Tuesday, October 27, 2015

NFL Week 7 Wrap: Patriots Stop Jets; Steelers Lose; Dolphins Win; Arizona Back on Track

Seattle kicked off Week 7 with a season saving 20-3 victory over the Niners, on the back of another terrible Kaepernick game (completing 13 of 24 for 125 yards and a QBR of 9.0). Wilson threw two interceptions himself, but was otherwise solid as Marshall Lynch ran for 122 yards on 27 carries with a touchdown. In the early Sunday game in London, Buffalo came storming back from an early 27-13 halftime deficit to close to within three, but ultimately lost by that margin 34-31 to the Jags. The Redskins scored a late touchdown to sneak past the Bucs 31-30, the suddenly flat Falcons won 10-7 over the Titans, the Vikings cruised past the listless Lions 28-19 and the Dolphins won their second on the bounce under interim coach Dan Campbell 44-26 over the Texans. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh third-stringer Landry Jones was brought back to earth in a 23-13 loss to the Chief (though he did throw for 209 yards on 16/29 with 1 TD and 2 INTs, after a slow start).

The Colts came storming back from a 27-0 deficit to draw within 6, but were unable to stop New Orleans in the final 3:02, after just missing out on recovering an onside kick for the second game running and a Brees toss on third down meant the Saints could run out the clock to win 27-21. Luck was horrible early, but finished 23 of 44 for 333 yards with 3 TDs and 2 INTs. But the Colts fell short for a second week running and are now 3-4. In Massachusetts, the Patriots came back from a fourth quarter deficit to win 30-23 at home against the Jets, a team that impressed in a loss. In the late games, the Chargers fell way behind the Raiders and their late comeback was for naught as they lost 37-29 while the Cowboys blew a game against the Giants where they ran at will and controlled possession but five turnovers in the second half and a muffed punt return with a chance to tie it late, losing 27-20.

In the Sunday night game, Carolina continued to impress, beating the Eagles 27-16 to move to 6-0. With the Eagles down eight, Bradford threw a pretty good pass to Miles Austin on fourth and nine that would have given them a lifeline, but the ball went right through the ex-Cowboy’s hands and the game was over when the Panthers kicked a field goal after running down the clock. Bradford had a decent game, completing 23 of 42 for 180 yards, though he was without a touchdown pass, lost a fumble and threw an interception. Cam Newton was worse, going 14 of 24 for 197 yards with a TD and three picks, but it mattered little as the defense held strong for most of the game and the running backs and Cam combined for over 200 yards rushing. For the Eagles, Murray was held to 65 yards on 18 carries while Ryan Matthews went for 97 yards on only six carries, including a 63-yard burst for a touchdown. The loss, combined with a Giants win, means New York open up a one-game lead at the top of the NFC East.

Monday night matched the 1-5 Ravens against an Arizona side that has lost two of its last three games. The Ravens jumped out to an early lead, but the Arizona offense came alive and built a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter before some bad coaching, some bad punting and dropped coverage almost cost them. The game should have been out of reach before the Ravens got back in it, but a missed extra point meant Baltimore could tie it with two touchdowns and two two-point conversions. The first TD came after a blocked punt gave them excellent field possession. The Ravens then converted the two-point conversion. The Cardinals were a first down away from winning the game, but inexplicably threw the ball on second down and ultimately gave the ball back to Flacco and the Ravens with enough time to drive down the field. They did just that, all the way to the 5-yard-line with :16 seconds left on the clock. But a offensive penalty and excellent open field tackle put Flacco under added pressure and a blitz with time running out caused the Super Bowl winning QB to toss the ball up for grabs and it was picked off. Incredibly, the Ravens (now tied for the worst record in the NFL with the Lions) have had the ball with a chance to tie or a win a game in each of their six losses, but have failed to convert each time. Barring a miracle, it will be only the second time they have missed the playoffs with Harbaugh in charge. On the other side of the field, Arizona will have to ask some serious questions of themselves after a number of terrible plays in the last five minutes or so, but still got the win to move to 5-2, evening up Carson Palmer’s career record at 75 (and making him 18-4 in his last 22 with the Cards).

Some thoughts on Week 7:

New England Win; Jets Impress in a Loss
The Patriots found themselves down four heading into the fourth quarter after 11 dropped passes by receivers together with an impressive Jets defense held their high-flying offense for much of the game. Yet the field goal that extended the Jets lead should have been seven points, after Brandon Marshall dropped a touchdown pass right in the letters. New England drove down the field on two consecutive drives, as Brady completed 13 of 15 passes, to take a 10-point lead with just over a minute on the clock. The Jets drove down the field and then connected on a 55-yard field goal before recovering the ensuing onside kick, for only the second time in 15 attempts by Nick Foles. But time was not on their side and a completed pass was followed by an offensive penalty that saw the game end 30-23. Some serious questions emerged in Todd Bowles’ time management, allowing the Patriots to roll off a lot of it before their last touchdown. But it is the sort of loss, to arguably the best team in the NFL at present, that can actually build confidence and the performance of Fitzpatrick and the defense will certainly give the Jets the sense they can drive on and earn a playoff spot. Fitzpatrick actually has the 5th best total QBR in the league at present and Chris Ivory, who started slow, leads what is arguably the best running game in the league. Combined with the best defense, this is a team that might be going places, if they can keep their cool and continue to perform at this level. On the other side of the ball, the Patriots showed why they might be favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions, able to win close games and essentially count on Brady to get them out of trouble in close games.

What’s Wrong with the Seahawks?
The Seahawks won 20-3 over the Niners Thursday, getting to 3-4 and back in strong contention to earn a playoff birth. But is this a team that looks likely to return to the Super Bowl? Not on current form. The defense has been smothering in victories over the Bears (26-0), the Lions (13-10) and the Niners, but have given up 34 points to the Rams, 27 to the Packers, 27 to the Bengals and the same total to the Panthers. Their three wins have come against teams with among the worst offenses in the NFC and their huge homefield advantage appears to be long gone, maybe even for a likely Wildcard game. On the offensive end, the return of Lynch should help immeasurably, but the makeshift offensive line is just not giving Russell Wilson enough time to find his receivers. And those receivers are not as impressive a corps as most top quarterbacks have at their disposal. Maybe more important than any of this, the team’s swagger appears to be missing, maybe a result of the heartbreaking last second loss in the Super Bowl last February. One must remember that they came out of the blocks slowly last season, before just missing out on a second straight Super Bowl victory, but a third straight trip seems a long shot on current form.

Cowboys Collapse Continues as Giants Rebound
In the Saints game, a missed pick call came a play before Brees threw a long TD pass to win in overtime. Today, the Cowboys had a 31-yard touchdown pass called back in the second quarter for a pick that was anything but, costing them four points, as they had to settle for a second field goal and a 7-6 deficit. On the ensuing possession, Hardy’s third sack in two games forced the Giants to punt and the Cowboys drove down the field to score for a 13-7 lead. A penalty by the Cowboys, an overturned interception and a long completion for ex-Dallas special teams specialist Harris led the Giants to a field goal and a 13-10 score. The Cowboys had a minute left but failed to get going and settled for the three-point lead. Those four points were costly as the Giants turned things around in the second half.

The Cowboys started the second 30 with a decent drive until Rodgers-Cromartie jumped the coverage, picked off Cassel’s and cruised into the end zone to give the Giants a 17-13 lead. On their next possession, another Cassel interception, on an underthrown pass just outside the Giants end zone reminded of how much the Cowboys miss Romo. The Giants charged down the field from the one, but had to settle for a field goal again, and a seven-point lead with 3:18 left in the third quarter. The next Cowboys possession brought a third interception in a row for Cassel, when the Cowboys were closing in on field goal range. The Cowboys were leading the time of possession, the rushing yards battle and had more first downs, but three turnovers saw them down 7. On the ensuing possession, the Cowboys ran six straight times, before the second of two great throws from Cassel was caught by Street on the sideline of the end zone to tie the game up at 20. Just when the Cowboys had some momentum back, Harris bit them again, running the kickoff back 100 yards to again put the Giants up by seven. The Cowboys ran the ball down the field yet again, but failed on a fourth down and the Giants were able to run the clock out after Cole Beasley fumbled a punt with over a minute left on the clock.

