With the European club competitions resuming this week, all the top clubs played on Saturday to gain an extra day’s recovery. On Sunday, the spotlight fell on the other end of the table. West Brom and Burnley started the day unsurprisingly in the bottom four. West Brom finished last season one spot above the drop zone. Burnley has just been promoted from the Championship.
On Sunday, Burnley was soft in defense and toothless in attack. West Brom won, 4-0, to climb to 10th on eight points. That is exactly where it was at this stage last season before things went horribly wrong. Handicapping the relegation fight is tricky. Last season, West Brom won just seven games and stayed up – it did draw 15 while it lost 16. The four teams above it all lost at least 20 games. A team can simply not show up every other week and still survive comfortably.
Burnley’s squad, meanwhile, is almost entirely devoid of Premier League experience, despite the fact that the club equaled its record transfer fee to buy some. However, It’s a bad omen when that record fee is just £3 million ($4.9 million). It’s a worse omen when you spend it on George Boyd, whose 30 Premier League appearances came mostly as an impact sub who rarely made an impact at Hull.
The basic low-cost recipe for Premier League survival, the Allardyce-Pulis formula, is a big, well-organized back line screened by a big tenacious midfield. Such teams are going to spend most of the game in their own half, so they need speed to counter-attack. They must work extremely hard at scoring from set pieces, which is often the only way they can get the ball into the goal mouth.
West Brom finished in the top 10 in 2012 and 2013. It sees itself as capable of a better class of soccer, which could be where it got in trouble last year. On Sunday it looked more within the Allardyce-Pulis mold, disciplined in defense and scoring twice with headers from set pieces in the first half. Then again, the opposition helped.
Burnley is without its top scorers from last season, Danny Ings and Sam Vokes. It scored after 14 minutes of its opening game and hasn’t scored since, a span of around nine hours. But even with its top scoring options, Burnley lacks breakaway pace. On Sunday it couldn’t defend set pieces. It's clear that Burnley will struggle. The intriguing question is who will struggle with them.
There have been seasons recently when pretty much every team below seventh in the final standings deserved to be relegated. The tail looks much shorter this year. QPR has a gaping hole where its defense should be, but Harry’s All-Stars have enough talent to conjure up 10 or 11 victories while playing horribly the rest of the time. Newcastle is being eaten by the cancerous relationship between fans and management. But it too has the talent to win enough matches. Crystal Palace, Leicester, Hull and Aston Villa are all picking up points and looking solid doing so. The two teams who should be anxious are Stoke and Sunderland. Both look good but cannot score. Goals mean points, as West Brom, which did not score four in any league game last season, can happily tell you.
Local derbies, as players, managers and fans, so often say, are games clubs hate to lose. In the case of the North London and Merseyside derbies, they usually don’t lose. Both derbies ended 1-1 on Saturday, after the traditional underdogs somehow clawed out draws away from home. That statistical symmetry extends across the Premier League era. Since 1993, both Liverpool and Arsenal have won 19 derbies and lost eight. But both have drawn 17 derbies over that span for only a 42 percent victory rate. Those aren’t great numbers in a two-horse race.
It’s only the start of the Danny Welbeck era at Arsenal. On Saturday he looked like an unlucky man who has got what he wished for and realizes he doesn’t know what to do with it. Spurs seemed like it arrived on the 259 from Tottenham and then persuaded the bus driver park it on the field. Against the mass defense, Welbeck was nailed into the center forward spot, which nullified his speed, mobility, work rate. Arsenal completed 542 passes. Welbeck accounted for just 15. Welbeck did manage four attempts at goal, but three were blocked, often a sign of bad shot selection. The nadir was a horrible air shot after 74 minutes. The ball rolled to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. As the Spurs defence stood gaping he was able to pick his spot and score. Chalk up an assist to Welbeck.
There are times when fans and coaches cringe as players launch themselves into wildly optimistic long-range shots and then groan as the ball flies harmlessly toward the corner flag. Many Evertonians no doubt cursed as Phil Jagielka flung his boot at the bouncing ball some 30 yards from goal in the dying seconds with their team a goal down. Jagielka had scored just 6 goals in 210 appearances for Everton, most from close range after set pieces. Yet not only did he launch his muscular 182 pounds into the shot, he also showed deft technique, slicing slightly across the ball. The ball swerved slightly as it rocketed toward the net. Simon Mignolet had no chance. Everton had a point. Jagielka had proved the old soccer adage: if you buy a ticket, you might win the lottery.
The obsession with captaincy is puzzling in an era when coaches prowl the sideline barking instructions. The debate over whether Wayne Rooney should do the job, for Manchester United (or England), should focus on why his club has so few on-field leaders. One is never enough. Rooney is clearly aware of the symbolism of the arm band and the debate about whether he is fit to wear it. In the first half against West Ham on Saturday he played like a man with a charge of electricity running through him. He shined brightly and scored a goal like a flash of lightning. But he also seems to feel that any defeat is now a personal failure. Last week, as United collapsed at Leicester, he seemed determined to show his leadership by getting sent off. He succeeded on Saturday with a ridiculous, needless and, in the words of his coach, Louis van Gaal, “not very friendly” tackle on Stewart Downing to stop an utterly unthreatening breakaway. United, aided by a marginal offside decision, clung on to win 2-1. But in his desire to lead the charge into battle, Captain Rooney had almost sunk the ship.