We're at the halfway stage of the Premier League season, a campaign handily bisected with exact precision by the new year. So as 2016 arrives, FFT looks at which teams impressed in the latter part of 2015 in relation to their ambition, wealth and squad make-up, and which teams... well, which teams were Newcastle.
Disagree with our mid-season rankings? Of course you do! That's fine, we're all friends here. Let us know where we've gone wrong on Twitter (@FourFourTwo), or over on Facebook. Keep it clean, though – we're sensitive souls.
20. Chelsea (14th)
Well, who else? Only a truly diabolical half-season could outstrip Aston Villa's decline, but this is one of recent history's worst title defences. Worst of all, it was so unexpected. Jose Mourinho's wagon generally falls off the rails in his third season, but so quickly after romping to the Premier League title? What went wrong?
In short: everything. From off-field crises to transfer failures (if you've seen Radamel Falcao or Papy Djilobodji, call this number) to a surprisingly leaky defence, Chelsea's 2015/16 has been an object lesson in how not to defend your title. And just as worryingly, Guus Hiddink, no longer the manager he was, may not be the man to rescue them. It seemed inevitable they'd recover to reach the Champions League, then the Europa League, but watching them now you wonder if even the top half – some nine points away – looks attainable.
19. Aston Villa (20th)
If it wasn't for that lot, Villa would be a very distant last place in this list, as far adrift from our make-believe 19th spot as they are from the Premier League's very real 17th. Despite marginal improvement under Remi Garde, they still haven't won since the opening day of the season and are already making plans for the Championship.
It isn't all Garde's fault, nor Tim Sherwood's – years of malaise culminated with naïve summer spending has created a perfect storm of excrement. The Premier League might well lose three of its best-attended teams, and Villa – 11 points adrift now – are virtually guaranteed to lead the charge of the sh**e brigade.
18. Sunderland (19th)
Sam Allardyce, like Tony Pulis, seems to represent an effective Faustian pact for teams fearing relegation. Sure, you sacrifice beauty for efficiency, but at the end of the day you have another season in the Premier League, which is clearly the limit of Sunderland's ambition.
Yet Allardyce has lost eight of his 11 games in charge. A run of five straight defeats leaves the Black Cats seven points adrift already. Quite simply: this wasn't meant to happen. With a tough final four fixtures ahead of them, Sunderland effectively need to be safe by mid-April – and right now, that looks unlikely. Things are grim in the north-east.
17. Newcastle (18th)
That Newcastle aren't in our figurative bottom three reflects more on other teams. Yet another miserable campaign (albeit with consecutive wins over Tottenham and Liverpool) leaves supporters doubting Mike Ashley's ambition, despite the £50m summer net spend. They're fearing the worst, not least after a record-setting sixth straight defeat in the Tyne-Wear (or perhaps Whine-Tear) derby.
Relegation seems incomprehensible. But with Bournemouth and Norwich both improving and Swansea likely to get their act together, a small gap could quickly become a chasm. Steve McClaren's contract could run until 2023 if he's successful. That looks less probable than McClaren giving up on his remaining strand of hair.
16. Swansea (17th)
Months after Garry Monk was effusively praised for continuing Swansea's progress, the 36-year-old was unceremoniously sacked. The club used the word 'reluctantly' in their announcement but there were many, in south Wales and beyond, who felt it was shoddy treatment of a man who'd been with them for 11 years.
Nevertheless, their position in the table and a pitifully low goal return in the league doesn't reflect well on Monk. With stadium expansion plans afoot and Andre Ayew – a hell of a ‘free’ transfer, despite a whopping sign-on fee (reportedly £5.7m) – commanding the usual admiring glances, Swansea must get their managerial appointment right. In the meantime, three clean sheets and a first win since October has steadied the ship.
15. West Brom (13th)
Six points clear of the drop zone with the January transfer window to come: Pulis is doing what Pulis does. Safety looks likely, and that's all he wants from life. Psychologists would have a field day.
Then why are they so low? Because 23 points is a modest return and, crucially, even Baggies fans are wondering if the Welshman is good for their club. Young talent is ignored and exotic risk-takers sent to Siberia while five centre-backs take to the field and Craig Gardner labours on the wing. That five of West Brom's six wins have been 1-0 (the other being 2-1) reminds you this is a Pulis team, but when the lack of ambition and verve is combined with disappointing results – defeats to Bournemouth and Swansea over Christmas being a good example – the fans will remain restless.