The Cowboys are now 0-4 without Romo and might have a hard time winning a game before he returns. They are running the ball well and playing decent defense at times, but collapsing at the wrong times in games, making huge mistakes and are too often unable to finish drives with seven points. Today it was the three straight interceptions by Cassel that essentially killed them, though the 100-yard runback from ex-Cowboy Harris had to especially smart. Even with all those mistakes, they still had a shot at the end until Beasley muffed the final punt of the game to seal it for the Giants. It was a truly terrible game and might just end the Cowboys hopes of staying in the playoff hunt. Looking at the schedule, they still have to play the Seahawks, the Eagles, the Dolphins, the Panthers, at Green Bay, the Jets and the Bills. A record of 9-7 looks like the best they can do and that is unlikely to be enough to get into the playoffs unless the Eagles and Giants continue to falter. The Eagles might, but the Giants look to have steadied themselves a little after being destroyed by those same Eagles last Monday night.

Whose Hot and Whose Not?
Rookie Todd Gurley continued to defy the naysayers with 128 yards on 19 carries and two TDs. On the other side, Josh McCown had another solid game, going 26 for 32 for 270 yards, but was sacked four times and failed to register a touchdown pass in a 24-6 loss. Brady again showed why he is arguably the greatest quarterback of all times, at least when it comes to winning, with two fourth quarter TD drives to squeeze past the Jets. Harvard-grad and veteran Fitzpatrick continued to impress himself for the Jets in a loss. Luck started slow but finished strongly, though it was not enough to overcome a 27-0 deficit, and serious questions must now be asked about the 3-4 Colts. After early struggles, the beleaguered Redskins quarterback Cousins led the team to four touchdowns and a field goal in just over a half, including a game-winning drive, on the road to a 31-30 comeback victory. Teddy Bridgewater also played well again going 24/34 for 316 yards and two TDs as the Vikings ended the Lions one-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the mercurial Ryan Tannehill went an incredible 18 for 19 for 282 yards and four touchdowns as Miami crushed the Texans 44-26 to move to 3-3. Derek Carr was also hot in a blowout win over the Chargers (24/31, 289 yards, 3 TDs without a turnover) as Philip Rivers threw two first half interceptions before padding his number when the game was out of reach. As mentioned above, Sam Bradford was decent but not spectacular in losing to a Cam Newton who played poorly but still led his team to victory.

Way too Early Predictions on the Playoffs
We have not yet reached the halfway point, but why not offer early predictions on the playoffs teams for each division? In the AFC, it’s hard not to pick the Patriots to win the AFC East and to garner home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and the 2½ game lead for the Bengals makes them the favorite to brush past Pittsburgh and win the North. I still think the Colts will have enough to win the weak AFC South and Denver has almost no competition in the West, unless the Raiders go on a serious run and luck catches up with the Broncos. The two wild card teams I like are the Jets and the Steelers at present, with Miami and Buffalo in the mix and the Raiders a long shot possibility.

In the NFC, I think the Giants win the relatively weak East (with my poor Cowboys sitting out the playoffs yet again), the Green Bay Packers win the North, the Panthers sneak by the Falcons in the South and the Cardinals win the West. If I’m right, the Falcons look likely to be one of the wild cards and I like the Vikings to take the other. A lot of teams are in the hunt, though, with the Rams moving to 3-3, the Seahawks the strongest 3-4 team in the league (though see above) and a host of others having a shot including the Saints, the Eagles and even, though I seriously doubt they stay in contention, the Cowboys and Redskins.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

EPL Week 10 Recap: Arsenal Go Duel Top, Sherwood Sacked, United-City Disappoints

Week 10 of the Barclay’s Premier League started with a fifth defeat for Chelsea and a complete meltdown by the team, from the silly two yellow cards from Matic and the entire team surrounding the refs to an apoplectic Mourinho and staff sent to the stands and not even showing up for their post-match duties. The 2-1 defeat to West Ham, with Andy Carroll of all people providing the late winner, sees West Ham rise to third in the table (a mere two points behind the leaders) and Chelsea to 15th, 11 points behind Arsenal and City. Leicester City continued their impressive start to the season as well, beating Crystal Palace 1-0 at home. West Brom beat Norwich on the road 1-0, with Salmon Rondon’s 46th minute goal the winner. Watford gained a valuable three points, winning 2-0 at Stoke. And Aston Villa lost to Swansea City 2-1, with all three goals coming in the last 30 minutes, first a Jordan Ayew goal to give Villa the lead and then a sublime free kick from Sigurdsson followed by Andrew Ayew finishing off the come from behind victory in the 87th minute. It took less than a day for the almost inevitable news to come that Tim Sherwood had been sacked, along with his two main assistants.
Arsenal played Everton in the late Saturday game. It was a back and forth affair, even as Arsenal dominated possession, before a two-minute spell saw them up 2-0, on goals from the red hot Giroud, getting his first start in five, and Koscielny. Everton were given a lifeline when a Barkley shot just before the half careened off Gabriel and into the Arsenal net, but the second half was scoreless and the Gunners held on for their fourth win in a row in all competitions. The early Sunday game offered us the Northeast derby between Sunderland and Newcastle, with a red card and penalty setting Sunderland on the way to a 3-0 victory after the Toons dominated the early going in the game. The penalty might have been justified, but the red card to Coloccini seemed a bit harsh. Regardless, it was a first win for Allardyce in charge of Sunderland, enough to get them above Newcastle and into 18th place, only two behind a reeling Bournemouth, who lost to a Tottenham team 5-1 that has not lost since the opening game of the season to United. Harry Kane continued his mini-renaissance chipping in a hat trick.

United and City faced off in what should have been the marquees matchup of the weekend, but the game was as dull as the Mourinho post match interview (he did not show up) and England manager Roy Hodgson was so bored he didn’t even last the full 90 minutes. The 0-0 scoreline seemed rather appropriate to a game that was largely played between the two 18-yard lines. The final fixture of the weekend saw Liverpool looking to get their first victory under new manager Klopp after two straight draws. Their opponents at Anfield were a Southampton team equal on 13 points coming into the late start. After a scoreless first half without many chances for either team, Klopp brought on Benteke for the final 45. Liverpool continued to struggle around the box until the 77th minute, when the Belgian met a wonderful cross from Milner by pounding his header into the far corner. Klopp flew into the air in celebration, but was soon to be deflated, as the lead was relatively short lived. A nice free kick was flicked on to sub Gaston Ramirez, who sent it across to a charging Mane for a rather simple finish past Mignolet. Mane’s night would end early, however, as two quick yellows in 2:17 saw him sent off in the final minute of extra time. Liverpool could not capitalize and the game ended 1-1, the fifth draw in a row for the Reds (the first time that has happened since 1975) and less goals in 10 games than James Vardy has scored.

Some thoughts on Game Week 10:

1. Mixed Month for the Old Empire: two British managers have already gotten the axe, after Tim Sherwood joined Rodgers in preparing to scour through the help wanted ads, on the back of a 1-8-1 stretch this Villa this term. Sherwood did lead Aston Villa to the finals of the FA Cup and did help the team avoid the drop last season, but his league form was just too unconvincing to risk another game on. Those two sacks come as England completed a rather appalling Rugby World Cup and the English teams continued to struggle in Europe (beyond Arsenal). Of course, they do have the best Formula One driver in the world at the moment, in Hamilton, one of the best tennis players, in Murray, and the forgotten man Rory McIlroy, who is still third in the world in the World Golf Ratings, even after the incredible seasons for Spieth and Jason Day overshadowed his achievements. And Sam Allardyce did win Sunderland its sixth straight derby victory over Newcastle (beating fellow Englishman Steve McLaren). On top of that, they also got through their European Championship qualifying campaign with a perfect record. So I suppose it depends on whom you are talking to.

