2012 is upon us, that means we’re just over halfway through another Barclays Premier League season, a fitting time to reflect and take a minute to ponder the season so far. So far the 2011/12 season has been littered with incident both on and off the pitch, this report, however, will try to look at the campaign from purely a footballing perspective.
Into January, 21 games gone, and the two Manchester clubs sit on top of the table. It is perhaps no surprise to see Ferguson’s men amongst the top two, given their illustrious history, and their uncanny ability to put together results even when not playing well, what is surprising however, is the relative weakness of this United team when compared to its predecessors. Following back to back defeats against Blackburn and Newcastle, Alex Ferguson has persuaded Paul Scholes to come out of retirement and “control the midfield area” for the rest of the season. This bears out what many have come to see, namely United’s midfield is weak, while Scholes may work as a short term fix, his return is definitely an attempt to paper over the cracks, and unless more strength is added in this area, their title challenge may come unstuck.
City’s position should also come as no surprise given the amount of money spent by Roberto Mancini on assembling the squad he now has at his disposal. After a blistering start, which saw the Citizen’s go unbeaten in the Premier League until their defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the second week of December, things have hit a sticky patch of late for Mancini’s men. A draw away at West Brom followed by a defeat to Sunderland, coupled with elimination from the FA cup at the hands of Manchester United, have left City fans hoping they can get their season back on track quickly. A lacklustre performance against Wigan saw City grind out a 1-0 win to go three points clear of United, however, their recent poor form will concern the Italian. The loss of the Toure brothers, especially Yaya, who provides the lion’s share of their drive and energy from midfield, to the African Cup of Nations, is taking its toll, and Mancini will be desperate to plug that gap adequately and get his team moving again without losing any more ground.
Tottenham head the chasing pack. After an awful start to the season, which included a 1-5 home defeat to City, Harry Redknapp made a couple of shrewd signings, Scott Parker in midfield, and Adebayor, on loan, up front. These additions have added steel to the Spurs midfield, and goals and flair up top, which have helped Redknapp’s team go from strength to strength as they sit just five points off the pace. The real test of Spurs’ title credentials is yet to come however, as the second half of the season sees them travel to Chelsea, The Emirates, and Liverpool, all games that they have struggled to get anything from in recent years, as well as a trip to the Etihad. If they can finally buck this trend and get some points from these games, then they can truly be regarded as title contenders.
As for the teams chasing fourth spot at the turn of the year, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, the first half of this season has been a mixed bag. Liverpool have done well under Kenny Dalglish, many new signings have come in, and for the most part, bedded down easily enough. A consistent level of play has been reached, Liverpool have only lost four league games this season, and boast one of the best defensive records in the division, the problem is that they have drawn far too many games. The reason for this is a lack of goals, Liverpool have been unable to find the back of the net often enough, with Andy Carroll struggling to find his form, and Suarez serving a hefty ban, Kenny Dalglish may well need to bring in another striker this January if Liverpool are to make a push for that Champions League spot.
Arsenal have recovered from an inauspicious start to the season which saw them lose key players and suffer embarrassing defeats at Old Trafford and Ewood Park. The deadline day signings of Mertesacker and Arteta, dismissed by many as panic buys, have helped Wenger steady the ship and regain control of proceedings on the pitch. A magnificent run of results, fuelled by the lethal Robin van Persie’s record breaking streak in front of goal has helped the Gunners race up the table, however defeat at Swansea has left them four points behind Chelsea, in fifth, with Liverpool and Newcastle breathing down their necks. The loss of Gervinho to the African Cup of Natons, has been tempered by the return of Arsenal hero Thierry Henry on a short term loan deal, much to the delight of Arsenal fans. However Wenger is another manager who may need to sign another striker if he wants to try to make sure of fourth spot.
Andre Villas Boas’ well documented opening half of the season has been topsy turvy to say the least. Charged with re-vamping the squad and changing the style of play at Stamford Bridge, he has inevitably ruffled a few feathers, and locked horns with a number of senior players, including Frank Lampard and John Terry. Anelka, Alex and some others may well leave Chelsea in the window, and others such as Gary Cahill will be coming in, so the Chelsea line-up for the second half of the season may look very different to the one we’ve been used to for a number of years. This transitional period has, of course, led to a number of bad results, defeats at home to Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa to name a few, however, little by little, Villas Boas appears to be winning over his players and the Chelsea fans. In light of the situation though, Chelsea’s final league standing is likely to depend on whether the manager can do the business he would like to during the transfer window, and how quickly these players can adapt to life in their new surroundings.
