– Stefan Hanley
It’s the October international break, and while all international breaks suck, this one has been particularly rotten for me. Why? Oh, just Scotland finding another innovative way of not qualifying for a major tournament. You know, the usual story.
On a happier note, the Premier League has shaken off its summer layer of dust, and the season is in full swing. To stave off the misery that comes with almost two weeks of dull, international fixtures, here’s an early grade for each BPL team, based on their season so far.
NOTE: Bear in mind, the grade factors in team expectations based on historical data, it isn’t just based on league position after 8 games.
Last weekend, Arsenal stomped Manchester United 3-0, thanks to a whirlwind fifteen minutes where they played like they’d been injected with a blend of anabolic steroids and Colombian pure. Arsenal’s main worry this season was always going to be scoring goals, but with Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott catching fire, they look good value for at least 4th place (any title challenge will crash and burn, as always). Unfortunately, they’ve played terribly in the Champions League, and need to take points off Bayern in a double header to stand any chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. Don’t count on it.
Grade = A- (well done on the early tests, but the final is worth 50% of your total grade)
If there was a college class titled ‘Decline 101: How to go from consistent top 6 challengers to relegation battlers in less than a decade’, Aston Villa would be the tenured professor. They’ve been in freefall since 3 consecutive 6th place finishes between 07-10, and this season’s no different. They haven’t won since opening day, and their team is a collage of never-quite-made-its and unproven imports. They’ll definitely be in the relegation dogfight this season.
Grade = D (consider dropping)
Last season’s Championship winners are fitting right into the ‘just promoted’ mold. They always knew it would be a battle, but their weaponry was blunted when three of their best players were lost to serious injuries early on. For Bournemouth this season, it’s going to be about grinding out points against the top half teams, and winning the fist fights against their relegation rivals. Their fans are incredible, their team has great spirit, but it might just be a bridge too far for them to stay in the premier league.
Grade = B- (this class will be a huge struggle for you, but I like your attitude. Keep fighting and we’ll get you through it)
Everyone is cackling with glee at Chelsea’s little meltdown, but the season is young. Mourinho is one of the greatest managers ever, with a squad of players that won the title last year. They have some decent fixtures coming up, and they can easily string together a few wins. Remember, their entire team is playing terribly right now. Once Hazard, Costa, and Fabregas start playing even 80% of their best, things will get back to normal. They’d be making history by making the top 4 this season after a horrid start, but I still wouldn’t bet against them mounting a title challenge.
Grade = C- (we all know you’re a genius, but I’m not going to pass you on name alone. Get to class, do your homework, and stop screwing around)
This team is like a bouncing betty. In the right mood, they cause absolute carnage, flattening teams with pace, guile, and sometimes, luck. In the wrong mood, they detonate with a harmless ‘poof’, turned over by average sides with ease. That’s what happens when you stack your team with the likes of Bolasie and Puncheon, who can slalom two defenders, rainbow flick over the goalkeeper, then miscue the shot from 8 yards. Total wildcards. They’ve added a good piece this year in Cabaye, and they are flying high in 4th, often looking unstoppable. That said, I fancy them to regress to the mean. Top half team, but not a top 4 one.
Grade = A (your first few papers have been excellent, but don’t get cocky)
It’s been a lowkey great start from Everton, beating Chelsea and Southampton handedly, and drawing with Liverpool and Spurs. They’ve got a couple of tricky fixtures to round out October, but then every game is winnable through the New Year. Lukaku is starting to show his quality, holding up the ball and scoring goals to boot. If they can keep their core fit, they’ll be a Europa League team.
Grade = B+ (solid work. Not worried about you at all)
They’ve only lost once this season, and are sitting pretty in 5th, with Mahrez and Vardy really bringing the house down with goals and assists galore. They’ve got a really tough December, so I expect them to slide down the table, and the form their top players are in probably isn’t sustainable, but they don’t look like a team preparing for a relegation fight. They’ll be grateful they’ve got 15 points this early, because the dark nights of winter are coming, and that’s when teams show their true quality. Great start, but a mid table team in my book.
Grade = A (I’m going to tell you what I told Crystal Palace…)
Their start has been interesting, culminating in the sacking of Brendan Rodgers and hiring of that cool mensch, Jurgen Klopp. It’s not like Brendan was in the relegation zone, and in fact, two wins would see them in the top 4, but he’d lost the dressing room, and when Klopp becomes available, you get Klopp. Simple as that. Liverpool fans are already having wet dreams about Gundogan and Reus coming to Anfield, but Jurgen’s first task is getting his defence playing well, and figuring out how to get Daniel Sturridge and $50m man Benteke playing together. I’ll be honest, I’m frightened of how this team could do going forward, and guess who gets to test them out next weekend. Nicht gut.
Grade = B- (missed a few easy questions so far, but the talent is clearly there. New tutor should lift your grade)
Top of the league. Firing on all cylinders. Signings working out. Aguero scoring. Just another day in the blue half of Manchester. They could and should lead the race for the title the whole way from here, but if Aguero gets injured, or Silva/Toure aren’t in the mood, they can look a really average team. Spurs put them to the sword last week with a mixture of skill and luck (not quite in equal measures), but that was an anomaly. I think they’ve started like champions, and I think they ought to carry on in that same vein with the talent at their disposal.
Grade = A (Are you sure you wouldn’t like to move into AP?)
This isn’t your daddy’s Man Utd team. Under Sir Alex, EVERY team would shiver at having to play them. Under Sir Alex, it was complete dominance start to finish, or you’d be in trouble in the locker room. Under Louis Van Gaal, it’s a far less assured, far less rip-roaring Man Utd team. That said, they are 3rd in the table, and looking comfortable, even with Wayne Rooney looking like the Monstars stole his talent. If you look at their starting 11 and subs, it’s a really strong side, but imbalanced. There’s a lot of 5 yard passing around the center circle, a lot of looking around for runners, but not a lot of wrecking ball soccer.
