English Premier League Mid-Year Review
It has being an extremely strange EPL season to date. The traditional powerhouses of the league have struggled for consistency and form resulting in a number of keynote managerial departures with the potential of at least one more scalp before the year is out. We are two games from the midpoint of the season and I think it is high time to give out a few grades out for the EPL class of 2015 / 2016.
Grade A — Star Pupil
Four teams come into this bracket starting with the current league leaders Leicester City. It has being a terrific run from Claudio Rainieri’s charges who continued their emphatic end of season form last term this season leading to several key victories. Their work rate and ability to counter attack with such pace and intent have left opponents at sixes and sevens. Mahrez and Vardy will take the bulk of the credit (quite right too) but I think huge praise has to go to other players in the team starting with Drinkwater who has being a revelation in the middle of the park. The former Manchester United player has really stood out this season, solid in defensive work but also his ability to pick the right pass has caught the eye. Wes Morgan had his issues adapting to the league last season but the former Nottingham Forest stopper has had a superb season to date, defensively imposing and has chipped in with several set piece goals. Kasper Schmeichel for me has being the leading EPL goalkeeper this season, his save percentage and dominance in his area, his marshalling of his defense have resulted in comparisons with his legendary father. Leicester’s work rate, running and ability to support each other means that they are now a title contender. They will hit a bump or two in the next couple of weeks but this group of players have grown rapidly and with a manager who is perfectly suited to a football club of this profile, things can only look upwards for the East Midlands club.
Watford are my second team who have exceeded expectations this season. Flores’ appointment at the start of the team was greeted with muted feedback but the Spanish supremo has overseen a Watford team who ooze pace, work rate defensively and the ability to score goals. Ighalo has being a revelation for the Hornets this season. His goals have increased confidence in the team but his partnership with club legend Troy Deeney has seen Watford look an attacking threat both home and away. Their demolition of Liverpool last weekend was a marquee event but in truth, this performance and result has being coming for weeks now. They were incredibly unlucky to lose to Manchester United at home a couple of weeks ago. The group learned from those failings to produce a performance against Liverpool who struggled to break down Watford defensively where Cathcart and Ake have being superb and could not deal with the understanding and pace of Ighalo and Deeney. Watford’s decision to invest heavily in the first team squad has being merited and Flores’ links with La Liga should mean that several more arrivals to the club next month which will increase competition and performance levels at the Herfordshire club. Watford should be the success story of the EPL this season only for Leicester. Flores’ services will be noted by several continental clubs.
Arsenal have being the only traditional team who have turned up in any consistent fashion this season. Arsene Wenger has being ridiculed from pillar to post by many pundits for his lack of outfield investment before the start of this season but his decision to sign Petr Cech to me has being the masterstroke of the season. Arsenal’s acquistion has solidified a back four who were inconsistent at best last season. Koscielny is playing with a confidence and swagger not seen before. The emergence of Monreal and Bellerin at full back has added pace and solidity to the defensive flanks. Sanchez was a revelation at the start of the season and his injury could have being a fatal blow but enter stage left Mesmut Ozil who has mesmerized the league this season. Fifteen assists already with the record of twenty is one which will be easily broken. Ozil’s class was all over the MNF win over Manchester City, his first touch and ability to pick a pass was outstanding. Ozil and Sanchez’s form means that Arsenal are in prime position to win the league this season.
Crystal Palace’s best decision in the last decade was to appoint Alan Pardew as club manager. The Wimbledon native, a passionate Palace club man has galvanized all involved with the South East London club. The atmosphere at Selhurst Park is arguably the best in the league, an intense match day experience where Palace’s pace down the flanks (Bolasie, Zaha, Puncheon) is complemented with the game management of Cabaye who has being a standout midfield performer in the league this season. Palace have increased their defensive options and Dann, Delaney, Hangeland are pushing each other for first team spots. Speroni’s absence has being addressed well by both Hennessey and McCarthy, two keepers with massive potential. The departure of Glenn Murray was a blow and one hopes that Wickham can realize his potential at the football club. Palace are a top six contender given their threat away from Selhurst Park. Pardew’s managerial performance at the club speaks volumes. Newcastle’s loss is Palace’s gain.
Grade B — Good Performance
Several teams have emerged from this part of the season with enormous credit. Leading the queue is West Ham United whose form has faltered in recent weeks due to key injuries. January has come at the right time to replenish key absences. Payet and Reid have being key to the Hammers resurgence. Payet’s playmaker ability has caught the eye, instrumental in all that was good for the club early doors. Reid is a superb central defender. His pace and power complements James Tomkins perfectly. Adrian in goal has produced several key saves this term. Sakho upfront provided pace and threat for opposition defenses. Slaven Bilic has being shrewd in the transfer market and may need to dip into the market next month to increase competition defensively and attacking options to remain in contention for Europa League places.
