Premier League Midway Review

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So we’re pass the midway point in the Premier League. We’re also past the halfway point in the January transfer window and business is not really picking up as yet, though that will change with the days remaining.

This review is a little later than scheduled, but it’s still looking at how things are at this stage.

Chelsea:

What I Expected: They were not obviously going to win it this season. They had a dreadful season last and so would be lagging a little behind the true contenders to be found in Manchester. Yet Conte is a savvy manager and the squad disappointed because they had been previously the champions, so it’s not as though they were complete failures. A few signings and they would be competing for a top four place.

What I Received: The start wasn’t too bad, but then there came defeats to Liverpool and especially Arsenal. That particular result has proven to be a turning point for the club who went on a 13 game winning streak and won 14 out of 15 league games to find themselves nestled comfortably seven points on top of the table. No doubt thanks to their 3-4-3 system that teams struggle against, the revelatory form of Victor Moses and the squad’s ability to cope with minor setbacks.

What I Expect: They should win the Premier League. Not necessarily as consummately as others have suggested, but their position is one in which they have to sabotage their own chances.

Progress Grade: A – You look at the names in that squad and there are quality Premier League winning players in there. Conte has got them playing to their potential and so the defence is strong, the attack is irresistible and there is solidity, strength and dynamism throughout the team.

Spurs:

What I Expected: They would certainly learn the lessons from last season. They have a good squad and a very good manager and things are ticking over well with them. Yet against the other big boys who would inevitably improve it would be a test of their mettle to see if they could keep up with the top four.

What I Received: They have beaten both Chelsea and City relatively comfortably. They have not been phased by Liverpool or Arsenal either. Even their loss against United wasn’t something to be ashamed about. They have lost just twice this season and yet the signs are that the best is yet to come from this squad as they look at the rest of the season as genuine title contenders.

What I Expect: Spurs only faltered in the final game last season which shows that to a degree they have some staying power. The test will be harder this time around, though, with the quality of opposition being stronger than last season. They are legitimate challengers though and so another top four finish is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Progress Grade: A – Really and truly this team should not be in the top two. That they have done this with some to spare is great credit to their squad management and to the manager himself who is doing a great job. Should they finish in the top four again, I would contend strongly that Pochettino is the best manager Spurs have had in the Premier League era.

Liverpool:

What I Expected: OK, so there’s my bias towards Liverpool which has a preference of looking for the best from the Reds. Yet the team finished way outside the top five last season. So a reasonable target for them was to lift themselves to be challenging for a top four place.

What I Received: They have done slightly better than I expected. Like Spurs they have only lost twice. When you consider that those defeats were against Bournemouth and Burnley, both away, it says a lot for the way Liverpool have done this season. To the degree that pundits are critiquing their performance on the basis of title contenders. That’s some feat that the squad have shown in improving to that degree. The attack most times has been a sensation to appreciate reflected in being the top goalscorers in the league and their pressing game has been good. Questions are still put about their defensive capabilities, but that has not deflected from the fact that they have done better than expected.

What I Expect: The squad depth gets tested at these times of the season. Even without European competition this Liverpool team are being asked questions about their ability to cope without players due to international commitments and injuries. With some tricky matches coming up, if they can negotiate through them as well as they have done so far, they should feel confident about a top four place.

Progress Grade: A – Many predicted that Liverpool would be competing for the top four. Not so many predicted that Liverpool would be listed as a title contender. Even less would see the Reds being ahead of City and United.

Arsenal:

What I Expected: This one is interesting. If you read this blog for any length of time you’ll know that Arsenal are a constant source of intrigue to me. Arsenal fans rightly expected their team to be proper and true title contenders this season. I didn’t expect them to be title contenders because of how reliable they are at flattering to deceive settling for their usual top four finish.

What I Received: To a large degree Arsenal have lived up to expectations. There’s talk about a change in their mentality, but that’s not reflected in their league position. They can steamroller teams, their attack is very good and on paper their defence should be a lot better that it has been with the cover they’ve bought in to make the midfield harder to pass through. For all that, though, their league position at the moment is a reflection of how they are doing and have been doing for years.

What I Expect: Maybe in the second half of the season they will rally to the cause, making the most of those around them dropping points and putting on the sort of run that will see them seriously competing to be the Premier League champions. Nope. Can’t see it. This is Arsenal. Their goal as ever will be to finish top four and above Spurs – and that goal is not that straightforward with how Spurs are doing and how those behind them will snap at their heels.

Progress Grade: B – I eventually gave them a B rather than a C not because they are doing well but because they are not disappointing that much out of character. They are not bang average. They are doing well … kinda. Though it just feels like typical Arsenal – but take the B grade and be done with it.

Man City:

What I Expected: City not finishing in the top three last season was baffling. An astonishing failing on a team that is built to challenge for the title. Never mind, though, because here comes Guardiola and some new signings purchased with a lot of money. With the stars they already have there is no wonder they are being tipped as winners of the league. Maybe I edged it to their Mancunian cousins, but there’s no doubt they should be right up there scrapping to the end.

What I Received: Errrrrr … Well this is odd. It’s January and Guardiola has already thrown in the towel saying they ain’t gonna win the league. I mean at the start of the season they were racing away with it, consecutive wins to the double digits and scoring goals for fun. They were doing that without Yaya Toure too. To say the momentum has stopped would be an understatement. Five defeats already in the league – five!! I am still shaking my head at just how poorly they have done. I want to put it down to Pep adjusting to the league and all the other transitional stuff you can throw out. Seriously, though, ten points off the top and a defence that looks as solid as soaked bread. It’s just incredible to observe.

