With all 20 Premier League teams having played each other once, Impact Sport analyses and evaluates each one in terms of preseason expectations. League positions and point totals so far are stated in brackets, with grades given below.
Arsenal (1st, 42 points)
Since their opening-day home loss to Villa and capturing nobody but Under-19 French striker Yaya Sanogo in August, Arsenal appeared resigned to a ninth year without a trophy. But Arsène Wenger answered his critics by spending £42.4m for Real Madrid playmaker Mesut Özil on transfer deadline day, who has since added 4 goals and 7 assists to mount their credible title challenge. Despite the layoffs of Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to injury, Wenger has the luxury of depth in a gifted midfield. At his disposal are pass-masters Mikel Arteta (91.5% pass success) and Mathieu Flamini (92%) sitting deep, the through balls of Cazorla (1.8 key passes per game), Tomáš Rosický (1.4) and Jack Wilshere (1.2) upfield as well as Walcott’s finishing ability (5 goals). This is without Aaron Ramsey, whose consistency has made him a complete player statistically (8 goals, 6 assists, 84.3% pass success, 1.4 key passes per game) and an invaluable asset to have surging through midfield. Striker Olivier Giroud’s early season form has also made the difference in games, while Arsenal’s underrated back-five have conceded the joint-fewest goals in the league (18). The centre-back partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker has been indestructible: since January 2012, Arsenal are unbeaten in league games when both have completed 90 minutes. Top of the Premier League going into 2014, they also face the task of a Champions League last-16 tie against holders Bayern Munich. But with losses to Chelsea and both Manchester teams, Arsenal must step up and beat the big boys if they are to sustain their quest for silverware.
Manchester City (2nd, 41 points)
Employing a 4-4-2 with a dynamic double pivot of Fernandinho and Yaya Touré, a dovetailed partnership of Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo up front and the seamless linkup play of wide midfielders, it is Manchester City’s constant movement off the ball which tires opposing midfielders out and breaks defences down. They have taken 59% of their shots inside the 18-yard box, peppered goal frames with 17.8 shots per game and have a pass success rate of 86.8%, all league-highs. Playing free-flowing football with plenty of quality in depth, City lie just a point behind leaders Arsenal and await two-legged ties against West Ham United and Barçelona in the cups. With +32 goal difference at the Etihad, they have amassed 30 points from perfect home form in the league. But it is their more patchy away performances that have diminished their dominance, despite keeping the ball more than anyone else in away games (59.1%, opposed to 55.9% at home). Utilising Aleksandar Kolarov’s crosses and the pace of Jesús Navas on the counterattack away may solve Pellegrini’s problems.
Everton (4th, 37 points)
With David Moyes and Marouane Fellaini eloping to the champions and Roberto Martinez, fresh from relegation with Wigan, taking over at Everton, expectations fell lower than usual. But the smart loan signings of Romelu Lukaku (9 goals), Gareth Barry and Barçelona’s Gerard Deulofeu have proved key to sustained success at Goodison Park. Having conceded the fewest goals in the league and losing only twice so far this season, fewer than any other team, proves how Martinez has maintained Everton’s solid defensive base while forming a flourishing attack in a dynamic 4-2-3-1. Ross Barkley’s coming of age is reflected in his 2.7 dribbles per game (5th most league-wide), drawing an average of 2.9 fouls (2nd only to Adnan Januzaj), and Seamus Coleman has added a threat from right back chipping in with 5 goals. United can only look up to Everton after poaching the Toffees’ former stalwarts.
Liverpool (5th, 36 points)
Brendan Rodgers’ team has shown clear progression in his scheme to reverse Liverpool’s descent in recent years. Many have attributed the strong start to the scintillating Luis Suárez, understandably, with him scoring more goals alone (19) than 7 Premier League teams, despite starting 5 fewer games. But it is also the flourish of Liverpool’s unsung heroes, in support of Suárez, that has enabled the Reds to challenge for the top into 2014. Lucas, back to his best, leads the league in tackles per game (4.3), while Jordan Henderson has grown, starting all 19 games with his energy and composure paying off. In attack, Raheem Sterling continues to improve and Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho – steals in January – have either provided for Suárez or produced in his absence admirably. Possessing many centre-backs and a versatile offence, Rodgers has adapted his tactics throughout the season so far, occasionally using a back three, but an attractive style has remained. However, inconsistency resides as the greatest issue. Although exceptional at home, brushing aside many bottom-half opponents, Liverpool’s away fixtures have been difficult, and they haven’t been able to scrape big results against their rivals. Losses at City and Chelsea to close 2013 have dropped them outside the top 4, but a run of home games against these teams could see the Reds gain ground in the latter half of the season.
