Tuesday Morning Tea: The Table is Shook

The current top 4 in the Premier League table have 21 First Division titles among them. For one of the most prestigious leagues in Europe, such class at the top of the table this early in the season is to be expected. The best teams are showing their quality and all is right with the world.

Except that 20 of those aforementioned titles belong to table toppers Manchester United. The other 3 teams in the top 4 – Huddersfield, West Brom and Watford – only have 1 title between them, belonging to the Baggies’ 1919-20 squad.

So much for traditional powers ruling the top 4, I suppose.

Only 3 teams have collected all 6 possible points, those teams being United, West Brom and Huddersfield. Manchester United’s two wins were expected, but a pair of dominating 4-0 results have fans on the red side of Manchester buzzing over the team’s play thus far. Romelu Lukaku netted again in another top class display by the Red Devils.

West Brom was a team that I had pegged as a possible Europa League surprise candidate and Tony Pulis’ squad certainly has not disappointed so far, winning their first two games of a top flight campaign for the first time since 1977-78.

Robson Kanu.jpg
Photo Courtesy of Press Association

And the Huddersfield dream continues. Not only have the Terriers won their first two ever  top flight games, but they have yet to concede a goal and feature a +4 goal differential. Aaron Mooy scored an absolute sparkler to give Huddersfield a win over Newcastle on Sunday and the new boys still remain in Champions League position two weeks into the new season.

Early season results can be fluky – last season, Hull City won its first two games before going on to take 28 points from the next 36 matches – but the Prem table is currently flipped on its head. Some early table spots look easily sustainable while others absolutely don’t.

With all that being said, here are some teams that, 2 weeks into the season, aren’t where they belong.

……….

West Ham: Let’s start all the way down at the bottom of the table with a team clearly still trying to find its footing. After getting thumped 4-0 by a world-beating Manchester United side in their opener, West Ham badly needed a positive result this week against Southampton.

The result? An emotional rollercoaster of a game ending in heartbreak on a Charlie Austin stoppage time penalty that gave the Saints a 3-2 result. A brutal result for West Ham, but out of the rubble of another crushing defeat came two realizations.

When West Ham are good, they can play with anyone. But when West Ham aren’t nearly perfect, it’s an absolute disaster.

The bad at St. Mary’s was really bad. Jose Font looked clueless in the back, Marko Arnautovic gave away an absolutely awful red card (and the Moussa Sissoko comparisons are starting to fly for West Ham’s club record signing), and Pablo Zabaleta made a terrible mistake when giving away the final penalty.

The first Southampton goal exemplifies all of West Ham’s defense problems. A simple looking counterattack featuring Nathan Redmond and Manolo Giabbidini versus 6 Hammers turns into an easy Southampton goal. Redmond calmly holds the ball, not remotely pressured by Pablo Zabaleta, before sliding through a simple ball to Giabbidini, who easily sliced through the 3 centre backs on a straight line run and buried a quality finish. Disorganized, un-athletic, couldn’t be bothered to pressure the ball, down 1-0.

However, the attacking quality in this side is borderline great.

chicharito
Photo Courtesy of Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Chicharito is a godsend. A fox in the box, he was the first to pounce on the only two loose rebounds that Fraser Forster surrendered and absolutely buried both of them. Chicharito just has a nose for goal and positions himself phenomenally to be able to capitalize on whatever chances come his way. West Ham finally have a true goal scorer, and a darn good one at that.

Michel Antonio and Declan Rice both played brilliantly in behind the Mexican striker, and combining them with an in-form Marko Arnautovic can create some serious problems. The Hammers are far better than they’ve played so far. If the back line can figure things out and Arnautovic can screw his head on straight, West Ham will challenge for a Europa League spot instead of being 20th.

Huddersfield: There’s a parade going on in West Yorkshire right now and I’m about to rain on it. Yes, Huddersfield’s schedule looks favorable for the next month or so, but this team will come back down to earth eventually. A September 30th visit to Wembley looks like the time that the Terriers’ bubble will finally burst.

