As activities go, anointing Premier League champions in October is a particularly pointless one. History would suggest it is especially pointless when said anointed champs are Chelsea and when November (the most dreaded of all months) hasn’t even happened yet. And yet, this is exactly what people are doing. The sad thing is that they’re only partly doing it for good reasons though i.e. the fact that we’ve looked exceptionally well-organised, well balanced, powerful, varied and confident in almost all of our performances so far. The truth is that, perhaps even for the most part, people have already given the league title to Chelsea because everybody else, quite simply, looks crap.
Last season saw an unprecedented amount of change at the top of the division. Four of the top seven clubs changed their manager and predictably, the standard wasn’t always great, but the expectation was always that next season, after a year of transition/consolidation, the best teams would come back stronger and make the 2014/15 season a brilliantly competitive affair. Things are rarely so simple in football though and a brief look at each of our rivals will reveal how the exact opposite has come to pass.
Manchester City – As Manuel Pellegrini himself admitted this week, his team are ‘in trouble’. They’re certainly on the verge of trouble at any rate, with issues plainly evident all over the pitch. Over the course of their last three fixtures, the current league holders have conspired to throw away a two goal lead against CSKA in the Champions league, suffer defeat to West Ham in the league and crash out of the League Cup to Newcastle –the most dysfunctional club in division by a mile at the moment. The telling signs of side beginning to struggle are clear in City’s performances at the moment. Poor individual mistakes are costing them goals. Eliaquim Mangala is starting to look vastly overpriced, with neither the pace, nor the intelligence to play centre half at this level. Whilst in attack as well, they are not moving the ball as quickly as they used to, with Yaya Toure just looking disinterested, and Fernando (as of yet) failing to supply the solidity in midfield it was hoped he would bring.
The most worrying thing for City fans at this point, must be that there is no obvious excuse for these problems to comfort them. The manager and the squad are experienced, there are no real injury concerns, and their summer signings were certainly made early on enough in the window. There is no reason for the lack of cohesion which we’re witnessing at the moment, which just may possibly be indicative of a deeper malaise within the squad (one can only hope). It’s worth bearing in mind they had similar problems at the beginning of last season which they were able to overcome and they may well do so again. They better do it quickly though, before we are completely out of sight.
Liverpool – In contrast, unlike Man City not only are Liverpool’s problems unsurprising, but they were to a large degree predictable. Most are now beginning to realise just how drastically Brendan Rodgers’ side overachieved towards the end of the last season. And now, with Suarez gone, Champions League fixtures to negotiate, and many new signings to accommodate for, things aren’t going quite so smoothly.
Mario Balotelli’s signing has been an almost wholly unsuccessful one so far, with the Italian largely incompatible with the manager’s methods and in poor scoring form; the extent to which the striker is being solely blamed for his team’s results however is ridiculous. The defence continues to look poor in almost every game, in front of an average goalkeeper whom they plainly do not trust. Steven Gerrard has also become too easily targeted and marked out of games in his deeper midfield role, and yet this is where his team need him to play, as evidenced by their hardly-deserved victory at QPR, where he had to retreat from a more advanced position. Other new signings like Adam Lallana, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic are all playing without any clear role at the moment also as they come in and out of the side. Only Rickie Lambert knows where he stands – on the bench.
Arsenal: Arsene Wenger’s tetchy reaction to a BBC reporter asking him if he now holds any regrets, in hindsight, over his summer transfer business, tells you all you need to know about Arsenal’s season so far. How the Frenchman expected to make any tangible progress in the league with Calum Chambers (a 19 year old) and Nacho Monreal (an average full-back) as his third and fourth choice senior centre halves, only he must know. How he expects to win anything with Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini as his only defence minded midfielders, is just as much of a mystery.
The Gunner’s annual injury crisis has struck earlier than usual this year and has left them with problems across the pitch. Mesut Ozil’s misery was continuing with no end in sight before he was ruled out until Christmas, while Jack Wilshere allowed his professional commitment to be questioned once again over the summer and Santi Cazorla continuously fails to find the form of his debut season. The only real positives so far have been new front men Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, whose goals are the only things saving Arsenal from disaster at the moment.
Manchester Utd: The fact that Louis Van Gaal is currently worse off, points-wise, than David Moyes was at this stage last season (and having spent considerably more cash) doesn’t quite tell whole story, but is still a pretty damning revelation. The Dutchman has at least made key areas and opportunities for improvement clear to see, he’s also brought a much needed aura of credibility back to the club. His side’s draw against us shows that their days of being embarrassed in home matches are probably over. They remain however, still clearly unbalanced, with no clear system, and without the defensive qualities to be a tactically reactive team. The players and the manager are too good and their financial strength is too great for them not become serious challengers in short term. But they are comfortably too far off to worry about this year
Weekend Preview: In light of the above, this weekend represents another opportunity then to intensify our grip on first place. It’s typical QPR should finally find some form right before the derby, but they still shouldn’t pose a problem. Before Mondays win, Harry Redknapp was favourite for the sack and for good reason, his team have been dire all season. Rio Ferdinand finds himself rather ridiculously suspended for calling the mother of a critic a “sket” on social media. Fortunately his likely replacement, Richard Dunne is almost equally as cumbersome and useless at the back. Both of QPR’s full backs are both extremely attacking also and offer little support, and while their midfield is better than results suggest, it is of course, a million miles from the standard held by their counterparts on Saturday. Cesar Azpilicueta will serve the final game of his suspension, whilst Willian & Eden Hazard are both set to return after a pair of abysmal performances from Mohamed Salah and Andre Schurrle in mid-week. Diego Costa should return also for the first time since the international break. Ideally the Spaniard would have been rested again but with Remy out and Drogba in need of a rest also, he may have to be drafted in.
CFC Team: Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Filipe Luis, Matic, Cesc, Oscar, Willian, Hazard, Costa
QPR Team: Green, Isla, Dunne, Caulker, Yun, Sandro, Henry, Fer, Phillips, Vargas, Austin
Victory on Saturday will then set up Sunday’s headline fixture very nicely as City & United go into the game 9 and 13 points behind respectively. United will enjoy the role of underdogs as they did against us, knowing they have the talent to beat anyone on their day, whilst for City (who are without David Silva), failure to win could mean catastrophe, serious questions will be asked and the pressure will begin to snowball, and we will begin to look a very long way off indeed.
League Cup: On a side note to finish – weren’t we awful on Tuesday? As Giles Smith pointed out in his Thursday Thoughts Column, all of the potential ‘banana-skins’ were there – poor pitch, lashing rain, huge and raucous home support – but still, the lack of technical quality on show was appalling and Mourinho’s not so subtle criticism of Salah and Schurrle was much deserved- who must have played themselves out of first team contention at least until after the November International break.
The rest of the results leave Tottenham and Liverpool as our biggest remaining competition, but first we’ll need to get past Derby County in December – who are comfortably one of the best sides in the Championship and are deserved favourites for promotion. It won’t be an easy fixture, as it wasn’t necessarily in the FA Cup last year, and most likely will come to down to how seriously each manager takes the tie. Should we manage to hold on to a substantial league lead, hopefully Mourinho will take it as seriously as he always has done and we can reach our second semi-final in three years, where, with any luck, there won’t be any ridiculous ball boy related controversy this time around.