Premier League Early Season Report Card

http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/premier-league-early-season-report-card/The weekend just past saw (for the vast majority of clubs) the tenth round of fixtures in the Barclays Premier League season 2012/13. It’s generally accepted that after ten games things have usually settled down, following the early season frenzy of shock results and unexpected lapses, and a glance at the league table can provide fans with a rough guide as to how things may shape up come the end of May. With this in mind, this article will have a brief look at where the clubs find themselves now that this milestone has been reached and what, realistically the clubs can expect for the rest of the campaign.

The early kick-off on Saturday pitted Manchester United against old rivals Arsenal at Old Trafford, for what is usually one of the clashes that everybody looks forward to.

This year however, it was a drab affair which Ferguson’s men took control of, through an early goal from Robin van Persie, and never looked like losing after that. 2-1 was the final score, Cazorla grabbing a consolation with the last kick of the game.

The result highlighted the problems facing Wenger’s side this season: a lack of pace and fire-power throughout the team and a lack of defensive coherence and solidity. Arsenal will play better than Saturday’s showing, they have already this season and they will again, however, they’ll need to improve quickly and show a lot more determination if they’re going to secure a top four spot with strong challengers in the pack.

Manchester United’s victory took them to the top of the table, a position that they’ve become all too familiar with in the Premier League era. United have had the rub of the green in matches so far, with a lot of contentious decisions going for them (particularly against Chelsea and Liverpool) and they are still suspect in the centre of midfield and defence. They have though, in the signing of Robin van Persie, acquired another lethal weapon in their offensive armoury and, on this form, look sure to be challenging for top spot all the way ‘til May.

Current champions, Manchester City travelled to Upton Park on Saturday for their evening kick-off against newly promoted West Ham. The home side could have won the match, had an early Kevin Nolan goal not been wrongly disallowed for offside, however it eventually finished 0-0. The scoreline wasn’t entirely surprising in all honesty and, in fact, typified both sides’ campaigns to date.

City remain the only unbeaten side in the English top flight. Although they have rarely been convincing, having been fortunate to pick up a point at both Anfield and Upton Park and having had to rely on very late goals to see off West Brom and Southampton, Mancini’s men seem to have acquired the knack of doing just enough and sit third in the table, just two points behind the leaders. City face a different test this year, being champions brings its own problems ie: every team steps up its game when the champions come to town. However, Mancini would appear to have enough options and a strong enough squad to overcome any obstacles thrown in City’s path along the way and I’d expect them to make a good fist of winning back to back titles.

West Ham have begun the season in the fashion that I’d expected. Traditionally strong at home, the Hammers have continued that trend as the point against City proved and, having been given a fairly kind run of fixtures to open the campaign, Sam Allardyce has steered the East London club to four victories in their opening ten games, leaving them eighth in the table before Monday’s game at the Hawthorns. These victories have come against teams that are likely to be in direct competition for places with the Hammers come the end of the season (QPR, Southampton, Fulham and Villa) which is another boost for Allardyce. The Hammers’ bid for Premier League survival looks as if it will be assured with ease and a comfortable mid-table finish is on the cards.

Tottenham Hotspur lost 0-1 at home to Wigan on Saturday as Spurs’ inconsistent form under new boss Andre Villas Boas continued. An indifferent start to the campaign preceded a run of four straight victories, which included a first win at Old Trafford since 1989. However Chelsea’s 2-4 victory at White Hart Lane ended that impressive run and was followed up by defeat to Wigan at the weekend. It’s a transitional season for Tottenham with a new, more technically minded coach employing a rigid system, so there are bound to be ups and downs. The top four may be too much to ask of Tottenham this year, although they will certainly be challenging for Europe’s elite competition. There was some vocal discontent with the manager’s decisions on Saturday, however, fans must stay united behind AVB if Spurs are to achieve their goals.

Wigan continue to impress following their excellent sequence of results at the back-end of last season. Roberto Martinez, as ever, has his side playing attractive, passing football with plenty of confidence and, having off-loaded Victor Moses for £9m during the transfer window, his side looks much more balanced than last season. The signing of Arouna Kone was a master-stroke; the Ivorian has pace to burn and is a proven goalscorer, having notched fifteen goals in thirty four la Liga appearances whilst on-loan at Levante last year. Wigan look like they might avoid a relegation fight this year, lower mid-table looks a decent bet.

