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The Most Improved XI in Europe in 2021

The Most Improved XI in Europe in 2021. Here is Bet Central’s Most Improved XI in Europe in 2021 by Zach Lowy.

European Football Improved XI

Bayern Munich kicked off their 2020/21 campaign with a 1-1 draw to Borussia Mönchengladbach followed by a 3-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the DFL-Supercup Final, before taking on Cologne at the Allianz Arena, where they were held scoreless in the first 45 minutes. One of the main culprits of their attacking malaise was Leroy Sané, who lost possession 11 times, completed 9 out of 16 passes, and was heavily booed by Bayern supporters before being hauled off at halftime for Jamal Musiala. Musiala would provide the assist for Robert Lewandowski’s opening goal after the break, whilst a brace from Serge Gnabry gave the defending champions a hard-fought 3-2 victory at home.

It seemed set for another disappointing campaign from Sané, who had failed to impress in his first season in Bavaria following a €49 million from Manchester City. He was expected to provide the “missing ingredient” for a side that had just won a treble, but instead, he found himself unable to dislodge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman from the starting eleven and struggled to deliver under Hansi Flick. This season, however, Sané has found himself reinvented under Julian Nagelsmann, providing 11 goals and 11 assists in 26 appearances – the same amount of goal contributions as last season – and finding his best form since tearing his ACL in 2019.

Sané is far from the only player to rapidly improve his fortunes over the first half of the 2021/22 season. Let’s take a look at the most improved XI of the ongoing campaign so far.

Aaron Ramsdale

When Arsenal announced the signing of Aaron Ramsdale for an initial fee of £24 million, I’ll admit I was incredibly sceptical at first. After all, this was a guy who had just suffered back-to-back relegations with Bournemouth and Sheffield United, and whose Blades let in a whopping 63 goals in 38 games. It’s fair to say that Ramsdale has proven me wrong thus far, quickly beating out Bernd Leno for the starting goalkeeper position and thriving in between the sticks for Mikel Arteta’s side. Having faced an Expected Goals on Target of 18.2, Ramsdale has conceded just 14 goals in the Premier League thus far. Not only is his passing range and distribution a massive bonus to Arsenal’s build-up play, but his shot-stopping and reactions have seen him win Arsenal’s Player of the Month award in back-to-back months. At 23, it seems Arsenal have found their goalkeeper for the next decade.

Jimmy Cabot

From Téji Savanier to Andy Delort, Ligue 1 is certainly no stranger to late bloomers, and one late bloomer who is currently dazzling in France is Jimmy Cabot. After spells at Troyes and Lorient, Cabot joined Angers on a free transfer in 2020 and provided 1 goal and 1 assist in 23 appearances. The departure of manager Stéphane Moulin after a 10-year reign and the appointment of Gérald Baticle has proved crucial in Cabot’s renaissance, with the traditional attacking player being repositioned as a right wing-back and reaping the results. Apart from his 6 assists in 18 games, the 27-year-old is completing 2.39 dribbles per 90 minutes over the past 365 days, ranking in the 99th percentile amongst fullbacks in Europe’s top five leagues, per FBRef. His 3.68 tackles (97), 7.85 progressive carries (95) and 18.71 pressures (95) demonstrate that he is quickly becoming the complete package for Angers, who sit 11th in Ligue 1.

Max Kilman

Prior to this season, you could be forgiven for knowing more random trivia facts about Max Kilman than whether or not he was actually a good defender. Born in Chelsea to Ukrainian parents, Kilman speaks fluent Russian and made 25 appearances for England’s futsal team before joining Wolves in 2018. After making his debut for Wolves on May 4, 2019, Kilman was sporadically used in the following campaign and continued his upward trajectory in 2020/21 under Nuno Espirito Santo, logging 2 assists in 20 appearances. However, the arrival of Bruno Lage as manager has seen Kilman become a vital cog of a defence that has conceded just 14 goals in 18 matches, a figure only bettered by Manchester City and Chelsea. Kilman is the only Wolves player who has played every single minute under Lage, the 24-year-old thriving on the right side of the back three and even bagging his first goal for the club in a 2-1 win against Everton.

Mohammed Salisu

“Standing 6’3,” Salisu is a quick, physically imposing centre back who can read the game well and win 1v1 duels, and while he still hasn’t made his Premier League debut yet due to a lack of match fitness, he has the potential to become the next superstar to emerge from Southampton.”

It has been one year and two months since I put Mohammed Salisu on my Top 10 Transfers of the Summer 2020 Transfer Window, and unlike James Rodríguez or Alexander Sørloth in my list, it’s fair to say he’s paying off his price tag.

An injury-filled 2020/21 saw the Ghanaian make just 15 appearances for Southampton; he’s already made 18 this season. The departure of Jannik Vestergaard to Leicester City has opened the door for Salisu to emerge as the club’s defensive leader under Ralph Hasenhüttl, managing 3.7 progressive carriers per 90 minutes, as well as 1.78 tackles per 90 and 13.01 ball recoveries. Southampton fans can thank their lucky stars that Salisu, unlike Mohamed Salah or Edouard Mendy, will not be heading off to Cameroon for next month’s African Cup of Nations.

Matheus Reis

“He’s an average player, but for some reason, Rúben Amorim just loves to bring him on in random circumstances. Matheus Reis just showing again why he puzzles a lot of Sporting fans and hopefully when Nuno Mendes is back to full fitness and Rúben Vinagre has his run in his team, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a lot of Matheus Reis in the team.”

Those were the words of my friend Sam Fonseca, the host of the Sporting 160 EN podcast, who voiced his concerns on Matheus Reis on Cortalinhas, my weekly podcast on all things Portuguese football. They came after Sporting’s 2-1 win against Braga on August 14, which saw Reis come on for summer signing Vinagre and receive two bookings within 18 minutes.

