The turn of a new year is generally thought of as a time of new beginnings and nowhere is this more true than in the Premier League as we flip the calendar over from 2014 to 2015. Consider the following new beginnings that we have to contemplate heading into 2015:
- The title race is again a dead heat with Manchester City drawing even with Chelsea on the first day of 2015. A headline writer’s dream, it was a goal from Chelsea legend Frank Lampard that allowed the Citizens to draw even with the club where he will always be a legend.
- The races for 3rd and 4th are a virtual dead heat with five points separating 3rd place Manchester United from 7th place West Ham with Manchester United hosting the Saints in Round 21 a week from Sunday.
- Spurs cleaned the slates of an incredibly disappointing first half of the season with a stunning 5-3 win over Chelsea on New Years Day. Maybe Mauricio Pochettino needs half a season to install his system (few will remember that he was actually appointed mid-season in 2012-13 which gave him half a season to do so before the Saints strong 2013-14 campaign). Even Andros Townsend shook off an anonymous calendar year 2014 to score a goal (OK, it was a penalty but still).
- Southampton had a generally strong first half of the season but lost to the “big” clubs when given the opportunity. The second time around is starting far better with a draw against Chelsea to close 2014 and a win over Arsenal to open 2015.
- It looked like we might make it through the entire first half of the season without a managerial change but once the ax started falling, the blood started flowing fast and furious. There will be fresh starts at Crystal Palace, West Brom, and Newcastle for sure with Hull City and Leicester City looking likely to be next on the list.
- Finally, it appears that Steven Gerrard will be creating a new beginning somewhere else once the 2015 season comes to a close. He has stated that he won’t go to another Premier League team (is that now called “pulling a Lampard”?) but is reportedly talking to some big money MLS clubs (LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, and NYCFC). With Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry-sized holes to fill with the Galaxy and Red Bulls respectively, there is certainly budget and need at those two clubs.
Sadly, Arsenal don’t make the list of teams with new beginnings heading into 2015, they’re up to their old tricks again. That they lost at St. Mary’s isn’t the worst thing to have happened. The way that they lost, though, has to have supporters going mad. I know it has this supporter doing so. For one of the few times this season they had their first choice defense and goalkeeper available and what did they do? They conspired to make mistake after mistake with Wojciech Szczesny the primary culprit on the two goals. With the loss at Manchester United planted firmly at the feet of Szczesny as well it seems that goalkeeper should be added to the list of Arsenal transfer needs over the summer if not in January.
The Title Race
Chelsea – Position: First Place (tie), Points: 46, Form: 10 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (NEW, @SWN, MAC, @AVL, EVE) What’s going on here? Without a significant injury, the bottom is falling out at Stamford Bridge (or rather away from Stamford Bridge). Chelsea are still unblemished and dominant at home with a P9 W9 D0 L0 line but their away form has been downright mediocre over their last five matches with one win, two draws and two losses. They’re not in QPR territory by any means but here’s Jose Mourinho’s dirty little secret from the first half of the season: Chelsea’s list of road victories is Burnley, Everton, Crystal Palace, Liverpool, and Stoke City. That Everton win looked much better in Week 2 before we realized that Everton aren’t a top half team this season. The Liverpool and Stoke City wins are OK but the table says that Chelsea haven’t beaten a team above 8th away from home this season.
Manchester City – Position: First Place (tie), Points: 46, Form: 13 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (@EVE, ARS, @CHE, HUL, @STO) We’ll get to the Frank Lampard/NYCFC situation later in the column, here we’ll focus on City’s performance on the pitch. City were close to repeating their come-from-ahead draw at Burnley as they allowed Sunderland to claw back to 2-2 after going up 2-0. Their inability to hold a lead is worrying but didn’t bite them this time around. After criticizing Chelsea’s road form, it is worth noting that we don’t have much of a sense of City against quality opponents on the road. They have been to St. Mary’s and won 3-0 in the middle of the Saints injury crisis and been to the Emirates and come away with a point. Hardly a convincing record as most of their challenging road matches are still to come with Stamford Bridge on the last day of January the first really big test.
