Report Card: Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham & Liverpool

We continue our analysis of the Premier League season with a look at five more sides - all of whom seem to have largely had a 'season of two halves'...

Bolton Wanderers League position: 14th - W12 D10 L16 F52 A56 Pts46FA Cup: Semi-finalistsLeague Cup: Third roundRATING:B-

For a team who'd spent all but four weeks of the season in the top half, finishing 14th was a cruel – not to mention expensive – blow. But Bolton's season was blown apart at Wembley by the most humiliating FA Cup semi-final defeat since World War Two. Before then they'd won plaudits for their combination of short passing and muscularity, not to mention Owen Coyle's ceaseless commitment to attacking football.

Coyle's 4-4-2 system depends heavily upon its central midfielders – in particular Stuart Holden, a force of nature stoppable only by Johnny Evans's studs rupturing his cruciate in March. Since then a thin squad has struggled, with Holden's sidekick Fabrice Muamba forced to limp along despite groin problems due to a lack of alternatives in a thin squad: chief back-up Mark Davies underwent ankle surgery, and Coyle ended up employing top scorer Johan Elmander as a willing but makeweight midfielder. Elmander's evisceration at Wembley by the Stoke midfield was key to the Cup capitulation, and a soul-wrenching reminder for the eternally upbeat Coyle that not all situations can be improved by throwing attackers at the problem.

Still, let's not be too downbeat. That attacking philosophy reaps dividends: Wanderers scored more goals per game than in any top-flight season since 1961/62, had one of the best home records in the division (effectively ending Arsenal's title charge, for instance, with a typically determined late goal) and the fans are coming back in numbers after the desperate disenchantments of the Gary Megson era – even if the often gung-ho football leaves the team alarmingly open at the back.

Popular as he is, Coyle has a big summer ahead. The squad needs depth but he will also need to replace key personnel. Elmander is leaving on a free and loanee Daniel Sturridge will return to Chelsea, leaving ageing war-horse Kevin Davies helped only by bit-part Croatian Ivan Klasnic. The midfield needs bolstering and at the back, Bolton are expected to lose ball-playing centre-half Gary Cahill, the England man whose club manager advised him in January to wait until summer before seeking a move to a bigger stage. His transfer fee should help Bolton build a squad in the manager's image. That should make Wanderers ones to watch next season – at either end.

STAR MAN Stuart Holden. Indefatigable and creative, the Aberdeen-born American is Coyle's key capture so far.

Words: Gary Parkinson

 

ChelseaLeague position: 2nd, W21 D8 L9 F69 A33 Pts71FA Cup: Fourth roundLeague Cup: Third roundChampions League: Quarter-finalsRATING: C-

Fresh from winning a Premier League and FA Cup double in his first season at Stamford Bridge, Carlo Ancelotti set his sights on the trophy he was specifically brought in to win. However, a second successive failure in Europe combined with a stop-start defence of their league title leaves Chelsea looking for a fifth new boss since 2007.

The Blues had won their third Premier League crown in style, rounding off a season in which they netted 103 goals with an 8-0 whopping of Wigan. And their defence could not have got off to a better start, hitting both West Brom and Wigan for six, as the Blues sat four points clear at the summit after the opening five games, scoring  21 times in the process.

But having taken full advantage of a kind opening quintet of fixtures, Chelsea fell at the first half-challenging hurdle by losing at Manchester City, and after a 2-0 defeat at Anfield in November a “bad moment” for the Blues would begin to feel more like Groundhog Day.

Chelsea’s strongest XI could dispose of almost anyone. But the departures of Joe Cole, Deco, Michael Ballack and – most importantly – Ricardo Carvalho had left them desperately short of reserves. With Frank Lampard, John Terry, Alex and Michael Essien all sidelined, it proved too tall an order to overcome.

A woeful 3-0 home defeat to Sunderland was the nadir in a dire run of form that saw them win just two out of 11 league games from November to January, forcing Roman Abramovich to dig deep, very deep.

More than £75 million changed hands as David Luiz and Fernando Torres arrived to breathe new life into the Blues’ ailing campaign. But the Spanish marksman’s arrival would only make matters worse as he struggled in unfamiliar systems while his manager manically scratched around to find a winning one.