In the moment, David Wagner is a magician. His side have yet to concede a goal yet, Steve Mounie looks like the signing of a lifetime, and Aaron Mooy has been a world beating midfielder thus far. The physical, counter-pressing style that Huddersfield play has caused quite a stir thus far, completely vexing both Crystal Palace and now Newcastle.

Wagner
Photo Courtesy of Huddersfield Town

They would do well to keep this up, but the Terriers just don’t have the depth and quality to play such an aggressive, energetic style week after week. The grind of a Premier League season will eventually wear them own and deeper, more quality teams will begin slicing them open with counterattacks.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope that Huddersfield can keep this magical run going for as long as possible. This type of story is great for the game of football and I love watching it happen. But 2nd in the table isn’t at all sustainable and they will tumble.

Arsenal and Chelsea: I don’t think you need me to tell you that Arsenal and Chelsea won’t finish 11th and 12th in the final Premier League table, but let me do it anyway.

Arsenal and Chelsea won’t be finishing 11th and 12th in the final Premier League table, you can bank on it.

While a 1-0 loss to Stoke this weekend was a brutal result for Arsenal, they have too much attacking quality to not challenge the top 4. Lacazette continued his early brilliance, scoring a clean goal that was wrongly called back on a questionable offsides, Sead Kolasinac played another fantastic game from the back line, and Olivier Giroud made a significant impact for the second week in a row as a super sub.

Everything else was bad in the game against Stoke, but Arsenal just have too much quality to be sitting in the bottom half for longer than a month. As for Chelsea, a massive statement win against Tottenham has them right back on track.

Like I said, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that Arsenal and Chelsea wouldn’t be finishing this low in the final table, but rest assured that it won’t be happening.

……….

Where I Was Right Last Week

Chelsea bounced back in a major way after an embarrassing opening week defeat to Burnley. While not convincing, a 2-1 away victory against Tottenham is a massive statement and a necessary result for a team in desperate need for something positive.

A back line that looked completely lost at times against Burnley re-discovered their 2016-17 title winning form and held a potent Spurs attack mostly silent aside from one quality Harry Kane chance. Take away Michy Batshuayi’s bullet header own goal and Chelsea would have turned in a clean sheet to go along with their fantastic defensive effort.

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Photo Courtesy of Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

David Luiz showed incredible quality while playing in a holding midfield role behind Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’Golo Kante. Add a playmaker like Eden Hazard into this squad and Chelsea are the title contenders that we all thought they would be.

The opening result was disheartening, but Chelsea are back, just like I said they would be, and sooner than I thought too.

Where I Was Wrong Last Week

Briefly, I mentioned that Manchester City’s defense spending would pay off. Last week against Brighton, Kyle Walker was the MOTM, this week he garnered a first half double yellow and left Manchester City a man down for the majority of the game.

Everton’s only goal was a flashback to the City defense of 2016-17. A simple counter attack turned into Dominic Calvert-Lewin skinning two Manchester City centre backs before finding an unmarked Wayne Rooney for an easy 7 yard tap in goal.

Walker
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Everything City did well last week against Brighton was done poorly today against Everton. The 3 centre backs were undisciplined and unorganized, as evidenced by the Toffees’ goal, and the wing backs struggled creating chances while going forward.

Benjamin Mendy is yet to appear for Pep Guardiola’s side and he will be a godsend when he finally does debut, but City still appear to have the same defensive problems that they did last year.

Another centre back is definitely in need.

……….

Team of the Week: Manchester United

What more can be said about the Red Devils. A pair of dominating 4-0 wins have them flying high atop the table. Nemanja Matic played another brilliant game, Paul Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan played like the big money midfielders they were brought in to be, and Romelu Lukaku was on target yet again. United look unstoppable right now.

Runners Up: Huddersfield Town, Watford, Chelsea

Player of the Week: Marcos Alonso

Chelsea’s flying left back may have saved their season with an incredible brace at Wembley on Sunday. Starting off with a brilliant free kick goal to give Chelsea a 23’ lead and finishing with an 88’ winner, Alonso was the unlikely hero that the Blues so desperately needed. With another huge match against Everton on the horizon, Alonso’s top class performance was just what the Stamford Bridge doctor ordered.

