Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Premier League Mid-term Report

With 19 or 20 games under the belt of most Premier League teams, now is a good time to give them their mid-term report. I was tempted to do in this in some sort of red squiggly pen, but the internet has enough unreadable things on it already.

Arsenal – Like most recent seasons, the Gunners and Arsene Wenger have regularly seemed on the verge of crisis, yet remain fifth in the table, only three points behind their similarly crisis-friendly North London rivals Spurs. Santi Cazorla has lit up their season at times, while Theo Walcott’s demands for game time in a striking role have been accepted, with the 23-year-old ending his year with a stunning hat-trick against Newcastle. Overall, it’s the same old story – steamrolling (mostly) the smaller teams, while being punished for defensive flaws by the top sides. Grade – B

Aston Villa - Paul Lambert’s arrival from Norwich was heralded as a brave step forward from the dour McLeish era, with many fans and pundits predicting a return to the top 10 for the Villains. However, with few big names remaining, the squad has become an uncomfortable mix of unproven foreigners and youngsters, who lack in confidence at times, despite possessing undoubted ability, as shown in the 3-1 win at Liverpool. Darren Bent has been frozen out as Lambert looks to create a team that works for each other – Bent being seen as a bit of a goal-hanger. With three heavy defeats to end the year however – 15 goals conceded to none scored – fans may begin to question the manager’s methods as they end the year perilously close to the relegation places. Grade – D

Chelsea  - Starting the season as European Champions yet trying to make up for a disappointing sixth place last time out? Just a wee bit of pressure for Roberto Di Matteo to start the season with – pressure that eventually told as a damaging 3-0 defeat to Juventus all but sealed the Blues’ Champions League fate and the end of his own managerial tenure. Cue all out Chelsea chaos as Abramovich chose the fan-splitting Rafa Benitez as his replacement. Two straight 0-0 home draws didn’t exactly help the Spaniard’s cause, but four straight wins to round the year off, including a 8-0 thrashing of Aston Villa have raised hopes of a top two, or even a title challenge. Grade – B

Everton – There is a valid argument to state that had Nikica Jelavic been at Everton from the start of last season then Everton would’ve been top 4 certainties. This season is the acid test for that – but for a few too many draws they would be a lot higher than sixth. Some excellent performances, including an early victory over Man United, have led Everton into a higher position than they usually are at this time of year. A repeat of their customary New Year surge up the table will see Champions League football at Goodison Park next season. Grade – B plus

Fulham – Martin Jol led Fulham to ninth place last season. It is a position he would bite your hand off for now. A string of bad results have seen Fulham drop down the table to the fringes of the relegation battle, despite the marquee signing of Berbatov and a thumping opening 5-0 victory over Norwich. Demotion would be a huge surprise, even now, but a return to winning ways in 2013 is imperative. Grade – C

Liverpool – Anfield seems a much happier place these days, yet if the season ended today sitting in ninth place, Liverpool would have gone backwards from last year. Results do not tell the whole story – many games have been dominated with a lack of cutting edge – but the team does seem upwardly mobile, and Rodgers has Liverpool playing his brand of football. With more firepower to help out Luis Suarez in January the Reds can expect to return to Europe next year. Grade – B

Manchester City – After the heady days of last season’s title win, the last few months has seen the Mancini bubble deflated somewhat. An early European exit may yet work in their favour in the coming months, but little of last year’s attacking verve has been shown – Balotelli being in the doghouse has certainly not helped matters. Like most title challengers, they have perfected the knack of winning while playing badly, but that cannot last forever. They can kiss goodbye to their title unless things improve, but they should secure a return to the Champions League with minimum fuss. Grade – B minus

Manchester United – For sheer entertainment, the Red Devils deserve their title back. The signing of Robin Van Persie was an absolute masterstroke, as it diverted attention away from United’s suspect defence. Or at least they hoped. To be seven points clear, blowing teams away upfront and STILL have such focus on defensive errors is testament to the unreliable David De Gea and his back line. If they sort that out, while retaining their attacking flair, the title will be sewn up by Easter. Grade – A minus

