Sunday, October 04, 2015

EPL Week 8 Recap: City Romps, Chelsea Loses, Arsenal Bring United Back to Reality, Rodgers Sacked

The weekend kicked off with yet another win for Alan Pardew and Crystal Palace, 2-0 at home over a struggling Pulis-led West Bromwich, pushing the team all the way to third in the table. Bournemouth, without the injured Calum Wilson, were only able to draw at home against fellow newly promoted side Watford 1-1, after a goalkeeping error cost them dearly. The same can be said of Sunderland, who blew a two-goal lead after a second yellow for goal-scorer Lens allowed West Ham to equalize, with a huge assist to Sunderland goalkeeper Pantillimon, who made a hash of a relatively easy save. News out of the camp was that this would be the swan song for Dick Advocaat, keeping the promise to his wife a few months later than expected, after Sunderland missed a few chances to put the game away before Jenkinson scored on the stroke of halftime to make it 2-1 on the way to the draw. In the post match interview, Advocaat refused to be drawn on the speculation, only to make it official one day later. Leicester City continued to impress, beating Norwich City on the road 2-1. And Stoke City won their second league match on the bounce, and first away match since way back in February, to pile further pressure on Tim Sherwood and Aston Villa (1-0). Villa have all of four points from 8 matches and currently sit in the drop zone with a goal difference of -5. In fact, after Newcastle were absolutely thrashed 6-1 by a Man City side that really needed a win, the bottom three comprised three teams who have been in top division for most of the Premier League era – Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland.

The City victory was a huge one, as it will go a long way in silencing the critics, got their talisman back on form in a big way with a record-tying five goal explosion within 20 minutes of game time and sent them back to the top of the table. They will be unhappy to have conceded another goal, but this is the way a team wants to go into the second international break of the young season. City have hit some roadblocks in their attempt to win back the title they lost to Chelsea last season, but have now won two in a row in all competitions and have the most explosive attack in the league. Or do they …

In the late Saturday game, a struggling Chelsea headed back to the Bridge to attempt to get their season back on track against Southampton. They made it 1-0 early when William scored his fourth free kick in four games, a lovely shot across goal high to the far corner. They were outplaying Southampton throughout much of the first half, but the Saints had two penalty claims, both quite legitimate – the first for a hard tug on a jersey in the box, the second for a clear trip of Mane by Ramires that was even more obvious. Then, with about ten minutes left in the half, Southampton started to play with more resolve and Chelsea’s defense, with John Terry back in the side alongside Cahill, looked shaky yet again. That shakiness proved costly as Southampton equalized two minutes from time in the first half when a long diagonal pass from Fonte was chested right into the path of Steven Davis, who beats Begovich at the near corner. The second half was back and forth, with Falcoa having a decent penalty claim on 57 minutes, though he appeared to start falling before he reached the keeper. Then, continuing their defensive struggles, Southampton’s Mane scored a goal from nowhere, as John Terry failed to clear a pass just past him and Mane finished past Begovich. Ivanovic was struggling again as well, as he was beaten by Tadic on more than one occasion and should have been called for a penalty for a clear tug on his countryman in the first half. Falcoa was lucky to still be on the pitch a few minutes later after a reckless tackle probably should have warranted a second yellow and an early shower. On 71 minutes, Southampton made it an astounding 3-1, when a brilliant counter was finished across goal by Pele after an excellently timed pass from Mane (the result of Hazard giving the ball away rather meekly 40 yards away from the Saint’s goal). That was how the game ended, with Mourinho in a particularly melancholic mood in his post-match comments.

Sunday brought us two marquee matchups, the Meyerside Derby and Arsenal vs. United. Heading into the game, pressure on Brendan Rodgers had been mounting for months and the 1-1 draw his team garnered at Everton was not enough to save him as we learned he was sacked a couple hours after he said he did not feel under pressure. News from Sunderland at the same time confirmed that Dick Advocaat had left the team, giving up on the project for another great escape rather prematurely. Before the Rodgers news arrived, however, we had a key matchup for United and Arsenal, with the former trying to solidify their title credentials while the Gunners needed a rebound after the embarrassing capitulation at home to Olympiakos on Tuesday. It was the Gunners who rose to the occasion early, playing some of the best football the Premier League has seen in years and getting three past De Gea in 20 minutes to start the game. There were no more goals in the contest, but the inability of United to get back into it was telling, even as a few interventions from Cech were necessary along the way (further solidifying the suspicion the Gunners would have won the game Tuesday if he were in goal). Wenger gloated in the post-match interview, the talk of crisis at the Emirates hard to swallow as the Gunners sit in second place, a mere two points behind City. In fact, it turned into a great weekend for the Gunners when the Spurs had to comeback twice, with two stunning free kicks from Erickson, just to garner a 2-2 draw at Swansea. Harry Kane was on the score sheet again, though unfortunately for a pretty horrific own goal that gave Swansea the lead. The results over the weekend mean Arsenal picked up three points on United and Chelsea and two on Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton. A week to remember? Not really! But the six goals from Sanchez in 8 days and the 8 goals in their last two games, after only scoring 5 in their first 6 games of the season, was certainly something to smile about as they head into the two-week break.

