Now the Premier League is more than half-way through, I’ve decided to do a team-by-team ‘report’ on where clubs currently are, where they should, what they can do to improve and just general observations. Each team will be given a ‘grade’ and just a few comments – the range of which will vary as I’ve watched some clubs a lot more than others.
The grades will be a basic A, B or C, with B being around where they should be, A being overachieving and C being underachieving.
Part #1 will consist of the first four Premier League teams, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea and Everton. Enjoy!
After the departures of key players Robin van Persie and Alex Song, you can understand why some Arsenal fans were apprehensive heading into the new season – despite the signings of high quality players Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, who have all had good starts to their Arsenal career. I’ve given them a B-, as I feel their aim would be to secure Champions League qualification, and though – especially with the game in hand – they look on course for that, they’re still a couple of points behind the clubs around them, and it seems to be as fierce as ever in the race for the top four, with Arsenal and Tottenham battling it out as usual, but also with surprise packages Everton and West Brom still in and around the same area.
They had a slow start and couldn’t really seem to get a good run going, but they’ve managed to put a run of four wins and one draw together, and look in a much stronger position than they did at the very start of the season – with the team looking like it’s starting to really gel properly and kickstart their season.
A key figure in their recent run of form has been Theo Walcott, who has been the centre of a lot of speculation, that will only continue in January, due to him not yet agreeing a new contract at the club, but seems to have found a new lease of life after being given his chance to play centrally. Over the course of the whole season he has been Arsenals most productive player, scoring eight goals and chipping in with six assists, making the contract renewal even more important to Arsenal, as he has given them another option, offering something different to that of Olivier Giroud, making the team more fluid as a whole. If Arsenal want to finish the season strongly, I think Walcott will have to ‘sign da ting’, as he seems to have accelerated into a key player in recent months, with his decision making and composure infront of goal drastically improved from that around eighteen months ago.
Despite the odd error, Arsenal’s defence has also looked a lot more solid this year, compared to other years. With a lot of people praising the newly promoted assistant Steve Bould for organizing the defence, as now only Stoke, Manchester City and Chelsea can boast better defensive records, which – quite oddly for Arsenal – means their problems have been in attack. I think, more than anything, it’s due to the players getting used to each other, with three new attacking players, it will take time for them all to get used to each other’s game, but that seems to be happening in recent weeks, as they’ve started to score and create more as they have the option of Giroud or Walcott to play centrally.
Another reason for the lack of goals, or creativity, however is the inability to penetrate defences who ‘park the bus’, as no midfielder seems to really drive from deep in the way Abou Diaby did at the start of the season before his (almost inevitable) injury, which was shown in the game against Liverpool. Jack Wilshere offers a good options with good runs and link up play, but is still lacking in certain areas, when it comes to breaking down ‘the bus’.
Do they need to strengthen in January?
For me, yes, but not drastically. One or two more players to improve the overall quality of the squad. I think a central midfielder would be a great job, an enforcer-type midfielder. Who can win the ball back and is also comfortable with the ball and going forward. Basically, an Abou Diaby mould midfielder, but not as injury prone. Diaby has bags of ability, but hasn’t put a run of games together ina while. If the rumours about his £3.5M release clause are true, Mohamed Diame would be a great signing for them, he’s won 76% of his 66 tackles and has won possession back 78 times, whilst completing 19 interceptions, as well as having an open play pass rate of 82% in a direct West Ham side and for only £3.5M, would be an absolute steal.
I also think a versatile defender could be a welcome addition, although I imagine Arsenal fans won’t be too happy with the idea, and the player himself probably wouldn’t be either, Joleon Lescott – who’s apparently unwanted at City – could be a decent buy, he’s solid and can play centre-back and left-back. There’s better options, but it would be a decent buy.
Will they achieve their target?
I think so, they have experience in getting the top four and are looking stronger as the weeks progress. If they can get some good results against fellow top teams in January, they can make huge progress and top four should be a certainty. Anything can happen, but Wenger is a master at guaranteeing Champions League football, and I suspect he’ll carry on to deliver it.
Aston Villa have undergone somewhat of a revolution since Paul Lamber took over from Alex McLeish in the summer, with Lambert brining a policy which is heavily based around youth, which can be seen with them having one of the youngest starting line-ups in the league, with the average varying between 23 and 24.
I really admire the way they’ve gone about their business since Paul Lambert has taken over, and I’m an even bigger admirer as they’ve experimented with a three at the back system – which is just something I love, for some reason – and their signings seem to revolve around talented youth players, with an even bigger emphasis on young British players, which has seen them sign talented youngsters like Ashley Westwood and Matthew Lowton.
