The Premier League has been predictably excellent so far this season, with endless amounts of thrilling games, controversy and drama. The one baffling thing, however, is that barring Everton, last season’s top eight are all struggling for form and don’t look particularly impressive.
Their unbeaten run masks what has been a very unconvincing start to defending their crown, and they could easily have lost a number of games already.
The world-class spine that led them to their triumph last season- Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero- have all been below par, while David Silva, another key man, has also blown hot and cold. Aguero has been the least disappointing, but for his very high standards he has not hit the heights of last season.
Roberto Mancini has attempted to play three at the back but it hasn’t really worked; why he hasn’t just kept the same formula to last season is beyond me. Samir Nasri has been in and out of the side with injury, and players like James Milner are simply not strong enough replacements.
Joleon Lescott has been harshly dropped in place of youngster Matija Nastasic, and they have subsequently lost a physical edge, particularly from set pieces. Edin Dzeko has impressed from the bench, but Carlos Tevez and the infuriating Mario Balotelli need to do more.
Unless their fluency and key players improve drastically, they will not be champions this time next year.
They look weak at the back, with David De Gea still nowhere near the level of his predecessor, Edwin Van Der Sar.
For every wonderful save he makes you feel a mistake is round the corner. Anders Lindegaard looks more solid, but Sir Alex Ferguson seems determined to stick with the young Spaniard.
Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are ageing, Jonny Evans lacks the presence of a top-class United defender and Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are still very inexperienced. They are all good players, but are any of them world-class now? Vidic perhaps.
They have gone behind in games an alarming amount of times, and if they keep doing it they will start getting punished more. Although they lost to Norwich having conceded first, they have managed to win games against QPR, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Stoke, Southampton and Fulham having fallen behind. This can’t keep happening.
The unbelievable belief that Ferguson instills in his team probably gives them a six point advantage every season before a ball is even kicked. They just never know when they are beaten.
In Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck they have a devastating group of strikers. Van Persie has fitted in perfectly, scoring goals for fun, while Hernandez has shown he really is the ‘new Solskjaer’, with numerous match-winning cameos. Goals win games, it’s that simple, and Ferguson has always prided himself on having sides that score by the bucketload.
United still look short of a world-class midfielder, however. Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are solid, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are still class acts but don’t have the same effect on the team that they used to, and Tom Cleverly remains a work in progress.
Anderson probably has the most potential, but he flatters to deceive at times. For years now they have lacked a Wesley Sniejder or Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, and with the Dutchman looking likely to leave Inter Milan will Ferguson swoop for the 28 year old?
This might be one of Ferguson’s weaker sides in recent times, but they are still obvious favourites for the title. On paper they are no better than a number of teams, but mentally they are streets ahead.
Five league games without a win, coupled with Roberto Di Matteo losing his job, have seen the wheels come off in recent weeks.
The appointment of Rafa Benitez threatens to worsen things at the club even more, not due to his lack of ability as a manager, but because of the Chelsea fans dislike for him.
A new era is dawning at Stamford Bridge, with the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard all getting older and less effective. Cole and Lampard look set to leave at the end of the season. The players coming in to take their places, like David Luiz and Ryan Bertrand, do not look suitable replacements yet.
Fernando Torres remains woefully out of form, and he could well leave in January. If Falcao were to arrive from Atletico Madrid it would make a big difference, but they still look a few players short of being title contenders. On the whole, they have played better than both United and City, but they will drop more silly points and fade away in the title race.
Arsene Wenger’s future continues to polarise opinion, and he certainly makes more managerial errors these days.
His decision to sell van Persie to one of their biggest rivals remains one of the worst managerial decisions in years. He would never have done such a thing eight years ago.
As for the team, they seriously lack a leader like Patrick Vieira or Tony Adams.
They look error-prone at the back, with Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker all capable of having 89 brilliant minutes before gifting a goal to the opposition. The same can be said of Wojciech Szczesny. Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson are talented young players, but they still lack maturity in the big games, which is understandable.
There is also no driving force in midfield. Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla are all superb players, but they are all a bit too similar. Where is the pace? Abou Diaby was playing very well until he picked up another injury, and they miss his drive hugely.
Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski have come in and done adequately, while Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are inconsistent but dangerous. To put it bluntly, they miss Van Persie hugely in terms of goals.
Arsenal are the opposite to United in that they very rarely win ugly; they will often draw or lose games that United would win. They are easy on the eye but seriously lack a winning mentality. Despite this, their individual quality means they are still favourites for fourth place.
Andre Villas-Boas remains unconvincing as a manager, and he makes some very strange decisions at times.
You sometimes feel that if he just left the players to it they would do better without him. He seems to complicate matters.
On paper they have a superb starting line up, with players like Gareth Bale, Moussa Dembele, Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe and Jan Vertonghen all in very good form. Brad Friedel and Hugo Lloris are both great goalkeepers, while Steven Caulker, Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton are excellent young prospects.
Dembele’s injury has been a huge blow, and his absence has coincided with some poor results, notably the 5-2 defeat against Arsenal. Yes they had 10 men for most of the game, but they were still inexcusably poor. Clint Dempsey was signed as a replacement to Rafael Van der Vaart, but he has been very disappointing, while Gylfi Sigurdsson has not had the impact many hoped he would.
Emmanuel Adebayor needs to improve his form and general attitude drastically.
Although they are a good side they were never going to repeat last season’s heroics, where players like Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa could do no wrong at times.
They also had very few injuries, which they have had so far in this campaign, with key men such as Yohan Cabaye and Ben Arfa currently on the sidelines. They do not have the squad to cope with injuries to such important players.
Any talk of pressure on Alan Pardew is ridiculous, but knowing the ruthlessness of owner Mike Ashley it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pardew lose his job suddenly.
After a sensational 5th place finish in May, they will do well to finish in the top eight this time around.
Whatever happens this season the owners have to give him time. He is the right man for the job without a shadow of a doubt.
That’s not to say he hasn’t made mistakes.
The team looks horribly dependant on Luis Suarez to produce the goods, which luckily he is at the moment. He is arguably the best player in the league on current form, along with Van Persie and Mata.
Once the January transfer window opens, the purchase of a couple of very good strikers is absolutely critical. With Steven Gerrard playing far too deep, Raheem Sterling still raw and players like Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin needing to offer more, there is a severe lack of a goal threat.
The fact that Glen Johnson is arguably the second biggest attacking threat from right back says it all really. This is nothing against Johnson, who is having a brilliant season.
Like Arsenal, Liverpool are incapable of winning games they don’t deserve to, and instead they dominate games, miss chances and then gift sloppy goals. Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Gerrard have all been guilty of individual errors that have led to goals, and this is perhaps partly down to Rodgers risky, possession-based philosophy.
Players like Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Joe Cole are simply not doing enough, and their Liverpool careers look numbered. The return of the once-derided Lucas will, however, be a massive boost to the side.
Because of the inconsistency of Arsenal and Spurs they are still in contention for fourth place, but they need to seriously improve their ruthlessness in front of goal to have any chance.
This leads us to the only top team who have genuinely played well so far this season:
A bit like Newcastle last season, they have had a very settled side, with very few injuries to key men.
You could rattle off almost all of their strongest starting eleven with ease – Tim Howard, Leighton Baines, Sylvain Distin, Phil Jagielka, Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar, Kevin Mirallas, Maroune Fellaini, Nikica Jelavic- and they are all in excellent form.
Due to their rival’s inconsistency and also their own form, there is no reason why Everton can’t finish fourth this season. Fellaini and Jelavic are hugely important players in terms of goals, and injuries to either of them would be a huge blow.
Baines, similarly, is one of the most in-form players in the Premier League at the moment. He offers so much to the side, from set pieces to attacking bursts down the left wing, that he would be an enormous loss.
Funnily enough, for all the accolades that Everton are receiving, they have only won one of their last seven league games, so they are on a slightly poor run of form. With games against Arsenal and Manchester City on the horizon, the next few games will show what Everton are made of.
What lies ahead between now and May are two fascinating tussles between eight great clubs. One will be for the Premier League title and the other for a top four finish, ensuring Champions League football.
One thing’s for sure, they will all start playing to their potential soon, right?