Soccer

Wheeler's Midweek Musings: Premier League's 'Elite Eight'

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Gareth Wheeler
11/12/2013 11:49:13 PM
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At 11 games in, the Barclays Premier League table is as clear as mud.  Another unpredictable weekend in the books with only three teams in the top eight earning full points is a testament to the competitiveness of the league, top to bottom.

Six points separate the top eight teams, with eighth-place Manchester City remaining the odds makers favourite to win the title.  This not only is thanks to the perceived strength of Manuel Pellegrini's squad, but the lack of a true front-runner. The class is among the top eight is palpable; the fatal flaws just as evident. 

City still being tipped for the title is significant considering no team outside the top three at this point in any Premier League season has gone on to win the league in the last decade.  In fact, no team worse than sixth after 11 matches has ever gone on to win the league.

The international break gives a chance to reflect on what we've seen thus far.  So what do we know?

It's fair to say the title race, and even spots in Europe come down to eight teams.  The current top eight of Arsenal, Liverpool, Southampton, Chelsea, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester City all rightfully have claims for title and European aspirations.  With all due respect to Newcastle and other mid-table teams, it's far-fetched to believe any has enough quality, depth or the ability to penetrate the elite eight. 

Eight top teams with very little separating the group.  Is this the most wide-open Premier League we've seen?  Here's a historical look at the point differential between first and eighth place after 11 matches and corresponding place of the eventual Champion at this juncture.

Premier League year-by-year through 11 matches

Year League Leader Eighth Place Place of Eventual Champion
92/93 Blackburn - 24pts Ipswich Town - 16pts Man. United - 6th
93/94 Man. United - 28 QPR - 17 Man. United - 1st
94/95 Newcastle - 29 Man. City - 18 Blackburn - 5th
95/96 Newcastle - 28 Leeds - 20 Man. United - 2nd
96/97 Arsenal - 24 Aston Villa - 15 Man. United - 5th
97/98 Arsenal - 23 Leeds United - 17 Arsenal - 1st
98/99 Aston Villa - 25 West Ham - 16 Man. United - 2nd
99/00 Leeds United - 25 Everton - 17 Man. United - 2nd
00/01 MUFC/Arsenal - 24 Aston Villa - 16 Man. United - T1
01/02 LFC/Leeds - 23 Tottenham - 17 Arsenal - 5th
02/03 Liverpool - 30 Blackburn - 18 Man. United - 4th
03/04 Arsenal - 27 Liverpool - 17 Arsenal - 1st
04/05 AFC/CFC - 26 Newcastle - 16 Chelsea - T1
05/06 Chelsea - 31 Charlton - 19 Chelsea - 1st
06/07 Man. United - 28 Liverpool - 17 Man. United - 1st
07/08 Arsenal - 27 Aston Villa - 18 Man. United - 2nd
08/09 CFC/LFC - 26 Middlesbrough - 14 Man. United - 3rd
09/10 Chelsea - 27 Sunderland - 17 Chelsea - 1st
10/11 Chelsea - 25 Sunderland - 15 Man. United - 2nd
11/12 Man. City - 31 Aston Villa - 15 Man. City (goal differential) - 1st
12/13 Man. United - 27 Arsenal - 16 Man. United - 1st
13/14 Arsenal - 25 Man. City - 19 ???

As the table suggests, the start to this season equals the most competitive in Premier League history amongst the top eight.  Only two other times six points has separated first from eighth at this stage.  Arsenal was top of the table on just 23 points through 11 games in 1997-98 and was eventual Champion.  In 2001-02, Liverpool and Leeds were on 23, before Arsenal pulled away after an incredible run to win the league by seven points. 

Even more striking is only seven times since 1992-93 has the team leading at this juncture gone on to win the title.  Incredibly, Manchester United has only lead (or shared the lead) four times through 11 matches despite winning the league on 13 occasions.  
The rather cliché, popular narrative that this year's league is 'wide-open' actually fits the bill.  Without a clear front-runner, we're left with eight teams with belief, and rightfully so.  Here's what else we know when it comes to the top eight contenders.

1) Arsenal (25pts) - The strength of Arsenal is in their starting XI, particularly the midfield.  After that, questions set in.  Arsene Wenger is desperate for another option at striker.  Olivier Giroud simply has no requisite cover when having an off day.  The back four is more settled than recent years.  Bacary Sagna is back to top form after breaking his leg 18 months ago.  Left back Kieran Gibbs has also been great, providing stability at the wing back positions.  Despite early success, it's fair to question how much has come from a soft schedule.  A true test of squad depth comes before Christmas, with four of their next six games against teams in the top eight, including Manchester City and Chelsea.

2) Liverpool (23pts) - It's astonishing Liverpool is runner up despite still in transition and being without Luis Suarez for five games.  Liverpool has feasted on lesser competition; something they haven't done in recent seasons.  Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have been the strength of the team, scoring 16 of Liverpool's 21 league goals.  Brendan Rodgers concerns lay elsewhere.  An experimental back three or back five, depending on the match-up has brought mixed results.  It's not so much the formation, rather than the personnel.  A healthy Glen Johnson and Enrique are much better wingbacks with the ability to get forward than Kolo Toure and Aly Cissokho deputizing.  After Steven Gerrard in the midfield, the rest is thin and unpredictable. Expecting title contention at this point is premature.  A place in Europe is not.

