The New Year is upon us and the Premier League’s mid-point has been reached. White footballs have seamlessly turned to fluorescent yellow ones and fair-weathered 3pm kickoffs have swiftly become sleet-filled affairs leaving players enviously wishing they could join their continental counterparts on a beach in Barbados during their league’s winter break.
A quick glance at the summit of the current Premier League table offers no surprises to those of us who believed this season’s title race would be a straight fight between Chelsea and Manchester City. Not even goal difference nor goals scored can separate the two league leaders at present, with Chelsea only scraping top spot by virtue of alphabetical order.
Although both teams have suffered periods of poor form so far this season, they are certainly worthy of their respective positions. José Mourinho’s side has undoubtedly benefitted from the arrival of both Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas, who have made instant impacts at Stamford Bridge, whilst Manchester City come into the new year on the back of an eleven match unbeaten streak.
However, a further perusal of the rest of the Premier League table will certainly cause more than a few raised eyebrows. Southampton and West Ham, two teams many tipped to be towards the basement of the league at the start of the season, sit comfortably in the Premier League’s top-seven. Both clubs from Merseyside languish in eighth (Liverpool) and thirteenth (Everton) following highly impressive campaigns last time out. A new-look Manchester United sit third following a renaissance of sorts under new manager Louis van Gaal after a dreadful season under David Moyes in 2013/14.
It is the campaign that West Ham and Southampton have enjoyed that is arguably the most impressive, however. New Saints boss, Ronald Koeman has so far been able to steady a dangerously rocking ship on the south-coast following a mass exodus of five first-team players in the summer to supposedly greater climbs. The Dutchman was able to unearth gems in Graziano Pellè, Dušan Tadić and Sadio Mané during last summer’s transfer window however, who have all impressed since arriving at St. Mary’s and have helped to perpetuate the attractive football played under previous manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Sam Allardyce has worked similar wonders at Upton Park. A man who was subject to vitriolic criticism last season from West Ham fans over his direct style of play has overseen a complete turnaround in the Hammers’ fortunes in the second half of 2014. The East London club has averaged a relatively impressive 1.55 goals per game this term compared to their insipid 1.05 last season, due mostly to the notable performances of recently signed striker Diafro Sakho and in-form winger Stuart Downing.
After enduring a torrid time at the hands of his team’s fans last season, West Ham manager ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce, has won the doubters over – including die hard Hammer Russell Brand – after a fantastic first half of the season
Praise must also go to Dutchman Louis van Gaal at Manchester United, who has so far managed to deliver a much more attractive brand of football that United fans craved in the dark days of the Moyes dynasty last season. He has been bold, continuing with a new 3-5-2 formation even in-spite of shaky defensive performances, and has had to navigate through crippling injury problems throughout his first six months in charge. Although United still have a distance to travel in order to get anywhere near the heights they managed under Sir Alex Ferguson, they at least look on course to secure a Champions League spot at the end of this current campaign.
A thirty-five mile trip down the East Lancs Road, however and the season has been less satisfactory for Liverpool and Everton. Everyone knew that life after Luis Suarez would be difficult at Anfield but with Daniel Sturridge missing the majority of the first half of the season through injury, Liverpool have looked far inferior to the team that so narrowly missed out on the league title last May. Rivals Everton have experienced a similar turn in fortunes, recording their fifth loss in ten games on New Year’s Day against Hull and warily sitting just four points above the drop zone.
The managerial merry-go-round of the Premier League is a feature of every campaign but surprisingly, this term’s sackings only got underway after Neil Warnock was fired by Crystal Palace last week. Ex-Newcastle boss Alan Pardew was swiftly lined up to replace him at Selhurst Park, leaving Tyneside having failed to win over the Toon Army after his controversial appointment back in 2010. The holiday period also saw the departure of Alan Irvine from West Brom, with Battle=hardened Tony Pulis taking his place at The Hawthorns.
It seems strange that two Premier League clubs have decided to dismiss their managers just before the January transfer window, but we saw in Pulis’ own exploits with Palace last season the benefits of fresh managerial blood part-way through a campaign. Both the Pardew and Pulis appointments are certainly shrewd and, given enough financial backing in this month’s transfer window, both managers certainly possess the managerial acumen to save their clubs from relegation in five months’ time.
As for the rest? Tottenham certainly seem to be on the up in recent weeks, with the goals of Harry Kane firing them to fifth in Mauricio Pochettino’s first season in charge. Their rivals Arsenal, however, have endured a typically frustrating season. Exciting going forward under the new stewardship of players such as Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez, but still unconvincing at the back and desperately in need of a world-class centre-half.
Arsenal have been their disaster prone selves this year, with calamitous, self inflicted defeats to the likes of Swansea, Manchester United and Southampton pushing fans to the end of their tether with the team and manager Arsene Wenger
As for the bottom half of the table, things are as competitive as ever. Just six points separate basement boys Leicester from twelfth-placed Aston Villa and all evidence suggests it will be just as tight in eighteen games’ time.
A lot will undoubtedly depend on this month’s transfer window. For some clubs, priorities lie in retaining their top players for the impending relegation battle ahead, as is the case at Burnley and their star-striker Danny Ings. For others however, premium additions are an absolute necessity, especially at teams like Leicester where goals have been so hard to come by on arrival in the Premier League.
For now, though, football fans across the Premier League can look back on what has been a sumptuous campaign to date and look forward to what promises to be a compelling final five months of the season.