Runners Up: Aaron Mooy, Chicharito, Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Moment of the Week: Marcos Alonso’s 88’ Winner for Chelsea

It may have saved the defending champions’ season. A draw wouldn’t have been the worst thing ever, but after giving up an own goal just 3 minutes earlier it sure would have felt like it for Chelsea fans. Alonso has struck new life into a season that was pronounced dead by so many just a week ago, and what a strike it was.

Runners Up: Chicharito’s equalizer, Aaron Mooy’s opener, Wayne Rooney’s 200th Prem goal

……….

10 Thoughts I Have

  1. Sadio Mane continues to develop into one of the world’s premier wingers. Pace, creativity, relentless effort on and off the ball all describe the Senegal international’s game and he showed his class once again this week against Crystal Palace. Mane’s tireless effort all afternoon finally culminated in a game winning goal.
  2. And speaking of Liverpool, their transfer situation is an absolute mess. Firstly, I’ve lost an immense amount of respect for Philippe Coutinho due to the way he has handled his transfer request. Holding out for a move to Barcelona, Coutinho has refused to train and held out of the team with a “back injury”. Meanwhile, Virgil Van Dijk continues to alienate himself at Southampton in hopes of forcing a move to Anfield. Overall, Liverpool’s transfer window disaster reinforces the need for the Premier League window to end on the first day of the season.
  3. While Coutinho and Van Dijk – among others (Ousmane Dembele, looking at you) – hold out for desired transfer moves, Riyad Mahrez has been all class for Leicester. The Foxes’ best player has made it clear that he wants a move away from the King Power Stadium in hopes of playing consistent Champions League football, but Leicester have not been able to work out a deal yet. But instead of throwing a fit and holding out, Mahrez has fulfilled his Leicester duty and played top quality football thus far. With 2 more assists against Brighton on Saturday, Mahrez has only continued to up his value and reputation. This is how it’s supposed to be done.
  4. I called Burnley manager Sean Dyche a magician last week, and before anyone could read that sentence his squad got ‘West Brom’d’ in a 1-0 home loss. This isn’t to take anything away from West Brom, as they are playing fantastic Tony Pulis football right now, but Burnley looked nothing like the side that shocked Chelsea just a week ago. Sam Vokes’ finishing was abysmal, and when the Clarets weren’t flubbing chances, they were struggling to create them. Burnley need more week to week consistency if they hope to survive for a second straight season.
  5. Watford are in the top 4 and Etienne Capoue scored the goal of the weekend. The bees are buzzing. 
  6. Other notable goals from the weekend include Paul Pogba’s chip, Marcos Alonso’s free kick, Raheem Sterling’s half volley equalizer, and Aaron Mooy’s winner for Huddersfield. Do yourself a favor and go watch all of them.
  7. Everton played Man City almost to perfection on Monday night. The Toffees relentlessly pressed high up the field, putting pressure on the 3 centre backs, and got the performance of a lifetime from Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who caused problems all night long. Yet, playing the entire second half up a goal and a man, Everton were completely and totally dominated. City held nearly 75% possession and completed over 200 more passes before Raheem Sterling’s volley found the back of the net and salvaged a point for City. I’m still not sure if this game says more about Everton or City. From Everton’s view, they played exceptionally well against one of the best teams in the league and should have taken 3 points, but they didn’t. For City, they played horribly, yet found a way to salvage a point and almost come away with 3 while playing a full half down a man. Only time will tell.
  8. The sky is not falling on Arsenal, but what the hell happened to them this weekend at Stoke? 76% possession, outstanding performances from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alex Lacazette, yet the Gunners couldn’t come away with even a single point. Week 1 against Leicester, Arsenal scratched, clawed, and found ways to create chances and score. This week against Stoke, they looked overly cautious and seemed to be trying to create the perfect wonder goal instead of just firing on net. Dirty goals still count, fellas.
  9. Jese Rodriguez is absolutely sensational for Stoke. He joins the Potters on loan from Paris Saint-Germain and has already made a thunderous impact. His match winner against Arsenal was everything that will make him an instant Stoke fan favorite. Electrifying run, brilliant first touch, crackling finish, passionate celebration. Expect him to cause problems all season long.
  10. It only feels right to end this by talking about Manchester United because wow, what a start. They’ve scored 8 and have yet to concede. That speaks for itself, but coming off of a season in which Jose Mourinho’s side frustratingly drew a club record 18 matches, these results feel even more encouraging. The Red Devils’ next 5 games are against Leicester, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace. Manchester United have been overshadowed all offseason by their crosstown rivals but have come out in pursuit of a 21st top flight title with blood in their eyes. These next few games should be a fantastic opportunity for United to distance themselves from the rest of the pack early.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

