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Premier League Mid-Season Review – Part #2

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 #2 will consist of the second four Premier League teams, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. Enjoy!

Fulham

fulham

Fulham have enjoyed some good times in the last few years, the highlight being the brilliant Europa League run under Roy Hodgson, where they reached the final before losing to Atletico Madrid. However, in the league, they’ve tended to live by the label of mid-table club, never really being directly in the relegation battle, but also not being consistent enough to reach the top six – their attempts haven’t been helped though by losing key players and even managers quite regularly. Under Martin Jol though, they will look for stability and have a manager who seems to be in it for the long term, with a good manager like him at the helm and a good group of players, they should be able to have more stability and really push on in the next few years.

After losing their best two players from the previous campaign in the summer, in the shape of Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey – both joining Spurs – it was always going to be tough for Fulham this season. It was even made harder as they lost them both late in the window, not giving them sufficient time to find replacements, which is noticeable when you watch them now. Without Dembele playing the in the midfield, they lack a midfielder who can pull the team together, and make driving runs from deep to link defence to attack and help penetrate defences.In Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov, though, they do have one of the best attacking duos in the league and one of the most technically gifted – if not the most technically gifted.

They had a great opening result to the season, beating Norwich 5-0 in Chris Hughton’s first game, before narrowly losing to Manchester United at Old Trafford. By this time Mousa Dembele’s value was really showcased in the media, and speculation was as big as ever, whilst their was off-the-pitch issues with Clint Dempsey as he tried to force a move. However, their main problem has been consistency, as they haven’t been able to put a string of wins together, with them getting back-to-back wins only once so far this season. Fulham are an admirable side though, and oneof my favourites in the Premier League. They always strive to play good, entertaining football and have a lot of technically gifted players. The signing of Berbatov has proved the be a great decision, as he’s their top scorer with seven goals and has also chipped in with three assists and seems to epitomise their play.

As good as their attacking play is aesthetically though, it seems their defensive form has suffered as a result, with them conceding sixteen shots per game and having the sixth worst defence in the league, already conceding 37 goals. If you concede sixteen shots a game you’re just making it harder for your team to win, and as much as I love aesthetic football, sometimes you do have to be more pragmatic and if they were, they could be a few places higher in the league. With Ruiz and Berbatov leading the line, they’ll be able to create against any defence, so a more compact back line and midfield could be beneficial, then counter and utilise the front two. With the Premier League being quite weak at the moment, and seriously lacking a tactically organized team, Fulham could cause a lot of upsets if they were the team to take a stand in ‘the race for a tactically organized team’ – as most teams seem to have forgotten about their defence in the Premier League. However, from a selfish neutral point of view, I hope they don’t change as they are a joy to watch with their passing game, and I hope it continues!

I’ve given them a C+ as I would have said their target is to secure a comfortable top half finish and even push for a Europa League space, so 13th does seem like their underachieving. However, I’ve given the ‘+’ as it is tight in this area, and one bad loss can see you drop a lot of places, and as their only five points off ninth, they only need a good consistent run to be more around where they will be aiming for.

I’ve already talked briefly about Berbatov, so for this section I’m going to talk about Bryan Ruiz. I’ve been a huge fan of his since I first saw him play for FC Twente, he’s incredibly skilful and technically gifted and really knows how to lob a goalkeeper. He is a player that every football fan should just love to watch, because of his amazing technique. I was extremely excited when Fulham signed him, to see how he coped in the Premier League. He had a good first season, but didn’t stand out too much with injury problems and just generally adapting to the league, but this season he seems to have really settled and formed a good partnership with Berbatov, being a lot more productive than last season. Last season he scored two goals and contributed with three assists, whereas this season he has already scored three and assisted six, and started to get the kind of praise he deserves. He also has the best ‘minutes per assist’ ratio in the Premier League, with an assist every 146 minutes, nine minutes better than next best Wayne Rooney. If him and Berbatov can keep their partnership up and become even more accustomed to each other, the only way is up for Fulham.

Though he hasn’t been able to fill the void of Dembele, which is a tough job, Steve Sidwell has also impressed me this season. After doing well with Reading, he seemed to fall of the radar a bit after his moves to Chelsea and Aston Villa, where he didn’t play that regularly, but he has quietly been performing well for Fulham this season, and deserves some praise. With an open play pass completion of 85%, he keeps the team ticking and helps them retain possession, even more so by completing 69% of his 71 attempted tackles. Along with playing the typical solid, all-round midfield role, he’s also scored four and assisted two goals, being one of Fulham’s most unsung heroes, in my opinion.

