When Do Arsenal Become Title Favourites...?

While others drop points, Arsenal have the best form in Europe's top five leagues. Plus, Cardiff losers despite winning the derby, Chelsea's away bluntness and more...

Last Updated: 04/11/13 at 13:00 Post Comment

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Winners


Arsenal
Although Matthew Stanger covered Arsenal's Saturday evening victory over Liverpool in more detail here, it is worth repeating the most salient conclusion to be drawn - this is a side with 25 points from their last 27 available in the league. That isn't just more than any other side in the Premier League, or even in English league football - only Roma and Barcelona can rival that form across Europe's top five leagues.

'At what point do we make them title favourites?' was the question I asked of Twitter on Saturday evening (see, I'm even working when half-cut on a Saturday), with two responses more numerous than most.

'April. This is Arsenal,' was the first, and that stance is understandable. The last time the Gunners were five points clear in the Premier League they travelled to Manchester United the following week and lost 4-0 (unlike next weekend, that was in the cup), failed to win any of their next five league games and finished third.

Nevertheless, how long can an augmentation of performances and results be simply seen as a 'good run'? How long until unexpected becomes expected? Since consecutive defeats against Chelsea and Manchester City in January, Arsenal have taken 64 points from 26 matches. Extend that across a season (and it's only a 12-match extension) to give you 94 points - that's one less than the record total in a Premier League season.

The insistence of Arsenal fans to deprecate the title chances of their club are borne not just out of experience, but also self-preservation. It's been too long and it's hurt too much to get excited now, and football's eternal warning must be followed - it's the hope that kills you, not the disappointment.

The second most popular response focused on the club's lack of strength in depth, an obvious result given the numerous summer departures and comparatively scant (in quantitative terms) replacements. But, against Liverpool on Saturday, Arsenal named a starting XI without Nacho Monreal, Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Carl Jenkinson, Matthieu Flamini, Alex Oxlade-Chaberlain and Serge Gnabry. 14 full internationals within the club's squad failed to start the game. This isn't panic stations.

One of the most significant impacts of the establishment of English football's nouveau riche is that Chelsea and Manchester City have distorted our expectations of what a title-challenging squad needs to look like. Arsenal may not have the embarrassment of options at the easy grasp of Manuel Pellegrini (£114m on the bench on Saturday) and Jose Mourinho (£86m), but Arsene Wenger is by no means dealing with threadbare resources.

There is a relevant point to make regarding the lack of striking options in reserve at the Emirates (although Podolski could return within a month), but with a transfer window just two months away, that become less of an issue with each passing fixture.

That is not to say that Arsenal will win the league, but in a Premier League campaign increasingly defined by the teams at the top being overturned by those below, Arsenal are demonstrating a hunger and ability to remain on top of the pile.

"We live in a world where you are questioned," was Wenger's rather philosophical response to Saturday's victory. "The only response we can give is on the football pitch. I said that many times and that is part of our job. I am pleased we have won a big game at home, I think it was important for the future." By the "the future", Wenger means Dortmund on Wednesday and Old Trafford on Sunday. More tests and hoops to jump through for sure but, right now, Arsenal seem eager to impress.

A question that before Saturday existed as 'How long will it last?' is slowly morphing into 'They couldn't, could they?' As Arsenal's certainty grows, that of their rivals is diminishing. On Saturday evening we saw something approaching the real deal.


Manchester United
David Moyes is not yet in the territory of a Saturday passing without headache or concern. United's second-half display was sluggish and disappointing, they have still kept just two clean sheets this season (only Crystal Palace and Sunderland have fewer) and there was a rather worrying triple blow to the fitness of Rafael, Tom Cleverley and Jonny Evans. That said, this is a United side that is seemingly beginning to turn something of a corner, albeit slightly. David Moyes' side are now unbeaten in seven matches in all competitions.

Before the weekend, a league table drawn from the first 20 minutes of matches would have seen United stone bottom, the all-too-familiar story of a side forced to haul themselves out of the mire in the second half of games, and United had conceded the first goal in more than half of their nine league games. At Craven Cottage, United did all their business before a quarter of the match had passed. The counter-argument to a second-half defeat is that Moyes' side had earned the right to saunter after a 13-minute first half blitz.

The other great positive for United fans is that Saturday saw further evidence of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie re-establishing their bond of last season. The two combined for Antonio Valencia's opener and the Dutchman then gave Rooney the easiest of opportunities for the third.

"There were real signs of great combination play between them," Moyes said after the game. "They both made a goal for each other and there was good link-up play between them. They're both incredibly talented and understand each other."

