Tuesday, September 29, 2015

NFL Week 3 Wrap: Luck Leads Another Comeback, Eagles Win, Cowboys Lose and Saints and Ravens fall to 0-3

The third week of the NFL season was rife with turnarounds and late game comebacks. None was any bigger than the Indianapolis Colts, who were down before a 21-point fourth quarter led them to a 35-33 win over the Titans, who now join them at 1-2. The Ravens and Browns traded late touchdowns before a penalty cancelled out a fourth down completion to keep the drive alive and they failed on the second try to lose to the Bengals 28-24 (meaning the teams have transposed records of 3-0 and 0-3). The Raiders held on with a late interception of McCown near the end zone to move to 2-1 after a 27-20 victory at Cleveland. The Eagles almost blew a 24-0 lead against the Jets, but were able to hold on after easily covering the onside kick for a 24-17 win. The Jets defense shut down Philly in the second half, but could only muster 10 points themselves in falling to 2-1. In the marque matchup of the early games, the Cowboys built a 28-14 lead, before ceding the next 25 points, and the game to the 3-0 Atlanta Falcons. Elsewhere, the Texans beat the Bucs 19-9, the Patriots obliterated the 1-2 Jags 51-17, the Panthers pushed the Saints to 0-3 with a 27-22 come from behind win and the Vikings crushed the Chargers 31-14, behind a huge game from Adrian Peterson. The final early game was a defensive struggle between the previously highflying offense of the Steelers and the stout Rams defense. The Steelers won the game 12-6, but Roethlisberger was stretchered off with a knee injury and any sustained period out could be a huge blow to the Super Bowl hopefuls.

The late games included the explosive Cardinals against a Niners defense that was great in Week 1 and terrible in Week 2. It was the Week 2 defense that showed up early, as the Cardinals rolled to a 21-0 first quarter lead, assisted by a pick 6 of Kaepernick, before extending to 31-7 by halftime. Both the Seahawks and Buffalo shut out their opponents in the first half of their games, as the Bills jumped to a 27-0 lead over Miami (aided by three Tannehill interceptions) and Seattle scored a last field goal to make it 6-0 over the Bears. The beginning of the second half saw the Bears give up a kickoff return for a touchdown for the second game running, as Seattle’s lead extended to 13-0 and it appeared all three games were all but in the books early into the second half. The final scores were 47-7 for the Cards, 26-0 for the Seahawks and 41-14 for the Bills.

Sunday night saw another 0-2 team, Detroit, hosting the 2-0 Broncos. Most of the first half was uninspired, with interceptions by both Manning and Stafford before it came alive in the last five minutes with three touchdowns and a blocked extra point attempt almost run back for a touchdown. Denver ultimately led 14-6 after Manning drove the team 80 yards in less than a minute, going for it on 4th and 1 from the Detroit 45 with 13 second left, heaving the ball 35 yards in the air, with the receiver catching it over a Lion and coasting into the end zone. Both teams drove the ball in the second half but fumbles and missed third downs meant the game headed into the last 8 minutes with only one Lions touchdown and failed two-point conversion early in the 3rd to show for either offense. After a head scratching fumble call on the Lions where Stafford’s arm appeared to clearly be going forward, a penalty by the Lions (for overloading one side of the line of scrimmage, a new rule) allowed Denver to retry a missed FG attempt and make it the second time around to extend the lead to 17-12. With the Lions driving for a potentially go ahead touchdown, Stafford threw his second pick of the night, on the back of the aforementioned fumble, with the Broncos almost giving it back two plays later before Sanders pulled the ball out of Slay’s hand, the defender guilty on the big play right before the half as well. The Broncos put it in the end zone through the air again to go ahead 24-12 with 2:28 left and Detroit out of timeouts. It was a messy game from beginning to end, one challenge after another together with a combined 18 penalties for 171 yards and five turnovers. Denver will have to be taken seriously after a third straight win to start the season while the Lions season is quickly unraveling, with a trip to Seattle awaiting them next week.

Finally was Monday night, a replay of the first Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and KC Chiefs, on the 50th anniversary of that game. The Packers jumped out to an early lead, extended it to 24-7 at halftime and then blew out the Chiefs behind another incredible performance from Mr. Reliable, Aaron Rodgers (24 of 35, 333 yards, 5 TDs, and no interceptions). A couple of fourth quarter touchdowns for KC made the game seem closer than it was, with the final score coming in at 38-28. It was not and Green Bay placed their own early bid for “best in the NFL so far.” The other teams in contention are clearly the New England Patriots that some are already starting to compare to that incredible 2007 team, and the Arizona Cardinals.