After a slow start, Tottenham have come to the party in recent weeks. Apart from that unexpected loss at home to Newcastle, Pochettino’s side has shown observers with all the attributes required to take a claim for the top four. Kane has not had the dreaded second season syndrome, continuing to score and provide chances to colleagues. Ali has being the young player of the season so far. The former MK Dons players has oozed class throughout chipping with goals at regular intervals that England have called the player into the international fold. Eriksen and Lamela for me are keys to Tottenham’s future success; both players are incredibly gifted footballers who can create chances out of nothing. Their performances will be key like Lloris and Vertonghen defensively. Alderweireld acquisition has being a star turn but continued UEFA Europa League involvement late in the season could hinder top four league ambitions.
Manchester City conclude the list of teams in the good bracket. Yes, the form recently has being mixed but look at City’s early start to the year and one will understand the rationale. The repeated managerial reports have nothing to add the stability required at the football club. The squad on paper looks the best in the league. Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne have all shown quality early doors. Toure is warming to the season but their contributions are being undermined at present by a shaky back four who have being exposed in recent weeks without the services of Kompany. Otamendi and Mangala have struggled to contain opponents who have speed and physical presence leaving Joe Hart increasingly overworked in the goal. City will be a major player in the title run in but the issues exposed in recent weeks will be fatal if not remedied. Pellegrini’s uncertain future is also adding to the indifferent form. City talk about football project, but how can they acheive it if they decide to ditch their club manager after only three seasons.
Bournemouth’s recent run of results and footballing style has them edged into the Grade B group. Their memorable victories over Chelsea and Manchester United in recent weeks has shown resilience, determination and style of play which has caught the eye. Eddie Howe’s charges play the game in the right manner, on the deck and at times has cost them with several goals leaked. However, they have continued to play the right way and the players have adapted to the rigors of the EPL to produce this fine run of form. Glenn Murray will keep the South Coast side in the league but Eddie Howe needs reinforcements defensively and midfield to keep the tempo and competition in the squad. Nice story emerging here and one hopes Bournemouth are in the league next season. Eddie Howe, a manager on the up.
Grade C — Good but not good enough
Several teams fit into this category. Liverpool are flirting with the Grade B but have regressed in recent weeks. Klopp appointment is a big positive and his managerial style will only improve Liverpool long term. Klopp’s transfers will be scrutinized next month and particularly in the summer when several current players will be told that they are surplus to requirements. Liverpool’s lack of attacking width is an issue and has not allowed Benteke to make the necessary impact upfront. Liverpool’s demolition of Manchester City away last month showed what the side are capable of; incisive passing, tempo and movement. Milner acquisition has being a solid piece of business but Klopp needs to add to his squad to offset weak points defensively where the goalkeeping and central defensive options are limited.
Everton are a team who are flirting with the top six but their lack of consistency has them in this grade pool. Their defiance not to let John Stones leave for Stamford Bridge has being crucial with an impressive run in the League Cup. Lukaku has stole the show for Everton from an attacking perspective and with Barkley recapturing his form of his debut season, the blue side of Merseyside should look forward to a positive second half of the season. Martinez must review his goalkeeping cover to increase competition on Tim Howard who at times has being culpable for a couple of goals in recent weeks.
Southampton have faltered ever since their league cup drubbing at the hand of Liverpool. Their injury crisis has exposed depth chart issues defensively and in midfield. With Jay Rodriguez struggling for fitness, Pelle / Mane and Long have attempted to score the goals but it has being a struggle in recent weeks. Schneiderlein’s departure has being huge. Van Djik signing has being the highlight, pace and command of the position has caught the eye. Koeman needs money to add competition in striking and central midfield albeit Fraser Forster’s return in goal cannot come quick enough.
Stoke have shown flashes of brilliance this season against Chelsea, City have being undermined by several under-par performances at the Britannia. Mark Hughes’ side evolution from long ball merchants to passing is in progress and with the likes of Bojan, Walters, Arnautovic pose the attacking threat required. Fellay and Shaquiri acquisitions are excellent but the emergence of Jack Butland in goals has being key. Superb performances this season. If Stoke can improve their consistency in the second half of the season, the sky’s the limit. Shawcross continues to be the main talisman for Stoke defense.
