The All-Disappointing Prem Team (So Far)
Life is full of disappointments -- room-temperature beer, the Mayan apocalypse and Megan Fox marrying Brian Austin Green, to name just a few -- so why would certain Prem players be any exception? These are not necessarily the worst XI in the top flight -- hello, Sebastien Squillaci and everybody at QPR -- just the ones who teased us with their promise and, like Arsenal's title dreams, simply died. Even in this season of goodwill, we cannot forgive them their HD-enhanced and expensive failings.
GK: Pepe Reina, Liverpool WHAT WE EXPECTED: Pepe Reina, circa 2011.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: Manuel Almunia, circa 2010.
RB: Jose Bosingwa, QPR WHAT WE EXPECTED: A Portuguese international to anchor Rangers' back line and provide plenty of cut-and-thrust to the attack.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: Carlos Tevez with bad eyebrows. Just ask Harry Redknapp.
CB: Vincent Kompany, Manchester City WHAT WE EXPECTED: The cold discipline and controlled fury that had opponents in the penalty area swiveling their communal heads like in "The Exorcist." Kompany was the reason that Mancini's men had the freedom to attack with such relentless fervor in last season's remarkable capture of the league title.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: A mere mortal who lacks the all-world dominance that galvanized City to last year's title. Cruelly exposed in the second consecutive Champions League washout, the big Belgian has also suffered from the absence of a commanding partner in the heart of defense -- Stefan Savic, Joleon Lescott, Kolo Toure and Matija Nastasic have all come up short.
CB: Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal WHAT WE EXPECTED: A repeat of last year's oxymoron: An excellent French defender. Kos was so popular around the Emirates, most fans would have happily had the Frenchman's love child. Leading the team in clearances, interceptions, blocked shots and an absolute beast in the air, he drew reverent comparisons to another beloved Arsenal center back, Steve Bould.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: A continued reference to Bould, except it's the version who is 50 years old with the lateral pace of a steel girder. Koscielny's November groin injury didn't help but it doesn't explain why when paired with the marauding Thomas Vermaelen, the duo fail to close down opposing attackers and abandon all positional discipline, especially on set pieces.
LB: Ashley Cole, Chelsea WHAT WE EXPECTED: A selfish, awful excuse for a human being who happens to be Chelsea's (and England's) most dependable left back. Relentlessly rampaging from box to box, over the past three seasons Cole led nearly all Prem counterparts in tackles, clearances and interceptions and even scooped up the Blues' Player of the Year award in 2010-11.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: All of the above, except for the bit that began at “relentlessly.” The rumors of him being courted by Paris St. Germain make complete sense; he's abrasive and self-regarding enough to fit in seamlessly with both the French and Joey Barton.
MF: Oscar, Chelsea WHAT WE EXPECTED: The next Kaka, pre-Real Madrid. He wears the precious No. 10 shirt for Brazil and quickly showed why it was a seamless fit on his skinny frame. Displaying an adhesive touch and a cheeky burst of pace, the ex-Internacional man's choice to jump in the Roman Abramovich clown car for 25 million pounds was welcomed by all lovers of skillful soccer, even Chelsea haters.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: The next Denilson (the Arsenal one, anyway). Unable to establish himself in the Blues' lineup under either Roberto Di Matteo or Rafa Benitez, Oscar's found himself in the worst spot for a player of his age and potential: clearly stuck behind two very similar (and clearly better) players in the depth chart, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard. One Prem goal -- his memorably stunning long-range howitzer was against Juventus in the Champions League -- and three assists from 15 league games isn't the return on investment Abramovich had in mind.
MF: Joe Allen, Liverpool WHAT WE EXPECTED: The reincarnation of Xabi Alonso. Allen personified Swansea's mellifluous and pundit-approved style of play that manager Brendan Rodgers was hell-bent on grafting onto his new team. The pair spoke the same language; not Welsh, but the triangle-based pass-and-move that used to define the Scousers in the '70s and '80s -- aka the last time the Reds had to worry about clearing space in their cob-webbed trophy cabinet for any league-winning silverware.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: The worst $24 million spent since the past five times that Liverpool made this level of investment. (Right, Jordan Henderson?) Though Allen has slightly improved a rather aimless midfield, he's struggled with small-fish-in-big-pond syndrome, not yet nailing his role as understudy to lead diva, Stevie G. His passes are still neat and tidy, only most of them are square or back to his defenders. Caught in possession more than Bubbles from "The Wire," Allen's impish frame has also proved a liability against physical opponents. On the bright side, he's still an upgrade over Jay Spearing.