Some thoughts on Week 3:

The 0-2 Teams
A number of teams came into week 3 needing a win to avoid falling to 0-3, making a playoff run extremely unlikely. First were the Giants on Thursday night, facing the 1-1 Redskins off the back of a win. The Giants blew their first two games late, but they held on nicely in this one for a 32-21 victory. Second were the Eagles, who were solid without being overly impressive in beating the Jets 24-17. They dominated the first half, helped by a number of silly Jets mistakes, including a failed lateral from Brandon Marshall gifted them the ball. In the second half, the Jets defense held them under 30 yards and recovered a fumble but couldn’t make it all the way back. The Colts were the third 0-2 team to win, with Andrew Luck again coming up big in a come-from-behind 35-33 win, with 21 points in the fourth quarter (to six for the now 1-2 Titans). They find themselves right back in the race in the weakest division in all of football. The other 0-2 teams were not so lucky, however, with the Ravens giving up a late TD to the Bengals before a failed fourth down conversion sealed their fate. The Saints also fell late, giving up the only 7 points of the fourth quarter to lose to the Panthers 27-22. That loss to their division rivals, means they are really four games back with the current tiebreakers. Might be time to write this season off.

The Seahawks also needed a win and were lucky to be facing the Chicago Bears minus Jay Cutler (or was it the Bears lucky their expensive but underperforming QB was out?). Seattle were poor offensively in the first half, only garnering six points, after they failed to push it in from a first and goal with time running out at the end of a 77-yard drive. Sound familiar, minus the interception? The Seahawks ultimately won 26-0, though it did little to allay concerns on the offensive end. The final 0-2 team, the Lions, had a tough home game against the 2-0 Broncos and struggled to get their offense in sync, a missed extra point and a couple tough calls against them meaning they were down two points halfway through the fourth quarter before ultimately losing 24-12, their last three drives entailing a fumble, interception and turnover on downs.

The Unpredictability of Predictability Redux
The NFL is difficult to predict from one week to the next in the early going of this season, though some results went to form. Two teams without their starting quarterback both lost, though the Cowboys really blew a game they were dominating by completely forgetting to play defense. The Patriots won big over the struggling Jags, though when weren’t the Jags struggling? Heading into the season, few would have predicted the Atlanta Falcons also at 3-0 and among the best of the NFC, but three weeks of strong second half performances see them as the early surprise of the young season. The combination of Ryan behind center, Freeman in the backfield and the largely uncoverable Julio Jones running short, medium and long routes make them one of the premier trios in the league and their defense seems to play at least one half of great football a game. The explosive Steelers offense was held by St. Louis in a win and even though you can’t fully blame the injury to Roethlisberger, with backup Michael Vick going 5 for 6 for 38 yards, it was an impressive performance by the Rams defense. It’s too bad their offense has been far below par this year, with just 16 points in their past two games. Todd Gurley made his debut, but was only able to gain 9 yards on 6 carries, and Nick Foles was 19-28 for 197 yards with a huge interception. Seattle’s offense continued to stutter in their game against Chicago while the Buffalo defense rebounded in a big way, with three pickoffs of Tannehill in the first half on the way to a 27-0 halftime lead. After three games, it appears two of the best defenses reside in the AFC East, with the Bills and Jets seemingly the cream of the NFL, even as both are only 2-1 (and both had one bad defensive performances).

Cowboys Crisis Begins
The Eagles and Giants both won this weekend and the Cowboys lost, meaning their lead has shrunk to one game with a long way to go. And after an impressive first half where they led 28-17, even with a Weeden interception that led to 7 for Atlanta, they looked in okay shape. Sure they gave up a last second field goal, but an 11-point lead means a couple more scores would seal it. Instead, after stopping the Falcons on their first drive of the second half and then getting great field possession on the other side of the 50, the Cowboys had three penalties and a sack on the way to a disappointing punt. Even a field goal there might have stopped the Falcons momentum, but they were essentially unstoppable from that moment, going on to score the last 25 points of the game. The most confusing aspect of a scoreless second half for the Cowboys was what happened to their running game in the second half. Without any explanation, they only ran the ball six times, instead putting a heavy load on their backup quarterback, who had been perfect but for the interception through his start and relief appearance. Unable to get the ball downfield, or build any momentum in a drive, the Cowboys wilted under the force of the Atlanta offensive machine. One expected some tough games while Romo and Bryant are out, but this was a winnable game that they lost, with some seriously bad play calling along the way. Dallas will have to hope to pick up a couple of games in the next four or five weeks, or they could find themselves in danger of missing out on the playoffs altogether.

