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Liverpool v West Bromwich Albion - Barclays Premier League

The Premier League has always boasted its competitiveness compared to Europe’s other top leagues, although in reality it was only two, sometimes three teams that were really in the title race. So far this season, that has changed quite dramatically.

Here we are in January and the top 6 places are changing on a weekly basis and it’s nigh on impossible at this point to predict in which order the top 7 will be, come the end of the season.

For the most part, Arsenal have set the pace thus far. The sensational capture and influence of Mesut Ozil, coupled with the excellent form of Aaron Ramsey have helped re-establish what looked very unlikely on opening day, Arsenal as genuine title contenders.

On paper, their squad still looks thin, but on the pitch they’ve contended with a long list of injuries, negotiated the Champions League ‘group of death’ and remained consistent. If Arsene Wenger can find a suitable forward and defender in the January transfer window, then the Gunners could end their long trophy drought with a Premier League crown.

Pre-season title favourites Manchester City and Chelsea have both stuttered at times, but are now ominously gathering pace. City’s away form earlier in the campaign was threatening to derail their title challenge, but with that having improved and being so imperious and scoring goals for fun at the Etihad, they are now many people’s pick to be champions.

Fernandinho has slotted in beautifully next to Yaya Toure and Negredo looks an excellent acquisition, alongside the sublime Sergio Aguero seamlessly. Indeed, they have the best squad and arguably the best team that is gelling so well under the guidance of Manuel Pellegrini that, it could well be their title to lose.

Before the start of the season, I felt Chelsea were slight favourites to be champions with the quality and experience in the squad and the Premier League know-how of Jose Mourinho; however, they looked surprisingly fragile at the back and have often lacked fluidity in attack, but are still within touching distance of top spot.

Oscar often made a difference for the Blues early season and Eden Hazard has picked up his form of late, something that has been vital given that their strikers have barely found the back of the net and their best player, Juan Mata, is bizarrely spending most of his season watching from the bench. Mourinho may lack class with some of his post-match interviews, as he deflects attention away from his team, but he has a knack of winning trophies and Chelsea are certainly in the hunt for the title.

Liverpool are in with real chance of getting back into the Champions League this season, aided by the goals of the magnificent Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan was the best player in the league last season, but the stupidity of biting Ivanovic and his reputation probably prevented him being recognised as such. This year, not only has hebeen almost unplayable at times, but he’s also cleaned up his act and been a huge part in Liverpool’s often scintillating attacking play.

Daniel Sturridge has also weighed in with goals, Jordan Henderson has been outstanding and Raheem Sterling is looking a much more mature player. With the experience and quality of Steven Gerrard and the creativity of Coutinho, Liverpool have continued their progression throughout the calendar year of 2013 to put themselves into contention.

Merseyside rivals Everton have been a revelation under arguably the manager of the year so far, Roberto Martinez. The Toffees had a squad primarily set up to be functional, hardworking and difficult to beat. Martinez has taken the handbrake off, allowing players to express themselves more and introduced a more patient build up to their play. Seamus Coleman being played as an attacking right-back has been a masterstroke, as has having the faith and confidence to play Ross Barkley in the key attacking midfield role.

Loan signings Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku have been pivotal in a very impressive season, but the lack of depth to the squad does raise the question whether or not Everton will be able to maintain their top 4 challenge to the business end of the season.

After a sticky start, Newcastle have got going pretty well, influenced by the talented Yohan Cabaye and the goalscoring prowess of Loic Remy. The lack of Europa League football has no doubt helped them and although a European place looks beyond them this season, the Magpies are set for a satisfactory campaign.

Southampton’s start was fantastic, a win and clean sheet away at Anfield was just one of many eye catching performances that lead to Adan Lallana and Jay Rodriguez rightfully gaining international recognition with England. Luke Shaw is continuing to enhance his growing reputation and Dejan Lovren has been stellar at the centre of solid defence that combined with a good passing style, has seen Manager Mauricio Pochettino’s list of admirers grow. The behind the scenes unrest however, does threaten their stability.

After selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £85m, Tottenham spent over £100m on a promising centre-back, 2 central midfielders, 3 attacking midfielders and a striker, but bizarrely ignored their glaring weakness at left-back. Last season I felt that Spurs tactics were essentially to give the ball to Bale and hope he did something, meaning Andre Villas Boas would have to be more imaginative and expressive with his impressive looking squad this term.

Instead, they lacked a fluidity often suffered by teams trying to integrate too many new players at once and with the below par performances came a lack of confidence leading to the 6-0 hammering away to Man City and the 5-0 thrashing at home to Liverpool which ultimately cost Villas Boas his job. His replacement, Tim Sherwood, may not have the tactical prowess of Europe’s top managers, but he has employed a much more attacking style that has Tottenham back in top 4 contention.

Whoever took over as Man Utd manager after Alex Ferguson was always picking up a poisoned chalice, so to speak. They would inevitably either fail to live up to expectation or have success attributed to taking over an already successful team. I, amongst many others, was surprised at David Moyes selection as Ferguson’s successor.

Moyes built a good reputation at Everton, but his teams were very functional and his record was built mostly on finding bargains and over-achieving. Taking over at a club with money to spend and a higher expectation of success is a different challenge; one which only time will tell if Moyes is up to.

Last season, the under-performance of Man City and the goals of Robin Van Persie, particularly up until the festive period, probably masked the deficiencies in the Man Utd squad. Deficiencies that without Ferguson at the helm and big changes to the coaching staff, have become all too prevalent this season.

One positive this season though has been the marked improvement in goalkeeper David De Gea and with players like Van Persie and Rooney in the team, Utd have to be fancied for a top 4 spot. Their real difficulty will come in replacing an ageing defence, especially if there is no Champions League football for a club carrying heavy debts and huge expectations.

Before the start of the season, I fancied Chelsea to just win the title ahead of City. Although City look the team to beat, I have a feeling Chelsea may still edge them out in May.

Whilst the top 2 will probably be what many expected back in the summer, the tightness of the top 7 has been a pleasant surprise in what has been an entertaining season so far.

 

Written by Andy Wales

Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyArmchair

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