22 September 2014

Rivals's Wrap-up: what a wonderful weekend this was!

We could hardly ask for a weekend better than this one. What with our own convincing win, one that included Welbeck opening his Arsenal account and Özil finally awaking from his torpor, it might feel a bit greedy to ask for much more. However, 'much more' is what we got, as all of our key rivals dropped points. In fact, the only real blemish is that Man City and Chelsea drew. The way the weekend had gone, it might have been better for them to square off another weekend so that they could have lost on this weekend, just as Liverpool, Man U, Tottenham, and Everton did. That's right. the only quirk that prevented all of them from losing in the same weekend was that two of them faced each other. Let's get to the particulars, then, shall we?

Chelsea
●  Position: First
●  Record: 4W, 1D, 0L
●  Key matches: Everton 3-6 Chelsea; Man City 1-1 Chelsea
Chelsea drop points for the first time all season; just as importantly, they failed to score more than two goals for the firs time in five matches. While this is hardly enough to prove that the juggernaut is crumbling, it does show that their presumed invincibility is a bit of a, um, presumption. Yes, on paper, their squad is fearsome (heck, their loaned-out squad could probably qualify for European League). However, they still have to actually play out the fixtures. Despite City losing Zabaleta in the 66th minute, Chelsea couldn't do much more than to nab one goal and were negligent to the extreme in letting the short-handed hosts equalize. While we didn't get everything we might have wished for here, we at least got to enjoy the irony of jettisoned Frank Lampard coming back to haunt Mourinho courtesy of his 85th minute goal. There weren't any other red cards, although Fernandinho, Silva, toure, Ramires, Matic, Costa, and Ivanonic picked up yellows. That's two already for the combative Ramires, and three each for Toure, Fernandinho, and Costa. Chinks in the armor, yes, but chinks become cracks, cracks split open...There's hope, I guess. Enough to hang your hats on, at least.

Arsenal
●  Position: Fourth
●  Record: 2W, 3D, 0L
  Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Arsenal 2-2 Man City
"We're #4! We're #4!" Okay, it may not be a ralling cry, and it may slight Southampton and Aston Villa, but we have now climbed to fourth place. There might a more-exciting recipe to winning the Prem than to draw with our key rivals, but taking 33% of points from matches against them would actually mark a modest improvement from the 28.9% we've achieved in the last five seasons. That, and it would spare us the confidence-shattering losses we absorbed a season ago. We're still undefeated, something only Chelsea can also boast of, and we have shown (Dortmund aside), an impressive ability to play up to (or, yes, down to) the level of our competition. Even if that yields inconsistent results, even the draw to Leicester is looking less and less wasteful (more on that in due time—how can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?). In each of our key matches to date, we've fought back in admirable fashion, leaving ourselves to ponder 'what if?'  The last time we went into Goodison Park, well, I don't want to finish that sentence. We're still figuring ourselves out, with injuries, a few formation, and diffident form from key players like Özil and Ramsey. If we can find even a shred of the form and confidence that we held at this point last season, well, the world's our oyster. 

Manchester City
 Position: Sixth
●  Record: 2W, 2D, 1L
●  Key Matches: City 3-1 Liverpool; Arsenal 2-2 City; City 1-1 Chelsea
On paper, you might like at these results and wonder what's wrong with City. On one hand, you'd be right to do so. Their early form, despite not making many off-season additions or changes, is far from impressive.  Then again, their only black-mark is the home-loss to Stoke, after which they have done well to nick the point at the Emirates and to do the same again this week at home against Chelsea despite losing one of the Prem's best right-backs for nearly a third of the match. We know full-well how deep this squad is and how capable it is of overwhelming its opposition, but it is worth noting that, to date, its only signature-performance has been the 3-1 win over Liverpool, a win that looks less and less notable with each passing week. I mentioned last week  that many of the players might be growing bored with winning the Prem, and while that's hardly something one should pin hopes to, there might be something in it all the same. On the other hand, they've already dealt very well with one of the tougher early-season fixture-lists to date and can look ahead to somewhat softer tests in the future...

