Mid-season review: The good, the bad and the ugly

Posted by ESPN staff

Manchester United sit top of the Premier League over ChristmasGettyImagesManchester United sit top of the Premier League over Christmas

With half the course of the season already run, the high hopes of summer have been distilled into a wintry reality. As the festive season rolls into town, some clubs have left their fans shivering outside in the cold, peeking in through a frosty window as their rivals warm their toes by a roaring fire and sip a ten-year-old Port.

Below, ESPN's army of club writers deliver their mid-term reports and rate how well, or not, their teams have lived up to expectations.

Arsenal - Sam Limbert
The season started with a lot of fear for Gooners, with no-one quite sure how the new front-line would click without Robin van Persie. Early season optimism was lifted with the tougher looking back four and a series of clean sheets, however the lack of scoring options began to be exposed and individual defensive errors crept in.

Apart from the embarrassing non-performance at Bradford, things have picked up in December with three league wins on the spin, almost miraculously putting Arsenal in the top four at Christmas. What looked like a crisis season might not be as bad as feared after the home defeat to Swansea. With Santi Cazorla taking well to the Premier League and the hope of reinforcements in January, an indifferent season is beginning to look more positive. 5/10

Aston Villa - Kevin Hughes
The appointment of Paul Lambert - Villa's fourth manager in four seasons - brought new-found optimism to the club, though expectations were modest, especially once the summer transfer window had closed. Lambert's signings were exclusively players unproven in the Premier League, making it clear there would be no overnight quick fix.

Early results were poor, and one victory in the opening nine league games caused concern. An unbeaten run of five in the Premier League, including a win at Liverpool in December and combined with progression to the semi-finals of the League Cup, put a brighter shine on the campaign. Work to be done, but signs of recovery ahead. 6/10

Chelsea - Phil Lythell
Another season, another helter skelter ride for Chelsea. Expectations were muted prior to the start of the campaign with only the most incredibly optimistic considering a successful challenge for the big trophies, but an electric start suddenly had Blues fans reassessing the potential for glory.

However, owner Roman Abramovich's itchy-trigger finger, coupled with a flawed summer transfer policy - where the deficiencies in the defensive midfield and striking departments were not addressed - has precipitated a slide down the Premier League table and elimination from the Champions League. Nevertheless, there is still time to stabilise results and see Chelsea surge back for a top three finish while claiming some silverware joy in the three remaining cup competitions. 5/10

Everton - Luke O'Farrell
Building on January's impressive transfer business, Everton strengthened well in the summer. Steven Pienaar returned and Kevin Mirallas looks a bargain at £6 million. Despite shrewd signings, question marks remained over Everton going into this season due to their infamous slow starts.

Thankfully, in a break from the norm, Everton raced out of the blocks. Adopting a more expansive attacking approach, the defence is a growing concern and six points dropped to 90th minute goals is a nagging disappointment. However, after winning 17 points from losing positions, there is an unerring will to win within this Everton side and a European push looks likely on current form. 8/10

Fulham - Phil Mison
The champagne curtain-raiser and a 5-0 demolition of Norwich City seems a long time ago now. The following week we ran United mighty close at Old Trafford, but by the end of the month the transfer window had cost us both Clint Dempsey and Mousa Dembele. It is too simplistic to say Fulham's decline since October is all down to missing two hugely talented players. There was enough about the side to beat West Brom comfortably, win well at Wigan away and see off Aston Villa as we sat outside the top six. Although we had lost two major stars to Tottenham, we had also added Dimitar Berbatov in what most newspapers called the steal of the season.

Yet just one win from eleven however shows the fragile foundations on which the Cottagers stood. Fulham simply could not see out games from winning positions. Three points became one with infuriating late goals conceded at Southampton and Reading, while we proved more than a match in holding both Arsenal and Chelsea to draws. The tipping point came with a disastrous loss at home to Sunderland. A game Fulham on paper should have won at a canter handed the Black Cats just their second win of the season as skipper Hangeland saw red and two key players limped out with injured hamstrings. Midfield was a void; we started leaking goals.

