Tuesday December 9th, 2014

There’s a lot of goofy stuff going on in the Premier League -- and I’m not actually referring to the suspect casts of characters masquerading as center backs for some of the better clubs in the land.

While it still feels somewhat early in terms of the races for the championship and, certainly, for the Champions League spots in such a wide-open season, we’re just a handful of weeks away from the midpoint of the campaign. As such, when you start to see trends developing, it’s time to start to pay more attention to them.

To paraphrase the old axiom, once is chance, twice is a coincidence, and seven times is Arsenal’s defense on the opposition’s first accurate shot.

Here’s some context for the Gunners’ defensive failures, along with two other things to keep an eye on as we move toward the busy holiday slate and make the schedule turn for home.

One Shot Wonders 

Much has been made since Saturday of Arsenal’s nasty habit of conceding goals on the first shot on target allowed in matches. Stoke’s opener after just 19 seconds – the quickest goal Arsenal has ever conceded in the Premier League – was the seventh such occasion this season it’s happened to Arsenal, which leaves the Gunners level with QPR in that category.

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Let it be said that you never want to be tied with QPR in any kind of defensive category if you’re Arsenal. Yes, this stat in a vacuum is a bit overblown. While high-fliers Chelsea and (until recently, anyway) Southampton share the league lead in this category, having it only happen to each twice through 15 matches, there doesn’t appear to be a huge correlation between team quality and how often you allow an opponent’s first shot on frame to hit the net.

Stoke itself has done it six times, as has Tottenham. Meanwhile, Leicester City has only been breached thrice on the opposing team’s first shot on target. Where it starts to get worrisome for Arsenal is when you add in things like the fact that it hasn't scored a first-half goal in its last six league matches.

That’s another indication that, for all the possession Arsene Wenger's charges love, they have been very sluggish at the outset of matches this season, and it has hurt them at times. Injuries have been part of it, but not all of it. Last season, Arsenal was impeccable against the bottom half of the table. This campaign, they already have dumped points to Hull City and at Leicester City, and now have lost again at Stoke in the latest installment of that particular horror show.

It may not sound like that much, but with eight away matches remaining against the current top half of the table, leaking points here and there because of a lack of organization or verve could turn into a very costly habit a few months down the road.

West Head United

As suggested a few weeks ago in this column, while West Ham likely won’t end the season in the top four, the Hammers could remain there for a bit longer thanks to a favorable schedule until Christmas. They essentially have played their toughest opponents all at home, and have taken 11 away points from five away matches against teams in the bottom six.

They have earned an OK six points from five matches against presumed challengers for Europe -- Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Southampton and Tottenham -- but four of those games have been at home. That said, the Hammers’ revamped style of high pressure accentuating and enhancing some of Sam Allerdyce’s typical long-ball style continues to pay dividends, especially when a West Ham attacker is in position to use his head.

Through 15 league matches, West Ham now has 12 goals scored via header, which according to Opta is double the next best total in the Premier League (Everton’s six), and per Squawka.com, is second only to Atletico Madrid’s 15 across all of Europe’s top divisions. In the earlier part of the season, it was Diafra Sahko delivering the goods along with Colombian standout Enner Valencia.

After Sahko was injured, though, Andy Carroll stepped into his wake and has continued the scoring-via-head trend. Here’s are his two goals from this past weekend, when West Ham handled Swansea, 3-1.

Sakho also returned from his injury and scored as a substitute. West Ham still isn’t beautiful in its play, but what it has been showing this season is light years ahead of last year’s approach, and lethally effective. So far, no one has been able to slow down its aggressive, physical approach in the final third, and nothing sums that up better than the way the club has been dominating in the air around goal.

A Closeness You Can Feel

Unlike last season’s table, which saw the top half of the league regularly thrash the bottom, the flaws in some of the traditional powers have helped keep league matches closer so far this season. As you can see in the table below (using data from statto.com), there’s a significantly higher percentage of draws and one-goal wins so far this season, while margins of two goals or more were more prevalent over the whole of the 2013-14 campaign.

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This may end up being a little apples to oranges at this point. The January transfer window may change the composition of some teams, especially closer to the top, and the smaller-budget teams near the bottom may start to wear down and take some additional hidings. 

That said, this season doesn’t seem – at this point, anyway – to have teams as defensively porous as last year’s Fulham and Cardiff outfits.

Only Burnley is leaking net goals at anything close to last year’s bottom three, and even the Turf Moorians have only been blown out (a 3+ goal loss) twice in their first 15 games.

With six teams at or below one point per match so far, there certainly is some weakness at the bottom of the table, but last year’s top-half feeding frenzy seems to be a thing of the past, at least in absolute terms.

If this trend holds to anything close to this level, it will add an additional layer of unpredictability to what’s already been a very wild campaign.

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