Sunday, August 23, 2015

EPL Week 3 Recap

Saturday in the Premier League was mired with draws, though not the dull variety we become accustomed to seeing as we get near the business end of the season. United, though still undefeated after their 0-0 home draw with Newcastle, will be hearing the calls for buying a world class striker in their sleep after a dominant performance failed to produce a solitary goal. Swansea forged ahead of floundering Sunderland before the home side pulled one back and held on for a 1-1 draw they could have easily won. Leicester came back seconds after conceding to Tottenham late in the second half and were rewarded with a point and an undefeated record under Claude Ranieri. And Norwich City and Stoke also played out a 1-1 draw. Crystal Palace and Bournemouth were the only two to snatch all three points, the former at home and the latter on the road in stunning fashion. Palace responded admirably after a disallowed goal cost them the lead and then, after scoring, suffering an Aston Villa equalizer, to again take all three points with a winner from the ex-Wolves free transfer Sako. And Bournemouth and West Ham played the wildest game of the young season, with the visitors losing a two-goal halftime lead before exchanging penalties, a red card and a late winner that was almost crossed out by a last second ball teetering on the edge of their goal line.

Sunday brought Chelsea its first victory of the year, though in less than convincing fashion as they held on for a 3-2 win over West Brom down to 10 men after a John Terry red card early in the second half. City also snatched all three points on the road, though in more impressive fashion with a 2-0 victory at Goodison. And Watford and Southampton played out a 0-0 fifth draw of the weekend. Tomorrow Liverpool visit Arsenal trying to match City with a perfect start to the season, while the Gunners try to build on the momentum of their 2-1 victory last weekend (report to follow the game).

Some thoughts on Game Week 3:

1. United Flounder After Rooney Robbery: Wayne Rooney’s goal that wasn’t in the first half of their home game against Newcastle probably should have counted, to be fair, after he looked marginally onside as Taylor moved back a moment too early. It was the third blown call of the season for this officiating crew and the FA might want to take a closer look at these newsboys to the EPL. But more troubling than the missed call for United is the fact Rooney has now gone 10 games without a goal and only has 4 in his last 24. From a player that is one goal shy of tying the England record and only 19 away from the United record, those kind of numbers are troubling, to say the least. One could offer a partial defense by noting he was shuffled around the pitch last season, often playing in a deeper lying midfield role, but he is now naught for four at the central striker role he has hungered for since 2011-12. Could it be that 663 games played by the age of 30, substantially more than even the workhorse of all workhorses Ryan Giggs, his bulky body, relatively early ascendancy to everyday player and physical style have lopped a few years off of his best game? Many strikers peak between 28 and 30, but fears are surfacing that Rooney’s best days are already behind him.

Beyond Rooney, while United dominated large stretches of the game, whenever Newcastle went forward with numbers, they looked less than solid and were saved in the first half by a beautiful header that thumped into the post and exploded back out and at the death when a three on one Newcastle counter ended with a Cisse cross an inch long of a charging Thauvin. United had 70 percent of possession, 28 (8) to 7(0) shots (on goal) and even committed more fouls than Newcastle (15 to 11) and must be wondering what they have to do to score a goal. The 3-1 win over Bruges earlier in the week certainly raised the spirits after two rather unconvincing 1-0 victories, but today will restore concern while increasing the calls for a world-class striker. If they do sign one, the question that quickly emerges is “what happens to Rooney?”

2. Gomis Glitters; Swansea Squanders: Swansea striker Gomis has three in three this season, helping the Swans to quickly forget the City bench-warming Bony. Gomis impressed in spells last season, but seemed to miss a few too many chances while suffering through some injuries. This year his pace and height appear to be paying dividends, as his confidence is currently miles above the faltering Rooney. We can be certain he will not keep up this pace, and hope the “crawling tiger” soon goes the way of the Macarena, but Swansea look like a team ready to continue their stay in the Premier League for years to come and one that can give any team in the league trouble. Their positive football almost beat Chelsea, took all three from Newcastle (2-0) and then a point at Sunderland. Sure, they could be on 9 points but for a little bad luck, but five points from three games is enough to keep them comfortably in the top half of the table. On the other side of the pitch, Sunderland will take heart from a game they had plenty of chances to win, coming back after giving up a late first half goal. As odds on favorites to drop out of the league, this kind of performance will restore some hope for a third straight great escape.

3. Tottenham Defensive Frailty: It was only for a day, but Leicester City were again at the acme of the Premier League after two wins and a draw in three games, along with having the top scorer in the early going (Mahrez, now on four goals). Last season, Tottenham had one of the best road records in the league (though worse than Arsenal, one should mentioned), only failing to score in 4 of those 19 games. A big reason for their away form was the incredible scoring record of Harry Kane. After continuing that trend with a late goal away at Leicester, though from Ali, their defensive woes continued, conceding in mere seconds (a lovely goal from Mahrez, curling it around Lloris from the left side). It was further evidence Tottenham need defensive reinforcements, or increased discipline. The Spurs might also be growing worried that Kane, who did play a good game, has failed to score in his first three games of the season (and only once in his last 9), even as he contributed to their opener with a nice weaving run and fine pass out that ultimately left Ali with a free header on the far post. Only a brilliant save from Lloris on 88 minutes saved a point for Tottenham after a powerful Morgan header was sent right at him. Leicester won’t stay near the top of the league for long, one assumes, but it is a wonderful start for Ranieri and his team.
4. Blistering Bournemouth’s Doubtful Defending: Many newly promoted teams go into immediate defensive mode, attempting to win games on the counter or snatch some points in listless scoreless draws. Bournemouth, on the other hand, are living up to my preseason predictions of being an offensive powerhouse, putting two past West Ham in a first half that they absolutely dominated, after failing to score from many chances in their first two losses. Things started to unravel as West Ham pulled even before 12 minutes of the second half had elapsed, but the scoring was far from finished. Bournemouth added two more before West Ham added a third. Bournemouth held on for a thrilling 4-3 win, with the ball at the edge of their goal line as time expired. With an impressive array of offensive weapons, led by the top scorer in the Championship last season (Wilson, who snatched a hat trick today) this is a team that I believe have a good chance to avoid the drop, if they can learn to manage games and defend effectively against the superior attacks of the Premiership. After two 1-0 losses, maybe this will jumpstart their season.

