It’s so hard to decide what to make of Manchester United’s late draw with Chelsea in the weekend’s feature match-up. At an intellectual level when looking at teams competing at the top end of the table a draw is pretty much the same as a loss and even more so when it comes at home. Throw in the fact that since the last time we talked, this is United’s second draw with the other being against the far less talented West Brom team. So again, if you’re looking at it from a purely intellectual and analytical point of view, then the past seven days have been pretty miserable for United. At the very least they haven’t been very United-like assuming that you still define United-like using the pre-2013-14 definition.
Somehow though, despite a natural inclination as an Arsenal supporter to not give United any credit that they haven’t clearly earned I get the feeling that the late draw signals something positive for United. There aren’t going to be many clubs that take any points at all from Chelsea this season, they appear to be that good. Holding the Blues to a single goal and claiming a point starts the process of reestablishing Old Trafford as a place where even the best teams will find the going tough. Sure, Chelsea were missing Diego Costa but there’s certainly enough talent that you can’t call Mourinho’s men “shorthanded”. Throw in that the Red Devils were down Falcao, Rooney, Herrera, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Michael Carrick and it isn’t unreasonable to characterize this as a resilient win for Louis Van Gaal.
Whether United can capitalize on the illusive concept of momentum and use the result and, presumably, the return to health of some of their key players remains to be seen. Fortunately, none of their competition for the Champions League spots with the exception of Chelsea is putting any consistent results together. If United can overcome their early poor form and put together a string of results then a spot in next season’s Champions League is there for the taking. The only problem with the optimistic view is that United had the bad fortune to go through their crisis during the easy part of their schedule. Manchester City, Arsenal, Southampton, Liverpool and Spurs are all on the schedule before the calendar turns to 2015. None of those assignments are impossible given the current form of those teams but United will need results in a significant percentage of those matches to prevent them from falling further off the pace entering the second half of the season.
The Title Race - where we discuss how the aspirants for the title and the four Champions League spots are doing against those two goals.
Chelsea – The Blues had a chance to step on the necks of their two Manchester-based rivals in one fell swoop but they couldn’t quite manage it. United aren’t a threat for the title but a loss to Chelsea at Old Trafford would have underscored the distance between the two clubs. At the same time, Chelsea had the luxury of knowing that City had already lost their match-up with West Ham. Putting three points on the board while their rivals dropped three would have pretty well settled the title race barring an injury crisis that would make even Arsene Wenger blush.
Manchester City – Last season it was just the Champions League where Manchester City were mystifyingly tame. The disease seems to be spreading to the Premier League with losses to OK-but-not-great teams like West Ham and Stoke City will surely doom City to second place at best. I’m sure some will call me too Arsenal-centric for saying this but this current City squad reminds me of the Fabregas/van Persie editions of the Gunners. Maybe it’s seeing Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna patrolling the outside back positions or the frequent injuries to their talismanic forward. Whatever the reason, it feels like the results on the pitch are something less than the sum of the individual parts. Beautiful attacking football combined with mental mistakes and giving away leads seems to be the MO. Given the expectations of the supporters and ownership I’m not sure that’s going to be good enough.
The Race For Europe – We can now feel good about breaking out City and Chelsea for the title and monitoring what will surely be a thrilling race for the remaining two Champions League places here.
Southampton – They’re in second place now and seem to be blazing through all mid-table and below opposition. We’ll be suspicious of their ability to mount a challenge for the entire season but given the frailties of the rest of the teams in this category I’m not sure that the Saints have any problems that they don’t other than their reputation isn’t as big and that momentum is hard for people to overcome when deciding that they’re legitimate or not.
Liverpool – Without their opponent handing them goals Liverpool failed to so much as score against a team that hasn’t been able to keep goals out of the back of the net in the closing minutes let alone for an entire match. If QPR had been even mildly competent in the final five minutes of their match last week we’d be talking about two points from successive matches against relegation-threatened teams. Oh, and Balotelli managed to miss more golden opportunities when they were presented to him.
Arsenal – Speaking of teams who have produced poor draws against Hull City recently, Arsenal really didn’t play much better this weekend than they did last weekend. The two important differences…Sunderland are even worse than Hull City and gifted Arsenal two goals and the final result which was three points on the road for Arsene Wenger’s men. With Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere all missing from the squad entirely and Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott both starting the match on the bench Wenger will take the three points any way he can get them. Fortunately, the Gunners get Burnley next to hopefully get Ramsey and Walcott re-integrated to competitive action in a relatively low-pressure environment. They also have a mid-week break courtesy of their League Cup loss to Southampton in the previous round. This isn’t the way you want to be sneaking through a soft part of the schedule but given the injury crisis the current stretch of matches sure comes at a good time. Oh, and seriously, another injury for Kieran Gibbs? No wonder Arsenal were linked with Andrew Robertson last week despite the fact that he’s only been in the Premier League for nine weeks.