14. Everton (11th)
We derive no pleasure from criticising Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard is open, committed to attractive football, and an enthusiastic student of the game. His players like him. Everton have scored more goals this season than any team bar Manchester City and Leicester, and at their best they are, for any neutral, a joy to watch.
However, at the halfway stage they're 11th. One step forward precedes another step back. Martinez knows they're underperforming – his promise of Champions League football in the job interview looks hubristic now they're nine points off the top four – but until he fixes the Toffees' defence and makes the difficult decision to drop Tim Howard, Everton will be surpassed by the Premier League's new middle class.
13. Norwich (15th)
It's something of a surprise that none of the promoted clubs are in the bottom three at the halfway stage. Norwich have quietly gone about their business and on the cheap, too: much was made of the Canaries spending £7m on Robbie Brady but they recouped nearly that much from the sale of Bradley Johnson.
Alex Neil, the world's oldest-looking 34-year-old, has worked unnoticed wonders in his short managerial career. You sense the Scot wouldn't give a tinker's toss if he still goes unheralded after guiding a workmanlike Norwich team to safety.
12. Manchester United (6th)
Reports of Manchester United's death were greatly exaggerated. A commanding display against an admittedly turgid Chelsea side brought, if not a long-awaited win, a stay of execution for Louis van Gaal. Even Wayne Rooney looked good in parts.
Yet there's no getting away from that dismal Champions League exit, nor the four consecutive defeats that set a 55-year low, nor the irascible press conferences and often baffling starting Xis (No Morgan Schneiderlin! Ashley Young at right-back!) seemingly picked on whim rather than merit. They're still not far off a Champions League place, but Van Gaal's reputation has taken a battering.
Morgan Schneiderlin: Our fans deserve attacking football. Read the full story: December 29, 2015
11. Southampton (12th)
We'd say it was never going to be easy losing Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne and Toby Alderweireld, but Southampton disproved that in 2014/15 after bidding sad farewells to half a dozen key players. So maybe they've inadvertently set their bar too high, but in comparison 2015/16 has thus far resembled a minor disappointment.
Things were going swimmingly until the November international break, mind: seventh in the table with Graziano Pelle back among the goals (although their Europa League journey had come to an early end). However, a wintery slide pus them five points off 10th – surely the least they'd expect from this season.
10. Liverpool (7th)
It isn't easy to characterise the first half of Liverpool's season. Does one look to the struggling start under Brendan Rodgers, the semi-triumphant reinvention under Jurgen Klopp with six wins from seven games, or the mini-collapse that followed?
A pair of encouraging 1-0 wins have taken the Reds back up into seventh and under Klopp they'll believe a return to the Champions League is on the cards, but for now, their bursts of good form interspersed with setbacks puts them solidly mid-table in our rankings.
9. Stoke (10th)
If we'd drawn up our power rankings a few weeks ago (which would be stupid, admittedly) Stoke would be a few places further down. The calibre of players brought in – most notably, Xherdan Shaqiri – means 10th place is really a minimum requirement, and an alarmingly slow start that brought no wins in their first half-dozen league games left the Potters with some catching up to do.
Catch up they did, however, and Mark Hughes' men appear to be building momentum with a fine win over Manchester United, then a more fortuitous one over Everton. Reports of Stoke's – and Hughes' – achievements are premature at this stage, but in such a tight league (they're one point behind sixth), Europe looks a distinct possibility.
8. Bournemouth (16th)
In truth, there's something of a gap between 7th and 8th in our list, and patronising last season's second-tier champions by lauding them for being 16th would be wrong.
But when you consider that the Cherries were hit by devastating injuries from the word go, losing big buy Max Gradel for six months, key man Callum Wilson for most of the season and record signing Tyrone Mings for all of it, credit is due to Bournemouth for overcoming those problems – and an eight-game winless streak – to lift themselves out of the relegation zone. Their fans won't easily forget beating Chelsea and Manchester United in quick succession, either.
7. West Ham (8th)
The importance West Ham placed on being in the Premier League for the start of their new life in Stratford was evident in the lineups they put out in Europe at the start of the season. They needn't have worried. Slaven Bilic took to Premier League management like a duck to water, and evoked club tradition by showing faith in 16-year-old Reece Oxford, the Hammers' youngest-ever player starting 2015/16's curtain-raiser at the Emirates.
