Premier League Season: The 10 Biggest Surprise Packages
The two Manchester clubs are fighting it out for the title. Chelsea have changed their manager again and Arsenal’s status as a Top Four club is under threat.
So far, so predictable.
The scope for genuine surprises in the Premier League era has been lessened by the immutable law of financial might, which insulates the big sides from failure and keeps the rest red in tooth and claw, fighting it out for another year of dizzying TV revenues.
We must, therefore, move beyond the collective in search of unexpected success stories. West Brom and Swansea’s respective starts to the season excepted, they are to be found on an individual level.
Following the annual influx of new players, promoted sides, academy graduates and renaissance men, the time is nigh to assess who has fared best. In no particular order, here they are.
The public has been eagerly awaiting Raheem Sterling’s breakthrough since Liverpool signed him from QPR as a raw 16-year-old.
Although the teenager’s talent was never in doubt, few expected him to slot so seamlessly into the first team setup at such a young age. In a matter of months he has gone from promising impact player to virtually ever present, making his England debut against Sweden along the way.
In contrast to the more experienced Stewart Downing, who he has kept out the side for much of the season, and despite his slight stature, Sterling is fearlessly keen to make his presence felt. In both an attacking and defensive sense he never shirks a challenge.
Yet, having spurned several chances when through on goal with only the keeper to beat, he must become more clinical. Thankfully, time is on his side in this respect.
Club: Aston Villa
Much of Guzan’s career to date has been devoted to that most frustrating of art forms, the perennial backup.
He’d carved out a niche as specialist penalty saver in cup competitions but, having failed to displace compatriot Brad Friedel before him, the signing of Shay Given on a five-year deal seemed to spell the end for his stillborn Villa career. The American international’s contract had even expired by the time Paul Lambert, the man who had transformed his fortunes, was appointed as manager over the summer.
An inauspicious start to the season, coupled with some uncharacteristically poor keeping from Given, saw Guzan awarded his first league start away to Newcastle.
Following some standout saves in that game, he has gone on to cement his spot as the club’s indisputable No.1. The limited goal scoring threat they carry at the other end has made an inexperienced Villa side especially reliant on his agile shot-stopping and steadying influence.
Club: West Ham
Nationality: New Zealander
His first season in the Premier League, as a rudderless West Ham finished bottom of the pile, was a veritable baptism of fire.
Reid, part of the New Zealand squad that ended the 2010 World Cup unbeaten, looked horrifically ill-suited and out of his depth. Frequently bullied in the air and prone to costly errors, his introduction to English football was one to forget.
What came next was exactly what he needed to turn things around.
A year of toughening up in the Championship under the guidance of Sam Allardyce and he seems a changed man. Benefiting from being paired with the returning James Collins rather than the flaky James Tomkins, Reid is now a formidable prospect and integral to the Hammers assault on the top half. Discussions about rewarding him with a new long-term deal are ongoing.
Club: West Bromwich Albion
The West Brom squad is hardly short of capable, quietly effective midfielders.
Youssuf Mulumbu and James Morrison have rightly been praised for their role in the Baggies’ impressive start but Claudio Yacob, a snappy tackler and one of Steve Clarke’s first signings, has arguably made the biggest impression. Having never played outside of his homeland, supporters were unsure what to expect of the free transfer from Racing Club, who has adapted immediately to the English game.
Since arriving in England, Yacob has been a revelation. Like a budget Javier Mascherano, the midfield enforcer is adept at breaking up play and initiating counter attacks by moving the ball on quickly to West Brom’s busy forwards. Injuries have curtailed his involvement in recent weeks, and the effect on Albion has been noticeable.
Michu already looks like the undoubted signing of the season.
Where Swansea often struggled for goals during their rise up the divisions, they now have a seemingly guaranteed source of them, a priceless commodity in the Premier League. There has been great variety amongst Michu’s 12 strikes too: diving headers, poacher’s efforts and a brace of peerless, composed finishes in the win over Arsenal.
Profiting from the industry of either Danny Graham or Itay Schechter ahead of him, as they drag defenders away, Michu operates as a second striker in the space just off the front man.
