English Premier League Mid-Season Review
EPL is taking a well deserved break after a frantic Christmas and New Year schedule. But the time is just right for having a look back at the first half of the 2014-15 session. Naman Mehra brings to you all that you should know, here with Goalden Times.
The 2014–15 season of the Barclays Premier League is now in its midway. Each of the 20 teams has played 20 games and all the teams have another 18 to play. The first half of this season has given rise to multiple topics worthy of discussion. Jose Mourinho’s men are involved in a two-horse race for the league title along with Manchester City, and teams like Leicester have a lot to do to remain in the top division of English football. Chelsea’s recent blip in form where they have managed only one point out of a possible six has brought Manchester City level in points at the top of the table and made the battle for the title more interesting than ever. While some summer signings have had an immediate impact (Cesc Fabregas–Diego Costa combo for Chelsea, Alexis Sanchez for Arsenal), others look like deals that could have been avoided (Mario Balotelli for Liverpool). On the other hand, there was Alan Pardew, who nearly got fired from Newcastle United, then took them to the top-half of the division with a brilliant run of positive results, and then sensationally quit the club in January. As you can see, there is a lot to be covered in, let us go through the first half in more details :
We start the review by analysing table-toppers Chelsea. They started really well with 15 wins and only three draws in the first 18 games. However, they’ve since slipped down the ladder, allowing Manchester City to close the gap at the top. Ruthless in most of the games, Costa and Fabregas have proven to be fantastic signings. The former has 14 goals to his name, and the latter, making a return to English football, has 14 assists already in record-breaking time. With a stable defense, shielded by the ever-improving Nemanja Matic and the brilliant Eden Hazard and Oscar, the club has rarely looked weak. However, away losses against Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspurs have shown that some areas of improvement still remain. Their defense has been found wanting at times, but they would definitely not want to let this excellent start go to waste.
Manchester City had a comparatively slow start to the league. After an insipid performance in the Community shield, their first five league games saw only two wins. However, they did improve thereafter, winning 13 of the next 15 matches to ascend to the second place in the league. Currently, they are at par with Chelsea, with not only the same number of points, but also the same number of goals scored and the total goal difference. If this is the case at the end of the season, the league champion may be decided by a playoff between the two teams—a first-ever in the history of the league. A major catalyst for this change in form is their talismanic forward, Sergio Aguero. With 14 goals to his name, he tops the goal scoring charts jointly with Costa. Moreover, with him being injured for about a month now, he also has a better goal per minute ratio than the latter. An injured Vincent Kompany and an indifferent start from Eliaquim Mangala have made their defense susceptible at times, but they have turned around pretty well, even when without a single fit forward in their ranks. Frank Lampard, on loan from New York City FC, has proven his mettle yet again with five crucial goals, including the equaliser against his former team Chelsea. He has extended his stay at the club till the end of the season, boosting Manchester City’s hopes for the title. However, just like Chelsea, this club also depends on its attacking prowess, and when the going gets tough and the team needs to grind out a result, it has been far from convincing till date.
Top Four Contenders
Manchester United had a busy and expensive summer, spending over GBP 120 million. However, surprisingly, they failed to strengthen their defense, which was very weak even a few months into the season. Under the new manager, Louis van Gaal, the club had a slow start and won just one of their first five games. Just like their neighbours, they improved radically after that, with just one loss from the next 15 games. Their last ten league games have seen seven wins and three draws. This run has led them to the third spot in the league—an improvement of four places as compared to last year. However, they are only three points better off last season, and still nine points short of the top position. Manchester United’s key performer has been their goalkeeper, David de Gea. With a young and inexperienced defense in front of him (which is often tinkered with as LVG tries to find the best suitable formation with the resources in hand) de Gea is on a brilliant run, making crucial saves in big games against Arsenal, Everton, and Liverpool. The club’s summer transfers have mostly been plagued by injuries, including the new British transfer record holder Angel Di Maria. He played just 30 minutes in the entire month of December. Marquee loanee Radamel Falcao also had the same fate—just seven starts in 20 games, playing the full game only twice. This goes to show that he is yet to fully recover from his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, and this may deter him from moving permanently to the club. To Manchester United’s credit, Juan Mata (five goals, three assists), Wayne Rooney (eight goals, four assists) and Robin van Persie (eight goals, two assists) have contributed well to the team’s cause, making sure that the club just about hangs on to its title hopes.
