x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Vintage spell for football's little guys

While no team seems to merit top spot, some surprise names are among this season's best performers. Richard Jolly summarises.

Everton’s defeat of City was one of many shocks in 2010.
Everton’s defeat of City was one of many shocks in 2010.

It ended in appropriate fashion. The Premier League's pre-Christmas programme concluded, fittingly, with a shock. As has often been the case, the victims were one of the fancied teams.

Manchester City's defeat at the hands of Everton on Monday night left their neighbours on top of the tree going into the festive period. That, too, was apt: Manchester United are leading as much because of others' failings as their own excellence. They are unbeaten, but their own supporters and even their own manager often have wondered how.

But United have averted the upsets that have undermined each of their rivals: think of City's loss at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea's home defeat to Sunderland and Arsenal's losses at the Emirates Stadium to first West Bromwich Albion and then Newcastle United. If every underdog has its day, then this season, they have had more than one.

One of the consequences is that none of the three promoted clubs is in the bottom three. For the first time in a decade, and only the second time in Premier League history, each could survive. They are the drivers of a new and welcome unpredictability that has challenged preconceptions and disturbed the elite.

Suddenly, being the favourites became a burden. The cartel at the top find themselves more fallible, the private members' club who dominate the end-of-season awards are being threatened by the arrivistes, the improved and their previously overshadowed teammates: for once, the individual honours should go not to Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Cesc Fabregas, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres but to players like Samir Nasri, Nani, Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart, Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam.

The big names and the big-money deals dominate the attention, but so far the signings of the season include such unlikely figures as Luke Varney, Cheik Tiote, Somen Tchoyi, Ali al Habsi and Danny Welbeck. Barely a superstar is in sight.

And while Sir Alex Ferguson is halfway to emulating Arsene Wenger by creating a team of Invincibles, the outstanding managers to date are not men with the tag of greatness yet: instead, Ian Holloway, Owen Coyle, Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Bruce are enhancing their reputations on a weekly basis. In a campaign when few things could be taken for granted, even the sackings were surprises, albeit unwelcome ones as Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce were dismissed with scant reason.

But while predicting the second half of the season is a precarious business, we can applaud those who have excelled so far.

Player of the season: Samir Nasri

Slight figure that he is, Cesc Fabregas casts a big shadow. For two years, Samir Nasri has struggled to emerge from it. Now, however, the spotlight is focused firmly on the Frenchman. The scorer of a career-best 12 goals, he appears quicker and more powerful as well as more potent. But it is his sharp, high-speed skills that really catch the eye.

Newcomer of the season: Charlie Adam

Ian Holloway was quick to say that Blackpool would not change their style in the Premier League, but it is Adam who has ensured they have continued to pass the ball with such endearing confidence. The playmaker has controlled games against supposedly superior opponents with an ease that has prompted speculation that he will be lured from Bloomfield Road.

Goal of the season: Johan Elmander (for Bolton against Wolves)

For two years, Johan Elmander was rarely compared to competent strikers, let alone Dennis Bergkamp. That all changed on a November's afternoon at Molineux. A beautiful example of close control, a sharp turn and a wonderfully assured finish meant Bolton's misfit suddenly found himself likened to one of the greats.

Buy of the season: Rafael van der Vaart

You can never have enough flair players. That, at least, seems to be Harry Redknapp's theory. When Rafael van der Vaart arrived from Real Madrid, it was hard to see where Tottenham could accommodate the Dutchman. The answer soon became clear: they just put him on the pitch and let him play. Allying a predatory instinct with his creativity, Van der Vaart and Spurs soon seemed a match made in heaven.

Loan signing of the season: Luke Varney

He ended last season being relegated to League One with Sheffield Wednesday and started the current campaign unwanted at Derby. There was, in short, nothing to suggest that Luke Varney would take the Premier League by storm. Or, indeed, that he would ever play in the top flight. But Varney, 28, has proved an inspired recruit by Ian Holloway. His five goals have come in games that have produced 11 points for Blackpool and included a winner at Anfield and a goal-of-the-season candidate in a game against Wolves.

Game of the season: Arsenal 2 Tottenham 3

The proverbial game of two halves was both a seismic shock and emblematic of the unpredictability of the Premier League this season. It also featured goals from each of the North London rivals' two finest players so far, Samir Nasri and Marouane Chamakh putting Arsenal ahead in the first half before Bale and Van der Vaart removed their lead. Younes Kaboul's winner was a dramatic conclusion to a wonderful game.

Manager of the season: Ian Holloway

It is not normally a milestone but Blackpool's total of 22 points is significant. It is exactly double the 11 that Derby took in the whole of the 2007/08 season. Many thought that the Seasiders would set a record low. Instead, a team who have been imbued with their manager's positivity have played with flair and fearlessness. Holloway has been as creative in the transfer market as his side have proved on the pitch and deserves much of the credit for their unexpected success.

Shock of the season: Arsenal 2 West Brom 3

There have been many to choose from. But, three months on, West Bromwich Albion's victory at the Emirates Stadium still stands out; partly because they took a 3-0 lead, partly because they beat Arsenal by playing attacking football and partly because it was a sudden jolt to all those expecting Albion to make a swift return to the Championship.

Pitch of the season: Ewood Park

It's hard to praise the new board at Blackburn Rovers, but the groundstaff merit rather more credit. Despite being located in one of the Premier League's coldest towns, Ewood Park consistently stages games on freezing weekends.

Defence of the season: Sunderland

Not many teams can concede five goals in a derby and still deserve praise. But apart from the 5-1 thrashing at St James' Park, Sunderland's defensive record is excellent: 13 goals conceded in 17 games with a league-best of nine clean sheets. All this despite regular injuries and with a right-back (Phil Bardsley) being used on the left.