Do they need to strengthen in January?

I don’t think it’s a necessity for them, they have a good set of players and I don’t think anything is really needed. They do however, have the oldest squad in the league, so maybe one or two young players who they can bleed in over time could be useful. A defender to partner Brede Hangeland could also be a useful buy, as their defence does need to be tightened up, but I don’t think it’s essential as their defence isn’t that worrying that they need immediate action.

Will they achieve their target?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so. The spaces between 8th and 14th are so tightly contested, and I don’t think Fulham will be consistent enough to secure a top half finish. I can’t see them finishing below 13th, which in the circumstances of losing their players and not being able to replace them isn’t a bad finish, I think they’d be aiming for something slightly better. Hopefully Jol is given time, as he is doing well and playing great football.

liverpool

When Brendan Rodgers was appointed Liverpool manager in the summer, many predicted this to be a transition season, as he would overhaul the club with his philosophy. So far, it has been exactly that, with a new emphasis being put on sustainability and youth which has seen the likes of Raheem Sterling and Suso become key figures in the Liverpool set-up – as opposed to their lack of involvement last season. Liverpool have played some good football this season, but lacked the consistency needed to make real progress and be directly in the race for Champions League football. Though I’m sure they’ll be hoping for more, Liverpool aren’t doing that badly sitting in 8th place, they just need to have a good 2013 and finish the season strongly.

Rodgers couldn’t have started his Liverpool reign much worse, as he didn’t win in his first five games – although the fixtures hadn’t been too kind, giving him games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United in his first few games. The first game was a nightmare for Liverpool though, losing to Steve Clarke’s West Brom 3-0, in a game where it looked like last season’s problems hadn’t been solved yet. In the 2011/12 season, Liverpool had a solid defence in played some good football, but struggled to put the ball in the net. They finished the season with one of the best defences and had one of the best average shots per game rates in the Premier League, but only scored 47 goals in their 38 games. The West Brom game had exactly the same problem, as Liverpool had a total of sixteen shots, but only put two on target, with the biggest culprit being Luis Suarez who had eight shots.

However, after enduring this five game run, Liverpool then went eight games unbeaten – though only three of them were wins, it showed a lot more progression than the first five games. After some defensive mistakes as well, it seemed the defensive solidity was back, as they claimed four clean sheets in this eight game run, with the partnership of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger very much back – which was helped even more as Pepe Reina seemed to put most his errors behind him.

The main thing Liverpool need if they wish to succeed this season is consistency – both in the shape of results and in front of goal. They create lots of chances, but rarely convert. Whilst they’re capable of beating most sides in the division on their day, they don’t produce that kind of performance every week, which is evident when you compare their performances against Manchester United and City with their matches against the weaker sides of the division.

One player that typifies Liverpool’s season is Luis Suarez, as although he’s answered his critics with his goal tally, he still remains to be relatively frustrating with his finishing, so he’s prolific but not clinical. Liverpool fans should be over the moon with him, though there is still improvement needed, maybe more from the players around him than him personally. The play goes through him every time, almost, so it’s hard for him to have a quiet game, but I think he’s not the type of player who can pop up with a goal after having a quiet game, as he isn’t that clinical with a chance conversion of 17%. It may not be all his fault though, as Liverpool have been quite reliant on him, so he’s been one of the only players to be in these goalscoring opportunities, meaning the signing of Daniel Sturridge could be just what he needs. It takes some pressure off his shoulders and allows him to play a bit more of a free-role and wreak havoc in the channels more – which is one the best aspects of his game in my opinion.

I’ve given them a B- as I think they’re main aim this season is to qualify for Europe and they are just loitering around that area, but it’s extremely close so a couple of bad games could see them drop more towards 9th/10th. However, on the other hand, they’re only six points off 4th. If they can put a consistent run together, Champions League football isn’t that far away.

Do they need to strengthen in January?

After signing Sturridge, I don’t think so. They seem to have good players for most positions and adequate back-up, whilst having quite a lot of versatility which is extremely useful. Their squad still needs some strengthening but I don’t think they need to panic and buy anyone this January, the squad is more than good enough to take them to the end of the season and finish on a high – in my opinion.

Will they achieve their target?

I think so, yes. With Sturridge they have some great attacking options, who all offer goals, creativity and versatility, so I’m sure there’ll be lots of good build-up play between the likes of Suarez, Sturridge and Borini as they all interchange, similar to how they did in the second half at Old Trafford. Whilst their defence should be pretty solid still and the return of Lucas Leiva is a huge boost and should provide some extra solidity. If they can add consistency to their game, Champions League isn’t out of reach, unlikely, but not out of reach.