Grade = B+ (you’re doing fine. But is that good enough for your parents?)
I’m going to say something that Newcastle fans will hate – your club is a laughing stock. Filled with mercenaries, owned by a douche, and coached by a man who uses an umbrella and speaks with a fake Dutch accent. Winless, spineless, and devoid of ideas, I think, and a part of me hopes, they will be relegated. They’ve scored the joint fewest goals in the league, and have conceded the 2nd most. That’s a recipe for playing Championship soccer next year.
Grade = D- (not only should you not be in this class, you shouldn’t be at this school)
They’re doing what all BPL survivors do – beating the teams around them in the table. They aren’t blessed with top talent, but they have a young manager in Alex Neil who knows how to get a result. What Norwich need to do is read the Stoke City manual on Premier League survival (‘We ground out results at home with boring soccer for years, and now we have former Barcelona players leading our line – AND SO CAN YOU!’). Safety first, prosperity later. They aren’t completely out of the woods in terms of avoiding the relegation fight, but I think they’ll be alright.
Grade = B (make sure you master the core concepts, and you’ll pass this class)
They say the human body’s cells change every seven years, meaning biologically speaking, you’re a different person now than you were in 2008. Southampton have a similar condition, only the change happened in two seasons. Seriously though, how can you lose an entire team of stars to bigger clubs, and still be in a similar position afterwards? They didn’t buy in stars, that’s for sure. What occurred were shrewd investments, loan deals, and good coaching by Ronald Koeman. They didn’t have a great start, getting dumped out of the Europa League by a team whose name sounds like a Nordic Six Flags, but Southampton are starting to roll. Their problem is simple – it’s too tough to break into the top 4. Expect a finish between 7-10.
Grade = B- (No honor roll for you, but way to bounce back from that hardship. What? No you don’t get extra credit)
What a story this club has been over the past few years. Wind back the clocks a couple of seasons. Their game was hard-nosed defence and an attacking scheme which consisted of an Irishman throwing a ball like a javelin to a human ladder in the box. Now, they have a front 3 made up of two ex-Barcelona players and one from Bayern Munich. Just, what? They had a poor start to the season, but two wins on the bounce are a sign of things to come. They should be pretty comfortable in May.
Grade = B (where’s the real Stoke and what have you done with their bodies? Marked improvement from Junior High)
I once went to a Sunderland game when I was a kid, and I walked into a lamp post. I’d bet most Sunderland fans would rather do that repeatedly than watch another season of this tripe. They missed relegation by the skin of their teeth last season, and that’s their best case this season. They have almost zero quality, they go through coaches like bottles of milk, and they have an American named Lynden Gooch in their squad. It’s just not on, is it?
Grade = D- (academic probation for you, my lad)
A terrific start for the Swans in August cooled into a winless September, despite a decent set of fixtures. They have talented players going forward in Gomis, Ayew, And Sigurdsson, but inconsistency and lack of depth will cost them any chance of European soccer next season. They’ve stalled in mid-table for the past few years, which is a shame because at times, they’re capable of playing breathtaking stuff. All in all, a solid beginning to the season, and points on the board to build on.
Grade = B- (A on the first test, then C- on the second? Pull your proverbial socks up)
It’s been an impressive start, given how young this team is (average squad age of 24.9), and Spurs seem to be flying under the radar of most onlookers (they haven’t lost since opening day). They have the joint-tightest defence in the league, which is a marked improvement from last season, and some positional reconfigurations are panning out nicely. The problem – Kane isn’t scoring or playing well, leaving the burden on the three behind him (Eriksen, Lamela, Chadli). They scored 30 between them last season, but they need to start firing now if Spurs are to have any realistic chance of breaking into the top 4. Next weekend’s clash with Liverpool will be telling.
Grade = B (Fundamentals are sound, but I want to see some flair in your writing)
This is hardly a team of studs, so you have to be impressed with their start. In fact, any newly promoted team who isn’t hanging out in the depths of the league table impresses me. Having said that, they’ve spent a bit of cash on players from decent clubs, and made a couple of decent loan signings, so of the newly promoted sides, they are in the best position to consolidate. 10 points after 8 games is form that will keep you in the league, and they’ve shown that they can grind with the best of them (joint best defence in the BPL). What they will struggle for is goals. I think they could stay up.
Grade = B+ (keep your nose to the grindstone and you’ll be well on your way)
West Bromwich Albion
It wasn’t a great start for West Brom, and the entire Berahino transfer fiasco added to a palpable gloom in the air at the Hawthorns. This is another team that isn’t scoring goals and looks like they might be in the dogfight, but they have something valuable beyond measure – a squad with BPL experience and a manager who knows how to get it done. They need to pick up some points in the next three games, because their November reads Man Utd, Arsenal, West Ham, Spurs, Liverpool. Ouch.
Grade = C (Just make sure you show up for the tests)
West Ham United
The award for most inconsistent performers goes to these boys. Their away form is great, beating Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man City comfortably. Their home form is worse, losing to Bournemouth and Leicester. They seem to have steadied the ship though, and they have a few players with real quality, notably Dimitri Payet, who looks to have been a real steal for them. A top half finish looks on the cards for the Hammers, but they need to tighten their defence up pretty quickly.
Grade = A- (some stunning answers to the essay questions, but you’re missing the multiple choice points)
– Stefan Hanley (@Stefan_Hanley)