Ancelotti appeared doomed following Chelsea’s Champions League exit to Manchester United, in which the Italian twice deployed the desperately out-of-form front-man. So it is to both his and his team’s credit that they then finished the season as strongly as they did.

The Blues reduced United’s 15-point lead in March to the point where they would have usurped Sir Alex Ferguson’s side with victory at Old Trafford in May, leaving many of the opinion that Ancelotti deserved another crack, rather than the sack immediately after the final day defeat at Everton.

Another new manager will again be backed by Abramovich, with ‘age’ now a buzzword among Blues’ fans as Chelsea’s talismen approach their use-by dates. The futures of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka will determine how proactive the club are in their search for strikers, as Torres prepares to take centre-stage.

STAR MAN Ashley Cole. Consistently lung-busting displays from the left-back reinforced the view that he remains the world’s best in his position.Words: Gregg Davies

 

EvertonLeague position: 7th - W13 D15 L10 F51 A45 Pts54FA Cup: Fifth roundLeague Cup: Third roundRATING: D

A few years ago, Everton had a reputation for being a side who would alternate between a good season and an awful one. These days they seem to do things by half - struggling in the first half of the season before coming good around January. And 2010/11 didn’t buck that recent trend.

The Toffees spent Christmas in 14th position in the Premier League, yet finished the season a respectable seventh. This was remarkably similar to last season, when it was 15th and eighth at the same stages. It’s tempting to suggest David Moyes would accept what seems the natural progression of 13th then sixth next year, but the reality is he’d probably rather do without the early-season stress.

Ironically, two of the highlights of Everton’s league season came in that first half of the campaign; a 2-0 home win over city rivals Liverpool and an incredible 3-3 draw at home to Manchester United - a match in which the Toffees had trailed 3-1 going into injury time, only to be saved by late (and even later) goals from Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta.

While their league campaign generally went from despair to relative joy, their experiences in the cups were quite the opposite. Having knocked holders Chelsea out of the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge, Everton succumbed to a shock defeat at home to Championship Reading in the next round, while they followed an 5-1 League Cup mauling of Huddersfield with a penalty shoot-out defeat at Brentford.

Everton’s financial battles are perhaps best underlined by their forward line. With Yakubu farmed out to Leicester, the goalscoring burden was left on the shoulders of Louis Saha - a player sadly perennially plagued by injury, and Jermaine Beckford - before this season untried at Premier League level. The former arrived for a ’nominal fee’, the latter on a free transfer. Both impressed in patches, but ultimately only mustered 15 goals between them.

The sad reality for the Goodison Park club is that it will be almost impossible for the Toffees to compete with the top five or six clubs in the Premier League under their current financial constraints. While the fans will therefore reflect on a job eventually well done in the league, they will surely see their cup exits as two good opportunities missed.

STAR MAN Leighton Baines. Curiously omitted from the PFA’s team of the season, Baines was perhaps the stand-out fullback of the entire Premier League. Everton will hope his roots at the club are deep enough to prevent him being unearthed by a Champions League side.

Words: James Maw

 

FulhamLeague position: 8th – W11 D16 L11 F49 A43 Pts49FA Cup: Fifth roundLeague Cup: Third roundRATING: C+

It’s a good thing that ‘a game of two halves’ hasn’t become a footballing cliché, because there’s no better way of summarising Fulham’s season...

Going into Christmas, the Cottagers were in the relegation zone, having won just two of their 18 matches – fewer than any other team, leaving them with just 16 points.

But it wasn't the defeats which were to blame for this feeble haul, rather the draws. The West Londoners tied an incredible 10 of those first 18 matches. Single points began to look like opportunities lost, and for draw merchants Fulham – who finished the season with 16, more than any team in the last four campaigns – it became the innocent habit couldn't kick, the glass of wine with dinner that becomes a drinking problem.

The cause was easy to identify: Mark Hughes lacked a goalgrabbing striker. To lose both Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson to injury for large parts of the season was deeply unlucky.

But there was little in the way of back-up. Eidur Gudjohnsen, a square peg happily on loan from the round-hole of Stoke, put himself about and Moussa Dembele had looked a more than useful signing, but three goals for the Belgian in nearly 32 hours of football – two of which came in one game against Wolves – were scant return for his efforts.

The fact that perennial loanee Eddie Johnson made 10 substandard substitute appearances, more than doubling his Premier League tally since arriving at Craven Cottage in 2007, was a testament to their lack of cover upfront.