Suddenly things were unravelling at pace. Jol's replacements and new signings were not good enough. With confidence eroded the squad looked thin and very ordinary, while Berbatov was reduced to a peripheral role. The dark clouds really rolled in with an abject loss to bottom-of-the-barrel QPR and a hammering at Liverpool. By Boxing Day, only a point to be wrung from Southampton suggested two things for the Whites. A relegation battle loomed unless Fulham went out and spent big. Jol thought he had got away with it in the autumn. He had not! 5/10

Liverpool - Kristian Walsh
Such has been the nature of Liverpool's season so far, and such is the tone of this mid-season report that it would have differed if the Fulham game had not yielded three points. But they now enter Christmas in the top half in eighth, just five points from fourth place - not that fourth is necessarily a target, despite Brendan Rodgers' claim his side are looking at the top two.

Tentative optimism greeted Rodgers' appointment from fans still trying to comprehend the usurpation of their king, Kenny Dalglish. Injuries to Lucas Leiva and Fabio Borini, coupled with the deadline day debacle, have brought more understanding from the Kop as Liverpool have performed like a mid-table side. They have been unlucky in a number of games - Manchester United and Everton, for starters - and their football is pleasing at times. The optimism remains, but so too the tentative nature of it. 6/10

Jack Rodwell
PA PhotosJack Rodwell: Not exactly the 'star' player Man City desired in the summer

Manchester City - Simon Curtis
How to improve on the finish to 2011-12 was the conundrum taxing City fans as they wriggled on the beaches of Europe trying to calm down after the title winning goal of all title winning goals had at last brought the Big Pot home with sky blue ribbons attached. Most commentators felt that Champions League success was now imperative, whilst City fans wondered which players could possibly strengthen an already stellar squad.

The answer to that question does not seem to have been Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair. City are yet to hit the heights of last season, but to say a strong second place is a "crisis" plainly makes no sense whatsoever. The reality is that the team has not yet hit its stride, will have little to do midweek as the season heats up and should strengthen with quality rather than quantity at the turn of the year. All - except the Champions League - to play for. 7.5/10

Manchester United - Musa Okwonga
Sir Alex Ferguson has done it again. Manchester City and Chelsea both made significant additions to their squads this summer, but it is the Scot's side who sit six points clear at the head of the Premier League going into the festive season.

Ferguson's central midfield and defence have been worryingly weak - they have allowed the team to fall behind 15 times in 25 matches - but his sublime attack, led by Player of the Year candidate Robin van Persie, has been his team's salvation. Never has a United team had such divergent identities: but in the lead they are, and they make fearsome frontrunners. 8/10

Newcastle United - Marc Duffy
A disappointing if not unsurprising season for Newcastle so far. Last season's fifth placed finish offered the club a great chance to build and push on, but lack of investment in an already too thin squad is now showing badly.

A terrible run of results leaves Newcastle in a treacherous league position at Christmas, but despite this, Alan Pardew believes (or has been told) that only one signing is required in the January transfer window. The only real positive of the season has been Newcastle's progression into the last 32 of the Europa League. 4/10

Norwich City - Paddy Davitt
Chris Hughton has plotted a quite remarkable transformation in the club's fortunes. Hammered at Fulham on his first real day in the job after succeeding Paul Lambert during the summer, things got even worse before the green shoots of recovery blossomed. Heavy defeats to Liverpool and then Chelsea triggered the adoption of a revised, counter-attacking system founded on defensive midfield duo Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey.

A settled side, new players finally realising their potential and the confidence gained from initially beating Arsenal at home combined to produce a club record 10-match unbeaten run in the Premier League era. That came to an end against West Brom just before Christmas, but one or two astute January transfer window signings will ensure the Canaries maintain their steady rate of progression and secure another season of Premier League football. 7/10

Queens Park Rangers - Sean Smith
Discord, disaster, defeat: the road to perdition continues apace for QPR this season. After the great escape last season, a new campaign brought renewed hope -- we would never be flirting with relegation again, Mark Hughes promised us. He was right in that we're no longer flirting, we've somehow managed to sell our virtue for an expensive stick of pig lipstick.

The wage structure is unseemly, the dressing room is seedy and the form on the pitch is X-rated. But Harry Redknapp may be our knight in armour. Sure, he has a bit of a reputation in the market, but he is honest and kind and has treated us very well so far.

