Weekend in 100 words or less

It had been close to two weeks since the Premier League kicked a ball in anger and yet the moment the travelling circus returned it did so with a real statement. In fact, statement might have been the key word of the weekend. Chelsea made a statement of intent when they really needed to show it, as did Manchester City, while other players decided to not wear ‘Kick it Out’ t-shirts in a statement to the FA’s anti-racism campaign that led to quite frankly a disgraceful statement from Sir Alex Ferguson.

Observations

  • City overcome significant obstacles to earn biggest win of the season – Football managers do not look forward to matches right after an international break and quite often they can lead to upsets. That has not been the case, however, with Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City, winners of their last five league games out of the break, heading into Saturday. Those victories have been achieved thanks, in part, to the size of their squad and it was that squad depth that guided them to three unlikely points at West Brom on Saturday. The game in itself was one of the best this league will see this season. City started well and with James Milner in a central midfield role, alongside Gareth Barry, controlled the game in midfield. What to do with their sixth man (think back four and one holder before him) has been a challenge for Mancini this season, particularly away from home. He picked two defensive minded players alongside Yaya Toure at Fulham but ended with none as they chased the game while at Stoke he picked one and ended with two as he looked to survive an onslaught. On both occasions his side struggled to create enough chances to win the games. Saturday at The Hawthorns, for the first 20 minutes, was very different. Milner has the defensive acumen to drop deep when necessary but the energy and bravery to run forward, move into wide areas and be a crucial distributor for more dangerous players in front of him.
Everything was going to plan until Vincent Kompany stepped up and lost the ball. Recognizing the danger, Milner smartly sat deeper, something others may not have reacted to as quickly, but the quick-thinking James Morrison played in a fast Shane Long who had the beating of Milner and forced the England international to bring him down when through on goal. City, down to 10 men, brought Samir Nasri deeper and more centrally in a narrow three alongside Barry and Toure and asked Mario Balotelli to play more central alongside Carlos Tevez. Balotelli, booked early for a petulant kickout after losing the ball, had actually played really well on the left side with the ball but remains a real concern without it, showing a lack of discipline when asked to marshal a side with some brief moments of defensive responsibilities. Despite being down a man, City still managed to create chances against an organised Baggies side, yet it wasn’t a surprise when the home side took the lead through Long, pouncing on Peter Odemwingie’s long-range effort to steer it past Joe Hart. Mancini reacted by doing what he did at Fulham, asking Edin Dzeko to go on and score, and removing a defensive midfielder in Barry. After taking less than a minute to score at the Cottage, Dzeko did it again heading home a free kick by Tevez with 10 minutes to go. It led to a breathtaking end to an open game with both sides going close to scoring until Dzeko won it for the champions. The goal was one we’re used to seeing with City, coming from a quick counter deep in their own half, featuring a delightful pass, this time from sub Sergio Aguero, and a cool finish from the Bosnian. Those who watched games at Spurs and Manchester United last season will not have been surprised one bit. City fans will tell you that their team played at their peak during a period that included wins at those teams last season and although they are not there yet this result and overall performance came close to what Mancini’s side offered away from home at the start of last season.
  • Chelsea find another gear when they needed it most – The second candidate from the weekend for game of the season so far came at White Hart Lane where Chelsea stormed to a 4-2 win. Without Gareth Bale and Moussa Dembele, Spurs looked out of sorts for the first half but came out after the break, down 1-0, with real intensity, got the ball into wide areas and rocked Chelsea back thanks to goals from William Gallas and Jermain Defoe. On the hour, now down 2-1, Roberto Di Matteo’s side faced their biggest test of the season. The tremendous trident of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard went back to work and proved to be unstoppable for Tottenham. Mata, thriving in a more central area, started and finished a move to make it 2-2, after Oscar stretched Spurs with a great cross, and then their best work yet came on 69 minutes when Hazard dropped in and supplied a delicious ball for Mata to effectively win the match. Kyle Walker and Gallas, a player culpable for two poor clearances on goals one and two, were called out for their positioning on the goal by some pundits, but the goal was simply created by a moment of genius from Hazard. Sometimes we just have to stop trying to find a fault for goals conceded. By the time sub Daniel Sturridge had poked the ball home in injury time, Chelsea and their adventurous manager had sent another sign of their identity change  since becoming champions of Europe. This is no longer a team that will use the front man as a reference point for others to run onto. Chelsea will go as far as Oscar, Hazard, and the Matador will take them and with names like that they badly need a pop group style nickname. Any takers?
  • Bully Ferguson out of line with comments regarding Rio Ferdinand – I elected to not start this column with this story, something some newspapers didn’t do on Sunday. I understand it is a big story, but personally I am getting a bit tired of stories away from the matches being bigger than those inside them. Handshakes anyone? Court appearances? Tweets? And now T-Shirts. Rio Ferdinand’s decision to not wear the ‘Kick it Out’ t-shirt during the warm up was his own choice and one he should not be disciplined for. We must remember here that just because John Terry has apologized it doesn’t mean the end for everyone. The Ferdinand family, like all victims of racist abuse, will deal with such incidents far longer than most, yet far too often victims are forgotten about in the modern game. The defender had every right to make that decision but because his boss called out Jason Roberts on Friday for saying he would do the same thing, he forced the United manager’s hand. Instead of keeping the same stance from his quote about Roberts and saying, simply, he disagreed with Rio’s choice, Fergie went a step further once again: “ ”I’m disappointed with Rio Ferdinand not wearing t-shirt. It’s an embarrassment for me and he will be dealt with, don’t worry about that.” What a pity Ferguson couldn’t step out of his own world for a moment, stop worrying about himself and what he said the day before and come out with a message that would sympathize with victims and castigate those found guilty of using racist language. Like Ian Holloway did last week in this fantastic interview. That would have sent a far bigger message than having players wear t-shirts before most people are in their seats and television broadcasts begin.
