Sunday, September 20, 2015

EPL Week 6 Recap: Chelsea and United Win, City lose; Rodgers on the Hot Seat?

Week 6 of the EPL season brought us very little to get excited about; nothing to see here really … unless you count two red cards on the way to another Mourinho victory over Wenger (2-0), West Ham scalping another member of the Top 5 on the road (2-1 over Manchester City,) a Korean scoring his third goal this week for Tottenham (in a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace) or Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers maybe moving a step closer to the sack (in a 1-1 draw with Norwich). The weekend started with Chelsea hosting Arsenal after two very different results in their first UCL Group Stage. Chelsea had gotten back to winning ways with a 4-0 victory over an Israeli team probably surprised to even be in the main competition while the Gunners suffered a questionable red card for Giroud on the way to a 2-1 upset loss. The trend continued Saturday, as another controversial red card played a role in Arsenal losing, with a second thrown in for fun by Mike Dean in one of the worst refereeing days we’ve seen in the league in, at least, three weeks – yes read that as sarcastic! Chelsea ultimately won 2-0, continuing Wenger’s dismal record against his greatest “rival” (I will continue to use quotes until he gets a second victory over the Chelsea manager). The next game that might have gotten the heart racing was Everton versus Swansea, two teams who have been scoring with regularity while playing more suspect on the defensive end. So they, of course, played out a nil-nil draw.

In the other Saturday clashes, two Premier League regulars provided further evidence they could be on their way to the Championship, losing to teams that are newly promoted. Bournemouth beat Sunderland 2-0 and Newcastle lost 2-1 to Watford at home. And Stoke City and Leicester played out a 2-2 draw, leaving the Potters in the drop zone and Leicester in fourth place. In the late Saturday contest, Man City hosted giant killers West Ham, knowing the Hammers had already beaten Arsenal and Liverpool on the road this season. What then happened in the first half is hard to explain. City dominated possession and chances, but West Ham was brutally efficient on the counter, finding themselves up 2-0 before De Bruyne pulled one back right on the cusp of the halftime whistle. It was a fine strike for the Belgian, who showed his quality throughout the game. That was not the case for Sergio Aguero, who seems a little off his best form at the moment, missing several quality chances to score. West Ham were masterful defensively in the second half, particularly their goalkeeper Adriano, who kept out shot after shot by a rampant City, and somehow held on for an unlikely 2-1 victory. City might point to the absence of captain Kompany and Silva, who was injured in warm-ups, but the result seems better explained as the weekly machinations of the EPL – where heroes become zeroes and vice versa from week to week. It was a great advertisement for the sport to any Americans watching and a reminder that calling a title race after five games is rather insane.

On Sunday, Liverpool drew with Norwich 1-1, their fifth game without a win in a row, with the team leaving the field to a booing Kop crowd. Rodgers is certainly on the hot seat now, with the team having trouble finishing chances, keeping clean sheets since the early going or holding court at home. Manchester United, on the other hand, were the beneficiaries of an offsides goal, a terrible backpass and two wonder saves from the goalkeeper who was supposed to be in Madrid by now. They held on to win 3-2 nonetheless and now find themselves in second place in the EPL, among the top point accumulators this calendar year. For all the criticism, it appears LVG is building a team not only for the future, with a number of bright young future stars, but maybe for the present as well.

Some thoughts on Game Week 6:

1. Boring, Boring Spurs: the Spurs won another game 1-0 today, beating back a hot Crystal Palace team on a 68th minute goal for the suddenly hot South Korean Son Heung-Min, who scored two more goals in their Thursday 3-1 win over FK Qarabag. Those three goals in the Europa League were only the second time the Spurs have scored as many as two goals all season, the other time in a scintillating 2-2 draw with Stoke. In their other games, they outplayed but were beaten by United 1-0, drew with Leicester 1-1, had a goalless draw with Everton at White Hart Lane and then beat Sunderland 1-0. The main reason behind the relative dearth of goals appears to be the flagging performance of last year’s standout star Harry Kane, who has only scored 1 goal in his last 12 games, after 12 in his previous 11. One can see the strain of the pressure starting to get to Kane, whose seems to be playing worse from week to week, unable to finish the chances given to him. Beyond Kane, the Spurs have really missed Erickson, who appears to be the creative spark that makes their offense flow, generally involved in games this season that seem to be played more in the midfield, lacking the openness and excitement one tends to find in the EPL these days. A few years ago, Tottenham were the toast of the EPL, winning or losing games with real verve. Then AVG was dismissed, as was interim manager Tim Sherwood, and the more conservative Pochettino took over. He might be starting to get results, but I find the Spurs games all but unwatchable, except on fast forward.

