Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Mon 3 September 2007

Battle of the Big Four

So let's see - we're four or five games into the Premier League season and what seems to be happening? Well according to Jose Mourinho the title race is wide open. That maybe true, but what's apparent already is that out of the 'big four' that most of us had pencilled in to finish near the top, it's Arsenal and Liverpool that are leading the way, not Man United and Chelsea.

I don’t know about you but when I heard that Arsenal were 1-0 down to Fulham with six minutes to go on the opening day of the season, I feared the worst. No Thierry Henry, no ruthless front man to put the goals in the net. The writing was on the wall until Van Persie and Hleb cropped up with a couple of winners, but from that point onwards they’ve barely looked back. The only points they’ve dropped so far have been against Blackburn where they drew 1-1.

The Reds have been even more convincing. Like Arsenal, they've only dropped two points up to now, but they were against Chelsea. Yet what makes Liverpool a real eye-opening title challenger this season is the way Rafa Benitez has managed to bring in new players and get them playing to their strengths. No longer are they relying on wing-play and crosses into the box . Now a more direct approach is the order of the day. Players like Torres and Voronin are being given the ball and told to do what they do best: take on defenders and shoot on sight.

It's a method that's paid dividends so far. For a start they were able to beat Aston Villa 2-1 away (something that Chelsea failed to do yesterday) and most notably they demolished Derby County 6-0. OK, so Derby aren’t exactly the toughest opponents anyone will play all year, but they'll doubtless trip someone up before the season's over.

The absence of Thierry Henry seems to have had a strange effect on Arsenal. Instead of contemplating a future without a world-class striker, many of the players now look relieved to have thrown off the shackles of being just another one of Henry's support team. Individuals are now finding a chance to shine in their own right. A look at Arsenal's scoresheets from the first three weeks of the season backs this up: names like Van Persie, Adebayor, Rosicky, Fabregas and Hleb show that goals are now coming from a variety of sources, rather than the one that now plays for Barcelona.

It's remarkably similar to the way Man United used to play but may have now lost. If one player was off form, someone else in the team could step in to provide the goals but without a main striker of note until this weekend, United suddenly found that the supply chain had broken down. Think of Man U teams in the recent past and practically anyone could have scored in any match. Giggs, Scholes, Solskjaer, Keane, Beckham, Butt, Cole, Sheringham, Yorke - even defenders like O'Shea and Ferdinand might have chipped in with the odd one here or there. This season it's been a different story.

After United's Carling Cup Final victory in 2005/06, they went on to score 23 goals in 12 games but in the five they've played since August 12th this year, they've managed just three.

Now before I go on, yes I know it's early days so far and that anything can happen between now and May 11th 2008 but it has to be said that Sir Alex Ferguson's team appears to lack the strength in depth they once had. Never more has this been apparent since Ronaldo and Rooney took their leave of absence, but what of Tevez? Wasn't he the one that was going to give United some flair and plenty of goals? Sadly I think he's the victim of United's new playing style - too much passing and too little in the way of impulsive shooting from anywhere on the pitch.

All of which leaves Chelsea. Their only defeat of the season so far was rather mind-boggling in that Aston Villa's 2-0 win wasn't a fair reflection of who the superior team was. Martin O'Neill's men certainly defended well, but it was more a case of Mourinho's team having a 'bad day at the office.' Yet even there it's interesting to see Chelsea's 'goals scored' column for their first five games: three, two, one, one, zero.

So was it a case of 'too much talent, not enough end product' or were Aston Villa just playing out of their skins yesterday? Looking at Villa's results this season, perhaps the former. Villa have only lost once in their first four games and that was to Liverpool, so maybe Chelsea's title challenge isn't the stuff of major catastrophe after all. My guess it was just a blip, but their next game against Blackburn will prove or deny that.

On reflection then, the race for the title has started with no team taking maximum points from their first four games. No one team has laid down the gauntlet to the rest of the league, so is this Liverpool's best chance to finally get their name on the trophy? Watch this space…

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