Chelsea's glamour boys discover austerity, trouble on Tyneside and the refs who got it right

As the Premiership season reaches its half-way stage, Sam Wallace, our Football Correspondent, marks five months' work from those at the top and bottom of the table
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He says he knows everything you need to know about winning trophies, so Jose Mourinho will no doubt be aware that, not since the 2000-2001 season, have the half-way leaders in the Premiership gone on to win the title. English football waits in expectation. The fate of the strutting little cavalheiro of the Stamford Bridge touchline has become the truly gripping story in Act 13 of the modern Premiership.

He says he knows everything you need to know about winning trophies, so Jose Mourinho will no doubt be aware that, not since the 2000-2001 season, have the half-way leaders in the Premiership gone on to win the title. English football waits in expectation. The fate of the strutting little cavalheiro of the Stamford Bridge touchline has become the truly gripping story in Act 13 of the modern Premiership.

Look around elsewhere and there is just not the drama. At West Bromwich Albion the death rattle is already audible in the supporters' chant for a manager they sacked two months ago. In the five teams dangling above them there are no famous reputations bound for relegation, as there was at Leeds last season. At the top, fourth place remains the uninspiring limit for the Premiership's middle classes. Either to retain status, in the case of Liverpool, or, like Everton and Middlesbrough, to acquire it.

At Tottenham Hotspur they have embarked on an interesting experiment that need not cause the dread that the words "director of football" usually evoke in this country. In the Netherlands, where Frank Arnesen and Martin Jol worked previously, they say that the creative tension between two ambitious coaches in one club can be a force for good. Spurs have four straight wins and seventh place but their reinvention is nothing compared to Chelsea's.

At Stamford Bridge, Mourinho has seized control of the entire identity of Roman Abramovich's Chelsea project. Within the space of seven months his greatest feat has been to convince us to associate the club owned by the richest man in British football with a sense of austerity and discipline. The feckless have been cast out of New Chelsea and in their place is a squad that is in thrall to Mourinho's laptop presentations, his dense tactical preparation and his unrelenting dogma.

He has what, we are told, every coach desires: a squad that rotates without a hiss of protest. In a game which is increasingly based on the meticulous study of the opposition, Chelsea's constantly morphing line-up has made them unreadable. Their vast reserves of talent have ceased to be the burden they were under Claudio Ranieri. Mourinho will need them all: in the last three seasons, Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle have led the Premiership at the half-way point only to fall prey to the hunting pack on the last leg of the journey.

Only one aspect makes you wonder about the permanence of Chelsea's success: Mourinho's insistence on stretching our credulity a little too thin. Whatever he got away with in Portugal, English football will not believe forever in a cartoonish figure who likes to list his own strengths and achievements with all the pre-bout modesty of a cable-channel wrestler. It is how long Chelsea's players, with their club rulebooks and strict creed of brotherhood, believe in their manager that will dictate the title race. Mourinho has developed his public persona with great energy, but maintaining that level of belligerence can prove exhausting over a career.

It is a fact that English football searches out the cracks in any personality and there were plenty who believed that it had found some serious fault lines in the psyche of Arsène Wenger at Old Trafford on 24 October. Those who witnessed the fraught scenes that took place around the tunnel said that, most of all, that night saw the death of the Arsenal cool. Their own sense of status had come to rely largely on their reputation for invincibility and once that was removed, they reacted badly.

There is, we know, no lasting damage to Wenger. After all he is a coach who, at the beginning of his career, reacted to defeat by being physically sick, so swearing at the opposition's manager is, at least, an improvement on that. But Arsenal have become racked with answering questions that would otherwise have been beneath them. Like whether or not Thierry Henry can turn it on against the big clubs (he can) and bizarrely, whether they can hang on to Edu. A contract saga unbecoming of the Premiership champions.

The simple problem is that Wenger's pool of Premiership-ready players, around about 18, is the smallest of the Big Three. It took Arsenal's quarter-final defeat to United in the League Cup to tell us that, while Wenger has a promising set of teenagers, he does not have a second string like the international-standard deputies at Ferguson's disposal. "Last season was the exception, not the norm," Wenger said after that game. "What we have produced this season has not been a disaster." Or, put another way, you cannot always judge us by our own high standards.

When they pounced for the Premiership title last season, Arsenal were a point behind United at the turn, and in their previous title-winning year of 2002, they were just three short of leaders Newcastle at half-way. The problem Wenger faces in raising the stakes with his side is that the early part of their season - as the unbeaten run continued - had a title run-in feel to it. Atpresent Arsenal feel more like a side playing after their peak, when really their best is still required for April and May.

Deposing United, the huge project upon which Arsenal and Chelsea have embarked, is an exhausting and dispiriting task. Never more crushing than when United go through a period of partial renewal like the one that has taken them to within nine points of the top in recent weeks. Received pub wisdom has long argued that United are deficient in midfield, that Kleberson is no Roy Keane, and their long spiral into decline will begin with the exit of their captain.

It certainly holds true for Kleberson, the only Brazilian World Cup-winner ever to be enlisted to win the League Cup, but not for United. There will be no new Keane and, equally, there will be no point complaining about it. The fact is that the conditions which shaped this midfield anvil - the stern Irish Football Association trainee scheme he completed, an apprenticeship in English football under Brian Clough - no longer exist. If Keane was 15 now, he would be an academy player studying for his GCSEs at a good Trafford borough school, instead of nurturing the grievances that have sustained him through an entire professional career.

Rather, United are in the process of reconfiguring around a new individual as they once did with Eric Cantona and then, subsequently, Keane. Ferguson has admitted that signing Steven Gerrard is no longer a possibility so they look elsewhere for a player who embodies Ferguson's core values. There seems to be much work to do with Wayne Rooney but the 19-year-old is the natural choice and with Ruud van Nistelrooy out for a month, he has a chance to take the goalscoring responsibility.

Some time soon Ferguson will be filling in his predictions for the rest of the season's matches, as he does every year, and working out how he can win the title. He will have history to support his claim. Of the eight Premiership titles Ferguson has won, he has claimed five despite not being at the top of the table at the half-way point. In December 2002 he was four points short of Arsenal and he has been five points adrift three times before winning in 1993, 1997 and 1999. In December 1995 he was, of course, 10 points behind Newcastle.

In the absence of Leeds, Newcastle have become our new template for excess and misjudgement on a grand scale. In desperation, the club that tried to recruit the best young British talent of its generation is now trying to talk the star of the previous generation, Alan Shearer, out of retirement. Not so at Middlesbrough where the word on Steve McClaren is that he is a "club-builder", in the same tradition as Ferguson, who has been laying the foundations for his side's solid fifth place for a while.

As for surprises, perhaps it is the officials who, after all, should be left in charge. Henry's quickly-taken free-kick against Chelsea is a reminder that Graham Poll gets it right more often than anyone else. From a variety of angles Mike Riley's penalty for Wayne Rooney against Arsenal at Old Trafford looks good. But best of all was Steve Bennett waving Bolo Zenden onside for his goal against Liverpool. A roadside speed camera would have struggled with that decision but the referee called it just right.

The shape of English football is still dictated by its dominant three teams. Chelsea will, just as United did with the purchase of Rooney, hobble the chasing pack even further if, as seems likely, they take Gerrard from Liverpool this summer. Arsenal continue to try to convince us that the best young players come from overseas. Our talent is clustered around a fairly equal, and deeply engrossing, battle between three teams. But the sadness is that it is those three teams alone.

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