Sunday, October 23, 2016

Chelsea & Liverpool Win; Arsenal, Tottenham & City All Draw

It’s getting clogged up at the top after Arsenal, Tottenham and Man City all settled for draws while Chelsea and Liverpool both won big this weekend. Liverpool looks like the hottest team in the league at the moment, though one suspects their suspect defending could catch up with them over the long season. On the other hand, the lack of European football will certainly help, as it did a few years back when only a Gerrard slip stood between them and an increasingly elusive league title.

Chelsea are also clearly on the rise, with the team settling into their new 3-4-3 formation and rolling over two quality opponents in succession (and outscoring the past three 9-0 after the Arsenal thrashing), assuming we still fit United in that category. Man City, the most talented squad in the league, should not be discounted just because of a short downward cycle, and even as the pundits try to ignore Arsenal, they are unbeaten since the opening weekend with more clean sheets in recent weeks than in some whole seasons. Finally, is hated Tottenham, the only team still undefeated this season and certainly a danger to again compete for the crown.

Some thoughts on the weekend …

1. United Struggles Against Chelsea Continue: the start to Mourinho’s run as Manchester United manager is starting to look a little like the period before his exit at Chelsea last season. The team looks timid, is defensively suspect and seems to lack a coherent plan, with several stars underperforming, none as much as Pogba and the recently-benched Rooney.

In the 4-0 loss today, it was Chris Smalling who looked particularly bad, exposed on all four of the Blues goals. He appears slow in his reactions, out of position too often and unable to replicate the imperious form that made him one of the better defenders in England (at least among the English defenders). Pogba was equally inept, as was most of the team. But the real question is Mourinho and the growing sense that he has lost that magic touch that has made him a perennial winner for so long.

To look over the past five seasons, he did have the title win with Chelsea a mere two seasons ago, but otherwise the results have been below par. One could argue his Real Madrid side underperformed in his final season, his first year with Chelsea saw suspect defending and plenty of dropped points to lesser sides, last year was a clear disaster of a title defense now a United side that look, yet again, lost. In his latest title-winning tilt, the Blues exploded out of the blocks and built a lead big enough for him to play the defensive-oriented style that garnered him so much success at Porto, Inter, Real and in his first stop at Chelsea. But even as strong defending and counterattacking football has reaped huge benefits across European football over the past few seasons, most notably with Atletico and Leicester, Mourinho’s back to front style appears to reap neither enough goals or enough clean sheets. Has the game passed him by? It seems a little early for that harsh a verdict, but hints are emerging along those lines.

The loss means that United have now failed to win in 11 straight matchups against Chelsea, dating back to October 2012. Over that stretch, the Blues have won 6 and drawn 5. While United have fallen far off the form that started Mourinho’s reign, Chelsea appear to be settling in under Conte, having risen to within one point of the top after a poor run of form earlier in the season. United will have to turn things around quickly, or the Top 4 could again become a step too far for a team still trying to find itself in the hangover of Ferguson’s departure over three seasons ago. And to make matters worse for Mourinho, he now has the same number of points as Moyes at the same point three years back.  

2. Arsenal still Arsenal … not so fast? In the first sign that the Gunners might still be short of the spine and resolve necessary to maintain a title charge throughout the campaign, they again settled for a 0-0 draw at home, a result that has become a little too familiar over the past few seasons. Arsenal certainly had chances to take all three points and almost did so in added time, though Ozil was clearly offsides before another excellent finish. The truth, though, is that Middlesbrough could have just as easily won the Saturday matchup at the Emirates, but for some poor finishing and excellent goalkeeping from Cech. Arsenal looked flat for the first time in weeks, after a somewhat bright first 20 minutes, and too exposed on the defensive end, particularly to the runs of the exciting youngster Adama Traore, who might be getting a look from bigger sides soon, after this display.

It is worth noting they were without both Cazorla and Xhaka, who have been instrumental through the six-game winning streak in the league, but the combo of Coquelin and Elneny might have been a bit too defensive, particularly after a strong game for the more creative Ox midweek. The big issue, even as Arsenal had 75 percent possession and plenty of half chances, was the approach to a team that sat back and defended in too closely connected banks of defenders. It appeared the perfect time to bring Giroud back into the fold, to provide an aerial threat, or at least to give Perez a start to see what he could do.

This could be one of the inevitable slipups that are bound to happen over the course of an EPL season and was helped by Tottenham and City both settling for draws as well. But it is troubling, based on the history over the past decade, when Arsenal drop two points with the chance to go top against a side they should beat 9 out of every 10 times they play. Of course, all the pundits now claiming Arsenal are not a serious threat for the title after this draw do seem to conveniently fail to note that this is their sixth clean sheet in their past seven games and they were rather unlucky not to win this one 1 or 2 nil.

