The 2015-16 Premier League season has been a wild one so far to say the least. Since we have reached the end of December, it’s time to check in on how my preseason predictions are shaping up. We start at the bottom of the table and move up, with my prediction for the team’s finish in parentheses next to how many positions I’m currently off by. Let’s get to it.
Aston Villa – 20th (18th) -3
Aston Villa have been a team living on borrowed time for several seasons, and it appears, finally, that this year the clock has run out on their Premier League status. A paltry eight points and one win from 19 games seems about right for this club. That lone win to start the season, against newly promoted Bournemouth, was followed by losses in nine of their next 10 matches.
There have been some bright spots. The team needed a talismanic offensive player after losing Christian Benteke to Liverpool, and they appear to have found one in Jordan Ayew. The Ghanaian leads the team with five goals and has consistently looked like their most dangerous threat. Fellow new arrival Rudy Gestede has done a good job mostly coming off the bench, and has used his size as a good hold-up player. However, the fact that his three goals are the second-most on the team tells you all you need to know about Aston Villa’s scoring punch. Jack Grealish was expected to take another step up, but he has been in manager Remi Garde’s doghouse after getting caught out partying after a bad loss.
Problems at the back have been a big issue as well, with defenders seemingly uninterested in marking opposing attackers. Their last game before the midway point of the campaign was a 2-0 capitulation to Norwich City where forwards seemed to waltz into acres of space for both goals. Even in a topsy-turvy season like this one where no team has looked close to unbeatable, it’s hard to see where you’d expect Villa to come away with three points. Like other bottom-rooted teams before them, Aston Villa is going to find it hard to bring in recruits during the transfer window. Quality players do not flock to sinking ships.
Sunderland – 19th (19th) +0
My preseason prediction for Sunderland appears to be spot on. The Black Cats have been in bad spots like this before… as in each of the last three years… and are somehow still around and kicking in the top flight, so maybe they can do it again. Three victories in 19 games doesn’t exactly inspire confidence though. What looked like a slight turnaround at the end of November, after back-to-back wins over Crystal Palace and Stoke, turned out to be just a flash in the pan, as the team followed it up with five straight losses. Their latest one, a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool, gives them 13 losses, tied for the most with Aston Villa.
Four goals is a decent return from experienced striker Jermain Defoe on a low-scoring team (after all, it’s not like anybody has more), but Sunderland will really need him to pick it up in the second half of the year if they’ll make another miraculous escape. The big problem has been the lack of offense being generated from midfield. An experienced Premier League group that includes Adam Johnson, Sebastian Larsson and Jack Rodwell has produced a grand total of one league goal.
Sunderland have tried to improve their fortunes with a host of loan moves from all over Europe, but the thing that may have condemned them to relegation is their choice of manager. After Dick Advocaat resigned in early October, the Black Cats chose to replace him with, wait for it… Sam Allardyce.
Because “Big Fat Sam” had loads of success implementing an offensive-minded, winning style of football at West Ham. Oh wait…
Newcastle United – 18th (12th) -6
Newcastle United barely survived the drop last year, but rather than turning things around they’ve gone right back to the bottom. It looks like they’ll be among the mix of contenders fighting to avoid the final spot in the relegation zone, but don’t have the same type of talent or team chemistry that other clubs have going for them.
One bright spot, the transfer moves this summer have been fantastic compared to how the rest of the team has played. Newcastle haven’t scored many goals this year, only 19 in 19 matches, but nearly all of them have come from new players Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic. At the back, fellow newcomer Chancel Mbemba has been fine, logging tons of minutes and looking like a rock in the center of defense.
With four goals, young Spanish striker Ayoze Perez has been a nice surprise, albeit one who was already on the roster. But with his standout play in comparison to a lot of his teammates has come the inevitable transfer rumors that he’ll leave in January for greener pastures.
Expectations are Newcastle will have to make a serious splash in the transfer windows if they want to not only survive, but also switch from relegation fights to mid-table comfort in future campaigns. As Aston Villa and Sunderland have been proving this year, you can only survive so long if you don’t change. Lucky for the army of Toon faithful, it looks like the club knows what it’s doing when it comes to new signings.
