While the 2016/17 Premier League season has not given us a shock of the same magnitude as Leicester City being runaway leaders, it certainly has given us its fair share of talking points. The tussle between some of the world's best managers has yielded phenomenal tactical battles, bemusing team selections, and touchline antics beyond measure. The competition at the top is so intense, a top four finish almost looks like the trophy Arsene Wenger has coveted so dearly over the past ten seasons. With the jam-packed festive fixtures coming to an end, here's a review of the top six clubs' season thus far.
Chelsea's early days under passionate Italian manager Antonio Conte were uncertain, to say the least. The former Juventus boss was expected to bring his trademark three-man defence formation, but struggled to find the right personnel and shape for his team. Late goals gifted them their first two wins, only for their progress to then be halted by a struggling Swansea, after which Liverpool and Arsenal put them to the sword. The Arsenal match was particularly formative for Chelsea, because it prompted Conte to switch to a 3-4-3 formation, which has since looked impregnable.
Diego Costa's goalscoring touch, coupled with Eden Hazard's resurgence has resulted in a consistent output of goals for the Blues. Meanwhile, the quintessential Italian defensive solidity one can expect from a Conte team has also helped them grind out 1-0 wins when required. Their summer spending has looked shrewd in retrospect, with N'Golo Kante and David Luiz putting up imperious performances for the London side. Players like Cesc Fabregas and Willian, who spent long spells out of the first-team, also chipped in with key goals and assists when required. Chelsea thus sit comfortably at the summit of the Premier League table, and barring a dismal run of form, they should walk to the title in a few months time.
Of all the top six clubs, Liverpool have had the strangest season. They began strong, scoring four goals against Arsenal, and have been the attacking juggernaut they were touted to be, playing Jurgen Klopp's 'heavy metal' brand of football. New additions Giorginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mane have comfortably slotted into the team, whereas Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino have carried on their blistering goalscoring form. Scorelines like 5-1 or 6-1 became a walk in the park for the Merseyside club. Klopp's tendency to elevate players to another level is clearly highlighted through Adam Lallana's emergence as a key player for his side, with the Englishman already surpassing his best scoring season for the club even before the halfway point.
However, their back-line was always questionable, allowing teams like Burnley, Swansea, West Ham, and Sunderland to capitalise on their defensive woes and snatch precious points away. Coutinho's absence due to injury has resulted in the goals drying up, thus spurring an increased reliance on defence, which is not a good sign for a Klopp-led team. To add to their back-line worries, Klopp still hasn't settled on a first-choice keeper or left back. Neither Loris Karius nor Simon Mignolet look fit to hold fort for the Reds, while James Milner is not the answer to Liverpool's desperate need for defensive solidity.
Manchester City: B
Manchester City got off to a magnificent start, enjoying a winning streak of six games and looking like runaway champions under mastermind Pep Guardiola. However, the City side never really looked comfortable playing Pep's brand of football. Several defensive and goalkeeping lapses went unpunished during City's early assault. However, their away game at White Hart Lane completely exposed their defensive frailties. Spurs ran riot that day, making City look like schoolchildren, and rousing several doubts about Pep's tactical nous. The 'noisy neighbours' notched wins in crucial clashes against Arsenal and Manchester United, but also fell short against Liverpool and Middlesbrough. Their huge summer spending hasn't had too much of a positive impact on the club either. Claudio Bravo often switches between God-mode and Mr Butterfingers, while Leroy Sane rarely gets a look-in and Ilkay Gundogan's unfortunate injury has ruled him out for the remainder of the season.
City have also had a terrible disciplinary record this season, with players like Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho spending long spells out through suspension. Fernandinho has already been shown three red cards in six games, and Pep will need to get his house in order if they are to mount any reasonable challenge to Chelsea. Another problem for Manchester City is Aguero's scoring record. While the Argentine certainly wins them points, none of his goals have come against top six opposition, which is certainly a worry. Despite City's results being mostly favourable, their performances have often been fairly lackadaisical, reducing their overall grade from a B+ to a B.
