Premier League Five Points: Fabregas shines; injuries may cost Gunners
At the start of the season, the conventional wisdom was that Ronald Koeman and his brother had inherited a sinking ship while Mauricio Pochettino was heading to greener pastures. Few will believe that pap after this Saturday’s show, which saw Spurs blitzed again – this time 4-1 victims of Manchester City – while the Saints crushed Sunderland by an eye-popping scoreline of 8-0. We learned a few more things this weekend as well about the teams in the Prem, and the directions in which some of them are headed.
1) Cesc is making Chelsea’s season
Diego Costa has all the goals, Jose Mourinho’s got all the best lines, and the Blues just keep on getting all the wins. It wasn’t so last season: it was at Selhurst Park, Saturday’s venue, where Chelsea’ ambitions came a cropper. Then, Mourinho bemoaned his side’s lack of cojones. Saturday, it was reported that he had the sense of the occasion to update his comments, echoing one of Diego Simeone’s more infamous phrases.
But big balls aren’t the only thing Chelsea’s got. For at this remove, it looks as if Mourinho’s masterstroke will be remembered as the moment he convinced Cesc Fabregas to put pen to paper. Brilliant at Arsenal, marginalized at Barcelona, Fabregas clearly had a statement to make.
What Cesc has brought is a bit of craft and guile to a side that already knew how to grind out result. In the absence of the sidelined Diego Costa Saturday, it was his quality and sureness that hauled Chelsea past a stuff Palace side. His winner was mesmerizing, and the sense of purpose he has brought has transformed this entire side.
Now, why Arsene Wenger didn’t wish to have his former captain return to the Emirates is one of this season’s enduring mysteries. That foolish miscalculation is likely to end up handing his archrival the crown. If so, Mourinho – who played down his side’s undeniable title credentials Saturday – will again have the last laugh.
2) Hull are better than you think they are.
Steve Bruce doesn’t get a lot of credit, but of the former Manchester United players-turned-managers, he’s arguably been one of the best and brightest. His Hull side is not a great team, and that roster is filled with a number of castoffs from better and brighter sides. What Bruce has done with this lot is beyond the usual “hustle and hard work” nonsense that’s frankly expected of any top-tier side. What he has done is instill a sense of fluidity and tactical nous, and this Hull is both well-drilled and workmanlike. They play for one another, and they play with a purpose. And that means they are more than capable of stealing a result or two. One wonders what Bruce could do with bit more cash in pocket.
3) Arsenal’s injuries may end their chase prematurely.
When Shad Forsthye was retained to revamp Arsenal’s notoriously poor training program, a number of Arsenal fans hailed him as the signing of the year. Unfortunately, whatever he’s doing isn’t working yet: Arsenal have nearly a full starting XI in the hospital, and little immediate hope. Proof could be found in the Gunners’ grim 2-2 draw against a Hull side that by rights and at home they should beat.
The problem is not only that Arsenal are desperately thin at every position now, but also desperately poor at a very important one: defense. Manager Wenger was candid that his back line was at fault on Hull’s go-ahead goal, but that admission seems a bit late given that the back four has been weak for several seasons now. If it took an entire casualty ward for the club to realize this, then Arsenal may have far bigger problems.
4) Just how bad are Sunderland, really?
Southampton came darn close to setting a new record on Saturday: it was way back in 1995 when Manchester United shipped nine past a stunned Ipswich Town en route to a 9-0 win. 8-0 is still awful (though Chelsea has done it twice, most recently in 2012 against Villa) but at least it’s not historic. After all, this was only Sunderland’s worst home loss in the Premier League era and just their worst defeat in 32 years. (When “Eye Of The Tiger” was sitting #1 in the charts, Sunderland were losing 8-0 to Watford. But I digress.)
The question is: was this a fluke? After all, Sunderland have nicked a couple of scalps – they came in riding a solid 3-1 win over Stoke — and under Gus Poyet have looked a far more organized side. And, when Santiago Vergini lashed in perhaps the league’s greatest-ever own goal, the match disintegrated into comedy. (That strike – a 20-yard chop right at his own net – was indeed brilliant, but it had more than a whiff of Wrong Way Corrigan about it.)
I think not. The only thing keeping Sunderland off the bottom is the fact that QPR and Burnley are Championship sides, and Newcastle is a dumpster fire. Sunderland cannot defend, they struggle to retain possession, and when they go behind, show no ability to get a hold of the game. How bad are they? Relegation bad.
One more question: what does it say about Jozy Altidore that he cannot get into this dreadful side?
5) What about West Ham?
Remember when “Big Sam” Allardyce was next for the sack? Huh. West Ham currently sit fourth, riding yet another win, albeit against a toothless Burnley side that doesn’t look close to being at this level.
Give credit for what the Hammers are doing: they are finally playing a more attractive, attacking style, and the strikeforce of Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia are why. With Stewart Downing pulling the strings and the gritty Mark Noble riding in support, Sakho has now scored six goals over the past six games and looks to be one of the stealth signings of the summer, an unheralded pickup from French minnows Metz. Valencia, who was a real handful for Ecuador at this past summer’s World Cup, has fulfilled his promise as well as a strong, surging runner that causes defenses fits.
Are West Ham a team to watch? Maybe not – they still look shaky and an injury or two would send them tumbling – but they are firmly in the mix this season. And, as tight as this race is shaping up to be, it would foolhardy to discount them.