At the bottom of the table, Blackburn Rovers have found themselves in the relegation places since the beginning of September, however recent victories against Manchester United and Fulham have seen them climb out of the bottom three. Embattled manager Steve Kean looks as if he may have almost ridden out an impossible situation, and at the moment is looking like holding on to his position when, for a time, his job as manager looked to be untenable. Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers look, at the moment, almost certain to be playing Championship football next season. Bolton have lost 15 out of 21 games this season, the loss of Daniel Sturridge, back to Chelsea, and Johan Elmander, to pastures new, has taken its toll as Wanderers have struggled for creativity and goals this season, whilst abject defensive displays have seen them ship 46 goals already. An unlikely turnaround of almost miraculous proportions is required if Owen Coyle and Bolton are to remain in the top flight. Wigan were always likely to be up against it this year. Having maintained their Premier League status on the final day of last season, they proceeded to lose their best player, Charles N’Zogbia to Aston Villa. Without N’Zogbia’s pace and drive they have been unable to recapture the form that has seen them stay in the Premier League over the last couple of seasons. Hugo Rodallega’s injury and subsequent loss of form in front of goal has compounded the Latic’s misery, as Roberto Martinez’s side have scored the least number of goals in the league, just 18 from 20 games.
Blackburn’s survival may well depend on the form of two teams that sit in and around them, namely Q.P.R. and West Brom. After a decent start to the season, Queens Park Rangers’ results have tailed off badly, leading to the sacking of manager Neil Warnock. Warnock has been replaced by Mark Hughes who has money to spend and is looking to be very active during the transfer window. However, trying to bring too many players in during January can prove detrimental to the team as new players can struggle to adapt quickly, put this together with a new manager who may well want existing players to do things differently, and it’s a risky cocktail for a team already in the bottom three. Albion also had a steady start to the season under Roy Hodgson and have achieved some commendable results, such as a 0-0 draw at home to Manchester City, however, recently things have gone a little sour for the Baggies as they’ve found it difficult to put points on the board, especially at home. Last weekend’s defeat to Norwich was their seventh home loss of the current campaign, and Hodgson’s problems are compounded by Albion’s poor showing in front of goal, the Baggies have found the net just 20 times in 21 games. Taking this into consideration, it looks as if Roy’s in for a tough time in the next few months.
A team I haven’t mentioned who are sandwiched between West Brom and Blackburn is Wolves, Mick McCarthy’s men have been up and down this season, as per usual in actual fact, but have the battling qualities to be better prepared for the dogfight then other teams I have already talked about. Recent away points at the Emirates and White Hart Lane go a long way to backing up this assertion, and with players such as Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher, Wolves aren’t lacking the ability to find the back of the net as other teams around them are.
Newcastle United have surprised most people this season with their excellent run of form. An unbeaten start, faltered when they had a run of five without a win, however the Magpies under Alan Pardew, were able to get back on an even keel and consolidate their position in the top seven, a 3-0 home win over Manchester United capping a fine opening half of the campaign. The loss of Demba Ba, one of the Premier League’s top scorers, and Tiote to the African Cup of Nations could hamper them in the coming weeks, but the Geordies will be looking to build on their success in 2012. Newcastle currently occupy sixth spot after recording a 1-0 victory at home over Q.P.R.
Elsewhere in the North East, replacing Steve Bruce with Marin O’Neill has worked wonders, as Sunderland have climbed quickly out of danger. Word is O’Neill will have little, if any, money to spend this month, so perhaps a finish of eighth or ninth is the best the fans can hope for this term, next year, however, if the money is forthcoming the Black Cats could be pushing for a top six spot.
Everton’s run of good finishes seems to be drawing to a close. Tim Cahill’s loss of form in front of goal and the lack of other players contributing regularly, combined with the loss of Arteta on deadline day have hampered the Toffees this season. David Moyes will be hoping that the signing of Darren Gibson and the short term loan of Landon Donovan can bolster his side’s chances of escaping a mid-table berth. Norwich and Swansea have shown themselves to be no push-overs by producing some excellent performances and results so far this season. Swansea’s brand of short passing football has been a delight to behold and has reaped dividends, most notably in the recent victory over Arsenal, sending the Swans into the top half. Both newly promoted sides have shown that they are a match for any of the established Premier League teams, and look to be sitting comfortably at the mid-point of the campaign, Norwich in ninth and Swansea in tenth. Swansea’s Liberty Stadium has been a fortress as the Swans, under manager Brendan Rodgers, have lost there only once so far. The Canaries under Paul Lambert have proven themselves difficult to beat home or away, and are a real handful in the air, registering the most headed goals of any team so far, 13. Barring a catastrophic second half of the campaign, both teams will be playing Premier League football next season.
Stoke’s trek upward has continued under Tony Pulis as they sit in the top half of the league, they arrive at the halfway point on a run of six unbeaten in all competitions. Aston Villa’s season has been largely unremarkable under boss Alex McCleish, sitting twelfth after 21 games, an away win at Chelsea has been the highlight of Villa’s season so far, and the way they’re playing, it’s impossible to predict anything but mid-table mediocrity for their season. Martin Jol’s Fulham just can’t get a consistent run going. Good performances follow bad performances and the results likewise, currently 14th, away form is still a real problem, with the cottagers recording just one win on their travels so far. They have the talent within their ranks to push on up the table but without the ability to win games away from home, a mid-table finish is all they can hope for.
That is the Barclays Premier League season so far, as far as the football is concerned. With the January transfer window open teams have the capacity to change things round a bit, however it’s been a quiet window so far, and the way things are, it’s unlikely that there will be too much business taking place. Anything that does happen for any Premier League team will be covered when we round up the transfer window activity at the end of the month.