This weekend’s fixtures marked the mid-way point in this season’s Premier League, as a perfect time if any to take stock of this season’s participants and cast cruel judgement over their respective performances thus far. So without further-a-do…
As the old song tells us “what a difference a day makes”. And that sentiment rings true when that ‘day’ is replaced with an equally as simple notion of 40-odd million pounds. The acquisition of Mesut Özil may have taken the majority by surprise, but Real’s loss has been Arsenal’s gain. The arrival of the German proved to be the tonic needed to get the gunners over what had seemed an insurmountable mental block.
That newfound optimism has injected impetus into the performances of previously misfiring players – perfectly encapsulated in Aaron Ramsey who has been a revelation thus far. Perhaps talk of a first title win since 2004 is slightly over-optimistic, yet at the same time seems perfectly in-line with the current good vibes surrounding the Emirates.
Rating: B+ Let the good times roll
Football management, as any Championship Manager veteran will tell you, is a cruel game. In the passage of a mere 90 minutes of football perceptions can swing vastly from positive to negative in extremis.
And possibly the most frustrating is that the fans, and in increasing cases club owners, pay heed to such ludicrous media-generated hype. No manager this season has experienced more fairground treatment than Paul Lambert. A couple of impressive wins, such as the opening day victory against Arsenal, and healthy portions of praise are heaped upon the youthful ‘project’ in motion at Villa Park; in contrast a drop in form and the guillotine is being sharpened. Thankfully thus far Randy Lerner has proved a knowledgeable and, more importantly, patient owner, something which, when coupled with Lambert’s vision could reap long-term rewards.
Rating: C- Certainly the squad needs cultivation but most importantly what’s needed is time and patience.
It is almost like shooting fish in a barrel when writing about The
Bluebirds ’Red Dragons’. Vincent Tan’s James Bond villain levels of megalomania provide rich pickings for someone looking to type out 1,000 or so words for an article. The truth is though the majority of headlines surrounding the club this season have little to do with actual football and more to do with the business that continues to leech off it.
On the pitch Cardiff have probably been playing slightly below expectations, though not overly so. One has to wonder whether the ‘off the field’ issues had not arisen so publicly perhaps the newly-promoted side would have picked up a few extra points thus far. As it stands if Cardiff are to avoid a quick return to the Championship stability is drastically needed along with a goalscorer – they have the joint 2nd lowest goals tally this season.
Rating On the Pitch: D+ Start of the new year will be crucial
Off The Pitch: F- Simply Unsustainable
It is testament to the various exciting developments this season has brought us that one could easily forget that Jose Mourinho is currently sat in office at Stamford Bridge. Whereas his debut as Chelsea manager saw so much hyperbolic brashness, his second term has been decidedly subdued by comparison. That is not to say the 50-year old has totally shied away altogether – as demonstrated by his very public dropping of Juan Mata.
On the pitch Chelsea have been steady if unspectacular, sitting pretty as Auld Lang Syne is sung the West Londoners will be confident ,with experience in their rank, that they can push their more youthful rivals. And extra motivation, if ever needed, will come in the knowledge that for some of the squad it may be their last chance at Premier League glory.
Rating: B+ Don’t let the hitherto stealthy season fool you, genuine title contenders.
When a club gets promoted via the play-offs there is a strange juxtaposition. One the one hand theres is doe-eyed romanticism, the notion of a club and it’s fans on a crazy journey into the unknown and unexpected – a football safari akin to a non-league team reaching the 4th round of the FA Cup. On the other hand is the realisation that top flight football is worth a lot more than some wee dalliance and that the financial future of a club is dependent a granite-solid bottom line of Premier League status and all the TV revenues that come with it.
The sacking of Ian Holloway is the purest example of when business interests take precedent over the increasingly irrelevant notions of entertainment and adventure. Noone really expected the South Londoners to stay up at the start of the season, and if they do manage it one feels it may take the poor form of other relegation candidates as well as their own grit to achieve that.
