Snap Judgments: Saturday in the English Premier League

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The English Premier League’s two best Saturday matches were the ones least likely to be watched, and it wasn’t just about the final scores. Matches in Reading and Wigan did combine for 10 goals, but the day’s other four contests offered little to offset their lack of goals. With most of the league’s big names playing on Sunday, we should have expected a somewhat down day in England, though even with deflated expectations, the Premier League’s matchday failed to satisfy.

Aston Villa 1-1 Norwich City

You take what you can get when you’re playing with 10 men. The problem for Villa is how they looked with 11. Though they took an early lead through Belgian attacker Christian Benteke (his second goal of the season), Villa continued to be there unoffensive, ineffective selves. Even against  a Norwich side that’s had trouble preventing goals, Villa looked utterly preventable. When an ill-advised foul from Joe Bennett left Villa a man down for the last 38 minutes, the result seemed inevitable. Michael Turner’s header gave the Canaries a point from a match Villa would have targeted for three.

Impact: Aston Villa’s 17th after nine rounds, and only Sunderland’s scored fewer goals. It’s not time for panic, but it is time for worry. Norwich City’s only one place better.

Arsenal 1-0 Queens Park Rangers

Two poor teams saw their match decided by a poor individual decision. Stephane Mbia’s irrational kick towards Thomas Vermaelen earned straight red in the 78th minute, with Arsenal scoring two minutes later. Replays showed Mikel Arteta was offside when heading a ball onto the crossbar (before eventually volleying home the winner), but if it wasn’t for some heroics from QPR keeper Julio Cesar, Arsenal would have put away the game much earlier.

It was another discouraging performance for cellar-dwelling QPR, who need to assess whether Mark Hughes can get something out of their expensive squad. Right now, there’s no evidence he can.

For Arsenal, although the win snapped a two-match losing streak, their play continues to show regression from their early-season form.

Impact: Arsenal jumps fourth and continue to have the league’s best defense. QPR is last, tied with Norwich City and Southampton for the league’s worst goal difference.

Reading 3-3 Fulham

The Royals and Cottagers combined for three goals from the 85th minute on, with Hal Robinson-Kanu’s stoppage time equalizer salvaging a point for the home side. Fulham is playing some of the most attractive soccer in the Premier League, even if they weren’t able to convert their 66 percent possession into three points. Dimitar Berbatov continues to emerge as the focal point of Martin Jol’s attack, while a goal off the bench from Bryan Ruiz hints last year’s big purchase might be ready to live up to his price tag (£10.6 million).

Impact: Fulham is now up to sixth but need to find an answer for a defense that has allowed 14 goals. Reading is 18th but showed the first signs of living up to expectations that they’ll survive their Premier League return.

Stoke City 0-0 Sunderland

This match was predictably horrible and has to leave Sunderland fans wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. When Martin O’Neill arrived on Tyne last year, the Black Cats looked capable of respectability. Now, they’re an uninspiring draw machine incapable of putting a shot on target against Stoke. Through eight rounds, they have a win, a loss, and eight draws. They let the worst possession team in the league have 52 percent of the ball, and judging by O’Neill’s choice to leave Stephane Sessegnon (overrated though he may be) out of his starting XI, this result may have been by design. Did Sunderland just out-Stoke Stoke?

Impact: None.

Wigan 2-1 West Ham

This result is more impressive result than it looks. Sam Allardyce has forged a solid squad, the type of team that would normally get a result from the DW this early in the season. Wigan, however, were up two by the 47th minute, scoring soon after each kickoff, giving the impression that manager Roberto Martínez might have had some undo influence on this game. If that’s the case – if Martínez has already got his pieces in place for Wigan – the Latics may avoid the type of drama they’ve courting over the last few seasons.

Impact: Wigan’s up to 15th while West Ham stays in the top half, sitting ninth.

Manchester City 1-0 Swansea City

A long distance strike from Carlos Tevez and some slow reactions from Michel Vorm are all the separated the two sides, both on the scoreboard and on merit. Manchester City rebounded from their mid-week loss in Amsterdam with an equally uninspiring performance, with Citizens supporters sure to ask what’s going on with their team.

