EPL Quarter-season Review

Well, we’ve reached it. We’re now ten games into another season of the English Premier League, with so much excitement so far. In November 2013, it was a straight-up fight between Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal were in the midst of an injury crisis, Liverpool couldn’t defend, and the newly promoted sides were on the verge of going down. Fast forward a year, and things couldn’t be more different: it’s a straight-up fight between Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal are in the midst of an injury crisis, Liverpool can’t defend, and the promoted sides are on the verge of going down.

EPL Review

But many things have gone differently this year: Southampton, having sold their entire squad and coaching staff over the summer, are sitting pretty in second place off the force of Ronald Koeman’s tactical acumen and Graziano Pelle’s glorious head of hair; West Ham (yes, West Ham) are in the top five, with Allardici The Great playing football that could genuinely be described as “proactive”, “pretty”, and “technical” – along with “humble” the set of words you’re least likely to associate with Sam Allardyce. Man United and Liverpool both spent big, and neither can defend. There’s so much to talk about, so many storylines and moments to discuss. Below, we’ve got Cam and Serge on-hand to outline the great season we’ve seen thus far.

Title Race Update

Smart money says one of these two will win it

Cam: Even this early in the season, it’s Chelsea’s to lose. Last year, they were a few dishes short of a pyramid (or whatever that analogy is) and had to rely on Fernando Torres to get them goals. Now, they’ve got a reinvigorated Cesc Fabregas leading the league in assists, plus a half-fit Diego Costa who is still somehow top scorer – if he ever gets to full fitness it will be terrifying. They’re currently top and four points ahead of Southampton, but (more importantly) they’re six points ahead of Manchester City, who are their only functional rivals for the title.

City have been odd this year. Without the 1-2 punch of Aguero-Negredo, they’ve lacked some of the willingness to put teams to the sword that they had last year, plus their penchant for dropping totally unnecessary points has returned (West Ham Away, Stoke at Home). If City want to win the title, they’ll have to count more on Chelsea having a dip in form in the mid-season than on their ability to power through teams worse than them.

Serge: This feels like a Chelsea year. We’re 10 games in and they’ve hardly looked like losing. There were a few scares (Leicester gave them quite a scare at some point). However, right now they are just running away with it. Cesc and Diego Costa are simply living out their spanish love novel version of football destiny. One was put on earth to play tricky balls to a clinical finisher, and the other is the said clinical finisher. They’re solid at the back with Ramires and Matic covering the back four, and they can beat you into submission with a myriad of attacking options outside of the Spanish Double Punch. City can still pull through, but they will need Yaya Toure to turn back into the Ivorian superman he is. They’re the only team with enough quality and depth to challenge. Southampton will cool off, but might still challenge for top 4. Arsenal seem destined to court the coveted non-existent imaginary torphy. United lack the depth and the defense. Everyone else… Is everyone else.

Cam: I can see Chelsea blowing it. When he played for us for three seasons, Cesc Fabregas had this tendency to collapse in March/April – this inconsistency and its impact on our Champions League runs is a big part of the reason we sold him. Chelsea are very much dependent on his brilliance to dig them out of holes, and if his form experiences a similar collapse I can very easily see their team form going south. But that’s basically what their opponents have to bank on in order to see anyone not named John Terry lifting the Premier League Trophy come May. In the (increasingly plausible) circumstance that City get knocked out of the Champions League, they could throw all their resources into winning the Premier League, which could give them a slight edge over a team likely to make a deep run in the Champions League.

 

Arsenal Fourth Place Finish Update

Serge: On track. I mean, we joke, but at the same time it’s very hard to award this to anyone other than Arsene Wenger. I would consider other teams, but other teams actually play to win and set their sights on physical trophies they can touch (or drink liquor out of). Arsenal always appears to be the one uninspired team that plays for a consolation rather than for the main thing and this year is no different. They sit in 4th, drawing 5 games while only losing one. I feel like United should be added to this race, because after last year’s disappointing finish, they need to European Football, and yet they’re not playing like anything resembling a championship ambition (see 2-2 draw with West Brom).

