Weekend in 100 words or less
Five months on and the combined score wasn’t Manchester 13 North London 3 but once again it was six points to Manchester and zero for North London as Manchester City and Manchester United came out as victors, each scoring late winners in games that were absolutely terrific to watch for any neutral. Sunday was always going to be the main day of the weekend in the league with those teams playing but Saturday didn’t disappoint either as Chelsea became the first team not to score against Norwich while Liverpool lost at a team who’d previously conceded 24 goals in 10 home games.
Baker’s Dozen – 13 observations from the weekend
1-Man City-Spurs deserved the most attention of the two Sunday games and delivered the most excitement – If you can recall a day where a game between Arsenal and Manchester United played second fiddle to another game on the same day then you’re remembering something I am not, but that’s what happened on Sunday. The game between Man City and Tottenham was the one I’d looked forward to the most and it proved to be the most fascinating of encounters on so many levels. The league table will tell you right now that Man City are better than Man Utd and that Tottenham are better than Arsenal and that’s why the early match on Sunday proved to be so thrilling. The first half was a tactical chess match in need of some individual brilliance and some mistakes and thankfully that’s exactly what we got in the second half.
2. The good, the bad and the ugly side of Mario Balotelli – The Italian striker is a walking, talking, non-celebrating headline writer’s dream. When he came on for Edin Dzeko in the second half he looked uninterested, misplayed passes and picked up another careless yellow card. Then came the incident. First of all no blame can be attached to referee Howard Webb for not reacting to it. When Balotelli brought his second leg down with real force in the direction of Scott Parker’s head, the ball had moved to a different part of the field and Webb’s vision (rightfully) followed it. He didn’t see it. However, millions around the world did see it and it was a disgusting act of violent conduct that will likely see him suspended for four games by video evidence in the not so distant future. Harry Redknapp questioned how anyone would want to do that to a player post game but it is clear that Balotelli’s mental fragility on the football pitch leaves many people with a lot of questions about the 21-year-old. One part of his game that you cannot question is his penalty taking. James Milner said postgame that he’s the best he’s ever seen from the spot and it’s not hard to see why. As an Englishman I know how hard it is for professionals to take penalties in pressure situations but Balotelli showed incredible poise and confidence when he stroked home a 95th minute winner past Brad Friedel. Even then, though, he chose not to celebrate.
3. Moments of individual brilliance need to be not forgotten amongst the madness – The history books will say it ended 3-2. Memories over time will fade and for both sets of supporters the moment that will stick the longest will be the Ledley King foul in the 94th minute and Balotelli’s penalty that won the game. However, for nine minutes in the second half we saw four goals and some breathtaking football from both sides. Just as the game ticked into its 56th minute, Manchester City put together a move that consisted of 12 passes before Samir Nasri fired them into the lead. The 12th and final pass of the move came from the Space Invader himself, David Silva. Silva picked up the ball from 40 yards out, glided by two opponents with ease before making the kind of no-look pass only NBA fans are used to seeing. The Spaniard not only found space like few can but put a ball into space that hardly anyone can. It was a moment fit to win any game. Nine minutes later, now at 2-1, Gareth Bale got in on the act with a magnificent finish outside of the box from a clever move orchestrated by Aaron Lennon cutting off the left (yes left) wing. Spurs players had interchanged well all game and Bale, once again, was brilliant cutting inside and his finish deserves to be remembered. It was that good.
4. Tottenham lose more than just a point – Forget that most neutrals didn’t give them a shot at the title. Inside their dressing room, Spurs players believed they had what it took to win this league this season and they were an inch or two from winning at the leaders and, at the very least, seconds away from a massive point. Instead they got nothing. The performance itself was more than good enough to get at least a point but football can be a cruel game and it’s tough to concentrate on the performance and not the result when you lose a game in that manner. Now Tottenham and their ever-growing list of top players will be back to having some doubts about their chances of winning a trophy and with doubts come questions. For neutrals who love the Premier League you want world class players like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale to stay with Tottenham and continue to help them challenge for the top in the future but losses such as this – never mind how narrow it was – can only leave such players with doubts over their chances of winning Premier League trophies in the future, which is something they don’t have to worry about if challengers with bigger pockets come calling.
