Rúben Dias (Manchester City)
First things first: yes, Dias cost a lot of money – more than £60m, another cog in a City defence constructed at huge expense. It has, though, proved to be money well spent. Two days before he arrived, City lost 5-2 at home to Leicester, conceding three penalties in a slapstick display that hinted at deep-rooted issues. Dias, then 23 and not widely considered the finished article City really needed, was parachuted in from Benfica and tasked with fixing the mess, an overdue replacement for Vincent Kompany. Other high-ticket defenders have melted in the City pressure cooker – not least Nicolás Otamendi, handily offloaded as part of the deal. Instead, Dias has delivered beyond all expectations: it is hard to recall another brand new recruit to English football adapting so quickly. He has ignored the price tag and got on with the job, improving those around him and fostering the resilience that transformed City’s season.
Wesley Fofana (Leicester)
The £36.5m fee Leicester City handed over for Fofana, a talented but raw teenage centre-back, raised a few eyebrows. Only an occasional starter under Claude Puel at Saint-Étienne, Fofana arrived with little expectation of an immediate Premier League impact. An injury crisis meant the Frenchman was thrown in at the deep end and he has delivered, showing a maturity and temperament beyond his years – not least in the FA Cup final, when he held things together after Jonny Evans was forced off with an injury. An all-action defender who is confident carrying the ball out of defence, Fofana looks a perfect fit for Brendan Rodgers’ spiky but stylish team.
Edinson Cavani (Man Utd)
With other European giants put off by high wages and agents’ fees, United took a chance on the former PSG talisman, available on a free but reportedly commanding an £8m salary over his one-year contract. Cavani made an encouraging start but injury setbacks, and a three-game ban for using an offensive term on Instagram, meant the jury was very much still out. There were even whispers of a sharp exit to South America, but the Uruguayan has found his place at Old Trafford as a clever, clinical marksman making the most of the creative talents around him. His goals have secured second place in the Premier League and a Europa League final spot, his reward a one-year contract extension. Cavani will be 35 next February, but he has unfinished business in the Premier League.
Vladimir Coufal (West Ham)
West Ham’s canny transfer moves have been key to their transformation under David Moyes this season. Loanee Jesse Lingard, defender Craig Dawson and midfield dynamo Tomas Soucek have all delivered, but it was the October signing of Soucek’s Slavia Prague teammate, Vladimir Coufal, that looks the best move of all. The 28-year-old had never played outside the Czech Republic but has been a model of consistency, missing just one Premier League match since arriving and shoring up a problem position for West Ham, whose dramatic improvement is built on fine margins. Moyes’ team have scored 13 more goals and conceded 15 fewer than last season; with six assists to his name, cut-price Coufal has been key at both ends of the pitch.
Édouard Mendy (Chelsea)
Last summer, Chelsea furnished Frank Lampard with over £200m in new recruits, with decidedly mixed results. Thomas Tuchel’s impact since his January arrival means that Lampard is now a footnote in this new era, but he made one pivotal decision: deciding that Kepa Arrizabalaga could no longer be trusted. Petr Cech recommended Rennes keeper Mendy, who cost Chelsea £22m and has been central to the team’s improved defensive record. The Senegal international has kept 16 clean sheets in 31 league games, and has been even more miserly in the Blues’ Champions League run. His final-day injury at Villa Park is a big concern with the final looming. An honourable mention goes to Emi Martínez, an elite keeper Aston Villa gladly plucked from Arsenal.
Marcelo Bielsa’s promoted team finished in the top half, a return that looks even more impressive with a number of their big-money summer signings forced to play a reduced role. Rodrigo could not dislodge Patrick Bamford up front, while defenders Robin Koch and Diego Llorente have struggled with injuries. One new recruit who has impressed is Raphinha, signed from Rennes for a tidy £17m. The Brazilian winger has adapted quickly to Bielsa’s full-throttle style, scoring six goals and setting up eight. Still only 24, Raphinha has now racked up 150 top-flight appearances around Europe; he is the kind of talent that can take Leeds to the next level.