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Wheeler: Premier League at the midway mark

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Gareth Wheeler
12/31/2013 10:43:33 AM
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The Barclays Premier League season is officially halfway through. No exaggeration, the season has been great thus far.  A more unpredictable Premier League is better viewing.  Competition at the top and bottom of the table remains fierce and ever-changing. 

League leaders Arsenal are on pace for 84 points.

Fewer than 84 points has only won the league once in the last decade.  The word parity is thrown around, and it's not entirely accurate.  Top teams are beginning to hit their stride, although every team continues to show flaws, making for a topsy-turvy table.

There has been no shortage of talking points through 19 games. Before we get to our mid-season awards, let's go all High Fidelity. Here are the top five storylines at the halfway mark.

5) Methodical Mourinho: You love to love him and love to hate him. It's all more compelling with Jose Mourinho in the Premier League. Inspiring, entertaining football however from has been few and far between from his Chelsea team.  Mourinho is 'Exhibit A' in over-managing.  His meticulous approach leads to a dull end product more times than not.  Chelsea has been clinically stifling at times against top competition, in particular stuffing out matches against Arsenal and Manchester United.   Free flowing football has been sacrificed to climb the table.  Although its surprising a team with the financial wherewithal and talent of Chelsea need to resort to such mind-numbing tactics at times, Mourinho understands it's what needs to be done until he can get his players at the club.  It's been a Masterclass job thus far; Mourinho's teams are among the most consistent and competitive week to week.  While team performance has been predictable, the notable persona of the Portuguese has not.  Mourinho 2.0 has overall been more subdued than his previous tenure.  The trademark arrogance and gamesmanship however remain omnipresent. Mourinho's leap into the Stamford Bridge crowd, sitting amongst the supporters after being sent to the stands, and interrupting post-match interviews are few examples the Mourinho of yester year is not far from the surface.   As Chelsea close in on the top of the table, Chelsea's tactics will become more dry and Mourinho's personality more rebellious.  We all win with the latter.

4) Managerial Merry-go-round: Five managers were fired in the 2012/13 season.  There have been six casualties already this campaign.  Paolo Di Canio (Sunderand), Ian Holloway (Crystal Palace), Martin Jol (Fulham), Steve Clarke (West Brom), Andre Villas-Boas (Tottenham), and Malky Mackay (Cardiff City) are all no longer with their respective sides.  The biggest shock has to be AVB.  The young Portuguese is now a two-time Premier League failure.  It's a massive let-down for a perceived tactically superior young mind in the game not being able to relate with the modern player, isolating individuals within the team and not getting the most out of the players at his disposal.  Losing Gareth Bale was a blow for Spurs.  But the finances spent and the talent on hand is capable of much more.  AVB as a man manager will rightfully be questioned in his next gig.  The unlucky loser of the unemployed bunch is Mackay. Playing a public chess match with tumultuous Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan was never going to be a battle won.  When an owner operates on an island without rhyme and reason, the environment becomes poisoned and stability goes out the window.  Mackay leaves with his head held high, despite his big money swing and a miss of striker Andreas Cornelius.  Di Canio gets the nod for most warranted sacking.  Who in their right mind would think 11 new players; most of marginal talent, at the Stadium of Light would be a recipe for success?  And the audacity to stand before the travelling Sunderland supporters after a 3-0 loss at the Hawthorns provided pictures that will go down in infamy. 

3) Golden Gunners: Arsene Wenger's demise was widely predicted after a 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa to start the season.   After the opening day loss, Arsenal reeled off a streak of 12 straight undefeated in all competitions, signed Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, and brought Mathieu Flamini back to the Emirates.  Meanwhile, talent became realized for Welshman Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud showed his worth as a Premier League talisman and a resurgent backline has developed into one of, if not, the best defensive unit in the league.  So much for Wenger losing the plot.  Arsenal sits atop the table and on top form despite losing Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as long-term absentees. You know things are rolling when goalkeeping is even top notch at the Emirates.  The coming of age of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has provided much needed stability.  Is this Arsenal team good enough to be Champions?  The starting XI is virtually set.  January depth moves can be made up front and at the back.  But it will inevitably be up to the current crop.  They are a strong group.  But are they capable of taking their game to the next level?