2. Arsenal in the Ascendancy: sometimes a loss is just a loss; sometimes it can completely change a team. With Arsenal, the surprise defeat to Olympiakos appears to have spurred the team to heretofore-unreached heights. Following that rather awful defeat, the Gunners crushed Manchester United at home 3-0, beat Watford by the same score on the road, pulled off a famous 2-0 win over Bayern Munich and then took care of Everton 2-1 in a closely contested match. Most impressive in these games is a mettle that has too often been more apparent in their opponents and tactical acuity from Wenger, who has never been a great in game manager even as he radically altered the way football is played in England (for the better). One of the most exciting things about this Arsenal team is the way they appear able to switch between Giroud and Walcott up front and adapt to the competition. They blitzkrieged United, were patient and possession-oriented with Watford and then sat back on Bayern, playing on the counter. Against Everton, you could see the growing confidence of the players, passing the ball around with great accuracy and creativity, scoring two quick goals and then holding on after a diverted shot brought Everton back into contention. Arsenal will not be the title favorites until late in the season, given their tendency for second half let downs, but something is starting to feel a little different about this team.

3. Chelsea Chaos Coagulating into Crisis: Mourinho is among the best managers in the world and already one of the greatest ever. He is an often-entertaining figure that adds spice to pre and post-match interviews that are otherwise as predictable, and dull, as most Adam Sandler movies. Yet that has not meant his teams have been immune to drops in form and internal strife, often the result of his rather poisonous behavior. This might start with the fact the Portuguese manager is among the most myopic of all time, always on the wrong side of a couple of calls that he believes could have changed the results of any loss. It is further solidified by a tendency to pick on his best players when things aren’t going his way, as was the case with Casillas at Real and now Hazard and Terry at Chelsea. Mourinho lost the dressing room in Real the year after winning the title, left Inter and Porto after quick success and was booted from Chelsea after a poor start back in 2007. It sometimes feels as if he is begging to be sacked this year, after the bust-up with his medical staff, the antics on the sideline and with the media and the on the pitch form of the same team that won the league last season. Is Mourinho’s behavior the reason the team has fallen from its perch or is it a series of players that over performed last season and cannot seem to rediscover the form that saw them build a huge early lead in 2014? It is hard to say, really, but the defense seems shambolic now that Terry seems beyond his best form and Cahill has taken a few steps backwards in his development as Zouma tries to learn the position and Ivanovic goes from one of the best full backs in the league to one of the worst. On the offensive end, Hazard has started the season flat, Fabergas has continued his second-half decline in form from last season and Costa appears more interested in arguing with refs and opposing players than getting into good positions to score. It is a serious situation and one that could see Mourinho gone before the year is out, though it is hard to believe the results can keep running this poorly.

4. West Ham for Real? I have written over the past several weeks that it is possible Leicester and West Ham are actual contenders for top four berths this year and while I think Leicester will have trouble beating their nearest competitors to keep their position in the table, the Hammers are certainly starting to turn some heads with their performance against the top teams. To reiterate, they beat Arsenal at the Emirates 2-0 to start the season, beat Liverpool at Anfield 3-0, beat Man City 2-1 at the Etihad, beat Crystal Palace 3-1 on the road and now Chelsea 2-1 at home. It is their results against some of the lower tier teams in the league – a 4-3 loss to Bournemouth and 2-2 draw with Norwich at home and 2-2 draw with Sunderland on the road – that call in question their credentials to keep up this pace, but it is hard to ignore that record. With a quick counterattacking game and the ability to shift tactics to suit their opponent and situation, this is a team to keep an eye on as the season develops.

5. Derby Defibrillator? Boring, boring United and City. Not something you often hear, though complaints about Van Gaal’s approach were certainly on display in this moribund 0-0 draw. United and City played a derby Sunday that seemed to lack the excitement and urgency these matchups generally elicit. City were rather ordinary without their two biggest stars – Aguero and Silva – particularly as Pelligrini set them up with three defensive midfielders, De Bruyne out wide across from Sterling and Toure in the hole (with Bony up front). United were clearly well organized and essentially stalemated the middle of the park with strong tackling and interceptions, but lacked the forward momentum that once made the team electric. One thing that seems clear is Rooney should be moved back to the #10, pushing Martial from the wing up front. He is a clear talent and some of that talent appears to be stifled out on the wing. His pass near the end that almost led to a goal, as Lingard cushioned it over Hart and onto the post, showed that there is more than dribbling and scoring to his game. Rooney turned 30 on Saturday and, at the moment, is like an alcoholic 40-year-old who looks like a pensioner. His turn of pace is gone, his holdup play average at best and too many United attacks seem to collapse with him on the ball. To put things in perspective, he has only two goals in 8 league games and his stats in this match, one in which he has scored more goals at 11 than any other player in history, included his only shot being blocked, 17 completed passes of 31 (56%), 37 percent of his duels won, no key passes and an incredible 28 lost balls. His talent and experience could be better served further back, where he can pick out charging players and move in at the appropriate moment to chip in goals. City will, of course, get their stars back before too long and even with all the complaints, United are a mere two points from the summit of the table. Neither team can thus really complain about the result, particularly given that City jumped back above Arsenal on goal difference. One hopes to see better from both in the future though.

Looking around Europe, Real Madrid beat upstart Celta Vigo 3-1, Sevilla won big at Getafe (5-0 and Barcelona recovered from an early deficit to beat Eiber 3-1. Real Sociedad players might have saved David Moyes’ job with a 4-0 road win over Levante. In Germany, Bayern recovered from their midweek defeat to beat Cologne 4-0 at the Allianz, while Wolfsburg won 1-0 and Dortmund cruised 5-1 over Augsburg. Palermo and Inter played out a 1-1 draw in Italy, Juve won 2-0 over Atalanta to continue their resurgence, AC Milan won 2-1 at home against Sassuolo and Roma beat Fiorentina 2-1 to vault above them and into the Series A lead.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Do You Believe in Miracles? Arsenal Beat Bayern 2-0

Let’s start with the qualifiers. Bayern did not need to win this game. They are in control in their Group and look all but certain to finish first, even if they lost to Arsenal again at home. They were playing on the road against a team that needed to win the game. And they did not play football with the urgency we normally see from this Guardiola team. Now that the caveat emptor is out of the way, Arsenal pulled off a stunning 2-0 victory that restored hope of getting out of the Group yet again and into the round of 16. There is still a long way to go, and they will have to pray that neither Dynamo Zagreb or Olympiakos come up with a surprise result against Bayern and that they take care of business on the road in their final two group games. But this is the sort of result that can really kickstart a season in which they might have their best chance at winning the league title in a long time. Sure they led the league for longer than any other team two seasons ago, but their February-April fade saw them struggling for fourth instead of first as Liverpool and City fought it out for the crown.

Make no mistake, this was a statement win. Bayern dominated possession to the tune of 73 percent, at the Emirates, and completed over three times as many passes. They had 21 shots to Arsenal’s 13, though two less on goal (6 versus 8). They thus won the possession battle, but they ultimately lost the war, with Arsenal not only having the better chances of the game, but also converting two of them. They had more tackles, 24 versus 16, committed two more fouls (9-7) and were well-organized throughout, only the victims of a few errant passes, the last by Sanchez in extra time sending my heart into palpitations before Ozil secured the three points. Three thoughts on the game.

1. Possession is Overrated: this is a point I made a few weeks ago in my EPL wrap-up, but counterattacking football might be the best answer to tiki-taka yet, a strategy employed by Real at times on their road to winning the Champions League two years ago, by Chelsea to win the title after an early offensive explosion and certainly by Juve in winning Series A three times in a row and getting to an improbable finals matchup with Barca last June. Sure Barcelona has been the dominant team over the past decade with a more possession oriented game, but there are serious questions about whether this is the ideal formula going forward. It certainly is not for Chelsea manager Mourinho, for new Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, for Juve or for most of the top teams in European football not named Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Arsenal almost never lose the possession battle at home, which is arguably why they have been a better team on the road the past two seasons, and to win a game with only 27 percent 2-0 is a rather damning indictment of Guardiola’s strategy.

This should come with a serious caveat, as Bayern came into the game undefeated for the season and Barcelona did win the treble last year, though with a more direct attacking approach than under Guardiola. You cannot be scored on while you have the ball and can lull the opposing players into losing their concentration, creating opportunities to score. But in this game, Bayern appeared to be passing the ball around, and often backwards, without sufficient intent to attack or create chances. And that lackluster final ball meant that Arsenal could steal the game, which they did with a little luck on the first and an eagle-eyed line official on the second. Again, one game does not define the tactical trends of an era, but Mourinho has won two Champions League titles to go with all his other trophies by playing a more defensive game whenever it really mattered and it’s hard to ignore the fact that Arsenal’s leading point total for 2015 has included a more defensive-oriented approach to the big games as well. They still attack when openings emerge, still dominate possession when playing inferior opponents and still sometimes leave themselves open at the back, but the numbers tonight are hard to argue with. Possession alone does not win games; a lesson Wenger should have learned a long time ago.