Arsenal had an unusual summer transfer window—one where they spent a lot of money and no major player left the club. However, just like Manchester United, there was a need for defensive signings, mainly in the form of a central defensive midfielder and a centre-half. These, though, did not happen. And again, like Manchester United, Arsenal felt the blow of it via injuries. Out of the 20 league games, Arsenal fielded a different back four on 15 occasions. Injuries to Laurent Koscielny and Mathieu Debuchy meant young Calum Chambers had to shift between right-back and centre-back positions. This led to many shabby defensive performances. Their loss to Manchester United meant that they dropped to the eighth position in the league.However, they rallied back to finish the first half on a decent run. Their next seven games saw five wins, which means that they are only three points behind fourth placed Southampton and four points behind third placed Manchester United. A major factor contributing to this has been the Chilean international Sanchez. Signed from Barcelona this year, he brought a relatively unknown hunger in the squad and has ten goals and six assists to his name so far. Arsenal are 13 points short of the top, and so a title challenge seems unlikely.However, with defensive reinforcements come in during the winter transfer window, they should consolidate on a top 4 spot.
It was expected that Liverpool would miss the charisma of Luis Suarez, but with Daniel Sturridge also injured, they are yet to recover their form in this season. Sturridge has been out since September and his replacement, Mario Balotelli, is yet to score in the league. A goalkeeper suffering from loss of confidence, a defense that has looked vulnerable, too many signings which are yet to adjust—all these have contributed to a poor start from Liverpool. With seven defeats and five draws, they sit at the eighth position in the table, though their last few games have seen some favourable results. An inspiring draw against Arsenal followed by victories over Burnley and Swansea, meant Liverpool ended the year five points away from 4th spot. They could have closed the gap further, had it not been for a slip against bottom-of-the-table Leicester City at Anfield, where they could not force a win despite leading by 2-0. Their lone star performer this season has been young Raheem Sterling (four goals, six assists) and with Sturridge back this month, it will be foolish to count them out in the race for the top-four positions in the league.
Tottenham Hotspurs have always been a top four contender. Very rarely have they managed to finish in those positions though. This season has been no different so far. A poor start meant they dropped to the tenth position in the league after 15 games. This is not a surprise though considering they have been clueless upfront along with a midfield which has rarely been consistent enough. But they have had a turn of fortune, and, since December, the Spurs have been undefeated through a course of six matches played around the crazy Christmas schedule. They have risen to the fifth position in the league and are only two points short of the fourth spot currently. One of the highlights of this run was an inspired 5–3 win over derby rivals and table-toppers Chelsea. A young Harry Kane with seven goals and five assists to his name in only ten starts seems to have solved their forward issues. His performance against Chelsea deserves special mention here. A return in form for star Christian Eriksen and brilliant performances from Nacer Chadli have also helped their cause. With better defensive performances and more consistency, a top-four spot is not out of their reach.
Southampton was expected to struggle this year, particularly after selling five first-teamers, including their club captain, loaning out two more, and then losing their manager. Ronald Koeman, the replacement, however, has so far done an amazing job at the club. The club has been in the top five in the league since Gameweek 4. With shrewd signings in GrazianoPelle from Feyenoord, Dusan Tadic from FC Twente, Fraser Forster from Celtic, along with loans of Ryan Bertrand and Toby Alderweireld, Ronald Koeman has integrated the squad really well. The existing lot has stepped up too, with Nathaniel Clyne, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Victor Wanyama having a very good season. The notable stars for the team have been Pelle (eight goals, four assists) and Tadic (two goals, nine assists). Their best results include an 8–0 win over Sunderland and a win over Arsenal, but what has really driven them so high in the table, is the results against teams expected to be around them. If we look at their matches against teams that finished outside the top seven last season, their record reads nine wins, two draws, and one loss in 12 games. They are sitting pretty at fourth position in the table. Finishing at the same position would require a huge effort, though it is not entirely impossible, since there is no European football to distract them.
