Saturday 3 December 2016

Thrills, spills and sackings; Premier League has been revived by the unforeseen twists

Paul Wilson

Published 27/12/2015 | 12:08

Leicester's Jamie Vardy is showing the hallmarks of a great striker Photo: Reuters / Andrew Yates
Leicester's Jamie Vardy is showing the hallmarks of a great striker Photo: Reuters / Andrew Yates

Thrills, spills, sackings: the Premier League has been revitalised by the unforeseen and unusual.

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1. Jamie Vardy breaks Ruud van Nistelrooy's Premier League scoring record

Perhaps a consecutive scoring record running to 10 games was never going to last for ever, though few would have anticipated a Leicester City striker extending it to 11, much less someone who was playing non-league football just three years earlier.

In front of goal Vardy has been unstoppable. Both Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, two of the most recent opponents to suffer from his eye for an opportunity, complained that they had known in advance what was going to happen, had even tried to set up defensive drills to counter it, yet were powerless on the day.

That is the hallmark of a great striker and some of Vardy's positioning and finishing this season has been clinically effective. Questions will be asked if England persist with the labouring Wayne Rooney in France next summer at the expense of a superbly mobile and confident goal-getter at the peak of his powers. It is a pity Vardy could not quite reach Jimmy Dunne's all-time top-flight record of 12, just to stop the carping from those pointing out that football existed before 1992, but the achievement remains considerable. With all the hunger and enthusiasm of a late starter, Vardy is unlikely to prove a one-season wonder.

2. Manchester United spend £250m to stand still

Or possibly even to go backwards, depending on how severe a view one takes of the current paralysis. Until recently Van Gaal was insisting United were making progress, after the Champions League exit he pointed out that the club had actually gone a round further in the Capital One Cup, an observation almost provocative in its gormlessness.

There have been highs, including wins over both Merseyside teams, though the present low is becoming all-consuming. Seven shots on target in four home games would spell trouble for any United manager. With much more financial backing than his predecessor, Van Gaal seems to be struggling just as badly as David Moyes, and it appears the post-Ferguson succession has been doubly botched.

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Hence the clamour for Mourinho as an instant fix, even though nine defeats in the first half of the season earned him the sack at Chelsea. United followers, if not directors, value excitement above almost anything. Mourinho might not represent the long-term future, but at least he does not live in the past. Van Gaal still cannot seem to understand why Bastian Schweinsteiger is no longer the same player he had five years ago at Bayern Munich.

3. Jose Mourinho picks a fight that he cannot win

Tensions beneath the surface at Stamford Bridge came screaming to the nation's attention with the Chelsea manager's needless monstering of his own medical staff on the opening day of the season. The argument Mourinho started with Dr Eva Carneiro and others was probably more of a symptom of his frustration, not the cause of his eventual dismissal, but it was not a good position to strike and the subsequent unwillingness to explain or apologise damaged the manager.

It was a bit like poking Tito Vilanova in the eye all over again, just nowhere near as surreptitious. And at least Barcelona's assistant coach was an opponent. Mourinho's season never recovered, and this time he was supposed to be the happy one.

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Such is Mourinho's charisma and perceived ability - he definitely has ability, the question is whether he can keep his petulant personality in check - he is now being linked with Real Madrid and Manchester United. That is not bad going considering he could not get out of the Bernabeu quick enough last time and was ruled out of contention by the Old Trafford hierarchy when available to fill a vacancy three years ago. But no one is anticipating a comfortable ride or a dynasty any more. The contented one is still just a theory.

4. Leicester improve by the length of the table in 12 months

No apologies for a second visit to Foxes territory, they are unquestionably the story of the season. And not just thanks to Vardy either. Riyad Mahrez has been at least as good if not better, and there have also been significant contributions from players such as Kasper Schmeichel, Danny Drinkwater, Marc Albrighton and N'Golo Kante, all of whom with the exception of the last were present when Leicester were propping up the Premier League this time last year. So credit is clearly due to Claudio Ranieri, who must be bringing much more than pizza-based incentives to the party.