Swansea City – 17th (6th) -11
Swansea City represent one of my biggest misses of the year, and it certainly didn’t look like that would be the case early on. If you stopped paying attention to Swansea after the first couple weeks of the season, you may be confused as to why the Swans are so low. After all, they were unbeaten through the first month of the campaign and looked to have a world-beating striker in Bafétimbi Gomis. The problem has been one that even started to rear its head during that early stretch; Swansea just simply cannot win games.
The scoring has dried up as well. Their total of only 16 goals is second worst in the league, just one above Aston Villa’s haul of 15. Gomis has scored just once in the 14 games he’s played since his impressive start. Ghanaian André Ayew has been the only other player to shoulder the load, leading the team with six goals. The defensive work has been just fine however, and the Swans have allowed 10 goals fewer than the five other clubs making up the bottom of the table.
Their lone victory from October through November was a 2-1 squeaker over that same Villa team, and that was enough for Garry Monk’s time at the club to end in early December. Alan Curtis is still at the helm as the caretaker leader, and no word on if a full time replacement will be named before the end of the season. If Swansea were to be relegated at season’s end, it would be one of the bigger head-scratchers of recent memory as to how they managed it.
Bournemouth – 16th (17th) +1
Just making the Premier League was a miraculous achievement for plucky Bournemouth. Winning back-to-back matches against giant English clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United is just the icing on their unending supply of cake (notice how I didn’t say “cherry,” don’t always go after the low-hanging fruit)!
Their 34 goals against is tied for the second-most allowed in the Premier League this season, but the Cherries always knew coming in that it would be how many goals they scored that determined if they avoided relegation. A haul of 22 is pretty impressive for the smallest budget in England’s top flight, especially when you consider that they’ve been missing their best strikers in Callum Wilson and Max Grandel, through injury.
Matt Ritchie looks like a future star for years to come and would probably be a welcome addition to any club in the Premier League. His zig-zagging runs and an eye for the spectacular in front of goal have ensured Bournemouth are always a threat when on the attack. Young, talismanic manager Eddie Howe certainly has the belief and the coaching style to get the best out of what he has. It’s easy to say that putting together enough money to buy a top-quality player would be a huge boost, but there’s something to be said for chemistry among a squad, and Bournemouth have that in spades. The soccer gods generally smile on those that play the game the right way, and I stand by my preseason belief that the Cherries will survive. And the Premier League will be better because of it.
Norwich City – 15th (16th) +1
The common point total to reach “safety” and avoid relegation is generally stated to be 40 points. So you could say that through half of its matches Norwich City are halfway to survival with 20 points from the campaign. Another way of looking at it is they’re right on the edge, and a couple of bad results or key injuries could knock them out.
Young, attacking midfielder Nathan Redmond (hard to believe he’s only 21) was a player I identified as needing to take a step up and realize his potential, and he definitely did that early in the season. Redmond scored in the first two matches of the year and had four goals in nine games, but hasn’t found the back of the net since. Even with the peaks and valleys in form, he’s still leading the team in goals. Cameron Jerome has chipped in with three but Norwich are in need of a striker that can find the net with regularity (what team doesn’t need more of those) and should be shopping for one in the January window.
Norwich fans will probably be rooting for their club to meet that 40-point mark sooner rather than later. A bright spot has been the team’s ability to beat clubs in the bottom part of the table, keeping them from making up ground. However, the Canaries end the season with games against Arsenal, Manchester United and a road game against Everton, definitely not a stretch they’ll want to arrive at where they’ll still need to get results. Another relegation could be disastrous, especially as the club looks to stop yo-yoing between the Premier League and the Championship.
Chelsea – 14th (2nd) -12
As amazing as Leicester City’s run to the top of the table has been this year (and we’ll get to that later on), an equally if not larger story has been just how inconceivably bad Chelsea’s campaign has gone. Champions a year ago to at risk of relegation in the span of a couple months.