  • The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in Saturday’s late one – The Good – Every credit must go to Norwich City for their first win of the season and their first over Arsenal for 20 years. They showed a work rate and defensive discipline that we hadn’t seen this season and deserved the three points. The Bad – Arsenal were poor and reminded their fans, if they needed it, why they are not legitimate title contenders. The side has a history of switching off in games they should win, lacking tempo, and without real world class players they simply cannot afford to have off games. They are now 10pts now that they are behind Chelsea. Ugly – Vito Mannone is simply not good enough. Arsenal have a history of poor goalkeeping errors and it is back to haunt them again with Wojciech Szczesny injured. Mannone was not the only player who was poor for Arsenal on Saturday but his key error cost them the game.
  • Steven Pienaar’s red card was laughable – QPR-Everton played an entertaining 1-1 draw in the final match of the weekend but the red card handed out to the South African was diabolical. The challenge, which saw him given a second yellow card, wasn’t even a foul and because of referee Jon Moss he will now be forced to miss next week’s Merseyside Derby. It wasn’t a good day all around for Moss to be frank.
  • Raheem Sterling gets his just reward – It was another game at Anfield where Liverpool struggled to score but the one goal they got showed just how clever a player Raheem Sterling is. When you watch him it isn’t difficult to see why Brendan Rodgers consistently chooses him over bigger names. His off-the-ball movement is fantastic and absolutely necessary in that 4-3-3 system which requires wingers to cut in and allow Luis Suarez the licence to roam around, knowing he will have people in central areas to play off.
  • Villa fans hope Christian Benteke is not the new Savo Milosevic – Fulham’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa on Saturday was easily the least entertaining match of the weekend but followed a similar script for Paul Lambert’s side. Villa look comfortable on the ball but offer little going forward and have started a trend with their new Belgian signing starting to regularly miss key chances. It is way too early to wonder if Benteke will miss the chances that ‘Savo Misalotavic” or “Savo Mileswideovic” did at Villa Park but Benteke needs to start putting away those chances to end that comparison sooner rather than later. For the record boss Paul Lambert laid down a very strong statement himself about Benteke post match, saying: “He’ll be a major player for this club, that is for sure.”
  • De Guzman’s deadly dead balls  - Last season Swansea scored just seven set piece goals (19th out of 20 in the league) and was an area they had to improve on for this season. Despite them not scoring any until Saturday, the loan signing of Jonathan De Guzman has already helped in that area this season and is outstanding corner, which Michu headed home, proved to be the key moment in the game against Wigan. Swansea badly needed the three points to end a winless run at five before a tough run of games (they play Man City, Chelsea & Newcastle in the next four weeks) and it came from an unusual avenue. One Michael Laudrup will hope to see more of.
  • Southampton’s defence on pace to be one of the worst this league has seen – The stats tell you the Saints defence have conceded on average three goals per game so far and are on pace for 114 goals against. However, behind the stats are performances even more concerning. At Upton Park on Saturday, Nigel Adkins’ side were atrocious in defence, not strong enough marking set-pieces and gave West Ham far much time on the ball in open play. Some credit must go to West Ham for getting to 14pts already after eight games and they showed tremendous character to come out the way they did in the second half after a dull first half display but already it is clear how better equipped they are at this level than the Saints who finished above them last season in The Championship.
  • Newcastle save their best for their rivals – It doesn’t take much for Newcastle fans to get under the skin of Sunderland fans. One win in their last 16 Tyne-Wear derby games will do that to them but heading into Sunday’s derby there was a lot of optimism around The Stadium of Light. Once the game was over, though, it was clear, despite the 1-1 result, that Newcastle are a far superior side, having found a performance that was close to their exceptional displays last season. Alan Pardew’s men were excellent for the majority of the match and would have won the game comfortably if Cheick Tiote had stayed on the field.
We’ll have more on that game and all of the 10 Premier League matches this weekend in our indepth EPL Podcast available later this morning.
Six Super Stats
  • At 2 mins 11 seconds, Yohan Cabaye’s goal was the quickest  Sunderland have conceded in the PL at the Stadium of Light. The previous was James Morrison (3 min 35 secs) for West Brom in a 2-2 draw in October 2011.
  • This was the first time in PL history Manchester United and Manchester City have come from behind to win on the same day.
  • Tottenham’s 20-match unbeaten run at home in London derby matches ended. It had stretched back to 2007.
  • At 17 years and 317 days old Raheem Sterling became the second-youngest ever PL scorer for Liverpool after Michael Owen (17-143).
  • Manchester United have conceded seven goals in their four PL home matches this season – their most at this stage of a top flight season under Sir Alex Ferguson and most in 36 years, since they also conceded seven in their first four home matches in 1976-77.
  • Manchester City are unbeaten when conceding the opening goal this season – two wins and two draws. In total, they have come from behind to pick up 11 points this season – only Manchester United (12) have more from this position.

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

Kristian Jack