Quarterback Fortunes Mixed Bag
Tom Brady passed the coveted 400 TD mark and Matt Ryan had a big second half as both played a big part in getting their respective teams to 3-0 records. Rodgers, as mentioned above, was even better, going his 19th home game at Lambeau without an interception while throwing five touchdowns in a game for the fourth time in his career (along with 15 games with at least 4). That puts the Packers star in some pretty rarified company, as only Drew Brees has more four-touchdown games and only four QBs have more five TD games (Brees again (9), Manning (9), Marino (6) and Brady (5). By the time this kid is done, he might break a lot of records. Meanwhile, Mariotta tied the record for most TD passes in his first three games, with 8, though his first interception as a pro contributed to the Colts comeback victory Sunday.

Another quarterback can be added to the list of starters that will be spending time on the sideline, a list that now includes Ben Roethlisberger (at least 4 weeks), Tony Romo (8 weeks), Drew Brees (week-to-week) and Jay Cutler (week-to-week). The Steelers were able to win a defensive battle, but all of the other teams lost without their season opening starters and will probably continue to struggle without them, though the Cowboys have a supporting cast that could keep them competitive, if their defense steps up after a terrible second half. The 49ers might be starting to rethink putting the franchise in the hands of Colin Kaepernick though, as he had another terrible day at the park, throwing two pick sixes, two other interceptions and only completing 9 of 19 passes for 67 yards, without a touchdown throw (he did run one in). The quarterback on the other sideline had another good game, competing 20 of 32 passes for 311 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, just missing out on a couple more TD throws as receivers were caught at the one. While Manning did much to silence his critics on Sunday night (31 of 42 for 324 yards, 2 TDS and an INT), Matthew Stafford continued to struggle, even as he completed 31 of 45 passes for 282 yards (with a TD, two INTs and a lost fumble). Finally is Alex Smith, the guy that was picked ahead of Aaron Rodgers in the draft. He had a day that looked okay on first glance, completing 24 of 40 passes for 290 yards, with a TD and an INT, but that was even worse that the completion percentage might indicate – as it garnered a 17.6 QBR, compared to Rodgers’ 78.0.

Early Super Bowl Favorites

It is early to make any playoff predictions, but why not? The Patriots again look like the cream of the AFC, with Denver also sitting at 3-0 and Indianapolis back to winning ways after starting the season 0-2. One should also mention the Bengals, though they have been consistent underperformers in the playoffs. The Steelers will have to count on Michael Vick for four to six weeks, but are an offensive force to be reckoned with if they stay close. In the NFC, the Packers are the clear favorites at this early juncture, with Arizona continuing to impress along with the Atlanta Falcons (both 3-0). Seattle will always be in the conversation, as their defense pitched a shutout to register their first win of the season, but their offensive struggles continued and it looks increasingly likely they would have to travel to Green Bay if they do get back to the Championship Game. The Cowboys should remain in contention as well, if they can get through the spell without Romo and Bryant without too many more losses. They had a good chance to make it 3-0, but collapsed in the second half, mysteriously only running the ball six times after a dominant first half on the ground. As has been the case in the past, some questions should be asked of coach Garrett, who has a team that is near the top of the league in penalties most seasons and often loses very winnable games through questionable play calling and time management. If I were putting money down this week, I would say the Green Bay Packers beat the Patriots in a shootout in Super Bowl L.