Manager Jose Mourinho was sent packing after he wasn’t able to steer the squad out of their nosedive down the table. The “Special One’s” part in all this was even stranger. He played the part of pariah with his scapegoating of team medic Eva Carneiro for an early loss and his frequent outbursts with the media. Not that this behavior was new for Mourinho but it was always accompanied in the past by wins, which made it seem like just a part of his management style.
It’s been more than just off field issues that have derailed Chelsea’s season of course. The on-field product hasn’t been up to par. Despite the line-up being nearly identical, there have been little changes that have added up. Fans of the team will point to the decision to sell long-time goalkeeper Petr Cech this summer after he had been passed on the depth chart by Thibault Courtois, as a mistake, especially after a suspension and injury forced Asmir Begovic into service for many games. But Begovic is a solid goalkeeper and played admirably. The real problem lies right in front of him. The usual stingy Chelsea defense has disappeared. Once rock-solid players have started to look just too old and younger replacements have looked overwhelmed at times. No longer are defenders hurling their bodies in front of shots and making tough tackles, and the result is that Chelsea are giving up the kinds of goals fans haven’t seen them allow in years.
The team also hasn’t looked hungry, perhaps too overconfident after their largely unchallenged run to the title last season. The Premier League is not so easy a league that you can waltz through it at half speed. Guus Hiddink has been brought in to right the ship and prevent the unthinkable, his second time as interim manager at the club. Chelsea have enough talent that it’s unthinkable they’ll be in the Championship next year. Then again, I would have considered it unthinkable if at the start of the campaign someone had suggested the Blues would be where they are right now.
West Bromwich Albion – 13th (15th) +2
West Bromwich Albion’s strength this season was always going to lie in its defense, and the back end of the formation has delivered. West Brom have won a lot close games this season and goalkeeper Boaz Myhill is tied for the second-most shutouts in the Premier League with seven. Just another example of Tony Pulis getting the most out of what he has to work with.
The offense though has been a different story. Striker Saido Berahino, who scored 14 goals last year, wants out and didn’t exactly do it quietly. Tweeting that you’ve played your last game for a club is about as public a venting of your issues as you can get. Credit West Brom for sticking to their guns and not letting the talented youngster head out the door during the transfer window since they didn’t get a fair value offer for him. That may change this month with plenty of other squads looking for a scoring injection.
Berahino, despite his more limited playing time in light of his off-field issues with the club, is still the team’s joint top scorer. Of course, that’s not exactly hard to do when the other two you’re tied with have scored only three goals apiece. Experienced striker Rickie Lambert has only found the net once for his new club and the scoring has been very much by committee. Coaxing a few more goals out of the bunch will be the main goal going forward for Pulis, but with a strong and sturdy defense, there should be Premier League football again at the Hawthorns next season.
Southampton – 12th (8th) -4
Southampton are more even across the board than any other team in the Premier League. With half of their fixtures played they’ve won 6, lost 7 and drawn 6. They’ve scored and given up about an equal number of goals, 26 for, 23 against. And they also sit in the middle of the table, 12th place, 15 points off the leaders, and 12 points above the relegation zone. It would be easy to proclaim that Southampton fans are suffering through the boringness of a mid-table campaign.
From a broad overview perspective, it’s not the worst thing in the world. Yes the club are coming off a season where, much like Leicester this year, they raced out of the gate and looked like they had a shot at a top four finish before fading to eighth, but security as a Premier League mainstay is a huge accomplishment for a club that spent plenty of seasons in the Championship. There’s also been a lot of good things to take away so far. The attacking triumvirate of Sadio Mane, Grazziano Pelle and Shane Long has combined for 12 goals with Dusan Tadic also chipping in from midfield. The defense has looked okay with a good mix of younger players to go along with a rock-solid veteran like Jose Fonta, while Maarten Stekelenburg appears to have cemented the starting spot in goal.
It’s also important to remember that Southampton still have resources. They’ve got cash and they’ve got good, young talent. A year where the club survives comfortably and snags a little more experience isn’t the worst thing in the world, and the club could still very easily make a run into the top part of the standings in the second half of the season.
