Ok, that is a newspaper cliche, normally used for when a team scores 7 in a game. Still, I have used it anyway. Why? Well, because the first International break of the season is upon us, and we go into it, sitting 4th in the Premier League, on 7 points!
Now, let me first of all say, that our points tally and position does paper over the cracks a little, and I will explain as to why. However, the point of this article is to highlight that, while some will say we are where we should be, given our opening four opponents, in reality, to have seven points is quite an achievement that should not be overlooked. To start off, let's look at how many points we accrued before this break, in the previous six seasons:
2013/14 - 3pts
2014/15 - 1pt
2015/16 - 9pts
2016/17 - 1pt
2017/18 - 0pts
2018/19 - 3pts
As you can see, it does not make for pretty reading. We are very much used to going into the first International Break, with very little to show from our first four games. The standout, clearly, was 2015/16 when we had nine points. This was the first starting season under Pardew, the only season where we had a strong first half, and poor second half(it's normally the other way round). We were 5th at Christmas, then failed to win in 16 games and plummeted down the table, getting far too close to the relegation zone. It's safe to say, that this season was a bit of an anomaly. Other than that season, the rest have been a horror show. We have never achieved more than one solitary win before the break, and more often than not, have come out of the International's on the back foot, needing a result to stop us from falling further behind. To put it in further perspective, our previous tallies at this stage(15/16 aside), would see us currently in the relegation zone! Oh, and for those curious about where 9pts would have put us in the current league, well the answer is 3rd, just one place higher!
So, as you can see, 7 points and 4th place, for us, is something pretty much unheard of at this stage of the season. Of course, we all know that 4th place isn't going to last, but for two weeks, that spot is ours, and personally, I am loving all the jokes saying that Wilf wanted a Champions League team, and now he has one!! How then, have we got these seven points? Well, we started with a 0-0 draw at home to money bags Everton, before then turning in a shambolic display at Bramall Lane, losing 1-0 to newly promoted Sheffield United. The last two results have been the boost, with that historic 2-1 win at Old Trafford, and then the 1-0 home win against Villa. Now, some people will look at those fixtures and say that we should be on 7 points at least. Two newly promoted teams, and Everton at home, who finished 5 points ahead of us last season; we should have been looking at 7-9 points from those. On paper, it is hard to disagree with that, but in reality, you could argue we have over achieved. Some will be scratching their heads at me saying that, so naturally, I will explain.
First of all, let's look at our opposition. Everton at home to begin with. The amount of money Everton have spent in recent seasons, is just insane. They have the kind of financial fire power that we could only dream of, although they don't always wisely use it. Our team is crying out for a specialist number ten, and they bought three of them in one summer! They also have a manager in Marco Silva, who is lauded by many as one of the top young managers in the league(although I'm not sure I agree). All the talk this summer, is of Everton breaking into the top six, and they have splashed more cash on players like Moises Kean and Alex Iwobi to try and see that happen. They had a balanced back four, the England number one in goal, and a player who loves a goal against us, in Gylfi Sigurdsson, sitting in the number ten spot. They have followed up this game with wins over Watford and Wolves, plus a loss away to Villa, sitting behind us purely on goal difference.
Sheffield United, are a team that has rebuilt themselves over the years and earned their way back up. They haven't just thrown money at it. They have a United man through and through at the helm, in Chris Wilder, and he has built a team that has gelled together, that works for each other, and has grown as a unit. They deserved to get out of League One, and then stuck with what they had built, trusting those foundations to then get them out of the Championship. Now they are in the Premier League, they have made some additions, but still trusted in that core. You can't underestimate the strength of solid foundations. There is a saying that the whole, is stronger than the sum of its parts. We see this often in the Premier League, teams that come up and fight for each other, and therefore punch above their weight, while teams that have thrown money around, lose their soul and struggle. United have their core strength, and it got them an opening day draw at usually free scoring Bournemouth. Their first home game at Bramall Lane was always going to be a huge occasion for them, and a tough trip for anyone that made it. Since our loss there, United were narrowly beaten by a Leicester team who are also tipped to break the top 6, before then coming back from 2-0 down, to draw 2-2 at Stamford Bridge. Sheffield will be no pushovers this season, and could be a new Burnley.
Man Utd. Do I really need to say anything here? They aren't the juggernaught that they used to be, but they are still giants of the game. Top players like De Gea, Pogba, Mata, and Rashford remain in their ranks. They have also spent big this summer to try and rebuild and restructure, with Harry Maguire, Daniel James and of course, our very own Aaron Wan-Bissaka joining their ranks. They thumped Chelsea on the opening day 4-0, but have struggled since. Even so, prior to last season's draw at Old Trafford, and win at the Etihad, our record in Manchester is abysmal. I mean, it is shocking. God, we lost 2-0 to United's kids a couple of seasons ago on the final day, when they had a European final to prepare for. We had never beaten United in the Premier League, I think that says enough.
