The Myth of the Title Race Moment

The 2018/19 Premier League trophy has gone the way of Manchester City despite intense and unwavering pressure from Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. It has been one of the most extraordinary title race’s as both sides have won every single one of their games as they hurtle towards the finish line. The quality and the desire are there for all to see. However, in terms of drama, its been a bit like the final lap around a Formula 1 track between the two fastest cards. Its as if Lewis Hamilton has edged ahead of Sebastian Vettel and the two have blitzed round every corner, Hamilton always holding the edge, but both clearly flying at breakneck pace before they pass the line in the same order.

Manchester City are Hamilton in this case. They’ve always maintained the edge while Liverpool’s Vettel has chased and harried without ever being able to pass. There has never been a top-flight season as beautiful in terms of a spectacle between the top two, but other race’s have involved tos and fros that perhaps encapsulated English football more tellingly.

Whichever race you qualify as the golden year, journalists and pundits alike, without fail, seek a moment during the run-in that summed up the season and swayed it in favour of the champions. Yet, this season, more than any I can think of, has possessed so many potential “moments” that could have been remembered as the ultimate. Furthermore, the moments have not only fallen City’s way, but Liverpool’s as well.

Other such title duels have seen defining moments which football fans welcome with fond recollection: Eden Hazard’s pearler to equalise against Tottenham which handed the trophy to underdogs Leicester, Sergio Aguero scoring that goal against QPR, going as far back to “Collymore closing IIIIINNNN.”

All of these deserve a folkloric, wistful re-telling every now and then. However, an alternative universe is currently pondering what might have been had Hazard not slipped, as he had all season, Balotelli not lost possession, as he had all season and if United had not, as Kevin Keegan foretold, been beaten by Middlesbrough.

In these universes, a separate moment would now be being heralded as the one that changed history forever. The title race is not, therefore, defined by just one of these moments. It is a myth that fans cling to in order to bring that extra spark of showbiz to the football world.

Below, I’ve remembered a number of the Premier League’s biggest title races and discussed how, if things had turned out just slightly differently, there would be other momentous occasions celebrated in the annals of football legend. Multiple fine margins, not just a single isolated incident, have determined our memories otherwise.

2018/19:

Champions: Manchester City

Pretenders: Liverpool

You all know the story. It’s only just concluded.

Their “moment”:

Equalising within 90 seconds on the final day against Brighton was both imperative and reflective of City as a team. However, Vincent Kompany’s wonder strike and arguable goal of the season was the sort of instant the Premier League prides itself on delivering.

Kompany is no longer the immediate first choice centre-back in a team brimming with talent most teams can only dream of. He remain, however, one of the crucial presences in their dressing room and to score his first goal from outside the box, at the 38th time of trying, in a game where City needed stardust from an unlikely position, summed up his contribution to the cause for so long.

Kompany’s goal was necessary for City, else their victory would be remembered more for the slimmest margins illustrated beautifully by goal-line technology. Liverpool were 11mm from scoring twice at the Etihad and going unbeaten, while Sergio Aguero’s winner at Burnley was just three centimetres from being cleared by Matt Lowton. Margins indeed, but multiple of them.

The challengers’ “moment”:

Where do you start?

Liverpool will go down as the unluckiest losers of the Premier League since its inception. Amassing 97 points and still falling narrowly short is crushing. Yet, if they had pipped City themselves, they may be remembered as among the most fortunate winners.

The football played by the top two teams this season has been aeons superior to the other 18. However, the luck Liverpool received, or earned depending on your point of view, was, at times, nothing short of miraculous.

A number of offside goals, a couple of Mo Salah dives (not bitter, promise!) and an incredible scarcity of injuries combined to give them a fighting chance. However, I don’t think anyone has ever seen a goal quite like Divock Origi’s winner against Everton.

Virgil Van Dijk’s wild slice that spun back off the crossbar, having escaped the palms of Jordan Pickford, was followed in by the Belgian striker for the most bizarre goal most must have witnessed. The fact that it came in the 96th minute, against their bitter rivals, to break the deadlock and remain at the top of the league grants it unequalled status as the luckiest moment of the season.

2015/16:

Champions: Leicester City

Pretenders: Arsenal, Tottenham

It is bafflingly brilliant that Manchester City’s centurion tally is only the second most extraordinary title-winning achievement in the last three years. Leicester’s success emphasised the weight of momentum and the power of joy. Every player revelled in the implausible, nay impossible, things their team were doing on the football pitch. They benefitted a touch from circumstance with none of Liverpool, Manchester City or Manchester United threatening and Chelsea reeling from the original Mourinho meltdown.

Their “moment”:

The goal that won them the title is largely credited as the glorious climax to an unthinkable season. Not only was it superbly elevated beyond Hugo Lloris by Eden Hazard, but it was the Belgian’s first Premier League goal from open play that season such was his turmoil. It was also a game that, ultimately, Spurs probably deserved to win and their complete breakdown by the game’s end was metaphoric of the season. The established order had crumbled, paving the way for a deep blue wave from the Midlands to power away.

However, this moment devalues what Leicester demonstrated that season. If anything, the game we should all recall came at White Hart Lane, where Robert Huth’s towering header gave the Foxes a 1-0 win. The BBC reported this as a crucial win “over top-four rivals Spurs” at the time despite the fact that it drew Leicester level on points at the top with Arsenal. Without Huth’s goal, Leicester would have gone four games in a row without scoring, making a decline seemingly inevitable. The steely grit they showed thereafter was nothing short of exceptional.

The challengers’ “moment”:

Danny Welbeck is leaving Arsenal at the end of this season and it seems unlikely he’ll receive a testimonial. However, in another world beyond our eyes, Arsenal will have cancelled their Europa League final with Chelsea to pay homage to the man who’s crucial 95th minute winner over plucky underdogs and oh-so-nearly men Leicester, put the Gunners on the way back to the top.

Welbeck’s goal, to give Arsenal a 2-1 win over Ranieri’s ten men, looked to have turned the title tide. It closed them to within two points of the summit, adjoined to North London rivals Spurs, with a dozen games still to play. Surely Spurs would be unready for the fight and Leicester? Well, don’t be ridiculous.

Instead, it was to be the last challenge of the Arsene Wenger reign and it would end with a whimper. Leicester would fail to lose another game while Arsenal were beaten in their next two, by a severely weakened Manchester United and at home to strugglers Swansea. They ran on for second, but Welbeck’s goal only has the relevance of enhancing the Leicester legend.

2013/14:

Champions: Manchester City

Pretenders: Liverpool

Manuel Pellegrini’s reign as Manchester City manager is one of the most forgotten, yet surprisingly successful spells in Premier League history. He delivered their second title in three years off the back of five straight wins to close out the season and this in his first full campaign in charge. However, it is Brendan Rogers’ Liverpool side, and their late collapse, that make 20313/14 a vintage top-flight season. It is a sign of how far English football has come in the least five years that the principle managers this year are now in charge of West Ham and Leicester having had spells in China and Scotland in between. Food for thought.

Their “moment”:

As mentioned above, City won their last five games to triumph, so you’d imagine those matches would be rife with “momentous” potential. However, the only vaguely memorable game of those five came at Goodison Park, but that fails to deliver the desired knockout blow. No, unfortunately, this was a season not won by the champions, but lost by the runners-up.

That slip is obviously historic and made for marvellous headlines at the time. Steven Gerrard had recently led a rousing chorus of “We do not let this f***ing slip” after his side had defeated Manchester City 3-2 at Anfield. Cue a loss of footing, presenting Demba Ba with a free hit that he so desperately tried to put straight at Simon Mignolet. Fortunately for him his shot snuck through the goalkeeper’s legs and Chelsea held out to put the title back in City’s hands.

This represents only half of the drama plaguing Liverpool’s final few weeks. In the penultimate tie, they travelled to Selhurst Park and led 3-0 with 20 minutes left, seeking to tear into City’s goal difference advantage. Dwight Gayle’s second of the night, before stoppage time had even dawned, capped a watershed night that saw Crystal Palace recover and snatch a 3-3 draw, enabling City the opportunity to draw on the final day. Gayle’s goal, a simple route-one affair, summed up the season’s final chapter as Liverpool’s vast attacking threat gave way to defensive calamity and top-level ignorance. Gerrard’s slip was the frontispiece, but Palace’s comeback should be remembered as definitively.

The challengers’ “moment”:

With five games left, Liverpool held a narrow lead of two points from Chelsea that could evaporate with defeat at Anfield. City were four back, but with two games in hand, knowing that any result would keep the title in their hands.

Liverpool’s busy swarm of attacking “S’s” charged at the City backline from the off, giving Liverpool a 2-0 lead without pausing for breath. Once they did, City fought back, absorbing the deficit.

Kompany’s screamer against Leicester has granted him Premier league immortality, but he almost earned it for the wrong reasons. HIs sliced attempt at a clearance fell at the feet of Phillipe Coutinho, then a hero of Reds supporters. He found the bottom corner of Joe Hart’s net and Liverpool were clear in the hunt for their first Premier League trophy.

Had they achieved even one title in the preceding 20 years, it is likely Rodgers’ outfit would have skipped into the sunset with Coutinho on the shortlist for a statue outside Anfield. Fortunately for City’s captain, Liverpool’s own trumped him.

2011/12:

Champions: Manchester City

Pretenders: Manchester United

Never will a Premier League season ever be defined more by a single touch of a football than in 2011/12. This title race had everything. First United led by 8 points. Then City had it on goal difference, beating United at the Etihad, meaning they required only a win against a QPR side still fighting relegation.

It was beyond the realms of possibility that City would drop points. Yet, they were losing in stoppage time. All QPR had to do, was concede once. And of course…

Their “moment”:

Phonetically, Sergio Aguero’s name is perfect for a Martin Tyler scream of ecstasy. Fate smiled on this linguistic coincidence as the Argentine’s 94th minute winner gave Manchester City their first Premier League title to the dismay (I’m still not over it, nor will I ever be) of the Red Devils.

This is the only moment I will allow to define a Premier League season, for there can be no other. Forget the other 68,399 minutes (plus stoppage time). This was the only one that mattered.

2007/08:

Champions: Manchester United

Pretenders: Chelsea

Manchester City and Liverpool are the undisputed juggernauts dominating English football right now. The last time two teams were so dominant was around a decade ago, when Manchester United and Chelsea sparred it out.

Chelsea’s oil-rich honeymoon ended in 2007 when United wrestled the title back to the north. The following season was set for a showdown between the two. Perhaps Chelsea had grown complacent a year earlier and would simply march back to the top.

Arsenal looked like potential party poopers for a while, much like Spurs this season. But by the season’s end, there were only two in camera shot and United, buoyed by a veteran on the verge of making club history, retained their title.

Their “moment”:

Say what you like about Ryan Giggs’ off-field activities, his service to Manchester United on it is unparalleled among the big clubs. He spent two entire decades in the first-team and adapted his game where others would have dearly struggled.

On the final day of the 2007/08 season, United and Chelsea were level on points, though United’s vastly superior goal difference gave them the edge. Chelsea hosted Bolton, while United travelled to Wigan.

The “moment” arrived ten minutes from time. Both teams were 1-0 up, either knowing that a single second’s complacency would send the trophy to their rivals. Giggs, equalling Sir Bobby Charlton’s appearance record that day, intelligently found a yard’s space at the border of the Wigan penalty area. His control and finish beyond Chris Kirkland supplied United with an unassailable 2-0 advantage. news evidently reached Stamford Bridge as the subdued atmosphere worsened with a Bolton equaliser.

