Five Premier League Riddles For The Second Half Of The Season
Among the traditional arguments, there is a less obvious reason a mid-season break would be unwelcome in England. While the turkey remnants are being recycled, it would deprive us all of the chance to over-analyse the festive fixture list, complete with gloating or defiant excuse-making over how right or wrong we were about the first half of the Premier League season. Think back to Gameweek 1 – the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade had swelled to record numbers, Newcastle fans feared for their ability to stay in the division, and all the fuss at Old Trafford seemed to be for nothing. It would have taken a brave man to predict the twists and turns that have since ensued, but here are 5 questions for the rest of the season that no-one can claim to know the answers to.
1. Can David Moyes turn it around?
Yes, we all know the ‘fear factor’ appears to have followed Sir Alex out of the Old Trafford exit door. And 6 defeats in 20 Premier League games (4 of those at home) is not just the sort of form that damages confidence, but strengthens the resolve of other clubs to seize their opportunity. However, nothing in life, and especially in football, lasts forever and after domination of the national game for 20 years, only the most obstinate observer would be surprised that the domestic order is undergoing some change. Most rational Manchester United fans would have settled for a top-4 finish this season and United are only 5 points adrift of that goal. Add the fact that both United and Moyes have a reputation for stronger second halves of the season, a possible League Cup final, a favourable Champions League draw and a domestic fixture list which will see United play all their main rivals by the middle of March, and there may still be plenty left to salvage from this season.
2. Is Mourinho still the ‘Special One’
Those of a nostalgic nature at Stamford Bridge had an uncomfortable reality check early in the season as it became clear Mourinho’s second spell in charge would not get off to the same flying start as the first. The rise of formidable new challengers is a sign that the Premier League is not the same place it was the last time Jose was here, and the struggle to find a dependable striker coupled with some defensive mishaps have frustrated him. However, he appears to have mellowed as a coach and as a personality, and his latest charm offensive has seen him endorse the bookings of his own players for diving, all the while overseeing a steady improvement in his team’s fortunes. After an unspectacular first half of the season by their own standards, Chelsea are still only two points off the summit, and despite their striking problems, have found the net 38 times – only once less than league leaders Arsenal. A solitary defeat in 10 games is grounds enough to believe that, come May, Jose can still be as special as ever.
3. Are the Big 4 now the Big 7?
Does it even matter? While United and Spurs fans will hope for an improvement in fortunes, the prospects for both Arsenal and Manchester City look far better than they did last season. Arsenal are finally exhibiting the sort of strength in depth that is needed to win league titles, and City are showing signs of improving their away form to complement their impenetrability at the Etihad. Meanwhile, the question for Liverpool and Everton fans is whether their impressive early season form can be maintained, or whether they will fall into the famed trap of ‘peaking too soon’. Both Merseyside teams appear to have benefited from a refreshed footballing identity developed by young, dynamic managers, however the pressures of the coming months may be telling. Luis Suarez has had about as perfect a first half of the season as Brendan Rogers could have hoped for, scoring 20 league goals and generally steering clear of controversy. However, a dip in form or injury would surely take its toll, especially given Daniel Sturridge’s extended absence. At Goodison Park, Everton have been the epitomy of a team ‘playing for each other’ and the harmony within the squad and in the nature of their football has seen them undefeated by any of the teams in the top half of the table with the exception of Manchester City. Toffees fans will watch eagerly, but perhaps with a touch of anxiety, over the coming months to see how their young, talented squad deals with the pressures of a Premier League run-in.
4. How many more managers will be shown the door?
Six Premier League clubs have now sacked their managers this season – and it is no coincidence that five of those find themselves in the bottom half of the table. The ridiculous saga at Cardiff which ended with Malky Mackay being honourably discharged was preceded by the ludicrous decision to sack Andre Villas-Boas at Spurs – apparently for not knowing quickly enough which combination of the seven signings made over the summer could adequately replace Gareth Bale. Will any others follow that unlucky duo? Sam Allardyce has presided over an ominous few months at West Ham, although is in the unusual position of having the public backing of the club’s owners. A squad ravaged by injury has not helped matters but a few choice signings in January could lift the gloom. Likewise, Aston Villa are far from where their supporters would like them to be, but the relative youth and inexperience of the side may prove the saving grace for Paul Lambert, at least for the remainder of this season. Elsewhere, Chris Hughton’s Norwich have turned in some determined performances but ultimately failed to turn those into points, and the manager will have to hope his squad can rectify that quickly enough in order not to be sucked into another springtime scrap to preserve their top tier status, together with his job.
5. Is there any value in the January transfer market?
The tag of ‘most exciting league in the world’ has been applied to the Premier League somewhat indiscriminately in recent years, but this season there is no questioning that label. And amid all the excitement is the distraction of the January transfer window. The rumour mill has creaked, rather than roared, into life this time around. Many managers have said that they do not believe there is great value in this transfer market, but the fact is that many clubs are still chasing players. Diego Costa would be a big name signing for any of the big guns but, like his team-mate Koke, is unlikely to move from an exciting Atletico side who are genuine La Liga contenders at this stage of the season. Mario Mandzukic and Juan Mata would find no shortage of suitors although Chelsea would be loathe to let the latter join another Premier League club. Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea meanwhile have all apparently been considering bringing the enigmatic Mario Balotelli back to England. It would be a surprise not to see at least one new name at Old Trafford, while Chelsea have been candid about seeking a new striker. Elsewhere, Ole Gunnar Solkjaer has been promised a war chest and is bound to bring in some new faces at Cardiff, while the likes of Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce and Rene Meulensteen will no doubt be using all their experience to bag a bargain. This year, the transfer window is as unpredictable as the league itself.
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