Last season at this stage in the Premier League, only six clubs had a goal differential better than +1, and 15 points separated 11th place Everton from third place Tottenham.
This season, nine clubs have a goal differential better than +1, and just seven points separates 12th place Liverpool from third place Chelsea.
In short, it’s a much more competitive league this season, and one that provides many more compelling matchups on a week-to-week basis. And with that, let’s move on to this week’s Starting 11:
1) Super Santi
Last week, Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla became just the third Spaniard to notch a hat trick in the Premier League, joining Fernando Torres and Jordi Gomez.
He now has seven goals and four assists, and is one of 11 Premier League players with more than 10 combined goals and assists this season.
2) Magic combination
It’s fitting to talk about a couple of City strikers in a week where Mario Balotelli has found the headlines again for the wrong reasons (accepting a $550,000 fine).
Last week marked the 13th occasion in which Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez started up front together in the Premier League. City has earned a full three points in all 13 of those contests, averaging close to three goals per game.
Aguero has scored 14 goals in those matches, while Tevez has netted eight.
My guess: With City out of Champions League competition, Aguero and Tevez will get the majority of starts for the rest of the season.
3) Both riding high
It’s tough to find a matchup with two teams both playing at a fairly high level of late. On the one hand, you have Tottenham, a club with four wins in five games over the last month. And on the other, you have Stoke, a club that is undefeated in seven games, the second-longest current streak in the league (next to Norwich).
4) A full 90
You often hear managers pleading for their teams to play a full 90 minutes. It’s a common cliché, and yet it should resonate for Spurs players. Here’s the breakdown for goals conceded by Tottenham this season: 1st half (5), 46-60th minute (5), 61st-75th minute (5), 76th-90th minute (10).
A league-high eighty per cent of the goals conceded by Tottenham this season have come in the second half, with exactly half of that total coming in the final 15 minutes.
5) No Fellaini
I wrote last weekend that the matchup I was most looking forward to was Everton’s Marouane Fellaini against Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross. I noted Stoke’s noted physicality when defending, and the fact that Fellaini doesn’t back down from anyone. Well, sure enough, Stoke was physical, and Fellaini didn’t back down in earning himself a three-game suspension for head-butting Shawcross on a corner.
The loss of Fellaini will be huge. He leads the team (or is a co-leader) in goals, assists, shots, fouls, and bookings this season.
And facing West Ham on the road is no picnic. Sam Allardyce’s club has defeated Aton Villa, Fulham, Southampton, and Chelsea at home this season, while earning solid draws against Manchester City and Stoke.
6) Strike first
If Norwich wants to continue their unbelievable 10-match unbeaten streak, there is a simple formula: score first! Yes, I know it’s simplistic, but West Brom have earned only one point from a losing position this season, a mark that’s last in the league.
7) Suarez needs to settle down
Liverpool’s reliance on Luis Suarez is obvious to even the most casual observers. He takes around 30 per cent of the Reds’ shots this season, the highest such percentage in the Premiership.
But, there’s no other way to put this: He needs to grow up.
Suarez has 13 cautions in the Premier League, seven of which have been for dissent, two for simulation, two for handballs, and just two for actual fouls.
8) Different ends of the spectrum
Liverpool was in the headlines for a few different reasons this week, but the overriding theme was the same: Brendan Rodgers is pursuing a youth movement. Teenager Raheem Sterling has signed a contract extension, and there are also reports that the Reds are set to sign Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge (22 years old), and Blackpool’s Tom Ince (20 years old).
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Fulham, a team with the highest average age in the Premiership. Their leading scorers this season are almost all on the wrong side of 30: Dimitar Berbatov (31), Mladen Petric (31), Steve Sidwell (30), Damien Duff (33), Chris Baird (30). And don’t forget, their goalkeeper is 40-year old Mark Schwarzer.
9) Leading scorers
Sometimes it’s nice to dig deep into the numbers to find some underlying trends, or an obscure statistic. But sometimes it’s also effective just to point out the obvious: the joint-leading scorers in the Premier League this season are Manchester United’s Robin van Persie and Swansea’s Michu.
Juan Mata has 14 assists this season in all competitions. That is tied for the most among players in the top five European leagues, and he is the only player among the top five on that list not to come from La Liga.
Meanwhile, looking at strictly league play, Eden Hazard has 22 assists dating back to the start of the 2011-12 season, also a top mark among the top five European leagues.
11) Belgian delight
Speaking of Hazard, his national teammate Christian Benteke is turning heads around the league. The 22-year old striker has eight goals in all competitions for Villa this season, and he’s one of many outstanding Belgian footballers succeeding in England’s top flight, a list that includes defender Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, and Romelu Lukaku.
And Benteke is also developing a pretty good working relationship with Villa forward Andrea Weimann. He’s scored three goals in his last two games in all competitions (including one of the better goals of the year last week off a back heel pass from Benteke). In fact, the Villans are 4-2-2 in Weimann’s eight starts this season, with the only losses coming to the two Manchester clubs.