Grade D — Inconsistency
Who has not being? Manchester United have being wholly inconsistent with recent weeks performances opening more questions on the perceived football philosophy being implemented by LVG. Zero pace, zero creativity, zero leadership on the park has led to a marked decline in fortunes. LVG may be the scapegoat but the current squad are hopelessly out of their depth. Martial, Smalling and De Gea aside, all other players have underperformed. 200+ million invested in the current squad looks like a costly mistake and with games against Stoke and Chelsea looming large, Ed Woodward will be under pressure to arrest the slide. Replacing the manager will only be one part of the solution. An effective transfer policy is also required and Woodward has failed to execute this policy, missing key acquisitions and putting Moyes and now LVG under immense pressure.
West Bromwich Albion, a club who with Tony Pulis at the helm will be in the top flight next season. The football style at times can be laborious but Pulis will get the coveted forty points. WBA’s endless saga with Berahino / Tottenham link continues to be an unwelcome distraction and needs to be resolved next month one way or the other. The acquisitions of Evans and Fletcher from Manchester United are shrewd purchases which provides experience to a squad who on their day can upset the odds. Their 2–1 win at home to Arsenal showed what this team is capable of, playing fast flowing football which had Arsenal’s back four in trouble for long periods. Pulis will look to remedy the indiscipline that has crept into the side. McClean needs to focus on his football and not get swayed into social media and media commentary. Rondon has massive potential and needs to hit goals early in 2016 to offset Pulis’ need to buy an experienced striker in January. The consistency of performance against teams around them is the key. Pulis, the shrewd operator will have the team perform and there is no fear that WBA are plunged into a relegation battle this season.
Norwich’s win against Manchester United has being the highlight of the season. Alex Neil is a manager destined for bigger things. His nonsense approach (laid into players after 1–1 draw at home to Everton) spoke volumes and his charges produced in Old Trafford in the next game. Norwich are not scoring enough goals at present and need their defense to keep as many clean sheets as possible. If they continue in the same vein, unfortunately a relegation battle will ensue and pressure will be put on the likes of Hoolahan and Jerome to create and score chances. Neil will need to dip into the January market to address the scoring concerns and perhaps add another quality central midfielder / defender to increase competition.
Grade F — Failed to Perform
The rest of the league is guilty of this charge. Chelsea’s season is the stuff of nightmares. Manager exits stage left after a series of embarrassing internal club incidents which exposed the medical staff, players to ridicule. Hiddink will steady the ship but the likes of Hazard, Costa, Fabregas have flat out not performed this season. Pedro’s acquistion is akin to Di Maria for Manchester United last season — inconsequential. The player power issues seen in recent weeks will be quick to resolve. Drogba’s influence around the dressing room in a coaching capacity is resolved as soon as possible.
Swansea, a club in crisis. Huw Jenkins has wielded the axe on Gary Monk and with no outstanding candidate emerging, Alan Curtis will continue. Swansea’s early form was excellent but something has happened in the club since September. Players are not working hard enough, goals have dried up. Montero who lit up the league early doors is nowhere to be seen. Did the Nathan Dyer loan deal derail Swansea’s first team morale? Something is not adding up. Swansea have being a huge success story in the league but they look incredibly vulnerable now. The leadership of Williams is required now. Swansea survival depends on the managerial appointment and key acquisitions in January.
Sunderland, the perennial strugglers. Big Sam will have them out of relegation trouble but how come that this club is consistently languishing in the bottom of the league? Cultural shift required at the club and Big Sam will take no rubbish from the squad as he steers a path out of the bottom three. Defoe’s goal will be key but defensively look wholly exposed at times and is an area of January transfer improvement.
If Newcastle played to live television cameras every game, there would be no issue. Steve McClaren has had a tough start to life in Newcastle but the team appear to be turning the over. Rob Elliott in goals due to the season ending injury to Tim Krul has impressed which in turn has allowed the back four to improve. Newcastle need to continue the work rate of recent weeks to continue the revival. Wijnaldum has being the star performer for Steve McClaren.
Bye Bye Aston Villa. Remi Garde may not a hope with this squad. Garde is looking for at least ten wins in the remaining fixtures, cannot see them getting even half that such is the porous nature of the squad. The elements of relegation are in abundance: do not score goals and do not keep clean sheets. Time for Villa to reflect over Christmas, review the squad and take action to prepare for life in the Championship. The behavior of Jack Grealish during this time has to be called out, an unwelcome distraction for a football club who I have a lot of respect for. Great stadium, great fans who deserve so much better.