06 February 2023

Rivals' Roundup: I have to admit it's getting better...

This was at first shaping up to be one of the worst Roundups to write, not just for the quality of the writing itself (but you've come to expect that) but for the content. The weekend started, after all, with a dour, depressing, and difficult loss at Goodison Park and worsened as Man U found a way past Crystal Palace (although Casemiro finally ended his reign of impunity by laying his hands ever so gently on Hughes's neck). The mood lightened just a touch when the Hammers showed us that it's acceptable to score on Newcastle and brightened even more when Tottenham beat Man City, preserving our five-point lead over our closest rivals. Let's get to the roundup, then!

1. Arsenal (16W 2D 2L: 50 pts.)
Cunning strategy, there, Mik. Dropping points at the start of the weekend so as to lull Man City into dropping their guard and dropping points of their own? Classic 4-d chess. that. More seriously, it's no secret that sitting in a deep block and hoping to hit on counters can work against us. What's amazing is that no one thought to do it until Sean Dyche's epiphany. The plan underscores how much we miss Jesus...but it also suggests that we should have seen Trossard sooner than we did. We were bound to drop points sooner or later, and as far as dropped points go, I'd rather drop them away to Everton than anywhere against Man U, Tottenham, or Man City, where a six-point swing can be devastating. Having dropped these points, the feeling emanating from the squad is wounded but defiant. Something tells me we'll bounce back with ferocity.

2. Man City (14 W 3D 4L: 45 pts.)
Guardiola fell for the above-mentioned strategy. That, and he wanted to maintain his perfect record at Topspur Stadium: five matches, five losses, no goals scored. Mission accomplished. It was a strangely subdued City performance despite keeping 83% possession at one point in the second half. Haaland has turned into a feast-or-famine kind of scorer, going from a hat trick one week to not registering a single shot on target the next. Along the way, he's become such a focal point for their attack that it seems that others have forgotten how to shoot, much less score. He's notched 25 goals, a jaw-dropping stat for this point in the season, but no one else has more than seven. Deny Haaland, then, and you deny Man City. This is a far cry from seasons past when the goals were coming from every which way. Along similar lines, it might be worth mentioning that it's been ten years since the Golden Boot winner also won the Prem.

3. Man U (13W 3D 5L: 42 pts.)
Andre Marriner shocked the world by awarding Man U an early pen at Old Trafford, flouting decades of transition in which the Red Devils were held to a stricter standard by referees. Quips aside, it was the right call, but Hughes, the one guilty of the handball, would laugh last if not loudest. After Schlupp bundled Antony out of bounds, Marriner actually shocked the world by awarding Casemiro his first-ever straight red card after the Brazilian put both hands around Hughes's neck during the melee that ensued. He'll miss the next three matches, putting a lot of pressure on Fred to handle the midfield while McTominay and Eriksen are out (whose goals will Kane claim as his own now?). In any case, Man U are hot on the heels of their cross-town rivals and, unlike those Citizens, are getting better week by week.

4. Newcastle (10W 10D 1L: 40 pts.)
Newcastle continue to refuse to lose. They also continue to refuse to win. I quipped some time ago that there must be a law against winning the Prem by claiming more draws than wins, but Newcastle seem bound and determined to violate this law, imaginary or otherwise. Still, Toon again coped reasonably well with Isak's injury and Guimarães's suspension even if they did concede a goal at St. James's Park to lowly West Ham, the first Prem goal they've conceded in seven matches dating back to 6 November. I'm genuinely torn here because I like(d) Eddie Howe, but his evolution into a Mourinho-esque master of negativity and low-block defending is disappointing. Yes, he's abandoned some of the naïveté that made his Bournemouth sides so interesting to watch, and the results speak for themselves, but at what cost? Nevermind the cost; I'm sure the Saudi government can cover it.

5. Tottenham (12W 3D 7L: 39 pts.)
I knew there would be a downside to Tottenham besting Man City, and here it is. I now have to compose a paragraph proving that I paid them some attention. Still, I can turn this to my advantage, and here it is: it is perhaps peak Spurs for Harry Kane to finally eclipse Jimmy Greaves's club scoring record while boosting Arsenal's chances at winning the Prem without doing anything to help Spurs win silverware. It takes a special skill-set to score that many goals without winning any silverware, so hats off to 'Arry. Going into the match, there were Spuds actively hoping that their club would lose so as to dent our chances. Sadly, there were Gooners insisting that we should hope Spurs lose. Madness. Yes, the win could give Spurs an important confidence-boost, but they trail us by eleven points having played two more matches. They're going to do what Spurs do, which is to flirt with relevance. Something tells me that a fourth-place "trophy" will look quite a lot better than it ever did when it was us claiming one...

From there, thankfully (if only for my carpal tunnel), there's a gap to mind. Brightford, Brentford, and Fulham look intriguing. Brighton trail Spurs by five points but have two games in hand. We'll have to keep an eye on Chelsea and Liverpool if only for the crabs-in-the-bucket drama. It turns out that spending almost £600m in six months isn't enough to make a club competitive, so clearly, the answer is to spend another £600m in three months come summer. One almost feels bad for Liverpool, having sold Mané and losing key players to injury. I did say "almost". The only downside to their struggles. long may they last, is how the Gary Nevilles of the world will point to their form as excuses for how and why we've won the Prem. I suggest we go ahead and win the Prem if only to see how Neville tries to dismiss the achievement. 

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