Monday, December 28, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Go Top After 2-0 Victory

Arsenal needed a rebound after their 4-0, referee-assisted collapse against Southampton two days earlier. And they got just that as they cruised to a 2-0 victory that could easily have been 6 or 7 nil. Bournemouth held tough early, but a 28th minute header from Gabriel from an Ozil corner got things started and a 63rd minute second from Ozil meant a relatively comfortable win for the Gunners. Depending on the result of the Man City-Leicester City matchup tomorrow, Arsenal could go into the New Year at the top of the table; irrespective of that result they are there for 24 hours. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Able Backups Acquit Themselves Well: Gabriel came in for Koscielny at centre back after spending the past several weeks largely on the bench. He performed well through the middle and scored the opening goal with a powerful header to the corner of the net. His speed and poise were impressive and he cut off most of the Bournemouth offensive threat throughout the game. Gibbs was also given a rare start in the place of Monreal, the only other Gunner beside Cech to have played in every game this year when he came on in the second half. The English international played well, combining relative solidity at back with the pace to get forward with purpose. Finally was Chambers, a player rumored to be heading back to Southampton on loan to get more minutes in the second half of the season. He played in the defensive midfield position, one Wenger thinks he might have the potential to make his own in the future. The big concern is his lack of pace, but his range of passes, interceptions and positional acuity were impressive given some less than inspiring performances in recent cameos. Youngster Iwobi came on for the final minute of extra time and is a potential star for the future. One player who has not started regularly on the pitch today who continued to struggle was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His pace and dribbling ability were on full display, particularly on the counter, but his decision-making continues to be suspect and he derailed a few opportunities to score throughout his time on the pitch. The performance by the others will certainly give the team hope that they can weather the continued injury troubles as the second half of the season gets underway.

2. Ozil the Magician; Giroud the Oaf: Mesut Ozil has moved from a mild or major disappointment (depending on your perspective) to one of the best #10s in world football this season and continued his extended purple patch with a part in both Gunner goals. The first was a beautifully taken corner that fell to the head of an unguarded Gabriel, allowing the Brazilian to score his first goal for Arsenal. He continued to terrorize the Bournemouth defense with corner after corner, though none of the many chances were taken by the Gunners. In the 63rd minute, he turned from provider to finisher after a lovely interchange with Giroud on the edge of the box set him free on goal. He finished coolly for his third league goal of the campaign to go with an incredible 16 assists. Ozil has 8 more assists than the second best distributor in the league, Kevin De Bruyne, and has created more chances than any other player as well. In this game, he could easily have had four or five assists but for profligacy in finishing by Walcott (at least four decent chances), Giroud (2), Ox (who hit the post, to be fair) and Ramsey (1 or 2, depending on how we measure “clear” chances). In total, I counted at least 12 decent chances to score in the game that went wanting, but it is hard to complain when you not only win three points but get your goalkeeper to a record 170 clean sheets in the process. Cech has accomplished that feat in only 350 games, meaning he is essentially blanking opponents in every other match he plays. The defensive tendencies of Mourinho certainly helped, but Cech has been between the sticks for a host of other managers during his long stay at Chelsea.

The profligacy in front of goal was made immaterial by the victory, as I just mentioned, but one player that really disappointed in the game was Olivier Giroud. If Ozil is a magician, Giroud is an ogre. He reminds me of Kirk Gibson limping to the plate in the 9th inning of the 1988 World Series only to pound a home run. Giroud has 10 league goals this year, and another five in six Champions League games, but beyond his scoring, there seems to be a marginal but noticeable decline in the other areas of his game. Yes, his one-touch return to Ozil was deftly guided into the path of the charging German, but it was really the only highlight for the Frenchman and, surprisingly, his first assist in all competitions this season. His first touch has seemed to abandon him this year, he is beaten in aerial battles far too often (sometimes not even bothering to get airborne), his passing accuracy has fallen and his lack of pace appears to be hurting the team on the counter (particularly in the absence of the speedy Sanchez). Don’t get me wrong, Giroud has been a key player in the rise to the top of the table, and the great escape to the Round of 16 in the UCL, but one wonders how much better Arsenal would be with a more adept centre forward like Vardy or Ighalo (or Benzema!). It appears that the Gunners are on the cusp of signing a deep lying midfielder to provide cover for Flamini in the absence of Coquelin and Arteta – the Egyptian youngster from Basel Mohammed Elneny (who can also chip in goals, as he has 6 in 28 this year with the Swiss club). Next summer, I think it is time to sign a world-class striker who can contribute more than the able but too-often disappointing Giroud.

3. Bournemouth Have Talent to Stay Up: Bournemouth have been savaged by injuries throughout the first half of their return to the Premier League but were on a hot streak, going undefeated since a 1-0 loss to Newcastle on November 7. Since then, they have drawn three and beaten Chelsea, United and West Brom. Yet they still reside in 16th place, a mere three points from the drop zone and have the fourth worst goal differential in the league. However, after being incredibly porous at the back early on (including shipping 10 goals in their first two games), they have settled defensively and have found ways to score without their talisman centre forward Callum Wilson.

Arsenal pressed high intermittently throughout the game and were able to disrupt the passing flow of the Cherries, but they were still able to get behind the Gunners on a few occasions and had a couple of decent half chances to score. They were pretty terrible defending corners throughout the game but arguably suffered more than some other squads playing two games in three days – certainly lacking the squad depth of Arsenal. They have pace and finishing skills and have become more solid on the defensive end. After a trip to high flying Leicester City next weekend, they have a run of fixtures against West Ham, Norwich and Sunderland that could go a long way in determining whether they will hit the magical 40-point total. I’m betting on them getting there.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Blow Another Chance to Go Top

The world is a beautiful and sad place. Maybe more sad than beautiful for the majority. But sometimes, if you can rise above the sound and the fury, the bluebirds do sing. I wrote those words a few years ago and while they may seem more apropos to an existential novel than reportage on the beautiful game, my fellow Arsenal fans might find some solace in the thought. For just as our optimism had risen like a phoenix from the ashes of our discontent, reality has smacked us in the face yet again. It is an all too familiar story over the past 12 years – hope builds, success seems within our reach, we begin to believe past glory can return, only to be reminded of our almost preternatural tendency to ultimate failure. After Leicester had lost to Liverpool earlier yesterday, the Gunners were given the opportunity to rise to the summit of the Premier League. Instead, for not the first time this season, they took several steps backward in a 4-0 loss to a Saints team that was in the midst of a poor run of form that included six losses and a draw in their last seven since a November 1 win. Arsenal were flat for much of the game while the Saints played with real verve and hunger, putting the game beyond reach with more than 20 minutes to play. Three thoughts on the loss:

1. One Game Does Not a Season Make: Five days after an inspiring victory over Manchester City, Arsenal collapsed in their second chance to go top in recent weeks. They seemed flat from the onset and while some will now again take the opportunity to write off their title aspirations, the busy festive season tends to lead most teams to at least one poor outing. In reality, Arsenal have been up and down throughout the season, though, and it could be their lack of consistency that does them in in the end. The season began with a deflating 2-0 loss to West Ham at the Emirates, but the team then went on a nice run and established themselves near the acme of the table. That, of course, occurred as their European Campaign began with inexplicable back-to-back losses to Olympiakos and Dynamo Zagreb; a contentious 2-0 loss to Chelsea sandwiched in between. A dominant 3-0 win over United and 2-0 victory against Bayern restored the preseason hype. Yet just when they seemed to have turned a corner, they were booted out of the Capital One Cup by lower side Sheffield and went through the entire month of November with only one win (an essential victory over Zagreb).

The turning of the calendar appeared to turn the fortunes of the team as well, as they went on a nice run of four straight wins, including qualifying for the knockout stage of the Champions League against the odds and beating the team most believe will be the main rival for the domestic crown (with all due respect to Leicester City). With four winnable fixtures before a rematch with Liverpool, most expected the Gunners to build on their momentum, particularly when facing a Southampton team struggling with the loss of even more of their stars last summer. They surprised the British pundits and fans with a great run last season, but those results had dried up over the past couple of months. In this most unpredictable of EPL seasons, I suppose no one should be surprised that both teams forgot to read the script and the result went against all expectations.

2. Feckless Moss a Saints Fan? However, it is worth noting one of the worst performances by a Barclays Premier League official in years. Not only did he get one foul (or no foul) call after another wrong all game, but all four of Southampton goals were suspect at best. The first, a blistering, curling shot from Cuco Martina on 19 minutes that might be included in the Top 5 at the end of the season, came moments after a marginal (though clear) offsides. The second, which seemed to deflate an Arsenal team growing in stature, followed a clear foul by Shane Long on Koscielny just outside the box, felling the Gunner’s CB and making his tap in a lot easier than it should have been. One might mention here that the cynical kick out could easily have been Long’s second yellow in a very physical game where it is hard to understand how he stayed on the pitch. The third goal, while the result of far too passive defending from the Gunners, should never have happened to begin with, as it was utterly absurd that Southampton even had a corner after Koscielny blocked out the charging Saint and watched the ball go harmlessly out for what should have been a goal kick.

As I was watching the game on my stepfather’s cell phone on the way home from visiting an uncle (and feeling increasingly car sick – or was it “Gooner sick”), I turned off the game soon after that third goal went in, I did not see the fourth, but Wenger again believed that the goal came under questionable circumstances. Thus all four goals could have gone the other way, several free kicks for the Gunners went wanting, the Saints were the recipients of several soft foul calls themselves and serious questions persist about whether the winners should have had 11 men on the pitch when the final whistle blew.

