Weekend in 100 words or less

Perhaps it was fitting that nothing on the field this weekend came close to overshadowing one of the greatest managers in the game’s history celebrating 25 years at Manchester United. Sure, we can trot out the old cliché of top teams winning when they didn’t play well (see Man City, Man Utd, Tottenham & Chelsea) or the fact that officials again made some headlines but ultimately it was Fergie’s weekend. And that was how it should have been.

Baker’s Dozen – 13 observations from the weekend

1. United do enough on Fergie’s special day - I understand why they did what they did pre-game at Old Trafford but I was slightly surprised to see such a display before a match. I am sure Sir Alex Ferguson would have loved his team to just play the game first and inevitably there was a letdown in their display. Time and time again we see teams parade trophies or banners pre-game in all sport and then struggled to match the hype in the game and this was one of those games but thankfully for United they found some old plot lines in their past 25 years and got an injury time goal, scored by Wes Brown.

2. Not awarding a penalty was correct but Sunderland were right to wonder why – Footy Show regulars will be aware about my feelings about the assistant referees, aka linesmen. I simply have no time for scenes like the one above. I’ve long said that they need to advise the referee, who is the commander of the match, alone and communication between the two is vital. Without players around them! Assistants are bound to see things that referees do not see and referees are also going to see things their assistants don’t. The point is they must ultimately be right and they were at Old Trafford in the incident. However, because referees in the past (see Phil Dowd two weeks ago) have often just called what their assistants have seen without talking it over, if you are Sunderland you have a right to wonder why Lee Mason decided to take this option. Many would conclude this is the Old Trafford factor. I’ve said it before but it is worth repeating. To avoid this in the future, the game must implement rules where referees can talk to their officials without the interference of players. It happens in rugby union where players are not allowed to intimidate them while they chat. Do not allow players to approach assistant referees and give them the time to talk it over. Simple.

3. Nani needs to be better – It hasn’t been a great season so far for Nani. Statistically he has been involved in just 22% of Manchester United’s Premier League goals in the 2011/12 season (3 goals, 3 assists) and although stats like this do not tell the full story it is worth pointing out that last year’s return of 9 goals and 18 assists put him at 35%. United have not really struggled for goals so far so Nani’s low percentage obviously is partly down to him and partly down to the more offensive talent around him this season. However, his overall play (particularly in the final third) has not been good for the past month and his passing on Saturday was very disappointing. Compare it with his game against Chelsea earlier in the season which was his best so far this season:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

4. Rooney takes midfield exam to prepare for the Champions League - One possible reason for Nani’s wildness is that his pal Wayne Rooney isn’t on the end of his crosses as much. Some have said he’s played in midfield, other have said he’s adopting the number ten role, either way there has been a slight change recently as to where Sir Alex has asked his best player to play. United have been far too open this season and after getting destroyed through the middle at home by Norwich and Man City Ferguson had seen enough. Reacting to this he has implemented what looks like a 4-2-3-1 system (can also be a 4-1-4-1 with Darren Fletcher the deepest of the midfield players) and the tactically brilliant Ji-Sung Park has been selected to play alongside Rooney in a central role. Unfortunately for Ferguson and Rooney in the subsequent games, against Everton and Sunderland, United haven’t played very well and many have attributed this to Rooney’s deep role. In fact, it has been their poor wing play that has been the reason and because they’ve created very little out wide, Rooney has had to come deeper to receive the ball. Clearly it is not ideal to have him playing so deep but Ferguson is always a man who looks long-term and this is all about preparing for major games in the Champions League. When United return to their explosive domestic form, Rooney will be again pushed up just off Javier Hernandez or Danny Welbeck, but since getting massacred by AC Milan in 2007, United know they cannot win major European games without five men in midfield. Talk of Rooney permanently playing deep and being the next Paul Scholes is premature but Ferguson wants him to learn this role and get ready for tackling in his own half and tracking midfield runners. Something he did effectively against Sunderland but wasn’t asked to do prior to the games against Norwich and Man City:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

5. Newcastle’s defenders continue a remarkable start for Alan Pardew’s men – David Moyes was frank and honest when he called his team’s opening 30 minutes as ‘rubbish’ but for the second half at St James’ Park, down a goal, his team looked like a side who were about to complete a comeback and earn at least a point. “If it had been at Goodison then we would’ve got beat,” said Pardew and it was really a credit to his superb back four who are showing many teams across Europe right now just how important cohesion is in a back four. Fabrizio Coloccini has had a superb season alongside Steven Taylor at the heart of their defence and has improved dramatically since he arrived in England in 2008.

6. Royston Drenthe is not a David Moyes player – David Moyes is not in a situation where he can be picky. In fact, any player with a decent level of talent that is ideally cheap and willing to come to Everton is pretty much on his shopping list and this summer that included Real Madrid’s Royston Drenthe. However, I cannot help but think the Dutchman drives Moyes crazy. Saturday at Newcastle gave us many glimpses as to why Drenthe was a Real Madrid player once and why he no longer is. Deployed as a wide midfield player, the 24-year-old regularly dismissed his defensive duties including seconds before Ryan Taylor smashed the ball into the net when Drenthe gave enough room for a car to be parked between him and the Newcastle man. He was equally frustrating in attack in the second half, when he found himself with the ball on a two-on-two breakaway only for him to keep his head down and fail to recognise his team-mates around him and threaten the Newcastle defence. A few minutes later he delivered a terrible free kick into the box. Of course, in between all these errors, he also showed some real glimpses of quality, including the cross that led to Jack Rodwell’s goal but, just like his career, all-in-all his performance was far too inconsistent.