It’s a soccer cliché to sound the alarms too early on a struggling team, but with Chelsea and Manchester United both better than their 2011-12 editions, City’s margin for error is much smaller than last year.

Impact: Oh, look here. Manchester City sits second and have yet to lose. In fact, they have a four-match winning streak. Though their play has been poor, the results are there. Swansea, on the other hand, have three points in five, dropping to 10th place.

Sydney FC clinches first place in A-League

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SYDNEY (AP) After clinching first place in Australia’s A-League without taking the field, Sydney FC enhanced its record achievement with a 3-0 win over the Perth Glory on Sunday.

Sydney FC won the Premiers Plate as regular-season champions after the second-place Melbourne Victory lost 1-0 to Brisbane on Saturday, when Sydney had a night off.

The Brisbane win left Sydney with an unassailable 11-point lead in first place with three rounds to play.

[ MORE: An under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Sydney side also created some history: it became the only team to have remained in outright first position in the standings for an entire season.

In the other match Sunday, the Wellington Phoenix beat Newcastle 5-0 to remain within five points of sixth-place Western Sydney for the final playoff spot.

Walking Dead? Star fittingly sees Exeter’s implausible comeback (video)

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As Rick Grimes, actor Andrew Lincoln regularly battles the undead on his show “The Walking Dead”.

As a friend of Exeter City manager Paul Tisdale, Lincoln was probably pretty happy to watch a team that would not die.

Exeter went down 3-0 when Yeovil Town broke a scoreless drought with a trio of tallies between the 62nd and 78th minutes.

[ MORE: An under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

But Exeter’s David Wheeler scored in the 88th minute, and Troy Brown and Reuben Reid scored a minute apart at the beginning of stoppage time to earn a point for the League Two playoff hopeful.

Couple things on this video, too:

— Check out the shove on the goalkeeper when trying to collect the ball after the first goal of the fight back.

— Watch the man with his baby behind the net after the third goal. Did Mom know how safe her little one was?

An under-the-radar Premier League XI

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The Premier League’s international break invites reflection on both what we’ve seen so far and what’s to come.

For example, what if we left out the superstars?

For whatever reason, this one is recalling the state of mind of 2015-16, when we were digesting that Leicester City very much looked the part of Premier League champions.

[ MORE: Herrera on “intense” Zlatan ]

For a lot of us, that meant delving into statistics and seeing what matched the eye test. Many started Googling the name “N'Golo Kante“, the dynamic disruptor who’d move to Chelsea in August.

He’s a household name now, with some personalities even arguing that he should buck the trend of Ballon d’Or nominees including only major statistic producers (There was a time when names like Fabio Cannavaro and Matthias Sammer claimed the honor, you know).

For our purposes, we’ll use a pair of advanced stats sites and the good ol’ eye test. (Of the sites we’re using, Squawka seems to skew toward high attack scores, while WhoScored tilts a bit toward the back, so life is good if a player hits both sites’ Top 50).

Before getting into our team — we promise no 10-picture, click-to-reveal-next stuff — some stats that stood out.

— Three players have had outstanding “short” seasons for different reasons.

  • Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi took a short spell to adjust to the Premier League after arriving in January, but has been the Foxes’ most influential player in their recent turnaround).
  • Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake essentially was the Cherries’ first-half success before heading back to Chelsea where Antonio Conte won’t move him ahead of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses (and that’s actually understandable as you’ll see below).
  • Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas just doesn’t feature a ton for Conte, but in limited time his per-90 stats on Squawka trail only Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez.

— The following players have risen well above most of their teammates but fall short of the league Top 50 on either site: Ben Gibson (Boro), Michael Keane and Ben Mee (Burnley), Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), Joe Allen (Stoke City), Jose Holebas and Troy Deeney (Watford), Gareth McAuley (West Brom).