3. On the Other Hand: Far too often in football, poor officiating changes the results of a game, but I’m not sure it is fair to blame Moss for this loss. Arsenal were flat for long stretches, failing to get into any rhythm with their passing for more than a few minutes at a time as the high press saw them giving the ball away regularly. Southampton were excellent on the counter, storming past the Arsenal defense and pressuring Cech, playing the perfect foil to the recent Gunner success by clogging the passing lanes, directly attacking the center of an injury-plagued midfield and then lining the box to cut off the few chances available. They played a physical band of football that appeared more akin to old school Leeds United savagery and one that has often caused the Gunners trouble in the past. That has not been the case throughout most of this calendar year, where Arsenal have had substantially more success against their closest rivals than in year’s past, but the troubling proclivity to drop points to the lower teams in the first half of this season might ultimately cost them the title they have been craving for 12 long years now. A lot might depend on the transfer window that will open in five short days, as Arsene Wenger is arguably going to have to buy at least two players to fill gaps in the midfield and up front if injuries and lack of squad depth is not to derail their title chase yet again. Southampton, on the other hand, can take positives from this game as they attempt to stabilize their campaign and build momentum for a potential run.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Become Title Favorites (W 2-1 Over City)!

Arsenal and Man City met yesterday at the Emirates in a matchup that many augured as a potential title decider. It was obviously too early for such bold proclamations, but six-pointers in a tight title race can have a huge influence on the ultimate outcome, as much through momentum as points. One should remember that it was a victory over City last January that launched the Gunners on a winning streak that almost brought them to the cusp of overcoming Chelsea and ultimately led to their second FA Cup in a row. At the Emirates yesterday, the pressure was on and it was City who had the better of the early going, with the Gunners unable to keep possession or pose any serious threat on the City goal. But that all changed in the 33rd minute, only two minutes after De Bruyne missed out on a golden opportunity to give the visitors the lead, when a clever pass from Mesut Ozil to Theo Walcott set him free on the left side of the box. Walcott cut back in and then sent a blistering shot past Ozil and across goal into the corner. In the second minute of extra time, Ozil threaded it through to Giroud on the left again and the Frenchman sent the ball past Hart for a 2-0 lead. Arsenal should have expanded on that lead in the second half, but Giroud, Ramsey and Campbell spurned opportunities. In the 82nd minute, that profligacy almost cost them as Toure sent a snap shot into the far corner of the net to draw to 2-1. Arsenal held firm for the last 13 minutes and secured an important win. Three thoughts on the game:
1. Overcoming the Old Troubles: Over the past decade, Arsenal has had a tendency to lose their biggest games. This has come down to, among other things, the stubbornness of the offensive-minded Wenger. In the last 12 months, the Frenchman appears to have finally allowed that stubbornness to subside (in both the transfer market and tactically) and the result has been far more positive results against his biggest rivals. In 2015, the Gunners have beaten United twice (and drawn a third meeting), drawn and beaten Chelsea (the first win against Mourinho in the long, bellicose “rivalry” with Wenger), beaten and drawn with Liverpool (and the draw would have been a win but for a wrongly disallowed offsides goal by Ramsey), beaten Bayern 2-0 and accrued the most points in the league over the past 12 months. Unfortunately, those results have only earned two trophies (with one being the lightly-regarded Community Shield), but there is a sense better is to come in the future. Missing three of their biggest stars – in Sanchez, Cazorla and Coquelin, the Gunners were still able to beat their closest legitimate rivals to the title this season (yes, Leicester are still up by two points, but lest us forget the Gunners already beat them 5-2).

More on the strategic approach that helped the Gunners win this game below, but one cannot help but start any discussion of their success this season without talking about the Maestro. Mesut Ozil has been Arsenal’s best player for most of this run, supplanting even Sanchez, whose scoring has abated a bit since his hot run in the fall of 2014. His two assists on Monday mean he already has 15 for the season (in 17 appearances), 8 more than Leicester’s best provider and more than Gerrard, Mata or even Bergkamp ever garnered in an entire season. He has more assists than the entire Manchester United squad and now has 29 in his English career (the same total as Hazard … in 59 less games). And as has been the case throughout his time at Arsenal, he also has provided the most opportunities (52), nine better than the next two on the list. The difference this term is that Giroud, Walcott and Sanchez have been finishing those chances at a higher rate, meaning the Gunners can outscore opponents at a higher rate, turning tough losses and draws into three points. Cech should also be given credit here, for a couple of top draw saves and organizing the defense in front of him for the 8 corners and numerous other free kicks they had to defend throughout the game. And really the entire squad chipped in, keeping City in front of them most of the game and then finding themselves behind the Citizen’s back line at least five times. The game could easily have gone the other way if the Gunners failed to convert two of their five quality chances and City did better with their four or five, but that is the difference in every football game and Arsenal now have four points separating them from the team still favored by many to win the title. Wenger has turned a corner just as his career winds down at Arsenal, but it might be a right turn that finally earns him that fourth league title, rubbing a little more salt in Mourinho’s blighted eyes.

2. Lucky Charms - A la France: Most thought that Mathieu Flamini’s second stint at Arsenal was over last summer. Francis Coquelin had quietly emerged as one of the best DM’s in the league, Arteta was a relatively able, if not quiet inspiring backup and pundits assumed Wenger would buy another DM in the summer window. The purchase failed to materialize, Flamini stayed and after injuries to both Arteta to Coquelin, the onus has fallen on the Frenchman to marshal the defense in front of the backline. He has done so ably, building on the two-goal performance he had against Tottenham in the Capital One Cup earlier in the season. In fact, the win yesterday meant that Flamini remains undefeated at the Emirates over his two stints with the Gunners. That covers 52 games since he scored the last goal ever for the Gunners at Highbury Park, including 36 wins and 16 draws.

The victory yesterday exemplified Wenger’s new, dare I say it, tactical flexibility. For much of the first half, Arsenal played with two banks of four players, while Flamini shadowed David Silva and Giroud played alone up top. It meant the Gunners went through the game with only 35 percent possession – at home! However, but for a couple of times where City beat the Arsenal high line and the Yaya Toure goal, the tactic worked perfectly, much as it had against Bayern in the 2-0 victory in the UCL Group Stage game that started the Gunners on the comeback trail to the final 16. It is an approach, in fact, that has served the team well in a number of high profile victories over the past calendar year – pressing strategically, playing off the ball most of the time and then countering with pace and purpose. The final result actually flattered City, who could easily have lost 4 or 5 to 1. And Flamini was a key player who will have to continue to perform at this level if Arsenal are to stay at or near the top until Cazorla, Sanchez and, most importantly, Coquelin, return.

3. Bad (wo) Kompany, They Can’t Deny: City started the season with one of the best defensive displays the Premier League has seen, barring Mourinho’s best Chelsea teams. And then Kompany went out injured and the club showed that price and performance are not as closely correlated as one would hope. Chelsea found that out a few years ago with Torres, of course, but high priced defenders generally perform at a high level. That has not been the case with City of late, particularly on the road. Mangala was terrible on the second goal and could have done better on the first and Otamendi has been up and down since arriving in England. Questions can be asked of Pelligrini as well, though, as playing a clearly less than 100 percent Sergio Aguero (arguably still the best pure striker in England, with due respect to Vardy) and leaving Sterling on the bench seemed to backfire. De Bruyne is a great player with almost limitless upside, but he needs targets to hit, as he is a better provider than scorer. A simple cross in the 31st minute would have given Silva a tap in; instead he tried to do it alone and pushed the ball wide of the far post two minutes before the stunning Walcott strike. It’s hard to know how the rumors of Guardiola taking over in the summer will affect Pelligrini and the team as they seek their third title in five years, but the early evidence is not positive. City have dropped points in recent weeks with regularity, were lucky to steal all three against Swansea last weekend and were thoroughly outplayed by the Gunners for the second time this calendar year. There is still time to rebound, but concerns must be magnifying that this team is below par when their oft-injured captain is on the sideline.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

EPL Week 17 Recap: Leicester Keep on Winning; Chelsea Finally Do; LVG on the Hot Seat as We Say Adieu to Mou?

Two days after Mourinho got the sack, Louis Van Gaal must be putting his phone on silent and hiding in the closet, hoping that a six-game run without a win (and three straight losses) doesn’t see him deposed of his position at United. The latest effort will do little to quell those doubts, as Norwich came into Old Trafford Saturday and left 2-1 winners as United’s underperforming senior players (most obviously Rooney and Carrick) and their young guns were equally poor in a loss to a team closer to the other end of the table. Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Southampton at the same time meant they catapulted above United, on goal difference, and into the final Champions League spot. Crystal Palace’s late winner in a 2-1 victory at Stoke meant they too drew even with United on 29 points.
Meanwhile, two of the hottest teams in the league continued their impressive runs. Leicester City held on for a hard-fought 3-2 win over an Everton team that cannot seem to sustain momentum or win enough games against this year for Martinez, who might be starting to feel a little pressure himself. And Bournemouth made it three on the bounce, winning at West Brom 2-1, and are now unbeaten in 5, since the 1-0 loss to Newcastle. Given all of the injuries the newly promoted side have encountered, it is a truly impressive run, while West Brom must be worried they could be drawn into the relegation battle if this form continues. Chelsea, of course, rebounded from their recent struggles to win 3-1 in their first game post-Mourinho, though the fact it was Sunderland should stop anyone from talking of a phoenix-like renaissance just yet. And in the final game Saturday, relegation strugglers Newcastle and Aston Villa played out a 1-1 draw that will do little to inspire hope of a second half escape for the visiting long time stalwarts of the league.

On Sunday, the Klopp project suffered its second disappointing result in a row as upstart Watford capitalized on an early error by new Reds keeper Bogdan to take a 1-0 lead they would build on throughout the game, ending it 3-0 winners and seventh in the table (a mere point from fourth place). It is an extraordinary achievement from a newly promoted team and is based on high pressing, stout defending and a great duo up front of Ighalo and Deeney. Their next three opponents – Chelsea, Tottenham and City – beware! Swansea dominated possession, chances and shots in their home encounter with injury-plagued West Ham but had to settle for a 0-0 draw after failing to capitalize on any of those 21 shots. West Ham will probably take the away point as they continue to await the return of most of their offensive threats.

