Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea roll with their changes to victories
The Gunners have looked good again this season. Their 3-1 victory at in-form West Ham was emphatic and often very pretty.
Last season, Arsenal was carried to third place by Robin van Persie's goals and Tottenham's attack of vertigo. Van Persie has gone. There were mutterings when Arsenal failed to score in its first two games. On Saturday, the trio of experienced players Arsenal bought all looked good. Santi Carzola twinkled and scored a nice goal. A second new recruit, Lukas Podolski, set up a third rookie, Olivier Giroud, for his first Arsenal goal.
Arsenal keep repeating the mantra that it is tougher this season. The back four was bullied by Andy Carroll, but that can happen to anyone. The Gunners did not let Carroll and his sidekick, Kevin Nolan, turn the scruffy chances into goals.
So far so good. But the victory only lifted Arsenal up to fifth in the standings. It could easily be back down to seventh by the end of Sunday. Teams above it have shown they can win ugly. The question, over the length of the season, is whether Arsenal can keep winning pretty. That's what it did at West Ham.
Mancini tinkered again against Sunderland on Saturday. He dropped seven of those who started against Dortmund on Wednesday. It worked. City won 3-0. It also kept its first clean sheet of the season.
"Tinkerman" is used as an insult by the British media. It was coined for Claudio Ranieri, who bewildered the press with his ceaseless fiddling a decade ago at Chelsea. In truth, Ranieri did a pretty good job, guiding a club on the verge of bankruptcy to the Champions League place that helped persuade Roman Abramovich to buy it.
On Saturday, what was interesting was who Mancini decided he could not afford to rest. Joe Hart kept his place, but it's different for goalies. So did the two key men in midfield: Yaya Touré, the dominator, and David Silva, the creator.
The fourth holdover was a man who attracts little attention. Pablo Zabaleta has started all but one of City's league and Champions League games this season. He is a typical Argentine defender, tough, smart, determined and stoic. He isn't spectacularly fast or flamboyantly skilful. He just does everything he has to do extremely efficiently, and he keeps doing it for 90 minutes.
In the 82nd minute, with City two goals up and cruising, Zabaleta surged up the wing again. After he had won a corner, the camera zoomed in. He looked exhausted, but the game wasn't finished nor was he. He's a man even the most neurotic manager can trust.
Chelsea raised expectations in the summer with a crazed spree on creative midfielders. The frenzy was so intense that Kevin de Bruyne, bought in January, and Marko Marin, who agreed to join in April, found themselves effectively replaced before they had even played a game for their new club.
In the first half Saturday, it was easy to find reasons to be skeptical. Chelsea looked porous. It fell behind. If Grant Holt had been a little more accurate, Norwich could easily have scored three by halftime. Two of the sparkling new acquisitions, Eden Hazard and Oscar, were often invisible. Even so, Chelsea ended the half two goals ahead and cruising to victory. Juan Mata, so jaded just two weeks ago, and Fernando Torres provided enough edge to slice through a dull Norwich defense.
Torres is still erratic, but the scoring touch is coming back. His crisp headed goal leveled the score. Frank Lampard provided a reminder of his worth in midfield with a typical goal. Hazard added the third with a cool finish, set up by Mata's impressive run and pass. Hazard and Oscar (and Victor Moses) are adapting to a new league and unfamiliar teammates. They have shown in flashes, as Hazard did with his goal, what they can do. For Chelsea to be first, and by a healthy margin, while a couple of its key recruits are still not up to full speed should scare the other teams and the bookies.
West Brom rode its luck as it beat winless Queens Park Rangers, 3-2, at home, but it is unlikely to sustain the pace.
Everton, which seemed out of sorts and out of luck, but scratched out a 2-2 draw at Wigan, is another matter. If it is lucky with injuries, it does look like Tim Howard and Co. could stay in the top four.
Yet the issue is not whether Everton might contend again, but why it took it so long. David Moyes, the manager, steered Everton to fourth in 2005. He has job security that managers at other big, or used-to-be-big, clubs can only envy. Moyes has had a rare chance to build continuity. Yet season after season, his team has started as if it was made up of strangers. This season they look like they know each other. On Saturday, as the Everton players reacted with increasing irritation to dogged opponents, an unsympathetic referee and their own errors, it sometimes looked as if they didn't like each other very much. Or perhaps the anger was an expression of their own raised expectations.
He doesn't like the colors, he doesn't like the design of the cleats on the bottom and he doesn't like the skimpy protection on the top.
"The boots are so flimsy," he said. "If anyone stands on them, you are going to get injured. There is nothing to them.''
He would prefer to see players return to black boots. He recalled, wistfully, when "to wear really luminous boots you had to be a really good player."
Certainly the colors can be a bit silly as the boot makers battle to catch the eye. It would be nice if they made some effort to match club colors.
But boots are not the only thing that has changed.
O'Neill spent much of his club career conjuring passes from ankle-deep mud. Despite the torrential rains in Britain, every Premier League surface on Saturday was rolling green grass. The ball has changed, too. It doesn't grow heavy in the rain or the cold. It's even slightly padded. You could kick it in your socks and not hurt yourself. The English game, far more than in O'Neill's playing day, is now based on short, quick, accurate passing. The top half of a modern boot is built to caress the ball.
But life is a series of tradeoffs. The sole of the modern boot remains a weapon with which players can, as they always have, caress the legs and feet of their opponents.