Who was Chelsea’s most improved player over the 2013-14 Premier League season?

Saturday afternoon sees the Blues make their shortest northerly trip to Loftus Road to face Harry Redknapp’s QPR. As QPR were in the Championship last season, our regular Beat Your Manager! column doesn’t have a lineup list from last season to talk about and instead has come up with a novel topic that last season’s stats can usefully answer.

Beat Your Manager! Fantasy Football is a game similar to “Football Manager”, but applied to live football, where you manage your favourite Club and pick lineups, bench, formations and substitutions, all in real-time. When fans play the game, the Beat Your Manager team can measure the popularity of different players, by looking at how frequently they are selected for the starting lineup, substitutes bench or not selected at all.

The app ran for the 2013/4 EPL season and is currently inactive while the developers are creating the revised version – we’ll keep you posted on when it’s going to re-launch.

An issue that occasionally surfaced on message boards over last year’s competitive season was debate around which Chelsea player showed the most improvement under Manager José Mourinho’s careful nurturing. An analysis of the data has identified that there are three candidates for this gong, based on their popularity with Blues fans playing the fantasy football game.

Three contenders for “Most-improved” CFC Player: César Azpilicueta, Willian and Samuel Eto’o

The three candidates which showed the greatest improvement in popularity among Chelsea fans over the 2013-14 season were drawn from the three outfield positions; César Azpilicueta in defence, Willian in midfield and Samuel Eto’o upfront.

Working from the back: César Azpilicueta

Azpilicueta started the season in high standing with Chelsea fans, but this popularity dwindled almost to zero as he didn’t feature in Mourinho’s plans in the early period; playing a combined 30 minutes in three appearances over the first 10 games.

Azpilicueta_2013-4 Season Stats

After this period, Azpilicueta demonstrated a very consistent season overall, where he made the starting eleven in 26 matches, playing for the full 90 minutes in all but two and was substituted in 3 times, with no suspensions or injuries. As a result, his popularity profile consistently improved with fans, from a below-average rating of 40 per cent in the first half of the season to a very respectable 66 per cent after February, with the Spaniard making it into the average Blues fan’s back four.

Midfield Dynamo: Willian the Brazilian

Willian similarly did not feature much in Mourinho’s plans in the early part of the season, making only one appearance in the first 7 games and then for only 9 minutes. Consistent appearances and performances from the Brazilian, where he made 18 starting 11 appearances and was substituted on in a further 7 games, led to a gradual increase in fortunes for the full-back, increasing his popularity ratings from a very poor 28 per cent in the first half of the season to a very reasonable 64 per cent in the second half.

Willian_2013-4 Season Stats

Not so old now: Samuel Eto’o

Sammy Eto’o endured a few jibes about his age during last season, one famously coming from Mourinho himself, to which the Cameroonian responded with an OAP goal celebration — walking like a hunched old man to lean on a corner flag, feeling his back — during Chelsea’ 4-0 rout of Spurs. Whatever jokes Mourinho may have made, he certainly had faith in the striker, who made 16 starting eleven appearances for the manager and was substituted in for a further 5 Premier League matches. That’s also not the only refutation Eto’o can point to; his approval ratings with Blues fans steadily increased over the 2013-14 season – from an average 40 per cent selection rating before the end of the January transfer window, to a respectable 55 per cent for the remainder of the season.

Eto'o_2013-4 Season Stats

Decision Time: Willian’s slow and steady wins the race

Having considered the evidence, we give the accolade for “Most-improved” CFC Player for last season to Willian.

The main reason behind this decision is that Willian’s ratings showed the highest change from the first half of the season (28 per cent) to the second half (66 per cent), a massive swing of 38 percentage points, more than doubling his popularity with Blues fans. By contrast, Eto’o’s ratings increased by only 15 per cent on average and Azpilicueta’s by 16 per cent.

Willian also put in more appearances than the other two and as a result, his contribution can be more reliably measured. His ratings also did not suffer from some wild swings in popularity that were observed for the other two players.

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