Some thoughts on Game Week 8:
1. Sack Race: Brendan Rodgers was leading the sack race before the season even began and now he is gone. One cannot help but think a slip by Gerrard, a bite by Suarez, some questionable signings among the over $300 million pounds he spent (many that were not his choice) and his sometimes narcissistic personality played a role, though losing so many quality players so quickly was really beyond his control. He was not the only manager to leave Sunday, with Dick Advocaat realizing he was right to consider quitting last season, as his club languish second from bottom after blowing a lead yet again. Other managers that could go in the coming weeks include Newcastle’s Steve McLaren, who cannot seem to get much out of his club unless they are playing Chelsea, and Tim Sherwood, whose Aston Villa side are currently in 17th place and, besides the great FA Cup Finals run last season, have been less than impressive for much of his short tenure at the club. Arsene Wenger will probably never be sacked midseason, but his results in the Champions League are certainly a worrying sign, and the sense that this could be another year of “almosts” could mean a gentle nudging toward the exit door if the Gunners go trophy less this season.

2. Chelsea Nightmare Continues: Football is a funny old game. Yesterday’s heroes are as often as not today’s goats and tomorrow’s villains. Chelsea dominated the league last season, even with a less impressive second half, on the way to a cup and league double. This year has been a different proposition entirely. They went ahead early against Southampton Saturday and then, after dominating much of the first half, suddenly seemed to lose their confidence and ultimately conceded three straight goals within 30 minutes to fall behind by two goals for the second game in a row, though this time at home, where they have generally been unbeatable under Mourinho, at least until this season. Southampton almost made it four on 76 minutes, but for a blocked shot with Tadic free on the far post for a tap-in, and arguably should have had two first-half penalties to add to the three goals. Chelsea had no real answers, as their attempt at getting back into the game seemed desperate at best. Hazard, Matic, Terry and Fabergas have all been average to mediocre so far this season, Ivanovic has been downright awful and the entire defensive unit has completely lost it after being the best in the league last season. It is a startling turnaround and begs the question of whether Mourinho’s approach is again starting to alienate players and disrupt team chemistry, as happened at Madrid before his departure, without the third Champions League crown he was so hungry to add to his trophy-laden case. This season the team has already lost four games, after only three all of last season, have only won two, and are already more than halfway to the 32 goals they conceded all of last season (17).

After the game, Mourinho went on a seven-minute rant claiming the team will have to sack him if they want a change, as he is not going quietly. That seems unlikely at the moment, as Abramovich has mellowed since he finally won the Champions League crown he so coveted three years ago. It was a largely impressive statement, blaming himself and the players and opening up in a way that seems at odds with his usual canny media persona. On the other hand, he again called out the officials for failing to call a second half penalty on a purported foul on striker Falcoa. It was yet another example of his skewed version of reality, as I think Falcoa starts to fall before any contact was made, a move that good refs refuse to give. On top of that, there were two clear fouls in the box by Chelsea in the first half that the Portuguese manager decided to completely ignore. The reality is those calls more or less cancel each other out, if we believe the foul on Falcoa even warranted a penalty (which I do not) and Chelsea lost a game they seemed to be controlling for the first 35 minutes.
The great irony, at least as a Gooner, is the only game that Chelsea have been convincing in, beside a 4-0 win over Champions League minnows Tel-Aviv, was the Arsenal game, where two gifts from the referee helped them win 2-0. As is too often the case with Wenger, he failed to take advantage of a rival on a bad run of form, as with United over the past two seasons when they could not beat them in the league once, though they did get the road FA Cup victory on the way to that trophy and the impressive victory today. In any case, eight points from eight game means the current champions are in a position from which the best any team has ever done in the past is fifth place. Chelsea can still turn around their season, certainly, but the title might already be a “Bridge” too far.