5. The most talked about substitution since Bobby Charlton was withdrawn for England at Mexico 1970! – Ok I jest somewhat but Arsene Wenger’s decision to remove Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from his first Premier League start and bring on Andrey Arshavin certainly brought out a lot of emotions from people. Robin van Persie had the most interesting reaction for me, as he was seen publicly disagreeing with his manager’s choice after the young Englishman had set him up for his goal just three minutes earlier. The Arsenal fans in the ground reacted with a chorus of boos for Wenger which inevitably triggered the usual debate amongst fans of all clubs about booing your own team. For the record, I repeat, my stance has always been fans have every right to boo their team if they want and for those across Twitternation on Sunday, who suggested that would never happen at Old Trafford, then I suggest you go check Arsenal’s track record in the last seven years. Zero trophies = boos being allowed!
6. Substitution was not to blame for allowing the goal although the blame remains with Wenger – If you missed Piers Morgan doing analysis for Fox on Sunday allow me to summarize: Morgan referred to Arsenal as “we” eight times in two minutes at half-time and at full-time in a 30-second rant said that the substitution will be the reason why his team won’t qualify for the top four and why Robin van Persie won’t be playing for Arsenal next season. I’ll take a different angle. The substitution certainly didn’t look good on the goal as Arshavin failed to get tight on the outstanding Antonio Valencia who surprised the Russian by coming inside. However, further blame needs to be played at the feet of Thomas Vermaelen who, like Johan Djourou on the first goal, tucked in and played too centrally. While blame is being thrown around it once again ends at the feet of the manager as I have written many times in this notebook. It is no secret that Arsenal have major problems with injuries to full backs but Wenger has not built an adequate squad to deal with these issues and for the third successive match saw his team lose a game because of issues defending on the left side of his back four.
7. United are a far better away side than they were last season – Manchester United’s win gave them 26pts from a possible 33 on their Premier League travels this season. That’s one more point than they gained away from home all of last season. Eight more away games remain for them and they do get tougher with trips to Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City still to come but they look far more compact and organised through the spine of their team on the road this season and that will have to continue if they want to defend their title.
8. Back to the drawing board for AVB at Chelsea – As you read this Chelsea are in Mallorca enjoying some team bonding exercises and some sunshine and most likely the coaching staff are plotting how they can be more creative in the final third of matches. Saturday’s 0-0 at Norwich City exposed many of their issues going forward although that’s not what Andre Villas-Boas is saying, at least publicly: “The most important thing is we are creating enough chances to win games,” said the gaffer postmatch. The truth is very few of those chances were real goalscoring opportunities. Fernando Torres is simply not getting it done (more about him later) but their problems do not start and end with the Spaniard. Chelsea lack imagination and a real creative spark. Norwich were supremely organised with two narrow banks of four and although they rarely looked like scoring, the same can be said about their opponents, despite the Blues having much more talented players on the pitch. Yes, Torres should have scored just past the hour mark, but its troubling to them that they created very little real scoring chances. The chalkboard below shows they had 20 shots in the game but more than half of them came outside the box and that came as a result of wide players being unable to get in behind Norwich and provide players in the box with legitimate scoring chances (the Torres shot aside).
9. Reactions to Torres are misguided – It’s one all football pundits across the globe are puzzled by. How is a world class player just a year or so ago, still in his prime, suddenly not scoring any goals at all? The easy answer is right now he is playing so poorly that he doesn’t deserve a spot in the side and when he does play he is so low on confidence and ability that he cannot turn it around. It’s now been 11 games since Fernando Torres scored a goal in the PL (his longest ever drought) yet Saturday’s commentators still believe he will soon become the Fernando Torres of old. “He’s surely going to come good, he just needs a goal and then they will flow and I think he’ll score today.” – Ray Parlour on Talksport prior to the game. ”If he was in a Manchester United shirt he’d be well into double figures by now.” – Steve McManaman on ESPN. “Chelsea need to adapt better and play in a way that suits him better.” – Ian Darke on ESPN. All three are entitled to their opinions and may one day be proven correct (except from Macca) but at the moment, by looking into a crystal ball and trying to predict the future, they are sadly neglecting what is going on in front of them and that’s one of the biggest stories this league has seen in a long time. Torres is a shell of his former self yet more people continue to talk about what he will be doing on a random date in the future than what he is doing right now.
