Four matchdays into the English Premier League and there are already some clear signs about which teams are best equipped to mount a title challenge, who is going to struggle to stay in the top division of English football, who is missing players who have left, and who is benefiting most from the impact of new acquisitions in their teams' form.
The most important departures this summer were arguably those of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez from Manchester United to Real Madrid and city rivals Manchester City, Xabi Alonso from Liverpool to Real Madrid, and Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor from Arsenal to Manchester City.
To these we could probably add Gareth Barry from Villa and Roque Santa Cruz from Blackburn who have both also joined Manchester City. So how have the teams that lost these players been coping with their absence?
Losing the FIFA Player of the Year is not easy for any team, much less in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, who is a player who when in form provides a plentiful supply of goals and crucial assists. The benefit of having such a player is not only his direct contribution to the team, but the way he can both hide the shortcomings of his teammates and also bring out some of their qualities.
In his absence, Manchester United have not only failed to replace Ronaldo with a player of a similar level of ability (Ribéry?), but his former colleagues do not appear to be performing as well in his absence.
Apart from Ronaldo, Tevez has certainly been missed as well, particularly against Burnley, the type of match in which the Argentinian would come in and score a crucial goal in the last 10 minutes of the match.
That said, three wins out of four and eight goals scored for two conceded does not necessarily seem a bad record for United. And it is not, though I would say the problem with Manchester United is more on the way they have been playing rather than regarding results
Against Arsenal, the only team of a similar level to Manchester United that they have played against so far, they were largely outplayed by a team who continue to play beautiful football but still lacks the killing instinct to finish off an opponent.
Manchester United used every inch of its experience and somehow managed to snatch a win. But it was an unconvincing team performance, similar to the ones against both Burnley and Birmingham. In that sense, their 5-0 victory against Wigan Athletic was an exception to the rule.
It is true that this time last season, Manchester United only had five points, and had scored only four goals scored and conceded the same number and still managed to go on and win the Premier League. However there was one important reason for this, the return of an important player from October onwards...Cristiano Ronaldo, who had missed the first weeks of the season.
While Ronaldo's departure may give some players more opportunities, in particular Nani, the promising Portuguese winger who has started the season very well. However whether this improvement can be sustained throughout a season or if it is simply a peak of form that will soon fade to the poor levels of last season remains to be seen.
In short, even though winning is always a good antidote to less convincing performances, it is still unclear how far United will be able to go without improving its level of play significantly.
As mentioned before, one team that has been able to put high level performances in every single match they have played this season has been Arsenal. The team has a group of maturing young players who seem willing to resume the conquest of silverware that Gunners' fans had gotten used to under Wenger.
Indeed Arsene Wenger seems to be doing better than what was expected from a squad that lost arguably its best defender and its best striker in Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor.
The 2-1 loss against Manchester United, however, does suggest that this might be a team which remains too inexperienced to be able to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea.
The French manager was successfully able to replace Adebayor with a system of play which involves the whole attacking sector being able to both create chances and score goals, while the arrival of Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen seems to have solved any problems in the defensive sector.
However, besides it's youth I would argue Arsenal still have a problem with defence, and particularly with it's goalkeeper. I am not convinced Almunia is the goalkeeper Arsenal need in order to have a real shot at the title.
Portsmouth's goal at the Emirates stadium and his erratic performance against Manchester United left me some doubts about the Spanish goalkeeper's capacity to perform at such a high stage. However time will tell...
Summing up, despite losing against United, Arsenal are playing the best football in the Premier League and even if they are not to win the title this season, they will certainly put on a good show, even without Adebayor and Touré.
With six out of 12 possible points, it is Liverpool from the "Big Four" that have endured the worst start to their season. Xabi Alonso has certainly been missed, but these first four matches have simply been more of the same when it comes to the Reds erratic consistency in the EPL since Benitez took over.
A big victory against Stoke City and a comeback victory away at Bolton Wanderers was mixed in with a normal defeat against a stronger than expected Tottenham and a surprise defeat at Anfield against a difficult Aston Villa.
Once again, Liverpool seem to have everything required to win the Premier League title, or almost. But it still does not have stability, and Benitez's recent comments have certainly not contributed to the atmosphere around Anfield.
Publicly criticising the senior players in the squad is usually not a good idea for a manager to get his team back on track. It is true that the strategy seemed to have worked against Bolton, taking into consideration that Liverpool won.
But it is not clear whether this was just a momentary burst,in the face of bad results, or something more structural related to deeper divisions in the Anfield Road changing room.
In short, Liverpool's lack of consistency and stability seems to have resurfaced, leaving the Reds supporters wondering what is going wrong once again.
Finally (from the Big Four), Chelsea. Not much to tell so far, to be honest. A solid start, are the words that best describe Ancelotti's team performances in the first four matches of the season.
Drogba and Anelka seem to work well together as a striking partnership, and the squad appears to be deep enough to make Chelsea strong contenders both at home and in Europe.
A threat to Chelsea's path to the title could actually come from a surprising challenger in Manchester City. The Citizens are enjoying a perfect start to their season (even though they've played just three matches), they are unbeaten, and have still not conceded a goal in the league.
All the money spent on new players appears to be bearing fruits. Every sector of this team has world-class players, from the Irish international Shay Given in goal, to the in-form Emmanuel Adebayor in attack.
With the firepower of Santa Cruz, Robinho, Tevez to help, should the Togolese striker miss some matches or suffer a decline in form, there is no reason to think that Manchester City does not have all it takes to win the title this year.
It all could change in a week or two, but viewing from week four, they do look as strong as any other team: they are solid at the back, they know how to win, even when they don't play that well, and they are confident. Even if the title is a step too far for City, I wouldn't be surprised if they finished in a Champions League place.
The outsiders to CL football in 2010/2011 would probably be Tottenham and Aston Villa, as Everton struggle to find their form.
Tottenham in particular have not only been impressive, but they do have an immensely impressive squad. Against Liverpool they were better and had more solutions to come off the bench.
Certainly more than Benitez who had only other striker, Voronin on the bench, compared to the likes of Crouch and Pavluychenko for Spurs. Since then they have accumulated and wins—11 in four matches.
Regarding the candidates for relegation, Portsmouth has so far proved to be the outstanding candidate. With seven goals conceded for one scored, and four defeats in four matches, along with the ownership crisis that saw its best players leave at the end of the season, only a miracle in the January transfer market will save the Fratton Park team from relegation.
From the other relegation candidates only Bolton appear to be in a difficult position with zero points from their initial three matches, even though their performance against Liverpool will have given their fans some signs of hope.
As a final note, I would highlight the huge number of teams in this year's EPL that do not appear capable of achieving anything else in the short-medium term other than survival.
Stoke City, Sunderland, Burnley, West Ham, Birmingham City, Wolves, Hull City, Wigan, Blackburn, Bolton and Portsmouth. All these teams will be happy if they just manage to survive in the EPL.
I just wonder whether it's healthy for a League as important as the English Premier League to have more than half its teams looking for the mere comfort of a mid table finish.
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