The biggest game of the weekend is Monday, between title-challengers Arsenal and City, but since I’m travelling the next 24 hours, I decided to post this now and follow with my match report of that game on Tuesday …

Some thoughts on Game Week 17:
1. Vardy & Mahrez Deadly Duo: the most deadly duo in the league so far this season includes two players few would have predicted to be first and second in scoring, much less in the league at all. Vardy was playing non-league football a few years ago and is having his first great year as he approaches 29. Mahrez cost a measly 500,000 pounds, passed over by all the big boys despite his impressive skill set, vision and finishing touch. Yet it is hard to overstate how impressive the two have been as Leicester went from dead last to first within a year’s time. Vardy, of course, scored in 11 straight games, and has added 4 others (including two against Arsenal and one against Chelsea) to total 15 in 17 games, along with 3 assists. How many did he have before this season began? Well, he scored 5 in 27 appearances last season, 14 in 37 the year Leicester were promoted, five in 19 in 2012-13 and an impressive 34 in 38 for third tier Fleetwood Town back in 2011-12. Now he is, inexplicably, the most feared striker in all of England. Or is it Mahrez? He is on a hot streak of late that includes two on Saturday against Everton, a wonder goal and assist in the 2-1 win over Chelsea and all three goals in a dismantling of reeling Swansea. Mahrez has always had an eye for goal, but nowhere near this level. In his first full season for Ligue 2 side Le Havre, he scored 4 in 18. The next season 2 in 15 before moving to Leicester, where he added 3 goals and 4 assists in 12. Last season he scored four and provided three more in 25 premier league appearances. Decent numbers but nothing that would predict this incredible run of form, particularly taking into account that he has never scored for Algeria. He now has 13 goals and 7 assists in 15 games in the league, along with an assist in two sub appearances in the Capital One Cup. There will be plenty of courters for their signature in January, but will the league leaders even consider selling players that could lead them to the unlikeliest title run since Brian Clough led Nottingham Forrest to the 78 title (and then those even more unlikely successive European Cups?

2. Mourinho’s Madness: it is impossible to argue that Mourinho is not among the top managers in all of world football, with a cabinet full of trophies to his name including titles in Portugal, Spain, England and Italy, alongside cups and the two Champions League crowns, but hiring him almost invariably means chaos will ensue. He generally takes a year to settle in, wins you the league title and/or champions league and then things start to unravel. This year is the most stunning turnaround in his career, but it is the second stop in a row where he lost the script and the team three years in. I have detailed the troubles at Chelsea before he was sacked, but it is hard to ignore all of the baggage that comes with the Portuguese firecracker. He takes all of the credit when the team wins, throws the blame off to players and officials when he loses, calls out underperforming players in the media, maintains seemingly destructive rivalries with opposing coaches and seems to find controversy in every corner of the insular football world (from medical teams (twice) to the ball boys). Chelsea fans might miss Mourinho, but it appears few of the players or management will. He can add another two trophies to his cabinet from last year, but one wonders if he is worth all the trouble that accompanies him wherever he goes.

Irrespective of these reservations, United are said to be contemplating a sensational move to bring him in to save a season that is suddenly going in the wrong direction. Three draws followed by three straight losses, two to bottom dwellers, means that LVG’s grasp on the top four is collapsing, soon after they exited the Champions League at the group stage. The dual problem for United are that their seasoned veterans might be a little too seasoned while their youngsters are still unable to score enough goals or keep their discipline throughout a game. LVG’s conservative approach is also a concern, though United fans might now be pining for those dull 1-0 wins from earlier in the campaign. Could Mourinho be next in the United firing line? I put it at 40-60.

3. The Guardiola Race Begins: what most have considered a foregone conclusion has now been confirmed as true. Pep Guardiola will make this his third and last season at Bayern and is now looking to move to the premier league in world football – the Premier League. Given the recent sacking of Mourinho, he will now have three (and maybe even four) choices of his next destination, though Manchester City appears to be in the driving seat. Two of the top executives from his time at Barcelona are already in place and they have the money, squad and academy to build a dynasty for the future. They also have a style of play that is partially suited to Guardiola’s style, though the defensive laxness of the flair players and their inability (or unwillingness) to press might be a source of concern. United are the other option, a dream job for a coach who has already been at the helm of two of the iconic teams in world football. The problem is a squad that lacks the kind of cutting edge talent he is used to and questions about whether they will even be in the Champions League next year. But United have money to burn and might be able to entice him with a few marques summer signings. Chelsea might be after him as well, but it is hard to see Mourinho choosing such a volatile environment for his first stop in England. The finally, fascinating possibility, is that Wenger wins the league and retires handing over the reigns to the ideal replacement. Arsenal probably play a brand of football most aligned with Guardiola’s approach and have even shown the ability to press up the field intermittently over the past calendar year. With a couple of world-class additions, Guardiola could certainly lead the Gunners to glory in the league and maybe even in Europe. Man City is clearly in the lead at the moment, but there is plenty of time to convince the Spaniard that his long-term future lies elsewhere.

4. Around the Horn: PSG won 3-0 at Caen to take an incredible 19-point lead at the top of French League 1, meaning they can focus on Chelsea when they come calling in February and March. The even more impressive Barcelona won their fifth trophy of the year, adding the Club World Cup to their Champions League, Copa del Rey, La Liga and Supercopa titles. The only blemish in 2015 was the two-leg surprise loss to Atletico Bilboa in the Spanish Supercopa, costing Luis Enrique matching Guardiola’s sextuple in 2012. The trio of Suarez, Neymar and Messi also surpassed the 2012 tally of 175 goals in a season to set the Barcelona record at 176. Who can doubt this team pulling another treble by yearend? Real might have something to say about it, as they scored 10 league goals for the first time in 50 years in beating Rayo Vallencano 10-2. It wasn’t enough to stop the techy home fans from booing the first half 2-1 deficit and Ronaldo in particular and Real are still two points behind Barca and Atletico, having played one more game.

In Germany, Bayern won 1-0 at Hannover 96 1-0 while Dortmund fell 2-1 to Cologne, expanding the Munich lead to eight points. And it Italy, Juve won 3-2 at Carpi, Roma won 2-0 over Genoa, Napoli took down Atalanta 3-1, Milan won 4-2 as Frosinone and Inter was losing to Lazio as I write this column. Inter will stay top regardless of the result, but will only lead Fiorentina and Napoli by one point and the resurgent Juve by three if the 1-0 deficit holds up.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why Are Chelsea So Bad this Year?

There are no easy answers to why Chelsea have slumped to 9 defeats in their first 16 games of the season, after essentially the same squad won the title by eight points last season, but some of those problems were on clear display in their 2-1 loss to Leicester City yesterday. Here I will try to highlight some of those shortcomings and how they have elicited the worst title defense in Premier League history.

One must start with the manager and he appears to be culpable for some of the struggles this season. Mourinho wins trophies everywhere he goes, but he doesn’t seem to stay anywhere too long. After one of the most efficient summers in recent memory a year and a half ago, adding the striker (Diego Costa), creative midfielder (Fabergas) and keeper (Courtois), Chelsea essentially cruised to the title last season. That same team has gone in the opposite direction this year and it is hard to ignore the role Mourinho has played in seemingly undermining his own players. It started with the halftime benching of John Terry in the 3-0 loss to Manchester City. And then there were the benchings of Hazard, Ivanovic, Costa and a host of others. Actually, the troubles started even earlier, when Mourinho blamed his medical staff for dropped points when they came out to treat Hazard when he felt it was unnecessary. Playing a man down, they conceded the lead and settled for a draw. The fact the lead medic was a woman only added to the troubles and a lawsuit still looms. Some have argued his tendency to take all the credit when they win and none when they lose hasn’t helped matters, potentially costing him his first stay in Chelsea and certainly playing a role in his dismissal a year after winning the title with Real. In fact, the same charge of “betrayal” level in his post-match interview Monday was on display in Madrid as things unraveled. Other problems seem to revolve around undermining the confidence of players and, oddly, on some tactical decisions he has made this year. Costa, after a blistering start to football in England, has become more of a nuance than a deadly striker and Fabergas, never known for his defensive nous, is essentially playing his own game. He played a big role in the early results that gave Chelsea the crown, but has been below par for a year now, hurting the team through his inability to track back or fit seamlessly into the formation Mourinho is trying to play. Mourinho might also have placed too much faith in the continued solidity of Ivanovic and Terry, though that would have been hard for anyone to predict, and he did try to sign Stones. And that might be the final problem; a rather quiet summer by Chelsea standards that meant they had less flexibility than they might have had (Falcoa, for example, has been an abject failure and Pedro has been little better). At this pace, it would not be surprising to see Mourinho again looking for a job quite soon but he can’t play the game for his squad and the problems run much deeper than his man management and tactics.

Defensively, the anticipated drop in John Terry’s form has finally come to fruition. On the first goal of the game yesterday, it was clear that he was most to blame, failing to move into the appropriate defensive position and then failing to react quickly enough to Mahrez’s smart cross. Zouma could have cut in front of a charging Vardy, but it did seem that Terry was more to blame. In the past, finding a way through the well-organized Chelsea back line was like wading through a George Bush speech for a moment of brilliance (or even coherence), now it seems like child’s play. Ivanovic has been even worse and has directly contributed to their horrific defensive record with his inability to track runners, to pressure the ball or to stop shots and crosses in the box. He looks like a shell of his former self and would be on the bench if new signing Rahman hasn’t looked almost as bad himself. Ivanovic has been marginally better of late, but not good enough for a team trying to vie at the top, rather than the bottom, of the table. Even Azpilicueta looked quite average in this game, guilty of failing to close on Mahrez before the brilliant individual goal that made it 2-0. Zouma has been decent with his speed, though his positioning often leaves something to be desired. And just when we were ready to anoint Gary Cahill as the next great English Centre Back, his form has become erratic.

