The holiday season is upon us and fans of the Premier League look forward to a couple of weeks which are jam-packed with games. While we surf through the endless articles about whether or not there should be Christmas break in the EPL, we wonder how our respective teams will get through a rather gruelling period of fixture congestion. A team can head into the end of December riding high only to come out with one massive hangover and a bigger number in the losses column. Naturally, the opposite is also true and this has become one of the strategic periods of the EPL season which will set up the sides for the start of 2015. It’s a great time of year where players face a marathon run of games, managers fear getting a pink slip under the tree and fans try to get some time away from the in-laws and kids to view a bit of the festive action.
As seems the norm this time of year, various sites and analysts love handing out report cards and grades to the various managers and clubs. So we here at The Sportster decided to throw our hat into the ring and give our assessment on how each team has fared so far this season. Doing as well as or better than expected? Then expect a really good grade. Struggling mid-table or destined for a relegation fight in 2015? Then in all likelihood you’re going to get a grade you shouldn’t show your parents. Of course, table position is only one small part of the equation and pre-season expectations, individual player performances, and statistics, like goals for and against, all come into play here. Just remember, if your grade is different than expected, take the whole season, so far, into consideration – and not just a recent run of form.
20 Leicester City: D
When you’re dead last in the league you can expect a bad grade. That said, newly promoted teams are often up against it heading into a Premier League season and nobody really expected fireworks from Leicester this season. They’ve managed just two wins and a lot of people expected them to be a bit better, especially after that stunning 5-3 win over Manchester United in late September. The offense has dried right up (15 total goals) and early striking sensation Jose Ulloa has just one goal in his last 11 matches. If Leicester have any shot at survival, they must start getting some goals to counter their current second-worst goals-against record (29).
19 Hull City: D-
Hull City go into the holiday fixtures with the worst grade on this list. Why? They have the same number of wins as Leicester but really shouldn’t be struggling this much. Steve Bruce knows the Premier League very well and, unlike Leicester, his team are not a newly promoted side. In fact, there was hype and praise thrown around in the summer when the club signed Tom Ince and SKY cameras showed us shots of Bruce signing up Hatem Ben Arfa. Like Hull’s overall performances so far, both players failed to impress and Steve Bruce has a big task on his hands to get things going.
18 Burnley: D
Promoted side Burnley face a real battle this season. Sean Dyche’s side have managed just three wins but that isn’t the biggest problem. Burnley have demonstrated that they can often keep things tight in a game. The problem is that in order to win, they need to open up and don’t generally have enough firepower to compensate for a vulnerable defence. Scoreless and low scoring draws are equalled by multi-goal losses which so far see Burnley involved in a relegation scrap. The highest scorer on the team is forward Danny Ings (4) and the club, at a minimum, need more production from the other players in order to turn some of those draws and close defeats into points.
17 Crystal Palace: C-
With only one win since the end of September, Crystal Palace seem destined to be in the thick of a relegation battle over the coming months. That said, they have the second-best goals-for out the bottom nine Premier League teams and if they can tighten up the defence a bit, there is every possibility they will survive another season. The club also deserves a bit of a bump in grade considering the unexpected loss of manager Tony Pulis at the start of the season. Many predicted a total collapse of the club following Pulis’ departure. Although things haven’t been great, players like Mile Jedinak, Dwight Gayle and Fraizer Campbell have helped keep the team’s head above water. If they can shoulder a little more of the burden while players like Marouane Chamakh and Jason Puncheon step it up, Palace should be able to weather the storm.
16 QPR: D+
In games when striker Charlie Austin doesn’t score, Queens Park Rangers generally don’t do well. In fact, Queens Park Rangers have only managed to pick up a single point in their matches when Austin hasn’t hit the back of the net. Manager Harry Redknapp has been in the Premier League long enough and in more than an enough relegation battles to understand that QPR can’t rely on just one striker to carry the club for the whole season. The team will have to start spreading the goals around if they are going to have a realistic shot of distancing themselves from the bottom three. If not, Redknapp will find himself once again working to get promoted back up to the top flight.
15 West Bromwich Albion: C
Last season the Baggies just escaped the drop with a 17th place finish. This season looks to have more of the same relegation battle theme in store for fans. Currently two points above the relegation zone, West Brom are a bit like Crystal Palace in that, statistically, they are one of the better ‘bad’ teams. Central to any chance of this club gaining points and moving away from the bottom three positions is striker Saido Berahino. The 21 year old has netted eight times in all competitions but needs a lot more support and production from the other players on the team.