The Race For Europe – Manchester United aren’t very good but they seem like a very solid third place contender right now with Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, and Everton lagging and the candidacies of West Ham, Newcastle, and Southampton for that fourth spot looking more and more legitimate with each passing week. I’m not sure why I haven’t been doing this up until now but I will now start listing the clubs in this section in order of (my perception) the relative strength.
Manchester United – Position: Third Place, Points: 37, Form: 9 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (SOU, @QPR, LEI, @WHU, BUR) A second straight draw and a third in four matches with the attack seemingly the problem despite an embarrassment of riches (or at least big names). Angel Di Maria still wasn’t back for the occasion but Falcao appears to be back and he was joined by RvP, Rooney, and Mata. That should be more than enough attacking prowess to generate more than the two shots on target that United generated. Of particular concern should be the ability of Luke Shaw to live up to his billing. With Shaw replacing Ashley Young on the left side of the 3-5-2 formation, United weren’t nearly as potent. To make matters worse, Shaw didn’t seem particularly impressive defending either. He’s likely rusty from all of his injuries and he’s still definitely young but he’s hardly looked like the “next big thing” that he was touted to be when United and Chelsea were both chasing him this past summer.
Southampton – Position: Fourth Place, Points: 36, Form: 10 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (@MAN, @NEW, SWN, @QPR, WHU) How quickly things can change with good health. After slumping in the absence of key central midfield and defensive players, the Saints have rebounded in a huge way with a draw against Chelsea and a win over Arsenal. They are now within a point of third place Manchester United who they have a chance to take on in their next match. They will hope to get one more match out of Sadio Mane before he leaves for the African Cup of Nations but they have already brought in a replacement in the form of Dutch international Eljero Elia who joins on loan from Werder Bremen. Elia’s star has fallen since the 2010 World Cup but who are we to doubt Ronald Koeman? Everything he’s touched has turned to gold so far this season so why not Elia?
Arsenal – Position: Sixth Place, Points: 33, Form: 10 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (STO, @MAC, AST, @TOT, LEI) Again, it isn’t about dropping points on the road to the fourth place team, it’s about how it happened. We give Jose Mourinho the benefit of the doubt when his team lays an egg on the road against a solid-but-not-amazing team like Spurs because it doesn’t happen that frequently. We destroy Wenger for the same outcome because it seems to happen all the time. Apparently Szczesny and his defenders were reading from the same comedy of errors script that they broke out for the Manchester United match. It seems that regardless of the cast of characters, Arsenal have been prone to these sorts of crippling errors for years. First it was Lehmann and now Szczesny. Gael Clichy passed the mantle down to Kieran Gibbs and any number of central defenders have apparently done the same like the propensity to commit embarrassing errors is some sort of coveted Arsenal birthright.
Tottenham Hotspur – Position: Fifth Place, Points: 34, Form: 13 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (@CPL, SUN, @WBA, ARS, @LIV) An absolutely huge win for Spurs that they have every opportunity to capitalize on with their next three opponents all being in/around the relegation zone. Harry Kane has been scoring goals left and right and they are starting to string together wins in a way that they couldn’t earlier in the season. Hard to argue with four wins and one draw in their last five even if some of those wins were a bit on the lucky side. The question here is whether this is a sustainable run that will see them solidify a Champions League spot or whether this is the type of flawed run that Manchester United or Newcastle put together before crashing to some disappointing results to come back to the pack.
West Ham United – Position: Seventh Place, Points: 32, Form: 5 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (@SWN, HUL, @LIV, MAN, @SOU) With Manchester United the worst performing of the other contending clubs over the past five matches at nine points, West Ham’s total of five points in that same stretch means that they’ve slipped a minimum of 4 points against the teams around them over the past three weeks. That’s sobering enough but even more so when you look at the upcoming list of fixtures that includes only one match where it is clear that the Hammers will be favored (Hull City’s visit to Upton Park). It looks like the Hammers are predictably fading from the race for fourth.
