After the very very time consuming Serie A preview I don't think it' a bad idea to start somwhere else entirely. So let's start in Engerland (england engerland)!
Top of the table we find Chelsea who is off to an impressive start.
I already wrote quite a bit about Chelsea after the first few games I watched them play this season and I think it's safe to say they've improved some since then.
In those entries I was quite critical at what I saw as some flaws that could prevent what is an excellent opportunity this year to win the title.
Much of that was some bad often slow passing distribution in central midfield when Mikel was playing the "bottom" of the Ancelotti diamond, and that resulting in the team having more difficulty than they should defending width.
Even against a team like Hull. Against Manchester United in the Charity Shield it's more understandable.
But since then it's mainly been the excellent Essien playing that role and the passing game has been quite fluent and more direct.
The ball gets to the opponent's penalty area mostly with relative ease and that's where I think Chelsea with a number of the players they have are a more dangerous team than possibly anyone in the world.
Quite simply if they consistently get the ball up there, either through someone in the diamond making a run forward, Drogba going a little back irresistibly seeking the ball or through their great fullbacks, they're very hard to stop and in the Premier League it's difficult to see who should actually.
And even when/if the notorious slow Mikel is in midfield (and he is a great physical talent who should get playing time) Ancelotti can still put someone like Deco at the top of the diamond and ensure quality distribution that way. Lampard and Ballack given certain roles can make quality contributions there as well though with a price to pay when it comes to their consistent excellent play in the final third.
A price that Hiddink for an example interestingly enough was willing to pay in some of his use of Ballack.
Now I will still maintain that Ancelotti's team is more vulnerable defensively than what we saw under Mourinho and also when Hiddink had them organized very well towards the end of last season, but the EPL is overall still by large (even with some recent examples and trends signalling some change) a league where it isn't "just" the most well balanced team that ends up winning but a great dominating attack too.
Yeah they give away quite a few quality chances these days but they're creating themselves in abundance and as long as that all important distribution to the final third is working smoothly that will continue, and they'll be a decent favorite over their on paper weaker this season, top four rivals.
Two of those rivals faced each other in one of the more interesting games of the EPL season so far.
Manchester United against Arsenal.
Unfortunately for Arsenal in that game they were missing Fabregas who isn't just their best player but one who much of the play is build around and the only one who can take it to a level high enough where the team can be consistently successful. Without him it's just a different team. Interesting then that if you compare to how they looked against United in some of the games last season, that they looked quite a bit better here.
One clear plus for Arsenal here that they didn't have when they faced eachother in the Champions League and United proved clearly the better team, was the addition of Arshavin who is an elite attacking talent, but alot of it, sadly for fans of the gunners, I'd definitely put down to what it was that United was missing compared to those games last year.
More on that later when we get to Manchester United.
It's positive though for Arsenal that their central midfielders weren't outworked and outrun like they were in some of those games last year and I think both Denilson and Song have shown improvements in their play this season.
Diaby too, eventhough he had his own personal disaster in this particular game looks like a better player than last year.
Something of course which simply is a must for a club like Arsenal heavily counting on young talent. They have to live up to their upside or it's just a waste.
In a way Arsenal have been unlucky or if you're a more mean spirited person you could say simply inadequate for not having more depth. Either way in their two toughest games of the season against the two Manchester teams they've been without first Fabregas against United and then Arshavin against City.
Personally I thought it was a real lack of flexibility to continue with the 4-3-3 against City if the two wide forwards were going to be Diaby and Bendtner.
That's bordering on simply ignoring your player's characteristics over the system. Conventional coaching wisdom would say that it's the players and their characteristics dictating what system to play and not the system the players.
It's nothing new of course, to do it like Wenger did this game. Countless of coaches have done the same and for one match only I'm sure there can be found arguments not to change things around.
Still, as the match showed. As a look at the City team sheet SHOULD show. This was a match against a world class opponent where things had to be optimal. BOTH Diaby and Bendtner on the wings in a 4-3-3 is hardly optimal.
And whether it was there specifically the match was lost or not, the result was City being the overall better balanced team on the day. That showed. On a more positive note, individually in central defense William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen are playing great, so right there is all the foundation Arsenal need for an excellent central defense partnership.
Overall they "just" need the team to be more consistently well balanced. When Fabregas and Arshavin are both there. When the players for an effective 4-3-3 are all in place, there are few problems and they're a very effective team who can steamroll lesser teams and look great while doing it. On the surface, the greatest outside mighty FC Barcelona even.
Not least it has to be said, since it's a pet peeve of mine, against annoying teams like Wigan who face the big teams well bend over before the game has even begun with their terrible naive tactics.
But all in all like I talked about in an earlier entry on Arsenal I think a version of the 4-3-3 over previous years 4-4-2 IS definitely the right step when trying to create a consistently effective attack and the more they can look for inspiration at Barcelona, and what they've been doing so great, the better too.