January will be key: how many nice things Harry can buy us in the window, while getting rid of some of the inappropriate gifts Hughes lavished on us may ultimately decide whether we manage to pull ourselves together or end up being forced to lose our virtue next season in the den of iniquity that is the Championship. 3/10

Reading - Jon Keen
Although summer expectations were never high, the signings of experienced Premier League players Pavel Pogrebnyak, Chris Gunter and Danny Guthrie did give some hope that Reading would make a decent fist of competing for survival. But after an initially promising start to the season, each subsequent game leaves the team looking more disjointed and demoralised as they are rapidly turning into this year's Premier League laughing-stock.

The new signings have failed to hold down starting places - with Guthrie even refusing to travel to Sunderland - and with injuries to other key players this season is going from bad to worse. The spirit and tenacity shown early doors now seems a distant memory, and unless Brian McDermott can pull off some miracle signings or loan deals in the January window, Reading look doomed. 1/10

Southampton - Chris Rann
No one was quite sure what to expect from the Premier League after a seven year absence, or how the Saints young squad would cope with it. Saints added to their team the likes of Jay Rodriguez and Gaston Ramirez for big transfer fees, showing that they had the minerals to match their ambitions.

After a baptism of fire start and a complete lack of points, it looked like it was going to be a long, tiresome campaign for Saints, defensive errors and a lack of goalkeeping stability compounding a difficult run. Recently Saints form has picked up, and having only lost one in six, people are starting to realise the early season results may not have done the club justice. Saints will go into January knowing they can't rest on their laurels defensively, but will be relatively content so far. 7/10

Ryan Shawcross has marshalled Stoke's miserly defence
GettyImagesRyan Shawcross and Stoke have won only one game in nine

Stoke City - James Whittaker
After finishing last season bottom of every offensive table known to man, Stoke fans were desperate for some invention and positivity this term, which duly arrived in the summer, on paper at least, in the form of Charlie Adam and Steven N’Zonzi.

Though whilst N'Zonzi has excelled, Adam has struggled in Pulis' strict shape and despite Stoke finding themselves now top of every defensive table, the club are still well behind in the goalscoring stakes. That said, during this time of transition it is important to remember that the best sides build from the back, so hopefully Stoke will start adding goals to complement an impressive rearguard in 2013 to firmly establish the club in the top half of the table. 8/10

Sunderland - Colin Randall
Sunderland's season started on a note of excitement with the late but crucial signings of Steven Fletcher from Wolverhampton Wanderers and Adam Johnson from Manchester City, plus Stephane Sessegnon's contract extension. Martin O'Neill was excused from his early-summer transfer inactivity and supporters settled down for a serious assault on the top 10.

It was a familiar case of self-delusion. Christmas arrives with Sunderland in deep trouble, having played mostly with little shape. Johnson and Sessegnon - and James McClean, a star last season - have flickered into life lately but otherwise been great disappointments. At least Fletcher scores regularly; it is sobering to reflect on where the club would be without his goals. A difficult winter and spring loom. At least they are now picking up points against other strugglers. 5/10

Swansea City - Max Hicks
When Brendan Rodgers left Swansea City in the summer, many believed the side would struggle to stay in the top flight. In what has so far turned out to be an incredibly shrewd managerial appointment - even by the high standard of the Swansea City board - Danish legend Michael Laudrup was handed the reins and the Swans haven't looked back since.

Laudrup has introduced inspired new signings and greater tactical sophistication to an already cultured side, and his Swans appear poised to better last season's impressive performance. 10/10

Tottenham - Dan Fitch
It's easy to forget how turbulent a summer Tottenham had. They sacked a successful manager in Harry Redknapp and replaced him with one in the shape of Andre Villa-Boas, who still had much to prove. Ledley King retired, while Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart were sold. Other than Gareth Bale, they were Tottenham's three best players and the club have been further weakened by long-term injuries to Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Younes Kaboul and Scott Parker.

So with all of that in mind, I think that most rational Spurs fans would have to be reasonably pleased with how the season's gone. Tottenham are within touching distance of the top four and with players returning from injury, there's every reason to believe that the second half of the season could be more successful than the first. 7/10

West Bromwich Albion - Matthew Evans
There were a few worries from West Brom fans in the summer when Steve Clarke became head coach at the Hawthorns - his first job as the main man. In the summer Albion made shrewd acquisitions whilst also tying down key players such as Jonas Olsson and James Morrison to longer term contracts and this has led to a fantastic first half of the season.