Southampton (9th, 27 points)
When Nigel Adkins was sacked unexpectedly in January, Southampton looked in trouble, especially after poor form at the tail-end of last season which saw the Saints stay up narrowly. But a summer for Mauricio Pochettino to implement his high-pressing style has done wonders for a young, fit squad with hidden talent. Arguably the surprise package of 2013/14 so far, Southampton has impressed with their energetic pressing, fluid attack and development of English talent, sparking England call-ups for Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert. With the league’s joint 2nd-highest possession average (57.4%) but a mediocre 80% pass accuracy, Pochettino’s willingness to lose the ball with a risky vertical pass and focus on winning it back quickly becomes clear. Southampton’s style mirrors the adapted high-energy tiki-taka philosophy that has brought success to Dortmund and Munich more recently. However, form has been inconsistent, seeing the Saints drop into mid-table, although still above the gulf between the top 9 and the bottom 11.
Chelsea (3rd, 40 points)
With what is one of the deepest squads league-wide, a title challenge was expected of Mourinho’s men from the outset. If a bench commonly features the likes of David Luiz, Michael Essien, André Schürrle and Samuel Eto’o, you should be doing well. And what has unfolded is classically Mourinho-esque. He is, apparently, no longer the ‘Special One’ but the ‘Happy One’ – that is, happy to gain points in any way he can. Unbeaten in 10 home games, with 9 wins, yet scoring exactly 2 goals the majority of the time, José likes to win narrowly and take the 3 points, rather than indulging in goals to entertain. You can imagine him proclaiming football as a profession, not a game. Despite such efficiency at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho’s pride in sterility over flamboyance may have affected Chelsea away from home. Settling for draws (successfully) at Spurs, United and Arsenal, this game-plan has come undone against teams that the manager’s hubris may have underestimated, with losses at Everton and Newcastle. Meanwhile, they currently concede the greatest proportion of goals from set pieces in the league (37%). To avoid a downfall come May and remain in title contention, Chelsea need to repair these rather basic errors.
Newcastle (8th, 33 points)
In contrast to their neighbours on Wearside, Newcastle have a settled squad playing with confidence. Recruiting a plethora of players in January to cope with the added workload of the Europa League last season, it has taken a few months for them to blend. Alan Pardew’s predominantly-francophone roster works well as a 4-2-3-1 with Loïc Remy (10 goals) leading the line with Yohann Cabaye behind, Hatem Ben Arfa (3.1 successful dribbles per game), Yoan Gouffran or Moussa Sissoko supporting on the wings and Cheick Tioté and Vurnon Anita sitting deep. Mathieu Debuchy’s fine defensive contributions have seen him make 3.6 tackles, 2.5 interceptions and 5.2 clearances per game. Goalkeeper Tim Krul has made spectacular saves at crucial times. Strong at home and often challenging away, inconsistency separates three 4-game unbeaten streaks with losses to Hull at home and away at Swansea. Up in the table near Spurs, Manchester United and Liverpool, Newcastle have been punching above their weight compared to last season and fans will want more of the same.
Hull (10th, 23 points)
The surprise of the promoted pack. Steve Bruce has shown adaptability by beginning with a four-man defence but easily transitioning into a 3-5-2 after an injury to top-scorer Robbie Brady. Conceding just 6 goals so far at home is testament to a well-drilled unit. Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, taken from Spurs permanently and on loan respectively, have been mainstays in a midfield that is tough to break down. The 6-0 win to Fulham to close 2013 showed their confidence at home and underlying quality which should keep them up. However, outside the KC Stadium, Hull have struggled with a paltry average of 38% possession and have won only once in 9 attempts.
Stoke (12th, 21 points)
Even though they are once again the worst-disciplined team in the league (40 yellows, 2 reds), with the most aerial duels won per game (26.4) and unprofessional fouls committed (9), Mark Hughes is slowly un-Pulis-ing Stoke. He has signed more technical players like Erik Pieters, Marko Arnautovic and Oussama Assaidi with the intention of fluid football, though Stoke still have the highest proportion of shots taken in the six-yard box (10%) with the tall targets of Peter Crouch as well as Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth coming up for set pieces. Sitting well in mid-table, beating Chelsea in the last minute along the way, Stoke have had much to cheer for. But for 6 weeks they will miss one of the league’s best keepers, Asmir Begovic, who broke his finger on Christmas Day. (Never underestimate the danger of a Christmas cracker, Asmir.)