Monday, September 28, 2015

EPL Week 7 Recap: United Go Top; City Lose; Arsenal and Tottenham Win

The story of Saturday was goals, goals and more goals. By the end of the day, 35 had been scored. The weekend kicked off with yet another early season upset, as Tottenham crunched a depleted Man City 4-1, coming back from a goal down to score four straight, with Harry Kane finally getting his first goal of the season. Arsenal followed up by ending Leicester’s undefeated start to the season with a scintillating 5-2 win, in a back and forth game where Alexis Sanchez scored a hat trick to cancel out Vardy’s early opener. Liverpool held on to probably save Brendan Rodgers job with a 3-2 win over Aston Villa at Anfield while Swansea lost to Southampton 3-1, their third loss with a draw since beating United 2-1. United, on the other hand, have won three league games on the bounce and now, surprisingly, sit at the top of the table – after beating Sunderland 3-0. Rooney, Mata and Depay all chipped in for the win over a Sunderland side that seems increasingly certain to go down after escaping the drop for the past two seasons. Stoke City got their first win of the season with a 2-1 victory over Bournemouth, who might have lost their star striker Calum Wilson for a long stretch after what looked like a pretty serious knee injury. If he does spend a spell on the sideline, questions will be asked of the coaching and medical staff, after allowing him to play on after twisting his leg a minute earlier. West Ham rounded out the earlier games with a 2-2 draw against Norwich, looking like a team likely to stay up this term.

The late Saturday affair pitted Newcastle against a resurgent Chelsea, yet it was the struggling Magpies who were in the ascendancy for most of the first half, unlucky not to be ahead before they finally scored in the 42nd minute when Ayote volleyed in a wonder goal between Zouma and Ivanovic. That was how the half ended, after Fabergas sent a decent shot just over in extra time (after an earlier attempt was well saved in the 38th minute). The second half saw Chelsea pinning the home side back, before a second goal by Newcastle against the run of play on 60 minutes found them down two-nil. In the 78th minute, Ramires scored a stunner from distance to put Chelsea back in it. They completed the comeback in the 87th minute with a William free kick that went straight in with a calvalcade of Blues storming in. That’s how the game ended, with Newcastle still in the drop zone on three points and Chelsea only on eight points after seven games.

Sunday had a solitary game, with Watford squaring off against Crystal Palace.  The promoted team has yet to be scored on at home in the league, but a late penalty saw Palace break that streak and win the game 1-0. The weekend ended with Everton traveling to West Brom on Monday. The hosts jumped to a 2-0 lead early in the second half, but Everton then got one back from a Lukaku header of a Deulofeu cross soon after and recent statistics were suddenly against the Tony Pulis side, whose last 15 wins in the league have come when they held a clean sheet. The trend held up when the big Belgian shift turned from scorer to provider, sending Kone in for the equalizer with 14 minutes left on the clock. Kone appeared to be marginally offsides, but it was very tight, before he finished well across goal. At 2-2, Everton looked the more likely to grab the winner and did just that when Deulofeu again sent in a dangerous ball that Lukaku was able to squeeze past the keeper and into the near corner from close in. West Brom had some chances to equalize late, but were unable to take advantage and Everton thus held on for the impressive 3-2 come-from-behind win. It also brought the total goals scored for the weekend to an astounding 41, averaging over two a game, after a number of nil-nil games over the first two months of the season.

Some thoughts on Game Week 7:

1. Spurs Stun City; Refs Awful: Kevin De Bruyne started things off for Man City continuing his impressive start at City with a well-taken goal on 24 minutes, for his third in his last three. City almost made it 2-0 a minute later, only held out by a fine Lloris save of a Sterling shot. Right on the strike of halftime, Tottenham equalized as Eric Dier scored from way outside the box off a rebound. In the second half, Harry Kane finally got off the snide with his first goal of the season, off a rebounded Erickson shot, though he appeared to be offsides (as De Bruyne had been for the opener and Kyle Walker by at least two yards in the buildup to the equalizer). A Son Hueng-Min goal was then incorrectly ruled out offsides before Lamela finished off the victory. It was a terrible game for the officials, who have as many questions to answer as City. After starting the season with five clean sheets, they have since conceded two to Juve in the Champions League, two to West Ham in a second loss at the Etihad, one to struggling Sunderland in a 2-1 Capital One Cup win and then the four to Tottenham today. The absence of both Kompany and Mangala is part of the problem, of course, as might have been the surprising decision to bench Hart for Caballero, but just as important is the continued goalless stretch from Sergio Aguero along with the absence of injured David Silva, really the machines of this star studded cast of expensive players.

For all the talk of crisis for Tottenham and Liverpool, the two sit in fifth and seventh, four and five points behind United, respectively. Sturridge was on the mark twice for the Reds in a huge 3-2 win, though their continued defensive woes kept it close.

