Sunday, March 15, 2015

EPL: What We’ve Learned So Far

We are now three quarters of the way through the 2014-15 English Premier League season and what a season it’s been, with wonder goals, upsets galore, fans marching out of stadiums before halftime in protest and even a scuffle among two of the most respected managers in the world. So what have we learned so far? The most obvious lesson is that the EPL remains the most competitive league from top to bottom in the world. As just one example, yesterday a team that was languishing in the bottom three with only four wins all season (Burnley) beat the team that has won two of the last three EPL titles and was even at the top as the New Year turned (Man City). The next day Southampton visited Chelsea with one of the best defensive records in football, having only conceded one headed goal all year. That number doubled in the 11th minute, when Diego Costa got off his mini-snide with a free header he steered easily across goal. Then the Saints, who have been having trouble scoring for months faced the uphill task of equalizing against a team that is undefeated at home for a year and who have only conceded six goals at Stamford Bridge all season. So of course they earn only their second penalty of the season (they missed the first), score and hold on for the draw with some incredible goalkeeping from Fraser. Today, a hot Tottenham headed to Old Trafford to try and add to the pain of losing their FA Cup tie with Arsenal, only to get crushed 3-0. These three games are emblematic of why people across the globe watch this sport week in and out and follow their clubs with the passion of Joan of Arc. Every week brings big surprises, sublime goals, gritty wins, heartbreaking losses and brilliant play from some of the best players in the world. Sure Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern have deeper squads with more world class stars, but it is the rare season that they are not at the top of their tables worrying that one draw against a midtable team might end their league dreams (at least for the first two). So onto the list …

1. Mourinho’s Transfer Magic Masks Mayhem: Chelsea all but secured the Premier League title yesterday, as Man City lost to Burnley, meaning they have won only five of their last ten games. It has been a surprising collapse from the titleholders, but should take nothing away from an impressive Chelsea team that Mourinho built with two excellent signings to address the weaknesses of the last campaign. The first was the striker they needed to replace the misfiring Fernando Torres, the type of gritty and prolific scorer the Portuguese manager covets. While Diego Costa’s scoring has fallen precipitously in recent weeks, the haul of goals early on will probably make the difference in crowning Chelsea champions, and his goal today secured an important point to balloon their lead to 6 points (with a game in hand). The second was the capture of the former Arsenal and Barcelona star Cesc Fabergas. While he too has seen a noticeable decline in form in the second half (which has been the tendency in his career since 2009, as Barcelona rather bitterly pointed out after selling him last summer), he still has seven more assists than anyone else in the league and was the driving force of the imperious Blues as they built a sizable early lead. Mourinho has worked his magic again and even as the dismal display last Wednesday meant he still awaits a third UCL crown, he already has a trophy with the Capital One Cup and should add yet another league title to his cv by mid to late April. Yet one can’t help but comment on the siege mentality he has installed at Chelsea and a sense that the ugly way his team sometimes play (particularly in big games) maybe shouldn’t be rewarded as often as it is and that, while he is charming, many of us wish he would shut the f*** up sometimes. His failure to give Real what his successor did a year on (the hungered decima Champions League crown) and loss to PSG up a man for a full 90 minutes show that overly negative tactics can backfire. Yet that was certainly not the case today, as they were all over Southampton, only denied a winner by one of the best goalkeeping performances of the season.

2. Arsenal’s “Almost” Anguish Afoot Anew: one of the biggest critiques of Arsene Wenger over the past decade has been his inability to bring in the talent necessary to mirror the success of his first eight years in charge; even as many pointed out the move to the Emirates playing a big role. This has changed in the past two windows, with Ozil and Sanchez coming in for big money and increasing the hope that a sustained title chase is right around the corner (with Ozil helping to bring home a FA Cup title last May, ending the nine-year trophy drought). The recent signing of Gabriel at CB only further solidified the belief that Wenger has changed for the better regarding his transfer policy and is ready to build a team that can actually win the title that has eluded him since the 2003-04 Invincibles team. The reality is that he has been building the spine of this team for some time, even as some of his best players departed. In the past few windows, he has added two players that have developed to a level near the top of the game – Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud – and improved the quality of the surrounding squad (with Ramsey up and down but Koscielny becoming a top tier CB). He signed the talented Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is starting to live up to all the hype and finally challenged his shaky goalkeeper with the capture of Ospina, now marshaling between the sticks. And one of his initial flops, Frances Coquelin, has grown into one of the best DM’s in England. Yet one could argue that the Gunners would be right in the race for the title now but for his failure to make the final two necessary signings last summer – a DM and a CB, particularly as the capture of Gabriel and the return of Coquelin are both at the heart of the improvement in this team. Gabriel not only for the games he’s played, but for pushing Mertesacker to play with a little more resolve and for giving him much needed rest. Coquelin, on the other hand, has changed the entire dynamic of a team that was conceding two goals a game far too often, turning winning positions into draws and, against Swansea, a loss. If he had signed the quality DM the pundits have been demanding and replaced the departed Vermaelen this summer, could Arsenal have challenged for the title? The answer is almost certainly yes (particularly considering they have dropped 13 points from winning positions this season – including late concessions to both Man City and Liverpool in the first half). In any case, Arsenal are among the hottest teams in the country at the moment and have a chance to finish in 2nd place and win the FA Cup, having beaten both Manchester teams in the past two months and, but for a slip-up at Monaco, shown they can win beautifully or ugly. That sort of momentum could lead them to finally win that elusive 12th title next season.

