Sunday, January 03, 2016

EPL Week 20: Arsenal, City & United Win; Liverpool and Leicester Stumble

Saturday started with another disappointing result for Liverpool, losing 2-0 at West Ham to give the Hammers their first double over the Reds since 1968-69. Arsenal could easily have lost at home in an uninspiring performance against a lively Newcastle, but were saved by a late Koscielny goal to pull out an important 1-0 win that moved them two points above Leicester, who had to settle for a 0-0 draw with Bournemouth. United finally ended their eight-game skid, winning 2-1 over Swansea at Old Trafford, with Wayne Rooney finally getting off the snide after a torrid goalless run. Norwich beat struggling Southampton 1-0, West Brom took down Stoke 2-1 and Man City scored two in the last 8 minutes to beat back highflying Watford 2-1. Finally was Sunderland, who beat fellow relegation imperiled Aston Villa 3-1, with two goals from veteran Jermain Defoe. The victory by Sunderland gives hope that they might again escape the drop and keep Sam Allardyce’s record alive. Aston Villa, on the other hand, look all but certain to find themselves in the Championship next season (the odds makers have dropped the chance of Villa falling out the Premier League to 1/40!).

Chelsea’s rebound continued in style with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Crystal Palace in the early Sunday game. It kept Hiddink undefeated in four and raised hopes of a second-half revival. Tottenham hit the woodwork twice in the first half at Goodison Park and found themselves down 1-0 to Everton after a wonder strike from ex-Spur Lennon, but Dele Alli equalized in extra time to go into the half even. Everton’s Martinez made changes at the break and this led to one of the most exciting halves of football all season, though neither team was able to turn the entertaining back-and-forth action into a goal. It was Everton’s ninth draw of the season and sees them mired in 11th place while Tottenham kept up their incredible run of only one defeat in 19 games and moved back three points above United in fourth.

Some thoughts on Game Week 20:

1. 2015 In Review: now that we have entered the New Year, I thought it might be worthwhile to look back at 2015. Arsenal were the team with the most points in the calendar year, the second time they have accomplished that feat without winning a title (though they could go on to claim it in 2016). They finished with 81 points (25-7-6) a full 9 points above second place Man City (22-10-6) and a further four above a surprisingly consistent Tottenham (19-8-11). Arsenal also had the best defense and the best goal difference, while Man City scored the most goals (79) and Sunderland (34) the fewest. On the other side of things, Aston Villa accrued the fewest points (25), had the worst goal difference (-34) and had the joint worst defense alongside fellow strugglers Newcastle (69). Manchester United had the most completed passes, followed by City, Arsenal and Chelsea. United also had the best passing accuracy (84.4%), followed closely by Arsenal (84.3%), City (84%) and Swansea (81.7%). The worst passing accuracy goes to Leicester City (68.9%), with West Brom, Sunderland and Crystal Palace behind. The most clean sheets goes, maybe unsurprisingly, to a Tony Pulis outfit (West Brom), though Arsenal and Liverpool, with 16 each, are only one behind, with United and City at 15 apiece. Tottenham had the most yellow cards (82) while Arsenal had the fewest (43) and Newcastle had the most reds (7), followed by Chelsea, West Brom and West Ham (5 each). Man City somehow went the entire year without a single red! Crystal Palace committed the most fouls, followed by United, Tottenham, Stoke and Aston Villa. On the opposite end were Arsenal, Swansea and Everton.

Individually, one would not be surprised to learn that Harry Kane had the most premier league goals in 2015 (27), though Ighalo would lead if we count his Championship tally (30). Behind them were four with 19 apiece including Aguero, Lukaku, Vardy and, no mistake here, the oft-maligned Olivier Giroud. Ozil led in assists (20) and chances created (136), 8 and 37 above the next best players (Silva with 12 assists and Hazard with 99 chances created). Cazorla was tied with Albrighton for third on the list, just ahead of Brunt and Vardy (9). Not surprisingly, that puts Vardy second on the list of total goal involvement (28) three behind Harry Kane and two above third place Lukaku, with Ozil and Aguero rounding out the list. Cazorla, even with his injury issues, completed the most passes, followed by Fabergas, Ozil, Blind and Fernandinho. Crosses in open play leaders included Albrighton, Jesus Navas, Bolasie, Hutton and Robbie Brady. Matic led in tackles for 2015, followed by Fernandinho, Yacob, Leiva and Can. In the bad luck category, Graziano Pelle hit the woodwork 7 times, followed by Sigurdsson (6), Aguero, Brady and Ozil (5 each). Finally, among goalkeepers, we find another surprise – with Mignolet leading all keepers in clean sheets (16), followed by 15 for Joe Hart and 11 for Petr Cech, De Gea and Myhill. In a stat that sometimes says more about your defense, Pantilimon had the most saves, followed by ex-Gunner Fabianski, but Forster had the best save percentage (80.7%). Cech was fourth on the list (78.7%), but ex-starter Ospina was actually second (80.7%). So Arsenal were well represented across the individual and club stats and showed why they are now winning silverware and challenging for the league title following the fallow years.

