Hardly a day passes without someone, whether it be pundit, friend, colleague, or bitter rival, talking to me about how vulnerable Arsenal is and how they are the most likely to be booted out of the top four by the Barbarian Hordes at Man City and Tottenham. These fair minded prognosticators like to make their predictions before the season had even started, before a single face had even been stamped in anger! Who would stoop to such a level?
Wenger, in his wisdom, likes to wait until the 10th match of the season before declaring a trend in the league and with two of the top six clubs having played only seven matches most people would be inclined to agree with him. Still, with that caveat firmly in place I think that we can see some emerging trends in these first eight games and draw some conclusions about who, if any, of the top four teams are most likely to face relegation to the Europa League.
To be succinct, for once, I’m targeting Liverpool. Not out of some hatred for Liverpool, I think they have some of the most loyal fans and a team full of players who are very talented, hard working, and dedicated to the cause. Rather, I think the loss of Alonso combined with the frailties in defense are not nearly enough to support Fernando Torres’ amazing rescue act so far this season. Which doesn’t even get started on the turmoil in the board room and the subsequent possible turmoil in management.
Staring the season off with a loss, even to Tottenham, was not really that big of a deal, but losing to Villa 3-1 at Anfield was a huge blow to start their season. Anfield, fortress Anfield, was their rock last year and if they have any hope of holding off City for a top four spot they will need to regain a foothold in their fortress. That’s down to willpower more than anything and you should always count on Liverpool’s willpower.
That said, If the Tottenham match showed their weakness in midfield with Lucas Levia looking to be a poor man’s Denilson and getting the run around by Luca Modric, the Chelsea match showed a more disturbing side to the club. They played that match with a desperation that I haven’t seen from a top club in a long time. Chelsea do that to people, when they are clicking in midfield as they were on Sunday, and when Drogba is rampaging through defenses as he was, they are the toughest team to play and they make your team look desperate. But the fact remains that Carragher and Squirtle looked poor then, looked poor against Tottenham, and looked downright bad against Villa. You have to wonder just how important Alonso was in shielding those two last season and how much of the defensive load that they can handle.
But perhaps more problematic than the defense and their midfield is the problems that they have in the boardroom. I was driving around to doctor’s appointments with my daughter yesterday and thinking about who would be the first manager to get the axe this season. After my initial “LOL Phil Brown!” I settled on two others: Rafa and Ancelotti.
Ancelotti, simply because Roman Abramovich has already, incredibly, flown in to a practice session and basically made himself known after the loss to Wigan. I’m not saying it’s right, but you have to think that if Chelsea had lost to Liverpool on Sunday, his job was in serious danger. With Ancelotti secure until and if he loses again, my mind wandered to Rafa.
Under Benitez, Liverpool have spent a ton of money and have only an FA Cup and the incredible comeback against AC Milan to show for it. Moreover, I hear a lot of grumblings from Liverpool supporters every year about Benitez’ rotations and seeming lack of tactical nous. Throw in the three losses and the questionable summer transfers and I can actually see some Liverpool supporters tiring of the old Spaniard.
That is, until George Gillett opened his big, dumb gob last week. Maybe he sensed a moment and decided to strike, or maybe he felt super defensive. There’s been a lot of bad blood between Hicks, Gillett and Rafa Benitez since they tried to bring in Jurgen Klinsmann a few years ago. Then the fans rallied around Rafa and called for Gillett and Hicks to go rather than the boss. But Gillett’s latest “Blame Rafa” outburst, while containing some patently insane proclamations, could be indicative of where the owners plan to take this club. And far worse than Lucas Levia giving away a stupid free kicks in the area, Liverpool losing Rafa right now would certainly seal the deal on them dropping out of the top four.
It’s being widely reported today that in front of the Spirit of Shankly supporter’s group Gillett defended his and Hicks’ record at the club by saying this:
In the last 18 months, we have invested £128m on top of what has come in. That means it should be getting better. Now if it’s not getting better, it’s not Gillett and Hicks, it’s the manager, it’s the scouting. You have to make sure you balance out your analysis. There was plenty of money, so if you have any complaints, take a look at the ins and outs.
The thing is, what they are saying is true. Liverpool have spent an insane amount of money on transfers over the last few years and really haven’t gotten any better. In fact, Arsenal look the better bargain in the transfer market this summer than Liverpool, by a huge margin. But the problem is that Gillett and Hicks are so reviled by the Anfield faithful that I wonder if this outburst won’t drive them deeper into the arms of Benitez, rather than the other way around.
That the faithful would gather around Rafa might actually turn out for the best. It could end up “rallying the troops” and keep that team afloat. With the defense so susceptible at the back, with the rotations so crazy and tactical awareness so, well, indecipherable, Liverpool they need something to hang their hat on. Because after the first 8 games, from what I’ve seen, it’s Liverpool who look most vulnerable to the barbarian horde and not Arsenal.