What we learnt from this Premier League weekend

Article by Peter Swallow

Chelsea aren’t superhuman, but damn difficult to beat

Chelsea; this season’s overriding favourites, beating newly promoted and managerially uncertain Queens Park Rangers is hardly a result to send shockwaves into the football stratosphere, in reality, QPR provided a far more laborious proposition than many had expected. Yet Jose Mourinho’s side won when not playing well, a hallmark of all top-sides and even at 1-1, the overriding emotion was one of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ Chelsea would find a winner. Solid across the board and able to slam the defensive door at the blink of an eye, Chelsea will take some beating this season and on current viewing, it looks unlikely anyone in the Premier League is capable of overcoming the Blue juggernaut let alone beating them to the Premier League crown. 

Despite derby win Manchester City are uneasy defending champions

As the final whistle blew upon a Manchester Derby that had been ebbing with intrigue, the sense of relief that swept the Etihad was palpable. Sergio Agüero’s second half strike gave City a deserved lead and for 10 minutes afterwards, looked the dominant side. It had shown in fits and starts that once Manchester City played with the pace and movement so familiar with their title winning campaign of last season, Manchester United couldn’t cope. However, the retreat of their players in the last 15 minutes was startling. They invited United pressure and almost paid the price for such melancholy when it came to striking the killer blow. Psychologically it raises some questions as to where Manchester City are mentally. Of course, they’d just failed to win in 3 of their previous games but the mental attitude was one that is unexpected from a side who’ve won 2 of the last 3 Premier League titles. It was an opportunity for Manchester City to put on a display that indicated they were serious Premier League contenders after many pundits and fans alike have lost faith in credentials. However, that performance (in particular the last 15-20 minutes) raised just as many questions as it answered. City have the squad, but whether they have the mentality is another issue entirely.

No matter what anyone says, it’s not as difficult to play against 10 men

The old cliché, probably borne after a side who’d been reduced to 10 men overturned the odds and beat the numerical superior opposition, was that sometimes it’s just as difficult playing against 10 men, as it is 11. True that at times, a red-card can be a bonding factor for teams and result in the collective repelling of the opposition, however most likely it’s a fatal and often avoidable shot in the foot. Chris Smalling probably received the Louis Van Gaal hairdryer treatment at half time for a foolish first yellow card and then an ill judged second, both of which cost his Manchester United side a share of the points, which, at the time, they deserved. Over at Villa Park, Christian Benteke will sleep just as uneasily as his Manchester United counterpart. With his side 1-0 up against Tottenham the Belgian, overcome by the red mist, saw a red card. Aston Villa went on to lose the game 2-1. Petulance has no place in football and here are two examples of just how disastrous a moment of madness can be.

Burnley are courageous, but courage doesn’t get you 3 points

Poor old Burnley, it’s important to recognise how unlikely the club’s promotion to the Premier League was this time last year. In fact many tipped them as one of the favourites for relegation from the Championship last season, so credit to Sean Dyche and his players for making it this far. Of course, that will be of little consolation to the loyal fans who support a side that look drastically below the required quality for survival at this level. The reality is that they appear devoid of the kind of star quality that every other Premier League club possesses, and while their performances have indicated they won’t replace Derby as the league’s worst ever side, but survival at this stage seems unlikely. I’ll raise a glass celebrating their promotion, and hope that sooner rather than later, their courage will be rewarded with a Premier League victory. 

Southampton pass another test but it’s too early to cry Champions League 

The story of the season thus far is most definitely the form of Southampton. The club many predicted would struggle to keep its head above the murky waters of Premier League relegation have defied the odds and are now 2nd in the Premier League, and look a strong and powerful outfit. Those who questioned the club’s policy to sell its stars and replace them with untested foreigners look mighty foolish now. Questions remain as to the club’s strength in depth as well as the true fact that far greater challenges are still in Southampton’s near future, however for all those Saints fans who know all too well the rapidity in which tragedy can befall a football club, now is the time to enjoy Premier League life and not look too far into a future that remains uncertain. 