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Tuesday Morning Tea: The Table is Shook

Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches

Dortmund vs. Real, anyone? No? How about Bayern Munich-Atletico Madrid? Barcelona-Man City?

The annual contesting of the UEFA Champions League is always something to look forward to on the football calendar, and after some lackluster – and, frankly, unnecessary – play in games, the group stage is all set. The 8 pools were set up today, and there are some seriously good fixtures on the slate.

Now, I just want to point something out really quickly. How weird is it to not see Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Wolfsburg in the Champions League draw? It’s pretty weird for me. Anyway, let’s get straight into the most interesting group stage matches.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid

Starting off with a bang, the reigning champions draw German powerhouse, Borussia Dortmund in an opening matchup that should be filled with enough fireworks to go around.

Real Madrid UCL
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Real need no introduction. They sport a front line that includes the best player in the world and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric – as if he needed any more of an introduction – made some noise at the European Championships with his sparkling play on the Croatian national team alongside Ivan Perisic.

Madrid’s squad last season was as deep and strong as we have ever seen, and the addition of Alvaro Morata and a presumably much stronger and reinvigorated James Rodriguez will make them just as dangerous.

On the other side are my dark horses in this tournament. Dortmund gave traditional juggernaut, Bayern Munich, all they would handle all the way through the Bundesliga season in 2015-16. And, sensing a potential changing of the guard, Dortmund went out and spent over $110 million on 8 transfers.

Highlighting the group is former Dortmund star, Mario Gotze – who was swiped away from the aforementioned Bayern Munich. Alongside Gotze is another German national, Andre Schurrle, and a couple of 19 year old prodigies, Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor. The new stable of strikers will join Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and form an incredibly formidable attack.

Borussia Dortmund Squad
Dortmund Squad. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Now, all of those glamorous transfers were mostly made out of necessity, as Dortmund lost Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mats Hummels, but I believe the strong attack will make them an incredibly dangerous team that could potentially make huge waves with an upset here.

Also, remember the last time these two teams matched up in the Champions League with Los Blancos as a heavy favorite? Yeah, watch out for Dortmund.

Group A: Arsenal vs. Paris Saint Germain

On the surface, this matchup seems like a very even matchup between French and English powerhouses, but, unfortunately, this is probably the most predictable of the fixtures i’m going to be highlighting. Does that mean it’s not going to be entertaining? Absolutely not.

Make no mistake, this is an offensive GEM of a match. Brilliant players are all over the pitch from both sides. Theo Walcott, Angel di Maria, Granit Xhaka, Adrian Rabiot, Marco Verratti, David Luiz, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Calum Chambers; the quality on the pitch – with regards to strictly offense – is remarkable.

Now, if this match had taken place a year ago, PSG would run away with it. The French champions were firing on all cylinders with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading up the attack, but now that he’s gone? I still favor PSG, but the Gunners do have a shot in both legs.

Both clubs will advance to the knockout round – considering that FC Basel and FC Ludogorets round out group A – and that could be the only way this matchup isn’t a spectacular scoring fest. But I’m going to pretend that both clubs go full bore and we get some lovely, high scoring football.

Group E: Bayer Leverkusen vs Tottenham Hotspur

Here’s the one you disagree with. You can’t agree with me on everything, but I really like this matchup.

Chicharito vs Alderwierld? Yes, please.