In his latter years, Giggs was hardly prolific. Yet, the wealth of experience in his possession was encapsulated in this decisive goal.

United, however, could point to previous games as holding the key. Carlos Tevez scored late equalisers at both Tottenham and Blackburn while in the home tie against the former, Nani’s wonder strike gave United a first win of the season at the fourth attempt. Giggs’ moment was only the summation of a 38-game slog to success

The challengers’ “moment”:

With three games remaining, United journeyed to Stamford Bridge with a three-point lead. Chelsea were still in the midst of their 84 game unbeaten streak at home in the Premier League so the thought of United winning to effectively seal the deal that day was off the table. A draw, however, and the Red Devils would only need one more victory from their final day due to their goal difference advantage.

In hindsight, Chelsea’s “moment” could have been a significant one had United failed at Wigan or against West Ham. With fewer than ten minutes remaining, the game was locked at 1-1 when Michael Carrick was adjudged to have handled a cross from wide. Michael Ballack scored the resulting penalty to draw Chelsea level and retain some hope of regaining their crown.

With the momentum of the title, United held their nerve to beat Chelsea on penalties in the Champions League final. However, football has a funny way of working things out and if Chelsea had emerged triumphant domestically, whose to say John Terry wouldn’t have hit the post.

1998/99:

Champions: Manchester United

Pretenders: Arsenal

Every club will always seek to defend their own achievements. Arsenal fans wax lyrical about their “Invincibles”, City fans’ eyes will always grow foggy remembering their “Centurions”. For United supporters, however, the Treble winners of 1999 remain unsurpassable.

They may have only earned 79 points on their way to the title this season, but no English club, before or since, has won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season. Not only did they rack up the trophies, but they also vanquished an Arsenal side hungry for more success having won the domestic double the season before.

Their “moment”:

This was another season that plunged to the wire. Arsenal had lost at Leeds on the penultimate day giving United the chance to go three points clear against Blackburn. They could only draw, ensuring that they would need to beat Tottenham at Old Trafford to make sure of the title.

2011/12 aside, this was the only final day in which the lead looked set to change hands. United fell behind to Les Ferdinand while Arsenal went a goal up and remained in charge for the whole 90 minutes. United struggled until David Beckham’s equaliser shortly before half-time.

Then, came their “moment”, in the league at least. Andy Cole brought down a ball from Gary Neville that bounced uncomfortably beside him. However, he had spotted goalkeeper Ian Walker off his line and lobbed a delicate half-volley over him that dropped anchor just below the crossbar. Few title-winning goals were as classy as Cole’s and it started United along a ten day road to the promised land.

Cole’s winner against Spurs wasn’t his only vital intervention. he scored an 89th minute winner at Charlton, while as iconic a moment occurred when United travelled to Nottingham. 4-1 up with ten minutes to go, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was introduced and scored four more of his own. The 8-1 scoreline remains the biggest ever away win in the Premier League.

The challengers’ “moment”:

Far from coming on the final day, Arsenal may well have had their moment back in February when drawing 1-1 at Old Trafford.

United and Arsenal had met twice previously that season, both in London and both resulting in 3-0 wins for the Gunners (one was in the Charity Shield). Arsenal had dominated both encounters, riding the high of dual success in 1998.

However, at Old Trafford, it was United who played the superior game. Yet, despite their chances, Arsenal went ahead through Nicholas Anelka. Then came the nearly “moment”.

United won a penalty and Dwight Yorke, their most irrepressible goalscorer that season, stepped up to inevitably equalise with United on top. Instead, he put his penalty wide of David Seaman’s left-hand post. Andy Cole would eventually bring United level, but it was very much a case of a point gained for Arsenal and two lost for United.

Arsenal dropped just seven points in their remaining 13 games, but United clung on. Had Arsenal dropped just two points fewer, they would have denied United’s triple-headed destiny and gone back-to-back. Yorke’s miss fades into statistics in comparison to what United did next.

