The holiday season is upon us. It's a time of year for family and friends, gifts and surprises, and a hectic Premier League holiday fixture list.
As we approach the halfway point of the season, the table is as topsy-turvy as ever. The unpredictable nature doesn't stop with team performances. Individual contributions have been erratic and entirely volatile.
There are players, however, who have been altogether consistent. Many who have come out of obscurity, and/or have performed above what was expected. Before the season they were overlooked or underestimated. They have answered the critics and become top Premier League players.
Let's call these players true holiday surprises, or gifts to their teams and supporters. Here is the Premier League's ‘Surprise' starting XI.
Tim Howard (Everton) – Inconsistent play has always been Howard's Achilles heel. This year he's been the league's best shot-stopper and has been a rock behind a team on the rise. Howard has a joint league best eight clean sheets and Everton have conceded the joint fewest goals (15 in 16 games). The American has never been on better form, boding well for club and country.
Honourable Mention: Artur Boruc (Southampton)
RB: Seamus Coleman (Everton) – It was rightfully questioned where best to play the Irishman. A midfield role seemed beyond him when deputized. Right back was always the most logical fit. The 25-year-old has grown leaps and bounds over last season, as comfortable in attack as defending. Three goals to his tally contribute to a more balanced team attack, providing an alternative to the reliance of attacking down the left. He is one of three players in the team to play every minute this season. The argument can be made he has been the top right back in the league thus far.
CB: Dejan Lovren (Southampton) – The Croatian was a significant signing from Lyon last summer and an absolute bargain at £8.5 million. Lovren has only missed one game, a 2-0 loss at Arsenal, one of only three games the team has conceded more than one goal. His leadership has been an asset in a young team, and although still just 24, plays with much more maturity than his years. Lovren leads the spine of the team that is among the best in the league.
CB: Steven Caulker (Cardiff City) – Another shrewd £8.5 million purchase, the 21-year-old represents the present and future for Cardiff City. It's puzzling why a club as steadfast on development as Spurs wouldn't give the player a longer look. Caulker needed opportunity and the move to Wales has revitalized his promising career. He has the faith of his teammates and the manager, serving as stand-in captain. Caulker's already one of the best defenders in the air and has also blocked the most shots in the Premier League. He's played in all 16 games, with the highlight scoring the game winner in the South Wales derby.
LB: Kieran Gibbs – Arsenal's back four was in shambles a season ago. The entire back line has improved, but it's Gibbs who has developed into an every match left back. The stats don't flatter, but his week-in, week-out influence is certainly felt. The wingback duo of Gibbs and Bacary Sagna down the right has contributed extensively to a fluid Arsenal attack. Gibbs has always had promise. But whether Arsene Wenger could rely upon him was debated. The acquisition of Nacho Monreal last season was a wake-up call. Gibbs has kept the Spaniard a peripheral player.
Honourabe Mention: Curtis Davies (Hull City)
RM: Jordan Henderson (Liverpool) – The much-maligned Henderson has puts his many critics behind him to become a lynchpin for Brendan Rodgers. The manager has branded Hendo the most improved player in the league, and the assessment isn't far off. Henderson still looks awkward at times, needs to get better in front of goal and may never live up to his £20 million dollar purchase price. But he's only 23, is the only Liverpool player to start every Premier League game, and has been a versatile player down the right side. His passing has also been top rate. He will continue to be relied upon with Steven Gerrard out through injury.
CM: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal) – The story has been well told. No player has shown improvement like the meteoric rise of the Welshman. A team-best eight goals and 21 shots on goal, an impressive six assists, and nefound poise on the ball, Ramsey has been the best player on the league's top team. The potential has always been there. This season it's been realized. Arsenal has a versatile, box-to-box midfielder to build around in the 22-year-old. The future is bright.
CM: Ki Sung-Yeung (Sunderland) – Get to know this name. The 24-year-old South Korean International moved on loan from Swansea, bringing his composed, pass first approach into Gus Poyet's team. He has become a consistent starter under Poyet and has been a real threat. A Capital One Cup game-winner against Chelsea Tuesday was the icing on the cake on a run of form making onlookers believer Sunderland may find a way out of the relegation zone. He's good with both feet and is passing accurately at a rate of 89 percent.