3. The Pretenders Becoming Contenders? With the continued struggles of Chelsea, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Leicester City sit in 4th through 6th place. Can any of those teams actually crack the Top 4 and send the Premier League into absolute chaos? The chances are all three will come down to earth, but their early form has been impressive. After much abuse while in charge of Newcastle, Pardew has found the perfect environment to rejuvenate his reputation, the star player of the team coming back to manage them to safety and then near the summit of the table in less than a year. Crystal Palace plays a clever, balanced game that allows them to get forward without giving too much up on the back end. They have scored a decent, but not great, return of 11 goals, but only conceded 7 in 8, showing the power of strong positional play. West Ham and Leicester, on the other hand, both have shown explosive offensive output in their first eight games, with 17 goals apiece, while being more suspect on the defensive end. West Ham have conceded 11 in their first eight games and Leicester an astronomical 15 (the fourth largest total in the league). Those are the numbers that would most trouble anyone predicting a Top 4 finish for either of these two teams. It is all but impossible to win the title without a strong defensive record, as Arsenal can attest to over the past 11 seasons, and Chelsea this term, on the road to their worst start since 1979-80. It is unlikely any of the three can keep up this pace, as Southampton showed last season, but in the topsy-turvy world of the Premier League, I suppose you never do know. Arsenal, United and City appear all but certain to finish in the Top 4 and Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton all have the players to shoot for that fourth position, or even higher, but that should not keep these three of dreaming of the highly unlikely opportunity they all currently have – and at least one of them might just be able to snag a trip to the Europa league. Of course, we probably should not completely write off that club from West London either!
4. Does Possession Matter? Chelsea had 63 percent possession in their game with Southampton, but were outshot and outscored on the way to a home loss. Both Chelsea and Arsenal dominated possession in their midweek encounters in the Champions League and both lost by a goal. Arsenal put the game against United away with a high press and lighting fast counters, losing the possession battle in the second half without conceding a solitary goal. And these are but four example of a trend that appears to be intensifying in the past season or two, teams winning on the counter rather than by dominating games through retention of the ball, as the great Barcelona team of Guardiola did. At its core, possession, of course, matters, as a team obviously cannot score if they do not have the ball and have a much higher chance of doing so with the ball at their feet. But it appears to matter what you are doing with the ball when you do have it. Passing it around without any creativity or forward momentum can backfire in the end, as it might lull not only the fans but your own defenders into a daze that makes them more susceptible on the counter. That has been a problem at Arsenal for years and appears to be infecting many of the English teams playing in Europe. The problem appears to be that teams have gotten better at diminishing the physicality and speed of the EPL by sitting back more and playing with more positional discipline, shutting down the channels for passes and the opportunities to get the ball in the box. Those quickly closing channels also mean interceptions become even more perilous, as hitting the right outlets put the attacking team under quick pressure, particularly if they start to push their defenders higher and higher up the pitch to break through the defensive banks.
This has clearly been a factor in the early success of Leicester, West Ham and Crystal, who all have speedy wingers who can make teams pay for conceding possession in dangerous areas. It has also been a factor in most of Chelsea’s early season struggles. And even Real Madrid is not immune, dominating games in shots and possession while only able to secure a third draw of the young season in La Liga Sunday. The possession debate, in fact, reminds of the Madrid-Barcelona battles of a few years back, when the blistering Real counter matched up against the tiki-taka, with excessive physicality thrown in for fun. It worked out for Real less than they would have liked, except in winning La decimal without having to face their El Classico rivals, but there does seem to be some mounting evidence that counterattacking football, as Dortmund so effectively executed a few seasons ago in winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles and getting to the final of the Champions League, is currently en vogue. Juve’s success in last year’s tournament certainly relied on that approach, together with controlling the midfield battle. Even the attacking forces of Barcelona and Real have been victimized on the counter in the early season, both dropping points in surprising way. It is also worth noting how a more compact Arsenal had their best run in years at the start of 2015, able to defend more securely and attack with pace to get past defenders.

Taking a quick look around the rest of Europe, Barcelona suffered in their second full game without Messi, as they lost to Valencia on the road 2-1, while Real blew a 1-0 lead and had to settle for a draw at Atletico. Bayern crushed Dortmund 5-1, as the explosive Lewandowski scored his 12th goal in four games, to open up an early seven-point league lead, while Wolfsburg continued to struggle without player of the season De Bruyne (losing 2-0 to Borussia Monchengladbach). In Italy, Juve bounced back with the 3-1 over Bologna, Fiorentina won 3-0 over Atalanta to stay on top by two points, AS Roma won at Palermo 4-2, Napoli beat Milan 4-0 and Inter could only draw 1-1 with Sampdoria. Finally, PSG won their battle with Marseille 2-1 in France. Two weeks off now, as the second international break begins.

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