Soccer

Wheeler: Musings on all 20 Premier League teams

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Gareth Wheeler
10/22/2013 9:21:45 PM
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Arsenal - Undefeated in the league since their opening day loss to Aston Villa and atop the table on 19 points, no team has turned on the style more than the Gunners (with apologies to Manchester City).  The quality was in full display in the 4-1 win over Norwich City.  Arsenal's first was as true a team goal as you'll every see.  Jack Wilshere gets the credit, but the one touch football between he, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla was a thing of beauty.  Unstoppable movement, touch and finish all at the highest level.  It was shades of Arsenal early last decade.  Likewise, Mesut Ozil's first goal in red and white was entirely underrated.  The former Real Madrid man made a stunning 45 yard run to get his head on the end of a Giroud cross.  It was the perfect example how movement off the ball has been the defining factor in Arsenal's early season team success.  Also encouraging is the depth displayed in advanced positions.  The Gunners have been without Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, all out through injury.  Arsene Wenger certainly has options through the midfield to mount a challenge in all competitions.  In providing some levity, Arsenal has had a plum schedule thus far. Other than a home win against rival Spurs, Arsenal haven't played another team in the top half of the table.  After lesser likes Crystal Palace this weekend, seven of their next eight before Christmas are against the current top nine in the league.  The true test is yet to come.  Questions remain about the Arsenal backline.  And although 23-year old goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has been steady, his bad habit of losing focus as the pressure mounts will be tested in the coming weeks.  It's premature to call Arsenal title favourites.

Aston Villa - Although still in the bottom half of the table, it can be argued no team has made greater strides from this point last season than Villa.  Never mind the three wins, the way the team plays is entirely impressive from a group of young players still cutting their teeth in England's top division.  Paul Lambert has his team playing well through a tough schedule to start the season.  The work rate of players like Fabian Delph and Andreas Wiemann are top notch.  And despite the loss on the weekend to Spurs, the play of Brad Guzan is right up there with Southampton's Artur Boruc as top goalkeeper in the BPL.  The problem is where the team is going to find goals outside of Christian Benteke.  No player other than the big Belgian has more than a goal this season.  Too much reliance on one player, especially one who is a hot commodity as bigger clubs circle, has to be of some concern.  Libor Kozak failed to score a goal last year in Serie A play.  A balanced attack will have to be relied upon to provide enough support to Benteke to keep opposition honest in defending Villa.

Cardiff City - Some worrying signs are creeping in at Cardiff.  The off-field distraction of a meddling, and seemingly off-base owner Vincent Tan threatens to throw the feel good story in South Wales into danger.  Manager Malky Mackay is the heartbeat of the team.  He's been forced to publicly deny he was asked to resign, a stinging indictment of the climate at the club.  There are plenty of positives as to the way the team plays.  Like other top promoted teams before, Cardiff is confident in moving around the ball and has proven to be a tough out at home.  These are trademarks of successful Premier League clubs.  Better play is needed from goalkeeper David Marshall.  To say he had a bad day at Stamford Bridge is an understatement, conceding four times in the loss.  Although he was hard done by on the first, with the referee letting play continue after Samuel Eto'o pounced as Marshall bounced the ball, a clear violation of Law 12 of FIFA's regulations, it takes attention away from his all-round sloppy play.  Marshall should never be so lax with Eto'o in close range, while the third and fourth goals conceded were soft on his part.  Hovering right above the relegation zone, mistakes and careless goals as such spell disaster for a club required to fight tooth and nail for their Premier League lives.  The next two weeks will be massive for Cardiff; away at fellow struggler Norwich City and a home tie in the South Wales derby against Swansea.

Chelsea - Sent to the stands after a fiery tirade?  Now that's the Jose Mourinho we all know and tolerate.  Mourinho has been charged by the FA with improper conduct after being sent away by referee Anthony Taylor after complaining about time-wasting by Cardiff in a 4-1 home win Saturday.  The pictures of Mourinho sitting in the stands among Chelsea fans will be a memorable one, and a clear reminder of the emotional make-up of the great tactician.  It's Mourinho's biggest strength and greatest weakness.  As for his team, the side is rounding into form.  Chelsea is undefeated in seven straight in all competitions.  The attacking midfield play has been exquisite; Oscar and Eden Hazard have recaptured last season's form, with the former taking a further step in his development.  Mourinho will still be looking for more from the defensive midfield and back four.  Ramires has done well, but I'm not convinced Frank Lampard is the right fit alongside the Brazilian in the holding role.  It is clear Mourinho isn't a fan of the erratic play of David Luiz in central defence.  Luiz made a cameo in the Champions League against Schalke Tuesday in a midfield role.  Perhaps this is where Mourniho can deploy Luiz with more confidence.  That means a more regular role for John Terry in central defence.  Mourinho is loyal to the veteran centre-back, but it's hard to understand why.  Terry remains a force on set pieces, getting forward and active inside the 18 yard box in attack, but remains a defensive liability at times, easily burned for foot speed and often times making poor decisions.  More Terry means more onuses on Gary Cahill to steady the ship from the back.  Manchester City this weekend, with both teams coming off Champions League fixtures will be a big test for team defending.