Manchester United – For the Falcao acquisition to be the transcendent thing it was reported as when it happened, he actually has to start some matches eventually. Robin van Persie, despite his late goal against Chelsea, has been a shell of his former self. Wayne Rooney, when he’s been present, has been up and down. For the money paid Falcao should be a no-doubt-about-it starter. Instead he has been one of the most expensive bench-warmers/super-subs in the history of team sports. Given all the column inches spent talking about the proliferation of attacking talent at United, the fact that Adnan Januzaj has started two consecutive matches isn’t good news. He might eventually be a star player but at this point in his development he shouldn’t be starting for a Champions League team. Oh yeah, right, he’s not but you get the idea.
Tottenham Hotspur – The only positive to be taken from the weekend was the fact that many of Spurs rivals for Champions League spots dropped points too. Newcastle seem to be playing a little bit better but not nearly well enough that they should beat a Spurs team that held 70% of the possession in the first half and had a lead going into the second half. It will be interesting to see how long Pochettino’s honeymoon period lasts. Spurs haven’t been particularly patient with managers and given what we’ve seen it isn’t clear where we should expect any improvement to come from in this line-up. Erik Lamela can score all of the incredibly skilled goals he wants to against over-matched Europa Cup opponents but until he can do it even semi-regularly in the Premier League then Spurs are really Christen Eriksen and not much more in attack which just isn’t enough.
Everton – They did what they were supposed to do a Burnley team that is surely going down. Not much to be learned from that.
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season.
Crystal Palace – Solid point against West Brom with a potential side dish of good news in the form of potential interest from billionaire Josh Harris who owns the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Oh, and there are definitely three teams worse than Palace even if they aren’t nearly as good as the Tony Pulis-managed group from the end of last season.
West Brom – A good point against United last Monday and a so-so point against Palace this week but, like Palace, they seem to be a cut above the clubs who seem most likely to be scrapping it out in the relegation zone at the end of the season.
Sunderland – Speaking of clubs that will be fighting hard against the drop all season, Sunderland are one of them. You just can go on shipping multiple goals to your opponents per match and hope to win. Last weekend they went so far as putting them in their own net themselves. This weekend they made Alexis Sanchez do a little bit to earn the goals but in both cases the Black Cats’ defense was more than happy to give goals away. Unless that changes quickly I think we can start booking their reservations in the Championship for next season.
QPR – They don’t play until Monday so we’ll double up on commenting on them in next week’s edition of the MMM.
Burnley – Already making travel plans for the Championship season opener next August. At least they’ll have a lot of unspent Premier League TV money to keep them warm while they’re toiling away in the second tier next season.
Newcastle – A winning streak! Seriously, I’m not sure how they did it but those were three very good points that they certainly weren’t counting on. They’re now out of the relegation zone and even with West Brom and Aston Villa (pending the results of Monday’s match). Believe it or not they’re on the brink of being pushed out of this section. One more win could do it and the way Liverpool are playing it could come next weekend.
Leicester City – What happened to that happy, care-free group that was playing such adventurous attacking football? Seems like months, doesn’t it? If they don’t watch out they could find themselves in the drop zone very soon for a team that looked like a mid-table surprise package after that United win.
Newcomer of the Year - where we track the progress of players new to the Premier League this season
- Cesc Fabregas – He’s been the most consistent of the excellent new arrivals and he hasn’t missed any matches. That’s enough to put him top of the list this week.
- Angel Di Maria – He wasn’t the stud that we’ve come to expect against Chelsea but he did start the attack that ended in the tying goal. Still, he drops down a spot.
- Diego Costa – You have to play to keep your spot on this list. Apparently his health is the only thing that can stop him from scoring goals though.
- Alexis Sanchez – Two more goals isn’t enough to push him past Costa yet but the conversation is getting closer and closer as Costa sits and Sanchez continues to make an impact, that’s three goals and an assist while Costa has been out.
- Dusan Tadic/Graziano Pelle – Not the insane weekend that Week 8 was but over the course of the season so far they’ve been an amazing duo.
- Diafra Sakho – He just keeps scoring despite not seeming to have any one outstanding physical talent. Maybe it’s just a Papiss Cisse-like hot streak from his first few months at Newcastle but until we know he’s not really this good, we’re putting him here.