— Watford, as a side, is seemingly the choose to a sort of MVP. On WhoScored, not a single player rises above 7, but there are a host in the very high sixes.

— In very different systems, John Stones (91.8) and Adam Forshaw (89.2) are thriving in pass percentage.

Oriol Romeu of Southampton and Victor Wanyama of Tottenham Hotspur (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

— Southampton’s Oriel Romeu and Stoke’s Erik Pieters rank fourth and fifth respectively in tackles per game.

— In a team that has to intervene a ton, Hull City’s Curtis Davies the league with 3.8 interceptions per game.


Honorable mention

Goalkeeper: Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City)

Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (Manchester City), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Calum Chambers (Boro), Papy Djilobodji (Sunderland), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Ake, Victor Wanyama (Spurs), Willian (Chelsea), Juan Mata (Manchester United), Harry Winks (Spurs), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Jack Wilshere (Bournemouth).

Forwards: Joshua King (Bournemouth), Fernando Llorente (Swansea City), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace)


Goalkeeper

Ben Foster (West Brom) — With the highest performance score in the position on WhoScored, Foster has claimed all 95 balls he’s went up for and has a league-best 76 saves.

Defenders

Nicolas Otamendi (Man City, 7.49, 29.18) — One of few defenders to rate high in interceptions despite being on a team that doesn’t concede loads of chances or possession.

George Friend (Middlesbrough) — Just out of the upper echelon on the advanced stats site, he is in rarefield air in traditional stats interceptions and tackles.

Steve Cook (Bournemouth, 7.16, 22.76) — Jumps out of the advanced stats on a Cherries team which has faced plenty of attacking pressure.

Antonio Valencia (Manchester United, 7.28, 27.45) — There’s a reason Jose Mourinho rewarded him with an extension not long into the manager’s tenure at Old Trafford.

Midfielders

Ander Herrera (Manchester United, 7.44, 36.64) – Long-heralded at Athletic Bilbao, Herrera is finally showing what made him so sought. One odd stat that may be explained by his willingness to run to any situation: he’s very high in average times dribbled past.

Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton, 7.34, 20.57) – The best player in Aston Villa’s awful 2015-16, he’s been arguably as effective as N’Golo Kante. Seriously.

Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion) – Once the top player on a relegated QPR, Phillips is fifth in the Premier League in assists despite missing the last four matches with injury.

Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur, 7.41, 31.89) – Second in the PL in key passes, he doesn’t get the plaudits of English teammates Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The relationships are very symbiotic.

 

Forwards

Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 7.44) – On an under-achieving team, Zaha’s statistics are wild. He’s the most-fouled player in the league, and attempts/completes the most dribbles in the PL. He gives the ball away a lot, too, but that happens when you’re the focal point of everything your team does in the attacking third.

Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, 30.54) – The Nigerian turns 21 in May, and has four goals and seven assists across all competitions.

Herrera: Ibrahimovic competitive drive insatiable in everything

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Ander Herrera is dishing the goods on his Manchester United teammates while on Spain duty this week, and was asked about Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Swede is a fierce competitor on and off the pitch, which Herrera jokes is an ever-present challenge to personal patience.

[ MORE: Deulofeu laments early Messi talk ]

It almost seems like there’s a bit of envy that Ibrahimovic can charge into public comments the way Herrera goes into tackles.

From Marca:

“[Ibrahimovic] is a genius, he’s very intense because he wants to win everything, even football-tennis,” Herrera said to Radio MARCA.

“He assumes this role of doing or saying what he likes in front of the media because he does not care, he can say that he’ll score 30 goals or is the best because he can afford to.”

There’s certainly something to stature when it comes to saying what you feel (though on the other hand, being egotistical is rarely controversial. It’s not like Ibrahimovic is often railing on controversial soccer or social issues).

We’re sure there are plenty of players across all sports, casual and professional, who don’t understand hyper-competitive teammates, but we love a guy who doesn’t turn it down when it comes to on-the-field activities. Hopefully Ibrahimovic is the Jaromir Jagr of soccer.