Chelsea’s flying start has hit the buffers somewhat in recent weeks. A 1-1 draw away at Swansea on Saturday came on the back of a hard-fought and extremely controversial defeat against Manchester United the previous week. A very kind run of fixtures, to begin with, saw Chelsea race to the top of the league but they’ve been pegged back now and face a real test of character in the coming weeks. Oscar, Hazard and Mata bring class to the Blues going forward, with Mata undoubtedly the star man, but with Torres the only option up-front and still a mere shadow of his once great former self, coupled with problems at the back, Chelsea still have a way to go before they’ll be the finished article. Top four looks a certainty though.

Swansea have arrested a slide which saw them lose three on the bounce and go five games without a win. That run came after the Swans had gained seven points from their first three games and ended with a 2-1 home win over Wigan. Narrow defeat to Man. City was followed up by the draw with Chelsea; the Swans have stabilised and now sit 11th. Michael Laudrup has done well since taking over and has brought in some good players, they play excellent free flowing football but their physicality can sometimes be called into question. Swans fans can expect another mid-table finish.

Liverpool and Newcastle played out a 1-1 draw at Anfield on Sunday. Liverpool dominated the game in terms of possession and shots on goals, with the visitors content to play counter attacking football, but it was a similar tale at Anfield with the Reds lacking the fire-power to turn one point into three. The scarcity of Liverpool’s attacking options has been well documented and additions in that area will be made in January however, until then, Rodgers will have to make do with what he’s got.

The side have adapted to Rodgers’s playing style well and, in a transitional season, there will always be peaks and troughs, however Liverpool seem to be on the right track. Suarez is on fire and Sunday’s draw means that the Reds are unbeaten in their last five Premier League games; although they sit twelfth, they remain just six points off fourth. Lucas is set to return to the first team by the end of November; the Brazilian has been sorely missed and his re-introduction should pave the way for Gerrard to join the front three, adding much more potency in the final third. Fourth place is still a possibility for Liverpool but it will be very tough, a top six finish seems more likely at the moment.

Newcastle haven’t really fired yet this season after their heroics last term. Papiss Cisse’s goals have dried up and, although Demba Ba’s have returned, the Magpies have won just two of their last nine Premier League games. Injuries and suspensions are beginning to hit Newcastle’s thin squad and, with the added burden of Europa League games to think about this year, Alan Pardew’s men have it all to do to emulate last season’s Premier League position. Somewhere in the lower reaches of the top ten is a realistic bet for the Geordies’ final resting place in 2012/13.

Norwich beat Stoke City 1-0 in a drab affair at Carrow Road on Saturday but the Canaries were good value for their win. Chris Hughton has turned his side’s early season fortunes around and Saturday’s victory means that the Norfolk side have picked up seven from their last nine EPL points, conceding just once in three matches. Norwich have a job on to stay up but if they can continue to be tight at the back and play to their strengths they have a good-chance of beating the drop. A relegation fight looks on the cards but I fancy Hughton’s men may just have enough to win one.

Stoke are in serious trouble. Tony Pulis has established Stoke as a Premier League team in recent times. His team have not played cultured football and have certainly been accused of over physicality but up until recently his strategy has worked, now however questions must be asked. Stoke City have picked up just twenty nine points from the last ninety six available going back to Boxing Day 2011. Of those thirty two games, they’ve won just five-twice against Wolves, once against Blackburn and twice against Swansea. Two of those three teams were relegated last season and this season Stoke have won just once.

Pulis bemoans refereeing decisions but the truth is that his side create precisely nothing, a fact borne out by their lack of goals this term (8 from 10 games). The Potters are now in fifteenth place but Stoke’s form is that of a team destined for relegation and it’s lasted for a lot longer than a mere blip. Stoke fans can expect a long, hard season which their side will do well to survive.

Sunderland are another team on an awful run of form. Saturday’s 0-1 home loss against Aston Villa means that the Martin O’Neill’s side have now won just once in seventeen Premier League matches stretching back to March of this year. O’Neill’s side don’t create many chances as a rule but in recent weeks there has been a creativity vacuum, with the Black Cats managing just two goals in their last five league games. With just six goals from nine games so far (the home game vs Reading having succumbed to the weather), Sunderland are clear as the lowest scorers in the league. The side has better players than the results would suggest, however, if they can’t find a spark of creativity to bring their season to life, it will be very tough for O’Neill to arrest this slide. Worrying times on Wearside as a relegation scrap beckons.

Martin O’Neill’s defeat at the hands of his former club was music to the ears of Paul Lambert and his struggling Villa side. Saturday’s victory was only Villa’s second of the season and their first in their last six EPL games. Lambert certainly has a lot to do with Villa as he attempts to restore the fallen giants to something like their former selves, after two years of decline under Gerard Houllier and, most notably, Alex McCleish.

