Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Premier League Power Rankings: 5 Games

20. Burnley

Goals are what will keep you in this division and right now Burnley are not getting enough. Not getting any in fact. They haven't scored since 14 minutes into their opener against Chelsea, a massive 436 barren minutes in front of goal.

This probably has a lot to do with the fact that their main sources of goals from last season Danny Ings and Sam Vokes are both sidelined with injury, Vokes a more long term absentee, but even with one or both of these fit, Burnley will need some contribution from other areas of the pitch in terms of goalscoring. Scott Arfield on the right wing was their 3rd leading scorer last year with 9 in all competitions and he's the only man off the mark so far this season. They've drawn their last three games 0-0  which shows they aren't an easy side to break down, but no one stays up without winning their fair share of games and that's what Burnley need to do.

19. West Brom

West Brom may now have kickstarted their season with a deserved win over Spurs at White Hart Lane at the weekend, before that they had looked rather poor. This game saw the debut of their marquee summer signing, Joleon Lescott, a free transfer from Manchester City. The inclusion of Lescott and the shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Morrison and Gardner playing very well in the centre of the park, served them very well and they looked a different side from the earlier games this season, much more competitive. Spurs are probably the toughest opposition they've faced so far, Alan Irvine will be disappointed not to have more points on the board from the fixtures they've had. They still could struggle.

18. Newcastle

The atmosphere at the club is absolutely poisonous right now. The situation is beyond salvation and it seems as if the only solution is a change of manager. Pardew has been on borrowed time for a while now and despite some impressive signings this summer, he really has to go. They haven't been particularly bad this season, the mauling by Southampton aside, but they aren't going to get any better while the fans are in open rebellion against the boss. Saturday's game with Hull should have been a massive show of support for Jonas Gutierez, just diagnosed with cancer, but turned into nothing more than a hate-fest for Pardew. Slightly classless from the fans. Defeat to Stoke this weekend and they will surely get their wish. The ends justify the means.

17. QPR

To be fair to Harry Redknapp, it did only take two games to realise that playing Richard Dunne and Rio Ferdinand together as part of a three man back-line was one of the worst ideas anyone has ever had. Players age. Richard Dunne is not half the player who was so heroic for Ireland in Moscow that night. Rio Ferdinand is not the defender he was at United five years ago. Big names yes, but both very much past it.

Niko bailed QPR out against Stoke

3-5-2 has been put on the shelf for now and QPR actually have a half-decent looking side. Jordan Mutch and Leroy Fer both impressed for relegated sides last season and will be hoping their efforts this season will not be met with similar rewards. Niko Kranjcar in his sixteenth spell under Harry Redknapp was their brightest spark against United and again at the weekend against Stoke. He's probably their best attacking threat to be honest, strikers Austin and Zamora have yet to prove themselves beyond the Championship.

16. Sunderland

Not really a whole lot of exciting things going on at Sunderland. They look like they'll be a tough side to beat. They've a strong core in midfield with Jack Rodwell, Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson. Rodwell is recovering from his nightmare, ill-advised move to Man City and enjoying some first-team football again. Patrick van Aanholt likewise, getting a chance to shine in the Premier League for the first time. One problem they do have is going forward, it's not easy to see goals in what is a side pretty devoid of any creativity or flair. Adam Johnson and Conor Wickham both hit purple patches last season but Sunderland could do with them being a tad more consistent over the course of this year.

15. Stoke

Interestingly, Stoke's only win so far came at the Etihad Stadium, a ground only two teams avoided defeat at last year. Yeah that's all I've got. I'm really not that interested in Stoke to be honest.

14. Crystal Palace

They are a much different side to last season that's for sure. Under Pulis, Palace were solid, disciplined, tough to break down and a nightmare to play against. Already this season they've conceded 11 goals in 5 games, the same amount as they conceded in the final 12 games of last season during their impressive surge up the table. On the plus side, they put three past Newcastle and Everton and got something from both games so they are capable of getting goals when they need them.

McArthur and Jedinak are a solid combination in midfield. Frazier Campbell is a good addition up front and will chip in with a fair few goals/ At the moment they don't look like one of the three worst sides in the division but that could change. For a start they've a Championship standard manager in Neil Warnock who's only Premier League season so far ended in relegation whereas last season they had Pulis, who's never been relegated. Losing him so close to the start of the season may come back to haunt them.

13. Everton

The Europa League is a curse! Everton were so impressive against Wolfsburg on Thursday and followed it up with a home defeat to Crystal Palace on Sunday, and both these were home games. It will get even worse when they go away from home in midweek. Next time out they go to Krasnodar in Russia before returning to play at Old Trafford on the Sunday.