Fonseca, like myself and other Sporting fans, was sceptical that Reis had the required level for Sporting. The Brazilian had played a key role in leading Rio Ave to Europa League qualification in 2020/21, but after unsuccessfully attempting to force a move to Olympiakos, Reis was suspended and went five months without playing before joining Sporting in January, where he would play a total of 536 minutes for the league winners. However, with Mendes leaving for Paris Saint-Germain on deadline day and Vinagre fading from the first-team picture following a horrific performance against Ajax on September 15 that saw them lose 1-5 in Lisboa, Reis has solidified himself as a reliable performer for Sporting, impressing both as a left-sided centre back and a left wingback, proving plenty of Sportinguistas wrong, and proving Rúben Amorim right.

Flavien Tait

Sometimes, a player’s improvement comes from the sale of a teammate or a managerial appointment, but sometimes, all it takes is a little positional change. That has certainly been the case for Flavien Tait, who, at 28 years of age, finds himself playing the best football of his career at Rennes, wh sit fourth in Ligue 1 and who have topped their UEFA Europa Conference League group. Previously an inside forward, Tait has been repositioned as a central midfielder by new manager Bruno Genesio and delivered sensational performances in the middle of the pitch, a poor man’s Marco Verratti if you will. Amidst a side full of promising young stars such as Lovro Majer and Kamaldeen Sulemana, Tait has emerged as a veteran leader and, like Reis, has shut the mouths of previously critical Rennes supporters and become a revelation in a box-to-box midfield role.

Sandro Tonali

“Whilst Milan returned to the Champions League for the first time in eight years thanks to various impressive new signings such as Simon Kjær, Fikayo Tomori, and Ante Rebić, Tonali struggled to convince and eventually found himself behind Franck Kessié, Ismaël Bennacer and loan arrival Soualiho Meïté in Stefano Pioli’s pecking order. Nevertheless, Milan decided to take up their purchase option on Tonali — unlike Meïté, who they have since replaced with Tiémoué Bakayoko — albeit at a discount.”

I wrote those words on Sandro Tonali in September, and three months later, he’s only gotten better for the Rossoneri. Whilst Milan have lost various starters such as Simon Kjaer and Davide Calabria due to injury, Tonali’s health and continued performances in the heart of midfield has steered the club to second in the league at the turn of the year. With Kessié set to leave at the end of the season on a free transfer and Bennacer struggling to recover last season’s form, Tonali’s breakthrough campaign at the San Siro couldn’t have come at a better time.

Vinícius Júnior

If there’s any player who can demonstrate what one year can do to a player’s career, it’s Vinícius Júnior. 14 months after Karim Benzema infamously told Ferland Mendy “Do not pass it to Vinícius, on my mother’s life he is playing against us,” Vinícius has emerged as Benzema’s partner-in-crime and one of the deadliest forwards in Europe with 12 goals and 9 assists in 25 appearances for Real Madrid. The Brazilian is hitting a world-class level for the La Liga leaders, and at 21 years of age, he’s just getting started.

Giovanni Simeone

A look through the Serie A top scorers chart does not prompt many raised eyebrows. Leading the way is Dušan Vlahović for 16 goals, followed by Ciro Immobile (13), Lautaro Martínez (11) and other Serie A veterans such as Duván Zapata (9) and Edin Džeko (8). Sitting third in the Capocannoniere race is Giovanni Simeone (12), who, at 26 years of age, is in the form of his life for Igor Tudor’s Hellas Verona.

After scoring just 6 goals in 33 appearances for Cagliari last season, ‘El Cholito’ has struck a deadly partnership in attack alongside Gianluca Caprari and blossomed for the Mastini, who sit 12th in Serie A and have already beaten Roma, Juventus and Lazio.

Emmanuel Dennis

Whilst Simeone’s 12 goals have him third in Serie A’s top scorer charts, Emmanuel Dennis’s 7 goals and 5 assists put him fifth in the Premier League Golden Boot race, behind Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, Jamie Vardy and Raphinha, and level with Mason Mount, Sadio Mané, Bernardo Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo, Emile Smith Rowe and Heung-min Son. The Nigerian striker struggled for form at Club Brugge last season and did not fare much better on loan at Köln – in total, he scored just 2 goals and 4 assists in 23 appearances. At Watford, however, Dennis has emerged as the attacking talisman for Claudio Ranieri’s side and could be crucial to the Hornets staying up in the English top-flight.


The final spot in this team is occupied by another late-bloomer: Juanmi. After developing at Málaga, Juanmi earned a move to Southampton in 2015, where he would fail to find the back of the net before leaving for Real Sociedad the following summer. After a three-year spell at Anoeta, Juanmi joined Real Betis for a fee of €8 million in 2019, but a left-foot injury prevented him from stringing together a run of performances in his debut campaign. The following season saw him often benched and out of the squad, totalling just 4 goals in 850 minutes. And yet, 2021/22 has seen the 28-year-old forward’s fortunes skyrocket under Manuel Pellegrini, scoring 13 goals and 2 assists in 21 appearances. In contrast, Juanmi scored just 11 goals over the past three campaigns. He is outperforming his expected goals by 6.35, challenging Karim Benzema for the Pichichi award, and could very well lead Betis to the UEFA Champions League for the first time in 17 years.

Zach Lowy is the co-creator of Breaking The Lines (@BTLVid) and a freelance soccer journalist for various websites such as BET Central, Soccer Laduma and Hudl Analysis. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is the host of the Cortalinhas podcast, a weekly podcast that discusses Portuguese football. Zach has accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge in football and has written about various subjects for BET Central ranging from Barcelona's financial difficulties to the 'lost generation' of South Africa's Amajita class of 2009.

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