In the end, it came down to Texan talisman Clint Dempsey to put the ball in the back of the net, and he duly obliged.

Equally important was the solid centre-back pairing of Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland, as everpresent as the famous cottage and immovable as the infamous Michael Jackson statue (Hughes missed just 16 minutes all season; Hangeland, one match against Sunderland).

The signs for next season are positive for Fulham, even if for them it starts in just a few weeks. They’ll be looking to go one better than their last Europa League campaign, a 19-game epic which ended in a final defeat to Atletico Madrid.

This time they qualified via the Fair Play league, meaning any plans Mark Hughes had for an extended summer holiday will have to be shelved. Still, the Welshman has little complain about, and another top-half finish is a more than realistic aim - although if the morning's papers are to be believed he could yet be a target for Aston Villa. 

STAR MAN Clint Dempsey. As reliable as he is likeable, it’s amazing ‘Deuce’ isn’t more highly sought after by 'bigger' clubs.

Words: Huw Davies

 

Liverpool League position: 6th W17 D7 L14 F59 A44 PtsFA Cup: Third roundLeague Cup: Third roundEuropa League: Last 16RATING: C-

If this really were an academic report card, it would remark that the student had a very poor autumn term and underachieved as if distracted (were there problems at home?) before rallying remarkably after Christmas; the pupil's intelligence and dedication during spring term raised hopes of much better results, only to see them dashed by poor performance in the end-of-year exams.

This truly was a season of two halves for Liverpool (sound familiar?), pivoting on the replacement of Roy Hodgson with Kenny Dalglish. By last summer Rafa Benitez had disillusioned enough fans to make his position untenable, but Hodgson never gained the widespread support he needed, especially with a club legend ready and obviously (if respectfully) willing to step in. Liverpool have a more voluble fanbase than most clubs; they did well to help oust the hated Hicks and Gillett, but some soon trained their gaze on the gaffer.

The noise emanating from social media was matched by the op-ed columns of a dozen former Reds who pored over every disappointing show under Hodgson. By January, with swathes of the Kop openly chanting for Dalglish, it simply made sense to turn mutiny into unity; the new board (who arrived after Hodgson) did it with a comparatively graceful clean break, a rare example of true mutual consent.

Dalglish's calm public assurance was bolstered in private by his first appointment, former Chelsea and West Ham coach Steve Clarke. The canny Scots surprised tacticians by resurrecting the three-defender formation, delighted traditionalists by giving several youngsters their chance, and amazed analysts by making matchwinners from previously exasperating underperformers like Maxi Rodriguez and Raul Meireles.

Such secondary lights led the way due to an absence of the box-office stars. Steven Gerrard played only five league games for Dalglish before injury ended his season, while Fernando Torres featured four times under the new man before Chelsea's £50 million offer proved too high to refuse. Although some would argue Newcastle played it cannily to then get £35 million for Andy Carroll, the big No.9 has the potential to be well worth it Ã¢Â€Â“ and is five years younger than the Spaniard. With the immediately impressive Luis Suarez (just turned 24) also arriving for £22.5 million, Liverpool may have got their forward line for the next five years for little more than they recouped for a fading star who has subsequently struggled at Stamford Bridge.

As ever, Anfield hosts big expectations and big questions. An absence of continental competition might help – Liverpool played 14 games in an undistinguished Europa League campaign and only won three after August – but concentrating on the league brings its own pressures. Many fans are expecting Liverpool to challenge for the title next term, but even over the course of a season Dalglish's average of 1.83 points per game would be enough to crack the top three in only one of the last eight seasons – even leaving aside the increased pressure of being among frontrunners instead of tiptoeing through the chasing pack. For King Kenny, the job is just beginning – but at least the fans are looking on admiringly.

STAR MAN Dirk Kuyt. In a season that threatened to go off the rails, the Dutchman's high workrate and consistent performances were a welcome boost, and a hat-trick against Manchester United means he's unlikely to ever need to buy a pint in the city again...

Words: Gary Parkinson

Report Card: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Birmingham, Blackburn & Blackpool Report Card: Man City, Man Utd, Newcastle, Stoke & Sunderland Report Card: Tottenham, West Brom, West Ham, Wigan & Wolves

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