I really don’t care what you say, this game is worth watching just to see what kind of magic Chicharito pulls out of his hat against Mauricio Ponchettinho’s bunch.

Chicharito
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Also, who knows, maybe Tottenham regains the form that made them the Premier League runners up from just a season ago and put on an offensive clinic led by Harry Kane and Dele Alli.

Maybe not, but still, the offensive potential in this game is too good to ignore. All hail Chicharito.

Group D: Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid

Holy nuts, whoever put this matchup together clearly wants to cut the riffraff and get straight down to the business of separating the best football clubs in Europe.

A rematch of one of the two semifinals from last year’s Champions League, both teams remain mostly unchanged, with the only significant transfer between the two being Bayern’s heist of Mats Hummels from their German rivals, Borussia Dortmund.

The fact that both of these clubs remain mostly unchanged is reason for excitement because holy wow what a matchup this is.

Antoine Griezemann and Yannick Carrasco have had their coming out parties, and they join Fernando Torres on a club that has silently competed in two of the last three Champions League finals. And guess what, Atletico is set to be just as good as they’ve ever been.

Griezmann and Carrasco
Photo courtesy of ESPN FC

On the other side are the German champions and their stable of ridiculous talent. From Manuel Neuer to Robert Lewandowski, Bayern is almost stupid stacked with talent. Kingsley Coman, Renato Sanches, Arjen Robben (forget about him?), Arturo Vidal, David Alaba, Thomas Muller, Julian Green; it’s almost unfair how talented this Bayern side are.

FC Bayern Munich v FC Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Round of 16
Photo by Lukas Barth for Getty Images

I didn’t need to hype this match up any more than it already was, but Bayern-Atletico twice in the group stage? Thank you, God.

Group C: FC Barcelona vs Manchester City

And now, your main event of the group stage.

Pep Guardiola’s main task at Manchester City has been made crystal clear: win the Champions League. He’s been given all of the money the clubs has to offer, and completely free reign to go get any player his heart desires in the name of winning the Champions League.

Following two squash matches against clearly overmatched Romanian side Steaua Bucuresti, City are through to the group stage where they draw the title favorites, Barcelona.

Nolito and Delph
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Barca return to the Champions League with a vengeance following their failed pursuit of the first back-to-back title win in UCL history. But, while Barca stood pat this summer and didn’t really get any better – in their defense, it’s hard to get better when your attacking trio is Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi – Manchester City went out and just about owned the transfer market.

In total, City brought in 9 transfers for just over $240 million, highlighted by Everton defender John Stones, Barcelona starting keeper Claudio Bravo, and Shalke wonder boy Leroy Sane. The talent on the field will be evident, and this will be an extremely tightly contested matchup, but let’s get to the off-field storylines that really make this a game worth watching.

The aforementioned Pep Guardiola has been clear that his ultimate goal at City is to win the Champions League, and to do that he has to go through his former club. The City boss made his name at Barcelona, and knocked them out of the Champions League last season while with Bayern Munich. Revenge will be in the air and Pep will be hungry to prove his side belongs in the upper echelon of elite football powerhouses.

As I mentioned in the transfers section of this blurb, Claudio Bravo is Manchester City’s new keeper, and the former Barcelona #1 will be making his homecoming during the leg of this matchup contested at the home of the Spanish champions. Also, the last time Bravo and Lionel Messi squared off, the Argentinian fired a now infamous penalty shot high over the bar of Bravo’s Chilean goal to give Chile their 2nd straight Copa America title over Argentina.

Soccer: 2016 Copa America Centenario-Argentina at Chile
Photo by Adam Hunger for USA Today Sports

So, on top of the fact that this is as good of a football matchup as you can possibly get, the extra storylines make this fixture as much of a ‘can’t miss’ as the Champions League group stage has to offer.

……….

Considering the madness that football has provided us with lately, we could be staring down the barrel of a Benfica-Leicester City Champions League final. Would you rather see something like a Bayern-City final? Of course you would, but for the first time in a while, I can’t confidently guarantee that we’ll see traditional powerhouses in the semifinals and final. Strap in, this could get wild.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches