Premier League 2013-14: Mid-Season Review
After the 2013-14 English Premier League season preview, here comes the mid-season review. By and large teams playing top-flight football in England have played as per the predictions. But Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool have surpassed my expectations. On the other hand, Manchester United’s woe seems to find a new low with every week. Let us look back how the season has gone and what we can look forward to.
We have come halfway through the English top division football. As always, there has been drama, controversies, allegations and thrills. And off course, some enthralling football. Sometimes nail-biting, sometimes sensational, sometimes drab but more often than not entertaining. Naysayers’ most publicized league has definitely been the most competitive one in ages. Tighten your seat belts as Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you in a recap journey of the league so far.
Arsenal sit at the top of the table as this article is written. The league table is congested but Arsenal have been there for majority of the season. And they are there for a reason. Professor’s young and nurtured midfield is coming of age with Aaron Ramsey leading the pack. With the strong statement made by the signing of Mesut Ozil, the Gunners are right on track for claiming the crown after a decade long wait. They look defensively astute as well with Per Mertesacker marshalling the backline to most number (9) of clean sheets. If they can keep Olivier Giroud fit for the remainder of the season or find a suitable back-up for him in the transfer window, their wait could be over.
They are touted as the team of the season and possible champions. They would have been miles ahead of the pack had it not been for their awful away form. Yet to drop a point at home, Manchester City have been miserable, to say the least, on their travels – only one draw and one win out of their first six away fixtures. Why it is so, well, have been discussed in detail in my earlier article. But there are signs of improvement. Return of club captain Vincent Kompany and midfield maestro David Silva from injury has turned their fortunes. They are at their best while attacking, with most number (57) of goals scored in the league and 11 times netting three or more goals in a match. And as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has put it “…the title is Manchester City’s to lose”.
Drama was expected with the return of the Special (Happy) One and Jose Mourinho has not disappointed. His post-match interviews are as interesting – or more – as any match. As always, Mourinho has made his team look compact on the pitch. With the plethora of attacking talent at his disposal in the midfield area, Chelsea is more soothing to the eye this season. But lack of clinical strikers upfront may just cost them the title.
Liverpool were on top of the table on X-mas day and it ignited a spur among their loyal fans – who have been long overdue – with jokes flooding social networking sites (“Where is my scarf mama? “It is on top of the table”). Next game results saw them dropped to 4th. This is just a true reflection of the league this year – competitive. Liverpool are playing a good brand of football, Brendan Rodgers has inflicted some steel to the team and the owners have been patient with him. But it is not incorrect to say that Liverpool are carried on his shoulders by one person – Luis Suarez. After being suspended for the first five matches for biting Branislav Ivanovic last season, Suarez has netted 20 goals in 15 matches. He has failed to score in five matches and not surprisingly Liverpool has managed to get a total of one point out of those matches. In matches where he has scored, Liverpool have dropped only two points. But their thin squad may pull them back towards the final run and if they again miss out on Champions League football, it could be doomsday for them.
With the departure of long serving manager David Moyes in the summer, Roberto Martinez took over at the Goodison Park. While he had done wonders in the cup matches, many were sceptical about his capabilities in a league running over nine months. Well, he has silenced all his critics. Even with club captain and the best left-back in the country Leighton Baines sidelined by injury for nearly one-third of the campaign, Everton have the best defensive record in the league – second least number of goals conceded and least number of matches lost (only 2 out of 20). Martinez deserves more credit for changing the style of Toffees’ play – rather than direct, he has brought in silky but effective passing in their game. Ross Barkely certainly has been the young player of the league and he is showing no signs of stopping. Things are looking good for a European spot next season.
What happened to Spurs? As the pun pointed out, sum of a number of moderate things put together need not necessarily compensate for one world-class performer. With as many as 7 new players coming in at the expense of Gareth Bale’s world record setting transfer to Real Madrid, it was always going to be difficult how Andres Vilas Boas can galvanize the team. But AVB’s never ending tweaking with formations, tactics and starting XI, his unimaginative style of play and his inexplicable high line coupled with lethargic tempo to the game brought his own downfall. Subsequently coach Tim Sherwood, a former player and captain of the Blackburn Rovers’ Premiership winning side in 1995, has taken over. He is not doing too bad either with only two points dropped in the first four matches in charge. But his inexperience may prove to be critical and Tottenham do not look to go beyond Europa League spots.
Things were meant to be different. Things were meant to be tough and Sir Alex Ferguson asked for patience from the fans in his farewell speech. In hindsight, he might have known that he is not handing over a good, leave alone great, side to David Moyes. Then came the transfer window debacle where United failed to capture their targets and their rivals got stronger. And with the air of invincibility gone, many a team have registered their first ever win or win after ages at the Old Trafford. With FA Cup exit and a top-four finish fast eluding the Red Devils, Moyes needs to start thinking for the next season as early as January. How things have changed at Manchester!!!
After a horrendous Premier League campaign last season, partly due to the torturous Europa League schedule, Newcastle United are back on track. They have created a decent gap with teams below them and look poised to continue their good work. Alan Pardew is currently the second longest serving Premier League manager behind Arsene Wenger. And his experience showed when he shifted to 4-3-3 from 4-4-2 at the expense of charismatic and fan-favourite Hatim Ben Arfa. A decent top half of the table finish is on the cards.
