The holiday season has passed, with the deluge of football and silly catch phrases (“pantomime season”, “Christmas crackers”). We can now take a look back at a highly entertaining first half of the season in the Premier League. The usual suspects might be at the top but the good form of West Brom, Norwich City, Swansea and Everton have kept things interesting. There have been goals galore as English defenses seem to forget what they are paid to do – which, truth be told, is fantastic for us viewers. In homage to the attacking vein of this season I’ve selected an all out attacking 3-4-3 formation for my Best XI at this half-term mark.
Peter Cech – The complete lack of solid defenses in the Premier League big boys has lead to a number of the top goalkeepers seeing a lot of action. David de Gea and Joe Hart haven’t quite covered themselves in glory, and neither North London sides of Spurs or Arsenal can figure out who they want to put in as their regular number one. Chelsea have no such problems. Di Mateo’s early season cavalier approach, with the “Three Amigos” galloping forward was turned on its head and conceded 20 goals in 9 matches in the month prior leading to the Italian’s dismissal. Injury and suspension to Captain/Legend/Villain John Terry always leaves Chelsea struggling. Yet, all through this turmoil, Peter Cech has looked as solid as ever. De Gea has saved more shots per game, Hart conceded fewer goals per game, but Cech doesn’t make the same high profile, and costly errors, that the two Manchester keepers often do. But the statistics aren’t all bad. No other keeper in a top half side has more saves and Chelsea are level with Manchester City for fewest goals conceded, less than one per match. We might see a little less of Cech in the second half of the season thanks to Rafa Benitez’s more conservative footballing approach, but chances are he’ll still prove good when called upon.
Jussi Jasskelainen – The West Ham keeper has made a whopping 82 saves and played in every single league match this year. He has helped his side to a defensive record bettered by only four other sides in the league. For years Jasskelainen did Big Sam proud at Bolton and seems to be doing the same now for him in East London. With six clean sheets at the half term, the 37 year old is still going strong.
Leighton Baines – Buoyed by last season’s good finish, the Toffies have laid the groundwork for a successful year by getting off to a fantastic start. Currently in fifth place at the halfway point Everton beat Manchester United on the opening day, drew Manchester City away, produced a stunning two goal injury time turnaround to beat Spurs and bossed Chelsea around with ease for thirty minutes last weekend. They’ve only lost three times, same amount as leaders United, but their nine draws account for their lack of points. The core of the squad – Baines, Osman, Jagielka, Jelavic and Piennar – have managed to stay fit and play consistently. Of those Baines has been exemplary of the up-and-down-the-pitch English style defensive back, so much so that many would like to see the twenty eight year old replace an aging Ashley Cole in the England squad. Solid in the back, Baines bombs forward down the left with real venom and puts in some fantastic crosses for the big men of Nikica Jelavic and Mauroane Fellaini. If he, and Everton’s other performers, can stay fit Everton should challenge for a Champions League spot.
Branislav Ivanovic – The Chelsea defender has been omnipresent this year for the best defensive side in the league. He has also been constructive at the opposite end of the pitch, proving twice as effective at Fernando Torres with 4 goals out of 15 shots (Torres has 7 goals from 47 shots). Like Baines, Ivanovic can stay calm at the back while still pressing down the wings to overlap on attacks (best evidenced in the first goal of the season, 2 minutes in and running through on goal against Wigan). With Terry no longer the force of old and Luiz now, reasonably, preferred in midfield, Ivanovic is vital for Chelsea’s backline.
Ryan Shawcross – An unlikely parring for the best central defensive partnership this half season has been Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth. They’ve kept nine clean sheets, including those against Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and the free-scorers of Fulham and Swansea City. The only time Stoke have conceded more than two goals in the league has been away against Manchester United, Manchester City and a bizarre match against Southampton which, coincidently, Shawcross did not feature in. At 25 years of age Shawcross finally seems to be coming into maturity, and could easily be seen in a possible return to Manchester United given their calamitous defense and the aging and injuries of Ferdinand and Vidic.
Phil Jagielka: I’ve already waxed on about Everton and Jagielka has played a large part in their good start to the season. He defends well but also moves the ball forward very smartly. Certainly a long term place in the England squad is deserved.
Pablo Zabaleta: The right back has done for Man City what Ivanovic and Baines have done for their clubs. Play consistently, stay calm at the back and make devastating runs down the wing to assist in the goals.
Juan Mata – At the beginning of the year, with the signings of Oscar and Hazard you might not have expected Mata to be the shining force in Chelsea’s midfield. But at the halfway point in the year the young Spaniard is the club’s leading goalscorer, tied with Torres on 7 goals, and the leading goal creator, with 7 assists. Hazard and Oscar performed well in Chelsea’s early-season good form, but Mata has been consistent throughout. The other Amigos have an abundance of skill, but have yet, it seems, to come to terms with the Premier League. In a team that barely keeps a hold of a manager let alone a regular starting XI, Mata’s name deserves to be on the starting list after Cech’s.
Gareth Bale – When Gareth Bale scored a hat-trick against the Champions League holders Inter Milan at the San Siro a couple years back everyone went ballistic. He was going to sign for Real Madrid or Barcelona. Well, he’s no Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and maybe all the hype was a bit unnecessary, but Bale is a damn good player. His speed and natural knack for football can be frightening. Bale is ten steps ahead of most of the Premier League defenders he comes across. Just as the ball arrives at his feet and the defender steps up to him, he has already flicked it past and is chasing after it while the defenders stand stunned and wide eyed. Bale certainly has shades of a young Ryan Giggs about him. He started out on the wing but now enjoys venturing towards the center of the pitch and scores a bucket load of goals (9 goals this year, but only one assist). Andre Villas Boas has been smart and played Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale in every match possible. They might not possess the best footballing brains, but they have speed in abundance and simply scare the daylights out of full backs up and down the country. At a mere 23 years of age it’s hard to see him sticking around Spurs forever, espcially if they don’t make the Champions League on a regular basis.
