14 September 2014

Rivals' Wrap-up: Chelsea, Man City, Tottenham, Liverpool...

Four games into the season, and it's time for a quick check-in on Arsenal's rivals at the top of the table. At a risk of underestimating a few squads, I don't see Aston Villa, Swansea, or Southampton staying in the top four for much longer. They're off to great starts, but the season is still young. However, a few trends are emerging as the title-chase takes shape. Continue below the fold as we assess who we're vying with for top honours in the Prem...

●  Position: First.
●  Record: 4-0-0
●  Key matches: Everton 3-6 Chelsea
Chelsea continue to frighten with their early season form, scoring at a dizzying pace that almost outstrips the next three squads combined (Villa, Swansea, and Soton have together scored 16 to Chelsea's 15). If there's any comfort to be found in their demolitions of others, it's that they've by and large done so against some of the league's lesser lights—Burnley, Leicester, and Swansea. They passed their sternest test to date with flying colors, going into Goodison Park and hanging six goals on Everton. Costa and Fabregas, among others, seem to have taken advantage of a relatively soft early-season schedule to bed in and look to be clicking on all cylinders. Apparently, Mourinho is happy to play hockey, seeing as how he hasn't sent "the players back to the dressing rooms as they are not defending properly."

Man City
●  Position: Fifth.
●  Record: 2-1-1
●  Key matches: City 3-1 Liverpool; Arsenal 2-2 City.
We're still deciding whether we dropped two points or kept one on Saturday, but City have faced two key rivals and taken four points from six, a rate of return that should more than suffice in their quest to defend the title—unless they continue to drop points as they did at home to Stoke last week. For as glitzy and deep as their roster is, they seem sluggish out of the gate to this point, scoring only seven goals in four matches. There's hope to be found in the idea that they might suffer a bit of a hangover after having won the Prem twice in the last three years, but rather than grasp at such straws, it might be more likely to suggest that this might be a season in which they focus on the Champions League (their squad-selection against us suggests as much).

●  Position: Sixth.
●  Record: 2-1-1
●  Key matches: Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool
We enjoyed Spurs' season-long malaise while they tried to bed in a raft of new players while accounting for the loss of their entire offense from the previous season, but there may be a bit of karmic debt in seeing them persist in staying above us. Pochettino might be Spurs' 20th manager to face off against Arsène, but he might be the first to get Spurs to finish above us if he can inject some chemistry into the squad and get them playing as well as he got Southampton to play last season. Then again, much in the same way that Moyes could only get Fellaini to follow him last summer, I wonder if there is something in the fact that none of the many Saints who left St. Mary's followed Pochettino to White Hart Lane. It implies a certain lack of faith or loyalty. At any rate,  Liverpool's drubbing at White Hart Lane was followed by a stuttering draw at Sunderland, suggesting that there are still issues to be sorted and an identity to be forged.

●  Position: Seventh.
●  Record: 1-3-0
●  Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal; Arsenal 2-2 Man City.
It's looking like the Invincibles all over again as we're undefeated after four matches. Surely, at this rate, we'll get through all 38 matches without suffering a loss. Sadly, the extrapolation takes us to about nine wins and 27 draws, good for 54 points or so. We laboured mightily to defeat Crystal Palace and draw with Leicester, suggesting that we play to the level of our opponents, which is fine and dandy against Man City but a bit of an Achilles' heel against many others. In three of four matches, we've conceded first; just as often, we've conceded on the first shot we allowed the opponent to take. That second, fluky trend won't continue, but that first one is more troubling. While we've shown admirable pluck and resilience in fighting back, we cannot continue to chase games like this. Injuries, fatigue, and bookings all increase when you have to play more aggressively and recklessly, and we've put ourselves in that position almost every week.

●  Position: Eighth.
●  Record: 2-0-2
●  Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool; Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool.
The season-long story at Anfield, as it was a season ago at White Hart Lane, will be how the sqaud copes with the loss of its talismanic scorer and the introduction of so many new players. Only the Liverputians would go out and replace like-for-like, signing Balotelli to replace Suarez. The real story, however, will likely be in how Sterling and Sturridge respond. Will they rise to the occasion, or will their production plummet as defenders deny them touches and chances? Early returns suggest the latter, even as the two have combined for three goals. Liverpool have only scored six goals thus far. For a club that relied so extensively on scoring in bunches, such pedestrian production bodes ill for their campaign—and they haven't even begun the Champions League cauldron. In short, last season's blueprint—score with abandon and exploit rivals' fatigue—looks a bit tattered already.

Manchester United
●  Position: Ninth.
●  Record: 1-2-1
●  Key matches: None to date.
Those who scoff at the inclusion of Man U as a rival do so at their peril. If nothing else, they look to be borrowing Liverpool's blueprint from last season. Bereft of defenders and of continental commitments, it may be only a matter of time before Van Gaal gets his squad going. There's not much to be taken from a 4-0 obliteration of QPR, but it's a result far more impressive than drawing with Sunderland or Burnley or losing at Old Trafford to Swansea (again, no disrespect, Swans). While we may fret over the addition of Falcao, we do have to ask, realistically: how many ageing scorers does one squad need? More to the point, are there enough defenders at Old Trafford to last a season, even without Champions League, Europa League, or the league cup to grind them down? We look at a roster that boasts of di Maria, Rooney, Falcao, van Persie, and Mata, and we might be right to squirm a bit. Then, we look to the backline and see Rojo, Blackett, Evans, and Rafael and realise that, like Liverpool before them, they will live and die by the same sword.

●  Position: Tenth.
●  Record: 1-2-1
●  Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Everton 3-6 Chelsea
After an impressive, dynamic campaign a season ago, it's a bit of a shock to see Everton so slow out of the gates, even if the Toffees did get a bit of a rough early schedule. Still, hosting Arsenal and Chelsea should have yielded more than a solitary point; one point from six is not nearly enough to sustain a tilt at the top of the table. Those two results have to be particularly demoralizing, as they were seconds away from defeating us and were thoroughly undressed by Chelsea, both times at Goodison Park where they were well-nigh impregnable last season. It's possible that these early-season stumbles are a carry-over from last season's, when Everton briefly rose to fourth place only to wilt, apparently, under the pressure. They're no longer upstarts or Cinderellas. They stand at a threshold now: can they take the next step forward, or will the significance of the moment knock them back?

It's still early days, of course, and there's bound to be a certain regression toward the mean. As concerns Villa, Swansea, and Southampton, this suggests that they'll gradually list towards mid-table mediocrity. Will the same hold true of Man U? What of Liverpool, sporting so many shiny, new players? Is Arsenal as currently built really ready to climb the table; is our ambition and ability enough to see us vie for top honours? Eight months remain to answer these and many other questions...