Big 6? More Like “Big 3”

So we are just shy of being one-third of the way through the season and we’re already at our third (!) interlull. When we return, it will be crunch time with 11 matches in the next 42 days, including Chelsea at home, Liverpool away, the final CL group stage fixtures, and, of course, City away in the Carling Cup quarterfinals. While most Arsenal bloggers are taking this opportunity to look back at Arsenal’s season-so-far, and Arsenal Station will likely do that as well over this break, I’d like to say a few brief words about the Premier-League-so-far.

Big spending by City and Tottenham, £150m in 16 months, had the pundits predicting that the Big 4 would now begin turning into a Big 6. Not quite. Rather than having seen the competition at the very top open up, the opposite has happened. Instead of a Big 5 or 6 or 7, we appear to have a Big 3. Now, I know it’s not early in the season, but a “season-so-far-review” can only take into account what has happened “so far.”

Arsenal have confounded the critics with their performances so far this season. So have Liverpool, but in a different way. Chelsea appear to be very strong, but hardly invincible having lost the same amount of matches as us. United are somehow level on points with us, mostly thanks to their most important player this season, Lucky McLuck. But for a few slightly different bounces, they could be fighting with Liverpool for 7th place right now.

Nicklas BendtnerChelsea are easily the favorites at this point. They have squad depth, though that will be seriously tested in January when they lose Drogba, Essien, Kalou, and Obi Mikel to the African Cup of Nations. Though the temporary suspension of their transfer ban means that Chelsea can now buy in the next transfer window. A perceptive comment was made by one of the writers on Sunday Supplement last week, he said something to the effect of, “Chelsea are right now playing to their maximum potential, but Arsenal, despite their fantastic form and results, have not even come close to their potential.”

Rather than opening up the very top, a second Big 4 seems to have come together beneath Chelsea, Arsenal, and United. Tottenham, City, Liverpool, and Aston Villa sit between 8 and 11 points off the pace already and it is hard to imagine any of those four sides making up such a big deficit.

City are lucky to only be 10 points behind Chelsea with a game-in-hand considering their run of 5 consecutive draws in the league. That’s 10 points dropped in 5 matches… the points-equivalent of having won 1, drawn 2, and lost 3. And it wasn’t an especially hard part of their fixture list, including the most uninspiring draws with Birmingham, Fulham, Wigan, and Burnley. The novelty has worn off and City fans are now looking down the barrel at a diabolically shambolic defense which cost almost as much as Arsenal’s starting XI, not including Arshavin and Vermaelen.

When it comes to Liverpool, only two words suffice: Gerrard and Torres. And that’s it. Criticisms of Benitez, I feel , have been totally justified. The man has had five years to build a side, brought in over 50 players in that time, and still has a two-man team. Carragher has lost a step and a half and the entire club, especially Mascherano, has not been able to deal with the loss of Alonso. With no bench as well, and very few youth prospects, Liverpool supporters are in for huge reality check this season as the side appears to be in need of massive rebuilding, something neither Torres, nor Gerrard, nor even Benitez may stick around for, and something that the owners can’t afford.

In Arsenal news, Jamie at Young Guns is reporting that negotiations have concluded on a new contract for Carlos Vela and only the John Carlos VelaHancock-ing remains to be done. That is fantastic news considering all the ridiculous rumours of lower-level Spanish clubs deluding themselves into thinking he was even the slightest bit available.

Yaya Toure rumours have cropped up once again, but they are even more ridiculous this time around. His agent has asked why Barca gave him a new contract, “just to sit on the bench?” Well then, why would he come to Arsenal where he obviously would not walk into the first team ahead of Alex Song? Nicklas Bendtner will be out for 6 weeks or so after his groin surgery, likely much to the chagrin of his 34 year-old baroness girlfriend. Also, Gilles Sunu’s desire to go out on loan to the Championship is being stifled by Arsene until the youngster signs a new deal with the club.

Right, so that is my take on the Premier League season so far. On Arsenal Station over the break we will have a look at Arsenal’s season-so-far as well as a guest piece from Ted Harwood on Alex Song and possibly another from Comrade.

Liverpool Down, Spurs To Go

Personal commitments have gotten to Arsenal Station this week but as a busy week grinds to a close, we look back at the week that was and ahead to the match we’ve all been waiting for.

In Arsene’s 750th match in charge of the club, Arsenal advanced to the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup with another solid Carling Cup performance. And, while it wasn’t quite the all-youth lineup we’ve come to look forward to in recent years, the two players who really shined were youngsters, Aaron Ramsey and Fran Merida.

Fran MeridaMerida let loose  a rocket from just outside thSe box with that precious left foot to give Arsenal the lead early and, following an quality equalizer from Insua and some nifty footwork in a tight spot in the box, Bendtner gave Arsenal the lead for good just after the break.

Rumours abound about Merida now returning to Spain in the summer. He can leave on a free in the summer should he not be able to complete the current negotiations with the club to further his stay.The Sun valuates the youngster at £10m, which hardly matters should he leave on a free.

