At the end of the Premier League’s first trimester, we had Gooners occupying first place and basking in the euphoria of a long-awaited “marquee” signing. Four points across town, Chelsea lurked in second with Manchester City and Liverpool rounding out the top four. Now, having (almost) completed 26 rounds of play, we have the same first four crew – though Chelsea and Arsenal have swapped seats and City’s game-in-hand could see the Citizens leapfrog the pair.
As we head into the final third of the most open Premier League season in recent memory, here’s one player on each club who may not be dominating the headlines, but could prove to be the key factor down the stretch.
Chelsea – Fernando Torres
Jose Mourinho has intimated that fears over Financial Fair Play compatibility precluded the Londoners from grabbing a top striker in the January window. Instead, the substantial proceeds from Juan Mata’s sale went towards the re-signing of Nemanja Matic (David Luiz ended up costing quite a bit of cash in the long-run) and purchase of their Champions League scourge, Mohamed Salah. The result is that Chelsea has, arguably, the most settled starting 10 in the league but will need to rely upon a former world-class striker remembering why they make the big bucks. Considering Demba Ba seems closer to becoming Roman Abramovich’s full-time dog-walker than first-choice attacker, this leaves us with Samuel Eto’o and the artist formerly known as “El Niño.”
Now, considering Mourinho has shaped his team into the league’s stingiest defensive unit and Eden Hazard is heading towards global superstardom, Chelsea does not need either striker to regain top-form. Realistically, should Eto’o or Torres just offer a consistent penalty-poaching ability, Chelsea could have enough to take home the title.
“Ah!” but you say, “Eto’o has six goals over 12 EPL starts!” Well, three of those came in one match against the decomposing Nemanja Vidic and he’s since gone six consecutive starts (including the FA Cup) without finding the net. Regardless, his Prem total is greater than that of Torres, who returns from injury with just four league goals over 11 starts and a further seven substitute appearances.
It seems likely that Mourinho will continue to swap strikers, and maybe even try midfielders, until someone starts hitting the onion bag with any regularity. Considering the gaffer lifted Eto’o at halftime for Salah when chasing a goal at City, Torres will get more than a few chances to spearhead Chelsea’s attack.
Manchester City – Martin Demichelis
Like Chelsea, Manchester City did not reinforce its most obvious weakness in January. The Citizens’ rumored interest in Porto defender Eliaquim Mangala came to naught and, instead, Manuel Pellegrini will continue to rely upon Martin Demichelis – the unlikely stalwart of City’s backline.
Signed at the very end of the summer window, and changing clubs for the second time, Demichelis took the long route to follow Pellegrini from Malaga to Manchester, via Madrid, and was presumed to be nothing more than a depth signing. Instead, the 33 year-old was afforded an extended run in the first team due to injuries to club captain Vincent Kompany. Further injury troubles to Demichelis himself, Kompany again, and Matija Nastasic saw City rarely afforded the opportunity to settle on a pairing.
For those who choose to see the glass as half full, the assorted injury problems allowed Pellegrini to examine all of his defending options and the ensuing shake down was a little surprising. So far, the Kompany-Demichelis pairing has proven to be City’s most consistent combination. Playing both at the back, City have gone 6-2-0 in the league, with the notable 1-0 loss to Chelsea coming with Nastasic alongside Kompany, and Demichelis auditioning in a holding midfield role.
Long-term, it would not be too surprising if Pellegrini returns to the Nastasic-Kompany combination should it be available. But with City still alive in four different competitions and Nastasic already injured again, Demichelis will continue to play a big role in City’s fortunes down the stretch.
Arsenal – Lukas Podolski
Besides having a dynamite theme song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3Juhm54IkI), Lukas Podolski has been one of the German national team’s most consistent attacking threats over the past decade. While his move to Bayern Munich didn’t pan out, the Cologne-native had a reasonably impressive debut season in London with 11 goals and 10 assists in 33 appearances. Blighted by hamstring problems in the fall, Podolski has only recently reentered Wenger’s plans – starting Arsenal’s FA Cup win over Liverpool.
Arsenal’s summer long pursuit of Luis Suarez ended with Mesut Ozil, leaving Oliver Giroud as the only established true striker at the club. Giroud’s hot start to the season saw him grab 10 goals in 19 appearances across all competitions. In his 14 appearances since, he’s only managed to score three times and is cutting an increasingly frustrated figure.
Considering Aaron Ramsey is out until mid-March and Theo Walcott for the year, the easiest way for Wenger to ease Giroud’s goal-scoring burden may come through re-integrating Podolski. The German could either spend time in his familiar left flank position (entering into a rotation with Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) or he could just swap in for Giroud and give the striker a desperately needed break.
Indeed, despite not being recognized as a pure striker, Podolski’s finishing statistics from 2012/2013 compare favorably to those of Giroud in the current season. Giroud may be registering a shot every 34 minutes, but his 38% accuracy means he is only hitting the target once every 90 minutes. Podolski’s 61% accuracy rate meanwhile, saw him hit the target every 100 minutes last year. Further, Giroud’s current chance conversion rate, 16%, and clear-cut chance conversion rate, 30%, both pale in comparison to the more clinical Podolski. In his first season in London, he converted 33% of his chances and 56% of the clear-cut chances sent his way.
Perhaps Podolski isn’t a natural striker, but as he demonstrated against Liverpool Sunday, he’s clinical in front of net. The emergence of a second Gooner goal threat would be a major boost for Wenger’s crew as they compete in three competitions this spring.
Liverpool – Jon Flanagan
Mourinho has consistently noted Liverpool’s advantage of fewer fixtures down the stretch, but the Reds’ injury crisis has tested their depth. Indeed, the back four of Aly Cissokho, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel, and Jon Flanagan that has started Liverpool’s last four Prem fixtures is the longest stretch of consistent selection by Rodgers this year. This is only because first choice left back Jose Enrique has been out since November, with big money summer signing Mamadou Sakho joining him on the injury table in December. Daniel Agger and Glen Johnson wanted in on the party and suffered their own injury woes in January, though Agger is now back and the others closing in on fitness themselves.
Again for the optimists, this has let Rodgers get a clear idea of what he has at his disposal, and some have shined brighter than others. After almost leaving the club in the summer, Skrtel has returned to the form he showed under the tutelage of Steve Clarke in 2011/2012 and is likely to stick as first choice even when the Reds return to full strength.
Another positive has been the play of full back Flanagan, who has bounced between the first team and reserves since Rodgers’s arrival at Anfield. In his 11 starts, the academy graduate has played at both left and right back, crucially offering Rodgers some flexibility as he juggles the available defensive personnel.
So far, Flanagan has completed three tackles and 1.5 interceptions per match, while being a safe, if limited attacking option. The 21 year old is completing 83% of his passes, though he’ll need to work on his final ball if he is to become a complete modern full back.
With the Anfield boss claiming that Flanagan could play himself onto England’s World Cup plane this summer, it’s clear how highly Rodgers values his defender’s steady contributions. He’ll need to keep impressing if the Reds want to play Champions League football come next fall.