By 1970’s Gooner
The second round of the Premier League has begun. At this stage of the proceedings Liverpool are lagging behind by 14 points from the top.
It appears that their chances have diminished and if they are to have a realistic chance of winning the title the other top three will ALL have to slip up badly. This seems unlikely.
The analysis that follows therefore considers six factors that will affect the run in to the title for the three leaders.
1. Ugly Betty but pretty effective
This is an attribute that characterises all championship winning teams. To be able to churn out results when the team is not playing well.
Manchester United have been able to win games when not at their best as was quite evident at the beginning of the season.
This was when Tevez was still trying to find his feet and Ferguson was still trying to accommodate both Roonie and Tevez in the same 11. Examples are the home win over Tottenham, the two wins over Everton and the away win at Liverpool.
Chelsea seems to have carried on where Mourinho left. A rock solid defence which provides the springboard to score the crucial goal to clinch the game. We have seen it often this season notably against Birmingham, Bolton, West Ham and Newcastle.
On this issue Arsenal seems to have improved this year.
The best example is the away win at Aston Villa where the second half performance was hard graft with Arsenal “winning ugly” in direct contrast to the beautiful performance of the first half. The 4-1 mauling of Everton at Goodison Park and the victories over Chelsea and Spurs at the Emirates also stand out.
Not much to choose between them here.
2. To absent friends
Everyone, inclusive of Arsene Wenger, thought that the team to suffer most from the absence of key players to the Africa Nations Cup would be Chelsea. This indeed is very logical as they have three (if not all four) key first team players away on duty.
And they are very important players in the Chelsea line up: John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Didier Drogba, Saloman Kalou (Ivory Coast) and Michael Essien (Ghana).
However the results have still to back up this theory. Notable examples are the hard fought victories against Tottenham and Birmingham.
If Chelsea manages to get away with it for another two weeks then they will indeed be real title contenders. Their remaining games until the African players come back are Reading (h) Portsmouth (A) and Liverpool (H).
Arsenal have lost three players to the ANC ( Toure, Eboue and Song) but really its Toure’s absence that may hurt most. Will Senderos (Djourou is out injured) be able to stand in without making telling mistakes as he has sometimes done in the past? He has been fine so far.….
Arsenal’s next three games before Toure returns are Newcastle (H), Manchester City (A) and Blackburn (H).
On the other hand Manchester United have only one player (Manucho of Angola) on duty in the ANC and he hasn’t kicked a ball for them yet! So they obviously have an advantage over their main rivals.
3. You are only as good as your bench
They say that in football you are only as good as your bench. And in the marathon that is called The Premier League the strength in depth that exists in a team’s squad is a very important determinant for the title race.
Chelsea seem to have the best squad in this respect. There is the addition of Anelka in particular and the expected returns to first team action by the likes of Terry, Lampard and the ANC absentees.
There is also Cudiccini, Ferreira, Wayne Bridge, Ben-Haim, new signing Ivanovic, Sidwell, Ballack, Makelele, Malouda and Pizzaro to name a few of the “reserves”.
By contrast Manchester United seem to be lacking adequate cover in the defensive positions. O’Shea, Brown, Piquet and Simpson although good players cannot really be compared to Vidic, Ferdinand, Neville and Evra. Remember when Piqué played in defense at Bolton?
There is also a deficit in the forward positions. Saha although a very good player is injury prone and therefore cannot be relied upon to be a fit replacement should Rooney or Tevez become unavailable.
Giggs could play in that role but he is a much more effective player when deployed as a wide midfield player.
And if Ronaldo should become unavailable Nani and Park are there; but really Ronaldo is irreplaceable and his absence if it happens may prove to be a big loss.
Arsenal also have a deficit in the depth of the squad. This is more apparent in the central defensive positions and in central midfield.
As discussed above the cover for centre back rests on Senderos and Djourou who have not really convinced yet.
For the midfield positions it is very difficult to think that anyone can replace Fabregas and Flamini with anywhere near the same effect. This was quite evident when these two became unavailable for a run of games recently where Arsenal dropped points at Newcastle and Middlesbrough.
4. Room for improvement?
Manchester United are playing at their full potential. Ferguson has got them performing at their maximum efficiency and it is difficult to point to an area where a significant improvement can be achieved considering the resources available.
So the question that is raised is: Will Manchester United manage to maintain this form till the end?
Will Ronaldo who is on top of his game and has sometimes won games single handedly be able to maintain the impressive form he is in at the moment for another 15 or so League games? Will Van De Sar, Ferdinand, Vidic, Rooney, Tevez? I personally have my doubts. But you may think otherwise.
On the other hand Chelsea have not been playing at their full potential. Injuries to key players have seen to that. There is definitely a lot of room for improvement there when Terry, Lampard and the others return to action.
Arsenal also have not been at their top best, yet they are sharing top spot with Manchester United. Although Fabregas started the season on top form he has gone off the boil recently.
His distribution has waned and his goal scoring has disappeared. There is room for improvement there alright.
In attack although Arsenal has scored the most goals in the premiership (along with Manchester United) there is still room there to improve.
Van Persie has been out and it was not until recently when Adebayor and in particular Eduardo begun to click into form that the attack became more productive.
When Van Persie returns Arsenal’s attack will become more potent especially if Wenger finds a way to accommodate all three forwards (Eduardo, Adebayor and Van Persie).
Arsenal is a relatively young side that is improving all round at a fast pace even from game to game. This factor should not be overlooked.
5. Mind the gap
All well and good. All three teams have certain attributes that are important in the title race but the gap that exists between Chelsea and the other two, although only four points, is a difficult enough distance to cover.
It’s not by any means unachievable of course, as leads as high as twelve points have been squandered before, as we all know.
But for this to happen it requires both front runners to falter and at the same time for Chelsea to be almost faultless. And this is even if Chelsea have home games against all their rivals to come.
There is certainly not a lot of room for error here. The merest slip up and Chelsea will fall further behind.
Manchester United and Arsenal however are locked at the top. They can’t afford to slip up but at least they start on an equal footing.
6. Done it before, got the T shirt and the video
Experience counts. Having been at the top before and involved in a tight title race means a lot. Nerves and anxiety will inevitably set in and the team that knows how to handle it will have a better chance of being successful. Manchester United and Chelsea are ahead of Arsenal on this count.
Manchester United have done it last year (and many times before) and Chelsea still contain the nucleus of the team that were champions two seasons ago.
Arsenal surprisingly have a few players from the last Championship winning squad, the Invincibles of 2004 (and also the Champions League Final squad), like Toure, Gilberto, Fabregas, Senderos, Robin van Persie, Lehmann, Flamini and Clichy.
However they are still a young team and when compared to the other two relatively short of title winning experience.
It’s difficult to decide which of the above will have a bigger bearing on the championship race. All of them can potentially become significant title deciding factors by themselves.
For example, either Arsenal or Manchester United, who don’t have a lot of strength in depth, may get a bad run of injuries which may allow Chelsea to come back at them.
Or Chelsea who is already four points away from the others may slip up unexpectedly and get left further behind.
Or Manchester United manage to maintain their recent form and simply walk away with the title.
And Arsenal recapture the form of the beginning of the season and continue improving so much that they surpass their rivals at the post.
Take your pick.
My thinking on the matter is:
-Chelsea’s four point deficit may prove too difficult to make up in the end
- Manchester United will find it difficult to maintain their recent performance levels
- Arsenal will carry on improving at a faster rate than their rivals