Premier League Grades – February 2019 – Part 2
We’ve given each Premier League side a grade as the season enters its final straight, with 13 games ahead before the curtain falls on the 2018/19 season.
Back in November, we graded each side’s performance after three months of the season, but have our grades changed much in the meantime?
In Part 2 of our Premier League grades, we look at Leicester City through to Wolverhampton Wanderers…
Current position: 11th
Reasons to be cheerful: Claude Puel’s reign continues to split opinion in the East Midlands, but he is starting to nurture an exciting new generation of players as the Foxes work towards a new era after a mad couple of seasons. Leicester’s inconsistency continues to frustrate, but it’s easy to overlook the fact squad regulars including Ben Chilwell, Demarai Gray, James Maddison, Kelechi Iheanacho, Hamza Choudhury and Harvey Barnes are all 22 or under. The future looks bright at the King Power.
Reasons to be fearful: The stunning 2015/16 title success for the Foxes continues to cast a long shadow, with a comfortable upper mid-table not likely to be enough for certain sections of the Leicester fanbase to warm to Claude Puel. Can any manager ever live up to the raised expectations at the King Power?
Verdict: An underwhelming cup record this season counts against Puel, but the Foxes are realistically about where they should be for a club of their stature. Unlike many Premier League sides, they also seem to be building prudently for the long term.
Current position: 2nd
Reasons to be cheerful: Overlook their recent blip and the stats still look favourable for Liverpool as they chase their first Premier League title. If Jürgen Klopp can help his side rediscover the attacking verve that has been missing in action in recent weeks, they will still be well-placed to seal the deal come May, although the German will be praying his defensive headache improves sooner rather than later. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Liverpool looks like a side that needs some high-stake games to shake themselves back into life and re-focus minds – and those challenges are coming later this month. The win against Bournemouth should help restore confidence.
Reasons to be fearful: Jürgen Klopp has stumbled into a few problems at just the wrong moment – some of his own making. The decision to let Nathaniel Clyne leave on loan looks as if it is coming back to haunt him, while the Reds have looked uncharacteristically shaky throughout the side in recent games. Klopp’s man-motivation skills are legendary – he’ll need to call on every one of them to make sure Liverpool avert another agonising near miss.
Verdict: Could this finally be the year Liverpool fans have been dreaming of since the formation of the Premier League? They’ve never been better placed – but a tough few weeks ahead with games against Man Utd, Everton and Spurs will be a real test of character now they’ve let City close up on them.
Current position: 1st
Reasons to be cheerful: Even with the occasional slip-up this season, City always looks like a side that can crank their performance levels up a notch when the pressure is really on. Can the same be said for Liverpool and Spurs – particularly with injuries starting to bite for both of those sides? The 6-0 thumping over Chelsea will act as a warning shot across Merseyside.
Reasons to be fearful: Retaining a title has been a challenge that has eluded every Premier League champion for the past decade. The jury’s out on whether that’s a psychological flaw of recent winners or simply a sign of the strength in depth at the top of this division, but one thing’s for sure – the Citizens will have to break with recent history to keep their hands on the Premier League trophy.
Verdict: With Liverpool now stuttering a little, City look more than capable of stepping up to the gear needed to overhaul their closest challengers. Will the experience of having already won a title give Pep’s side the extra edge over the remaining weeks of the season?
Current position: 5th
Reasons to be cheerful: The late 90s are back in vogue at Man Utd, with a feelgood factor around Old Trafford that currently shows no signs of dissipating. With several of their big-game players finally looking as if they’ve remembered that football is meant to be fun, momentum alone could help propel Utd to that final Champions League berth, especially if Chelsea continue to stutter.
Reasons to be fearful: The Champions League tussle with PSG in a few weeks’ time has taken on a whole new meaning as the two games that will likely define Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s future at the club. A win against the reigning French champions could see them steamroll towards Champions League qualification. A limp defeat could kill all the recent positivity stone dead.
Verdict: It’s been two seasons in one for Man Utd, but the post-Mourinho era suggests the green shoots of recovery have been there all along. They just needed the right atmosphere to thrive.
Current position: 15th
Reasons to be cheerful: Newcastle have the best tactician at the helm of all the relegation contenders put together – and that means they are rarely out of any game even if they regularly look toothless in attack. Tight 1-0 and 2-1 wins might not win you many admirers on Match of the Day – but they do secure you safety.
Reasons to be fearful: At risk of sounding like a broken record, any side that scores as few goals as Newcastle is never going be entirely free from relegation danger, with only Huddersfield more blunt in front of goal than them this season. Fans will be hoping £20m record signing Miguel Almirón can hit the ground running as he steps up from the MLS. The form of Martin Dúbravka is also a concern.
