Twenty games into the Premier League season and out the other side after an incredibly busy holiday fixture list, Mike L. Goodman and I decided to do a midseason check-in. We wrote it together because despite both liking football quite a bit, we look at the game in different ways. For the purposes of this midseason report card, we decided to put our heads together, Mike being the analytical left-brain type and me being the more “let’s spend a day reading poetry and staring at paintings” right-brain type. Hopefully, between Mike’s grasp of advanced stats like TSR, and my making Michael Clayton references, you will have a complete picture of where the Premier League is now.
Mike L. Goodman: Mesut Ozil may have significantly boosted the squad, but many of the questions that faced Arsenal before his acquisition still remain. Olivier Giroud is a striker who can’t strike, and Arsenal’s strong rotating cast of midfielders is still unable to shake the grip of the injury bug (with Theo Walcott the latest casualty). In addition, the team’s TSR is a fairly pedestrian 0.556 (meaning it has taken just less than 56 percent of all the shots taken in games it has played), only the seventh-best in the league. Some of this underwhelming shot differential may be mitigated by the fact that it shoots, on average, from the second-closest positions to goal in the league. But the numbers still suggest a team that has overperformed its underlying statistics. That’s not to say that Arsenal can’t win the league with those numbers — Manchester United won with similar ones last year. But it does suggest that, despite their stellar first half, they are probably underdogs in the title chase.
Chris Ryan: This Facebook page went silent when Arsene Wenger bought Ozil for €50 million, shattering the Arsenal transfer fee record and bringing the German midfield warlock to the English league.
I think we can all agree that Wenger went against his usually thrifty ways and bought this expensive, world-class talent because he felt inspired by really cool Facebook group pages. So maybe it’s time to fire it back up again? Anything to keep them in the race. Like Mike said, they are probably winning more games than they should, but if any team deserves a little bit of luck, it’s Arsenal. And at their best, the midfield coven of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Ozil, and Santi Cazorla (or some combo of the four) have played the most entertaining football of the season. I hope their luck continues (and I’m a Liverpool fan).
Goodman: Man City have an 11-goal lead in goal differential over their closest competitor, have scored an absurd 57 goals, lead the league in TSR at 0.633, and have blown teams out left and right at home while cruising to a perfect 30 out of 30 points. The problem is they’ve been terrible on the road, with losses to Aston Villa, Cardiff City, and Sunderland, as well as the Joe Hart–aided defeat to Chelsea. So, despite the fact that Manuel Pellegrini seems to have easily instituted his two-striker system, and all three of their major summer signings — Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo, and Jesus Navas — have fit in seamlessly, the problems remain similar to what they’ve always been. Can City do enough away from the Etihad to support their stellar home record? With road matches against Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United, and Tottenham still ahead, the task will only get harder.
Ryan: They’re going to win the league. They’re playing their best football of the year without their best player (Sergio Aguero). They have the best all-around central midfielder in the league (Fernandinho) and Yaya Toure. The only road to ruin, aside from a whooping cough outbreak in the training room, is a dispiriting Champions League exit.
Goodman: Despite the many mini-crises of Chelsea over the first half of the season, they remain right in the thick of the title race, in no small part thanks to Eden Hazard. All of his eight goals and five assists are from open play, and his passing numbers might be even more impressive if he played alongside a competent finishing forward. Hazard leads the league with 49 chances created — 48 of them are from open play, nine more than anybody else. Apart from Hazard, Chelsea’s biggest bright spot is a defense that remains Mourinho-strong. They’ve conceded only 204 shots, fewest in the Premier League, and shipped only 19 goals, tied for second-best in the league. Chelsea’s biggest weaknesses remain the lack of an elite (or even good) striker and a paper-thin central midfield that relies heavily on 35-year-old Frank Lampard. Then again, if any team is likely to buy players to address needs in the transfer window, it’s Chelsea. With the right parts added into the mix (perhaps balanced by a Juan Mata sale), Chelsea could turn themselves into title favorites. Right now they simply remain title contenders.
Ryan: Since losing to Stoke on a cold, not particularly wet night back on December 7, Chelsea have won four and drawn one (away to Arsenal), moving up to third, two points off the top of the table. They have done so playing Mourinho Ball: taking away what teams do well on defense (rewatch the Arsenal game if you want a master class on how to do that), staying organized, and breaking on counterattacks. There’s something not particularly romantic about Jose’s second stint as Chelsea’s manager. There’s a scene in the beginning of Michael Clayton, when George Clooney shows up at that guy’s house who has just run someone over, and Clooney just says, “There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor.” There’s something custodial about Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea, like he’s cleaning up the mess other managers have made. He will probably have the Blues in the top two when it’s all said and done, but there’s something “special” missing in the way he’s doing it.
