independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Everything in place for an epic battle in Premier League

Oscar has helped provide Chelsea with a different dimension this season

It’s only early October but patterns are already emerging in England’s top flight. Jack Pitt-Brooke gives his mid-term report

Champions League four: Chelsea lead the way

IT'S far too early to talk of a title race but it is possible to guess at those teams likely to fill the crucial top four spots this season -- the same four currently playing in the Champions League.

It might be a surprise that Chelsea have started the strongest, adding to their historic end to last season with the thrilling football from summer buys Oscar and Eden Hazard.

Only Manchester United have scored more goals than them so far -- and they have the best defensive record in the league.

The last time Chelsea took more than 19 points from their first seven games was the 2005-06 season, when Jose Mourinho's side won their first nine on the way to his second title.

Behind Chelsea, the two Manchester clubs have started slowly, neither able to exert as much midfield control as they would like. City, with Nigel de Jong gone and Gareth Barry injured for the first few games, have had to outscore teams, keeping a clean sheet only at their 10th attempt in all competitions.

United have been similarly lax in midfield, losing to Everton and Tottenham, while needing to dig out victories against Fulham, Southampton and Liverpool.

Robin van Persie scored in all three of those games and he might have to be the man to make up for the shortcomings elsewhere in the team.

But, like City, United's best performance of the season was their most recent one, winning 3-0 at Newcastle to silence, at least temporarily, the doom-mongers who had been predicting the fall of the empire built by Alex Ferguson.

Three points behind the Manchester teams sit Arsenal.

Just when they seemed ready to step up, they lost to Chelsea, where their old defensive frailties came back to haunt them, and there is a fear that by making Thomas Vermaelen captain ahead of Mikel Arteta they have limited their defensive fluidity.

That said, they have Santi Cazorla, the most charming footballer in England, and with him anything is possible.

Second-season syndrome: heat on Mark Hughes

Staying in the Premier League is hard, especially for those teams who do not have years of top-flight experience or more tangible resources to call upon.

So when a team comes up and stays up the first time, they should not be embarrassed if they struggle to replicate the feat the next season.

That's good news for Norwich City, Swansea City and Queen's Park Rangers, all of whom are struggling so far in that difficult second season.

QPR, perhaps, should be the most worried. They had a hectic summer of spending, starting rather haphazardly (Rob Green, Ryan Nelsen, Andy Johnson) before finding their range and buying some rather good players (Junior Hoillet, Julio Cesar and Esteban Granero).

Teething problems are inevitable -- they have two points from seven games -- but manager Mark Hughes will not be able to blame them for ever.

"We knew where we might possibly be at the beginning of the season," he insisted, "because of the amount of changes we've made."

Norwich and Swansea would be entitled to the same excuses too, having both changed managers this summer.

Chris Hughton, at Norwich, has a difficult job replicating the spiky fire and mind of Paul Lambert.

The fear is that his team can attack or defend, but not both. After a spell in which they scored twice in four games, Norwich have now conceded nine in their last two.

"Of course I'm concerned," said Hughton said after their 4-1 defeat at Chelsea. "It's about getting back to where we were for the games before that."

Michael Laudrup is trying to follow Brendan Rodgers' progressive mission at Swansea, but after two quick wins, inspired by the smart summer signing from Spain of Michu, his side have conceded 11 goals in the last five games.

"We just have to remember all the things we have to do," he said after a frustrating 2-2 home draw against new boys Reading.

Progressive new managers: Villas-Boas finds feet at Spurs

THREE of England's bigger clubs had a rebalancing towards youth this summer.

Andre Villas-Boas, Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert were all recruited, replacing men who were sacked and were 30, 22 and 10 years older than them respectively. All are trying to teach their players modern methods, with varying results.

Villas-Boas, who was arguably too technical and distant for Chelsea, has had the best results. He started slowly but the Tottenham manager has won his last four league games, including Spurs' first win at Old Trafford since 1989.

The Belgian arrivals, Moussa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen, have been exceptional.

"We didn't get the results that we wanted in the beginning but we are proving that we are getting consistent now," Villas-Boas said after the 2-0 victory over Aston Villa. "It is very, very early stages."

The start has been harder for Rodgers at Liverpool, who has inherited a worse side and has fewer options, especially up front.

