Over the years, the Premier League has been lit up by many sublimely talented footballers who grab the headlines week in and week out. Each team has its own set of media-darlings and hyped footballers, and their performances are often written about in exaggerated terms, glorifying their achievements. However, every team also has a few footballers that work as hard as everyone, if not more, and still slip under the radar. These are the unheralded heroes that do the dirty work behind the scenes, and are often not given the recognition they so deserve. Usually such players are defensive midfielders or even wide players who do not necessarily contribute directly with goals and assists but are still vital for the team’s overall attacking system.
Not getting appreciated for your hard work isn’t exactly the best thing that can happen to a footballer. So big props to these underrated stars who are absolutely vital for their respective clubs, and their true value is only realized when they aren’t available to play.
The following list is in alphabetical order.
20 Arsenal – Olivier Giroud
One of the most maligned strikers in Premier League history, Olivier Giroud has cut a lethargic figure ever since he made his big move from Montpellier. He has been guilty of missing several gilt-edged chances despite playing in front of one of the most productive and creative midfields in the land. There’s only one problem with this accusation though – he’s actually not that bad!
Since making his debut for the club in 2012, Giroud has scored 87 goals in all competitions, at an average of over 20 goals per season. He is one of the most consistent strikers in the top flight currently but often gets overlooked due to his severe lack of pace when compared to the likes of Walcott and Sanchez. He is brilliant in the air and his ability to play with his back to the goal is an important aspect of Arsenal’s attack, which is otherwise fluid and quick. He is the only physical player in Arsenal’s attack, an attribute that sets him apart and also results in him being the slowest player on the pitch, and hence easier to criticize.
19 Bournemouth – Nathan Aké
The on-loan Chelsea defender is a brilliant versatile youngster, capable of playing anywhere in defense as well as in holding midfield. Extremely comfortable on the ball, the Dutch youngster was once highly rated at Chelsea before typically being loaned out to several lower league sides. Even at Bournemouth, his loan deal was about to be cut short, as he was not deemed fit enough to start for the club in their first 11 games of the season.
However, once he got his coveted first start, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Aké has now started the last five games in a row for the club, helping them keep two clean sheets as well as contributing with two goals, one of them being a legendary stoppage time winner in a thrilling 4-3 win over free scoring Liverpool, earning him instant fan-favorite status at the club. His calmness and composure on the ball is way beyond his age and if he can keep up his performances, Antonio Conté would surely keep a keen eye on him for the future.
18 Burnley – Michael Keane
Solid center back Michael Keane has been very impressive this season, despite Burnley languishing in the bottom half of the table. The defender was chucked out of Manchester United as a youngster after being deemed not good enough, and several unsuccessful loan spells followed. However, he finally found his calling at Turf Moor, and is now established as a crowd favorite, though criminally underrated beyond the club.
Keane leads the charts in several statistical graphs this season, such as highest clearances, maximum number of blocks as well as the highest headed clearances, a testament to his aerial dominance. Despite being more consistent than the likes of Chris Smalling and Phil Jagielka, Keane has repeatedly been overlooked for a spot in the English national team. However, his form has started to finally get the recognition it deserves, and there are rumors of Chelsea preparing a big bid to land the young defender, as a potential replacement for outgoing captain John Terry.
17 Chelsea - Pedro Rodriguez
Probably a surprise inclusion on this list, considering he is one of the most decorated footballers in the world currently, courtesy of five La Ligas and three Champions League medals with FC Barcelona. Pedro was expected to light up the Premier League following his $28 million transfer last summer. Many Premier League fans actually doubted his true abilities and considered him a bit overrated. They were proven right initially as the Spanish winger had a stinker of a season last term. The overall negativity surrounding Chelsea’s dismal form led to people dismissing Pedro as another expensive flop.
However, this season Pedro has been a revelation under Antonio Conté, regularly starting on the right of a front 3 and keeping the impressive Willian out of the side. During the club’s incredible run of 10 consecutive wins, Pedro has scored 3 and assisted 4 goals, and also won the Premier League goal of the month award for his stunning curler against Tottenham. Despite his exploits, Pedro is often overlooked by the media, as they keep focusing on the likes of Hazard, Costa and even David Luiz.
