Soccer

Wheeler: Barclays Premier League Fact or Fiction

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Gareth Wheeler
9/12/2013 8:17:23 PM
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The International break is over and we're back with Barclays Premier League action Saturday.  TSN Radio has its regular Saturday morning doubleheader coverage, as Sunderland welcomes Arsenal to the Stadium of Light (10am EST) and new-look Everton face Chelsea from Goodison Park (12:30pm EST). 

The two-week break from Premier League play has taken away any kind of early season momentum.  Likewise, the transfer window has changed the texture to the landscape.  Still, certain truths can be taken from what has transpired thus far.  Time to separate Fact from Fiction. 

Shinji Kagawa not playing for Manchester United is reason for serious concern

Fiction - It is far too premature for concern, at least not yet.  Kagawa has yet to play for David Moyes in league play and Nani took his place on the bench for the visit to Anfield.  Reminder, it's only been three Premier League matches. Three!  And the Free Shinji campaign is in full swing.  Kagawa didn't easily adjust to Premier League life last season.  Sir Alex Ferguson found it difficult to find an ideal role for the Japanese International and it seems David Moyes is proceeding with caution.  Moyes has been playing it safe with squad selection, trying to navigate through a tricky start.  It's been rather defensive for United and that cannot be the case for the team as the season progresses.  The tactics deployed by Moyes thus far speaks more about the manager than it does Kagawa.  As Moyes grows more comfortable with his squad, expanded roles for players like Kagawa and young Wilfried Zaha should follow.  In fairness to Moyes, Kagawa was rather pedestrian during pre-season, coming off a busy summer with Japan.  A goal Tuesday with his national side is just what Kagawa needs.   And a start against Crystal Palace Saturday would do much to ease the calls for a Kagawa exit.  He has the requisite creative ability to make an impact, but in a 4-4-1-1 formation, it's hard to put him anywhere other than the recess striker role.  With stiff competition for places, Kagawa has his work cut out for him to prove his worth within the manager's structure.  He may never be an every match player for United.  That doesn't mean he won't play a part, and an important role, at that. 

Mesut Ozil's arrival is enough to make Arsenal a Premier League title contender

Fiction - Not even close.  Ozil was always going to say the right things upon introduction at his new club.  But the suggestion Arsenal is ready to compete for significant trophies seem premature.  As Ozil settles at the club, he'll come to realize quality and depth isn't ever-present at Arsenal.  Significant questions persist at goalkeeper, centre-back, depth in midfield and finding regular goals up front.  Ozil's arrival addressed a significant squad concern, adding another dynamic playmaker alongside Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott in the attacking midfield positions.  But it cannot hide the fact the squad is thin at important positions.  This has been a fourth place team in recent years for good reason, and the addition of one player hardly seems enough of a jump to contend with the top three. And the argument can rightfully be made Spurs are more a threat at the top of the table than the Gunners, despite the loss at the Emirates a fortnight ago.  One match where Wenger finished the match with six defenders on the field isn't enough to prove to me Arsenal are the better North London side.

Brendan Rodgers deserves the bulk of the credit for Liverpool's perfect start

Fact - It hasn't been pretty for Liverpool, but the results speak volumes for Rodgers influence on the team.  It was never going to be easy without Luis Suarez to start the season.  Rodgers was able to quell the storm and kept Suarez at Anfield, while managing to strengthen the squad at important positions in the transfer window.  Regardless the moves made, it's the team play on the field that's impressed the most.  It was always going to be a process upon Rodgers arrival from Swansea.  And it appears his pupils have taken to heart the importance of ball retention and structural soundness on the pitch.  Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet secured three points opening day with a penalty save, and has kept a clean sheet since.  He's a significant upgrade for Liverpool, however it shouldn't be ignored the team in front of him are playing sound football.  The players in the back four do nothing to secure confidence, but playing Steven Gerrard and Lucas as defensive midfielders, essentially sitting on top of the backline from an extremely deep positions has worked to near perfection.  Gerrard especially has kept the structure and held the team shape.  No longer does he need to be the box-to-box player he once was.  A more controlled, quarterbacking approach is what Rodgers needs from his team captain.  The organizational strength has allowed his attacking players to get forward and be more adventurous, making the most of the energy and pace of Daniel Sturridge.  The team is working as a unit exceptionally well in the early stages and expect more chances to be created as comfort levels and confidence grows.  And if Rodgers can continue to get the most out of what he has through top team play, Liverpool can push on to compete near the top of the table.

