The random nature of football always throws up something we couldn’t have possibly seen coming. It’s this randomness, this entropy, this capacity to thwart our assumptions year in, year out that makes football one of the greatest celebrations on earth.
Unsurprisingly, this COVID-ridden Premier League season has already thrown us multiple curveballs. As we reach its halfway point, here are my biggest surprises of the season thus far-
Arsenal’s Early Season Dip
With the way Arsenal finished last season (and started this one), everyone thought they’d be uniformly on the rise. However, a string of sensational decisions coupled by some baffling PR disasters and some boiling heads saw Arsenal somehow drop to 15th. The performances sapped the confidence, and the lack of confidence drained the performances. Media outlets at one point were enjoying toying with the idea of Arsenal falling into a relegation scrap-fight. Mikel Arteta, on the other hand, was resilient in his defence of the team, insisting that despite the poor results they were playing well and wins would soon follow.
Fair play to Arteta and the Arsenal board for not panicking with him, because the performances have improved since then. Arteta has substituted the underperformers with academy youngsters, who are playing better and with no fear. January has also seen the club cut their losses with dead-weights in Mesut Özil, Sead Kolašinac and Sokratis, with more set to follow them on the out. With the team just four points off West Ham in fifth, Arteta’s process is picking up pace once again.
Manchester United Reaching Top Spot
Within half-a-season, Manchester United have already experienced plenty of twists and turns. Despite a poor start in the league that saw defeats to Crystal Palace and that Spurs mauling, the Red Devils topped their Champions League group three matches in, a promise they delivered on by dutifully crashing out of the competition on the last matchday in a game they only had to draw. With an underwhelming transfer window, a mediocre league run and a disappointing end to the UCL group stages Ole Gunnar Solskjær was being tipped (once again) to be on the brink of dismissal, but once again the cat proved to have more lives in his whiskers.
Two months ago, if you’d have asked a Man Utd fan how high they thought the club would finish in the league, even the most optimistic of us would have blurted out somewhere between 4th and 6th. Somehow, though, we managed to find ourselves at the top of the whole pile.
Some say it’s just luck. Some say it’s just a result of the pandemic. Some give some other excuses, anything to deprive Solskjær of any credit. While there is an element of luck, and while we most likely will not be winning the league, the mere fact that United managed to reach the top this deep into the season, albeit momentarily, for the first time since Sir Alex was a moment worth cherishing.
There is yet a long way to go, and United certainly have plenty of chinks in their armour that they need to address. Still, the players are beginning to show a sense of togetherness and attitude not seen since the days of the past. If Ole takes the Red Devils to a top 4 finish this season he’ll be the only manager since Sir Alex to manage that in back-to-back seasons: a gradual yet upwards progression.
Sheffield United’s Unravelling
With their high intensity running and overlapping centre-backs, the Blades garnered a lot of plaudits for arriving into the Premier League and seamlessly slotting themselves into the top half of the division. At one point last season, they were right up there competing for a European spot, but marginally missed out in the end. A lot was presumed about their second season in the league, but hardly anyone saw coming such a spectacular fall from grace.
21 matches into the season, Sheffield United are bottom of the league with just 8 points. Derby County, the side known for being the worst ever in a Premier League season, collected 11 points in total during the 2007-08 season. There’s little clearly apparent as to why the Blades have been so poor, because despite what their points tally indicates they have been playing well and the players have been industrious in their attempts, yet continue to lose marginally at the end of 90 minutes. Despite the dismal run, such is the perplexing nature of the league this season that United still find themselves just 14 points off safety with 17 matches to play. Stranger things have happened…
Irrespective of how they end up, the club hierarchy have asserted that they intend to support Chris Wilder, the manager (and a Sheffield United fan himself) responsible for raising the club from League One wilderness to the dizzying heights of the Premier League. It will be some turnaround if the Blades manage to stay up after such a start, but it’s refreshing to see a manager getting the backing of his overlords in an industry where managers usually drop like flies in situations half as ominous as Sheffield United’s.