Baby steps and all that, but finally genuine signs of progress. Next week's visit of Arsenal should act as a barometer of the state of both clubs. Win and United will be just five points behind the current leaders.


Newcastle
The Premier League's Jekyll and Hyde club once again achieved the result that you didn't expect.

As lacklustre, lethargic and laboured as they were during the derby defeat to Sunderland last weekend, Newcastle were re-energised against Chelsea. They harried and hassled their opponents, and were fully deserving of their second-half victory. For all that Chelsea appeared unimaginative, this was still an opponent with six consecutive victories in all competitions.

It was a win that almost made you angry with the home side. If you can outmuscle Chelsea into giving you three precious points, where on earth was that desire against Sunderland, Hull and during the first half at Goodison?

Angry victory, however, trumps miserable defeat by some margin, and Newcastle now sit just six points behind second place in what is a mightily odd Premier League table. With their next four home games against Norwich, West Brom, Southampton and Stoke, Alan Pardew can once again look up, rather than down, the table.


Alan Pardew
"I just asked him to hit it on the back of their back four with shape and a bit of pace because we weren't really getting any joy from balls going into their box," said Pardew of his chat with Yohann Cabaye immediately before the French midfielder provided for Yoan Gouffran's headed opener.

Whilst that might not be a million miles away from 'f*ckin run about a bit', it is a positive sign that Cabaye is prepared to take advice from his manager over such intricacies, and then act immediately on such words.

"I am not going to try to take any credit for that," Pardew continued. Course you're not Alan, that's why you just told us what you said.


Sergio Aguero
Despite recording their biggest top-flight win since 1968, the winners list has no place for Manchester City as a whole. We learned nothing of them that we didn't already know - this is a side always ruthless at home, often toothless away.

Aguero though, must be singled out for individual honours. Asked to plough a lone furrow at Stamford Bridge last week (and named man of the match in doing so), the Argentinean demonstrated an extra element to his game perhaps not before witnessed. Against Norwich on Saturday, and given a strike partner once more, this was a striker back to what he knows and does best. Bread and butter with a sprinkling of caviar, if you will.

Three assists and a goal took Aguero to that impressive of statuses - no Premier League player has either scored more or assisted more league goals this season - to be top of both lists highlights his immense quality. 18 goals either finished or created in his 12 games at club level this season is the record of a striker at the very peak of his powers.


Hull City
It is hard not to be impressed by Steve Bruce's Hull City. This was a side predicted by every single wise head in F365's pre-season predictions to be relegated without any serious thought on our part or significant fight on theirs - sometimes even we can be mistaken.

In many ways, Hull are the antithesis of Crystal Palace, demonstrating exactly how survival can be made likely rather than a distant improbability - Hull are now 1/6 to stay up in places. During the summer, whilst others were investing significantly in their forward line, Hull managed to persuade Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies to join on permanent deals for £7.5million whilst Jake Livermore arrived on loan, three signings of sufficient quality to add a Premier League spine to a Championship team.

Goals have indeed been hard to come by, but taking a startling 14 points from eight goals demonstrates something we could term 'economy of success'. Basically, in order to survive, a team like Hull must make the maximum use out of every goal scored, and all four of their victories have been by a single goal.

Clearly such a principle is founded in defensive solidity, and it is here that Hull have been most surprising. Just four clubs have more clean sheets and only five have conceded fewer - when you consider that Bruce has already taken his side to away games at Chelsea, Manchester City, Spurs and Everton, that's quite some achievement.

Bruce is not an immediately likeable figure. He always seems to strike me as a man that has higher ideas of his managerial ability than his achievements warrant, and his continuous post-match haranguing of match officials quickly becomes grating. But Bruce is not paid to be my mate, and he isn't paid to be liked. He is paid to attempt to keep up a Hull side that lost 15 games in the Championship last season (as many as 15th-placed Blackpool), and so far Bruce and Hull have taken to such a task with impressive efficiency.


Tony Pulis
"I want to get back in and I want to get working again, but it's got to be the right club."

Whilst it appears that Crystal Palace are not that perfect fit, it seems Pulis may soon have the choice of Norwich, Fulham or even Cardiff to select his next career move. Such luxuries are the perfect demonstration of footballing absence making hearts grow fonder.


Losers


Chelsea
"To have all these choices is a good problem. To have all the players playing well and be very much committed with the group is fantastic. I feel I am unfair with all of them because they are doing everything to play."

