With a quarter of the Premier League season done and dusted, now feels like a good time to take a look at a few player/manager report cards.
The promoted managers -- Blackpool's Ian Holloway, West Bromwich Albion's Roberto di Matteo and Newcastle's Chris Hughton have all exceeded (admittedly low) expectations. On the basis of fantastic team efforts -- aided by the skill and work rate of star players like Charlie Adam (Blackpool), Chris Brunt (WBA), and Kevin Nolan (the league's joint top scorer) and Joey Barton (Newcastle) -- each is on track to hit the 40-point safety mark. Their refusal to compromise their approach, regardless of the opposition, means each also has at least one improbably good matchday to look back on already: Blackpool has beaten Liverpool, West Brom won at the Emirates and Newcastle walloped Sunderland and Aston Villa.
And while we're on the subject, a nod for Wolves boss Mick McCarthy. His side might be in the drop zone, and a point off survival pace, but it has played superbly well at times. It's not often you end a week with three points from Chelsea and Manchester City and feel a bit shortchanged. And in Matt Jarvis, Wolves have one of the standout English wingers so far. England has struggled for good quality delivery in to the center, something with which Jarvis -- like fellow contender Matthew Etherington (Stoke) -- has been impressively consistent.
Michael Essien -- It's actually quite hard to pick from Chelsea's midfield. John Mikel Obi has continued to go quietly but crucially about his business, while Florent Malouda has scored a quarter of Chelsea's league goals and manufactured plenty of chances. But in Frank Lampard's absence, Essien has been ever-present and is reveling in the opportunity to drive the Blues forward through the middle (scoring and creating goals) -- without forgetting how to track back and stick a foot in.
Nani -- Like his predecessor as Manchester United's lightning-fast wingman, Nani has a PR problem -- he's a wonderfully skillful player to whom opposition fans just can't warm. It's been much easier to heap praise on Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov this season, though Nani insists he's "one of the top players in the world." And he's got a point: Nani has been in superb form, making or scoring 25 goals in 24 league games this calendar year and he's also scored three in United's last three Champions League matches.
Vincent Kompany -- Manchester City fans and neutrals alike have enjoyed David Silva's contributions since his arrival from Valencia, but Kompany arguably deserves the greater acclaim. He's been playing with a calm and a confidence beyond his 24 years, and it's had a soothing effect on Kolo Toure, about whom questions were asked last season. Kompany somehow found it easier to defend against Didier Drogba than DJ Campbell, but he's good in the air, does the dirty work, and can play the ball out of defense too.
Samir Nasri -- How do you stand out in Arsenal's midfield? Especially when 18-year-old like Jack Wilshere is intent on stealing the limelight with his unbelievable composure and vision. Perhaps it's just because we're so accustomed to raving about Cesc Fabregas that his fine performances so far have twinkled so brightly, but there's definitely something about Nasri. He's now scoring more than ever in an Arsenal shirt -- and was kept out only by the bar against West Ham this weekend.
Johan Elmander and Clint Dempsey -- A slightly odd pairing, but go with it: Both are on course to significantly improve on their season-best goal tallies and enhance their reputations. The 2010-11 Elmander is much improved on the last model; he's already matched last season's goal tally with five and has earned Bolton four points in the process. Dempsey's five goals have earned Fulham five points and his brace over the weekend showed off the anticipation and skill that are lauded in the United States but often underappreciated outside of Craven Cottage in England.
Rafael van der Vaart -- You don't really need this explained, do you? He is Tottenham's engine and easily the signing of the summer (though, back to Fulham briefly, Mark Hughes' acquisition of Carlos Salcido and Moussa Dembele looks smart). Drive, creativity, movement, technique -- a list that applies for teammate Gareth Bale, too, though it's interesting that he has been successfully limited in Spurs' last two league games by being shepherded inside.
Honorable mention -- It doesn't take much to be one of Liverpool's best players these days, but Sotiros Kyrgiakos is getting the job done at both ends of the pitch.
Stephen Ireland -- Fully expected to be on "best signings" lists, Ireland hasn't yet clicked at Aston Villa. Manager Gerard Houllier left him out of Sunday's 0-0 draw with Birmingham, saying that he "needs to work harder, his touch of the ball, his defensive effort [have to improve]." Ireland is better than that, but he hasn't shown it in a disappointing opening to the season.
Joe Cole -- Another foundering summer purchase, though Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson has a couple of more to explain away (Christian Poulsen? Whoever pitched that move should be on TV sales for The Apprentice). Cole got carried away and sent off in his league debut and hasn't made his mark since. Apologists say he'd make more of an impact playing behind Fernando Torres (whose stock has apparently been rescued in one back heel), but Cole's hardly playing out of position on Liverpool's left.
Wayne Rooney -- An obvious but unavoidable choice. Is he fit or not? His ongoing absence suggests Sir Alex Ferguson wasn't kidding about the ankle injury, but Rooney did a lot of running in his five league appearances -- it's his anticipation, touch and finishing that look sore. The positive for Manchester United is that he'll be champing at the bit to get back and win over the supporters who found his pursuit of a fatter pay packet somewhat unappetizing.
Emmanuel Adebayor -- There was a hint of blame in Manchester City coach Roberto Mancini's decision to take Adebayor off in Saturday's 2-1 loss to Wolves that perhaps seemed harsh -- the striker had scored City's goal and went to reasonable lengths to get about the pitch. But there's still something so ... underwhelming, about Adebayor. The comparisons with Carlos Tevez don't help, but are inevitable. The former Arsenal man was rampant against Polish champion Lech Poznan in the Europa League, but has looked nothing close in domestic matches.
Roberto Martinez -- There's a good deal to like about the Wigan Athletic manager, but his team's inconsistency (from being thumped by Chelsea, to beating Spurs, to drawing Sunderland at home in the space of three games) is starting to frustrate some fans. There are some very good players at Wigan, including Charles N'Zogbia and Manchester United loanee Tom Cleverley, and fans may have to be more patient as Martinez works out how best to use his personnel. But the grace period won't last forever.
Karl Henry and Nigel de Jong -- These bad boys have already had a telling-off from the headmaster and are otherwise very important to Wolves' and City's play, respectively, but they've risked or caused injury, and put every Premier League tackle under scrutiny, by being so reckless.
Dishonorable mention -- Gary Neville's laughable impression of his former self in the 135 minutes that he has played tops the pile. He has come up against Everton's Leighton Baines and Stoke's Matthew Etherington and failed to handle either.
Feel free to agree or disagree by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Who did I forget?