Biggest surprises, disappointments midway through Premier League season

With the bulk of teams having played 19 matches, we’ve hit the unofficial midway point of the Premier League season. With that in mind, BitFootball’s footy editors are looking back on the best, and worst, of the campaign so far.

Surprise: City’s unlikely heroes

Of course, Kevin De Bruyne continues to be one of the league’s standout players, but a lot of Manchester City’s success is otherwise defined by stark improvements from less celebrated members of the squad.

The revival of John Stones has been well-documented, but the instant impact of Ruben Dias still feels somewhat overlooked. At just 23, the Portuguese center-back has quickly become an authoritative presence, instilling confidence in his teammates and often covering for their missteps with last-ditch blocks and well-timed tackles.

Then there’s Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo. Walker appears more assured defensively while his runs through the middle have been a welcome addition to his attacking arsenal, and Cancelo has been one of Pep Guardiola’s most consistent players despite not having a settled position.

And finally, Ilkay Gundogan’s tactical intelligence and composure in front of goal have flourished since he’s been thrust further up the pitch.

Disappointment: Sheffield United

So many excuses have been offered for Sheffield United’s demise.

Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale is a weak replacement for Dean Henderson. Jack O’Connell’s injury troubles weakened the rearguard, particularly at set-pieces, and has made the left-hand side less cohesive. The absences of Sander Berge’s physicality and John Lundstram’s energy have contributed to the midfield’s struggles. Their strikers can’t score. Their game plan has become predictable and the loss of the raucous Bramall Lane backing has taken its toll.

Sebastian Frej/MB Media / Getty Images Sport / Getty

This myriad of problems has resulted in five points after 19 matches – a derisory return that could challenge Derby County’s unwanted record low for points in a Premier League campaign (11 in 2007-08).

Chris Wilder’s reign is subsisting on the vast reserves of goodwill after guiding the Blades into the top flight from the bottom of League One, but his time will surely be up if a likely relegation is followed by a tricky start to the 2021-22 Championship season.

Surprise: Southampton’s sustained success

A return to reality was inevitable after Southampton reached the summit of the Premier League table in November.

While their brief spell in the title race is now a thing of the past, the Saints continue to incorporate an exciting brand of pressing football that’s resulted in some mighty upsets, such as the shock win over defending champions Liverpool that left manager Ralph Hassenhuttl in tears earlier this month.

Southampton’s positive play this term is a continuation of the momentum they enjoyed last season under Hasenhuttl, who oversaw a dramatic turnaround to avoid relegation after the club’s 9-0 clobbering against Leicester City.

Barring a major slump, survival won’t be a concern this season for a Southampton side that is set up nicely to compete for a spot in Europe.

Disappointment: Chelsea’s big summer signings

Chelsea didn’t spend more than £200 million just to sit in eighth place. Yet here they are, behind Southampton and West Ham United in the Premier League table. Frank Lampard, who appears more frustrated by the week, has openly criticized his players, but none of his public undressings have had the desired effect.

Sebastian Frej/MB Media / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Out of all of Chelsea’s marquee signings, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have looked the most uncomfortable. Werner hasn’t scored in 11 Premier League matches and Havertz hasn’t scored a league goal since Oct. 17. Despite the slump, Werner has continued to put himself in scoring positions, racking up 41 shots in the Premier League. Havertz also dealt with COVID-19, which hit him “very hard” and sidelined him for several weeks.

Lampard hasn’t done his players any favors; by chopping and changing his lineup, the 42-year-old has destabilized his team and made it tougher for Werner and Havertz to adapt to an already difficult league. Werner has been yanked all across the front line, and with Mason Mount occupying the middle of the pitch, Havertz has been forced to fill different positions. How can Lampard expect them to find their rhythm?

Surprise: Aston Villa are a lot of fun

Last season, Dean Smith did what many newly promoted managers do and opted for a conservative game plan. However, Aston Villa weren’t particularly good at it: they failed to keep a clean sheet on the road and only survived relegation on the final day.

