With seven games gone, Mark Holmes rates last season’s top six – Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool.
Readers of a certain age will remember the days when league tables were not even printed in newspapers for the opening few weeks of the season, so meaningless were they judged.
Never has patience among supporters been more thin than now, however, with managers under immediate pressure to deliver positive performances and results, irrespective of how big an overhaul their squad might have gone over the summer. Every club in the Premier League is spending more money than ever before – and every set of supporters are expecting very early signs that it has been spent well.
In the media, meanwhile, analysis has taken over from reportage. It is no longer enough for a journalist to merely report on the events of the day; now he or she must declare five things they have learned from a game, no matter how early on in the season it may be, and regardless of how enlightening – or not – the 90 minutes may have been.
It has all helped create a situation whereby players are hailed as superstars or written off as flops within a matter of weeks, managers are deemed ‘under pressure’ after more than a couple of games without a win, and clubs are declared title contenders or also-rans by the end of August.
Now seven games into the new season, what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from the performances of last season’s top six?
Incredibly, last season’s champions are down in 15th with only eight points but three defeats already to their name. Chelsea comfortably overcame their first hurdle in the Capital One Cup in midweek and were also the only one of England’s four representatives to open with a win in the Champions League, but their only wins in the Premier League have come against West Brom and nine-man Arsenal. Clearly, they have experienced some problems.
As for why that is, it’s more or less unfathomable. Jose Mourinho retained all of the side which won the title so comfortably last season and added to it with a marquee signing in the shape of Pedro from Barcelona. They also adequately replaced the departing back-up players Petr Cech and Didier Drogba with Asmir Begovic and Radamel Falcao. Going into the new campaign, they were most people’s tips to win the league for a second successive season.
However, if little was read into their Community Shield defeat to Arsenal, questions were certainly being asked of the Blues after they were held to a 2-2 draw at home by Swansea City and then suffered a humbling 3-0 defeat at Manchester City in which Begovic was their best player.
Conceding two in a victory at West Brom hardly eased concerns about the Blues’ defence. In fact, Arsenal and their nine men are the only side not to score at least twice past the champions in a Premier League game this season. Crystal Palace, Everton and second-bottom Newcastle have all managed it.
At the other end, Pedro’s lack of consistency is understandable as he settles into a new team in a new country, but questions are certainly justified as to why so many Chelsea players have suffered a dip in form – Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic, Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry in particular have all looked like pale imitations of their former selves.
Did Mourinho fail to spot the decline in some of his stars? Should he have strengthened more over the summer? Are the Portuguese’s tactics to blame? Or are Terry, Ivanovic, Fabregas and co. simply suffering a temporarily loss of form? Plenty will try but, seven games in, it’s still too early to answer those questions. Verdict: Weaker, but it’s too early to say why
‘All of a sudden, we are starting to ask the same questions about Manchester City that we did last season.’ So says Alan Shearer in The Sun. ‘They don’t seem capable of winning ugly this season,’ he adds. If ever you needed an example of knee-jerk journalism, this is it.
Last season’s runners-up began the season in sensational form, winning all five of their first Premier League games without even conceding a goal. City acknowledged they under-performed last season and have looked re-energised and refocused, while Manuel Pellegrini has vastly improved the quality and strength of his squad with the purchases of Nicolas Otamendi, Fabian Delph, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne.
Six goals conceded in Vincent Kompany’s absence against West Ham and Tottenham raises questions about their ability to cope with the absence of certain key players, but City were without Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Eliaquim Mangala, Fabian Delph, David Silva and Wilfried Bony as well as Kompany at White Hart Lane. Yaya Toure was also withdrawn early with an injury.
If City had suffered the defeats in the absence of only one or two of the above, perhaps there would be cause for concern. In reality, however, they are simply suffering some terrible luck on the injury front right now and are still, quite comfortably, the outstanding team in the league once everybody is fit. Verdict: Significantly stronger
Third last season and fourth now, Arsenal look no more likely than ever before to surrender their place in the Champions League. But whether they look any more capable of challenging for the title is another question altogether.
In truth, Arsenal are doing exactly what everybody expected them to after signing only Petr Cech over the summer. They have not had to endure any sort of transitional period and so have started the season reasonably well – but not well enough to suggest they are any closer to ending their wait for a first Premier League title since 2004.
“I believe part of the success is the level of cohesion,” Arsene Wenger said in July. “We have a good level of cohesion.”
“Generally, Arsene doesn’t think you should fetch more than three first-team players in one season because it takes too long for them to link up,” Arsenal director Lord Harris added.