Their ageing defence is leaking goals like there's no tomorrow, 13 conceded in the league already. Jagielka (32 with a history of injuries) and Distin (36) surely cannot be relied on for a full season, especially if Everton have designs on a Champions League place. The other teams with similar aims have all strengthened over the summer whilst Everton's line-up looks pretty similar to last season's, albeit now Lukaku is actually their player. It's similar to last year at West Ham when they spent their entire budget to make Andy Carroll a permanent signing. A good idea but it doesn't feel like they've improved at all.

Also, for Everton and Spurs, it will be worth keeping an eye on their post Europa League record for the group stages this season. Everton 0-0-1, Spurs 0-1-0.

12. Man United

What was meant to be the great resurgence of the fallen giants has turned into an even worse start than they enjoyed last season under Moyes. In their first five games last season they played Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea and emerged with 7 points. This season they've played the three newly promoted sides and two who were close to being relegated last season and come out with just 5. Relegation form.

A dejected Di Maria wondering what Cristiano is up to?

Is it even worth pointing out the obvious flaws in this side? They've no defence. Why Ferdinand and Vidic were not replaced is baffling. Whilst Rojo is stuck out at full back at least, Jonny Evans is currently Manchester United's first choice centre back. The sooner van Gaal deems Luke Shaw fit enough the better. A settled back four is key to any teams ambitions and United don't have that right now. Further forward, Herrera and Di Maria are too negligent defensively to justify playing both of them in a three man midfield. Leicester exposed this. Just imagine what Chelsea or City would do to this defensive structure.

Throwing money at problems doesn't fix them. Van Gaal knows this. It won't be quick but it needs to be. United can't afford to finish outside the top four spots this year. Figuratively and also literally with the amount of cash they've spent. In Di Maria they have an absolute gem and the most exciting player at the club since Ronaldo, who is never coming back by the way, and once Falcao hits form United should brush teams aside. In any normal season, this is 10 easy points dropped already. Given the games they have ahead of them they can't afford much more slips.

11. Spurs

They made an impressive start, a win in the derby at West Ham was followed by a thumping of QPR at the Lane. They followed this up by collapsing 0-3 at home to Liverpool and since then have yet to re-discover their swagger. 2-2 at Sunderland and a very poor 0-1 reverse to West Brom.

They have, essentially, the same squad as last season with a better manager. At the back they've an abundance of mediocre centre halves, Younes Kaboul who is arguably the best, has just been made club captain. There's very little about this Spurs side to get excited about. A million miles away from competing for the top four. The short trip to Arsenal on Saturday could not be coming at a worse time. Pochettino is already under a pressure a club not shy about sacking bosses.

10. Liverpool

They look like a shadow of the team that bulldozed their way through the Premier League in the spring with Raheem Sterling the only player showing anywhere near the form he demonstrated last season. The new signings, while they give the squad some much needed depth, don't actually make the best XI any stronger and maybe that's the pill Liverpool will have to swallow this year.  A drop-off in league performance being the price they pay for re-entry into the Champions League.

Didn't we used to have a lad who scored all the time?

They miss Suarez a lot more than I thought they would. In terms of goals and overall contribution. Sturridge too has been big loss the last couple of weeks, Balotelli doesn't fit into this team half as well as him. On top of that, Steven Gerrard is not playing well enough to warrant inclusion anymore. He's got an undroppable status of course but how badly does he have to play for Rodgers to pull the trigger on his captain. His resolve will surely be tested, and would be more so if they had some stronger alternatives than Lucas and Joe Allen.

They'll improve of course and more than likely be right in the mix for the Champions League spots come the end of the year, massive progress given where they were two years ago. But it's unlikely they'll get anywhere near as good a chance of ending the drought as they did last season.

9. Hull

In case you didn't know by now, I think the Europa League is stupid. Hull's biggest victory of the season will turn out to be their away goals defeat to Lokeren which saw them eliminated from Europe's most pointless competition.

Mohammed Diame has been a fantastic signing, playing well in his both games and scoring two excellent goals. New club record signing Abel Hernandez, who also scored on his debut, will be one to keep an eye on.  Impressive last year in Italy but very few players have successfully made the transition to England from Serie A. There are far more examples of expensive flops than success stories.

