1. FULHAM HAS FINALLY SEEN ENOUGH
The line of succession was outlined the moment Rene Meulensteen was appointed first team coach at Craven Cottage. With hindsight, the only question is what took so long. Fulham had lost four-in-a-row ahead of Saturday’s visit to Upton Park, leaving the Cottagers with three harbingers of a coaching change: the team was trending downward; that trend appeared to be more than an aberration; and there was no reason to believe improvement was imminent.
All of which was verified in Saturday’s 3-0 loss. The Hammers had slowly sunk toward the drop and came into yesterday’s game even on points with Fulham. Instead of using the game to show he has the resourcefulness to keep Fulham up, Jol saw his team concede three times in the second half, full-time coming without the Cottagers having put a shot on goal.
At that point, new owner Shad Khan’s credibility was at stake. Jol should have been let go weeks ago, but after Fulham’s lopsided loss to another bottom-dweller, there was no argument for keeping the Dutch boss. If he wasn’t fired, fans would have every reason to doubt being competitive is high on Khan’s agenda.
So the predictable finally happened. Meulensteen’s set to take over. Whether that means improvement remains to be seen, but at least they’re trying. Having seen enough, Fulham’s no longer willing to see how bad things will get under Jol.
2. THE SEASON OF RAMSEY CONTINUES
We’re running out of different ways to say this, so there’s no point in trying: Aaron Ramsey is having a great season. Through 13 rounds, he’s been the league’s best player. That nobody saw this coming makes his rise all the more irresistible.
His Man of the Match performance at Cardiff provides some natural perspective. A one-time prospect in the Bluebirds’ academy, Ramsey was the subject of a minor bidding war between Arsenal and Manchester United before moving to North London, a decision that sparked five years of uncertainty, misfortune, and scrutiny. Coming into his sixth season at the Emirates, it was unclear how much of a role he should play in Arsène Wenger’s team.
The Arsenal boss maintained his faith, loyalty that’s been rewarded with the 22-year-old’s breakout. With Saturday’s double, Ramsey moves to eight league goals in 13 games. Coming into the season, he’d only scored seven times in 91 Premier League appearances.
Beyond the numbers, he’s become the man who balances the team. Shuttling from deep next to Mikel Arteta, Ramsey’s become increasingly adept at reading his team’s rotations, often left unmarked coming into the attack from deep. His versatility also helps augment Arteta, whose holding role is complemented by Ramsey’s ability to share in the position’s dirty work.
Saturday was just another example of how far Ramsey’s come. Still writing the first chapters of his career, the Welsh international didn’t have an obvious role at the beginning of the season. Now he may be England’s best at his position, indispensable to a team that continues to validate their contenders’ credentials.
3. COMEBACK CAN’T CURTAIL VILLAS-BOAS’S OBSTINANCY
Tottenham was destroyed last week at the Etihad, a performance that not only saw the squad roundly criticized but André Villas-Boas’s tactics picked apart. He was naïve in playing a high, unprotected defensive line, and against the league’s best attack, Spurs were picked apart. According to reports, his job was being reevaluated.
Since then, Spurs collected an obligatory win in Europa League and took a point off of last year’s champions, and while you could argue the team should have gotten more from each, the last week has certainly been progress. Instead of letting that 6-0 at Manchester City capsize them, Spurs have stayed afloat, even if they’re still a bit adrift.
That’s part of the reason why André Villas-Boas’s petulance is so telling. Rather than trying to gather some momentum – some positivity that can be put back into the team – he’s entertaining the darkness. On Thursday, he allowed some of his focus to go to a Tromsø fan, while after today’s game, he chose to spark a public feud with The Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton and Martin Samuel.
On one level, it is refreshing to see a manager speak his mind, and while doing so, Villas-Boas does a good job of articulating why he’s taken exception with The Daily Mail’s coverage. It’s direct, relatively dispassionate, and a reminder the authority that comes with a prominent byline doesn’t always meet with accord from the soccer community.
On the other hand, time and place. As Tottenham boss, he should have bigger fish to fry. His team had just come back twice to draw Manchester United, 2-2, yet they’re still in ninth place. In league, they’re still winless in four. Should confrontations with Daily Mail columnists and Tromsø season ticket holders even be on his radar?