Wenger made no secret of his desire to sign a centre-forward in the summer but also made it clear he would not buy one just for the sake of it. The strikers better than Olivier Giroud were not available, he claimed, and so the Gunners will once again rely on Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, once fit, as alternative options in attack.
Arsenal will hope to capitalise on Chelsea’s problems – they already lead Jose Mourinho’s side by five points – and may have hoped for one or both of the Manchester clubs to stutter as a result of their summer overhauls, but it would be difficult to claim the Gunners are in a stronger position this season than they were last. Verdict: No stronger
The second biggest summer spenders behind Manchester City, United added the balance to their squad that Louis van Gaal had craved, with seven players signed in total.
Matteo Darmian has settled in quickly and has undoubtedly improved the United backline; Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger have provided Van Gaal with two more reliable options to play in midfield; Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial have added pace and variety to the attack, though the former still has a lot of improving to do. Questions will also undoubtedly continue to be asked about the latter’s transfer fee during any lean spells, but there can be no doubt that United are significantly stronger now than they were last season.
Their squad lacks depth compared to City’s, however. Shearer was critical of City’s performance in the absence of Hart, Kompany, Silva and co. against Spurs, but United have already been forced to play a centre-back, winger and right-back at left-back since Luke Shaw’s injury. Sergio Romero’s performances in the early stages of the season, meanwhile, suggest an injury to David de Gea could cause problems.
Still, United are no better equipped to deal with an injury crisis than City and still don’t boast a first-choice XI as strong as their city rivals, they will certainly be confident of overtaking at least one of Chelsea or Arsenal this season as they look to improve on a fourth-placed finish in Van Gaal’s maiden campaign. Verdict: Significantly stronger
The brilliant 4-1 win over Manchester City on Saturday moved Tottenham up to fifth, exactly where they finished last season. Spurs have now won three consecutive Premier League games after failing to win in their opening four.
Tottenham, of course, are still acclimatising following their annual summer overhaul, which this year saw a relatively modest five players signed as Franco Baldini focused on offloading several of his previous failed signings in his final act as the club’s technical director.
Roberto Soldado, Paulinho, Lewis Holtby, Etienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli and Vlad Chiriches joined Younes Kaboul and Aaron Lennon in departing Spurs over the summer, with Toby Alderweireld, Son Heung-min and Clinton Njie the major signings made by the north Londoners.
It was suggested by plenty that Spurs were actually weaker as a result of their transfer business, with no new centre-midfielder or centre-forward signed, but the form of Eric Dier and Dele Alli has provided a retort to the first criticism, while Son, if not an out-and-out striker, has certainly added a different dimension to the attack. Njie showed signs against City that he too could prove to be a useful signing, while Kieran Trippier and Kevin Wimmer provide defensive cover.
At this stage, however, there are more questions than answers regarding Spurs. Can Dier and Alli be depended on for a full season? If not, is there enough midfield quality – Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb and Mousa Dembele are the other options – for a team with Champions League aspirations? Can Son, Njie and Nacer Chadli provide the support but more importantly competition that Kane needs?
Pre-season suggestions that Spurs would struggle to even challenge for a European place look well wide of the mark, but it would take a brave man to predict an improvement on last season’s tally of 64 points right now. Verdict: Stronger, but by how much is uncertain
“I am pretty confident that there is a group of people that don’t want me here to be the manager.
“In all competitions we have lost less games than Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. We have lost two games, which is equivalent to Tottenham and Manchester United. The hysteria around ourselves is interesting to note.”
Speaking after Liverpool’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa on Saturday, Brendan Rodgers suggested the criticism being aimed at Liverpool is disproportionate considering the struggles of some of the Premier League’s other major players.
But is he right? Liverpool are eighth after seven games with 11 points, only two less than Arsenal and three more than Chelsea. Based on results alone, the Northern Irishman would appear to have a point.
The concern for the club’s supporters is that the defensive weakness from last season does not appear to have been resolved – only Leicester in the top half have conceded more goals – while the absence of Daniel Sturridge in the early stages was no less of a problem, despite the signings of Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino. With Raheem Sterling joining Manchester City, the Premier League’s third biggest summer spenders have looked less of a threat in the final third than they did back in May.
However, the return of Sturridge provides hope. If Liverpool can keep him fit and incorporate him into the team alongside Benteke, you would not bet against the Reds making more of a challenge for one of the Champions League places. But can they overhaul one of last season’s top four? At this moment, it looks unlikely. Verdict: Stronger with Sturridge fit, but not enough