20 October 2014

Rivals' Run-down, Matchday Eight: Where do we stand?

We finally return from a two-week interlull eager for some proper Arsenal action only to come away a bit deflated, if not depressed. Not only did we struggle to nick a point at home against Hull, most of our rivals found a way to seize all three in their respective matches. The race has gotten a bit more cluttered as Southampton continue to insist on not being ignored while Liverpool, Everton, and Man U register a pulse if not more. Finger-twitches they may be, but they're enough to remind us that there are still signs of life from Anfield, Goodison, and Old Trafford, and if we don't get our own house in order, things could get real messy real quick. On to the run-down...

Chelsea
● Position: First
● Record: 7W, 1D, 0L
● Points: 22 (91.7%)
● Form: WWDWWW
● Key matches: Everton 3-6 Chelsea, Man City 1-1 Chelsea, Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal
Chelsea's assault on the Prem and on common decency continues unabated as they seem to have overcome last season's Achilles' heel: dropping points to mid-table (or lower) clubs as they pounced on and finished off Crystal Palace at Selhurst. To date, only their draw with Man City stands out as any kind of speed-bump. Cesc Fabregas's disclaimers notwithstanding, there are few obstacles between them and mounting an Invincible-level campaign. I'm bobbing and weaving there a bit, and Chelsea do still have to visit Anfield, Old Trafford, and the Emirates, among others, and there are after all 30 more matches to be played. Chelsea have so many tools and so many players to deploy that it's almost laughable that they've scored "only" 23 goals to date. At this point it seems as if the only factor limiting their scoring is the fact that only one ball can be in play at any given moment. Pride goeth before the fall, though, and I wouldn't put it past the likes of Stoke or West Brom to stun them.
● Up next: Home against Maribor (UCL), at Man U.

Man City
● Position: Second
● Record: 5W, 2D, 1L
● Points: 17 (70.8%)
● Form: LDDWWW
● Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool, Arsenal 2-2 Man City, Man City 1-1 Chelsea, Man City 4-1 Tottenham
For as fearsome as Chelsea's start has been, they enjoy only a five-point margin over City, who have overcome a sluggish start to win three in a row and are now undefeated in five matches, including drawing with us (and nearly winning) and saving a draw against Chelsea despite being a man down for the last 25 minutes or so. In short, they're gaining momentum, further evinced by that 4-1 demolition of Tottenham, who had only conceded seven goals in their previous seven fixtures. They've arguably faced one of the roughest strings of early-season fixtures and come through in decent shape and are rounding into form. They may have granted Chelsea an early-season headstart, but it's difficult to see either squad suffering the kind of slump or injury-crisis that has befallen certain other clubs [cough]. It's quickly becoming a two-horse race. Chelsea might have the inside track, but City have notched a few more quality results...
● Up next: at CSKA Moscow (UCL), at West Ham.

Southampton
● Position: Third
● Record: 5W, 1D, 2L
● Points: 16 (66.7%)
● Form; WWWWLW
● Key matches: Tottenham 1-0 Southampton.
I can no longer ignore Southampton. Yes, they've ridden the softest string of fixtures to third place, but they're calmly, and occasionally emphatically, taking care of business. An 8-0 win over Sunderland and a 4-0 win over Newcastle (woeful though they each may be) serves notice that this is a potent, dynamic squad despite being shorn of the services of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers, and Rickie Lambert. At one point, we might have given the Saints a playful chuck on the shoulder as if to say, "we feel your pain." However, they're shrugging off the sympathy and showing how to reload, turning tidy transfers into results. It remains to be seen whether they can sustain this kind of form and how they'll handle tougher fixtures, but at this point, they've more than earned consideration as well as an apology for omitting them thus far.
● Up next: Home against Stoke.

Liverpool
● Position: Fifth
● Record: 4W, 1D, 3L
● Points: 13 (54.2%)
● Form: WLLDWW
● Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool, Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool, Liverpool 1-1 Everton.
We may have snickered at Liverpool's early-season foibles, but we have to admit that losing a toothy talisman such as Suarez and replacing him with a raft of recruits will lead to some growing pains. It's too early to say that Rodgers has forged any kind of real chemistry, especially when Sterling complains of being tired, Sturridge is injured, and Balotelli is, well, Balotelli, but we can hardly sneer at anyone who sits above us on the table. This is still a dizzingly disorganized lot, conceding a late equaliser at home to Everton and needing not one but two own-goals from QPR—the second in the fourth minute of stoppage-time—to claim a win at Loftus Road. Snicker if you want, but it's a reminder of the kind of pressure Liverpool can summon when their backs are up against it. If they can continue to build any kind of continuity, they may be poised to go on a run.
● Up next: Home against Real Madrid (UCL), home against Hull.

