Is the Premier League the best league in the world? A lot of people think so, and they cite the fact that it’s more competitive as one of the primary reasons why. That has been somewhat inaccurate in past iterations, but this season we’ve got a concrete example of why that just might be the case.
It may not be the best all the time, but when Leicester City, a team that was promoted within the last four seasons, can be in first place and we’re almost in February, that’s confirmation that the Premier League may be competitive in a way that other leagues are not. They’ve managed to survive the tough Christmas period, and in the most recent set of fixtures convincingly reaffirmed their potential title credentials. The first game of the weekend, however, was easily the best, and most likely a candidate for game of the season.
Norwich 4 – 5 Liverpool
You’re unlikely to see a better match in terms of bang for your 90-minute buck. People like to say a 4-3 victory is the epitome of entertaining football, but Liverpool delivered one better with their dramatic 5-4 win at Norwich.
The game started with the best of Jurgen Klopp’s brand of football; good short passes and a clever run from Firmino gave him the opportunity to put a low finish past the Norwich keeper. However, another hallmark of Klopp’s short tenure is Liverpool’s defensive fragility, and they would trade goals with Norwich and even go behind throughout the entire game, eventually leading 3-4, only to be brought back level when Bassong equalized for Norwich in injury time.
Klopp’s teams aren’t known for being boring though, and Adam Lallana obliged with a little more drama in the 95th minute when he took advantage of Norwich’s failure to clear their lines with a volley he thumped into the ground but found the back of the net nonetheless. Although their defence needs work and injuries have provided unnecessary setbacks for the Reds – they’ll take confidence from this massive away win and their developing ability to create chances and convert them.
Leicester City 3 – 0 Stoke City
Ever since Jamie Vardy suffered a slight injury a few weeks ago, his prolific scoring form has somewhat slowed down, but Leicester have managed to find goals elsewhere. Their opener came from a corner that Stoke cleared quite poorly, and which fell to midfielder Drinkwater whose half-volley fortuitously ricocheted through a crowded box and spilled into Jack Butland’s net.
Vardy notched the follow up 65 minutes after a lobbed through ball from midfield, smoothly taking the ball past the keeper and sliding it home from a bad angle. Riyad Mahrez’s quick feet crafted the third when he received possession inside the box and shimmied past two markers and attempted a shot at the far post which was met by Ulloa to make it 3-0 five minutes before the end.
Stoke have made life difficult for a number of the bigger teams, defeating both Manchester clubs recently, indicating further that Leicester are genuinely a formidable team who are capable of beating any team in the league. Even more importantly, they’ve managed to hold onto all their big names so far and have even added to the squad during the January transfer window. They appear to have everything necessary to remain on course for a shock title win.
Manchester United 0 – 1 Southampton
The pressure on Louis van Gaal shows no signs of dissipating after United suffered another defeat, again at home, and this time to Southampton. In another relentlessly uncreative game United managed to prevent Southampton from threatening their goal too frequently, but equally they managed to do absolutely nothing with their own possession in the final third.
Under van Gaal, United have been notorious for a lack of attacking effort, preferring to slowly and methodically try and craft a goal rather than to push opponents onto the back foot with constant attacking drive. While it has earned them points now and then, more often than not they get found out when teams are happy to allow them possession, knowing United are unlikely to do much with it.
A similar affair unfolded here, and rather than leave the crowd dismayed with another 0-0 draw, Southampton’s new striking acquisition; Charlie Austin, saw fit to spread some misery around Old Trafford with an 87th minute header from a good corner delivery by Ward-Prowse.
The United fan base has been understandably unhappy for months now, and this loss is likely to move the directors closer to the inevitable decision to sack the Dutch manager. Unfortunately however good a manager may be, once he loses the faith of the players and he is unable to motivate them to perform, the only option is usually to let him go. Ryan Giggs may see out the season as he did when Moyes was sacked, but Mourinho is still without a job – and if the press are to be believed, is waiting in the wings to take the Old Trafford hot seat.
Arsenal 0 – 1 Chelsea
There probably isn’t a fixture that Arsene Wenger hates as much as this one. The Frenchman has endured a horrible record against his London rivals for several years now, some feisty encounters with Mourinho serving as the most difficult matches.
Arsenal have always liked playing slick and attractive football, but over the years they’ve developed a soft center. When they’re allowed to play their game, they’re probably the most appealing team in the league, but whenever a team is willing to get physical and out-hustle the Gunners, things tend to fall apart for them.
This Achilles heel of theirs was on full display against a dogged Chelsea side, with Diego Costa tip-toeing over the disciplinary line all afternoon. Chelsea’s Costa gave Arsenal fans another reason to hate him, after drawing a foul with a questionable amount of contact from the slow Per Mertesacker in the 19th minute. Mertesacker was adjudged to be the last man, which meant by the letter of the law that he had to be shown a red card – sending Arsenal down to ten for another 70 minutes of football.
Arsenal wouldn’t recover from the early red card and were outworked by Chelsea for the rest of the match, despite playing relatively good football throughout. Costa’s tenacity earned Chelsea the three points as early as the 23rd minute when he met a good cross from the right and finished on the volley at the near post.
Arsenal have been intermittently tipped as favourites to win the league this season, but their problem now is as it has been for nearly a decade: Beating other top teams. Putting four or five past bottom half teams isn’t their problem, it’s grinding out tough wins against their fellow title aspirants. They’re only three points off the top, level with City, but they’re going to need to improve their performances against the bigger sides if they want silverware this season.
So, what’s next?
The pick of the upcoming fixtures is Liverpool’s visit to Leicester City. Both teams will be confident in attack after fantastic goal scoring exploits this past week, but Leicester may feel optimistic about getting a result considering Liverpool’s defensive concerns. Manchester United face a tough visit from Stoke City, who have recently beaten the Red Devils. Another home loss is likely to signal the end of van Gaal’s era at the club, with a lot of uncertainty a probable outcome. There’s a fairly good chance a new manager will arrive before the end of February given their current form. Will Mourinho be making a comeback to the Premier League this season still?