Premier League Review: Of Mice & Footballers
The last week or so has brought about considerable media excitement at the prospect of a tightest Premier League title race for years. With a solitary point separating the top five clubs, the ultimate hope of the media and broadcasters – that a spread of “big” clubs: none of those upstarts like Leicester City, thank you very much – would be jostling for position like horses approaching the first fence of the Grand National has started to feel as though it might just come true. Four of those five clubs won at the weekend, and three of them scored four goals each. And whilst it is a little too soon to be suggesting that anyone below the top four is out of the running before October has quite finished, it’s beginning to feel as though the pattern of the winter may be starting to truly manifest itself.
This all began on Saturday lunchtime with Arsenal’s trip to Wearside. Arsenal have sparkled so far this season in a manner which suggests that Arsene Wenger might finally have found the right mix for his team’s title challenge to amount to more than a combination of fleeting fancy and wishful thinking. His team feels more fluid and – critically – more ruthless than in recent years, and it feels as though the longer they spend at or near the top of the table, the greater their confidence will grow. For all of this, though, Sunderland only provided opposition sporadically at The Stadium of Light. Every performance seems to further reinforce the now permanently gloomy expression on David Moyes’ face, and it’s not difficult to see how this Sunderland team has already broken the club record for its worst ever start to a season. They’re already starting to look hopelessly adrift at the bottom of the table.
It was an afternoon of contrasting fortunes for Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, once three o’clock came around. It would be a stretch to think that Manchester City were approaching any sort of “crisis”, even though recent result could hardly have been said to have gone to plan. The return of Sergio Aguero, however, was enough of a catalyst for them to put four goals past West Bromwich Albion without reply and leave Arsenal’s stay at the top of the table as having been extremely fleeting indeed. Tottenham Hotspur, on the other hand, had a frustrating afternoon against Leicester City at White Hart Lane, with an uncharacteristic error from Victor Wanyama – who has arguably been their player of the season, so far – gifting Leicester an equaliser after a Vincent Janssen penalty kick had given Spurs the lead shortly before half-time. Spurs’ defence seems capable of winning the Premier League this season. Perhaps the return of Harry Kane will fix their issues at the other end of the pitch. It’s a lot of hope to rest upon the shoulders of one player returning after a lengthy lay-off, though.
The other two clubs in the weekend’s chasing pack were both subjected to live television broadcasting, with similar end results but somewhat different means of getting there. Liverpool’s win at Crystal Palace on Saturday evening maintained the feeling that, if nothing else, Jurgen Klopp’s team will be entertaining this season. Pegged back twice by the home side after having taken the lead, they led three-two by half-time and eventually extended their lead to two goals, but Klopp will surely be a little troubled by the defensive profligacy shown by his team in that first forty-five minutes at Selhurst Park. Chelsea, on the other hand, were clinical, effective and professional in disposing on Southampton in Sunday afternoon’s late match. St Mary’s Stadium is one of the more challenging grounds that any Premier League manager has to negotiate over the course of a season, but Antonio Conte’s team scored early, controlled effectively, and killed the game off in the second half with a quite wonderful curling shot from Diego Costa.
Sunday’s other match saw Everton continue to keep their faces pressed against the glass ceiling that marks Champions League qualification with a two-nil win against Everton at Goodison Park. Considering the strength demonstrated by the teams above them in the table so far this season, whether Ronald Koeman’s team can burst through this glass ceiling remains highly questionable, but this at least was a comfortable three points won against a West Ham team that struggled to get into the gear required to effectively chase the game once they’d fallen behind. It was a frustrating afternoon for Slaven Bilic, whose team’s pull clear of the relegation places continues to be very much stop-start in its nature.
There are always headlines to be written about Manchester United these days, even when there is little tangible to speak of. On Saturday afternoon, they were held to a goalless draw at home by a dogged and resilient Burnley side, for whom goalkeeper Tom Heaton played a starring role. Whilst United’s players continue to be ponderous and off-colour, though, all eyes continue to be trained upon the now apparently perpetually grumpy Jose Mourinho, who was sent to the stands as his team fired blanks before him. It is, of course, still early days in terms of this season, but the unqualified successes of Mourinho’s time at Old Trafford are looking increasingly thin on the ground. Manchester United remain one of the Premier League’s more patient clubs when it comes to the hiring and firing of managers, so the likelihood is that this is a story that will run and run, but it’s difficult to put a positive spin on being eight points from the top of the table with just ten games of the season having been played. Burnley, meanwhile, remain obstinate opposition for whoever comes across them.
One place above Manchester United in the Premier League table sit Watford, who completed an unbeaten October with a narrow win against Hull City at Vicarage Road. They required an own goal eight minutes from time, deflected in by Hull’s Michael Dawson, to secure the win, which also happened to be Hull’s seventh in their last eight matches. After having started the season with two slightly surprising wins, Hull are now apparently sliding towards relegation in the manner predicted of them before the start of the season. What’s curious about the goings-on at the club of late is that protests around the KCom Stadium have been somewhat muted in comparison with those taking place elsewhere. It’s possible that, after several seasons of angry stand-off between the club’s supporters and owners, apathy has set in on the part of the fans.
One other team that had been sliding in a downward direction since the start of the season, however, did enjoy a win at the weekend. Middlesbrough’s two-nil win against Bournemouth was their first home win of the season and followed on from the improvement shown at The Emirates Stadium in grabbing a goalless draw against Arsenal last weekend. Sunderland’s showing against Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime showed how difficult keeping Arsenal to firing blanks is at the moment. But then again, if there’s one thing that we know with a degree of certainty about this year’s Premier League, it’s that there is no-one quite like Sunderland. And that’s not meant as a compliment to David Moyes’ team. Sunderland haven’t so much fallen at the first fence, as got lost on the way to the starting line.
You can support independent football writing and grab a free copy of our monthly e-magazine, which is released on Wednesday, by supporting Twohundredpercent on Patreon.