Liverpool – Position: Eighth Place, Points: 29, Form: 8 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (@SUN, @AST, WHU, @EVE, TOT) Somehow, every time I’m ready to throw my hands up at Arsenal’s disaster of a season, along comes Liverpool to make me feel better about my lot in life. Reading from the Manchester City @ Burnley script, Liverpool conspired to squander a dubious 2-0 lead (dubious because the penalties that led to the goals were at the very least questionable) and end up with a 2-2 home draw to the bottom team in the league. I think we would all agree that Arsenal have been extra Arsenal-ish this season so far and somehow they’re still four points ahead of the Reds in the table. How quickly the good feeling of that 4-1 win over Swansea faded, huh?
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season. Like the sections above, I’ve reordered with the most likely to be relegated being first and the least likely of the group last.
Leicester City – Position: Twentieth Place, Points: 14, Form: 4 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (AST, STO, @MAN, CPL, @ARS) Four points from their past two matches along with a spirited effort against Spurs that they easily could have won and things are looking better at the King Power Stadium than they have in some time. They’re still the odds on favorites for relegation but maybe it won’t be as dreary a second half as it looked like it might be.
Burnley – Position: Nineteenth Place, Points: 17, Form: 5 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (QPR, CPL, @SUN, WBA, @MAN) We’re going to find out a lot about Burnley’s chances over the next six weeks or so. Not only will we find out if they bring in any reinforcements on their tight budget but they have home matches with four teams around them in the depths of the table with three of those four being home matches. January and early February could see the Clarets rocket up the bottom half if they can muster a winning run. They’ll need all the points they can get heading into mid-February because starting with February 11th at Old Trafford they get Manchester United, @Chelsea, Swansea, @Liverpool, Manchester City, @Southampton, Spurs, and Arsenal in a row. As it stands now that’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9 in the table over eight consecutive matches. Um, yikes!
Hull City – Position: Fifteenth Place, Points: 19, Form: 6 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@WBA, @WHU, NEW, @MAC, AST) How fall have Everton fallen when clubs as dire as Hull City are excited for a visit? Steve Bruce’s men (for now at least) have at least gone from abjectly bad to up-and-down which sadly represents an improvement and a glimmer of hope that they might not end the season in the relegation zone. The upcoming match at the Hawthorns will say a lot about their fortunes. Three wins in four matches is legitimately good form even if the loss was at home to the 20th place club. Two wins and two losses with the two losses coming against Leicester City and West Brom looks a lot less optimistic heading into the back half of the season.
QPR – Position: Sixteenth Place, Points: 19, Form: 5 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@BUR, MAN, @STO, SOU, @SUN) A solid point at home against a top half team. The problem is that the home schedule just gets tougher with Manchester United and Southampton the next two guests at Loftus Road. Either the Rs are going to have to pull off some shocking home results or they’re going to have to break their duck on the road and pick up some points in what should be some winnable matches against Burnley, Sunderland and Hull City between now and the end of February because Spurs and Arsenal are the next two visitors to Loftus Road after the trip to Hull City. Time to get comfortable on the road and maybe build on that total of 4 road goals.
Crystal Palace – Position: Eighteenth Place, Points: 17, Form: 3 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (TOT, @BUR, EVE, @LEI, NEW) I don’t think Alan Pardew is anyone’s idea of a great manager but if you look at Newcastle’s roster and you look at what he’s taking over at Palace it isn’t like there’s a huge gap there. With the bottom so tightly packed, all it will take is a run half as good as what he put together at St. James’ Park in October and November to see Palace to safety. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that it isn’t too difficult to be an upgrade of Neil Warnock at the Premier League level, he’s proven on multiple occasions he’s just not up to the task. Despite their position in 18th, I’m going to keep Palace out of my current relegation zone in deference to the talent they have on hand and Pardew’s solidity as an adequate mid-table manager.
West Brom – Position: Seventeenth Place, Points: 18, Form: 4 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (HUL, @EVE, TOT, @BUR, SWN) The Magician Tony Pulis and his Magic Hat arrive to a favorable early schedule from mid-January to mid-February. Given that there are some solid pieces in place (Foster, Lescott, McAuley, Dawson, Mulumbu, Yacob, and Gardner) that can form the spine of a Tony Pulis-style team, I expect that Albion will end closer to 10th than 20th in May. Still, sitting in 17th on January 2nd they have to be included in the relegation conversation until Pulis starts converting his reputation into points.
