Arsenals season will turn on four matches, played back to back, staring on Wednesday 27th January and finishing on Wednesday 10th February. They play Aston Villa, Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool in a row.
If they come through these matches relatively unscathed then there run in is one of the easiest on record. The only real tests will come against Man City and Spurs and whilst these will be tough games they represent a small percentage of the point on offer after the Liverpool match.
Furthermore, starting the run of games towards the end of the transfer window will given Wenger sufficient time to purchase a striker that will add something different to his current group.
I recall how Arsenal went on a run of winning 10 games in a row to clinch the title in 1998. Their fixture list is primed for a repeat of this. Thursday 11th February will be the date when we can decide whether the title has a chance of returning to Arsenal. If they are within touching distance then I venture to say it will be theirs for the taking.
Mark Hughes has done a wonderful job at Manchester City. People will argue that if they had all that money then they could do as goon of a job but they would be very much mistaken.
Firstly, Hughes has gone an entirely different route to Erikkson when he had Thaksin Shinawatra’s money. Sven bought good players (Elano, Petrov, Giovanni (although he was useless at Man City), Jo (see Giovanni) but none had played in the Premiership before. The start was always going to be good but tough games came up and the players became unstuck. Hughes has purchased players that have all played in the Premier League and in some cases won the title. Only Robinio (not Hughes’ signing I suggest) doesn’t fit the bill.
City are playing well great going forward and a bit culpable at the back, but that will come with time. A victory against Arsenal is a launching pad for a title challenge. I will suggest, however, that there most important game of the season, next week at Utd, will define their season.
Win it and they’ll not come anywhere near winning the league. Lose it and they have a chance. Yes, that’s right. If they win then they will feel unbeatable – 5 wins out of 5 and two against teams people said they could not beat. However, this is the feeling that will derail their season when they go on the inevitable run of bad form. Individual players will start to feel like individuals and not part of a team. This will hamper any chance of success.
As Chelsea have proved this season it is important to fight to the final whistle and City players will take on individual chances in those final minutes if chasing the game rather than pass to a better placed teammate. An elaborate theory I know but it’s what did for Hull last year. They thought they were invincible and crumbled after a few tough games. If you feel you are better than your teammates then you will become selfish and City have the players to get to each other.
If City lose to Utd then it will be an expected defeat, albeit not a nice one but an expected one. The next game will then be one that they must win to get back on track, this will force the team to become a team more than a victory will.
I must start by saying that I have a lot of admiration for Roy Hodgson and Fulham. My first permanent flat in London was opposite Craven Cottage and my local pub was the brilliant Golden Lion (http://www.allinlondon.co.uk/clubs_bars/venue-248.php) – entry on match days is only for local and those with a Fulham member’s card. Finally, after Fulham had avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth, I met Roy Hodgson at Heathrow and congratulated him on his achievement that season (a story he still dines out on I’m sure).
With all that in mind I think that they are in real trouble this season. Hodgsons team is built on two attributes: organisation and hard work. People might think that I am doing them a disservice by underestimating their quality but what do they really have? Danny Murphy controls the midfield wonderfully well but their creative spark doesn’t come from the hardworking Johnson and Zamora. Fulham look towards their wide players for the creative impetus – Duff, Dempsey, Gera and Davies – but none of these have, in my opinion, sufficient quality to get into most Premier League sides.
So, why will Fulham be in trouble, probably come November? The Europa league will be the undoing of Fulham. Organisation will win games if everyone is, err, well, organised. The team that played for Fulham on a weekly basis was almost always the same and therefore they were sufficiently organised. Changing personal disrupts the organisational aspect of the team and causes problems for the concept of team defence.
But do Fulham need to change their team? Yes if they are not to suffer from burn out by the time the season ends. The way in which Roy Hodgson plays demands that his players work hard. The question will be whether the working demanded can be sustained through the Europa League groups.
I do not think that the tactics Hodgson employs can survive a European campaign. He has form when this situation is played out, think Blackburn. The only way in which Fulham can avoid a challenging relegation fight is to inject some attacking quality in the side – something which needs to be done by tomorrow afternoon.