4. HULL CITY SNARE FIRST EVER WIN OVER LIVERPOOL
Though the final score exaggerates the gap between the teams, Liverpool were less threatening than normal on Sunday, their 3-1 loss at Hull seeing their only goal come from a direct kick. With Daniel Sturridge set for a prolonged absence, Brendan Rodgers needs to find a second person to score open play goals. With nine each, Luis Suárez and Sturridge have accounted for 18 of the team’s 23 Premier League goals.
Yet on a day the Tigers recorded their first ever win over Liverpool, Hull City deserves the bulk of the stage. While two of their goals seemed pure, deflection-aided luck, their crucial second rewarded a match’s worth of persistence, the home side having out-worked their higher-ranking visitors throughout. Keeping themselves in position to lose, Liverpool allowed Hull City’s luck to pay off. David Meyler’s 72nd minute tiebreaker proved decisive.
With three points, Hull are now in 10th place, having passed the likes of Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, and Swansea City with their jump into the top half. While it’d be foolish to predict Steve Bruce’s side can maintain that standing, it’s not too much to ask whether 17 early points have paved their way to an unlikely survival. Now seven up on 18th place Fulham, Hull may have accumulated enough to scrape their way to survival.
5. CHELSEA OVERCOME EARLY GOAL, GO SECOND
Sunday gave us another reminder that Southampton have been playing a little over their heads, the Saints’ 3-1 loss at Stamford Bridge dropping Mauricio Pochettino’s team to seventh place. After back-to-back losses to Arsenal and Chelsea, we have a better idea of who Southampton really are: A very good side that’s likely to finish just inside the top half. It’d be a great step forward for a team that was struggling at the bottom of the table a year ago.
Chelsea, however, may have shown us something new on Sunday – a team capable of living up to their preseason hype. Although they went down through Jay Rodrgues just seconds into the game, the Blues controlled the final 90-plus minutes. It may have taken them 55 minutes to break through, but when full-time came with a two-goal gap, Chelsea had the win they deserved. Southampton finished the game with only one shot on target.
It’s tempting to see this game as part of the Juan Mata narrative, with the restored Spaniard playing a key role on Sunday, but it’s probably best to focus on the simpler conclusions. Bouncing back from an embarrassing mid-week loss at Basel, Chelsea gave their second-straight convincing league performance. These heights at least hint the Blues are getting closer to realizing their potential.
When you see performances like today’s, you’re reminded quality isn’t a problem. Consistency, however, is. Against West Ham and Southampton, we saw a title contender, but against Basel, Chelsea looked fatally flawed. Slowly realizing who his best players are, José Mourinho will likely make the Southampton performances more relevant than the Basels.
6. FOUR-IN-A-ROW FOR SIXTH PLACE NEWCASTLE
With their win, Chelsea sit second place, but highlighting the crowd that’s cued up behind, the Blues are as close to sixth place Newcastle as they are Arsenal. At 27 points, Chelsea are four back of the league-leading Gunners, and after Newcastle’s 2-1 win over visiting West Brom, a Magpies side that’s won four-in-a-row is only one point out of a Champions League spots.
Usually when a team goes on this type of run, the fixture list is providing some help. That’s not the case with Newcastle. Their November surge has featured wins over Chelsea and Tottenham, with the worst of their vanquished foes being 14th place Norwich. In that span, they’ve outscored their opposition 7-2.
Saturday featured a more controlling Newcastle that we’re used to seeing, a team that’s allowed 18 goals in 13 games holding their opponents to only one shot on target. That Chris Brunt’s shot happened to go in made the match close, though with Moussa Sissoko responding four minutes later, Newcastle had restored their lead, building on Yoann Gouffran’s opener on their way to a 2-1 win.
Considering how this team’s played since moving to a 4-4-2 formation – Alan Pardew electing to make the difficult choice of sitting Hatem Ben Arfa to opt for a more consistent, stalwart group – and there’s no reason Newcastle can’t make their mercurial 2012-13 season look like a blip. After threatening to claim a Champions League spot in 2011-13, Newcastle battled relegation, and while breaking into the league’s top four this season isn’t going to happen, the Magpies appear poised to reestablish their place among the clubs competing for Europe.