English Premier League's 10 Biggest Surprises of 2011
The game of soccer is more often than not a rather predictable affair, made all the more obvious by the growing disparity in wealth between "have" and "have nots." You could bet your house on one of Real Madrid or Barcelona winning La Liga this year, and you can be reasonably sure that Spain and Germany will reach the latter stages of the European Championships next summer.
The English Premier League has long had a caste of "elite" clubs that have dominated the title race since its inception. However, there still remains an element of entropy in the league, and the 2011 calendar year has thrown up no shortage of surprises.
Over the past 12 months we've seen some truly surprising things, ranging from one of the greatest comebacks in history, cracks emerging in the staunchest of armour, as well as Andy Carroll going on to justify his £35 million price tag by netting 41 goals in all competitions.
The following slides are what I consider the 10 biggest surprise packages of 2011.
Robin van Persie Hasn't Been Injured in Almost 12 Consecutive Months
One three-week spell in March aside, Arsenal captain Robin van Persie has had an injury-free 2011 and Arsene Wenger's side has reaped the benefits. Another goal against Fulham saw him equal Thierry Henry's record of 34 goals in a calendar year.
The Dutchman has been in irresistible form, and time and time again I wonder what this side would have accomplished had the striker remained fit in the past. Van Persie's goal return in itself isn't surprising considering his quality but never before has he had a run of this many games without a spell on the sidelines. The Arsenal treatment table often sees more traffic than the Tokyo subway system and the striker has been conspicuous by his absence.
With the departure of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, it has fallen to the Dutchman to lead Arsenal to glory, which has seen him transformed into the most lethal frontman in the Premier League. As always the club's defensive fallibility has prevented any sort of title push, but if he continues on this form Wenger can forget about striking reinforcements and focus on the remainder of his threadbare squad.
If you haven't seen it already, take a look at his winning strike against Everton on December 10th, a full volley with the ball dropping over his right shoulder. Simple irresistible.
The Blackpool Legacy: Norwich and Swansea Impress in 2011
A newly promoted Premier League side will begin the season at a greater disadvantage than ever before due to the imperious financial might of the top clubs. In the past, these "small" teams would either attempt to spend their way to survival in their first season or simply enjoy life in the Premier League, stick within their financial means and accept relegation on the chin in May.
August 2010 saw fan favorite Ian Holloway bring Blackpool into the Premier League where they proceeded to top the table on opening day thanks to a 4-0 battering of Wigan. Over the course of the season, the club were a job for neutrals to behold as their exciting, expansive brand of attacking football flew in the face of everything we've come to expect from newly promoted sides. Not to mention their orange kit.
They enjoyed some memorable scalps, notably two wins over Liverpool which likely earned Charlie Adam his summer transfer to Anfield.
While by the time May 2011 came around the club were banished back from whence they came, Ian Holloway put more than a few noses out of joint with his side's displays and refusal to simply park the bus. Fast-forward to today, and the likes of Swansea and Norwich have brought the same attitude to the league.
Unpredictability breeds entertainment in any sport and both newly promoted clubs currently sit comfortably in mid-table. Swansea in particular have notched more than a few clean sheets with their possession-based game and defiant goalkeeping of Michel Vorm.
Fernando Torres Fails To Find His Swagger in West London
Oh my dear sweet Fernando, will things ever be the same as they where?
2011 should have been the year that Fernando Torres made a triumphant return to the peak of his powers. Broken promises, mismanagement and general disorder saw him escape his Liverpool prison thanks to Roman Abramovich's generous £50 million outlay in the January transfer window.
The reasons for the striker's lack of form in a red shirt were many, but at the top of the list was surely poor service and a dearth of quality around him. The prospect of another season without Champions League football was surely a factor, and constant "Hodgson long balls" further demoralized the man that only two years ago had so ruthlessly put Germany to the sword in the 2008 European Championship final.
In early 2011 his inconsistent form could be blamed on moving to a brand new club and system of football, as well as continuing to recover from injury. A goal in late April was his first in 903 minutes but it wasn't the tip of the iceberg as hoped, and Torres ended the season with a whimper.
This fall was another matter entirely. A full preseason behind him, the arrival of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles coupled with the return of an impressive Daniel Sturridge promised creativity and chances. Drogba is "getting up there" and surely Anelka would join the Ivorian on the bench. But somehow, Torres never really hit the ground running.
He showed signs of returning to some semblance of form before a red card against Swansea curtailed his involvement in the first team and a reinvigorated Didier Drogba has kept him out of the first team ever since. Even with a return to his old haircut, plenty of quality players and an injury-free season, he could very well end up as Chelsea's new Andrei Shevchenko.
Not good enough Fernando!
Lure of Cash Money Overrules Footballing Aspirations for Asamoah Gyan
The year 2010 was a double-edged sword for Ghanian striker Asamoah Gyan, as despite the striker's best efforts throughout the World Cup he missed a last-minute penalty that would have sent his country through to the semifinals. He was without a doubt one of the stars of the tournament and there was little surprise when a move to the Premier League beckoned.