The Scot came very close to guiding the Villains to relegation for the first time since the Premier League began twenty years ago and now his fellow countryman has the unenviable task of taking them forward. It will be tough for Lambert but he has made a couple of decent signings and is known for his ability to galvanize a team and create a strong collective spirit. Villa currently sit 17th but there are signs that things are moving in the right direction. It’ll be a long season for Villa fans but, if they get fully behind Lambert, they should gradually climb the table and avoid relegation.

Fulham’s 2-2 draw with Everton on Saturday was another example of the West London club’s strength and resilience at home. The Cottagers have always been strong at home and under Martin Jol, things are no different. The addition of Dimitar Berbatov has gone a long way to replacing Clint Dempsey and Bryan Ruiz is once again showing his class. Fulham fans can expect more of the same; decent attacking football, very strong at home, slightly indifferent away from home- although perhaps tougher to beat than in recent years. Currently in seventh, Fulham should have enough for a low top ten finish.

Everton look very dangerous this season and seem destined to mount a real challenge for a top four spot, even though a sequence of draws has slowed their progress somewhat. After a great start during which they won four of their first six games, including a home win against Manchester United, David Moyes’s side have drawn their last four league games in a row.

Currently in fourth place, Everton have assembled an excellent first eleven which combines defensive solidity with midfield creativity, pace, strength and goals. In Fellaini, Pienaar, Mirallas and Jelavic the Toffees have one of the best rounded, potent front fours in the Premier League and, with just one defeat so far, they’ve shown they can match anybody. Injuries may cause problems should they occur, however Everton fans can expect their side to launch a full frontal assault on the Champions’ League places this season.

Reading and Q.P.R. shared the spoils at Loftus Road on Sunday. Neither side has mustered a win in the Premier League this season and, although Rangers had the chances to win this one, a 1-1 draw was a fair result. Reading can’t close out games. Having been ahead in five of their nine games so far, they have failed to go on and win any of them. They have, however, managed to draw four of their last five Premier League games, only losing out at Anfield, so things are improving after a poor start, but they’ll need to win games and quickly if they’re to climb the table. Nothing can be forecast for the Royals at this point other than a season-long relegation scrap which they could well be destined to lose.

Q.P.R. are also winless but are in a very different situation to Reading. Mark Hughes has brought in umpteen new faces since he took the helm in January of this year. These wholesale changes always take time to bed in and form a coherent unit but in Rangers’ case, it is taking longer than usual. Q.P.R. do have the quality to turn things around and Mark Hughes is a capable manager but there is a growing feeling that perhaps things aren’t really improving a Loftus Road, despite all the expenditure and changes in personnel. Rangers need to start winning and soon; they are currently in nineteenth, five points adrift of safety, things need to happen for them now. Despite what he said on the final day of last season, Hughes (if he keeps his job) may well find history repeating itself for Rangers this year. Again, a relegation fight beckons.

To the two surprise packages of the season so far, West Brom. and Southampton, who face each other at the Hawthorns on Monday night. These two have been surprises for totally different reasons. West Brom., under new boss Steve Clarke, weren’t really expected to set the world alight, in fact I’d tipped them for possible relegation before a ball was kicked. However their home form has been excellent so far with four wins out of five, including over the two Merseyside clubs. Unlucky in the extreme not to beat City at home earlier in the season, the Baggies can also count themselves very unfortunate to go down at Newcastle last week. Steve Clarke has improved on the squad he inherited and has his side playing attractive passing football, with no shortage of steel in defence. At this rate, Baggies fans can dream of a top ten finish this year and their prayers may well be answered.

Southampton have, unfortunately, been a surprise for all the wrong reasons. Two excellent performances against the Manchester clubs in the first three weeks, games in which they led with not long left to play, both ended in defeat and sandwiched a disappointing home loss at the hands of Wigan. A resounding home victory over Aston Villa seemed to have marked the turning of a corner for Saints, however, it was a false dawn as they’ve picked up just one point from their last four games since then.

Saints can score goals, which is why many, including myself, thought they’d do quite well this season. However their defence has been appalling, especially away from home. Saints have conceded sixteen goals in four away defeats so far and face a daunting trip to the Midlands tonight, against a strong Albion side. Saints need to tighten up straight away, they’re already five points adrift at the bottom and if they want to make their Premier League return last longer than one season, a change in emphasis is required. Unfortunately, unless they can turn it around, Southampton look destined for a swift return to the Championship come May.

 

Mancini image by quiznovus. RDM image by The_Old_Grey_Wolf.

 

Lucas image by chris spinney long. Pulis image by Staffs.live.

 

Moyes image by illarterate.

 

 

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