Three reasons Linfield have been so impressive so far this season
Without wishing to put the commentator's curse on the Blues, Linfield are looking pretty good.
It's early days in the Danske Bank Premiership and I'm not one to make premature predictions (admittedly I learnt that the hard way, having been fairly confident Linfield would retain their title very early last season, when Crusaders had been beaten at home by Coleraine. Yes, I realise the parallels.) - anyway, the point is I'm not saying Linfield's name should be etched onto the Gibson Cup for the 53rd time just yet.
But they're the team that has impressed me most so far. And here's a quick look at why.
1. Joel Cooper
Simple. The winger has been in scintillating form since his summer switch from Glenavon. And if Darren Murphy is to be believed, his MOTM award in Saturday's victory over Dungannon Swifts makes it a perfect three from three in terms of the Blues' home league matches. "Is it your family picking the winner up there or something?" giggled Murphy from inside the Windsor Park tunnel.
Even if it was the Cooper clan making the call on Saturday, nobody would have queried the decision.
Let's look at the goals. His first on Saturday showed immense confidence. He had already been torturing the Dungannon defence and had one thought in mind when he got the ball inside the box. He drove at Kris Lowe, skipping easily past the former Northern Ireland U18 captain, and fired home. The second was was a well-struck half-volley which was probably more difficult than it looked. The ball was spinning when Daniel Kearns' shot came off Michael O'Connor but Cooper expertly guided his strike into the bottom corner and past Stuart Addis.
It's Cooper who is supplying that quality as well as the pace and the trickery that were so sadly lacking last season after the departure of Paul Smyth.
2. Once again, Roy Carroll
Linfield's defensive statistics are ever more impressive as each game passes. They've now conceded just once in their opening seven Premiership matches. Such an impressive defensive run hasn't been seen at Windsor since, well, the start of last season. Back then they conceded twice in their opening seven league games, winning six and succumbing to only Crusaders' attacking talents.
It's obviously in huge part down to stout defensive work that, for instance, limited the Swifts to just two real attacking moments of note on Saturday. The first, fair enough, required some help from the woodwork to stop Paul McElroy from scoring but the second drew a top drawer stop from a certain Roy Carroll. Chris Hegarty's effort took a wicked deflection in front of the goalkeeper, but he managed to keep it out nonetheless. It's becoming expected at Windsor - that Roy Carroll will pull out something special in almost every game to hold on to his clean sheet.
And as Liverpool and Chelsea proved this summer, such a trait is worth a fair few pennies.
3. Strength in depth
So far I've highlighted two players who will regularly appear on lists of the Blues' most influential players. The likes of Jamie Mulgrew and Andrew Waterworth have sat at the top of those stakes in recent years, which brings us neatly on to point three.
Linfield could afford to bring those two Irish League stars off the bench on Saturday, having not missed them whatsoever for the majority of the match.
They weren't missed because Linfield have a squad to be envied by almost everybody in the Irish League. Michael O'Connor, starting ahead of Waterworth, is looking increasingly like a very smart signing while the midfield was very well marshalled by Andy Mitchell in Mulgrew's absence. The former full-back looks at home in defensive midfield (do we still call it the Claude Makelele role, or has that died out?), forming the base of most of Linfield's attacking play and putting in defensive tackles to ensure Carroll didn't have to awaken from his slumber late in the game. Then, to further the point, Linfield have centre-half Mark Stafford on the bench and Mark Haughey still to come back in.
In conclusion, they look a handy outfit - but do remember I was saying the same thing this time last season.
Belfast Telegraph Digital