25 October 2015

Rivals' Rundown: The Mourinho Melt-down and Arsenal's ascendancy...

We're back. Finally, it seems, my unbridled joy at seeing Chelsea suffer, Liverpool languish, and Tottenham put on its bravest face has trumped my sloth and indolence. We're coming up on a third of the season gone, and the trends are starting to emerge. Yes, there are upstarts—can West Ham, Leicester, or Crystal Palace sustain their early-season form? Perhaps more pertinently, can Tottenham, Liverpool, or Chelsea (yes, even Chelsea...) find the kind of form that would enable them to climb back into the top four? These and other questions remain to be answered. Arsenal were briefly alone atop the league and will share the position with the always-generous Man City for the time being. Let's get into the nitty-gritty, at least as it stands after ten matches...

Man City
● Position: 1st 
● Record: 7W, 1D, 2L
● Points: 22/30 (73.3%)
● Form: LLWWD
● Key matches: Man City 3-0 Chelsea, Man U 0-0 Man City
● Last match: Man U 0-0 Man City, Man U 0-0 Man City
Man City went into Old Trafford bound and determined not to lose, an oddly Mourinhoian strategy for a squad whose usual mode is to try to score and score again—damn the torpedoes and all of that—but nary a shot was put on target for either side until the 82nd minute, suggesting a timidity unbecoming of a starting lineup that, by some estimates, is worth more than the GDP of a fair few independent countries (157 of them, give or take…). Then again, tactical shrewdness has rarely been necessary when one can summon a blitzkrieg on the order that Pellegrini can. City left with a valuable point, although one wonders whether this belies their own fragility or Man U’s latent powers. Injuries to Silva and Agüero slowed them, to be sure, but this is not a squad that intimidates to the same degrees that it has in recent seasons…
● Next match: vs. Crystal Palace (League Cup), vs. Norwich (Prem).

Arsenal
● Position: 2nd 
● Record: 7W, 1D, 2L
● Points: 22/ 30 (73.3%)
● Form: WLWWWW
● Key matches: Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool, Mike Dean 2-0 Arsenal, Tottenham 1-2 Arsenal
● Last match: Arsenal 2-1 Everton
So. Here we are, level with mighty Man City, with just over a quarter of the season gone. In past seasons, we’ve lamented either (a) a woefully slow start, or (b) a midseason stumble. So far, we’re on the latter course. Despite some early-season sluggishness, we find ourselves neck-and-neck with the putative favorites—and it might just seem as if we’re finding a groove. A midweek win over Bayern, followed by Saturday’s win over Everton, suggests that Arsène and his squad are finding ways to win that belie the Arsenal stereotype. Against Bayern, we held just 27% possession yet slayed one of Europe’s behemoths; against Everton, we seized a more-familiar 56% possession and saw off a feisty underdog. Özil is currently best in Prem history in games per assist (2.71), and only Agüero has scored more goals than Giroud has in the last three seasons. Something tells me that we’re only now starting to sense our strength.
● Next match: at Sheffield Wednesday (League Cup), at Swansea (Prem).

Manchester United
● Position: 3rd  
● Record: 6W, 2D, 2L
● Points: 20/ 30 (66.7%)
● Form: WWWLWD
● Key matches: Man U 3-1 Liverpool, Arsenal 3-0 Man U, Man U 0-0 Man City.
● Last match: Man U 0-0 Man City.
(With apologies to West Ham—may the everlasting light of Heaven shine upon you after defeating Chelsea…). Sneer all you want at Man U’s dour draw against Man City; it was a well-earned draw for an outspent and overmatched squad whose pluck and guile—oh. Turns out that the home side could scarcely be bothered to play, by all appearances settling in to salvage a point instead of seeking to send a signal of intent to their little brother who’s outgrown them. Instead of putting all of that summer spending to good use, or proving his tactical *nous* to good use, it seems that Van Gaal was content to play out the full 90 without going for the full monty. The result is enough to keep them in the top four, but that might be just as much a result of Chelsea’s collapse or Liverpool’s indifference as it is an outcome of Man U’s intent. Still, it might be enough to provide a confidence-boost going forward…
● Next match: vs. Middlesbrough (League Cup), at Crystal Palace (Prem).

Chelsea (apologies to no fewer than twelve other clubs…mmmaybe 11…)
● Position: 15th  
● Record: 3W, 2D, 5L
● Points: 11/ 30 (36.7%)
● Form: LWDLWL
● Key matches: Man City 3-0 Chelsea, Mike Dean 2-0 Arsenal
● Last match: West Ham 2-1 Chelsea
Far be it from me to indulge in anything remotely resembling petty *schadenfreude*, but what the hell is going on over at Stamford Bridge? I’d say that the wheels are coming off, but that would imply a vehicle willing or capable of some kind of forward motion, and we all know that ain’t Chelsea. No style. No discipline. No desire.  It’s as if players start to resent a manager’s micro-managing, passive-aggressive bullying and start to sabotage the entire endeavor. This is, after all, the same squad that won the Prem rather comfortably a season ago. The idea that Mourinho is playing some massive mind-game, playing possum in the first half in order to strike in the second, is fading fast. It’s almost as if having an atrocious abomination of a personality somehow backfires after, I don’t know, two or three seasons. Just spitballin’ there.  However, let’s not overlook a cornered cobra. 
● Next match:  at Stoke (League Cup), vs. Liverpool (Prem).

After all, there are still 28 matches left, and anything can happen. For example, West Ham, Leicester, or Crystal Palace could prove that they’re in it for the long haul. Jürgen Klopp could show that he can lead Liverpool to something other than a draw. Tottenham could show that they can score more than two goals against someone other than Bournemouth (cough). Yours truly could find that one link that would allow him to jazz up this post with club’s badges and so on. In other words, *any*thing could happen.