Just past the halfway point in the Premier League season; time for a few thoughts on what’s gone on so far.
Top two predictable, rest pretty crazy. Chelsea and Man City are streets ahead of anyone else. Chelsea, in particular, have looked really strong – until Spurs whupped them 5-3 at White Hart Lane on [New Years Day]. Let’s just assume that was some kind of post binge hangover and will quickly be shaken off. In the previous game, against West Ham, the one I was at, they looked deeply impressive. Strong in all areas: excellent goalkeeper, solid at the back, rampaging full backs, power and poise in deep midfield – Matic and Fabregas – flair and energy in the attacking midfield trio, and, finally, a big, aggressive, lethal striker in Diego Costa. A decent supporting cast on the bench too. Jose Mourinho has done it again. Unassailable, surely.
But Man City have been hanging on in there. At times they’ve looked a bit off colour, and have suffered from injuries to key players: notably Aguero and Kompany, but also Silva. Yaya Toure took a while to get going too, but seems to have found his shooting boots again recently. And so, stealthily, they have caught up with Chelsea, who have lost a couple of games in the past month. Aguero is big loss – he was on fire before he got injured again. But they are on the verge of buying Wilfried Bony from Swansea, which is an astute move. He has been excellent this season and has the class to step up further at City.
I still think Chelsea will come out top, but it will be a good fight between the two.
Then the wackiness begins. Man Utd had a poor start under Louis van Gaal – worse than under David Moyes the previous season. Loads of injuries, bafflement at the 3-5-2, new players getting to know each other. But gradually things have gelled. They still look fragile at the back; but going forward, they have awesome talent at their disposal. Mata, Rooney, van Persie, Falcao, di Maria. England’s version of the galacticos. I really like the way Rooney is playing at the moment – quite deep lying, threading passes, ghosting in to the box to score, interchanging with Mata, who looks to have regained his confidence. It’s a role I’d like to see Rooney playing for England: creator, poacher, rather than target man. Finally, the new Paul Scholes!
Arsenal are just…. Arsenal. Occasionally exhilarating, deeply frustrating to their fans, injury-wracked and with that perennial soft centre. Defensive midfield, centre back, goal keeper. None are good enough for a team with title aspirations. I mean, they had Monreal playing in the centre of defence recently! On the plus side, Cazorla has been excellent in midfield since the loss of Ramsey, Ozil and Wilshere, Sanchez has been a true star and Theo Walcott is back! Arsenal will pick up, go on the customary unbeaten run-in from March, and come third or fourth. They may do well in the Champions League, where they have a relatively kind last 16 draw – Monaco – and where their playing style has more chance of success. That would be nice: Champions League triumph, to cap Arsene’s reign. Then he could leave with head held high, as he deserves to do.
Who might then replace him? Well, I imagine that Ronald Koeman at Southampton is gaining a few advocates, just as the implosion of Borussia Dortmund in Germany might be damaging the reputation of the much sought-after Jurgen Klopp. The Saints have been the revelation of the season. Back up to fourth, after a wobble when they played Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd in swift succession. They recently put Arsenal in their place, too. After the heart was ripped out of last season’s team – Lallana, Lovren, Lambert to Liverpool, Shaw to Man Utd, Chambers to Arsenal, manager Pochettino to Spurs – the prospects looked grim. But Koeman came in from Feyenoord, brought in some useful players we’d hardly heard of (Pelle, Tadic, Mane, Alderweireld, as well as England squad goalkeeper, Fraser Forster from Celtic) and had the team playing attractive football, while having the tightest defence around. A remarkable achievement. Can they hang on for a Champions League place? Maybe, but they’ll have to stay very strong, when Arsenal embark on the traditional sprint to the finish. Fifth I fear.
Talking of Liverpool, they have been the big disappointment this season, after their swashbuckling second place last time. Losing Suarez to Barcelona was always going to be a massive blow, and Sturridge has been injured for much of the season. The vim, the pace, the pressing all seems to have gone. Sterling has missed his two partners, Gerrard has looked a bit jaded and seems to have fallen out with manager Brendan Rodgers, and none of the new players has shone. Lallana has been in and out, while Lovren is a shadow of the defender he was at Southampton. Worst of all though…. Balotelli. A moment of hubris for Rodgers, thinking his man-management skills could do the job on the moody Italian. He has been off the pace, seemingly uninterested, totally unsuited to Liverpool’s preferred style of pacy attacking and pressing up the pitch. The fans seem to have turned against Rodgers – that didn’t take long – which seems unfair to me. The loss of your two best strikers would hurt any team (even Man City have struggled a bit by their standards) and Gerrard has reached that age where some loss of his powers are inevitable. There’s no disaster really – they are only 7 points off fourth place with half the season to go. But expectations were raised by last season’s overachievement. A bit of patience is required.
That leaves me with one more side that has been in the top four. Along with Southampton, the surprise of the season. Oh yes, my own team, the happy Hammers! Slightly less happy after losing to Chelsea (easily), Arsenal (unluckily) and drawing with West Brom (stupidly) over the festive period. But we’re still pinching ourselves to make sure the transformation of the team isn’t just a dream. The football is good, the team spirit clearly strong. The new players have integrated exceptionally well, while others have a new spring in their step, Stewart Downing in particular, probing, scoring goals from the tip of the midfield diamond. We have two promising young full backs: Cresswell, bought from Ipswich, Jenkinson, on loan from Arsenal. The goalkeeper, Adrian, has been outstanding. Sakho and Valencia have been revelations up front – fast, powerful, with an eye for goal. These attributes have not been common in West Ham strikers in recent years! And having the big man, Andy Caroll back from relentless injuries gives us variety. Best of all has been the midfield, where Kouyate and Song have been awesome, with Mark Noble as industrious and effective as ever. The heartbeat of the team. It’s disappointing that Zarate hasn’t had a proper chance, but there has been real competition for places.
Can we keep it going? January will be tough, with Kouyate and Sakho (if he isn’t injured) at the African Nations Cup, Winston Reid possibly leaving and some doubts again over Carroll’s fitness. But Alex Song has given up on Cameroon so he’ll be available. The question may be, how strong is the belief that they can be a top six, if not top four team this season? It’s a massive change in mentality. I was a bit worried about the retreat into a shell for the Chelsea game, but I guess Big Sam would say Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is the toughest game of the season and there was another big game against Arsenal two days later. We lost that too, but only after having a goal from Song disallowed for interference by another player who didn’t touch the ball. Many refs would have given the goal, it would have been 1-0 and brittle Arsenal might have crumbled. Would, should, might… The habitual refuge of the losing fan!
Anyway, fingers crossed; but I reckon 7th or 8th is most likely. Not a bad return and something to build on.