Manchester City is the only club to currently have a goal differential of +5 or more. (Matt West/Icon SMI)
A tougher, tighter Premier League? Getting tougher on divers? Tough treatment for a manager? Tough luck for an American? That and more tough stuff is here in Week 4 of The Premier!
THE PREMIER LEDE
Parity is a term much more often associated with the kind of football the United States prefers, and that type of "anyone can win the title" disorder certainly won't hit the Premier League anytime. Early returns on the new season, however (warning: small sample sizes, etc.), are hinting that the heavier dose of competitive balance expected at every level of the league this season may in fact be present.
So far, no one has looked like a breakaway candidate at the top, and no one looks like a particularly soft touch at the bottom. Through four rounds of play, no team is perfect, and the league -- through 40 matches -- has only had two with a margin of greater than two goals (5 percent blowout rate). Those both came on the opening weekend, when Manchester City beat Newcastle 4-0 and Manchester United won 4-1 at Swansea. In comparison, last season had 49 in 380 total matches (12.9 percent).
That's led to a much tighter clustering in the table in terms of goal difference spread than what we typically have seen in recent seasons at this point. Only City have a goal difference of +5 and only Sunderland have one of -5. The last time the league had fewer than a total of six teams in those two combined categories was 2008-09, when only Chelsea and Arsenal found excessive first-month joy and Blackburn was an early enabler. In 2010-11 and 2011-12, there were a total of five teams already with double-digit goal differences.
|Season||Clubs with +5 GD or better||Clubs with -5 GD or worse|
|2012-13||Arsenal^, Chelsea^, Manchester United#, Swansea||Norwich, Liverpool, Reading*, QPR*, Southampton|
|2011-12||Manchester United (+15!!!)^, Manchester City (+12!)#||Arsenal, QPR, Tottenham, Swansea|
|2010-11||Chelsea (+17!!!!)^, Arsenal (+10)^, Manchester United#||West Brom, Wigan, West Ham (-10)*|
|2009-10||Chelsea#, Manchester United^, Manchester City, Tottenham^, Liverpool||Everton, Burnley*, Portsmouth*, Hull*|
# -- Eventual champion
^ -- Eventual Champions League
* -- Eventually relegated
(The list of clubs on the plus side of the ledger leans extremely heavyweight, so it shouldn't be a surprise that 13 of the 16 over the last five seasons at least made the Champions League. Sunderland fans may be able to breathe a bit, as only six of the 18 in the -5 group ended up getting relegated.)
It's far too early to assume this trend can hold over the next eight months, but the competitive balance looks very solid top to bottom. There are at least six legitimate contenders for the four Champions League slots, a group of very capable teams sitting below that, the three promoted sides all look, at minimum, scrappy and capable of providing trouble when they're at home, and no one is overmatched.
If it even holds to a moderate extent, we should have one of the most exciting league seasons in a long time. Soccer's already an inherently unfair game where the favorite only wins about 50 percent of its matches, much less than any other major team sport (thanks in part to draws). If there really is a legitimate "any given week" quality this year, we could see some wicked plot twists before we're done.
YOUNG AND THE REF-LESS
Serial diver Ashley Young, he of the lecture from former manager Alex Ferguson last season, was up to his old tricks again on Saturday.
After already receiving a yellow card for a dive in the box where he laid out and then comically kicked the defender's leg with his own leg to draw contact, Young was the key figure in the decisive moment of the match right before halftime. Played through with a step on defensive mid Kagisho Dikgacoi, Young made a healthy meal of what appeared to be, at best, modest contact and tumbled again to the pitch. The foul appeared to initiate outside the penalty area and there was arguably cover from other defenders, but United were nonetheless awarded a penalty kick and Dikgacoi was given a straight red card for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity.
First off, I hate the red card/PK combo in general. A penalty kick is, unto itself, an extremely good "goal-scoring opportunity." The conversion rate of around 75 percent is almost certainly higher than the scoring rate of a player in live action on a (semi)breakaway, so by giving one, the attacking team is not being denied anything in terms of opportunity to score. To give a team a penalty and a man advantage for the remainder of a match seems incredibly harsh unless it's patently obvious the foul took away a (near) certain goal. I'd be fine with a yellow in cases like Dikgacoi's, where there is ample room to disagree about a) the foul, b) Young's chance to score and c) potential defensive cover from either side.
