Sport

The Year of the Underdog

Before the start of the season, I, along with many others, was convinced that this season would be a three-horse race between the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. Seven games into the season and I’m starting to change my mind. Arsenal and Liverpool sit pretty at the top of the table. Manchester United lie in mid-table obscurity. Weakness in Chelsea and Manchester City has been demonstrated against the likes of Everton, Cardiff and Aston Villa. However, am I getting ahead of myself? Could Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs legitimately produce a title challenge this season? Could this be the year of the underdog?

If we look at Arsenal’s squad in previous years, it has always contained quality. But there has been an underlying feeling that they are a ‘selling club’. Even though they have clinched a Champions League berth for 16 straight seasons, star players like Cesc Fàbregas and Robin Van Persie have come and gone in search of trophies. This season looks a little different. Wenger finally pulled his finger out in the transfer market and executed the coup of the summer, signing Real Madrid assist-king Mesut Özil. Flamini is a clever re-acquisition, while Ramsey’s new-found form is like a signing in itself. There is a belief around the Emirates that Arsenal is now a force to be reckoned with, and is a club that could now attract the big names. So, the mentality at Arsenal is different, and they have picked up a couple of new decent players; but is that enough to suggest that they can compete with City, United and Chelsea?

If we take a look at their squad, their goalkeeper Szczesny isn’t the best by any stretch of the imagination. He is a keeper with potential but with an attitude problem. A back four of Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker and Gibbs is decent, however, Sagna isn’t in form, Koscielny is wreckless, Mertesacker clearly lacks pace and Gibbs is injury-prone. I doubt as to whether this back five is a title-winning defence. If we look further forward in the team, their midfield is simply sensational. Wilshere, Ramsey, Arteta and Flamini are all perfect for the two deeper central midfield roles. Cazorla and Özil fit in the Number 10 role and can both play wide. The likes of Walcott, Podolski, Chamberlain and even Gnabry possess quality and depth from wide areas. Giroud looks like a 20 goal-a-season striker this year, but it is slightly worrying that Bendtner and Yaya Sanogo are his only backups. So, overall, can Arsenal mount a serious title challenge? The answer is, if Giroud can steer clear of injury, if the midfield can maintain its level of performance, and if they can keep their winning mentality and belief, they have every chance of challenging.

Giroud looks like a 20 goal-a-season striker this year, but it is slightly worrying that Bendtner and Yaya Sanogo are his only backups

With Liverpool however, I have a different opinion. Although they have clearly improved in terms of quality from the last 2 or 3 seasons, I simply don’t believe they have the squad to maintain this title-challenging form they have shown at the beginning of the season. Liverpool’s starting 11 can challenge anybody else’s in the league. Mignolet is a great goalkeeper, and their defensive options are second to none with centre backs such as Agger, Skrtel, Toure, Sakho and Ilori. Johnson and Enrique offer defensive capability while supporting on the wings. A midfield duo of Lucas and Gerrard appears solid with the likes of Allen and the in-form Henderson in reserve. Their two wide attacking midfielders Coutinho and Moses possess a real threat going forwards, and the new-age SAS attack of Sturridge and Suarez is arguably the best in the division. Yet when you look at their players in reserve that could come off the bench and win the tight games later in the season, I don’t believe Aspas, Sterling, Ibe and Luis Alberto are the players to make that difference. You compare these attacking options with Chelsea, City or United who all have world-class players on the bench, such as Schürrle, Jovetic and Hernández, then players like Aspas fail in comparison. Next season, if Liverpool can sign a few more players with quality, then they could be right up there, however this season, as long as they produce a campaign in which they seriously challenge for the top four, then the fans should be happy.

The new-age SAS attack of Sturridge and Suarez is arguably the best in the division

Spurs lost their best player this summer, but have replaced him with some really exciting talent. Apart from the embarrassing defeat at home to West Ham on Sunday, Spurs have started the season well and look solid in defence and good in attack. I don’t believe that Spurs will win the league, but I don’t think that they will be too far off, as long as their new players begin to gel. Looking at their squad, they have in my opinion the best goalkeeper in the league in Hugo Lloris. Their defence is good: Walker, Dawson, Vertonghen and Rose, with players like Kaboul, Chiriches and Naughton in reserve who are all capable of filling in. I think their strongest area, like Arsenal, is their midfield. Dembélé, Paulinho, Sandro and Capoué, are all quality players who are strong defensively and seem to all possess attacking qualities as well. Eriksen, Lamela and Chadli were all brought in for the 3 roles behind the striker. Along with Sigurdsson, Holtby, Lennon and Townsend, Tottenham really do have strength in depth in the wide areas and in the Number 10 role. In attack, Soldado and Defoe will battle it out for the solo role up front, and we know that something they have in common is that they love a goal or two. Tottenham seem to have all the right utensils to mount a title challenge, but what is missing is experience. Experience in playing together, and experience in challenging for titles for a whole season. They weren’t too far off a couple of years ago but they didn’t have the squad to maintain their form. This year they do, but I think that it won’t be until after Christmas when we see Tottenham’s best form.

Tottenham seem to have all the right utensils to mount a title challenge, but what is missing is experience

So, could this be the year of the underdog? Yes, it could. There is every chance that at least one of Chelsea, United and City could drop out the top four if Arsenal and Liverpool maintain their winning form, and if the Spurs squad can work together and fulfil their potential. The team I see as more likely to make way in the top four for Spurs or Liverpool is actually Manchester United, as I believe that their mentality isn’t a winning one at present, which it always was under Fergie. Out of the three underdogs, Arsenal could legitimately make a title claim, with the likes of Özil, Cazorla, Wilshere and Giroud leading the way. Mourinho and Pellegrini have both inherited new squads and are chopping and changing at the moment. Both still do not know their best team, while Arsenal and Liverpool built a cushion early in the season. One thing is for sure: this title race isn’t as clear-cut as first thought, and it will become clearer who is capable of winning the title as the top six play each other a few more times. At the moment though, there is no reason as to why Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs should not be considered title contenders. This could genuinely be the year of the underdog.

Zack Sorkin

@zacksorks

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21-year-old Ameri-Czech student of Politics & Economics at the University of Nottingham. Sports Editor @impactmagazine. FFC worshipper. European.

One Comment
  • Jake
    10 October 2013 at 21:34
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    Firstly, as an Arsenal fan (which I suppose you should take into account considering what I’m about to say) I would argue that its really easy to pick holes in our defence considering the problems we have had in recent years. However, highlighting Mertesacker’s lack of pace by no means makes him a bad defender. His tactical awareness and organisation of the back line is something that again we have been lacking and without watching Arsenal each and every week, this quality he possesses is ignored by many. And although I agree with your describing of Koscielny as ‘reckless’, his approach to defending is very reflective of the modern day way and perhaps at times can give the opponent a chance at goal, yet again when seeing him week in week out, he is still an ever improving player who will stop at nothing to prevent the opposition from scoring. Again another point I disagree with is the fact you believe Sagna is out of form. Yes, the past two years he has been subject to criticism from many, including myself, however already this year I feel he has returned to near his best. His relentless running of the touchline not only provides Arsenal with width going forward, but he has proven so far that he is perhaps one of the toughest full backs to match physically and also proved in the earlier games of this season that he provides more than adequate cover in the heart of the defence. But saying this, I am glad you see us as potential challengers, and with another marquee signing in January, specifically in the forward areas, I too believe Arsenal can return to the summit of English football (where they belong).

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