It is the midway point in the season and time to regroup in the changing room. So, who will be served sweet tea and oranges and who is in danger of getting a stray football boot kicked in their face?
STICK WITH HOW THEY'RE PLAYING
Sean Dyche has been impressive in his loyalty to the players who brought Burnley up out of the Championship last season. Rather than risking the long-term future of the club by spending money which they do not have, Dyche is sticking with the approach that worked last year and it could yet see them stay in the Premier League. They will need to improve on the 14 goals and 16 points from the first half of the season, but they have the means to do that. Striker Sam Vokes is back from injury too.
Jose Mourinho feels that it is in his second season that he has a team in their “best condition” and this Chelsea side looks just that: more incisive, more varied and more authoritative than they were last season. The first team is brilliant and they have quality and experience on the bench. If there is one area of thinness it may be at centre-back, where an injury to John Terry would leave them short, but he seems stronger than ever. There is simply not much work to be done.
West Ham United
Even after consecutive defeats, West Ham are overachieving in sixth place and looking stronger than they have done for years. This is the result, in part, of their spectacularly successful summer spending. Diafra Sakho, Enner Valencia, Alex Song, Aaron Cresswell and Cheikhou Kouyate have all been successes and the result is a West Ham team that is quicker, stronger and more varied than last year. There is not much scope for January improvement although they do need reinforcements at the back, especially with Winston Reid’s future not entirely clear. One defender or two would be nice, but that is it.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been Southampton’s remarkable success after their difficult summer. It has been a simple case of good players and a good manager coming to terms with one another. Whether it sustainable all the way until May is a different question. An alternative to Graziano Pelle would be preferable, in case the big Italian gets injured, as would one extra body at centre-back. The youngsters are very good, but another grown-up or two could be the difference between staying in the European places and dropping out.
The hole, such as it is, in Manchester City’s squad is this: they are short of strikers. It is not easy to compete in so many competitions with just three, and if anything stops them in 2015, it is likely to be this. They are three points behind Chelsea but, with this squad, they need to keep Sergio Aguero fit. The problem, though, is financial fair play, which limits their ability to buy big. City have been average at points this season and excellent in others, but with no additions they may just have to hope for the best.
A BIT OF TACTICAL TINKERING
It has taken Mauricio Pochettino a few months but he finally has a clear sense of his best Tottenham team. It includes Jan Vertonghen, Federico Fazio, Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane. Plenty of expensive fringe players, then, could be available to leave north London next month. If there are departures then Pochettino, with the power that comes with signs of success, could continue to reshape this team in his image. Upgrades in midfield and up front would be welcome, but extracting Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton could still be difficult. Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette might be beyond them, this time.
So far, so Arsenal. Half way through the first year of Arsène Wenger’s new contract, Arsenal fans have felt all the familiar feelings this season. There has been some good football and impressive home wins, owing, it must be said, to Alexis Sanchez. But there has been the annual array of injuries and the failure to match the best sides tactically or physically. Some of these problems – the shortage of centre-backs, the lack of a holding midfielder – are soluble. Morgan Schneiderlin and William Carvalho might be expensive, Winston Reid would not be. But some of them – the staleness of their approach, the lack of new ideas – are not.
After one of the most tumultuous, and least successful years, in their recent history, United go into 2015 with a clear idea of who they are and what they need. Brilliantly stocked with attacking players, and with a range of options in midfield, the problem is at centre-back. Jonny Evans is their most experienced option, but he is not exactly reliable, and 19- year-old Paddy McNair has already started seven Premier League games. What they need is a responsible adult to play there, and if they cannot afford Mats Hummels or Ezequiel Garay mid-season, they should be able to land Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar if they offer £10m.
Whether or not Wilfried Bony stays at Swansea for the long term, he is off to represent Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations next month. That will deprive Garry Monk of his best player and could force him to look for a replacement in the transfer market. Of course, Swansea signed an alternative in Bafétimbi Gomis in the summer but he has struggled to settle in Wales so far and could leave in January. Alan Pardew, an old admirer of his, would like to make him his first signing at Crystal Palace, while St Etienne, the club with whom he made his name, would love to take him back.
Queen’s Park Rangers
The last time Queen’s Park Rangers were in the Premier League they spent big in January on Christopher Samba and Loïc Rémy and were still relegated. The club are unlikely to invest that heavily next month – their Premier League position is a bit more stable – but they still need additions. Charlie Austin has scored 12 of their 21 Premier League goals so far, which is an impressive feat but an unhealthy ratio. He needs help and Harry Redknapp could resurrect a move for Jermain Defoe. Redknapp is keen on Mauro Zarate, on loan, while Peter Crouch would be a popular addition too.