Everton – 11th (10th) +1
At the halfway point of the campaign, Everton sit exactly where they were at the end of last season, 11th in the table. Unlike last year’s season, which created real concern over the threat of relegation, there has been a lot to enjoy about 2015-16 for Toffees’ fans. Everton has been a part of several of the most entertaining games of the year.
High scoring, back-and-forth, late drama filled matches that have produced everything a football fan could want. The 3-1 win over Chelsea, a 3-2 victory against West Brom, a heart-stopping 3-3 tie with Bournemouth and most recently, a narrow 4-3 loss to Stoke City are just a few of the games that have been worth the price of admission this season. Led by Romelu Lukaku’s 15 goals scored in the Premier League, tied with Jamie Vardy for the most by any player, Everton have been an offensive juggernaut. A total of 35 strikes is good for third-most in the league behind only Leicester City and Manchester City.
The defense has sprung a few leaks with 28 goals allowed, but those problems might be alleviated with the return of Phil Jagielka who has been out with a knee injury since late October. American goalkeeper Tim Howard has had his critics at times, but for my money has played pretty well this season and is still his team’s best option in between the posts. The position may be the same, but the style of football makes a world of difference. Everton fans currently have plenty to smile about.
Stoke City – 10th (7th) -3
Stoke City’s season started slower than an upside down turtle strapped to a sloth, but the Potters have been playing up to their potential lately and find themselves just one point behind sixth place Manchester United. They went six games without a win to begin things, but have been tough to beat with only six losses total at the midway point.
The phrase, “Sexy, sexy Stoke,” has been bandied about by folks like the Men in Blazers and Premier League fans to describe the large amount of flashy attacking players in the squad compared to the rough, tough, boot it long style that Stoke fans have been used to seeing. Xherdan Shaqiri was the newest addition to that group, but it took the young Swiss native a little while to adapt to the Premier League. December saw him turn the corner with both assists in a 2-0 win against Man City, and two goals in a 4-3 triumph over Everton in their 19th game of the season.
Young English shot-stopper Jack Butland has seized the role left vacant after Asmir Begovic’s transfer to Chelsea, and he has thrived as the new number one, single-handedly earning points for Stoke at times with stellar performances. Austrian Marko Arnautovic has emerged as the season’s star for the club and leads the team with seven goals. Bojan Krkic has showed that last year’s season-ending injury hasn’t slowed him down at all.
If the players continue to get used to the Premier League and keep improving at their current rate, my preseason prediction of a seventh place finish may end up being too low.
Watford – 9th (20th) +11
Watford have made me eat my words. I chose them to finish dead last in the league. A sure-fire bet for relegation, a team of brand new players with no chemistry and no sense of continuity. I’d seen this move before, I thought to myself. This never works. By the time they get into a rhythm and actually learn to play together the season will be half over and they’ll be so far behind they won’t be able to dream of catching up.
In the immortal words of the character Dr. Cox from the TV show Scrubs, I was, “Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wroooooooong!”
The Hornets have been fine this year. In a season where literally every team has looked to have problems and inconsistencies, Watford have looked more comfortable than most. They have just gone about their business and beaten teams they should beat, and some that they probably shouldn’t have. It’s the type of combination that usually leads to a finish in the top half of the table.
Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes has been fantastic in his return to the league and reaches the midway point tied for the most shutouts with eight. Up top, Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo has been a revelation with 14 goals, and would be one of the top stories of the year if not for the spectacular campaign for Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy. Troy Deeney has also found his scoring punch. If the goals keep flowing, Watford should finish comfortably in the top half of the table.
West Ham – 8th (14th) +6
West Ham United were one of the early surprises last season, with a great first half of the year that saw them in the mix for a top-half finish before tumbling down after the midpoint. That’s a fate they’ll try to avoid a repeat performance of. Once again the Hammers made noise early, sitting second after six matches and still in the top four through 10. An eight-match winless streak was a stumbling block, but the squad didn’t lose too many of those fixtures. That run was broken on their midseason game with a 2-1 victory over Southampton.