CityManchester City may not have recaptured some of the scintillating football they played last season to lead them to their first Premier League title, but I do think they’ve been one of the most ‘solid’ teams so far this season. After being dealt a blow when Sergio Aguero was stretchered off in the opening game of the season against Southampton, they have coped relatively well, finding themselves in second place, but trail rivals Manchester United by seven points.

City started the season in an extremely professional manner – though they did draw a couple more games than they’d have been hoping to – as they went unbeaten for the first fifteen games, but couldn’t have chosen a worst game to end the unbeaten run with, as they lost 3-2 to Manchester United at the Etihad.

Their season has been ‘plagued’ by the talk of their Champions League form and Roberto Mancini ‘tinkering’ with their tactics, trying some three at-the-back formations out after experimenting in pre-season and the Community Shield. I think the constant changing of tactics wasn’t on of the reasons for them not capturing their form of last season, as I think their tactical versatility is a big asset, rather than a burden. The players have the versatility and ability to play different systems, which although it may be a small thing, can help unsettle the opposition or change if things aren’t going their way, without having to make a substitution.

They’ve shown their ability not only to win convincingly, but also to grind out wins when they haven’t been at their best, or the opposition have parked the bus against them and they’ve had to really break them down and work for the win. They show more than one way to win, which could be extremely valuable as they try to catch Manchester United up in the title race.

City seem to be slowing getting into their stride, as they’ve won their last four games, scoring eleven goals and if it carries on, it should lead to another great title race between the two Manchester clubs, showing a huge gulf in class between the other teams in the league.

I gave them a B- as they’re target would be to win the league, and although they’re the closest to United, I think they would have liked to be closer to United points-wise at this stage in the season. They can still win the title, but it is starting to look unlikely, especially if Manchester United follow their usual pattern of getting better in the second half of the season to really power to the title.

A key player in their bid to retain their title is David Silva, who has been their creative hub again this season. The Spaniard has been Manchester City’s most creative player and the fourth most creative player in the league, creating sixty chances, which has led to five goal assist. He’s also scored three goals this season. I, personally, don’t think he’s played as well as he did in the first half of last season and hasn’t been as consistent this year, so the fact he’s been one of the most creative players in the league is even more remarkable if you take that into account. He is an extremely talented player with brilliant technique, and City will need him to recapture his best form if they want to win the title.

Another player who deserves praise is Pablo Zabaleta, who has been one of the most consistent players in the league for the past few years and lately seems to have been labelled the best right back in the whole Premier League. He is extremely solid with a great work rate, which can be seen in the fact that he has won 77% of his 71 tackles and 60% of his 90 ground-duals, the most ground duals for the team. He has also managed to give an attacking contribution, scoring two goals and creating eleven chances, leading to one assist. He has been one of the most underrated players in the league in the last few seasons, and seems to be finally getting the praise he deserves.

Do they need to strengthen in January?

For me, not at all. On paper, they have one of the strongest sides in the world and it’s just about utilizing them to get their full ability, they have more than enough quality and depth to succeed and nothing is really needed until the summer, where one or two additions to ‘freshen things up’ would be welcome.

Will they achieve their target?

This is such a tough question to answer, especially for someone as indecisive as me, so I’m really not sure. Manchester United have the huge advantage, but with the attacking style their playing, defence seems to be tacking a back-seat, which could lead to them slipping up. But, on the other hand, they haven’t really slipped up in the first half and they normally get better in the second. It’s impossible to call for me, ask me after the Manchester derby!

Manchester United

mufc

Manchester United don’t seem to abiding by any of the unwritten laws of winning titles, however, they’re following one rule to a tee; Goals wins games. Scoring 57 goals in their first 23 games has seen them sit at the top of the table, five points clear of rivals Manchester City. A big factor in their lead and high goal tally is Robin van Persie’s brilliant form, after joining from Arsenal for £24M in the summer, and has managed to carry on his form from the last 18 months, scoring 18 goals already this season.

