1. WITH ARSENAL, REASONS FOR DOUBT THINNING OUT
It’s not just that Arsenal’s winning. It’s how they’re winning. Though the Premier League’s leaders are merely second in their league both goals scored and goal difference, there’s an element of control to their game that transcends those rankings. We’ve seen it during their not-so-glamorous (but still good) performances against Tottenham and Swansea, and now we’ve seen it when they really click it into gear: their 4-1 win over Norwich City.
Granted, it was only Norwich, who have struggled to seven points through their first eight matches, but against that type of competition, Arsenal gave the type of performance you want to see from a title-contenders. They got an early goal from Jack Wilshere, and after making it to halftime without building on their dominance, scored early in the second half. After Norwich delivered them a wake-up call that halved their lead, the Gunners pulled away. Come full time, it was 4-1.
It was Arsenal’s largest win of the season, and along with a still-missing victory over another top-of-the-table power, it was one of the pieces missing from their title-contending résumé. We still need to see them knock off a Manchester City or Chelsea (or Liverpool, for that matter), but we also need to know they won’t get nickle-and-dimed by the bottom of the table. When they play a bad team, they need to treat them like a bad team. They need to put them beyond the reach of a late penalty, random corner, or other variables that sees better sides pulled back by lessers. They need to dominate.
Arsenal showed they may have moved beyond, and while there are still questions about their title-contending case, the doubts are diminishing. The Gunners continue to improve.
2. ARISE SIR ANDROS, THIS WEEK’S NEXT-LATEST STAR
When Gareth Bale left for Real Madrid, it was assumed Erik Lamela would be the man to pick up (some of) the slack, the 21-year-old Argentine’s $41 million price reflecting talent that produced 15 goals from wide in last year’s Serie A. Instead it was Gylfi Sigurdsson, once thought surpluse, who filled the immediate void. Now, carrying over his international form, Andros Townsend is setting up on the other side, giving Spurs the direct option their attack desperately lacked while sputtering through the start of the season.
By direct option, we don’t mean hitting long balls down the right for Townsend to run onto, though given the England international’s current confidence level, that would probably work. Instead, what we mean is an option that allows Tottenham to go directly at a defense, try to win a one-on-one battle, and score a goal without having to relying on them tapping their way through a slowly manipulated seam. Only 22 and seeing his first regular action with Spurs, Townsend gives André Villas-Boas something that can work when tactics and approach don’t.
He’s nowhere close to Aaron Ramsey’s level, but like the Arsenal midfielder, he has a chance to be one of the season’s breakout stars. Add Ross Barkley to that list, potentially Adnan Januzaj, Ravel Morrison (of course) and keep in mind the likes of Dejan Lovren, even if he’s a bit older. Regardless, there’s a group of players exerting themselves early, impacts on the Premier League – a selection of talents few were touting as impact players two months ago. Barkley led the pack at the onset. Then it was Zanuzaj’s turn.
This week, it’s Townsend. Who knows who’s next, but odds are, more players will fill the void the previous generation’s left behind. Townend’s just our latest treat.
3. CHELSEA’S SPECIAL DISTRATION
Sometimes you wonder if we like the spectacle more than the competition. Case in point: After Chelsea’s win on Saturday, more people were talking about José Mourinho than his team’s lopsided result. You’d think like Arsenal’s, a 4-1 win would be something to trumpet, and it was, but when your manager is Mourinho, the broader press is always going to dwell on the Special One.
They should be dwelling on Eden Hazard, the Belgian international having the type of influence fans hoped to see on a regular basis when he was lured from Lille last year. Though Cardiff’s poor defending (goalkeeping lumped in) played a huge part in the result, Hazard had a hand in each goal, his most clever contribution being the off-the-ball run that prevented Kévin Theóphil-Catherine from being in position to close down Oscar ahead of his goal.
Perhaps more encouraging than Hazard, however, was Samuel Eto’o, who played a part in two goals before coming off. His first contribution was controversial, with Cardiff still seeking an explanation why he was allowed to poke the ball away while David Marshall attempted to bounce it. (Why? Why not. Don’t bounce the ball, man.) But like Hazard, the important thing isn’t so much the how as the how many. Eto’o’s involvement’s increasing, giving fans reason to think he may yet fill their void up top.
But all of that was overshadowed by Mourinho, who (in getting sent off) put himself at the center of attention. Of course, he’s not the one that writes the articles or produces the television segments, but he is the one who sokes it all in. This is all part of the package you get when you toss him the keys.
