1. ‘Controversy’ leaves Manchester City top after win at Newcastle
After Saturday’s games, Chelsea were lauded for going first. Same for City on Sunday. It’s this space’s dead horse, but with Arsenal favorites to re-claim the Premier League’s pole position tomorrow, this seems a perfect time to note the ridiculous adulation teams receive for taking temporary control of a place in the standings – be it first, fourth, 17th, what have you. While it’s true that Chelsea did sit first for a day after beating Hull on Saturday, any sensible person knows it was no cause for celebration. Maybe wait to see what Manchester City and Arsenal do?
On Sunday, lauding Chelsea proved ill-advised after Manchester City took their own temporary Premier League lead, though instead of headlines focusing on the Citizens’ potentially short-lived place at the top, the post-match story dwelt on a disallowed goal. With a Newcastle player (Yoan Gouffran) seemingly benignly ‘offside’, Cheick Tioté’s 34th minute goal was waved off, leaving the score 1-0, City. The visitors went on to claim a 2-0 win at St. James’ Park, with Álvaro Negredo’s insurance tally deep into stoppage time building on Edin Dzeko’s eighth minute opener.
No doubt the ruling was controversial, but playing up its effect relative to the final score implies Newcastle were deprived of a result. Certainly the Magpies would have been more likely to get points had the goal counted, but there were also 56 minutes left to play. Against the best attack in England, Newcastle were unlikely to keep their opposition off the scoresheet through the rest of the match. And in failing to score through the day’s 90 minutes, Newcastle failed to show themselves likely to build on Tioté’s eventually disallowed goal.
The season’s overall numbers back this up. Manchester City came into the game scoring 2.85 goals per game, and they scored twice at Newcastle. Their +34 goal difference dwarfed the Toon’s +4, hinting they were always the more likely team to outscore their opposition.
Just like overstating the value of a team going first after the weekend’s first match, implying Newcastle were somehow deprived of a result is more sensational than fair. Sure, there’s some grain of truth in the words, but they end up being more misleading than informative. Chelsea did go first but were always likely to finish the weekend third, just like Newcastle were always likely to lose to Manchester City. As a result, City sit first pending Arsenal’s trip to Villa Park (Monday) while the Magpies sit eighth.
2. Second half again key for surging Chelsea
Three games in a row, Chelsea have gone to half-time drawn 0-0. Three games in a row, Chelsea have finished with a multi-goal victory, their 2-0 win at Hull on Saturday leaving them second ahead of the round’s finale at Villa Park. With second half goals from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres, Chelsea marked the seventh time this season they’ve trailed or been tied going into the second half only to come back and win, victories which account for half of their seasons’ total.
Is there something specific about Chelsea that’s led to these results? Or is this a manifestation of chance? Perhaps José Mourinho’s trains and sets up his team to stay patient and take advantage of mistakes fatigue can induce from their opponents. Then again, Chelsea’s goals may be coming in the second half through little more than chance. Over the season’s final 17 games, the Blues may prove as capable in their first halves as they’ve been in their seconds.
Still, the phenomena is feeding into the perception that Chelsea’s play is still falling short of expectations, a perception we may want to reconsider. At the season’s onset, we expected Chelsea to be a dominant team, but dominant teams tend to look more like Manchester City then Mourinho’s lot. They tend to dominate from minute 1 to minute 90, something the Blues have struggled to do this season.
But goals in the second half count just as much as ones scored shortly after the opening whistle, and while we tend to associate them with an attritional quality that doesn’t fit normal notions of dominance, perhaps those goals signify dominance of a different sort. To many’s eyes (including my own), Chelsea seem more steady than great, but they’re still within reach of the top, having produced a consistent way of getting points. That consistency may just be chance spread over a relatively small numbers of games, but as that number of games grows, we have to consider whether there’s some skill behind the results. Chelsea have now won four-in-a-row.
3. Dempsey’s PL return overshadowed by Sunderland romp
Clint Dempsey’s Premier League return to Craven Cottage should have been a joyous occasion. He is, after all, Fulham’s all-time leading scorer in Premier League action. Instead, the game was arguably the Cottagers’ most-disappointing of the season – a staggering possibility given the team’s already lost 6-0 at Hull earlier this year.
Behind three goals from Adam Johnson, Sunderland posted a 4-1 win over the Whites, displaying the poor state of René Meulensteen’s team for the Craven Cottage faithful. Against a team that was averaging 0.75 goals-per-game ahead of Saturday’s action, Fulham conceded four times . At home. Against the Premier League’s former bottom dwellers.
The Black Cats deserve some credit, though. The performance was the latest in the steady improvement Gus Poyet’s side has seen since the Uruguayan’s appointment, with Adam Johnson having caught fire over the last five days. Mid-week against Manchester United, the winger turned the Cats’ League Cup semifinal in his teams’ favor. His three-goal haul in London will surely, perhaps prematurely, spark discussion about his worthiness for Brazil.
But for every column inch devoted to Johnson’s resurgence, one should be given to Fulham’s plight. The form table has them 12th in the Premier League, hinting the Cottagers are actually trending upward. Their actual play, however, won’t alleviate any of their supporters’ worries. If Fulham can’t even compete with the likes of Hull and Sunderland, how do they expect to survive their relegation battle?
4. West Ham ends slide as Carroll returns
Andy Carroll’s first appearance of the season ended up being more coincidental than causal, West Ham already up 1-0 by the time the England international came off the bench in Wales. When he assisted on the game’s final goal, however, the impact of Carroll’s absences came back into focus. Though the Hammers would have likely ended their seven-match Premier League slide even without Carroll, their strikers’ 2013-14 debut may carry some symbolic value. Carroll’s return could be the turning point of the season, and, oh yeah, they won a game, too.
That win will surely relieve the mounting pressure on Sam Allardyce (who declined to speak with the media after the game) while casting more doubt on what’s going on at Cardiff. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s hire has been lauded by the same people who constantly cast him in frame for so many Premier League jobs, yet any momentum garnered by the Bluebirds’ FA Cup win at Newcastle was squandered this weekend. By Solskjær’s own admission, Cardiff came out inexplicably flat against a team that’d lost their last two games by a combined 11-0. If your team can’t win at home against a struggling West Ham United, perhaps the problems are bigger than originally thought.
5. Obligatory, uncertain conclusions about Manchester United
Win, lose or draw, Manchester United will be in the headlines, mostly because each result fuels a narrative. If the Red Devils win, they’re steadying the ship following what should have been an expectedly uncertain time after Alex Ferguson’s departure. If they lose or draw, David Moyes’s ill-fit at Old Trafford continues, perpetuating the notion the Red Devils made a mistake with their blind trust in Ferguson’s judgment.
Saturday’s performance gave us six of one half, a half-dozen of the other. The first half was terribly boring, all the criticisms of United’s new-found one-dimensional, dull attack bolstered by an effort that lacked energy and nuance. In the second half, however, an enlivened United took an early lead on their way to a 2-0 result – exactly the type of outcome we would have expected at kickoff.
All the while, United were performing against a Swansea team that make any broad conclusions about their opposition impossible. Competent but impotent, acceptable without actually being good, Swansea are there for the taking against any quality opposition, something that makes United’s FA Cup loss to Michael Laudrup’s side even more galling. On Saturday, however, United had just enough to topple the Swans, something that should breed more questions of Swansea than answers about United.
Their performance wasn’t indicative of a team that could compete for Champions League, yet alone emulate a title contender. After winning the league by 11 points last season, that’s where United should be. But after Saturday’s win, more immediate and modest evaluations need to be made. The Red Devils snapped a three-game losing streak, and in a season of uncertainty and doubt, that’s good enough. For now.
6. Defense a non-issue as Reds post five on Stoke
Daniel Agger’s injury left Brendan Rodgers’ with a depleted defense, Kolo Touré forced into a back-four that was also missing Mamadou Sahko, José Enrique, and Agger. One paper, the likes of Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson, and Aly Cissohko helped round out a decent-enough unit. In practice, it was a flawed line quartet likely to get sporadic protection from an often permeable midfield.
This is where Rodgers’ approach helps. The Liverpool boss is not afraid to trade goals, mostly because he sets his team up to make the most of the matches were his opposition is willing to swap changes. On Sunday, the Reds not only lured Stoke City into a shootout but got help from a Ryan Shawcross own goal and a penalty converted by Steven Gerrard. Though they needed an 87th minute goal from Daniel Sturridge to make the final look comfortable, the Reds took a 5-3 result out of the Brittania, giving Rodgers’ side 51 goals in 21 games.
Just like West Ham’s win, Liverpool’s result was full of potential omens. Not only were they back to their high-scoring ways (scoring three for the first time in five games), but they got two goals from Luis Suárez, who is up to 22 league tallies for the season. And with Daniel Sturridge returning early from his ankle injury, Reds’ supporters have reason to believe there are even more goals to come, with their fourth-place team ready to consolidate their Champions League spot.