Finally, Villa. After three seasons of absence, they have thrown money at it. They threw money at it to get straight back up, and nearly put themselves into financial ruin. A takeover last summer saved them, and they got their promotion. Their response? Spend nearly £150million this summer to try and stay up. It is a massive gamble, but they have some strong elements. Keeping home grown star Jack Grealish was huge, as the likes of Spurs would love him in their ranks. Signing Tom Heaton is a huge coup, a top quality keeper and England International, he will be a big asset this season. Trezeguet looks to be an exciting player, and Wesley looks as though he could be a handful for defences this season. Villa will be an up and down element I feel. Prior to playing them though, they put in a very good performance away to Spurs, forcing the Champions League runners up to snatch the win late. They would have been disappointed to lose 2-1 at home to Bournemouth, but then put it right with a 2-0 win at home to Everton, a game which they largely dominated. They will continue to pick up decent points this season, consistency may be their issue.
None of these were easy games. In reality, at least in England, there is no such thing. That is the beauty of English football, anyone can get a result on any given day. However, the strengths of our opponents are not the only reasons for why I think we have done well to reach the seven point marker. Coupled with their strengths, there are our weaknesses.
If you ask anyone at the club who our best two centre backs are, the answer is James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho. They have formed a formidable partnership at the heart of our defence, something that Roy has built on. On top of that, last season AWB proved himself a star, serving to add to our impressive defensive unit, as one of the best right backs we have had in a long time. On the other side, we have PVA. Defensively, he gets questioned at times, but offensively, he is fantastic. I feel he would improve defensively if he was under pressure by a possible replacement, but we don't have one. Even so, the backline of PVA, Sakho, Tomkins and AWB was a key element of our evolution in this league, a massive step up from anything we have had before. The problem is, both Sakho and Tomkins picked up long term injuries towards the end of last season. Sakho made it back briefly in preseason, before being out again. Tomkins played no part in preseason at all. We spent all summer, and started the season, without our best two centre backs. On top of that, AWB was sold, and not replaced, leaving us with just Joel Ward at right back. Now, I love Joel, he has been a fantastic player for this club, and always gives it absolutely everything. However, being honest, AWB was a step up in quality, and Joel had become our second choice right back. This meant, that starting against Everton, we had our only right back, who was second choice for the last 18 months, our only left back, and our third and fourth choice centre backs in Kelly and Dann. At a time in our evolution where Ward was back up, and we should have been looking to move Dann on, both were suddenly playing. The opening game of the 2019/20 season, three thirds of our defence was the defence from five seasons ago! That, simply put, is just madness. Of course, Gary Cahill replaced Dann for Man Utd and Villa, but even so, that weakness was there to be taken advantage of. In fact, I felt our first 45 minutes against Everton, we played very conservative because we knew our troubles at the back(as exploited by Hertha Berlin) and were desperately trying to protect it.
Then you have the attacking side of things. We struggle for goals at home, because we don't have that magic little maestro to unlock the door. This summer, we had all hoped finally we may get one, but that hasn't happened. On top of that, we failed to sign a striker. Yes, thankfully, Ayew has been finding the back of the net, on top of the immense work he puts in all over the pitch. He can't do it alone though. In Benteke, we have a striker with 3 goals in two seasons, and a fanbase that has lost total faith in him. In Wickham, we have a player who could have been our star, but sadly, I think injuries have robbed both him and us of that positive situation, and I can see him dropping to the Championship at some point. We just don't have goals upfront, especially enough goals between the three to share the load. That is one of the reasons Benteke dropped off. When he hit a bad patch, we had no one else to put in, and so he had to keep playing himself further and further into a hole. With Sorloth gone, we kind of find ourselves in that situation yet again.
Then, of course, there is the Zaha situation. He is still here, but we are told he doesn't want to be. Naturally, there are question marks over how much effort he will put in, depending on how frustrated he is feeling about not getting a move. Personally, while I have made my feelings clear in a previous article about how he has handled the summer, I don't think Wilf is the type of person who wouldn't try. In fact, his overall performance on Saturday was not that of a player who wasn't bothering. Although, he did have that one moment, where he lazily walked back from offside, preventing us from making our next play, and then when Joel passed to him, he had a go at Ward as he was still offside. Even so, the whole transfer saga, including handing in a transfer request, and being sent home from training as his head wasn't right, can't have been good for our preparations.
Despite all of these things though, we have still managed our second best start to the season in 7 years. Goals, once again, have been hard to come by, that can't be ignored. But even so, they have been enough, because our defence has been so solid. Despite the fact that we have had to go so deep into or defensive reserves, that Jim Cannon was dusting off his boots, we still have two clean sheets to boast of. In fact, having conceded just two goals in the opening four games, we are top of the goals against table, with the next best team being Liverpool, who have let in three goals. Selhurst, the gift that keeps on giving to away teams, is temporarily Fort Knox, with us having gained 4 points from a possible 6, and yet to let in a goal there!!
What has been achieved in these four games, has been remarkable. I fully believe, that Roy Hodgson is one of the reasons behind it. He gets so much abuse, it's ridiculous, as for me, he gets so much more out of our squad than any other manager would. To me, it is why Parish and Co don't panic about spending money, because they have a safe pair of hands in Roy to keep us going. Of course, the players deserve credit too. Ayew has been a revelation this season, and Cahill is showing himself to be every bit the leader that Chelsea should not have let go. Joel Ward has rolled back the years and proving himself to be solid and reliable. There are others too, but these are the stand out three for me currently.
So, for the naysayers, appreciate what we have, and the struggles we have overcome to get it. For me, I am going to enjoy two weeks of International Break, making my plans for next seasons European Tour! Ayew coming too? Great, I will see you there!!