How the likes of Watford and Burnley can get neutrals interested in midtable
There's something rather peculiar about the midtable Premier League sides this season: it's difficult to work out which will be pushing for the European places, and which will be battling to stay out of the relegation spots.
You can spin this either way; if you were being particularly positive, you could say it highlights great competitiveness. Realistically, it feels like there's rather too much mediocrity in the Premier League this season, and relatively few interesting "smaller" sides for the neutral.
But what does provide interest for a natural? Here are three categories of midtable sides who have proved fascinating in recent years, and this season's closest equivalent.
There's probably no point hoping for a Leicester City 2015-16 every season; that simply won't happen regularly, and might never happen again. The Foxes' incredible title-winning campaign was a genuine one-off.
But it's not too much to hope for a Newcastle 2011-12, for example, when Alan Pardew's side finished ahead of European Cup winners Chelsea, plus Everton and Liverpool too. Even the Everton side of 2013-14, which came fifth ahead of both Tottenham and Manchester United, shook up the top of the Premier League, and provided added excitement.
This season, the equivalent appears to be Watford, currently in sixth position. They defeated Arsenal 2-1 last weekend before a rather unfortunate 4-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, when Marco Silva's side had dominated for long periods, but a pair of shocking misses from Brazilian attacker Richarlison left them vulnerable to a late Chelsea rally.
Silva's side, however, appear set for a genuine assault on the top half of the Premier League. The Portuguese manager has received lots of plaudits for his tactical work, but he also seems to have improved Watford significantly in terms of their team spirit and togetherness; that's no mean feat, considering the incredibly diverse, disjointed nature of the squad, and the complacency that appeared obvious towards the end of last season.
It remains to be seen whether Watford can keep up their current form; they've been a little too dependent upon last-minute goals, and Silva isn't entirely sure whether Andre Gray or Troy Deeney should lead the line. But Watford are currently two points ahead of Liverpool after one quarter of the season, and the Premier League may benefit from one of the expected top six having to fight their way into those positions.
You don't necessarily need to seriously threaten the big sides to provide interest for the neutrals. Think for example, of the Swansea side who finished in 11th place in 2011-12, coached by Brendan Rodgers. They finished behind Martin Jol's Fulham and Roy Hodgson's West Brom, but what can you remember about those sides? Probably very little.
Rodgers' Swansea, however, were fascinating because of their complete obsession with possession play, at a time when Spain's tiki-taka still dominated European football. Only champions Manchester City recorded a higher pass completion rate, and therefore it was fascinating to witness how the big boys coped against Swansea's ball retention.
You can say something similar of Southampton under Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine coach took charge in early 2013, and for his only full season in charge, 2013-14, he created probably the most intense pressing side the Premier League has witnessed. Again, Southampton weren't truly threatening the big boys -- they finished eighth -- but they provided a tactical test like no one else in the league, with Pochettino effectively, and successfully, auditioning for a job at a big club.
The closest thing this season is probably Burnley. Sean Dyche has created a side who have managed to consistently frustrate or beat bigger sides -- besting Chelsea, drawing with Liverpool and Tottenham -- in part because they're so good at deep defending. Of particular interest is their ability to concede a huge number of shots, including many from dangerous locations, but concede few goals.
This is partly because they're so good at blocking shots (63 this season, 15 more than any other side) and also because their goalkeepers, both Tom Heaton and Nick Pope, have excellent save percentages. The 37 saves made by Burnley's goalkeepers is also the most in the league.
Dyche seems to have coached his players to be excellent at the simple but useful art of getting defensive players between the width of the goalposts, making it difficult for opponents to get a clear shot at goal.
It's an intriguing strategy that has worked well, although it's difficult to genuinely compare it with the approaches of the aforementioned Swansea and Southampton sides -- which means that Dyche's next job, possibly at Everton, might require something of an adaptation period.
The big fish in a small pond
Swansea City weren't a particularly exciting team last season. It was a disjointed side, not helped by the fact they went through three separate managers: Francesco Guidolin, Bob Bradley and finally Paul Clement, who steered the side away from relegation.
The exciting thing about Swansea, however, was Gylfi Sigurdsson. One of the Premier League's most popular footballers because of his penchant for long-range goals and dangerous set-piece deliveries, the Icelandic international always offered a major threat -- and an interest for a huge number of fantasy football managers.
Sigurdsson's departure to Everton, however, seems to have been a bad move all-round. Sigurdsson finds himself at a side currently below Swansea in the league, Everton have enough players in his mould anyway, while Swansea badly lack any kind of creativity, and currently have attempted fewer shots on target than any other Premier League side. It's been a bad transfer for everyone involved -- so far, at least -- and bad for the division overall. The Premier League needs a few stars at smaller clubs, think Dimitri Payet's first season at West Ham.
Is there an equivalent this season? The closest thing is probably at Brighton, whose attacking midfielder Pascal Gross has much in common with Sigurdsson; he arrived following impressive performances for an unfashionable Bundesliga side, he lacks the outright speed of many modern attacking midfielders and is a dead-ball specialist.
Gross has already managed four goals in nine appearances this season, with only David Silva, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Kevin De Bruyne managing more.
After this weekend, maybe Southampton might start to emerge as a contender here too. Sofiane Boufal had a forgettable first campaign for the Saints, but his astonishing winner against West Brom last weekend was an argument to manager Mauricio Pellegrini that he deserves a regular starting spot -- and the 24-year-old's celebration provided the same thing in a more literal sense. With a player like Boufal in form, and in the side, you might go out of your way to watch the Saints.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.