We're only three weeks into the new Premier League season, and already we've been caught off-guard by so many things that have happened so far this year.
Newly promoted teams are playing like world-beaters; Marouane Chamakh has scored more goals than Eden Hazard; Stoke City haven't even had a draw yet.
As I said, there are some strange things happening in the Premier League. Let's take a look at the 10 biggest surprises of the season to this point.
Even with Christian Benteke being his all-conquering self last season, Aston Villa didn't look like much. They barely avoided relegation and seemed destined for more frustration again this year.
While Villa currently sit 13th on the table, those frustrations haven't at all been present for Paul Lambert's men. Instead, there's reason for optimism.
No other team in the Premier League has had a tougher start than Villa, who played three matches in the space of one week. And with those fixtures coming against the likes of Arsenal (A), Chelsea (A) and Liverpool (H), it's certainly been a tough start for the Villans this year.
A strong win against Arsenal, however, showed that they aren't going to be pushed around as easily this year, and they were unlucky not to get a result against the Blues.
Fabian Delph is playing inspired football in the middle of the field while Matthew Lowton continues to find his feet. Throw in the ever-present force that is Benteke at the top of their attack, and Villa have the makings of a deceptively difficult squad this season—something that few would have predicted.
Contrast Villa's strong start to the year with Sunderland's.
They, too, narrowly missed relegation last year, and they opted to try and correct those mistakes this season by spending big over the summer. The Black Cats brought in the likes of Jozy Altidore, Emanuele Giaccherini, Vito Mannone and Charis Mavrias for a combined £22 million.
But so far, the results haven't exactly been forthcoming for Paolo Di Canio's side.
Beaten at home by a poor Fulham team, they then watched their only lead of the season disappear against Southampton as they conceded a late equalizer.
A 3-1 defeat away from home to newly promoted Crystal Palace showed just how much work still remains for the Black Cats this year, and if we're going to be honest, it's a little surprising that Di Canio hasn't completely lost it already. After all, he's temperamental at the best of times, so we can only imagine how he must be feeling right about now.
Showing just a few signs of frustration, Di Canio said via The Guardian after the Crystal Palace defeat that his players were playing "empty in the brain."
For him, however, that's tame. He'll explode soon enough.
With money to spend from the probable (and eventual) sale of Gareth Bale, Andre Villas-Boas set out to bring in as many high-quality players as he could this season.
Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches, Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen—nobody can say that Villas-Boas hasn't spent big this year.
However, what's more surprising than the £105 million he's splashed this summer is the fact that no other Premier League club topped his summer spree. After all, it's a strange summer window when neither Roman Abramovich nor Sheikh Mansour finishes as the biggest spender.
Mr. Daniel Levy, ladies and gentlemen:
- Tottenham Hotspur: £105 million
- Manchester City: £100 million
- Chelsea FC: £66.5 million
Last season, while on loan with West Bromwich Albion, he netted 17 goals despite coming off the bench in a large portion of those games. Lukaku was impressive in the Blues' preseason campaign and figured to be an integral (and necessary) part of the club's striker options this season—until, in a shock deadline day move, he was again shipped out on a season-long loan, this time to Everton.
The move is simply insane from Jose Mourinho.
Not only did Chelsea let arguably their best striker go for the season; they let him go to a club that now has a very real chance of finishing inside the top four.
Everton can be that good with Lukaku in their squad.
Don't believe me? Look at Lukaku's goalscoring rate last season compared to other EPL strikers (per Squawka).
|Romelu Lukaku (West Brom)||17 goals||2004||117.8|
|Theo Walcott (Arsenal)||14 goals||2285||163.2|
|Christian Benteke (Aston Villa)||19 goals||2820||148.4|
|Luis Suarez (Liverpool)||23 goals||2953||128.3|
|Robin van Persie (Manchester United)||26 goals||3122||120.0|
It's not unusual for teams to be defeated at this point in the season. However, for only three teams to be left without a loss is something that few would have predicted.
Liverpool. Chelsea. Everton. And that's it.
Liverpool have three wins, Chelsea have two wins and a draw, and Everton are taking what we'll call the Stoke City approach—three draws from three attempts.