While a lot of teams rely on one or two players to score the bulk of their goals, West Ham truly have a scoring-by-committee operation. They’ve gotten five goals from Dimitri Payet, three goals from Diafra Sakho, three goals from Cheikhou Kouyaté and two goals from Andy Carroll. Manuel Lanzini has impressed with four goals and should have his loan turned into a permanent transfer this summer. The thigh injury to Sakho was a blow, but he should be back before the end of the season. Ecuador national team player Enner Valencia hasn’t scored in the few games since his return from long-term injury, but should be back into the swing of things soon.
So much for the storm clouds that appeared to be gathering before the season kicked off. Things are looking up for West Ham under new manager Slaven Bilic. They’ve shown they can beat the “big” teams with wins against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea. Goalkeeper Adrian has continued to fly under the radar amongst Premier League shot-stoppers but he has been a big part of their success. A finish in the top half of the table should be the least the Hammers target.
Liverpool – 7th (5th) -2
It’s no coincidence that Liverpool have looked like a club without an identity this season. Questions abound about what exactly this team should be hoping to achieve. Are they in a rebuild? Are they a team on the rise? Are they a team that is one piece away from making a run? So far, the first option seems to most likely. Manager Brendan Rodgers got the axe early as the top brass ran out of time to give him to try and find the answers. In his place comes a huge upgrade in Jurgen Klopp. He brings charisma and a great resume to the job, but has to face reality that reviving this once great club won’t be a simple fix.
It doesn’t help when you can’t hang onto your most important pieces. Like Luis Suarez before him, Raheem Sterling moved on to a bigger club. Not only did they lose their best player but the Reds also lost their center with Steven Gerrard moving on to easier pastures in his final years. Jordan Henderson and James Milner haven’t exactly assumed the position of fiery leader, and have had their share of struggles. The defense has looked shaky with passionate defender Martin Skrtel continuing his alarming habit of scoring own goals. Simon Mignolet hasn’t played like a starting Premier League goalkeeper, but isn’t exactly challenged with Adam Bogdan his closest competition on the depth chart. Philippe Coutinho has probably been the team’s best player, but he can’t score a long-range bomb of a goal every game. With Daniel Sturridge limited through injury, Christian Benteke has been the top choice striker. However, he is scoring at a decidedly average pace, and “average” could be the word used to describe the performances of a majority of the other first team players.
Liverpool need their investments in some of their young talent to pay off. They need a few players to make the jump from good to great, and they need it now. The squad is packed with players that should be able to do the job, and the early results seem to be that Klopp may be the guy to help them transform.
Manchester United – 6th (3rd) -3
Honestly, sixth place feels a little high for Manchester United the way this team has played, but they are only two points ahead of tenth place Stoke City. Their five losses have been to Norwich, Bournemouth, Stoke, Swansea and Arsenal, but it’s the host of other uninspired performances that has been the biggest concerns. Lackluster displays against teams like Newcastle, West Ham and Chelsea. No wins since November. These are the kinds of things that make it easy to see why United are considering firing Louis van Gaal despite still being in the running for a European place.
The scoring has dried up. Captain and longtime striker Wayne Rooney has not looked like himself now that he’s in his 30’s instead of his teens or 20’s. The Red Devils second all-time goal scorer has found the net in just two league games this year. Part of the problem is van Gaal’s system. Rooney has been used as a lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation, but because of a lack of chemistry in the midfield he’s been forced further and further back toward his own goal if he wants to receive the ball. He’s never been a fast player, and trying to start attacking moves from his own half isn’t going to work for the England international. A two-striker formation could be the key to getting him back on the score sheet.
Speaking of that lack of chemistry in the midfield, despite spending around $500 million over the past two seasons, Louis van Gaal has yet to nail down a regular combination of players. There are tons of talented options available with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juan Mata, Memphis Depay, Marouane Fellaini, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick all in the mix, among others. Talent is one thing, but chemistry is another, and the team just hasn’t clicked yet.
The club has been more than willing to open up the war chest; the $75 million spent on French teenager Anthony Martial is evidence enough of that, but this may not be a problem that Manchester United can solve by throwing money at it. However, if they do decide to move on from van Gaal, it’s an awful lot of money to have wasted just to realize that they made the wrong choice.