In the middle, the continued decline of Cesc Fabergas makes Barcelona look like geniuses and Chelsea like suckers who got half a season out of a player who appears to be going in the wrong direction with his form. He used to play well for the first half of seasons and then fade in the second half, but has been downright mediocre throughout all of 2015. Next to him, is the bizarre case of Matic, who was arguably the best defensive midfielder in the entire league last season but now seems completely lost. He failed to stop the Leicester counter on several occasions throughout the Monday evening encounter and that has been the nature of his game throughout most of the campaign. It’s even harder to understand what has happened to him than to Terry and Ivanovic, both of whom age might have finally caught up with. To be fair, having to play alongside Fabergas does him no favors and he certainly seems more comfortable when Ramires is next to him. The Brazilian, in fact, has played decently when in the team, but his range of passing was exposed throughout this encounter and continues to undermine his excellent runs toward the penalty area (and occasion goals). Oscar seems to perform well in Europe but has been much less successful in the league and his inability to influence games was clear on Monday. One wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the chopping block next summer.

In the front line, the decline of Hazard might be the most surprising of the entire maligned club. Last year he was the consensus player of the league and vaulted to many people’s top five in the world. In 16 league games this campaign, he has zero goals and two assists (on 22 shots) and one can add 6 games in other competitions where he only added one more assist. Many argue that Mourinho’s style has weighed on the Belgian’s mind and that he is so set on leaving he cannot properly motivate himself for games. That is hard to believe after last season, but something is wrong with a player that is still wanted by some of the top clubs in Europe, including Real. Diego Costa has also disappointed, with only 4 goals to show for 17 appearances in all comps, and a solitary assist. It has seemed at times like the Brazilian Spanish International is more interested in fighting opposing CBs and officials than in getting into position to score. It is an odd turnaround for a player that has played a high level for a few years now with 20 goals in 2014-15, 27 in the league and another 8 in the UCL run to the finals for Atletico the year before, 20 in 2012-13 and 10 in 15 games in 11-12. Maybe Chelsea should have paid more attention to his disappointing run at the 2014 World Cup with Spain, but he came and dominated the league for four months. Backups Remy (who did score the Chelsea goal Monday) and Falcoa are not good enough to change games when they are given a chance and Pedro has been below par since a flying start to his Premier League adventure.

Luck has also played a part with many decisions going against the club. Several penalties have not been called, goals have snuck in when they shouldn’t have and few teams have ever had so many players so dramatically fall in form at the same time. On the other hand, much of the “campaign against the club” mentality that Mourinho used until recently seem suspect at best. His selective memory leads him to decry missed calls while conveniently ignoring those that helped his side. The most obvious instance of this was in the Arsenal game, where Diego Costa somehow remained unbooked while his behavior directly led to Gabriel’s dismissal. But plenty of other examples exist, as with the West Brom game and a couple of others.

Overall, Chelsea are a team that is often shambolic defensively, weak in the midfield and lacking the creativity or finishing touch to score enough goals. They have ceded leads, lost games where they dominated possession and looked pedestrian (or worse) most of the time. In composite, it could be true that Mourinho pulled off a miracle last season, getting the best out of players that performed above their natural talents or that were near the end of their run as top level players. John Terry was imperious after many thought he was past his prime, Ivanovic was one of the best full backs in the league, Diego Costa scored at an incredible clip in the first half of the season, Fabergas delivered one sublime pass after another for the first four months and Hazard went from a great talent to one of the best footballers in the league. When that productivity declined, Mourinho was able to organize the team into a defensive stalwart that could squeak out close wins or useful draws. The collective malaise from back to front has meant the close calls are now going in the opposite direction and Chelsea have regressed to their mean talent level. One must say this is a an unlikely analysis, but that Mourinho appears to have pushed his team to overperform last season, while probably contributing to the same squad’s underperformance this term.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Predicting the UCL Round of 16

Good news for England? Not exactly. The UCL draw came out today and only Manchester City will be favored in their matchup among the three British teams. Arsenal will tee off against Barcelona, a team they have only beaten once in seven Champions League matches. Most famous was the loss in the finals when two late goals cost them their first European Cup, though some other fateful days simmer in the hearts of Gooners, including the second leg in 2011 when a 2-1 first leg win was turned around by a questionable red card on Robin van Persie, a horrific error by Fabergas right before halftime and a late miss by Bendtner. Chelsea certainly have a chance to exact some revenge on a PSG side that used a late goal and then extra time second to squeeze past the Blues last year. On paper, it is PSG without a second thought, but Mourinho is certainly a manager that knows how to win, so don’t count them out yet. Finally is City, who have the mouthwatering opportunity to finally get past the Round of 16 by beating the heavily outmatched (and outspent) Dynamo Kiev.

Looking at the rest of the matchups, the most interesting include Roma against Madrid and Juve against Bayern Munich. Madrid and Munich are two of the early favorites for the title, having won two of the last three between them, and victories by the German and Spanish sides would actually help England in their coefficient war with Italy, as they already have three teams through, to Italy’s two and a chance to outpace them in the Europa League as well (with Tottenham’s matchup against Fiorentina of particular interest as England tries to keep their fourth place spot in the UCL). Some of the minnows in the field have had incredible luck with their draws, including Wolfsburg, who face KAA Gent in a two-leg battle they should be able to navigate through and Zenit, who face a Benfica team that seems slightly overmatched in this encounter. The finalist from two years ago, who only missed out as the result of a late goal by crosstown rivals Real, face a seemingly straightforward tie against PSV. Here are my predictions:

1. KAA Gent v. Wolfsburg: I like Wolfsburg to end the Gent dream run (3-1 on aggregate)

2. AS Roma v. Real Madrid: Real should win rather handily (5-2 on aggregate)

3. PSG v. Chelsea: I see an upset here, Chelsea (3-2 on aggregate)

4. Arsenal v. Barcelona: I really want to pick the Gunners, and I think they have a chance – as did the Iraqi army in our two wars – but hard to go against that front three unless the Gunner’s D really steps up (5-4 on aggregate)

5. Juve v. Bayern: last year I might have chose differently, but I think Bayern has too much talent for a Juve team that, while improving in recent weeks, is minus some of the key players from last season’s run (6-2 on aggregate)

6. PSV v. Atletico: this should be pretty straight forward for Atletico (3-1 on aggregate)

7. Benfica v. Zenit: AVB has done impressive things with this Zenit side and, even as they are struggling in their domestic league, I think they win a tight two legs (3-2 on aggregate)

8. Dynamo Kiev v. Manchester City: City need to show they belong in the upper echelon of Europe. The push for the next level begins here (5-2 on aggregate).

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Arsenal Go Top: By the Numbers

Arsenal visited Villa Park today with an opportunity to go top of the table, while their opponent remained buried at the bottom on a club record winless streak that had stretched to 14 games (only 3 draws and the opening day win). The Villains were bright in the early going, but soon found themselves behind, after Walcott was brought down by Hutton in the box. Kevin Friend took his time in making the decision but, with a little help from a friend (the side judge), ultimately points to the spot. Giroud sent Brad Guzan the wrong way (8’) for a 1-0 lead, his second successful penalty this week. Arsenal dominated the first half from here, to the tune of 59 percent possession, and a surging Ramsey dispossessed a Villain to launch a blazing counterattack that ended with Walcott sending Ozil through. The German cut across to Ramsey who scored one of the easiest goals of his career, suddenly finding his old form after a long goalless streak (he has two goals and two assists in his last three appearances in all comps).

Aston Villa played better in the second half and ended the game with 18 shots (only two on target), though the Gunners managed the game well and had quality chances to score a third on a few second half counters. It ended 2-0 and Arsenal are now top of the table, at least for the 30 hours until Leicester City take on Chelsea. The game by the numbers …

50 – Giroud’s BPL goal tally in 113th league games. Impressive after a poor ratio in his first couple of years in North London.

7 – the Frenchman becomes the 7th Gunner to reach that tally in the Premier League era, joining Henry, Wright, van Persie, Bergkamp, Pires and the man who provided the opportunity (Walcott)

1 – the number of hat tricks by the Frenchman at Arsenal (his one and only coming in the critical 3-0 victory Wednesday)

13 – League assists by Ozil this year (in 15 games), after only 5 in the league all of last season – along with 2 league and 2 UCL goals

7 – the number of assists he now needs to tie Henry’s record tally from 2004-05, with as many as 23 league games to find those 7.

29 – the number of appearances by Ox since his last goal.

12 - the number of games Ramsey went without a league goal before the two in his last two.

169 – the number of clean sheets by Cech in the league, tying David James record

349 – the number of games it took Cech (it took James 557)

78 – the game time when Jack Grealish came on for the first time since his clubbing hijinx. Played well in his cameo, but couldn’t bring AV back.

0-3-12 – Villa record in last 15; a club record to forget!

75 – number of points Arsenal have in 2015: best in the league

Arsenal next take on Man City Monday before a run of winnable fixtures against Southampton, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Sunderland. A nice winning streak could see them in a strong position for the second half push. Aston Villa, on the other hand, looks almost certain to drop unless they can pull serious points out of their next four fixtures with fellow league strugglers – Newcastle (who have beaten Liverpool and Tottenham in their last two), West Ham, Norwich and Sunderland. COYG!

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

EPL Week 15 Recap: Leicester Back on Top; Arsenal Win; Chelsea, City & Liverpool All Lose (And the Champions League Results …)

As has become almost an almost weekly occurrence, the weekend commenced with an upset, this time Stoke City playing inhospitable host to table leading Manchester City, in a 2-0 win. Six simultaneous games followed, with Arsenal finally winning a game after giving up the lead for the third game running (3-1 over Sunderland), Southampton and Aston Villa drawing 1-1, Leicester City keeping up their hot streak with a 3-0 road win over hapless Swansea, Watford winning 2-0 over Norwich and West Brom holding Tottenham to a point in a 1-1 draw. The biggest news of the slate was United, who played out their fifth 0-0 draw in their last nine games, missing out on a chance to go top and asking further questions of LVG, who then saw his team exit the Champions League unceremoniously three days later. Saturday ended with yet another loss for Chelsea, falling to Bournemouth at the once impenetrable Stamford Bridge 1-0. Incredibly it was their eighth loss in the first 15 games!