Tottenham
●  Position: Ninth
●  Record: 2W, 1D, 2L
●  Key matches: Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool
After a bright start that included five goals scored in two wins, Spurs have managed only two goals from three matches while staggering to two losses and a draw. Their latest disgrace was a 0-1 loss to West Brom, in which they dominated possession 63% but conceded a goal late, continuing a trend of horrid home-form from last season. Yes, the loss to Liverpool might register differently, coming as it did against a 'superior' squad, but is it any wonder that Spurs are so desperate for a new stadium that they were willing to play their home fixtures at the Emirates? Nevermind the scheduling nightmares that would create; what would it mean for the debate over which color London is? More seriously, there are few excuses to hide behind. Last season, it was "we sold our talisman, struggled to integrate seven new signings, and changed managers partway through". This season's story, already in danger of unraveling, is "um, we, er, have a new manager". Suffice it to say that Pochettino has so far failed to meld this squad to his liking. Nowhere to be found thus far is the positive, attractive footballing we came to know him for at Southampton. In its place, a familiar ability to concede goals and concurrent inability to score them. Perhaps a few Soldado spot-kicks are in order?

Liverpool
●  Position: Eleventh
●  Record:  2W, 0D, 3L
●  Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool; Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool
Like Spurs a season ago, Liverpool's alibi might sound something like "we sold our talisman and will struggle to integrate so many new signings". Fair enough. However, the dilemma for Liverpool lies deeper. All of those goals from a season ago, whether they came from Suarez, Sterling, or Sturridge, papered over a mighty weakness that the squad may struggle with all season. Despite (or perhaps because of) adding a fair few new defenders, Liverpool can no longer rely on scoring early and often to put opponents on the back foot. In other words, they may find themselves chasing the game for more often than last season. In three of five matches thus far, they conceded first, losing each time. They've only just begun the Champions League, albeit with a ego-salving 2-1 win over PFC Ludogorets Razgrad. With matches coming up against FC Basel and Real Madrid, they have to feel like they'll advance, but at what cost? A season ago, the Liverputians nearly won the Prem thanks in part to an absence of European commitments. With such a sluggish start, it's not too early to ask how they'll fare with a raft of new signings to bed in and at least seven new fixtures to shoe-horn in.

Manchester United
●  Position: Twelfth
●  Record: 1W, 2D, 2L
●  Key matches: None to date.
I mentioned earlier that you couldn't have any pudding until you eat your meat. Well, it's not quite time for dessert, but we have to follow protocol. After last season's debacle, could anyone have predicted the nightmare that is unfolding at Old Trafford? Despite spending some £170m on transfers plus the £20m loan-fee for Falcao, Man U have managed to win a solitary match, and that to newly-promoted QPR. I checked in on their match with Leicester, assuming that it would amount to another flat-track bullying, and the early returns confirmed the suspicion: Leicester 1-3 Man U. It was the best of times; it was the blurst of times. From the 58th minute onward, it was all Leicester, as the Foxes found four goals in the last half-hour to reduce Man U to a pitiable shambles. We knew at some level that van Gaal might struggle to adapt the squad to his expectatinos; few if any of us expected such defensive frailty. It's enough to suggest that maybe we should have sold them Vermaelen; surely he would have denied Leicester at least one of those goals? More seriously, as with last week, it's likely only a matter of time before van Gaal gets this squad in order. Regardless of current form, they have a clear slate—no league cup, Champions League, or Europa League—and a January transfer-window to look forward to. A cornered beast is a dangerous one...

Everton
●  Position: fourteenth
●  Record: 1W, 2D, 2L
●  Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal; Everton 3-6 Chelsea
"It wasn't supposed to be this way. It was supposed to be a thing of beauty!"—C. Montgomery Burns. After last season's run-in, we could draw one of two conclusions: one, Everton are a squad to be reckoned with. Two, Everton are a squad punching above their weight. So far, #2 seems to be the inescapable conclusion. Only an 0-2 win at West Brom salvages the early season from being a complete morass, as the Toffees struggle to find any kind of early-season form. Their 4-1 win over Wolfsburg in the Europa League might have offered a springboard of sorts, had they not followed up with a 2-3 loss to Crystal Palace. It's hard to believe that a squad capable of such heights as they achieved last season could struggle so thoroughly to this point, despite having a second season under Roberto Martinez. Having made few changes, we might expect stability to provide some kind of boost to them. Instead, they seem to be buckling under the pressure—just as they apparently did in last season's run-in. They have a tough league cup draw (away to Swansea) followed by a Merseyside derby (away to Liverpool). How they emerge from these two fixtures may very well set the stage for their season.

After only five matches, it's far too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but patterns and trends will emerge. Will Chelsea continue its assault on record-books and morality? Will Man U continue to entertain us with ungainly attempts at defending? Can Arsenal achieve the impossible—a second Invincibles season? Time will tell. For now, we can content ourselves with a tolerably decent start, even if we, like our rivals, have unanswered questions in front of us.