Crystal Palace - Palace are a case where hard work isn't enough.  Few teams put in a harder working shift than that of Ian Holloway's side.  It's unfair Holloway met with Crystal Palace co-chairman Steve Parish Tuesday about the state of the team.  The vultures are circling and Holloway is very much the next Premier League manager on the chopping block.  The suggestion Holloway should face the sack is shortsighted and doesn't do the manager justice.  In fairness, Holloway did a job seeing Palace to promotion through the playoff.  Holloway lost his top player, Wilfired Zaha, to Manchester United and was unable to add requisite talent in the summer to make the team truly competitive.  Their one win came against cellar-dwellers Sunderland, and it can't be said Palace have more talent than any team in the league.  So what is Holloway to do?  There is only so much that can be squeezed from this rotten apple.  Jason Puncheon was a worthwhile addition.  Mile Jedinak and Jose Campagna have done well in the middle of the park.  Other than that, injuries have crept in and the squad list leaves much to be desired.  The best Palace can hope for is keep close to teams in and around the relegation zone and be active in desirable loan moves comes January.  Zaha would be a huge short-term addition, if Holloway can pull a rabbit out of his hat for the promising youngster to return to Selhurst Park.

Everton - The Toffees were the last undefeated team in the Premier League, yet sit just seventh in the table.  It speaks to the quality in depth of competition, as well as the three draws characterizing their early season record.  Other than a second half they were outplayed by Man City, Everton have been in the mix in every match played.  Gareth Barry was lucky not to be sent off for two separate ugly challenges in a 2-1 win over Hull City Saturday.  You take the good with the bad with Barry.  Quite frankly, Everton need his experience in the middle of the park, especially with Darron Gibson ruled out long term through injury.  Last year Marouane Fellaini earned well deserved praise for his top play at Goodison.  A quieter hero remains in Steven Pienaar.  Shortly after entering the proceedings against Hull, Pineaar delivered a trademark class finish to earn the spoils.  I love the way he maneuvers down the left flank, cutting into the middle, and always dangerous in possession.  Cutting inside allows Leighton Baines to get up the wing.  The two play beautiful football, in tandem.  15 points through eight matches is a terrific start for Everton.

Fulham - Never mind the mediocrity at Craven Cottage.  We'll save that for another day.  21-year old, Macedonian born, Swiss International Pajtim Kasami has been the clubs top player all season.  Now he's got the goal of the season wrapped up.  The ballot box is closed, after his wonder goal at Crystal Palace.  Kasami's all-world strike was special in the finish, but his work to get into a proper position for the strike will be understated.  Kasami made his diagonal run from the centre of the field, finding space across the back line.  Sascha Reither played the long-ball that hit Kasami in stride.  The midfielder controlled the ball off his chest on the run, an incredible bit of skill, and from the corner of the 18-yard box, before the ball hit the ground; Kasami unleashed the unstoppable volley without hesitation beating Julian Speroni far post.  A top class goal if you'll ever see one.  It may not be as cheeky in as Zlatan Ibrahimovic's special goal over the weekend for PSG.  But the intent, power and pace of the move were of the highest quality.  Fulham went on to win 4-1, taking some heat off manager Martin Jol.  Its skilled players like Kasami that make Fulham's poor form all that more frustrating.

Hull City - The Tigers remain among the pluckiest teams in the BPL.  Their one win in four away matches hardly speaks to the competitiveness they have showed on their travels.  The positive play represents some redemption for manager Steve Bruce, who has been labeled as a good League Championship manager, ill suited to succeed with the jump in quality in the Premier League.  Bruce's team has remained extremely well organized, yet nothing flashy.  Midfield creator Robbie Brady has returned from injury, giving Hull a lift.  Striker Danny Graham was stretched off Saturday and will miss three weeks with a knee.  In fairness, Sone Aluko and Yannick Sagbo have been a more dangerous partnership anyway and give good reason to believe Hull can maintain their current form.