In the sole Sunday game, Liverpool was brought down from their lofty recent run by a 2-0 loss at Newcastle. Rather optimistic talk of a title run seems premature. Finally was a Monday encounter where Everton’s Romulo Lukaku kept up his recent purple path scoring the equalizer five minutes after Scott Dann had headed Crystal Palace into the lead in the 76th minute, with the game finishing in a lively 1-1 draw. Tuesday and Wednesday, the four English representatives in the Champions League all had matches with implications as Man City tried to jump above Juve into first place in the Group and Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal tried to secure advancement. Three of the four earned the necessary results while Manchester United continued their uneven form, falling 3-2 to Wolfsburg and being dumped out of the easiest draw of the four teams. Just before the Wednesday kickoffs, we learned that Swansea’s run of 1 win in 11 games was enough to cost Gary Monk his job, mere months after he had led them to their greatest point total in the BPL ever. More on those results below …

Some thoughts on Game Week 15:
1. Wide Open Title Race: Beyond Leicester, who actually wants to win the title this year? Obviously all 20 teams, but those near the top are doing their best to play coy pretenders to the crown. Man City, like last season, seems to drop points out of nowhere, most recently in the insipid performance at Stoke Saturday. United are somehow in third with one of the most uninspiring starts to a season in recent memory, unable to hit the side of a barn, much less the net. Arsenal are, well, Arsenal, and the rest of the crowd seems players and points short of mounting a title charge. So could the impossible occur, and Leicester actually steal away with the title. I still believe they will drop points down the road and fade a little, though it is hard to see them outside the Top 6 (or maybe even 4) at this point. With a little luck, the title is not beyond them. The result by Arsenal on Wednesday in the Champions League is the sort of victory that can catapult a team to greater glory and they do sit a mere two points off the acme of the table. I think the race is really between the Gunners and City with the two head-to-head matchups and road performances probably the deciders this year. Some will claim United still have a shot, but I just don’t see it with this squad and the lack of goals and creativity and Tottenham is, well, Tottenham. Liverpool have looked good in recent weeks, but their loss Sunday should give people pause, as will yet another injury to Daniel Sturridge.

2. Chelsea Nightmare Before Christmas: rather than continuing to catalog one of the worst title defenses in history, I thought I would instead provide some numbers that perfectly capture the Blues struggles:

22 – the number of years since Chelsea had so few points in their first 15 games
8 – the highest a team has finished with this few points after 15 games
8 – the number of losses so far, more than twice the total all of last season
11.3% - the number of shots converted (the worst in the league)
17.3% - cross completion rate (also the worst in the league)
200m – how much more the Chelsea 11 cost than Bournemouth’s squad
2 – number of assists by Fabergas (versus 11 at the same point last season)
15 – the number of goals conceded by Chelsea in the last 15 minutes of matches
24 – the number of goals conceded overall
17 – the number of goals scored (50% fewer than the same time last year)
0 – the number of goals by Hazard in 22 appearances this season (vs. 7 LS)
41 – the number of years since a champion last lost 8 of their first 15 games.
3. Klopp Love Fest Interruptus: people were beginning to speak of a Liverpool title charge after a good run of fixtures under new manager Klopp, who really is a likable guy in a sport where managers are often either arrogant children or vapid clichĂ© machines. But the 2-0 loss to Newcastle should steady those expectations. Liverpool have been playing better football, but the loss of Sterling last summer still smarts and real questions remain about where goals will come from, particularly with Sturridge set for another spell on the sideline. Klopp is a great manager, clearly, but I don’t see this squad as worthy of raising the trophy at the end of the season, unless major reinforcements come in this winter. The Top 4, on the other hand, might be possible, particularly with the stolid form of United, who are somehow still in third place at the moment. On the other hand, Tottenham seem like a real challenger to that position.

4. Around the Horn: Just when it looked like Real Madrid were toast in La Liga, they picked up two points as Valencia drew 1-1 with Barca while Real beat Getafe 4-1. Atletico also won, 2-0 at Granada, to draw within two points of the leader. In Germany, Bayern missed out on the possibility of a perfect season, losing 3-1 at Borussia Mönchengladbach, seeing their Bundesliga lead fall to five points over a surprising Dortmund. And in Italy, Inter got back to winning ways with a 1-0 victory over Genoa while Fiorentina also won (3-0 over Udinese) Napoli lost at Bologna (3-2) and Roma and AC Milan were both held to draws against Torino and Carpi, respectively. Inter now leads Fiorentina by a point, Napoli by two and Roma by five, with a resurgent Juve in fifth a mere six points from the top after their 2-0 Friday win at Lazio.

5. Champions League Relief x 3: Manchester United headed into their match at Wolfsburg knowing a win guaranteed passage to the next round, while a draw might be enough. And they scored first, as Martial finally ended his scoring slump on 10 minutes. Three minutes later, the lead was gone and another first half goal saw them staring at an early exit. An own goal gave them hope, particularly when CSKA pulled ahead of PSV for a time, but PSV came back and Wolfsburg sealed United’s fate with a Naldo header in the 84th minute. In the end, PSV won 2-1 and United would have needed two goals to finish second in the group. Instead, Thursday night Euro League games await the club that has spent around 300 million pounds in the past year and a half. Not good enough, one could say, but certainly sweet revenge for those of us still smarting from years of United success under Fergie.

Two games ago, after being thrashed by Bayern, Arsenal’s Champion’s League hopes were in tatters, but it was clear they still had hope. The necessary victory over Dinamo Zagreb followed and now they needed to head to Greece and beat Olympiakos by two goals (or by any win with at least 3 goals for the Gunners). And they did just that, winning 3-0 on a hat trick from Olivier Giroud and some timely defending. It was not easy, as Olympiakos passed and pressed well, but their inability to convert their chances meant Arsenal pulled off the “Miracle in Piraeus;” okay, not a miracle, but a great turnaround for the Gunners. Meanwhile, Chelsea scored an early own goal, off a shot by Diego Costa to pull ahead in their match with Porto, ultimately winning 2-0 to top their group. And on the same day United fell out of the tournament, City came back from a 2-1 deficit to win 4-2 and, coupled with the Juve’s 1-0 loss to Sevilla, meant City topped the Group. Heading into the knockout stage, Arsenal face the most perilous route to the quarters while Chelsea and City will hope for optimal draws as England attempts to keep itself above Italy in coefficient points.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Beat Sunderland 3-1 to Move to 2nd

For a third league game running, the Gunners gave back an early lead. Unlike the past two weeks, though, they were able to go on to win this one, with an assist to a Sunderland team that spurned a few good chances to forge ahead. Arsenal dominated possession for most of the game (to the tune of 73 percent), but were having trouble breaking through a well-organized Allardyce back five until the man of the season so far, Mesut Ozil, threaded a pass between two defender to set Joel Campbell in on goal in the 33rd minute. For the second time in his last three appearances, the Costa Rican International finished the chance to give Arsenal a 1-0 lead. Just before halftime, however, Giroud put the ball past Cech and into his own net, the fourth time the Gunners have done so this season.
The Frenchman made up for his error in the second half, though, as he headed a Ramsey cross past Pantilmon and into the net in the 63rd minute. Sunderland sculpted a couple more chances before the game finished, though Arsenal grew in stature and looked like a team worthy of all three points. Ramsey then put the game beyond doubt in the 93rd minute with a simple finish from close range. Three thoughts on the game:
1. Campbell Surprise; Rambo Rebound: Many think that Joel Campbell just doesn’t have the talent necessary to break into the first team at Arsenal, particularly when one considers the talented set of players he would have to supplant. But with Sanchez, Cazorla, Rosicky and Wilshere still out and Ramsey, Ox and Walcott just back from injury, it is clear he will get his chances over the next month. If he can continue to finish his chances as well as he did yesterday, and put in the complete performance that followed that goal, it might have been a good move by Wenger not to send him out on loan this season. Campbell was a revelation at the World Cup back in 2014 and certainly has the possibility to shape back into that form. Two goals in his last three is a good start.

The performance of Ramsey playing through the middle, as he prefers, in the absence of Cazorla will also give Wenger some hope that the Gunners can stay close to the top through the busy holiday season, possibly picking up a DM in the January window he so despises. Even as he claims to hate that window, there have been some good additions in the midseason of late; including starting left back Nacho Monreal and backup CB Gabriel. Ramsey’s late goal, while not terribly important to the result, complemented the assist on the go-ahead score and his overall performance reminded of his form almost two years back, when an early purple patch had the Gunners at the top of the table heading into the New Year. They will need he and a clearly-past-his-prime Flamini to play at their peak if they are to set themselves up for a sustained title chase in the second half. It might be their best chance in a decade.

2. Shambolic Defending Continues: November is over and the Gunners got back to winning ways after blowing a third lead in a row, but it was not without some more questionable defending. The difference this year is the solidity of the man marshaling the goal from the back. But even he could not stop a bizarrely mistimed clearance from Giroud on a corner that drew Sunderland even. Starting with the turn of 2015, Arsenal were playing much better defense, finding ways to win close games by defending vigilantly and sometimes even playing on the counter. Those days appear to be long gone, as teams are finding ways to get behind the Gunner defense far too regularly. The absence of Coquelin has contributed to the recent spurt of conceded goals that includes the one today, another against table struggling Norwich, two to an average West Brom team, one to Tottenham and the five-goal battering they took in Bavaria. Wenger will have to find a way to shore up the defense going forward and hope to avoid any further injuries.

