Just two months into the 2009-2010 season, the “big four” of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have lost 10 matches combined. Compare that with 18 matches lost by the league’s elite combined in the entirety of last season, and it’s clear that either the big four are weaker, or the rest of the league is getting stronger. Aston Villa and Manchester City look promising and have taken maximum points against Chelsea and Arsenal respectively, whilst Wigan, Sunderland and Burnley have put in spirited, positive performances and come away with three points against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United respectively.
For the neutral, it is fantastic to see young British managers such as Steve Bruce from Sunderland and Owen Coyle of Burnley gearing up teams of apparent no hopers and setting out playing football against the superstars of Liverpool and Manchester. Wigan’s Roberto Martinez crafted a brilliant game plan in exploiting Chelsea’s weakness at set-pieces and crosses, and ended up with a glittering and deserved 3-1 victory at home. Chelsea’s poor organisation at the back was also further underlined by Villa when they beat Blues 2-1 with two free headers from corners. John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho are usually assured and reliable as Chelsea’s last line of defence, but this season they have looked vulnerable. It seems Carlo Ancelotti’s men are missing Brazilian defensive rock Alex more than they thought they would. Ancelotti will be without the likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Jon Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou for the African Cup of Nations and his side could be hit hard by their recent transfer ban.
Bruce in particular deserves massive praise for instilling a look of freedom and direction about his Sunderland side. Black Cats faced a seemingly brutal run of Manchester United away followed by Liverpool at home but came away with four points and without an unlucky last gasp own goal from Anton Ferdinand at Man United, might have had six points for their efforts. Sunderland look calm and collected at the back and the absence of recently injured Lee Cattermole will be a huge blow. The 21 year old was previously bought by Bruce at Wigan for £3.5m and many Sunderland fans may overlook the likes of free scoring Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones as their best player this season in favour of Cattermole. Cattermole’s energy in the middle of the park, breaking up attacks plus bombing forward has been dynamic in Sunderland’s success, and Fabio Capello’s England currently lack a more gritty, tough-tackling midfielder who excels at both ends.
Results like Sunderland’s have put big club’s strength in depth in question. The likes of Andriy Vorinin and Ryan Babel pale in insignificance to Fernando Torres at Liverpool and they have looked lightweight without Torres and Steven Gerrard so far. They lack natural goalscorers in abundance and maybe letting Robbie Keane go without a real chance was a poor decision by Rafael Benitez. His transfer dealings haven’t been brilliant by a long shot aside from the likes of Torres, Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso. Do the likes of Josemi, Fernando Morientes and Jan Kromkamp strike great memories of individual brilliance into scouse hearts? Benitez has recently “led” the Anfield club to four straight defeats in all competitions for the first time in 22 years. Liverpool have however won a big game this season against Manchester United unlike Arsenal this season.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side will be disappointed by losses to rivals Man United and Man City. At Old Trafford, Arsenal did everything but win. The magician that is Andrey Arshavin not only scored a delightful peach of a chip (does he ever score a bad goal anyway?) to put his side into the lead, only then for Gunners to go down 2-1 after Robbie Van Persie and co missed wonderfully created, unmisseable chances upon chances. Unlike Liverpool, Arsenal have goals throughout the park. Arshavin, Van Persie, Eduardo Da Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Nicklas Bendtner are all good bets to score in double figures this season. In Arsene Wenger, Arsenal have a man who unlike Benitez knows the transfer market like the back of his hand. Wenger for years now has shrewdly scanned obscure locations, bringing in unknown quantities and gently, slowly moulding them into world class players. Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen from Ajax already looks a sure fire replacement for Kolo Toure if not better, and has done the business at the other end of the pitch, bizarrely enough scoring four times in nine matches so far. Wenger has taken the likes of unfulfilled potential such as Barcelona’s Thierry Henry and Internazionale’s Partick Viera and nurtured them beautifully into world class players.
Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson has been far from flamboyant in the transfer market this summer in terms of new faces, but one key introduction was that of Michael Owen, a man with a point to prove. Owen may find starts hard to come by this season and has only scored twice in seven games so far. The 29 year old has also been overlooked by the media in favour of the likes of Villa’s Gabriel Agonlahor and Sunderland’s Bent in terms of strikers who could make Capello’s World Cup squad so far. United have already been the victim of a cruel scalp to Burnley and lost to bitter nemesis Liverpool. Cristiano Ronaldo is also surely irreplaceable compared to likes of the purely average Nani and Antonio Valencia. Criticism has also been aimed at centre-back Rio Ferdinand for his form for both club and country. Ferdinand at times is the defender equivalent of Tottenham Hotspur’s Heurelho Gomes. He is majestic in his composure and tidying up with the ball, and then the next minute baffling with his indecision and madness. Serb Nemanja Vidic was yet again given a torrid time by Liverpool last Saturday, and for the second season in a row was sent off against the Merseysiders.
As the table stands at the time of writing, Liverpool’s ambitious title challenge looks dead and buried with Benitez’s side in fifth with Spurs audaciously splitting up the top four sitting fourth. Manchester United and Chelsea look the most likely to win the league although not flawless. Spurs have already been comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Chelsea, and Villa have beaten Chelsea albeit after a woeful start. The duo of Villa’s Agbonlahor and the wonderfully creative Ashley Young look like troubling any team in the league at the moment. Mark Hughes’s Man City have finally bought defensively with Toure and Joleon Lescott, who have slotted in seamlessly. Hughes’s side have already beaten Arsenal 4-2 at home. The top four are more beatable than ever at the moment and it is refreshing to see the likes of Cattermole, Burnley’s Robbie Blake and Wigan’s Hugo Rodallega grabbing headlines with match-winning performances. Keep an eye on Spurs at Arsenal and Liverpool at Fulham this weekend for more fantasy football results.