But Wenger has a chance to rebound quickly, as they face Reading in the League Cup Tuesday before trips to struggling Sunderland and a seemingly outmatched Ludogorets. Those three games will be important though, as the first North London Derby of the season, at the Emirates, might be the real barometer for where this team is going to finish this season.

3. Moyes in Trouble Again? It was not so very long ago that David Moyes was one of the more respected managers in English football, outperforming expectations and financial limitations with an Everton side that won with heart, grit and resolve enough to stay midtable, and sometimes even higher. But without having won a single trophy, he was vaunted up to the top level of the sport and suffered a rather humiliating fall from grace. His stop in Spain was not much better and, in returning to England with Sunderland, the best that could be said is that expectations would be much lower than his last two stops.

Yet Moyes might have reached the unenviable point of falling short of even these extremely low expectations, with a side that must consider itself lucky to still be in the top domestic league after five straight years mired in a relegation battle. Two mere points after nine games is certainly a pecuniary return and the late goal from fellow strugglers West Ham must have turned the stomach of a manager who has a lot of work to do if he is to lead them to the great escape yet again.

4. City Struggle with Consistency Again: one of the most surprising things about Manchester City is the inconsistency with which they play out a season, even in the years they are ultimately successful. As the team has aged, little has changed in this regard and the 1-1 draw with Southampton was the fifth straight game without a win for new boss Guardiola, only the second time in his sparkling career this has occurred. Of course the last time he suffered through a similar stretch, Barcelona went on to win the treble. This City side appears less likely to accomplish that rare feat, but still have the talent to go far this season, if they can get the ghosts of doubt out of their heads and keep focused throughout their congested schedule.

The reality, of course, is that they are still likely to make it through their group in the Champions League, though in second place, and are still tied for the lead at the top with Liverpool and Arsenal, ahead on goal difference. But there are clearly some troubling signs, with some questioning Guardiola’s tactical choices, particularly against Barca, and the same lack of defensive solidity that has marked City for a few seasons now. The mistake today came from John Stones, who sent a blind pass backwards that was intercepted and slotted home. The presence of Kompany back in the side should have been a positive, but after 34 injuries in recent seasons, one wonders who long he will be around. He looked shaky at times, though he helped stop any further damage. Guardiola’s record against Spanish sides since leaving his birthplace is a second issue that must be resolved if he is to lead City to their first European triumph.

A third is the continued struggles of Aguero, after a blistering start to the season, having now gone six appearances without a goal. It was instead Iheanacho who came to the rescue with another poached goal that continues his impressive scoring streak since the beginning of last season. Maybe most troubling for the side is their composition, the oldest side in the league and getting older every season.
5. America’s First Point: while Swansea might not be the dream job of the EPL at the moment, sitting second from bottom on five points, it is the spot now occupied by ex-US men’s team manager Bob Bradley, the first American to hold a managing job in any of the top five European leagues. After a respectable performance in a loss to Arsenal, a largely soporific display was enough to earn the Swans a point in a 0-0 draw with Watford. It was the first point ever earned by an American manager in England and a nice foundation to move forward for a coach who tends to get the best out of the players at his disposal. Congrats to Bob and hoping he can keep Swansea up and continue the slow evolution of America gaining more global respect in World Football!

6. Around the Horn: La Liga looks set to be a fascinating race this season with both Barcelona and Real looking more vulnerable than in recent years. Barca were able to comeback from a 2-1 deficit at Valencia and win 3-2 on a last second penalty that Messi converted. Real, too, were able to win late as Morata finished off an excellent Bale cross after his first-time shot was parried by the Athletic Bilboa goalkeeper. But Real has already drawn 3 of their first 9, Barca have drawn 1 and lost 2 and Atletico have three draws and an ugly 1-0 loss to second place Sevilla today. At present, Real lead the way, but four teams sit within three points, including a Villareal side that is still undefeated through the first nine games (5-4-0). One expects the talent of Real and Barca to rise to the top as the season progresses, but you never know after Atletico pipped the title two seasons ago.

In Italy, Juve were starting to pull away again before a resurgent AC Milan beat them 1-0 to draw to within two points of the champions, alongside a Roma team with the best goal differential in the league. Moving to France, PSG’s indifferent start to the season continues, as they sit in third place, a full six points behind Nice and three behind Monaco after running away with the title in record fashion last season. And in Germany, Munich sit at the top by two points over Liepzig and three over Berlin, with a recently struggling Dortmund six points back after eight games.   

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