What a difference three days makes. Following the midweek Capital One Cup win over Arsenal, Jose Mourinho spoke of the strength of his first-team squad, but on Saturday evening the Portuguese was far less impressed. "I did not like my team today, I am disappointed. I made 11 mistakes, 11 mistakes. I should have picked another 11 and not this one. I made 11 mistakes." Presumably those 11 are not now doing "everything to play".

Mourinho is a man drenched in melodrama, but such a shift in outlook entirely represents the disappointment in Chelsea's Saturday lunchtime performance. Against Newcastle, Chelsea became the latest title challenger to once again look worryingly uneasy away from home.

After an opening half-hour in which Newcastle were almost constantly penned back into their own third and could have been behind, Chelsea lacked the inventiveness and creativity to concern their opponents, quite alarming considering a trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar operated behind an off-colour Fernando Torres (but we were told he was back, baby?). Two shots on target in the entire match despite having 61% of the ball indicates a concerning bluntness to Chelsea's attacking play.

Furthermore, this is becoming a habit for Chelsea this season. In handing the initiative and impetus elsewhere in the title race, Chelsea have now taken just five points from as many away games this season, late victory at Carrow Road their only victory on the road. Take out that particular match and Chelsea have one goal in four away games - unacceptable considering the attacking creativity at the manager's disposal.


Cardiff
Winning the first ever top-flight South Wales derby and yet still being considered losers. Welcome to Cardiff City under Vincent Tan.

It has not been a good week at the Cardiff City Stadium. If the dismissal of Director of Recruitment Iain Moody, replaced by 23-year-old Kazakh Alisher Apsalyamov, was not bizarre enough, the new appointment was this week suspended by the club pending visa issues. Furthermore, the influence of owner Tan continues to be more worryingly exposed with the midweek revelation that Slovenian forward Etien Velikonja was signed for £1.7m over the head of Malky Mackay. Tan is an owner that wishes to be manager, marketing director, coach and kit designer. Such situations can only end badly.

After the victory over Swansea, Mackay was asked whether he had spoken to his boss. Answering in the negative, Cardiff's manager made the point of saying that the win was for "our staff, our players and our fans" before praising his former confidante Moody over the signing of match-winner Steven Caulker. That's probably as brave as he can afford to be right now.

Given his own chance to set the record straight in front of the Sky cameras, Tan was less forthcoming. "I will explain when I need to explain," was the retort to questions on the status quo at the club. A simple "no comment" was his simple answer to the suggestion that his actions could lead to Mackay's departure.

It's all just a big shame. Winning the derby should be a time for great joy and for bragging rights, but can any Cardiff fan truly look to laud it over a supporter of fan-owned, sustainable Swansea?

As a Cardiff fan, think back to your first memory of the club. Stood (gone) on the terraces (gone) at Ninian Park (gone) watching the Bluebirds (gone) take to the field, a sea of blue shirts (gone) impatiently expecting their heroes to play for the badge (gone), for your beloved club (...gone?). With all that removed, what is there left to love? Fleeting success? The Premier League?

Cardiff may have won the battle yesterday, but the more you hear of Vincent Tan's ownership, the more it becomes apparent that they're losing the war.


Martin Jol
A man seemingly counting down the days until his Fulham departure. Second-half resilience against Manchester United may have granted Martin Jol a stay of execution, but such relief looks merely temporary. 'Jol out' was the audible chant at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

Since a 3-2 home victory over QPR on April 1, Fulham have taken 14 points from 18 games - evident relegation form. The Cottage, so often the basis for the club's success, has seen one victory in nine games, via Darren Bent's late winner against Stoke last month. Four home points in seven months simply isn't enough to justify Jol's continued employment.

"I don't fear. Sometimes I worry if the supporters are at my back, but on the other hand it is better that they are on my back than the players' back." That sounds to me like the reaction of a man confident that such players will be at Craven Cottage longer than their manager. Heavy defeat at Anfield next weekend may signal the end of a tenure that has looked to be dwindling for the best part of a year.


Hugo Lloris and Andre Villas-Boas
When Romelu Lukaku's knee connected with the head of Hugo Lloris on Sunday afternoon, the France international was momentarily knocked unconscious. From that moment he should not again have taken to the field to continue.

Despite the best efforts of the referee, Spurs' medical staff and captain Michael Dawson, Lloris insisted that he would continue, his manager also gesturing for Brad Friedel to take his place on the bench, happy to not 'waste' one of his substitutions at a crucial time.

After Lukaku himself returned to the fray following unconsciousness a fortnight ago, now must be the time for the Football Association to effect a change in the law. Forget the faux masculinity, courage and fortitude, returning too quickly from concussion causes long-term cognitive degeneration in adults. That much is fact.

