Welcome to world football's Monday Morning Hangover, an homage to the NFL section's own Monday Morning Hangover, in which we round up the key stories and important points from the last weekend in world football.
With an inevitable focus on the Premier League, let's get started.
Game over in November
Eleven games into the season, it is not necessarily the four-point lead at the top of the table that has many already handing the Premier League title to Chelsea.
Twenty-nine points from 33 is a remarkable haul, no doubt, but it is the complete absence of notable flaws the Blues have exhibited that has really demoralised everyone else. In the process, they have exposed a whole host of them among their nearest—a loose term, even at this stage—rivals.
Manchester United? An obvious work in progress, with an emphasis on work and relatively little evidence of progress in this early part of the campaign. Liverpool? Suddenly so very average without their transcendent talent to lead the way.
Manchester City? Mentally fragile and tactically inflexible. Arsenal? The same, except somehow even worse.
City—and perhaps the more bullish fans of Southampton—might disagree, but it felt like Arsene Wenger was speaking for the rest of the league when he told the BBC:
If they [Chelsea] keep that up nobody will touch them, It doesn't look like anybody is capable of challenging them at the moment.
Look at the season and Chelsea are on course for 105 points. Look at the number of points they have today and if they keep that up nobody will touch them, that's for sure.
They have had a good start and as long as you don't lose you don't question yourself. Maybe a little bit more extra spirit in the team helps them when it gets tight.
By implication, Wenger’s comments blamed his own side’s 2-1 defeat to Swansea on a lack of confidence, although it was perhaps more practical than that. The Welsh side’s winning goal came because Bafetimbi Gomis is much taller than Gunners centre-back Nacho Monreal (more on that later), while the equaliser happened because Arsenal somehow let the home side counter-attack and win a free-kick in a dangerous area with the sort of tactical error Mourinho would perceive as unforgivable.
These are small but crucial details, and they are mistakes Chelsea do not seem to make. The absence of such flaws in Chelsea's game only shines the spotlight on those of everyone else.
That is not to lay the blame squarely at Wenger’s door, however. The result also underlined the improved quality of many of the mid-table teams in the Premier League; there appeared to be six top teams, two competent ones (Manchester United and Southampton) and a veritable sea of mediocrity last season. This term, many of the mid-tier squads seem to have improved considerably, with only a handful of obvious relegation candidates at this early stage of the season. (And even they can cause problems on their day.)
Arsenal were exposed by that on Sunday, as Swansea went toe to toe with them for large parts of the match and secured a deserved three points. QPR also showed their renewed spirit and quality, and only Sergio Aguero’s brilliance denied them three points against the champions at Loftus Road.
What is remarkable, or at the very least impressive about Chelsea is that they have proven to be immune to such instances this season and put teams to the sword with a brutal, clinical ease. Their only dropped points have come in draws against the two Manchester clubs—both the result of fortuitous late equalisers. Remove those instances and Mourinho’s men would be a perfect 33 from 33 at this point.
They could again have fallen victim to a late equaliser against Liverpool, had the referee spotted Gary Cahill’s handball block of Steven Gerrard’s late shot. That moment apart, however, it was another impressive display of winning football from the Londoners.
Having gone behind to Emre Can’s deflected strike, Chelsea got back on terms almost immediately from a corner and won the game when full-back Cesar Azpilicueta beat his man and provided for Diego Costa to score. Chelsea can seemingly score in any number of ways, making them impossibly difficult to defend against.
They are also devilishly hard to attack against, as Liverpool discovered once they were behind and were challenged to come up with an equaliser of their own. Brendan Rodgers’ side responded by throwing aimless balls into the box, threats Chelsea coped with easily until the final whistle.
“It is not in the legs because, obviously, players who did not play during the week have more energy than people who played,” Mourinho said after the game, per the Independent. “That is obvious. So what makes the difference is inside.”
That is not entirely true, however. Chelsea have a far better squad—stronger across the pitch than almost any other in the league. Which players from other squads in the Premier League would they really want to add? Aguero perhaps. David Silva maybe. Beyond that, it is hard to argue that their spending in 2014—Nemanja Matic, Kurt Zouma, Costa, Cesc Fabregas, Loic Remy—hasn't covered every remaining deficiency within their club.
Liverpool, in contrast, lost one key player in the summer and bought five players who have been unable to plug that gap. They would probably willingly swap their summer business for Southampton's.
“We are a better team,” Mourinho acknowledged. “We got players to improve the team, not the squad. We have had an evolution in everything since last season.”
The culmination of that “evolution” is already clear. Chelsea will win the league this season, probably at a canter. The question now is whether they can go the whole campaign unbeaten—with Arsenal about the only big away game left on their schedule, it would seem foolish to bet against them.
Sack Race Heats Up
The Premier League is yet to see a sacking this season, but that could all change over the next few weeks. After Alan Pardew and Harry Redknapp both evaded the noose in the most straightforward way possible—getting better results—a host of new candidates have now stepped up to take their place.
City boss Manuel Pellegrini remains foremost among them after his side's awful start to the season in all competitions, although his side would presumably have to be out of the Champions League before the club's owners would even countenance a change in manager. (In the past, they have tended to wait for a suitable moment to make such a big decision.) Another South American, Mauricio Pochettino, also appears to be under increasing fire, especially considering Tottenham's woeful display against Stoke on Sunday and the board's predilection for abrupt hirings and firings.
Pochettino will have to take 13 points from the next six games to equal the points total Andre Villas-Boas accumulated before he was fired last season, a run of form that seems unlikely considering the disjointed way they are currently playing.
"It's clear from the results that we need to improve, we need to improve a lot," Pochettino told Sky Sports. "It's another defeat and we need to improve, this is clear to see.