Crystal Palace – 5th (11th) +6
Crystal Palace were another squad I had marked for taking another step in the right direction. A tenth place finish was fantastic for the Eagles a year ago, and they’re looking to obliterate that mark this time around.
Yohan Cabaye has been every bit the player Crystal Palace hoped they were getting when they convinced him to make the move to England. His five league goals is enough to lead the squad, but his influence in building attacks, not finishing them, has been the biggest strength he’s brought to the table. Yannick Bolasie has knocked in some goals and the squad looks like they’ve gelled into a comprehensive unit. An unbeaten month of December was a nice way to end the year and help them end 2015 in a Europa League position.
Not everything has been fantastic though. The loan move for Chelsea’s Patrick Bamford has been an unmitigated disaster. Speedy attacker Dwight Gayle has yet to score a goal in a Premier League game this season (he has found the net several times in League Cup matches). Young goalkeeper Alex McCarthy was given a shot at the starting job, but failed to nail it down, giving way to Wayne Hennessey.
These little issues have been small potatoes compared to what the team has achieved. It’s important for Alan Pardew’s side to remember that they are just as close to slipping back into mid-table as they are to advancing any further up it. A strong end to the season could lead to some more exemplary summer signings and a real shot at European football.
Tottenham Hotspur – 4th (9th) +5
How do you improve on a strong fifth-place finish from a year ago? Well… mathematically by finishing fourth or better. That’s where Tottenham finds itself with half the league games played.
Things weren’t looking so hot in the early season when Harry Kane suffered through a scoring slump in the first few games (called it!). But after having just one goal through nine games, he picked things up to the tune of ten in his next ten (nevermind!). Eric Dier has made the transition quickly to being a very good defensive midfielder, and Tottenham has ditched some dead weight with Roberto Saldado off to Villarreal and Emmanuel Adebayor off to… wherever (even if they are still paying his wages).
Spurs have a fearsome pairing at centerback with Belgian nationals Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. They anchor the stingiest defense in the Premier League along with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, giving up just 15 goals in 19 games and having a league-best goal differential of +18. It’s an amazing turnaround compared to last year when they gave up 53 goals. Alderweireld appears to be the big piece and has been worth every cent they paid to get him from Southampton this summer. He has also gotten the best out of his compatriot Vertonghen who looks a lot more disciplined.
Spurs have made a habit of getting results out of matches with just two league losses all year, and three straight wins before the midpoint mark have them trending up.
Manchester City – 3rd (4th) +1
Early in the season it looked like Manchester City were this year’s version of Chelsea. An unchallenged romp to the Premier League title looked to be locked down. Then everything changed when the rest of the league woke up and decided it would be really fun if they had the most bonkers campaign ever.
The Citizens are probably still the favorites to win the league at this point, but there are some troubling signs. Big losses to Liverpool and Tottenham and defeats against top-half of the table teams like Arsenal, Stoke City and West Ham show that Man City are far from unbeatable. Sergio Aguero is the team’s top scorer as expected, but the goals have come from everywhere and in bunches with 13 different players buzzing the net. They’re tied for the most goals scored at 37 and have had big outbursts like 5-1 and 6-1 wins. That hasn’t changed from last year, but really not much has.
Manuel Pellegrini didn’t need to make many big moves, but the players he chose to bring in have worked out. Raheem Sterling has fit in and started to find the net at the same clip as fellow new signing Kevin De Bruyne, who came in from Wolfsburg for the second-highest transfer fee in Premier League history. In a league where everyone has beaten everybody, Manchester City have as good a chance if not better to win the race at the end.
Leicester City – 2nd (13th) +11
As much as these blog posts trying to predict the Premier League are just a fun exercise for me, one that is done by hundreds if not thousands of websites, I do find myself caring about getting my picks right. Nobody wants to look like an idiot, or in this case like somebody who doesn’t actually know anything about the sport they’re trying showcase their expertise of. So when I sat down before the season to try and determine where I thought the Foxes would finish up, I had a genuine dilemma. On one hand, I was very impressed with their end-of-season form that saw the club avoid relegation in 2014-15. On the other, I know that form is fleeting and the team could just as easily have returned to their predominantly losing ways.