It’s annoying, if you look at it through your grandfather’s monocle, but the act mostly ends up being helpful (even if it bit him during his last days at Real Madrid). Contrary to popular assumption, most athletes don’t want microphones in their faces all day. Mourinho lures them away, but not so much that the attention-seekers can’t find an attentive lens. During the lulls in the season, this ends up being a good thing, as Mourinho can deflect attention while the team focuses on their jobs.
On weekends like this, though, he might detract from a 4-1 win, if only a little.
4. DAVID MOYES: THE ANTI-FERGUSON
Supporters will complain it’s unfair to compare David Moyes to his predecessor, but he signed up for the job. Whomever followed Alex Ferguson was destined to jump the icon’s shadow, and given United’s coming off a title-winning season, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect the Red Devils to persist near the top of the table. It’s not like the team thinned out when Fergie went to his stables.
All this needs to be reiterated because some will see Saturday’s result as acceptable in some broader, charitable sense, and those bleeding hearts may be right. One point from Southampton may not only be a decent result but eventually be cast in the greater context of Moyes’ success story. The middling results that have characterized the start of this season could be the momentary transition between two successful bosses.
But with Saints snatching a late equalizer at Old Trafford, it’s impossible to ignore another point of contrast. Alex Ferguson’s teams were famous for those results – the last minute, little stabs that ripped results from their opponent’s hearts. Manchester United are the ones that are supposed to be snatching late equalizers, not their opponents.
Maybe those days are gone. Maybe it’s just the Manchester United of Ferguson that could defy the odds. Moyes’s Devils are already proving much more human.
5. GARETH BARRY AND MORE THIN MARGINS
The Manchester City loanee had his most-influential game of the year, if you go by Hull City manager Steve Bruce’s reaction to his performance. The no-longer-Tigers boss couldn’t help but note Barry’s involvement screening the first goal (though not from the offside position Bruce suggests), taking out one of his attackers with a tackle, and then going over the ball on another challenge that could have been a sending off.
“The one on Danny Graham is bad enough,” Bruce said, alluding to the tackle that forced the Hull City attacker out after 17 minutes. “That is worthy of a yellow card. But the challenge on Aluko is absolutely horrific. It is over the top of the ball.”
Aluko played on, eventually scoring the equalizer, but Bruce’s complaints highlight just how close the margins of a soccer game can be. If Barry gets a yellow early, he’s hindered for the rest of the match. If he sees a second yellow or straight red on the Aluko challenge, Hull are in a much better place to take a result out of Goodison. And if Kevin Mirallas’s opener is waved off, the linesman making the same mistake Bruce made? Well, goals change matches.
Everton pulled this one out, a late goal from Steven Pienaar leaving the Toffees eighth, the result further illustrating those thin margins. Hull didn’t have enough to distinguish themselves from Everton and left empty-handed, one late goal costing them a point. And from Everton’s point of view, they needed the official’s benevolence (rightly or wrongly given) to maintain their chance to hold off one of the league’s more limited sides.
That’s why Arsenal’s win was so telling. That’s why Everton’s win, despite their record, prompts questions, although with their 4-1-3, they’re the type of questions Toffees should be happy to entertain.
6. BIPOLARISM IN THE ENGLISH NORTH EAST: A NEWCASTLE UNITED STORY
After their draw with Liverpool, Newcastle sits 10th in the Premier League, a remarkable status for a team that’s looked Championship-caliber at multiple points this season. Manchester City routed them in their opener, Everton went up three on them at Goodison, and the Magpies managed to lose at home to Hull. You’d likely get better results from Burnley, Queens Park Rangers, or Leicester City.
But that poor quality hasn’t carried over into Newcastle’s other games, where a 3-0-2 record has fueled their rise to mediocrity. Along the way they’ve won at Villa and Cardiff while managing a point while down a man to the Liverpool. Even after considering the quality of their opposition, these are still incredibly schizophrenic results.
On Sunday they played 50 minutes without the recarded Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa only to see his replacement, Paul Dummett restore the lead the Frenchman relinquished. Though Daniel Sturridge would later build on Steven Gerrard’s conversion, bringing Liverpool back to 2-2, Newcastle held on for a point few saw them getting at kickoff. The underdogs, down a man, salvaged a result.
For Liverpool, it’s still worth waiting until Lucas Leiva returns before passing judgment (they’re also missing Philippe Coutinho from a formation where he’ll be a focal point), but for Newcastle, uncertainty lingers. While the unexpected point was nice to get, does that resourcefulness hint this team shouldn’t be losing to the likes of Hull? Or, should these results be seen as the exception to the rule?