Verdict: Given his well-publicised frustrations, Rafa is doing as good a job as can be expected on Tyneside. Back his rigid defensive set-up to yet again help steer the Magpies away from trouble – with a generous run-in at St James’ Park likely to see them across the line.
Current position: 16th
Reasons to be cheerful: Southampton were going down with a whimper before Ralph Hasenhüttl arrived, but even if results remain patchy, they now look like a side with a coherent game plan going into every fixture. The Austrian has also shown he’s a man who’s not scared of making big decisions as he looks to stamp his authority on the club – putting his faith in several young players whilst moving underperformers on. That should stand the Saints in good stead as they look to claw their way towards the 35-point mark that could be enough for survival.
Reasons to be fearful: Despite their recent improvement, Saints still look a side that struggles to see games out. A relatively gentle run-in should see them home if they can turn draws against those around them into wins. Losing to Cardiff at home, however, suggests Saints still have plenty of work to do.
Verdict: 17th place or higher would be mission accomplished for Hasenhüttl who looks like he could be the man to get the Saints back on track if he can just get them over the line this season. Southampton fans will be hoping that mark is passed long before May.
Current position: 3rd
Reasons to be cheerful: Unwittingly winning the title after being written off at the turn of the year would probably be the most ‘Spursy’ thing to ever happen in North London – but Liverpool’s recent stutter has opened up a small window of opportunity for Mauricio Pochettino’s side. An empty trophy cabinet continues to haunt the Argentinian, but he’s continuing to perform wonders given Spurs’ lack of transfer activity and recent injury woes. Winning games without playing particularly well is also a decent habit to have in the locker.
Reasons to be fearful: The picture could change very quickly for Spurs in the next few weeks if their injury troubles don’t start to clear up quickly. Do they have the physical and mental strength to take on Dortmund (twice), Chelsea and Arsenal all in the space of three weeks without conceding any ground?
Verdict: A sustained title challenge still looks just beyond them, but if they can keep themselves tucked in with the pacesetters, the last few weeks of the season could be very interesting. Regardless, another top-three finish would be an outstanding return given everything thrown at Mauricio Pochettino in this campaign.
Current position: 8th
Reasons to be cheerful: It’s February and Watford have the same manager that they started the campaign with, and have as yet shown no signs of their traditional post-Christmas collapse – so that’s an instant upgrade on their previous Premier League seasons since returning to this level. Even if they nosedived from this point, 34 points could already be the magic number needed for safety.
Reasons to be fearful: Have the Hornets hit their ceiling? A top half finish would be an extraordinary result for Javi Gracia, but there’s a danger all his good work could be undermined by bidding wars this summer with Watford nurturing a decent production line of Premier League talent.
Verdict: The Hornets are on track for their best ever Premier League finish after a season refreshingly lacking in off-field drama. Will that stability carry through another summer of planning at top-flight level?
WEST HAM UTD
Current position: 12th
Reasons to be cheerful: It’s still baby steps at this stage, but the Hammers’ radical pre-season revamp has at least seen the club comfortably pull clear of the relegation picture under the astute management of Manuel Pellegrini. Even if they are still prone to the occasional slip-up, it’s been a far more entertaining watch for Hammers fans compared with previous seasons.
Reasons to be fearful: Drama never seems to be in short supply in East London, and if the Hammers only secure a middling finish, it could be an interesting summer, with the Arnautović saga surely destined for a second act, and Declan Rice likely to be a man in demand. Could that lead to yet another season of transition in 2019/20?
Verdict: A strange season at the London Stadium. The arrival of Pellegrini has undoubtedly seen the Hammers move up a level, but they remain one of the most frustrating teams to watch in the Premier League after yet another inconsistent season.
Current position: 7th
Reasons to be cheerful: Bar the occasional blip at Molineux earlier this season, Nuno’s side look every inch the complete package at Premier League level. The fact they look on their way to securing European football also means they will be able to build from even more of a position of strength this summer. Could they finally be the team to break the ‘Big Six’ stranglehold? It no longer seems that much of a stretch.
Reasons to be fearful: Could the relative ease with which this Wolves side has acclimatised back at this level put a few clubs on red alert for Nuno’s services? If any interesting vacancies among the elite arise this summer, his name will surely now be in the reckoning. That could throw a spanner in the works for Wolves’ long-term ambitions, but it looks unlikely they will be returning to the second tier any time soon.
Verdict: Wolves showed glimpses earlier this season that they had the potential to be the ‘best of the rest’ with a string of impressive performances, before falling back to earth with a bump with an off-colour performance. Now they finally look the real deal. Their financial muscle has been well documented but that’s no guarantee of success – just look at Fulham. It’s been an excellent first season back at this level for a side that looks capable of pushing on to even greater heights.
All image sources from PA Images
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