I’ve given them a C, as they should be performing slightly better than they currently are, but I wouldn’t go to the lengths of some comments I’ve seen, saying they’re the worst side in the league etc. They’re in a pretty bad position in 16th and have the worst defence in the league, conceding an incredible 41 goals already, including an aggregate score of 15-0 in the three games over the festive period.
However, before enduring that terrible run they had a good five game unbeaten run, where their 3-5-2 looked to be a stroke of genius, delivering a great win at Anfield and getting three cleans sheets in the five games, and the younger players seemed to have adjusted to the Premier League and things were clicking into place – before the downfall over Christmas.
I’ve been impressed with their signings over the summer, they may not have been extremely cheap, with Villa spending over £20M as a whole, but they’ve been good value for money so far in my opinion, and should only get better as they mature and develop. The three who have impressed me the most are Ashley Westwood, Christian Benteke and Matthew Lowton.
Ashley Westwood joined from Crewe in the summer, and looks to be a great addition to the side. The young midfielder has performed well and looked comfortable on the ball, whilst just keeping it ticking over, with an open play pass completion of 86%, as well as being quite a good tackler with a 74% completion rate, and has also only lost possession three times this season. He may not be a remarkable player, but he does his job well and is an important part of Aston Villa’s team, whilst providing solidity, as they’ve had four clean sheets in his eleven starts, conceding an average of 1.64 a game, an improvement on their overall 1.95 conceded a game.
Then, Christian Benteke has been a great signing since arriving for £7M in the summer, at the time I thought it was a pretty hefty fee and wondered whether he would be able to live up to the price tag – but he has done just that. He’s not incredibly clinical, with six goals and a 19% chance conversion, but his all round game offers so much to the team as a whole. Constantly causing defences problems with his power and aerial ability, and holding the ball up well to allow team-mates to get forward as they counter with their 3-5-2, which was used to perfection at Anfield with fellow young prospect Andreas Weimann. His link-up play has lead to him creating 25 chances, with four assists, so he really is a complete striker, which is why you can understand Lambert’s decision to pick him over Darren Bent, as the latter is all about goals and doesn’t offer that much to the team, whereas Benteke offers goals and a lot more. He has been a good signing and an exciting player to watch this season, and at only 21, should only get better and more composed infront of goal.
Finally, Matthew Lowton has been another player to catch my eye for Villa this season, he has been extremely consistent, which explains why he has played every minute this season, and has played well in his full-back and wing-back role, providing much needed consistency in this young side. He’s been extremely solid winning 73% of his 56 tackles, completing 53 interceptions and he’s only been dribbled past eighteen times this season. He has also shown great composure on the ball in his defensive zone, with a 91% pass completion in that zone. Even though he’s only been playing Premier League football for half a season, it would be nice to see him be rewarded with an inclusion into the England squad for a friendly, as he’s been one of the most consistent English defenders in the league this season – in my opinion.
Do they need to strengthen in January?
Definitely, for me. Not wholesale changes, but if they move on Darren Bent, then some of that money should be reinvested back into the squad. I think they need one or two more players to improve the overall quality, maybe with one experienced player to help the younger players and have a Dave Mackay-esque effect, when he went to Brian Clough’s Derby to be an experienced head at the back and direct the team, basically.
Will they achieve their target?
I would say their target would be a comfortable finish, in a position of 15th or above, and just building on McLeish’s finish last season. At the moment, I think they should be able to do that, with an addition or two in January I don’t see why they can’t. The players will all develop and mature and should start to gel and play better football, with the revolution that’s happening though, it’s not going to get a lot better quickly, it will take time, but I think in the long-term, if Paul Lambert stays, it should be worth it.
Chelsea have been one of the most interesting teams to follow in the Premier League this season, with them winning the Champions League last season, you would assume that their focus would be to win the league title this season. With new young signings – like Eden Hazard and Oscar – they’ve been exciting to watch and after keeping Roberto Di Matteo, seemed to be heading more for stability and thinking about the long-term, instead of just how they can win everything by taking their famous ‘hire and fire’ approach. However, I could haven’t have been more wrong with thinking that, as they sacked Di Matteo and hired Rafa Benitez, which prompted an awful reaction from the fans, but after some good results, the discontent seems to be dying down and they seem to be hitting form.
