Midway through watching Arsenal’s languid performance against Sunderland, I couldn’t believe that I was watching one of the best Premier League sides. I felt the same thing when watching Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham as well. After watching parts of Gladbach’s destruction of Bayern Munich or the soccer on display in La Liga, watching Arsenal grind out a win at home against Sunderland was a tad depressing. In fact, most of the matches this weekend lacked great entertainment value. Other than a few beautiful minutes from Stoke City and Leicester, there was not much high-quality soccer. The entertainment came from the crazy scores, as former Premier League giants continue stumbled yet again while plucky upstarts prevailed. However, the method of the madness lacked entertainment.
Chelsea/Bournemouth was mind-numbingly dull, then Chelsea somehow lost. Man United/West Ham was a goalless draw that had the entertainment value of a paid programming commercial. In a bizarre paradox, this whole Premier League weekend was not that exciting, but the standings are more interesting than ever. Leicester City is at the top of the league, Chelsea are two points from relegation, the league has turned upside-down, and yet watching the matches has become drudgery.
But in a sea of boring soccer, Leicester City is playing the most entertaining style in the league, and they it looks like no one can slow them down. While Swansea has fallen on hard times, these are the types of games championship pretenders draw or lose. Leicester came out and immediately laid a smackdown on Swansea. Riyad Mahrez has been overshadowed by the Jamie Vardy experience, but he has been absolutely unbelievably for Leicester as well, and he proved his worth with a stunning hattrick against a hapless Swansea side.
Mahrez’s three goals were all sublime examples of Leicester’s pace and rapid movement that has left teams flailing in their wake thus far. This Leicester side plays with an energy that the traditional top teams are currently lacking. Watching Leicester City’s pace and skill after seeing Arsenal lazily cling on to a win against Sunderland was a revolutionary experience. Players like Christian Fuchs and Marc Albrighton play all-out all the time, and it’s truly incredibly to watch as supposedly “superior” teams play crap soccer.
Yet I still can’t believe in Leicester, despite the fact they have truly been the best side in the Premier League over the last month. They still haven’t beaten one of the super-wealthy sides yet, and if they can remain in the hunt by December 29th (when they play at home against Manchester City), I would feel much more confident in their chances. Leicester just does not have the squad depth to survive multiple injuries, and its remarkable that they’ve stayed this healthy considering their style of play.
Also, in a league that so heavily favors the richer teams, Leicester’s best financial decision is probably to break up the team and make what profits they can off Vardy, Mahrez, and the others. However, that may not happen. Leicester’s Thai owners are well off and have claimed that becoming a relevant English club is their main goal. I just really hope they don’t sell everybody. The Premier League would be unwatchable without them.
Speaking of unwatchability, let’s have a chat about Chelsea. While a team that is currently buried in 14th and hovering just two points above relegation usually wouldn’t garner much attention…haha, I can’t write about this seriously, it’s just so funny. Chelsea just lost to Bournemouth at home! What is going on?! Chelsea’s owners could buy Bournemouth’s entire squad on a lark one day!
I tried to think of a situation in which a championship winning team has completely fallen apart to this extent without any huge injuries or administrative changes and I came up empty. In professional sports, teams that were good six months ago just don’t become complete crap this quickly unless something goes terribly wrong. The 1997 Marlins went from first to worst, but they traded their entire World Series team by May. The 2003 Buccaneers went 7-9 after winning the Super Bowl, but they weren’t one of the worst teams in the league.
The best comparison I can give is what happened during Jurgen Klopp’s last year at Dortmund, in which a previously legendary coach just had a complete nightmare season and flirted with relegation. But Klopp’s Dortmund side had massive injuries to many key players. This Chelsea team has just looked lost in the league this year, and I don’t understand it. Maybe their defeat of Porto yesterday will buoy their spirits. I still wouldn’t rule out a Chelsea run through the league at some point this year. And guess what, they now get to play the upstarts of Leicester City at King Power Stadium. You couldn’t write a better storyline than that.
