Early-season shocks: 10 surprise packages across Europe

Updated: October 10, 2018

Like finding a dollar in with the wash, footballers who exceed expectations and perform at unforeseen levels are a pleasant surprise. These days, a dollar won’t get you a coffee at the greasiest spoon, but for clubs across Europe’s top five leagues, early-season surprises have proved to be priceless.

With European leagues approaching the third month on the slate, here’s a glance at 10 players whose unanticipated starts to the season have boosted their respective clubs:

Premier League

Alex Iwobi (Arsenal)

Under Arsene Wenger, Alex Iwobi was a player with promise who made maddening decisions and lacked confidence in close quarters. Calls for his sale were widespread. With Unai Emery at the helm, Arsenal‘s 22-year-old wide attacker has been one of the Gunners’ most consistent influences in the league and on the continent. Once liable to cower when something didn’t come off, Iwobi is now an inspired force. “I’m more positive and more confident with the ball,” the Nigerian international told Football London. “The boss has basically told me that if something doesn’t work, just keep going and don’t dwell on it.” It’s working, converting a lot of critics into admirers.

Catherine Ivill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

David Brooks (Bournemouth)

Despite the faux champagne coif and adolescent look of a late-90’s member of Madchester boy band Take That, there’s nothing soft about Bournemouth attacker David Brooks. The Cheshire-born Welsh international was bought from Sheffield United for a £10-million fee that now seems like a steal. For a side short on ideas going forward, Brooks, 21, has provided a quick remedy, scoring inside of 15 minutes in each of the Cherries’ last two matches. Understandably raw at times amid a maiden top-tier campaign, Brooks has shown plenty of potential. “I’ve been really pleased and the future is very bright for him,” Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe offered.

Michael Steele / Getty Images Sport / Getty

La Liga

Andre Silva (Sevilla)

AC Milan supporters, look away. Months after capping off a dismal first season at the San Siro following a €38-million move from Porto, striker Andre Silva has been lights out while on loan at Sevilla. After scoring two Serie A goals in 24 appearances with I Rossoneri, Silva, 22, has seven La Liga goals through eight matches and is playing with the confidence of a player that received a much-needed change of scenery. Sevilla certainly has benefitted; Silva is responsible for 40 percent of the club’s haul, including a brace and a Man of the Match performance vs. Real Madrid, as the team has ascended to the top of Spain’s marquee division with a joint-best plus-10 goal differential.


Marc Bartra (Real Betis)

Catalan centre-half Marc Bartra‘s career arc has been a rollercoaster ride. Once pegged for a solid career while part of Barcelona‘s famed La Masia academy, Bartra, 27, underperformed at the Camp Nou before moving to Borussia Dortmund. There, he put together two seasons that were as mercurial as his La Liga stay and sadly noted for injuries suffered in the Bundesliga outfit’s bus attack. Over a year later, Bartra has become Betis’ backline anchor in Quique Setien’s motley crew of a squad, playing all but two minutes of the Seville side’s eight league affairs to go with a solid outing in the Europa League against FC Dudelange.


Serie A

Krzysztof Piatek (Genoa)

Even those well-versed in Polish football couldn’t have foreseen Krzysztof Piatek‘s facile transition to Serie A. A member of Poland’s provisional 35-man squad deemed a surplus before the trip to Russia, Piatek has exploded in his first campaign with Genoa after finishing third in the Ekstraklasa scoring charts last season on 21 with mid-table Cracovia. Piatek became the first player to score in his first seven Serie A matches since 1994, and his nine tallies lead Europe’s top five leagues. Naturally, the 23-year-old is being likened to Robert Lewandowski and drawing reported interest from the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona.

Paolo Bruno / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Gervinho (Parma)

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Ivorian winger and bulwark of bonnets Gervinho has returned to Europe from near-obscurity in China with a bang. Three years removed from ditching Roma for Hebei China Fortune, the 31-year-old pace merchant is back in Italy with fellow returnees Parma. Considering the former Arsenal man tallied a scant four goals in 29 appearances over three seasons in China, his trio of scores in five outings for Parma is a shock, as was his Man of the Match display against Cagliari. I Gialloblu currently sit ninth in Italy following three successive promotions, a reclamation project that matches Gervinho’s redemption.


Ligue 1

Jose Fonte (Lille)

Like Gervinho, it would’ve been easy to forget about former Southampton centre-back Jose Fonte. The mustachioed Portuguese defender said “Tchau” to an erratic campaign at West Ham for a shot with Dalian Yifang, and after just seven matches, joined younger brother Rui at Lille on a two-year deal. After narrowly avoiding the drop last year, Christophe Galtier’s charges sit second behind runaways Paris Saint-Germain. For all the talk of a dynamic young attack buoyed by the likes of Nicolas Pepe and Jonathan Bamba, Lille’s defense has been stellar, conceding just seven times in nine matches, with Fonte, 34, starting on eight occasions for Les Dogues.

Jean Catuffe / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Whabi Khazri (Saint-Etienne)

Similar to many on this list, Tunisian talisman Wahbi Khazri is a footballing restoration job whose resume is as spotty as a dalmatian’s caboose. Salvaged by Saint-Etienne from relegation to the Isthmian League with Sunderland, Khazri has piggybacked last season’s loan spell with Rennes with a stellar start with Les Verts, scoring four times in eight matches, including a stunning brace against Monaco. A No. 10 by trade who can stray wide, Khazri has been shadowing last defenders after flirting with the role at the World Cup. For a Saint-Etienne side short on attacking impetus following Bamba’s move to Lille, the 27-year-old Corsican’s addition has been massive for the fifth-placed side.



Paco Alcacer (Borussia Dortmund)

The Bundesliga has become a bit boring with the repetitive cycle of Bayern Munich titles and cute, but often feeble, title challenges from the likes of Schalke, RB Leipzig, and most frequently, Borussia Dortmund. Under Lucien Favre, first-placed BVB are looking to flip the script despite entering the season with a demand for a No. 9. Paco Alcacer, who made the Germany switch on loan from Barcelona with a club-option purchase, has been critical. All the 13-time capped Spaniard has done is score a half-dozen goals in just three appearances off the bench, a pair more than he notched last season in Spain in 17 outings. Decent return that.


Ondrej Duda (Hertha Berlin)

Hertha Berlin sit joint-second in the Bundesliga following last season’s mid-table finish, and Slovakian attacking midfielder Ondrej Duda‘s emergence as a reliable source of goals is a major reason why. After scoring just once last year in 17 appearances, Duda, 23, has bulged the bag on five occasions in seven run-outs, second in the league to Alcacer, and was the most influential player on the pitch in victories over Schalke and Bayern and the draw at Wolfsburg. Duda and Vedad Ibsevic – who was the last Hertha player to score five goals in the first six matches – are responsible for 75 percent of the club’s goals. T-minus one transfer window until Bayern make an advance for him.

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