Well a quarter of the season has officially gone by and it might be a cliché but it does look like one of the most open Premier League seasons for a long time.
Chelsea lost to Aston Villa yesterday, Liverpool lost to an in-form Sunderland, Manchester United were extremely lucky (again) at home and Arsenal cruised past Birmingham City.
So United are top, Chelsea second and Arsenal fourth, although we are only 4 points off top spot with a game in hand.
Here are my thoughts on the ‘top sides’ and what this means for Arsenal:
From where I’m standing, Manchester United have been extremely lucky at home this season. It borders on the ridiculous.
They have played five home games, won four and drawn one. Every win has come from a solitary goal and everyone one of those games was very fortuitous. And you can even say that for the game they drew.
Against Birmingham, they won 1-0 but Birmingham shaved the post and hit the bar. Then we have the Arsenal game, where Almunia and Diaby literally threw away the points and United somehow got all three despite Arsenal dominating the majority of the match. They beat Manchester City with a 97th minute winner and the same injury-time rule applied when Rio Ferdinand’s retarded younger brother decided to score an own goal to claim a draw against Sunderland.
And yesterday, Bolton had enough chances to steal a point in the closing minutes but Cahill and Knight’s headed opportunities were wasted.
United fans will argue that a sign of champions is the ability to win matches they don’t play well in and to grind out results, but you would have to believe that the longer the season goes on teams will realise that if you attack United at Old Trafford then you can get something. Manchester City and Bolton in particular were very negative but still could have got something - and you wonder what would have happened if they took the game to the home side. City only attacked once they went a goal down, and Bolton when they were two goals down.
They may be top at the moment, but there are definitely weaknesses in that side. With Ronaldo they had that aura of invincibility but without him they struggle to establish a settled midfield line-up. If they do end up winning the league come May then the other top sides should be ashamed.
Well they had a sensational start to the season.
They won their first six games and looked in cruise-control but since then they’ve lost 2 games from 3, losing to Wigan and Villa away, and beating Liverpool in between.
Under Ancelotti they do seem to be playing much better football. The two fullbacks have license to attack and they play two up top with Drogba and Anelka, and Drogba in particular is in great form with 7 goals already this season. And unfortunately for the rest of the league, he seems to be focused on scoring goals and (bar a lapse against Liverpool) cutting out his histrionics.
Chelsea do seem to have a slight weakness from set-pieces though, with both of their defeats including unmarked players (who happen to be opposing centre-backs) scoring free headers. Encouraging for the free-scoring Gallas and Vermaelen when Arsenal meet Chelsea on November 29th.
Objectively though, you could say that against Villa they were pretty unlucky because they had more than enough chances to equalise and probably win the game.
And where have we heard that before?
What can you say about the Merseysiders?
It’s hard to take their title-challenge seriously - not because they don’t have the ability - but just because it’s so long since they won it. There’s no doubt they are a top quality team but when it comes to a long 38 game season they just seem to come up short every time.
They lost Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid in the summer and with Lucas they just haven’t found a suitable replacement. There’s the old adage that they rely far too much on Gerrard and Torres and while it’s too easy to agree with that you’d have to say it’s true. Torres and Gerrard were both missing and they had nothing to offer against Sunderland.
On thing that bugs me about Liverpool is Rafa Benitez. Is he the only manager in the entire league who doesn’t celebrate a goal? When Liverpool score, he looks down in his notepad and writes something down. He’s like a headmaster or something.
Well based on their sheer buying power this season, you have to consider them a top side now, even if you don’t want to.
They’ve only lost one game this year, and that was against a fortunate United side. They’ve had 3 big tests this season, and they beat Arsenal, put in an excellent performance at Old Trafford (without Adebayor) and drew against Aston Villa. They have so much attacking talent so they will always be a threat. Defensively they are much improved with Toure and Lescott, although the latter is taking time to settle, and they have Shay Given who is a top class goalkeeper.
If you want to nick-pick Micah Richards at right-back can sometimes be a liability but with the personnel in their side they have more than enough to brush aside the majority of the lower sides in the league. Another big advantage they have is that they don’t have the distraction of Europe this season.
And with the top sides like Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea losing games already they will believe that it is an open title race.
The big question is like Liverpool, do City have the mentality to go on and win the league and can they handle the pressure at the business end of the season. It is new territory for both the players and manager so it will be very interesting to see how they cope come March, April and May.
And finally, Arsenal…
The summer brought in a few major changes, the biggest being the new 4-3-3 formation, the addition of Thomas Vermaelen from Ajax and the departure of Kolo and Adebayor to Manchester Citeh.
Thomas Vermaelen has been sensational this year, and on top of being a brilliant defender he’s scored a lot of important goals already this season. He’s a threat from set-pieces (which is a great addition to our style of play) and adds some steel to the team. And his determination is fantastic and can only be a positive influence on the squad.
The formation change was subject to a lot discussion and debate and I was surprised more than anyone when it was actually used this season. Wenger’s been using 4-4-2 ever since he came to the club so it was a bit of a shock. But to his credit, Arsene’s willingness to change things looks like to have worked.
We’re not in top gear right now, but despite our rocky form in Manchester we’ve won every other game, have a flawless record at home and scored a record number of goals, apparently.
I also have to mention the form of Alex Song this year. He has really impressed me and along with Denilson has really stepped up his game. Unfortunately, Denilson is injured for a while and Diaby is his replacement. I’m not convinced about Diaby (as regular readers will know) but hopefully Nasri’s impending return might help the situation. Arsene could also play Rosicky in that role as well - at least he makes an attempt to tackle.
There’s no doubt we can unlock any defence but it’s our defensive frailties which will be the biggest factor in whether we win anything this season. With our attacking talent our goal-scoring record speaks for itself but we are sometimes prone to make mistakes at vital times. Almunia and Diaby were quite frankly idiotic against Manchester United, in a game we threw away the points - the big question is can this Arsenal team take the pressure? Old Trafford is a fortress and when questions were asked of Arsenal we crumbled. Our performances at Stamford Bridge and Anfield this season will be a measure of what this Arsenal squad can achieve this season.
The encouraging thing is though that despite already racking up two defeats this season, we are only 4 points off United with a game in hand. So hopefully there’s more to come once we’ve got everyone back fit and we’re at the top of our game.
There’s certainly a lot to be optimistic about this season, for a lot of different reasons.