Manchester United looked shaky in the first game of the season away to a difficult Everton side, as they succumbed to a 1-0 loss thanks to a header from Marouane Fellaini. Just after this game I was starting to doubt their title credentials, as they seemed to be on short on quality defenders, as they were forced to play Michael Carrick at centre-back. Then, I wasn’t entirely sure on how Robin van Persie would fit in, or how the partnership between him and Wayne Rooney would work. I thought with the lack of quality and experienced defenders available, this season could be a long one for United, with defensive problems causing them to suffer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Although their defence hasn’t been that solid, the attacking play has been brilliant and even when two goals down, you still expect them to score and win the game. The partnership of Van Persie and Rooney has been brilliant so far, with Rooney dropping off into the hole to accommodate Van Persie, which has led to Rooney sacrificing his goal tally, but ultimately helping the team a huge amount. I tried to find an incredible run of results to emphasise how well Manchester United have done and proved me wrong, but the truth is, I don’t know which group to pick. In the end, it’s best to just talk about all their games since the opening day defeat. In their 22 games since losing to Everton, they’ve won 18 games, whilst only losing two and drawing two. That really is incredible, 56 points of out of a possible 66. If they keep up their current form, with their current points per game, they could end the season with 92/93 points, so if they do repeat this half-seasons form, Manchester City would have to take 42 points out of a possible 45 left to claim if they want to win the title. Obviously, this is all hypothetical and in theory, but it does show just how well Manchester United have been.

I may be starting to sound repetitive here, but I do think Manchester United need to sort out their defensive problems if they want to make sure they win the title though – I’m not entirely sure how they can go about this though, whether it’d be playing more conservative or whether it’s a case that they’ve now got their strongest defence back so things will naturally fall into place. It is a huge problem though, in my opinion. If the Premier League was more tactically-aware/organized I don’t think they would be doing as well as they are. Whenever I’ve seen a team go and attack United, they’ve scored, but they’ve sacrificed their tactical organization and defensive solidity to do so, if a team could really organize a game plan where they attack United, but are still wary of attacks, I would fancy them to win. The Premier League is in an odd stage at the moment, with not many teams being able to defend and just trying to outscore the opposition, and tactical organization is non-existent almost. United’s approach is working, but I just think it’s too risky. It can easily go against them. Only West Brom and the bottom nine have conceded more than Manchester United, so it is a cause for concern.

However, at the minute they’re doing absolutely brilliantly and it’s working fine, and I’m absolutely awful at predictions, so they’ll most likely have a stronger second half to the season!

It goes without saying, that a huge and key player in their great form has been Robin van Persie. Since arriving from Arsenal in the summer he hasn’t looked back and has been a hugely influential player for The Red Devils. He’s leading the scoring charts with 18 goals, but that isn’t his only asset. He’s also created 41 chances, leading to six assists and also creating 10 clear-cut chances for his team-mates. His clinical-ness has also been important for United this season, with a chance conversion of 26% he’s been highly clinical in front of goal. This has relieved some of the pressure from his team-mates, as he’s managed to have a quiet game but pop up with a goal when it was most needed. Or, if it’s a game where Manchester United find it hard to create chances, they know if they do create one, he will most likely put it away. The prime example of this would be against Tottenham Hotspur, where they only had five shots, with Van Persie only having two, but he still managed to score, which led to a vital point for United.

A player who also deserves praise is Michael Carrick. Opinions seem to be hugely split on him, but it now seems more and more people are beginning to rate him highly, and he’s finally getting some credit he deserves. He’s completed 70% of his 47 tackles and had 52 interceptions, which show his ball retention skills. His biggest asset would probably be his passing and keeping the game ticking over, whilst also having the ability to switch the play and pull off ‘Hollywood-esque passes’. This can be seen as his open play pass completion is 88%, however, what seems to set him apart from most distributing central-midfielders is the fact that the direction of most of his passes are forward, with 36%, compared to 31% left and 26% right. So, with only 8% backwards, it shows you his job is to pass laterally to help the team keep the ball, but also to be a bit more penetrative and direct than most distributors, with his high forward passes. Carrick seems to have really come into his own in this role, and looks better and better each game and seems to be finally winning over the critics he once had.

I gave Manchester United an A, as I feel their target is to win the league, but they’re overachieving because of the point difference they have amassed over their rivals.

Do they need to strengthen in January?

Not at all, they’re top of the league and don’t look like slowing down. Again it’s a case of a signing or two in the summer would be good, but they don’t actively need to go out and buy someone this window. They’ve been linked with Wilifred Zaha from Crystal Palace, who is a decent prospect, but that’s more of a signing for the future than to walk into the first team and make an immediate impact.

Will they achieve their target?

It’s the same as the Manchester City section, it’s impossible to call! I am favouring United due to the point difference, but again, ask me after the Derby!

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