I stuck by my guns though that this was a squad that was better than even what people had seen a glimpse of at the end of the last campaign. I believed they could easily survive and even outclass a few teams in the Premier League, as they slowly entrenched themselves in the top flight like other clubs had done before them. So I put them in for a solid mid-table showing. That was probably even a stretch compared to what football fans thought of their chances, yet here I am more than half the table off from their current position of SECOND… and only on goal differential at that.
This isn’t just the best story of the Premier League, this is one of the best stories in sports. A league, and a game, with no salary cap restrictions, where the only way to gain a place among the clubs that legitimately have a title shot each year is to literally buy your way in, and a middle of the pack team is showing everyone up? It’s unheard of. It’s unprecedented. It defies everything that we’ve come to know and accept about the world of football.
I love it.
Leicester have been led by Jamie Vardy and his record-level goal scoring pace, and the complimentary and equally free-scoring ways of Riyad Mahrez. They’ve won close games, they’ve blown out teams, and they’ve hardly played a bad match. They’ve done everything so well that if you peeled the logos and identifiers off of them and asked a fan to guess who they were based on their stats, I’d wager they’d all pick something like Arsenal or Chelsea or Man City. Claudio Ranieri, who seemed like an odd choice for manager at the beginning of the season, now looks like a soccer savant, injecting joy in the side and finding the right mix between things like freedom and creativity and discipline.
It may not last. West Ham had a fine start to last season before plummeting back to earth. Southampton also threatened to earn a top four finish last year before running out of gas toward the end. But this feels like something different. This feels special. And if Leicester can somehow keep it going in the second half of the season and win the league, it will be the greatest sporting accomplishment that I have ever witnessed a team achieving.
Arsenal – 1st (1st) +0
Unlike a lot of my predictions that have been well off target, my pick for the top spot is right on the money at this point. It seems like it shouldn’t be such a close race based on how Arsenal have played. The club would be cruising along with a comfortable point advantage if not for their habit of losing random games here and there: an opening day defeat by West Ham, a bad game against Chelsea, a stumble against West Bromwich Albion and a blowout loss to the Saints. Of course, if they hadn’t this wouldn’t be the Premier League season of parity.
The Gunners have also been dealing with yet another injury crisis with Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott just a few of the group who have been out of action for long stretches. Losing Alexis Sanchez to a hamstring injury at the end of November was a particularly painful blow, but it hasn’t affected them so far with four wins in five games since (even with that bad 4-0 loss to Southampton mixed in there). The Chile national teamer has been a creative force, even if his stat of six league goals is a little deceptive; they all came in three games. Up top, Olivier Giroud continues to use his “meaty French forehead,” and other parts of his body as well, to score goals. His tally of 10 leads the team.
However, the biggest impacts have come from two other players. Mesut Ozil has become the core of Arsenal’s ball movement capabilities, something most people wouldn’t have predicted after the German’s first two seasons at the club. He didn’t look like the player he was at Real Madrid when he arrived, trying to adapt to the more physical Premier League. After having a summer break where he wasn’t off winning the World Cup with Germany, Ozil has looked fresher and more like a player worth the huge transfer fee the Gunners shelled out for him. Meanwhile, Petr Cech has brought stability to the goalkeeping position, which is a big change compared to past seasons. His age has shown with a few bad performances, but the experience and quality can’t be underrated for the man who now owns the record for most shutouts in Premier League history with 170.
The bottom line is that this represents Arsenal’s and Arsene Wenger’s best chance to win a Premier League title for the first time since 2004. They aren’t fighting off a challenge from Chelsea or Manchester United who have had unusually bad campaigns and have been busy rethinking their choices of high-profile managers. Leicester City’s season has been remarkable to this point, but history gives little hope to their chances of keeping it up until season’s end, and Manchester City appears to have more issues than the Gunners.
The “Invincibles” Arsenal squad went on an unbeaten run in ’03-’04 to lift the trophy that season. It would be more than a little ironic if the next time they claim the crown is in a season like this, that has been anything but perfect. But the end results would be the same, and I don’t think the supporters will mind at all.