14 Sunderland: D+
Sunderland’s big problem so far this season is that they haven’t been able to score enough – at least enough to compensate for how much they get scored on. Sunderland headed into this weekend’s match against Newcastle with the third worst goals-for and (tied for) third worst goals-against records. This is clearly reflected in their overall record which sees them with only three wins and a league leading 10 draws. The Black Cats are definitely missing Fabio Borini and they need Adam Johnson to rediscover the form he had last season. Steven Fletcher has stepped forward as the club’s leading scorer (4), but they’ll definitely need a lot more production from him and the rest of the club if they are going to even equal last season’s finish of 14th.
13 Stoke: B
Stoke come in with a solid ‘B’ because Stoke are, generally, a solid club. They aren’t flashy but you know they can often put in a performance which is good enough to beat any team. First, this season, they have only ever lost by more than a goal twice. Second, Mark Hughes’ team have only ever conceded more than two goals on two occasions, so far this season. This defensive consistency is what keeps Stoke in the Premier League year after year and helps them to stun clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham, and Manchester City from time to time. Players like Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters aren’t the biggest name players, but they often do enough to get results when needed and this should be enough to see Stoke finish at least mid-table – potentially in the top 10.
12 Aston Villa: D+
Aston Villa were odds on favorites to get relegated this season, yet they find themselves currently sitting 12th. So why the poor grade? They can’t score. To be more precise, Paul Lambert’s side has only scored 11 goals this season – the league’s worst rate. They have never scored more than two goals in any given match and have been completely shut out in half of their league matches this season. Fortunately, the team defence has been decent enough to compensate for the lack of production. Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor have 3 goals each – or 55% of the team’s total goals. Villa should really consider themselves lucky that with this sort of production they find themselves five points clear of relegation. They’re playing with fire and if things don’t change, Paul Lambert and the club may find themselves in a terrible position come May.
11 Everton: C-
Last season, Everton finished in fifth place and deservedly so. This season, the team have been less spectacular as things have cooled off a bit and results are mixed. The honeymoon of Roberto Martinez seems to be over and, as many pundits predicted, the threat of Romelu Lukaku has dropped off somewhat after he signed a permanent deal this past summer. That said, he is still the club’s biggest offensive threat with six goals. Striker Arouna Kone has vanished off the face of the earth and goal production in the midfield is nearly as invisible. It doesn’t help that the defence is also leaking a few more goals than expected. The talent is there, but so far it just isn’t clicking like it did last season. It’d be bold to bet on Everton staying in mid-table and if Martinez can get his team playing anything like they did last season, expect to see the Toffees move up in both the table and grading.
10 Liverpool: D+
Liverpool came within a Steven Gerrard slip of winning the Premier League last season. This season, the gap is much bigger. Over the summer, they lost their best player in the form of Luis Suarez and, similar to Tottenham the year before, bought a small army of players with the transfer funds. The Reds have had trouble settling and finding the chemistry and consistency needed for a serious title push. The purchase of Mario Balotelli has, so far, proven to be a bad move and the defence is conceding more goals (24) than the offense can create (21). The decision to stock up on Southampton players over the summer has also not paid off and the vultures are circling Brendan Rodgers. It was made all the more worse with a 3-0 loss to arch-rivals Manchester United last weekend and a 2-2 draw at home to Arsenal doesn’t signal a shift in direction.
9 Newcastle United: C
Newcastle United didn’t win their first league game until mid-October – and even then it was against new arrivals Leicester. Since then, they have only lost three games and even handed Chelsea their only loss of the season so far. Alan Pardew has been spared the axe and seen his team go from an ‘F’ rating to a much improved ‘C.’ A slip at West Ham, an absolute hiding at Arsenal and home loss to Sunderland suggest the Magpies could easily slump back into their old ways and this holiday period may be a real defining point in their season. A lot of this club’s immediate future is riding on the performances of such players as Papiss Demba Cisse and Ayoze Perez – when they don’t fire, Newcastle suffers.
8 Swansea City: B-
With only four wins since the end of August, Swansea City need to change things around if they are going to stop this tumble through the table. Everything started out well for the Welsh side and an opening day win over Manchester United combined with Gylfi Sigurdsson’s form led a lot of people to reverse pre-season predictions that this team were destined for a relegation battle. A win against Arsenal in November hinted that Garry Monk’s men may have turned things around. The team, however, has entered another average run of form with only two victory in their last six. Up front, Wilfried Bony has been carrying the line with eight goals. The midfield has a few helpful hands in the form of Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge, but the rest of the team needs to start contributing if the Swans are going to regain a consistent winning formula.