Sacking Di Matteo made them a lot more interesting to follow, as they’ve adapted to Benitez’s approach and changed their style, as well as the constant ‘Torres Watch’ to see if he has managed to hit form again. They started the season extremely well with lots of good football being played, particularly between the three nicknamed ‘Mazacar’ by some Chelsea fans, consisting of new boys Eden Hazard and Oscar and last year’s signing Juan Mata. Before losing to Manchester United, they’d won every game apart from the draw to Q.P.R, but the United game led to a slump, which ended in a loss to West Brom and cost Di Matteo his job (and the Champions League form).
Rafa Benitez came in and got a decent first result against Manchester City with a 0-0, but then drew to Fulham and lost to West Ham, before things seemed to click against Sunderland, which now finds them in a four game win streak, scoring fourteen goals in the process.
I’ve given them a B- as they’re aim would be to win the title, and with two games in hand over teams around them, with wins they’ll be third, so they’re still in and around the right kind of area, but ultimately, still quite far behind Manchester United, as it would still be an eight point gap. It’s doable, but I’m sure they would have liked to be closer.
After costing around £30M, a lot was expected from young Eden Hazard, and despite fading a bit in recent weeks, he seems to be deserving of the price tag, both for current and potential ability. In the first couple of weeks of the season, he was everywhere with his performances against Wigan and Newcastle, and he may have faded, but he has still been one of Chelsea’s better performers this season. He’s created 43 chances this season, with six assists and four goals, yet there’s still more to come from him as he’s still getting to grips with the Premier League.
Juan Mata has been Chelsea’s stand out player this season – in my opinion. After a strong debut season he’s only gotten better, and seems to have added more goals to his game as well, scoring seven goals already this season, one more than his total of six last season. He’s also been Chelsea’s most creative player with 44 chances created, which has led to seven assists. However, the one part of his game that could be improved is ball retention, as he tends to lose the ball under pressure a lot, which can be seen as his pass completion in the final third is 78%, compared to his overall open play pass completion of 86%. He is a sensation to watch though, and is one of the best players in the league, and really gives you an indicator on how good the current crop of Spanish players are when you think he can’t get into the starting eleven at the minute.
Two more players I think deserve some more credit at Chelsea are John Obi Mikel and Fernando Torres. Mikel is often criticised and is called the weak-link of Chelsea, but I’ve been impressed every time I’ve seen him play this season. He may not be the most remarkable player to watch, but he offers much needed solidity and discipline to the midfield, whilst helping the team keep possession and always offering a pass option to the defenders. He allows the other midfielder in the double pivot to be a bit more adventurous, so if it’s Frank Lampard he can drive forward into the box, knowing Mikel has it covered, or Ramires can go on his runs from deep, again knowing Mikel will have it covered. He’s a player who you only notice his importance while he’s not there, I’ve been really impressed with him this season. Whilst Fernando Torres may not be as prolific as he was during his Liverpool days, I think he has played quite well this season, and has played almost as a ‘False 9’. Dropping into the hole or out wide, he has created a lot of space for the three behind him, who wouldn’t have had such good goalscoring figures had Torres not played how he does, but he has still chipped in with seven goals. He hasn’t warranted the £50M Chelsea paid for him, but I think he has been playing quite well for the team this season, he just hasn’t scored that many.
Do they need to strengthen in January?
If they sign Demba Ba, which is looking very likely, I don’t think they’ll need to sign anyone else in January. As usual, lots of names have been thrown around, but with Ba, I feel they have two players in every position, and if anything, more could just cause problems with players who want to play. They also seem to have a good blend between young players for places and more experienced players, so I think their set of players (plus Ba) are enough, and they just need to finish the season strongly, with the title looking unlikely.
Will they achieve their target?
In my opinion, no. It’s hard to see Manchester United giving up their fourteen point lead over Chelsea up, even if Chelsea do have two games in hand. It’s doable, but very unlikely. I think now they seem more accustomed to how Benitez wants them to play, they’ll finish strongly and will contest, but I can’t see them overturning Manchester United, they just need to build and launch a real challenge next year and keep faith in Benitez, as he is a world class manager and it’s hard to see who could be a better option, unless one of Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola are available.
Everton started the season fantastically, winning their first game 1-0 to Manchester United thanks to a Maroaune Fellaini header, and after 21 games, have still only lost three, the same amount as leaders Manchester United, but they’ve had the second most draws in the division, behind Stoke City. Despite this, they find themselves in 5th place and only three points behind Tottenham in 3rd place, so after talk about it at the start of the season, Champions League football is still a very realistic goal for David Moyes and his men.
