Miss Daisy dons her mortar board and dishes out the half-term grades….
The addition of Crouch and Palacios was supposed to beckon in a gradual change of playing style for Stoke, particularly from the latter. Unfortunately little has altered from previous years as the Potters continue to bombard the opposition with aerial assaults from the 1980s. It is brutal, aesthetically displeasing and borders on anti-football. In fact – with the loss of form from their only two ball-players in Etherington and Pennant – it could be argued that Stoke are even more one-dimensional now than ever before.
None of this will matter a jot to Pulis of course whose only remit is in keeping his club in the top flight and finishing as high up the league as possible. To that end the unrelenting barrage of high balls works no matter how unpopular their strategy is.
Most disconcerting of all for the neutrals is the emergence of Ryan Shotton and his Delap-esque throwing arms. One was bad enough but now they’re starting to clone them with towels sewn into their shirts!
Key man – Robert Huth. A lumbering physical giant Huth epitomises Stoke.
Key moment/game – In this instance a series of games. The Potters recently won four games on the bounce, equalling a long-standing record for them in the top flight.
Grade – B+
The Martin O’Neill effect has been so galvanising it is possible to essentially write off the first few months of Sunderland’s campaign as belonging to another era. Already the idiosyncratic Irishman has elevated the Black Cats to tenth spot and staved off any lingering fears of relegation that were gaining in scope under Bruce’s dismal regime. The Elephant Man brought in an entire new team over the summer and was always going to struggle to knit together a coherent line-up and a series of inconsistent performances bore this out. What troubled the Mackems the most however was there was little indication that he even had a clear vision of where he wanted to take the club. Once Niall Quinn stepped down as chairman Bruce lost his closest ally on the board and his fate was determined.
Key man – Martin O’Neill. Their saviour in a tracksuit.
Key moment/game – The sudden and bizarre departure of Asamoah Gyan that left Sunderland bereft of firepower.
Grade – C-
The compliments raining down on the Jacks for their attractive open football is not unexpected and could have been predicted way back in the summer. What is surprising is that such plaudits were supposed to be said in a patronising, pat-on-the-head manner by victorious rival gaffers as they left the Liberty with another three points. Instead the Swans have torn into this division with the same adventure and devilish élan that brought them out of the Championship and it’s caught the big boys flat-footed. A fantastic six draws from ten away from home is testimony to their pedigree and ability to remain in the Prem but for Swansea it’s all about establishing the Liberty as a fortress of passion and attacking fare. If they continue in a similar vein it is hard not to see them surviving and ultimately flourishing.
Key man – Danny Graham. A goal scorer is a priceless commodity for any side of Swansea’s stature. Following a barren run as he settled in to new surroundings and a higher level Graham has now become the Jack’s invaluable finisher.
Key moment/game – The opening twenty minutes of their first ever Premier League fixture away to Manchester City. Immediately composing themselves the Swans set about out-passing a top-four side on their own turf while their fans belted out Hymns and Arias. It amounted to a statement of intent and was wonderful to see.
Grade – B+
What a difference a few months make. Back in May Redknapp was visually inconsolable on the MotD2 coach barely able to project an optimistic future for the Lillywhites following their failure to secure a Champion’s League spot. Without exaggeration he looks like a man resigned to resignation.
Then came the Modric saga and though it was considered immensely damaging to Spurs (particularly following his half-hearted display in their 5-1 reverse at home to City early on in the season) perhaps their ability to retain the gnomic schemer bolstered everyone at the club to such a degree that it could now be viewed as pivotal to their current high-flying campaign. It certainly seemed to revitalise Redknapp who has over-seen an incredible run that has lifted Spurs to genuine title contenders.
Key man – Tempting to plump for Parker but Spurs have been blessed with many quality ball-winners in recent times and not seen such dizzying heights. Instead it has to be Adebayor who has matched Crouch’s strike-rate but also given the team that additional something extra up front.
Key game/moment – The 4-0 pasting of Liverpool in September released a bolt of electricity through the whole club.
Grade – A+
The Baggies can rival Blackburn for being the Premier League’s unluckiest side this season after a string of results have gone against them late on following fine displays.
This shouldn’t disguise the fact though that Roy Hodgson’s incremental revolution at the Hawthorns is taking its toll on key figures in the first eleven who are beginning to lose their way. The unfancied Graham Dorrans (who has been superb in recent seasons) and Chris Brunt have swam against the tide for much of the latter half of 2011 whilst James Morrison and their attacking talisman Odemwingie has struggled with injuries. Hodgson would be wise to temporarily shelve his visions for a reshaped West Bromwich and try to encourage such players to rediscover their zest and vigour that served previous boss Di Matteo so well. Because the bottom three awaits like a bear trap should their combination of misfortune and under-performing personnel continue.
Key man – Chris Brunt. On form Brunt is an under-rated gem of a player.
Key moment/game – Last Sunday’s fixture with Everton had 0-0 written all over it until Anichebe (who hadn’t previously scored since one flew off his arse in an under-11s match in 1998) settled matters late on. Occurring on January 1st it hinted that 2012 might well offer further rotten luck at the Hawthorns.
Grade – C
Huge credit must go to Latics fans for largely sticking by their manager as the club languish at the foot of the table. Similar kudos (though reluctantly given as I personally don’t like the fella) must be accredited to Dave Whelan for repaying the loyalty shown by Roberto Martinez in the summer when he turned down the Aston Villa job.
The fact remains however that despite the common sense Wigan are entrenched in the mire. Not only are they shipping in a worrying amount of goals (41 already in just 20 games) but they’ve lacked a leader who might have hauled his team-mates to a precious draw in any of the few tight encounters they’ve faced.
The Spaniard advocates passing football, and again that is something deserving of credit, but Wigan must start scrapping and do so soon.
In previous relegation dogfights (and let’s face it there has been a few at the DW over recent years) Martinez has compromised upon his beliefs with games to spare and reverted to more direct and desperate measures. You feel he cannot wait until Easter to do so again and a tall commanding defender from the lower leagues is a must this January window along with a more physical style of play to accommodate him. Needs must.
Key man – Conor Sammon and Ben Watson. Not for the past few months but the half-term to come. Get fighting boys.
Key moment/game – Not a single moment but rather a succession of home thumpings reveal a side fragile in belief.
Grade – D-
McCarthy recently bemoaned the fact that his team are getting praised for their honest endeavour but he’d rather have the points. It’s a fair comment but it’s equally true to say that there were times last term when Wolves played some dazzling football in addition to the graft. This season that high-tempo cut and thrust seems to have dulled somewhat leaving the Wanderers a touch over-reliant on the bread-and-butter toil that McCarthy so loves. Love it he might but without the flair there is a limit to how far such qualities will take you amongst such esteemed company and as the new year is ushered in it very much looks like another relegation scrap for the side from the Black Country.
Worryingly they have lost five of their ten home fixtures and Mick’s boys are conceding far too much. The purchase of Roger Johnson has thus far not worked out and he has struggled at the back after a sterling season in similar circumstances with Brum.
The basics are there for Wolves; now the adventurous Jarvis and the under-used Milijaš must start creating and exciting once again.
Key man – Kevin Doyle. A target for Arsenal last July the Irish hit man has disappointed in front of goal so far with just two in sixteen.
Key moment/game – Three draws and an unfortunate defeat to Chelsea over the Christmas period shows they are steadying the ship.
Grade – C+