Less than a year with the club, manager Mauricio Pochettino shocked everyone when he announced his ambitions of finishing in the top 4. To his credit, he managed to keep Southampton there till the start of November. But a sudden dip in form has seen the Saints collecting only five points from a possible 27. But it cannot be denied they are playing one of the most free-flowing football in the league. This is a good advert for the league. Pochettino though has to realign his ambitions and cling on to a top half finish.
Hull City have been in the news over the controversy of their owners trying to force a name change to Hull Tigers drawing the wrath of supporters. But in the field, the Steve Bruce managed side has been making the right moves. Working with a shoestring budget, Bruce has brought in Tottenham duo of Tom Huddlestone and (on loan) Jake Livermore, which has proven to be a masterstroke. Having already scalped Liverpool, Hull would look for similar sort of results to hang on to a top half finish in their comeback season in Premier League.
Aston Villa started the season on grand style by beating Arsenal. But they have been hit hard by the injury of front man Christian Benteke. Even though they have triumphed Manchester City en route but goals in general have eluded them. A lower half finish is achievable if their defence can hold fort.
After the appointment of Mark Hughes, Stoke city is slowly going through a transition. Even with the likes of Peter Crouch in their ranks, Stoke is keener to pass the ball around and build up play rather than try long balls. They have scrapped some good results at the Britannia Stadium like draw against Manchester City, Everton and win against Chelsea. But they would do well not to be drawn into the relegation dogfight.
Like Newcastle last year, Swansea is this year’s victim of taxing Europa League fixtures. With games coming thick and fast, and injury list growing by each game, it has been a nightmare for Michael Laudrup. Swans have looked exhausted, more mentally than physically, and have faltered in critical moments. They have conceded crucial goals and missed golden opportunities and they are 16 points and seven places behind Tottenham – even if both the teams have scored (26 and 24) and conceded (28 and 25) similar number of goals. Beating Manchester United in the FA Cup might give them the push to surge ahead. And with talismanic striker Michu expected to come back from injury soon, don’t rule out the Swans for a shot at top half finish.
West Bromwich Albion
Apart from beating Manchester United away after a gap of 36 years, the Baggies could manage only 3 more wins. A usual mid-table team, that too now without a manager, they would be dragged into relegation battle sometime or the other; but they might just survive.
After couple of strong seasons back into the top flight of English football, the Canaries are feeling the heat this time. Life would be even tougher in the later stages of the league as teams get desperate for every point.
Another mediocre side staying up for too long in the top flight of English football. Their fixtures produce results – only one of their matches has been drawn – but more often than not, the Cottagers find themselves on the wrong end of it. With the worst defensive record in the league (42 goals conceded), this might be relegation time for them.
Controversies have dominated Cardiff City’s season so far. First, jersey colour change by the owner, billionaire Malaysian Vincent Tan, has seen the Bluebirds appear in red attire in home matches. Then their tough campaign became even tougher with the sacking of fan-favourite manager Malky Mackay. Apart from winning the Welsh derby against Swansea and stunning Manchester City in a 3-2 thriller, Cardiff have no memorable moment so far. And it does not look likely that newly appointed manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can add to that.
Having scored the least number (13) of times so far in the league, Crystal Palace’s problem area is clear – up front. Their defence is not too bad but failing to find the net have meant they have lost more often than taking something home. New manager Tony Pulis has initiated a mini revival by collecting four wins and 13 points from nine matches. But he knows that he has a tough job at hand.
West Ham United
Life back in the top flight has not been smooth sailing for Sam Allardyce, the Big Sam. Hampered by the absence of front man Andy Carrol, Hammers are on a downhill slide taking only two points out of seven matches since December. They can thank shot-stopper Jussi Jääskeläinen – baring his heroics West Ham would have been in deeper trouble. Another manger seems to be on firing line but even that may not be enough for survival.
There seems to be no light at the Stadium of Light. Black Cats are languishing at the bottom of the table and even a change in manager did not do much to ignite any hope. But this season the league is tight, a couple of wins can pull them up above the drop zone. Even then, survival would be tough come the end of season.
To cap it all, the league is still wide open. Only two points separate the top three. I shall put my neck out and say it will be either Chelsea or Arsenal. Manuel Pellegrini might just lose out in the final lap to his counterparts, only two managers with Premier League title to show for in their CV.
And it is not only at the top, the league is tight throughout – 9th place Southampton is only 10 points above safety. So brace yourself as (truly) the most competitive league in Europe enters its business end. We at Goalden Times will be with you through out this journey.
Match of the season – Merseyside derby: Everton 3 – Liverpool 3
Best Team of the season – 1. Liverpool 2. Everton 3. Arsenal
No. of managers sacked during the league – 6 (Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Tottenham Hotspur, Cardiff City)
Drama of the season – Paolo Di Canio, former Sunderland manager, asking the fans to keep their chin high after losing 3-0 to West Bromwich Albion
Controversy of the season – AVB continuing with Lloris after a head injury sustained during the match against Everton. He was forced to rest Lloris in the next game on the advice of Spurs medical team. AVB kept on defending himself saying all the decisions were taken by the medical staff.
Fantasy Team of the season:
Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal); Seamus Coleman (Everton), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal), John Terry (Chelsea), Leighton Baines (Everton); Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Yaya Touré (Manchester City), Mesut Özil (Arsenal); Luis Suárez (Liverpool), Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Substitues – Jussi Jääskeläinen (West Ham United); Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), Martin Skrtel (Liverpool); Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) Adam Lallana (Southampton); Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Romelu Lukaku (Everton)