2. Wenger Wins the Tactical Battle for Second Time in Two Weeks: the biggest complaint against Wenger is his general unwillingness to spend the money necessary to compete at the top of the sport. Some of those concerns were allayed by the purchase of Ozil and then Sanchez in the two summers leading up to 2015, but the fact he only brought in Cech this summer certainly turned more than a few heads, including those of the Arsenal shareholders. In fact, Arsenal were the only team in Europe’s top league not to buy any outfield players. And yet they sit in second place in the League and have just beaten one of the best teams in the world, on the back of a victory over hated rival Manchester United. The other complaint against Wenger is that he too often gets his tactics wrong; a fair complaint from my perspective. For years he played possession first, attacking football no matter what the circumstance, and that has led to far too many losses in key matches. Against United, Arsenal did play attacking football, but together with a high press that essentially ended the game against a befuddled United team before 20 minutes had past.

Today he did not play the high press that has been successful in big games since the turn of the year, instead instructing his players to sit back and absorb the pressure until Bayern got too close to the box, or seemed vulnerable. Whenever they did get the ball, they stormed forward with speed that was often able to bust through the Bayern attack, stretch the defense and beat the high line to set players free on goal. It should have paid off at least once in the first half, when Walcott had three good chances to score, though his best provided a save for the all-time highlight reels by Neuer. He still should have scored, with a little more power, or better placement, but it was clear that Arsenal were in the ascendancy for most of the last 20 minutes of the half. The second half saw even more Bayern possession, but they were having trouble breaking through the Arsenal banks and unable to turn their few chances into a goal as Cech rose to the occasion at least three times, including in injury time against the hottest striker in the world, Lewandowski. Arsenal essentially clogged the lanes for Bayern’s pass masters, forced backward and side passes and refused to submit to the surgical approach Guardiola was trying to employ. It took a full 77 minutes for the tactics to pay off, but it was an impressive display on both ends of the pitch, reaffirming the point made above. And it was a model that the rest of the English teams should heed, as Chelsea played out a stale 0-0 draw with Dynamo Kiev to add further fuel to the contention that English teams are a step behind the rest of Europe at the moment.

Lastly, after the Steve Bould appointment seemed to have backfired for most of the past two seasons, the Gunners defense appears to have settled nicely with Monreal and Bellerin on either side of Mertesacker and Koscielny, with Coquelin just in front. Coquelin did not have a great game, though he held the Bavarians in check most of the game, but the back four was sublime, with Mertesacker having his best game this season, Koscielny upping his high level to effectively deal with Lewandowski, Monreal neutralizing Mueller and Bellerin adjusting to cut out the advantage Costa had over him early on. The rest of the team all contributed on the defensive end, including Ozil with a couple of great tackles, and the Gunners secured their third straight clean sheet, after the three-goal nightmare against Olympiakos three weeks ago. It is that sort of fortitude and bounce-back mentality that has been missing from the Gunners since the Invincibles finally lost 11 years ago.

3. Super Sub Extraordinaire: Olivier Giroud cannot be happy that he has been supplanted by Walcott up front, only coming on for cameos in the second half, but it is hard to argue with the results. While Giroud has actually scored more goals of late than Walcott, the speed and movement the Englishman provides appears to have reawaken Sanchez and provided a more balanced attack that adds extra stress to the back line of opponents. Giroud in the middle sometimes leads Arsenal to be too predictable, too static and too easy to defend. After Walcott has loosened the defense up and either scored a goal or kept things equalized, Giroud comes on to provide a very different threat, and turn the field upside down, as a player much more capable of holding the ball up and distributing it around him. That was clearly the case tonight, as his introduction seemed to coincide with more attacking intent, earning the free kick that he ultimately scored. That it might have been with his forearm after hitting him in the head should not take away from the importance of that goal. Nor should it be blamed fully on Neuer, who had already had at least three excellent saves to deny Ramsey and Walcott. The second goal sealed things, but may be more important for the fact it was another from Ozil in a key situation. He is the engine that makes Arsenal run on the offensive end, but chipping in goals on a more regular basis will certainly increase the chances of the Gunners winning enough games to snatch that elusive fourth title for Wenger.

The key question now is whether to stick with Walcott up front for most games going forward, or give Giroud some starting berths to keep him happy and contributing at this level. Walcott seems like the natural choice against the suspect backline of Everton, but Giroud certainly provides a different threat against teams that sit back and absorb the Gunner’s possession, as they did to Bayern today. I was among the most vocal critics of not buying another striker, but it is possible that Wenger has found a winning formula involving two strikers providing very different skill sets to lead the line together (though never on the pitch at the same time). Walcott provides the speed to get behind defenses and slot home the through balls that any of Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey or Sanchez can provide while Giroud provides more of an aerial threat with excellent crossers in Ozil, Bellerin and Monreal, and better hold-up play and distribution. Walcott may be too selfish to the same degree Giroud is not selfish enough – together they might create the perfect duo.

Monday, October 19, 2015

EPL Week 9 Recap: Extra, Extra … Newcastle Win! So do Arsenal, City, United, Chelsea and West Ham

After two weeks off for an international break, there is always an added excitement in the air when the first game of the weekend kicks off. And given that the kickoff this weekend included a new Liverpool manager that has gotten more press in the past two weeks than the entire Kardashian family (okay, maybe not), tensions were high at White Hart Lane. Unfortunately, the football did not live up to that hype and the game ended in a 0-0 draw. It was an somewhat impressive first game for Jürgen Klopp, the rock and roll manager who recently supplanted the much less sexy Brendan Rodgers, mainly for keeping a clean sheet lacking from the side since the first four games. Luckily, that was the only scoreless game of the weekend as goals were again crashing into the net with regularity. City scored 5 without Sergio Aguero, to beat Bournemouth 5-1, United eased past Everton 3-0 and Chelsea finally got back to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over a reeling Aston Villa team that might soon be looking for a new manager. Of note in those games, was the first senior hat trick for Raheem Sterling, who has been in relatively scintillating form since moving to City, a first away goal for Wayne Rooney in 11 months and a goal and little trouble for Diego Costa, who just completed his three-match ban. Also noteworthy, as Mourinho tries to right his keeling ship, was the absence of Hazard from the starting lineup, along with several other usual starters. A slightly sterner test awaits in the Champions League when Chelsea travel to Dynamo Kiev; with Mourinho unsure of whether Hazard will remain on the bench, claiming Pedro and William are doing better defensive work on the wings.

Rounding out a busy Saturday, West Ham ended Crystal’s hot streak, with yet another road win (3-1), Southampton and Leicester had to share the spoils after yet another City comeback in the closing minutes, from you know who. Vardy now has nine goals in the league and could become the favorite to win a surprising golden boot if he keeps up this form. And poor Sunderland fell yet again, Big Sam unable to inspire the troops in his first game in charge. They lost 1-0 to Tony Pulis’ West Brom. In the final game Saturday, Watford played good defensive football and got out on the break several times in the first 60 minutes, but Arsenal’s relentless attack finally broke open the game, with three goals in less than 15 minutes of action (for a 3-0) lead. On Sunday, something quiet bizarre happened. Not only did Newcastle win a football game, they actually put six, that’s right, six past a Norwich defense that is admittedly among the worst in the league (they have conceded the most goals at 20). The 6-2 victory will raise the spirits around the club and may be a springboard to a run that can get them out of the drop zone. On Monday, Stoke City beat a Swansea team that has been on a terrible run of form 1-0, in Wales, after converting an early penalty. After beating United on 2-1 on August 30, the Swans have lost to newly promoted Watford, drew at home 0-0 with Everton, lost to Hull 1-0, got beaten up by Southampton 3-1, drew with Tottenham 2-2 and now lost to Stoke. They now find themselves in 14th place and only 4 points above the relegation zone.
Some thoughts on Game Week 9:

1. Klopp Mania: Has there ever been a new manager in the league who has garnered so much admiration and excitement before his team ever kicked a ball? Maybe, but the accolades and adulation thrown at Jürgen Klopp certainly seemed a bit excessive, particularly given the reality that he is stuck with the same team that Brendan Rodgers had trouble with for most of the past 15 months. The leaders of the team that almost won the title two seasons ago are all gone and, though the defense has been intermittently quite strong this season, there are real questions on the offensive end. Liverpool have scored only 8 goals in their 9 games (conceding 10) and have lost Ings for the season and are currently without both Benteke and the ever-injured Sturridge. Origi had a couple of glimmers of his potential in the game, though he probably should have scored with his best chance in the first half. I too would be excited to have Klopp on the sideline and I do believe it was a strong, if ill-timed, move from Liverpool to get one of the most exciting coaches in the world to help rebuild the team. But all the wasted spending, the lack of cohesion of the attackers and the absence of any world-class players – beyond maybe Sturridge on his best form and Coutinho in spurts – means that a LOT of work needs to be done to get this side back toward the top (or even the top four). Klopp can do it, but will have to hope the club management given him the time necessary for the daunting task.