Cam: If Arsenal can figure out what the hell is causing all their injuries, and fix it, then they should be in the fight for an automatic Champions League spot. If not, then I put them in this category. More realistically, 4th is likely to be a straight-up fight between Manchester United and Southampton. Neither has European football schedules to contend with, but the similarities pretty much end there – apart from both being coached by highly opinionated Dutchmen: one club sold their entire starting squad, the other broke the EPL transfer record; one team has a functioning, goal-scoring striker, the other has Radamel Falcao. I think Manchester United’s superior resources will probably edge them to victory at the back end of the season, but Southampton coming from nowhere wouldn’t surprise me. Nobody else is in it – Tottenham are too inconsistent, Everton don’t have the squad depth to compete on as many fronts as they are, Liverpool’s defense is a nightmare, and West Ham (sorry Simons) are never making 4th over the course of a whole season.

Serge: I think Chelsea and City are definitely a lock, but even as an Arsenal fan I wouldn’t give the 3rd spot to Arsenal just yet. I mean, yes, we get Ozil back but our track record involves playing him on the left wing in lieu of Jack Wilshere down the middle. I think if Southampton keeps their form, they can take 3rd, especially with Gunners faltering against lesser teams and it will be Utd. vs. Arsenal for 4th. And then… Who knows, both teams are an injury away from playing season ticket owners at CB positions.

 

The Basement

Cam: Let’s get a couple things out of the way quickly: Burnley are going down. They don’t have the squad, they don’t have the skill, they don’t have the manager, and they don’t have the money to compete in the EPL. Ten games into the season, they’re 0-4-6, having conceded more goals than any team not named QPR. The latter are also in trouble – Redknapp’s squad is bloated as fuck, his tactics are neanderthal, and you can’t build a defense on Rio Ferdinand’s rapidly-ageing knees anymore. I’m not sure how much of this is my dislike of ‘Arry Redknapp biasing my view towards them, and how much of it is that they actually just suck, but I’ll put them in the relegation places. While Leicester are currently in the final relegation spot, they’ve had some inspired performances so far in the season – particularly against Man United in a 5-3 comeback win, so put me down for Crystal Palace to take the final relegation spot.

Serge: It’s hard to disagree here with the Burnley assessment, they just haven’t been good enough to justify staying up. They can’t score goals, they can’t really defend, and despite drawing four times, they’re shooting themselves in the foot way too often. This team is simply out of their depth at the moment. Leicester City will claw it out as they just had an unfortunate run, but the quality and their play lead me to believe that they will hold on to the EPL spot. I think Sunderland and QPR are the honorary two other relegation teams.

Cam: I don’t know how to feel about Sunderland. I expect them to flirt with relegation for most of the year, but Gus Poyet is a canny enough manager that I think they should probably survive. If they fire him (entirely possible – Ellis Short has wielded the sack-hammer for lesser offenses than losing 8-0) then they’ll be in trouble. Glad to see we agree on Burnley and QPR.

 

Patrick Viera Award

Serge: If we were writing this exactly one year ago, I would have just handed it to Yaya Toure and moved on with my life. However, everyone’s favourite Ivorian (sorry Didier, it’s all love) has experienced a dip of form lately. It is fortunate then for lovers of good football that Victor Wanyama has been as damn good as he has this season. He’s done it all for the Saints this year without a sign of slowing down. It’s almost methodical how he sits just in front of the back four acting as their cover and then seamlessly transitions into attack. He’s been a rock for them at the back, but more importantly an important fulcrum when they need to go from defending to attacking in a switch.

Cam: Angel Di Maria. His team’s been inconsistent so far, but the Argentine has been absolutely magnificent – basically everything good that United have done has come as a result of his work ethic and creativity. He plays a weird hybrid of his shuttler/winger role from his Real Madrid days, but it’s been one of the few consistently effective aspects of United’s squad these days. At times, he’s looked like the lone anchor trying to hold the entire Manchester United-tinged world together.

