1. CITY AFFIRMED, SPURS EXPOSED IN ETIHAD ROUT
This is why Manchester City, despite all their inconsistencies, have never lost their status as title contenders. Though their inexplicably bad road form means they’re capable of losing to the likes of Sunderland, their peak performances say this is the best team in the Premier League. At least, occasionally.
Sunday was one of those days. A goal within 13 seconds from Jesus Navas sparked City to a 3-0 lead by halftime. They doubled that margin before the final whistle, with Navas and the league’s top marksman (Sergio Agüero) each bagging braces. After their 6-0 victory, City’s scored 10 more goals than anybody in the league. Their +22 difference is eight better than league-leading Arsenal’s.
The other side of this coin in Spurs’, a team for which there may not be enough panic buttons to push. Coming into this game, the one thing they have going for them was defense. So much for that. Now a team that can’t score also has questions in defense, and to this point, they also haven’t been able to win the big games. In matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, and City, Spurs have two points. They also have new reason to doubt André Villas-Boas can make Tottenham’s offseason makeover pay off.
2. DOSE OF REALITY FROM ARSENAL BRINGS SOUTHAMPTON BACK TO EARTH
And just like that, Southampton’s six back of first. Whereas Mauricio Pochettino’s team was within a win of the top on Saturday morning, now they’re only two points out of ninth – the thin margin between Cinderella story and level most expected them to play at three months ago.
There’ll be some asterisks thrown around because of the nature of Arsenal’s goals, but (at the risk of sounding simplistic) better players don’t make those mistakes. True, Artur Boruc and Jose Fonte’s errors were more egregious than you’d expect, but the lesser quality players you have, to more likely you are to see random breakdowns occur. Saturday’s mistakes were an overly blunt reminder that Southampton aren’t quite at a title contender’s level.
Arsenal, on the other hand, did exactly what you’d expect when a league leader hosts an upstart. They weathered Saints’ early energy to produce two good chances before Boruc wilted. Forte’s shirt pull was an act of desperation from a team who’d been proven second best. Arsenal put their guests in a position to fail.
As a result, they’ve regained some of the cushion they lost with their defeat at Old Trafford, now up four points on the rest of the Premier League.
3. NO MERCY FOR KEEPERS IN DERBY SHOOTOUT
A lot of the ‘you throw form out the window’ homily about derbies serves as empty hype. Thankfully, Everton and Liverpool lived up to that bombast on Saturday, their Merseyside Derby serving up six goals in what became the match of the weekend. After Daniel Sturridge’s 89th minute equalizer, both teams were left with a point after the season’s first derby at Goodison Park.
Liverpool should feel much better then their rivals about this result. Everton forced Simon Mignolet into nine saves on the day, and if it wasn’t for the Toffees two set piece breakdowns in the first 20 minutes, that onslaught would have been enough to see the hosts take three points. But their failure to track Philippe Coutinho on a fifth minute corner cost them, as did their inability to set up an effective wall on Luis Suárez’s 19th minute free kick. All three Liverpool goals came off set pieces.
For most of the day, Everton was the better side, but their inability to cover the basics meant Liverpool were just as strong on the scoresheet, one which saw three goals from the Toffees’ Belgian stars (Kevin Miralles, Romelu Lukaku (two)) pulled back at Goodison. While Everton could comfort themselves in their overall play, but already up to six draws this season, the Toffees should be concerned that form didn’t produce three points. Sometimes moral victories aren’t victories at all.
4. ONE STEP FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK FOR MANCHESTER UNITED
Again, it’s not that Manchester United dropped points, this time at Cardiff City. It’s how it happened. Up 2-1 in stoppage time, the Red Devils gave up an equalizer to Kim Bo-Kyung, set piece defending costing them two points after a foul by Chris Smalling.
In isolation, the point isn’t a bad one, but there are going to be other times this year when Manchester United will have to fight for the same result. On the road against a team they should beat, they’ll concede on a corner or have a penalty go against them. They’ll need to scrounge for their point. It happens.
When you’re ahead, though? When you have not one but two leads? Against an inferior team? Yes, that happens, too, but United also let Southampton steal late points at Old Trafford. They also gave up a late goal to Shakhtar in Champions League, and West Brom was able to take full points in Manchester with a 67th minute winner.
Before the break, Manchester United was being lauded for their progress, having just knocked off Arsenal. This week, they regressed, and while that ebb and flow is bound to happen with any team, it also shows are still very much a work in progress.
5. THE LINGERING FEAR CHELSEA WILL FIGURE THINGS OUT
Chelsea beat West Ham, 3-0. To a certain extent that was expected. Perhaps we didn’t know the Blues would roll out three-goal winners, but nobody was really surprised. Thanks to a Frank Lampard special (penalty kick, last goal of a rout), Chelsea is even with Liverpool on points, both clubs four points behind Arsenal.
That’s a fearfully narrow gap for a league that’s let one of the league’s two most-talented sides dilly-dally for 12 rounds and stay on the fringe of the title race while playing below their potential. On Saturday, the Blues shifted back to a 4-3-3 (type of) formation and produced a romp, and while it clearly wasn’t the stiffest test in the world (breaking: West Ham aren’t good right now), it was a more decisive victory than we’re used to seeing from this transitioning team.
At some point, that transition will be over. Same thing with Manchester City. These are the two most-talented teams in England, and they’ve barely been made to pay for their uneven starts. If these teams start clicking, it will be difficult for Arsenal to keep up.
6. RED CARDS: LESS RHYME, LESS REASON
Debates over red cards can be somewhat tedious. Like penalties, they’re refuge for disgruntled fans whose tinged lenses make judgment calls into evidence of bias. In truth, they’re just one of the variables we should accept, if not outright expect. You have to know some calls just aren’t going to go your way. Your team has 90 minutes to make up for it.
Consider that a caveat, because this weekend was a particularly inconsistent one in the Premier League. Wes Brown was sent off without touching a man, and Kevin Mirallas stayed on despite a truly reckless play on Luis Suárez. As Rebecca Lowe, Robbie Earle, and Robbie Mustoe imply, it’s less about how these calls effected their games (though Gus Poyet is rightfully furious) than trying to figure out what’s going on here:
I don’t begrudge people their red card debates, but when it comes to player health, there should not room for compromise. Wins, losses, and anything else that happens within the competitive part of the game are secondary to maintaining an environment when players don’t have to seriously worry about their knees being blown out.
If you want to tell me Wes Brown’s challenge crosses that line, I’m more than willing to listen (I’ll agree with the logic, not the application). If he makes contact, that could have been bad. But in the same thought we need to recognize Kevin Mirallas should have been gone. The world where that’s a permissible challenge is not one we want to watch.