2. Martial Madness: there was nothing but criticism for United when they signed relative unknown youngster Anthony Martial, who had only scored 13 goals in his diminutive 52 game career, for an inflated 36.3 million pounds. It might turn out to be a bargain. The 19-year-old scored two more goals on Sunday after his wonderful effort last weekend and his combination of pace, dribbling acumen and finishing poise look set to be a force to reckon in, particularly in a season that has seen a number of misfiring strikers. The injury of Rooney might have actually been a blessing in disguise, as United appear to have finally found a natural striker again who can finish the opportunities in front of a relatively solid midfield and back four. They did give up two goals to Southampton today, though, and would have arguably lost 4-3 but for two wonder saves from David De Gea. United, in fact, appear to finally be coming together under LVG – forgoing the disappointing midweek loss to PSV – and while they still have some issues and seem to win a lot of games with more than a little luck thrown in (as for example with the fortuitous back pass that led to one of their goals and a second that should have been ruled out for offsides).

3. Losing Stars Hurts: looking at the Spurs issues more deeply, a clear message emerges – losing your star player really, really hurts. A few years back, Tottenham had arguably the best player in the league, as Gareth Bale lit the league up as the Spurs only lost out because fourth place didn’t merit a Champions League spot that season – with Chelsea winning it all. Bale was sold for a record fee still yet to be broken and the Spurs have struggled ever since, even with major investment. The same can be said of Liverpool, a slip away from winning the title two seasons back and now struggling through a second poor season in a row. Players like Suarez are simply impossible to replace, and Brendan Rodgers could be the first manager to be axed this season as a result. It truly was the “bite heard round the world” for Liverpool fans at the World Cup, facilitating a move to Barcelona that might have otherwise taken another year to happen. And United have not fully recovered from the declining form of their star player – Robin Van Persie – now plying his trade in Turkey, even as they currently sit in second place. Speaking of Robin Van Persie, Arsenal have failed to replace their main striker since he left to win a title for United and, ignoring their aborted title run two seasons ago, still suffer from the inability to finish chances often enough.

In a broader sense, it appears that strikers are struggling at most of the top teams in England. Sturridge has largely been on the sidelines for Liverpool but big summer signing Benteke has not exactly started the season in fine fiddle. Rooney was struggling himself before his injury allowed the 19-year-old phenomenon to show his class with three goals in his last two league games. City have started in blistering fashion, but that has been without a big contribution from talisman Aguero, who missed several more chances this weekend. Arsenal’s struggles at striker have been well-chronicled, even if both Walcott and Giroud have scored a few goals. And Tottenham’s misfiring Kane is the main reason they find themselves in ninth place, even with two wins in a row. Maybe Wenger had a point about world class strikers? Well, maybe one just had to look a little wider, as Bournemouth, United and Crystal have all shown in the early going of this campaign.

4. The Upstarts: given their recent record in Europe, the only argument for the EPL being the best league in the world is the relative parity across the division. Sure only four teams have won the title in the Premier League era, but upsets like West Ham beating an undefeated Manchester City are now becoming the norm. Every year there are one or two surprises hanging around near the top of the table as the season progresses. Tottenham has been that team far too often, Everton almost pipped Arsenal to fourth two seasons ago, Southampton were in the Top 4 for large portions of last season, before the almost inevitable late season fade. This year, West Ham sits in third, Leicester in fourth and Swansea and Crystal in seventh and eighth. These teams have been incredibly adventurous and provided some of the best action in the league as all of the traditional Top 6 struggle for goals and momentum, forgoing Manchester City – themselves the victims of one of these upstarts. By the end of the season, one assumes the usual suspects will return to the top, with Arsenal, Chelsea, City and United taking up the Champions League places, but one never knows in a league where results are far less predictable than in Italy, Spain, Germany or France. Looking at those leagues, Bayern have run away with the title since the two Dortmund titles, Juve have won four on the bounce, PSG three straight and Barcelona and Real duking it out year after year, but for the surprise Atletico title two seasons back (won on the last day of the campaign with a late equalizer against Barca). By the way, even with the 2-0 win, title holder Chelsea still sit in 15th, 8 points behind City after only six games!