Newcomer of the Year - where we track the progress of players new to the Premier League this season
- Cesc Fabregas – Another match and another assist but it is clear that there’s something rotten at Chelsea and until it gets figured out and Chelsea get a good road win we at least have to wonder if Fabregas subtracts something from Chelsea’s defensive game at the same time he’s contributing to the attack. That was always the case at Arsenal and it isn’t unreasonable to think he is still the same very good but flawed player he was at Arsenal.
- Alexis Sanchez – He needs a rest. With all of the injuries and suspensions he hasn’t gotten one but given his all-out style it isn’t a shock that his performances aren’t quite as bright after playing match after match after match with no rest.
- Diego Costa – Back to scoring fairly regularly again but he isn’t quite as frightening as he was at the start of the season. Maybe it’s the overall team malaise or maybe it’s his fitness but Costa and Chelsea just aren’t as frightening as they were in September and October.
- Charlie Austin – Seven shots, two shots on target but no goals in a 1-1 draw with Swansea. Not bad given the opposition.
- Gylfi Sigurdsson – A beautiful goal against Liverpool in the 4-1 loss but he couldn’t engineer a win at Loftus Road on New Year’s Day which is a little disappointing.
- Bojan – Out injured but his teammates picked him up as they got a point against Manchester United at the Britannia. He is likely to return for Stoke City’s Week 21 match at the Emirates.
- Dusan Tadic/Graziano Pelle/Sadio Mane – We’ve added Mane to the list so we don’t over-crowd it with Saints attackers. Mane was brilliant in taking advantage of Wojciech Szczesny’s first big error and Tadic was just as impressive taking advantage of the second error and almost scoring an immediate follow-up. Pelle couldn’t make it three for three for this group as he managed to miss a wide open goal with his best chance of the day.
- Diafra Sakho – Back among the goals even if the team’s result wasn’t what they would have hoped for at home against West Brom.
- Fraser Forster – A commanding presence against Arsenal. Cazorla made the best chance for Arsenal an easy one for Forster by kicking it straight into his gut with the entire goal available but Forster did well in keeping out some other solid chances.
- Alex Song – We’re replacing one La Liga import with outrageous talent who barely plays (Angel di Maria) with a La Liga import with good talent who keeps showing up and doing the job (Alex Song). Maybe more so than bringing Cesc Fabregas back to Arsenal, not bringing Song back as part of a holding midfield duo might be Wenger’s biggest mistake of this past summer’s transfer window.
Just Missing Out: Angel di Maria, Enner Valencia, Thibaut Courtois, Jefferson Montero, Toby Alderweireld, Falcao, Andrew Robertson, Leonardo Ulloa, Danny Welbeck, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier, Joseph Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt.
Dropping Off: Angel di Maria
The Phantom Point All-Stars – Yes, we’re going to keep tweaking this one until we get it right. We’re going to re-instate the Joel Ward All-Stars (defending phantom statistics – blocks, interceptions and tackles), re-classify the Mido All-Stars (all attacking phantom points – SOTs, corners won, successful crosses) and add an all-around category for players who throw in a little of everything for a massive phantom point weekend.
We’re going to dip our toe back into this section of the column after a week off by making it the overall Phantom Point All-Stars. It’s already late in the day on Monday and I still have at least one more meeting that I have to get to so rather than putting off the column until Tuesday (which would make the title a bit misleading) this will be the solution:
- Cesar Azpilicueta – Want to know how much of the ball Spurs had? They scored five goals despite Cesar Azpilicueta making eight tackles and intercepting three passes.
- Alexis Sanchez – Arsenal didn’t score but it wasn’t for lack of Sanchez trying with three shots on target while being fouled four times he put in a strong shift despite being exhausted.
