The Gunners lead the Premiership after 11 rounds. They haven’t played Chelsea and Manchester City yet, but victories over Liverpool and Tottenham suggest they could mount their first serious title challenge since the 2007-08 season. The team is more mature than six years ago. There’s also more quality. But such a comparison doesn’t really make sense since Tottenham and Manchester City have grown stronger in the meantime.
Let’s compare Arsenal’s current squad with its main rivals: the Blues, the Citizens, the Red Devils, the Spurs and the Reds. In goal, Szczesny is weaker than Cech, Lloris, De Gea and Mignolet. Schwarzer, Friedel and Lindegaard are also more reliable back-up goalkeepers than Fabianski. But Arsenal is in a better situation than Manchester City, where Hart’s form has dipped and Pantilimon is unproven at the top level. On the bright side, Szczesny is just 23 and still has room for improvement. If the Polish goalkeeper erases occasional lapses of concentration, works on his ball distribution and has a better command of his area, he could at least reach the level of Mignolet and De Gea.
Goalkeeping rankings: 1. Chelsea, 2. Tottenham, 3. Manchester United, 4. Liverpool, 5. Arsenal, 6. Manchester City.
At centerback, the Citizens have the best partnership with Nastasic and Kompany. Lescott is a decent back-up while Demichelis is past his prime. The Gunners’ defense used to be a laughing stock. But much has changed since they had the second tightest defense last season. There’s obviously more team work to protect the back four. They’ve also benefited from Mertesacker’s calm and leadership and Koscielny’s improved discipline, although Friday’s red card against Ukraine is a reminder that the Frenchman can easily lose his temper. Sure, Mertesacker is a slow runner, but the Red Devils and the Blues are facing similar issues. Ferdinand is looking old nowadays and Vidic is no longer the dominant defender he used to be while Terry has clearly lost a step.
In terms of depth, Chelsea is slightly better than Arsenal because Ivanovic and Cahill are more reliable than Koscielny and Vermaelen. But the Gunners are ahead of the Red Devils and the Spurs because Evans and Jones haven’t showed much consistency yet. Vertonghen may be a better defender than Mertesacker and Koscielny, but Kaboul and Dawson are weaker options. Of all the contending teams, Liverpool has the worst centerbacks. Skrtel and Agger are fine defenders but Toure and Sakho are liabilities because of their positional play.
Centerbacks rankings: 1. Manchester City, 2. Chelsea, 3. Arsenal, 4. Manchester United, 5. Tottenham, 6. Liverpool.
At fullback, Arsenal may have the best rightback and leftback in the Premier League with Sagna and Gibbs. Sagna is just as solid defensively as Ivanovic or Zabaleta and has helped create chances this season with his crosses. Gibbs does not have Cole’s fame, but his game has become much more consistent this season and he has more stamina than the England fullback. If we consider the two starting fullbacks, the Gunners, the Blues and the Citizens are pretty close. The Red Devils are behind because Smalling is a centerback by trade. Liverpool and Tottenham are much weaker with Enrique, Johnson, Rose and Walker.
In terms of depth, Monreal is an outstanding back-up leftback while Jenkinson is an average rightback because of his limited technique, poor decision-making and weakness in the air. But the other contenders don’t have four top-notch fullbacks either. Bertrand, Clichy, Fabio and Cissokho have defensive flaws and Fryers, Naughton and Kelly are poor second-string fullbacks.
Fullbacks rankings: 1. Arsenal, 2. Chelsea, 3. Manchester City, 4. Manchester United, 5. Liverpool, 6. Tottenham.
In midfield, it should be no surprise to see that Arsenal is the strongest team in that area. The back-up players (Arteta, Wilshere and Rosicky) are just as good as the regular starters (Flamini, Ramsey and Ozil). There’s the right balance between defense and offense. The only side that comes close to the Gunners in terms of quality and depth is Tottenham. The main difference is that Capoue and Sandro are pure ballwinners who don’t have the passing skills of Arteta and Flamini and that Eriksen and Holtby aren’t seasoned as Ozil and Rosicky.
On paper, Chelsea’s midfield also looks great, but the trouble is that Essien and Lampard are past their prime. Because Obi Mikel can be inconsistent, Van Ginkel’s knee injury has dealt a hard blow to a midfield that will heavily rely on Ramires and Oscar this season. The Red Devils are facing similar problems. Giggs will turn 40 this month, Fletcher and Carrick have been struggling with injuries and Anderson is no longer the player who shone in his first season at the club. Moyes has also failed to inject creativity in midfield, preferring to hire Fellaini this summer.
The Citizens have no old midfielder, but they clearly lack variety. Rodwell and Garcia are defensive midfielders while Toure and Fernandinho are box-to-box players. Because Pellegrini has mostly used a 4-4-2 system this season, creative midfielders such as Nasri and Silva are played on the wings. Liverpool has the weakest midfield with an aging Gerrard and an average Henderson, leaving too much of the burden on Lucas Leiva and Coutinho.
Midfield rankings: 1. Arsenal, 2. Tottenham, 3. Chelsea, 4. Manchester City, 5. Manchester United, 6. Liverpool.
On the wings, Arsenal has more choice than in past seasons. Podolski, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain are still recovering from injuries. But once they’ll get fit, Wenger will have plenty of room for rotation. Podolski, Cazorla and Walcott are proven goalscorers while Oxlade-Chamberlain has become an England international and Gnabry is enjoying a breakthrough season. The Blues have two wingers who can score goals with Mata and Hazard but Willian and De Bruyne aren’t as prolific at the top level. Tottenham has plenty of depth with Lamela, Chadli, Sigurdsson, Lennon and Townsend. But while Lamela is a proven scorer, Townsend, Lennon and Sigurdsson net very few goals and Chadli is an unknown quantity in England.