3. Sunderland Have a Shot to Avoid Relegation: Sam Allardyce has never been relegated as a manager and though Sunderland lost all three points today, after two wins in a row, there were signs that he has improved a team that seemed certain to drop before he arrived. Even in only garnering 27 percent possession, Sunderland were even until the 63rd minute, with a few chances to go ahead. They mustered 11 shots (4 on target) against a nervous looking Arsenal defense, and just missed on a couple with Cech having another strong performance in goal to stop four himself. Sunderland were well organized playing on the counter and were able to get behind the Gunner’s defense on a couple of occasions. They will need some luck, particularly as Newcastle seems to have the requisite talent to maybe avoid the drop themselves, but on the evidence of the past three games, “Big Sam” might be at it again.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Blow Chance to Go Joint Top Again (1-1)

Arsenal travelled to a cold, rainy Norwich City stadium trying to draw even with Man City at the top of the table again, a week after falling to fourth place after the disappointing loss to West Brom. And though Norwich held out firm for the first 30 minutes, with some wonderful saves from John Ruddy, a Sanchez interception led to the opener. After Ruddy passed to John O’Neill following a dangerous back pass, Sanchez jumped the touch and sent a perfectly weighted diagonal through ball to a charging Ozil, who lofted it over a charging Ruddy and into the far corner. Arsenal looked set to build on their lead and win easily, but just before halftime, Gabriel ended up on the wrong side of Grabban, who finished easily past Cech (44’) after an excellent pass. It was his first goal for the club, in his 14th appearance, and was the second league game in a row where the Gunners gave up a first half lead. Against West Brom, it was worse, of course, as they allowed two goals before halftime on the way to a loss that included a missed sitter and a blown penalty.

Just before halftime, Wisdom sent a dangerous cross to the far post that Hoolahan met but sent over, with the mouth of the goal gaping, just missing out on his 50th goal in English football. Norwich’s rugby approach continued in the early going of the second half, with Canaries clattering into Cazorla and Giroud in quick succession without a yellow card to show for their physical approach to the game that included, in the first half, a shove on Sanchez, into the television pit. Arsenal were probing around goal, but without an end product and it was actually Santi Cazorla who garnered the first caution of the game, after a clear dive in the 54th minute. Three minutes later, Gary O’Neill did earn Norwich’s first yellow as Ramsey stormed forward after an interception, leading to an Arsenal free kick that Ozil hit right into the wall. On 70 minutes, a lovely cross almost led to an own goal but for a brilliant save from Petr Cech and Norwich almost made the resulting corner pay with a clip just over the goal. The game was back and forth from here, with the Canaries arguably creating the better chances, but the Gunners had to settle for a draw that felt like two lost points. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Ozil Rising: I suppose I have become one of the biggest supporters/defenders of Mesut Ozil, believing he has been among the best players in the world since he catapulted onto the international stage with his performance at the 2010 World Cup with a young German squad that would, of course, win the competition four years later. After lighting up the Bundesliga with Werner Bremen, he moved onto Real Madrid where he became the key provider to Benzema and Ronaldo. Arsenal signed him two years ago and while he is the recipient of endless criticism from pundits and fans that I do not think really understand the game, Ozil is a genius who is starting to really come into form. He has provided more assists this year than any other player in Europe and is now starting to add goals to his game, including the openers today and on Tuesday in the Champions League.

While he was originally intent on being a provider rather than a finisher, he is suddenly adding that element to his game with clever, sharp runs and taking his shot when it is available. It is exactly what Arsene Wenger was hoping to get out of his record signing and one could make an argument, with the decline of Eden Hazard, Fabergas and Costa this season, the streakiness of Sanchez and the injuries to Silva and Aguero, that he is among the top offensive talents in the league at present, just behind a few strikers and maybe the electric Mahrez. They will need him to continue to contribute every week as they could be without Sanchez for a stretch.

2. Risking Sanchez Could be Costly: before the game there were reports that Sanchez had a hamstring niggle and yet he was still allowed to play the game. One wonders why, though the explanation was that “it was not a good time to rest him.” What the hell that means is beyond me, but it could be yet another costly mistake from a manager that continues to have the worst injury record in the league. On 59 minutes, he pulled up with a clear hamstring injury and could now be out for, one assumes, at least three weeks (if not a lot longer). That comes on the heals of an early injury to Koscielny and the list just keeps getting longer for Arsenal, even as Ramsey was finally back in the fold from the start and Ox came in for the last 20 minutes or so. The only one who will see these mounting injuries as potentially positive news is Joel Campbell, who will now probably have a chance to impress over the coming weeks.

3. Turkey Blues: November has been the worst month for points throughout Wenger’s 19-year reign and it appears to be a trend that is continuing this season. It started with a 5-1 decimation at the hands of Bayern on the fourth, then the disappointing 1-1 draw with Tottenham, a 2-1 loss to lowly West Brom and the draw today. The only win for the Gunners in the five fixtures this month was the 3-0 victory over Zagreb. So, rather than being at the top of the table with some very winnable matches in the next few weeks, the Gunners find themselves in fourth place yet again, two points behind City and Leicester and a point behind a very average United team.
Disappointment does not do justice to the feeling Gooners are feeling today and I wonder if I am not the only one wondering when the hell Wenger is going to retire and allow someone else to take a shot at a title that looks a lot more than three points away at the moment. Norwich fans, on the other hand, must feel a sense of optimism after four points in two games against Swansea and Arsenal and a cushion above the drop zone (though only two points).

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal UCL Future in Own Hands

Arsenal hosted Dinamo Zagreb tonight at the Emirates in a game they needed to win if they were to keep alive their quest to become only the second team ever to emerge from the group stage of the competition after losing their first two games. Job done after a resounding 3-0 win which, coupled with a 4-0 Bayern hiding of Olympiakos, meant they can still make it through to the Round of 16 for the 16th season running. What they will need to do to accomplish that feat is go to Greece and win by 2 goals, or 3-2. Three quick thoughts on the win tonight:

1. Streaky Sanchez Chips In: In the 29th minute, Sanchez sent a beautiful cross to the head of a charging Mesut Ozil, who smashed it past Zagreb keeper Eduardo to give the Gunners the lead. Four minutes later Sanchez scored his first goal since October 17, finishing a nice cutback from Monreal. Then, to put things beyond doubt, he chipped in a second on a wonderful pass from Joel Campbell, playing his best game in the red and white, in the 69th minute. While Sanchez was the player of the year last season, he is incredibly streaky, having only scored in 10 of 41 games with Arsenal. This season he has scored nine goals now, but those have come in only five games. Sanchez is a wonderful player with an unparalleled drive to win, but if Arsenal are to finally win another league title, they will need more consistent scoring from their talisman. On an unrelated note, Ozil actually went a game without an assist, but he was all over the pitch, scoring the all-important opening goal and passing the ball around with flair and real confidence. If he can raise his game to this level going forward, chipping in a few more goals along the way, Arsenal have a real shot at advancing in the UCL and making a sustained title challenge.

2. Petr Cech ... Solid as a Rock: the Arsenal keeper is nearing an incredible 40 clean sheets in the Champions League to go with his 2012 title. He was called into action in the second half here, with a wonder save to stop the Gunners from conceding their second own goal in four days. Luckily his quick fire reaction saved Dinamo from making it a game. Why Wenger sat him earlier in the competition is a question that only the manager can answer, but it is clear, if the Gunners do go on to win silverware this season, that he is the signing of the season. His solidity at the back, since that disastrous opening day loss to West Ham, has already earned the team at least five or six points, and John Terry’s prediction that he was worth at least 15 is starting to look more prophetic by the week.

3. Good News Always Comes With Bad for the Melancholic Gooner: it has been slightly easier to be sanguine over the past year and a half as an Arsenal fan, as they have secured those two FA Cups and, though largely meaningless, two Community Shields as well. The win over Bayern to keep their hopes in the Champions League alive was backed by the professional 3-0 win tonight. And even with some early season struggles, Arsenal are still only two points from the summit of the table, with some very winnable fixtures on the dawn. Yet watching Aaron Ramsey jog onto the pitch tonight in the 67th minute was counterbalanced by news that Coquelin’s injury is even worse than originally thought.

He will now miss at least three months of the season, with the only available backups the aging Flamini and the largely untested Calum Chambers. It is possible that Wenger might put Ramsey next to Cazorla at the back, but that sounds like a dangerous pairing against the more physical sides in the EPL. Instead, Wenger will probably make due with Flamini or Chambers at least until January, when it appears he will have to dip into the January transfer window yet again to address an issue that most thought should have been taken care of this summer – namely, a defensive midfielder that can marshal the back in Coquelin’s absence. There are some worthy options including Carvalho and Lars Bender, among a host of Premier League talent that might be available for the right price.

The good news for the Gunners, and I know this sounds harsh, is that Mikel Arteta was also injured in the West Brom game. Arteta was a useful addition after the fire sale the Gunners suffered a few years ago, losing Fabergas, Nasri and then Van Persie (among a host of others) in two windows, but his time has passed; on top of the reality that he was never really a great defensive midfielder. His own goal before hobbling off on Saturday was a healthy reminder that his presence in the team makes the defense always on the cusp of being shambolic. Flamini is statistically worse in every category than both Coquelin (by a mile) and Arteta (by a more reasonable margin), but I think he is better suited to take on the role necessary for at least the next four weeks.

But the latest injury woes only amplify the contention of many that Wenger is no longer the man to lead this Arsenal side to the apex of the league, or even beyond the Round of 16 in the UCL, and that it is time for him to move on (at the end of the season, of course). That seems unlikely unless the Gunners do win the title, but maybe it is time for the board to nudge the aging Frenchman toward the exit before the team he has built disassembles in despair at knowing they are but a couple pieces away from being among the best in the world. Looking at Liverpool dismantle Man City on Saturday showed the power a forward-looking coach can have on a side and it seems time that Arsenal take a chance on a change that seems 10 years in the making.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Liberal Media Bias? Hmm ...