3. English European Éclat Evaporates: I discussed this in another post last week, but it is troubling how poorly the EPL teams have done in the Champions League and Europa League since Chelsea’s success in 2012 (UCL) and the UEFA Europa League (2013). On Wednesday, it is likely that Everton will be the last English team standing in Europe, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City all eliminated in the Round of 16 of the UCL and Liverpool unable to even qualify out of their group. In the Europa League, all have fallen at the Round of 32 except for Everton, who take a 2-1 lead to the Ukraine on Thursday. Chelsea were among the favorites for the title and Arsenal seemed to have been given a knockout draw that made them dark horses. But flat performances from all three, and the others in the lesser competition, again show a decline in European quality since United’s fall from grace. One wonders if it’s just a blip on the path back to the glory of the 2000s, but English teams will have to double-down to improve going forward.

4. Upstarts Uneven Fortunes: There are many young managers across the English landscape and their fortunes have diverged widely in recent years. Roberto Martinez, for example, looked like he was exceeding the early hype last season taking an Everton team to the cusp of the top four, a position they held after beating Arsenal 3-0 in April before a late “Tottenham style” fade, ultimately settling for the Europa League spot. This year they have fallen down the table dramatically, sitting on the edge of the relegation zone. What has happened? Lukaku has not performed at the same level as the two previous campaigns, injuries have plagued the team and, like with his Wigan reign, the defense is conceding far too many goals. Martinez will likely get another year as long as Everton stays up, particularly as he is so universally liked across the world of football, but will have to improve next season if he isn’t to get the sack. Another young manager who already accomplished that dubious honor is Paul Lambert, who impressed as the coach of the promoted Norwich City before taking on the ambitious job of returning Aston Villa to glory. It was always a tough ask and he is now looking in from the outside, as Tim Sherwood seems to have rejuvenated their fortunes in the league and has them through to the semifinals of the FA Cup. Sherwood himself took a further step toward quieting the critics, building momentum just as he had at Tottenham last season. A third coach, Brendan Rodgers, was given the biggest task of any of the young managers when he moved up from Swansea (promoted the same year as Lambert’s Norwich) to Liverpool. Last year, only a Gerrard slip kept him from taking the Reds to an unlikely title, but this year the team seemed to take three step back, with the departure of Player of the Year Suarez and the injury of his impressive sidekick Sturridge lingering on painfully, like the bitter aftertaste of a Justin Bieber song. But since Sturridge’s return, Liverpool have stormed up the table, accruing the most points in the league over the past few months and now challenging to get back into the top four. Rodgers is clearly the cream of the crop at the moment, though Sherwood is certainly impressing again, albeit at the other end of the table just trying to keep the Villains up while completing an unlikely FA Cup run to glory. And one should also mention Mauricio Pochettino and the impressive work he has done with Tottenham but, as an Arsenal fan, that’s as far as I’m willing to go on that front. In fact, the loss at Old Trafford today might mean that aforementioned “Tottenham Fade” is already underway.

5. Referee Referendum: this has not been a good year for officials in England or really across Europe. Just looking back five days, we saw one of the top ranked referees in the game miss at least five clear calls, including the red card that might just cost PSG in the next round, even after their impressive victory over Chelsea. But every weekend, poor decisions have been made and the calls to include some sort of video replay system are gaining momentum. The nature of that challenge system are still difficult to conceptualize without undermining the flowing nature of the game, but it might be something worth considering if the integrity of the game is to remain intact. In this vein, one could argue that Mourinho has a point this term in arguing that Chelsea have been disadvantaged by officials that seem to be allowing too many penalties to go uncalled. Many other teams can feel aggrieved by the terrible officiating that has been going on as well. Oddly, Arsenal is not really one of them, as for the second year running, few calls have gone against them after bad calls arguably cost them a title chase twice in four years. Whether video replay will be brought into the game is open to serious debate, but more strict standards have to be enforced and side judges given the confidence and power to help the lead official when they miss a rather obvious call. An interesting suggestion I read yesterday was punishing teams for surrounding referees, taking away the free kick. This would certainly curtail the embarrassing display we saw from Chelsea Wednesday, and give referees more time to make the right decision unfettered by biased interventions.

6. Relegation Battle Roiling: early predictions had all three promoted teams struggling this season and maybe heading right back down to the Championship. With nine games to go, that prediction is on the mark, though a few perennial EPL stalwarts still sit in danger of facing the drop themselves, including a Sunderland team that just avoided it by their chinny chin chins last year and an Aston Villa team that are improving but not out of the woods yet. Leicester City can always look at their improbable come-from-behind victory over United early in the campaign as the highlight, but 7 points from safety with a game in hand means they will have to have a strong finish to have any chance. Right above them is a dire QPR team that looks like the worst in the league, with a mixture of aging former stars and young players that can’t seem to provide the consistency they need (even as Charlie Austin is putting on a wonderful display up front). Finally is Burnley, who essentially ended the title challenge of City yesterday but still have a lot of work to do if they are to push Hull, Villa, Everton or Sunderland into their spot. Don’t count them out yet though! My prediction at the moment is that those three actually do return from whence they came, though Sunderland could still save one of them (Burnley being the most likely at the moment).

7. Encouraging English Echoes: for some time now, England has suffered without a world-class striker, beyond the erratic Wayne Rooney (in big competitions, at least). And, as any football fan knows, the inventors of the game have failed to win any major international competition since the 1966 World Cup victory. Now they appear to be awash in striker riches, with Charlie Austin, Harry Kane (in particular) and Saido Berahino all having great campaigns, together with the up and down Danny Welbeck and just returned Sturridge. Since the next two games are friendlies, one hopes England manager Hodgson gives the youngsters the chance to shine up front. Looking across the pitch, England might have hopes of improvement in the future, with the rise in stature of players like Ox, Henderson, Cahill and Sterling and the potential of a host of others including the currently floundering Barkley (who did score a late third in Everton’s victory). The truth is that the golden era of Lampard, Gerrard et al, never really lived up to the hype and that this next generation thus has less pressure on them to take the next step and get England back toward the top of European and World competition. This might be facilitated by the fact that Spain is going through a transitional period between their aging stars and the next generation, Holland’s star-studded team is aging rapidly and Germany could well suffer through a hang over in the European Cup next year.

8. Five Fight for Two: with only nine games left, one could argue that five teams are realistically competing for the final two spots in the Top Four or, if Man City continue to play as they did yesterday, six teams for three spots. In any case, assuming Pellegrini and City right the ship, it is a hot race with Tottenham trying to finally crack the nut that has kept them just outside looking in since 2010, Liverpool to get back to the Champions League for the second year running, Arsenal to keep the Wenger streak alive, Southampton to show the pundits have no idea what they’re talking about and United to demonstrate that a team can’t possibly waste 151 million pounds in one summer with nothing to show for it but a huge wage bill. At present, it looks likely Arsenal will secure one of those spots (and maybe even sneak second), but who will take the all-important fourth place? My prediction is that hot Liverpool sneaks past United and snags it, though Tottenham could certainly have something to say about it before the end of the year (even as the loss today hurts that cause). United have been finding ways to scrap out results in the league, even as complaints continue about their ennui-inspiring tactics, but the loss to Arsenal together with a really tough run of fixtures and the absence of a consistent scorer all means they could well suffer a second year in European Thursday night football. The victory today, however, must have uplifted their hopes and begged further questions about whether Di Maria should even play upon his suspension return. Southampton should be congratulated for their season no matter what happens, given the dire predictions that ensued after they sold half their team to Liverpool, but their lack of goals makes it hard to see them make up the six points that currently separate them from fourth place, even after the impressive draw today (and the same may go for Tottenham, in the same position, with the added problem of the worst goal difference of the Top 7, by far).

With so much money and prestige on the line, expect more heart stopping plays, sublime goals and last second heroics as we approach the conclusion of the season. Sure Chelsea’s coronation seems preordained, but beyond them almost everyone is playing for something and the stakes are higher than ever. Enjoy!

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