10. Juan Mata is Chelsea’s key player and needs to be more central – Andre Villas-Boas dropped Oriel Romeu at Norwich on Saturday and with Daniel Sturridge back from a hip injury went with what looked on paper like a 4-3-3. The problem they had was Norwich countered in a 4-4-2 and Sturridge and Mata were asked to track back a lot (particularly in the first half) which isolated Fernando Torres. Torres played centrally up top and needed someone closer to him to play with. Frank Lampard and Ramires were the two advanced midfielders in a three (Raul Meireles played Romeu’s role in front of John Terry and David Luiz) but no one was able to get in between Norwich’s two banks of four and create. When Lampard went off injured Florent Malouda came on but AVB kept him central with Mata on the left and it proved to be a mistake. Mata is a dynamo whose passing ability is wasted in wide areas. He also doesn’t have great pace that is required to spring counter attacks and go at the byline to swing balls in. He needs to play more central or be given a license to roam (think David Silva) to connect with his forward. His passing chalkboard (below) highlights how effective he is with short passes but also look at how little amount of passes he did in the central area just outside the box. That needs to change for Chelsea to score more goals. Seven goals from their past seven games in the Premier League is simply a crime with that amount of attacking talent in the squad.
11. Robbie Keane returns to his old stomping ground to haunt Wolves – The West Midlands derby between Wolves and Aston Villa was a magnificent game to watch, unless you were a fan of either team. A game full of mistakes, particularly in the first half, saw both teams play wide-open styles with width but it will be remembered as Robbie Keane’s match as the LA Galaxy forward scored a brace in the second half to complete Villa’s comeback. Keane was exceptional in the final 45 minutes, dropping deep to connect well with Stiliyan Petrov, Gary Gardner and Ciaran Clark in midfield and scoring a superb individual goal that proved to be the winner. The Irishman also joined an exclusive club.
Robbie Keane became the seventh player in Premier League history to score for six different Premier League teams (Coventry City, Leeds Utd, Tottenham, Liverpool, West Ham & Aston Villa) joining Nick Barmby, Craig Bellamy, Marcus Bent, Andy Cole, Peter Crouch and Les Ferdinand.
12. Moronic Henry lets his team down - It was not a good day for the senior players at Wolves. Christophe Berra was clumsy in fouling Darren Bent in the box for Villa’s first goal, Matt Jarvis carelessly gave the ball away before Villa’s second and then with the game at 2-2 captain Karl Henry thought it was a good time to stick his boot into Marc Albrighton’s chest when the Villa player was down on the ground. It was a moment of madness that someone with no previous incidents would have been given a pass on but the Wolves skipper has a poor disciplinary record in his career (it was the 3rd red card of his career and all three have been straight reds) and yet again showed poor judgment as a leader of his team. Seconds before the incident Wolves thought the game was there to win with forward Sylvan Ebanks-Blake getting ready to come on. Mick McCarthy was then forced to put on defender Richard Stearman, Villa took hold of the game late and secured the three points. Captain Henry won’t play now for over a month as he misses their next three games through suspension – Liverpool (h), QPR (a) and WBA (h).
13. Dalglish sends a message – If you have yet to hear Kenny Dalglish’s rant following Liverpool’s loss at Bolton then I suggest you listen to our podcast for the sound. I’ll have further reaction on there as well but what I’ll say here is that I may not be convinced about Dalglish’s tactical acumen but I have no questions about his love for that club and when he speaks about that he deserves attention. If I was playing for Liverpool and Kenny Dalglish questioned the team’s attitude and desire to represent the club then I would listen because he (above anyone else) knows what it means to represent that club.
Six Super Stats
- This is the third time Arsenal have lost three PL matches in a row under Arsene Wenger, after three-match losing streaks in December 2005 and from March to April 2007.
- United have now on eight of their 11 away matches this PL season. The last time a club won eight of their first 11 away matches in the PL was in 2008/09 (Aston Villa and Chelsea). United last did it in 2006/07.
- Arsenal have lost eight of their 22 PL matches this season – their most defeats ever at this stage of a PL season under Wenger and most in 17 years since they also lost eight of 22 in 1994/95 under George Graham.
- Man City have scored at least once in their last 23 PL home matches. The last away club to keep a clean sheet at the Etihad Stadium was Birmingham City on 13 November 2010 (0-0). The current home scoring streak is the longest in City’s PL history.
- Man City have now scored 60 PL goals after 22 matches. The same amount of goals they scored in total last season.
- Harry Redknapp has lost 22 of 26 Premier League games he has managed in the city of Manchester.
Darren Bent scored the 99th Premier League goal of his career on Saturday and is now just one goal away from joining the 100 club. How many English players have already scored 100 Premier League goals? I will tweet the answer out 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 on all the major talking points in Monday’s Footy Show EPL Podcast that will be available this afternoon.