Serge: Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love me some Angel Di Maria, but as someone who played holding midfielder in his amateur career, I appreciate defenders who trackback. In reality, I don’t think the Argentine could do more for Utd. if he somehow hypnotized Falcao to score a goal. Still, I think given Southamptons overall performance and Wanyama’s role in it, it’s hard for me to give this to anyone else.

 

Abou Diaby Memorial Trophy

Cam: Arsenal win this award as a team. Their inability to avoid injuries is simply baffling. It has to be something to do with their training regimen – it’s the only explanation for the consistency of their injuries.

On an individual award, Diego Costa’s hamstring picks this up. The scary thing is that he’s half fit and is still top scorer in the Premier League.

Serge: This is the EPL equivalent of the annual Derrick Rose Acknowledgement trophy. I can’t disagree with Arsenal just grabbing this collectively and going away. I don’t know why Arsene Wenger hasn’t taken a very close, very evaluative look at his medical staff. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them got their experience playing Operation. Daniel Sturridge is another candidate here, but let’s see how he comes back.

 

Giroud Award (most handsome while sweating for 90+ minutes)

There’s a 99% chance Graziano Pelle is better looking than you.

Serge: Graziano Pelle. The man is just unbelievably photogenic. Him and Giroud are like the dream team pairing for convincing your girlfriend why she should watch more EPL games.

Cam: Look at the photo up there. Assuming Giroud can’t win, this isn’t even a contest. Next!

 

Paolo di Canio Society for Manager Eccentricity

Serge: Shouldn’t van Gaal win this one by default? Yes, the match-day stuff has been pretty tame, but making Luke Shaw practice on his own because he is too fat? Trying to bring in an “English Only” policy? A myriad of behind the scenes stuff we probably don’t know about, but wouldn’t be all that surprised by? I think behind the scenes Louis definitely wins this award, while he stays surprisingly calm during games using Ryan Giggs as a glorified carrier pigeon for his on-field instructions.

 

The Chopping Block

Cam: It should be Alan Pardew. It has to be Alan Pardew. He’s alienated Newcastle’s fans, Newcastle’s players, and basically everyone who isn’t Mike Ashley. He’s made very clear that he has no ambition beyond “don’t get relegated” and yet was in the relegation zone two weeks ago. He is universally despised by the city of Newcastle and lovers of football. His job has been tenuous and on the verge of ending for something like 18 months now.

But it hasn’t happened, and it won’t. Two things will survive the apocalypse: Cockroaches, and Alan Pardew’s position at Newcastle. Mike Ashley will not (or cannot, due to the 600-year contract he offered Pardew three seasons ago) fire him. QPR are too deluded to fire Redknapp, Crystal Palace just did the sack-a-manager dance, Gus Poyet is well-liked by Sunderland’s fans even if he lost 8-0 to Southampton, and Leicester will eventually get it together. So in the absence of that, it’s probably either going to be Sean Dyche or Paul Lambert. Dyche simply has the unfortunate position of being a Championship-level manager of a Championship-level team who are grossly out of their depth. In the case of Lambert, he’s got Roy Keane as an assistant, which means the possibility of a palace coup is always just around the corner. Expect Lambert to walk into his office one Monday morning to find Roy Keane sitting behind the desk, drinking out of Lambert’s bottle of whiskey, only for Keane to whisper “now I am the master” before executing Lambert – Ned Stark-style – on the spot.

Serge: Knowing how Liverpool siphons through managers, if the Reds can’t get it together with the return of Sturridge, Rogers can see the exit door fairly fast. Tottenham is another team that isn’t quite getting the return on investment thing right. Pochettino is more a victim of circumstance. In Southampton he had a team full of players who were used to playing together and a good tactical background. In Tottenham he has a mess of tactical players, no clinical striker and hardly an impact player outside of Eriksen or Hugo. Still, my money should be on Lambert. Yes, he just signed a new contract, but given Villa’s recent performance. They failed to score since September 20th until their Tottenham match on November 2nd. And they did get Benteke back. Lambert has to be panicking somewhere and looking over his back. I wouldn’t be surprised if Roy Keane is quietly sneaking his scotch collection into the manager’s office.

