The Cutter dons its mortar board once again and dishes out the half-term grades….
Even rival fans were screaming at Wenger to spend this summer to bolster a squad that quite patently needed strengthening. A trio of late purchases had the reek of panic-buy about them and the 8-2 debacle at Old Trafford then seemed to confirm that the Gunners were indeed a club in crisis.
Since that extraordinary result however there has been a steady upturn in fortunes as the newbies settle and – typical Arsenal this – there is noticeable promise for the future. Their midfield alone of Song, Arteta and Ramsey is potentially immense and with Wilshere to add to that considerably then the Emirates engine room begins to look like a frightening proposition.
Doubts remain though over their defence – primarily Mertesacker’s lack of pace – and there is an over-reliance on van Persie to bang in the goals.
Key man – Robin van Persie. Without him would Wenger even still be in a job?
Key moment/game – The 8-2 humiliation that could yet prove to be the storm before the calm.
Grade – B-
Six months on and the question remains the same only now uttered in the past tense – was all the fan’s unrest that came from recruiting Alex McLeish from arch-rivals Brum really worth it? The shrivelled ginger freckle is a dour Scot who favours football that reflects his character flaws. Consequently Villa have served up functional, unimaginative fare.
Worse yet there has been a noticeable lack of ambition or belief radiating throughout the side, failings that patently come from the manager. Prior to a recent trip to White Hart Lane McLeish repeatedly referred to the possibility of securing anything from the game as an ‘upset’ – no boss of Aston Villa should ever talk themselves down like that as if they’re some plucky underdogs. Consequently Villa were beaten before the opening whistle and put in an insipid and shameful display.
True there have been seeds of hope from the Christmas fixtures – and the return of Bent is huge – but there remains an over-reliance on Agbonlahor to provide any thrust and with the McLeish at the helm Villa are evidently no longer a side seeking a top six finish but rather a club attempting to avoid the drop.
Key man – Charles N’Zogbia. Bought to provide some pace and creativity in the absence of Young the French wideman has failed to ignite this term.
Key moment/game – That dire Spurs surrender.
Grade – C-
Rovers have been less of a football club and more a soap opera this year. The Venkys have made all of us nostalgically hark back to the era of ‘chequebook chairmen’ who at least were usually fit and proper to run things whilst the sight of Steve Kean on the touchline is a strange anomaly that has prompted internet rumours of Glasgow gangsters being the real owners of the club with Kean as their figurehead.
On the field – despite the lowly league placing – there are surprisingly a few good reasons for hope. The centre-back pairing of Samba and Dann look potentially solid once they gel, Hoilett and Formica are real prospects, N’Zonzi’s midfield muscle is reportedly being courted by Chelsea, while youngster Adam Henley could blossom into an outstanding full-back equally adept on both flanks. Then of course there is the Yak and his blazing goal-scoring form that he seems to reserve solely for the first twelve months at each new club.
Lost amongst the negative attention aimed towards Kean has also been the undeniable fact that Rovers have been extremely unfortunate in many games. The performances and spirit is there.
Alas it seems that the unpopular Scot’s position is untenable and until the Venkys act Rovers will remain a club in perpetual crisis. Unless those internet rumours are true…
Key man – Junior Hoilett. A series of scintillating displays has given Ewood Park a rare cause of optimism.
Key moment/game – The first organised fans protest which Kean ill-advisedly chose to belittle post-game calling them ‘one per cent’. His managerial ineptness has brought about this situation but its his attitude and arrogance that has irreparably widened the rift between club and supporters.
Oh and THAT advert.
Grade – C+
It all went horribly tits up for the Trotters in the close season and their campaign has been unrelentingly one of doom and gloom ever since.
In July they lost arguably their best player in Lee Chung-Yong to a horrific injury followed soon after with a similar season-ending leg break to their new signing Tyrone Mears. Their terrific under-rated midfielder Stuart Holden was the next long-term casualty with knee cartilage damage and with Owen Coyle being unable to replicate last years inspiring loan deals for Wilshere and Sturridge, the loss of Elmander and a captain and talisman in Gary Cahill who is unsettled by transfer talk it’s perhaps not surprising that they have struggled so far.
Bolton’s superb 4-0 destruction of QPR at Loftus Road on the opening day of the season all seems like a different lifetime ago and they currently prop up the division and seem fated for the drop.