According to my friend, Jamie, and his always-reliable Young Guns, Merida’s agent has confirmed that they have so far turned down a 5-year deal from the club and that he is currently being monitored by both Atletico Madrid and Sevilla.

Wenger has claimed that he is close to breaking his way into the first team, and that is why he resisted loaning him out again this year despite an offer from Spanish club, Levante. Merida, himself, said he would rather stay with the club than go out on loan again.There is no doubt that the club needs to do whatever they have to to tie Merida down for the foreseeable future.

Both Bendtner and Eduardo had very good matches as supporters were treated to the kind of Carling Cup passing and movement we have come toNicklas Bendtner expect. Kerrea Gilbert showed alot of potential as did Craig Eastmond. Samir Nasri had a very encouraging return to the first team as well.

Of course, it’s not all good news. Fabianski is out again for three weeks with a thigh pull. Meanwhile, Wilshere, Walcott, Rosicky, and Denilson remain unavailable for the North London Derby on Saturday.

Spurs come into the match having won only two of their last six matches in the Premier League having beaten Burnley and Pompey but they also drew away to Bolton, and suffered successive defeats to Chelsea and United.

The clubs are level on 19 points but Arsenal hold third place with a game in hand on goal differential as Tottenham’s flying start seems to have been grounded for the moment. Arsenal will look to rebound from their disappointing 2-2 draw at West Ham last weekend, while both clubs are coming off victories midweek in the Carling Cup.

Déjà Vu, All Over Again

Robin van PersieAs always, highlights are below and are also archived on the right sidebar. Don’t forget to click on “see all videos” at the bottom of the widget for the rest of the highlights from this season and preseason.

Last week, following our last-minute capitulation to AZ Alkmaar, I wrote a post entitled, “Déjà Vu,” which talked about how the result was reminiscent of all those draws, many nil-nil, from last season. I could essentially just copy and paste that entire article only a few days later to describe the highly disappointing draw at West Ham Sunday afternoon. However, I am not quite that lazy (though close). Being days later, I only wanted to talk about the disappointment of the draw and what, if anything, it may tell us about the side, especially when coupled with the draw in Holland five days previous.

The most disappointing aspect of the draw is the fact that we lost the chance to gain three points on United and Tottenham, and two on Money City. Yet, despite the draw, we still found ourselves higher up the table sitting in third place, level on points, ahead on goal differential and a game in hand over fourth-place Spurs. We are also three points behind second-place United but also with a game in hand. That game in hand is home to Bolton and tentatively scheduled for December 2, unless we should advance past Liverpool in the Carling Cup tonight. In that case, we would play the Carling Cup Quarterfinal and the Bolton match would be rescheduled, likely for some time long after the new year.

Emmanuel EboueDodgy decisions abounded at West Ham, not the least Song’s foul on Cole. But also a foul, and penalty, was not given on van Persie’s header in the box where the defender was practically piggy-backing him as he went for the header. There was also a handball not given in the first half. The foul which led to the free-kick and the first goal was just as questionable. However, had we gotten the third goal, the match would have been killed off and even these mistakes would not have changed the result.

For most teams that defend well, “killing the game off” means getting that second goal, or two-goal lead. However, with a defense that has only five clean sheets in its first fifteen matches in all competitions, killing the game off means getting the third goal. We have done it for much of the season, and so this week seems to be something of a anomaly. Whether it will stay that way or Arsenal will lapse back into their 2008-09 form remains to be seen.

However, I don’t think it will. I genuinely think the side has turned the corner in regards to finishing teams off and that this week will prove to be a momentary blip rather than a portent of things to come. Had West Ham’s goals come through more legitimate means, I might not be so quick to make that statement, but, as it stands, it took a few very generous decisions for them to get back in the match. Of course, the decisions in no way excuse fundamental errors from Mannone not parrying the ball away from goal, and Song not carelessly kicking out at a striker with his back to goal, however innocuously, in the box with a late one-goal lead.

So, it’s Liverool tonight in the Carling Cup at the Emirates. Arsene has named his side:

Wojciech Szczesny, Lukasz Fabianski, Philippe Senderos, Kyle Bartley, Mikael Silvestre, Kieran Gibbs, Kerrea Gilbert, Fran Merida, Francis Coquelin, Craig Eastmond, Emmanuel Frimpong, Aaron Ramsey, Mark Randall, Samir Nasri, Eduardo, Gilles Sunu, Nicklas Bendtner, Sanchez Watt

The absence of Vela is the biggest puzzle especially considering that he was interviewed about the match two days ago on ArsenalTV Online. Samir Nasri is expected to get his first competitive action since breaking his leg back in July, and we are also likely to witness the return of Lukasz Fabianksi, not a moment too soon, in my opinion. I’m looking forward to seeing Coquelin and Merida as well as Emmanuel Frimpong. I expect a mixed side from Liverpool as well.

After this midweek diversion, it is back to the Premier League and Spurs at the Emirates on Saturday. There will be plenty time to build up to that match starting tomorrow, but I just wanted to let all my fellow-American readers know that Saturday morning will be the first time Arsenal have ever been broadcast in the United States in High-Definition on ESPN2HD.