7 Tottenham Hotspur: C-
What can you say about Tottenham Hotspur? Year after year, they are generally considered ‘that’ club which could get into the top four but they never seem to be able to get consistent enough. Recently, the club are still trying to sort themselves out from the Bale transfer hangover, figuring out who goes where and who the best players are. Where Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado are letting the team down, Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli are popping up to salvage points and help keep the team afloat. Nonetheless, so far, only seven players have found the net this year and this must change if Spurs are to improve their league position.
6 Arsenal: C-
What are Arsenal fans getting this holiday season? So far, greyer and more frustrated. As the team emerges from this weekend’s fixture against Liverpool, it’s more of the same – and that’s the problem. The Gunners have been terribly inconsistent this season and their defense is unreliable. Yes, injuries have sidelined some world class players, but this hasn’t stopped them from fielding a threatening offense which includes the very impressive (and early Player of the Year candidate) Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal can score goals but it’s the Jekyll and Hyde defense which haunts them. One minute they look solid (versus Newcastle United) and the next they look no better than a Sunday pub league side (Stoke City). A headless defense and lack of consistency should mean a solid ‘D+.’ That said, they are still within easy reach of the top four, have had a couple good displays recently, and always have good possession stats– for this they get bumped up a bit.
5 Southampton: A-
After being pillaged by other Premier League sides in the summer, many feared the worst for this club. Things haven’t turned out too badly. Up until late November, the Saints were a solid ‘A’ side. Following a draw at Aston Villa, things haven’t been as good and the club have suffered four consecutive league losses, including a shocking defeat to Burnley. Up until this losing streak, the team had been rock solid in defence and conceded a mere six goals. The slide has bumped that up to 13, which is still good enough to be joint-best with league leaders Chelsea. If the Saints are to maintain their position, or at least slow the current slide, they must get the best out of the players who got them to this point – Fonte, Schneiderlin, Wanyama, Pelle and Forster.
4 West Ham United: A
Did anyone honestly think we’d see a Sam Allardyce led-West Ham sitting in the top four heading into the holidays? So far this season, trying to predict the result of a West Ham United game has been like trying to find evidence that Bigfoot exists. One minute they’re beating Liverpool and Manchester City, the next they’re dropping points to Sunderland and Aston Villa. Nevertheless, the offensive weaponry of Diafra Sakho, Enner Valencia, and Stewart Downing have done quite well and given the Hammers an offensive bite to complement the defensive organization one expects from an Allardyce-led club. A busy holiday period, including games against Chelsea and Arsenal, will test a West Ham side who have so far impressed.
3 Manchester United: B-
After the first 10 games of this season, analysts, pundits and quite a few fans were criticizing Manchester United’s new boss, Louis van Gaal. Media outlets everywhere were posting chart after chart showing how poor the former Dutch International coach was in comparison to his predecessor, David Moyes. Heaping further fuel on the flames was the fact United had spent £150 million on new players. My, how half a dozen games can change things. Since early November, the team have put together six straight league wins and a draw, conceding just four goals and leaping to third in the league. Yet, the draw at Villa reminds us all that the Red Devils have a few question marks hanging about them. Nevertheless, recent performances have salvaged an otherwise low ‘C’-range campaign into a low ‘B.’
2 Manchester City: B+
Currently sitting second in the league, we find 2013/14 Champions Manchester City. Loaded with high priced and world class players, you’d expect a club like City to be battling it out for top spot. Inconsistency has been a bit of a problem this season, especially for key midfielder Yaya Toure. The Ivorian was an absolute beast last season but looks far more human this campaign. Points dropped against the likes of QPR, Stoke, and West Ham have left doubts in the minds of some whether this club can maintain enough consistency to keep up a challenge against league-leaders Chelsea. Nonetheless, they sit just three points back heading into a decisive holiday period.
1 Chelsea: A
Say what you will about Jose Mourinho, but his team are so far living up to the prediction cast by many experts and analysts at the start of the season. It would be foolish, however, to crown Chelsea champions this soon as I am sure we all remember a few seasons ago when the London club were eight points clear around the same stage and ended up slipping from top spot by season’s end. That said, the impressive figures of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas have been the heart of a Chelsea offense which has scored a league topping 38 goals. On top of this, their solid defense is joint-top in the league (with Southampton), conceding a mere 13 goals. So, what’s stopping an A+ grade? The Blues have suffered a few unexpected slip ups against the likes of Sunderland and Newcastle – taking a little gloss off an otherwise very good season.