2. Mercurial West Ham: West Ham have beaten Arsenal, Liverpool and City on the road this season, but seem to have a lot more trouble winning at home in their final season at Upton Park. They lost their home opener 2-1 to Leicester city, then 4-3 to Bournemouth, did beat an awful Newcastle 2-0 and then drew against Norwich 2-2 today. It is a strange series of results for the team that is currently third in the table, setting up well to play the best of the league but struggling against midtier and lower teams with a defense that is certainly built to concede goals. One assumes they will thus end up comfortably in the midtable by the end of season, though with Bilic at the helm and plenty of attacking intent, they certainly have a shot at getting back to the Europa league for a second season running.

3. Arsenal Finally End their Scoring Slump; United Go Top: the new formula for victory for Arsenal might involve a goal from Walcott, a goal from Giroud, and some decent, if not stellar, defending. Saturday, they put five past Leicester after going down 1-0 and held on for a 5-2 win. It was the best offensive display of the season for the Gunners, on the back of their midweek 2-1 Capital One derby win over Tottenham, and serves as a nice foundation heading forward. Most importantly, Alexis Sanchez finally ended his own goal drought in style, with a hat trick. Even with the up and down start, the Gunners are only three points behind new league leader United, who they host next weekend.

Speaking of United, the team that many were asking serious questions of at the start of the new season now find themselves top of the table above their cross city rivals. Louis Van Gaal has spent a fortune building this team, with plenty of stops and starts, but seems to have developed a habit of winning even when they play poorly. That was not the case Saturday, as they crushed a struggling Sunderland 3-0, with Wayne Rooney finally getting off his league drought together with a goal from Depay and man-of-the-match Mata (who also assisted on the Depay opener). The signing of the season might, in fact, be De Gea, who looked certain to go before a transfer day snafu with Real kept him at United. He has since signed a new deal as United rise to the summit for the first time since winning the crown in Fergie’s final season.

4. Chelsea Defense Still Shambolic: If Newcastle were not so poor in finishing their chances, they could easily have been 3-0 up before 30 minutes had elapsed on the clock. The struggling side were rampant early and only Begovich and some poor finishing kept them from piling more pressure on the Chelsea defense. Even when driving forward three on five, they were finding space to get off shots or crosses, as it seemed the decline in Matic’s form continued to leave gaping holes through the middle, with absolutely no defensive assistance from the struggling Fabergas. The offensive display finally reaped benefits as halftime neared, sending them ahead of Chelsea 1-0, a habit in recent fixtures against last year’s champions when they play them at home. Chelsea almost scored early in the second half, as Remy was well-saved by Krul, before the offsides flag came up late. On 60 minutes, Chelsea were again suspect on the defensive end as Wiljnaldum found himself free six yards out on a corner to take a 2-0 lead. This time it was Fabergas to blame, letting his player get a free header close in that was well placed in the far corner. Just as troubling, was the lack of real intent on the offensive side, even as they missed a number of good chances. Chelsea did awaken and were able to draw even and snatched a point, staving off their first time losing four of their first seven for since way back in 1978-9. Yet a brewing crisis still seems to be simmering for the Champions, who are now eight points behind United.

5. Everton Rebound Continues: In Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge, Everton were a whisker away from snatching fourth place from Arsenal after beating them 3-0 in April to take a one-point lead over the Gunners, only falling out of that position after losing to eventual champion Manchester City and then fading late as the Gunners finished strongly. Last year, the side underperformed throughout the season, as their defense became more porous, they scored fewer goals and Howard had an off season, finishing in a disappointing 11th place (dropping an astounding 25 points from 72 to 47). This term, they appear to be back toward their best. The difference is a substantially more potent offense led by a resurgent Lukaku, who contributed to all three Everton goals Monday, and a supporting cast that includes the pacey Kone and Lennon, the skillful Deulofeu, the hard-working and wily Naismith and an improved Ross Barkley, together with an improved defensive performance. Barkley still has work to do with his decision making, particularly on the counter, and his finishing, Deulofeu could use increased discipline, and Barry has been a little below par so far, but it is hard to argue with a tie for fifth place on 12 points with a goal difference of +4. Last year, Everton scored 48 goals in their 38 league games and conceded 50. That is a rate of 1.26 goals for and 1.32 against. This year, those numbers are 1.57 for and 1.00 against, a big improvement if they can be maintained over the remainder of the season. And they are currently on track for 65 points, which would put them between 5th and 7th over the past five years.