The astonishing run of away wins – Bilic's side beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in their first three road trips – could never last, and Halloween ushered in a scary period of eight matches without a win and only four goals scored. They neither netted nor conceded for a month. Coming from behind to beat Southampton could prove a turning point, though, and they're well clear of going down in their final season at the Boleyn.
Gorgeous kit, too.
6. Manchester City (3rd)
Is sixth place in our mid-season rankings harsh on Manuel Pellegrini's side, third in the table and a single win away from top spot? Perhaps, but the Chilean will know better than anyone that they have no excuse not to win a very weak league this year.
City don't convince without Vincent Kompany – out for another month – nor on the road, having scored eight goals and taken nine points from nine away matches. Their big-match performances are also worrisome: they've lost 4-1 to Liverpool and Spurs, and 2-1 to Arsenal. Fortunately, a fluctuating campaign in which the top teams take points off one another means the title race might come down to who crushes the minnows most often, and so far at least, that hasn't been a problem.
5. Arsenal (1st)
They're top of the tree on goal difference, with Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil challenging their respective doubters, and they even dug themselves out of a hole in the Champions League. But just as Arsenal get into their stride they hit another hurdle, or stumbling block, or alternative strained metaphor. After a vital, potentially title-deciding win over Manchester City, they went down 4-0 to a Southampton team horribly out of form. They're self-saboteurs.
For all that, though, Arsenal are league leaders going into 2016. This is their best chance in a decade to be champions. April is key, with its run of very winnable games before the penultimate weekend's trip to the Etihad. Right now, Arsenal go into half-time with a lead; now they must find the mental strength to maintain it.
4. Tottenham (4th)
Fourth place. It is, according to one fan-made video, 'their everything'. And it would be deliciously sweet for Tottenham, not to mention ironic, if they cracked the top four just as Daniel Levy seemingly began to rein in their on-field ambitions ahead of a new stadium build
Yet reaching the Champions League isn't 'everything' for Spurs fans. What makes their season so far one of the best in living memory for some supporters – perhaps better even than besting both Milan clubs under Harry Redknapp – is the context behind their current position: a passionate, forward-looking manager building a long-term project with young English players.
The impact of Europa League football on a relatively small squad that's thin on striking options may lead Spurs to fall away in spring, but don't count on it.
3. Crystal Palace (5th)
Pards and Palace: a match made in heaven. The future England manager (right?) gave his old team a new lease of life after the dull water-treading of Tony Pulis and Neil Warnock. Above all, he has given them belief. Why shouldn't they aim for Europe? That supreme self-confidence is what brought Yohan Cabaye from Parc des Princes to Selhurst.
Crystal Palace are at the forefront of the Premier League's current obsession with counter-attacking, and arguably no one does it better. If they can continue their improvement on home turf when other teams sit back, the sky's the limit for the Eagles.
2. Watford (9th)
It's slightly unfair on Watford that Leicester's success has overshadowed a stunning rise for the Hornets. Ninth place for wealthy promotees doesn't sound much, but they're only two points behind fifth. At Christmas, they were but a single point off the Champions League spots.
A bizarre off-season that included a change in manager and the signing of 16 players of 14 different nationalities looked inauspicious. Would the likes of Miguel Britos, Alessandro Diamanti and Valon Behrami still have it all to give, or was this QPR all over again? No fear. Thanks largely to Hertfordshire's odd couple up front, Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, Watford have continued to amass points – and Ighalo, goals – with nobody really noticing. Which is fine by them.
1. Leicester (2nd)
Judging by the open-mouthed faces in the stands, no one's more surprised by Leicester's barnstorming 2015/16 than their own supporters. Their season has been quite literally unbelievable; as well as they finished 2014/15, nobody – but nobody – could have predicted they'd have 39 points by this stage, especially after close-season upheaval featured Claudio Ranieri replacing Nigel Pearson, back in the Premier League after 11 years.
But they've impressed from back to front, which is how they like to play. Led by Wes Morgan, with midfielders Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante proving surprise hits and sub-£2m pair Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez scoring for fun (their combined 28-goal tally outranks the totals of 14 teams in the league), Leicester's unlikely title challenge has lasted beyond nascent novelty. Momentum from gentler fixtures has been converted into fearless performances against the big boys. Leicester City, joint-top after 19 games. Who'd have thunk it?
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