Some might say it's bordering on crazy talk but I'd maintain that Arsenal is the only team with a chance to get close to that. And considering just getting close is enough to better almost anyone, it's certainly something that's worth a shot.
The system change was the obvious step one but let's not forget the pieces already in place.
Starting with Fabregas they have the closest thing to Xavi there is. Someone who even does some things better and who is a must for a team aspiring for overwhelming possession against their opponents.
Without a Xavi or Fabregas type of player it just has no chance of being effective with how good team defending has become.Arsenal also arguably have the poor man's Messi in Arshavin. They share quite a few characteristics and it could even be argued, though I think there is a significant gap there, that they have a poor man's Iniesta in someone like Samir Nasri.
They even have a striker in Bendtner who can do the needed non-traditional decent job on one of the wings.
Where it then really falls apart is if someone like Diaby plays there. That is just very un-Barcelona like.
That brings me to the striker. Robbie Van Persie who suprisingly, it seems doesn't see a whole lot of criticism or face many questionmarks.
People love his speed and technique. And that's understandable but let me try and throw in what's not so great if you set the bar very high which it should be for a team trying to beat what at the top of the table are still the toughest league competition in the world.
And if you compare what he is doing to the kind of things that a Samuel Eto'o and now Zlatan Ibrahimovic does for Barcelona. The kind of things that Arsenal would need as well, from their lone central striker in a possession based 4-3-3.
I really question if Van Persie has the physical attributes to be really effective there when it isn't play in transition.
And if he doesn't then it's something that even affects him negatively when it comes to his actual strenghts. Like say, combining nicely with Fabregas or Arshavin and using his acceleration to feed off that. But when playing in the center often in narrow space and no real holes to accelerate into, the physical strenght is needed to even get to that, so to speak.
To his credit, even if I think he has a negative attitude sometimes, he has started to do more traditional striker kind of work, including better movement without the ball, which is essential when not an overly powerful striker, but when playing central on top it's just not quite there yet at a high enough level.
A lot of that I think would be helped and maybe even turned into a strenght if there was more switching positions in the forward line. Not just with Bendtner who can be more a traditional lone center forward but with Arshavin too.
Again the inspiration being Barcelona where Messi is often wildly effective switching with the striker and spending some time central and on top. Van Persie is more dangerous too when he isn't restricted to near the central defenders just outside or just inside the box.
Of course, one very obvious positive I found when I first saw the new Arsenal 4-3-3 with Van Persie playing central instead of Bendtner was that it simply made sense to have Van Persie getting all the good scoring chances Arsenal usually create instead of someone like Bendtner who whether it's fair or not has become quite infamous for some poor finishing.
Van Persie being there instead, that SHOULD mean more goals coming from there! RIGHT?
It's not like Van Persie isn't getting shots at goal either. I heard of one stat (I can't find it myself) that the announcer here mentioned the last time I watched Arsenal, where Van Persie was the player with the most shots on goal out of everyone in the league.
So i ask, with just one goal so far isn't Van Persie that much a superiour finisher anyway, OR is he just not getting the really good, the realistic scoring chances?
Either way, it's obviously a problem and I call for more flexibility in the forward line to try and solve it!
Manchester United have rebounded nicely from their early shock defeat against Burnley.
That very flukish defeat actually lead some doubters going way too far, and on the usually entertaining Guardian Football Weekly podcast one of the contributors (unfortunately I don't remember who it was exactly) even forecasted that United wouldn't finish in the top 4! That's either very bold or very silly more likely.
Like with Arsenal I refuse to hand out too much credit for beating stupid Wigan, but while ignoring the controversy, as someone who usually root against United I was very annoyed too, what I can do is give them credit for the second half against City.
It was classic Ferguson Manchester United play with great wing play and fullbacks pushing forward exactly where it hurt the most.
For Manchester City that was the right side with Wright Phillips and Micah Richards who were nothing short of fully exposed by the excellent Evra pushing Phillips way way back where he wasn't comfortable and Giggs being up to his old tricks against Richards, who judging by this might still best fulfill his potential as a central defender instead.While watching I was suprised that Hughes waited and waited without doing any adjustments whatsoever while United had clearly taken over the game creating tons of dangerous situations.
He had flirted with danger in some earlier games too where opponents also too easily created chances but at least there the City forwards were being very dangerous themselves. Despite their goals that wasn't really the case for most of the second half. This was a team dominating them and Hughes failed to come up with or try even, anything.
Overall with Manchester United the only thing I'm quite sure of is that they're weaker this season than the last couple of years. The reasons for that are pretty obvious. Not only have elite players gone and not really been replaced but with them various tactical options too.
To me the Tevez- C. Ronaldo - Rooney forward line looked pretty unstoppable and down through the chains it ensured an incredibly well balanced team who both attacked, not least on the counter, but starting with Rooney and Tevez defended really well too.