"In football you always need time to implement different methods but we need to improve quickly because you never have a long time in football."
Steve Bruce, Paul Lambert and Redknapp (still) might be looking over their shoulders, but the next manager to go could be Palace boss Neil Warnock. The Eagles have been increasingly poor since Warnock took over, slowly forgetting every good thing former manager Tony Pulis introduced.
Out of the relegation zone on goal difference alone, the Palace board may feel they have to act quickly to arrest what has been an alarming slide.
Goal of the Weekend
Goal of the Weekend: Runner-Up Edition
- It was impossible to ignore the chorus of boos that emanated from around Anfield when Brendan Rodgers made his two substitutions in the second half against Chelsea, bringing on Fabio Borini and Joe Allen for Philippe Coutinho and Emre Can. After being almost unable to do any wrong last season, it seems perception is starting to shift around Rodgers. The manager later suggested the return of Daniel Sturridge would solve a lot of issues—in a way, that would only underline how poor Rodgers' strategising has been without the striker, though.
- Manchester United were not exactly impressive in their 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, but as Louis van Gaal pointed out afterwards, the win was by far and away the most important element of the afternoon. Questions emerged about the use of Angel Di Maria—and the ability of Daley Blind to play at centre-back—but it is clear United's issues are more deep-seated; as long as they can keep winning while Van Gaal works out the various kinks in his squad, the performances are a secondary concern.
- Another start, another goal for Ayoze Perez, as Newcastle United made it five wins in a row. It was a great goal too—a slick backheel to break open a game that looked destined for stalemate up until that point. The Spaniard is very raw as a lone forward, but he clearly has an eye for goal. Newcastle may have a gem on their hands if they nurture him carefully.
- Saido Berahino, like Perez, is also clearly a work in progress. On the evidence of Sunday's game against Newcastle, it is difficult to see where he could fit into Roy Hodgson's England team other than coming off the bench as an impact substitute. Hopefully the experience of his first England call-up benefits Berahino, but his real development needs to continue at the Hawthorns, where he still has much to learn about hold-up play, running the channels and the like.
- Luke Shaw not only travelled from Manchester to attend the X Factor live show on Sunday evening, but he was denied entry after turning up five minutes late. Getting criticised by Louis van Gaal for his fitness was bad, but there is no question that this will end up being the lowest moment of Shaw's season—possibly his career.
- Perhaps the most entertaining game of the weekend came at Loftus Road, as QPR drew 2-2 with Manchester City in a ding-dong battle. Sergio Aguero was the game's standout performer (he was truly brilliant), but QPR now look a world away from the abject side they were in the opening games. Many will continue to question some of their summer spending, but if they continue to perform like they did on Saturday, they will surely not be among the three worst sides in the final standings.
Good Week, Bad Week
Juan Mata: United future remains uncertain but crucial goal will have helped case.
Mark Hughes: Win steadied Stoke ship after poor few weeks.
Joe Hart: Lucky to get away with a bad mistake against QPR—good knowledge of the rules, though.
Ashley Barnes: The least likely Austria international in history secured a vital first win for Burnley.
Fabricio Coloccini: A goal and a strong display as Newcastle's good run continued.
Neil Warnock: Is he already out in front in the sack race?
Kyle Naughton: Stupidity did not help his or Spurs' cause against Stoke.
Brown Ideye: Not even involved against Newcastle, what is going on with West Brom's record signing?
Leicester: After starting the campaign so brightly, the Foxes suddenly look short of confidence and quality.
Brendan Rodgers: The fans are starting to turn against Rodgers after his recent run of decisions.
Other Points of Note
Arsenal's Defensive Woes
On the basis of Sunday's display, it is barely comprehensible that Calum Chambers is in the England squad, let alone the current front-runner to be Roy Hodgson's right-back. The teenager was tortured by Swansea's Jefferson Montero, the sort of pacy, tricky winger who most middling international sides can call upon.
Chambers will learn from that experience, even if his inability to rein in the Ecuadorian allowed Montero to provide the assist for Swansea's winning goal. The concluding part of that goal deserves further examination, however, as Bafetimbi Gomis jumped above Nacho Monreal to head home.
Wenger's decision to partner Monreal with Per Mertesacker (in the absence of Laurent Koscielny) instead of Chambers makes a certain sort of sense, with the Frenchman perhaps wanting a natural left-footed player alongside Mertesacker to bring some balance to the back line. But the flip side of that is that Swansea's forwards are naturally going to pick on Monreal in the air, putting a lot of pressure on him.
With Chambers struggling, perhaps it would have made sense to switch Monreal and the Englishman, a move that might have stopped the winning goal. As it was, the cross completely bypassed Mertesacker as Gomis easily beat Monreal in the air, scoring a goal that was far, far too easy against a side with big ambitions for the season.
Biggest Challenges on the Horizon for Southampton
Southampton had to toil, but they got there in the end on Saturday, as they beat Leicester City 2-0 thanks to Shane Long's brace. That result keeps Saints second in the table behind Chelsea—suddenly Ronald Koeman's side, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi, are our only hope of a viable challenge to Chelsea.
That, of course, is unrealistic, although the next month will help us find out where we can expect them to be come the end of the season. Southampton are due to face Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United over the next few weeks—a run of games that might prove to be a better measure of their true potential and the chance to prove they are no fluke.
In the interim, however, they continue to earn praise. The attack—Dusan Tadic, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle in particular—have received the plaudits, but their defence has been equally spectacular. They have a spectacularly athletic, diligent full-back pairing in Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand, while Jose Fonte and Toby Alderweireld have made it easy to get over the loss of Dejan Lovren.
If Chelsea are exposing the flaws of the other big sides, then Southampton are underlining what is possible with coherent planning and good governance. Many neutrals will hope their good start is just that—only the start.