United find themselves on the cusp of a title challenge, however brief
Manchester United have improved upon last season, but by how much is still difficult to work out. They have played plenty of easy games, and even the potential difficulty of Liverpool was mitigated by Brendan Rodgers’ dreadful run in charge. However, there were numerous supposedly simple games for United last season that they managed to lose. This, they have navigated them ably enough to currently stand at the top of the league.
There have been problems, with a defeat against Swansea City, a loss to PSV, Wayne Rooney’s appalling presence and Luke Shaw’s almost as appalling injury. So far, Louis van Gaal’s tinkering has been quicker and more effective than last season. Marcos Rojo failed in the middle, so was moved to the left. His injury saw Ashley Young get a chance against Ipswich Town, and then Matteo Darmian took over for the match against Sunderland. It was only Sunderland, but it worked - Darmian has played at left-back for plenty of his career and he is a viable option.
Wayne Rooney scored - it would have been difficult to miss when Anthony Martial smashed the ball at him a couple of yards out - and then notably improved. He still wasn’t good, effective, or worth having in the side, but he did start to look like a footballer again, at least. The thirtysomethings Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick are being sensibly managed. Martial and Memphis both offer confidence and pace in attack, and Juan Mata continues to offer goals and assists despite his quiet presence and obvious lack of pace.
Nevertheless, it is working. For now. United have a reasonable defence, and a functioning front six, for the first time in a few years. It is early yet, but if they can negotiate their next three league fixtures of Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City by taking the majority of points on offer, they could find themselves one winter transfer window away from maintaining a serious title challenge.
Arsenal have the chance to take advantage of Sanchez’s excellence
The toughest of those three fixtures for United currently looks to be Arsenal away at the start of October. Alexis Sanchez has grown into this season after returning from the exertions of the Copa America, and is once again comfortably Arsenal’s best player. His hat-trick against Leicester didn’t prove that - it was already obvious.
Goals for Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, neither competent enough to be taken seriously at the top table of football, could nevertheless inspire them to contribute against United, who are plainly nowhere near the top of football these days. The problem for Arsenal is that United’s defensive weaknesses, a lack of physicality in Daley Blind and a vulnerability to crosses, is not something that Walcott or Giroud can be necessarily expected to exploit, especially when the increasingly reliable Chris Smalling is present.
It is Sanchez who could well be crucial, having the technique, strength and ability to decide matches with his talent alone. Mesut Ozil is clearly a hugely talented player, but one who is yet to show his worth to Arsenal in the biggest matches - and if you dispute that, you can’t dispute that he hasn’t done it enough for the club.
After a poor start for Arsenal, with Petr Cech failing to convince, and a risible showing against Chelsea, the victory over Leicester will have settled nerves. Should Arsenal win against United, they would go level with them on points, and possibly goal difference. That this is a possibility is no credit to Arsenal for staying in touch, but an indictment on Chelsea and Manchester City failing to take advantage with the obvious superiority of their own players.
Chelsea have to make the most of an easy Autumn
For Chelsea, it looked reminiscent Jose Mourinho’s past struggles, and past struggles in his third season. Mourinho has never won in the Premier League at St James’ Park, and so it continued. He fell 2-0 down to a poor Newcastle United side who are only slowly improving.
Chelsea had problems, with Thibaut Courtois still out and Diego Costa out suspended, but so did Newcastle United, playing Kevin Mbabu in his first ever league match for Newcastle United. Mbabu was only told an hour before kick off that he would be playing, and was then given the job of marking Pedro - he managed impressively in such circumstances; in fact it would have been impressive under almost any circumstances.
Loic Remy failed to impress, and Mourinho could only call on Radamel Falcao as an alternative striker. It appears almost certain that Falcao is bust, under Van Gaal or Mourinho. The problem is not the manager, team or anything else but his knee. Nevertheless, Chelsea were able to come back and grab a draw, which is not usually something a side with poor morale can manage. The celebrations at the end of the match suggested that there is a team ready to be reinspired. Eva Carneiro (a problem entirely created by the manager) is now close to being a separate, legal distraction for the club rather than one to continually affect the manager and his players.
Chelsea are now unbeaten in four games, and don’t have an obviously difficult game until 29 November, when they visit White Hart Lane. If Chelsea can manage to put together a run of victories until that game, then Mourinho and his side could easily find themselves back at the top of the table. The chances of doing that depend on a successful midweek visit to Porto, though.
Spurs need Lamela and Kane to maintain their standards
Manchester City are now going through their own mini-wobble. Such is the start of the league, when teams are separated by few points, that a couple of defeats makes a greater impact on the league table than in a few months. City’s defeat saw them lose top spot, and open them up for scrutiny. After a brilliant start to their campaign, the loss to Juventus kickstarted two successive league defeats, first to West Ham, and now to Spurs.
They have injury problems, with Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart sitting out the game against Spurs, and Yaya Toure appears to have incurred a muscle strain, but that’s just not good enough. Spurs are a poor side at the moment, with a beatable defence and an inexperienced midfield. Losing Toure, Hart and Kompany would hamper any side, but for all the cash spent, and the other players available, that shouldn’t pose a problem for City, and yet it has. They travel to Borussia Monchengladbach for their Champions League match, for another game they should win - but that is no guarantee for this side right now.
For Spurs, it will be a triple case of relief. One, they have another victory after a slow start. Two, Harry Kane is back in the goals. And three, Erik Lamela has again showed what a player he can be, one capable of creating chances and finishing them, too. Only if Kane and Lamela keep up this standard do they have any chance of making a dent in the season.