Taking a quick look around the rest of Europe, Real Madrid were held to their second 0-0 draw of the young season, failing to connect with any of their 30 shots on goal, with Ronaldo missing a gilded header in the last minute of extra time, after Real had played the last sixteen minutes of the game a man up. That allowed Barcelona, 2-1 winners over Las Palmas, to return to the summit of the La Liga by a solitary point. It came at a huge cost, however, as Messi will miss seven to eight weeks of action after sustaining an early knee injury. Bayern Munich won in Germany 3-0 on the road against Mainz, not surprisingly, while Dortmund were held to a 2-2 draw against SV Darmstadt as were Wolfburg (1-1 versus Hannover 96). In Italy, AS Roma beat Carpi 5-1 to draw closer to surprise league leaders Fiorentina (who drew even on points with Inter Milan after crushing them 4-1), while Juve continued to struggle losing to Napoli (2-1) and AC Milan were beaten 1-0 at Genoa.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Arsenal Put Five Past Leicester in Stirring Game

An extraordinary beginning to the match between Leicester City and Arsenal today saw the home team hit the post twice, force a wonder save from Cech and score a goal while a fine save on the other end stopped Cazorla giving the Gunners an early lead, all in the first 15 minutes. The hot James Vardy was the one to put it in the net on 13 minutes, after a tackle on Aaron Ramsey in the opposite box led to a two-on-one counter that the hot striker finished coolly across goal. Per Mertesacker, back in after Gabriel’s three-game suspension became a no-game suspension became a one-game suspension, was partially to blame – though one can’t control their lack of pace – as was Koscielny, who stayed put rather than addressing the more immediate danger of Vardy. Arsenal sought to equalize almost immediately, though a heavy touch from Walcott from a fine Ozil pass led to an innocuous corner, as most are when Walcott plays through the middle. On 17 minutes, Walcott atoned for missing that earlier half chance, and two tame shots from Cazorla, by finishing Cazorla’s lovely through ball to the far corner. It was 1-1 before 20 minutes had passed and looked to be a game with a lot more goals in it.

Flamini, getting his first league start in a year after his two-strike performance midweek against Tottenham in the Capital One Cup victory, lasted a mere twenty minutes before heading to the bench with a hamstring injury, replaced by Arteta. One could see the real loss though, which was Coquelin, as Leicester were running rampant through the Arsenal defense and created chance after chance. It is an extraordinary accomplishment what Claude Ranieri has done with a team that includes two ex-EPL players, in Huth and Albrighton, Arsenal got on the counter themselves in the 28th minute with another great pass from Ozil getting Walcott free coming in from the left side. He decided to lay it back for Ramsey, who for the second time in the game, meandered on the ball a moment too long and had his shot blocked. Sanchez, however, was having another bad day at the park, at one point giving the ball up after a good spell of possession and not even trying to get it back. He even looked slower to three balls in the first half. Something appeared wrong with the Chilean after winning the Copa de America, then, just when I was writing this, Arsenal again got forward after a fine last second intervention from Koscielny at the top of the box stopped another Leicester move. The ball came out to Bellerin after a wonderful touch pass from Ramsey. Bellerin squared the ball and then sent a low cross right into the path of Walcott. A Leicester City defender was able to beat the Englishman to the ball, but his attempted clearance fell kindly to Sanchez, who was able to easily score with the goal gaping. In a back and forth affair, Arsenal were up 2-1 on 34 minutes, doing a good job of cutting into their second worst finishing rate in the league.