Santi Cazorla – Not too many in the English speaking footballing world took much notice when Arsene Wenger picked up Santi Cazorla this summer. In fact most people thought Cazorla was way below the caliber of recently departed players – Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie. But the giddy smile on Wenger’s face in post match interviews this year testifies to both Cazorla’s performances and the satisfaction of picking him up. Former manager Manuel Pellegrini thought Arsenal had stolen him from Malaga at 15 million pounds. It’s amazing how a mature player of this technical capacity has so few international appearances and can surprise England to such an extent. Cazorla has also only gotten better and better as the season progresses, including a hat-trick against Reading in mid-December.
Mauroane Fellaini – Fellaini scared the daylights out of Manchester United last year as Everton managed an incredible 4-4 draw after being down by two goals with a only few minutes to go. So much so many United supporters thought he should be the major transfer target of the summer. He is tall and an excellent header of the ball. He controls high balls on his chest and brings the ball down better than anyone else playing in England. Shades of Eric Cantona follow him, both in his mercurial skills, his overwhelming hatred of losing and, sadly, in the controversies and flashes of anger that follow him around. His threat means that defenders must keep a constant eye on him which leaves the out and out striker Jelavic free to bag the goals – although so far this year Fellaini has outscored the Croatian. He’s missed matches through suspension but if he stays on the pitch and plays this well he’ll certainly earn himself a transfer to a bigger club.
Michael Carrick – Despite filling up his trophy cabinet Carrick has never been considered a complete success at Manchester United. Slowly but surely he is proving very consistent and his midfield vision is a necessity in United’s midfield with Scholes wrapping up his career…again…
Chris Brunt – The West Brom midfielder scores some outside-the-box crackers and has been a key component in the Baggies good form this year. He doesn’t attract a lot of attention and you can imagine that will please Steve Clarke and the Baggie faithful.
Robin Van Persie – Rewind to the preseason and it wouldn’t be hard to find a United supporter wondering whether the 24 million pounds spent on an injury prone 29 year old striker was worth while. 16 goals and 6 assists later and no one is wondering anymore. Roberto Mancini has publicly declared the Dutch striker the difference between the two Manchester clubs. Van Persie has shown he can score early into games – West Ham, Arsenal, Chelsea – but also vital late goals – a hatrick against Southampton, an 81st minute winning penalty at Anfield and the famous (and fortuitous) injury time winner against City at the Etihad. After losing last year’s league trophy on goal difference Ferguson is going all out with scoring goals. Mancini knows this importance too, which is why he is continually kicking himself for not grabbing the Dutch striker before United – despite already boasting an arsenal of Aguero, Tevez, Balotelli and Dzeko. If Van Persie stays fit and keeps up his current form it’s hard to see United throwing away the title.
Luis Suarez – One of football’s great villains. Whether it’s his biting of PSV’s Otman Bakkal, that handball (and celebration of the penalty miss) in the World Cup quarter final against Ghana, his unbelievable comments to Patrice Evra or his penchant for going down rather easily, it’s hard not to love hating Luis Suarez. Whatever you might think of Suarez as a person there is no doubting his ability on the pitch. At Ajax he scored goals galore, won the player of the tournament at the 2011 Copa America and it is a rare moment to find him not running his socks off. Yet for all the endearment the Anfield faithful have for him, only in the first half of this season have we seen Suarez’s true exploits in a Liverpool kit. Only Van Persie has more goals than him at the season’s halfway stage. His goals, tireless work rate and uncanny ability to turn past opponents have seen him keep a struggling Liverpool side away from the embarrassment of a relegation scrap.
Michu – There’s not much more to be said about Michu’s performances for Swansea City this year that hasn’t been repeated a million times already. When Michael Laudrup took over Swansea, his first position in the UK, it was hard to imagine him being so successful. Last year’s top performers, Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair left but Laudrup’s replacements from La Liga – de Guzman, Chico Flores and the 2 million pound man Michu – have the Swans flying high. The Spaniard introduced himself immediately to the Premier League with 4 goals in 3 matches. In December two last gasp goals saw Swansea defeat Arsenal 2-0 away at the Emirates. This season the Swans have added a directness that was not present with Brendan Rogers at the helm and Michu has provided the ruthlessness in front of goal to capitalize on that directness.
Dimitar Berbatov – It’s hard to remember Berbatov was the top scorer in the league two years ago. Languishing on the bench at United must have been frustrating but he did it without much drama and has gone on to show he’s still got something left in the locker. With the pressure off of playing at a club the size of United he’s also playing with a smile, which is good to see.
Theo Walcott – Wallcott can be incredibly frustrating and his prolonged contract negotiations are added to the annals of annoying Arsenal transfer sagas, but Walcott has shown he can score goals and backed up his cries to play as a forward. That might be for the best as it’s been shown he doesn’t have the most consistent passing, or as Alan Hansen says, a “footballing brain”.
Michael Laudrup – Steve Clarke has done a fantastic job at West Bromwich. Chris Hughton has recovered from a horrible start for Norwich City. David Moyes has continued to work his wonders on a shoe-string budget at Everton. But Michael Laudrup has surprised everyone by keeping Swansea City punching way above their weight despite losing top players and the manager who got them into the top flight. Few expected the Danish legend to settle into the Premier League so well. He is composed in press conferences, but he also has the luxury of very little expectation on his side. His astute, and cheap, aforementioned signings have been the buys-of-the-year.