5. Time for the Video Replay: technology has been incorporated into other sports in a way that football has consistently resisted. Few would argue, though, that goal line technology has not been a positive, eliminating mistakes that have cost teams points, titles and cups far too often over the years. Yet other possibilities exist that have yet to be incorporated into the game. Maybe it’s time to start seriously considering their viability. Red cards are flying in the EPL in the early season and real questions exist about some that have been given and some that have not. After an incident, would it really undermine the integrity of the game to allow one additional official, working in a video booth off the field, to make calls retroactively? That would have influenced at least two games this weekend and countless over the season. For example, while Gabriel maybe should have been sent off for kicking out at Costa, it was a very minor touch after Gabriel came to the defense of Koscielny, who was physically assaulted by Diego Costa not once, not twice, but thrice, before the Chelsea player goaded him endlessly. Costa got off with a yellow, unrelated to the Kos incident, and was still on the pitch for the second half. The second yellow on Cazorla was almost as questionable, as he appeared to pull out of the tackle with Fabergas, in what was a 50/50 ball to begin with. And that was the third questionable red on Arsenal in just four days, with Giroud suffering two yellows in the first half for dissent and then a very minor foul. Arsenal have also been the victims of a wrongly disallowed goal for offsides in a goalless draw with Liverpool, who themselves were the beneficiary of two bad calls in one game in a 2-1 win the week before. And then there was the aforementioned mistake on one of United’s goals that arguably cost Southampton at least a point.

Maybe it is time for something to be done about the growing list of errors by officials this year, and really every year. It’s not like the NFL where there is a score every 10 minutes or so. In football, the average game has somewhere between 1 and 3 goals and no more than .3 overruled goals per game. That means maybe four reviews a game that could be done in less than two minutes – generally the time of the celebration – together with a quick review of any red card incident. Some might baulk at adding six to 10 minutes of delay to a football game, but it is the most controlled game regarding time in sports. At minimum, it does seem that a manager should have at least one challenge a game, to allow video replay to review questionable calls. The purists will balk at this suggestion and maybe even call me out for sour grapes, which is true, but Arsenal have arguably lost 8 points between the champions league and premiership already this year, and something has to be done to address the injustices that undermine the integrity of the game in quite different, and arguably more profound ways. I see the other side of the argument and the notion that these balance out over time, but also know the statistics on the Gunners of the past and the way referees have cost them enough points to win the league more than once. Liverpool and United have both benefitted from some poor refereeing decisions this year already. And Chelsea, after claiming to be the recipients of a campaign against them by the officials again this year, can now claim an official-assisted victory themselves.

This gets me to the final point, which is the unique case of Diego Costa. As an Arsenal fan, I know I bring bias into this argument, but his antics are truly ugly and undermine the beautiful game. I actually like Costa and his desire to win, but his constant attempts to get one over on the officials, to complain about every call and to instigate trouble has grown more than a little tiresome. Why the officials are doing nothing to stop it is beyond me and Mike Dean really looked meek in acquiescing to the Brazilian on Saturday. Wenger has called for a retroactive suspension for Costa and I do think he has a point. It started with him pushing Koscielny in the face, continued with him slamming his arm to his face on the other side and then finished with a chest bump that sent the Frenchman to the ground. Then he goaded Gabriel, hit him on the chest, pushed him and finished the Abbott and Costello act by crowding him 50 yards from a dead ball (at midfield). If that’s okay, why not bring back Dan Revie’s ghost and return to the old days of physically brutish English football?

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