7. Cech shows remarkable bravery to help Chelsea to three big points – Inside the first half of Chelsea’s game at Blackburn on Saturday, goalkeeper Petr Cech collided with Ashley Cole after they collectively attempted (successfully) to stop Yakubu from scoring. Immediately Cech signaled to the bench for help and immediately my mind went back to 2006 at Reading when he collided with Stephen Hunt. That day Cech suffered a depressed skull fracture that kept him out of the game for sometime and there was even talk that his career could be over. Thankfully, the Czech international completed a brilliant comeback and on Saturday he faced his biggest mental test since then and passed it with flying colors. In a vital match for his team and manager, the 29-year-old played on with a broken nose and made some excellent saves to secure three valuable points for Chelsea.

8. Time for Rovers to get points in next six before Christmas – Steve Kean still has a job. His players (those who weren’t injured) once again gave a good account of themselves and played like they don’t want him to be fired. However, it was yet another loss, their seventh of the season. Following the international break, Kean will be hoping the performances he has seen lately will finally get him results against opposition that isn’t to the standard of recent teams he’s played. In the six games before Christmas I think he needs to average two points per game (12 in total) if he wants to be managing into 2011: Wigan (a), Stoke (a), Swansea (h), Sunderland (a), WBA (h), Bolton (h).

9. Gabby Agbonlahor carries Villa to a win over Norwich - He is not a young man anymore. He’s 25. It is five and a half years since he made his debut as a teenager at Everton and since then Aston Villa fans have wondered just what Gabriel Agbonlahor is. In flashes he has shown them that he can regularly be the best player on a Premier League pitch yet there have been times, particularly under Gerard Houllier, when he showed them that he didn’t deserve to be on a Premier League pitch. Now, under Alex McLeish, the Brummie boy is happy again and once again carried his team to victory on Saturday against Norwich, being involved in all three goals. That’s five goals and six assists now for the England international this season and to keep with the theme of  this article he’s been directly involved in 69% of Villa’s goals this season (11 of 16). Traditionally a fast starter to a season, it will be interesting to see how he continues this season but playing wide where he is also tracking back more it appears his overall game is better and, with Ashley Young and Stewart Downing no longer at Villa Park, his improvement has come at a perfect time for the club.

10. Superb to see moments of silence and poppies on shirts – There are few things worse at a sporting event than having fans around you either whistle/boo a national anthem or not observe a minute’s silence. I was absolutely appalled when this happened to me. That being said, watching from afar, I was delighted and proud of the country this past weekend when all grounds brilliantly observed the minute silence for Remembrance Day. The addition of poppies on football shirts in recent years is also a wonderful mark of respect and a superb way of raising awareness internationally. Just don’t tell Fifa that.

11. Swansea’s midfield impresses again; Liverpool’s disappoints again - On the field at Anfield, following the minute silence, there was little for Liverpool fans to get excited about. Unfortunately for them it was another case of lost home points, something that has been an issue for this football club for sometime. It is obvious to say they miss Steven Gerrard in the midfield but it is now time to ask when will they get more out of summer signings Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson? Adam in particular was poor against Swansea whose midfield gave the Reds a real football lesson. I was again impressed by Joe Allen and Mark Gower. The pair keep it simple with their passing, have excellent off-the-ball movement and are willing to drop deep and help their full backs defend.

12. Tony Pulis continues to shine - Stoke got battered 5-0 by Bolton on Sunday and were wrongly on the end of a poor Howard Webb decision early in the game but manager Tony Pulis was fantastic postgame in his comments. Click this link and watch in 160 seconds how you should deal with a bad day as a manager. Superb.

13. Robbed at the Cottage – Tottenham won 3-1 at Fulham but despite the scoreline were incredibly lucky to do so. As Michael Cox points out in his chalkboard column today the home side had an amazing 32 shots (a PL-high this season for any club) and didn’t score with any of them. Younes Kaboul’s own goal gave them their one goal in the match. American Brad Friedel has had some excellent games that he’ll likely forget but he won’t forget this game in a hurry, in particular the final minutes when Fulham, down 2-1 at the time, had as astonishing seven shots.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Six Super Stats

  • Steve Bruce remains without a win against Sir Alex Ferguson, as Ferguson picks up his 50th ever PL victory against a former player.
  • Since the start of the 2009-10 season Manchester United have benefited from 15 PL own goals – no other club has more than eight over the same period.
  • Newcastle are now unbeaten in their last 14 PL  matches – equaling their all-time top  flight record set in 1950.
  • This was the first time since Fernando Torres joined Chelsea that neither he, Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka started a PL match for them.
  • Manchester City became the fifth club in English top-flight to win at least 10 of the first 11 matches of a season. Of the seven previous occasions this has happened, only Liverpool (1990/1991) and Manchester United (1985/1986) failed to win the title.
  • Wigan equalled a club record with their eighth successive defeat. That record was established in Dec 2006-Jan 2007 and equalled in Sep-Nov 2007.

Quick Quiz

Robin van Persie become the first player to score 11 goals in the opening 11 PL matches of the season this decade. Who was the last player to do this in the PL era? I will tweet the answer on Monday evening.

For more stats like the ones in this blog follow Infostrada on twitter by clicking here.

Don’t forget to catch more detailed analysis in Monday’s Footy Show EPL Podcast that will be available this afternoon. James and I return to your television screens in Canada at 6pm est/ 10pm est for the Footy Show on Wednesday on theScore.

Kristian Jack