Three Things: Arsenal Miss Chance to Go Top Again

Arsenal headed into their game at the Hawthorn with only one loss in their last 19 trips there, coming way back in 2005. On the other hand, the West Brom team now coached by Tony Pulis meant that statistical edge abutted against an away record against the “rugby coach” of only one win alongside four draws and three losses in eight trips to Crystal Palace, Stoke and now West Brom. Make that four losses after the Gunners blew a one-goal lead in five first half minutes before Joel Campbell missed an absolute sitter and Cazorla missed a late penalty. It was the second time in their past two league games that Arsenal missed out on a chance to go top of the league, as West Brom held on for the 2-1 win. Three quick thoughts on the game.

1. Gunners Revert to Decade-long Form: Arsenal have won two FA Cups and two Community Shields in a row, so one can’t say this is a team without a spine, but when it comes to the league, they seem to find ways to lose winnable games more often than any other team in the Top 5. Tottenham, for example, has not lost a single game since their opening day loss to United. United, while playing a brand of football few find attractive, are grinding out results as they look for more pizazz up front. And even Chelsea got back to winning ways on Saturday. The Gunners, on the other hand, have had two chances to go top of the table and blown both. First they suffered from Olivier Giroud’s profligacy in front of goal, only able to garner a point against bitter rival Spurs. Now they lost a 1-0 lead on the road with some lax defending and an inability to finish their chances.

The biggest thumbs down has to go to Santi Cazorla, who has now failed to score in any of his 13 league appearances this season and another 14 last season since he last scored on February 21 against Crystal Palace. In fact, except for three goals for Spain and one in a preseason friendly with Lyon, Cazorla has appeared to forget how to put the ball in the back of the net. The situation is even worse for Joel Campbell, who never knew how to score outside of his international work with Costa Rica (and occasionally out on loan). The sitter he missed in the second half would have drawn the Gunners even and given them a real shot at all three points. One wonders if he will still be lining up with the Gunners next season. The third thumbs down has to go to Arteta, who actually used his hand to push the ball past Petr Cech and into the net for what turned out to be the winning goal. He is part of the old guard of Arsenal that were shambolic at the back and gave up far too many goals on errors and the fact we are without the more solid Coquelin through the busy holiday season bodes rather poorly for the Gunners staying in the title chase. I won't count by beloved Gunners out yet, but things are beginning to look dire, and oh too familiar, over the past month.

2. Injury Crisis Worsens: Arsenal are not the only team that suffers through injury crises during any given league season, but they have been the most consistent at seeing their title challenge derailed by a pile up of injuries in at least one half of the season. This is the fourth year in a row when they will probably lead the league in injury time off for presumed starters and they added two names to the list in this game – first Coquelin and then Arteta. The injury to Coquelin will see him out at least two months and, of course, justifies fans concerns that Wenger refused to buy backup to our defensive midfielder. With Arteta also sidelined, this means that Ramsey will either have to move back to pair up with Cazorla, now that the Welshman appears to be back from injury (at least for a game), or Flamini will have to start in that position. It is really an unforgiveable oversight by the most stubborn manager in the Premier League and is made worse by failing to buy another striker, with both Walcott and Welbeck still unavailable. Added to that list are the brittle Jack Wilshire, Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain. These issues were supposed to be addressed when a new medical team was brought in last season, but the same old problems continue to crop up. It appears they need to explore another shift in the backroom staff, to improve the squad players (to give more rest to the starters) and maybe to sign players without long histories of injury.

3. The Case for Giroud: the Downside of Sanchez: Giroud is one of the more mercurial strikers in the world. In one moment, he scores a sublime goal either through a well-placed header, as he did Saturday, or with incredible volleys with his body contorted into Houdini-like poses. Then he goes through a game, or series of games, where he misses three tap-ins or simple headers. Lately, the Frenchman has been both at the same time, blowing simple finishes while scoring a number of spectacular goals. Giroud has 7 goals in 13 appearances this season, with those 7 coming in his last 10 appearances. As previously mentioned, his three misses against Tottenham cost Arsenal two points, but his goal on Saturday probably should have been enough to give the Gunners all three points. His hold-up play has been a little more suspect this term and the fact he has zero assists in 13 appearances means his link-up play is not up to recent seasons, and yet Giroud has the stats one wants in a striker – one goal every other game. Whether he is the best man for the job every week is still open to debate, as the pace of Walcott would be better suited to some opponents, but it is clear that he is the better option against teams like West Brom, that sit back, absorb the pressure and try to score on the counter. There are better strikers in the world, certainly, but Giroud is among the more consistent in the league over the past three seasons, as strange as that is to write.

Sanchez, on the other hand, is often the hardest working player on the pitch, and though he is streakier than Giroud, is arguably the best player on the Arsenal squad. One area where he does not measure up to his peers, however, is in possession. As Daily Mail reported last week, Sanchez has been dispossessed 41 times this season, not counting the game Saturday, good for most in the entire league (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3324066/Alexis-Sanchez-lost-ball-player-season-Arsenal-star-best-Premier-League-beating-defenders.html). And while he has scored a respectable six goals this season, that is five less than at the same time last time around. He got hot last month, but seems to have reverted to a rather troubling trend that started late last season. Sanchez is great, but needs to find better spaces to exploit the speed of the Arsenal attack and the creativity of Ozil (who, by the way, added his 11th assist in 12 games in a losing effort).

Arsenal now have a make-or-break game against Dinamo Zagreb in the UCL on Tuesday, where anything but a win means they are out of the competition. A loss, while seemingly unthinkable, would actually mean they are not even heading to the Europa League. One assumes they will find a way to win the game, but they also have to hope Olympiakos doesn’t earn at least a draw against Bayern, as that too would eliminate them from the competition. In the league, they have what increasingly looks like must win games against and at struggling Sunderland, before the trip to Olympiakos that should decide their Champions League fate for this season; potentially costing Wenger his record of always making it to the knockout stage of the tournament.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

NFL Week 10 Wrap: Cowboys Season Unravels; Seattle in Trouble; Panthers & Pats Keep on Trucking

The Games

The week got started on Thursday night with the classless return of Rex Ryan and his Buffalo Bills to Met Life Stadium and a matchup with the Jets team that rightfully sacked him after another awful season. Ryan once seemed like a nice guy who had a big mouth but a kind heart; he increasingly looks like a “character” or maybe even “caricature” of an NFL coach. Sure he had the last laugh as the Bills held off a late Jets comeback to win 22-17, but naming Enemkpali as the co-captain (the guy who broke Geno Smith’s jaw) showed the kind of guy Ryan really is. On Sunday morning, two games with big ramifications took place in Wisconsin and Tampa. The Detroit Lions finally ended a 24-year losing streak at Green Bay, winning 18-16 after a last second 51-yard field goal by the Packers fell well short and the Cowboys lost for the seventh game in a row, again ceding a fourth quarter lead to fall 10-6. Dez Bryant appeared to be interfered with on the end zone interception that ended it, but probably could have put up more of an effort to snatch a ball that seemed very catchable. If the penalty had been called, the Cowboys would have had the ball at the one yard line with plenty of time to run at least two or three plays.

The Eagles blew a lead against the Dolphins after their starting quarterback Sam Bradford went out with a shoulder injury and concussion, losing 20-19. Good ole Mark Sanchez came in to “un”save the day (a habit of his as the anti-Super Man), throwing an interception in the end zone when they could have won with a field goal.  The Chicago Bears continued their recent renaissance, crushing the Rams 37-13 behind a big day from Jay Cutler (19 of 24 for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns). Todd Gurley was held to 45 yards on 12 rushes as Nick Foles had another average day, only going 17/36 for 200 yards and a pick. Both teams moved to 4-5 in what is increasingly shaping up as a packed Wild Card chase. Meanwhile the Jags tagged the Ravens for another last second loss, this time on a field goal with no time left to win it 22-20. Flacco had a big day with 316 yards on 34 of 45 passes, but had two picks to undermine his three touchdown tosses.

The Panthers moved to 9-0 after struggling early against the 2-7 Titans, with Cam Newton putting in another efficient performance on the way to the 27-10 win. And the New Orleans Saints continued to confound with their play from one week to the next, getting absolutely demolished 47-14 by a Redskins team that moved to 4-5. Kurt Cousins was the hero, throwing for four touchdowns and 324 yards on only 20 completed passes (out of 25 throws), while Drew Brees had an off day, tossing two interceptions and only completing 19 of 28 for 209 yards.

In the late games, the Giants hosted the Patriots in a matchup that pitted one of the few coaches in the league with a winning record against Bill Belichick; with Tom Coughlin 3-0, including the two Super Bowl rings he stole from his old friend. This was the game of the season so far, back and forth throughout before a 54-yard field goal with 1 second left gave the Patriots the 27-26 win. The Giants (now 5-5) will look back at a few plays that cost them the game, including a sack of Manning in the fourth quarter that cost them a shot at three points, the overturned touchdown catch by Odell Beckham, poor time management that gave Brady plenty of time for the comeback, a missed interception on the final Patriots drive that would have sealed it and failing to stop the Pats on a fourth and 10. It is the third game already this season the Giants could, and probably should, have won. The Patriots, on the other hand, will feel good at 9-0, having essentially already won the AFC East, and having beaten one of their fiercest rivals in the league. But they lost key receiver Edelman in the first half and will hope he doesn’t have an extended stay on the sideline. In the other late games, the Chiefs made it two losses in a row for the Broncos (29-13) as Peyton Manning played one of the worst games of his career before being benched. The Vikings dented the Raider’s playoff hopes with a 30-14 hiding that pushed them a game above the struggling Packers in the NFC North.

