Quote of the Weekend
“My fitness levels are the same as last season — I’ve got the stats, so I know. Every footballer gets stats from each training session and game — and I go through them every day.”
-Wayne Rooney implicitly countering criticism from his former manager Alex Ferguson who claimed in his recent book that Rooney “…has great qualities about him but they could be swallowed up by a lack of fitness.”
Five Things We Unlearned This Weekend
1. Spurs’ lack of goals in the league is okay because they’re so solid in defence.
I think Andre Villas-Boas, Spurs manager, was bang on the money in his assessment of Tottenham’s 6-0 loss to Manchester City at the Etihad on Sunday. Villas-Boas said after the game:
“It is difficult to explain. Everything went wrong for us from being one of the best defences in the country to conceding six goals, it is very hard to find an explanation. Our game plan and motivation was immediately affected by conceding after 14 seconds. After the first 20 minutes when we could have got back into the game, we lost control of the situation.”
Italics mine. Going into this game Spurs had the best defensive record in the league, with six goals against. However they were also tied third last in the goals-scored category with nine. And that is the real issue.
So because taking provocative positions gets you noticed in this crazy world, I’m going to go right out there and say that Spurs’ loss was a failure of offence, not defence. Spurs are in trouble not because Michael Dawson or Sandro had respective horror shows (they did, and these things will happen from time to time particularly away from home), but because they’re incapable of using their time on the ball in the opposition final third effectively. It meant that City could happily invite pressure and surge ahead on the break, as other teams have done to City on occasion this season.
Opening goals change games, particularly when they’re not expected. I’m going to guess that AVB’s game plan was to play a possession game on equal terms with City away from home and rely on said possession as a defensive measure–teams can’t score unless they have the ball. Tottenham may have been banking on a 0-0 or a 0-1 result.
Immediately after Navas’ opener however, Spurs were in the precarious position of having to chase the scoreline, and so played a dangerously high defensive line with both Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen miles up the pitch. They dominated possession, yes, but it hardly mattered. City were able to either long-ball their way through or attack on the break in uneven numbers, over and over and over again. City could do this comfortable in the knowledge that Spurs don’t exactly score at will on a good day. Spurs took 13 shots with only 5 on target, and three of those were meagre efforts from outside the 18 yard box.
While this single game doubled Spurs’ goals against record, I doubt we will see an opening of the floodgates. Yet it is a reminder that defence and attack cannot be viewed in isolation. A team that isn’t likely to score can be dominated by sides willing to concede the ball in return for a chance to break in numbers at the other end.
2. Managers will always side against the ref in any and all calls that could be regarded as unfavourable to their team
Although manager Malky Mackay was likely feeling magnanimous after Kim Bo-Kyung’s extra-time leveller in Cardiff City’s 2-2 draw with Man United, his remarks on Wayne Rooney’s earlier yellow card that some believed should have been a red were unexpected and mildly refreshing. First, for point of reference, the kick on CCFC’s Jordon Mutch:
Mackay had the advantage of popular opinion, pundits, and his club supporters on his side. And yet he spoke to reporters on the incident this way:
“I’ve had a look at it again on TV and some referees might have sent him off but I think [ref Neil] Swarbrick was calm in his approach, had a good game and handled it well. Both teams were tough and committed and there were some tasty challenges and the referee’s handling of it overall was good.”
Unfortunately (and perhaps unsurprisingly) Rooney himself wasn’t exactly as eager to let bygones be bygones, Tweeting out against the jovial and mostly well-liked Martin Tyler after the fact. But you take this minor victories where you can…
3. Whatever the result in the Arsenal vs Southampton game, it would be a defining match for both sides
Certainly a win for Southampton against Arsenal would have sparked a bit of narrative thrust toward Maurcio Pochettino’s Saints and prompted the old familiar “uneven” talk around the Gunners. With three points, Southampton would have probably finished the weekend in second place, tied with Arsenal in first on 25 points. Yet their 2-0 loss on Saturday shouldn’t be viewed as a sign that Southampton aren’t “the real deal.” As Arsene Wenger noted after the match:
“To stop us from playing it was the best we have seen [...] Today we were tested by being challenged for every single ball and we responded quite well. We always had the focus and for 90 minutes I could never feel that we eased off a little bit. They made it very difficult for us.”