2. Title Race Wide Open: Chelsea finally won a game, though it was largely gifted to them by goalkeeper Guzan and the inability of Villa to sustain the level from the start of the match. United rebounded nicely from their Arsenal drubbing two weeks ago, the Gunners won another game 3-0 (though less convincing in the first half) and City continued to impress, even without Silva and Aguero. It appears there are three teams currently vying for the title and all have a strong chance of rising to the summit. City, of course, have the most recent experience of what it takes to make it through the long drudge that is an EPL season and United have a few players left that tasted the elixir of success under Ferguson, but could it be that Arsenal are the best placed to take the crown? It might just be a hungry Gooner hoping to finally end the 11-year wait, but there is something different about this team. Sure they lost their first two Champions League games to inferior opponents, but there were some selection questions to be answered and some bad luck (along with some really bad playing, one should note). The Gunners have been flirting with the title the past two seasons, with a strong first half in 2013-14 leading them to the top of the table until February and last season ending with a blistering run that almost got them back in contention. After some up and down results, they are a mere two points from the top and have rediscovered both their offensive productivity and defensive discipline. City, of course, have more resources to deploy as they try to win their third title in five years, but have a tendency toward down periods, particularly on the road. And United have certainly exceeded expectations so far, though I still wonder if they have a team ready to take such a huge leap. In any case, it should be an exciting race going forward.

3. West Ham and Leicester Continue to Impress: West Ham currently sit in fourth place, two points behind United and Arsenal with the second most goals scored this season (behind City), with 20. They have conceded 12 though, and that is worse than every other team in the top eight besides Leicester (and tied with 8th place Southampton). Their victory over Crystal Palace on the road again showed that this team knows how to play to their opponent’s weaknesses and to exploit opportunities on the counter. The same can be said of Leicester, a team that seems in any game they play, whether they are down two with five minutes to go or 3-0 in the first half. Their comeback Saturday was wrapped up by Vardy’s ninth goal of the season and with the talent they have on the offensive end, they are a dangerous team for anyone to play. Their liability at the back means they will probably creep down the table as the season goes on, but they clearly could play a spoiler role in the title and top 4 races, and might even have an outside shot at a European place.

4. Relegation Watch: Can Newcastle rebound from their early season struggles? Of course they can and emphatic wins like the one Sunday can bring a renewed sense of belief to an entire team. The performance against Chelsea, where they jumped ahead 2-0 before having to settle for a point, showed hints of better things to come. With a quality coach and some talented players on the offensive end, I think Newcastle might have just enough to avoid the drop. That seems less likely for a Sunderland team that seems to have bought into the media narrative, unable to find any positive momentum so far this season. The hiring of Allardyce might help, but this is a team that has barely escaped relegation two seasons in a row. Big Sam has never seen one of his team fall backwards at the end of a season, but his streak is in real danger at the moment. Aston Villa are also a team that seems in real trouble, with Tim Sherwood close to the chopping block. Another loss might mean he is again looking for work and Villa for a manager that can save the team from the ignominy of the Championship after so many years in the Premier League. Two other teams to watch are Bournemouth, who are looking extremely vulnerable after their star striker Wilson went down for the season, and the leaky defense of Norwich, who do not have the offensive weapons to make up for the over 2 goals a game they are currently offering up to opponents.

5. Looking around the rest of Europe, Real and Barcelona both won (with Neymar scoring an incredible four goals in their victory and Ronaldo passing beloved Raul on the all time Real scoring list). The real surprise in Spain, though, is Celta Vigo, who are somehow level with the two giants of La Liga at present, after another victory Saturday. They even have a better goal difference than Barca, at 9 versus 6, though neither can match the +16 of Real at present. In Germany, Bayern is undefeated this season and already has a 7-point lead over Dortmund, who have rebounded nicely this term after Klopp left last season and 8 over Schalke. Wolfsburg, the surprise of last season, sit in fourth after their 4-2 victory over TSG Hoffenheim. The Series A race continues to be wide open, with Fiorentina holding onto first place by a point, over Roma and Inter, with Napoli and Sassuolo two points further back. Juve has moved up to 14th, one place below a struggling AC Milan, after a 0-0 draw at Inter. Finally, in France, PSG has already built a five point lead after 8 matches, including 2-0 victory over Bastia on Saturday.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Win at Watford 3-0

Players sometimes come back from international breaks flat, but the Gunners had seven who scored a combined 11 goals for their countries during the most recent fortnight. On the back of the 3-0 win over United right before the break, one assumed this would be a rather straightforward win for Arsenal. Watford had different ideas, however, and Arsenal struggled to break through a defense that was using their size, physicality and a high press to disrupt the usual flow of passing that makes the Gunner’s engine purr. The half ended 0-0, with Watford having a couple of decent chances to take the lead, though Aaron Ramsey could have easily scored two himself. After a more open first 15 minutes of the second half, Arsenal finally opened the scoring in the 62nd minute, when Ozil fed Sanchez just as he appeared to be downed from behind in the box. Sanchez, who has scored 10 in his last six for club and country, finished smartly high above the keeper at the near post. Giroud then replaced Walcott and, after a strong spell of creative football from the Gunners, received a lovely cutback from Ozil at the byline and finished coolly into the roof of the net. Ramsey scored a few minutes later to seal the victory and Arsenal held on for a second clean sheet in a row. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Ramsey Finally Scores: Ramsey had three chances to score in the first half, the most egregious being a missed tap in from three yards out after a lovely lofted 30-yard cross from Sanchez. But in the 73rd minute, a fine run and dribble by Bellerin ended with the Spaniard finding Ramsey in the center of the box, his partially blocked shot dribbled into the net. It was his first goal in 12 league games and ended a slump that saw him miss far too many chances, even as he was robbed of a legal goal against Liverpool. Ramsey could be crucial as the season continues, as Sanchez cannot keep up this scoring pace for the next 29 games, plus all the Champions League, FA Cup and Capital One Cup ties. Ramsey was among the best midfielders in Europe a few years back, before an injury sidelined him for a long spell. He has chipped in important goals since his return, including an essential one to help end the trophy drought in 2014, but he does not dominate games the way he did in the fall of 2013. This goal will hopefully be the start of a purple patch for the Wales captain, who did add a goal for his country in their final qualifying game last week. The same is true of Giroud and Walcott, who have combined well over the past couple of months, with the Frenchman impressing with his ability to come in late and still score important goals. Staying relatively injury-free will be important, but the Gunners resolve is starting to reap rewards and a hot Ramsey could keep the momentum going.

2. Putting It All Together: Arsenal have the most points in the league this calendar year, the second time this has occurred in the last three years. Yet there are no trophies for calendar year tallies and the inability to put together 38 games of consistency across a season has cost them often over the past decade. Added to this, Arsenal continue to be one of the best road teams in the league, having lost only one of their last 11 away from the Emirates, the only blemish the official-assisted loss at Stamford Bridge last month. With their recent record and a stouter defense, can this be the season the Gunners finally put it together and recapture the league title that has eluded them since the Invincibles? It is too early to say, but even with a few slipups so far, they are a mere two points behind City and have a decent run of fixtures to possibly supplant the high scoring but inconsistent “noisy neighbors” of Manchester. This appears to be shaping up as the most open title chase in some time, with Chelsea still 11 points behind the leaders, United and Arsenal just two points behind City and a host of upstarts including Leicester and West Ham right in front of Tottenham and Liverpool. The Gunners will have to continue to improve their record against their closest rivals and avoid the slumps that have cost them dearly over the long stretch without a league title. This calendar year has certainly seen them make great strides forward and it could be that Wenger proves all the pundits wrong and wins with a team that a lot of people, including me, believed still needed a little more star power.