1995/96:

Champions: Manchester United

Pretenders: Newcastle United, Liverpool

Liverpool’s ten-point lead over Manchester City this season was always a false dawn. However, Newcastle’s 12-point advantage over Manchester United, among others, in January 1996 remains the greatest loss of superiority since the Premier League’s inception. Liverpool’s immense points tally this season will inevitably sting, but as Newcastle have failed to lift the title since, they retain their “nearly men” status.

Their “moment”:

United’s charge in the second-half of the season blitzed others into submission and eventually wore down the Geordie parade. However, it was far from a convincing performance that saw their “moment” come about.

Newcastle were four clear going into the game and even had a game in hand to bolster their chances further. Victory, and the slight concerns beginning to creep into supporters’ minds would have evaporated once more without second thought.

Instead, they pummelled United’s defence, which held out mostly thanks to an imperious goalkeeping display by Peter Schmeichel. The hammer blow was landed at the start of the second half when Cantona struck low, hard and true. It typified the player: a classy first touch to bring it under control and a lethal finish befitting a true poacher.

This result, combined with the “game of the century”, swung the race in United’s favour.

The challengers’ “moment”:

Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle. There have been plenty of other matches whose scoreline is the same, but none with as much impact.

Newcastle still held a slim lead in the title race after this game, but the crushing blow of Collymore’s strike in stoppage time, in a game in which Newcastle had led twice, saw momentum shift away from the Toon.

The goal, immortalised in Sky’s coverage of the game, saw Martin Tyler react in a similar way to the Aguero goal. Liverpool were probing, Newcastle were out on their feet and then Collymore struck the final blow.

Kevin Keegan slumped forward in the Newcastle dugout. It was an image that told its own story.

This was the ultimate acid test of Newcastle’s bottle which is why I have chosen this as their “moment”. They’d already faced the minor heartbreak of being beaten by United undeservedly. Now was their chance to bounce back.

Ultimately, they proved that the task was beyond them and Keegan’s infamous “love it” rant defines him as a manager. With a bit of nerve and a touch less aggression, Newcastle would have a Premier League title in spite of this game. In fact, with the aforementioned traits, this game may even have been seen as the catalyst.

*******************

Enough moments combined to swing this season’s Premier League title in Manchester City’s favour. However, just as many may easily have brought a first title to Anfield. Trophies hinge on the seconds it takes for the net to ripple, but the idea that every title race could have been settled by a single moment within 38 games worth of drama.

If any result had shifted slightly in an alternate direction in any of the race’s highlighted above, other moments will have been heralded. For the scrapbook and the season review’s moments hook you into history.

But the Premier League is bigger than that.

Everton 4-0 United: Football’s Relentless Immediacy Could Curse Solskjaer’s Project

It’s difficult to see positives when your side loses 4-0 to a side relishing the battle for seventh. Nevertheless, this result and the near-inevitability of missing out on the top four, could yet be a long-term godsend.

This wasn’t Mourinho football, nor was it Van Gaalish or Moyesian. Bad football is just bad regardless of the manager and this performance was undoubtedly one of the worst this campaign. Whoever you’re a fan of in the dressing room, there wasn’t a single player who can claim to have performed above a 5/10.

The workaholics Fred and Dalot were sloppy in possession, Pogba and Martial (not for the first time) looked like they would rather be anywhere else but Goodison Park and Smalling, Lindelöf and Jones were at their slippery, sloppy worst.

From this performance alone, it would be difficult to decipher the puzzle as to who is worth keeping.

One player who should be a certainty to depart is Alexis Sanchez and 15 months on from his arrival, the inner workings of certain squad members’ agencies can be blamed upon the absurd wages dedicated to the Chilean. The main fault lies not with his performances, dire as they have been at times, but with those responsible for allowing him to receive £500,000 per week.

Pogba, Rashford and Herrera are among many who have been so alienated by their teammate’s heady income that contract negotiations have stalled with the latest named already booked on a one-way flight to Paris.