Rating: C Perhaps overachieving slightly, yet still favorites to go down. However with Pulis in charge they’ll be no lack of work ethic in the 2nd semester.
There were questions, perhaps quite legitimate ones, at the start of this season concerning the suitability of Martinez as Everton manager – was this man to step into David Moyes’ shoes? Has he the sufficient ability to move a club forward? Is he a one-trick relegation avoiding pony? Those questions five months on are barely audible at this point. The 40-year-old Spaniard has not just maintained the status-quo but has rather stunningly improved the fortunes of a club which most would concur at the very limits of their ability under Moyes.
In truth, a good portion of stellar performances seen at Goodison Park this season are owned by the trio of Barry, Lukaku and Deulofeu, who in turn aren’t owned by Everton. Yet those concerns are for next season, for now Evertonians should just enjoy the ride.
Rating: B+ The perfect post-Moyes season so far.
You’d be hard pressed to find a football fan who didn’t have a soft spot for Martin Jol – such a soft-spoken, gentile man in contrast to the media-savvy mind game machines that most modern managers have become. In a way he was the physical embodiment of Fulham football club – quaint, inoffensive, likable. Yet anyones sympathy would be put to the test when you note that Jol assembled a team that included Berbatov, Darren Bent, Brian Ruiz and Adel Taarabt.
Fulham’s most recent defeat, conceding six with no reply at Hull showed the worrying signs of a team consigned to relegation – a mental state that no amount of managerial shuffling can usually rectify.
Rating: F As in ‘Fulham are going to be relegated’
A strange season so far for Hull. On the one hand they sit in the top happen of the table, having drubbed Fulham and look a good bet to be enjoying Premier League football next season. On the other hand the worry for Hull City fans is that they may be watching their beloved team under the moniker ‘Hull City Tigers’. Unfortunately here is another case of an owner willing to sell off the heritage of ‘their’ club in order to reap greater financial rewards.
I’ve written about the question of identity in football at length before and my viewpoint on the fans role in it has not changed. Unfortunately it seems with Hull doing so well – with huge credit due to Steve Bruce and revelatory signing Tom Huddlestone – any notions of fan dissatisfaction will be drowned out by the cheers.
Rating On the Pitch: B- couldn’t really ask for more
Off the pitch: E- Really must try harder
If the previous seasons were for fixing the effects of previous managerial mis-steps and to provide Rodgers time to install his philosophy on the apparatus of the club, then this season has so far given up rich reward for the patient Anfield faithful. It is too early perhaps, despite being top for a few festive hours, to talk of a first league championship for over 20 years – the defense still lacks solidity – yet all the signs are the club is moving in the right direction in rapid fashion.
Henderson looks a different player from last year and will surely now be considered a legitimate a long-term replacement for Gerrard. The key for Liverpool is of course Luis Suarez. Yet his sensational form both has been both a gift and a curse, with European giants such as Bayern Munich and Real Madrid licking their lips in anticipation. Ironically it will be Suarez’s form and goalscoring that may decide whether he stays at Anfield past the summer – for this to happen Champions League football is a must.
Rating: A+ The success story of the season so far.
When the owners of Manchester City spoke of the desire of a more “holistic” management culture at the Etihad Stadium many a head was scratched at what exactly that meant. It now seems abundantly clear that, with the Citizens sitting pretty at the top of the table, the air of unpredictability that surrounded the club has been replaced with a business-like professionalism. No more training ground scraps, no more 94th minute winners, no more Balotelli.
While the brutal efficiency may not have set the league alight it has clearly worked. The acquisition of Fernandinho has added some much-needed drive to the midfield, while Alvaro Negredo has filled in brilliantly in Sergio Aguero’s absence. The club’s owners want their financial outlay to make a splash in the Champions League whilst at the same time secure their 2nd Premier League title – a challenge to test the very best managers, and one the Chilean will relish.
Rating: A- Solid, if unspectacular improvement. Favorites for the title.