EPL: Five observations at the midway point

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

After a busy Christmas weekend, the Premier League season is at its exact midpoint, with every team having played 19 of their 38 regular-season games. Here are some recent developments that will shape the second half of the season:

IN-SEASON SHIFTS. One can’t fathom the idea of an NHL or NBA or NFL head coach abandoning one team for another during the season, but it often happens in the Premier League, and it’s about to occur once again.

Crystal Palace fired manager Neil Warnock on Saturday and has reportedly agreed to pay 2 million pounds ($3.1 million) compensation to Newcastle United, which will allow Palace to hire away Alan Pardew at the exact midpoint of the season. Pardew, 53, starred for Crystal Palace from 1987 to 1991 and has 15 seasons of managerial experience dating back to his start with Reading in 1999.

A rough start to this season has prompted displays of posters and signs excoriating Pardew's efforts and calling for his departure. News of a possible change surfaced after Warnock was dismissed Saturday. Pardew was on the bench Sunday as Newcastle moved into 10th place by beating Everton, 3-2, but he didn’t face the press after the match. Former Toronto FC head coach John Carver, the Magpies’ assistant manager, gave comments to the press and will conduct the team’s training session on Tuesday.

Pardew is leaving a team in the middle of the standings for one stuck in the relegation zone. Yet Pardew has been squabbling with Newcastle owner Mike Ashley over finances and other matters for several years and will supposedly sign a four-year contract that pays him about $3 million a year.

Buyouts of contracts when U.S. professional or major-college coaches change employers are common, but such moves never occur during a season. A college football coach might leave his school for a new one during the period leading up to a bowl game and there have been trades involving NBA and NFL head coaches and MLB managers there’s nothing like the frequency of in-season moves by which a manager simply packs up and takes on a new job. If MLS was like the Premier League in this regard, perhaps Dominic Kinnear would have left Houston for San Jose in September, not after the regular season had ended.

New Dynamo head coach Owen Coyle jumped from Burnley to Bolton in early January 2010. That’s why Stuart Holden, at the time supposedly bound for Burnley from the Dynamo, wound up instead at Bolton.

CRUNCH TIME. Several managers, including Sunderland’s Gus Poyet, commented on the absurdity of playing league matches on one day of rest, which is what a double-dip of Boxing Day/Sunday meant for most Premier League teams.

“We shouldn't be playing on the 28th,” he said in his postgame comments after a laborious 0-0 tie at Aston Villa. “I've been in England for a long time and I know that Boxing Day games are a tradition and I accept that and think we should maintain it. But I think that then playing on the 28th is a disgrace. We shouldn't be playing then, we shouldn't. If you want to see the best players performing well, you need to make sure you that we don’t play every two days, because it’s not needed.”

Only Liverpool and Swansea City, which faced each other Monday at Anfield, escaped the arduous juxtaposition of matches necessitated by a tradition of playing the day after Christmas and the league’s insistence to follow up with weekend games as well. If as some critics contend, schedule overload at times strips away a layer of skill and tempo, the rigorous demands of holiday play are a major contributor.

The crunch continues this week: all 20 Premier League teams play on New Year’s Day as well as in the FA Cup third round Saturday through Monday. Each January the busy holiday period and its aftermath takes a toll on EPL rosters, as overworked limbs succumb to significant injuries suffered in matches or when nettlesome pulls and tears are aggravated by constant use.

HAMMERS QUIETED. One manager well-versed in the hectic holiday is West Ham’s Sam Allardyce, whose surprising Hammers were in fourth place – the club’s highest placing at Christmas since 1985, six years before the Premier League was formed -- prior to a brutal assignment of playing at Chelsea and hosting Arsenal in back-to-back encounters.

Allardyce rested a few of his regulars in a 2-0 loss at Chelsea on Boxing Day but at home against the Gunners two days later, West Ham couldn’t keep pace and lost, 2-1. A tie would have kept the Hammers ahead of Arsenal; instead, the London club took over fifth place and West Ham is two points behind in sixth. Still, it has beaten defending champion Manchester City and Liverpool at home this season and looks unlikely to repeat the 20 losses and 13th-place finish of 2013-14.

SAINTS STILL IN TOP FIVE. The other surprise team of the season so far, Southampton, held fourth place -- on goal difference over Arsenal -- by tying Chelsea, 1-1. Senegalese striker Saido Mane scored the goal against Chelsea, and a revived attack is generating chances despite extensive changes. Former Feyenoord forward Graziano Pelle leads the team with eight goals and playmaker Dasan Tadic (FC Twente) is finding cracks and gaps his skillful passes can exploit. Tadic is tied for third in the league with seven assists.

Last summer, Saints seemed poised for a tumble after the transfer market sent five prominent players to bigger clubs and manager Mauricio Pochettino took the Tottenham job, but under the guidance of former Dutch international Ronald Koeman, Southampton is defying the doomsayers.

English midfielder Jay Rodriguez, who missed the World Cup and hasn’t  played this season because of a torn ACL he suffered last April, had targeted a January return but another injury has delayed his recovery. Koeman showed a few months ago he could use the transfer market shrewdly and there’s money left over from the summer sell-off available for use in the January transfer window.

NEW ROLE FOR ROONEY. Solidly entrenched in third place, Manchester United isn’t winning much praise for resilience under manager Louis Van Gaal as it continues to roll up points. Keeper David De Gea has been nothing short of heroic in several matches United was fortunate to win; he’s often been left exposed by defenders scrambling to cover for a pulverizing attack paced by Wayne Rooney as a deep-lying midfielder.

United thoroughly outplayed Tottenham Sunday but departed White Hart Lane with a 0-0 tie courtesy of a few excellent saves by Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris, including this soaring deflection of a majestic shot off the foot of Ashley Young (Video).

On Friday, Rooney polished off two flowing moves with crisp finishes and chipped a precise ball that Robin Van Persie headed home for the third goal in a 3-1 pasting of Newcastle. Radamel Falcao, paired with Van Persie up top, has been struggling to score goals but he earned a fine assist by racing down the right flank for a ball played wide by Juan Mata and centering it for Rooney.

Observers have questioned a decision by Van Gaal to play three in the back and the team’s persistent porosity has to be shored up. But Rooney’s remarkable skill set and endless energy are unhinging opponents consistently, and his dynamic presence is an ideal counterpoint to Mata, who since leaving Chelsea a year ago has needed time to regain his knack for piercing passes and potent shots. Before leaving Chelsea last season, Mata failed to score in 15 games; for United he scored six goals in 16 games, and so far this season has already netted five in 18. Rooney and Van Persie are tied for the team lead with eight goals.

Not many pundits are giving United a chance to join Chelsea and Manchester City in the title race, but this isn’t the same team that lost its home opener to Swansea City in mid-August and suffered a 5-3 loss at promoted Leicester City in September. Liverpool dominated play in a Dec. 14 meeting but De Gea dazzled and Mata scored an offside goal as United improbably won, 3-0. Regardless of circumstance, those results build confidence, and as it showed Friday while destroying Newcastle, United is brimming with that essential ingredient.

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