Premier League Review: Games of Two Halves
Goodness only knows what was said in the changing rooms at The City of Manchester Stadium on Sunday afternoon. For the first forty-five minutes of their Premier League match against Manchester City, Arsenal had looked very much as they have done for much of this season, slick and fluid, as per recent years, but with that added spine of grit that has determined them as being one of the few clubs fit to cling to Chelsea’s coat-tails at the top of the table. Theo Walcott’s fifth minute goal had given them the lead and all seemed right with the world. It seemed, if anything, as though the pressure was mounting over Pep Guardiola, with Manchester City looking as though they were slipping to a loss that would have left them in their weakest Christmas position in seven years.
This, however, is December and this, of course, is Arsenal. Guardiola shuffled his pack during the interval – whilst Arsene Wenger apparently fed his players a mixture of Mogadon and Ex-Lax – and it took two minutes for Leroy Sane to bring City level and a further twenty-four minutes before Raheem Sterling scored to hand all three points to Manchester City, who leapfrog to second place in the table, while Arsenal stay in the relatively depressed position of fourth place in the table. The easy and facetious line to drop at this point – considering that this was the second time that they’ve lost a match from a winning position – would, of course, be “Arsenal gonna Arsenal”, but this still doesn’t quite feel right this season. Not yet, anyway. Manchester City, meanwhile, continue to take haphazard steps in the direction that was presumably intended when the job was finally given to Pep Guardiola in the first place.
While those around them stutter and stumble to some extent or other, though, Chelsea remain imperious. An eleventh successive win on Saturday lunchtime against (an admittedly tepid) Crystal Palace further widened their lead at the top of the table – although Liverpool can shorten it again to six points, should they win the, sigh, “Mersey Monday © 2016 Sky Sports, all rights reserved” this evening against Everton, but perhaps the most significant story of the first half of this season has been the admirable speed with which the year before last’s champions have been revitalised by new manager Antonio Conte after the slow motion car crash that represented their attempted defence of the title last time around.
Even the qualifiers to this ascent to the top of the table – no distraction of European football being the most cited – cannot detract from this achievement, and it could almost feel as though the summer break brought the sort of breath of fresh air through the club that others could only dream of. There has been no transitional period. There have been no unsavoury rumours from the training ground. Conte has worked hard on building a sense of community within the club, and the rewards of his style of management are already clear from performances on the pitch. They will end 2016 as the Premier League’s team to beat. Crystal Palace, meanwhile, continue to hope and pray that there there will continue to be three worse teams in this season’s Premier League than they. They’ve had a wretched calendar year, and perhaps their best hope is that the psychological effects of a new calendar will lift a team that continues to look rudderless.
Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, continue to touch chase the top four pack. United won Saturday evening’s match against West Bromwich Albion, who went into the match with their tails up and hoping to solidify a decent run of form by leapfrogging their guests into sixth place in the table. Two Zlatan Ibrahimovic goals won the game, but more impressive still was a defensively robust performance that brought a third clean sheet in their last four matches. But they need to come from behind, given their patchy start to the season, if they are to claim a Champions League spot come the end of the season. At White Hart Lane, meanwhile, Burnley proved to be doughty opposition for Spurs and took the lead midway through the first half. This lead, however, lasted for just six minutes before Delle Alli levelled for the home side, and with a little under twenty minutes left to play a foot like a traction engine moment from Danny Rose won the game. Spurs remain three points ahead of Manchester United as everybody takes a few days out before the Christmas rush.
Considering an inconsistency that has now spread back over seven consecutive matches of alternately winning and then losing, it is perhaps unsurprising, in a sense, that Bournemouth missed the opportunity to jump to seventh place after losing at home against Southampton on Sunday lunchtime. They started this derby match with a spring in their step and took an early lead through Nathan Ake, but Southampton responded brightly and ran out convincing winners in the end, a three-one win punctuated by two goals – including one that may be a contender for Goal of the Season come May, from Jay Rodriguez – lifting them into seventh place and leaving Bournemouth two places below them. Yet again, it would appear that Southampton have pulled a rabbit from the hat in the form of the appointment of Claude Puel. Bournemouth, meanwhile, continue to shine intermittently, which doesn’t sound so great until we recall that this is supposed to be their “difficult second season”.
The remainder of the Premier League’s noteworthy action at the weekend came from the mire at the other end of the table. Bob Bradley continues to carry the demeanour of a man who’s turned up at the wrong airport on the wrong day after Swansea City were brushed aside by Middlesbrough in a manner that seemed to indicate that few corners have been turned at The Liberty Stadium over the course of the last couple of months ago. Alvaro Negredo chipped in with two goals in nine first half minutes putting the band beyond Swansea before they’d even had the chance to find anything approaching a rhythm. Bradley is a nice guy and a highly experienced coach, and it would be a great shame if his experience of the Premier League was limited to a club that seems to be sliding from view in more senses than one, but there’s a dark cloud hanging over the club at the moment, and there isn’t long left to fix what is wrong to a sufficient extent that it will be able to survive at this level. Middlesbrough on the other hand, have “lower mid-table” written all over them, which is roughly where we might have expected in August.
West Ham United have now won five Premier League matches this season, and each of them have come by a margin of a goal to nil. This run continued on Saturday at The Olympic Stadium with a victory against Hull City that was decided by a second half penalty kick from Mark Noble. It was a match that will surely have left the Hull City manager Mike Phelan banging his head against the dressing room door in frustration. His team did more or less everything that could have been expected of them except for actually get the ball into the West Ham goal, and such was the extent of the visitors’ bad luck that even the official West Ham Twitter account awarded the man of the match title to their own goal post. In the case of both clubs, though, which is which? This was West Ham’s second lone goal win in a week, but they still have the look of a team that is tripping over their own feet in trying to scramble clear of the relegation places, whilst Hull’s run of results has been dismal, although their performances haven’t always been so.
To add to Phelan’s sense of chagrin, Hull dropped to the bottom of the table as a result of Sunderland’s one-nil win against Watford. Patrick van Aanholt scored the game’s only goal four minutes into the second half at The Stadium of Light, but there are storm clouds on the horizon over Wearside at present with suggestions that David Moyes is unhappy with the reneging on an agreement by owner Ellis Short to furnish him with funds to strengthen his squad in January. At least, however, the psychological hurdle of being bottom of the table at Christmas has been overcome. Finally, another year of two halves saw Leicester City continue to dangle a couple of points above the dotted line at the bottom of the table following a draw at Stoke City, who seem resolved to finishing as close as possible to the middle of the Premier League table each season, come what may. Following a five goal drubbing at the hands of Porto in their final Champions League group match and a win against Manchester City to follow that, Leicester supporters may well enter 2017 hoping for the sweet anonymity of the middle of the table. It may not be the most ambitious of Christmas wishes, but after the roller coaster that this year has been for the club, it remains a more positive aim than the most realistic alternative.
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