Gyan joined Darren Bent and Danny Welbeck at Sunderland, scoring 10 goals in 34 appearances for the club. Near the end of April he suffered a hamstring injury, effectively ruling him out for the remainder of the season. He returned in time for the last game but could look back on his first foray into Premier League football with some measure of confidence and satisfaction.
A strong, quick player who could play with a partner as well as by himself, the 2011/2012 season represented an opportunity to prove himself in his second season. Like any other aspiring strike he surely had loftier goals than leading the line for Sunderland, and with a stronger goal return under his belt there was evidence that a move to a bigger club could have been on the cards.
On September 10th, Gyan left Sunderland on a season-long loan to Al Ain in the UAE Pro-League.
No disrespect to the UAE Pro-League, but there's absolutely no reason at all for any player to leave the Premier League for Al Ain, except of course if money is the sole motivator. Gyan has shown his true colours, those of a mercenary who will use his skills in the game as a tool to line his pockets.
Either that or he simply couldn't stand working under Steve Bruce...
Sir Alex Ferguson Gambled on Tom Cleverly and Lost
The tail end of the 2010/2011 Premier League season was pretty much business as usual for Sir Alex Ferguson's men, holding off Chelsea, Arsenal and the newly formed might of Manchester City to finally at long last knock Liverpool off their &%$#ing perch.
Tom Cleverly emerged at the beginning of this season as a revelation, proof in flesh and blood why Fergie didn't break the back to bring the likes of Luka Modric, Wesley Sneijder or Bastian Schweinsteiger (to name a few rumors) to Old Trafford. Joined in the first team by a hugely impressive Danny Welbeck, a young Manchester United lay waste to Spurs, Bolton and finally Arsenal in a flurry of pace and goals.
Paul who? Once again the United manager proved to everyone that there was never any need to question him.
In the cold light of December, the picture is different. Granted United sit two points off the summit at the time of writing, however with injuries beginning to stack up, those questions over the club's quality in midfield are reemerging louder than ever before.
Ferguson clearly earmarked Cleverly to be the centrepiece of his midfield, keeping in mind that the Scot has known for months about Darren Fletcher's condition. Phil Jones has shielded the team's back four with some success but against top-quality opposition there is simply too much burden on Nani and Ashley Young to create.
We know that money is tight in at least one side of Manchester, but without dipping into the transfer market it'll be up to Michael Carrick and Anderson to patrol the middle of the park. Knowing Ferguson he'll likely unveil some talent out of nowhere (Paul Pogba anyone?) to magically solve his problems. But if he doesn't, retirement may not seem so crazy of a move at this point.
Newcastle's Amazing Second-Half Comeback and Top-Four Push
On December 6th, 2010, Newcastle made the decision to sack Chris Hughton after he had brought them back up to the top flight and registered some impressive results. Alan Pardew was swiftly appointed, to bring "more experience" to the club and secure survival in the top flight.
The Magpies' form was relatively stable until February 5th when they found themselves 4-0 down. At halftime. Against Arsenal. At St James Park. Fans filed out of the stadium and it looked like the Gunners would add to their tally.
Doom, gloom and despair? Hardly.
Newcastle roared back and thanks to an absolute stonker of a volley from midfield enforcer Cheick Tioté, the club salvaged a valuable draw and completed one of the most memorable comebacks in Premier League history. The club ended the season mid-table, safe from relegation and in a relatively healthy financial state with the £35 million for Andy Carroll sitting in the bank.
Pardew oversaw a miniature revolution, casting aside the "old boys" club stalwarts in Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan and bringing in some cerebral continental flavor in the form of Yohan Cabaye and Sylvain Marveaux to join Hatem Ben Arfa, who was making a return from injury. This new midfield panache supported by what evolved into a rock-solid unyielding defensive line marshaled by Fabricio Coloccini
Injuries have taken their toll on the club but a run of 11 unbeaten matches from the beginning of the season had Newcastle firmly perched in the hallowed top-four club. They may not qualify for the Champions League but Pardew has done a phenomenal job considering the financial limitations imposed by owner Mike Ashley.
Arsene Wenger Conceedes To Pressure and Buys Experience
There are many soccer fans in the world, this writer included, that do not support Arsenal FC, however hold their long-serving (long-suffering?) manager Arsene Wenger in great esteem. A gentleman, a football romantic and exceptionally intelligent man who is second only to Alex Ferguson in years of service to his club, the Frenchman, however, is more stubborn and single-minded than even the staunchest North Korean dictator.
Wenger has won 11 trophies during his time in England, all the while devoted to his brand of beautiful, free-flowing attacking football. He has achieved most of this through bringing in "foreign" talent but also moulding and shaping the skills of players that have graduated through the Arsenal academy. Many would argue that Wenger's stubbornness and refusal to replace departed players with experienced players at the peak of their powers is the reason why the London side has been a diminished force in recent years.
