Pretty crazy weekend of Premier League results this weekend, eh? Manchester United cooled off first-place Arsenal, Chelsea should have lost its first home league game under Jose Mourinho if not for a suspect stoppage-time penalty, Everton couldn’t get a goal vs. lowly Crystal Palace, Spurs lost at home to Newcastle and Manchester City laid a stink bomb at the Stadium of Light, losing to Sunderland.
Just like everybody drew it up in August.
As we head into the international break, Arsenal still sits atop the table with 25 points but there are now seven teams — Liverpool, Southampton (huh? I profiled the Saints a few weeks ago and they haven’t slowed down), Chelsea, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester City — within six points of first. Eleven games might not feel like a lot but it is about 30 percent of the season. As simple as it sounds, right now it’s anyone’s league to win.
Perhaps the better question off this week’s results: Is any team in this league actually any good? Or by contrast, is nobody in the league all that bad? Have we reached an NFL-like “on any given Saturday or Sunday (or Monday)”?
With two full weeks between games, we’ll have plenty of time to debate it.
As it stands now, there isn’t a great team … yet. Given some time, with the talent that Chelsea and Manchester City have on their rosters, perhaps a great side emerges by the time spring rolls around. Until a great, or even a very good team arises, the points are there for the taking up-and-down the table and nobody can be ruled in or out of the hunt as Manchester United’s throwback performance Sunday indicated.
Manchester United beat Arsenal 1-0 Sunday in a marquee game that featured more players collecting potential concussions than actual goal-scoring chances. (Did anyone else notice Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira warming up on the touchline in the second half?)
As always, reading too much into one result in a 38-game season is foolish. Still, this was the best result we’ve seen United grab under David Moyes. It wasn’t pretty and banking on results thanks to tireless running from Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones likely isn’t going to a plan for long-term success. Even so United still has Robin van Persie and Arsenal doesn’t. The class at the top of the United attack in van Persie and Rooney can paper over some of the other cracks in the squad most weeks.
Thankfully, a week after the Hugo Lloris incident, United played it safe and subbed defender Nemanja Vidic off after his in-air collision with David De Gea. The Serb was later diagnosed with a concussion after an overnight stay at a nearby hospital. Let’s call it progress.
As for Arsenal? It’s easy to say the Gunners were due a stinker, especially coming off the high of the mid-week win at Dortmund in the Champions League. This was the first time we’ve seen Mesut Ozil completely fade to the periphery in an Arsenal uniform.
If you’re a sky-is-falling Gunners fan, you worry that Sunday’s performance is way too much like what the club has done in recent trophy-less seasons — passing the ball around and failing to produce solid chances on goal. If you want to be optimistic, some of the Gunners struggles could be attributed to the absence of Tomas Rosicky through illness which moved Aaron Ramsey further up the field, in turn limiting the play of Mikel Arteta.
One definite worry, despite a team full of senior internationals, Arsene Wenger admitted afterward his team had “butterflies” before the match. Not good.
Outside of the narrative “statements” a 1-0 result with the one goal coming off a header from a corner kick isn’t an indication of any long term pattern.
Fulham: Jol Must Go?
Fulham, based entirely on the Premier League’s glass ceiling, is a club that’s never going to win anything save for a deep run in a cup competition. The best the club could hope for was a few seasons ago when it reached the Europa League/UEFA Cup final, losing to Atletico Madrid under current England boss Roy Hodgson.
Still, Fulham since it used to employ Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, et al, became a favorite team for many American fans discovering the EPL earlier this century. These folks have to be asking themselves what did they get themselves into watching the Cottagers get embarrassed by an aggregate 7-1 score over the last two weeks vs. Manchester United and Liverpool?
Firing manager Martin Jol might seem like the smart move for new owner Shahid Khan, but is throwing a new manager in front of the team Jol assembled going to change much? Jol’s plan for Fulham the last couple seasons played it halfway, buying veterans like Dimitar Berbatov, Steve Sidwell, Scott Paker, Darren Bent, while slowly trying to usher in some younger guys like Pajtim Kasimi. It hasn’t work. As Walter White found out, there are no half-measures in the Premier League.
Finding a new manager seems like a clear-cut solution, but do you want to give a new guy the January transfer window to potentially compound the issue or do you stay the course and hope the team pulls out of its rut? Last season Sunderland hired Paulo Di Canio in March and the volatile Italian kept them up, yet was fired within weeks of the new season.
Fulham are only a couple wins away from mid-table safety, but given the state of the league this year they remain a strong relegation candidate. Stay the course or risk the malaise spreading into something much more virulent? Jol isn’t the long-term answer, but firing him now might not be a cure-all, either.
Not in Kansas Spain Anymore:
There is a perception La Liga in Spain is a two-horse race between Real Madrid and Barcelona. There’s a kernel of truth to that, but Spain’s showing around the Europa League in recent years — Atletico Madrid twice winning the tournament — shows that there is some depth and quality beyond the two megapowers. If you took the mid-tier teams from Spain and played them against the Newcastle Uniteds of the world from the Premier League, chances are the Iberian sides win more often than not.
One big difference is that the lesser teams in Spain, although possessing talent, don’t tend to put up much resistance when they face either Real Madrid or Barcelona, week-in, week-out. Both Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho and Manchester City’s Manuel Pellegrini coached in Spain last season before hopping to the EPL. Mourinho spent the last three season at Madrid, in those years he lost 11 league matches — two of those losses to Barcelona. Pellegrini’s last three years were at suddenly noveau-riche/suddenly cash-strapped Malaga. Before that the Chilean was at Madrid where he lost four games during his one year in charge (2009-10), two of those losses to Barcelona.
Almost a third of the way in Chelsea already have two losses, while City have three — away to Cardiff, Aston Villa and Sunderland.
These two coaches are going to need to realize sooner rather than later there aren’t going to be very many easy weeks in England, especially on the road. The air of invincibility once-possessed by the elite clubs appears to be slowly chipped away. A team like West Brom — years ago chaff for the Big Four grist mill — has beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford and came within a dubious penalty of handing Mourinho his loss at the Bridge in Premier League play.
One of these two teams should emerge as a power. Maybe it won’t be Chelsea, considering Mourinho doesn’t seem capable of settling on a lineup and now David Luiz is rumored to be on the block in January.
Best Non-EPL Goals This Week
I don’t get to watch as much Serie A now that it’s on beIN, but the three-way race between Roma, Juventus and Napoli for the title will be one to watch all season. Juve smoked Napoli 3-0 yesterday to claim sole possession of third, thanks in part to this stunner by ex-Manchester United youth player Paul Pogba.
To quote young Indiana Jones, Andrea Pirlo free kicks “belong in a museum.”
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