Man City: A –
THERE WAS A point not so long ago where it seemed as if everyone was starting to assume Man City would win the league at a canter. Their 2-1 defeat of Man United was more comprehensive than the scoreline suggested and prompted premature declarations of Pep Guardiola’s genius.
Wins in his first 10 matches in all competitions meant some observers felt the former Spain midfielder was set to justify the hype that had greeted his arrival at City.
The new coach had, it seemed, transformed the Etihad outfit overnight, from a disillusioned group of talented individuals to a team fully equipped to dominate England in the way his Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides had managed to do in Spain and Germany respectively.
Yet this remarkable winning run was followed by an equally eyebrow-raising winless period — the first time Guardiola had gone six games without a victory over the course of his career. But in truth, too much was made of these setbacks.
Practically no one beats Barcelona at the Camp Nou, Celtic and United were far from must-win games, and Southampton and Everton were draws where they played well enough to earn three points. Away to one of the top sides in the league, Tottenham, has been the only time in the Premier League this season where the Eastlanders were plainly inferior to the opposition.
And perhaps most importantly, for all their supposed inadequacies, City are still top of the league. So irrespective of what the naysayers suggest, Guardiola can take plenty of positives from his first 10 league games in charge, even if this ambitious project very much remains a work in progress.
Arsenal: B +
“Today we are in a much more competitive position to fight for the title than five or six years ago,” said Arsene Wenger recently.
“I believe we have a competitive team in a very competitive league.”
However, at this stage, even the most ardent Arsenal followers will probably struggle to be convinced by these comments. Since their last Premier League title win in 2004, when they went the entire season unbeaten, the Gunners have spent campaign after campaign promising so much at times and it seems unfair to write off the past decade as a complete failure.
Whereas the form of rivals such as Liverpool, Man United and Chelsea has fluctuated dramatically, Wenger’s teams can always be counted upon to find themselves in the top four come the end of the season.
Yet having been so used to unequivocal success in the early part of the Arsenal boss’s reign, supporters have understandably grown bored of the club’s solid-but-unspectacular development under the experienced Frenchman.
As ever, the early season has brought renewed hope — Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil are playing as well as ever, Santi Cazorla is back again (after a long-term injury last season) and reminding people that he is one of the best midfielders in the league, while Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi are looking like wise summer investments already.
Nevertheless, the opening day 4-3 loss to Liverpool and the more recent 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough emphasise that the Gunners still tend to have off days in both defence and attack. There is a lack of grit evident at times when the going gets tough.
So for all the positive early signs, Arsenal will still need to do much more to gain the absolute trust of their long-suffering fans.
Liverpool had two advantages over several of their rivals this season. While Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola were new to their clubs, Jurgen Klopp has now had over a year to grow accustomed to the ways of the Premier League.
Moreover, perhaps even more crucially, unlike everyone else listed here bar Chelsea, they do not have the rigours of European football to contend with — a factor which played a major part in Leicester’s title success last season.
In addition, having experimented quite often last year, Klopp now seems to know his best team, reducing the error-prone Alberto Moreno and popular striker Daniel Sturridge to limited roles, while frequently managing to get the best out of talented players such as Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana.
And while their start to the season has been highly encouraging for the most part, if there’s one criticism of the Reds, it’s that they sometimes struggle to break down well-organised teams who get men behind the ball — this problem was obvious in the 0-0 draw with Man United as well as the 2-0 defeat by Burnley.
That said, they have certainly made plenty of progress under Klopp and look a much better side now than the team that finished a disappointing eighth last season.
The emphatic recent 4-0 win over Man United could turn out to be a big win for Chelsea. It’s rare that a game between two established big teams turns out to be one-sided. Moreover, it was a much-needed morale-boost, given that the Londoners had lost 3-0 and 2-1 to Arsenal and Liverpool respectively.
His side’s setbacks prompted Conte to switch to a 3-4-3 formation. As a result, Eden Hazard was given less defensive responsibility and has started to consequently repeat the kind of form that saw him win PFA Player of the Year when Chelsea were crowned Premier League champions in 2014-15.
And having endured a disastrous campaign that ultimately saw them finish 10th last year — their worst Premier League performance in 20 years — they now look a much more unified group capable of challenging for the title.
Like Hazard, with 11 goals in 15 appearances in all competitions, Diego Costa looks back to his best, while N’Golo Kante has brought added steel to an already imposing midfield and the recently acquired David Luiz has proved more reliable than many critics anticipated.
Somewhat remarkably, after 10 games, Tottenham remain the only unbeaten side in the Premier League. The problem, however, is that they have drawn as many matches as they’ve won.
The pinnacle of their season and probably the most impressive display by any English team so far in 2016-17 was their convincing 2-0 win over Man City.
Yet City were arguably perfectly set up for Spurs to beat — their adventurous high-risk play was masterfully countered by a Tottenham side seemingly intent on pressing their opponents into oblivion. Generally, it is against the more pragmatic teams — the West Broms and the Bournemouths – that Tottenham have struggled and looked far less impressive.
Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier may be combative midfielders perfectly adept at breaking up the play, but they give teams little going forward.
Spurs have also looked shot shy, particularly in the absence of injured star Harry Kane, despite Son Heung-min impressing sporadically in attack. They need more from new forward Vincent Janssen as well as Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela who, for all their talent and technical ability, have just one goal between the two of them in the Premier League so far this season.
These attacking deficiencies explain why the North London club rarely prevail comfortably. The City game aside, the 4-0 defeat of Stoke is the only other league game that Tottenham have won by more than one clear goal.
With just five goals conceded though, their defence is officially the best in the league (as it was last season along with United’s), and that rock-solid back four remains the primary reason why they cannot be written off as title contenders.
Man United: C
The fact that most people haven’t completely dismissed the possibility of United contending for the title yet says more about the weakness of their rivals than it does about their prowess.
The early stages of the Mourinho era have been beset by problems. Star players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Wayne Rooney have all regularly underperformed, while Mourinho himself has often looked and acted like an unhappy figure.
Moreover, potentially key players including Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick and most notably Henrikh Mkhitaryan have spent plenty of time on the bench or in the stands, as Mourinho’s unpredictable and at times bizarre selections from the end of his Chelsea stint last season are recurring once more.
But despite some difficult moments, it hasn’t been all bad. Eric Bailly, who was unfortunately injured recently, looks a fine player, and at 22, United could build the defence around him for years to come.
While not always figuring, Juan Mata has often been superb when called upon, while Ander Herrera has comfortably been the club’s best midfielder and is starting to really establish himself as a top player.
And Marcus Rashford, despite being somewhat restricted by what is at times virtually a winger-cum-full-back role, remains one of the Premier League’s most precocious young talents.
But while the club still may only be eight points off the league leaders, there is a widespread feeling that a title tilt will ultimately be beyond them this year, with a top-four finish and a Champions League place the primary objective.
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