Champions League Contenders
Goodman: Tactically, manager Brendan Rodgers will have to figure out how to utilize the aging Steven Gerrard, despite the midfield looking increasingly better in his absence. He also has to decide whether to go to a two-striker system when Daniel Sturridge gets healthy. But let’s be honest: None of that really matters. Liverpool will live and die by exactly how out of his mind Luis Suarez plays.
Ryan: The best thing about this season at Liverpool, and you have to credit it to Rodgers, is that players have gotten better. Jordan Henderson is playing his way to a seat on the plane to Brazil, Sturridge could lead the line at almost any other club in the league, and even Suarez has gone from very, very good to top-three player in the world. The worst thing you could say is that despite all the Beautiful Mind–ing Rodgers does at the tactics board, he still doesn’t know what his best back four is. Only Daniel Agger seems comfortable playing the ball out from the back, as Rodgers prefers. Watch Martin Skrtel when he has the ball at his feet and a forward is closing him down. He wants to launch that thing into the sea. All the goals from the Suarez-Sturridge partnership won’t matter if Rodgers can’t get his defense settled.
Goodman: It’s a sign of just how competitive the top of the league is this year, that despite accruing five more points than they had at the same time last season, Everton have only improved from sixth to fifth place. Roberto Martinez has clearly instituted a very different style from David Moyes, emphasizing ball retention. This has somewhat overshadowed that the Toffees have conceded the second-fewest goals in the Premier League and the fifth-fewest shots. The biggest concern for Everton is their lack of cover behind loanees striker Romelu Lukaku and midfielder Gareth Barry. But if they stay healthy, there’s no reason they can’t challenge the more heralded and more expensive teams around them.
Ryan: The feel-good story of the year (and, again, I’m a Liverpool fan!). I wish more managers would do what Martinez has done here: discover jewels in the stockroom rather than feel the need to always go shopping. Martinez used the departure of Marouane Fellaini to make room for Ross Barkley, and it has totally changed the team, and the experience of watching them, for the better. Along with Ozil, Ramsey, Fernandinho, and Henderson, Barkley has been the most exciting midfielder in the league this season. I usually can’t deal with Alan Shearer on Match of the Day, but if you need to see why everyone needs a bib while watching this kid, just check out this video:
Goodman: It’s impossible to know what to make of this team. With the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas and appointment of Tim Sherwood, Spurs have gone from a manager fanatically devoted to a system based around three central midfielders, one striker, a high defensive line, and at times kamikaze-like pressure to one using a very classic two-striker system that seems to be built largely around enigmatic forward Emmanuel Adebayor. He’s featured in every game under Sherwood despite having played a grand total of 45 minutes of Premier League football before the managerial change. Sherwood seems happy to trade control of the midfield in order to pose more of a scoring threat, which may seem reasonable, given Spurs’ anemic scoring record this season. On the other hand, Spurs are now firing a lot more crosses into the box, a strategy that doesn’t necessarily create better scoring chances than the long-range bombs unleashed when AVB was in control. Spurs seem to be playing better, and Adebayor in particular looks inspired, but it remains to be seen whether anything has really changed.
Ryan: You’d think after watching chairman Daniel Levy spend all that Gareth Bale money on players this summer, Spurs fans would be more careful about throwing change at Walcott …
They’ve seen how currency can go to waste. Behold the result of constantly selling and restocking the best players on your team (and waiting until late in the transfer window to do so). Remember when Luka Modric played for Spurs? Doesn’t that feel like it was 1988 now? This team has gone through so many iterations, so many stylistic overhauls, that it will make your head spin (or will make you throw your money at Arsenal players, apparently). None of the players purchased this summer, save Paulinho (who is now injured), has settled in. And now they are trying to make a whole new group of Spurs play like old Spurs. Good luck with that.
Goodman: Manchester United are a team in trouble. The interesting question is why. Offensively the team has clearly changed how it attacks, concentrating much more heavily on the wings, going from this in 2012-13 …
To this in 2013-14 …
Incidentally, that’s more or less the polar opposite of what’s happened at David Moyes’s former club Everton. This isn’t to say that a change in strategy can’t work, but it certainly hasn’t so far. Moyes inherited a team sorely lacking in both central midfield and wing talent. Last season’s Manchester United team won the league despite a very mediocre underlying TSR. It seems like some combination of Sir Alex Ferguson magic and an abnormally healthy Robin van Persie were largely responsible for that success. If United don’t improve their talent pool this month, they will likely miss out on the Champions League for the first time in its history (at least in the current incarnation).