This campaign is different.

It’s clear the Villans had one of the best transfer windows across Europe. Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash have seamlessly adjusted to the Premier League since joining from Brentford and Nottingham Forest, respectively, while Bertrand Traore brings chaos to the attack. Ex-Arsenal benchwarmer Emiliano Martinez initially appeared quite expensive at around £20 million but has been influential between the sticks, while loanee Ross Barkley quickly struck up a fine understanding with Jack Grealish.

Also, the players who were already at the club – like Ezri Konsa, Douglas Luiz, and Matt Targett – are improving tremendously.

Villa are arguably the most watchable team in the division. The defense is much better than the 2019-20 term and their counterattacks, often spearheaded by the irrepressible Grealish, can be devastating. They always seem to go for the win, and that’s refreshing.

Disappointment: Aubameyang’s goal drought(s)

It was supposed to be business as usual after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ended speculation over his future by signing a new long-term contract to continue being the face of Arsenal.

With the distractions over a possible departure in the rearview mirror, the former Premier League Golden Boot winner was finally free to concentrate on leading Arsenal to glory. But, instead, Aubameyang looked like a shell of his former self in the days and weeks after committing his future to the north London side.

Tom Flathers / Manchester City FC / Getty

The ink was barely dry on Aubameyang’s new deal before the relief of locking up the Gabonese striker was replaced with concern, as the once-prolific scorer went on an epic goal drought. After just under two months without a goal, he ended the slump with a winner against Manchester United, but his struggles continued when he failed to register a goal over the next five league matches.

Predictably, Aubameyang’s dip in form had a devastating effect on an Arsenal side that tumbled down the table and hovered just above the relegation zone. Ultimately, the tide appears to be turning, as Aubameyang has once again found his scoring touch after moving back to the wing, while Arsenal enjoyed an impressive unbeaten run to end 2020.

Surprise: The top of the table

Following a series of false dawns, and some downright diabolical seasons mixed in, Manchester United appear to be credible title contenders once again.

League leaders after 19 outings, the Red Devils haven’t sat atop the table this late into the campaign since 2013, the year they last captured the Premier League title under Sir Alex Ferguson.

A team that was previously susceptible to wild swings in performance from week-to-week has found some consistency, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men haven’t lost a league match since Nov. 1, a run of 13 games.

Manchester United can hunker down when necessary, as they did against Liverpool. And, with their stellar collection of midfield and attacking talent, they get out on the break quickly when the opportunity presents itself. There’s a semblance of balance, a hallmark of almost every top side in the game.

Of course, there’s still room for improvement. United are only seventh in Expected Goal Difference thus far, according to FBref, and they’ve conceded more goals than any other team in the top half of the standings.

Whether Solskjaer is the architect capable of bringing them all the way back to their peak is still up for debate, but there’s finally a reason for optimism.

Disappointment: Liverpool’s scoring woes

What the heck happened to Liverpool’s vaunted attack?

Equal parts surprising and disappointing, the Reds’ recent inability to find the net has led to them falling six points adrift of the top spot. Liverpool are, incredibly, winless in their last five league matches, scoring one measly goal in that time. Somehow, the reigning champions also have yet to register a Premier League tally in 2021.

OWEN HUMPHREYS / AFP / Getty

The Reds are still dominating possession, dictating play, and creating chances – they’ve conjured up 7.7 Expected Goals during that winless streak – but the breakthrough hasn’t arrived. A combination of wayward finishing, solid opposing goalkeeping, and some old-fashioned bad luck have all been on display.

“It is not about the performance but the decisive moments. It’s wrong decisions in the moment. It’s my job to make sure the boys are in the right position and that they feel right,” Jurgen Klopp said after the shocking 1-0 home defeat to Burnley on Thursday, according to Richard Jolly of The Guardian. “The confidence is not on the highest level. Ninety percent of what the boys did is still there but not the decisive 10%.”

They have to quickly rediscover that missing portion.

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