06 October 2014

Rivals' Wrap-up IV: Where do we stand in the Prem?

Any weekend that ends with an Arsenal loss is bound to be a tough one even if it stands as a marked improvement on the previous trip to the same stomping grounds that sent us to our worst defeat in living memory. Still, the weekend wasn't a complete loss as we got to see Arsène shove Mourinho not once but twice. Elsewhere, others could barely eke out their various results, with the most-confident one coming from Man City who saw off Aston Villa 0-2. I seem to remember going one better than that, for what it's worth. The chicken-littles of the world will point to the fact that we now sit eighth behind Man U, Tottenham, and West Ham (not to mention Southampton and Swansea). It's still early days, as they say. We're nine points off the pace, and we have an interlull in which to contemplate our fortune, destiny, fate, lot in life, etc. Let's get to the wrap-up (or is it run-down)?

Chelsea
● Position: First
● Record: 6W, 1D, 0L
● Points: 19 (90.4%)
● Form: WWWDWW
● Key matches: Everton 3-6 Chelsea, Man City 1-1 Chelsea, Chelsea 2-0
A 2-0 win over Arsenal on Sunday may not look as confident as the scoreline suggests, as a first-half penalty for Hazard and a late Costa goal accounted for all of the scoring, but it was otherwise rare for Chelsea to threaten. With only five shots on goal, it's hard to tell if Chelsea were parking the bus in classic, cynical Mourinhoian style or were just not quite up to it. It was their third match in nine days. Then again, so it was for us as well. Yes, on one hand, they won and to the casual observer it looks convincing—2-0 is, after all, a comfortable scoreline. We may not have threatened very often, but we did have a number of chances. We might even feel aggrieved that a call or two didn't go our way (red card for Cahill? handball on Cesc?). As it stands, Chelsea are clearly a cut (or more) above us, but even knowing the odds for a point or three were slim, I can live with the loss. For now.
● Up next: at Crystal Palace

Manchester City
● Position: 2nd
● Record: 4W, 2D, 1L
● Points: 14 (66.6%)
● Form: WLDDWW
● Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool, Arsenal 2-2 Man City, Man City 1-1 Chelsea
Man City continue their flat but consistent march, never quite impressing but never quite stumbling either. After a desultory 1-1 draw at home against Roma, City sleepwalked for 80 minutes before finally finding a way to score against Aston Villa, notching an 0-2 win that matches up pretty well as yardsticks go against Chelsea's 3-0 win over the same. I'd love to suggest that our 0-3 win at Villa Park goes one better, but there's just not enough in it to sustain the argument. After steamrolling their way to 102 goals last season, it feels easy to write off their current goal-scoring rate of "only" two goals per game. Still, despite having already dropped five points and looking flat and uninspired, they're still right where they want to be in the Prem—but they now have to think much harder about Champions League play, where they now sit third behind first-place Bayern, whom they have yet to play, and Roma, who sport a +4 goal differential while occupying second. Should they get knocked out of the group stage, will they suffer a crisis of confidence or a redoubled determination in the Prem?
● Up next: Tottenham

Manchester United
● Position: 4th
● Record: 3W, 2D, 2L
● Points: 11 (52.3%)
● Form: DDWLWW
● Key matches: Man U 2-1 Everton
Man U have, simply put, ridden the softest early-season schedule of any club likely to continue their challenge late into the season (with apologies again to Southampton and Swansea...). In their frst real test of the season, one that comes with an asterisk given that Everton have won but one Prem match to date, they have Leighton Baines to thank. Baines missed a penalty that would have made it 1-1, although Naismith, that dirty little Albino, did find the equalizer a few minutes later. De Gea was superb on the day, turning away Baines's penalty along with a number of other shots. Falcao's first-ever goal for Man U, celebrated as if it had won the Prem, FA Cup, and UCL in one fell swoop, vaults Man U to fourth place, which is sure to set tongues wagging about how Van Gaal finally has his ducks in a row.There might be something to that, or it may just be that they were facing an Everton squad left weary after a tough 1-1 tie with Russian side FC Krasnodar (located east of Ukraine and north of Georgia, for those unfamiliar with the club founded in 2008). In other words, yes, Man U have climbed into the top four, but they still have had a cakewalk compared to other would-be contenders.
● Up next: at West Brom

