The FA Cup third round and the 10-day break it brings in the Premier League fixtures offers a chance to take stock, look at where we have been and where we may be going.
Tottenham’s victory over Chelsea on Wednesday breathed new life into a title race that was threatening to become a procession, but Chelsea’s lead at the top of the table is still five points. At the bottom, meanwhile, Hull and Swansea have changed managers recently, while Sunderland faces a desperate fight to hang on to its top scorer, Jermain Defoe. With all three looking doomed, the most intriguing battle may be for Champions League qualification.
With 20 of the 38 games of the league season gone, here are our midseason awards:
Player of the season
N'Golo Kante, Chelsea: Take the French midfielder away from Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri’s side goes from being champion to battling against relegation. Add him to Chelsea and it goes from being mid-table nonentities to record-breaking league leader. He is perhaps not the flashiest of players, not somebody whose excellence is easy to boil down to a 30-second video clip, but his energy, positional sense and simple use of the ball bring the best out of those around him.
Manager of the season
Antonio Conte: Chelsea: Who else could it be? He inherited a fragmented and unbalanced squad, augmented it with four players, one of whom has barely played, one of whom he seemed not really to want, and one of whom was the unheralded Marcos Alonso, and has made it a winning machine. There’s been no moaning about limited resources or about having a squad that doesn’t match his philosophy; he’s just got on and made the best of what he has, turning Victor Moses from inconsistent winger into a formidable wing-back and re-energizing Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.
Revelation of the year
Adam Lallana, Liverpool: When Lallana joined Liverpool from Southampton in 2014, there was a suspicion that he was a neat, technical payer who perhaps lacked a certain physicality and the speed of foot and thought really needed to prosper at a top club. Those doubts were beginning to fade last season but they have been obliterated this campaign. Lallana regularly tops the running stats for a round of fixtures–in the two rounds of games played over New Year, for instance, Lallana registered both the highest and second highest distance run in a match–and is a key part of Liverpool’s pressing game, while still offering a creative threat.
Referee of the year
Mike Dean: There is a story about the great 19th-century cricketer WG Grace, the biggest British sporting celebrity of his era, being bowled out early in a game, calmly resetting the stumps and telling the bowler that the crowd had come to watch him bat not some no-mark bowl. It comes to mind every time Mike Dean takes to the pitch: are we there to watch two teams play football or to watch him make decisions? Increasingly, the tendency is to the latter.
Recent events have obscured the fact that Dean is actually a decent official and much of the criticism he’s received has been unfair. It’s just that he has a certain style. When a penalty is given, nobody can have any doubt who has given it. He often shows cards with a sense of such mortal offense he cannot even look at the perpetrator. He is not Mike Dean, the referee from the Wirral, he is Mike Dean, Justice Warrior. And football is brighter for that.
Damp squib of the year
Manchester, capital of football: This season was supposed to be about the resumption of the titanic bout between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, the Clásico transplanted to the banks of the Irwell. At the moment, though, the battle between City and United looks as though it could be about claiming the fourth Champions League qualification spot. Mourinho, having worked out what Henrikh Mkhitaryan is for, has overseen an upturn in form and results, but even after six straight wins, United remains sixth, while Guardiola, after an extremely bright start, seems increasingly adrift, his weird tetchiness after Monday’s 2–1 win over Burnley suggesting a man under pressure who believes himself beleaguered.
Pyrrhic victory of the year
Arsenal 3, Chelsea 0 | September 24, 2016: It was with Arsenal 3–0 up at halftime at the Emirates that Conte switched to a back three. Chelsea won 13 games in a row after that and stands five points clear at the top of the table. Of all the many self-defeating ironies of Arsene Wenger’s later reign, perhaps there is none greater than the fact that when he finally worked out how to beat Chelsea, his side won not wisely but too well. A less convincing victory and Conte may not have been forced into the revolutionary action that looks like winning Chelsea the league.
Sunderland Award for the most Sunderland-like start to a season
Sunderland: Why would you bother with the first two months of the season when you can pack most of your points into an exciting late-season surge to avoid relegation? For the fourth season running, Sunderland didn’t win any league games in August or September. It keeps on surviving, somehow, but with a thin squad ravaged by injuries avoiding relegation this time would probably be its greatest escape yet.
Forgotten campaign of the year
Grappling in the box: Remember in August when everybody was talking about the crackdown on wrestling at corners and penalties were being given for looking at opponents? No? Neither does anybody else. Apart from Mike Dean.