The 2011/12 Premier League season is nearly a third of the way to being over, with most teams having played 12 games, with the exception of Villa, Everton (who are both on 11 games) and Spurs (who have played 10). With Newcastle, the surprise package of the season, having lost to Manchester City on Saturday, City are now the only team yet to be beaten, and are looking good for the title.
- they have won 11 of their 12 games and drawn one (Fulham, away);
- they have 3 players in the top 10 league scorers;
- 6 out 10 of the players in the list of those with most assists are from City;
- having scored 42 goals, they are the top scoring team with Man United a distant second on 29 goals;
- they have the league’s tightest defence, joint top with Liverpool and Newcastle 11 goals conceded;
- they have scored 3 or more goals in 10 of their 12 matches; and
- their goal difference of 31 is almost unbelievable.
This represents the best start to the league by any team in a very long time. Critics will point to other kinds of records that City are beating. After reporting losses of £195 million and boasting a wage bill of £174 million, they are certain to achieve many financial firsts as well as football ones. But Mancini has made the most of a great situation and you only need to look at the bench against Newcastle at the weekend to see how strong they are as contenders for the title. Silva, Johnson and Barry were all second half substitutes, brought on for Balotelli, Aguero and Toure; no manager in the league would argue that this is stuff their dreams are made of.
Can the title be bought, though? Many clubs have tried and failed. Mancini, however, has made a great start. He settled into the English game relatively quickly, started building from the defence last season, then added proven goal scorers, and now with Nasri and Silva, can afford to be more attacking and expansive. He has successfully built a team where, among the starting eleven, the bench and the extended squad, it is difficult to spot obvious weakness.
The vast majority of the players in the City squad have not won major titles in the past, so there is a hunger, a will to win that will mean City will be making a strong challenge for the title this year.
Despite this, only a fool would bet against Sir Alex Ferguson. This is not the first time that a rival team has looked almost unstoppable, but United have proven their ability to win crucial games at the end of the season, to come back from bigger deficits. They have themselves had one of their best starts to the season this year and if they finish like they have done in the past, they will certainly be right up there with City.
Since the 6-1 thrashing at the hands of their Manchester rivals, United have had five successive clean sheets, of which three (including the weekend away tie at Swansea) have been 1-0 wins. This doesn’t worry Wayne Rooney, though, who admitted that United are “not playing as well as we can do, but we’re picking up the points, that’s the main thing.” Rooney’s right: United are not playing their best and have gone back to concentrating on the defensive side of their game, which is resulting in the clean sheets and close 1-0 wins that Sir Alex can so often consistently grind out.
They know they have to keep winning as City are unlikely to slip up, and as playing Rooney in midfield shows, they want to make being “solid” a bit more of a priority. Having Ferdinand back fit, taking his place in the centre of defence with Vidic (who was, for me, the best player for United at Swansea), together with Jones and Smalling creating competition for places, bodes well for the Red Devils. There is nothing wrong with 1-0 victories; they are worth the same three points that City got when they beat United 6-1, and getting back to basics and being defensively strong will not do United’s chances at the title any harm.
Two of the teams that are competing for a top four place met on Sunday, and Liverpool came away with 3 points from the Bridge, beating Chelsea 1-2 with a late Glen Johnson goal. Kenny Daglish went back to the kind of team selection that had brought him success at the end of last season: Kuyt and Maxi came back to the starting lineup, while the new boys, Downing and Henderson, were dropped. Liverpool have had mixed fortunes; draws against Norwich and Swansea at home, have taken the shine off wins at Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton, but they are still one of the four teams on 22 points and very much in the hunt for a Champions League place next season.
In the absence of Gerrard, who is out for another relatively long period due to injury, Adam and Lucas have been working very hard in the centre of midfield and making up for his loss. They were both immense against Chelsea on Sunday, closing down spaces, being creative going forward, playing those forty yard balls and tackling aggressively with precision. On several occasions, Malouda found himself in space with the ball, only to find either Lucas or Adam in his face.
While Carroll has not yet found his feet, Suarez has been a revelation. He provides that bit of magic, that flair and creativity that makes a striker great. He does that, however, without the selfishness that so many natural goal scorers seem to have, and is quite willing to play others in. What Liverpool have been unable to do so far is build a consistent partnership up front and that will only happen when he and Carroll get a sustained run of games playing together. That will, however, depend on what Dalglish’s tactics are and who he wants to see in his core group of players whose names go first on to the team sheet each weekend.
The gap between the seventh placed team and Villa, who are eighth, is 7 points, which means that two of Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool will be taking the third and fourth places come the end of the season. While Chelsea are still very much in it, Andre Villas-Boas is already under fire, unfairly in my view. Managers need time to settle with a team, and AVB hasn’t had nearly enough. In the first half against Liverpool, Chelsea played one-dimensional, Mourinho style, football and then in the second they reverted to a more AVB style, attacking, 4-3-2-1 formation and dominated the first half an hour before Liverpool came back. The problem is, the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, is not known for his patience.
For Liverpool, the challenge is how to convert those draws at home to wins. With teams being more defensive at Anfield, they will need to learn to adapt the system so that they can get more space and be able to finish more of their chances. With Gerrard back around Christmas, chances are that is exactly what they will do.
The revelation of the season, though, has been Robin Van Persie. It seems like the captaincy has given him an extra burst of energy; he is enjoying being the centre of attention and that has translated into him being the top scorer in the league, helping to pull out Arsenal from depths of despair after having lost Fabregas and Nasri in the summer, to a creditable seventh spot in the league table. Wenger is a master at getting the best out of his players. He can manage energy levels and keep RVP ticking along, loving his football, enjoying every moment and doing the business for Arsenal. The worry is defense for Wenger, and he will be anxiously awaiting Wilshere’s return to fitness. Top four is a definite possibility, but will not be easy.
It’s certainly going to be interesting, whichever way it goes. Hopefully, Man City will not be able to run away with the title and it will be a two horse race, with United. Third and fourth places will be very interesting, with Spurs and Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, all competing for next season’s Champions League places. Not being in Europe this season, ironically gives Liverpool an advantage, but with Van Persie on fire, Villas-Boas settling into his role and Spurs’ two games in hand will make sure it is not smooth sailing. So, football fans, strap yourselves in!