It has taken near to the holiday jumble but some clarity is finally beginning to seep into this year’s Premiership season. Two talented and stingy sides should duel all season for the title. A third seems just short in both current standings and collective talent—but its manager has grown into the position as his predecessor never could and the side can only get more healthy, not less, so while a challenge for the top cannot be ruled out, third place seems fairly assured for United.
The Saints have finally started marching out—four losses on the boil through their first tough fixture section, and while recovery is hardly impossible, last year’s regression and potential transfer losses make me less sanguine about their European prospects. I simply don’t know if Merseyside will offer an XI capable enough to stay in the Champions League mix—and if one does emerge, I suspect it will be clad in blue, not red. Brendan Rodgers’ squad has seemed wrong almost from the gun this season—of course a Sturridge return will help, but just when might that celestial event occur?
Which leaves three clubs from London. I will not, I cannot dismiss the Hammers. They have a dynamism and purpose about them which is different from the past—and Big Sam keeps coming up roses with his tactics. Do I think they are the least likely of these three to finish Top Four? Yes. Do I think they have no chance of doing same? Absolutely not.
As for the Gunners, well we all can diagnose them. Every time one marvels at their intricate combination goals or sustained pressure you laugh at how easily their opponents break them down to answer. And if one can conclude that Spurs have yet to beat any of the league’s class—though we now have four successes against top-half clubs (Hammers, Saints, Toffees and Swans)—neither have Arsenal. The difference might just be that when they play poorly at the Emirates they still gain a point. I’m not sure if the frontline of Welbeck, Giroud, Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Co. will stay healthy enough to avoid further slippage after the holidays. But Wenger has a way, we must admit, of scratching out the results that matter to ensure a third or fourth place finish. Any hope for Spurs would seem to depend on three points at the Lane in early February.
For Pochettino the skill of late-season success—which eluded both ‘Arry and AVB– is as yet unrealized. Today’s result gives me some hope. Despite Swansea wresting control of play for huge swaths of both halves, Spurs kept pushing to the end. The same midfield which seemed unable to produce a break from the counter for the previous 60 minutes was all of a sudden everywhere in the final ten. And when Christian Eriksen occupies a more central spot in the field, as opposed to being isolated on the left wing, good things happen.
Mind you we clearly are not there yet in terms of either form or ability. But for the first time all year I think the necessary pieces are falling into place. The back four is not perfect, but they made numerous recoveries, successful challenges, and blocks today—more it seemed than in any game since the Emirates. Kane is now set in this lineup—and will threaten defenses for the remainder of the season. Lamela continues to struggle in terms of making a quick and forceful pass but his effort and aggressiveness have improved. With Bentaleb and Mason we sometimes sacrifice too much offensive capability, but for now they’ll do—Chadli, Lennon, Dembele and Stambouli can be inserted when goals are needed. Given Ade’s troubles and Soldado’s never-ending frustration, a striker would seem to be Job One in the January transfer window.
Yet through it all we sit 4 points out of the Top Four, and just two behind our rivals. Pochettino’s desired style of play is emerging more often than not. The lads are showing some spark—and grit. If our biggest fear is being pipped by the Gunners at the end in another late St. Totteringham’s Day, well I think we can handle that. One of these years the plot will change. Trust me. COYS.
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