Rooney I think is a top 3 player in the world. Maybe even the second best after Messi. The good news for United is that he is still around. With him there is hope. But put him with an amazing attacking talent in C. Ronaldo and a player like Tevez who to a lesser extent does some of the same things both ways that Rooney does, and you have not just hope of great results, but certainty.
As a very non United fan I don't even like to think about it, but consider how close they were to winning both their very tough league and the Champions League two years in a row.
Think about what a great job of team defending Chelsea did on Barcelona in the semis. A job so good that I think most of the time it knocks that Barcelona side out. Then think about how Manchester United throughout the season had been the best defensive team. Better than Chelsea.
Consider the speed and counter attack options they had up front that Chelsea did not.
This is a post I wrote on a sports forum before the final:
United does have great individual talent defensively but from watching Barca so much this year I really think that any team not defending as a TEAM, on a scale similar to what Chelsea did, will be an underdog. You just cannot leave them space.Did Ferguson for once get it wrong? If he has commented on it since, I'd love to see it.What I do know is that the Tevez-C.Ronaldo-Rooney forward line didn't start and what I kinda wanted to say I guess by going back to all of this, was just how freakish good this Manchester United team were and how very close they were to become one of the best teams in history.
Hiddink is not exactly known for playing that defensive, ever, yet this was the one time where he felt it was a must. That alone says alot.
Now ignoring the question of whether they will actually go for it or not, I think United certainly could come close to do a similar great job of TEAM defending to what Chelsea did, they certainly did well the last time they faced eachother, Barca have of course improved since then, and if they combine that with their "deadliest" transition game in the world, THEN I think they'll be favorites.
But I don't think any team not heavily geared towards defending, is a favorite to resist Barca's talent when that talent almost inevitably will have 55+ pct of possession.
Something Barcelona then took from them and might very well improve upon even, this season if, they repeat.
Like I said, this season, Manchester United, I don't see them as any potential best team in history or anything like that, they do however have the best two-way player in the world, Wayne Rooney to build around, a manager who knows how to win the Premier League like no one else, and last but not least some of the rivals DO look weaker too.
There is definitely hope for Manchester United.
For Manchester City, overall I'm not sure if teamwise I have that much to add from even the last time they came up on this blog when they beat Blackburn.
Playerwise I fully expected Adebayor to score lots of goals. I tipped some people to bet on him as a topscorer even, since I thought he was at worst a top 5 favorite while the bookmakers had him quite a bit further down. Even behind Michael Owen comically enough.
A positive suprise has been Craig Bellamy who isn't just scoring but working very hard a lot of places on the pitch.
And in midfield I like Nigel De Jong who adds some balance to the side. That will be very needed when someone like Robinho is back in the lineup.
Finally in "engerland" even if we may want to we can't forget about lovely little Liverpool.
This was a team who through preseason as I watched questionmarks creeping up on virtually all the other top four sides that I was starting to lean towards making my pick for the title.
Even if, and I know some people are convinced that was the case, Liverpool did indeed run good last season with some rather fortunate results along the way, I liked how under Benitez from year to year there were clear signs of improvement.
Every year under Benitez the goals against had been around the same number. 25, 27,28 and then 27 last season. But at the same time the goals scored had been going up every single year, from 57 and 57 to 67 and last season a league best 77 goals scored.
For a team and a coach who rarely compromises defensive stability in favour of the attacking side of things, for them to get to a point where they improve what mostly has been described as a key problem holding them back, to a league leading best, I thought that was quite a dramatic sign. A very positive sign.
Enter evil evil Real Madrid and them stealing key central midfielder Xabi Alonso.
Always a good technical player, under Benitez, Alonso's physical tools and tactical awareness had improved to such a point where he was becoming one of the best central midfielders in the world and certainly with another one of those, the superb Mascherano, made up one of the best central midfield tandems around.
A tandem that not only ensured Steven Gerrard could play his best in front of them behind Torres, but who made the defensive four look good to. Made their job easier.
And in the case of someone like Jamie Carragher, who's been struggling quite a bit this season, probably a whole lot easier.
Trying to fill his shoes has been young brazilian midfielder Lucas. I think the jury is still out of him and the first indication of him doing a sufficient job will be when the Liverpool defense starts looking consistently balanced again.
So far Carragher has been on his heels way too much and even the normaly excellent Mascherano has at times struggled with the same defensive duties where he normaly has thrived. Not good signs.
Alberto Aquilani who they bought from Roma is yet to play this season. He has been a great talent for many years but has been held back by a lot injuries.
At his best he'll likely have even more to offer forward than someone like Alonso and if Benitez like I think he will, it's what he did with Alonso and others, will have him improve his physical ability and defensive play, we could, barring injuries, see a truly great player sometime in the future.
Elsewhere Liverpool has perhaps the best pure striker in the world in Fernando Torres, a great mainly attacking midfielder in Steven Gerrard and a very good two-way player in Dirk Kuyt.
Like Manchester United, Liverpool have hope.
I hope to have a part II focusing on Italy and Spain a little later.