At the time of writing Albion sit seventh in the Premier League and although form has tailed off over the past few weeks, Clarke's tenure has been a success, particularly when many were predicting a relegation battle. It gives West Brom a great platform going into the second half of the season to reach the 50 point target Clarke set when he took over. 8/10

West Ham United - Peter Thorne
Although some fans were expecting a season of toil, I was always confident that the mooted move to the Olympic Stadium would ensure that Sam Allardyce would be given funds to strengthen and to bring in most of the players he would have wanted. The loan acquisition of Andy Carroll changed perceptions both inside and outside the club and the form of Mo Diame has been instrumental in putting West Ham back into the Premier League frame as a solid team; difficult to beat at home and tricky away.

Obviously, anything beyond the upper half of the table would be beyond a team with comparatively limited means when you consider the top seven or eight's ability to spend, but the Hammer's first object is to ensure they avoid the all too regular season of struggle and Sam Allardyce has proved he is a man capable of doing that. 8/10

Wigan - Ned Brown
Despite lofty aspirations following the stylish and emphatic run of form that kept the club up last season, Wigan Athletic finds itself in all-too-familiar territory at Christmas time. A deep injury crisis particularly affecting the club's key defensive areas has led to the concession of cheap goals in matches the team dominated and should have won. Opponents have become wise to Roberto Martinez's midfield-heavy approach, and the team has had to adapt its attacking approach following the departure of Victor Moses.

That said, Wigan Athletic has played some very good football this season, dominating possession and creating chances. Results have not reflected performances. The return of our centre of defence from injury should lead to an improved points tally, comfortably lifting the club away from relegation danger. While it shouldn't mask the disappointment of the season so far, there is a lot better to come. 5/10




Xavi celebrates his opener at Valladolid with Lionel MessiGettyImagesTen out of ten for Xavi, Lionel Messi and Barcelona

European clubs

AC Milan - Sumeet Paul
Milan's worst fears appeared to have become a reality in the early part of the season, as they struggled to deal with the departures of numerous key players in the summer and languished in the bottom half of the table.

However, despite a crushing defeat to Roma to end the year, they have battled back to give themselves an outside chance of a place in the Champions League next season. Both Massimiliano Allegri and the squad have shown they are capable of producing results despite intense criticism, but it fails to hide what has been a bitterly disappointing first half to the campaign. 6/10

Barcelona - Francesc Tomas
After leading the Catalan giants to the most successful period in the club's history, winning 14 out of 19 titles in just four seasons, the voluntary departure of inspirational manager Pep Guardiola had the potential to send the club into a dark period of institutional uncertainty and sporting instability. Fortunately, the board's decision to trust his relatively unknown assistant Tito Vilanova has paid off, with the calm newcomer surprisingly taking Barcelona to the best ever start to a La Liga season.

While the summer signings of Jordi Alba and Alex Song have obviously improved the quality and depth of the squad, full credit must be given to a golden generation of dedicated players, led by record-breaker Lionel Messi, commander Xavi Hernandez and magical wizard Andres Iniesta. Reaching the halfway point of the season leading the league with a comfortable nine-point cushion over Atletico Madrid and 16 over struggling Real, plus having qualified for the last 16 in the Champions League and Copa Del Rey can only be considered as a major success. 10/10

Bayern Munich - Susie Schaaf
After the heart-breaking, soul-sucking season that was 2012 - giving the Bundesliga title to Borussia Dortmund, suffering cup final humiliation by the same, and inexplicably losing the Champions League final to Chelsea - things had to change at Bayern Munich. Despite the obvious quality of 2012's Startelf, Bayern had no bench.

The signings of Javi Martinez, Mario Mandzukic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Claudio Pizarro and Dante have made all the difference. While losing Mario Gomez, Arjen Robben and Luis Gustavo for long stretches, a deep, re-invigorated Bayern side have blazed through the Hinrunde - nine points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table with a +37 goal differential. Losses to Bayer Leverkusen and BATE Borisov are the only blips in an exemplary first half. 10/10

Celtic - Andrew Muirhead


This season has been a bit of fresh air for Celtic and their fans; the SPL was open as ever with Celtic dropping points early doors as they looked to focus on their European odyssey. That focus paid off significantly with Celtic securing a last 16 spot in the Champions League for the third time and despite the early blips domestically, Celtic have stormed to the top of the league and now sit seven points clear of second-place Inverness Caledonian Thistle with a game also in hand. All in all it has been a good first half of the season and with the Bhoys still in all four competitions, the second half can only get better.