MF: Gylfi Sigurdsson, Tottenham WHAT WE EXPECTED: Gylfi has cult status among soccer weenies for his bizarre name, loping gait and Beckham-level dead-ball skills. After a dynamic loan spell in the Michu role at Swansea last season -- among the club's leaders in goals, shots and chance-creating passes despite playing just 18 games -- Spurs stole him from under Brendan Rodgers' beak this past summer in what was perceived to be a major transfer coup. After all, if he could make Danny Graham look like Gary Lineker last season, imagine what he could do with Jermain Defoe.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: A colossal waste of $13 million, a true rarity in the Daniel Levy era. Fulham refugees -- Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey -- are more creative and combative in the heart of midfield. A half-fit Gareth Bale is still light years ahead on the left flank while Aaron Lennon's searing pace rightly owns the opposite wing. Gylfi has as many goals as Bjork, and one assist in 15 games. When's the next ice floe departing from the Lane?
MF: Nani, Manchester United WHAT WE EXPECTED: Despite his enduring case of vertigo, an affliction that had Nani collapsing to the turf around every 30 seconds, Ronaldo-lite's 2011-12 campaign led United in chances created (69) while being top four with 10 assists and eight goals. One of the few genuinely creative United players, he would benefit immensely from the space RvP's presence would open up.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: Ronaldo's petulance with none of his productivity -- one goal and one assist in seven Prem outings means the occasionally crocked Nani has generally been deployed in Capital One games or Champions League dead rubbers. And to think, only a couple of months ago Ferguson was hailing his attacking trident of RvP, Rooney and Nani as one of the most devastating in United's storied history. Well, he got two out of three right anyway.
FW: Darren Bent, Aston Villa WHAT WE EXPECTED: Bent's a classic striker -- see ball, kick ball, score -- and with Aston Villa undergoing a tricky transition under Paul Lambert, it was hoped that Bent's well-established goal-scoring instincts (24 Prem goals in 2009-10, 17 in 2010-11, nine last term) could help ease the Midlanders' growing pains.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: Shoved aside by the younger, hungrier, more versatile Christian Benteke, there's simply no room for the one-dimensional Bent in Lambert's multifaceted game plan. Lambert is a prosaic, old-school boss -- play well or lose your spot regardless of reputation -- and Bent's feast-or-famine displays this season have made the decision easy for Lambert. It's clear that the sulky Bent is destined for the transfer window and another club -- we hope he enjoys playing for Harry Redknapp. Again.
FW: Mario Balotelli, Manchester City WHAT WE EXPECTED: More exquisite brilliance from the most refreshing and talented striker to hit England in many a year. This was the season where the tempestuous Italian would finally translate his prodigious potential into a weekly starring role at the fulcrum of Roberto Mancini's high-priced attack, hopes that were further fueled by Super Mario at Euro 2012, in which he partnered brilliantly with Antonios Cassano and Di Natale to tie for tournament top scorer.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: Probably the most disappointing storyline of the campaign. His play has vacillated between sloppy and uncaring, while the tedious soap opera with his biggest champion and disciplinarian, Signore Scarf, heads for one final plot twist. Unlike last year when he set both the league and his bathroom on fire, his efforts this time around have been as drab as a Manchester summer. No big goals and nothing like THAT pass so far, his bad boy behavior has become increasingly wearing, which is why you may see him in a Milan jersey come January.
Manager: Alan Pardew, Newcastle United WHAT WE EXPECTED: A continuation of the 2011-12 Messiah role, one in which his understated and assertive approach not only guided the Magpies to a top-five finish but also made them fun to watch. Pardew melded artistry and brutality in midfield with Yohan Cabaye and Cheikh Tiote, injected ball wizardry on the flanks with Jonas Gutierrez and Hatem Ben-Arfa and nurtured a pair of revelatory front men in Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse, who matched one another for wonder goals in the breathtaking way Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire once smacked home runs.
WHAT WE'VE GOTTEN: Newcastle famously canceled their Christmas party this season in deference to their fans who have endured the biggest letdown since Kate Middleton's wedding night. At least that was the official reason. More likely, they were too embarrassed to show their faces in public after rewarding Pardew with an astounding eight-year contract...
Lucky to miss the cut: Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) Junior Hoilett (QPR), Stephane Sessegnon (Sunderland), Martin O'Neill (Sunderland), Gervinho (Arsenal), Papiss Demba Cisse (Newcastle), Scott Sinclair (Manchester City)
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
James Tyler is an editor for ESPNFC.