After this weekend’s action every team in the league has played at least 10 games. Most clubs have played 11 matches and notably, Arsenal, City, and Villa still have a game in hand. Even with three title challengers having a game in hand, a bit of a clear picture has started to develop in the league as to who the real challengers are, who the pretenders are, and who the also-rans are. Let’s have a look.
Arsenal: Arsenal have played 10, won 7, drawn 1, and lost 2 for a total of 22 points. More importantly, Arsenal have also scored 32 times in the first 10 games for an average of 3.2 goals per game, which is leading the league by 4 goals over Chelsea — who have played one more game. Not just scoring bags of goals against relegation fodder, Arsenal have scored these goals against what many thought would be top competition at the start of the season — putting 6 past Everton and 3 by Tottenham. It’s a team which is custom built to score goals and while 100 goals in a season seems implausible (they’d have to average 2.7 per game) Arsenal have the best team to do it.
Just look at where they are getting their goals: Thomas Vermaelen has 4, Fabregas has 5 and van Persie already has 7. That’s just in the league, folks. Goals are pouring in from all over the pitch at the moment and as long as that happens the Arsenal must certainly be considered title challengers.
They are not without their problems, however. Arsenal have shown a tendency to fall asleep in matches this season and let their opponents score easy goals on them. If Everton, Pompey, and Blackburn all showed that weakness, it was Man U and (more painfully) Wet Hams which proved that despite their star Summer signing, Arsenal can be exploited at the back.
Where Arsenal most need to focus and pick up points is in their away form. Arsenal have allowed only 4 goals in 5 games at home on their way to a perfect 5-0-0 home record. On the road, they have allowed 9 goals in 5 games on their way to a 2-1-2 record. And while they have scored an amazing 20 goals at home, they have only scored 12 on the road — 6 of which came against Everton.
Verdict: Arsenal need to figure out a way to get more points on the road with either better defense, better offense, or a combination of both. Up next, Wolves at the Molineux, the perfect opportunity to get that record started. If they can learn to do better on the road, and they can find a replacement for Song in January, then they could have a chance at the league.
Chelsea: Press darlings Terry, Lampard and the two Coles are off to a roaring start to the season having played 11 games and amassing a league leading 9-0-2 record on 27 points. Ancelotti’s diamond system is playing right into Drogba’s hands to the tune of 9 goals already this season and the rest of the team is chipping in a few bob as they are second in the league with 28 goals scored. Moreover, Ancelotti inherited one of the best defenses in the league and has managed to actually make them stronger so far this season, as they have allowed a paltry 9 goals all year — only 1 of which has come at home.
Teams who come to play can sometimes get burned on the road and similar to Arsenal, Chelsea’s away record is a bit of a blight on their season. In 6 games they have allowed 7 goals on the way to a 4-0-2 record. It’s a bit scary that the worst thing I can say about Chelsea is that they have a bit of a poor away record.
The one thing they are going to have to worry about is the African Cup of Nations. The British press may be all atwitter about the “English spine” of this team but if you look at the performances, the actual spine of Chelsea is African. Drogba and Essien will be missed in January but fortunately (for them) Chelsea are playing Hull, Sunderland, Birmingham, and Burnley that month. Not exactly a massively challenging schedule.
Verdict: I hate to admit that they are the favorites to win the title, unless Drogba and Essien get injured. Anyone know a good witchdoctor?
Man U: I’ve watched a ton of Man U games and the thing that impresses me most is that they have that belief that comes from back-to-back title wins. So, despite their aging and foul prone back line, the fact that they are leaking goals at home, and the fact that they have 2 losses and 1 tie, only fools would count them out of the title race.
Verdict: I wondered at the start of the season where they planned on getting replacement goals for Ronaldo and Tevez, but it looks like they are just cobbling them together. Still, I think that Chelsea and Arsenal look much better and Man U will fall to 3rd amid a cloud of expletives from Ferguson.
Aston Villa: Have simply and quietly just gone about their business. This team is playing very well at the moment and have amassed a 5-3-2 record while allowing opponents a mere 9 goals, in 10 games.Their one weakness is that they are not scoring as many goals as a top club needs to score, having only found the net 14 times this season.
Verdict: It’s safe to say that they have recovered from the loss of Gareth Barry and that they will push teams this season. I also think that the hype of last year put a lot of weight on a young team’s shoulders and they seemed to collapse last last year. If they can start finding the net, maintain their defense, and stay under the radar, they could crack the top four.
