This article is a collaborated work between new soccer writer Andrew D’Anieri and Aidan Black. Check out the writers page for more information.
The English Premier League has been as enthralling as ever so far this year, featuring some stunning goals, two managerial exits, the collapse of the defending champions, and even a smile from Louis van Gaal. With eight rounds of matches complete and the second international break upon us, we’ve reached the unofficial quarter pole of the world’s most competitive league. Let’s take a look at some of the early storylines.
Chelsea: Champions In Disarray
The story of the 2015/16 EPL season has to start with defending champions Chelsea’s ghastly run of form to start the campaign. Through eight games, the Blues find themselves in 16th place having lost four games and managing just eight points. They’ve conceded 17 goals, including 3 apiece to Manchester City, Everton, and Southampton. Certainly alarming numbers.
But it’s the manner in which they’ve played that has the media and fans pressing the panic button. Players that were crucial to last year’s title triumph have not hit nearly the same heights this season. Branislav Ivanovic’s form has fallen off the proverbial cliff, Nemanja Matic has been overrun in midfield, and Cesc Fabregas has found it increasingly difficult to unlock opposition defenses. That’s not to mention that reigning PFA Player of the Year Eden Hazard has looked lost at times and lacked the aplomb to take on defenders or test the goalkeeper often enough.
Of course all of these issues are interrelated, which is what makes the situation at Chelsea all the more dire. It’s not as simple as substituting players or getting one or two starters to play better; each of their current problems begets another and makes each player’s individual weaknesses more obvious. The challenge for Jose Mourinho will be to balance out his tactical system enough to ensure that the team can still fire at near-full strength even if important players are off their best. Hopefully, the Special One will use the international break to work out the flaws in his team. If he doesn’t, we may witness one of the worst title defenses in the history of the Premier League.
The Brilliance of Riyad Mahrez and the Return of Yohan Cabaye
For all the attention the big teams get for their flashy players and champagne soccer, some of the sexist play of the season has come from two not-so-sexy sides: Crystal Palace and Leicester City. The two sides sit in fourth and fifth places, respectively. Yes, it’s early, but that’s no mean feat for two teams that both faced the prospect of relegation not too long ago. Much of their success has been due to talismanic playmakers Yohan Cabaye and Riyad Mahrez whose attacking abilities have turned two of the league’s also-rans into exciting underdogs for Europe next season.
EPL fans will remember Cabaye’s stellar two and a half years at Newcastle United as their architect-in-chief before making a dream move to Paris Saint-Germain in January of 2014. 18 months later, and he’s back in the Premier League with Palace enjoying his role as a deep-lying playmaker. He’s chipped in with three important goals so far but it’s his passing that makes him so special. Cabaye floats between the defensive and forward lines, picking the ball up deep to try to start attacks. Yet he’s still lethal further forward as a number 10; his assist to Yannick Bolasie against West Brom would make even David Silva blush.
Mahrez has arguably been the season’s standout player with five goals and three assists already to his name. Employed on the right flank as an inverted winger for the Foxes, he uses his pace and dribbling ability to glide past players and create chances. He leads the league in successful take-ons with 33 and leads all midfielders with 12 shots on target. Indeed, the “Algerian Messi” has combined with forward Jamie Vardy to make Leicester a potent attacking force that has scored more goals (17) than all but Manchester City (19) and West Ham (17). If there’s one moment to show what Mahrez is all about, it’s his late equalizer against Tottenham back in August. He collects the ball on the right, dribblesinside on his left foot, freezes Jan Vertonghen with a shimmy, and curls the ball past a helpless Hugo Lloris. Cabaye and Mahrez have each driven their teams into European contention with their sublime attacking talents. Whether or not they’ll be able to sustain their form will say a lot about their teams’ top-6 credentials. And if their brilliance turns out to be as fleeting as an Arsenal team in first place, then at least you can say you remember it.
Deluded Brendan Replaced by Klopp
Brendan Rodgers was finally sacked as Liverpool’s manager on October 8th, and replaced by former Borussia Dortumund manager Jurgen Klopp. The reds are hoping that Klopp will bring reassuring consistency in contrast to Rodger’s sporadic lineups and formations. Under Klopp, Liverpool will likely play with a 4-3-3 formation. A vital part of Klopp’s impact on Liverpool will be his “gegenpressing” system
—organized team pressure as soon as losing the ball with the goal of winning the ball back as quickly as possible and continuing that high tempo of play into the attack. This style should make Liverpool’s play more exciting and give them a chance to get back to a top 5 spot in the table.
Offensively, Daniel Sturridge’s pace will be essential to the success of Klopp’s high pressure system, but his health remains a major concern. Recent transfer and next man in line Christian Benteke, has never played in a high pressing system. There is speculation as to his potential at the club, and the possibility of him receiving the axe at the end of the year similar to Balotelli. However, the Belgian striker is still young and certainly more adaptable than Balotelli. Furthermore, Robert Lewandowski
—a natural target man —was very successful under Klopp at Dortmund. So, perhaps he can mold Benteke into a similar center forward and move Sturridge out on the wing.
In the midfield, Adam Lallana might very well become a useless £25 million signing. Despite his stunning “character” according to Rodgers, his lack of quickness and languid play will likely find him riding the bench for Liverpool this season. On the other hand, Jordan Henderson seems like a perfect Klopp midfielder
—a relentless sprinting blur of gelled up hair while supplying a front trio with the ball and supplementary runs in behind. He will be vital upon his return.
In Klopp’s four back system, Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno should recieve more consistent outside back roles with Martin Skyrtel and a rotation of Dejan Lovren, Mamadou Sakho, and Joe Gomez at center back. Lovren has been awful following his impressive year at Southampton, while Sakho and Gomez offer greater potential but lack experience and consistency. Nevertheless, this weekend’s fixture against Tottenham will be very telling of Klopp’s plans for the team and a real test of his ability to implement a new system into a team full of Rodger’s signings.
Rest of Season Predictions
Most notably, we at SRO predict Chelsea and Liverpool to claw their way back to respectable positions on the table. We expect big changes from both clubs coming out of this international break. Despite their terrific starts, the Palace Boys and Leicester Lads will merely finish mid table with palace sneaking into the top ten. And lastly, the survival of Bournemouth and Aston Villa, while Norwich drops down to join the basement dwellers Newcastle and Sunderland in relegation.
- Manchester City
- Manchester United
- Crystal Palace
- Swansea City
- Leicester City
- West Ham
- West Bromwich Albion
- Stoke City
- Aston Villa
- Norwich City