It is sickening that money has become the determining factor on a player’s decision to remain a Manchester United player. It is only ten years since we were officially the best football club in the country and yet the shirt means virtually nothing, even to those who have been raised by the club.

The football played at the beginning of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign convinces me that he should be given a project. Some will argue that there were performances under previous post-Ferguson regimes that matched those during Solskjaer’s baptism. Scorelines maybe, but football wise there is no comparison.

So let him release or sell who he likes. I firmly believe that football’s economic market has become so inflated that money is of little importance anymore. If a player is in the final year of his contract and is showing no signs of renewing let him go a la Herrera.

Sanchez is a no-brainer as the wage bill must be cut to bring back some amount of harmony. Those who were unhappy beforehand may not be satiated by this and if so, then a decision must be made. I would be disappointed, but not upset to see the back of Pogba, whose talent is undeniable, but whose application as soon as danger lurks is futile. He’ll be a star for a few games at Barcelona or Real Madrid and maybe he’ll maintain his form. However, it is clear that a scenario will never arise at United where he can be relied upon.

Rashford and Martial should be kept if possible. Both have the talent and potential to adapt to a new regime and unless they push for a move this summer, could be made the spearheads of the new team.

De Gea and Lukaku are the other big names who should be passed on. The former is still brilliant, but his world-class days are becoming fewer and further between while Lukaku is not a good enough footballer to be the sole no.9 of a top team. Harsh as it may sound, it could be why Belgium keep falling just short at major tournaments in spite of their vast wealth of talent.

Ultimately, whether I have the names correct or not, there needs to be a reshuffle. Greedy or lazy players only serve to heighten uncomfortable atmospheres and though Solskjaer may have disguised it in the short term, the friction evidently remains.

Football’s unrelenting immediacy, driven by owners desperate for rapid success, harms the chances of any club looking to build for a sustained era of dominance. Manchester City were unparalleled in their brilliance last season, but their squad was built by gold not graft. It’s why they have a challenger for the title this season and why they have failed in Europe thus far.

This immediacy may harm Solskjaer’s chances of succeeding at United. I would love to give him three years to unload the deadwood, sign only who is necessary and blood any youth deemed fit for the club’s purpose. Manchester United will not be winning a Premier League title within three years and that’s generous.

Ed Woodward will want to believe that United can and will be under pressure from the Glazers to run the club as such. It seems likely that we will buy players, potentially high-profile, to fill gaps with expectations far beyond their station. That wouldn’t be fair on them nor on Solskjaer.

If he is allowed to build his own project, there is a chance United could rebuild and challenge again within five seasons. If not, a worrying spell of trophyless starvation may beckon.

 

Jose Goes. So what’s next?

When Jose Mourinho was appointed by my beloved United in the Summer of 2016, it was impossible that it could end acrimoniously. He was the Special One, winning a league title in every spell with any club since Porto. His ego and winning mentality coupled with United’s history and stature were the stereotype of a perfect fit.

Today, he’s gone, taking no Premier League winners’ medal with him. A Capital One Cup and a Europa League is all he has to show for his two-and-a-half years. After all nobody remembers a runner-up.

Critics pointed to his string of short-term stays with his employers. However, a quick fix was what United needed after the spiralling results and charismaless football of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal. Yet this description remains all too familiar. The 3-1 defeat against Liverpool was arguably the nadir of the entire post-Ferguson era.

It is possible that we will look back and realise Jose did an incredible job. Two trophies in his first season followed by a second placed finish to the greatest team in Premier League history constitutes some amount of success especially with the players at his disposal.

But the football, oh the football, was tedious even last season and since August its been a complete shambles. I’m not pretending the club isn’t rotting from within but Mourinho had to leave. Wholesale changes are needed.

Paul Pogba is first. He has downed tools and his influence in the dressing room has soured the atmosphere, impacting the levels of others. It is an intolerable influence and though he will undoubtedly be a roaring success wherever he journeys next, he cannot remain at our football club after his behaviour.