Hull's defence is leaking an average of two goals every game. Not ideal as this puts extra pressure on the attack to deliver in spades every game. From a stability point of view, especially for a team like Hull, winning games 1-0, 2-0 is far better than having to win 3-2. They've a solid triangle at the back of Michael Dawson, Curtis Davies and Alan McGregor so I suspect they'll tighten up as the season goes on.

8. Leicester

So many inches of so many articles dedicated to how United fell apart last Sunday. Not enough has been said about how brilliant Leicester were. Dean Vardy in particular was a menace. Aside from an overly-theatrical flop that a higher profile player would surely have been ridiculed for to win the first penalty, (why spoil a non-league boy done good story with the truth), he was excellent and caused United's shaky defence all kinds of problems. This was his first start of the season. He can expect plenty more with David Nugent the most likely casualty.

Leicester are loving life back in the PL

Leicester's star man so far this season has been Leonardo Ulloa with five goals in five games to kick off his maiden Premier League season. He'll be the focal point of Leicester's attack this season. A powerhouse of a striker, good in the air but also a decent technical footballer too. Their most high-profile player, Esteban Cambiasso, had a quiet enough debut against United. He scored, but looked a bit sluggish and unfit. It will perhaps take him time to adjust to the demands of English football.

Overall though, Leicester look like they'll be more than just a tough side to play against this year. They will be fun to watch too.

7. Swansea

Another surprise package. Swansea couldn't buy a win towards the end of last season but began this campaign with three on the bounce. They gave Chelsea a fright too and probably would have got something from the Southampton game had it not been for a couple of bizarre moments of madness from Wilfred Bony that saw him red carded. They responded by thumping Everton in midweek, hinting that the run of three wins at the start of the year was no fluke, Swansea are the real deal.

Gylfi Sigurdsson has recaptured the form he showed on his loan spell in Wales two years ago which prompted Spurs to buy him. He never really hit the same heights at White Hart Lane but since his return this summer, he's been excellent, four assists and a goal making him popular choice in fantasy teams everywhere. The midfield in general looks a lot stronger than last season and Swansea should be targeting mid-table security and a push into the top half rather than looking over their shoulders like lasts year.

6. West Ham

Sam Allardyce came under intense pressure from the fans (and, rumour has it, the board) for his ugly style of play last season. Injury to Andy Carroll has forced his hand somewhat. West Ham have veered away from the long-ball game and are now much more enjoyable to watch. The addition of Alex Song to the midfield is a brilliant capture and should aid their progress from 'hoof-it-long' to 'tika-taka'. He's a fine passer of the ball.

Amalfitano completed the rout against Liverpool

Even Stewart Downing is looking decent. The last couple of games he's played through the middle as the front point of a diamond. Here he's getting more chances for himself and proving quite the playmaker, fashioning out chances for Sakho, Amalfitano, Zarate or Valencia. West Ham now spoilt for choice when it comes to attacking options. Quite a contrast to last year when it was Carroll, Nolan or Carlton Cole.

Much, much improved, the fans are happy and the club seems like a healthier place. High hopes for them this year.

5. Aston Villa

They young players have a years more experience. Fabian Delph is a very under-rated player and worthy of a place in the (current) England squad at least. Tom Cleverley has a chance to reinvent himself at a new club. Andreas Weimann has impressed. So too has Ashley Westwood when he's played.  Add to that the return of some more senior players, Hutton and N'Zogbia, and Villa are looking in fairly decent shape for the rest of the season. Agbonlahor has been good too.

One problem remains. Despite taking 10 points from the first 15 on offer, Villa have only scored four goals in the opening month, two each for Agbonlahor and Weimann. None of the central midfielders can really be counted on for goals so it will fall to the likes of Kieran Richardson, N'Zogbia, Joe Cole, any mildly creative player that finds themselves in the line-up on that given day, the squad is bigger now than it's been in years. Still have Benteke to return too. Defensively sound. Need more goals.

4. Southampton

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Having lost their influential manager and the core of their team during the summer, Southampton were supposed to struggle massively and plummet down the table. Actually they're doing even better than last year's impressive season.

Lovren, Shaw, Lallana and Lambert all left. Graziano Pelle from Feyenoord was the only big signing they made and yet Southampton don't seem to have suffered at all. Morgan Schneiderlin, despite being a very unhappy bunny, has been their star player so far alongside Jack Cork and Victor Wanyama in midfield. James Ward-Prowse is one young player who perhaps didn't get enough credit whilst Lallana and Rodriguez were stealing the headlines last year, but he too has been excellent this year. New boy Dusan Tadic has been very good on the left side of the attack. From an Irish point of view, it's disappointing that Shane Long will struggle to hold down a place in this team.