3. Ozil’s Quiet Genius: Ozil has been criticized for most of his time with the Gunners and some of it is clearly merited. But too many pundits and critics fail to consider the number of chances he produces from one game to the next, his improved ability to hold up the ball and even play an admittedly minor role on the defensive side of the pitch. Today, he contributed assists for the first two goals, and could have had two or three more if other players finished the chances he created. He has vision like few who have ever played the game and though many would like to see him score more goals, it is his ability to find the open man that makes him unique. He now has six assists and a goal in 8 league games played and added two assists for his country in their 2-1 win six days ago. Ozil will never be a top scorer, but that is really besides the point of his game. He is great on the counter, can place a ball on a dime, is excellent at picking out players making runs into the box and rarely gives up the ball any longer; a problem when he first came to England. If Arsenal do go on to win the league, Sanchez will probably be given the most plaudits, but it is really Ozil that makes the Gunners offense run. And it should be noted that his arrival has seen them win two FA Cups in a row, along with two Community Shields, after their trophy drought stretched to 10 long seasons. He consistently has the most key passes and creates the most chances of any player in the league. Maybe it is time to acknowledge how much he has improved the team?

A critical two-week stretch is up next for the Gunners, including home and away Champions League fixtures against Bayern Munich, a visit from Everton, a Capital One Cup road game against Sheffield United and a trip to Swansea. If they can get through that stretch in good form, a winnable run of fixtures emerges that includes a visit from hated North London rivals Tottenham before they host Man City four days before Christmas. Meanwhile, Watford continue to impress as a newly promoted team, sitting in 14th place on 10 points, though they do need to start scoring goals at home. They appear on target to stay up, though they will need to pick up some points in the coming weeks before a brutal stretch when they play Liverpool (H), Chelsea (A), Tottenham (H), Man City (H) and Southampton (A) in succession between December 20 and January 13. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

NFL Week 5 Wrap: Patriots, Bengals, Broncos and Atlanta Stay Undefeated; Dallas in Trouble; Detroit Moribund

Week 5 started with a Thursday night matchup between a Luckless Indianapolis and Texans. The 40-year-old Matt Hasselback, in relief of the injured Luck, threw two touchdowns on the way to the victory, as the Colts moved to 3-2 while the Texans fell to 1-4. A third straight victory for the Colts all but erased the 0-2 start and put them in the driver’s seat in the weak AFC South, where the other three teams have a combined three wins to 11 losses.

In the marque matchup of the morning slate, the Bengals found themselves down 17 to the Seahawks in the fourth quarter, then reeled off 17 straight points before scoring a winning field goal off the crossbar to complete an improbable comeback against the best defense in football over the past few seasons. The Bengals moved to 5-0 while the struggling Seahawks fell to 2-3. The Falcons also woke up late to keep their undefeated record, rallying against the Redskins in the fourth before an OT pick-6 won it 25-19. The Bear scored all 15 second half points to push the Chiefs to 1-4 (18-17). And the Browns came back in the second half as well, beating the 1-4 Ravens 33-30 in OT. In the other morning games, Tampa Bay won a tight one over the Jags 38-31, the Eagles offense got churning in the second half to smash the Saints 39-17, the Packers survived two interceptions by Aaron Rodgers, his first at home since 2012, and the Bills offense struggles continued, but their defense kept them close and they ultimately beat the Titans on the road 14-13.

The afternoon saw the Cowboys trying to stop the rot against an undefeated Patriots team many believe is currently the best in the NFL. After the way the Cowboys defense has played the past two weeks, the first half was a surprising defensive battle until the Patriots scored 10 points in the last three minutes to take a 13-3 lead. The Cowboys, other than the 10 play, 47-yard drive that results in a field goal, punted the ball after three and outs six times, totally a measly 17 yards of offense (for a total of 64 yards for the mathematically challenged). Meanwhile, the Cardinals offense exploded in the second quarter for 28 points, thanks to four first half turnovers by the 0-4 Lions, to take a 28-7 lead after 30 minutes. And the undefeated Broncos found themselves down 7-3 to the Raiders at the half, after another Derek Carr touchdown toss and a interception by 39-year-old Charles Woodson iof a 39-year-old Peyton Manning pass in the end zone.  The second half saw the Patriots pull away from the Cowboys with far too much ease on the way to a 30-6 victory, while the Cardinals completed their route of the Lions 42-17. The Broncos again found a way to win, based predominantly on another dominant defensive display, as Carr threw a costly pick-6 on third down within field goal range, down 9-7 with 6:53 to play. The Raiders did pull within six with 1:40 left, but a failed onside kick allowed the Broncos to hold for the 16-10 win. Oakland is much improved, but still find themselves 2-3 after three turnovers and 3 points in the second half, while the Broncos moved to 5-0 without any truly convincing victories.

Sunday night pitted the suddenly hot Giants against the truly not Niners, with Kaepernick having among the worst numbers of any quarterback in the league. It was a back and forth affair with the Giants leading 13-6 at halftime, before a combined 38 points in the second half. Peyton Manning had a record breaking game that culminated in a touchdown pass to Larry Donnell with 21 seconds left to win it 30-27, a catch that could rival all but the best of Odell Beckham’s long highlight reel. Manning finished the game with a record 41 completions on 54 attempts for 441 yards with 3  TDs and a pick, breaking the record for wins by a Giants quarterback with 102. Kaepernick finally had a decent game, completing 23/35 for 262 with 2 TDs and no INTs (also running for 23 yards on three carries), though he still couldn’t keep the Niners from falling to 1-4. The Giants, on the other hand, are now in first place in the NFC East.

Monday night had the Steelers facing the Chargers, both teams trying to escape a 2-3 record against undefeated division leaders. The Chargers outplayed the Steelers for much of the game, but too many penalties (7 for 54 yards, though most in the first half), a missed field goal, three dropped interceptions, a pick-6 by Rivers (who otherwise had another great game, going 35 of 48 for 365 yards and two touchdowns – both to the returning Antonio Gates) and a defensive collapse in the final drive all contributed to the 24-20 loss. After going ahead by three on their last offensive possession of the game, the Chargers left a struggling Michael Vick with 2:56 to drive the ball 80 yards. The oft-maligned quarterback converted two third downs, one with a long run, then drove the team to the half yard line with 5 seconds left. Many coaches would have simply kicked the game-tying field goal and taken their chances in overtime, but not Steeler’s coach Tomlinson. The announcers assumed a quarterback sneak and quick timeout would follow (if they didn’t score), but instead they pitched the ball back to the best running back in the league, and after being seemingly stopped, powered forward to just cross the line with no time on the clock. If he did not get that extra push forward, pundits would have been talking about the boneheaded decision; instead he might have saved the Steelers stuttering season. The Chargers now stand at 2-3 and will have to hope for a Wild Card birth, with questions about the coach surfacing again – arguably the only reason Philip Rivers has yet to make a trip to the Super Bowl.

Some thoughts on Week 5:

Are the Jets for Real?
As a Jets fan for far longer than I’m willing to admit, I have lived through years and years and years of disappointment. Hope is really all Jets fans have to live on since the miracle Super Bowl win way back in 1969. Since then, they have been to the AFC Championship Game on four occasions, but always come up short. They had a real shot to beat the Colts in 2009, before a second half collapse cost them in a 30-17 loss. They lost the next year at the same stage to the Steelers in a close 24-19 game they probably should have won. Going back to 1982, there was the famous 14-0 loss to Miami, when A.J. Duhe had two interceptions of Richard Todd, who went a nauseating 15-37 on a muddy field. They got back in 1998, but were beaten handily by the Broncos 23-10. And that is all out of 13 trips to the playoffs and another 31 seasons that ended with the final game of the regular season since 1969. Now the Jets sit at 3-1, with the only blemish a tough loss to the Eagles, where they did not show up until the second half on either side of the ball. The 27-14 victory over Miami early on Sunday in London, included 425 total yards, a career-high 166 for Chris Ivory and a decent performance from Fitzpatrick, who was 16-29 for 218 yards with a touchdown and an interception (but also a 58-yard pass early that set the tone for the win). The only reason Miami stayed close was 14 penalties for 163 yards by the Jets, including two long pass interference calls that allowed Miami to score their first touchdown.