5. Chelsea Conundrum: Chelsea won 3-2 at the Hawthorns today which, given recent results there, a well earned three points. On the other hand, West Brom missed an early penalty (on a fine Courtois save of a poor effort from Morrison), engaged in some lax defending for each of Chelsea’s three goals, had plenty of chances to draw even and garnered the Blues second red in three games. Extraordinarily, Chelsea has now given up seven goals in three games, the most since 1980, when they were down in the second division. Mourinho can take some positives from the game, including the impressive performance of new signing Pedro, who had a goal and should have been credited with an assist and Diego Costa scoring his first goal of the season. Azpilicueta scored his first league goal ever, as well. And they held on for the win down to ten men for most of the second half. But real questions are emerging about the defense, about whether Ivanovic has passed his prime (a situation they might have addressed this week in buying Baba Rahman), about the balance in the squad and whether the constant off pitch issues are affecting the players. Three points is three points, as the old saying goes, but Chelsea certainly have some questions to answer after this start. Up North, after watching this game, United fans will be wondering why LVG dawdled and whether it has cost them exactly the kind of dynamic winger they need to liven up an offense that seems flat and unimaginative.
6. City Cream of the Crop: Man City pressed high, took their chances and were solid on the defensive end in an impressive 2-0 victory at Everton. It was their ninth league win in a row going back to last season, tying a club record set way back in 1912. With Chelsea floundering (even in victory), United unimpressive (in a draw) and Arsenal already dropping points, the team that might be making a habit of winning the crown every other year has laid down an early gauntlet for the rest to chase. It’s a long season and injuries or their tendency to lose concentration during the long season could derail the campaign yet, but they are clearly the in form team in the league right now, playing quality football from goalkeeper straight forward to the striker, with no clear weaknesses anywhere between. On top of all this, they have yet to cede a single goal in those three wins.

One subplot that will emerge if they do close in on a second title in three years, is whether you can really let Pelligrini go to bring in Guardiola, as many think is all but preordained. One doesn’t lose their job right after winning a title, surely? Actually, there is plenty of precedent for that and so we shall have to wait and see.

7. Window Woes: Arsene Wenger, Tony Pulis and a host of others have long questioned the logic of keeping the transfer window open after the season begins. While it does allow teams that find themselves short in a position to take a final stab at improvement, it also means disquieting team chemistry. It also too often entails unsettled players pushing for moves and unsettling their teams right on the cusp of games. That is what happened with Saido Berahino today, apparently having had his head turned by Tottenham and playing no part in the tight West Brom loss to Chelsea. It is also the case with Everton defender John Stones and a host of other players across the league. On the other hand, after only garnering a point for their first two games, it appears Mourinho and Chelsea’s ability to navigate an increasingly complex transfer market is still a cut above their rivals. Last year they added the pieces they needed to win the league and then did just that. This year it appears they needed a little help on the offensive and defensive ends and they brought in Pedro, who had a debut to remember, and cover (or replacement) for Ivanovic, who appears to have lost a step or three. Before the window closes, they will probably add a centre back as well, addressing a problem few would have guessed at before the season began.

Contrast that with Arsenal and United and we see why the league has played out as it has the last few seasons. Arsenal did good business early; signing up the stable goalkeeper they have lacked for years and then…well…nothing. Most still believe they need another striker and another defensive midfielder. Rumors have them finally going for both positions in the final week of the window, but was this really necessary this year? United, on the other hand, have been insanely active over the two summers of LVG’s reign, but appear to have been a little haphazard in their approach, counting the number of signings from last year who are already gone, or not playing, and the excess cover at some positions. One could argue they need a more solid spine, with a quality CB and another Striker as Rooney prematurely approaches his less-golden years. One signing they can be happy with is Memphis Depay, who impressed in his European debut, even as he has been less productive in the league – and looks like a real talent for the future. Yet the lack of world-class talent does not appear to be for a lack of effort. Pedro is just the latest example of players choosing other teams, rivals or staying where they are instead of risking their careers at the post-Fergie United. It is an interesting turn of events as Arsenal have been more parsimonious with the number of signings they make, but more selectively acute in adding three world-class players in the past three windows. The critique of United could also be levied at Liverpool, who believe that no signing is a bad signing and quantity apparently trumps quality. While the additions this summer might improve on those of the last, there are still concerns about a lack of game changing players and a lack of leadership in Gerrard’s absence.

Beyond the Top 5, we are starting to see the effects of the boatloads of cash being thrown at the league with the new television contract, as midtier and even bottom dwelling teams can now compete a level below the elites of Europe, even stealing players away from title contenders in France and Italy by throwing around the windfall of cash. This means more parity in English football, one assumes, though the mining of the talent outside the Top 7 should keep those teams firmly within the European places. What is still to be decided is whether the record spending will improve on the English team’s performance in European football as they stand in danger of losing that fourth place qualifier in the Champions League.

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