Sunday, August 30, 2015

EPL Week 4 Recap

The theme of this fourth weekend was red, as Newcastle, Liverpool, West Ham, Stoke (twice) and Norwich all saw the dreaded color in their games, with only West Ham able to gain points from that position (already having been a man and two goals up when Nolan was incorrectly sent off late at Anfield). Arsenal started things off in the early Saturday fixture with a rather uninspiring 1-0 win at Newcastle, thanks in no small part to the referee, whose red on new striker Markovic seemed to have as much to do with his reputation as the foul itself, and Coloccini, who together with a Leicester defender have scored 67 percent of the Gunners goals in the first four games. From there, things got pretty interesting, starting with West Ham winning at Anfield for the first time since 1963 (3-0). Man City cruised in a 2-0 home win over Watford after a nervy first half, with Raheem Sterling opening his account with a poised tap in from an excellent Sagna cross early in the second before Silva added his 50th EPL assist through a scorcher by Fernandinho. Stoke City lost 1-0 to West Brom playing much of the game with nine men, while Aston Villa settling for a 2-2 draw with Sunderland after taking a 2-1 lead and Bournemouth did the same against Leicester City after seeing their goal of the season by Callum Wilson equalized in the last five minutes after giving away a silly penalty (1-1).

The shock result of the day, of course, was Chelsea losing 2-1 at home to Palace for only their second loss at the Bridge in 100 games under Mourinho. Crystal truly earned these three points by playing adventurous attacking football, giving Pardew his third win over the “special one,” two more than Wenger, one should note. But Chelsea were largely the architects of their own destruction, failing to capitalize on early chances, failing to close down the Palace attack and failing to get back on the counter as they did throughout the last season. In the late game on Saturday, a winless Tottenham hosted a revitalized Everton and the game ended as it began, for the fifth nil-nil result of the young season. Tottenham dominated the affair for long stretches and, even as the final statistics said it was a dead heat possession wise, the Spurs had 20 shots with 6 on goal to the Toffees 8 and 3. The third consecutive draw after the opening day loss to United means this is the worst start for the Spurs since 2008-09, when manager Ramos was subsequently fired. It was arguably a better result for the visitors, who are starting in better stead than last year’s nightmare, largely due to the return to form of American keeper Tim Howard, who made a half dozen excellent saves.

In Sunday’s early game, Southampton benefitted from a second Norwich yellow card for Steven Whittaker on 30 minutes and cruised to a 3-0 victory with a late first half Pelle strike and a Tadic double in the second. United target Sadio Mane was a key architect in the victory, the first for the Saints this term. The final game of the weekend pitted United against a Swansea team that pulled the double on them last year. There were chances galore throughout the first half for both teams, even as United dominated possession (62 percent). Early in the second half, an excellent cross from Luke Shaw found Juan Mata at the far post, with the Spaniard finishing in the roof of the net to score his first of the season on his third good chance. But on 61 minutes, Swansea evened things up as Sigurdsson sent a dangerous cross in from the right to Ayew, quickly becoming the (free) transfer of the young season, with a great header into the ground that then easily beat Romero. It was the first goal conceded by United all season, arguably the result of Gary Monk switching to something resembling a 4-3-1-2 formation, and five minutes later the Swans made it two when Ayew turned from scorer to provider, sending a lovely through ball to a charging Gomis, who scored his fourth of the season (and 9th in his last 10). Romero should have done better on that second goal, really, as the Swans held on for the victory, making it three straight over United, only the seventh team in the history of the league to accomplish that feat (and making Gary Monk 3-0 versus LVG).