Liverpool - The positives are plain to see at Liverpool.  Forget the attacking duo of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez; throw Victor Moses into that equation as well.  The chemistry among them is exceptional for players having little experience alongside one another.  Add Coutinho to that equation, who readies for a return from a shoulder injury, this Reds team will score goals. I'm intrigued by the 3-5-2 formation Brendan Rodgers has started rolling out.  Using players like Glen Johnson and Aly Cissokho on the flanks adds width but lack the quality in service more attacking wide players can provide.  Defensively in open play, the system works fine.  If Rodgers can rely upon the creative influence stemming from just three or four players in attack, then so be it.  Of more concern, four of the last six goals conceded have been from set pieces.  This isn't good enough.  The three central defenders deployed have to sort this out.  Thankfully for Liverpool, it hasn't cost the team too dearly.  Third place in the table at present time sets up Liverpool well for a battle for European spots.  They'll be salivating for a litmus test match at Arsenal in a fortnight.

Manchester City - City got the monkey of their back, winning their first away match, 3-1 in a stroll at West Ham.  And it should have been worse for the Hammers.  Manuel Pellegrini has found his preferred strike duo in Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero. A combined nine goals by the duo in short order has the team a juggernaut in attack.  Astoundingly, City has never lost when Aguero has scored.  Fernandinho is starting to find his way alongside the omnipresent Yaya Toure in central midfield, allowing the likes of David Silva to play in more a freelance role in attack.  The soft spot remains at centre-back with the often-injured Vincent Kompany being a significant concern.  When fit, Kompany is a stabilizing force.  Javi Garcia and Joleon Lescott are massive downgrades and cannot be trusted.  Chelsea on the weekend is a match that will have decided repercussions on where the title lands at season's end.  Spurs four weeks from now is another big match in a sea of other winnable fixtures in the immediate future for City.

Manchester United - Sir Alex Ferguson's new autobiography has provided all kinds of distraction this week.  Although by all accounts, a compelling read, what's in the past is in the past.  Present form continues to worry for the reigning Champions.  Incredibly, United have only earned five points in four home matches after the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford with Southampton.  That's three less points than Hull City have earned at home.  To be honest, Southampton deserved points more last season in this fixture in a 2-1 loss, rather than the point they picked up Saturday.  Rooney and Van Persie went off the bar, failing to snuff out the match.  The failures of this team fall on the players as much as the manager.  United were outstanding coming back from trailing positions a season ago.  Whether behind or ahead this campaign, United lack the urgency and desire that have become trademarks of the team.  The top players need to rise up during these tough times to carve out results.  Moyes plays a role in this too.  His substitutions and squad selection haven't been good enough.  The starting XI Saturday was fine.  But up 1-0 at home, and deciding to make negative changes, particularly bringing on Chris Smalling for Wayne Rooney speaks to the tentativeness Moyes has this team playing with.  Moyes refuses to call on the numbers of Chicharito and Kagawa: players with the ability to open up an opponent pressing for an equalizer.  Moyes needs to understand United are a team that commands respect and changes the way opposition play.  The winning attitude and positive direction starts from the manager.  Moyes needs to do better.  United have dug a hole.  Stoke and Fulham ahead are must wins, heading into a showdown with Arsenal at home three weeks from now.  Nine points from the next three matches and United are right back in it.

Newcastle - It was a nervy day on the Tyneside in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool.  The point was well earned, but the manner was entirely impressive and could buoy Alan Pardew's side on to better things.  The team had been screaming for a character performance and they finally delivered.  A man down to a superior side, we've seen Newcastle teams mail it in before.  Yohan Cabaye is so important for this team.  His opening goal out of nothing speaks to his talent.  If the Frenchman is focused, he can bring some much-needed consistency in the midfield.  The backline remains shaky through the middle.  Fabricio Coloccini remains the best they have, as Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa has much to prove to show he's of Premier League quality.  Despite dysfunction both on and off the field, Newcastle sits in the top half of the table.  Problem is you never know which Newcastle team is going to show up.  Sunderland, Man City and Chelsea in the next three will be a challenge.

Norwich City - The Canaries were a buzz team after a busy summer of transfers, but have failed to live up to expectations.  Norwich was exposed on numerous occasions, outclassed at the Emirates by Arsenal.  No shame in such a loss: in fact, Norwich came to play, a desirable trait for a team in the relegation zone.  Chris Hughton's team has shown a willingness to attack throughout the early season.  This bodes well for the prospects of a complete season.  It takes time for new players to settle, particularly those coming from outside the Premier League.  Hughton and company won't panic being 18th in the table.  A poor start last season left the team with much to do to climb the table.  A 10 match unbeaten streak like last season is unlikely.  But better results should come.  Back to back matches in two weeks time against the Manchester clubs may not be when a stretch of positive results kicks off.