Mark Hughes’ evolution of Stoke City has been impressive but uneven. With clever, canny counter-attacking football he has masterminded victories over Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Everton so far. Where Stoke have struggled, though, is the games they should win. They have managed, somehow, to lose at home to Aston Villa, Leicester City and Burnley already. Unpicking packed defences is a difficult skill and Stoke lack an intelligent, incisive No 10 to help them to do it. Unless Hughes can get more out of Stephen Ireland, he may have to go into the market next month to find someone instead.
West Bromwich Albion
Results have clearly not been good enough so far, or Alan Irvine would not have been dismissed late on Monday night. West Brom do have a reliable spine, through the goalkeeper, the centre-backs and into midfield. The problem is that they do not score anywhere near enough goals, with £10m man Brown Ideye yet to find the net in the Premier League and Saido Berahino as inconsistent as any 21-year old would be. Stéphane Sessègnon and Silvestre Varela are both exciting players, but what they need, as well as a new manager, is a proven goalscorer to shoot them to safety.
If Mike Ashley was planning to spend money in January on the recruits that Newcastle need, than Alan Pardew would likely still be manager. But Pardew has left, knowing that this squad is not going to be significantly improved. Whoever replaces Pardew on Tyneside will surely want to put his own stamp on the team and bring in a few clever signings. Unfortunately for the Newcastle supporters, though, he may only be allowed to do so if their most valuable players – Moussa Sissoko, Cheick Tiote or even Ayoze Perez – are allowed to leave first.
Steve Bruce’s summer signings were admirable in terms of their quality and their ambition: Hatem Ben Arfa, Gaston Ramirez, Robert Snodgrass, Tom Ince and Abel Hernandez are good players. The result, though, has been less than the sum of the parts. Andrew Robertson at left-back has been impressive but Hull seemed to have lost some of the balance that made them so good last season. Most of the ingredients are there, they just need more work to combine effectively together. Hull fans must hope that Bruce will continue to look for the right answers.
GET THE HAIRDRYERS OUT
The third season of Paul Lambert’s tenure seems to be following the rough pattern of the first two. Villa show no obvious sign of a plan on the pitch, are overly reliant on the goals of Christian Benteke and, while capable of some good wins, are unlikely to finish much higher than 15th. Lambert is unlikely to be awash with funds next month – Randy Lerner is still trying to sell the club – and his biggest question is departures. Fabian Delph has six months left on his contract and could be sold next month, while Ron Vlaar is a target for Manchester United.
As with most of their relegation rivals, if anything ends Sunderland’s Premier League tenure it will be lack of goals. They have scored 16 from 19 games so far and without improvement will surely go down. Connor Wickham has not continued his form from the end of last season, Steven Fletcher is only good when he wants to be and Jozy Altidore is not a top-flight player. Money is the only solution but they will need someone good – better than target Marco Borriello – who can play on his own and link with Adam Johnson, if they are to stay up.
Liverpool – so nearly champions of England seven months ago – go into 2015 with more questions than answers. With no Luis Suarez or Daniel Sturridge, they have been unable to replicate last season’s ferocious football, and are sat rather forlornly in mid-table. They need, in no particular order, a top-class goalkeeper, another reliable centre-back, a long-term replacement for Steven Gerrard, and someone to recreate Suarez’s relentless menace up front. January is no time to do that large-scale rebuilding, though, so unless Liverpool’s ‘transfer committee’ are going to be uncharacteristically astute next month, they will not be able to make the changes that they need.
Leicester’s win at Hull City on Sunday was, in its own way, a remarkable one. It ended a 12-game winless run that had garnered just two points, stretching all the way back to their joyous September demolition of Manchester United. Despite that, and everything else, Nigel Pearson enjoys the continued support of the fans. If the board wanted to replace him, they would have to move soon to take advantage of January. With some talent and variety in attacking positions, it is the defence that needs the most work, if there is an upgrade on defender Wes Morgan that can be found.
The reason for Everton’s dismal Premier League form is obvious: they are conceding too many goals. While Roberto Martinez has evolved the team’s attacking play, the defence is going backwards. Martinez is not an especially defence-minded coach, but this is not all his fault. Tim Howard, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin are all the wrong side of 30 and are not as sharp as they used to be. The problem is that these are long-term issues which need long-term solutions: a new goalkeeper and a senior partner for John Stones. Players like this are not always available in January, so Everton may have to wait a while longer.
Steve Parish has already made Crystal Palace’s big January signing in the form of £2.5m manager Alan Pardew. He is the first upgrade that the club needed but there is still much more to be done if they are to stay in the Premier League. There is the basis of a solid team at Selhurst Park – with the same defence and midfield that Tony Pulis managed so well last season. The problem, though, is up front. Fraizer Campbell is not obviously of Premier League class and Pardew needs a guaranteed goal-scorer – he likes Bafétimbi Gomis – as soon as possible if he is to keep Palace up.
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