Top 10: Things we've noticed about this season so far
1 Claude Makelele is no more
Not in the physical sense – the former Chelsea midfielder is fit and well, as far as we know – but the ’Makelele role’ he made famous continues to wane. Having a minimum of one midfield spoiler who sits in front of the defence and wins back possession was de rigueur for the Premier League’s top teams for a time. But Manchester United have shown no desire to replace Owen Hargreaves or the long-absent Darren Fletcher, continuing to play cultured, deep-lying playmakers such as Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley or a withdrawn Paul Scholes in front of the back four.
Manchester City, regularly accused of being conservative last season, have offloaded destroyer-in-chief Nigel De Jong, while Chelsea’s supposed enforcer John Obi Mikel seems to have licence to get forward this season. Tottenham have also, in the absence of Scott Parker, regularly played the skilful Moussa Dembélé as their deepest-lying midfielder. This shift in midfield balance may offer less protection for defences – but it’s making for some goal-filled clashes between the Prem’s big guns.
2 Fergie’s fantasy pays off
With Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and a plethora of attacking midfielders on Manchester United’s books, some were surprised that Sir Alex Ferguson chose to invest the biggest chunk of his summer transfer budget in another striker (and an injury-prone, 29-year-old one at that). But Fergie has shown what all good Football Manager competitors have long known: when a ‘worldy’ (one of the world’s best players) becomes available, you sign him up without hesitation.
Robin van Persie has thrived with eight crucial goals in 10 Premier League games for his new club, already looking £24m very well spent. Arsenal, who took a two-for-one approach of signing two inferior, if younger, players in Olivier Giroud and Lucas Podolski, have inevitably missed the focal point that the Dutchman gave their attack.
3 Mark Hughes’ pants are on fire
“This club will never be in this situation again while I’m with the club,” said Mark Hughes in the aftermath of QPR’s relegation scrap last season. Unfortunately, Rangers’ performances so far this season – which have garnered the team just four points from 10 games – have made Hughes’ promise thus far fraudulent. He has a world-class goalkeeper in Julio Cesar (right), but the Brazil international appears unnerved by the level of defending – and we use the term loosely – in front of him. Disorganisation in attack and defence, plus too many players on champagne money giving lemonade performances, are QPR’s problems. And those are faults for which the gaffer often takes the rap. Hughes is in serious trouble.
4 Chelsea’s three amigos leave holes
Adding the talents of Eden Hazard and Oscar to a squad already containing Juan Mata seemed like a surplus of attacking flair. However thanks to Roberto di Matteo’s big, brass cojones, the trio have regularly started matches together – and each has shone.
It’s the reason why Chelsea have been so thrilling to watch – but behind them, problems are emerging. Fitting all three into the same team means Chelsea can be vulnerable – especially on the flanks, where cover in front of Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole has been lacking. In learning how to attack in a new way, it seems Chelsea have forgotten how to defend. The balance may have to shift as their push for the title goes on.
5 Luis Suarez is irresistible
He’s not clinical enough. He scores special goals. He moans at the ref. He’s denied legitimate penalties. He runs past defenders. He dives over their challenges. He chucks himself around in celebration. Last season’s ban for racial abuse disgraced Luis Suarez and overshadowed everything he did on the pitch, but this year we’ve just been able to concentrate on watching him play – and he’s been pure box office. Keep your Widow Twanky or your Christopher Biggins, the Premier League has a great panto villain. Good or bad, we can’t take our eyes off Suarez.
6 Sunderland need a Plan B
Martin O’Neill’s strategy in signing Steven Fletcher made sense: keep the powerful Scotland striker busy via a steady supply of crosses from the flanks. However, while Fletcher scored five early goals, his supply lines have dried up due to James McClean’s and Adam Johnson’s unimpressive form on the wings. Neither has been able to regularly get into crossing positions. With a meagre six league goals this season, the Black Cats need an alternative attacking plan – fast. A return to form for the mercurial Stephane Sessegnon, at times so brilliant last season but so far disappointing this time, cannot come quickly enough.
7 Saints on course for 104
A quarter of the way through their Premier League games and Southampton had conceded a whopping 26 goals in nine games. Keep up this rate and they’ll have let in 104 goals by the end of the season – easily breaking the 38-game Premier League record held by hapless Derby, a team who finished bottom with 11 points in 2007-08. Even they conceded only 89.
8 Big Sam is premier class
West Ham were the third best team in the Championship last season. They also lost three matches and drew one against the other promoted sides, Reading and Southampton. Yet now the trio are in the Premier League, the boot is on the other foot – and it’s Big Sam who’s doing the kicking (probably up to a big man in what he likely calls ‘the mixer’).
Allardyce is easy to pigeonhole as a caricature; a burly, route-one gaffer who stays up late pleasuring himself over ProZone stats and occasionally prank-calling Arsene Wenger. All of that may be true, but he’s an extremely adept Premier League manager. He performed wonders at Bolton, did a decent job at Blackburn and now that he’s hauled West Ham up, they look the most organised and capable of the promoted teams. The Hammers have shown enough to suggest they’ll finish this season safely clear of the relegation struggle – and they have their manager to thank.
9 La Liga sale is on
We all know that British players are overpriced, but what this season has further illustrated is the comparative bargains that are to be had from La Liga. Santi Cazorla looks Arsenal’s best player and, at £16.5m, the Spanish international cost less than Liverpool paid for Stewart Downing or Jordan Henderson in 2011. Meanwhile, midfielder Michu has netted six goals in 10 games and cost Swansea just £2m – less than a fifth of the price that West Ham paid for Matt Jarvis this summer. With his Swansea teammate Chico Flores and Wigan’s Ivan Ramis also settling in well, it’s likely that Radamel Falcao won’t be the only La Liga star Premier League clubs will be eyeing up in the January sales.
10 Football takes the fall for racism
So it turns out that everyone in football is (allegedly) a whopping racist: players, fans, officials, T-shirts (we should probably throw a couple more ‘allegedlys’ in there to cover ourselves, because clearly that isn’t quite true). Of course, it’s actually a serious – and seriously depressing – matter that accusations of racism have reared their head with startling regularity in 2012. However, piously blaming the amorphous concept of ‘football’ doesn’t entirely make sense.
Obviously the Premier League, FA, fans and clubs need to examine what’s happened and do much more to fight discrimination in all forms. However, kicking a ball around a pitch – or going to watch people do this – doesn’t make you a racist. Football is the country’s national game. As such, it’s a mirror that reflects undercurrents of feeling that are already present in society. Football doesn’t create them, it’s just a high-pressure channel through which ignorant or ugly feelings that are already present reveal themselves.
And, frankly, that’s a far more horrific thought than the game itself somehow being entirely at fault.