LM: Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United) – The 18-year-old was playing in the Dallas Cup last spring. Now, he's a Manchester United first-team regular. Januzaj introduced himself to the world scoring twice in a crucial come from behind victory at Sunderland in his first career start. The creative midfielder caught the eye of United supporters on the pre-season tour. Fellow youngsters Wilfried Zaha and Jesse Lingard seemed further along in their development. But it's Januzaj's maturity on the ball that has impressed most. He's the best attacking option on the United flanks at present time.
Honourable Mentions: Jordon Mutch (Cardiff City), Jonny Howson (Norwich City)
Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool) – Hype has always surrounded the England International, yet production hasn't always followed. Liverpool's bright start to the campaign can rightfully be attributed to Sturridge holding down the fort while Luis Suarez missed the first five matches through suspension. Sturridge scored four goals over that span, including three match winners. Injury has setback Sturridge's breakout campaign. A big second half for the striker will be essential towards a potential Liverpool return to the Champions League.
Shola Amoebi (Newcastle) – The Nigerian International has yet to score this season, but his performance is better assessed on what he means for the team. Amoebi's link-up play between the midfield and targetman Loic Remy has been instrumental in Newcastle's recent turn-around. In eight games Amoebi's started, Newcastle has picked up 17 points and only lost once. His movement off the ball, creation of space and use of his size has made the forgotten man at Newcastle now an important player in Alan Pardew's revamped team selection.
Honourable Mention: Jay Rodriguez (Southampton)
- The Champions League draw may have serious implications on the Premier League when all is said and done. Manchester City's mouth-watering fixture with Barcelona will test City's resolve. It has always been suggested Manuel Pellegrini was brought in for Champions League success. Navigating through both competitions is no easy task. Fortunate for City, the two games with Barcelona are sandwiched between ‘soft' fixtures: Sunderland and Stoke City both at home, then Aston Villa at the Etihad and Hull City away. These games will allow Pellegrini to properly rotate his squad. Arsenal meanwhile plays tournament favourites Bayern Munich. Added to the distraction is a game against Manchester United before their first meeting, and rivals Spurs following the second game with Bayern Munich.
- City's depth has already been tested through the prolonged absence of captain Vincent Kompany. Squad depth will continue to be challenged with top goalscorer Sergio Aguero out up to two months with a calf injury and right-back Pablo Zabaleta suffering a hamstring injury. These are critical losses – Aguero, a true game-winner, and Zabaleta who is top class down the City right hand side without appropriate cover at the position.
- Wayne Rooney's injured status is a massive blow to United. The nature and extent of his injury has yet to be revealed. With a soft holiday fixture list ahead, this was a key time for Manchester United to make up ground. No Rooney and Robin van Persie for extended periods could force United's hand to act in the January transfer window. Title contention may be out of reach. But Champions Leaue qualification cannot be.
- How much can Liverpool afford to pay Luis Suarez to keep him at Anfield? And is a blank check enough? Is Champions League mandatory for a Suarez stay? Whatever Liverpool's next step may be, inherent risk is involved. This is Suarez, after all. This saga is the highest stakes game being played right now in the league.
- Game of the Week ahead: Arsenal v Chelsea (Monday December 23, 2013): both teams will be eager to respond; Arsenal from a dismantling at the Etihad and Chelsea coming off a Capital One Cup defeat against Sunderland. Things are boiling over for Jose Mourinho. His defenders continue to struggle, conceding soft goals and he's not getting enough out of his collection of unconvincing strikers. Both teams have title aspirations. Both have much to prove.
- Two more coaching casualties this week, taking the total of managers fired this season to five. Odds on favour to go next: Malky Mackay. There's too much dysfunction at Cardiff City behind the scenes. You'd have to worry for the team on the field if they lose their glue in the manager, Mackay.