WITH the weekend fixtures and Boxing Day matches likely to play a crucial role in how 2020 plays out, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of what was great and what was not from the first half of the season.
Wan and only: Man United’s signing of Harry Maguire was the talk of the league back in August. The undoubted talented centre back was mooted as the next Virgil van Dijk, resulting in a price-tag that even made the big Dutchman jealous.
But it was United’s other defensive signing from Crystal Palace that was arguably the best bit of business in the league this season. Aaron Wan-Bissaka ability to read the game is only surmounted by his physical prowess.
Requiring no time to settle in at Old Trafford, he was up and running immediately showing that he can tackle as good as anyone in the league, which combined with an engine that can run all day, it now makes him a formidable defender.
Dynamic duo: Liverpool’s fullbacks have redefined the role, as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson continue to leave opposition defences in shambles with their combination of counter-attacking speed and dead-eye accurate passing.
A healthy competition between the two, on who can get the most assists, has resulted in them picking-off some ridiculous passes to their side’s target men with unnerving reliability.
Mr Reliable: Kevin de Bruyne almost single-handily taking Arsenal apart for Man City last weekend reminded us of how good he is. His pace and Exocet-like right foot have destroyed sides up and down England. But it’s his ability to pick out the perfect pass in the maelstrom of attacking options before him that has proved crucial in City’s successes over the years.
It is telling that the majority of City’s dropped points this season came when the Belgian was out injured.
Welcome Back: They couldn’t do it again? Well, Leicester are back in the hunt thanks to Brendan Rodgers tactical nous, some quality team performances and the return of Jamie Vardy to the kind of goal-scoring form of that saw the Foxes amazingly claim the Premier League title in 2016. He now leads the goal-scoring charts and the resulting confidence has pushed the side into becoming genuine title contenders again.
Best Surprise: Sheffield United have been the best revelation this season. Among most people’s choice to go straight back down to the Championship in May, the Yorkshire side has not only confounded expectations, one could possibly argue that they are a bit unlucky not to have a few more points from one or two unfortunate defeats, including one at the hands of table-toppers Liverpool.
This is also good news for Ireland with Enda Stevens, Callum Robinson, David McGoldrick and Cork’s own John Egan making their mark in a season that now sees them in seventh on the same points as Man United, one place above them.
Bad Days at the Office: Few expected a return to the halcyon days of the Wenger years this season. But the hope at Arsenal was that the rebuilding under Unai Emery would lay a solid foundation for the future. But quickly fans saw that things were not as they would wish.
They’ve conceded more goals after 17 games than any previous Premier League season. It’s the first time they have had a negative goal difference at this stage while winning fewer games. And the only time they had fewer points was in 1994/95 when they finished 12th.
Add in some ugly moments with club captain Granit Xhaka been booed by the home fans, and it was only a matter of time before Emery departed. There has been no ‘new manager bounce’ with the appointment of interim coach Freddie Ljungberg, so Arsenal now find themselves as close to the relegation zone as they are to the Champions League places. Plan C now appears to be Mikel Arteta.
Worst Night: There can be little doubt that the worst moment for any side in the league this season hit Southampton back in October on a night that saw the Saints overrun by Leicester 9-0 at home in a torrential downpour. Up to that point, Southampton’s season has not been going all that bad. But an early red-card and a Leicester side hungry for goals saw them ruthlessly humiliate the Saints in a game which by the end you could not help but empathize with the defeated side.
Funniest moment: One of the most significant games of the season, so far, saw Liverpool get the better of Man City 3-1 at Anfield. The moment of hilarity came with Pep Guardiola’s two-fingered antics on the sideline imploring the fourth official and then it seems God to rectify the injustice of what seemed to be two unpunished handballs by Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.
What followed was internet gold, as the gif and meme engineers created evermore ridiculous and humorous recreations of his moment of agony.
VARiables: The introduction of the new tech has not been smooth, to say the least. The fine lines and frame-rate of the video judges have come into question by pundits and fans alike. Before the introduction of the technology, few of us realised just how lethal a striker’s armpit really was.
That Goal: There have been some quality goals this season. Fikayo Tomori’s blast for Chelsea against Wolves, Moussa Djenepo lovely stroke for Southampton against Brighton and even Ireland’s own Aaron Connolly debut delight for Brighton against Spurs. But nothing comes close to the best goal this season, maybe this decade. Heung-min Son’s wonder goal for Spurs against Burnley was a breathtaking piece of individual skill that would leave Lionel Messi jealous.
The Best: Sadio Mané, without a summer break, returned to play for Liverpool after leading his country to the Africans Nations Cup final. And that was after a full season at the club and a World Cup the previous summer. Still, the diminutive Senegalese has been the standout difference for Liverpool this season. As Liverpool’s other stars have fallen off form or got injured, Mané has managed to drag Liverpool out of the mire on so many occasions this year. An eye for goal is matched by an ability to pick out a pass for the Merseysiders’ other hitmen. Without him, Liverpool would not have been anywhere near as effective in their title challenge.