16 Crystal Palace - James McArthur
One of the most solid and reliable defensive midfielders in the game today, James McArthur has been the heartbeat of a free scoring Crystal Palace team this season. One of those players who aren’t valued a lot till they are unavailable to play, McArthur is adored by the Crystal Palace faithful. A perfect combination of tenacity and technique, McArthur is responsible for linking Palace’s defense with their attack.
A robust, box-to-box, ball-winning midfielder, McArthur has added an attacking dimension to his game as well. He already has 4 goals and 5 assists to his name this season in the league, and his form is slowly catching the eyes of several clubs across the continent. Fortunately for Palace, McArthur isn’t exactly rated very highly outside the club, and hence they do not have to fear losing him anytime soon. Despite tearing a ligament in February 2016, Mcarthur is back to his best and regularly gives his all for Palace’s cause.
15 Everton - Gareth Barry
Once the heartbeat of an exciting Aston Villa side, where everything positive in attack came through him, Gareth Barry proceeded to become one of the most underrated footballers in the history of the Premier League following his big move to Manchester City. As age slowed him down, Barry took on an unconventional role of a defensive midfielder/destroyer for City and played some of his best football there, despite never being mentioned in the same breath as other world class talents such as Aguero, Yaya Toure, David Silva etc.
A move to Everton soon followed, and was seen as his final move before retiring soon. However, the English midfielder has reinvented himself at Goodison Park and has been Everton’s most consistent performer in the last couple of years. His role at CDM prevents him from getting into the limelight but he is absolutely crucial for his club. One of only 3 players to have played more than 600 Premier League matches, Barry’s career speaks for itself and his wealth of experience is priceless for the youngsters at Everton.
14 Hull City - Robert Snodgrass
Hull City recruited several big name stars in the last few seasons, meaning that Scottish international Robert Snodgrass had several players ahead of him in the popularity charts at the club. While the likes of Shane Long have already departed, and the highly rated Abel Hernandez failing to perform in the Premier League, Robert Snodgrass has stepped up to the challenge and has already scored 4 goals this season.
A career threatening injury in 2014 kept him out for the whole season that year, but the Scottish attacking midfielder has come back stronger than ever before. He also boasts of an international hat trick for Scotland in recent World Cup qualifier. Snodgrass was a consistent performer for Norwich as well, scoring 12 Premier League goals in two seasons, and was a popular inexpensive choice in several fantasy football games as well. Purchased for a meagre amount of $9 million, Snodgrass is now Hull’s primary attacking threat.
13 Leicester City - Marc Albrighton
One of the unsung heroes of Leicester’s unprecedented dream run to the title last season, Albrighton has been a brilliant servant for the club over the last two years. Though last season he pitched in with numerous goals and assists in the first few games, Albrighton was one of the few players who were completely overlooked primarily because of the electric form of mercurial Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez. The biggest proof that he is severely underrated is that he was overlooked for England’s Euro 2016 squad, while the likes of Andros Townsend made the cut, an atrocity in the eyes of many fans.
Albrighton has started every game for the Foxes since the beginning of last season, signifying his importance to the team. His brilliant crossing ability led to several goalscoring chances which were gleefully grabbed by Mahrez and Vardy primarily. Despite Leicester enduring a torrid season this time around, Albrighton’s performances have barely ever dropped and he continues putting in a shift for Claudio Ranieri.
12 Liverpool - Emre Can
Liverpool have been a finely oiled attacking machine under Jurgen Klopp, topping the scoring charts in the league this season. While their attacking trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho often get all the plaudits, a lot of other players work very hard to provide them with the final ball. While previously underrated stars such as Adam Lallana have finally gotten their dues, young German midfielder Emre Can remains criminally underrated at the heart of The Reds’ midfield.
Still only 22, Can is a brilliant versatile player capable of playing anywhere in midfield. While he missed the opening few fixtures of the season to injury, he has started the last 7 matches and has scored 3 goals as well. A hugely reliable footballer, Can will be expected to take center stage and finally get the respect he deserves as Coutinho is likely to be sidelined for another two months.
11 Manchester City - Ilkay Gundogan
Manchester City’s summer recruit Ilkay Gundogan has had to suffer being underrated throughout his career so far. At Dortmund, his performances were always overshadowed by the brilliance of Marco Reus and Aubameyang, while for the national team, the likes of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze always commanded more attention for their performances.