Newcastle – Eight defeats in ten games tells its own story – the Magpies are in a spot of bother. Key players such as Jonas, Cisse, Tiote Krul, and Collocini have all dipped below their potential, and with a tiny squad there is no one to replace them. Two stirring performances, including three goals each at Old Trafford and The Emirates earnt plenty of praise, but a combination of eleven goals conceded led them to no points. With January strengthening they should rise to mid-table, but the possible exit of Ba and a tight-fisted owner could hamper matters. Grade – D

QPR – Simply put, the Mark Hughes era was a disaster. Brought in to recover a poor start from Warnock, survival was only ensured on the last day of the season. Add that to the worst ever start to a Premier League season, and new manager Harry Redknapp has an impossible job, even by his standards. Eight points from safety, and with severe attitude problems throughout the squad - if I had a mortgage I would it all on the Loftus Road lads to take the drop. Grade – E

Reading – The Royals were the surprise package during their last stay in the top flight, finishing ninth in their first season. This season the gulf in class has been more apparent, despite the signing of Pavel Pogrebnyak. Five points is what seperates Reading from safety, and sadly for them, they will be heading straight back down again, despite some good performances. Grade – D.

Southampton – Nigel Adkins and his Saints look to have the best chance of the current bottom three of getting out of trouble. Some early stirring performances, particularly against Man United, gave them no reward, and having dropped 17 points from winning positions this year they might struggle to keep their heads up before long. As Blackpool will tell you, good football means nothing without points. Grade – C minus

Stoke – The Potteries are an unlikely holder of the Premier League’s last unbeaten home record – but really, it’s not too much of a surprise, considering the trouble visiting teams all have at the Britannia Stadium. The only problem is the away form which has brought them only one win. Critics are beginning to take note however of a slightly more expansive style than previous years. A top 10 finish could be on the cards, maybe even a European push if their away form picks up. Grade – B

Sunderland -  Martin O’Neill has found life a bit tougher on Wearside this season – since Gyan’s unceremonious departure goals have been hard to come by. Steven Fletcher has carried the mantle solo, and some dispiriting home performances led some to question the Lisburn man’s position as manager. Improved December performances have left the new year looking slightly rosier, but the likes of Adam Johnson need to pull their weight a bit more. Grade – C minus

Swansea – From the outside looking in, it seems like not much has changed at Swansea. Brendan Rodgers made way for Michael Laudrup, but Swansea still inhabit a comfortable mid table position, playing some nice football. Michu, arriving for £2m from Rayo Vallecano, has scored an impressive 13 goals, and Swans fans will have no complaints with how things are going. They may even look at Brendan Rogers and Liverpool and think of his departure as no big loss. Grade – B

Tottenham Hotspur – This is a team that suffered major upheaval over the summer, losing their beloved playmaker in Modric, and their beloved manager in Redknapp. Andre Villas Boas has not been universally accepted, and a tentative start didn’t help his cause. Fourth place to end the year is not to be sniffed at though, and increased fluidity in performances has been evident of late, including a wonderful win at Old Trafford. The future looks bright for White Hart Lane. Grade – B

West Brom  - Steve Clarke took charge aiming to buck the trend of great coaches who can’t make the step to the top job. After only five months, it’s fair to say that trend has been well and truly bucked. Some fantastic performances, particularly at home, led to fanciful talk of a European finish. A top ten finish is more likely, but even that would be an excellent return for a team many tipped to go down at the start of the season. Grade – A minus

West Ham – Sam Allardyce can consider his critics answered after West Ham’s opening half to the season. They’ve done all the usual things a Big Sam team does, and with Kevin Nolan as the captain they will never lie down and accept a defeat. Relegation is not even on the agenda at Upton Park, and nor should it be as they aim to move into the Olympic Stadium before long – not a home for Championship football! Grade – B

Wigan – Some things never change. One of those things is Wigan. Like every season, they go long periods of time without a win and pull one out of the bag when you least expect it. They look like staying afloat again this season, but the phrase ‘running to stand still’ can never have been so apt, as the Latics are among the bigger spenders in the division – certainly the bottom half. Grade - C

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