Premier League Review: Three, plus one, plus one
For all the blustering talk in the media, professional football remains a game of fine margins. The Premier League has new leaders this weekend after those at the top of the table played out a series of matches which demonstrated why calling the identity of this season’s champions before Christmas feels like something of a fool’s errand. Chelsea now lead the way following a one-nil win at Middlesbrough with a performance that seldom sparkled but a result that never seemed in doubt. Antonio Conte spent much of his post-match interrogations seeking to undermine the understandable conclusion that six consecutive wins in the league offers proof that his shuffling of the Stamford Bridge playing pack has struck upon a formula that may well return the league title the following spring. The fact that he had to take time out to say this in the first place, of course, somewhat undermines this, but it’s not a bad problem for any manager to have.
In contrast with this, the ghosts of Christmas past that represent the confident pre-season predictions that Manchester United would be reclaiming their apparently “rightful” place at or near the top of the table this season continue to wither away. Their one-all draw against Arsenal was brought to life midway through the second half with a goal from Juan Mata, but Olivier Giroud’s header a couple of minutes from time rescued a point for Arsenal. After the match, of course, Jose Mourinho – who apparently remains blissfully unaware of the fact that great teams don’t usually need to be dependent on the benevolence of referees to win trophies – was predictably glum, particularly with reference to the penalty kick that never was which followed Nacho Monreal grappling with Antonio Valencia, but his description of his team as “the unluckiest in the Premier League” does rather seem to overlook the fact that his expensively-assembled team has now failed to beat Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal in the league so far this season. And still less does it explain his team’s ongoing soporific football. A match for the ages, this was not.
A quirk of the fixture list meant that the top two were both in action at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, which felt unusual. Liverpool stayed top of the table on goals scored from Manchester City after only managing a goalless draw at Southampton, the less said about which the better, whilst Manchester City squeaked to a narrow win against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park thanks to two goals from the lavishly gifted but more than occasionally wrong-headed Yaya Toure, whose two goals were enough to ensure that, by five o’clock, Liverpool only led the table on goals scored. Toure’s return was enough to condemn Crystal Palace to a fifth successive defeat and a spot one point above the relegation places again. Rumours of a post-Palace career for manager Alan Pardew at Alton Towers remain unconfirmed.
The remainder of the three o’clock kick offs concerned issues elsewhere in the table. At the bottom, Swansea City showed brief signs of life with a one-all draw at Everton. They’re still looking for their first win under new coach Bob Bradley and the rumbles of discontent at The Liberty Stadium are continuing to swell, but this performance felt like a corner turned in comparison with others. Everton, meanwhile, will definitely consider this to have been two points dropped. Manchester United had sneaked ahead of them into sixth place in the table by a point with their draw against Arsenal. Everton’s failure to beat Swansea means that they stay there on goal difference. See, Jose? Perhaps every cloud does have a silver lining, no matter how thin that lining may feel, at times. In the other mid-table match of the afternoon, Bournemouth lifted themselves into the top half of the table with a narrow win at Stoke City, for whom a loss to a first half goal from Nathan Ake was a first league defeat in more than two months.
And then there’s the bottom of the table, where, as regular as clockwork and making a mockery of all those autumnal obituaries, Sunderland are stirring to life. Their three-nil win against Hull City lifted them above Swansea, although it is starting to look as though Hull will be the most likely team of all to be occupying bottom place in the fullness of time. Jermain Defoe gave Sunderland a first half lead, but it was the performance of Victor Anichebe which impressed the most. He’s turning out to be demonstrating just the return to form that David Moyes must have spent many, many hours praying for over the last few weeks or so. This match was briefly interrupted by a floodlight failure, a phenomenon which often brings about the conspiracy theorists these days, but on this occasion the delay on prolonged an inevitable outcome. Sunderland are back in touch with the others at the bottom of the table, and two of their next three matches are against Leicester City and Swansea City. The obituaries for their season may have been written a little too hastily.
Talking of obituaries, we probably need to talk about Leicester City’s Premier League season, so far. It always felt somewhat fanciful to talk about this season as being a title defence in any meaningful sense. The past has shown us that surprise title winners – Blackburn Rovers in 1995, Leeds United in 1992, or Ipswich Town in 1962, for example – have a tendency to get found out during the season following their success, whether through opponents picking apart the secrets of their success or through a sense of complacency or whatever, but the unravelling of Leicester’s season is turning into something more severe than most had predicted. It took Watford just thirty-three seconds to score against them at Vicarage Road on Saturday, a result that left them in fourteenth place in the table and just two points above the relegation places. Is the Champions League proving to be too much of a distraction for Claudio Ranieri’s team? Possibly, although this alone doesn’t feel like enough of an explanation for their return to par so far this season in the Premier League. What we are starting to see with a degree of certainty is that last season was almost certainly their exception rather than a rule. Watford, meanwhile, continue to quietly impress.
The other team most significantly involved in last season’s title tete-a-tete, meanwhile, stirred to life at a point at which they needed to more than ever. Tottenham Hotspur’s late, late show against West Ham United on Saturday afternoon had several of the hallmarks of a cartoon escapade about it. The local rivalry, the star striker returning from a lengthy injury, the first goal for another rising star, a late equaliser and stoppage-time winner all might have previously appeared in the pages of Roy Of The Rovers, but the reality of a Spurs win that equalled a club record of unbeaten matches from the start of a season set in their double-winning 1960/61 season is that Harry Kane’s late and dramatic intervention masked a tetchy Spurs performance. They stay fifth and have opened a little gap between themselves and Manchester United, but recent form has only suggested a place on the outskirts of the title race. West Ham United, meanwhile, continue to labour just above the relegation places despite recent improvement.
You can support independent football writing here on 200% by subscribing with us through Patreon.