"Hugo still doesn't recall everything about the incident," Villas-Boas admitted after the match. "It was a very difficult moment for us and I am happy he is well. I made the call to keep him on the pitch because of the signs he was giving. He was determined to continue," continued the Portuguese, seemingly oblivious to the fact that those suffering from a head injury are unlikely to make rational decisions.

In America's MLS, players with concussion are prohibited from returning to the field, and must have neuropsychological tests before being permitted to return even to training. League rugby in England operates similarly staunch regulations, but football currently merely offers guidelines.

It is understandable that players would want to return, and equally explicable that their managers would share the view, such is the pressure of the Premier League. Now is the time to take such decisions out of their hands.


Norwich
One suspects that the end is soon nigh for Chris Hughton at Carrow Road. A defensive shambles of such ridiculous proportions at Eastlands on Saturday that simply stemmed from a summer in which £17million was spent on attacking players and not a penny invested in central defence.

When you combine having scored fewer goals than any other team with conceding at a rate of two per game, things don't look good. Having paid a high price for Ricky Van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper, Hughton may well pay a heavy one with his own employment in the not-too-distant future.


Joe Hart and English Goalkeepers
Hart is a loser not because he made another blunder, but because he wasn't provided with the opportunity. Costell Pantilimon may not have been integral to his side's 7-0 victory (he faced one shot on target all game), but Manuel Pellegrini will have little reason to switch his options after a midweek League Cup display in which the Romanian looked solid and dependable.

Hart's absence meant that only two English goalkeepers appeared in the Premier League this weekend. One (John Ruddy) conceded seven times, whilst the other is 38 and Steve Harper. North of the border, Fraser Forster came out to intercept a striker and was left flailing as the ball was put into the net. Roy Hodgson will be aware of the worrying familiarity in that particular scenario.


Lee Cattermole
We've said it before and we'll say it again: in a league in which innocence is consistently protested after stupid, reckless and unnecessary fouls lead to red cards, Cattermole most certainly is 'that type of player'.

His manager may have claimed that Cattermole failed to connect with Ahmed Elmohamady, but in leaving the ground (and on the half-way line, for goodness sake) and jumping in to a wild tackle, Andre Marriner was left with little choice. Cattermole was already walking from the field when the card was produced. Seven red cards in the top flight and counting, with little evidence to suggest that the midfielder has the ability to learn from his mistakes.

One of the benefits of Sunderland's likely relegation is that Cattermole will surely leave the top flight - there will not be many sorry to see him depart.


West Ham
No goals against Aston Villa at home, West Ham have now 'enjoyed' just 29 shots on target in their ten matches this season. As another dreary spectacle passes by, the 3-0 victory at White Hart Lane looks more and more like a stopped clock landing on the right time. Perhaps this is simply Allardici instigating his catenaccio defensive style, but it palpably isn't working - the Hammers are now two points off the bottom three having played none of the current top three.

The nail in the coffin for the club's current dreariness is this: on the basis of this season, the chances of a West Ham game being 0-0 is 40%.


Fans of excitement
After a weekend in which only five of the Premier League's 20 teams scored more than one goal and half of the league failed to score at all, we are seeing further evidence of the specific drawback of a bottom half soaked in mediocrity, breeding a 'must not lose' mentality.

Goals are not the only barometer of excitement but they sure do help - this season is on course to have the lowest goals per game in 43 years.


Mohamed Diame, Kevin Mirallas, Papiss Cisse and Jonathan Walters
Listen chaps, you've had 56 shots between you this season and you haven't scored. See that Stoke goalkeeper over there? Well he's had one. And it went in.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

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Readers' Comments

I

may well get slated by other United fans for this, but out of the three contenders, I'd far prefer Liverpool to win the title. Yes some elements of their fanbase can be a bit OTT, yes they're our biggest rivals and yes it will make our poor season feel even more like the end of an era (Fergie's gone, Liverpool are back on top). However I just have to applaud Brendan Rodgers and the way he's turned Liverpool around in just a couple of seasons. It...

Mike_Christie
Please Stop Telling Us What To Think

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ooray! We are all excited now, we beat a very mediocre team! With all due respect to WHU supporters, not winning that game shouldn't even be a consideration. This is the problem, there is no winning mentality at the Emirates - we're all congratulating ourselves beating a team that we have a winning record against.

TheWhiz
Wenger hails important win

I

s this meant to be an aspiration for United supporters? Moyes mediocrity strikes again. I see the Bayern boys don't want to sign for him, and his reputation amongst the senior European coaches make other key signings unlikely.

redbornandbred
De Gea's Europa League target

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