Man U
● Position: Sixth
● Record: 3W, 3D, 2L
● Points: 12 (50%)
● Form: DWLWWD
● Key matches: Man U 2-1 Everton
Much as we might love to lord it over Man U, they're now above us even if their 2-2 draw with West Brom is hardly the stuff of legend. Whereas Liverpool are offering a Spurs redux, Man U might be offering a Liverpudlian redux that consists of simply trying to outscore opponents (yes, I know that this is how one wins instead of loses, but I refer to silly scorelines: including the league cup, four of Man U's fixtures have ended with four goals or more being scored). It's a template that Liverpool rode almost all the way to the title a season ago. Like last season's Liverpool, Man U don't have any European distractions and are free to focus on the Prem. The offense they have, sporting the likes of Falcao, Di Maria, Mata, van Persie, and Rooney, cannot be written off. If they ever sort their defensive foibles, even slightly, they'll be well-positioned for a sustained run. Van Gaal's history also suggests that his squads' second halves are quite a bit better than their first, a warning well worth heeding.
● Up next: Chelsea.

Arsenal
● Position: Seventh
● Record: 2W, 5D, 1L
● Points: 11 (45.8%)
● Form: DDWDLD
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Arsenal 2-2 Man City, Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham, Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal.
For a team that can't win for trying, we're actually in a surprising position. There are only four teams with fewer wins, and only two teams with fewer losses. Our record is only one result different from 17th-place Sunderland, but we're only two points from fourth place. Eight matches is not yet enough to write us off, and it says something about the overall sorry state of things in the Prem that a team taking less than half the points on offer can still count itself as a contender. That won't persist for much longer, however. It's one thing to drop points against other top-four rivals, which we've done three times already; it's quite another to drop points against clubs expected to finish mid-table or lower, which we we've now done twice if not more. Is it an improvement to not get demolished at Stamford Bridge but to draw at home to Hull? Which result damages our confidence and position?We've opened the season with a difficult run of fixtures (including the Champions League qualifiers) in abysmal fashion and yet are still viable.
● Up next: at Anderlecht (UCL), at Sunderland.

Tottenham
● Position: Ninth
● Record: 3W, 2D, 3L
● Points: 11 (45.8%)
● Form: LDLDWL
● Key matches: Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool, Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham, Tottenham 1-0 Southampton, Man City 4-1 Tottenham.
Ah, sweet goal-differentials. Where would we be without you? Lower than Tottenham, for one. Still one of the weakest offenses in the Prem, they can now point to a missed spot-kick from Soldado as further evidence of ineptitude. At the other end, were it not for some superhuman performances from Lloris, Spurs might have slumped even further down the table. If he's not careful, he might play his way right on out of White Hart Lane. More to the point, it's worth considering that this is a squad in a second year of rebuilding, the first coming last season after the departure of Bale and arrival of so many new players, and the second coming through the arrival of Pochettino. If he can ever get this squad to settle in and perform to the same degree he did at Southampton, they'll start to serve notice. If current trends continue, they'll once finish no higher than fifth. We may be level with them on points, but it doesn't feel as if they're underachieving to the same degree...
● Up next: Asteras Tripolis (UEL), Newcastle

Everton
● Position: 13th
● Record: 2W, 3D, 3L
● Points: 9 (37.5%)
● Form: LWLDLW
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Everton 3-6 Chelsea, Liverpool 1-1 Everton, Man U 2-1 Everton.
Proving that they still have a hipster sensibility, Everton claimed a 3-0 win over Aston Villa, joining Arsenal and Chelsea an besting Man City in the process. However, despite keeping their second clean sheet of the season, they've still conceded more goals than anyone except QPR. Yes, they've had to deal with a fair number of injuries, especially on the back line, but you'll have to pardon me if I don't shed many tears. Even while admitting that their early season fixtures have been among the toughest, they've added in a few stinkers, such as a 3-0 loss to Swansea and 2-3 loss to Crystal Palace. As mentioned in previous posts, they seem to be struggling under the new mantle of "contender" when "Cinderella" seemed to suit them just fine. They're no longer sneaking up on anyone, and the supposed tactial nous of Roberto Martinez will be exposed to further scrutiny if he can't elevate the squad's performance.
● Up next: at Lille (UEL), at Burnley.

Phew. A bit longer than usual, what with accounting for Southampton's addition and continued inclusion of Everton. We're starting to m ove from short-term blips and hiccups into what might start to look like longer-term trends. While I do seriously doubt that Chelsea, Man City, and Southampton can continue to impress, if not intimidate, I do also worry that our Gunners will continue to flounder and frustrate. Injuries aside, we also suffer from an existential crisis brought on by an all-too-predictable plan of attack that opponents are all too happy to stymie and exploit. It might have been nice to see a few rivals stumble to their own middling or disappointing results, but the longer we rely on the likes of QPR, Crystal Palace, or West Brom to do us a favor, the longer we'll linger on the outskirts of the Prem. What good would it do us, after all, to see Chelsea or Liverpool draw if we do the same?