So how good are these Jets? They have beaten the Browns, the Colts and Miami, three teams that have struggled in the early going of the season. But they have been impressive defensively except for the first half of the Eagles game, have been running the ball relatively well and have a quarterback who, though he will never be top tier, might be able to flourish in a more controlled environment. The real test comes after a very winnable game over the Redskins next week, before trips to the Patriots and Raiders in back-to-back games. My perspective is that this is a team that could and should challenge for a playoff spot, if they cut down the mistakes, stay on the right side of the positive turnover ratio and get some luck along the way. Looking at the rest of the season, it is not hard to see the team getting to 10-6; though as a Jets fan, I could also see them losing out and firing their new coach. Only time will tell and, well, tomorrow is another day.

Cowboys Troubles Worsen
It is rare over the course of a season, but a coin toss might well cost the Cowboys a playoff birth. After their offense came alive when it counted driving 91 yards to draw even against the Saints last Monday, Drew Brees drove the ball down the field with little resistance before a missed field goal attempt forced overtime. But given the second half of the game, the coin toss all but guaranteed the Saints would be in a good position to win and it only took two plays to confirm that suspicion. Weeden did not have a terrible game, completing 16 of 26 passes for 246 yards with a TD and no interceptions, but that paled in comparison to the supposedly injured Brees who went 33 for 41 for 359 yards and two TDs. The Cowboys had good chances at three interceptions, however, and really need to work with their corners and safeties on catching the ball, as this was not the first game this year where turnover opportunities went wanting. The big problem for the Cowboys is in their defense, as they are having a hard time stopping opposing teams. It was at the heart of the Falcons comeback two weeks ago and played a big part in that loss. Against the Patriots, the Cowboys held up well for most of the first half, before the Patriots had 4 straight scoring drives that resulted in 24 points, essentially ending any chance of a comeback (the fifth drive ended on a missed fourth and inches, though they were in field goal range). It was the third straight game where the Cowboys defense could not stop the opponent, essentially all but guaranteeing defeats without Romo and Bryant. The struggles started right before halftime against the Falcons, and haven’t really abated much since.

With the upcoming schedule, the Cowboys will have to find a way to beat at least one or two of their tough opponents, including a matchup with a Giants team that suddenly looks a lot better. For now, the defense appears to be a liability that adds to some questionable play calling and the loss of so much offensive firepower, all jeopardizing the playoff birth most predicted before the season began. To put the defensive struggles into perspective, the Cowboys are 14th in the league in yards allowed, 19th in points allowed, 18th against the pass and 11th against the run. They also do not have a turnover since the Week 2 win over the Eagles. And Brandon Weeden added his 11th loss in a row as a starter, with the last four coming with the Cowboys. Time for Matt Cassel?  

A Week Without Officiating Controversy: Whew!
In the Cowboys-Saints game last weekend, the touchdown that sealed it came one play after a clear pick that wasn’t called by the officials, a play that resulted in a Cowboy starter injury. The breakdown for Brees’ 400th TD pass (only the fourth player in history to accomplish that number) came from the substitute and another Cowboys DB who had a combined three plays this season. The Saints seemed to be running picks throughout the game, and are not the only team to be getting away with it far too often this season. But the call in the Seahawks game was much worse, costing Detroit a chance at a go ahead touchdown with two minutes left (from the one-yard line). If the batting call had been made correctly, it is quiet plausible to envision a 1-4 Seahawks team. After some questionable calls throughout the young season, Sunday and Monday were relatively controversy free, a nice break for embittered officials.

Hot or Not?
Josh McCown completed 36 of 51 passes for a record 457 yards as the Browns came from behind to win and move to 2-3. It has been an up-and-down start for the starter, after an early-season concussion, but it’s hard to ignore his 73.9 QBR, four TDs versus only one interception and 66 percent completion rate (for a decent 7.61 yards per attempt). Over in Tampa Bay, Doug Martin rushed for over 100 yards for a second game in a row, with two touchdowns in their 38-31 victory over Jacksonville. In a Seattle loss, one bright spot was rookie running back Thomas Rawls, who rushed for 169 yards and a TD on 23 carries. Why he wasn’t in the lineup for the OT possessions is a real head scratcher, particularly given the fact that the Seahawks punted on their last six offensive possessions (including the two in OT). Russell Wilson had another below-par game, completing 15 of 25 for 213 yards, with a TD and a pick (53.0 QBR), helping the Bengals on the way to the comeback from 17 down. Given that comeback, we might also put the entire Seattle defense in the “cold” category, a week after only giving up 10 to the reeling Lions.

Speaking of those Lions, Matthew Stafford’s numbers don’t look terrible, completing 65 percent of his passes for an average of 6.24 per attempt, but only five TD passes along with five interceptions and a lost fumble have a lot to do with their winless start, and he was benched after throwing his second of the game. Another QB who has decent looking numbers but is losing is Brandon Weeden, who is completing an ungodly 76.3 percent of his passes for a 72.4 QBR but has been unable to win any of the three games he’s started. One problem is he only has two TD passes in four games, along with one interception and, though his yards per attempt is 9.34, his inability (or unwillingness) to throw the ball down field has cost the team in a big way as the opposing defenses stack the line.

Aaron Rodgers had one of his more average days as a QB, giving up his first interception at home since 2012, adding a second, and only completing 19 of 30 for 241 yards. Those numbers look exceptional when compared with Nick Foles of the Rams though, who completed only 11 of his 30 passes for 141 yards and four interceptions. The only good news for the Rams in the loss was the continued success of rookie Todd Gurley, who rushed for 159 yards on 30 carries. There were serious concerns of how he would adapt to the NFL and whether his recovery from a turn ACL would go smoothly – those are largely gone now. Worse than Rodgers in a win, was Peyton Manning, who completed 22 of 35 for 266 yards, with no TD passes and two interceptions. His regular season QBR of 55.4 and 5 interceptions to go with 6 TDs will be a concern, though mitigated by the 5-0 start. Colin Kaepernick might be making his claim to most overpaid player in world sports today, putting together a stomach turning season so far, including going into the game against the Giants tied for the most missed open receivers (26) in the league so far. He was completing 62.1 percent of his passes for only 6.27 per attempt, with 2 TDs, 5 INTs and 3 fumbles (for a QBR of 38.6). Sunday was better, but is this really the guy who can turn the franchise around? Michael Vick will be forgiven for another average game, as he led the Steelers on the game winning drive, but his numbers were again below par – 13/26 for 203 with a TD pass and a pick. His season QBR of 13.9 really says everything we need to know (even as his quarterback rating stands at 96.1!).

The hottest player in the league is, arguably, Tom Brady, who has completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 8.36 per attempt, with 9 TD passes and 0, yes zero, interceptions. His total QBR of 83.1 is third best in the league, only behind the injured Roethlisberger and the other early contender for MVP – Andy Dalton. Dalton is completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 10.23 per attempt, with the same 9 touchdown passes and only one interception. He seems to have taken his game to another level, but will need to win a playoff game, after four straight years of one and done in the postseason, to convince us he has really taken that next step. In fact, as hard as it is to believe, the Bengals have not won a playoff game since way back in 1990 – when they beat the now renamed and relocated Oilers 41-14 in a Wild Card game. Finally, Eli Manning should get a nod for what is turning into a decent start to the season, third in the league with 1,417 yards so far. He is completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 7.19 per attempt with 10 TDS and only 2 INTs (though he does have 3 fumbles).