That hasn’t changed at Manchester City either, especially since injuries have cut down his appearances to just 8 this season. However, his performances in those 8 matches proved that he is the club’s most underrated star, and would be absolutely crucial as the club looks to move ahead. Gundogan has already scored 3 goals and provided 2 assists in just 7 starts this season, that too all from defensive midfield, and while the performances as well as ill discipline of the likes of Aguero and Fernandinho often take center-stage, Gundogan’s contribution has been fairly under appreciated till now.
10 Manchester United - Antonio Valencia
The Ecuadorian has been on United’s books since 2009, after a stunning season with Wigan led to a big money move to Old Trafford. Though he had a brilliant start to his United career, winning the club’s players’ player of the year as well as the fans’ player of the year awards in only his second season, Valencia’s career soon turned upside down.
The former winger was selected to dorn the iconic number 7 jersey, recently vacated by Cristiano Ronaldo, and he absolutely crumbled under the pressure of honoring the shirt. Valencia soon lost his place in the starting 11 and became synonymous with United’s poor performances on the pitch. However, his career was soon revived at right back, with his energy and tireless running down the flanks proving to be very effective in United’s new setup. Valencia has started all but two of United’s league games this season, and has been their most consistent defender, rarely receiving the praise his performances deserve.
9 Middlesbrough - George Friend
Nicknamed ‘Gentleman George’ for his affable nature and positive playing style, Friend is one of the most impressively consistent defenders currently in the Premier League. Amongst the newly promoted sides, Boro was the most fancied club, and all the attention was on their big new signing Alvaro Negredo. However, much of the credit for their promotion goes to their back four, of which Friend was a massive component.
A big tall full back, Friend has the perfect mix of required attributes i.e athletic, physically imposing, pacy, skilful as well as tactically adept. His crossing and set piece delivery is a testament to his widely acclaimed left foot. It is perhaps a good thing for Middlesbrough that Friend is so criminally underrated, or else all the big guns in the Premier League would be circulating around him like vultures, trying to snap him up on the cheap.
8 Southampton - Steven Davis
Probably the most underrated midfielder in the Premier League, Steven Davis has been a mainstay of several impressive Southampton lineups ever since they gained promotion back into the Premier League. The central midfielder has made more than 150 Premier League appearances for The Saints since joining them on a four-year deal in 2012, and his consistent performances throughout led to an improved three-year deal in 2016.
While he was highly rated in the Scottish League as the captain of Rangers, Davis was often overshadowed by a bevy of supremely talented players at Southampton. The likes of Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic etc have long been credited for the club’s impressive performances in recent years, and while most of their best players leave for pastures new, Davis continues to give his 110% on the pitch and remains loyal to their cause. A highly versatile player capable of playing anywhere in midfield, Davis’ work rate is a crucial component of Southampton’s solid defensive setup.
7 Stoke City - Jonathan Walters
One of the hardest working players in the Stoke setup over the years, Walters has never been given the recognition he so deserves. A true warrior who wears his heart on his sleeve, the Irishman is a firm fan favorite at the Bet365 Stadium, however he is not rated much outside Stoke.
Despite losing his prolific touch in front of goal, Walters’ physical presence on the pitch is one of Stoke’s biggest assets. Operating as a target man, he can often occupy several defenders which leaves plenty of space for nifty wingers such as Shaqiri and Bojan to exploit and create chances. His aerial ability combined with his no-nonsense approach to the game makes him an important figure in high intensity physical matches. Though not featuring prominently in the attacking statistics column, Walters is the kind of player every manager would love to have in his starting 11, someone who loves working hard for his teammates and possessing the ability to play anywhere on the pitch with equal intensity.
6 Sunderland - Jermain Defoe
Probably the most underrated striker in Premier League history, Jermain Defoe was born to score goals, no matter which club he plays for. Defoe was actually overrated at one point of his career, when he was in his prime for Tottenham Hotspur, and was England’s first choice striker for several major international tournaments. However, the moment he finally left the Premier League for a lucrative contract in the Major League Soccer with Toronto FC, he was considered to be past his prime by many football pundits in England.