Goals were, in fact, flying in across the league on Saturday, with Tottenham pulling off a surprising 4-1 comeback over the suddenly reeling Man City, Liverpool, Stoke and Southampton all scoring in the first half of their games and West Ham and Norwich already at 1-1 early. Only Manchester United and Sunderland were still scoreless, with United having a chance, with a win, to taste first place for the first time since winning the title three seasons ago. A penalty appeal on Mertesacker in the 36th minute, looked close, but was not given and then Leicester had another free kick in the 38th, though it was ultimately claimed by Cech, again looking back to his best after the nightmare opener back in August. Cazorla shot for a third time in the first half on 39 minutes just missing the far corner. With Sanchez off the snide, we might wonder how Cazorla has somehow failed to score this season with so many shots on goal. Ozil almost sent Walcott free on goal again in the 42nd minute, though Theo cut into the charging defenders and the chance was lost. A minute later Arteta gave Leicester another free kick, after a foul on the impressive Mahrez, who seemed to be everyway in this game, showing a skill set that appears among the best in the league this season. Morgan almost met Albrighton’s great dipping free kick moments later, but luckily for the Gunners, it was just past his reach and fell out of bounds. A foul on Sanchez was missed on the other side as one of the most back and forth games in the league continued to provide chances for each side. Mahrez sent it across goal on the other side as the two headed into two minutes of extra time, just wide of the far post, though Cech might have had it covered. After a great defensive intervention by Sanchez, the half ended. Just as Arsenal and Leicester were heading to their respective locker rooms, a great touch cross in close from Mata set up Memphis Depay for the opening goal to give United a 1-0 halftime lead.

Arsenal were in the lead heading into the second half, but must have felt another score might be necessary to hold off a Leicester City team that has scored a lot of late goals in remaining the only undefeated team in the league after six games (and twice as many as the Gunners overall). The lack of pace of Mertesacker, in particular, would be of major concern, along with the absence of Coquelin. The second half started with the Gunners in the ascendancy though, with a fine cut back floater from Ramsey almost finding Sanchez at the far post. Sanchez almost got a free shot on goal from eight yards out a minute later, though he meandered on the ball a second too long and had a good chance blocked.

Mertesacker looked a little shaky again on 50 minutes, sending a dangerous ball to Bellerin under pressure inside his own box, though the attack came to nothing. Another Sanchez shot, after nice holdup play by Walcott, was blocked slightly over the bar for a Gunners corner. Vardy almost got out on the counter again, but took too long to decide and was disposed in the Arsenal box. It was still back and forth as the game moved toward 55 minutes, as a decent cross from Walcott found Sanchez for a header that was blocked for another corner. After a weak shot from Leicester, Arsenal got out quickly, Sanchez sent it across to Ozil who lofted it perfectly into a charging Sanchez. The Chilean rose high to meet the ball ahead of the Leicester keeper for a 3-1 lead. Now it was just a question of holding on against the cardiac kids of the Premiership so far this season.

Wenger was feeling good on the sideline, with Sanchez on the brace and the team having scored five goals in the past four days after a veritable drought to start the season. Bellerin got down the right with some excellent dribbling and got it across to an open Walcott, 10 yards out, though he scuffed his shot. A great passing attack a minute later saw Walcott get off a shot again, though his curling shot was too high. Walcott was playing well, though his shot selection still left something to be desired. Ozil was almost set free on goal by Monreal and the game still looked like it had a goal or two more in it. Arsenal were more solid at the back, though, and Leicester were having a hard time producing quality chances as Arsenal flowed forward with intent. Ozil had a shot at the far post after a great step over from Sanchez, but again waited too long for the shot and only garnered another corner. Arsenal were playing some of their best football of the year going forward, passing quickly and finding holes in the defense. It might remind Wenger, that this might be a better team occasionally absorbing some pressure to allow their blistering counterattack to open up. Walcott cut across goal from the right and then took a shot right at the keeper rather than passing off to a charging Sanchez, suddenly looking like his old self. Sometimes a goal after a slump can make all the difference, and that seemed to be the case with the Chilean, who had started the season really flat.

Mikel Arteta earned the first yellow of the game in the 68th minute, for a rather egregious handball at midfield.  Walcott again showed some skill in holding the ball up in one of his best performances through the center of his career, with Sanchez just missing him with a slightly overweighted return ball after a wonderful layoff by the English international. Arsenal appeared to shift tactics, attempting to control the game by passing around a clearly tiring Leicester City and it was working to good effect, with the highflying Leicester attack suddenly grounded. Meanwhile, I could not help but notice that Brendan Rodgers must be having heart palpitations as their 3-1 lead was cut into again by Aston Villa. One more goal could be the end of Rodgers stay at the iconic but struggling side. In a strange turn of events, Wenger brought on Ox for Ramsey in the 77th minute, choosing a more offensive player to replace the more versatile Welshman. Bellerin’s speed impressed a moment later, not only beating Vardy to the ball, but earning a goal kick in the end. Drinkwater was replaced a minute later by Kramaric after another good shift and then Giroud came on for Walcott in the 80th minute.