Ronald Koeman had a horrible job on his hands this summer but not once did we hear him complain about players leaving, players wanting to leave, or anything really. He knuckled down and got on with his job with the resources he had. And now Southampton are reaping the benefits. A consummate professional and looking like a very good manager too.

3. Arsenal

Arsenal are the only side other than the league leaders to still be unbeaten after five league games. Impressive considering they've had a tricky enough start. They showed great spirit to fight back against Everton from 0-2 down but really should have hung on to claim an important win against City. Their humbling in Dortmund three days later was another stark reminder that this team is still not at the level they aspire to. A 'gillion' miles from it, according to Paul Merson.

I foresee quite a big problem arising for Arsenal in the coming months, it's quite obvious really, in that they have just two recognised centre halves in the first team squad. If injury befalls either Per Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny, as it tends to do to Arsenal players, what are they going to do for cover? Play one of their thirty-seven attacking midfielders in there probably. Debuchy's injury means Chambers will be required at right back, leaving cover for the centre even thinner.

Ozil and Welbeck took Villa apart, but more consistency is needed

Danny Welbeck is a decent striker but in squandering all those chances against Dortmund, showed exactly why van Gaal thought he wasn't good enough for United. If a player isn't deemed good enough for United, should Arsenal fans be happy with him leading their line? I don't think so. He'll get 10+ league goals this season, purely on the amount of chances that will be put on a plate for him, but he's not the man that's going to fire Arsenal to glory. Mesut Ozil has his critics but is a fantastic player, even if he does tend to go missing quite often. Arsenal need him to show up a lot more often than he did lasts season.

They've a tough spell of fixtures coming up. Two London derbies with Spurs and Chelsea sandwiched by a vital Champions League tie with Galatasaray. I think we'll find out a lot more about this Arsenal side's mettle in the coming weeks.

2. Man City

In contrast to their neighbours, City seem to have bought exactly what they needed this summer. Eliaquim Mangala is an absolute monster and will give strikers around the league nightmares this season. He's the partner Vincent Kompany has been crying out for for years now and will tighten up a City defence that looked very breachable at times last year.

Mangala had a very impressive debut

City haven't had the start they would have wanted and losing to Stoke will seem like three priceless points lost. Late equalizers against Arsenal and Chelsea leaves them lucky to be only five points back instead of nine. The main difference between this season and last is Yaya Toure, who's yet to re-capture the magnificent form he showed last campaign. Blame it on Cake-Gate if you want, the man did lose his brother during the summer and that would take a toll on any professional in any walk of life in the months that followed.

City probably shaded it against Chelsea on Sunday in the first super-heavyweight clash of the season. They did an excellent job of nullifying the threat of both Costa and Fabregas who've undone just about everyone else so far this year. City had the better players, but Chelsea the better manager who got his tactics right again. Perfectly entitled to sit back, defend and try to hit City on the break. It's probably the only way to win at the Etihad. City aren't far off Chelsea in terms of standard, but five points already is a significant gap and over the course of the season I can see them slipping up more often than Chelsea.

1. Chelsea

What a strange moment it was for Frank Lampard. The permanent fixture in the Chelsea revolution in the 2000s, the man who won everything with them, the man who ended their 100% record in 2014/15. One of the very few occasions I've seen where it was totally acceptable for the player not to celebrate.

But Chelsea are doing just fine without him. Unbeaten so far this season and five points clear of any real title rival, Mourinho seems to be working his magic again and we may well see 04/05 and 05/06 levels of dominance again this season for the Blues. Thanks in no small part to their shrewd summer business. Cesc Fabregas was a steal at £30m. Likewise Costa at roughly the same price. Together they will destroy the tight defences Chelsea struggled to break down last year. And if they are nullified, that leaves Eden Hazard, one of the best players in the league who's been largely forgotten in the hype around the Spaniards, free to do his thing.

The best start by any new PL striker ever. Costa.

Defensively they are even better than last year. Terry and Cahill look to have picked up exactly where they left off last year as the tightest centre half pairing in the country. This time they've a full season of Nemanja Matic to enjoy. And we haven't even seen Felipe Luis yet. Oh and one of the best keepers in the world Thibaut Courtois is now in goal having ousted Petr Cech.

Weaknesses? Costa is permanently a red-card waiting to happen. That lad does not like being touched. Kick lumps out of Fabregas? Hope Hazard has an off day? Pray? At the moment it doesn't look like there's any stopping this Chelsea side. The gauntlet has been thrown down and it's up to the chasing pack to answer.

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