- Leandro Bacuna – A little bit of everything in Aston Villa’s dull nil-nil draw with Crystal Palace. He won four tackles and three corners as well as intercepting three passes, completing three successful crosses and a shot on target. All around strong day for someone who hasn’t been playing a ton.
- Marko Arnautovic – Nine successful crosses and four corners won. Somewhere on the sidelines, Victor Moses was looking on with a smile on his face knowing that someone picked up his phantom point mantle for the Potters for at least one day.
- Jordan Henderson – Another guy who did a little bit of everything from a fantasy point of view with a shot on target, two corners won, two passes intercepted, two successful crosses, and two tackles won along with a blocked shot.
- Bafetimbi Gomis– In a rare start the forward produced phantom points with two shots on target while winning four fouls a corner and a tackles. He left the goal to the usual starter, Wilfried Bony.
- Phil Jones – Jones came through with his second consecutive double digit effort including five passes intercepted, two corners won, two tackles won and a shot on target.
- Jesus Navas – A third straight double digit effort for Jesus Navas who won five corners, had a shot on target, won two fouls, won two tackles, intercepted a pass and completed a successful cross.
- James Collins – It’s been a while for Collins but he came through with four tackles won, two blocked shots, and three passes intercepted even if his team didn’t come through with a win.
- Leighton Baines – In years past, Baines would have been all over this list with successful crosses and corners won in great number. This year, not so much but he makes a Week 20 appearance with a shot on target, two passes intercepted a corner won while being fouled three times. Not great but that sort of sums up Everton’s season, doesn’t it?
The Fake Narrative of the Week - It is impossible to go a week without encountering a narrative somewhere in the football media that appears to be totally made up for the sake of gaining attention. They usually fall into the categories of made up transfer rumors, hanging on too long to a mental image of who a player was and not who he currently is, or preying on a long-held stereotype based on club, nationality, or position. When I come across them, I'll let you know and then let you know why I think they're silly.
Extending Frank Lampard’s loan is a big deal – The issue here wasn’t Lampard’s loan deal being extended, it was that it was allowed to happen in the first place. Really, it is the notion that Manchester City would be allowed to create a global network of clubs that will allow them to skirt Financial Fair Play rules that is the root cause here. Chelsea have long had a close relationship with Vitesse Arnhem but they don’t actually own the club. Manchester City’s ownership of NYCFC in MLS and Melbourne City FC in Australia provide ample opportunity for City to purchase players like Lampard and David Silva. Certainly those clubs won’t be operated as “loss leaders” just to circumvent FFP but with City already afoul of FFP over the summer they were able to pay Lampard a big salary to ostensibly play for NYCFC only to see him loaned back to City (presumably at reasonable terms that didn’t get City in further trouble with UEFA). Since the money is all coming from the same place, City are now in a position to shift salaries and transfer fees around to at least some extent and gain a huge advantage over clubs who can’t.
It’s funny to think of Chelsea as the club playing within the FFP rules but they saw what was coming a long time ago and have set themselves up beautifully to be able to make major acquisitions by selling from their large roster of young talents being developed on loan. City’s approach of buying clubs in other markets is certainly a creative way to bend the rules but it feels a lot more like using a loophole to cheat than real innovation. The big question now is what, if anything, UEFA can do about it if they want to be serious about FFP.
Sponsor I'd Like To See - As you can see from the lack of sponsorship for this column or this page, there's room for some additional corporate involvement here at the Rotoworld.com Premier League page. In a blatant attempt to solicit any sponsors who may be reading, I'm going to start suggesting some sponsors who might want to call the nice people at NBC Sports to find out what it would take to become part of the team.
Alamo Drafthouse – I'm not certain whether they are part of the group of movie theaters that show the Premier League live on movie screens through Fathom Events but in all other ways, Alamo is a fantastic experience. It doesn't hurt that I can walk to one from my house but even before we moved to our current house, we drove for the great combination of reserved seats, high quality food and drinks and fun movie events (think old movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail with quote-alongs and/or theme dinners relevant to the movie). In a world where I can movies on a big screen in my home with little fuss, they have created a fantastic overall experience and I'd like to think that they would think the same of the experience we're creating here at Rotoworld for Premier League fans and that they'd like to get the word out to those here in the US who visit our site.
