9 forgotten ballers who randomly returned to world-class form in 2023-24

Like any career, success isn’t always linear in football. There’s an exclusive club of ballers championing that mantra with one of football’s most underrated quirks – the random career renaissance.

Players with the potential to be world-class can often reach that level and then fall away again. That’s when true characters are tested and heroes are formed in our world. Some never return to their peak again, even fewer look like that but then manage to pull off a random return to their very best form.

Often it’s a baller in their late twenties or early thirties, usually at a smaller club than expected, but it’s not always the case. Here are eight players who randomly returned to world class form.

Ross Barkley

The blueprint for the list, Barkley is the champion of the random renaissance.

From a world-class prospect with Everton and England, to flopping at Chelsea after the big move and then struggling to recapture his best form at Aston Villa and Nice, it looked like Barkley’s best chances of a return to form were behind him.

That was until he signed for Premier League newcomers Luton for 2023-24, and completely transformed himself into one of the best deep-lying playmakers in the Premier League. Genuinely.

From an exciting number 10 in his youth to a matured number six, it’s hard to argue against him going to Euro 2024 for England.

That’s how you do it.

Christian Pulisic

Very much a ‘nearly’ man for the bulk of his career thus far, Pulisic looked every part a world-class winger at Borussia Dortmund, but failed to replicate that same form with any consistency while at Chelsea.

His departure in the summer felt necessary and while Milan bought Pulisic at a cut price, nobody quite expected them to get such a return on their investment.

Since heading to Italy, the American is more than back to his best and has been one of the most devastating right-wingers in Serie A.

The 25-year-old has managed 11 goals and eight assists (and counting) in his first season in such a famous shirt and appears to have rediscovered his potential out of nowhere; a huge boost for the USMNT with a home World Cup on the horizon. These are the top paid United States players

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Memphis Depay

When the vicious entity that is post-Ferguson Manchester United chewed up a young Memphis and spat him out by the time he was just 22, they’d done enough damage to convince the world that we’d never see his world-class potential.

It’s been an up-and-down time since, shining at Lyon before flopping again at Barcelona, but now older and wiser at the age of 30, Memphis has suddenly turned a corner with Atletico Madrid and quietly reinvented himself once again.

No, he’s not a fully-fledged rapper despite his best efforts, but he has seemingly fulfilled that potential that we saw close to 10 years ago, out of nothing. We’re loving every second of it.

Antoine Griezmann

Staying in Madrid, Griezmann was seemingly at his very peak post-Euro 2016 after a spectacular individual tournament and was among the best players in the world in the years that followed, but a move to Barcelona would slow him down tremendously.

He never looked the same after the big-money switch and even a return to Atletico in 2021 felt rather desperate. However, he’s stuck it out at the club where he was once a star and – now 32 – is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career.

Leading the line as an experienced and technical forward, he’s been one of the most devastating forwards in Europe this season. A comeback like no other.

Romelu Lukaku

The man with more personality changes than professional wrestling legend Matt Hardy, Lukaku has fluttered between woeful and world-class for fun throughout his career. And we love him for it.

Just when you think he might finally be over the hill and beyond the point of repair, he secures a move to a new club and starts firing them in once again to remind us all that there are few strikers as devastating as him when he’s in full stride.

After a nightmare return to Chelsea which looked to be the final nail in the coffin and returning to Inter with his tail between his legs, the Belgian shocked everyone yet again and swapped Inter for Roma, where he now looks refreshed, ready to score and world-class once more.

Hard to keep up with.

Lucas Paqueta

Perhaps a left-field pick considering Paqueta has been nothing short of spectacular since signing for West Ham, there was a point in time when it looked like the dream had passed the Brazilian by.

Bursting onto the scene with Flamengo, the midfielder secured a dream move to Milan in 2019, but was gone after just one lacklustre season and shipped off to Lyon, where he seemed destined for forgotten wonderkid status.

A move to West Ham in 2022 hardly screamed revival for the Brazilian once touted for stardom, but he’s proven all the doubters wrong and has suddenly evolved into the player everybody expected to see at Milan.

It’s taken more time than people realise, but it’s finally clicked for Paqueta.

Paulo Dybala

Watching Dybala move from Juventus to Roma after years in Turin donning the black and white felt so wrong, no matter how ecstatic Roma fans were to have the playmaker.

While it felt like a major coup, the truth was that Dybala had stagnated massively and taking a punt on the Argentine was a risk, with many believing he was over the hill.

However, since heading to the capital, Dybala has had new air breathed into him and become a menace once again, recapturing the glistening form that we saw in his early days at Juve, both under Jose Mourinho and Daniele De Rossi.

He can’t be stopped right now and at the age of 30, it feels like we’re witnessing a second coming of world-class performances, near weekly. 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Exiled from Arsenal as Mikel Arteta looked to progress his rejuvenation project, Aubameyang’s sudden Arsenal departure felt like the final nail in his coffin in 2022.

A brief renaissance at Barcelona prompted a knee-jerk move to Chelsea, but after one dismal season back in London, it looked pretty certain that he was done and dusted at the top level. Until Marseille came calling in the summer of 2023.

Since returning to Ligue 1, the 34-year-old has been on an absolute tear and already has 23 goals in all competitions so far this season. He’s chasing down the Europa League Golden Boot and is genuinely showing the form he boasted at Borussia Dortmund and those early Arsenal years.

Nobody expected an Aubameyang revival and certainly not to this extent. He looks reborn.

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