Given what happened to him last summer, Christian Eriksen signing for anyone this season would have merited a place in this season’s list, but in Brentford, the recuperating Eriksen found a perfect fit. Thomas Frank’s progressive side always looked too good to go down in their first top-flight campaign since 1947 but some lean runs of form caused sporadic alarm. Eriksen’s arrival on a short-term deal in January, a little more than six months after his cardiac arrest during Euro 2020, did much to assuage those fears, providing that extra creative touch in midfield to keep opponents on their toes. Brentford won seven of the 10 games the Danish international started and his performance in the stunning win at Chelsea in March, in particular, will live long in the memories of Bees fans. Wherever he goes from here – expect him to feature frequently in transfer-gossip bulletins over the summer, with his former club Tottenham among possible suitors – Eriksen will always have a place in Brentford folklore.
As if Jürgen Klopp’s fabled attacking juggernaut at Liverpool possibly needed new angles, new lines of attack, along came Luis Díaz in January to provide them. “We believe he has everything needed to fit into our way and adapt to the Premier League, both physically and mentally,” said Klopp after securing the Colombia international from Porto for an initial €40m. Díaz’s four Premier League goals and three assists barely tell the story of just what a threat his presence on the left of Liverpool’s attack poses.
He has also been pivotal to Liverpool’s cup successes, notably in the comeback at Villarreal, in unstitching Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and in the opening half-hour of the final, when Chelsea didn’t know how to deal with him. Had he joined at the start of the season, that quadruple may well have become a reality.
Perhaps only Newcastle, newly backed by Saudi millions, did better transfer business in January than Tottenham, whose two headline mid-season arrivals from Juventus, Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski, acclimatised instantly and have been instrumental in a strong second half of the campaign that resulted in Champions League qualification. Kulusevski has been full of verve and industry in a wide attacking position, complementing and fortifying the lethal front pairing of Son Heung-min and Harry Kane and providing eight assists in only 18 matches.
Tottenham are expected to sign the Swede this summer on a permanent deal. Kulusevski had felt stifled at Juve whereas he has praised Antonio Conte, the Spurs manager, for “letting me make mistakes and be me, letting me play without pressure”. Tottenham under Conte aren’t yet where they want to be but Kulusevski epitomises what they’ve got right so far.
Mid-table sides and players can be overlooked in end-of-term roundups but Brighton’s progress to a highest-ever league placing deserves recognition. Graham Potter’s side were quietly excellent in the closing weeks and their Spanish wing-back epitomised their development. Signed for £15m from Getafe on deadline day in August, Cucurella has been an instant hit, winning Brighton’s supporters’ and players’ player of the year awards.
A consistently tricky and skilful outlet on the left, Cucurella has deserved more than his one, magnificent goal this season (in the mauling of Manchester United) – though a failure to convert stylish football into goals is a team-wide problem. There is room for some improvement defensively but the interest of richer clubs – Manchester City and Chelsea have been linked – comes as no surprise and he may well add to his one Spain cap.
Crystal Palace, like their great rivals Brighton, have enjoyed a season of incremental yet significant mid-table improvement, with Patrick Vieira imposing a distinctive new style. Creatively, they’ve been strengthened by the signing of Conor Gallagher on loan from Chelsea, but at the back their permanent signing from Stamford Bridge, Marc Guéhi, has perhaps been their most important addition. “The club is taking a really exciting direction,” the defender said on his arrival for £18m in July, and Guéhi has helped them down that path with a string of composed, commanding performances, deservedly earning an England call-up in March and the club’s players’ player of the season award. Vieira has shown sufficient faith in the 21-year-old to have given him the armband when needed, making Guéhi Palace’s youngest captain for 10 years when he led them out against Watford in February. Guéhi epitomises the more upbeat mood around Selhurst Park this season.
Arsenal’s failure to secure fourth place made it easy to dredge up the old tropes about their flakiness and inconsistency, but amid all the frustration their improvement at the back is worth flagging up. Ben White in central defence has been an excellent addition but behind him Aaron Ramsdale in goal has been crucial. The £24m signing from Sheffield United is a more assertive, confident presence than his immediate predecessors and his ability with the ball at his feet has enabled Arsenal to play out of defence more effectively. The ease with which he supplanted Bernd Leno as Mikel Arteta’s No 1 has also put him firmly in the England picture. “I have the self-belief that, yes, I could hold down the position [of England No 1],” he said in October. Few would argue.