Southampton - Sixth in the table and just three goals conceded, the dream start continues for the Saints.  Mauricio Pochettino has the team playing a high defensive line with all kinds of pressure being put on the ball.  Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin have been crucial to keeping the shape as ball winning central midfielders.  Pochettino showed another look at Old Trafford, keeping Rickie Lambert on the bench to start the game.  It was a better formation, with the impressive Adam Lallana active in a recess striker role.  There is balance in this team, with a good mixture of young talent and players with high engines.  I predicted before the season Southampton would be this years Swansea.  They've shown me nothing that would change my view.  Fulham, Stoke and Hull City ahead aren't the most difficult stretch.  This team looks to remain a fixture in the top half of the table. 

Stoke City - Mark Hughes is in the midst of changing his squad's identity into a more attractive, attacking team.  The evidence in play shows it's a work in progress.  The results show much of the same as previous years.  Stoke have a league low four goals on the campaign, including going without a goal in their last three.  Stoke started their home, scoreless draw with West Brom without a true, out-and-out striker in the starting XI.  Peter Crouch remains on the outside, and the team doesn't have a reliable goal scorer in the squad.  Hughes must find someone to score goals in January.  If not, a descent into the relegation zone is a realistic outcome. 

Sunderland - A new manager and same disappointment for the Black Cats.  In fairness, Gus Poyet only had a few days to get his new group together following the international break.  A 4-0 loss at Swansea showed all the frailties of his new squad, so much so Wes Brown, who has been on the sidelines the vast majority of the last two seasons, may be thrown right into the fire for this weekend's Wear-Tyne derby.  All Premier League teams should take notice of the Sunderland model as due warning: attempting to throw 14 new players together and expect results is foolish.  It's a model for near certain relegation.  One point from eight games and little to build on, Sunderland looks to be this year's QPR.

Swansea - It was a walk in the park at home against Sunderland.  It took 57 minutes before the floodgates opened.  Jonathan De Guzman starred Saturday with another top goal for the Swans.  The Canadian born midfielder continues to impress amidst stiff competition in the middle of the park at the Liberty.  The beauty of the way Swansea plays has been applauded in this space before.  That will not change.  A climb in the standings will be well earned.  Swansea remains in the bottom half of the table, but is knocking on the door to the top half after a brutal schedule to start the season.  The next four matches are all against those in the bottom half of the table.

Tottenham - A 2-0 away win at Aston Villa was the perfect way to put the 3-0 loss to West Ham behind them.  Andros Townsend continued to shine, showing the initiative displayed while on International duty with England, fresh off signing a new 4-year deal with the team.  It's a dream scenario for club and player for Townend to sign long-term with his childhood team.  He gives AVB even more options, putting the likes of Aaron Lennon and Erik Lamela on the bench.  No Christian Eriksen or Mousa Dembele in the starting XI also speaks to squad depth.  Lewis Holtby continues to grow into his role in attack.  Best news of all Roberto Soldado scored his first goal in open play for the club.  It was a class finish beating Guzan.  Spurs are fifth in the table, just three points back of rival Arsenal.  The next five matches will be a big test for Spurs.  A date with Everton, as well as the Manchester clubs back-to-back will give a clear impression where the team is.  Remember, Spurs beat United at Old Trafford a season ago.  This years Spurs team is better, and the current struggles of United have been well documented.  It's crazy to think how seamless the team transition has been post Gareth Bale.  No longer is there a reliance on one player to make the difference.  A team effort is required, and the cohesion is developing by the week.

West Brom - WBA maintained their run of fine form in a rather dire 0-0 draw the Britannia.  Poor finishing meant just one point for West Brom, who has now picked up points in five straight, including four points in matches against Manchester United and Arsenal.  Despite an awful display in front of goal, Stephane Sessegnon was the best player on the field on the weekend.  The former Sunderland man looks to be a shrewd piece of business by manager Steve Clarke.  The team strikers are getting healthy, and Clarke needs more from the group.  Nicolas Anelka has yet to open his account at the Hawthorns.

West Ham - The Hammers came crashing back down to earth, completely outclassed at home by Man City.  West Ham had only conceded five goals on the season before Saturday's demolition.  The 3-0 away win at Spurs before the international break flattered West Ham, and perhaps gave the side some false confidence.  The shock win was more a product of 15 minutes of madness than a superior performance.  West Ham uncharacteristically showed finish on the counter and Spurs were punished against the run of play.  The Hammers pride itself on being defensively sound.  Picking up regular points in cagey, unattractive matches will continue to be the modus operendi.  It's not all smash and grab for West Ham.  20-year old Ravel Morrison is showing what he can do with regular minutes, building on the frustrating talent that has yet to be cultivated.

Nicklas Bendtner (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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