Manchester City looked awful against Stoke, and they looked awful for about 70 minutes against Gladbach on Tuesday, yet they remain the favorites to win the title, somehow. Manchester City can be a free-flowing team with Aguero, Navas, Toure and David Silva flying around the field, but that spark deserted them against Stoke. Without Kompany, Man City’s defensive work was horrendous, as Shaqiri cut them apart and fed Marko Arnautovic for two astounding goals. If City fails to win the title or the Champions League, I think that Pellegrini will be sacked, and considering the club spent massively on Kevin de Bruyne and others, the sacking may be justified. It would also not be entirely Pellegrini’s fault. I refuse to consider Aguero one of the best strikers in the world if it gets hurt every five matches. The injury replacements on this team-Fabian Delph, Bony, etc. have not produced. However, with the amount of money invested in this team, Pellegrini has to get results, and he just can’t get the job done at the moment.
On the other side of town, Manchester City is displaying some of the most boring soccer I’ve ever seen. There are many Khan Academy classes that have been more exciting than United, and I kinda wish I’d watched those instead of watching United play. The funny thing is, United actually came close to scoring this time, a rare occurrence these days, and they missed every single chance. It was uncanny. After watching both matches, I would argue that United played better than Arsenal did, but United ended up 0-0 and Arsenal won 3-1.
Arsenal looked like crap yet again, but they managed to come up with the type of win that has been eluding them. Last season, Chelsea came up with a bunch of wins in which they played poorly, and Arsenal would just lose or draw the matches in which they were crap. Arsenal had done this against West Bromwich two weeks ago and against Norwich last week, but they bucked the trend and pulled out an ugly win against Sunderland. Don’t let the scoreline deceive you. Sunderland should have gone ahead with the opening chance but they missed a sitter. Arsenal then scored when DeAndre Yedlin (boy, what happened to him?) fell asleep and let Ozil slide a pass to Joel Campbell for an easy goal. Then Sunderland played Arsenal evenly for the rest of the game. They got an equalizer off a terrible own goal from Giroud, and they looked capable of getting a draw even though Giroud headed home a winner in the second half.
However, despite Arsenal’s massive injury problems, the squad is actually still deep enough to hold ground near the top of the table, especially as City and United have their own enormous issues. Despite not having Sanchez, Coquelin, Wilshere, Arteta, Welbeck, Cazorla and Walcott, Arsenal’s squad was still equivalent to Liverpool’s starting XI, in my opinion. (Full disclosure, I am a hopelessly optimistic Arsenal fan, so my irrational opinions of Aaron Ramsey should not be taken at face value)
Arsenal, somehow, is still in a solid position to win the league. They are two points off Leicester, and they can still play at an extremely high level even with their injuries, as evidenced by their 3-0 triumph in Greece yesterday. The problem is that, like the rest of the Premier League, Arsenal has not shown the ability to sustain that form. While the match next week against Villa should be a cakewalk, they have a huge battle with Manchester City on December 21st. If superb Arsenal shows up, the Gunners will surely beat an equally inconsistent City. If moribund Arsenal shows up they could lose to anyone. They’ve already lost to Sheffield Wednesday and West Brom. Isn’t this fun?
To wrap-up this column, I will offer a few words of sadness as the reign of Garry Monk at Swansea has come to an end. I get that he’s had one win in his last eleven games and that it looked like the team quit last week against Leicester, but for brief stretches of the last two years, Monk looked like one of the best young managers in Europe. The Swansea squad he led at the beginning of last year was so fun to watch, and the Swansea team that started this year looked like it could surpass that team. Now with Swansea facing a relegation fight, I think that Monk should have been given a longer leash. He played with the club! It was a great story! At the beginning of this year, it looked like he could have a long-term stay that would defy the trends of the Premier League managerial carousel.
Alas, it was not to be. If any from Liverpool or Tottenham is reading this, please buy Glyfi Sigurðsson so he can play at a better club. My ideal Premier League Christmas present is for Arsenal to get Korean hero Ki Sung-Yeung, even if he probably wouldn’t play that much. Arsenal, you always need midfield depth, give Ki a chance! Anyway, a melancholy happy trails to the once-promising Garry Monk era.