Cam: Liverpool is a funny one. Fans don’t seem to have turned on Rodgers to the extent that they probably should have, while the press has (wrongly) directed its wrath at Mario Balotelli. I’m of the belief that Tottenham would be mad to fire Pochettino, though that increases the likelihood that they will. I think Spurs and Liverpool will ultimately be held back by the simple reality that there isn’t a sufficiently talented potential replacement – Spurs were burned by the Tim Sherwood Experience last season, while Liverpool’s experiment with Roy Hodsgon and Daiglish post-Benitez wasn’t particularly successful either. So my money’s on Villa.

 

Transfer Business Review

Serge: Southampton has to be winning this in terms of value for money. They turned Liverpool’s transfer buys into Liverpool’s table position while also somehow convincing them to take Rickie Lambert off their hands, this is magic. They turned players nobody was really hunting into big impact EPL performers (and panty droppers, see: Graziano Pelle). As a collective transfer strategy, theirs has to be the best. United and Arsenal on the other hand fall into the opposite category (which made me happy it wasn’t just Arsenal). Neither team addressed an urgent need (Hint: Nacho Monreal is not a CB, he’s a subpar LB at best) on defense nor did they add to their depth, which is getting highlighted by injury and suspension problems on both sides. Both Arsene and van Gaal chose to add luxury up front, something they already had plenty off while ignoring their depth issues in the back. They gon’ pay. Top 3 transfers: 1) Cesc Fabregas 2) Alexis Sanchez (basically holding Arsenal around 4th place) 3) Mohamed Diame

Cam:: Agree wholeheartedly about Southampton and Liverpool. Seriously, Adam Lallana’s transfer fee was 20% higher than that of Toni Kroos – if you needed further proof of the transfer premium put on English-born players, this is surely it. Also agree with the lack of collective strategy by United and Arsenal, even if Alexis Sanchez will end up being a superb buy – we could really use him over at the Camp Nou right now. I also want to make a positive mention of Hull City, whose pickup of Mohamed Diame has worked wonders for them, and West Ham. Yes, Sam Allardyce is still a boring tactical neanderthal, but they actually bought extremely well this summer. While I hate Alex Song and think he’s nowhere near good enough to be a member of Barca’s squad, West Ham picking him up on loan was nothing short of a stroke of genius – he’s provided much-needed midfield balance and is still a really good distributor of the ball. They also gamed the loan market well by grabbing Jenkinson from Arsenal, while Enner Valencia is a really interesting buy for the long term.

Serge: I love seeing Alex Song back in the EPL. The last year at Arsenal he really stepped up for us and he was lacking the game time to keep playing and developing. West Ham really gamed the transfer market well to be where they are. Of course, we have to give Chelsea credit where it’s due. It must be easy to just throw money at a problem and see it go away, but their buys of Fabregas and Diego Costa were exactly the ones they needed. I do have to ask, couldn’t Pellegrini just burn the cash rather than spending it on Mangala.

 

The Next Gareth Bale

Cam: We have to make a distinction in terms of who the next grossly overpriced footballer will be: a grossly overpriced sale between Premier League teams (ie Fernando Torres) and a grossly inflated sale between a Premier League team and one of the continental heavyweights (Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, PSG). For previous anti-bargains, an honourable mention has to go to David Luiz being bought by PSG for FIFTY MILLION EUROS immediately before imploding in the World Cup semifinal. In terms of who is likely to be the next overpriced footballer, my gut would say Graziano Pelle, but people are likely to be more wary of doing business with Southampton after the coastal club absolutely fleeced Liverpool when selling them last year’s squad. If QPR go down, they may cash in on Charlie Austin to prevent the most brutal FFP punishment in the history of football, and I can see mid-table teams overpaying for his services.