Coyle has had to wrestle with the familiar dilemma of any passing side who are losing week in week out – to what degree do you compromise your ideals and mix things up? It must be tempting to play more direct when you have the brutal Davies as your target man but so far the playing style Coyle has advocated has fallen between both stools. He must commit to a more physical short-term plan to ensure safety.
Key man – Lee Chung-Yong. A huge loss in himself but furthermore the creative vacuum he has left has meant the onus to inspire has fallen on newbie Chris Eagles who hasn’t been given the opportunity to bed in to a higher level.
Key moment/game – Their onerous trio of fixtures that followed the QPR game (Man City, Liverpool and United) meant the Trotters were running to catch up right from the start.
Grade – C-
Carlo Ancelotti was sacked by Abramovich in May for failing to secure the Champion’s League whereas new boy Villas-Boas’s position is safe even though Chelsea were out of the title running by Christmas. On the surface this appears contradictory but of course the heir apparent to Mourinho is charged with overseeing a substantial overhaul of a side coming to the end of its natural cycle. Established mainstays such as Lampard and Drogba have become almost peripheral figures as AVB has attempted to mould a new-look outfit under extreme pressure which at times seemed to have gotten the better of him. Evolution for any team is a difficult proposition; to do so with a team filled with huge egos at a club where success is demanded not just hoped for is something else entirely.
With further new faces expected in the January window it wont be until next season that we will see the new Chelsea of old.
Key man – Fernando Torres. AVB’s failure to solve the Torres Slump despite the signing of Mata and the player being given every possible encouragement remains a huge concern for the blues.
Key moment/game – Lampard skulking and sulking on the bench vs Valencia, a game Chelsea needed to win.
Grade – C+
For several seasons now the general perception is that David Moyes has over-achieved with extremely limited resources and a board who pat their empty pockets every transfer window apologetically. Moyes’ incredible work at Goodison cannot be over-estimated with a succession of top six finishes and some astute business using the meagre funds available but now it seems the inevitable has caught up with him and the club and the Toffees have finally hit a brick wall. How could they not when Moyes is continually made to sell his best players each window and somehow magically pull rabbits out of the Championship hat. The sale of Arteta in August was depressing but unsurprising. The departure of Yakubu and Beckford however was just downright baffling. Everton’s reluctance to possessing and playing strikers – and here Moyes is not exempt from blame, far from it – has time and again proven to be their downfall as they struggle against sides that are quite plainly there for the taking. Tim Cahill’s startling dip in form hasn’t exactly helped matters either. The fan’s anger at such negative tactics has piqued in direct conjunction with a sustained attempt to dislodge a board who are holding the club back in the stone ages.
Though the Merseyside outfit currently lie a respectable and comfortable tenth it is certainly not a good time to be a Toffee.
Key man – A striker. Any striker. Rhodes from Huddersfield is the latest touted but we repeat, any striker.
Key moment/game – 1-0 down at Newcastle midfielder Phil Neville gets injured. With Cahill and Barkley on the bench Moyes decides instead to bring on Distin to the utter exasperation of the travelling blues.
Grade – C-
Like their more glamorous West London neighbours Fulham are also a side undergoing transition though as you’d expect under the tutolege of Martin Jol it’s an altogether more genteel affair. Jol inherited a decent squad of players who will surely see the Cottagers safe for another year but, with most the wrong side of thirty, the Dutchman is looking at the long-term. To that end he will bring in a keeper to challenge Schwarzer for the number one spot this January and possibly shake up a midfield that is beginning to look a little stale. The affiable but no-nonsense gaffer is also evidently not a fan of Fulham’s front pairing and both Zamora and Johnson may soon be playing sensational for one game then piss-poor the next elsewhere.
Both strikers know this – Zamora has been at loggerheads with Jol since his arrival in the summer whilst Johnson is digging in his heels about committing to a new contract – and the ill-feeling has occasionally filtered through to the tabloid back pages. Compared to the dramas at Stamford Bridge however it is evolution not revolution and the results and performances have largely been unaffected.
Should either striker be moved on this month £10M signing Bryan Ruiz needs to step up and be counted if Jol is to see out his vision.
Key man – Brede Hangeland. Whilst the changes are slowly being implemented around him the rock-steady Norwegian has remained a necessary oasis of composure.
Key moment/game – The 3-0 win over NSÍ Runavík in July that kicked off Fulham’s season weeks before their league rivals. If understandable fatigue sets in before Easter they could yet find themselves in relegation trouble. Truly this campaign for them is a marathon not a sprint.
Grade – B-