3) Southampton (22pts) - The Saints impressive start is no fluke.  They've only conceded five times all season.  Only Roma and Lille have better goals against records in European league play. And a goalkeeper, Asmir Begovic, scored one of the goals conceded.  The defending has been top rate.  Mauricio Pochettino has also found a fluid system in attack, with England internationals Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana all playing in advanced positions.  The move to relieve Nigel Adkins of his managerial duties last season seemed harsh.  It's hard to question the move now.  Southampton needed to take the next step and play a more consistent brand of football.  Pochettino has pulled all the right strings and hasn't faced pressure to play record signing Dani Osvaldo when not needed.  A true test is ahead in the coming weeks, with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City in three of the next four.

4) Chelsea (21pts) - Jose Mourinho is back being Jose Mourinho: outrageous sideline antics, mixing it up with players in the tunnel, true defiance and in your face gamesmanship.  So is his ability to suck the life out of a team.  A squad with as much talent as any in the league is stuck playing a bland withheld brand of football.  The style is often times effective, and Mourinho's track record cannot be ignored.  The Portuguese has yet to discover his top starting XI.  I would argue he hasn't found a proper formation either.  His insistence to over-rely on John Terry and Frank Lampard through the spine has resulted in a lack of consistency and drive in these all-important positions.  David Luiz has been erratic, but is too good not to play.  Perhaps a steady run for John Obi Mikel at defensive midfield, while playing alongside Ramires and dropping Oscar into a deeper position would do wonders.  The move would allow Juan Mata and Eden Hazard to play behind Samuel Eto'o in supporting attacking positions.  Mourinho has to do something.  No striker has more than two goals.  It's all too pedestrian and predictable. Chelsea has a relatively easy go of it until Christmas time.  Look for them to climb.

5) Manchester United (20pts) - Recent comments made by Manchester United players tell you all you need to know.  Michael Carrick referred to team belief as catalyst for United's current nine-match unbeaten run after "a shocking start" to the season.  Phil Jones pointed to United's detractors as inspiration, proving "when people doubt us we are more than capable of standing up for ourselves and proving to people that is why we were champions last season."  There's no question the new manager was a bigger transition than most imagined.  The manager has changed but the pedigree and internal expectation at the club have not.  The confidence and resiliency trademark at United remain prominent.  While questions in the midfield exist, the team's overall quality is undeniable.  Judging by the high pressure on the ball and unwavering commitment in the win over Arsenal, the fruits of the Moyes transition are ripening.  And we haven't even hit the Christmas period yet.

6) Everton (20pts) - The Toffees are the biggest outsider of the top eight but are still full value to be recognized among the elite.  A 0-0 draw against bottom dwellers Crystal Palace was a disappointment.  Everton had 73 per cent of possession in the game but simply couldn't create.  The positive, Roberto Martinez side earned their third straight clean sheet, and sixth overall in 11 games.  Martinez is steadfast in his commitment to playing a possession based game; something that kept his former side Wigan in the Premier League well beyond their best before date.  The transition under the new manager has been seamless.  They possess an element of steel through the middle of the park, with a touch of class down the left side with Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar pulling the strings.  Outside a poor second half at the Etihad, they've been in every game they've played.

7) Tottenham (20pts) - Nine goals scored has hurt the start to the season.  Only Sunderland and Crystal Palace have scored fewer. Spurs lead the league in shots and shots on goal per game, and are second in possession.  Roberto Soldado and Gylfi Sigurdsson have scored seven of the nine goals.  Many will point to the failures of Soldado in front of goal, which to a certain extent is fair.  But secondary scoring is essential for any top team.  The chances are there; the finishing is not.  The struggles clicking shouldn't be too much a surprise for a team with seven new key players (nine with Danny Rose and Andros Townsend coming back from loans) in the squad.  Next up for Spurs are Manchester City and United.  Tottenham took seven points from Manchester sides a season ago.

8) Manchester City (19pts) - When rolling, no team looks better than Manchester City.  You won't find a better performance than City's 4-1 demolition of United.  The score-line actually flattered United; it could have been worse.  City's abysmal away form is why they are in eighth.  Four away losses, with three coming against teams in the bottom half of the table overshadow their perfect home record.  Away is when teams rely on their defensive structure.  City has been exposed at the back with Vincent Kompany on the sidelines, and reports say he is at least another three weeks away from returning.  City doesn't have another true first choice centre back in their squad.  The lack of quality at the position, combined with first choice goalkeeper Joe Hart being dropped means no easy solution.  Previous manager Roberto Mancini understood City must play a more conservative style based upon weakness.  Pellegrini isn't wired to play that way. Spurs, Southampton and Arsenal are ahead in their next five.  Fortunate for City, they've already advanced in the Champions League and three of their next five league games are at home.

Aaron Ramsey Mesut Ozil (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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