fans can look forward too.
DIMITRI PAYET: Arriving from Olympique Marseille in the summer, West Ham fans would have forgiven Payet if he took a little time settling into the English style of play. With seventeen assists in the 2014-15 season and a handful of French caps under his belt, here was a player who offered long term potential.
Yet lightning immediately struck when it took just forty five minutes for him to make an impact, providing the free kick which lead to the Hammers first of two goals against Arsenal on the opening day of the season. A few gasps of interest from those maroon clad supporters. Three months later and those gasps have turned into cries of amazement and gushing words of wonder. In eleven games, Payet has scored five and assisted three more with West Ham sitting comfortably in fifth place, only five points off the leaders Manchester City.
He has sizzled in a midfield, which hitherto has been reliant upon prodigious workers such as Noble and Nolan. Payet brings pace, electricity and crucially for supporters, excitement. There have been whispers of him having something special, akin to Zidane. Whilst this is too great a claim for the moment, Payet has settled into the Premier League instantaneously and looks set to become an influential player for the Hammers.
RIYAD MAHREZ: Some may think it cruel that in a season where Jamie Vardy has bagged eight in eight and looks set to match if not overtake Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s ten goal consecutive run, he is not included in this list. Yet if there is one man who equally deserves to be amongst the surprise players of the season, it is Leicester City’s other superhero Riyad Mahrez.
As Batman Vardy takes the headlines, Robin Mahrez does the dirty work. He runs and runs and runs. Against West Brom last weekend Mahrez covered the most ground of any player; the comeback was never in any doubt. Seven goals in ten games from a man who two years ago was playing for Ligue 2 side Le Havre, is stuff made from dreams. In his first year for the club, we saw flashes of the Mahrez brilliance, yet under Claudio Ranieri he has sparkled like the finest cut diamond.
Not only is he a prodigious worker but his creativity and link up play with Vardy has been instrumental in the Foxes current league position of third place. Between them they have scored fifteen goals, the same as the entire Man United team put together. If they continue finding the net and Ranieri plugs the defensive leaks with pizza boxes then Leicester have a terrific chance of finishing in the top seven, something which sounds barmy to say, let alone put into print. With Mahrez the magician though, anything is pizza-ble.
ODION IGHALO: Having played for seven teams since 2005, Odion Ighalo must pinch himself every time he wakes up, for aged twenty six and in only his second year at Watford, he is one of the top three goal scorers in the Premier League.
Despite coming across as a genuinely humble man in interviews, out on the football field, he is lethal with the ball at his feet. Having netted against genuinely good defenders such as Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka, Ighalo has seized on the opportunities which have come his way. A goal tally of 27 in 46 appearances in the past year is a ratio which any striker in world football would envy and certainly there are many in the Premier League who would love to be able to have such a magnificent return (Wayne, Wayne are you reading this?).
Yes, many of those would have been against Championship opposition but the transition Ighalo has made to the pace of the Premier League, proves he is able to score at the very highest level. A miss in the Championship is not especially vital as another will soon come your way; in the higher division you have to make each opportunity count. In comparing Ighalo with fellow strike partner Troy Deeney the class difference is clear. Up until recently Deeney had squandered twenty six strikes on goal before finding the net; with Ighalo it was less than ten. His adaption from the lower leagues to the Premier League is truly surprising and, if his form continues, he might just be the difference between relegation and survival.
DELE ALLI: The rise of Dele Alli has been exponential. In two and a bit seasons he has gone from warming the bench at MK Dons to starting for Tottenham in the Premier League. Prior to the start of the season he had made only seventy four appearances in a professional football career beginning at the age of seventeen.
Now? Ten Spurs games, two goals and given his national cap for England, Alli is one of the first names on the Tottenham team sheet. At nineteen he has outshone the likes of Yaya Toure and Yohan Cabaye whilst competing wholeheartedly with world cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger. This young man clearly has something about him. Already he looks calm and collected when in possession, flies into tackles with fearlessness and finishes coolly. His admission to the national team, whilst a controversial topic, can come as little surprise, for Roy Hodgson believes in youth and in Alli he sees a young man full of potential.
It is also immensely refreshing to witness a proper character in the sport, for both on Twitter and in interviews Alli comes across as a cheeky chappie who is having the time of his life. During this season he was supposed to gain experience by playing capital one games and maybe a full ninety minutes of league action when injuries struck. Instead he has cemented a place in the Spurs side and alongside Eric Dier (who was close to being on this list) gives the team a balanced and concrete structure on which to build. Under Pochettino Dele Alli can grow into an even more assured player yet for now his tremendous start to the season is perhaps the most surprising of all.