Liverpool: Their current record is no blip. I pointed out at the start of the season that their defense looked like an adult diaper — old and leaky — and that they would find the loss of Alonso too much to bear despite my high regard for Lucas Levia. Worse still, they have been exposed as a team which needs Torres on the pitch for 90 minutes or they will have a tendency to collapse. Torres was out when Sunderland beat them and as soon as Torres was withdrawn against Fulham, the Liverpool lions suddenly lost all teeth.
Their home record isn’t bad, but what’s killing them is the 12 goals they have given up on the way to 4 away losses. That’s abysmal and proof that their reliance on one or two star players is going to cost them this season.
Verdict: Liverpool are right where they belong right now, 6th place with Villa level on points but with a game in hand. Liverpool will need to really pull deep to come back from this hole. Wednesday’s match away to Lyon will likely decide the season. If they lose, Rafa will probably get the axe, which will throw this club into a tailspin.
Man City: Off to a great start to the season, winning 4 matches in a row with the capstone being turning Arsenal over 4-2 at the Eastlands. Since then their record has been 1-4-1 and their star striker, the £25m pound Adebayor, has not managed to find the net even once.
There was never any doubt that City has amassed a team of talented mercenaries. What is in doubt is the attitude of those players. The bellicose Bellamy is playing well now but is only a pint and a 6 iron away from attacking his own teammates. Sated with City’s cash, Robinho has been looking at winning-er pastures and is, incredibly, basically demanding a trade to Barcelona in the papers. Adebayor is clearly more interested in Arsenal than City, with his weekly tirade against Arsenal and us fans finding the front page of every paper for several weeks running. And Tevez’ teammates are criticizing him in the papers for his lack of English — which I think is unfair but it does point out the mental state of that team.
Verdict: Manchester City are just one training room brawl away from implosion. However, if they can keep it together and find a way to fix their terrible away form, they have the talent to finish 5th or even 4th.
Sunderland: “Do not go gentle into that good night” should be Sunderland’s motto. A tough tackling team with two gigantic bruising strikers up front who strike terror in the hearts of grown men, Sunderland aren’t messing around and demand to be taken seriously. Summer signing and ubiquitous Arsenal target Lorik Cana has continued his form from l’OM and is currently tackling his way through the Premiership. In fact, I suspect he will be the first player in Premiership history to tackle every other player in the league.
Matching Cana’s 5 yellows already this season, Kenwynne Jones is on 5 goals, but the real surprise is that former Tottenham striker Darren Bent is on 8 goals. With Cana freeing up Lee Cattermole the midfield is providing steel and service to their big men. Do not take this team lightly.
Verdict: Will hard tackling and big men up front be enough? They have a couple of hard tests coming up in a home match against Arsenal and an away match to a wounded Spurs team. I don’t think they will break into the top 4 but they will likely get Europe and the reputation of being the team that no one wants to play.
Tottenham: If you had asked folks before Saturday’s North London derby they would have said that Tottenham looked like a team who would challenge for top 4 honors. After that match, the sentiment would certainly have changed.
I chalk that up to press hype: Lennon and Defoe have been outstanding this season and what with the British press always looking for England National team players on the rise they were getting a lot of column inches. What was not getting press was the 14 goals they had let in and the fact that their defense relies on Johnathan Woodgate, Ledly King, and Sebastien Bassong — three of the most overrated central defenders ever to sit in the treatment room.
Verdict: After the Arsenal destroyed them on Saturday, Tottenham have now let in 17 goals and Bassong came up injured. With that type of defense, coupled with the fact that they have only scored 21 goals, they look like a middle of the pack team rather than a top 4 contender.
Arsene Wenger said after our cracking start to the season we have to wait until the 10th game before we can assess how the season’s going. Is there anything he’s ever wrong about? Ok, Francis Jeffers, but that’s it!
These first 10 games have exposed teams’ weaknesses and shown their strengths. Wenger says that the race is wide open, but for me, it’s these next 10 games that the title race will really be decided. Can Arsenal shore up their away defense? Will Chelsea start to show some cracks in the armor? Can United bank on belief alone? What do we think of Tottenham? (Shit) How many more losses can Rafa Benitez endure? Will Villa creep up on everyone and steal their hubcaps?
10 more games and the picture will be clearer.