Tottenham
● Position: 6th
● Record: 3W, 2D, 2L
● Points: 11 (52.3%)
● Form: WLDLDW
● Key matches: Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool, Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham.
The unthinkable has happened. Tottenham are above Arsenal. Perhaps we've entered a negative spiral. Perhaps the Spuds have found a way to vanquish their superiors from the south? They did, after all, nick a point in the NLD, so maybe there's something to them. They are starting to show signs of something resembling competence, if not confidence. Then again, they're still scoring the fewest goals of anyone with aspirations of finishing in the top four. Their nine goals place them behind twelve other teams, a far-worse position when one considers that almost half (four, to be more precise) came against hapless QPR who have conceded fifteen goals already. Both Spuds and Saints had other, gilt-edged chances that they wasted or saw saved, but in the end Pochettino got the better of his former club. Whether this suggests that the squad are starting to understand his methods remains to be seen.
● Up next: at Man City.

Arsenal
● Position: Eighth
● Record: 2W, 4D, 1L
● Points: 10 (47.6%)
● Form: DDDWDL
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Arsenal 2-2 Man City, Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham, Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal.
This is Arsenal's second-worst start under Arsene, the first being 2011-12. We finished third that season, for what it's worth. Despite looking very vapid at times, struggling to put forth any consistency or perform to anything to match our hopes or expectations, this is our first loss in the Prem and second loss overall—both by identical 2-0 scorelines. I won't waste a great deal of time on moral victories, but this might count as one. Despite playing lacklustre football (except against Villa and Gala), we held our own against a Chelsea side that is clearly a cut above us on paper and on the pitch. However, as referenced above, they needed a penalty from Hazard to get going, and we very nearly equalized when Wilshere was through on goal but squandered it with a heavy first touch. By the time Fabregas found Costa for the second goal, it would be easy to throw our hands up and rue our misfortunes. However, we held our own. Not good enough, of course, for our aspirations, but good enough to suggest that there's still some fight in us despite this standing eight-count and the raft of injuries we've suffered to date.
● Up next: Hull

Liverpool
● Position: Ninth
● Record: 3W, 1D, 3L
● Points: 10 (47.6%)
● Form: LWLLDW
● Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool, Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool, Liverpool 1-1 Everton.
Liverpool scored goals either side of halftime to eke out a win at home over West Brom, their first win in four matches. That sputtering offense just can't get on track. Even newly-promoted Hull and Leicester have outscored them. Balotelli has more yellow cards than goals (when one has zero goals, there is a long list of what they have more of), and Rodgers's struggle to integrate all of his new signings shows no signs of lessening. It was just over a week ago that Rodgers called his squad a little bit broken. I don't think that such a tetchy win does much to change that. Their midweek loss at FC Basel is their second unconvincing result, leaving them, like Man City, sitting third. Their uneven form in both the Prem and UCL suggest that they don't yet have the mettle or cohesion to compete on both fronts. We knew that they would struggle to score without Suarez, to integrate so many new signings, and to cope with the rigors of Champions League fixtures, but will crashing out of the Champions League allow them to turn things around in the Prem?
● Up next: at QPR

Everton
● Position: Seventeenth
● Record: 1W, 3D, 3L
● Points: 6 (28.6%)
● Form: DLWLDL
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Everton 3-6 Arsenal, Liverpool 1-1 Everton, Man U 2-1 Everton.
One win. One measly, stinkin' win in the Prem to date. That, and 16 goals conceded, worst in the Prem. What's happening at Goodison Park? The momentum from last week's stirring, last-gasp equaliser at Anfield has been squandered thanks in part to a stellar performance from de Gea. It's only seven games gone, but at the same time Everton are now two points from the drop-zone and the season's almost one-fifth gone (18.42% for those keeping score at home). If Martinez can't right this ship, it may just sink under the weight of its own expectations. Have rivals figured out how to negate Everton's style? Does Lukaku still play for Everton? Has someone replaced Howard with a doppelgänger? They have two weeks to find answers to these and other questions before I have to drop them from the list. I suspect that the Saints and Swans would greet that with an exasperated sigh.
● Up next: Aston Villa

You'll usually find what you're looking for. In this case, our current lot has something for everyone. We're off to a terrible start. We're off the pace. We can't win the big games. On the other hand, we've suffered a litany of injuries that seems to laugh at last season's trauma unit—and Diaby is fit. Talk about irony. We're playing indifferent football, punctuated by bursts of adrenaline and moments of glory, but no sustained periods of excellence. Despite this being our second-ever worst start under Arsène, and despite Chelsea's scintillating form, we're not out of it yet. Call me crazy, but we'll find some kind of rhythm and make up for lost time. Along the way, Chelsea will stumble, as will City. Don't let our first loss of the season get you down.