John Stones’ Resurgence
John Stones was as good as gone before the start of this season. The Englishman was extricated from Pep Guardiola’s plans quite a while ago as injuries and lack of confidence meant the Spaniard would rather play his midfielders Rodri or Fernandinho in the defence. Moreover, it was recently revealed that Stones also had personal issues going on behind the scenes to keep him preoccupied. After separating from his partner Millie Savage in December 2018, John went through the next few months embroiled in the proceedings for custody of his daughter – a poignant predicament for anyone involved.
When the world went into lockdown, it gave Stones (like everyone) some time to take a step back and recalibrate himself. He went about readying himself, both physically and mentally. Now all he needed was an opportunity.
There are two people of note here that paved the way for Stones’ return – Eric García and Rúben Dias.
20-year-old Eric García emerged as a reliable option for Guardiola over the course of the 2019-20 season. But after the season ended, García tried pushing for move back to his hometown club Barcelona. With his contract expiring at the end of this season, it is widely believed García will return to Catalonia for free, meaning Guardiola needed to look elsewhere for a long-term option.
City were chasing 23-year-old Rúben Dias for a while, but after getting thrashed 5-2 by Leicester City at the Etihad, it became apparent that he was a player they needed in and needed straightaway. Dias was naturally assumed to be the preferred partner of Aymeric Laporte, who was considered City’s best defender. The pairing seemed to work straightaway. Stones, however, started making his claim with his appearances in the Champions League group stages and apparently struck a chord with Dias in a way Laporte didn’t. After City got beaten 2-0 by Tottenham in November, Guardiola chose to put aside the Dias-Laporte pairing and introduced Stones alongside the Portuguese against Burnley next week after trying them out in his side’s 1-0 victory over Olympiacos in the midweek. City have not looked back ever since.
The Dias-Stones pairing has quickly become the most impervious in the Premier League. Despite conceding 5 against Leicester, City are now boasting the meanest defence in the league with just 13 goals conceded in total. Stones’ revival has not only seen him contributing with goals, he has also put Laporte below him in the pecking order, with Dias the obvious number one choice at the moment.
Out of the wilderness John Stones is quickly regaining his reputation as one of the best English defenders, and it is nigh impossible right now to think of him not making Gareth Southgate’s team for the upcoming Euros.
The David Moyes Renaissance
When David Moyes succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, he himself left behind a decade-long dynasty of his own. In his eleven years with Everton, he garnered a reputation of a clever tactician who could effectively build a team with limited resources and yet compete with the very best. But when he lost the United job – and there was a myriad of reasons for that – 10 months into his six-year contract, his reputation unsurprisingly took a hit. From a reputed personality, he went straight to being a laughingstock. Football really can be cruel at times.
His next ventures also did little to resurrect his reputation. A failed stint in Spain with Real Sociedad was followed by a tumultuous season with Sunderland that saw the Black Cats (finally) get relegated from the Premier League. He returned to management with West Ham in November 2017 on a short-term deal with the Hammers lurking in the relegation zone – a challenge he successfully completed. However, at the time West Ham did not offer him a new deal because they did not find him matching the lofty expectations they had of themselves, and instead went to former Premier League winner Manuel Pellegrini. That project didn’t last long either, as Pellegrini was sacked halfway through the next season and Moyes was brought back, this time on a longer contract.
With West Ham fans never shy of vociferously expressing their resentment with the club hierarchy, the no-fans atmosphere really allowed Moyes a little more breathing space to build his new squad. Once again provided a scenario not too dissimilar than what he had at Everton and a reputation to resuscitate, Moyes went about rebuilding the squad in his image, and the results are finally starting to show. Some decent transfer business and a clear playing philosophy has definitely helped alleviate some of the fans’ worries, and much to everyone’s surprise, it’s Moyes of all people who’s actually taking West Ham to the lofty heights they believed they warranted. The Hammers might not end the season in the fifth place they currently occupy but at 57, Moyes has certainly been given a new lease on his managerial career.