Rodgers has managed just one league win so far, with good possession play --going through new arrival Joe Allen -- often hampered by mistakes at both ends. He insisted he will not resort to the "desperation" of changing his approach.

Lambert is less ideological than Villas-Boas or Rodgers but the Aston Villa manager is trying to instil his values of hunger, flexibility and ambition.

He has dropped many of the big names, bought in players from the lower leagues and the Dutch Eredivisie, like the new captain Ron Vlaar, and this will be a hard road too, after just one win so far.

"There's an awful long way to go," said Lambert. "A hell of a long way to go."

Must do better: Toon fail to push on

THERE are some teams who do not have an obvious issue but simply need to start winning. They have the basis to go on a good run, if only it would begin.

Newcastle were the surprise team of last season, but after a summer of more caution than ambition they are struggling to rediscover their fluency, winning just twice from an admittedly difficult opening run.

Fulham lost half of their midfield to Tottenham this summer and the other half to Blackburn, and so Martin Jol is trying admirably to rebuild the team around Dimitar Berbatov. So far it has worked fairly well, with three wins and 15 goals. If Berbatov rediscovers his love for the game, Fulham could be good for a run in the league or a cup.

Wigan seem to work only in runs -- last year they were dismal until their resurrection at Easter. So far they have won just once, despite some good performances from new boy Arouna Kone. But that is just as few wins as Stoke have, or Sunderland.

Those two teams, with a grasp of the game's rudiments but nothing as ambitious as Wigan, had long winless streaks at the end of last season too. At least Tony Pulis and Martin O'Neill have two weeks off to think of some new ideas.

Fast starters: Everton reverse trend

This has been a novel experience for Everton so far.

A club who have often had their hands tied in the summer transfer market, they have traditionally spent the first few months of the season trying to fill gaps and rebuild.

Not this season. After selling Jack Rodwell during the summer, they bought Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar, while keeping Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines.

The result has been resounding: 14 points from seven games -- their best return since the 2004-05 season, when a much more dogged side, featuring Lee Carsley and Thomas Gravesen, finished fourth.

With Pienaar, Mirallas, Fellaini, Baines and Nikica Jelavic combining fluently, there is much more attacking quality now.

"You can win with flair but we won a lot of games 1-0 that season," Moyes recently said of the side of eight years ago.

"We were consistent, hard to beat. There are different ways of skinning a cat. We are in good form just now but how long can we keep it going? It is a test of the players to keep reaching those standards." As surprising, and impressive, have been West Bromwich Albion. Under the new management of Steve Clarke they have started just as briskly, also accumulating 14 points.

They have never done so well since the top flight started awarding three points for a win.

You have to go back to 1977-78, when the West Brom team of Bryan Robson, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham won four and drew two of their first seven, and they eventually finished sixth.

Promoted teams: Big Sam keeps it clean

Winning Premier League games is a very particular skill. Sam Allardyce, back in the top flight with West Ham, certainly has it.

So far he has shown the benefit of his years of experience, acquiring 11 points from his first seven games, including three victories.

The method is not easy but it is simple. It begins with a solid defence, built around the twin pillars of experience he has bought in, Jussi Jaaskelainen and James Collins.

"Every time you don't concede a goal you know you've got a point at least," Allardyce explained recently.

"You know for a fact that if you tot up 38 points now in a season you're going to be safe (as history shows) over the last eight years -- 38 clean sheets is 38 points."

New signings at the other end of the pitch should do the rest. Mohamed Diame has been West Ham's player of the season so far, with his explosions of power and skill through the middle a revelation.

Andy Carroll, when fully fit, should provide the presence which Carlton Cole does not. West Ham already look like they will be alright.

Whether Nigel Adkins at Southampton or Brian McDermott at Reading -- both Premier League new boys -- have the same knack is unclear.

Southampton have talented players, not least the brilliant Gaston Ramirez, but look like they lack that Allardyce nous.

They were 2-1 up against Manchester City with 18 minutes left, and against Manchester United with three minutes left, and lost both games 3-2.

Reading have played six games but have won none -- one fewer than the Saints. Three points is a fairly meagre return, and after losing a late 2-0 lead at Swansea to draw 2-2 on Saturday, there is already the scent of trouble at the Madejski Stadium.

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