Romelu Lukaku is another readily disposable asset. Allowed to bulk by nutritionists and fitness coaches, who must also be fearing the dreaded p45, his touch is no longer poor but comical. If he didn’t play for United he’d be a healthy source of entertainment.

There are many others. Dead wood is obstructing a host of promising youth players such as Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes etc. who all deserve a chance. For the next six months there is no excuse for keeping them on the sidelines. Personally, I’d give Nicky Butt the caretaker’s job. He knows the quality of our academy prospects, loves the club as a Class of 92 member and there is nothing to lose. Insiders seem to suggest that United will appoint externally and so Butt is unlikely. Perhaps Zidane? Perhaps Wenger!?

A chance may as well be taken. We will not get relegated. We will not finish in the top four. The Premier League should become a playground to blood youngsters. A bottom half finish is not a disaster from this point onwards. The only trophy we can realistically win is the FA Cup on which we must focus. Whatever our best team is (and I have sympathy with whoever takes charge regards this as I have no idea what it is) should be fielded against Reading as a statement of intent.

It is a situation we must make the most out of. We are already the laughing stock but we’re in danger of becoming the new Liverpool post 1990. Imagine that.

Farewell then Jose. I’m as sorry as anyone that this didn’t work out.

Here’s a thought: Arsenal – Premier League Champions 2018/19

Bear with me.

Liverpool and Manchester City may appear streets ahead of everyone else in the Premier League but in their 0-0 draw at Anfield yesterday there was a lack of cutting edge and verve. They cancelled each other out, Liverpool with a much sterner defensive line than last season and City with mistakes having been learned from the defeats suffered at the hands of the Reds in the first half of this year.

The same could not be said of Arsenal and maybe, whisper it quietly, they may have found a system to genuinely compete not just for the top four but the title itself.

It is early days and two months ago they’d suffered back-to-back defeats to start the season, against City first and Chelsea second. In both they were second best but at that time, Unai Emery was still finding his feet and the team sheets were experimental. Not so now.

Against Fulham and particularly after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was introduced for Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey for Alex Iwobi, they were irresistible, scoring the team goal of the season so far, finisded off by Ramsey. Two more followed for Aubameyang as they drubbed the Cottagers 5-1.

Fulham have the worst defensive record in the league to date and getting too carried away would be fruitless. They’ve won nine on the bounce, a fine run, but their toughest assignment in that period was a home game against Watford, who have since slipped to mid-table.

There is no reason that run may not continue until November. League games against Leicester and Crystal Palace precede a home tie with Liverpool, by which time they may be the ones with greater momentum.

The biggest worry remains their defence. Mustafi and Holding will not be a championship-winning pairing but get a marquee signing in January as a statement of intent, and keep Lacazette and Aubameyang firing, and there could be something formidable rising from the North Londoners’ ashes.

Outside of teams in the top six of the Premier League and Arsenal have win every game this season. That will be Unai Emery’s acid test, points against the big sides. It is where Arsenal, in the second half of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, so often came up short.

Unlike at Tottenham and even Manchester United to an extent, trophies will not be the measure of Emery. Arsenal have won a few of those in recent years but have not sustained an assault on the summit for thirty-eight games since the Invincibles stunned the world in 2004. That’s fourteen years, fifteen if they have four points to make up come the second week in May.

Based on this weekend’s performances, there is actually a chance it may happen. City cannot possibly be as good as last year and Liverpool are not as ruthless up front, if better defensively.

Based on recent history, the Gunners will lose at home to Leicester next time out. Yet, it cannot be denied that Arsenal were more impressive than any Premier League side yesterday. Maybe now is the time. Far stranger things have happened.

 

Sarriball, Montpellier and Chelsea’s rule of two: The enigma of Stamford Bridge

I had the misfortune of watching West Ham and Chelsea draw in the least memorable stalemate so far this season. It was, however, thought provoking and led me to question Chelsea as a concept as much as a club.