What I Expect: For some reason, there’s something in me that says that the club itself just won’t stand for this kind of form. They won’t treat it like a settling in season. They will snap out of it and turn on some more form to the end of the season to pursue a place in the top four and a better taste to the end of the season. They have the players to do it and that’s what I am expecting.

Progress Grade: C – You could argue they should get a lower grade than this. You could make a very good argument indeed, but their placing in the league especially where the points are concerned still says the beginning of the season was enough to keep them in the hunt for a top four place – maybe even as high as second. In that reading it would be wrong to give them a low grade. They are certainly not deserving, however, of anything higher than this.

Man Utd:

What I Expected: Mourinho, Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan. United were not messing around. They would put the disappointment of the previous season behind them and just blast off to the top of the table. While others were singing the praises of Guardiola and mocking Mourinho for the way his Chelsea stint ended, I retained faith in Mourinho. I thought his knowledge of the league and the big players joining the club would just get them off to a flying start.

What I Received: Writing this in January if I told you that United went on a 15 match unbeaten run and only saw a good winning streak stopped by a draw against Liverpool, you would have thought that sounded promising. If I told you they were in sixth place, you would rightly be scratching your head. If I went on to tell you that they had lost as many games as Chelsea in first place you would be mystified even further. Therein, however, is the story of what has been a slow start to the season. That slow start has been costly not even for the losses, but for the draws. For all that though, their performances have been better than under LvG and of recent times their signings have been living up to their billing as top footballers. Their current relentless style is saying volumes about the rising confidence back at Old Trafford. It’s taken time, though, as frustrating draws have now turned to clinical victories.

What I Expect: It’s odd to say looking at the five teams above them, but I expect United to finish in the top four. I expect it because they are actually still improving. Mourinho has crafted a style of play utilising the resources at his disposal and now United are a threat wherever they go. They go into matches believing they should win and can win and that makes the world of difference to this team. This is something that is not scheduled to end whatever the opposition. Their star quality as well can see them beat the others from the top five (other than Liverpool who they have already played twice) even Chelsea.

Progress Grade: C – They have not done as well as they should have done with what they have on offer. But they are definitely moving in the right direction and still improving, which should be a concern to the teams above them.

Everton:

What I Expected: To be honest it was an interesting thing considering what Everton could achieve in the season. They didn’t make that many outstanding signings and they have been underachieving for a while. I expected them to do better than last year, Koeman was a step up from Martinez and so it was reasonable to expect them to do better.

What I Received: If you go by the league placing then Everton can’t complain at all. If you go by the performances, though, then there might be the odd issue with how Koeman is settling in. Some performances have been questionable and yet from that there emerges the result against City that reinforces their position in the table.

What I Expect: More of the same really. They have made a couple of signings and may make one or two more but their idea of trajectory upwards is stymied by the fact they are nowhere near good enough to challenge the top six yet. They can certainly look at being more consistent and strong in their playing identity and of those outside the top six they remain the most likely to finish in the highest golden mediocre spot.

Progress Grade: C – Have they done that much better than expected? Nope. Have they done that much worse than expected? Nope. Have they kinda hit where you would expect a team like them to end up? Yep. That is the devastation of bang average.

West Brom:

What I Expected: West Brom are the type of club that might flirt with relegation, but they’re not really going to get relegated. They are not going to do much else either but meander around the lower reaches of the table.

What I Received: The start of the season saw the type of West Brom I was expecting. Then, seemingly out of nowhere West Brom turned into a team that … scored goals. In a couple of those matches a Tony Pulis team was even entertaining. Yeah I can’t believe it either, but it’s true. They scored goals, won matches and got themselves in the top half of the table. You look at the table now and they’re still there.

What I Expect: They have done well enough to establish their credential as a Premier League club again. A combination of the quality of the squad they already have, the points they have accumulated and those below them means I don’t even expect West Brom to dally with relegation, really. They will dip, they will lose matches, but they will do enough to even contemplate the idea of even finishing in the top half of the table.

Progress Grade: B – They are doing far better than expected without going over the top and saying they are having an outstanding season. It’s good progress from the side to be able to do better than expected at this stage of the season. Who knows what might happen if they strengthen the squad as Pulis desires. For now fans shouldn’t have too much to gripe about with their football life at the Hawthorns.

Stoke City:

What I Expected: Mark Hughes is at that tricky stage as a manager. He is not settling down anymore. He’s not working anything out at the club anymore. He is well established at Stoke City and the overall signs are relatively positive as to his impact. He now has to take that another step by doing well in the league. They should be among those who would think it’s only tight that they finish in the top half of the table.

What I Received: The start to the season was horrific. At one stage it even looked like the pressure would get too much for them. Thankfully they have managed to turn that around and climbed well above the relegation zone. They are even in the top half of the table, which must make them wonder where they would be if they hadn’t started the season so badly.

What I Expect: They are currently in the top half and although they don’t look capable of troubling Everton in 7th place, they should have enough to make a competitive effort of gaining a top half finish.

Progress Grade: C – That start of the season cannot be brushed off and although the reaction has been positive, fans are right to still feel the jury is out as to whether or not they really are making progress.

Burnley:

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Bournemouth:

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West Ham:

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Southampton:

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Watford:

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Leicester City:

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Middlesbrough:

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Crystal Palace:

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Hull City:

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Sunderland:

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Swansea:

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It is a fascinating thing to see how things will end up at the end of the season. There’s much intrigue in terms of how the top four will turn out. Those who are battling against relegation will find it even tougher in the final months of the season and it will truly be that collection of players who can muster some degree of teamwork to make it work. So much to look forward to as the second half continues. As ever …

Let’s see how it goes.

Shalom

C. L. J. Dryden

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