Nine games in, a quarter of the season gone and a semblance of order is being restored to the league table. The top five, separated by a point, have made themselves known and I would be surprised if, on the 22nd of May, the top four didn’t come from this group.
Usually you can cite early one or two teams that are bang on for top four, not so this time. All have strengths and weaknesses and they are separated by a thin margin. Starting at the top with City, Pep has them playing a more expansive game, but I remain unconvinced they have the personnel to achieve this. They have the deepest and most talented unit going forward, however, they are susceptible to teams, like Southampton last week, who press them high when they only play three at the back. Stones has a rare quality for an English defender; the ability to actually play football—but, he is vulnerable to the odd brain-freeze and the ongoing absence of Kompany alongside him, to compensate, is a concern. Lesser teams will target this weakness.
Arsenal will play their usual passing game, and they have almost everything they need to succeed, despite a poor show against Middlesbrough at the weekend and only just getting across the line against Swansea in the one before. They do have a tendency to make life difficult for themselves.
Perhaps another top quality striker would help, as Arsenal fans have been screaming out for one for a while now, but Wenger is a man who can pretend not to see or hear things and keep a straight face. Giroud lacks the pace to compliment his colleagues but he scores goals, and for now, Sanchez and Walcott have more than made up for his absence. My issue with Arsenal is that every season begins like this; in fact, their season often resembles a physical mountain, and the plateau reaches them right after December. They go up, lose their way and come back down again although I suspect this season might be different. But, how many times have we thought that?
West Brom are a tough nut to crack, I’d say a coconut to be precise. Only the right tools will suffice and when you do, hmmm. This is what Liverpool did to them last weekend that Spurs couldn’t the week before. It took a bit of magic ostensibly from a Coutinho dummy to make it 1-0. The significance of this is that if Liverpool can open up West Brom like they did, they can do that to anyone—and everyone knows it. Conte’s surprising pre-game admission of concern at what Liverpool were going to do to Chelsea, at Chelsea, mind you, in September, and not the reverse, is testament to this.
Liverpool’s Achilles’ heel has long been the ability to break down lesser teams but the improvement in Lallana and the addition of Mané has given them a new and comprehensive dimension. The fluidity, movement, running, inter-play and pressing contribute to an all-out attacking unit that is very difficult to defend against. They score from everywhere, but this is countered by long standing vulnerabilities at the back. Matip is an excellent addition in defence, but on the evidence so far, his positive contribution is negated by Karius who doesn’t look half the shot-stopper Mignolet was—but has all his worst attributes: failure to command his box and weakness at set-pieces. Klopp doesn’t appear overly concerned by this. Maybe he knows something we don’t.
I like Pochettino, as a man and a manager. Seeing him watching his young charges against Liverpool in the midweek EFL Cup was a good illustration of what he brings to Spurs: passion, energy, intelligence, and humility. He leads by example and where he goes, so do his players. Despite losing at Anfield his youth team ran a Liverpool team sprinkled with a handful of first-teamers ragged. Not many teams will be able to say that this season.
Tottenham’s high press is a joy to watch if you are into that sort of thing—and very successful too. Resolute in defence, Walker and Rose are surely the two most improved players of the last year or so; they have a sturdy spine and an abundance of imagination with Dele Alli, Son, Erikson, Lamela and Kane up front. Why they are struggling to score goals is a mystery. They have 13 so far compared to their rivals who’re at 19 or 20. Take away their 4-0 win at Stoke and it’d be roughly a goal a game. Clearly this has to improve but the meanness of their defence (only four conceded) is helping. The goal problem is surely a temporary issue, and so I would argue that the absence of the excellent Alderweireld will be a bigger miss than Kane, who is scheduled to return soon anyway.
Chelsea had a dreadful September but now they are finally beginning to resemble the team that won the title two seasons ago. Hazard is back to his best, Pedro too, Kante looks the business, and Costa is proving effective again—perhaps he needed a man more fiery than himself, Conte, to get him to buckle down and concentrate on scoring goals. Even the problem areas in defence have improved, noticeably with the change to a 3-4-3, however, pace at the back is a huge problem that Conte tried but failed to rectify pre-season. Cahill looks a weak link, Luiz is not the most disciplined, and Ivanovic looks past his best—in fact, Chelsea’s best work has been done in his absence. It must be noted too that whilst results in October have been good (0 goals conceded) they have been against inferior opposition. Against Arsenal and Liverpool they were torn to shreds, and so I would hesitate to make judgment until they come up against sterner opposition. The end of November looks a good time to re-assess when they play back to back games against Spurs(H) and City(A).
Of the chasing pack—Everton, Southampton and Manchester United, I feel it is only worth giving the latter a mention here, such is the strength of the current leaders. United seem to have found a winning combination with Ibrahimovic, Rashford and Mata up front against a reserve City side in midweek, and if they can properly integrate Pogba into this attacking unit they might have a chance at top four, but it will take a lot more in terms of results, performances and attitude for them to actually make it.
The stats for the top five are virtually identical so far in terms of points, games won, goals scored and conceded—all concerned have displayed the ability to win against inferior opposition. Unusually I think that this season will be decided by the head to heads between the big teams and as such, unless Conte can fix Chelsea’s defensive issues in the January window, they look the most vulnerable.