Manchester United (6th, 34 points)
Filling Fergie’s shoes was never going to be easy, but the underwhelming nature of David Moyes’ tenure at United has left many unsure whether he was the right man to take over. As squads around them have strengthened significantly, Moyes inherited a title-winning squad but has added little. Formerly a treasured chest in Moyes’ direct Everton side, Marouane Fellaini has been confined to defensive midfield in a United team unlikely to stray from their traditional passing style. He has yet to integrate Wilfried Zaha into the lineup effectively while failing to implement Shinji Kagawa’s qualities at the right time. But team chemistry has been gradually building in their recent six-game win streak and they have qualified for the Champions League knockout stages with relative ease. The regular outlets of Antonio Valencia and Rafael have exploited teams down the right side (44%) and the cultivation of Adnan Januzaj has proved valuable too. Wayne Rooney may lead the league in assists with 9, though shipping in a creative midfielder in January would pay dividends for Moyes’ boys.
Swansea (11th, 21 points)
Considering Swansea’s commitments to Europa League duties this season, Premier League affairs have moved along well for the Welsh side. Averaging the most possession (60%), second-highest pass success rate (86.4%) and greatest number of short passes per game (542) in the league, Swansea have continued their ball-retention philosophy under Michael Laudrup. However, they must be careful of slipping up in the division with attention elsewhere. 2 wins in their last 15 indicates a lack of rhythm as they try to rotate a deep squad. Swansea have not had a constant attacking set of players at their disposal and this may have affected Michu, the uncovered gem of yesteryear, who has struck only twice in 12 starts. But overall, 11th place will please Laudrup in a season with lower expectations in the league, as they progress by winning the key matches against those around them in the table.
Tottenham Hotspur (7th, 34 points)
You have 2 options: keep Gareth Bale and trust his serendipitous wondergoals to
bale you out win you games. Or take Real Madrid’s £80 million and subsequently buy 7 high-quality players for a net cost of £3.4 million. Think of the possibilities. A footballing pick-and-mix of 7 of the world’s best. Spurs chose the latter and, on paper, formed a fantastic squad coming into the season, with expectations riding high. A chain of narrow 1-0 wins, with penalties to thank, made things uneasy from the outset. Spurs fans have been notably frustrated this season, with numerous consequences: 4 home league wins, 2 home defeats to West Ham, André Villas-Boas sacked by mid-December and 7th place to end 2013. With a wealth of attacking talent, goals are expected. But despite over 17 shots per game, only 22 have been converted thus far, leaving Spurs with a negative goal-difference. The 3-0 home win against Stoke to end the year (part of 3 games unbeaten under new manager Tim Sherwood) provides hope of improvement, but this team needs a lot of work to build chemistry and reduce unpredictability.
West Bromwich Albion (15th, 18 points)
Orchestrating several good signings including Stéphane Sessegnon, Matej Vydra and Morgan Amalfitano gave the Baggies hope after failing to secure a deal for Romelu Lukaku, whose 17 goals last season led them to a club-best 8th place Premier League finish. However, other than surprising Manchester United at Old Trafford, West Brom have won only at home against Crystal Palace and Sunderland. A positive for them to take into the latter half of the season is that they have picked up points against teams like Everton, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs when defeat seemed most likely. But a lack of form throughout the season with 5 more draws to their name has led to the sacking of Steve Clarke and left them hovering just above the drop-zone. They need a replacement quickly to end their skid and ensure stability.
Cardiff (16th, 18 points)
A lack of form and administrative turmoil has newly-promoted Cardiff City looking down rather than up. Owner Vincent Tan made the funds available to sign Andreas Cornelius, Stephen Caulker and Gary Medel to compete in the top flight but had caused furore over his rebranding of the club from the blue to red. He also replaced an experienced head of recruitment with a novice and allegedly tried to influence Malky Mackay’s on-field tactics during matches. Earlier in December, Tan sacked Mackay after issuing a ‘resign or be sacked’ ultimatum, which sparked a fan protest. Vocal support from the home stands has inspired the team to victory over City, a comeback against United and bragging rights in the South Wales derby over Swansea. But, across the season, it is questionable whether the players have been motivated to close opponents down or hold on to the ball with only 16.3 tackles per game and 45% average possession. (At least they are the nicest team in the league with only 24 yellow cards.) They have conceded twice as many as they have scored. To stay clear of relegation, Cardiff must ignore the problems off the pitch and start performing the basics on it.
Crystal Palace (17th, 16 points)
Arguably carrying the lowest expectations of all 20 teams, Palace’s struggles this season can be attributed to a squad lacking quality, but they can find solace in lying above the relegation zone at the turn of the year. After Ian Holloway could only manage a single win in his return to the Premier League, Tony Pulis has since sent the Eagles from hopeless plight to gradual flight. Scoring just 12 times (a league low) is an issue that must be addressed, but if Pulis can replicate his famously staunch Stoke defence at Selhurst Park, hopes of survival may rise. The battling Mile Jedinak, who leads the division in interceptions, has proved a valuable captain and may well be key to safety. However, the onus remains on Marouane Chamakh and Cameron Jerome to start firing.