West Ham United are not one of the teams that we speak about when we think of the race for top four spots of the league. However, their first half of the season has surprised quite a few. Under excellent management from Sam Allardyce, they have been hovering close to the Champions League spots this season. After an indifferent start—two wins and three losses in the first six matches—West Ham went on a remarkable run from Gameweek 7 to 17, losing just once in this period. This run included a memorable win over champions Manchester City that took them from the 13th to the fourth position in the table. They ended the year with back-to-back defeats, but are still only four points away from the fourth spot. Their star has undoubtedly been Stewart Downing, who has returned to form with four goals and six assists. Alex Song, loanee from Barcelona, has done well in midfield, and upfront Diafra Sakho, summer signing from FC Metz, has been excellent with a return of seven goals and three assists. A top-four finish is unlikely, but at least a Europa-League-spot finish is on the cards.
These are the teams that, even though safe from the relegation battle, would need to put in superb performances to get a spot at the Europa league.
Swansea City have so far ridden on the brilliant Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wilfried Bony, who have eight goals plus six assists and nine goals plus two assists respectively. However, they have been very inconsistent this season. They started with a fantastic performance and victory at Old Trafford that was followed by only one win in the next couple of months. November saw a revival of sorts, including a win over Arsenal. They have managed to beat other mid-table sides around them, and unless something dramatic happens would remain in the first half of the table.
Newcastle United have had quite an eventful season. An absolute horrible start—without a win in the first seven weeks—saw them reach the bottom of the league. With manager Alan Pardew under extreme pressure, Papiss Cisse scored a brace at Swansea to snatch a draw and, according to the media, save Pardew’s job. This was followed by five wins on the trot, which took them from the eighteenth to the fifth spot in the table. They struggled a bit again, but wins over Chelsea and Everton show that they are still far from done. Remarkably, Pardew has now been released from his contract, and he has reunited with Crystal Palace, the club where he made a name for himself as a player. Providing support to Cisse, who tops the club goal-scoring charts with nine hits, will be a key concern for the new manager.
Everton have been really poor this year,, in sharp contrast to their performance last season. Five wins and nine losses from 20 games show that the team has not performed as per potential. Romelu Lukaku, signed on a huge deal from Chelsea is yet to reach the heights of last season despite his six league goals.Currently, they are just four points away from the relegation spots and only Queens Park Rangers have a worse defensive record than them.So, they must work on their defensive issues if they do not want to get dragged into the relegation battle.
Aston Villa started brightly in the league, winning three of their first four games. However, it has all been downhill since. They embarked upon a losing streak of six straight games and have won just two of their last 16 games. This kind of inconsistent form has brought them to twelfth position in the league, and made sure that they are just five points away from the relegation spots. The biggest results for them include winning at Anfield early in the season and holding off Manchester United to a point at home. There has been hardly any standout performer so far. And only dependable defender Ron Vlaar’s exit is also on the cards as this is the last opportunity for Aston Villa to cash in on him before his contract expires. They have managed only 11 goals so far, the lowest in the league. The club needs to improve if they are to remain afloat. Paul Lambert has a difficult second half in front of him.