Ryan: It’s almost like Ferguson was a great cinematographer, and when he left Manchester United, he took all his special lenses and filters with him, and now we see the team for what they are: above-average. The curtain has been pulled back and there stands Tom Cleverley where Paul Scholes once stood. United aren’t awful, but they don’t do anything particularly well. Incidentally, wouldn’t it be amazing if the greatest trick Wenger ever pulled was to sell van Persie to the (Red) Devil(s) with only six more months left on his clock? Getting into the Champions League next season depends almost entirely on the Dutchman’s mystery groin issue.
Goodman: After overachieving during the 2011-12 season and qualifying for the Europa League, Newcastle proceeded to spend the next year vastly underachieving and getting dragged into a relegation battle. Now, finally, they’re exactly where they are supposed to be: safe from relegation and unlikely to challenge for Europe.
Ryan: The two people in charge of whether any of Newcastle’s best players get sold during the January window are this man …
And this man …
I love the French Revolution as much as the next guy. If Hatem Ben Arfa or Yohan Cabaye are playing for different clubs in February, don’t be surprised.
Goodman: Southampton, in their second season since returning to the Premier League, are fast becoming a model for newly promoted teams to emulate. Despite a recent dip in form likely driven by a brutally tough schedule over the past month, the team has a clear identity, instilled by manager Mauricio Pochettino. It’s built on high-pressure defending and fast transitions, a strong defensive spine featuring Jose Fonte and budding defensive superstar Dejan Lovren, and a host of very young, very promising homegrown talent. They still struggle for squad depth and are probably too far off the pace to seriously challenge for a place in Europe this season, but Southampton are clearly and demonstrably moving in the right direction.
Ryan: If you haven’t seen them yet, Southampton are definitely worth a watch because Dani Osvaldo looks a lot like Johnny Depp …
And they can go toe-to-toe with anyone. Sometimes their results can read like binary code (1-0, 1-1, 0-1), but if you can look past the scorelines, they are the most athletic team in the league. Watching them defend isn’t even like watching football; it’s like watching wolves hunt in packs.
Goodman: Hull City seem like the only newly promoted team that will avoid facing a pitched battle to remain in the Premier League. There’s nothing fancy about their approach. They don’t concede goals at home (giving up only six, tied for league best), and they let Tom Huddlestone and his long passing touch run the show from midfield and on set pieces. Huddlestone’s 34 chances created are tied for 12th in the league, despite his average pass distance of 22.6 yards being higher than all but two players in the top 50. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it will likely be more than enough to keep the Tigers up.
Ryan: Outside of Huddlestone, Hull aren’t exactly must-see TV. But Huddlestone! This goal celebration!
Goodman: Aston Villa are a strange case. There’s a lot not to like about this season. Christian Benteke, after a phenomenal breakout year, has fallen off the face of the earth, negatively affecting both Villa’s offensive output and their potential profit from selling him. Manager Paul Lambert still doesn’t seem to have a plan of attack that amounts to more than extremely basic counters, and for the second year in a row, their defensive line has been decimated by injuries, which is particularly brutal for a team that has no attacking plan outside of counters! Weirdly, they are sitting more or less comfortably in 11th place. That’s progress, I suppose (they were almost relegated last season). But are they building toward anything?
Ryan: A club with a rich history, a stadium that seats more than 40,000, some nice young pieces, and a once highly regarded manager with European pedigree. Aston Villa should be Southampton with more fans and more financial muscle. Instead, with the managerial turnover, uninspired performances on the field, and white-flag waving (Paul Lambert may have been right about the distraction and drain the FA Cup could cause, but that doesn’t make it any more inspirational to hear him say it), Villa more and more resemble the other professional sports franchise Randy Lerner was involved with: the Cleveland Browns.
Goodman: Mark Hughes’s plan to migrate the team away from ugly Pulis-ball of years past is still in its early stages. Stoke are certainly passing the ball a lot more than they have in past seasons, attempting 451 passes per match, up from 386 last season. But, for all that, they’re only creating marginally more chances (8.1 per game, up from 7.3). And they are only taking 10.7 shots per game, second-worst in the Premier League. So yes, Stoke will probably not get relegated, but they also aren’t in any danger of being mistaken for a good team.
Ryan: Charlie Adam, the oldest-looking 28-year-old in the history of recorded time, injured Spurs midfielder Paulinho during Stoke and Tottenham’s December 29 match. After that match, Paulinho teammate and countryman Sandro posted this …
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With the caption, “Charlie Adams — THE BEAST IS WATCHING YOU!!!” Spurs and Stoke play on April 26. That’s probably the only time this season I would recommend watching the Potters. The only other reason to tune in is to watch Hughes abuse outerwear.
Goodman: Swansea are better than their record. Their step backward in the first half can be attributed to the added burden of the extra games in the Europa League, as well as the extended absence of last year’s star forward Michu. It’s hard to believe that the team will be in any serious danger of relegation, but Swansea’s current struggles are an important reminder that just because a team has developed a signature style and seems to be moving in the right direction doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to keep climbing the standings.