Fulham (18th, 16 points)
An ageing squad, a lack of drive and an incoherent attack were just some of the reasons that Fulham began a descent seemingly towards relegation under Martin Jol in the first 4 months of the season. Lying in the bottom 3 with a chain of losses into December, the time for change came after weeks of disappointment culminated in a 3-0 loss to an apparently-futile West Ham attack. René Meulensteen took charge of the first team, converted to a 4-3-3 with a grafting midfield, and performances have since mostly improved. Although the humiliating 6-0 loss away to Hull with a rotated team was a huge wake-up call, it came after a hard-earned win at Norwich as Meulensteen gains a greater idea of his best starting 11. A league-high of 41 goals conceded demonstrates the necessity for defence to be worked on or strengthened, yet Fulham have scored in every home game to date. The return of club-hero Clint Dempsey on loan should aid an ascent up the table as well.
Norwich (14th, 19 points)
The Canaries have disappointed after heading into the season on the back of a summer of change. 3 new centre-forwards and 2 young, highly-rated midfielders in Leroy Fer and Nathan Redmond led many to tip Norwich as dark horses to break into the top half. But struggling to gain points against sides high in the table, conceding an average of 4 versus current top 4 opponents, while earning some valuable results in bottom half match-ups leaves them precariously 3 points above the relegation zone. Although Fer and Gary Hooper have impressed occasionally, the statistical mediocrity of Norwich infers the need for greater output from their rookies to sustain Premier League status.
Aston Villa (13th, 20 points)
Paul Lambert’s squad is the youngest in the league with an average age of 24, so plenty of energy is expected to outlast opponents over 90 minutes. Though tactically-versatile, with speedy players and Fabian Delph’s impressive dynamism in midfield, Villa forego possession (42.4%) and pass accuracy (73.9%) in favour of pace. Only newly-promoted Crystal Palace fare worse in both categories. Lynchpin Christian Benteke committed himself to 4 more years at the club following transfer speculation but Villa’s long-ball game (16.4% passes long) has been stifled by defences and backups Libor Kozák and Nicklas Helenius have done little to deputise while the Belgian has been injured. Wins against Arsenal and Manchester City became less significant by dropping points against teams around Villa in the bottom half of the table, including Fulham, Sunderland and Crystal Palace.
West Ham (19th, 15 points)
Manager Sam Allardyce may be facing the sack but much can be blamed on the long-term loss of Andy Carroll to injury, leaving a fruitless strikeforce of Modibo Maiga and Carlton Cole and, at times, reverting to naming no recognised striker. With a lack of chances created, the Hammers rely on centre-midfielders Mohamed Diamé and Ravel Morrison to carry the ball upfield and shoot from long distance since using the wing play of Stewart Downing and Matt Jarvis is wasted on ineffective strikers. Jussi Jääskeläinen’s joint league-best 8 clean sheets have picked up points when outfielders have not. While West Ham toppled Spurs away in both the league and on their way to a League Cup semi-final, faltering against teams around them is a cause for concern and they lie at the bottom of the recent form table. Finding a goalscorer undaunted by a relegation battle will be key to West Ham’s survival chances this season, although the return of Andy Carroll is bound to help.
Sunderland (20th, 14 points)
Languishing at the foot of the Premier League, Sunderland need more than surprise results against Manchester City, Everton and Newcastle. After thoroughly reshaping the squad under Paolo Di Canio by letting go of 10 players and bringing in 14, the Black Cats have suffered from a lack of gelling and discipline, gaining only 1 point from their first 8 games. Gus Poyet took over in October and has tried several different formations and tactical variations to revive them, with Jozy Altidore and Stephen Fletcher to choose from up front, Emanuele Giaccherini, Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson on the wings and Jack Colback, Ki Sung-Yueng, Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner in the middle. Yet no matter how Poyet lines his players up, little seems to work. A league-low of 5.6 dribbles per game underlines the dearth of desire to carry the ball forwards. Just 8 goals from open play and 3.3 shots on target per game suggests that Sunderland struggle to create chances systematically and fail to finish them when they do. It says a lot that defender Phil Bardsley is their joint top scorer with 3. What is more avoidable is the frustration, aggression and loss of concentration, costing them in vital games at Crystal Palace, Hull and Stoke by accumulating 5 red cards so far. What Sunderland need more than anything to survive in the league is the kind of grit and determination they have shown in reaching the League Cup semi-finals, grinding out results against Southampton and Chelsea. Rather than spending more money on players in January, Poyet and the fans must instil the same belief in the players as when they beat Newcastle on derby day.
John Mastrini & Nick Mastrini
Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com
Image courtesy of Toby Jagmohan via flickr.com