Van Persie, Van der Vaart in fine form; Wolves' Johnson in freefall
We're a quarter of the way into the season, which seems a good time to raise a few points about some of the players who've been thrilling or spilling so far in the Barclays Premier League:
Headline writers up and down the land are enjoying the chance to show off their repertoire of van puns thanks to the form of Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart. The Arsenal captain's hat trick against Chelsea this weekend took his tally for the season to 12 (and his total for Arsenal in 2011 to 33); he may have benefited from some ropy Chelsea defending and some even ropier goalkeeping (Petr Cech has never looked easier to beat at his near post), but Arsenal are an entirely different prospect when Van Persie is on the field. The lift it gives the likes of Gervinho and Theo Walcott is palpable.
There is a greater emphasis on the collective at Tottenham, where Van der Vaart is one of a handful of players currently in their stride (Scott Parker has been excellent, and while we're on the subject, a word for Luka Modric, whose form seems completely unaffected by the uncertainty of the summer), but Van der Vaart has now plundered six goals in his last five games. A goal at Fulham this weekend would make him a Spurs record holder, and ensure that Jermain Defoe (who isn't in bad form himself) stays on the bench for a while yet. The fear for fans of the north London clubs is the frequency with which both Dutch players tend to pick up injuries.
A couple of weeks ago, Newcastle's excellent start to the season felt like a sentence building up to a "but;" now we're a quarter of the way in and Alan Pardew's side is still third, still unbeaten and still looking strong -- even when its forced to rejig. Danny Guthrie could be forgiven for being a bit rusty but has stepped in to Cheik Tiote's boots recently without unsettling Newcastle's midfield rhythm; Yohan Cabaye is setting a consistent tempo and Gabriel Obertan is growing in confidence. Few would have predicted that Demba Ba and Leon Best would make one of the most productive strike partnerships in the league, while the manager has his defenders doing their homework and it shows. Newcastle's next four fixtures (Everton, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea) will be a stern test, but it's not like the rest of the pack haven't dropped points there.
The fates of the former Middlesbrough wingers Stewart Downing and Adam Johnson seem forever in parallel. So far this season Downing has enjoyed the backing of his manager but found his form repeatedly questioned elsewhere; Johnson, meanwhile, has had his every move nitpicked by his manager but been lauded by almost everyone else. Some of the criticism of Downing is undue, in part because much of it is overstated (he hasn't been invisible, as Charles N'Zogbia has been in his place at Aston Villa) and in part because he has had to play wherever he's been put, rather than staying on the right. Johnson's irritation with Roberto Mancini, who insists that his criticism (even of a man-of-the-match performance against Wolves) is simply fatherly pep talk, is understandable, because even playing in fits and starts he demonstrates what an excellent and adaptable player he is. If he isn't given a run in the team, another unsettled transfer window surely beckons.
For some, the idea that Tom Cleverley -- 22 years old and with only seven competitive first-team appearances to his name -- should be considered integral to Manchester United's season is preposterous, but on the evidence so far he will certainly be influential. The stats will tell you United's record is far better with him than without him, and though the manager made a number of changes to the team that lost 6-1 to City for the trip to Everton on Saturday, the difference that Cleverley alone can make was quickly visible.
During his spell at Wigan last season he was often the standout player, but within the United team his contribution is more instrumental, helping to get the ball from one end of the pitch to the other quickly and smartly. He's comfortable on the ball, yet frequently aware and nimble enough to move it on in one touch, and he can always spot a pass, as evidenced in both games (versus Aldershot in the Carling Cup, and against Everton) since he returned from injury. He hobbled off in the second half at Goodison Park but Alex Ferguson will have been glad to report that he'll be fit to play next week.
So far the promoted teams have fared better than is often expected when clubs leap the increasingly canyonesque gap between the Championship and the Premier League. The trio (Norwich, Swansea and QPR) are gathered in midtable with Wigan and Blackburn (predictably) struggling and Bolton looking less and less likely to repeat their sizable opening day victory having lost eight of the subsequent nine games. For Norwich, Wes Hoolahan has maintained his pivotal role and at Swansea record-signing Danny Graham has now got his eye in, scoring four in four.
Things have been a bit more up and down for Queens Park Rangers, however, and the seemingly diminished influence of Adel Taarabt at this level is cause for some concern. Neil Warnock is not foolish enough to hang Rangers' hopes on a player so mercurial, and it is too early to talk about trouble, but the fact remains that Taarabt contributed 19 goals last season, his driest spell a run of five games in August/September, and he didn't just add gloss, he won them points. He's yet to score this season and QPR were better without him against Spurs this weekend.
It was a matter of some surprise (to me, at least) that Junior Hoilett started this season still at Blackburn Rovers because his performances last season marked him out as a player capable of contributing to a top-six side, not one that will have other teams' haplessness to thank for any time it spends outside of the bottom three. His goal against Norwich was a beauty, and reward for his industry and invention in conditions that might encourage others to give up. If he signs a new contract in the coming months, it will surely only be to help Blackburn raise some cash in the summer.
There was a spell during which Johnson and his defensive partner Scott Dann seemed between them capable of keeping Birmingham City in the Premier League. "Johnson for England'," came the shout, and a phone call from Fabio Capello seemed inevitable after he made several provisional squads last season. A hamstring injury kept Dann out after January and Johnson was unable single-handedly to keep Birmingham from the drop, but that didn't stop interest in both of them from several Premier League clubs.
When Johnson signed for Wolves for something like $8 million, it looked like one of the bargains of the transfer window, and Mick McCarthy was so chuffed he immediately made Johnson his captain. In this opening spell of the season. However, the central defender has been repeatedly embarrassed by opponents (not all of them as in-form as Mario Balotelli, who got away from Johnson to set up Manchester City's third on Saturday). At Birmingham he often made lolloping runs forward; now he routinely gets to stretch his legs running back toward his own goal, trying to keep up with whoever's just lured him away from the back line he's supposed to command.
This doesn't really need explaining, does it?
Goals scored so far this season: 291
Goals scored by this time last season: 256
They can't all be Per Mertesacker's fault.