SINGAPORE — As the English Premier League (EPL) goes into its last international break of the year, which teams are heading in the right direction after eight match weekends? And which teams are on the wrong track?
Teams on the right track
LEICESTER CITY: Perched at the top of the EPL table, Brendan Rodgers’ side have repeated their strong start to last season. More impressively, they have done so despite losing stalwarts Wilfred Ndidi, Caglar Soyuncu and Ricardo Pereira through injury. A memorable 5-2 away win at Manchester City set the tone for their flying start.
Rodgers showed his tactical acumen by changing the Foxes’ formation from a more attacking 4-1-4-1 to a more defensively stable 3-4-2-1, and remarkably his side has continued to thrive. Last season’s top scorer Jamie Vardy has also kept up his lethal streak with eight goals to share the lead atop the scorers chart.
Last season, they faded badly at the final stretch to finish fifth. Can they change the script this season and qualify for the Champions League? Or – and this is a long shot – repeat their incredible 2016 title win?
TOTTENHAM, CHELSEA: Both these London teams had glaring weaknesses last season, and even early in this new season, there were signs that they had not fully addressed their problems. Tottenham still look weak in creating chances, while Chelsea have serious defensive and goalkeeping issues.
A few games into the season, suddenly it clicked for both teams – all thanks to their astute off-season signings.
The return of Gareth Bale may have made all the headlines, but it was the signings of left-back Sergio Reguilon and midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg that brought much-needed balance and stability. These newbies enabled Tottenham’s front trio of Bale, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min to wreak havoc on opponents, and Jose Mourinho’s side will prove to be formidable challengers to the title.
Meanwhile, Chelsea were leaking goals that cost them victories, and goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has been a huge liability with his tentativeness. After an embarrassing 3-3 draw against West Bromwich Albion, manager Frank Lampard finally had enough of Kepa’s poor performances, and brought in a new custodian, Edouard Mendy.
Mendy’s arrival, coupled with free-agent veteran defender Thiago Silva, immediately brought calm and order to the Blues’ back line, as they went five matches without conceding a goal in all competitions. With new signings Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech hitting form, Chelsea are primed for a strong winning run after the international break.
LIVERPOOL: It seemed as if Liverpool’s title defence would crumble in a rash of injuries to key personnel. Virgil van Dijk is out for the season after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury; his deputy Fabinho limped out with a hamstring strain; new signing Thiago Alcantara took a heavy knock on his knee; and Trent Alexander-Arnold is the latest victim after hurting his calf.
Yet, they remain just a point off the top of the table, unbeaten since the previous international break, and having already faced formidable challengers Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City in their opening games.
Somehow they found capable replacements to their long-term injury absentees, with reserve players Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips ably standing in for van Dijk and recruit Diogo Jota flourishing in attack.
It is a further manifestation of their indomitable spirit that spurred them to their incredible successes in the last two seasons. While they may not reach the heights of their stirring title run last season, no one is ruling them out in retaining their EPL title.
EVERTON, ASTON VILLA: They may have trailed off in recent weeks, but the fine early forms of Everton and Aston Villa were a refreshing change to the usual dominance of the “Big Six” EPL teams.
Both have benefitted from superb off-seasons, getting the right players to improve their squads. Everton revamped their entire midfield with newcomers James Rodriguez, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure, and with better creativity and defensive cover from these talents, their forward and defensive lines have also improved dramatically.
Villa, on the other hand, tweaked every part of the team that barely avoided relegation last season. New players like goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, midfielder Ross Barkley and striker Ollie Watkins immediately lifted the squad, leading them to stunning wins against Liverpool (7-2) and Arsenal (3-0).
These two team might have modest targets as they began the season, but their great starts have brought optimism among them that they can exceed those ambitions if they keep up their great form.
Teams on the wrong track
MANCHESTER UNITED: The Red Devils would enjoy a couple of exceptional matches, then endure a spate of terrible games. They are consistent in their inconsistency, much to the consternation of their demanding fan base. So are Man United on the right track to future success, or trapped with a badly-assembled squad with few pathways for improvement?
Increasingly, it feels like the latter, with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer struggling to cobble together a cohesive unit despite being in charge for more than 100 matches. His team may be defiant after their latest win over Everton, with captain Harry Maguire muttering that critics are “jealous” of their past successes and not wanting them to do well.
The bottom line is that 14th place, with 10 points from seven EPL games, is not where a team as expensively-assembled as United should be. With plenty of teams jostling for European qualification this season, the Red Devils risk finding themselves being squeezed out of the top four – a scenario that could set them back a few years in regaining their footing as title challengers.
MANCHESTER CITY: The definition of an unstoppable attacking force in recent years, Manchester City have suddenly gone tentative and ponderous, scoring just 10 goals in seven matches. Title rivals Chelsea have already scored 20 times, while even Aston Villa have put in 18.
Injuries to striker Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have definitely hampered City, yet it also seemed as if their playmakers – Kevin de Bruyne, Riyah Mahrez and Raheem Sterling – are struggling to consistently break down opponents’ defensive lines. There is no longer an air of swashbuckling brilliance among Pep Guardiola’s side this season as they lie in 10th spot, six points behind league leaders Leicester with a game in hand.
Are players jaded from the Spanish manager’s well-documented perfectionist streak? Can they shrug off the lethargy and return to the heights of their stylish offence? They do not have much more time to get off the wrong track, with so many challengers already hitting form.
ARSENAL: Arsenal fans were fully supportive of Mikel Arteta in the early days of his managerial reign, as he sought to bring about toughness and order to their flimsy defence and midfield. And they were overjoyed as it brought an FA Cup win and a Community Shield victory over Liverpool, as Arteta immediately injected solidity in a team often criticised for being soft.
Yet, eight matches into this new season, and Arteta is faced with a serious new problem – the goals have dried up spectacularly. Under the Spaniard’s tactical philosophy, the Gunners have swung too much to defensive solidity, and left little room for creative improvisation. The result is just nine goals scored in eight matches – far too few to be contending for European qualification.
With striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – EPL’s top scorer two seasons ago – scoring just twice this season, and other offensive players such as Nicolas Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette failing to sparkle, Arteta needs to make adjustments to his playing system – and fast. Fans are already grumbling about his decision to ostracise playmaker Mezut Ozil from the squad, and would not be patient if the goal drought continues.
SHEFFIELD UNITED, BURNLEY: They used to be the models for mid-table EPL success on small budgets, but they are now mired at the bottom two spots with only three points amassed between them. It is safe to say that Sheffield United and Burnley are in dire straits.
Poor off-season recruitment, likely influenced by the economic uncertainty due to COVID-19, have seriously hampered both clubs in developing new tactics to win enough points. Which is a shame, as managers Sean Dyche and Chris Wilder are among the more astute tacticians in the league, but are helpless without injection of fresh talents.
The two clubs are now in a dogfight to avoid relegation with newly-promoted Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. They need to somehow find players who would dig their heels in to stop opponents from scoring, and get their sub-par attack to at least get the goals against fellow strugglers.
Otherwise, they might need to prepare for the devastating economic fallout from dropping into the Championship.
Stay in the know on-the-go: Join Yahoo Singapore's Telegram channel at http://t.me/YahooSingapore