The other possibility for a continental club – and in my view the more likely – is Raheem Sterling. Since he moved infield from the wings, the Sterling Hype Train has reached ridiculous levels – he’s frequently hailed as the best U23 player in the world (the mere existence of Paul Pogba disproves this view), and there has been some chatter of interest from Real Madrid in the past. I don’t buy that the interest is immediate, but if Liverpool miss out on European football due to their inability to defend, there may be mutual interest in a sale – Liverpool to recoup costs, Sterling to play European football. He could very easily end up at one of the bigger financial players in England or on the continent, and rest assured at the agreed-upon fee will be outrageous.

Serge:  Strikers are often overpaid. English players are always overpaid. Real Madrid frequently finds a player that they don’t really need and overpay for him. There are patterns. I can see Raheem Sterling as the man who gets a lot more money paid for what his talents are worth. There just isn’t that much internal talent right now to see a HUGE amount of overpaid transactions. My bet would be a panic buy from United to bring in another wing player when they need a defender.

 

Goal of the Quarter-Season

Serge: Graziano Pelle. If the theme is developing of my mini-crush on him, you’re probably right.

Cam: I agree, but just to prevent Armchair’s Pelle man-crush from reaching dangerous, restraining order-type levels, I’m gonna go with a different goal: Diego Costa’s beautiful chip against Arsenal in Chelsea’s 2-0 victory against them. It defines Chelsea’s new look this season: a beautifully-weighted, lobbed thread from Cesc Fabregas, two touches from Costa, and a perfect, volleyed finish past Sczezny. You can’t ask for more.

 

 

Player of the Quarter-Season

Cam: For me, it’s a toss-up between Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero, and Cesc Fabregas. Sanchez has essentially dragged Arsenal to their current position on his own, looking at his shoddy defense, saying “fuck this” and scoring bucketloads of goals. With Yaya Toure’s dip in form, Aguero has been Manchester City’s standout player so far, while Cesc Fabregas has provided the creativity and decisiveness necessary to make Diego Costa (and Chelsea) thrive. Honourable mentions to Graziano Pelle, Angel Di Maria, and Alex Song.

Serge: So many great performances throughout the start of the season, but I think it has to be Alexis Sanchez. I get the arguments for both Aguero and Cesc, but Chelsea and City are known qualities at this time. They’re not too hit by injuries and both teams are deep enough to sustain this form (although City’s performance in CL makes you wonder). Sanchez on the other hand is single handedly holding Arsenal in the 4th spot. This team has been devastated by injuries across the board which exposed their lack of depth in the back 4 (and lack of understanding how to structure their midfield). The one constant has been the Chilean superstar dragging this team behind it.

Cam: Totally reasonable (if a little bit self-interested). Sanchez has been magnificent this season. If Arsenal mount a title challenge, it will be almost entirely because of his goals and general unwillingness to accept his imaginary fourth trophy.

 

Coach of the Quarter-Season

Serge: I could say Mourinho, and I probably should. When it’s all said and done he will be one of the best all-time managers in football. However, I’ve never seen him at a team with a small budget and where he didn’t just get what he wanted. That bit of criticism aside, he has been fantastic and Chelsea are still undefeated. He has to be the one. To me however, it’s Ronald Koeman. He is new to the English game, this team has lost 7 players who featured consistently in it’s first XI and added 9 that now feature in the rotation. Yet, they’re playing some of the most cohesive football in the EPL and holding second place in the table. Definitely a testament to Koeman’s managerial prowess to keep this together.

Cam: Can’t disagree with either of those. Mention of the negative kind must go to Brendan Rodgers, who somehow still hasn’t been able to teach Liverpool how to defend or turn Simon Mignolet into a functioning goalkeeper, all whilst alienating Roy Hodgson, his own diehard (and admittedly deluded) fans, the press, and the blogosphere.

Serge: Rodgers’ fall from grace has been one of the greatest weekend dramas in the EPL this season. It’s also a testament to how hard it is to replace someone of Luis Suarez’s quality in your squad. Also, no matter how bad things get for Newcastle, Alan Pardew is more likely to get stabbed by disgruntled fans than get fired.

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