All the usual suspects many thought would go through their first three games undefeated (Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, even Southampton) have suffered a defeat somewhere along the line, making the start to this year's Premier League an incredibly open one.
By comparison, seven clubs last year went undefeated in their first three games (Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, West Brom, Swansea, Stoke, Sunderland).
It was always going to be difficult for David Moyes to adjust after moving from Everton to Manchester United. After all, the void left by Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford was a huge one.
But few expected it to be this bad.
All things considered, United haven't been too bad. A solid opening win away from home against a dangerous Swansea City side, a clean sheet against Chelsea and a close defeat to Liverpool is a pretty good start. But the performance of Moyes has grabbed the most headlines—mostly negative ones.
In trying to present a brave face, he declared that United played "very well" against Liverpool (news flash: they didn't). Then there was the nightmare that was deadline day, in which he failed to secure the services of Leighton Baines, Mesut Ozil, Ander Herrera, Wesley Sneijder, Sami Khedira and Fabio Coentrao.
And that's just the ones we do know about!
Losing games to Liverpool and failing to score against Chelsea is one thing, but United look disorganized and not at all like the defending Premier League champions.
Moyes doesn't seem to be in control.
Promoted teams are expected to be tough. The buzz of playing top-flight football inspires players and managers with bigger crowds, television rights and more notoriety in general.
But few expected the three promoted teams to be as tough as they have been.
Hull—whom many expect will go straight back down—have already picked up a win against Norwich, and they showed some promise against Chelsea and Manchester City.
Crystal Palace are currently 14th, having beaten Sunderland 3-1. They too showed potential in their opening game of the year, going down 1-0 to Tottenham Hotspur.
And then there's Cardiff. After somehow coming from behind to defeat Manchester City 3-2, the Bluebirds followed that up with a 0-0 draw to Everton. Currently, they're sitting in 11th, on the same amount of points as defending champions Manchester United.
Talk about an inspired start to the season.
If Jose Mourinho is "The Special One," then Juan Mata is "The Unwanted One."
After being named the club's best player last season, courtesy of 11 goals and 17 assists, the Spanish international playmaker has been left sitting on the bench to start Chelsea's season, even in big games—like the Blues' recent trip to Old Trafford against United.
Mata has played 64 minutes all year, and they came against Aston Villa.
Mourinho has much preferred Oscar in the No. 10 role at Chelsea, but he hasn't even played Mata out on the right like Rafa Benitez tried to do from time to time. Instead, he's opted for Andre Schurrle and Eden Hazard either side of Oscar, with Mata warming the substitutes bench, Michael Owen style.
An interesting quote from Mourinho's first press conference this year (via The Telegraph):
I play the players I think are the best for the team.
If I think somebody deserves to play, he has to play. If somebody has a big profile, a big stature, a big career, I cannot give him a privilege.
Talks of a potential move to United, Arsenal or Paris Saint-Germain over the summer transfer window never came to fruition, but that could hardly come as a surprise.
From one out-of-favor central midfielder to another, Aaron Ramsey has set the world on fire since the start of the 2013-14 Premier League season.
And while many Gunners fans might want to claim that they "always believed in Ramsey" and thought he would be a great player this year, the reality is that hardly anyone expected him to start the season as strongly as he has.
With Mikel Arteta injured and Jack Wilshere still inconsistent, Ramsey has stepped up in a big way for Arsenal, controlling the middle and giving them shape again.
Whether he can provide the box-to-box threat that Wenger failed to add over the transfer window still remains to be seen, but the signs are promising indeed.
Out of all the surprises and unexpected occurrences, nothing is more shocking than Liverpool being top of the table with three clean sheets to their name.
That's not meant to be a knock against Brendan Rodgers or his team—it's simply the truth. Liverpool, even with their summer additions, weren't expected to be that much of a threat for the top four this season. Yet there they are, sitting pretty atop the table.
Will it last? Who knows?
You'd have to think that the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and United will eventually catch the Reds. They are simply deeper and stronger, and when they start to get into the grind of the season, they will be too good for the Merseyside men.
But for now, Liverpool fans will be savoring the moment.
The fact that it came by beating United is simply icing on the cake.
Hit me up on Twitter for more sports goodness: Follow @dantalintyre