Random Closing Thoughts - Well, this one's pretty obvious and it will be how we close out the column each week at least until a better idea comes along.
- My Second Club – Can’t say I was thrilled to see my second club beat up on Arsenal but maybe it will convince them that they can part with Morgan Schneiderlin since he wasn’t in the line-up for the win.
- This Week’s Good Points: There’s a lot to get to here since we haven’t done this in three match weeks so here’s the list of good points won starting with Boxing Day and ending with New Years Day: Hull City 6; Spurs 4; Leicester City 4; Southampton 3; Arsenal 3; Burnley 2; Palace 2; Stoke City, WBA and QPR all 1.
- The Good Points Table: Leicester City: 13; Crystal Palace 11; Burnley 11; Newcastle 10; Stoke City 10; Sunderland 9; Hull City 9; Spurs 8; West Ham 6; Swansea City 6; Manchester United 4; Aston Villa 4; West Brom 4; Chelsea 3; Arsenal 3; Southampton 3; QPR 2.
- This Week’s Bad Points: Here’s the list of Bad Points from Boxing Day through New Years Day: Chelsea 5; Manchester United 4; Sunderland, Everton, Hull City all 3; Manchester City, QPR, Liverpool, Newcastle, Swansea and West Ham all 2 and Arsenal 1 (a road draw with Southampton should have been the expectation).
- The Bad Points Table: Liverpool 18; Manchester United 16; Spurs 13; Arsenal 12; Everton 12; Manchester City 10; Chelsea 10; Newcastle 9; Stoke City 6; Swansea 7; Southampton 5; Sunderland 3; Hull City 3; West Ham United 2; QPR 2; Aston Villa 2; and Crystal Palace 2.
- Southampton’s Champions League Chances: They’re certainly looking better than they were on Boxing Day, aren’t they? Sadio Mane has been a strong presence for the Saints and losing him for an extended period for the African Cup of Nations could be a big deal. Fortunately they get most of their really tough matches out of the way before he goes. I’d say the Saints are still 50% plus to finish in the top four.
- Player of the Week – Combine the magnitude of the result with the quality of his performance and it’s hard to even mention anyone here other than Harry Kane. Maybe Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane get mentions for their performances in a big match against Arsenal and Steven Gerrard gets a nod for old time’s sake for his brace from the spot but this week was all about Kane.
- My Favorite Things – Ryan Shawcross scoring against the team he came up with…Bill Idol rocking at the NHL Winter Classic here in Washington, DC – amazing that guy can still scream with the best of them despite 30 years plus of belting out White Wedding, Rebel Yell, etc. at the top of his lungs…Sadio Mane’s confidence taking a shot from that angle and scoring it…NBC Sports Network expanding Premier League coverage with an in-depth look at the Southampton academy and how it continues to churn out great youth players…Yaya Toure’s screamer into the top 90…Jack Rodwell haunting Manchester City after going missing for what seems like months.
- My Least Favorite Things – Santi Cazorla’s aim…Chelsea’s poor play on the road…City’s pairing of Mangala and Demichelis and their ability to hold two goal leads…Manchester United’s creativity…My decision to leave Fraser Forster on the bench in two fantasy leagues…Anything Wojciech Szczesny did on Thursday, I’m guessing he even made the wrong breakfast choice…The officiating in the Liverpool vs. Leicester City match.
- What did we find out? That we don’t know anything at all. Things seemed so clear at the top and the bottom not so long ago but it appears that 2015 will be as interesting as anything we’ve seen in quite some time. Chelsea and Manchester City are locked in a battle for the title. Manchester United, Southampton, Spurs and Arsenal are all locked in a death race for 3rd and 4th with no clear favorites at this point as Manchester United have ceded the position of presumptive third place over the festive period.
- What’s Next? Hopefully some transfer news to keep things humming between now and January 10th when the Premier League resumes after a weekend of FA Cup action. We will be treated to Manchester United vs. Southampton and Arsenal vs. Stoke City when things do resume both of which should be great fun.