Early Season Predictions

The Patriots just keep on rolling, crushing the battered Cowboys rather handily. The Packers were less impressive, but still moved to 5-0 with their win over a Rams team that beat Arizona last weekend. The Bengals mounted an impressive comeback against the Seattle defense, jumping to 5-0 themselves, and the Falcons kept up their impressive early season form, coming from behind to beat the Redskins. Arizona bounced back from their loss last week to blow out a Detroit team that could easily go 0-16 on current evidence, only a year after a good season that only ended when they lost a playoff game to the Cowboys as a result of a pretty terrible call. So who is the cream of the NFL crop at the moment? The Patriots have been impressive on both ends of the ball and could definitely go undefeated heading into the playoffs, but have tough matchups coming up. The Bengals also continue to impress and could go far if they can get over their 25-year playoff funk. And the Broncos could certainly have something to say about the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, even as none of their wins have been terribly convincing. The Packers do seem like the best of the NFC, though both the Falcons and the Cardinals are certainly making their own case as Super Bowl Contenders. At the moment, I still think predicting an Aaron Rodgers versus Tom Brady matchup to end the season is a pretty safe bet, but the one thing the NFL has shown us in the opening five weeks is that nothing is guaranteed.  

Monday, October 05, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Crush United 3-0

Arsenal needed to rebound after their loss at the Emirates to Olympiakos on Tuesday night. They did so with style, blasting three past United in the first 20 minutes and then holding on for a clean sheet and victory that pushed them to second in the league, a mere two points behind Manchester City. It was a comprehensive victory that appeared to show a gulf in quality between the two sides, though one result can certainly be deceiving. Sanchez and Ozil led the way offensively, while Petr Cech reminded Wenger why he should probably be playing in any game of consequence. Three quick thoughts on the game:

1. Arsenal Offense Suddenly Clicking: Arsenal scored all of five goals in their first six league matches, including two home games in which they failed to score. Since that barren spell, they have scored 2, 5, 2 and 3 in their last four, beating three teams near the top of the table, sandwiched with the awful defensive display against Olympiakos. At the center of the deluge of goals has been the resurgence of Sanchez, who has scored six of the last 10 for the Gunners. Ozil was also instrumental yesterday, setting up the first and scoring the second, while moving the ball around well and even chipping in with some defensive interceptions and dispossessions. Yet one should not fail to mention the impressive performance of Theo Walcott in the middle, playing what is arguably the best holdup play and distribution of his entire career. Giroud might find his time on the pitch limited going forward, given Walcott’s scoring record in his last 13 league matches and major improvement in leading from the front. The renaissance of Sanchez, arguably tired from the start of the season after the emotional Chile Copa victory this summer, will be essential if the Gunners are to back up this victory with a sustained title run.

On the defensive front, Petr Cech was impressive throughout, making a great save in the first half one-on-one with Martial, when a goal could have given United a breath of life and then adding three more in a second half dominated by United, as Arsenal sat on their lead. Mertesacker played well for most of the game and Gabriel was solid in his return from the one-game suspension. The pace of Bellerin also showed, as he was able to get back defensively to blunt several United attacks from the left, while the improved performance of Monreal continues to surprise, given the trouble he had in his first season with Arsenal, consistently beaten down the line on the right. At the heart of it all, though, was again Coquelin, one of the strangest stories in recent Arsenal history – a guy that one never expected to see again in a red and white shirt (unless he moved to Ajax) and who then has come back after an injury crisis at the club and consistently played as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league.

2. United Overrated? I think it would be absurd to write off a United team that is tied with Arsenal on points and who had won four on the bounce in all competitions following the disappointing 2-1 loss at PSV in the UCL. On the other hand, they have been less than impressive in most of their games this term. They started the season off with a game against Tottenham they only won because of a Kyle Walker own goal. Then they barely beat Aston Villa on the road 1-0 before a 0-0 draw with an awful Newcastle team. A 2-1 loss to Swansea saw them near crisis mode, before the turnaround began with a comprehensive 3-1 win over Liverpool. The problem for United, as many have argued since LVG took over, appears to be a general lack of creativity and slowness in their buildup play – arguably a result of his regimented approach to tactics and defense-first strategy. He also doesn’t seem to know his best team and is stuck leaving in a Wayne Rooney who is so far off his best I have to draw out old memories, like all the goals against Arsenal in the past, to remember that he really was World Class until very recently.

They have shorn up the defense, even if they did concede three early to this rampant Arsenal side, and had only conceded five other goals in 7 league games. They have also shown more mettle this season, coming back to win their match against Wolfsburg on Wednesday after falling behind 2-1. Yet even with Mata playing some of his best football in some time, there are still questions in attack, with both Martial and Depay impressive talents who still need time to fully develop, Ashley Young up and down (and sometimes playing further back) and Valencia a shell of the player that helped them win the league three seasons ago. United will probably win a number of tight games this season and still have an outside shot at the title, but games like yesterday’s are certainly a wakeup call to LVG and the players that were suddenly believing they were the best in Europe. Tough games at Everton, at home for the Manchester Derby and at a hot Crystal Palace together with an away Champions League tie with CSKA Moscow and a Capital One Cup match against Middlesboro, should tell us a lot more about this team.

3. Could Wenger Proves Us All Wrong? I still think it is unlikely. Arsenal have a tendency to look like champion contenders before a series of bad results disrupts their momentum. However, after a stop and start first two months of the season, the Gunners are in second place and still have a chance in Europe, though a point out of six available in the home and away matches with Bayern might be necessary. The capitulation against Chelsea was disappointing, to say the least, but was down as much to the officials and Gabriel’s being enticed to the red by Costa as to anything Chelsea did with the ball. And they were also robbed of two points against Liverpool. The performance yesterday showed what the team is capable of, though, with blistering speed and quick passing leaving defenses in dust. They also did something I wish Wenger would have them do more, which is press strategically high up the pitch, particularly early in games when opponents are still finding their feet. This was the strategy the great Barcelona teams of the late oughts employed whenever they lost the ball and made it hard for opponents to gain any rhythm. The Gunners have intermittently used this approach over the years and I think they should start doing it more often, even against weaker teams in Europe. The idea of passing the ball around and then hoping for a moment of magic has had mixed results over the beginning of this season and heading back to the last six games of the last. They are a much stronger team on the counter, absorbing some pressure and pressing up the pitch, and should consider that as a way to beat inferior opponents, and not just their closest peers.

Importantly, Wenger might have finally found his best team, with Cech over Ospina in the back (for God’s sake!), Bellerin, Koscielny, Mertesacker/Gabriel and Monreal in the back, Cazorla and Coquelin at the heart of the midfield with Sanchez, Ozil and Ramsey playing right behind Walcott. Ox can come in for Ramsey on the right to give a little more pace, Ramsey can occasionally play in his preferred position in the center when Cazorla needs a rest or is pushed up the pitch and Giroud will get time through the middle. The problems arise if any of a few players suffers a long injury layoff. If Ozil rests, Cazorla, Ramsey or even Wilshere, if he ever actually gets more than three games in before another setback, can play. Giroud and Walcott can share the spot up front and we actually have capable backups at both right and left back and through the middle (though if both Mertesacker and Koscielny go down, Chambers has been less than stellar in that position after a good start last season). The big issue is Coquelin. When he is out, Arteta or Flamini are far inferior substitutes, though Flamini, of course, had a monster of a game against North London rivals Tottenham to lead the Gunners to a 2-1 win at White Hart Lane in the Capital One Cup. The loss of Sanchez would probably be devastating, as he has been at the heart of the recent performances, even as the misfiring Welbeck – once he returns from injury – could certainly fill the spot on the pitch. And for all the malarkey we hear about Ozil, he is essential to the game Arsenal play and has even appeared to take some of the criticism to heart and played with more urgency, even without the ball. He already has a goal and four assists in the league this year (in 7 games), and has created more chances than any other player in Europe.

The most surprising thing, for all the criticism of Wenger, is that he has started to turn around his record against the other top teams in 2015. In January, they did lose at Tottenham 2-1, but then beat Man City at the Etihad, United at Old Trafford (in the FA Cup), Liverpool handily at the Emirates 4-1, then drew with Chelsea and United to finish the season. This year, Wenger finally beat a Mourinho-led Chelsea team in the Community Shield, before the 2-0 loss. They drew with Liverpool at home, though a terribly offsides call contributed heavily to the dropped two points. They beat Tottenham in the Capital One Cup and they just hammered United. It could be better, but certainly an improvement on the record from 20