Arsenal have looked far superior this season than they did in the last few where they characteristically mounted a failed title challenge. Although their season began on a sour note with a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool, they regrouped and achieved a 14 match unbeaten run, which included some close wins and hard-fought draws. Olivier Giroud has worked well coming off the bench, while Alexis Sanchez has shined in his new striking role. However, Mesut Ozil's league form hasn't been close to what's expected of a player of his calibre, and the Gunners will hope for him to up the gears over the remainder of the season. Shkodran Mustafi has proved to be a much needed addition to the Gunners' back-line, but otherwise their summer signings have been fairly underwhelming, with only Granit Xhaka having a somewhat lasting impact in midfield.
Arsenal's main worry will be their over-reliance on Sanchez, and their ability to consistently grind out results during the league's crunch period. They have already dropped precious points against sides like Middlesbrough and Everton, and will hope to shrug off the 'chokers' tag that has been consistently associated with them. That being said, it is well-known that Arsene Wenger will be fairly pleased with a fourth placed finish as well.
Tottenham Hotspur: B+
Spurs have been at their mercurial best this season. While they obliterated City in a 2-0 rout early in the season, and even notched some high scoring wins in December, they looked off colour in matches against West Brom, Bournemouth and Leicester and downright limp in their 1-0 loss against Manchester United. Harry Kane's injury affected them severely, whereas Dele Alli's early form was troubling as well. Spurs also spent far too much money on a mediocre Moussa Sissoko, who has failed to impress in every opportunity he's been given thus far. Victor Wanyama, however, has looked like a solid signing, but Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele still look like a better midfield pairing for Mauricio Pochettino's style of play.
Harry Kane's return from injury and Dele Alli's return to form has lifted Tottenham over the past month, and they will look to continue their good run against leaders Chelsea in a clash that is bound to test their mettle. Spurs' early exit from the Champions league has put them in a tough spot, however. Thursday night Europa league action beckons, which also means a higher chance of fatigue and injuries prior to crucial matches.
Manchester United: B+
Manchester United started their season strongly, notching three consecutive wins as they marched towards a tense derby clash against City. The Red Devils were trumped by their city rivals, but the result only looked favourable to City only on paper, because United spent long periods of the game creating multiple scoring chances. This remained the story for United throughout their early season. Strong performances were not sealed with goals, which led to lesser teams like Burnley, West Ham, and Everton stealing away precious points. Arsenal also managed to somehow snatch a point in the dying embers of a game where United made them look toothless, whereas Chelsea made United hit rock-bottom with a 4-0 drubbing.
Jose Mourinho's men have since regrouped, going on a 11-match unbeaten run, currently enjoyable a six-match winning streak. Manchester United's four summer signings have all chipped in with fine performances that have massively boosted the side's confidence. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still going strong at the age of 35, with 13 league goals for United. Eric Bailly has been a key contributor in defence, forming solid partnerships with whoever he's been paired with. Henrikh Mkhitaryan made an impressive return to the first-team after being left out for several weeks. Paul Pogba has also collaborated well with his teammates, providing for Ibrahimovic on several occasions and scoring himself when required. While the world-record price tag will was always going to be hard to match, the Frenchman's performances have done enough to suggest that he has improved the side.
(Honorary Mention) Leicester City: C-
Last season's shock champions have looked a shadow of their former selves this season. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez's performances have been lacking, while new signings Islam Slimani and Nampalys Mendy have struggled to contribute with goals, making the gap left by N'Golo Kante seem even wider. While they will take some much needed consolation from their Champions League progress, their Premier League form has done nothing to suggest that we will see them in Europe's most elite competition again.
The Foxes have been dominated by the big clubs they fought so valiantly against last season, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea beating them by three goal margins. Their form against the smaller clubs hasn't been impressive either, with the likes of Stoke City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland stealing points from them. They showed a brief glimpse of last season's brilliance with a thrilling 4-2 over Manchester City, but will need to build on that result to make it have a lasting impact. Claudio Ranieri will hope to add some fresh faces in January, or at least try and motivate his club like he did last season, in order to break into a European competition spot.
Updated Date: Jan 03, 2017 15:14 PM