Juan Mata has a long-term future at Chelsea

Fiction - Mata's future at Chelsea cannot be deemed secure as long as Jose Mourinho is calling the shots.  All is not right with Mata at Chelsea.  Mata's falling out of favour may be the biggest surprise and most significant headline of the early season.  No spin necessary.  Spare me the player is a defensive liability.  Mata was a top player at Stamford Bridge a season ago, and true game breaker at that.  Yet, it doesn't appear he fits in Mourinho's plans.  Reports out of Spain suggest Mourinho won't play Mata because the player approached Barcelona about a possible summer move.  Whether the story holds truth remains to be seen.  What we do know is Chelsea has brought in a wealth of talent at Mata's attacking midfield position (Willian, Schurrle, De Bruyne) and the Spaniard continues to watch from the bench.  A new manager has his own preferred players, and a temperamental one as Mourinho can mean frustration for Mata.  It appears he'll have to wait for injury, or be forced to seek a January move out of Chelsea to improve his chances of playing ahead of next summer's World Cup.  Mourinho has no problem sitting top players.  And Mata is the latest to feel the wrath. 

West Ham is in danger of a relegation fight

Fiction - Alarm bells have rung with Andy Carroll injured Monday upon his return to training.  The length of his latest absence is not known.  The striker certainly cannot be relied upon.  Nor can Big Sam's other options be trusted up front.  Modibo Maiga, Ricardo Vaz Te, and the newly signed Mladen Pertic leave much to be desired.  Goal scoring was never a strength last season either, yet West Ham navigated itself to an impressive 10th place finish.  The Hammers were 15th in the Premier League a season ago and top scorer was midfielder Kevin Nolan.  West Ham will continue to play to their strengths; a difficult side to beat at home who are strong as a unit at the back, decent down the wings with hard-nosed play through the middle of the park.  Simply put, they are a tough side to play against and will regularly pick up points throughout a grueling Premier League calendar.  A proper striker may need to be addressed in January.  But for the time being, West Ham will be fine.

Everton is the mid-table team to watch

Fiction - It's easy to make the case for Everton due to the perceived success in the transfer window, landing James McCarthy, Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku. No question, there is a lot to like, but the loss of Marouane Fellaini is being understated.  Fellaini was such an important, multi-dimensional player for the Toffees a season ago, scoring goals and exerting his physical influence on matches.  I still expect improvement from the team after a drab start under Roberto Martinez.  But for me, Swansea is the team to watch.  Few teams play with the confidence on the ball as the Swans.  Michael Laudrup had what looks to be another successful transfer window and will have to use the newfound depth in his side to see through a difficult schedule.  Swansea was done no favours from the schedule makers with matches against Manchester United, Tottenham, and Liverpool in their first four, as well as venturing into the Europa League for the first time.  This week they embark on the always-difficult Monday-Thursday-Sunday schedule -- no easy task for a group of players inexperienced to such demands.  But the intrigue remains with this group, who managed to keep Michu and are still finding the right way to use Wilfried Bony up front.

Sunderland is the team showing most reason for concern

Fact - Paolo Di Canio brought 14 new players to the Stadium of Light over the summer.  And as Sunderland newspapers aptly state, it was all a case of quantity over quality.  Di Canio has already publicly criticized his own captain, raised concern over the language barrier difficulties facing his foreign recruits, all the while resorting to playing possibly the worst player in the league, Ji Dong-Won.  This story has been told before, reminiscent of QPR's failed campaign a season ago – a group of questionable players thrown together without method behind the madness leads to inferior play and lack of results.  Yet this Sunderland side has the makings for far more entertainment and colourful antics along the way.  Incredibly, the squad has too many holes to fill.  And believing the team of new faces can come together through the pressures of a Premier League campaign is wishful thinking.  Sunderland are winless through three, and best chance for victory looks to be away at the Hawthorns September 21st.  If they fail to win, its realistic Di Canio will be winless heading into the October 27th home fixture against rival Newcastle.  If the team still is without a win after that date, Di Canio could very well be gone and the organizational structure torn apart.

Spurs have the top midfield in the Premier League

Fact - But its close.  At present time, this is all speculative, based upon projection and teams on paper.  Time will tell if this projection holds true and whether Spurs midfield comes together, as expected.  But in terms of balance and upside, it's hard to ignore the substance at White Hart Lane.  In making the assessment, balance in type of player as well as depth is required.  Chelsea comes close, with a stellar crop of attacking midfielders and experienced players able to take up the holding midfield positions.  What Chelsea lacks is natural outside, wing players to create natural width and pace down the wings.  Chelsea relies on the wingbacks positions to do that job.  But where Chelsea lacks the flexibility to take up such a formation, Spurs are flexible, able to change shape and approach depending on match and context.  Spurs caught a break with Etienne Capoue only expected to miss a month after an ugly ankle injury.  In fairness, even without Capoue Andre Villas-Boas has requisite cover.  On the wings, natural depth has been found from the standout early play of Andros Townsend, with Aaron Lennon and Nacer Chadli more than capable playing from wide positions.  In the middle, Paulinho, Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembele, and Sandro are more than adequate options.  And Erik Lamela, Lewis Holtby and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intriguing options in more advanced positions.  The multitude of options will serve AVB well, giving Spurs a decisive advantage in the most influential position on the field.  

Juan Mata (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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