After a short stint in the MLS, Defoe was promptly signed up by Sunderland, and has been doing what he does best - scoring goals consistently. Last season, the pint sized Englishman notched up an impressive tally of 15 league goals, ending the season as Sunderland’s top scorer as well as winning the club’s player of the year award. However, his exploits were still not deemed enough for a place in England’s Euro 2016 squad and despite his consistent performances, he hasn’t played a single game for his country since 2013.
5 Swansea City - Jack Cork
The former Chelsea youngster has truly made Swansea his home now. Swansea are renowned for playing a fluid brand of football, keeping possession and indulging in short-swift passing attacks, and Cork is often the heartbeat of everything that goes around in the Welsh club’s midfield. One of the finest defensive midfielders on his day, Cork is criminally underrated, probably because of the tag of being a Chelsea reject hanging on his head.
With much more fancied midfielders such as Jonjo Shelvey and Gylfi Sigurdsson operating alongside him, it is no surprise that Cork’s hard work and tenacity often goes unappreciated. His ability to break up counter attacks is brilliant and his passing skills fit perfectly with the club’s Barcelona-esque approach to football. Another reason for him being so underrated is his lack of contribution in attack, with only 2 goals since he joined the club in 2015.
4 Tottenham Hotspur - Heung-min Son
South Korean playmaker Heung-min Son had a roller coaster campaign last season, while Mauricio Pochettino’s other youngsters were having the season of their lives. Though he did contribute 8 goals for Spurs’ cause, he often slipped under the radar and wasn’t regarded as a regular starter for the club. He was so concerned about his lack of playing time that he actually sought the manager’s permission to leave the club in the summer of 2016.
However, despite being one of the most unfancied players in a talented Spurs squad, Son has proved to be one of the shining lights in an erstwhile mixed beginning to the season for the club. While Tottenham were unbeaten in the league until very recently, they have been very poor in attack and have dropped out of the top 4. Big players such as Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen are not performing up to their standards, while Son has already notched up 10 goals and assists in just 9 starts and is their most influential attacking player currently.
3 Watford - Valon Behrami
The Swiss midfielder is a huge asset for Walter Mazzari’s impressive Watford side. While new signing Pereyra grabbed most of the headlines as the big fish in a small club, it was left to Behrami to do all the dirty work in the middle of the park. Etienne Capoue’s unprecedented goal-scoring form has also overshadowed Behrami’s consistent performances in defensive midfield.
Last season, the hype created by the club’s prolific strike duo of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo was the only thing which kept Watford in the newspapers, with Behrami’s tenacity getting absolutely no attention whatsoever. Currently Watford are 11th in the table, with Behrami playing every minute of every game till now, and it is his ability to distribute the ball to every corner of the pitch from a defensive position which makes him so crucial to his manager’s plans. Fortunately he is well rated on the international scene, and is a vital member of the Swiss Football Team.
2 West Brom - Claudio Yacob
West Brom have had a brilliant campaign so far, and are currently in 7th place just a point behind Manchester United. While the likes of Jonny Evans and Gareth Mcauley have been significantly praised in the media for their solid defensive performances, one man who hasn’t quite hit the headlines is defensive midfielder Claudio Yacob.
The Argentine was surprisingly signed on a free transfer back in 2012, and has gone on to win the highest number of tackles in the Premier League since then, with a staggering 332 tackles won in four seasons at the club. In his first season, his effective partnership with Youssouf Mulumbu in the pivot of a 4-2-3-1 formation led West Brom to their highest ever Premier League finish, as they ended up in 8th place under Steven Clarke. His performances soon established him as a firm fan favorite at the Hawthorns but he is still nowhere near contention for a place in his national team’s squad.
1 West Ham United - Mark Noble
West Ham’s talismanic captain has been a crucial first team player for several seasons now. Despite several managerial changes, Noble has always been every new manager’s go to man in midfield and has performed consistently in the middle of the park throughout his career. His inspirational form last season led to West Ham finishing a respectable 6th in the league, as the midfielder notched up a career best 7 goals. His tenacity in the middle of the park and his ability to break up play and begin counter attacks make him a vital cog in the Hammer’s setup.
While he is revered by the Hammers’ faithful, Noble hasn’t quite got the sort of attention he deserves. He is often overlooked whenever there is a list of the top midfielders in the league and he was also considered not worthy enough of a spot in England’s Euro 2016 squad earlier this year, a decision which led to widespread shock and anger.
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