Both sides were near-even on possession and Southampton outshot the Gunners 10 to 8, though they were even on shots on target with 4 each. Southampton were excellent pressing out of possession, good in carving out decent chances (though they came few and far between). But the main thing was the nature of both of Arsenal’s goals–Artur Boruc being inexplicably moronic in possession against Giroud in the first half, and then a needless (though very minor) tug on Per Mertesacker’s shirt in the second leading to a successful Giroud spot kick. They were unforced errors. Unfortunate, but not a solid indicator of a gulf in quality (though Arsenal did bang the ball off the post twice in the early going). The main thing for Saints will be Pochettino reminding his side just how close they came to sealing a draw, or better…
4. Borussia Dortmund are certain to finish second to Bayern Munich
Outside of the impressive, deafening hype of Bayern’s 0-3 away victory over ostensible title rivals Borussia Dortmund this past Saturday, there were a couple of other quiet matches on the weekend in the Bundesliga. Earlier in the day, Stefan Kiessling’s goal was good enough to see Bayer Leverkusen defeat Hertha Berlin 0-1, despite the home side taking more shots. And on Friday, Borussia ‘Gladbach defeated Stuttgart on the back of goals from Raffael and Wendt, both assisted by man of the match Patrick Hermann, a player now apparently sought after by both Spurs and Arsenal.
Those results together mean Bayern are first with 35 points, Leverkusen second with 31, Dortmund third on 28 and Gladbach on 25. It should be worth noting that while Dortmund defeated Leverkusen earlier in the year, they have now failed to beat all other top five opponents including Gladbach, Bayern, and Wolfsburg. They are also riding a three game losing skid, and more alarmingly, they are third in their Champions League group, on 6 points behind Napoli and Arsenal on 9. They return to action on Tuesday against Napoli. Finally, the game was Bayern’s win was their first in seven Bundesliga matches against Dortmund, a streak that stretched back to 2010.
Dortmund are of course dealing with several key injuries in the side, but Klopp refused to blame that for his team’s problems ahead of the Bayern match. It seems this season more than last, Dortmund might finally face the strain of relatively limited resources. There is quite a bit of season left to turn things around, but with seven points between them and Bayern and a crucial Champions League week ahead of them, Kloppo may finally be out of luck.
5. Hooliganism is on the way out in Europe!
Another reminder that old habits die hard:
Nine people were injured when St Etienne fans threw seats at local supporters at Nice’s Allianz Riviera stadium on Sunday, the French interior and sports ministries said.
An hour before the kick-off of the Ligue 1 game between Nice and Les Verts, away fans dismantled their seats and threw them towards the opposition supporters, a witness said.
Stadium stewards unsuccessfully tried to calm them down, with police then moving into the stands to remove the St Etienne fans, who numbered about 100.
There is word that the French league president is considering banning away travel in the wake of recent violence. This comes after AC Milan ultras reportedly prevented the club from leaving the stadium after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Genoa, and when Real Betis supporters were caught on camera racially abusing their own player. Whatever the cause–a downturn in the economy, nostalgia, youth angst–it appears reports that hooliganism had disappeared in Europe were premature.
No, I didn’t forget about the thrilling 3-3 draw between Everton and Liverpool in the Merseyside derby early Saturday morning. What was weird though, and I didn’t really think about it until after…was that five of the six goals came from set pieces (you can watch all the goals on this handy website).
Set-pieces are an odd duck in football, almost like a mini-game. That’s because the rules of the sport in open play involve a complex ebb and flow, movement and space, counter-attack, build-up play, transitions, long-balls. Everything. Formations are crucial, opposition tactics deterministic. And then you get these set-play situations and all the preceding rules are off. Suddenly what matters is lining up your wall, marking your player, and curving your shot or angling in your header.
In some ways too they’re the great leveller. A set-piece can overcome an otherwise stubborn defence, can ruin a 90 minute shelling game. All you need for them to work is a decent free kick taker, a good cross and a big man able to head it in. And so for all the brilliance of that derby, it was the set-pieces that made all the difference. For Liverpool, it could be a long-term problem to worry about this season.
Goal of the Weekend
Charlie Austin scores for QPR:
Good Read of the Day
The Premier League diary, which moved to Football365 this season, is really great on the pointlessness of griping about referee decisions:
Anyway, Chapman was right: the way football is at the moment, refereeing decisions take up too much of our time, of our shared cultural space. Understandable for managers and players, perhaps; they’re the poor buggers whose livelihoods can be whistled away. But for fans, and for the media? We don’t think it needs to be this way.
The trick, we humbly suggest, is to perform a small act of mental re-categorisation. To move referees from the part of the brain marked ‘Things That I Am Going To Get Really Angry About’ to the part marked ‘Inexplicable Acts Of An Uncaring Universe’. Treat each terrible decision not as a thunderingly offensive outrage or a sign of a deep, dark conspiracy, but as a simple slice of bad luck.