2. Leicester & Crystal Stumbling: both Leicester and Crystal have had incredible seasons, but both have now gone three league games without scoring. Leicester played Bournemouth at home on Saturday and, like in the game against Man City, just missed out on a number of quality chances, with Vardy hitting the woodwork and Mahrez failing to convert a penalty. Most troubling, they played most of the second half up a man, but were still unable to break through a well-organized Bournemouth side. One wonders if their counterattacking football might be counteracted as teams play a more defensive formation and themselves try to get behind a Leicester defense that will then have to push forward to create chances. Don’t count them out yet, but one does wonder if the predicted fall off is underway

Crystal still sit in a respectable 7th place on 31 points, a mere five out of the Champions League spot, but must be worried that recent injuries could derail a fine campaign. The absence of Cabaye, in particular, appeared to be a factor in their inability to produce a final ball to challenge a Chelsea defense that has been shaky throughout the campaign. After two 0-0 draws, the loss today means they too have gone three games without a goal, though fixtures against Southampton and lowly Aston Villa should provide an opportunity to get back to winning ways before a trip to the Etihad and a home matchup against the suddenly indomitable Spurs.

3. Chelsea and United Renaissance? Mourinho leaves and Chelsea go their next four games undefeated (2 wins and 2 draws). Could this be further evidence that the Portuguese manager is not quite worth the trouble he invariably brings? That is a little harsh after he presented the Blues with a title and league cup in his second stop at the club, but it is hard to ignore a second stop in a row for the manager where his exit seemed to improve not only the form of some players, but their results as well. Chelsea were rampant against Crystal and took their chances well, with Fabergas, Diego Costa and Oscar all contributing to the comprehensive 3-0 win. It was also their second clean sheet in a row, after having among the worst defenses in the league through 18 games. That might be partially down to the inclusion of Mikel, who Hiddink sees as a key player to bring “balance” to the squad. One wonders what that means for the struggling Matic going forward. Hazard, unfortunately, could not join in the party either, as he limped off early with an apparent groin injury. Incredibly, last season’s undisputed player of the year has now gone 30 appearances without a single goal this season and 2,289 minutes since his last in all competitions. Maybe a break is what the Belgian needs to rediscover the form that had him in the same conversation as Messi and Ronaldo last season. Gus Hiddink will not be the manager of Chelsea when the 2016-17 season begins, but one begins to wonder why, as his record at Chelsea in 26 games is an impressive 18 wins, 7 draws and a single loss, including an FA Cup trophy in his first stop in 2009. Could Chelsea climb back into the Top 4? While most are discounting the possibility, the unpredictability of the season means it is not beyond the scope of the possible.

United also got back to winning ways after an eight game stretch without a victory that included four losses and four draws. It was not nearly as impressive as the Chelsea win, but goals from Martial and Rooney will spark hope that United can again wiggle into the Top 4. I believe the title is beyond them this season, but some reinforcements could certainly see them reclaim a Champions League place and save LVG from the axe. They were lucky to claim all three points here, though, as Swansea had two chances to equalize late including a header by goalkeeper Fabianski from a corner that fell just wide of the far post in the last action of extra time.

4. Important Wins for Arsenal and City: one assumed Leicester could not keep up their sparkling form all season and the chinks in the armor appear to be emerging, as mentioned above. That gave Arsenal and City the opportunity to gain valuable points over the upstarts, and though both struggled mightily, the two ultimately earned all three points. Arsenal could easily have been down two or three nil before Koscielny came to the rescue in the 72nd minute and they held on to move two points above the field at the top. City found themselves down 1-0 to Watford, even as they dominated much of the game, but were able to score twice in the final eight minutes, with Yaya Toure’s slick finish followed by an Aguero goal, to keep pace with the leaders. The results show the strength of the two teams at present – with Arsenal now more willing and able to win close, ugly games than in the past and City showing the comeback abilities that played a huge role in their two previous title runs in the past five seasons.

5. Around the Horn: as with the start of 2015, Barcelona slipped up in their first game of the New Year, held to a 0-0 draw at neighbor Espanyol. When Atletico beat Levante 1-0 later in the day, that allowed the Madrid outfit to pull into first by two points, though they have played one more game. Real then drew 2-2 with Neville’s Valencia on Sunday, missing a chance to draw even with the treble winners. The pressure will build on Benitez, with the players unhappy and a tough run of form since the Barcelona loss. On the other hand is Simeone and Atletico, who find themselves in first place even after losing some of their best players over the past two summers and having to rely on the misfiring Torres up front (though alongside two great scorers). Simeone is among the most coveted coaches in all of football and one can see why. More interesting is whether Real might again turn to Mourinho to save their faltering season. The summer could bring big changes at many top clubs including Chelsea, United, City and Madrid and the carousal will almost certainly include a number of current and former coaches of the big three in La Liga. Italy and Germany were off for the weekend and France in the midst of a busy Coupe de France set of fixtures.

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