2) Sizzling Suarez:  It's incredible what can change in a matter of four months.  Luis Suarez has gone from a biting, erratic misfit to the most consistent performer and producer in the league.  Suarez has more goals than seven Premier League teams, and his 19 are equal to the tally of Fulham.  And all this has all come in just 14 games.  Incredible.  The Uruguayan also has five assists, making it sound bizarre to suggest his stats alone doesn't tell the entire story.  He is a true game-breaker in a time where players of that dimension are rare.  A constant threat, remarkable touch on the ball and extraordinary movement off it, Suarez has evolved into one of the world's best.  Liverpool has broken the bank to sign Suarez to a new mega contract. Ironically enough, it may be his own influence that determines whether he actually sees that contract out on the Merseyside.  It's Champions League or bust.  Suarez is key.

1) The noise about Moyes:  It's the most talked about story and will continue to be.  The start of the David Moyes era at Old Trafford has been shaky at best.  But there are signs the team is turning the corner. While still lacking true top end talents en masse, the team as unit is playing much better football.  Unfair to Moyes, a transition period within the team hit at the same time as the managerial change.  This is no fault of Moyes.  And to suggest it could all be remedied in his first transfer window was naïve.  That doesn't excuse his panic purchase of Marouane Fellaini or the all too cautious approach in team selection/tactics to open the season.  Manchester United is in the midst of a squad evolution.  The process will continue in January.  The knee-jerk, have-it-now nature of sport demands swift change.   Moyes will get blamed or praised for whatever happens in the transfer windows.  But this is more of a test to the Glazer ownership.  Sponsorship acquisition has come fast and furious.  The player side continues to lag behind, not moving in accordance with the clubs commercial growth.  In the meantime, United on the field will have to continue to be their scrappy best.  There's something truly likeable about an underdog United team.  It's been years since they've been in such a role.  Champions League qualification and lengthy runs in Cup competitions would be seen as a successful year.  Next year, the stakes will be much higher.

Mid-season Awards

Top Player: Suarez (Liverpool) – Honourable mentions to Sergio Aguero, Aaron Ramsey and Wayne Rooney.  But Suarez is the clear choice. 

Manager: Brendan Rodgers (Liverpool) – Year number two at Liverpool has exceeded expectations.  The manager bemoans his lack of squad depth, and rightfully so.  Yet his team, no matter the change in formation or personnel has managed to play an increasing prominent passing game with the ability to adapt in shape and approach appropriately to the occasion.  The man deserves a lot of credit.  Belief is back at Anfield.

Best Goal: Pajtim Kasami (Fulham) vs. Crystal Palace – An ultimate team goal by Arsenal and Jack Wilshere was trumped later the same weekend by an all-time strike from Kasami.  A run on full trot from the middle of the park, controlling with the chest and volley top corner on the run from a ridiculous angle at the top corner of the box wins it.  Hands down.  End of story.

Memorable Moment: Asmir Begovic (Stoke City) goal vs. Southampton – It took just 12 seconds for the goalkeeper to score the shock goal of the season.  The story goes it was a windy day, Begovic launched the ball from inside his own box, the ball landed between two Southampton centre-backs, Artur Boruc misjudged the big bounce and embarrassment ensued.  Perhaps the most shocking variable was the goal made Begovic joint top goal scorer for Stoke at that time on the season.  And the goal was scored in November, 

Surprise player: Seamus Coleman (Everton) – Roberto Martinez has struck gold with the Irish right back.  His defensive play has been standout for one of the most dependable backlines in the league.  Coleman has added five goals to his account.  That's more goals than he has scored in his Premier League career, one more than Christian Benteke and just one less than all of Chelsea's strikers have scored combined. 

Surprise team: Hull City – many, including myself pegged the Tigers to go straight back to the League Championship. Instead, Hull sits 10th at the halfway point.  They have beat Liverpool and Newcastle, were robbed against Spurs, and gave the two Manchester clubs a scare.  This has all come from a team without top talent, a manager with a track record of Premier League failure, and a team garnering more attention for a potential name change than anything on the field.  This is the feel good story of the league.

Team Performance: Manchester City vs. Manchester United – It's one thing to win by a converted touchdown over Norwich City.  It's another thing to run your neighbours and reigning Champions off the field in extraordinary fashion.  The 4-1 final flattered United.  It was truly a performance for the ages.
 
Worst Owner: Vincent Tan (Cardiff City) – Mike Ashley is dethroned by a man who 1) changed the teams historic colours to the chagrin of club supporters, 2) fired his chief scout and hired his son's unqualified friend, 3) fired the popular coach, 4) has thrown the clubs reputation into disrepute.  Not bad work for just four months.  We'll see how much further he goes, and how much higher his pants get in the New Year.

Best XI:
 
De Gea
Coleman-Jagielka-Mertesacker-Santon
Ramsey-Toure-Hazard
Rooney-Suarez-Aguero

Luis Suarez (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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