Why is it, that they cannot settle on a long-term manager despite sustained success? How can they go from runaway champions one season to missing out on the Champions League the year after? Perhaps, more pressingly, how do they expect to win a league title with Olivier Giroud leading the line?

Alvaro Morata has not fired on all cylinders since his arrival from Juventus and Giroud does have a moment of brilliance in him every twenty games or so. However, barring Montpellier’s astonishing title victory in France in 2012, a club side featuring the big Frenchman has not mounted a damaging assault on the top.

His way of playing as a centre-forward is not conducive to thirty-eight game football. It can work wonders in the odd game and he links up play significantly better than many players of his type. It even suits Chelsea’s new obsession with Sarriball and passmaster Jorginho. Yet, ultimately, he relies on consistent service, an old fashioned striking bully who silently demands more goals than his teammates.

France managed to avoid this problem by fielding so many alternatives that they virtually bypassed Giroud entirely. I must make it clear that I do not dislike Giroud this fervently as a footballer. It does strike me though, that Chelsea have enough options either side to replicate France if they were bold enough.

Against West Ham, Chelsea played so centrally, trying to intricately work their way through the lines before inevitably losing out to a bruising Hammers tackle on the edge of the box. Only in the last ten minutes did Willian receive some amount of freedom to express down the wings and this was when Chelsea were at their most effective all game. In the first half, when Giroud was on, any time the ball went wide it either went immediately back whence it came or aimlessly into the middle hoping that Giroud would outmuscle his man without support.

He succeeded on some occasions but not regularly enough nor effectively enough and West Ham quickly came up with a plan to shield goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski without too much alteration to their strategy . This, in turn, highlights a problem with the fabled “Sarriball.”

It is almost too similar to tiki-taka to be distinguished. There is a midfield fulcrum, Jorginho, who is allowed as many touches as the opposition combined and can play a ten yard pass with his eyes closed. There are wingers who can carry the ball at will and full-backs and other assorted playmakers who can be called upon when required. Even N’Golo Kante now darts into the box without restraint.

It sounds a lot like Manchester City, right? The difference? Every City player looks like they want to score, all the time. Chelsea’s XI still seem a little tentative or would prefer to simply create than to poach. They don’t possess the intensity of thirst that the likes of Sterling, Sane and the Silvas perform upon. Theirs is quenched merely by helping and playing a part. There is no I in team but every team relies on selfish individuals now and again.

Against West Ham, Chelsea toiled tirelessly but lacked the willingness to sacrifice positional organisation for greater chances to score. Indeed, Sunday’s game at the Olympic Stadium was not the only one in which Chelsea failed to switch through the gears. It took them until the final twenty minutes to break down Bournemouth and they were 1-0 down at home to Cardiff with just ten minutes left of the first period.

Their lack of raw, uninhibited ruthlessness is likely why Chelsea have become the top 6’s yoyo club. One season, they’re brilliant, a new manager able to unleash the best out of his players once the confidence starts to roll. As soon as the honeymoon period finishes, however, it seems the playing staff lose the will to extend the success, content in the knowledge that a league title delivered is job done. That false sense of accomplishment led to Chelsea finishing a combined 14 places off the top in the two seasons following their Premier League titles.

Like Mourinho and Conte before him, Sarri has taken the reins, admittedly with fewer days in which to get things organised, and got Chelsea’s mojo back. But it isn’t as simple as replenishing the evaporated swagger of old. Sarriball, while flowery and easy on the eye, is not a system of itself, certainly not something to be relied on to deliver a consistent stream of trophies. He needs to create another Stamford Bridge identity, like Mourinho’s punishing counter attacks or Conte’s three-at-the-back.

The Blues’ blues have been replaced by a spot of Sarri sunshine for now though caution is best heeded. Even if Chelsea go on to win their third consecutive alternate-year, odd-numbered title, that would be just the beginning for the chainsmoking Italian and his staff. To quote Alex Turner, “Don’t believe the hype.”

Believe in success, sustainability and Sarri.