As soccer heads into its last international break until late March, one thing we know is how little we know about this weird, confusing and mediocre Premier League season.
Chelsea and Southampton stand alone as the only two teams that can win consistently. Almost everybody else has oscillated between awful and excellent, often in the same match. Even Burnley, which looked as if the might be dependably dire all season, managed a victory, in the 11th attempt, with a comfortable 1-0 triumph over Hull on Saturday.
For the moment, the days when four or five of the richer clubs would already have separated themselves from the pack are over. That is not because the also-rans have improved. England’s four entrants in the Champions League have won just five of their 16 group matches, the lowest victory percentage of any of the “big five” leagues. That's worse even than the weakest of the five, France.
Part of the explanation is structural. Liverpool is without the two strikers — Luis Suárez is gone, Daniel Sturridge is hurt — who carried it to the verge of the title last year. Arsenal, yet again, does not have enough central defenders. By the end of its 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday, Manchester United had none.
Arsenal embodies the unpredictability and unreliability of the season. In the rain at Swansea on Sunday, Arsenal played some typically brilliant attacking soccer. It took the lead when Alexis Sánchez finished a flowing counter attack with his eighth league goal. Then, for the second time in five days, Arsenal could not defend the lead and lost 2-1. The Gunners look great on the field but mediocre in the standings. They are 12 points behind first-place Chelsea.
Arsenal’s army of midfielders, so energetic in attack, often seem reluctant to work in defense. They are not alone in delivering inconsistent effort. One of the eternal puzzles of elite team sports is that well-coached, highly experienced professional athletes can perform well one week and badly the next. Indeed, they can seem to try one week and not the next. That mystery is particularly pronounced this season.
Last season, Manchester City was a deserved champion. This season, it is in shambles. Yaya Touré is unable to deliver consistently. On Saturday, at Loftus Road, he could not impose himself on lead-footed journeymen Joey Barton, Sandro and Karl Henry. His passing was often horrible. At left back, Gaël Clichy is visibly disintegrating. Only the reliable brilliance and effort of Sergio Agüero salvaged a 2-2 draw.
The City players were rewarded after they meekly surrendered their title two years ago and the club replaced mean Roberto Mancini with nice Manuel Pellegrini. Now they don’t seem to want to play for Pellegrini. Maybe the club should invite Mancini to the Etihad for a job interview. That might generate a reaction.
Of course, the theme of this season is how quickly form can turn.
“We have to play 27 games more,” Pellegrini told the BBC on Saturday. He insisted he wasn’t thinking about Chelsea’s eight-point advantage. “We will see over the whole year whether they will continue that momentum or if they drop points.”
Chelsea could collapse. City could find some consistency. Pellegrini should not bet on it.
And what of QPR? This was a team that barely tried as it surrendered, 4-0, at White Hart Lane at the end of August. On Saturday, it harried and hurried the City aristocrats for 90 rain-soaked minutes.
Changing half the team helps. So does finding a striker who can score. Charlie Austin had the ball in the net three times against City, although only one counted. He came close on a couple of other occasions. The whole team now knows that if it creates the right sort of chances, Austin will score. That gives its whole game a shape and purpose. Effort brings rewards. The confidence is growing. The results are slowly improving.
The most extreme example of changing fortunes is Newcastle, a club which, ever since the Kevin Keegan era, has made mercury look stable. The Magpies opened with seven winless games, but after Sunday’s 2-0 victory at West Brom have won four straight and are in the top seven. Newcastle too has found a scorer. Ayoze Pérez struck the opener at the Hawthorns with an outrageous back heel. It was the third time in as many games that the 21-year-old Spaniard had hit what turned out to be the winning goal.
That run has turned around the club’s fans, many of whom seemed to be willing their team to lose so that manager Alan Pardew has more justification to be axed. Suddenly the tactics and teams that looked so clueless for two months look confident and competent.
Tottenham, on the other hand, is going the other way. The more it struggles at home, the more its fans grumble, the more its confidence dribbles away. On Sunday, it was sluggish and sterile as it was outworked by Stoke and lost, 2-1, at home. These are good players prepared by a smart coach, but they have no idea how to score or how to stop the opposition from scoring.
Stoke has won impressively at White Hart Lane and the Etihad but lost tamely at home to Leicester and Aston Villa. That bewilderingly inconsistent form makes it a typical club in a capricious season.
When Diego Costa drilled in the winner for Chelsea at Anfield on Saturday, he delivered not only two extra points, but also a message. Costa was waiting in front of the net when a deflection dropped to him less than 10 yards from the post. That’s where he does his most dangerous work. Per usual, he was perfectly positioned, balanced and utterly unmarked.
Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and three defenders were on the line. It didn’t matter. Costa struck the ball very quickly, very low, very hard and just inside the post. As he finished his follow through he seemed to flick his foot and hold the pose, like a gunfighter twirling his pistol after winning a duel. It was efficient, ruthless, skillful and tinged with arrogance, like most of Chelsea’s displays this season.
FIFA has managed to turn the “Laws of the Game” into a 144-page document. Don’t be fooled. Soccer is a simple game. It has only 17 laws and they run to just 1,600 words, including headings, pitch markings and ball pressure. Yet the only player, or coach, who seemed to know the laws during a bizarre incident at Loftus Road on Saturday was Joe Hart, the man who benefited.
As Hart ran up to take a free kick, he toed the ball with his standing foot and as a result mishit it with his kicking foot. The ball trickled out of the area to Austin who rammed it back into the goal. But Hart knew that hitting a free kick twice before it had left the penalty area meant that even though he had goofed, he would get a mulligan. Everybody else received a lesson in one of the more arcane elements of the laws.