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It is quite some party they are having at the King Power these days, too. Those who complain that new stadiums frequently lack volume and atmosphere need to acquaint themselves with what Leicester have to offer. Noise and colour, basically, and though some might balk at the plastic clapper sticks used to ratchet up the decibels, even the most grudging traditionalist would have to accept that this is a club that engages with its fans and is doing its best to carry everyone along on a tremendous journey. Leicester supporters in return look and sound as if they are having the time of their lives.

5. Arsenal actually look a decent bet for the title

Doubtless they will find some new way to mess up between now and the end of the season but for the moment the Gunners are in good shape. Petr Cech has obviously been a wise capture, key players such as Alexis Sanchez and Francis Coquelin have suffered injuries and not been missed, Theo Walcott is effective again and perhaps most ominously of all Olivier Giroud now looks the part up front.

Not much of this was being said when Arsenal began the season with a home draw against Liverpool and a home defeat by West Ham, followed by the usual defeat to Chelsea, but at halfway their prospects look brighter.

Chelsea will not fight for the title this time, neither will Manchester United unless something dramatic happens at Old Trafford for the first time all season, and Liverpool's renaissance is back on hold.

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If that leaves a three-way fight between Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester, Arsene Wenger's side look as though they might be up for it. Their squad is stronger than that of the current leaders and while Manchester City can match it, Manuel Pellegrini's side have proved less resilient to absences and still capable of ordinary displays. Arsenal are rarely ordinary.

6. Promoted teams put Premier League standard into perspective

What happened to the notion that a huge gulf exists between the Championship and the Premier League? On Christmas Day all three promoted teams were above the relegation positions, Bournemouth were on a five-match unbeaten run and Watford were threatening Europe.

Eddie Howe's team are in the top flight for the first time, with a stadium that only holds less than 12,000, looking down on major football operations like Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa. Watford's Quique Sanchez Flores has never managed in England before and was only handed his present job after promotion, yet he is making the whole thing look a breeze.

It is true that Jurgen Klopp has never managed in England before either and had even less time than Flores to get to know his new charges, but the Liverpool manager came with a huge reputation after winning back-to-back titles in Germany. Flores, whose managerial career has been a succession of short stays and sackings, is progressing with every passing week. Alex Neil at Norwich is doing the same thing in what is supposed to be one of the most difficult of leagues. While this may not be the most persuasive argument for Premier League standards, as Guus Hiddink has just remarked, it is certainly refreshing.

Observer

Six of the best so far

Aug 29, Liverpool 0 West Ham 3: Brendan Rodgers' waning credence as the Liverpool manager took, well, a Hammering as Slaven Bilic's bubbling east Londoners recorded their first win at Anfield since the Beatles were No 1 with She Loves You. Defeat was "self-inflicted", bemoaned Rodgers. Four matches later, he was gone.

Sept 26, Tottenham 4 Manchester City 1: Cash-rich City had begun the season at a searing pace with five straight wins, but then Manuel Pellegrini's side hit the buffers with back-to-back defeats. And how Spurs really rubbed their noses in it, with Harry Kane back among the goals and Mauricio Pochettino's young guns sending a message of intent.

Oct 31, Chelsea 1 Liverpool 3: Halloween gruel for Jose Mourinho; autumnal tonic for Jurgen Klopp's recharged Liverpool. Chelsea's sixth defeat of a hapless title defence signalled further disintegration of Mourinho's season. He blamed the officials; Klopp hailed his side's fortune, but Chelsea's defence simply fell apart.

Dec 14, Leicester City 2 Chelsea 1: The sight of Leicester show-boating against the fallen champions epitomised this season of brilliant inversion. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are arguably the stand-out players thus far, and their goals delivered a chastening defeat to Chelsea and battered Mourinho's sense of his own infallibility.

Dec 12, Bournemouth 2 Manchester United 1: If confirmation was needed that the wheels were coming off the Louis van Gaal wagon, this dispiriting defeat hot on the heels of a turgid Champions League exit was it. Eddie Howe's new top-flighters had beaten Chelsea - and now this. Josh King, ex-United, applied the coup de grace.

Dec 21, Arsenal 2 Manchester City 1: Here finally was a signal of intent from Arsenal. First-half goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud secured the points and fuelled the belief that even an extensive injury toll would not derail Arsene Wenger's title ambitions. For City, cue more speculation that Pep Guardiola is the coming man.

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