The Citizens have two outstanding Spain internationals with Silva and Navas but Nasri still lacks consistency and Milner is not a winger by trade. The Red Devils look great on paper, but Nani’s form has dipped, Young is just good at diving, Valencia has never been a prolific winger, Januzaj is a promising prospect but still unproven at this stage and Moyes is clueless about Kagawa. Only Liverpool is in a worse situation on the wings. Aspas and Luis Alberto have not found the net yet while Moses has only scored six goals in his best Premiership season. Sterling has tremendous pace but is still a raw player.
Wingers rankings: 1. Arsenal, 2. Chelsea, 3. Tottenham, 4. Manchester City, 5. Manchester United, 6. Liverpool.
Up front, Arsenal is trailing everybody both in terms of quality and depth. Giroud has improved his game and his work ethic can’t be denied but he’s not a clinical striker and can’t create a goal out of nothing like Van Persie or Suarez. The Gunners’ options on the bench look terrible: Bendtner is just as slow as Giroud and his passing skills are poor. Sanogo and Akpom are still too raw to have an impact in the Premier League. Only Tottenham has attacking options as limited as Arsenal. The Spurs have lost a match-winner with Bale’s departure. Soldado depends on good service like Giroud, but Adebayor and Defoe are better back-up strikers than Bendtner and Sanogo.
The Red Devils clearly have the best pool of strikers with Van Persie, Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck. The Citizens are very close but Dzeko is not as clinical as Van Persie. Jovetic and Negredo score more goals and are more experienced than Hernandez and Welbeck, but the Mexican and the Brit have more pace. Quality-wise, Suarez and Sturridge seem just as good as Van Persie and Rooney but Liverpool’s main problem is a weak bench with just Moses to deputize. Chelsea’s strikers are still a big question mark. Torres has been a flop in the past three seasons and Eto’o is no longer the striker who led Barcelona’s attack. Ba is a decent bench option but not a starter for any contending team and Mourinho is still trying to figure out what is Schurrle’s best position.
Strikers’ rankings: 1. Manchester United, 2. Manchester City, 3. Liverpool, 4. Chelsea, 5. Tottenham, 6. Arsenal.
Now there’s one important factor left and that’s team chemistry. Arsenal scores very high in that category. Arsenal and Liverpool are the only contenders that have enjoyed some stability in the offseason. The Red Devils, the Citizens and the Blues went through coach changes this summer while the Spurs signed seven players and let Gallas, Caulker, Bentley, Dempsey, Parker, Huddlestone, Bale and Assou-Ekotto go.
The Gunners are a better team than last season because they hired the playmaker and the ballwinner they were missing since the departures of Fabregas and Song. They have a good spine with Mertesacker, Flamini and Ozil. They also improved the team spirit by getting rid of the dead wood (Arshavin, Squillaci, Denilson, Chamakh, Gervinho and Santos) and by loaning out Djourou and Coquelin. Wenger still has two useless players with Bendtner and Park, but at least the squad is more compact and therefore more closely knit.
Wenger is known for getting the best from his squad. Last season, pundits predicted the Gunners would finish outside the top four. And Wenger proved them wrong. Now Villas-Boas, Pellegrini and Mourinho must show pundits how good they are at optimizing the potential of their squads. Villas-Boas has good relations with sporting director Baldini and club chairman Levy but he still needs to make his team gel. So far, Tottenham has produced unconvincing performances. Pellegrini is facing much more pressure from the Abu Dhabi owners at Manchester City. Mancini’s sacking last season showed a runner-up finish is not good enough for them. The Citizens’ poor form on the road tells you there’s something wrong with this team. Mourinho is popular at Stamford Bridge but Abramovich is known for his lack of patience. Chelsea has a talented squad but the summer signings don’t seem to fit Mourinho’s style of play. Another big question mark is Mourinho’s attitude. Will he be the manager who united Inter Milan, or will he be the one who split the dressing room at Real Madrid?
Rodgers and Moyes are facing different issues. Rodgers has benefited from a soft schedule so far because Liverpool is the only contender not playing European matches. Yet, the Reds’ skinny squad could be seriously tested in the second half of the season. On the other hand, Moyes has a large squad but it’s an aging one. Moyes does not have Ferguson’s charisma. How will he motivate a side that has won everything?
Team chemistry rankings: 1. Arsenal, 2. Tottenham, 3. Liverpool, 4. Manchester United, 5. Manchester City, 6. Chelsea.
Total rankings: 1. Arsenal, 2. Chelsea, 3. Tottenham, 3. Manchester City, 5. Manchester United, 6. Liverpool.
The main surprise in our overall rankings is Liverpool’s sixth place and not Arsenal’s top spot. Topping the Premier League despite a depleted squad is evidence that the Gunners are a quality side. However, they are vulnerable in goal and up front. If Szczesny makes blunders like last season, that would mean a few points dropped and Fabianski or Viviano as an alternative. Wenger could pray for Giroud to have an injury-free season but a more realistic scenario would be to sell Bendtner in January and get a better replacement.
The Reds are overperforming after finishing seventh last season. Their major weakness is their midfield where Rodgers has very little room for rotation. They would need a miracle to stay fit in the second half of the season. Manchester United’s title last season was the swan song of an aging squad. Its midfield lacks quality compared to the Beckham generation.
Chelsea and Manchester City have the most potent squads on paper, but it’s not clicking yet. Tottenham had only the eighth tightest defense last season. The Spurs have hidden their defensive frailties with a greater team effort to claim the second tightest defense this term. But this new approach has hurt their offense as they have scored only nine goals while the Gunners, the Citizens and the Reds have already netted more than 20 goals each.
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