This summer finally saw a merciful end to the protracted Cesc Fabregas transfer saga, but he was unexpectedly joined in the departure lounge but Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri. This coupled with a well-documented defensive shortfall left Wenger once again defending his policy of building youth players up. As the transfer window edged to a close, it looked like it was to be business as usual at the Emirates.
Fortunately for Arsenal fans, Wenger threw caution to the wind and spent heavily for the first time in recent memory. Gervinho arrived from France but it was the capture of Mikel Arteta (29) and German international Per Mertesacker (27) that really turned heads. "The Professor" had finally bent to what Arsenal fans had considered so crystal-clear, and coupled with the return from injury of Thomas Vermaelen, the first team have a much more experience look to them.
Champions League Turning Point: Manchester United 3-3 Basel
Alexander Frei may have sent Manchester United crashing out of the Champions League on December 7th, but it was a match back at the end of September where the real surprise occurred.
Routine wins over inferior opposition are part and parcel of everything United stand for, so after tying with Benfica in their opening match, Alex Ferguson was looking for three points at Old Trafford. It was generally agreed that United had been handed an easy group (as usual), in stark contrast to City's failure in the group of death.
Two goals in two minutes from Danny Welbeck saw the Red Devils in cruise control, and despite the talent and experience on display in the side, they geared down and lost their competitive edge. Coming back when losing is hard enough, but fighting your way out of being 2-0 down at Old Trafford is simply something that isn't within the physical realm of possibility.
Thanks to both Freis (Fabian and Alexander) somehow Basel roared back, scoring three unanswered goals and bossing the game. United were penetrated time and time again through midfield, and Rio Ferdinand was shockingly inept in the air. His young partner Phil Jones looked out of his depth, attempting to play his way out of trouble when a good old-fashioned boot into the stands was called for.
Manchester United managed to equalize (as usual) but it has been some time since we've seen a Fergie team lose their composure and control from a winning situation. In 2005 they were knocked out in the group stages but managed to quickly rebuild into a European powerhouse once again. If United can't overcome City in the league, will their European form suffer as well?
Andy Carroll Has Scored 41 Goals Since Arriving at Liverpool
Defenders in 2011 simply did not know what hit them, as Andy Carroll came screaming out of the blocks to smash goal after goal in nets around England. Remember that triple hat trick against Manchester United? I do. That memorable performance where he scored four headers in just under one minute against Wigan? Unforgettable.
Good times to be a Liverpool fan, eh?
But seriously, I harboured genuine hopes of a classic "big man little man" with Luis Suarez buzzing around while Carroll occupied the centre-backs. Kenny Dalglish certainly played the ex-Newcastle man enough but every time he seemed slow and lethargic.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Dalglish has kept Carroll on the bench for the past little while, even when we are hurting for goals. He seems to prefer Kuyt partnering our Uruguayan or else playing Suarez up front on his own. The Scot isn't phased by the £35 million expenditure, and will no doubt swallow his pride and sell Carroll if the right offer somehow emerged.
To quote a fellow B/R writer Ashish Kulkarni, a massive Manchester United fan:
"When I find myself in times of trouble,
Kenny Dalglish comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom,
And in my hour of darkness,
He hands a bag of cash to me,
Thirty-five million for
Andy C, Andy C,
Oh you f_____g useless tree,
Who the hell would pay that much,
Sepp Blatter Is Still the Head of FIFA
I'm sure that with the help of others in the B/R community we could write a 500-plus-page manual on why exactly Sepp Blatter shouldn't even be trusted to run a lemonade stand. After assuming office in 1998 (yes he's been around that long), the Swiss official's reign has been marked with no small amount of scandals, dead-end investigations and just plain lunacy.
Here's a quick highlight reel of some Blatter gems from the past:
Not enough people watching women's soccer? Easy solution from Blatter's point of view:
They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men - such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?
Blatter has been vehemently opposed to any form of goal-line technology in the sport, which is a debate which has definite merit on both sides of the argument. Regardless of what is right or wrong, it has taken years for the man to sanction even the humblest of tests, and in 2012 we may finally see what the likes of Hawkeye, Cairos GLT and Goalminder can provide.
In the 2011 FIFA elections, we saw Blatter's only opposing candidate banned for life because of bribery allegations that remain unproven in any court of law. But more concerning than this was his statement earlier this fall that "there is no racism" in the game, and that any racist abuse in football could be settled with a handshake.
This didn't sit very well with Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand and the ensuing back-and-forth (played out of course on Twitter) saw FIFA "clear up the Blatter comments with a pic of him posing with a black man," the "black man" in question being Tokyo Sexwale, an anti-apartheid advocate in South Africa.
Move on Sepp—let's get FIFA in the 21st century.