They’ve provided solidity and discipline in the Premier League this season, which is a rarity lately, so would probably be the main reason behind their success. They may not have kept many clean sheets, but they don’t concede that many, with a solid defence and to disciplined central midfielders, as well as this, they all seem to have a determination to do well and prove people wrong, giving them something extra when things aren’t going their way. Their defenders are also comfortable on the ball, and their attackers can all defend and ‘do their bit’ which is a huge bonus to have. Their home form has been a huge aspect in their rise this season, as they’ve only lost one game there all season, when they lost to Chelsea thanks for a Frank Lampard double, and if they wish to end the season with the Champions League dream, this will have to continue.
I’ve given them an A+ as at the start of the season, I think they would have just been aiming to not ‘do an Everton’ but instead to start well and build from there, to try and secure a comfortable top half finish and preferable sneaking a Europa League spot, but at the minute, they are exceeding those expectations brilliantly. Only three points off Champions League Group Stage qualification is an amazing feat – especially given the budget and size of the squad at Moyes’ disposal – at this stage of the season, and if they can continue their form, there’s no reason why they can’t make it. This wouldn’t only be a completely exceeding their target, but also be huge for the club in terms of revenue, brining in lots of prize money and television money, which can help the club a lot in the long-term.
Though they seem to pride themselves on being a unit, they have had some real stand-out players this season, with the main one being left-back Leighton Baines. Baines is one of the most consistent players in the league this season, providing defensive solidity whilst combining brilliantly with Stephen Pienaar down the left hand side to be Everton’s most creative player and the most creative player in the league, creating 69 chances, ten more than next best Steven Gerrard, which is a huge accomplishment from left-back. However, Baines is one of the few full-backs who doesn’t sacrifice defensive solidity to be more productive in attack. This season Baines has won 81% of his 43 tackles and completed 37 interceptions, whilst only being dribbled past five times. It’s a shame that Baines is around in the same generation as Ashley Cole, or that he’s been somewhat of a late bloomer, as they’re both great left-backs who offer different things, but Cole has always overshadowed Baines on the national stage, but Baines ability-wise is deserving of a lot more caps.
Another key player in their bid to gain Champions League football has been Belgian international Marouane Fellaini. Even though I’m still undecided on him as a whole, he has been extremely productive for Everton this season and has almost created a new breed of ‘number tens’ – as he differs from the typical/orthodox view of most number tens. The main part of his game that has been praised this season, has been his goals, with eight goals to his name, he is The Toffees’ highest goal-scorer this season, with two more goals than Croation striker Nikica Jelavic. Fellaini is also extremely strong in the tackle, winning 77% of his 30 tackles, and reinforces the point about Everton attackers being able to defend, as he’s been moved to a more attacking position to fill in where Tim Cahill played, as he used to play a bit deeper in the last couple of seasons, and hasn’t lost his defensive capabilities, helping Everton defend from the front. His name has been thrown around everywhere in transfer speculation, and I’m not sure whether he should leave Everton or not. At Everton the team and style seems to be centred around him and his ability to bring the ball down and supply his teammates, but the bigger clubs interested will be more likely to play him back in a deeper role, as they’ll keep their more technically gifted playmakers as their number tens, and is he what these clubs need in the midfield pivot? Personally, I don’t think so. I think most clubs have a player like him, and with his lack of pace on the ball, may not suit playing in the deeper roles, as again, teams will opt for a more technically gifted player to help the team tick over and retain possession. So, as good as his season has been, I don’t think clubs should splash out the £20M Everton are after and Fellaini shouldn’t be looking elsewhere, as Everton is the best club for him at the moment, and if they get Champions League football – there’ll be even less reason for him to leave.
Do they need to strengthen in January?
Despite only having a small squad, I don’t think they need to strengthen in January. All their players are versatile which helps them cover any injuries, and they all seem to want to do well and prove people wrong, meaning they don’t need to have an extremely big squad (or wagebill) but still achieve the same results. One or two additions to help improve the depth of the squad wouldn’t hurt, especially younger players who can be slowly brought into the first team, but it’s not a necessity, they’re doing well and just need to keep their form going and they should be in a European competition next year.
Will they achieve their target?
Absolutely. If their target was comfortable top-half finish, that’s all but done. They should be able to keep their form up and gain Europa League qualification, but I can’t see them getting Champions League qualification. I think the top four will be the same as last year and Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea will all really kick on now and finish strongly, leaving Everton falling slightly short. However, it would still be a great season for Everton and European Football at Goodison Park will be huge for the fans and the club as a whole, if they can keep hold of their players and get some quality additions in the summer, they can make a real push for the Champions League next year. Everton have enjoyed a good season and it should last, it’s been a great season for Everton fans and should only end well.