Stoke City have had another one of their typical seasons, with plenty of highs and plenty of lows. Currently a decent nine points away for relegation spots, Stoke will have more to regret with points dropped against teams around them. The high points have so far been away wins over Manchester City, Tottenham, and Everton and a home win against Arsenal. Actually, Stoke City are not far from the European spots—with just three points short of Liverpool at the eighth spot and six points short of West Ham at the seventh spot. If they had not dropped points against the likes of Burnley and Crystal Palace, they might have been there already. Bojan Krkic, summer signing from Barcelona, seems to have finally settled in, while Jonathan Walters has been the best overall performer. Defensively, they would want to improve, with only four clean sheets in 20 games. If they can better their performances at home, Stoke can still fight for Europa league spots in the table.
Sides Battling Relegation
Sunderland finished last season on a high and needs another such performance this year. With just three wins this season, they are only three points away from relegation spots. This includes an 8–0 humiliation at Southampton, the biggest scoreline this season. Recently, though, they did beat derby rivals Newcastle at an away game, and have held multiple big teams (including Chelsea and Liverpool) to draws.
Queens Park Rangers (QPR), West Bromwich Albion, and Hull City all lie just outside the relegation spots and have performed poorly this season. QPR did spend and try to improve their defense this summer, but it never really worked out. Their performances have been abject this season with no points away from home at all. However, they are yet to lose to other relegation-threatened sides. West Brom, on the other hand, started the league comparatively better, being in the top half after ten weeks. Four consecutive losses since have made them slip in their rankings and they lie just a point away from the relegation spot. This, incidentally, has led to the sacking of manager Alan Irvine. Tony Pulis, who famously took Crystal Palace from a similar situation last season to eleventh in the league, has been recruited, and a similar sort of revival is highly anticipated. SaidoBerahino has been their star with eight goals.However, lack of support for him has often led the team down. Hull City have had major goal scoring issues of their own. Two points ahead of the eighteenth-placed Crystal Palace, they have ended up losing nearly half the games they have played and have a long road ahead of them under manager Steve Bruce.
Newly promoted Burnley and Leicester City, along with Crystal Palace, are the teams which go in the second half of the relegation spots. Crystal Palace and West Brom are just a point apart, and have been similar in performances. A suspect defense,accompanied by a failing strikeforce, have made sure that Palace have really missed Tony Pulis and the performances under him last season. Only Merseyside teams have been their source of major scalps this time, with victories over both Liverpool and Everton. As a result, Neil Warnock has lost his job to Alan Pardewa few days ago. Burnley, tying with Crystal Palace, are currently second from bottom in the table. A win over high-flying Southampton, holding off both the Manchester clubs to draws, and coming back thrice against Newcastle count among the only positives for them in this inconsistent season. With only a single win in the last eight matches, things must quickly change for themif they wish to remain in the league.
Leicester Cityhad a very good start to the season. They held Everton and Arsenal to a point and then famously beat Manchester United 5-3 to move to seventh in the table. That was followed by a run of ten defeats in 12 games without a win. They are at bottom of the league and four points away from safety. With the second-worst defensive record in the tournament and the highest number of matches lost (12) in the league so far, Leicester really need to move on. A win in the final league game of the year, away at Hull, and the comeback from two goals down at Anfield do end the first half on a good note. However, they are the among the favourites to be relegated this season.
In conclusion, while some clubs have struggled for consistency, the battle for the title seems to be a two-way affair between Chelsea and Manchester City. Manchester United, Arsenal and others might have a hand in the final result, but it seems quite unlikely at this point. The mid-table is heavily congested with just 11 points separating the teams between third and eleventh place, and all the newly promoted sides are in trouble. The January transfer window will have a big say as to how the season pans out. European football can impact the tableas well (as we saw with Liverpool last season). Transfer movements, particularly towards the bottom of the table, can change the fortunes of many clubs in this league. Ultimately, it will come down to consistency, something that many top sides have struggled with this year.
Mid-season Review Predictions
Champions – Chelsea
Runners-up – Manchester City
UCL Spots – Manchester United, Arsenal
Relegated Sides – QPR, Burnley, Leicester City
Top Goalscorer – Sergio Aguero
Transfer of the season – Alexis Sanchez
Worst transfer of the season – Mario Balotelli