As the Premiership season is now through ten matches, let’s ask the question: How important is a good start?
Last season, Everton was the only club outside of the top eight through ten games to move into that group by the end of the campaign.
But this season feels different. Everton and West Brom — fourth and fifth respectively in the table — are no sure things to remain in contention. Meanwhile, clubs such as Newcastle (10th), Swansea (11th), and Liverpool (12th) seem capable of moving up.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a substantial gap between the top three and everyone else, but I think the fourth Champions League spot will be up for grabs all season, and that battle will provide plenty of drama.
Let’s take a look at this weekend’s major story lines.
Saturday programming alert: Watch Everton v Sunderland (Sportsnet at 9:30am ET), Stoke City v QPR (Sportsnet World at 9:30am ET) and Aston Villa v Manchester Utd (Sportsnet at noon ET).Sunday programming alert: Watch Manchester City v Tottenham (Sportsnet World at 7:30am ET) and Chelsea v Liverpoold (Sportsnet at 11am ET).
Everton vs. Sunderland – Saturday @ 10 am ET
1. Fellaini Fun
From 2009-10 to last season, Marouane Fellaini played in 77 Premier League games, scoring six times. This season, his production has spiked, scoring five goals in 10 games.
Let’s look at this in both quantitative and qualitative ways: First, he is shooting more. Over those three previous seasons, he averaged slightly more than one shot on goal per game. This year, that number has essentially tripled, to 4.2 shot attempts per contest.
Why is he getting more shots? He was more of a midfielder over the past few seasons, but the departure of Tim Cahill to MLS has allowed Fellaini to move up into an attacking role, and he has thrived alongside Nikica Jelavic.
2. Shooting Gallery
Fellaini isn’t the only Toffee firing away this season. Among the top five European leagues, Everton is the first club to reach 200 shots. The club attempted 27 shots last week against Fulham, all of which makes the fact that Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard called Everton a “simple” team a few weeks ago even more ludicrous.
3. London Calling
Here’s one sign that Everton’s great start to the season (fourth in the table with 17 points) isn’t just a mirage: three of the club’s players have been called to the England squad for the upcoming friendly against Sweden. Defenders Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka have been stalwarts for the English side of late. However, the inclusion of midfielder Leon Osman is a bit of a surprise. The 31-year old plays on the left side, and along with left-back Baines, and Fellaini — who likes to drift over to that left side quite often — forms the basis for Everton’s attack.
Stoke City vs. QPR – Saturday @ 10 am ET
4. Stingy D
If QPR had as many wins as manager Mark Hughes has votes of confidence from his owner, they wouldn’t be anywhere near the bottom of the table.
But it won’t be easy for Tony Fernandes’ club to earn its first win of the season at Britannia Stadium.
The Potters have allowed just nine goals this season (fourth best in the league), and they’ve conceded just once at home (best in the league). That is an especially impressive feat considering they’ve faced Manchester City, Arsenal and Swansea at home, all of whom have scored at least 15 goals this season.
Arsenal vs. Fulham – Saturday @ 10 am ET
5. (Ver) Maelen it in
It’s been a tough week for Arsenal skipper Thomas Vermaelen. His giveaway in the opening minutes led to Robin van Persie’s goal in a loss to Manchester United last weekend. Vermaelen was moved from centre back to left back for the Gunners’ Champions League clash against Schalke. The move resulted in an own goal and more struggles.
What will Saturday bring? Tough to say, but it should be noted that in this fixture last season (a 1-1 draw), Vermaelen scored for Arsenal and was tagged with an own goal.
Aston Villa vs. Manchester United – Saturday @ 12:30 pm ET
6. Lapping the field
Does Robin van Persie get the respect he deserves? It’s a question we ask ourselves a lot in the Soccer Central offices. He doesn’t have the pedigree of some of the world’s best players. He hasn’t been pegged for greatness his entire career like others. But it’s tough to argue with the numbers, and this one is staggering: Since the start of the 2010-11 season, RVP has 56 goals, far and away the best in the Premiership. His current teammate, Wayne Rooney, sits second with 40. No other player has more than 31.
7. My left foot?
If you look at van Persie’s goal breakdown in terms of how he scored, you’ll see that about 60 per cent of his markers come with the left foot (some say his left foot is the most dangerous left in football). And the start of this season confirmed those numbers as his first six goals came either with his left foot or his head. However, his last two goals — one against Chelsea and the other against Arsenal — have both come with his right.
8. A (relatively) healthy backline
It took United 10 weeks to finally land atop the table, but it doesn’t seem as if they will be giving up that spot anytime soon.
The Red Devils have gone most of the season with only two healthy centre backs, but Chris Smalling returned this week in Champions League after missing all of the season so far with a metatarsal injury. And the young Phil Jones, who started 25 games last season, has resumed training and his return is imminent.
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Manchester City vs. Tottenham – Sunday @ 8:30 am ET
9. Silva Lining?
If you’re looking for a reason for City’s struggles of late, look no further than their creative playmaker David Silva.
He strained his hamstring in Spain’s World Cup qualifier against France, and has missed nearly a month of action.
Since that injury, Manchester City has won just twice in five games. In the three Premiership games he’s missed, City has scored just three goals. In the seven games he played, the Citizens averaged nearly two goals per contest.
In short, if Silva returns this weekend, expect a return to the win column for Roberto Mancini and company.
10. Time for a change?
Tottenham won 3-1 against Maribor in the Europa League on Thursday. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has started every game in that competition, and has lost just once in six starts this season. Contrast that with Brad Friedel, who has lost three times in nine Premier League starts. Granted, there are some quality of competition issues to be considered when looking at those numbers, but I think the change to Lloris is inevitable.
Chelsea vs. Liverpool – Sunday @ 11:00 am ET
11. One-man team
Luis Suarez’ highlight-reel goal last week was just one of many highlights for the Uruguayan international this season. He has seven goals, a league-high 63 shots, and he is creating chances at an ever-increasing rate in the Premiership. In his first season, he was creating a chance roughly every 44 minutes, and that number has improved to one every 30 minutes this season.
But the one red flag is that Liverpool might be the best example of a one-man team in the top flight. Suarez has scored or assisted on over 80 per cent of Liverpool’s goals (not including own goals). Only Steven Fletcher (in on all five of Sunderland’s goals) has accounted for a higher percentage of his club’s scoring.