With the upcoming Juventus game, Celtic will be strengthening in the January transfer window -- it pays to watch the pennies rather than splash the cash and see it come back to haunt you later on -- but they won't need significant additions given the impressive form of keeper Fraser Forster, midfielder Victor Wanyama and attackers Georgios Samaras and Gary Hooper. Some fringe players should be shown the door and if Neil Lennon can take advantage of their European success, use it to lure some quality additions from the SPL and even from England then there will be no stopping Celtic domestically. Europe is another issue altogether, but all Celtic fans dream of the Bhoys shocking the Old Lady of Turin. Domestically: 7/10. Europe: 9/10.

Inter Milan - Mike Whittaker
Expectations for the 2012/13 season were fairly low by Inter's high standards, but despite being a club in the midst of a major rebuild, a league finish in the top three was considered a realistic target for Andrea Stramaccioni's team.

Despite inconsistent performances in Serie A and in the Europa league, the Nerazzurri managed an impressive unbeaten run plus victories against rivals AC Milan and unbeaten Juventus. Heading into the winter break as the fourth place team in the league, and qualified for the last 32 in the Europa league, Stramaccioni has led his team to an ideal position to reach the club's target by May. All in all, even though there is still much to improve, to this point Inter have performed well. 7/10

Juventus - Mina Rzouki
Despite going undefeated for a full season, many played down the strength of Juventus due to the lack of European commitments last term. Forced to start this season without a much-needed world-class striker and faced with a busy schedule, few thought Juve could continue winning.

With a few key additions made to the side over the summer, this Juventus have broken a record in terms of points collected in 2012, topped their Champions League qualifying group and currently sit eight points clear at the top of Serie A. 10/10

Paris Saint-Germain - Jonathan Johnson
Last season, PSG's expensively assembled squad shorn of genuine star talent were beaten to top spot in Ligue 1 by unheralded Montpellier and the team didn't look like a coherent unit on the pitch. Fans were seriously questioning if the project was capable of domestic or European success. The capital club reacted by going on an unprecedented spending spree that saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marco Verratti and Gregory van der Wiel arrive, turning Carlo Ancelotti's side into a serious proposition.

What a season it has been so far. Despite PSG's abundance of riches, they only sit three points clear/top on goal difference but have looked superb in the Champions League. Now starting to play their best football to date and having saved Ancelotti's job with a spate of wins in December, Ibrahimovic's record haul of goals has kept PSG on track. 7/10

Real Madrid - Nicholas Rigg
Expectations at the Bernabeu were sky high in the summer. Madrid had wrestled the title from Barcelona and sights were set on a tenth Champions League and more La Liga glory to end Barca's dominance. Whatever could have gone wrong between then and now, however, pretty much has. Madrid and Mourinho are in a mess.

Injuries to key men, and a dressing room breakdown between some Madrid players and the coaching staff, have not helped, but nobody could have predicted Los Blancos would be trailing Barca by 16 points come the winter break. The towel has been thrown in on the league and attentions are on the Champions League as a way of rescuing the season. 6/10

Roma - Julian De Martinis
Following a disappointing campaign last season under Luis Enrique's brand of possession-based football, Roma's directors looked to refocus the club under the relentlessly attacking style of Zdenek Zeman. There have been growing pains, no doubt, but a late first-half of the season run of form has seen Roma roar into life and into contention for a European spot.

Erik Lamela and Francesco Totti especially look reborn under the new management, and Marquinhos may just be the most underrated transfer made all summer. Should Roma continue their consistent manner which has seen them dismantle both Milan and Fiorentina by a scoreline of 4-2, only a fool would bet against them. The true question, as ever: can Roma finally be consistent? 6.5/10
Rangers - John Gow
Ask any Rangers fan to rate life in the fourth-tier of Scottish football this time last year and they would give a big fat zero. But after the financial meltdown in the summer the fans didn't know if their club would still exist. Titles or stature became meaningless; just seeing their team once more in the flesh was all they wanted.

So being nine points clear in SFL3 with a game in hand and a team full of young starlets; having a highly successful share issue that secures the future and a fanbase that bought 37,000 season tickets to ensure the highest average league attendance in Scotland, the fourth highest in the UK and the 12th highest in Europe - it's easy to see why the Rangers support are overjoyed. Perspective really is everything. 10/10

ESPN Conversations