Ryan: To the outside, Swansea may be a little bit of a letdown, but you have to remember where this club is coming from. Back in 2004, they were scrapping to get out of League Two. Now they’re playing Napoli in the Europa League. It’s easy to sit back and say they are stalling a bit, and it’s easy to look at the stoic Michael Laudrup on the sideline and think he agrees. But for a club of this size, considering the financial ruin it was in not too long ago, and the stability it has now, Swansea is still one of the great success stories of the Premier League.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Goodman: Still without a manager after relieving Steve Clarke from his duties, it’s hard to believe that at this time a year ago West Brom were sitting in seventh place on 33 points. Now they are a personality-less team, saved from battling for their Premier League lives mostly because of the ineptitude of the teams below them in the table.
Ryan: There have been rumors that West Brom might go for a sexy managerial hire like Andre Villas-Boas or Quique Sánchez Flores. Watching the Baggies, though, you get the feeling they could hire Arrigo Sacchi and they would still finish 10th or 11th. They’re stuck in an episode of midtable Twilight Zone that we all flipped the channel from a long time ago.
Maybe Don’t Make Any Long-Term Commitments
Goodman: Occasionally you need to score goals to succeed in the Premier League. Norwich has no idea how to score goals. This has been an ongoing problem for them during Chris Hughton’s reign at the club. Buying Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel hasn’t helped. They’ve shown absolutely no signs of improving, which is enough to put them at risk for the drop, especially given that several of the teams below them seem to be moving ever so slowly and ever so slightly in the right direction.
Ryan: Hughton is, by all accounts, a very nice man, but he may have taken this team as far as he can. You look at what Southampton did with Nigel Adkins — replacing a beloved, genial manager with a slick tactician like Pochettino — and wonder if the same magic could be worked on the Canaries. Honestly, I want them to stay in the league because I really like their uniforms.
Goodman: Before Martin Jol got fired, Fulham were one of the most abjectly horrible teams imaginable. The idea was to rely on the skill of Dimitar Berbatov and a couple of other cultured attackers to make up for having an old and slow midfield and a ridiculously slow and inept defense. It didn’t work, and the team gave up staggering amounts of shots while mounting basically no threat of their own. Rene Meulensteen seemed to stop the bleeding before a stunning 6-0 loss to Hull ripped the stitches out. There are only so many ways you can try to cover the holes on Fulham’s roster. Let’s hope that for them improving to being merely very bad and not historically, epically bad will be enough to hang on to their spot in the Premier League.
Ryan: I’ve had more fun watching old people eat than enduring a game in which Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell make up a central midfield partnership. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes at Fulham, I think. Meulensteen was brought in to assist Jol on the bench and promptly got his job. Alan Curbishley was brought in to become technical director, and I think he could feasibly take over for Meulensteen if things don’t get better. Either way, with Deuce in the mix, it’s worth keeping an eye on Fulham’s fight to stay up. He has a habit of making some magic at the Cottage:
Goodman: They’ve been awful. Maybe a new manager will make them less awful? Good luck, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It might help if you could get your team to shoot more than a league-worst 10.5 times a game and stop giving up 5.9 shots on target a game, the second-worst clip in the league (behind only Fulham at 6.0).
Ryan: I honestly don’t find Vincent Tan any more annoying than Wigan’s manager, Dave Whelan, but then again, I’m not Welsh (or Malaysian). I’m more interested in how his jersey over the suit/high-waisted pants look …
… resembles the fashion of Joaquin Phoenix in Her …
Goodman: Crystal Palace were almost certainly going to get relegated, then they appointed Tony Pulis. In very short order he has started to institute his signature (incredibly ugly, depressing) effective style. Defend deep and play long balls. Now Crystal Palace have a real chance of staying up.
Ryan: I’m politically opposed to supporting or watching football teams managed by Pulis, and I stand by my convictions. I’m happy that Marouane Chamakh seems to have found some form after a weird, tough blackmail case screwed up his Arsenal career. But honestly, I’d rather be blackmailed than play for Pulis.
Goodman: West Ham want to do two things: score from crosses and keep clean sheets. They are doing neither. That’s probably not good.
Ryan: The only reason to watch or appreciate West Ham this season is Ravel Morrison, and I get the feeling that the more dire things get at Upton Park, the more we’re going to see the ball bypass him. They might just stop passing altogether.
Goodman: The good news: After crazy person Paolo di Canio got fired and replaced with Gus Poyet, Sunderland started trying to play more attractive football. The bad news: That just means they’re easier to watch while they lose. And in case you’re counting, that’s four of the bottom six teams that have a different manager now than when the season started.
Ryan: At least they’re no longer managed by an admitted fascist.