Has there ever been a season more difficult to predict than this 2015-16 campaign, which took another projection-defying twist here with Arsenal’s demolition of Manchester United at the Emirates?
They used to say being a football pundit was one of the easiest jobs in sport; but anyone able to forecast the next headline deserves a medal — not to mention scientific testing of their psychic abilities.
The season has already seen champions Chelsea, with largely the same squad as last year, slump so badly they are currently closer to the relegation zone than the top six.
It has seen Leicester City rise to as high as fourth, playing some of the most exciting football in the Premier League, with Crystal Palace hot on their heals; and then there are West Ham’s incredible victories at Arsenal, Manchester City, and Liverpool — not to mention their random home defeats against Bournemouth and Leicester.
Now the season has produced another imponderable after United, boasting the tightest defence in the league until yesterday, with only five conceded, were despatched in 20 minutes by an Arsenal side who had just lost embarrassingly at home to Olympiacos in Europe.
All that would leave current leaders Manchester City as strong favourites to be crowned champions — if only you could forget about their 4-1 thrashing at Tottenham and a home defeat against unpredictable West Ham.
On this showing, at least, you would say Arsenal, now up to second place and only two points adrift of the leaders, remain serious contenders to challenge for the title — with Theo Walcott growing nicely into his centre-forward role and Alexis Sanchez producing a mesmerising two-goal performance that marked him out as the one truly world-class player on the pitch (although the performances of Petr Cech — recalled in place of David Ospina following that Olympiacos defeat — and Mesut Ozil deserve at least a mention).
For United, just a week after Louis Van Gaal insisted his team were capable of being crowned champions, this was a wake-up call of significant proportions. Despite a spirited fight-back in the second half in which they dominated possession — and in which Anthony Martial should escape any criticism — there was no hiding the significance of the result and its psychological impact on the title race.
What United fans will remember most, in fact, is the way Arsenal tore apart their defence in the opening minutes with the weaknesses of full-backs Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young, in particular, exposed.
Young was nowhere to be seen as Ozil, at the end of a flowing move, cut back a low cross from the byline for Sanchez to flick home the opener; and then Darmian — later booked for a desperate lunge at the Chilean — was beaten hands-down for Arsenal’s spectacular third which saw Sanchez rip home a wonderful shot from the edge of the area having brushed his marker aside. In between those strikes came a cool finish from Ozil in which Daley Blind, as he has done on several occasions this season, looked culpable.
In midfield, too, United were harried into mistakes by Arsenal’s hunger to win back possession quickly, while Wayne Rooney played so deep he was largely anonymous even when United were allowed more time on the ball in the second half as the home side, with victory assured, were happier to sit back.
In the end it was those early goals, all created by the pace and intensity of Arsenal’s attacking movement, that defined the game and which means United have work to do if van Gaal’s predictions are to be given any more credence than those of the dozens of pundits who are desperately trying to predict what this ludicrous season will throw up next.
Only a few days ago, there were suggestions that Arsenal were heading for another crisis; now things are markedly different.
“This game sends out a message to the Premier League that we are ready to have a go this season,” Walcott reflected as the importance of this result seeped in.
He may be right, and Manchester United may well need to reflect on a disappointing performance that suggests they are not yet ready to say the same; but how many would be brave enough to make definitive predictions for the next seven months?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved