Weekend in 100 words or less

The Premier League soap opera had some familiar storylines in the opening games of December 2011. It was another weekend full of ridiculous game-changing referee decisions. Manchester City demolished another opponent. Manchester United won easily but the scoreline once again didn’t show their dominance, while Tottenham and Arsenal continued their impressive form with one-sided wins. Even everyone’s favourite fallguy Andre Villas- Boas and his Chelsea pensioners got in on the show but were grateful for the combination of poor refereeing and a luckless Newcastle smashing back down to earth with a painful thud.

Baker’s Dozen – 13 observations from this weekend

1. Given a gift point last week; Newcastle get it taken away this week. Ah the Premier League  - A 750am est on Saturday morning the weekend of games had been five minutes old and we already had our major talking point. Mike Dean made a massive error when he decided that David Luiz should not have been sent off for bringing down Demba Ba and denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Newcastle boss Alan Pardew said on Sunday that the referee admitted he was wrong after the game and was also correct when he called out the assistant for not getting involved. I say it each week but it really is time for these officials to get together and discuss such big moments in a match that can ultimately change a game and shame on them for not doing so. So Newcastle now join the growing list of teams this season who have had points taken away from them directly by incorrect decisions by the officials, just a week after getting a point they were not entitled to at Manchester United. If you are new to this, welcome to the Premier League.

2. The score flattered Chelsea but they were still impressive – Everyone needs a little luck. Football is a game that will always highlight your limitations but the best way to overcome them are three points and that’s exactly what Chelsea did at St James’ Park (yes I am still calling it that). Yes, David Luiz still looked vulnerable but the addition of Oriol Romeu for the second straight week allowed the two centre backs to be more comfortable drifting apart and there was also a real indication of sitting deeper, particularly after one simple pass behind Luiz led to the incident that should have seen him sent off. After that Chelsea controlled the game using their pace in wide areas to expose the home team and once again it was the vision of Juan Mata, the energy of Ramires and the skill of Daniel Sturridge that led the way. As I wrote last week this trio represents the new Chelsea. Put a top striker with them who can finish a lot of the chances they create and they’ll be back to their best……

3. Fernando Torres looks unfit – It is not easy to judge a player on a brief substitute appearance but when you are Fernando Torres right now that’s what is going to happen. The Spaniard has started one league game in the last two months and has come on as a sub in each of his team’s last four Premier League matches, playing a combined 75 minutes in total. Eleven of those minutes came on Saturday, and at 1-0, Newcastle were opening up the game and looked likely to concede (which they did twice in the final minutes). As Steven Taylor limped to the sidelines in the final minutes, Chelsea countered and Torres had an opportunity to sprint in 1×1 on Tim Krul. However, he didn’t get to that situation, instead he eventually found Salomon Kalou who scored instead, and the star striker was praised for his play in the buildup. I couldn’t help but think Torres two years ago would have scored that goal. The concern for Chelsea is that Torres once again looked like a player who had not only had no confidence but also had no pace as well. Apparently free from injuries, it appears to me that he needs to lose some weight.

4. Newcastle begin their slide down the table - When you watch Stoke City boss Tony Pulis in his postmatch interviews, specifically after a win in the Premier League, he will often talk about the importance of not getting too high when things go right or getting too low when things go wrong. Alan Pardew seem to be doing the same this season and then came Saturday. Since the start of the season, Newcastle have overachieved more than any club in the division and many wondered when their bubble will burst. After losing 3-0, being on the wrong side of the Mike Dean decision and losing both centre-backs to injury, I think we should forgive Pardew if he was a little too low on Saturday night. The biggest loss of all comes with defender Steven Taylor who had played every minute of every game up until the moment he limped off in the 89th minute, just as Chelsea were making it 2-0. Newcastle’s success this season has a lot to do with their defence and their back four had played 98.8% of all PL minutes before Saturday when they not only lost Taylor for the season but Fabrizio Coloccini (thigh) for a number of weeks as well. Their 3rd centre-back Mike Williamson is also injured at the moment and even though their next few games include opponents such as Norwich, Swansea, West Brom and Bolton, I think they’ll have a hard time keeping the ball out of the net even with the brilliant Tim Krul guarding it.

5. The worst red card I have seen given this season – I have seen a lot of poor red cards this season. Jack Rodwell’s against Liverpool and Chris Herd’s against West Brom were the frontrunners before this weekend and were both rescinded on appeal and that’s what should happen to Bolton’s Gary Cahill who was given a straight red by referee Stuart Attwell in their match at Tottenham. Apparently the referee felt the need to show the red because Cahill’s foul on Scott Parker 45 yards from goal denied a clear goalscoring opportunity. Too bad Atwell not only lost sight of where the infraction took place but didn’t see the covering defender and the fact that right-footed Parker was actually running towards the left touchline. It was a shocking decision.

6. Fitting tribute by class act Bale – Like most of us Gareth Bale found out about the passing of Gary Speed last Sunday and like most Premier League players he didn’t get the chance to play with him in mind until Saturday. Seven minutes after joining White Hart Lane in a minute’s applause for his former national team manager, Bale, arguably the best player Wales have produced since Ryan Giggs, scored for Spurs and celebrated by holding his boot up to Bolton’s fans (a former team of Speed) showing the words ‘RIP Gary Speed’ on them. It was a fitting tribute. A quiet, unassuming character, Bale is becoming a man for all moments. Already a face of Great Britain’s team for next year’s Olympics on home soil, Bale’s stature seems to be growing in the game for all the right reasons and the biggest of them might just be his continued excellence on the field where he is showing more consistency than last season, a campaign that saw him (wrongly) named Player of the Year.

7. V is for Vermaelen, Van Persie & Victory – Robin Van Persie scored his league-leading 14th goal of the season and his 32nd in the Premier League in 2011 as Arsenal dismantled a poor Wigan 4-0 but he was actually not the best Arsenal player on the pitch. That award for me went to Thomas Vermaelen who was exceptional. The Belgian defender created the room for Mikel Arteta’s opening goal when he sprinted out of defence and stretched Wigan’s midfield and a minute later he headed home a second goal at the backpost from a corner.

8. QPR looking more and more like a Premier League outfit – Neil Warnock was not happy after QPR’s 1-1 draw with West Brom on Saturday after Shaun Wright-Phillips saw his goal wrongly disallowed for offside. At the time it would have given the home side an early 2-0 lead. Shane Long equalised late in the game and Warnock thought his team were robbed of two points. Take a number and get in line in this league! However, deep down he would have been delighted at the performance. Fellow promotion teams Swansea and Norwich have been given a lot of plaudits for their expansive style this season but for me it is QPR who are the best of the three. Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon have finally played four straight games together at the back and Alejandro Faurlin and Joey Barton have a good blend of steel, composure, technique and vision in central midfield. It’s that spine that will keep them up.

9. Yak didn’t just get fed; he ate the entire Indian buffet – Everton fans used to sing it with joy: “Feed the Yak and he will score.” On Sunday they watched their team dominate Stoke but their players all left hungry for goals once again, losing 1-0 at home. Meanwhile, former Toffee Yakubu continued his impressive start to the season for Blackburn with a brilliant four goal effort against Swansea. The goals were all very impressive but the Nigerian put on a masterclass on how to play up top as a solo striker, leading the line well, not giving fouls away and keeping the momentum going in Rovers direct style.

10. Yaya Toure dominates Norwich - Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli grabbed the headlines for their outrageous goals but once again it was Yaya Toure who did the little things that helped Man City to a 5-1 win. For the 10th time in 14 games, City scored more second half goals than first half goals in a match but once again it was the way they played in the first half that allowed the results to come in the second. Roberto Mancini’s preaches patience amongst his team and when their weaker opponents are mentally up to play them (in first halves before they collapse) the need to keep the ball is essential. This is where Toure comes in. According to Opta, his 124 successful passes were the most in a PL game by any player since December 2008, but as his first half chalkboard shows below incredibly 90 of them happened in the first 45 minutes.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

11. Wolves show great confidence in themselves and spirit – It isn’t too difficult watching footballers regularly and making an opinion about their talent. What is difficult is judging their character. However, from what I have seen of Wolves this season makes me think that what they lack in talent, they gain in spirit. You can tell a lot from teams like Wolves by watching how they respond to adversity and for the second time this season they rebounded from a goal down to win. Just the third team to do that in the Premier League, by the way. They also took 25 seconds from a Wayne Hennessey penalty save on Seb Larsson to an equalising goal by Steven Fletcher in what was poetic justice after Larsson was given a 9.8 by the Russian judge for a brilliant dive.

12. Sunderland lack confidence in themselves and spirit – Meet the opposite of Wolves – Sunderland. You can tell a lot about a team’s spirit when you look at how many points they’ve conceded from winning positions. Aston Villa and Sunderland are the giants of this league table in recent years, sharing the glory last season at the top with 26pts. Sunderland this season haven’t had many opportunities to build their total because they’ve not been good enough to take leads but they’ve gained six points in the last two matches and new boss Martin O’Neill quickly needs to add some confidence to a team that has much more talent than Wolves for example. Former player and current pundit Michael Gray put it best although the fitness quote will be interesting to watch considering its something O’Neill was criticized for at Villa.

“Sunderland must hang on to their leads if they’re going to get out of this situation. Martin O’Neill will have seen positives in Sunderland today. They created chances throughout the 90 minutes, but towards the end they looked leggy and tired. O’Neill will need to instil fitness and confidence.”

13. Crushing blow for United as Hernandez injures ankle ligaments – Manchester United were struggling to score goals (see stats below) before their prized striker got injured at Villa Park on Saturday and now they must play six Premier League games in 23 days over Christmas and New Year without him. He may be out longer than the month Sir Alex Ferguson said after the game but with Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen already injured and quite simply not very good, the pressure mounts on Danny Welbeck to bounce back following his recent injury concern and contribute. Welbeck might just do that but he still has a lot to learn at this level and his overall movement and finishing isn’t close to that provided by Hernandez.

Six Super Stats

  • This is the first time in PL history Manchester United have gone seven PL matches in a row without netting more than one goal in a game within the same season. This last happened in the top flight from December 1991 to February 1992.
  • Chelsea keep back-to-back PL clean sheets for the first time since January, and win consecutive PL away matches for the first time in 10 months.
  • Yakubu became the fifth player in PL history to score a hat-trick for three different PL clubs after Teddy Sheringham, Nicolas Anelka, Kevin Campbell and Les Ferdinand.
  • Manchester City have scored 48 goals – the most at this stage of a top flight season since Tottenham (49) in 1962-63.
  • Tottenham are unbeaten in their last 11 PL matches (10 wins) – tying a club record when they also went 11 unbeaten from October to December 1995 under manager Gerry Francis.
  • Stoke took their first point after a Europa League group stage match. They lost the previous four times after a group stage match this season.

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 as we recap the final group games in this season’s Champions League. The Footy Blog will also have its usual recaps on both days this week.

Kristian Jack