- Gylfi Sigurdsson – He’s at the heart of everything good that Swansea does and came through with another assist. He came off in the second half though, hopefully he won’t be forced to miss any time.
- Falcao – You have to actually play from time to time to keep your spot on this list.
- Enner Valencia – He was active again this weekend but didn’t get a goal. He and Diafra are a dynamite combination – here’s hoping Big Sam is smart enough to keep Andy Carroll on the bench and let us enjoy his two newer acquisitions.
- Andrew Robertson – He missed the weekend due to injury but he’s still been an amazing story.
Dropping Off: None
The Phantom Point All-Stars – Yes, we’re going to keep tweaking this one until we get it right. We’re going to re-instate the Joel Ward All-Stars (defending phantom statistics – blocks, interceptions and tackles), re-classify the Mido All-Stars (all attacking phantom points – SOTs, corners won, successful crosses) and add an all-around category for players who throw in a little of everything for a massive phantom point weekend.
Joel Ward All-Stars
- James Chester – Yes, he had some clean sheet points in there to boot but a blocked shot, five interceptions and four tackles won as an integral part of winning a scoreless draw with a more talented opponent is what the Joel Ward All-Stars are all about.
- Robbie Brady – It isn’t often that we get wide midfielders on this list but a blocked shot, four interceptions and five tackles won (5!). He didn’t really contribute in the attacking end at all but given that he didn’t this was an outstanding alternative.
- Antolin Alcaraz – Here’s a name you likely haven’t heard of in a while and an even longer while associated with something good. Alcaraz deputized for Distin/Stones and put in a strong phantom point shift with a blocked shot, four interceptions and five tackles won.
- Angel Di Maria – Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by his all-around awesomeness so far but despite a shot on target, six successful crosses (including the one that led to THAT goal), and a corner won the day seemed a little disappointing. Looking at the stats and the quality of the opposition, maybe it shouldn’t have been.
- Jesus Navas – It feels like we’re cheating a bit with this one since he had an assist but Navas also had some strong phantom points with six successful crosses and three corners won.
- Chris Brunt – There was an assist in there but we thought we’d tip our hat to the odd combination of a pass intercepted, five tackles won, and three successful crosses in the Baggies’ 2-2 draw.
- Calum Chambers – Apparently he took the time while suspended to think about how to improve his game. Not only did he not pick up yet another yellow card but he contributed a shot on target, four interceptions and two tackles to a rare clean sheet for the Gunners.
- Steven Gerrard – Not exactly a vintage Gerrard performance but solid all-around none-the-less with a pass intercepted, three tackles won, three successful crosses and two corners won.
- Riyad Mahrez – This is where our awards fall apart a little because if you saw the match you’d realize that Mahrez’s contribution wasn’t terribly useful but somehow there was a lot of it statistically speaking with a shot on target, two interceptions, and four tackles won in yet another Foxes loss.
The Fake Narrative of the Week - It is impossible to go a week without encountering a narrative somewhere in the football media that appears to be totally made up for the sake of gaining attention. They usually fall into the categories of made up transfer rumors, hanging on too long to a mental image of who a player was and not who he currently is, or preying on a long-held stereotype based on club, nationality, or position. When I come across them, I'll let you know and then let you know why I think they're silly.
Manchester United’s defense is the only problem – United’s early season troubles were frequently down to the defense which is a group that has been makeshift and frequently populated with players who we’ve never heard of. This makes them a pretty easy target. The underreported story here is that United’s defense has actually recovered pretty nicely in recent weeks and it is not the star-studded attack that should be answering the questions. Robin van Persie (despite his high profile goal yesterday) hasn’t been very good and Juan Mata seems to have taken a massive step back in his career since Jose Mourinho kicked him to the curb. Wayne Rooney has been solid, if up and down, when he’s been available but his suspension shows that he’s not reliable. Finally, as mentioned above, the Falcao acquisition was heralded and rightly so given the player’s track record but he hasn’t started frequently when he has been available and now he’s hurt again. Angel Di Maria has been everything that was hoped for and more since his arrival but he can’t do it all himself unless he’s so good that he can cross the ball to himself for a goal and I’m not sure even Messi or Ronaldo can do that.
Sponsor I'd Like To See - As you can see from the lack of sponsorship for this column or this page, there's room for some additional corporate involvement here at the Rotoworld.com Premier League page. In a blatant attempt to solicit any sponsors who may be reading, I'm going to start suggesting some sponsors who might want to call the nice people at NBC Sports to find out what it would take to become part of the team.
DirecTV – Only under the condition that they stop it with those horrible Rob Lowe ads. The first time I saw one it was mildly amusing and quirky. After the 15,000th viewing, I’m completely over it and ready to give up my DirecTV subscription (even though I love it) if it means not having to see those ads. At the very least I’d like them to be able to detect the fact that I have DirecTV and realize that they’re wasting my money showing me these ads.
Random Closing Thoughts - Well, this one's pretty obvious and it will be how we close out the column each week at least until a better idea comes along.
- My Second Club – I have to be honest, it was really hard watching 90 minutes of Leicester City play football this weekend. That’s no way to be interacting with a selection that is, by definition, a bandwagon jump of the highest order. I’m making the switch official and moving to Southampton. Let the perusing of their club shop for an honorary piece of merchandise commence.
- This Week’s Good Points: A great three points for West Ham against City and Newcastle over Spurs. Hull City picked up a strong single point in their nil-nil draw with Liverpool. I’m on the fence about awarding Manchester United a “good point” for any home draw but given their form so far this season as well as Chelsea’s overall class, I’m going to give it to them.
- The Good Points Table: Leicester City: 8; West Ham 6; Crystal Palace 4; Newcastle 4; Aston Villa 3; Stoke City 3; Sunderland 3; Swansea 3; West Brom 3; Burnley 2; Hull City 2; Manchester United 1.
- This Week’s Bad Points: All of the reverses of the above good points become the week’s bad points with Manchester City and Spurs accumulating three bad points each and Liverpool edging closer to United’s season lead with two more of their own. While I gave United a “good point” I’m not going to give Chelsea two “bad points” because a draw at Old Trafford just isn’t something that tragic in the overall context of their season.
- The Bad Points Table: Manchester United: 10; Liverpool 8; Spurs 8; Manchester City 6; Everton 5; Arsenal 4; Stoke City 3; Villa, Palace, Newcastle, Southampton, and Swansea all 2.
- Southampton’s Champions League Chances: Following up on this from last week’s MMM, the story just won’t go away. Rather than starting to fade down the standings (like Swansea earlier this season and surprise packages in other years), the Saints are consolidating their position near the top of the standings. While City, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal (last weekend) are throwing away winnable matches against modest opposition, Southampton just keep beating the teams that they should beat which gives them some cushion if they don’t manage to get results when they play against the “big teams”. With the potential for some depth as well in the form of players coming back from injury there may be a sustained challenge here.
- West Ham’s Rise – Another holdover story that looks even better after the win over City. This story will go exactly as far a new strike pairing Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho can take it. If they stay healthy and prove that neither of their performances is some Ba/Cisse/Jelavic flash in the pan then they look like they could be what we hoped for from Spurs or Everton (a legitimate pain in the butt for Champions League aspirants). It’s too early to say one way or another but consider me intrigued after years of writing off both Big Sam and the Hammers since the days of Bolton and Dean Ashton respectively.
- What did we find out? Mohamed Diame isn’t going to score every weekend, Yaya Toure’s problems are not yet behind him (he wasn’t very good yet again), Swansea aren’t just going to free-fall into oblivion which puts them firmly in that frustrating inconsistent/mid-table category that defies prediction week-to-week, Arsenal apparently spent the summer hanging out with Yaya Toure because they’re as listless as he is with the exception of the opportunistic Alexis Sanchez who looks like a great buy, Chelsea aren’t perfect but they’ve navigated their two trips to Manchester without a loss already so the Invincibles, Part Deux thing is definitely still a serious possibility, Liverpool and Spurs both have it in them to be very good for any given match but there’s no irresistible player on either team that can will them to victory as they had with Suarez and Bale respectively and the squads just don’t have enough A-/B+ players to compensate, Hull City’s kits from this weekend (especially the white jersey) were spectacular, not sure I’d seen them yet.
- Balotelli Watch – Last week in this spot I predicted a blow up unless he scored a goal to ease some pressure. Threatening his mother’s neighbor and the “shirt swapping” controversy don’t really rate on the Balotelli crisis meter but with another critical flubbing of his lines late against Hull City the momentum for something big happening continues to build. I know I’ll be glad there’s an ocean between me and Liverpool whenever it happens because all bets are off on what might happen.
- What’s Next? It should be relatively smooth sailing for most of the big clubs next weekend but we will be treated to our first Manchester Derby of the season with both clubs at something of a crossroads. City need a win to keep Chelsea within sight (and to prevent Southampton from consolidating their place in second – yes, I’m typing that because who knows when I’ll have the chance to do that again). United are now two weeks from their nice little streak of wins and need to move on from moral victories to actual victories if they want to be taken seriously in the race for the Champions League.