The Sunday night game saw Seattle hosting Arizona in a game that would go a long way to determining the winner of the NFC West. Arizona jumped out to a 19-0 lead, but a Seattle touchdown before halftime gave them a sliver of hope. After trading scores, Seattle’s defense stripped Carson Palmer on two straight possessions, scoring touchdowns on each turnover to forge ahead 29-25. Palmer then led the Cardinals on an 83-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead and then scored a long touchdown by Ellington on the next drive to punctuate the win, though they needed to recover an onside kick to preserve the final 39-32 win. Palmer threw for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns, though he also threw an interception and lost two fumbles. Russell Wilson, on the other hand, was 14-32 for 240 yards with a touchdown and a pick, earning a measly QBR of 13.8. At 4-5, Seattle is now in danger of missing out on the playoffs altogether, while the Cardinals have essentially wrapped up the NFC West. Monday night matched the 8-0 Bengals against the 3-5 Texans, and has often been the case in recent years, the Texans upset their Northern neighbors. The Bengals offense suddenly wilted under consistent pressure, only able to muster two first field goals in a dull 10-6 loss, with Bengal’s killer T. J. Yates coming on to lead the Texans on the game-winning fourth quarter drive.

Some thoughts on Week 10

Why Bad Teams Lose (and occasionally win anyway)
The Jets head coach Todd Bowles might want to take some lessons in math. After going for it on fourth down twice in the last six minutes inside their opponents 25, Bowles lost the game 22-17. Last time I checked, three + three = six, and thus a 23-22 win. On top of that was the inability to pound it in from the two or, from a different vantage point, to get the 13 yards they needed to take the lead after a blocked punt. Yet it wasn’t just Bowles decision making that cost the Jets, as Fitzpatrick had a below par game, the defense spotted the Bills a huge lead and a mix-up on fourth down cost them the game late. Detroit did their best to blow their game late against the Packers as well, after going up 8 points with a minute and a half left, their kicker missed his SECOND extra point of the game. The Packers then drove down the field and scored, only to just miss their own two-point conversion. The resulting onside kick headed toward the man the Lions would most trust to hold onto it (Calvin Johnson), though he somehow bumbled it and gave it to the Packers. Their short drive got it into field goal range, but the 51 yarder was side footed and the Lions won at Green Bay for the first time in three decades.

The loss of the day, though, goes to a coach who doesn’t seem to garner enough scrutiny, even as he appears to lose more close games than any other in the league. Jason Garrett has now overseen seven straight losses for a Cowboys team that came into the season as prohibitive Super Bowl favorites. Sure they lost their starting quarterback and best receiver, and then one of their top two running backs, but they have been either ahead or tied in the fourth quarter of six of those seven losses. The team has too many turnovers, too many penalties, too many key mistakes, poor time management, the inability to hold leads, a really average defense and a penchant for blowing games late. Garrett’s record as the head coach now stands at 43-38 and he has played a mere two playoff games, winning won (they probably should have lost) and losing one (they probably should have won). But let’s look more closely at those seasons. In his first three, the Cowboys finished 8-8 and one game out of the playoffs. In each of those seasons, they played an NFC East rival with the chance to seal the division and a playoff birth in the final game. And they lost each of those games. Last year, he did lead them to a division title and a playoff birth, but they were lucky to beat the Lions after a bad call and really should have won the game against the Packers (even as he had no control over “the catch that wasn’t.”). Garrett cannot be fired after all the injury woes the Cowboys have suffered, but I think there is a strong argument that this should be his final season in charge of the underperforming Dallas Cowboys. Given Jerry Jones’ decision making since his ex-friend Jimmy Johnson left, one assumes he will sign him to a lifetime contract after they just miss out on the playoffs by losing the final game of the season.

Is Peyton Manning Done?
Peyton Manning had one of his worst games as a professional quarterback on Sunday, going 5 for 20 for 35 yards and 4 (no, that is not a typo) interceptions. He was also sacked twice. It was such a bad performance Manning earned a quarterback rating (not QBR) of 0.0. It has of course emerged today that he has a plantar fascia issue that affected his performance, but serious questions must still be asked. Overall this season, he has 9 touchdown passes versus 17 interceptions, has a completion percentage under 60 (59.9), is only averaging 6.77 yards per attempt and has a QBR (45.0) that ranks 29th. The truth is, besides the impressive game against the Packers, Manning has been among the most mediocre (or bad, if you like) quarterbacks in the league since the middle of last season. His body is falling apart on him, his throws (which were never tight spirals) are like flailing ducks half the time and he is getting close to doubling his touchdown total with interceptions.

It used to be that teams could win championships with a dominant defense and a passable offense, but those days appear to be long gone. Seattle is the closest we’ve seen, but their dominance over the past few years has owed a lot to one of the better statistical quarterbacks in the league and a dominant rusher in Marshall Lynch. Since that offense’s performance has declined this year, so have their fortunes. The Broncos might have flattered to deceive with their early start, but this does not look like a team that can win a playoff game, much less go to and win the Super Bowl.

Maybe a few week’s rest will allow Manning to come back stronger, but his performance in this game and the late interception that cost them the comeback against the Colts, together with his overall performance this season, fails to give one much confidence that he is doing much else this year besides breaking some more records and, in a small way, tarnishing the tail end of a spectacular career. The solitary Super Bowl victory is the presumptive reason he returned, but I believe that ship sailed two seasons ago in a Super Bowl that was over before it had really begun. On a more positive note, many great quarterbacks from Dan Marino to Dan Fouts to Richard Todd (just kidding) would have gladly taken that one ring and called it a career.

Are these Panthers for Real?
The Panthers now stand at 9-0 and in firm control of the NFC South. If they keep playing like this, they should also take home field advantage into the playoffs. Last year, their 7-8-1 record led many to question whether division winners should even get an automatic spot in the playoffs, before they beat the Cardinals in the Wild Card game 27-16 and gave the Seahawks a scare before ending up on the wrong side of a 31-17 scoreline. And lest us forget, this is the same team that went 12-4 two years ago before losing to the Niners 23-10 in the divisional round. So, are the Panthers now a serious Super Bowl contender? They have had some quality wins, including a 27-23 road win over the Seahawks, a 27-16 victory over the Eagles, a 29-26 win over the Colts and a 37-29 victory over the Packers. But those wins are looking a little less impressive as time goes on and we see flaws in each of those other teams. Their other opponents have been more suspect, but nine wins in a row is nine wins in a row. Looking forward, they face the Redskins (H), Cowboys (A), Saints (A), Falcons (H), Giants (A), Falcons again (A) and Bucs (H). They could easily fall back into the pack if they let up at all, but those are all winnable games.

In total defense, the Panthers rank a middle-of-the-road 11th, the same position they earn in points allowed per game (20.4). They are 12th in total passing yards allowed and 13th against the run. Offensively, they rank 16th in total yards; 27th in passing yards per game (216.6) but tied for first with Buffalo in rushing (142.3 yards per game). Yet even with those yardage numbers, they are fourth in points scored per game (28.5), behind only the Patriots, Arizona and Cincinnati. And that is the number that matters most. One reason they have scored so many points on a relatively average offense is their plus six turnover margin, good for third in the league behind only the Giants and Patriots. The incredible statistic here is they are tied for 17th in giveaways, with 12, but have forced the fourth most takeaways including a league-leading 13 interceptions (tied with two others).

Cam Newton might be one of the biggest reasons for the impressive first half of the season, though one might be surprised to learn that he is having his worst statistical season by just about any measure. His QBR (52.9) is the lowest in his five-year career, his completion percentage is down (53.7 versus 58.8 overall), his yards per carry (4.7) is below his career average of 5.4, and his yards per attempt (7.4), though better than the previous two season, is below his first two years. His TD/INT (14/9) is more or less on par with his career (91-63), though he has yet to lose a fumble this season. The difference then is his leadership skills and ability to play better when the game is on the line. Newton’s number do not put him among the elite quarterbacks in the league, at least this season, but there is still a perception among most football experts that he is now among the best in the league and has the tools to raise his game to the next level.

On the evidence so far, one would say the Panthers are for real, but might not be quite ready for the big time unless the defense improves and Newton plays marginally better going forward. On the other hand, if they keep getting key turnovers, continue to score at their current rate and play defense a little better, they could certainly go all the way.

Playoff Picture
It appears the playoff picture got a little murkier this week. For one, the Packers lost for the third game in a row and seem to be an offense without an identity. That appears to put the Carolina Panthers at the head of the pack out of the NFC, though I still wonder about their ability to get all the way to the Super Bowl, as mentioned above. In the AFC, the Broncos were so profligate offensively that the unthinkable happened – they benched Peyton Manning (after he completed one more pass (5) than interceptions (4) in his first 20 throws of the game). The Bengals finally lost. And the team that has represented the NFC in the past two Super Bowls is now 4-5; Seattle in case you’ve been living in a cave without Internet or cable reception.

The Patriots are still the cream of the AFC and, realistically, of the NFL, and the competition around them seems to be crumbling. Is a second Super Bowl appearance in a row in the offing? The Steelers could still have something to say about it, though I am doubtful Big Ben can carry them far enough on his rather sizable shoulders. The Bengals are still 8-1 after a one-off loss on Monday night, but have never proven themselves in the playoffs. And Denver is not moribund quite yet. One other team to watch might be an odd choice, but the Colts have shown some of their old magic on occasion this season, and are really shooting to finally get past the Patriots and to the big game.

In the NFC, the Panthers are the only remaining undefeated team and, barring a late season collapse, could be playing all their playoff games at home. The Vikings are in the ascendancy as well, and now have a one game lead over the Packers after winning their fifth in a row. With their running game and defense, decent play from Bridgewater should keep them in the conversation for a potential Super Bowl appearance. Meanwhile, the up and down Giants have arguably the best quarterback in the NFC at present and with all of their offensive weapons could be a team to watch, assuming they even make the playoffs. And don’t count out those Cardinals, who have the most explosive offense in the NFC, if not the league.

At present, I still like the Patriots to come out of the AFC and will switch from the Packers to the Cardinals for the moment. There is still a lot of football to go this season, though, and things can change quickly.