Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seven Teams, Four Places, One Trophy

Author’s Note:  This is my first post on Sam’s Match Reports, and my first ever blog entry about Arsenal.  I hope you all enjoy what I’ve written, and I look forward to writing a few more entries over the next few months.
At the beginning of the season Harry Redknapp, that pinnacle of footballing punditry, went on Match of the Day and said that Tottenham would finish ahead of Arsenal this season.  Of course I seem to remember he said the same thing last season, but after our dismal performance against Aston Villa, and in the absence of any major signings, it was hard to disagree with him, and agreeing with Harry Redknapp made me even more depressed.  After that first weekend of the season it seemed clear how the season was going to pan out: Chelsea would sweep to victory under the keen oversight of the reinstated Mourinho, the two Manchester clubs would bash it out for second and third, and Arsenal would struggle to make even the Europa League with Liverpool and Tottenham both brandishing a number of notable new signings.
Since then, however, things have changed.  After four games what looked like a foregone conclusion now looks far murkier, and the title race is not so much locked up as it is more open than it has been in years.  Given that, I thought I’d take this moment to look at the teams that Arsenal will be competing most closely with, and see how their seasons look in comparison to the Gunners.
As I said above, I assumed Chelsea would walk to victory this season.  Their defeat at Everton, however, means that they’ve had their worst opening to a season in the Abramovich era (although they’ve still taken seven points from twelve, so they’re not exactly doing badly).  Mourinho has brought his patented defend-first policy back to Stamford Bridge, but in his absence the Premier League teams have grown.  Aston Villa gave them a run for their money, United defended just as well as Chelsea, and Everton’s sheer hard work saw them grab a 1-0 victory against the odds.  On top of that Mourinho seems to have taken a bizarre dislike to Chelsea’s two-time player of the year, Juan Mata, and sent his most capable goal-scorer Romelu Lukaku out on loan.  I still think Chelsea have the strongest squad in the league, but Mourinho might find a Premier League title isn’t as easy to achieve as he remembers.
Manchester City
Arguably Manchester City made the most impressive, and certainly the most efficient, transfers of the window, bringing in Navas, Fernandinho, Negredo and Arsenal target Stevan Jovetic early in the summer.  Undeniably they have some real world-class talent in their squad, but as a team they haven’t looked on form since before the end of last season, losing the FA Cup to Wigan in June, losing to Arsenal in a pre-season friendly and, most recently, losing to newly promoted Cardiff.  They also have an injury situation to rival Arsenal’s, with defenders Clichy, Kompany and Richards and play-maker Silva all out of action.  If they get their players back to full fitness and in form then they could be odds-on to take the title, but at the moment new man Pellegrini has his work cut out getting his squad to gel.
Manchester United
I still can’t believe that United didn’t beat us to Mesut Özil in the transfer window.  Last year’s title winners, all they needed was a real creative number ten.  Instead they ended up with Marouane Fellaini (who, as a defensive CM, should arguably have been on Arsenal’s shopping list – maybe Moyes and Wenger just picked up the wrong shopping bags in Deadline-Day-Transfers-R-Us).  I watched United against Liverpool a couple of weeks ago.  Wayne Rooney was injured and Van Persie wasn’t his usual spectacular self, and out of their entire team only Patrice Evra showed any sign of creativity.  Their defence and attack are as good as – or better than – those of any other team in Europe, but their midfielders are solid rather than incisive.  I’ve spoken to more than one United fan who would be pleased with a top four finish this season.  Having said that, United have proved time and time again that you can never rule them out, so that may just be pessimism brought about by the loss of Ferguson.  We shall see.
Tottenham Hotspur
It pains me to say it, but Daniel Levy may be a business genius.  The way he handled the Gareth Bale scenario was inspired, and the players he has brought in are all established internationals, many of them with Champions League experience.  Christian Eriksen in particular impressed against Norwich this weekend, and their squad has a depth to make any Arsenal fan really quite envious.  Only up front are they a bit short, but as their midfield gel I think they won’t have any difficulty putting goals away.  They may have lost the most expensive player in the world but they’ve more than made up for it, and while a title challenge might be optimistic they can more than expect to be fighting for Champions League.
The surprise package this season, after finishing seventh last year Liverpool now sit at the top of the table.  I know we’re only four games in but ten points from twelve, which included a victory over Manchester United, is a not insignificant achievement.  Daniel Sturridge seems to finally have found his niche, Suarez is soon to be back on the football field with his appetite for both goals and human flesh (sorry, couldn’t resist), Coutinho is looking disturbingly talented and Brendan Rodgers has shored up his defence with several established figures, not least the mighty Kolo Toure.  Whether they can keep their form up all season remains to be seen, but they’ve had a better start than anyone would have given them credit for, and that’s worrying in itself.
Of all the teams on this list I think Everton have the least chance of mounting a title challenge, but they’re more than in the running for Champions League action.  Martinez is a newcomer to the top half of the table but I think he’s an excellent manager, and the sale of Fellaini was more than compensated for by the purchase of Gareth Barry, the loan of Romelu Lukaku and the retention of Leighton Baines.  Goodison Park has become something of a fortress in recent months, and I wouldn’t expect them to lose too many games there over the coming months.  If Martinez doesn’t take the Toffees to at least the Europa League, it’ll be a big disappointment for Everton.
So, where do we stand in all this?  Are we, as the increasingly melting face of Harry Redknapp suggested, at risk of missing out on the Champions League for the first time in 17 years?  Or has the signing of the best assister (is there a better word for that?) in Europe halted our collapse and signalled a Gunners resurgence?  Can Arsenal win the title?
Yes, to all those questions.  The fact is that the strengthening of the teams that finished last season below us, and the difficulties currently being experienced by the teams that finished above us, mean that instead of two teams challenging for the title this year there are actually six (not counting Everton: see above).  Chelsea are still favourites for me, but if at the end of this season the top four contains any combination, in any order, of the teams I’ve listed, then I won’t be too surprised.  A Spurs title where City don’t make the Champions League?  It’s definitely possible.  A United/Arsenal battle for fourth place?  Could be.  A Merseyside resurgence that sees Liverpool take the trophy and Everton claim second place?  It might happen.  All I know is that, with all seven teams listed above looking competitive and only four Champions League spots, someone – more than one someone – is going to lose out.  Could be us.  Could be anyone else.
All in all I think we’re in for the most open and interesting Premier League title race that we’ve seen for a long time, and I would be too surprised if it wasn’t determined by goal difference, injuries and plain dumb luck.
Which means Arsenal are screwed, of course.