We’re now four weeks into the Premier League season. The table is starting to take a surprisingly predictable (after last season) shape already:
- Manchester City: 12 points
- Chelsea: 10 points
- Everton: 10 points
- Manchester United: 9 points
- Tottenham: 8 points
- Liverpool: 7 points
- Arsenal: 7 points
Given how bizarre last season was, with Leicester winning the title and Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool spending significant chunks of the season outside the top eight, this return to normalcy is striking.
The results from the weekend, however, suggest that the table isn’t an anomaly. It will likely be these seven (seven!) teams battling it out for the top four and more this season. To begin, we’re going to talk about the most surprising member of that group, Ronald Koeman’s Everton, before turning to the least impressive team of the group so far, Arsenal.
Everton might actually be good.
In hindsight, this actually isn’t that much of a shock. Everton have had tons of attacking talent for several seasons now. But under former manager Roberto Martinez, who would find a way to make Juventus or Atletico look bad defensively, they never could turn that attacking talent into consistent results.
That is changing under new manager Ronald Koeman. Koeman is not a manager who is going to transform a squad into world-beaters or thrill the supporters with brilliant attacking football. What he is, however, is a manager who understands tactics and who sets his teams up to be organized, defensively sturdy, and difficult to open up. Put another way, he’s much closer to the manager who preceded Martinez at Goodison and who he faced last weekend: David Moyes.
What separates Koeman from Moyes is that he’s a bit more tactically adaptable than the Scotsman. What sets Koeman’s Everton apart from Moyes’s is that they have elite attackers—some of whom they paid for using money Moyes spent while at Manchester United. (Hi, Romelu Lukaku.)
Obviously it is still extremely early in the season, but given Lukaku’s quality as an attacker and the defensive rigidity that has returned to Goodison under Koeman, it’s not hard to imagine the Toffees making a top four challenge. Certainly, they gave Spurs a great deal of trouble in week one and in subsequent weeks they have looked a convincing team, particularly now with Lukaku finding his form.
Arsenal still aren’t convincing.
Things we know about Arsenal: They’ve been relying on Francis Coquelin as a defensive midfielder for several seasons now and, somewhat like Casemiro at Real Madrid, Coquelin largely gets by simply because Arsenal doesn’t have anyone better. So while Arsenal is worse without Coquelin, it isn’t necessarily true that Coquelin himself is really good. He just gives the Gunners structure and a shield for the back line.
They tried to address this problem over the summer with the signing of Granit Xkaka from Borussia Monchengladbach. Unfortunately, it hasn’t taken long to establish that Xhaka is a holding midfielder who, oops!, isn’t very good at holding. What he’s good at is pushing the ball vertically and covering lots of ground. But given that Arsenal already have Aaron Ramsey, that isn’t necessarily what they needed. The result is that they’re still leaning on Coquelin and still looking rather unconvincing in the process. They won against Southampton, but needed some awful finishing from Shane Long and lucky late penalty to do so. Arsenal have had a knack in recent years for drunkenly stumbling into the Champions League places, but with the managerial talent in England these days as well as the money that smaller clubs can now command, one can’t help wondering if this might finally be the year that Arsene Wenger finishes outside the top four.
Palace plays a real midfield. Palace wins a game.
When they faced Tottenham earlier this season, Crystal Palace set up with a team that included four wingers and a single midfielder. They lost. This has been a recurring problem for the Eagles ever since the arrival of Yohan Cabaye. While the Frenchman still has some technical quality, these days he’s got the mobility of a sloth wearing cement shoes walking through molasses. The result has routinely been a Palace squad that, though entertaining, has never been particularly convincing due to how alarmingly open they are in midfield.
Perhaps Pardew is finally learning his lesson. Starting with Joe Ledley and James McArthur in midfield, the Eagles not only won the game on the scoreboard, they also had a convincing xG result on the road against Middlesbrough. This is an intriguing development as the potential in this Palace team is there. In Christian Benteke they have a striker who can score 20+ goals in a mid-table chasing counter-attacking side like Palace. With Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha on the wings, they have two wide attackers who, though both are probably over-rated, do possess real pace and can do some good things on the counter. If they can simply limit how badly they are beaten in midfield while still launching several dangerous counters per game, this is a side that can probably chase the 50 point total and finish in or around the top half. But it all will depend on whether or not Pardew is smart enough to select a real midfield and resists the urge to shoehorn Cabaye into the team. If he does that, they could be fun. But, then, this is Alan Pardew we’re talking about.