Within seconds, Sanchez received a throw in and then shot from 25 yards out past Schmeichel at the near corner to complete his hat trick and give the Gunners what one assumed was an unassailable three-goal lead with less than 10 minutes left on the clock. Cech saved well from Vardy one-on-one with the keeper on 83 minutes as one had to wonder how Arsenal could let any Leicester play get in behind them up 4-1. Cech was called on again to save really well from Mahrez keeping that three-goal lead moments later. Ulloa had a chance at the near corner, Mertesacker intervening to force a corner. Then Morgan had a decent header, though wide of the near post. Ox earned a free kick down the right to waste a few more precious seconds before Cech made two more great saves in quick succession. Then the current lead leader in goals in the EPL Vardy (6) finished across goal on 89 minutes to make it 4-2. Not only do Leicester have the top scorer, they have Mahrez tied for second with 5, explaining their strong start to the season. Arsenal were shambolic against the impressive attacking intent of their hosts, though it seemed like time was indeed on their side. On 90 minutes, a great interchange between Bellerin and Cazorla should have been finished by Giroud from a yard out, but he somehow fluffed the easiest chance he will probably ever have. He made up for it three minutes later, as he finished a cross from Monreal that was slightly behind him to make it astounding 5-2. The final whistle came soon after and Arsenal were suddenly a mere three points behind new league leaders Manchester United.

Three Quick Thoughts on the Game
1.   Arsenal Attack Finally Bears Fruit: while Arsenal have been flat in a couple of performances this year, it is finishing that has been at the heart of their early season struggles. Today they finished five chances, even as it could have easily been seven or eight, and finally got Sanchez off the snide that has been growing into a mini slump for our player of the year from last season. The Gunners had five league goals in total this year before doubling the total today, with both Giroud and Walcott scoring in a game for the second time this season. They will need to keep up this finishing going forward, in what is starting to look like a wide open title race.

2. Gabriel vs. Mertesacker: the slumbering German might beat the fiery Gabriel in a fist fight, but there are serious questions now about whether Gabriel should beat Mertesacker into the starting 11. Koscielny was everywhere today after playing a part in the opening Leicester goal, but Mertesacker’s lack of pace was more to blame for the first and he was also nowhere to be seen for the second, abandoning the position he should have held on the left of the box. Based on game performances this season, it appears the faster Brazilian should be starting above Mertesacker at the moment. Whether Wenger is willing to make that change is another issue altogether.

3. Rotating Strikers: I still believe Arsenal could use a striker with the ability to score on his own, but the rotation of Walcott and Giroud might be just what the two need to take their games to the next level. With Walcott in, the Gunners try to get behind defenses, and were able to do that consistently today – helped by the pace of Sanchez on the left and Bellerin overlapping on the right. When Giroud is on the pitch, it is more of a controlled game, with the Frenchman serving as the hub in the middle to either release the players around him in on goal or serve as a target for crosses. It has not worked wonders until today, but does at least provide more flexibility to the Gunner’s attack and a blueprint for a potentially sustainable title challenge going forward.

Looking across the league, the flood of goals continued throughout the afternoon following the five in the early game and the seven by Arsenal and Leicester. Manchester United won 3-0 over bottom dwelling Sunderland, Stoke beat Bournemouth 2-1 (with a huge injury to Bournemouth striker Calum Wilson piling the pressure on the newboys), Liverpool held off Aston Villa 3-2 (saving Rodgers for the moment), Southampton beat the suddenly struggling Swansea 3-1 and West Ham and Norwich played out a 2-2 draw (as the most mercurial team in the league again failed to beat an opponent further down the table at home). In the late game, Chelsea came storming back from 2-0 down to earn a draw at Newcastle, but find themselves eight points adrift of the leaders. The win for Arsenal’s North London rivals was a huge one, by the way, meaning they are only a point behind Arsenal and four behind United. A Gooner could not help but wonder for a moment whether Arsenal should actually be in first place though, having been robbed of two points in their home draw with Liverpool and arguably last weekend against Chelsea (backed by the retroactive three-game ban for Costa and reduction of the Gabriel ban to one game; only for his behavior after the false red). As it stands, they are in fourth behind United, City and West Ham, ahead of them only on goal difference (+6 to +3). Arsenal next face Olympiakos in a must-win Champions League game before hosting United next weekend with a chance to draw even with the leaders.