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.

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