Of bigger note, this was the 12th penalty kick won by Young in the Premier League (tied for most in the Premier League in his tenure), and not the first that had a degree of taint to it. Former referee Graham Poll went as far as to pen a column for London's Daily Mail that accused Young of being a con artist and suggested a five-game ban for persistent cheating.
That brings up a second discussion point: FIFA absolutely should start to enact retroactive cards for simulation. I'm not talking about marginal ones where it's not 100 percent clear. I'm talking about repeat offenders and/or gross acts of chicanery (like Joel Campbell's gross flop against the U.S.) where the clear intent is to bait the referee into penalizing the other team. FIFA can talk about Fair Play all it wants, but until it acts strongly to legislate stuff like this out of the game, it's only talk.
Martin Jol doesn't like to get booed and thinks some Fulham fans have unreasonable expectations for a club that operates on a fairly modest budget. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of Jol's actual performance and fan perception, most likely because this is the third time in the three seasons Jol's been in charge that Fulham has gotten off to a slow start.
This chart, culled from Craven Cottage Newsround, shows those trends, but once Jol has had some time with a group, he's tended to figure things out. Whether that will happen again this season with what feels like an aging and slowing roster is yet to be seen, even with injuries currently compromising lineups. A decay in the team's quality of play started in April and hasn't really subsided.
What's not yet to be seen is the Cottagers' growing habit of conceding late, result-altering goals. West Brom's 92nd minute equalizer on Saturday was the second time in as any matches that Fulham allowed a crippling late score, and the eighth time since the start of last season where they have conceded in the final 10 minutes (plus added time) to see a scoreline change from win to draw, or draw to loss. That doesn't include Wayne Rooney's 79th minute goal last season that gave Manchester United an eventual 1-0 win. In the same span of 42 matches, Fulham has only pulled the trick three times -- none since last November in a 2-2 draw against Everton.
It's unclear whether the imbalance is due to Jol's tactics, the age of the roster causing it to fade down the stretches of games, or just simply a run of bad luck. What is clear is Fulham isn't good enough to keep leaking points. They could be on seven points right now, and are on four. Too many more late-game folds may leave them in a tougher position than expected at the beginning of the campaign.
• You've probably seen the highlight by now, but by all appearances, American striker Jozy Altidore was robbed of his first league goal for Sunderland, one that would have leveled Saturday's match with Arsenal at 2-2 with 20 minutes remaining. Referee Martin Atkinson bizarrely whistled the play back for a foul on Arsenal's Bacary Sagna just as Altidore freed himself from an extended wrestling match, ran onto a pass and slotted home past Wojciech Szczesny.
The only thing I can think of (besides Atkinson totally bottling the call) is that the ref adjudged Altidore to also be fouling to finally shed himself of Sagna in the box (there was a shove-off of sorts), and as such couldn't allow the advantage to be played after the initial Sagna foul.
After calling the eventual goal back, though, there was a second interesting decision: Sagna was given a yellow card. Given Altidore subsequently ran onto the ball alone in the box and, you know, scored (allowing that the whistle blew during that sequence), how could that not have then been considered denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, which would have required a red card for Sagna? Sunderland got the exact opposite of what Manchester United received from the Young play. The free kick was given outside the box (nothing came of it) and Arsenal kept a defender on the pitch in a one-goal match in the second half.
When you compare the two plays, it seems clear at least one of Crystal Palace or Sunderland got hosed ... and very possibly both of them.
• Has any player ever had a more eventful first match against his former club than Swansea's Jonjo Shelvey on Monday? The former Liverpool man, bought by the Swans this summer for around $11 million, did the following:
1) Scored in the second minute of the match after nearly whiffing on a volley, turning the miskick into a way to dribble around multiple defenders, having a second shot blocked right back to him, and then curling the third effort over Simon Mignolet and into the far corner.
2) A minute later, put Daniel Sturridge in alone on goal, which would have been a great a couple months ago, but not now that they're no longer teammates.
3) Put a pass directly into the feet of Liverpool's Victor Moses (not a teammate last season), who never relinquished his dribble before lashing home easily past a helpless Michel Vorm.
4) Fed Michu with a nice assist for Swansea's second-half equalizer.
If you're counting at home, that's a goal and three assists, albeit two for the opponent. At halftime, I referred to Shelvey's performance as a Hat Trick of Insanity, but since he tacked on a crucial helper to completely even things up for himself and the match, we need a new nickname. I open it up to you. Hit me at @AndyGlockner
on Twitter to pitch a handle for Mr. Shelvey for the remainder of the season.