A welcome contrast to the all-action wing play of Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge, he brings an elegant cutting edge to their attacks through the centre. Bought for a mere £2 million off the back of 15 La Liga goals for Rayo Vallecano, Michu is proof that, as the price of British players reaches unprecedented heights, there is still exceptional value to be found elsewhere in Europe.
Just a matter of months ago, Jason Puncheon’s Saints career was in considerable doubt.
He was little more than a bit-part player as the South Coast club romped to successive promotions, spending the first half of last season on loan at QPR. Attitude problems and arguments with the owner were behind his continued exclusion with Nigel Adkins even looking to offload him permanently in the January transfer window until Puncheon forced his way into the midfield reckoning through hard work.
In contrast to the expectations surrounding Ricky Lambert and Adam Lallana’s ability to make the step up after promotion, Puncheon barely figured in such discussions. Yet along with record signing Gaston Ramirez, he has provided the spark behind Southampton’s recent climb out of the relegation zone.
Comfortable on either wing, the left footer is refreshingly direct and looks to get defenders backpedalling. He scored another vital goal, his fourth of the season, to secure a win over relegation candidates Reading on Saturday.
Club: Aston Villa
Impressive goal-scoring records in Europe’s so-called lesser leagues are never a reliable indicator of success in the Premier League.
Mateja Kezman, Afonso Alves and Helder Postiga amongst others all arrived in England with enviable strike rates only to deceive in spectacular fashion. There was an element of fear that Belgian international Christian Benteke, purchased for £8 million from Genk, would become another to add to the list. This fear was hardly allayed by his early waywardness in front of goal as Darren Bent was puzzlingly excluded from the matchday squad.
Yet the fact that Villa fans by and large back Lambert’s judgement in starting with Benteke is testament to his all-round game. The bullish powerhouse, who swotted Chris Smalling aside with embarrassing ease to tee up Andreas Weimann for his first against Manchester United, is appreciated for his efforts in selflessly occupying the opposition centre halves. He’s been hitting the target more consistently too, grabbing another goal in the League Cup win over Norwich yesterday.
While most attention was grabbed by the arrival of Charlie Adam, limited fanfare greeted Geoff Cameron at the Britannia Stadium this summer.
His performances in the Potters’ backline have been similarly unfussy yet effective. A diligent and committed defender in one-on-one situations, the former Houston Dynamo has adapted well to right-back, becoming a mainstay in Stoke’s long-term problem position, and one he was initially unfamiliar with.
Defensive solidity and percentages football has long been the route to survival for Tony Pulis, Cameron and co. upholding this proud tradition of no-nonsense miserliness. The new boy has started all but one league game alongside Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth, with the capable Asmir Begovic between the sticks, contributing to an admirable tally of eight clean sheets in the process.
Signed in the dying days of Rafa Benitez’s Spanish revolution, Suso has come to prominence under Brendan Rogers.
Due to a lack of transfer funds at Anfield this season, the new boss has had to rely on youth to enliven his sometimes predictable outfit. This policy has seen Suso, the aforementioned Raheem Sterling, Andre Wisdom and Jonjo Shelvey thrive with the increased responsibility they have been given.
In the mould of many a Spanish playmaker, Suso is creative, comfortable on the ball and always on the lookout for a killer pass. A slippery runner, his dribbling skills have embarrassed many a battle-hardened defender in his eight league appearances so far.
With increased competition for midfield places—due to Jordan Henderson’s return to favour plus the comebacks from injury of Lucas and Joe Cole—Suso’s playing time has been limited somewhat in the last few weeks.
To choose a renowned Premier League live wire and England international as one of the season’s surprise packages understandably seems like something of a contradiction in terms.
But 2012 has witnessed an unexpected revival for goal snaffler supreme Jermain Defoe. Frustrated at slowly being phased out under Harry Redknapp, who preferred playing Rafael van der Vaart off the lanky Emmanuel Adebayor, his second spell at White Hart Lane appeared to be coming to its natural conclusion.
Just a few months later and Andre Villas Boas is routinely singing the praises of his 13-goal front man, responsible for keeping Spurs in contention towards the top of the table. While Gareth Bale may be the side’s headline maker, Defoe goes about his business with ruthless efficiency. His run from halfway before slamming the ball past Jussi Jaaskelainen was a particular highlight, showcasing his less vaunted abilities outside the area.