David De Gea is one of the best Goalkeepers in the world

At this moment, I would argue that Manchester United’s 23 year-old Spanish goal-keeper is the best in the league. I’m well aware of the controversy this will cause especially as Thibaut Courtois fans will emerge out of the woodwork in defence of their man. Firstly, I maintain that Courtois is one of the best in the world, of that there is little doubt, yet ultimately David De Gea, right now is outperforming his Belgian counterpart, the reason some people disagree, is because of the way we evaluate goalkeepers. Many compare goalkeepers by how many clean sheets they win, and while an acceptable methodology, it completely fails to account for the bearing a good back 4 has upon that particular statistic. Hence, it is important to look at how many points a particular goalkeeper has saved his club, and in this regard, David De Gea stands above all other elite goalkeepers in world football. Naturally, this doesn’t mean he’s the best in the world, that honour falls to Manuel Neuer; the most complete goalkeeper around, yet De Gea has developed into a truly outstanding stopper. Long gone is his deficiency in collecting crosses, while his shot stopping and footwork are as outstanding as they’ve always been. The greatest testament to his quality is the fact that Manchester United’s plight would be considerably worse had David De Gea not been between the sticks. Better than Manuel Neuer? Not yet. Better than Thibaut Courtois? Debatable, but one thing is for sure, on current form, he’s the best this country has to offer.

Stewart Downing deserves an England Call-up

A transformation so remarkable it borders on the supernatural, Stewart Downing was excellent during his tenure at Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, but the glory move to Liverpool quickly transpired into a nightmare. An escape to Upton Park seemed to have done little to reignite the once promising career of the prodigal solution to England’s left sided problem. Yet in a move Sam Allardyce blatantly and unashamedly stole from Carlo Ancelotti, the one time left winger is now a fully fledged centre-midfielder and his transformation has been astonishing. So much so, that he deserves an England call-up. However, the stigma (typified by his inclusion in BBC’s England’s Worst Ever Football Team) against him is likely impossible to overturn. If only England was a football team based on merit eh? 

Arsenal can’t live off of Alexis Sánchez forever, but the answer lies within

In Alexis Sánchez, Arsenal have a player of the highest quality, the Gunners huffed and puffed for 70 minutes against Burnley, until their plucky Chilean forced his club beyond the Claret and Blue Banana skin. His adaptation to the league has been instantaneous, but the fact that his club struggled to break down the Premier League’s bottom club for over an hour is an indication of their one-dimensional play. Arsenal are notoriously stubborn when it comes to deviating from the Wenger philosophy, but the return to fitness of Olivier Giroud could provide the answer. Under-appreciated and at times admittedly turgid, Giroud is a key player in terms of not only linking the play but also give Arsenal an out and out genuine goal threat. When it comes to the more physical teams in the league, his presence will be much appreciated in the Arsenal ranks.

Liverpool cannot defend

Not a specific lesson to this weeks round of fixtures, but the club’s defeat to Newcastle United on Saturday indicated how fragile a back line Brendan Rodgers possesses. Last season Liverpool’s defence was bailed out by a sublime front-line, but such frailties cannot be papered over this season. Disorganised, at times hapless and nervy in the extreme, it is impossible that Liverpool can replicate their tremendous form of last season. A foray into the transfer market in January is a must if the club are to maintain their Champions League status. Things aren’t clicking for Rodgers, and the questioning of his position is absurd but the fact remains that Liverpool are a long way from winning the title. 

No-one likes jumping on the referee bashing bandwagon but sometimes it’s unavoidable

We’re all aware of the difficult job referee’s have, it’s possibly the most difficult in football and at times almost impossible, yet that doesn’t excuse the fact that some of the refereeing performances from our trained professionals in the Premier League have been baffling. At St James Park Andre Marriner put in a far from assured performance, he didn’t make a wrong decision that changed the fate of the match but a number of debatable decisions largely tarnished his match. Yet that was overshadowed due to a perplexing performance from Michael Oliver in the Manchester derby. Oliver clearly denied Manchester City 3 blatant penalties and despite his admirable penchant for allowing the game to flow, he struggled with the big game atmosphere, and not for the first time. Their job is undeniably difficult, but that should not absolve them from blame when they deserve it.