What can we glean after four games? Man City are imperious, having scored 10 goals alongside four clean sheets before maybe adding the signing of the summer on Sunday afternoon (in De Bruyne). Chelsea, on the other hand, are in deep trouble, failing to set the league alight on the offensive end while being on the border of shambolic defensively. One can see why they have pushed so hard to buy Stones, who it appears would go directly into the starting 11, and why they bought Rahman, who should soon displace Ivanovic. They find themselves eight points behind City after only four games and face Arsenal at the suddenly less mystical Stamford Bridge after a trip to the improved Everton. The Gunners were themselves far from scintillating in their victory, but three points is three points and they are now five points from the high flying Citizens and a full game above the Blues. Liverpool were brought back to earth after their undefeated start, their lack of goals continuing (they only have two in four) in the shock Anfield loss, as their goal difference fell to zero even with their three clean sheets. And United might soon be in crisis themselves, with few alternatives to the misfiring Rooney at the moment. Among the rest of the teams, Bournemouth again showed they can score goals while will need to be stronger on the defensive end (giving up a penalty with only five minutes left), Leicester is somehow still undefeated after four games, Newcastle are still struggling, Pardew’s revolution at Crystal is running at pace, Swansea are showing they are a team on the rise that can beat anyone on their day and the Saints finally got their first win in what looks like a more trying season to come (reaffirming the notion that you can only lose so many players before the knock on effect kicks in).

Some thoughts on Game Week 4:

1. West Ham Wonder: West Ham started the season with a surprise 2-0 victory at the Emirates. That was followed by a 2-1 lost to Leicester and a wild 4-3 loss to Bournemouth. Given those results and 50 years of history, it seemed like a good bet to take an undefeated Liverpool in this game. Yet even as Liverpool almost triple the number of passes completed and dominated possession (71 percent), West Ham found themselves 2-0 up before the break, having taken their chances well, while Liverpool floundered in and around the goal. Lovren, who has been much better in the early going of their three clean sheets this season, suddenly lost his mind and the ball on the touchline, leading directly to West Ham’s second, a finely taken shot by Noble from just inside the box to the far corner. After trading red cards, the Hammers added a third by Sako for a comprehensive win, their first in 52 years. Each season seems to bring a surprise giant killer and though they have been below par in their other games, they have already scalped Liverpool and Arsenal on the road. The rest of the top teams be forewarned!

2. Churlish Costa and the Chelsea Crisis: Diego Costa was the player of the year in the first half of last season to me, scoring at a clip of almost a goal a game as Chelsea were in cruise control garnering enough points to hold onto the title, even after a more uneven and defensive oriented second half. This year he appears to be spending more time fighting with opponent centre backs, trying to elicit fouls and complaining incessantly to officials. Even as Chelsea dominated the first 30 minutes of their game with Palace on Saturday, they were failing to really challenge the visitor’s goal and almost found themselves down 1-0, when new signing Cabaye missed a great opportunity from 12 yards out. More surprising Crystal were arguably marginally outplaying Chelsea at the physical level, challenging a team that has arguably been the most physically imposing in the league for most of the last decade. Ivanovic, in particular, was having a terrible time of it yet again, beaten on the left side far too frequently for comfortable, and lucky not to be guilty when Wickham had a tap in on a cross that he bundled terribly. To be fair, Chelsea had a pretty good penalty appeal ignored by the ref (when Zouma was pulled down by the jersey about to strike a header on goal) and were only denied later by an excellent double save by new Palace #1 McCarthy.

They were dominating in the second half, though, when Crystal stunned a suddenly dangerous Chelsea by scoring a goal against the run of play, as Sako was located on a cutback and, after Azpilicueta blocked his first shot, grabbed the rebound and sent it right over the charging Chelsea keeper and into the back of the net. After tying things up with just over 10 minutes left, when Falcoa scored on a lovely cross from Pedro in what Chelsea hope will be the commencement of his career’s second act, Crystal took the lead again within minutes when Ward headed a touchback from another excellent Bolasie cross into the far corner for a 2-1 lead. Chelsea charged forward for another equalizer, but Crystal hung tough and almost scored a third themselves. Mourinho seemed apoplectic after the game, too tired or shocked to play his usual mind games and instead giving one of the most honest interviews I’ve ever seen from him. A question that might be emerging, though, is whether the generally tempestuous and combative nature of the manager is feeding the bellicose tendencies of his star striker this season, undermining his ability to get into good positions and score?

Beyond Costa, Chelsea continued to look less than impressive, with Palace having more quality chances and putting two past Chelsea for the eighth and ninth goals they have conceded this year. Ivanovic was consistently beaten and almost gave up an own goal before being partially guilty on the opener. Fabergas continued to flounder for long patches of the game though he contributed to the opener and almost scored himself. And the rest of the players seemed more intent on winning fouls and yellows than the game. Hazard impressed, as usual, but someone needs to finish the chances he continuously sets up and there was also the surprising way in which Crystal passed the ball around and even in the box with too great an ease for patches throughout the game (with Chelsea defenders sitting off their opponents, rather than challenging them). Chelsea had only lost once in their first 99 home games under Mourinho, now they have made it two, to go with the 3-0 thrashing by City, the 2-2 with Swansea and a somewhat fortuitous win a man down against West Brom – cumulatively giving them their worst start since 1971. Crisis is a funny word in sports, cancelled out by one or two quality wins, but it is hard to argue that the current titleholders are not now in at least an S&L variety, teetering toward Titanic.

3. Solid As a Rock: Everton were impressive this week, failing to be bullied by Chelsea into selling their young prized centre back John Stones. The fact the bid of 39 million pounds for a 21-year-old who is really yet to prove himself was rejected shows the growing power of the midtier teams to hold onto their best players…at least in the short term. This follows West Brom playing hardball over Berahino, Championship side QPR over Charlie Austin and a host of other smaller examples, while Liverpool forced City to stump up over 50 million for a winger who arguably had a pretty average final three quarters of last season. On one level, demonstrates shows the insanity of the transfer window at present, the risks associated with “moving up” too quickly (just ask Sinclair after his five-goal week), the new financial power across the EPL and the resolve of some teams to hold onto their best players rather than cash in immediately. The reality is it is highly unlikely Everton will keep Stones for more than another year or two, but one never knows. They sold Fellaini and Arteta for large profits, have somehow kept ahold of Jagielka and Baines all these years, have picked up some quality players like Stones, Lukaku, Coleman and Mirallas for reasonable fees and, though they had a tough time last season, are generally just outside the Champions League battle (and lest us forget would have stolen fourth from Arsenal two years ago but for a barren late run). On the flip side, Chelsea could certainly use Stones not only as the long-term replacement for Terry but as an immediate replacement for the suddenly porous back line. That seems unlikely and they are down to two days to find an alterative, after a second target chose Valencia over the reigning champions of England.

4. Arsenal Road Warriors: Arsenal have been all but unbeatable on the road this calendar year, while being much more suspect at home. They have failed to score in five of their last six league games at the Emirates, were absolutely destroyed by Monaco in the first leg of the UCL Round of 16 last February and had a host of other suspect results at home. On the road, they have won two trophies and three games at Wembley, beaten City at the Etihad, United at Old Trafford (in the FA Cup), a miserly Monaco 2-0 at their home stadium and just about everyone else, beside alas Tottenham, they have faced on the road in 2015. After a few years where they were all but unbeatable at home, what has happened? There is a sense among some that the Emirates crowd does little to help cheer the team on and often turns negative and even vitriolic when they don’t like the quality of their team’s play, but it is obviously more than that. There appears to be a complex forming among the squad about their performance at home leading them to play more nervous and pensively, failing to finish chances, even when they’re sitters. They have done that on the road as well, of late, including the game Saturday, but will have to figure out a way to restore the swagger that once made all nervous to play them in their home stadium. Sanchez, Giroud and Ramsey, in particular, need to pick up the quality of their play in North London. They will have that chance a fortnight from today.

5. Scintillating Sinclair; Roiling Rooney: Scott Sinclair could barely get a game after moving to Man City a few years back and like several English players before him finally decided to leave before he was a rich hasbeen no one remembered. His stock had fallen so far over that period, though, that he headed right back to his old bottom dwelling side Aston Villa. He has since shown why moving up too early can be a mistake as he’s had a week to remember, scoring an astounding five goals in five days starting with a hat trick in a Capital One Cup win and then two more in the first half after the Villains had fallen behind Sunderland in the early going, Callum Wilson also impressed again, giving Bournemouth a 1-0 lead with a beautiful scissor kick that was well placed into the near corner for his fourth goal of the young season, following the 20 he scored in the Championship last term. These two players could be key as their teams fight against what many assume will be relegation battles that could drag toward the 38th game. Beyond them, Gomis continued to impress with his fourth in four (and ninth in 10) and Andre Ayew has three together with his first assist, an excellent pass that set up the winner.

On the flip side is Rooney, who now has no goals in his last 10 games. It was not for a lack of chances though, as Rooney was in on goal one on one three times, but failed to take his shots fast enough and was caught by defenders in each case – as he was in the first game against Tottenham. There appear to be three possibilities explaining the sudden decline in the form of a man one could generally count on to finish quality chances: 1. The number of games he has played over the last 13 years is finally catching up with him and he is now on the downward slide all strikers ultimately face, a few years earlier than many supposed, 2. He has a niggling injury of some sort that is undermining his ability to use his left foot and thus making him easier to defend, even from behind, or 3. His confidence is shot after two poor seasons for the club and his having been moved all over the pitch. It should be noted he did have the hat trick against Bruges Wednesday and that he thus isn’t completely without confidence. When your striker goes this long without a league goal, however, it is a great concern, and one could argue United would have cruised to victory if he had taken even one of those chances.

6. Tottenham Turmoil; Top Team Timidity: Tottenham came into their game against Everton as one of only six teams in the league who have yet to garner a win. They left the game with the same problem, earning their third draw in a row and 15th place in the table. The Spurs largely dominated the game, as they had against United, but cannot seem to finish their chances and again are suffering from too strong a reliance on their young striker Harry Kane, who appears to be wilting a little under the pressure of trying to repeat his impressive haul of 21 in the league and 31 overall from last term. Spurs fans might remind the skeptics firing up their vitriol that he did not score his first goal last season until November 5, but they will probably be saying that with clenched teeth, as he missed a couple of great chances to open his account on Saturday. The team now find themselves a full nine points behind leaders Man City after just four games, four behind their hated North London rivals and scratching their head for answers after strong defensive displays fail to garner maximum points.

Yet beyond Manchester City, all of the presumed Top 7 are having a tough time putting the ball in the back of the net. Arsenal have the same three goals total through four as the Spurs, with two of those being own goals from their opponents. United are also stuck on three, with one own goal themselves in their 1-0 opening day victory over Tottenham. Liverpool have an even more parsimonious two goals to their name, and one of those should not have counted. Chelsea have a more respectable six, but three of those came against shambolic defending by West Brom, and their own defensive woes mean they actually have a -3 goal difference. And Everton have also scored a more respectable five, though they have failed to put it in the back of the net in their last two. When compared to some of the early fliers this season, we see the cost of a potentially more defensive approach to tactics, as the adventurous Crystal Palace (currently in second) and Leicester City (3rd) have 8 apiece while Swansea have 7 (and fourth place, above Arsenal, Liverpool and United). West Ham have an impressive nine goals to complement their away scalpings of Arsenal and Liverpool and even lowly bottom dweller Sunderland have scored as many as Chelsea. Does that mean there is more parity in the early going this year or that the top teams are just being too cautious in their approach? It appears to be the case with United, though Rooney’s poor form is contributing, and an argument can be made Liverpool are also focusing too much on the midfield and defensive end of the pitch. An alternative narrative would be that their strikers just are not finishing enough of the chances they create, as is clearly the case with Arsenal and, to a lesser degree, Tottenham. It’s too early to tell for sure, really, though the way Crystal Palace took it to Chelsea at the Bridge and Swansea came back to snatch three points from United at home should be a warning that the Top 5 might no longer be a foregone conclusion for the Usual Suspects.

Beyond the premier league, Barcelona again won a tight 1-0 victory, this time over Malaga, as ex-Arsenal CB Thomas Vermaelen scored the only goal of the game with 17 minutes remaining; Messi, Neymar and Suarez unable to break through. Real made easier work of their opponent, Real Betis, thrashing them 5-0 to stay two points behind their Catalunan rivals. James Rodriguez had a brace, Benzema added his first of the season and Bale again answered the critics with two of his own, providing visual evidence of why Arsenal and United, respectively, are so desperate to take the latter two (and why Real is unlikely to sell either player). In Germnay, Bayern Munich cruised to a 3-0 victory over Leverkusen and Dortmund beat back Bertha 3-1 while in Italy, Roma shocked a suddenly vulnerable Juve 2-1, with Dzeko making an immediate impact with his first goal, and AC Milan bounced back from their opening day loss with a 2-1 victory over Empoli.

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